Troy’s NBA Playoff Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.These teams are tough. With apologies to Toronto, the remaining four NBA playoff teams have been the most resilient, tenacious organizations in the bubble. Countless players and coaches have stressed the challenges everyone is facing in Orlando. Sequestered for three months, away from family and friends, normal stolen from you, weighs on the mind. The playoffs wear on players in normal circumstances. The mental challenges faced, and defeated, by these guys is inspiring. Gordon Hayward missed the birth of his fourth child, and first son, on Tuesday. Can you imagine? These remaining teams are here because they fight. They assume nothing. The drive within Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, and Miami is mammoth. It’s the reason this year’s winner belongs with the greats.

2. Now ahead 3-1 in the series, Miami’s first Finals’ appearance since 2014 is looming. Jimmy Butler is the heart, Bam Adebayo is the fight. Goran Dragic re-established his scoring abilities from a few years ago. But the piece that’s made them a championship contender is Tyler Herro. With Miami sputtering in Game 4 on offense, Herro saved them off the bench, scoring 37 and hitting 5-10 from deep, many with a hand in his face or off the dribble. Herro took over the Heat offense, running pick and rolls with Bam for easy mid-range jumpers, layups, and open threes. While Butler has shown the ability to take over in crunch time, his shot isn’t reliable. Herro’s is. Now that he’s shown capable of running an offense, something not seen in the regular season, Miami’s options widen. He’s fearless.

3. The rookie has been a revelation, but the MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals is Bam Adebayo. He leads the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks in the series and is second in scoring and assists. Adebayo snarls rebounds in traffic, keeping Boston’s small but athletic wings off the boards. His defense is unassailable. The block in Game 1 against Jayson Tatum is legendary, but his ability to guard 1-5 changes how opponents can attack them. Miami’s sat in a zone defense this series with Bam protecting the back line. He’s so long and quick that he’s able to run the entire baseline, contesting corner 3’s. But his strength is keeping Boston’s drivers from the bucket. Kemba Walker, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown are hesitant to attack the basket, settling for 3’s and pull up jumpers. Adebayo has shut down their offense and led his team to their 3-1 advantage.

4. So what’s left for the Celtics? They attacked the zone in Game 3 with a balanced offense. Four guys- Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Marcus Smart– scored at least 20. But their passivity returned on Wednesday. They shot 30 free throws in Game 3, 21 in Game 4. Tatum has to forget Bam and attack. Shut out in the first half Wednesday night, Tatum exploded for 28 in the second half. He can’t zone out for halves at a time, however. He’s their star. Tatum has only taken 9 free throws in the last two games. He needs at least that many in Game 5. Boston’s offense had success when they fed him the ball at the foul line, in the middle of the zone, with room for him to operate. From there, he can put pressure on Miami with his ability to shoot, drive, and dish. But he has to be a willing participant. We’ll find out if he’s ready for the next step on Friday.

5. And now that Gordon Hayward has returned from injury, Boston needs to play their version of the Death Lineup more minutes. Miami has wonderful defenders, but Tyler Herro is still a rookie, Duncan Robinson is subpar, and Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder aren’t as quick as they once were. A lineup of Walker-Smart-Hayward-Tatum-Brown is athletic, long, and quick. All can shoot from three and handle the rock. They must put more pressure on Miami’s zone. Find the weak spots and attack. Down 3-1, it’s the only bullet they have to fire.

6. Anthony Davis’ three to win Game 2, along with his duel with Nikola Jokic down the stretch of that game, showed he can perform with the greatest on the playoff stage. But where’s the consistency? LeBron James needs Davis to be engaged for entire games. The Lakers’ roster isn’t good enough everywhere else for him to float. Zero rebounds in the first three quarters of Game 3? One at halftime of Game 4? That can’t happen. He shot 17 times on Tuesday. Again, this isn’t enough. LeBron has the weight of the offense on his shoulders. His other teammates cannot get their own shots, he has to create for them, except for AD. Davis must expedite his aggression from the tip. He attacked early last night, scoring 34 and getting to the line 14 times. More, please. When he drifts, he gives Denver a shot. A disruptive Davis is L.A.’s shot at a championship.

7. If/when the Lakers win the series, give an unheralded player award to Dwight Howard. Jokic is unstoppable, yet Howard’s physicality has made the Nugget center work. He’s played the foil, yelling at Jokic from the bench (Batman is coming for the Joker!) and trash talking him throughout games. He earned a start in Game 4 and rewarded coach Frank Vogel’s confidence in him with 12 points and 11 rebounds. L.A. struggled on the boards in Game 3 (losing the rebounding edge by 19), unacceptable for a team so big in the front court. His offensive rebounding and second chance points set the tone, along with AD’s outburst, for L.A.’s big early lead in Game 4. Howard doesn’t have a place against all opponents, but his size and athleticism, along with his defensive intelligence, works in certain match-ups. If they face the Heat in the Finals, his size will be vital against Adebayo.

8. Jokic and Jamal Murray have been spectacular all postseason. Murray has catapulted himself to another level in the NBA hierarchy, and Jokic has cemented himself as a top 5-10 player in the league. But the Nuggets need the others. Things got tough in Games 1 and 2 when the Murray-Jokic pick and roll was all Denver had to lean on. But they surged in Game 3 when Jerami Grant scored a playoff high 26. A second quarter wave led by Monte Morris (12 points) and Michael Porter Jr (5 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals), with strong interior defense from Mason Plumlee pushed the Nugget lead to 10 at halftime, a cushion they needed all of during L.A.’s frenetic comeback attempt. Grant and Morris produced in Game 4 as well (17 and 12), but the Laker defense locked down the Nugget offense over the final 6 minutes while grabbing 3 crucial offensive rebounds. Denver is young. Their time is in front of them, but the missed opportunities in this series will haunt them.

9. Another comeback from a 3-1 deficit seems unlikely, so let’s marvel at a star’s formation. Jamal Murray, entering the playoffs, was a good scorer who lacked consistency. He’s a franchise cornerstone now, one of the best shot makers in the league. His playmaking has improved too, and the Nuggets will be a favorite for the title in 2021. Pick the prettiest from last night:

10. Billy Donovan accepting the Chicago Bulls’ head coaching position is perplexing. Donovan proved himself an outstanding NBA coach this year, leading an Oklahoma City team to a surprising playoff berth and pushing the Houston Rockets to seven games. But Oklahoma City is rebuilding, and Donovan had no desire to see the franchise through a ‘to the studs’ rebuild. So why Chicago? Philadelphia, Houston, Indiana, and New Orleans are all coach-less and farther along than a Chicago franchise that’s won 22 games each of the last two seasons. Lauri Markkanen is a nice stretch four, Zach LaVine is a scorer, Wendell Carter shows talent when he’s healthy, and Kris Dunn will make an All-Defense team. After that, it’s thin. LaVine can be special night to night, but he’s not a building block. So what’s the allure? His agent would have determined interest from the contenders before he decided not to return to OKC, right? That job looks better than the one he’s just taken, if nothing else than the stability in the front office. Donovan may regret the move north.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

Cleveland Browns: The Truth About Their Surging Offense

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, NFL

Though the difference in talent level from the first week was stark, the Cleveland Browns made a jump last Thursday, looking like a competent team for the first time since December 2018. Give credit to Kevin Stefanski. The first year head coach adjusted his game plan on a short week, a sign that he didn’t allow the thumping from Baltimore to overwhelm him. Cincinnati is no juggernaut, but he attacked their weaknesses on both sides of the ball. Pressure existed in this game despite the opponent. A loss would have been devastating, but Stefanski prepared his team well. They threw the ball early to get the lead, then handed it to their dominant running game to finish it. Defensively, they pressured Joe Burrow with the front four and forced him to throw the ball 61 times. The defense struggled again, and will throughout the season, however. Get ready for lots of shootouts.

Stefanski’s adjustments showed in the way he used his quarterback. He put Baker Mayfield in spots that allowed him to succeed, rather than force things he isn’t good at. Lots of play action early. Mayfield thrives using play action; the running game behind him is such a threat that defenses must respect it. Also, bootlegging Mayfield out of the pocket and into clear passing lanes accessed his creativity. The touchdown pass to Odell Beckham and throws to Jarvis Landry and KhaDarel Hodge pushed the ball down the field without Mayfield having to sit in a collapsing pocket waiting for routes to develop. He struggles in those situations. A nifty pick play on 4th and 2 to Landry, a beautiful design, gaining 21 yards. Stefanski understands his weapons and how to use them. When the opponent gets tougher, he must continue to put his guys in the correct spots.

Mayfield at his finest.
This play……gorgeous

Mayfield’s one mistake, an interception in the red zone, again showed his deficiencies reading the field. When he’s in the pocket, he’s a one read quarterback and can get fooled by defenses. He failed to see corner back William Jackson, leading to the pick. Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt need to work with him on progressing through his reads, the next step in his development.

