1.Up 3-1 now, the Los Angeles Lakers can feel it. LeBron James isn’t about to let his team blow the very lead he vanquished during his greatest triumph. L.A. was always about LeBron and Anthony Davis. The best teammate he’s played with, a list that includes Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Love. James and Davis mesh better than LeBron did with any of the others. AD’s All-NBA defense, interior game, outside shooting, and pick and roll efficiency have given LeBron the perfect complement. He’ll hand the team to Davis in the coming years, reducing his role in the twilight of his career. They’re the best duo in the league, better than any since Shaq and Kobe. But for this title, it’s still LeBron.
2. James will win his 4th Finals MVP to mate with his 4th Larry O’Brien trophy. Despite Davis’ masterful Game 2 and his dagger 3 in Game 4, James has guided L.A. through the bubble, the big brother for his neophyte teammates. 27.8 points, 11 rebounds, and 8.5 assists looks pedestrian next to LeBron’s name. He does it every game of every series. Since 2011 and his flame out against Dallas, he’s been the best player in every series he played, only losing when his teammates got injured or were inferior to his opponent’s. At 35 years old, he’s still the best player and one of the greatest of all time.
3. But give his teammates their due. An underwhelming roster after Davis, they’ve benefited from the long runway provided by the two superstars. Without the others’ contributions, however, L.A. would be staring at a series deficit. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, shooting just 28% from 3 in the Finals, had his moment in Game 4. A huge corner 3 in the 4th quarter along with a smooth lay-in late were critical points. L.A. doesn’t win without his 15 and 5 assists. Markieff Morris is shooting 43% from 3 in the Finals. Alex Caruso has hit 41% from behind the arc. He’s a pest on defense, giving the Lakers heart off the bench. Then there’s Rajon Rondo.
4. Laker fans cursed Rondo throughout the season, perplexed Frank Vogel even allowed him on the floor. But he’s lived this before. He knows what it takes. His 6 assists per game and 3 point touch in Game 2 were invaluable. He relaxed LeBron’s ball handling duties. L.A. needed another play maker, and Rondo provided it in the most crucial moments. With LeBron winded at the end of Game 4 (his brilliant second half is the reason this series isn’t 2-2), Rondo took control of the offense. Two dagger buckets, both vintage Rondo. The Lakers leaned on the Rondo/Davis pick and roll late in the fourth and he delivered, first with a layup after beating Duncan Robinson off the dribble, then dishing to AD for his clutch 3. Despite his hate for the nickname, Playoff Rondo is real.
5. The Heat shocked many by making the Finals as a 5 seed in the East, but their grit and fight carried them to the doorstep of a title. While Miami’s organization is the embodiment of work ethic and toughness, Jimmy Butler adds another dimension. No one outworks him. He doesn’t stand for teammates who don’t value winning, and it’s caused friction at three other NBA stops. But he’s home in Miami. The beneficial relationship between team and player blossomed in the bubble.
6. His Game 3 performance was all-time great and caused NBA heads to rethink his hierarchy in the league. 42 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. Butler strapped an injury riddled roster on his back and beat an outstanding Laker team with 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Not considered a top fifteen player (he made All NBA third team this year), most couldn’t envision him as the best player on a title team. No longer. His flaws are obvious (poor shooter, so-so passer, reluctant to take over games), but his defense, mid-range game, and ability to get to the free throw line outweigh those. Plus his heart. Butler cares more than anyone else on the floor and puts in the work. He leads when others don’t know they need led. Butler’s playoff run has established him as a top ten player in the league.
7. How much more will Bam Adebayo develop and are the Heat title contenders if he takes another leap? Already one of the best big man creators in the league, Adebayo finished the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals by running the offense. His passing creativity and handles put undo pressure on all other bigs in the NBA. He’s one of the best defenders in the league, able to switch onto anyone and is an elite rim protector. Like Butler, his passion for winning is obvious. Bam has superstar potential if he hones his outside shot. A superb rim runner in the pick and roll, if he can improve his shooting percentages from beyond the paint (40% 10-16 ft., 28% 16-23 ft., 13% from 3), he becomes something different. Adebayo can be the Heat’s best player. If that happens, Miami can win the title next year.
