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

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