The defense was poor again, what’s to say? Linebacker Mack Wilson, corner Greedy Williams, and slot corner Kevin Johnson have all missed the first two games but practiced on Monday. All starters, their return is much needed. Any help in the back seven is welcome. Myles Garrett had a sack and a forced fumble, Sheldon Richardson blew up a screen on third down, recorded a sack and had two tackles for loss. Adrian Clayborn lived in the Cincinnati backfield before getting hurt, playing only 18 snaps. The defensive line is a force, providing something for this unit to grow from. But the linebackers and safeties struggle against the run and in pass coverage, and it’s hard to see where improvement will come from. Joe Woods is in for a long season.

Washington is next. They’re offense has struggled, giving the Browns’ defense a chance to get right. Ranked 24th in rushing and 31st passing the ball, Washington doesn’t have weapons capable of sustaining drives. Dwayne Haskins is meh. His offensive line does him no favors, but he misses easy throws and doesn’t make any outstanding ones, either. Terry McLaurin flashes, especially in the open field. Denzel Ward will shadow him. Antonio Gibson is averaging 4.1 yards per rush and has talent, but the rest of the offense is weak. The defense needs some success this weekend for a confidence boost.

Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt should have big weeks again. Chase Young has recorded 2.5 sacks in his first two pro games and Landon Collins is a Pro Bowl safety, but overall their defense lacks talent. Kyler Murray ran over, around, and through them on Sunday, throwing for 286 yards and a touchdown while running for 67 and two more TD’s. Baker should have success with the same recipe, minus the scrambling. Get Mayfield on the move early, rolling him outside the pocket to open passing lanes while mixing in play action passes to freeze the defense. Then give it to the workhorses. Chubb and Hunt totaled 210 yards on the ground Thursday night and can control games all season. The duo is quick and powerful, and the Browns offensive line has opened running lanes in each of the first two games. Once they get into the secondary, watch out. If nothing else, Stefanski has shown that his offense will be fun all season.

The Whip Around

1.Atlanta, come on. Forget about the idiocy displayed on the on-side kick (just fall on it!). Dan Quinn and company have an aversion to holding leads. Their defense generates zero pressure. Dak Prescott toyed with the Falcon secondary in the comeback, throwing for 450 yards and hitting 9 different receivers. Dan Quinn can’t be long for his job. Once a defensive wizard in Seattle, Quinn’s favorite unit can’t stop anyone. The talent level is low, and while they skewed toward offense at the top of their drafts until this year, he’s failed to develop any middle round talent. Quinn once was an excellent coach, but the PTSD from Super Bowl 51 has overtaken this franchise.

2. Gardner Minshew looks the part in Jacksonville. The starting quarterback, with little talent around him, kept dragging the Jaguars back into the game Sunday against Tennessee. This throw belongs in the Smithsonian.

3. Kenny Vaccaro proved too much for Minshew, however. A beautiful knock away of a pass in the end zone held the Jags to a field goal on a second half drive. Throw in 11 tackles, a sack, and another batted ball. Vaccaro reigned on an otherwise bad day for the Tennessee defense. The Titans have Super Bowl aspirations, but they’ll need more out of their defense. Late signing Jadeveon Clowney has yet to disrupt offenses and Tennessee is having trouble generating pressure. Their 2.5% sack rate is 30th in the league. Ryan Tannehill seems to have picked up where he left off, completing 70% of his passes and throwing 6 TD’s to zero picks. But giving up 30 to Jacksonville at home is troubling. They need more from Clowney and the rest of their defensive line.

4. Philadelphia resides in a winnable division with talent to do so, yet their once MVP level quarterback is off and too many guys are hurt. The offensive line has suffered through injuries. Though both played Sunday, starting tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters practiced sporadically last week. The line struggled in Week 1 against Washington, giving up 8 sacks, but allowed none on Sunday. And while the defense got bulldozed against the Rams, Carson Wentz deserves blame. He’s missing Alshon Jeffery, but he’s also missing throws. On back-to-back possessions against the Rams, Wentz threw a pick in the end zone, then missed a wide open Dallas Goedert for a score. What gives? Two touchdowns, 4 picks, and a 58% completion percentage won’t cut it for the likely MVP in 2017 before tearing his ACL. 2018 wasn’t much better, cut short for him too after injuring his back. Have the injuries caught up to Wentz? Or is the lack of play makers holding him back? DeSean Jackson is older, the rest of the receiver corps is unproven, and Miles Sanders missed Week 1 with a hamstring. The NFC East is winnable, but they’ll need health and a resurgent Wentz to compete.

5. And while we’re on hot messes at quarterback, look at Kirk Cousins. 11-26 for 113 yards and 3 interceptions on Sunday, Cousins gifted the Colts an easy one in Indianapolis. Minnesota was quick to ship Stefon Diggs to Buffalo this off season after a breakthrough playoff victory last year against New Orleans, but maybe that was fluky. Cousins has a history of botching big games, and one playoff victory, no matter how loud his proponents screamed after it, doesn’t change his history. Mike Zimmer believes in running the ball, and Dalvin Cook is special. But trading a number 1 receiver and placing the passing game onus on Adam Thielen looks to be a mistake. Cook has an injury history and just got paid. Cousins is off to a terrible start. A regression seems probable in Minnesota.

6. When will NFL coaches learn how to manage a play clock? With 1:45 left in the first half, Pittsburgh ran twice inside the five yard line before settling for a field goal while Vic Fangio allowed the clock to tick down to 39 seconds. Denver had two timeouts remaining. What gives? Yes, Denver was playing backup quarterback Jeff Driskel, but 1:30 is plenty of time to lead a team into field goal range. These coaches are overthinking themselves. Use your timeouts to give your offense as much time as possible to score points. That is still the goal, correct?

7. Raheem Mostert is fast. Like, fastest measured speed in the NFL (23.1 MPH, according to NextGen Stats) in the last two years fast.

8. NFL teams churn through head coaches at a staggering rate, yet Adam Gase still has a job. From his introductory news conference, it’s been obvious Gase isn’t a leader. He fancies himself a strongman, intent on clubbing his ways into his team. Doesn’t work anymore. Gase refuses to adapt, and his Jets teams are weaker because of it. His fights with Le’Veon Bell are public, and Jamal Adams ripped him before being traded to Seattle, calling out his leadership skills while claiming Gase doesn’t address the team, relying on other coaches for that duty. Gase is underwater, and the sooner Jets ownership and GM Joe Douglas realize it, the better. Sam Darnold’s once promising career is on the line. Time to move on.

9. Now with one of the best wide receivers in football, the Kyler Murray show in Arizona is must see. He’s completing 66% of his passes through two games, but his legs make him a fringe MVP candidate. The 158 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns in two games are impressive, and he doesn’t take hits. On his 13 carries in Week 1 against San Francisco, he only took one. He’s mastered the art of getting down, or out of bounds, and he’s so damn quick that defenders just can’t touch him. He struggles some in the pocket, but on the move his arm and accuracy shine, and Kliff Kingsbury knows it. The Arizona head coach puts his quarterback in advantageous spots. With DeAndre Hopkins and Larry Fitzgerald, Murray has receivers he can trust. The Cardinals are 2-0 and look impressive. The toughest division in football has a new contender.

Defenses don’t touch him

10. Pittsburgh’s defense is beyond impressive. 7 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 19(!!!) quarterback hits, and two turnovers against Denver on Sunday are eye-popping numbers. The pressure they’re applying on opposing offenses is staggering. After a disappointing season without Ben Roethlisberger last year, the Steelers are back in Super Bowl contention. They aren’t allowing quarterbacks to get comfortable, forcing them into poor decisions. The two match-ups against Baltimore, and Lamar Jackson, can’t come soon enough.

Troy’s NBA Playoff Top Ten

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

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?

This ain’t it

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.

Butler’s hustle and D at the end of Game 2

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

On to Cincinnati

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

This early in the season, one can only hope the Cleveland Browns get better. Nothing on Sunday was surprising. Baltimore employs the reigning MVP and has Super Bowl aspirations. Cleveland is on their fourth head coach and offensive coordinator in three seasons. Baker Mayfield is regressing at an astonishing rate, and the defense has little talent in the back seven. Regardless of the hope that’s present at kickoff of a new season in Cleveland, a realistic look at this team, and the season they’re headed for, is a hard pill for the fanbase to ingest. This long, painful process is far from over.


Judging Mayfield on one game played against a superior defense, after an off-season with no preseason and a coach and coordinator switch may not be fair, but it’s year 3. He’s started 30 NFL games. No longer can some mistakes be overlooked. For instance, this third down throw to Odell Beckham:

This ball is late and behind the receiver. Mayfield gives Beckham no chance. When he’s coming out of his break on the in route, Mayfield has to have the ball in the air. He waits an extra half second and throws it behind Odell, giving Marcus Peters time to bat the ball down.

And this:

How do you miss 6’8”, 300 lb. Calais Campbell dropping into coverage? Campbell slips into the defensive backfield, reads Mayfield’s eyes, and tips the pass, causing an interception on the opening drive of the game. Three years in, Mayfield must see these things. He’s gun shy in the pocket, afraid to throw the ball, yet in a hurry to do so. He’s in his own head. Here’s hoping Kevin Stefanski can save him from himself.