8. For now, they have another chance. They’re size deficient against L.A. Miami tussled their way to this point, enforcing their will on opponents. They’ll do the same tonight. Watch the Laker turnovers. James’ and Rondo’s playoff experience can calm the waters for their immature teammates. They’ve been careless the last two games, helping Miami stay attached early. Can the Heat get to the free throw line? They must dominate in points at the stripe. And the 3 ball. If L.A’s bench throws bricks and Herro and Robinson get hot, Miami can win another game. But 3?
9. If/when the Lakers win, don’t forget the contributions of Frank Vogel. Until this season, LeBron shut off on the defensive end, especially during the regular season. Whether bored or saving energy, the Cleveland years were a dramatic step back for a once assertive defensive force. Vogel, one of the best defensive coaches in the game going back to his days in Indiana with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, sold James on his scheme and LeBron’s need for effort. It worked. He refocused himself, and along with AD, guided the 3rd best scoring defense in the league. Vogel got his guys to commit to his system. They struggled throughout the season on offense during stretches, but their defense never sagged. They’re about to be champions for that reason.
10. The NBA, it’s players, referees, media members, coaches, and their families deserve kudos for the bubble. No positive test results in three months of lock down is commendable. Science works, and the league studied before designing the ultimate experiment. Despite doubts, the social injustice fights outside Orlando, and the mental challenges for those involved, the NBA will crown a champion, something that felt impossible even a month before the restart. The basketball was exhilarating, with new stars such as Jamal Murray announcing themselves and a familiar one poised to raise the trophy. The NBA succeeded and kept everyone safe in the process. Props.
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.
1.Before getting to the Conference Finals match-ups, let’s mention the buffoonery of the Los Angeles Clippers. While the Milwaukee Bucks’ exit from this year’s playoffs is embarrassing, perhaps they lost to a better team. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to a talented bunch, but Denver doesn’t possess the experience or skill of the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard was awful in Game 7, but the rest of his teammates stunk from Game 4 on. Paul George’s 10 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists would confuse if we hadn’t seen it before. George floats in and out of series and games. Worst of all, L.A. was the weaker squad. They looked scared in the 4th quarter of Game 7, passing up shots, turning the ball over, and careening it off the side of the backboard. The favorite to win the title, the Clippers asphyxiated themselves in the NBA bubble. So what’s next?
2. Kawhi and George both have opt outs in their contracts after next year. The organization traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with 7 1st rounds picks or pick swaps for George to Oklahoma City last summer. The two combined to shoot 10-38 for 24 points in Game 7. The 2021 season is the biggest in Clipper history. What if they don’t win the title? What if they’re bounced out of the playoffs early, again? The future is a dark abyss if their two stars leave after next season. Rumors say Doc Rivers will be back for next season, but all options should remain on the table for Clippers GM Michael Winger and President Lawrence Frank. Trade Paul George? Trade Doc Rivers and elevate Ty Lue to the head job? They should find a trade for Lou Williams to bring in a play making ball handler. Kawhi’s great, but he isn’t in the LeBron James or Luka Doncic class with it comes to getting his teammates involved. Whatever they decide, next year is title or bust.
3. He started the season carrying a few extra pounds and heard about it. But Nikola Jokic just outplayed Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series. Jokic is an offensive mastermind. He’s a genius with the ball, already the greatest passing big of all-time and one of the best overall in the league today. His one-footed fall away jump shots are unguardable. He made 39.5% of his threes against L.A. He’s a wizard around the basket. Jokic never hurries. His fundamentals are exemplary; his footwork PhD level. And his defense, long the Achilles heel of his game, blossomed against the Clippers. His 3 blocks in Game 7 and general rim protection thwarted the Clippers multiple times as they tried to mount a comeback. Only 24, he and Jamal Murray (22) are the best young duo in the league, with Michael Porter Jr. threatening to make a homegrown Big Three in the Rocky Mountains. LeBron is another animal, and they’ll struggle to guard Anthony Davis, but Denver can compete.
