Troy’s NBA Playoff Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

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

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.

 

Collin Sexton: Changing the Narrative

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Collin Sexton, NBA

The unfair pressure on Collin Sexton started the moment his name was announced 8th during the 2018 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ franchise was about to lose LeBron James for the second time; another long rebuild awaited. The pick acquired from the Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade, the one Koby Altman refused to swap to add one more piece for a chance to dethrone the Warriors, was used on a 19-year-old from Alabama. Sexton was the new savior.

The adversity has washed over Sexton’s career. One upheaval of the system, or his role in it, after another. The vets grew tired of his style before Thanksgiving last year. A coaching change from Ty Lue to Larry Drew. A Rising Stars snub. The drafting of another small guard. A coaching change to John Beilein. Division among fans over his long-term role. More head butting with vets (Kevin Love). A coaching change to J. B. Bickerstaff. Criticisms of his game, his lack of defense or passing, and his eventual fit in the league are fair. The tide is shifting on Collin Sexton, however.

A week in which he averaged 31 per and 2 team wins has furthered the narrative change. Instability and indecisiveness among the front office and coaching staff stunted his development; unfair expectations were unreachable. The comparison I made to Russell Westbrook is on point in this respect. Both players play hard and fast, and fans have chastised them far more for what they can’t do than credited them for the havoc they cause opposing defenses.

Since the Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson on December 23 and the coaching staff gave Sexton more scoring responsibility, he’s averaging almost 22 per game. Sexton is quick; his speed and hesitation moves allow him to get his shot against any defender. Only 20 players in the league net more per game. Sexton’s ability to get consistent buckets cannot be dismissed. The 76ers, for instance, will probably fall short of expectations, in part because of a lack of a ‘me first’ scorer late in games.

He uses Love’s screen perfectly here. The hesitation dribble, then burst of speed gets him to the bucket with ease.

And he’s taking better shots. Last year, 35% of Sexton’s shots were mid-range jumpers; that number is 22% in ‘19-20. His eFG% is 51.4% this season, up from 48% a year ago. He’s become pickier about where he fires from and has gotten smarter at using screens to get to his spots. Whatever criticisms fans and media members have of his game, Sexton isn’t a chucker.

But can he pass? Will he ever develop into a playmaker? These improvements have been more incremental. Sexton seems to want to get his teammates involved, yet struggles to see the nuances in the passing game. He fails to make the correct reads. On a break against the Celtics, Kevin Porter (33.5% from 3) was on his right behind the line; Matthew Dellavedova (21%) on his left; both wide open. He dished to Delly, and the shot took out a fan. Sexton’s bull mentality serves him well as a scorer, yet curbs his development when getting his teammates involved.

There are signs of improvement, however. He’s averaged 4.3 assists since the All-Star break. On two straight possessions against San Antonio he made passes he wouldn’t have seen even a month ago. The progression is obvious.

Sexton doesn’t have to lead the league in assists. He’s beginning to reap the benefits of his improved vision, however. It opens driving lanes when defenders have to wait that extra tick before helping against him. His enhanced passing led to his scoring outburst last week. The Cavs have others who can initiate offense. Sexton just has to do it enough to remain unpredictable.

The NBA creates this early conclusion jumping by placing 18-19-year-old kids in losing situations. Fan bases expect greatness from players who aren’t physically or emotionally mature enough to deliver it. Cleveland’s franchise thought it grew into a contending outfit after 4 years of employing one of the greatest of all-time and expected to stay there. It doesn’t work that way. Teams gutted because of cap hell and exiting stars, especially those in less desirable markets, don’t recover from those losses. Sexton isn’t a perfect player, few are. He fights, plays hard, and has never missed an NBA game despite his size, qualities that should play well in Cleveland. His scoring ability is rare and will only improve. Instead of judging Collin Sexton against what he can’t do, focus on the talents he brings to the organization. He won’t carry a franchise, but that isn’t his job. Allow Sexton to be his own player; it’s Koby Altman’s job to fit the correct pieces around him.

What’s What Around the League

1.Jae Crowder can stop bricking threes whenever. Though his percentage is bad from behind the arc (32%), it’s the shots he misses that are most disturbing. 68% of his 3’s are wide open or come with no defender within 4 feet. Teams allow him to shoot from deep and he doesn’t punish them. Though the league seems to like Crowder, execs pass his contract around the league like the flu. With the plethora of young shooters eager to contribute off Miami’s bench, the Heat would be wise to leave Crowder in his warm-ups during the playoffs.

