Troy’s NBA Finals Top Ten

Bam Adebayo, NBA, NBA Finals, NBA Playoffs

1.Questions one might have had about Anthony Davis’ readiness for his first NBA Finals appearance got answered with a flourish on Wednesday night. Davis was everywhere. Though he scored 34, his defense overshadowed anything he did offensively. AD protected the rim (3 blocks) switched onto Miami’s guards and challenged their 3 point shooters. L.A.’s defense smothered the Heat, kept them off the foul line, and cooled their hot shooters, with Davis as the fulcrum. He’s too long and quick, with impeccable instincts, for teams to design around, a sobering reality the Heat must now deal with.

2. The Lakers’ size is too much for Miami. Bam Adebayo is their only weapon capable of matching up with Davis, and the Heat would prefer for him to guard Dwight Howard to keep him out of foul trouble. Now Bam’s hurt, likely to miss at least Game 2. LeBron and AD are big, athletic, and can both shoot and handle the rock. Miami’s capable defenders (Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala, and Jae Crowder) are all too small to deal with James, let alone Davis. They’re asking too much of them one-on-one. Miami’s only option seems to go back to the zone that gave Boston problems in the last series.

When their big can do this to maybe your best perimeter defender……..

3. Adebayo suffered a neck strain in Game 1. Goran Dragic tore, either partially or completely, the plantar fascia in his left foot. Neither seems likely to play Game 2, and Jimmy Butler sprained an ankle that caused him to limp his way through the second half of Game 1. An 18 point loss that should have been 40 was debilitating enough. Now the Heat turn to guys that have played little in the last month. Kendrick Nunn, a starter all season and the runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting, looked fine in garbage time Wednesday, scoring 18, but Erik Spoelstra’s kept him on the bench in the playoffs for a reason. Meyers Leonard started before the COVID interruption too, but also has seen few minutes in the bubble. They need his size, however. Kelly Olynyk can provide some, with shooting, but the Heat need someone to grab rebounds and get physical with Howard and Davis. Olynyk isn’t that guy. Just devastating injuries that threaten to turn this into a walk over.

4. Despite him showing signs of stardom in the Eastern Conference Finals, Tyler Herro played like a rookie on too big a stage in Game 1. LeBron hunted him in the pick and roll, torching him over and over on defense. His offense wasn’t any better. His handle loosened in Game 6 of the East Finals, and he turned it over twice against L.A. by being too careless with his dribble. 2-8 from 3, a missed layup, and not getting back on defense after watching one of his missed 3’s and giving up an easy 2; some of the lowlights in his Finals debut. Herro was a minus 30 in the first half, an impossible number to believe. With their injuries, Miami has zero room for error. Herro has to find himself in Game 2. With Dragic, their leading scorer in the playoffs, out, Herro must pick up his slack. The Heat has no other options.

5. They shot 11-35 from 3 and took only 14 foul shots. Miami was the fourth best 3 ball shooting team in the league this season and led the league in percentage of points from the free throw line. Already struggling to deal with L.A.’s size and talent, they have to do their thing on offense if they hope to remain in striking distance for the rest of the series. The Lakers are the highest fouling team in the playoffs. Butler, Herro, and Nunn must attack the rim. With Adebayo and Dragic gone, their fantastic pick and roll game leaves with them. Miami needs to force their way to the foul line, slowing the game down. If they penetrate, they’ll create open shots for their 3 point shooters.

6. Maligned for most of the season, the Laker others shined in Game 1. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 13, Alex Caruso added 10, and Rajon Rondo continued his unreal playoff run, controlling the offense when LeBron rested. The Rondo-Davis pick and roll sliced the Heat D, getting Davis easy buckets or trips to the foul line. Markieff Morris even scored 8, knocking down 2 3’s. LeBron has given his teammates rope all season and in the playoffs, sometimes to their detriment, but it paid off in Game 1. They rose to the occasion, unlike most of the green Heat. James and Davis are enough to handle already. If the Laker bench contributes, good night.

7. It’s only 1 game, but the Laker domination, combined with Miami’s injuries, means this may go quick. The Laker size advantage was obvious and is only more exacerbated with Bam’s injury. The Heat has heart, and they’ll punch back in Game 2 and in the rest of the series. But this seems like a coronation. LeBron’s final championship as lead dog before handing the keys of the franchise, and maybe the league, to Davis.

8. If the Lakers win the title, what will this bubble championship do for LeBron’s legacy? He stated earlier this week that this has been the toughest situation he’s ever faced. Quarantined away from family, dealing with the pressures of a playoff run alone without the release of having loved ones around, and the social injustices facing this country at this moment are heavy burdens. Four titles and ten Finals appearances coinciding with the most talented time in the league’s history, when basketball has changed exponentially, is beyond what anyone could have predicted in 2003 when Cleveland chose him first overall in the draft. The pressure he’s faced since entering the league has been unprecedented. Michael Jordan retired instead of facing the growing scrutiny. James deserves this. He’s immortal, a player and a human being unlike anyone we’ve witnessed. This title, with all it took to win, will be iconic.