4. The Nuggets are the deeper squad in the Western Conference Finals. But the Lakers have 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Gary Harris has been a man on defense since his return from injury and will have the responsibility, along with Jerami Grant, to slow LeBron. Harris lacks size, but they’ll take their chances that James doesn’t have the patience to post him on the block possession after possession. At least Denver has a few bodies to throw at him. AD is another problem. For all of his improvements against the Clippers, Jokic cannot handle Davis. Look for Paul Millsap, Grant, and more minutes from Mason Plumlee to slow the Lakers big man. Again, Davis must dominate. His size and athleticism wrecks opponents when he stays aggressive. He needs to avoid the playoff nerves that afflicted him earlier in the bubble. L.A. needs Rajon Rondo to continue shooting 3’s at a 44% clip as he did against Houston and providing play making off the bench. Who can knock down shots for them? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Alex Caruso need to make shots. Denver will score. Can the Lakers keep up?
5. The two-man pick and roll between Jokic and Jamal Murray is Denver’s livelihood. Porter, a rookie, complained in the Clipper series that they go to it too much. But both players are so dynamic, Murray as a scorer and Jokic as a facilitator. Can you blame coach Mike Malone for wearing it out? L.A. has no one to guard Murray. If they aren’t careful with him, he could explode as he did in the Utah series. Whereas the Clips could throw great defenders with size in George, Leonard, and Pat Beverley at him, Danny Green is L.A.’s best bet, and he isn’t quick enough to keep up. LeBron could be an option at the end of games, but he’ll struggle against his speed too. How much will AD guard Jokic? One of the best defenders in the league, Davis can give the Nugget center trouble, but how many minutes does Frank Vogel want to subject him to endless screen and rolls? Denver’s hope is more minutes for JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Houston played the two bigs off the floor last series, and L.A. flourished. The Nuggets hope the Lakers go big again. Jokic will have his way with L.A’s centers. The Lakers should stay small and allow Markieff Morris to bang with Jokic. He’ll struggle too, but will get physical and pull him away from the basket on offense. McGee or Howard bails the Nuggets out.
6. To stay in the series, Denver needs excellent three ball shooting from Harris, Grant, Milsap, Craig, and scoring off the bench from Monte Morris and Porter. The Nuggets defense, as evidenced against the Clippers, has an on-off switch. Can they find consistency against the Lakers? Still, they’re so young. Michael Porter could be an asset on offense in this series, but his defensive lapses kill them. Denver’s best chance is to out shoot the poor shooting Lakers, not out of the question. But, yeah, LeBron. He’s proving in the bubble, as Kawhi, Giannis, and James Harden fall by the wayside, why he’s one of the greats. He’s too smart, and his athleticism remains at 35. L.A.’s roster isn’t as good, but it’s smarter and more experienced. Look for an outstanding series, but for the Lakers to find a way against the Nuggets in 6.
7. The Miami Heat are just tougher than Boston. Now with a 2-0 series lead, how does Boston adjust? They’re struggling with the Heat’s zone defense; Miami is long, rotates well, and seems to have arms in all passing lanes (19 deflections during Game 2). Boston gets tentative late, a problem that allowed Toronto back in the series prior. Jimmy Butler’s defense and hustle ended Game 2. He out-worked Boston twice for steals that led to fast break layups. On offense, Goran Dragic is carving the C’s. He worked Boston in the pick and roll late in Game 2, hunting Daniel Theis, took him to the rim for a layup, and hit a step back 3 on back-to-back possessions. Dragic gets overlooked, but he’s been the engine for Miami’s offense all playoffs (averaging 22 per). Others are getting credit, but don’t forget about Dragic. The Heat isn’t 2 games away from the Finals without him.
8. While Kemba Walker finally showed for a playoff game (23 points in Game 2), Jayson Tatum has frozen at the end of both Heat games, failing to attack and taking bad jumpers. He only mustered 12 shots Thursday night. Tatum has to drive Boston’s offense and needs more aggression. Brad Stevens made a surprising move to get Enes Kanter minutes early, forcing Bam Adebayo to guard him on defense instead of roaming, where he’s most dangerous. Kanter had some nice moments, but Adebayo attacked him and Daniel Theis in the pick and roll in the third quarter, destroying Boston’s bigs and leading Miami back after a 13 point halftime deficit. It was an out of the box move that paid off early, but overall, Stevens is getting out-coached. The Celtics are still young, and though it showed against Toronto, Boston out-talented them. They need to find some aggression if they hope to get back in this series.