2. What’s going on in Brooklyn? A “mutual separation” with Kenny Atkinson last weekend should send off alarm bells to Nets fans. Atkinson was an integral part of turning the asset poor Nets into a desirable free agent destination for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With both missing essentially the entire season, Atkinson has taken a roster of 4s and 5s and guided them into the East playoffs. Considered by many as one of the best young coaches in the league, something stinks. Durant and Irving are mercurial; neither expressed confidence in Atkinson. Regardless, this isn’t a hopeful sign for the future in Brooklyn. Is there a coach alive that can placate these two? A franchise expecting to compete for a title in the coming years may be in for more turmoil than they’ve bargained for.

3. The Lonzo Ball bandwagon boards here. Lonzo is the engine that drives New Orleans. He’s a winning play maker, doing the things successful teams need to stack victories. Always pushing, Lonzo leads the breakneck New Orleans pace, and with weapons like Zion, Brandon Ingram, and Jrue Holiday on the break, the Pels run opponents ragged. With his improved shooting (38% from 3, up from 31% in L.A.), aided by a change in his arm and elbow placement on release, excellent defense, and superb passing, Lonzo is the glue that will hold the Pelicans together for years to come. Though facing a steep challenge to make the playoffs (4 games back of Memphis with 18 to play), they’ll be staples in the Western Conference bracket soon. Ball will be an important, and overlooked, part of their success.

4. An aggressive Jamal Murray is special.

5. When NBA talking heads get bored, the drive to create a narrative kicks into overdrive. LeBron James’ and the Lakers’ big weekend has reopened the MVP race for some; those in need of something to talk about. Victories over the Bucks on Friday and the Clippers on Sunday have plenty jumping on the “James for MVP” bandwagon. LeBron is an all-timer; no discussion there. In fact, the Lakers are now the prohibitive favorites. With LeBron and Anthony Davis dominating, who their teammates are seems immaterial. Can one weekend reshape the MVP race, though?

6. The Bucks are three games better in the standings. Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a top-five talent playing alongside him. Need numbers?

GiannisLeBron
Player Efficiency Rating31.725.9
Win Shares10.49.4
Box Plus Minus11.58.5
Offensive Rating116117
Defensive Rating96.3105
Value Over Replacement65.5
PPG, APG, RPG per 36 minutes34.5/6.7/1626.5/11/8.1

The per 36 numbers matter because Giannis averages 30 minutes per game. He’s missed Milwaukee’s last two, and Phoenix and Denver waxed them. LeBron deserves every ounce of praise thrown his way. To do what he’s doing given his age and minutes played over his career is stupefying. There’s a better-than-average chance his experience and intelligence will take over in the playoffs, and he’ll win his 4th title. He isn’t the MVP, however.

7. Which brings us to Kawhi Leonard. He’s missed too many games, and the Clips coast through too many others for him to sniff the MVP race, but he’s made it clear his goal is to manage his body for the playoffs. The L.A. match-up seems inevitable; LeBron has Davis, while Kawhi has a deeper roster around him. Paul George will need to step up to offset the damage Davis will do to the Clippers interior, but the heavy lifting falls on Leonard. His run in last year’s playoffs was historic, yet he missed Kevin Durant and LeBron James. With the power of a title and a Finals MVP in his pocket last summer, he made moves befitting of the league’s alpha. Since 2012, only Kawhi has stood toe-to-toe with LeBron and vanquished him without a roster stacked with 4-5 Hall of Famers. If Leonard does it again this year, the league’s G.O.A.T. will be indisputable.

8. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a future All-Star. Not sure what this is.

9. Lou Williams shoots the 3 at 36%, but how much better would he be if he just took the easy ones? Channeling J. R. Smith, Williams turns simple, wide open jumpers into something else by taking 1-2 dribbles and falling to his left instead of just catching and shooting. They look pretty when they drop, but hurt his team when they don’t. Twice against the Lakers Sunday, Williams went for style points instead of, you know, actual points. Include the fact that the Lakers hunted Lou on defense, and Sunday was a rough one for the perennial Sixth Man of the Year. The Clippers will need more from Williams in the playoffs.

10. Utah against the Raptors Monday night at home:
Bojan Bogdanovic 5 points, 2 assists, 24 minutes, -23
Rudy Gobert 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, 31 minutes, -22
Donovan Mitchell 11 points, 3 assists, 34 minutes, -30
The Jazz should have been considered a sleeper for a Finals appearance after acquiring Bogdanovic and Mike Conley in the off-season, but things have gone sideways. Conley, confusingly, doesn’t fit. Mitchell scores sporadically; Gobert’s defense has even fallen off a bit. Jordan Clarkson may be the most consistent player on the team, which says a mouthful. Even with a successful regular season, the questions concerning their playoff readiness would surround the organization. What seems more likely now, a Finals run or a first round loss to the Thunder?