The defense was atrocious, as expected. The linebacking core is young and unathletic. Hard to see the second line getting much better. It’ll take a draft and free agency period focused on the position to see much improvement, unless Mack Wilson developed over the off-season. The front office thrust their resources into the offense, with little help given to the defense, save for cheap, uninspired signings at safety and linebacker. B.J. Goodson had 9 tackles. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo combined for 9 tackles at safety, with zero passes defended. Baltimore wide receivers ran free in the Browns secondary all afternoon. The defensive line, the one unit with talent, combined for 2 quarterback hits. This isn’t good enough. Myles Garrett accounted for 1 tackle. If the line doesn’t manhandle opposing offensive lines, the opposition won’t be able to keep themselves from scoring.

Kevin Stefanski looked lost. Not much of a surprise. The fake punt was an awful call, and one first-year head coaches make when they’re trying to outsmart the room. Both sides of the ball seemed unprepared. He doesn’t have experience running an NFL team through a week of practice and a game day. He needs reps. Of everyone associated with the Browns, Stefanski needs permission to fail all season. They should consider 2020 a red shirt year for the coaching staff, a chance to learn the machinations of head coaching. If the front office puts too much on every decision he makes, he won’t grow into the job. No more coaching changes, please.

With the Bengals in for Thursday Night Football and the home opener, improvement is imperative. Number 1 pick Joe Burrow led a decent last drive against San Diego, but had to settle for an attempted game tying field goal which kicker Randy Bullock shanked. Otherwise, Burrow was middling against an average San Diego defense, throwing for 193 yards, no touchdowns, and 1 interception. He took turns looking comfortable and jumpy. His offensive line did him no favors, allowing a pressure rate of 33.3%, fourth worst in the league. Pressure, pressure, pressure. It’s a must for the Browns on Thursday. Cleveland’s front four needs to hit the rookie QB again and again. They cannot allow him to get comfortable. Cincinnati has weapons. Tyler Boyd, A. J. Green, and Joe Mixon are dangerous with the ball. Myles Garrett and company cannot let Burrow have time to sit in the pocket. If they allow him any confidence, the Bengals have enough weapons to pull the upset.

The Browns offensive line played well Sunday. They provided Mayfield time to throw and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt large holes to run through, gaining a combined 132 yards on 23 carries. Look for more of the same Thursday. Cincy’s defense generated little pressure (2 sacks, 4 QB hits) and the Chargers ran for 155 on the ground. A steady ground game should be enough against the Bengals. Chubb and Hunt can win this game on their own. Stefanski should also use the weak Cincinnati defense to get Baker confidence in the pocket. If the Browns struggle, or cannot win at home on Thursday, this season jumps the tracks in a hurry.

The Whip Around

1.Tampa and New Orleans are each trendy NFC Super Bowl picks, but the fossilized quarterbacks they employ should worry fans of both outfits. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are two of the greatest to take snaps, but at the ages of 43 and 41, the hands on their clocks, if not broken, are rusted and rickety. Both have trouble stretching defenses and Brady threw two interceptions in this game, the first time he’s done so since the end of the 2018 season. The Saints won because Brees didn’t turn it over and had a better running game with Alvin Kamara behind him. New Orleans’ defense applied steady pressure on Brady throughout, and Sean Payton is used to calling short, middling passes, as Brees’ arm has regressed the last two seasons. These two are Hall of Famers and think the game better than any QBs in history. But if they can’t make the throws, their chances of playing in February are slim.

2. His conditioning level was lacking, but otherwise Aldon Smith impressed for the Cowboys on Sunday Night. Smith hadn’t seen a football field in five years, circumstances of his own doing. His past is littered with multiple arrests, most stemming from alcohol abuses, and he deserved the punishments the NFL dispensed, but has worked to turn his life around on the insistence of his grandmother before her death from ALS. Smith recorded 11(!!) tackles Sunday, along with a sack and 2 other quarterback hits. Add in 3 other QB pressures, and Smith showed the talent that launched him to stardom with 42.5 sacks in his first three years in the league. Dallas needs pass rush help, and if he can put heat on opposing defenses as he did on Sunday, the Cowboys defense will be stout. Here’s hoping Aldon Smith has changed his life and can reclaim his place as a superior pass rusher in the league.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo’s record as a starting quarterback is 21-6. Anyone want him taking snaps for their Super Bowl contending team? Garoppolo has succeeded because of the schemes given to him by Kyle Shanahan. He struggles to push the ball downfield and is reliant on his backs and receivers to make plays for his offenses to sustain drives. Shanahan proved he didn’t trust him in last year’s playoffs, taking the ball away from him as much as possible. San Francisco’s loss at home to Arizona portends a drop off from the Cinderella season the team enjoyed last year. A slight regression from the defense or the running game will mean missing the playoffs in the tough NFC West. Expect the 49ers to shop for a quarterback next off-season.

4. The hands it takes to catch a fastball like this. Just astonishing Allen Robinson.

5. Pittsburgh’s defense is real. Because of the pressure they put on quarterbacks, offenses are going to struggle against them. Look at these pressure stats from Monday Night:

For all the deserved accolades tossed T.J. Watt’s direction, Bud Dupree may be the better player. Two tackles for loss, a pass defended, and a key hit on Daniel Jones that forced an interception on the goal line, Dupree disrupts offenses in a variety of ways. Last year he was top ten in the league in fumbles forced, sacks, and tackles for loss. The Steel Curtain has returned to Pittsburgh, and if Ben Roethlisberger can return to form, the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders.

6. Most expected sloppy play last week because of a jerky off-season with no pre-season games, but teams acquitted themselves well without the fake August games. Organizations don’t play starters big minutes in the pre-season, anyway. Give props to the players. They know how to ready themselves for an NFL season and the play in Week 1 proved as much. Holding calls were down 78% from a year ago, and total penalties numbered 199, the lowest total for Week 1 since 2001 (ESPN Stats and Info). Turnovers averaged 1.4 per game, while all games in 2019 featured 2.4 turnovers per. Don’t allow the NFL to tell you pre-season games are anything more than a money grab.

7. The MVP is Russell Wilson’s to lose. A distant second to Lamar Jackson a year ago, Wilson’s chances skyrocket this season because Pete Carroll may have come around. Married to a conservative, defensive minded approach for too long, Seattle’s brain trust came to their senses this off-season, realizing they possess one of the best weapons in the league, and it’s past time to treat him that way. Sunday’s numbers tell the story: 31-35, 322 yards, 4 touchdowns, 29 yards on the ground. Wilson wins games on his own; his teams are Super Bowl contenders by his presence on the roster. Now that Seattle’s head coach seemed to turn him loose, their championship window is again open. Watch the Seahawks.

8. The catches made in this league are insane. Chase Claypool is another weapon for Big Ben to exploit defenses with.

9. A good rule for any coach/GM in the NFL would be if you have one of the top 3 wide receivers on your roster, don’t trade him for table scraps. Bill O’Brien has dismantled the Houston Texans, and his deal to ship DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson, a 2020 second rounder, and a 2021 fourth, dumb then, is unconscionable now. Deshaun Watson, one of the best QBs in the league, at 24 years old, gives the Texans Super Bowl hope each year, and just signed a 4 year, 156 million extension. Why give away one of the best weapons in football for an oft injured running back? Nonsense. Hopkins’ 14 catches and 151 yards in Arizona’s upset of San Francisco shows how valuable he is, and speeds up Kyler Murray’s learning curve. The division is brutal, but the Cardinals are on the come. Hopkins makes them a playoff contender. Someone explain to me what O’Brien is doing in Houston. Anyone?

10. Were Cam Newton and Bill Belichick made for each other? Everyone knows Belichick wants nothing more than to stick it to Tom Brady by proving he can win his way. What’s better than taking a quarterback no one else wanted, installing a ball control, run heavy offense, and winning with defense, Belichick’s formula from years past? Newton’s 15-19 passing day, with no turnovers, along with 75 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, no doubt left Belichick smirking. Aloof concerning players, Belichick is the greatest to do it for that reason. Never married to a certain scheme, the coach has shown throughout his Hall of Fame career that he’ll use players in a way he sees fit to get results. Wide receivers playing corner. Linebackers as fullbacks. Defensive linemen as tight ends. Defensive teams, offensive juggernauts. He’s done it every way possible. Now to prove he can do it without the greatest quarterback in history.

All stats courtesy of pro-footballreference.com

2020 Cleveland Browns Preview

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett

Competency. Consistency. Respect. Qualities the Cleveland Browns organization has hidden from since their return. Never mind winning a division including the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns haven’t won over seven games since 2007. The 2020 version has talent. As did the 2019 one. But until they establish an identity, an idea of who the Cleveland Browns are, what they do well, and a belief that they’ll do those things when it matters, nothing will change.

This is the task Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry must manage if they are to succeed where all others have failed. The ownership is inadequate, and to overcome that is improbable. But Stefanski has shown strong leadership during the off-season dealing with COVID-19 and social justice issues. He’s a rookie coach wrapping up his first training camp without preseason games, however. Given their history, how long a leash will ownership provide him?

