1.Before getting to the Conference Finals match-ups, let’s mention the buffoonery of the Los Angeles Clippers. While the Milwaukee Bucks’ exit from this year’s playoffs is embarrassing, perhaps they lost to a better team. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to a talented bunch, but Denver doesn’t possess the experience or skill of the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard was awful in Game 7, but the rest of his teammates stunk from Game 4 on. Paul George’s 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists would confuse if we hadn’t seen it before. George floats in and out of series and games. Worst of all, L.A. was the weaker squad. They looked scared in the 4th quarter of Game 7, passing up shots, turning the ball over, and careening it off the side of the backboard. The favorite to win the title, the Clippers asphyxiated themselves in the NBA bubble. So what’s next?
2. Kawhi and George both have opt outs in their contracts after next year. The organization traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with 7 1st rounds picks or pick swaps for George to Oklahoma City last summer. The two combined to shoot 10-38 for 24 points in Game 7. The 2021 season is the biggest in Clipper history. What if they don’t win the title? What if they’re bounced out of the playoffs early, again? The future is a dark abyss if their two stars leave after next season. Rumors say Doc Rivers will be back for next season, but all options should remain on the table for Clippers GM Michael Winger and President Lawrence Frank. Trade Paul George? Trade Doc Rivers and elevate Ty Lue to the head job? They should find a trade for Lou Williams to bring in a play making ball handler. Kawhi’s great, but he isn’t in the LeBron James or Luka Doncic class with it comes to getting his teammates involved. Whatever they decide, next year is title or bust.
3. He started the season carrying a few extra pounds and heard about it. But Nikola Jokic just outplayed Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series. Jokic is an offensive mastermind. He’s a genius with the ball, already the greatest passing big of all-time and one of the best overall in the league today. His one-footed fall away jump shots are unguardable. He made 39.5% of his threes against L.A. He’s a wizard around the basket. Jokic never hurries. His fundamentals are exemplary; his footwork PhD level. And his defense, long the Achilles heel of his game, blossomed against the Clippers. His 3 blocks in Game 7 and general rim protection thwarted the Clippers multiple times as they tried to mount a comeback. Only 24, he and Jamal Murray (22) are the best young duo in the league, with Michael Porter Jr. threatening to make a homegrown Big Three in the Rocky Mountains. LeBron is another animal, and they’ll struggle to guard Anthony Davis, but Denver can compete.
4. The Nuggets are the deeper squad in the Western Conference Finals. But the Lakers have 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Gary Harris has been a man on defense since his return from injury and will have the responsibility, along with Jerami Grant, to slow LeBron. Harris lacks size, but they’ll take their chances that James doesn’t have the patience to post him on the block possession after possession. At least Denver has a few bodies to throw at him. AD is another problem. For all of his improvements against the Clippers, Jokic cannot handle Davis. Look for Paul Millsap, Grant, and more minutes from Mason Plumlee to slow the Lakers big man. Again, Davis must dominate. His size and athleticism wrecks opponents when he stays aggressive. He needs to avoid the playoff nerves that afflicted him earlier in the bubble. L.A. needs Rajon Rondo to continue shooting 3’s at a 44% clip as he did against Houston and providing play making off the bench. Who can knock down shots for them? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Alex Caruso need to make shots. Denver will score. Can the Lakers keep up?
5. The two-man pick and roll between Jokic and Jamal Murray is Denver’s livelihood. Porter, a rookie, complained in the Clipper series that they go to it too much. But both players are so dynamic, Murray as a scorer and Jokic as a facilitator. Can you blame coach Mike Malone for wearing it out? L.A. has no one to guard Murray. If they aren’t careful with him, he could explode as he did in the Utah series. Whereas the Clips could throw great defenders with size in George, Leonard, and Pat Beverley at him, Danny Green is L.A.’s best bet, and he isn’t quick enough to keep up. LeBron could be an option at the end of games, but he’ll struggle against his speed too. How much will AD guard Jokic? One of the best defenders in the league, Davis can give the Nugget center trouble, but how many minutes does Frank Vogel want to subject him to endless screen and rolls? Denver’s hope is more minutes for JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Houston played the two bigs off the floor last series, and L.A. flourished. The Nuggets hope the Lakers go big again. Jokic will have his way with L.A’s centers. The Lakers should stay small and allow Markieff Morris to bang with Jokic. He’ll struggle too, but will get physical and pull him away from the basket on offense. McGee or Howard bails the Nuggets out.