9. Marcus Smart man. He does everything. Championship teams all have Smarts on them. His flopping is infuriating, but that’s on the refs. The lunge to the floor in the waning seconds of Game 1 was egregious, but it earned the Celtics a free throw, and they wouldn’t have made it to overtime without it. His defense is sublime, and it’s because he outworks whoever he’s matched up against. He beats guys to their spot, gets low and swipes for steals, and reads the ball handler when he’s off ball for steals and interceptions. Now he’s hitting his 3’s. 36% from behind the arc in the playoffs, and 14.2 points per, Smart has become trustworthy on offense. Listen, does he make the right decision every time? Does he still dent backboards? Not when it matters. Smart is a money player who makes plays in crunch time. He, along with Jayson Tatum, is the reason the Celtics are still playing and can make the Finals.
10. Pat Riley finds men to play for him, and rookie Tyler Herro is another example. His two threes late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals aren’t shots rookies take, let alone make. 12 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists in Game 1. 11, 9, and 5 in Game 2. His feel for the game is uncanny and Erik Spoelstra trusts him. Herro’s gained confidence in the playoffs, attacking the rim more often when he’s run off the 3 point line. His minutes are on the rise too, from the low 30s against the Pacers to nearly 40 in this series; he’s now able to at least hold his own on defense. Herro has become the Heat’s X factor, the piece many didn’t expect, but is pushing them toward the Finals. Herro wants the spotlight and isn’t afraid of anything on the court. His +50 in the playoffs proves it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The bubble debut for the NBA has been fantastic. Players are in shape, the games have an outstanding atmosphere, the intensity level is high, and no one has tested positive for COVID-19. The protocols and guidelines the league took months to set up are paying off, and we should commend the players for bringing their A game. A March Madness feel has overtaken the league, with high stakes games being played at all hours of the day. This has a chance, and with the uncertainty surrounding baseball and football, NBA playoffs in September and October may own the landscape. Here’s what was interesting during the first week back:
1.Houston’s size problem may have a Robert Covington solution. The 6’7” forward, always a defensive menace, has flexed his muscle around the rim. Five blocks in their first 2 games have given the Rockets a presence in the paint. He’s rejected 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis and 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Add in 6 steals, and the weak Houston defense at least has an active member causing havoc on the back end. Is it enough to change their trajectory? Time will tell if Covington’s body can withstand the pounding he’ll take, guarding bigger guys every night. Most bigs shy away from it. But for now, consider Covington the smallest rim protector in the league.
2. Once the trade from Houston to Oklahoma City occurred last summer, speculation began on who Chris Paul would suit up for this season. The Thunder wouldn’t keep the 35-year-old point guard due $123 million over the next three years in a rebuilding situation. OKC didn’t dump him, however, and now the Thunder may be the third best team in the West. Paul is a conductor, orchestrating the moves of teammates and opponents while dominating games without posting monster stats. His understanding of the game, bettered only by LeBron, is PhD worthy, and he’s been overlooked in the MVP conversation. What he’s done in OKC, after they traded away both Russell Westbrook and Paul George last off season, deserved MVP votes. Paul’s name will hit the rumor mill again, yet Oklahoma City may be wise to keep him. Young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an All Star in the making. Learning from an all-time great point guard will only speed up his development.
3. Though he’s turned it around, Jayson Tatum’s start in the bubble was clunky. A 5 point, 2-18 shooting opener against Milwaukee, following a poor exhibition slate is troubling. 34 against Portland on Sunday may allow Celtic brass to sleep better, but is this the guy Boston is resting future title hopes on? We’ve seen flashes from him before, only to see Tatum revert to a passive entity, flowing in and out of games. He switches between attacking and hanging out behind the three point line. While Tatum has more talent, Jaylen Brown has more fire. Brown doesn’t take plays off. His shot selection is sometimes questionable, but his ability to guard 1-5 on defense gives Brad Stevens tons of flexibility. The push and pull between these two young players, and Boston’s hierarchy over the next few years, will remain engrossing.