The offense is the strength, with the biggest question mark at quarterback. Reports from training camp revealed struggles on most days for Baker Mayfield: inaccurate, interception prone, and indecisive. The last part is most worrisome. Mayfield’s problems occur when he’s in the pocket too long, tapping the ball with his left hand, scanning the field in panic. His height hinders him here. Once pressure collapses the pocket, Baker just isn’t tall enough to see over the bodies. This causes him to bail early to create new throwing lanes, cutting off half the field. He becomes less accurate on the move, another issue that hindered his progress last year. So what can they do?

This play takes too long to develop, and Baker’s indecisiveness has him walking into a sack

Play action. Three-step drops. Slant patterns. Kevin Stefanski’s primary task to resurrect the third year quarterback is a quicker release from Baker. Mayfield’s pocket presence is an issue. Adjust schemes so it isn’t. Smallish QB’s have two options. Russell Wilson is a maestro on the move. Once he leaves the pocket, the wizardy begins. Mayfield doesn’t have that ability. Drew Brees needs to be his guide. Sean Payton helps Brees by calling short routes and play action passes to slow the pass rush. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, preferred deep, slow developing routes to push the ball downfield. For big quarterbacks, such as Jameis Winston or Ben Roethlisberger, that can see down field and take punishment, this style works. But Mayfield toils in those situations. Remember how fast the ball came out during his first appearance, on Thursday night against the Jets during his rookie year? He had one read and threw darts. The ball was out of his hands before the defense could turn their heads. Stefanski has to give Mayfield less to think about.

When Baker hits his back foot on these plays, the ball is out

They’ve stacked the rest of the offense. The Browns have perhaps the best wide receiver duo and the best running back duo in the league. Nick Chubb finished second in the league in rushing yards last season. His vision is exemplary, and he’s quick. But his strength makes him elite. Chubb was third in the league last year, averaging 3 yards per carry after contact, and led all running backs in broken tackles. He’ll threaten to lead the league in rushing again. Former rushing champion Kareem Hunt signed this week to a 2 year, 13.25 million extension. He’ll get 8-10 carries per week and catch passes out of the backfield and in the slot.

The only questions surrounding Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry will revolve around their health. Beckham fought a hamstring injury last season, and Landry needed hip surgery during the off-season. Each has been a top ten receiver since joining the league. Beckham is spectacular downfield, makes impossible catches, and is dynamic running with the ball. Landry is a workhorse, toiling over the middle and in traffic. He’s one of the most dangerous slot guys in the league. If they are and remain healthy, they can dominate opposing secondaries.

Austin Hooper signed in the off-season to strengthen the tight end position, and he and Mayfield developed a strong connection during workouts in Texas over the summer. While his contract is high (4 years, 44 mil), he gives Mayfield a reliable safety valve over the middle of the field. Last year’s most hated fan unit, the offensive line, found reinforcements. Jedrick Willis Jr., a first rounder out of Alabama, will play left tackle, and free agent Jack Conklin signed to line up on the right side. Willis played right tackle in college and may experience setbacks with the switch to a new position, and Conklin is a much better run blocker than in pass protection, but both are upgrades. Add them to Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio, Pro Bowl snub J. C. Tretter, and improving Wyatt Teller, and the line is no longer a weakness. The pieces are in place. If the offense struggles in 2020, the blame will fall on Baker Mayfield.

So, the defense. Myles Garrett is back from suspension. One of the best defenders, in theory, in the league, Garrett enters every year with the goal of winning Defensive Player of the Year. However, injuries and last year’s suspension have held him back. Penalties are blunting his effect on games, too. Unnecessary roughness, late hits, and jumping offsides plagued the former number 1 pick last year. Discipline has become paramount to his development. Helmet smashings aside, Garrett needs to curtail the yellow flags. As a leader of the defense, his maturation will portend their success. They won’t survive without smarter play from Garrett.

The starting defensive line returns from last year, a unit that ranked 8th in the league in quarterback pressure percentage until Garrett’s suspension. Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon represent the only grouping on the defense with proven success. Ogunjobi and Richardson had stellar 2019 seasons, especially after Garrett’s departure, and Vernon, while struggling early, began affecting games until injuries cut his season short. The linemen must dominate in 2020. Pressure is the key component to disrupting opposing quarterbacks. It’s the only problem a defense can present that offenses cannot overcome. If the Browns are to stay in games, these guys are key.

Behind them, it’s dicey. The linebackers are unproven. Mack Wilson flashed in his rookie year, but will miss some time with injury. B.J. Goodson, signed in the off-season from Green Bay, started 9 games and recorded 37 tackles last season. Sione Takitaki, drafted by John Dorsey in the 3rd round a year ago, barely saw the field during his rookie year. Jacob Phillips, a rookie from LSU, will start for Wilson, and showed promise in training camp, but this unit is uninspiring. Quick, athletic linebackers are a must given that they face Baltimore twice a year. Phillips is that, but must prove he deserves field time. And with Joe Schobert gone to Jacksonville as a free agent, Cleveland lost their defensive play caller and quarterback. Who steps into his role? Expect teams to run at the inexperience in the middle of the defense and pressure them with throws to tight ends. If this unit struggles, so will the defense.

Further back, the secondary arouses little confidence either. Denzel Ward, a Pro Bowler as a rookie, took leaps backward last year. Teams picked on him deep. He needs a return to All-Star form to stabilize this unit. His opposite corner, Greedy Williams, was okay as a rookie, but is hurt and questionable for Sunday. At safety, free agent signings Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo will start, while Ronnie Harrison, acquired via a 5th round 2021 draft pick from Jacksonville, is still learning the scheme. The hope was for rookie Grant Delpit to snag a starting spot, but suffered a torn Achilles during training camp and is out for the season. Holes abound in the secondary.

No one behind the defensive line has been a consistent NFL player in their career. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods brings expectations because of his work with San Francisco’s defensive backs last year and an impressive stint as Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2017 (3rd in the league in total defense). The problem remains the talent level he has to work with.

Kevin Stefanski wants to run the ball on offense, controlling clock and field position. Running teams win games 17-13. To win with a dominant rushing attack, stout defense is a must-have. This defense isn’t good enough to support a run heavy offense. For the Browns, or any NFL team in 2020, the recipe for victories is to throw to get the lead, then run to keep it. Wins are contingent on quarterback play. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are good enough to win 6-7 games. Anything higher rests on Baker Mayfield. The holes on defense are too large to count on them to stifle opposing offenses. The firepower possessed by the Browns is capable of scoring 27-30 a game, provided Mayfield returns to his rookie year form. If his completion percentage rises and the interceptions fall, Cleveland can compete. So, how much do you trust Baker Mayfield? It’s a question for the fans, but also for Kevin Stefanski. We’ll know early what he thinks of his quarterback. If his game plans are conservative, the head coach knows Mayfield isn’t the future of the franchise.

Ownership must trust Stefanski to mold the Cleveland franchise into his image. Paul DePodesta, the chief strategy officer, wanted him in 2019. DePodesta seems to be the current Jimmy Haslam ear holder. It’s imperative to give Stefanski time. He’s going to miss challenges, make wrong 4th down decisions, and his team may look unprepared. Young coaches in the NFL are green. The skills needed to run a team on the sideline during a game are daunting. Minus guys with older Hall of Fame type quarterbacks (see Matt LaFleur with Aaron Rodgers), most struggle. But DePodesta and Haslam hired Stefanski to save themselves from squandering the most talented Cleveland roster since 1994. If ownership hasn’t learned patience yet, they never will.

The other franchises in the division, minus Cincinnati, are the model. They develop talent and change schemes to maximize the roster. But it takes a commitment and belief in yourself and the people you’ve hired to see the program through. What organization, in any sport, that changes coaches and general managers on a dime, prospers? None. The rest of the league is too good at exposing weaknesses. Stefanski and Berry are smart. Smart people fail, yet learn from their failures. Allow your young brain trust to fail.

It’s the only way, the only path the organization hasn’t followed. The Browns and their fans have to be alright with mediocrity for the sake of growth. Myles Garrett reached the lowest depths of his professional career a year ago. The noise, disdain, and venom he lived through will either launch his career, or break him. Expect him to have a monster season. Failure causes reflection, leading to revision, conveying to success. Only the Browns try to skip steps. Disappointing seasons in the past lead to firings and overhauls. It can’t happen anymore in Cleveland. If anyone in the organization is interested in actual success, they’ll take whatever this season brings, ignore any drama, and allow the men they’ve hired to learn, and fail.

Troy’s Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.Did anyone expect LeBron James to lose a playoff series to James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Their Western Conference Semifinal isn’t over, yet the path it will take is clear. The Rockets are better behind the superstars and play a scheme that will overtake basketball soon. But playoff basketball is different, and LeBron is, well, King. He makes everyone on the floor with him 10-15% better with his vision, intelligence, and leadership. James knows what his team needs. In the first quarter of Game 2, following a poor Anthony Davis performance, LeBron fed AD, dishing three assists and getting him 11 early points. He knows he needs a confident Davis to win this series, and the title. In the fourth, after Houston flipped a 16 point deficit into a 2 point lead, LeBron took over, scoring 8 and locking down on defense (2 blocks and 2 steals). LeBron James is one of the three best in history because he knows the game better than everyone on, and off, the court.