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

Who’s Feelin’ Kevin Porter?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Cavaliers News, Kevin Porter Jr., NBA

Perhaps the thing missing from this Cleveland Cavaliers team is something unseen or undefined. Collin Sexton is a bucket getter, while Andre Drummond snarls rebounds and junks his way into 16-20 points per night. Darius Garland has moments, but his inexperience shows more often than not. Cedi Osman, Dante Exum, and even Tristan Thompson lack it, and it holds them back. Most of the parts on Cleveland’s roster have no feel.

To reach another level in the NBA, players and coaches need to understand the game and what to give at any moment. LeBron James is one of the greatest players in history because of his size, speed, passing acumen, and work ethic. James’ most important quality, however, is his intelligence. Distinguishing when to get his teammates involved versus when to take over a game on his own. Is he needed on defense, or is his energy best saved on offense? His team is getting destroyed on the boards; LeBron rebounds. Kyle Kuzma heats up; James feeds him the ball. Danny Green is struggling defensively; James takes his man for a four-minute stretch. LeBron is the obvious example, but other players in the league feel the game, knowing what it needs from them.

It’s the reason Kevin Porter Jr. is the future of the Cavs’ franchise. Though only 19, Porter has the feel his teammates lack and the abilities to give what they need from him. He isn’t the best scorer or rebounder, passer or defender. He does a little of everything.

Porter’s athletic ability, versatility, and smarts in one play

Feel on the court is the innate ability to make the right play. Cross-court passes to the open man for a corner three. When to attack the basket off the pick and roll, and when to take the shot or dish to the roll man. Pushing the ball in transition, or pulling back to half-court to run offense. Though young and still mistake prone, these are the things Porter executes better than his teammates. He sees the floor well, knowing where his teammates are at all times. His talent level, size, and athletic ability contribute, but Porter understands the game.

Helping his big in the PnR, then knowing to push up court

Per 36 numbers aren’t gospel, but they give a peek into Porter’s future. 15.5 points, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 5 rebounds, and a half a block. Nothing noteworthy, except that he gives the Cavs a little of everything. And he’s just a rookie. Porter spent the first month of the season lost, struggling to fit on an NBA roster. A 30 point game last week. Six assists in 26 minutes against Philadelphia. Four 2 or 3 steal games over the last month. He’s gaining confidence in his place in Cleveland and the NBA.

If the current rebuild transitions into a franchise competing for the playoffs within a few years, it will be because of Kevin Porter. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., and maybe Dylan Windler can be nice pieces on a good team, but Porter has star potential. Playoff teams need an All-Star, someone capable of getting crunch time buckets in isolation and creating open looks for teammates. Porter possesses those talents. Will he mature into that player?

What’s What Around the League

1.If the Clippers’ roster has a problem, it is a lack of size. Yet on the buyout market, L.A. signed another score first guard from Detroit’s scrap heap, Reggie Jackson. Since a useful stretch in Oklahoma City off the bench in the Durant/Westbrook years, Jackson has gotten paid and seen his worth plummet. Can he be of use to the championship hopeful Clippers? A 10 point 7 assist outing Friday in a huge win against the Nuggets notwithstanding, anything Jackson brings to the Clips is redundant. What does he do differently, or better, than Lou Williams? Is he going to out shoot Landry Shamet? Will the 6’3” guard lock up the opposition on defense in crunch time? It’s difficult to envision Jackson playing any meaningful minutes in May and June for the Clippers; this signing was done to keep him from the cross hallway competition rather than help the Clips.

2. Bradley Beal has erupted over the last week, averaging 41.5 per to climb into 2nd in the league in scoring. Bereft of anyone to help carry the scoring load or exert any effort defensively, Wizards’ games are only a stage for Beal to cook. Will he hit 12 threes? Can he score 60 while being tripled teamed? Beal is one of the top 15-20 players in the league, giving the Wiz an interesting decision to make. Trade rumors swirled in the off-season before he signed a two year, 72 million extension to the 5 year, 127 million dollar deal signed in 2016. Does Washington see any long-term success between Beal and John Wall, if and when Wall returns from an injured Achilles, or would the franchise rather have the massive haul it would receive by trading Beal? Two young players and multiple 1st rounders for the dynamic guard would make the front office think. New Orleans has a stash of picks from the Anthony Davis trade, as does OKC from their myriad of transactions. Both teams are on the rise and would benefit from a star instead of an abundance of future rookies. Beal, Ingram, Lonzo, and Zion? Sign me up.