4. Most counted Toronto out as defending champs as soon as Kawhi Leonard packed for L.A., yet the strong fit of the pieces collected by GM Masai Ujiri and the heart of Kyle Lowry is keeping them on the periphery of the title chase. A defensive masterpiece on Saturday night against the Lakers is forcing everyone to consider them a contender. Lowry, recovered from the PTSD of so many subpar performances against LeBron’s Cavs in the playoffs, has become a clutch, go to player in crunch time. Anyone Nick Nurse puts on the floor plays defense, and Pascal Siakam is edging toward superstardom. Ask NBA experts who the best coach in the league is, and a majority will answer Nurse. So why the lingering doubt over the Raptors? The defense is trustworthy, but can they count on Lowry and Siakam to get crunch time buckets with defenses designed to stop them? Kawhi garnered the attention last year. But if those two take another step, the Raptors may make the Finals for a second year in a row.
5. New Orleans wants to be careful with their lottery ticket, but is playing Zion Williamson only 18 minutes per game, and sitting him during crunch time, the best strategy? The fear of injury is overtaking sports. Pitchers can’t throw over 100 pitches per outing and prized NBA draft picks get babied mercilessly. How many players handled with kid gloves reach stardom? How many others flame out, or get hurt anyway? And if he’s on a minute restriction, why not save some of those minutes for the end of games? In a near must win in their opener against Utah, Zion sat for the last 7 minutes as his teammates coughed up a double digit lead. On a team NBA execs want in the playoffs, New Orleans’ bosses seem to have other ideas. Question is, when will they unleash the beast? At some point, Zion has to play NBA basketball, or his development will suffer. If he’s injury prone, we’ll find out soon enough.
6. Anthony Davis dominated the Jazz Monday night with a performance the Lakers will need replicated for the next two-and-a-half months. 42 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals, plus multiple wow plays on defense carried L.A. while LeBron ramps up in the bubble. Watching Laker games, the lack of talent behind their top two is glaring, however. Could Dion Waiters be their best bench play? Can they count on Kyle Kuzma as the 3rd option? Davis cannot have games like Saturday night against the Raptors, when he took 2 shots in the first half, and only 7 total in the game. The Lakers may be the favorite, but their margins are razor thin. Davis cannot afford to be passive, especially against smaller teams like the Rockets and Clippers. When he has a mismatch, he must dominate. With no other reliable ball handlers, Frank Vogel will tax LeBron with that duty throughout. AD has to carry the scoring load on offense to allow LeBron to set up their less reliable teammates.
7. Jrue Holiday’s defense gets overlooked. Strong enough to battle bigs in the paint and quick enough to stick on guards, Holiday schooled Rookie of the Year in waiting Ja Morant on Monday in a game the Pelicans had to have. Drawing the rookie on most possessions in the first half, Holiday used his size to push Morant around, forcing him into 3-11 shooting, 0-6 from 3. Morant ended drives off balance, unable to finish at the rim because of Holiday’s presence, while Jrue’s quickness didn’t allow Ja any separation on his jumper. Though New Orleans’ defense has been abominable all season, and may keep him off All Defense teams, Holiday, at minimum, provides an example for the young Pelicans on that end if they are to become a contender in the West. His 1.7 steals per game ranked 7th in the league. His ability to switch gives their defense flexibility. When the Pelicans become a problem, Zion will be their star, but Jrue Holiday will be their backbone.
8. Put Doris Burke on the main broadcast team with Mike Breen, ESPN. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy complain too much; do they even like NBA basketball? Burke’s understanding of the game is unmatched. She sees all and explains it with an intelligence and charisma that is a joy to listen to. She’s funny, and her love of the game shines. Add that to Breen’s exceptional play-by-play skills and knowledge, and you’ve created the perfect tandem. Van Gundy and Jackson are stale. If they aren’t complaining about referees or players, they’re over-hyping mediocre coaches. Putting Breen and Burke together makes too much sense.
9. Dame Time has arrived in Orlando, and teams out west have a fresh fear. At the controls of Portland’s offense, Damian Lillard has made the Blazers the early favorites for the 8 seed on averages of nearly 27 points and 11 assists per. A lock for an All-NBA spot, Lillard has made his case as the best point guard in the league. With Jusuf Nurkic’s return from a horrible leg injury and Zach Collins back from an early season dislocated shoulder, the Lakers should fear Dame and C. J. McCollum driving the bus. While New Orleans may have been the fans’ pick for the 8 seed, they would pose little resistance to L.A. Not so with the Blazers. A team that reached the West Finals last year, they’re healthy, have added a decent Carmelo Anthony, and possess the best backcourt in the league. LeBron’s path to title four gets tougher if Portland squeezes in.