Coach LeBron

2. L.A.’s biggest hole in the bubble had been a ball handler and creator to take some ball distribution off LeBron’s plate. Enter Rajon Rondo. It was easy to dismiss Rondo’s need for the Lakers; his minutes have been a debacle most of the season. But he’s played in tense games and won a title. An old head was the elixir L.A. needed. 18 assists and 6 steals in Laker wins in Games 2 and 3 gives James someone to turn the offense over to when required. Though older, his defense is important too. He’s long and smart, and gives Frank Vogel someone to put on opposing ball handlers. They’re thin on wing defenders, and while Rondo is slower now and more apt to fall asleep, when locked in, he can disrupt offenses. The Lakers need less help because of LeBron. If Rondo continues playing this way, their title hopes soar.

3. James Harden is eviscerating the Laker defense. No one can stay in front of him. When not facing double teams, he gets to the basket with ease, either drawing help for an open 3, or getting layups or foul shots. But when he sits, blah. Russell Westbrook scored 30 Tuesday night, but remains….. off. He can reach the bucket at will, but settles for too many 15 footers that ricochet off the basket, taking out family members in the audience. Whether his bout with COVID-19 or the quad injury lingers is anyone’s guess. Harden attacks more and creates better shots for his teammates. The Rockets have another victory in this series in them, maybe two. Their scheme gives the Lakers fits and has caused Vogel to lessen his JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard minutes (smart). But LeBron is smarter than them, and they know it.

4. The obituary on the pathetic performance of the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble has been written. Now tough decisions by their front office are due. Will Mike Budenholzer be back? When offered the super max extension this off-season, will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign it? The second question is most important, but the first affects their title chances for next year more. Coach Bud is exceptional, yet lacks the flexibility to make the moves postseason basketball demands. He’s style is comparable to Dusty Baker. While both have had great success in the regular season, neither bends when it matters most. It’ll likely cost both titles. But if he’s fired, who gets hired? Ty Lue, Billy Donovan, Nate McMillan, and Kenny Atkinson are a few free agent coaches available, but are any good enough to push this roster into the Finals? Hard to say, but Jon Horst better make sure Giannis is on board with any decision he makes.

5. Antetokounmpo will be a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and 4 time All NBAer at the end of this season. Any hopes of the Bucks ever winning another NBA title rest with him. Does he want to stay in Milwaukee? While other superstars have jumped to other organizations when failing with their current one, Giannis may be different. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.” Doesn’t sound like someone ready to team up with Steph Curry or Luka Doncic. Here’s hoping he stays put. It would be refreshing to see a star fight for the franchise and city that drafted him and refuse the easier path. It would also make a title even more special to him.

6. Can the Miami Heat make the Finals? The Milwaukee match-up was tailormade for them. Jimmy Butler’s toughness, Bam Adebayo’s swiss army knifeness, and the 3 point shooting they can surround them with makes for an arduous opponent. Goran Dragic has averaged 21 per during the playoffs, giving the Heat an efficient, 3 level scorer, something Butler, for as great as he’s been, can’t provide. But will their defense hold up against either Boston or Toronto? They could build a wall and keep Giannis out of the paint, grinding Milwaukee’s offense to a halt because of his meager shooting touch. But their next opponent will have more weapons capable of attacking the rim and shooting from deep. Erik Spoelstra may need to shuffle his lineups. He’ll face tough offense vs. defense decisions in crunch time. Andre Iguodala or Duncan Robinson? How much to play Kendrick Nunn? Who will Kelly Olynyk guard if it’s Boston, and will they rather have Derrick Jones Jr.’s athleticism on the floor? He’ll need Jae Crowder to continue shooting well from deep. A 34% shooter from 3 during the regular season, Crowder is hitting 40% of his 3’s in the playoffs. His shooting allows Miami to have a plus defender in late without sacrificing floor spacing on offense. Spolestra is clever enough to find the answers, but the Heat will face more match-up questions in the Eastern Conference Finals than they did against the Bucks, making them the underdog.

7. Give it all to the Toronto Raptors. They aren’t as talented as the Celtics, but damn, their balls are steel. In eking out a victory in a for-the-ages Game 6 against Boston, the Raptors showed their hearts. Norman Powell hit two 3’s in the overtimes. Pascal Siakam struggled all game (and isn’t a number one option), yet drilled a huge jumper in the second overtime. And Kyle Lowry. Gone are the days in which Lowry fails in the playoffs. Lowry willed the Raps to the win on defense, frustrating bigger Celtics into turnovers late before swishing the de facto game winner over Kemba Walker in the second overtime. Toronto works for every ounce they get and showed again why they’re champions. A deserved winner of an exquisite playoff game.

8. Boston cannot lose this series. They’re the better team on both ends of the floor, yet are flunky when it gets tight. Their two main ball handlers in crunch time, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, are struggling in those moments. Tatum’s stat line last night is nice (29 points, 14 rebounds, career high 9 assists), but he turned the ball over late and was indecisive with the smaller Lowry on him on multiple occasions. Kemba was awful (5 points on 2-11 shooting). He created a few easy buckets on lobs to Daniel Theis but otherwise couldn’t find himself. And the Raptors are going at him on D. He’s Boston’s weak link on that end and will continue to be Toronto’s target. Walker has never played in NBA games with these stakes. The Celtics need him in Game 7.

9. Did Marcus Smart ever show? He was Boston’s best player in Game 6, cool amongst the chaos. Smart’s 6 threes interpolated his stellar triple double (23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). He and Jaylen Brown were the only Celtics ready for the moment. The C’s need better execution in crunch time, and if Kemba isn’t up to the task, put the ball in Smart’s hands. He’s maddening, unorthodox, and a winner. If his 3 ball is off, Toronto may go under screens against him, allowing them to work less on defense. But Smart finds a way. Brad Stevens is likely reticent to trust his playoff future to Smart, but he may have no other choice.

10. Clippers-Nuggets feels preordained because of Kawhi Leonard. He gets to wherever he wants on offense and takes whatever he wants of defense. His mid-range game is automatic (he’s shooting 69% on shots less than 10 feet from the rim). He’ll lead L.A. into the next round. The Clips don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic, who may get them another victory in the series, but Kawhi, Paul George, and (mostly) Patrick Beverley have frustrated Jamal Murray. They’re too big and strong, and too good defensively for the 6’4” guard to shake. His eruption in the prior series guaranteed Doc Rivers would have a game plan designed to stop him. Gary Harris has been a bright spot for Denver’s future in this series, having a Fred VanVleet like resurgence following his return from injury. He’s shot 46% from 3 against L.A., up from 33% during the regular season, along with playing outstanding lock down defense on the Clipper wings. The Clippers are still sleep walking, however, coasting when possible and only motivated in near must win games. That won’t do against the Lakers. LeBron won’t allow them to cruise through any Conference Final games, and if they try, he’ll punish them. The time is now for the most talented team in the league to prove they can win the title.


Troy’s Top Ten

Giannis Antetokounmpo, NBA, NBA Playoffs

1.The Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in dire straits. A difficult match-up with a determined star and Hall of Fame coach, an expert at navigating the playoffs, has set the organization and its soon to be two-time MVP up for disaster. Milwaukee’s blistering regular seasons the past two years have positioned them as championship contenders, an identifier they don’t seem ready for. Coach Mike Budenholzer has proved this year and last, along with his stint in Atlanta, that, for as savvy as he is with X’s and O’s, he’s deficient at making needed adjustments in the playoffs. Giannis is a free agent after next year; he’s eligible to sign a super max contract extension after this one. If the Bucks cannot find a way out of this series and into the NBA Finals, the rumors of a Giannis exodus from Milwaukee becomes a tidal wave this off-season.

2. Game 1 screamed ineptitude from Milwaukee’s bench. Khris Middleton continued getting scorched, possession after possession, guarding Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter. Yet Giannis, the Defensive Player of the Year, or even Wes Matthews, guarded Miami’s star. Giannis played dumb after, asserting he only followed coach’s orders. True, Budenholzer should have ordered the switch. Antetokounmpo has a responsibility as a leader, however. If he envisions himself a champion, he has to take the challenge to terminate an opponent flaming his team in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Especially considering his struggles on offense. The Bucks stagnated on that end too. No ball or player movement, Budenholzer staples, ground the Bucks to a halt. Middleton hucked up prayers, and Giannis tried dribbling into a sea of Miami defenders, turning the ball over and taking ill-advised shots early in the shot clock, rushing to beat the Heat before their defense settled. When Milwaukee ran pick and roll, regardless of the ball handler, with Giannis as the screener, they created looks for him and open 3’s for his teammates. They ignored it too often, however, and are staring at an opponent who doesn’t fear them. Trouble.

3. In the closing minutes of both fourth quarters, the Bucks strained to get points. Giannis and Middleton cannot get points on their own. Their teammates are standing and watching. This was the number 1 offense in the league? Minus George Hill, no one on the roster has played consistent, tough playoff minutes. Milwaukee is being outworked. Erik Spoelstra is embarrassing Mike Budenholzer. Giannis has played only 36 minutes in each game. MVPs cannot sit that long during the playoffs. The Bucks aren’t playing hard, or smart. And take a glance at these rosters. Who is the favorite again?