6. To stay in the series, Denver needs excellent three ball shooting from Harris, Grant, Milsap, Craig, and scoring off the bench from Monte Morris and Porter. The Nuggets defense, as evidenced against the Clippers, has an on-off switch. Can they find consistency against the Lakers? Still, they’re so young. Michael Porter could be an asset on offense in this series, but his defensive lapses kill them. Denver’s best chance is to out shoot the poor shooting Lakers, not out of the question. But, yeah, LeBron. He’s proving in the bubble, as Kawhi, Giannis, and James Harden fall by the wayside, why he’s one of the greats. He’s too smart, and his athleticism remains at 35. L.A.’s roster isn’t as good, but it’s smarter and more experienced. Look for an outstanding series, but for the Lakers to find a way against the Nuggets in 6.
7. The Miami Heat are just tougher than Boston. Now with a 2-0 series lead, how does Boston adjust? They’re struggling with the Heat’s zone defense; Miami is long, rotates well, and seems to have arms in all passing lanes (19 deflections during Game 2). Boston gets tentative late, a problem that allowed Toronto back in the series prior. Jimmy Butler’s defense and hustle ended Game 2. He out-worked Boston twice for steals that led to fast break layups. On offense, Goran Dragic is carving the C’s. He worked Boston in the pick and roll late in Game 2, hunting Daniel Theis, took him to the rim for a layup, and hit a step back 3 on back-to-back possessions. Dragic gets overlooked, but he’s been the engine for Miami’s offense all playoffs (averaging 22 per). Others are getting credit, but don’t forget about Dragic. The Heat isn’t 2 games away from the Finals without him.
8. While Kemba Walker finally showed for a playoff game (23 points in Game 2), Jayson Tatum has frozen at the end of both Heat games, failing to attack and taking bad jumpers. He only mustered 12 shots Thursday night. Tatum has to drive Boston’s offense and needs more aggression. Brad Stevens made a surprising move to get Enes Kanter minutes early, forcing Bam Adebayo to guard him on defense instead of roaming, where he’s most dangerous. Kanter had some nice moments, but Adebayo attacked him and Daniel Theis in the pick and roll in the third quarter, destroying Boston’s bigs and leading Miami back after a 13 point halftime deficit. It was an out of the box move that paid off early, but overall, Stevens is getting out-coached. The Celtics are still young, and though it showed against Toronto, Boston out-talented them. They need to find some aggression if they hope to get back in this series.
9. Marcus Smart man. He does everything. Championship teams all have Smarts on them. His flopping is infuriating, but that’s on the refs. The lunge to the floor in the waning seconds of Game 1 was egregious, but it earned the Celtics a free throw, and they wouldn’t have made it to overtime without it. His defense is sublime, and it’s because he outworks whoever he’s matched up against. He beats guys to their spot, gets low and swipes for steals, and reads the ball handler when he’s off ball for steals and interceptions. Now he’s hitting his 3’s. 36% from behind the arc in the playoffs, and 14.2 points per, Smart has become trustworthy on offense. Listen, does he make the right decision every time? Does he still dent backboards? Not when it matters. Smart is a money player who makes plays in crunch time. He, along with Jayson Tatum, is the reason the Celtics are still playing and can make the Finals.
10. Pat Riley finds men to play for him, and rookie Tyler Herro is another example. His two threes late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals aren’t shots rookies take, let alone make. 12 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists in Game 1. 11, 9, and 5 in Game 2. His feel for the game is uncanny and Erik Spoelstra trusts him. Herro’s gained confidence in the playoffs, attacking the rim more often when he’s run off the 3 point line. His minutes are on the rise too, from the low 30s against the Pacers to nearly 40 in this series; he’s now able to at least hold his own on defense. Herro has become the Heat’s X factor, the piece many didn’t expect, but is pushing them toward the Finals. Herro wants the spotlight and isn’t afraid of anything on the court. His +50 in the playoffs proves it.
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com