10. Michael Porter Jr. posted back-to-back 30 point games this week and is the punch Denver’s offense needs in the playoffs. With three starters injured, the Nuggets have relied on Porter during the restart, something coach Mike Malone has hesitated to do. While he makes gobs of rookie mistakes, Denver needs to lean on the talented first-year player more if they hope to advance in the West. Everyone assumes the L.A. teams will meet in the West Finals. If Porter grew up over the layoff, and Malone will trust him, the Nuggets may force their way into the conversation. At worst, the rookie will gain valuable experience for future playoff runs in Denver.
Can the NBA get this right? 2020 is standing on its head, desperate for attention and getting it. But can basketball steal the focus away and deliver a two-month playoff run unlike anything we’ve seen? The star power in the NBA is strong; no league markets its talent better. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and the rest have an opportunity unlike any other. They will transfix eyes on Orlando, to see if they can pull off a health and safety nightmare, and to see the stars. Will LeBron lead a rickety roster to his 4th title? Can Kawhi go back-to-back? Is Giannis ready to snag ownership of the league away from his older brethren? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook conquer their playoff demons? What will this look like without fans?
Three teams can win the title. While others will provide interest, only the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks feel like contenders. Forget the notion of a tainted title because of the circumstances. In fact, the 2020 champ will have endured more adversity than almost any other in history. The rings won in October, after the nonsense this year has given us, will be iconic. So who will wear them?
Los Angeles Lakers
Why they’ll win the title: Not rocket science here. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’re the best duo in the league. James will finish second in the MVP race; Davis fifth or sixth. Davis will also make either first or second team All Defense. While Davis’ defensive numbers are good, not stellar, what he does for LeBron on that end is unquantifiable. Davis protects the rim, hedges pick and rolls, and closes on 3 ball shooters at a doctorate level. He allows James do to what he does best: roam. LeBron’s defensive numbers are the best since he left Miami. Poor defenders in Cleveland, along with his blasé regular season attitude, created a fair narrative that his skills had slipped. AD’s length covers his teammates’ rear ends and allows LeBron to use his athleticism and smarts to read opposing offenses and react. A team bereft of top line defenders, Davis almost single-handedly vaulted the Lakers to the third ranking defense in the league.
But I have buried the lead. If the Lakers win the title, it’ll come down to one play, LeBron-Davis pick and rolls. The best passer and finisher in the league, the smartest player in the league, the most battled tested player in the league, controlling the offense and dishing to the most devastating finisher in the NBA. When the games slow down in the playoffs, buckets get tough. But LeBron manipulates defenses like few players in history. He’s methodical. He’s surgical. He’ll wait an extra tick before whipping a pass to Danny Green in the corner for an open 3. He’ll push the pace off defensive rebounds if he sees an advantage. He moves his teammates around at will, searching for preferable match-ups and court spacing. James will create good shots for either himself or his teammates when possessions become essential. That ability, to score points in the tightest situations, separates champions. No player is more prepared to play in the bubble and all the challenges it will bring than LeBron James. The playoffs reveal fear every year. There is none in 23.
Why they’ll lose: After 1 and 2, this roster is hot garbage. Avery Bradley opted out of the bubble, and his absence hurts, especially on defense. While Danny Green is a powerful wing defender, Bradley is quicker and more capable of guarding opposing point guards. With the injury to Rajon Rondo keeping him out for most of the playoffs, Bradley gave L.A. another ball handler other than LeBron. Now who handles the rock when LBJ sits? Quinn Cook? Troy Daniels? J. R. Smith? Dion Waiters? Have fun with that ragtag mix of misfits. Alex Caruso must step up for the Lakers in the bubble. Solid all season, he and LeBron are the best 2 man combo on the team, at plus 20.9 per 100 possessions. At 18 minutes per game, he’s averaged 5 points and 1.8 assists, however. Is he ready for big minutes handling the rock for a title contender?
Is anyone on this roster? Davis has playoff experience, but none as a title favorite and LeBron sidekick. The pressure on him will be immense. Kyle Kuzma was unsteady in the regular season. Give me Danny Green in crunch time. The rest of the Dwight Howards and Jared Dudleys are all yours.