4. Though Miami figured to rain threes on the Bucks’ defenders in Game 1, Goran Dragic and Butler attacked. Without Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders could not keep the Heat ball handlers in front of them, forcing Giannis and Brook Lopez into foul trouble early, and tentativeness late. Miami is liquid on offense, however, and flooded Milwaukee with 3’s in Game 2. Whatever Milwaukee tries on defense, the Heat has an answer. And they give a rip. Butler is a bona fide dog, a playoff closer in the truest sense. For all his shooting troubles, Butler feels the moment and delivers when his team needs him. Dragic has scored his entire career. He’s tricky with the ball and can score on all levels. Both are masters in the pick and roll, and using Bam Adebayo as a rim runner makes the top-rated Bucks defense look slow and unsure in the half court. The Heat are ready for their moment and have the only validated playoff closer in the series on their roster. Good luck, Milwaukee.

5. While the Raptors earned their playoff experience with a title last year, not having Kawhi Leonard to settle half court possessions is causing problems. The Celtics have the best go to scorer in the series (Jayson Tatum), and Boston’s superb transition defense stymied Toronto’s speed in Games 1 and 2. The Raps’ offense gums up. While Serge Ibaka has been great, shooting the 3 ball at 50% and providing length defensively, the rest of the squad is AWOL. Pascal Siakam needs to find more than 16 shots. He’s struggling to get easy buckets against Boston’s length. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have to work Kemba Walker early and often, the weak link in Boston’s athletic, rangy defense. Whoever Walker is guarding has to attack him and force Boston’s defense into rotation. They tried this in Game 2 with success, yet didn’t remain disciplined enough to stay with the strategy. Boston is too good in transition for the Raptors to count on offense from the break. They have to get the Celtics moving on defense in the half-court, then knock down shots. They’re only shooting 32% from behind the arc in the series. That should change, but it starts with attacking Kemba.

More Kemba in the pick and roll, Toronto

6. Time to add Boston to the collection of title contenders. Only the Clippers can match their length on defense. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker are the best scoring trio in the league. Marcus Smart is maddening, a hate watch for anyone other than Celtic fans. He’s one of the best wing defenders in the league, however, gets every loose ball, and makes 3-4 plays per game that affect wins and losses. And once every couple of weeks he gets hot from deep and wins a game with his shooting. They’re size deficient, and Giannis could give them problems in the next round, as would the Lakers. The answer to whether they’re a true contender falls on Tatum. He’s been a superstar to this point, but will he keep it up? Tatum made it to the line 14 times in Game 2, a huge positive for Boston. He’s struggled early in his career with passivity. An aggressive Tatum is a must if the Celtics hope to challenge for the title. After this round, he’ll see either Giannis or Jimmy Butler, then Kawhi and Paul George or LeBron and AD. Is he ready to stand firm against the league’s elite?

7. Jamal Murray vs. Donovan Mitchell was the best show put on in the bubble. Why watch basketball, if not to see the ball go through the rim, and from deep? Murray shot 53% from 3, Mitchell 51%. Bad defenses? Yes. But these young’ns, questioned in the early stages of their careers (both are 23) whether they could lead teams, carried their rosters throughout this seven-game series. A “Can you top this!?” gunning contest erupted, and each showed an ability to meet the moment. The Nuggets are over matched against the Clippers, and Murray will struggle often with Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard in his jock. So what? Can they win titles? Are they perennial All-Stars? Do they deserve their max contracts? Forget the blather. Enjoy these two for what they are. Worry later about what they can be.

Murray’s shot making to end Game 6 is just………

8. Game 7 pressure showed itself in the Denver and Utah 80-78 final score, an enormous drop over the first six games, in which the teams averaged 234 points combined. If Denver hopes to compete with the Clips, however, they better hope they found some plus defensive lineups. Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris all looked strong in Game 7, but the return of Gary Harris for the Nuggets was key. Harris hounded Donovan Mitchell in the closing minutes, forcing bad shots and swiping the ball away on Utah’s penultimate possession. Harris was, and is, a complete disaster on offense, however. 1-9 on Tuesday, he launched ill-advised shots early in the shot clock and looks uncomfortable putting the ball on the floor. Offense comes and goes for Denver’s defensive stalwarts, but they must be on the floor if the Nuggets have a chance at slowing L.A. on offense. For a competitive series, these guys must knock down open shots, relieving a bit of the scoring pressure off of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

9. Just because the bubble is protecting players from COVID-19 doesn’t mean they can’t pick up something else. Marcus Morris seems to have contracted a case of Draymond Green disorder. He swung down on Luka Doncic in Game 6 of their first round series, earning an ejection and $35,000 fine. The league should have suspended him for at least another game. He targeted Doncic throughout the series, calling him a racially insensitive remark, stepping on his ankle, and waylaying the Dallas star with hard fouls. Morris claims he’s not dirty, yet continues with the non-basketball stuff. He’s taken on the role of enforcer, and regardless of whether he’ll cop to it, seems more interested in picking fights than playing basketball. If his antics continue against Denver, the league needs to take more drastic action.

10. James Harden saved himself with a game saving block on Lou Dort’s 3, allowing the Rockets to escape into the second round. Game 7’s typically turn sloppy, and Harden is still uncomfortable in win or go home situations. 17 points on 4-15 shooting provide another example of Harden’s timidity during legacy altering games. He becomes unsure of himself, taking bad shots and making questionable decisions on drives to the rim. The lack of success in the past has crept into his present mindset. The Rockets should push the Lakers in the next round. They match up well. L.A. has no answer defensively for Harden or Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis will dominate, but can any of the ancillary Lakers punish the Rockets for going small? The Lakers can’t shoot and the Rockets will attempt to bludgeon them from 3. The Houston small ball experiment is on the ballot in round 2. But this is James Harden vs. LeBron James. The greatest thinker, maybe in league history, versus an unsure superstar in crunch time? An entertaining series, sure, but the result is obvious.

 

Troy’s Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.It is past time for all of us to listen.

2. LeBron has arrived. James slow played the bubble, and even the first two games of the playoffs, but the 34,9, and 9 he’s averaging over the last two has awakened the Laker team, transforming into the title contender everyone expected. Without another competent ball handler, L.A. needs James to get quality looks for his underwhelming teammates. Rajon Rondo will return soon. Most teams would view those words as a threat, but for the Lakers he’s needed to run the offense in the minutes James sits. And what to make of Anthony Davis? He’s dominant in some moments, yet has halves like the first in Game 3 in which he took just 3 shots. LeBron cannot win a fourth ring without a dominant Davis, and AD even admitted to feeling the pressure of the playoffs beside an all-time great. He’s complained about playing the 5 all year, yet the Lakers’ best lineups, and his superior position, is in the middle. Davis needs to suck it up and bang with the big boys if he wants a ring.

3. I questioned if Donovan Mitchell had the chops to be an alpha, A1 scorer on a contender, and he proved me wrong. He’s averaging 37.6 in the series against Denver and has two 50 point games. Mitchell is showing the ability to score efficiently and involve his teammates. Utah expected to contend this year but struggled with chemistry issues, folding new players into the lineup (Mike Conley), and seemed destined for another early round exit. Mitchell is changing things in this Denver series, but will it continue? He’s picking on the poor defense of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr., dissecting the Nuggets by hunting favorable match ups. If the Clippers are next, however, how will he navigate Paul George and Kawhi Leonard? More size and defensive acumen will present problems. How Mitchell handles those challenges deeper in the playoffs will show us how many steps he’s taken.

4. And how about Mitchell’s sniping opponent, Jamal Murray, dragging the Nuggets to a Game 5 win? Denver seemed finished early in the second half, down 15, showing little fight and having zero answers on defense. Then Murray happened. 33 points in the second half, Murray’s speed got him to the rim with ease or created space for his dead eye jumper. Though flaming, he didn’t force his shot either. Late assists on 3s to Michael Porter and Nikola Jokic sealed the win. Murray is tantalizing, yet cannot find consistency. His scoring numbers in this series (36,14,12,50,42) prove as much. The Nuggets need to know what’s coming each night if they’re to make the jump to contender. Denver’s defense is awful and may prevent them from coming back in this series, but Mitchell vs. Murray is must watch.

5. The Luka Doncic show from Sunday was unprecedented, and a welcome to superstardom moment for him. Luka controls an offense unlike anyone we’ve seen. He isn’t fast, but he’s quick enough. He’s not huge, but he’s big enough. Doncic’s footwork is majestic. His fundamentals, perfect. He reads defenses, moving defenders with his eyes and slight movements and jab steps that open corner 3s, driving lanes, or whatever the hell else he wants. Dallas is a title contender for the next decade, though they still may need a piece. But Luka is the future. His control of the team at 21 years old defies logic. His injured ankle, Kristaps Porzingis’ hurt knee, and the overwhelming talent gap between them and the Clippers seem too tall a mountain to climb. Never fear though, Mavericks fans. MVP awards and championship trophies are on the horizon.