3. The Nuggets have stayed in the 2-4 position all season out West, and Nikola Jokic, after a slow start, deserves to be in the MVP discussion once again. Denver has title aspirations, however, and will need more than Jokic’s passing and shot making to advance in the Western Conference playoffs. The leap Jamal Murray made in last year’s playoffs turned into a back slide for most of the season, yet Murray has shown signs of stepping back into the leadership role he must garner in order for the Nuggets to compete with the Lakers and Clippers. Averages of 24 points and 5.6 assists over his last 8 portend an awakening for Murray, an always intriguing but never-quite-consistent conundrum for Mike Malone. Gary Harris, Murray’s young backcourt mate, has struggled all season, leading many to call for his benching. Denver can’t afford growing pains from both. In the year of the duo, Denver’s is the weakest. Murray needs to be a reliable force, a strong two behind Jokic, for the rest of the season and playoffs if the Nuggets are to contend.

4. Nutmegging is cute at all, but watch yourself around vets.

5. Doug McDermott is an analytics department’s wet dream. 54% of his shots are 3’s, and he makes 43% of them. 26% of the rest of his shots are within 3 feet; he feasts off of defenses overplaying him, back-dooring opponents to death. His size (6’7”) makes him an adequate defender, and his 7 million salary is a steal. While Victor Oladipo eases his way back into playing shape, it’s fair to wonder how much damage the Pacers could do in the playoffs. With the Bucks blow torching the league and Toronto and Boston beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference pack, Indiana is once again the forgotten squad. Perhaps the star power isn’t there and Oladipo will need until next season to return to 100% from his injury. The Pacers are deep, however, and T.J. Warren (22 ppg last 7) seems more comfortable in Indy. Watch out for them in May.

6. Injuries are killing Portland’s chances of making the playoffs. They’re missing four starters and the one that matters most, Damian Lillard, hasn’t dressed for any of the Blazers’ last six games. The 8th seed race in the West will provide needed intrigue over the last third of the NBA season, and while the masses are rooting for a Zion-LeBron 1st round matchup, Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, and even Phoenix are on the periphery of the race. While N.O.-L.A. is glitzy, Portland would provide the biggest chance of an upset. Lillard and C. J. McCollum are battle tested; they know how to score against defenses designed to stop them. For all the Lakers’ size, their guard play lacks punch. Portland has slogged through this season; only Lillard’s 6 game, 48 point average onslaught produced any consistency. LeBron and Anthony Davis are the best duo in the league, but they don’t want any part of a hot Portland backcourt in the 1st round.

7. This is obscene.

8. Caris LeVert is a young but dynamic player; his 51 point outburst last night in Boston is evidence of that. Injuries have disrupted his entire career, however. He’s only played over 60 games once in his 4 years in the league. Brooklyn will sneak into the East playoffs because of the garbage at the bottom of the conference, but the real question for the Nets is how he’ll look beside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant next year. LeVert is shooting 41% overall, 38% from 3, and 30% on jump shots. How will that play alongside two All-Stars? Is he someone who needs the ball in his hands? If so, he may benefit Brooklyn as a sixth man. He has good size and shows promise on the defensive end (3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor). After a red-shirt year, the pressure in Brooklyn will ratchet higher in 2021. Finding the correct role for LeVert will be paramount.

9. Ben Simmons has a back injury that will sideline him at least two weeks. Joel Embiid’s shoulder gets re-tested next week. Al Horford doesn’t fit, and rumors swirl that Philadelphia will try to move him over the summer. The 76ers’ season can be saved with a run to the Finals, but is that realistic? The injuries never stop, and the pieces don’t fit. If the likely implosion occurs in May, Brett Brown will get canned and Simmons or Embiid (likely Simmons) will be on the trading block. Have fun with that Elton Brand.

10. Per usual, dysfunction, injury, and in-fighting plagued Sacramento this season. Though a strong second half has them on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race, the Kings organization still cannot get out of its own way. Buddy Hield and Dewayne Dedmon (before being traded to Atlanta) fought with teammates and the organization early, and De’Aaron Fox’s injuries almost killed any shot the franchise had of carrying over success from last season’s 39 win team. Perhaps the quickest player in the league, Fox speeds up Sacto’s pace, allowing Marvin Bagley (only 13 games played this season), Hield, Richaun Holmes, and Bogdan Bogdanovic to excel in the open court. The Kings are surging behind a healthy Fox, winners of three straight and up to 9th in the West. A future exists where the Kings are a perennial Western Conference playoff team and Fox an annual All-Star. Can this young core overcome their inept organization?