Los Angeles Clippers
Why they’ll win the title: Kawhi Leonard. He established himself as one of the five best players in the league, with an argument for the one spot, with an epic title run with the Raptors that showcased every talent he possesses. After his switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis wilted, along with the Bucks. He carried the offensive load on a team made up of third options, averaging 30.5, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and almost 2 steals per. Now he’s head of perhaps the best talent in the league. Montrezl Harrell is the likely sixth man of the year, Lou Williams has won the award multiple times and is a walking bucket off the bench, and Patrick Beverley is the dog every team needs in the playoffs that will outwork the opposition while barking at them throughout a series. Then there’s Paul George. Injuries are an issue, but the layoff should find him healthy. An MVP candidate throughout much of last year, George only bows to his teammate Leonard as the best two-way player in the league. If the James-Davis pick and roll is the ultimate weapon, George and Leonard provide the best opportunity to neutralize it. Those match-ups in crunch time of a Western Conference Finals will be epic.
Landry Shamet provides shooting off the bench, Ivica Zubac has played sneaky well in the starting lineup, and Marcus Morris is a prototypical body to steal minutes for George and Leonard on defense against LeBron. And Morris shot 41% from 3 on the season. No roster in the league has the combination of talent and experience that the other L.A. team possesses.
Why they’ll lose: Some in-fighting occurred between the holdovers from last year’s spunky Clippers team and the recent additions. Did the layoff allow them to re-focus on what’s important? How will Paul George fare? Early in his career, his playoff battles with LeBron pushed those Heat teams to the brink. Can George sit behind Leonard, or will he disappear at crucial moments? PG13’s so-so ball handling skills rear their head at inopportune times, so he needs to knock down open jumpers and eliminate crunch time turnovers. And can they handle size? Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and even Steven Adams could give them fits in a 7 game series. Harrell will see 4th quarter minutes at center, yet he’s only 6’8”. Zubac has been good, but does Doc Rivers trust the unathletic big man in high-pressure situations? Will Paul George or Kawhi Leonard have to guard skilled opposing big men? An interesting sub-plot to watch as the playoffs progress.
Why they’ll win the title: They’re the number 1 offense in the league. Their defensive rating per 100 possessions also leads the league by 3.3 points. Giannis is the unquestioned MVP. LeBron was excellent in leading his Laker team, but perhaps it’s Giannis’ league now. 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, in only 31 minutes per game. He dominates opponents in the paint with deft footwork and power. He glides in the open floor, the most devastating fast break in basketball. And the defense. He stretches from baseline to baseline, a rim protector, on ball stopper, and rotation expert rolled into one. Bucks GM Jon Horst stacked the roster with excellent defenders (Brook Lopez deserves an All Defense nod, and Eric Bledsoe strong consideration), but Antetokounmpo is on another level. He cares, and it shows by his hustle and desire to gut opponents. Giannis didn’t come to make friends, and a title is the only acceptable outcome for Milwaukee. If the Clippers don’t have the best roster in the league, the Bucks do. George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver all shoot over 40% from 3. Ersan Ilyasova and Wes Matthews are over 36%, devastating shooting to arrange around Giannis. And that number 1 defense? They do things differently that most. Milwaukee has allowed the most 3s made and taken against them in the league, yet they stifle the paint, only allowing teams to shoot 41% against them on the season. They rarely foul; teams shoot the sixth lowest amount of free throws in the league against them. They must keep LeBron and Kawhi off the line in any Finals matchup.
Why they’ll lose: Can they afford to give 3s to Toronto, Boston, or either of the L.A. teams? Mike Budenholzer has been outstanding in Milwaukee, but refuses to budge from what they do in a seven-game series. Being who you are is great, but small tweaks make the difference. The Bucks must adjust their defensive philosophy according to their opponent. If a second round match-up against the Heat, the best shooting 3 ball team in the league, occurs, Milwaukee must adapt. Miami lines up well with them, and a few games of hot outside shooting may put them on the ropes.