6. Kawhi Leonard is one of the greatest defenders of all time. But you’re telling me he couldn’t have fought harder through this screen at the end of Game 4? Luka is taking that shot. He isn’t passing it to Maxi Kleber. So why give in and ride Kleber into the paint? And I understand that Reggie Jackson made a 3 and an outstanding hustle play to keep the Clippers in the game, but why give Luka a chance to work a switch onto him? He should’ve been on the bench. Baffling.

Come on Kawhi, fight through that screen

7. What’s left to say, standing over the dead carcass of the 76ers’ season? Brett Brown couldn’t motivate his players and got canned on Monday. Ben Simmons won’t shoot. Joel Embiid won’t get in shape. Philly needs a reboot, and tough decisions concerning the stars are on the horizon. The new coach will sell the front office on the idea that he, and he alone, can figure out the Embiid/Simmons problem, but even if he can, Al Horford is owed 81 mil over the next 3 seasons, while Tobias Harris is guaranteed 149 million over the next 4. Neither contract is tradeable, Horford is declining and an awful fit next to the two stars, and Harris isn’t the clutch, end of game scorer with the ball in his hands the team is paying for. Even if Simmons and Embiid can co-exist, is Philly a title contender as constructed? A lot of soul searching is in store this fall in Philadelphia.

8. Boston-Toronto. The series everyone wanted and expected has arrived. The Celtics and Raptors were 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the regular season in fast break points, so look for each team to run at any opportunity. Once the defenses get set, scoring will become difficult. The Raptors were 2nd and the Celtics 4th in defensive rating, and each team’s length will cause problems for the other. So who can score in the half court? Jayson Tatum has continued his breakout into superstardom in the bubble, shooting 3s well and penetrating more often. Jaylen Brown averaged 21.5 against the Sixers and shot 6 free throws a game, a welcome bump in his aggressiveness. If Kemba Walker’s 24 per game continues against Toronto, the Raptors are toast.

9. But the Raptors, with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka, have the length and quickness to match-up with Boston’s rangy scorers. Will Toronto score on their end? They were middle of the league in half court scoring, so Boston will try to keep them from running. Is Pascal Siakam a good enough offensive player to carry the load? How will Kyle Lowry fare? It’s his team, and Lowry must drive their half-court offense. He needs to score, but also construct scoring opportunities for Siakam and open 3s for Fred VanVleet. He buried his playoff demons in an epic Finals Game 6 in Golden State last year, and that Lowry has to show up here. Without a big series from him, Boston wins.

10. Houston might be the better team, but Oklahoma City has fought harder in games 3 and 4. James Harden, a renowned playoff -what disappearer?- was fine with 14 in the second half of Game 3, but only took 8 shots, and 1 in overtime. His 13 in the second half of Game 4, also fine, came on 14 shots. The Rockets can’t afford fine from their MVP. Houston designed their offense to utilize his talents. Any drop off from him is trouble. Chris Paul is controlling games for OKC and attempting to bury some of his own playoff demons. While Paul has a litany of poor playoff performances, no one questions his heart. His team is under-manned and shooting deficient, but they play harder. Houston needs to prove they can match the Thunder’s intensity, or they won’t make it to a hyped second round series against the Lakers.

 

Troy’s Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.If you’re looking for a reason to buy Miami stock, re-watch Jimmy Butler eviscerate the Indiana Pacers in the 4th quarter in Game 1 on Tuesday. In the last five minutes, Butler had a steal of T. J. Warren, tied him up for a jump ball, and drilled two 3’s while scoring 10 of the last 12 Heat points. Miami is for real, and Jimmy Bucket’s closing ability in the playoffs can push them deep into September. Though his scoring iced the game, his defense (4 steals and 2 blocks) won it. Butler is no nonsense, and his hardened attitude rubbed young stars in Minnesota and Philadelphia the wrong way. But teams need an edge in the playoffs, and Butler’s is razor sharp. Erik Spoelstra is one of the top 3-4 coaches in the league and knows his way around the postseason. Mixed with the abundance of three point shooters Miami can align around the arc, it makes for a tough team to knock out. The other East teams should be wary.

2. Speaking of Heat fearing outfits, it’s passed time for Milwaukee fans to worry. They lost 4 of 5 before the shutdown, then dropped 5 of 8 in the bubble. The strangling defense and artful offense have disappeared while they’ve slept walked since March. The Bucks aren’t all that talented; they rely on work ethic and Giannis Antetokounmpo for wins. Their want to is lacking. And Mike Budenholzer is a stubborn coach, proving more than once he’s unwilling to adjust his schemes during the playoffs, even when match-ups warrant a fresh approach. A loss to Orlando in Game 1 by 12 is embarrassing, but Milwaukee will win the series. But the Heat present a myriad of problems. They were 0-2 versus them in the regular season before defeating them in the bubble. Bam Adebayo creates problems for Giannis on offense, and the Bucks give up lots of 3s, while Miami shoots the second best 3 ball percentage in the league. Giannis is on the clock. He’s skirted criticism of his underachieving teams, but won’t this year. The presumptive 2-time MVP better make the Finals, or the noise surrounding his disappointing postseasons will grow.

3. The Brooklyn Nets have no shot against the Raptors. Without 4 of their 5 best players, it’s impossible to compete, but man, do they play hard. Kenny Atkinson’s firing was a head scratcher and suggests Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving disliked him. But Jacque Vaughn has been marvelous in the bubble, getting an out-manned roster to play smart. They were a missed Caris LeVert jumper at the buzzer from knocking Portland out of the playoffs, and, despite the beating on the scoreboard they were taking, continued to fight against Toronto in Game 1. This set is just gorgeous. Any chance the offense will flow like this when their two superstars return?

4. Though bounced out of the bubble after losing to the Blazers on Saturday, Ja Morant shined, proving again he’ll be on All NBA teams sooner than later. He struggled in the first half of the play-in game, tentative on his drives and unsure of himself and what to do with the ball off pick and rolls. That hesitancy disappeared after halftime, however. Morant dominated, decisive and quick to the rim, putting pressure on the weak Blazers defense. He forced C. J. McCollum to hit two huge shots in the closing minutes to snag the last playoff spot. Morant’s career high 35 points, to go along with 8 assists, proved he’ll show when the lights are brightest, capable of leading a team and franchise. Going toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard in an elimination game has been too much for veterans such as James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the past, but Morant craved the pressure. He’s relentless going to the rim, unafraid of challenging big men and athletic enough to finish there. Many, convinced the Grizzles overachieved this year, expect a drop off from the organization in 2021. I’m not buying it. Morant is a franchise changer and destined to be a top-ten player in the league. Memphis, with small, intelligent roster moves, will be in title contention soon.

5. The Lakers can’t shoot. It’s been an issue all season, yet LeBron James’ and Anthony Davis’ brilliance cover up certain things, like, you know, an NBA team in 2020 not being able to make 3’s. After a Game 1 dud in which they managed a meager 93 points against a Portland defense giving up 123 per in the bubble, it’s fair to ask if the two superstars will be enough. The Blazers have been in playoff mode for a month while L.A. loafed through the restart. Still, other obstacles exist. LeBron is their only playmaker. Can he be Cleveland LeBron for the next two months? And someone has to make a shot. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shoots 38% from behind the arc, while Danny Green’s at 36%. Everyone else is chucking up prayers. The walls are tightening around the Lakers.

6. Denver-Utah is tied 1-1 and looks as though it’ll go the distance. Donovan Mitchell has been superb; his 57 in Game 1 was the third highest playoff point total in history, and he followed with 30 in Game 2. Mitchell has been a star since his rookie year, yet questions linger concerning whether he could be the best player on a title contender. While he’s likely better in the 2 slot, his performances to open this series suggest otherwise. His 45% shooting from the field and 36% from three for his career are middling, but his true shooting percentage has ballooned to 73% in this series. That is a ridiculous, unsustainable number. But if Mitchell becomes a more consistent, efficient scorer, the Jazz will make up for their underachieving regular season in the playoffs.

7. With Michael Porter Jr. grabbing a starting spot in Denver for the playoffs, Utah coach Quin Snyder wasted no time going after the rookie. It’s been no secret Mike Malone was stingy with Porter Jr.’s minutes because of his work on D, and Snyder was paying attention. Porter opened each game guarding Joe Ingles, and Ingles had the green light to attack. Utah kept Porter in the pick and roll in Game 1, and Ingles scored 8 in the 1st quarter of Game 2, going at the rookie and ending the game with a plus/minus of +31. Porter Jr. has held his own on the offensive end, scoring 28 on Wednesday, but his defense is still a concern. His offense raises Denver’s ceiling, however, and the chemistry between him and Nikola Jokic is obvious. Jokic’s vision, coupled with Porter’s cutting ability and spot up shooting, make for a dangerous pair. He has the size and athleticism at 6’10” to be a good defender, but Denver will have to live with his lapses. If the Nuggets hope to make a surprise run to the Finals, they’ll need all the scoring they can get from the rookie.

8. Down 0-2 to Boston, Philly can’t leave the bubble soon enough. Yes, Ben Simmons’ injury hurts, but could they have hung with the Celtics with him in the lineup? The Sixers have carried themselves the entire season as a championship squad, yet they’ve never made it further than the second round. Embiid is either hurt, loafing, or dominating his opponent. Which version shows up is anyone’s guess. Tobias Harris is fine, but he isn’t a game changing, take over the offense scorer the 76ers need to compete for titles. The fire isn’t there, and they must make changes before they waste their window. Hurry and put Philly out of their misery, Boston.

9. The third of our contenders, the L.A. Clippers, seems to suffer the same affliction as the Lakers and Bucks. These teams can’t find the gas. And without home court advantage as an assistant, their efforts need to change. Kawhi Leonard showed on Wednesday night, posting 35 and 10 rebounds, but all other Clippers may as well have stayed in their rooms. Paul George shot 4-17 and Montrezl Harrell, still searching for his sea legs, was a -15 in 21 minutes. Luka Doncic will not allow L.A. to coast. He controls every aspect of Dallas’ offense, wedging his way into the paint before finishing at the rim, getting fouled, or assisting on easy buckets. The Mavs aren’t a team to toy with. Though none have significant NBA playoff experience, Luka has been playing high leverage games in the Euro League since he was 16. For all of Kawhi’s greatness, he isn’t a rah-rah guy. Pat Beverly missed Game 2 with a calf injury, and it’s uncertain when he’ll return. The Clips need his energy, however. The sleepwalking contenders need a jolt, or they’re all in danger of getting the boot.

10. Monitor Oklahoma City against Houston. The Thunder looked lethargic on Tuesday, out of character for them. A 40 point Houston second quarter doomed OKC, and the Rockets’ firepower can bury teams in a hurry. Danilo Gallinari, one of the most underrated scorers in the league when he’s healthy, will need to continue getting buckets. His 29 Game 1 points were huge, yet the rest of the roster struggled. OKC counts on scoring off the bench from Dennis Schroder, and his 6 in Game 1 won’t suffice. Ditto the 9 scored by Shia Gilgeous-Alexander. And while the Thunder out-rebounded Houston by 10, that margin needs to be bigger. Steven Adams must dominate the paint against Houston’s tiny front line. A +20 rebounding edge should be the goal. Chris Paul played well on Tuesday, but his energy needs distributed to the rest of his teammates. Oklahoma City has been tough all year, and they’re one of the greatest clutch, tight game closing teams of all time. Expect a robust response from them in Game 2.

 

Troy’s Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.The Eastern Conference champion seemed a lock entering the bubble, but Milwaukee has looked……… off, and Toronto and Boston have taken turns as media darlings throughout the seeding games. But what about the Heat? Like almost everyone else, their play has been inconsistent, and Jimmy Butler missed three games before returning against Indiana. While Butler will decide their ceiling, the energy boosts come from Bam Adebayo. He starts fast breaks off of rebounds by pushing the pace on his own. His 5.1 assist per game average is eye popping for a center; his dishes are bettered at the position by only the best passing big man in history, Nikola Jokic. Adebayo is a powerful roll man on offense, while also able to find Miami’s plethora of 3 point shooters lined around the arc. He’s long on defense, quick, and in the right spots. No one guards Giannis, but Bam flustered him into a 6-18 shooting night in early March. His size, length, quickness, and take no B.S. attitude is the perfect antidote for Antetokounmpo. Consider: Miami led the league in 3 point shooting percentage on the season at 38.1%. The Bucks give up the most 3’s in the league. Milwaukee doesn’t want the Heat in Round 2.

2. Dallas’ young core of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have the Mavs in the playoffs, but for them to rise to title contender, they’ll need a reliable 3rd scorer. The Mavericks lead the league by 3 points per possession on offense, the best rating in league history. That number speaks to the brilliance of Doncic. Tim Hardaway Jr. has had a fantastic season after being thrown in by the Knicks in the Porzingis trade (15.3 points on 43% shooting, 39.8% from 3). The consistency just isn’t there, however. Look at his scoring numbers in the bubble. 2,22,8,8,27. Hard to count on that in the playoffs. Hardaway is an improved player, and valuable as a shooter flanking Luka. But his destiny is as a sixth man. Trey Burke’s 12.8 points and 43% 3 ball shooting in the bubble has been eye opening, but you want to count on that for a full season, or a big playoff series? Hardaway sliding down a notch, and finding a strong 3rd piece (Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan types) would make the Mavs a 2021 contender.

3. Among the arguments for the Warriors’ trade of De’Angelo Russell to the Timberwolves at the trade deadline for Andrew Wiggins and a protected 2021 1st rounder was they wouldn’t get more out of him and his max contract. But there’s always an opportunity cost. What if Philly blows it up during whatever this off-season looks like? Ben Simmons may be the perfect complement to Golden State’s star trio and would make the Warriors the favorites again in 2021. His defense, transition work, and passing acumen fit, and his lack of shooting becomes negligible next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Simmons for Russell and either the Warriors 1st this year, or that T-Wolves pick would have piqued interest from the Sixers. An adept pick and roll point guard in Russell, capable of knocking down 3’s next to Joel Embiid, along with a new head coach? Philly GM Elton Brand would have to think long. But Golden State’s trade for a blah Wiggins negated even the chance for a monster deal that would’ve improved both teams.

4. Bol Bol picked up minutes for the Denver Nuggets during the restart, and while it’s too early for judgment, there are glimpses of something. Being 7’2” makes him a rim protector, he can shoot 3’s like his dad, and this play shows at least some athleticism. He won’t give them anything in the playoffs, but Bol is an intriguing lottery ticket.

This kid has something. Is it anything?

5. As for Philly and Joel Embiid, he needs a swift kick to get physically and mentally ready to guide a contender. The Sixers are nowhere bound now that Simmons’ injured left knee will require surgery and keep him out for the rest of the season. With a chance to rally the troops after his teammate’s injury, Embiid huffed through the first half on Saturday against Orlando, scoring 6 points, before deciding to join the game in the second half, dominating the 3rd quarter and exerting the Sixers to a tougher than needed victory. The Embiid experience is frustrating. He could be the best player in the league if he got in shape and gave a rip. Will he ever care enough? The franchise needs an overhaul, if only to provide the shakeup needed to see what their star is about.

6. Ya’ll know his name. 37 points, 9 assists, 41% from three in the bubble. Dame Dolla, Dame Time. Whatever you call him, call him one of the best in the league. Damian Lillard has gone supernova the last two weeks, carrying the Portland Trail Blazers to the brink of the play-in 8-9 game out West by being the best player in Orlando. Lillard created some stink during shutdown, asserting that if the Blazers weren’t playing for anything, he wouldn’t leave the bench during the restart. He’s showing all now why the NBA used smart judgment in giving all teams invited a shot at the playoffs. The league has overlooked Lillard for All-Star games and All NBA teams in the past, but no more. 45 last Thursday. 51 Sunday. 61 Tuesday. Dame is one of the most clutch, big game players in the league, and now will be a lock when analysts argue their top ten players for the nth time. Only Steph is a better point guard, and Lillard gives Portland a puncher’s chance against the Lakers in round 1, though LeBron and AD likely are too much.

7. However, another, perhaps more unlikely, guard has also looked MVPish to this point. Devin Booker has dragged Phoenix to the brink of the play-in game. The Suns are 7-0 in the bubble and Booker, another under appreciated Western Conference guard, has graduated from sideshow on a loser to legitimate superstar. Wins will do that. He’s become a playmaker (6.5 assists on the year) and his shooting percentage has skyrocketed from his first two seasons (from 42% to 48.8%). DeAndre Ayton’s development on both ends helps, and Phoenix’s future, murky after suspect drafts and bad trades (T. J. Warren for cash considerations, oof) is more interesting now that the young’ns have flexed. Hope for a Phoenix-Portland play-in. Memphis has bombed in the bubble, but these two have been fire. Lillard vs. Booker this weekend, please.

8. Doug McDermott has no shot anyway, but what do you do with this? Harden makes 45 look easy, but shots like this aren’t. The most dangerous weapon in the NBA will, at worst, make the Rockets compelling.

9. The Goran Dragic/Derrick Jones Jr. pick and roll in the second quarter against the Pacers this week illustrates the danger the Heat pose in the playoffs. Dragic is perhaps the most over-qualified bench point guard in the league, able to shoot from distance and carve defenses in the pick and roll. Jones Jr., while smallish, is bouncy and quick, an outstanding rim runner. The Pacers couldn’t crack it, and other teams’ bench units are on alert. Miami’s can flip a series.

Dynamic pick and roll duo

10. Boston worked Toronto last week, a 122-100 thumping causing some to question their Toronto love. Boston’s long guards could give the Raptors smallish backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet fits. The Raps want to push the ball, and Brad Stevens’ aim in a playoff series will be to slow down Toronto’s deadly running game. The Toronto D will cause Boston fits though, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will find scoring opportunities much different in the playoffs than last Thursday, when they posted 18 and 20 on 50% shooting. Two more evenly matched teams don’t exist. Other than L.A.-L.A., no other match-up is more anticipated in league circles. While the playoffs start next week, the first round may be a slog. But Toronto-Boston, Milwaukee-Miami, Lakers-Rockets, and Clippers-Nuggets second round match-ups are a dream. Bring on the playoffs.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com