Will Eric Bledsoe show this postseason? Describing Bledsoe’s performance in last year’s playoffs as a train wreak would be too kind. He was unplayable against Toronto’s Lowry/VanVleet backcourt, benched in favor of George Hill. Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s best guard last postseason, but he’s now in Indiana. Bledsoe has rebounded, averaging 15 on 35% 3 shooting and 5.4 assists per game while playing defense at an All NBA level. He has to produce this year, or the Bucks won’t win the title. His defense is too important to be on the bench during crunch time if he becomes a human turnover and brick layer on offense. As he goes, the Bucks will go.
What will James Harden look like with a four-month rest leading into the playoffs? Perennially gassed by May from the load placed on his shoulders in the regular season, is Harden a playoff choker, or just overused in the regular season? We’ll find out in the bubble. Throw in a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets are the league’s biggest conundrum. A title would surprise, but any other result would not. First round loss? Sure. Western Conference Finals? Maybe. A roster built to run opponents off the floor and hoist 3’s from everywhere, they’ve once again redefined what small ball means. They start no one over 6’8”, and while Tyson Chandler (7’0”) may see sporadic minutes, look for the Rockets to run opposing bigs off the floor. While Harden and Westbrook will draw the spotlight, the key to Houston’s success will be P. J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Both need to guard above their weight class on defense and punish power forwards and centers on defense by dragging them out of the paint and knocking down 3s. If Tucker and Covington succeed, the Rockets will surprise in the West.
The defending champs have mastered carrying a chip on their shoulder. Overlooked as the champs, the fans and players in Toronto are tired of being scoffed at, and they should be. Perhaps the best fit roster in the league, the Raps have length and shooting at every position. Pascal Siakam made MVP noise over the first two months of the season before injuries slowed his ascend to superstar. He’s a perennial All-Star, however, and Kyle Lowry’s clutch Game 6 in last year’s Finals removed the playoff choker tag from his career. Lowry is battle tested and tough. The second best defense in the league, try to find a weak spot. Marc Gasol, Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby are smart, long defenders who lock up opponents. While they lack the firepower to beat Milwaukee, a second round series against Boston could be a classic.
New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson, who else? While my Lonzo Ball love is well documented, and he and Zion are glorious together, Pels games are must watch because of the rookie. Now in shape, the future of the league is here. Though New Orleans’ goal will be to play their way into the 8-9 Western Conference play-in game, the groundwork for their future will begin construction in Orlando. Are Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and Jrue Holiday the correct pieces around the phenom? Can they make a push for the Western Conference Finals as soon as next year? Williamson is that good, but are his teammates? GM David Griffin can’t afford to waste one off-season in New Orleans. Every game played by New Orleans in the bubble will be an evaluation for how high their expectations will be next year.
Jayson Tatum made the leap in February. 30 points and 8 rebounds on 49% shooting, 48% from 3, the numbers, and his on-court confidence, screamed superstar. Thrust into championship contender talk, Boston seems to be a smidge short. But what if February Tatum makes his way to Orlando? Jaylen Brown has some believing he’s the better of the two players. Kemba Walker makes big shots in big moments, and Marcus Smart wins games. Giannis is a tough match-up on a smallish Boston team, however. Their lack of size, less of an issue against Toronto, will prove costly in the Eastern Conference Finals.
We should consider them with the title contenders. What happened? Philly posted the best home record in the league, yet the 20th best road mark. What does that mean in Orlando? Confused? Welcome to the 2019-2020 76ers. Joel Embiid is engaged, sometimes. What kind of shape will he be in? He and Ben Simmons are a janky fit. Brett Brown moved Shake Milton into the starting lineup during bubble scrimmages to allow Simmons to play more power forward. But is taking the ball out of his hands, and deadening his passing abilities, the right move? And why has Al Horford been such a poor fit? His offense and shooting has suffered with less space provided to him by his Philly teammates, and another year on his body has made him 5% less effective on defense. Listen, the Sixers have the talent to make a Finals push. But the questions only continued to pile up throughout the season. How many are too many?
It feels like the Lakers. The Bron-Davis duo is too good on both ends of the floor, and James has stared down more adversity in his career than perhaps any player in history. He was built for this moment, and at 35 his title chances are dwindling. The Bucks and Clippers are deeper, and probably better teams. But when buckets in the closing minutes get tough, I know I can rely on that James-Davis pick and roll. One of the greatest to ever do it gets his fourth ring.