9. NBA owners are quick to fire coaches, and Steve Ballmer may regret the move to get rid of Doc Rivers. Despite a disappointing season and disastrous second round loss to Denver, Rivers is still the most capable available coach for this group. Kawhi Leonard is one of the 2-3 best players in the league, but he’s a quiet leader. Paul George doesn’t seem to garner the respect of other players with his accomplishments in the league. They need a strong head man, someone who’s made tough decisions in high-intensity moments. Ty Lue has been rumored for the job, but if they forced Doc out, his friendship with Rivers may prevent him from taking the job. Plus, for all of Lue’s accomplishments in Cleveland, the Cavs during LeBron’s run were rarely engaged, only pushing their limits in must win situations (sound familiar?). The Clippers organization is in a tough spot. Both Kawhi and George can opt out of their contracts after next year. The team traded most of their first round picks for the next decade to put those two together. Without a championship in 2021, the dark Clipper years of the past may return.

10. Boston is close, but Jayson Tatum has to close out tight games. Over the fourth quarters and overtime of the Eastern Conference Finals, Tatum shot 12-37 (32%), while getting to the line 13 times in the six games. His aggression wanes as the games tighten. He settles for contested jumpers and turnarounds instead of attacking. He’s most dominant when pressuring defenses and getting to the line. His combination of length and quickness is impossible to contain when he’s at his best. Tatum is a supreme talent, an MVP level type player, and he’s still only 22. But assuming he’ll keep getting chances is a fool’s errand. Dynasties and title runs have a tendency to dry up quicker in the NBA than expected. The Celtics have one of the best young players in the league. If he can develop his killer instinct, they’ll have a shot to win the title next year.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

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.

 

Troy’s Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble

The bubble debut for the NBA has been fantastic. Players are in shape, the games have an outstanding atmosphere, the intensity level is high, and no one has tested positive for COVID-19. The protocols and guidelines the league took months to set up are paying off, and we should commend the players for bringing their A game. A March Madness feel has overtaken the league, with high stakes games being played at all hours of the day. This has a chance, and with the uncertainty surrounding baseball and football, NBA playoffs in September and October may own the landscape. Here’s what was interesting during the first week back:

1.Houston’s size problem may have a Robert Covington solution. The 6’7” forward, always a defensive menace, has flexed his muscle around the rim. Five blocks in their first 2 games have given the Rockets a presence in the paint. He’s rejected 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis and 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Add in 6 steals, and the weak Houston defense at least has an active member causing havoc on the back end. Is it enough to change their trajectory? Time will tell if Covington’s body can withstand the pounding he’ll take, guarding bigger guys every night. Most bigs shy away from it. But for now, consider Covington the smallest rim protector in the league.

2. Once the trade from Houston to Oklahoma City occurred last summer, speculation began on who Chris Paul would suit up for this season. The Thunder wouldn’t keep the 35-year-old point guard due $123 million over the next three years in a rebuilding situation. OKC didn’t dump him, however, and now the Thunder may be the third best team in the West. Paul is a conductor, orchestrating the moves of teammates and opponents while dominating games without posting monster stats. His understanding of the game, bettered only by LeBron, is PhD worthy, and he’s been overlooked in the MVP conversation. What he’s done in OKC, after they traded away both Russell Westbrook and Paul George last off season, deserved MVP votes. Paul’s name will hit the rumor mill again, yet Oklahoma City may be wise to keep him. Young guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an All Star in the making. Learning from an all-time great point guard will only speed up his development.

3. Though he’s turned it around, Jayson Tatum’s start in the bubble was clunky. A 5 point, 2-18 shooting opener against Milwaukee, following a poor exhibition slate is troubling. 34 against Portland on Sunday may allow Celtic brass to sleep better, but is this the guy Boston is resting future title hopes on? We’ve seen flashes from him before, only to see Tatum revert to a passive entity, flowing in and out of games. He switches between attacking and hanging out behind the three point line. While Tatum has more talent, Jaylen Brown has more fire. Brown doesn’t take plays off. His shot selection is sometimes questionable, but his ability to guard 1-5 on defense gives Brad Stevens tons of flexibility. The push and pull between these two young players, and Boston’s hierarchy over the next few years, will remain engrossing.

4. Most counted Toronto out as defending champs as soon as Kawhi Leonard packed for L.A., yet the strong fit of the pieces collected by GM Masai Ujiri and the heart of Kyle Lowry is keeping them on the periphery of the title chase. A defensive masterpiece on Saturday night against the Lakers is forcing everyone to consider them a contender. Lowry, recovered from the PTSD of so many subpar performances against LeBron’s Cavs in the playoffs, has become a clutch, go to player in crunch time. Anyone Nick Nurse puts on the floor plays defense, and Pascal Siakam is edging toward superstardom. Ask NBA experts who the best coach in the league is, and a majority will answer Nurse. So why the lingering doubt over the Raptors? The defense is trustworthy, but can they count on Lowry and Siakam to get crunch time buckets with defenses designed to stop them? Kawhi garnered the attention last year. But if those two take another step, the Raptors may make the Finals for a second year in a row.

Defending LeBron/Davis pick and roll. Doesn’t get any better than this.

5. New Orleans wants to be careful with their lottery ticket, but is playing Zion Williamson only 18 minutes per game, and sitting him during crunch time, the best strategy? The fear of injury is overtaking sports. Pitchers can’t throw over 100 pitches per outing and prized NBA draft picks get babied mercilessly. How many players handled with kid gloves reach stardom? How many others flame out, or get hurt anyway? And if he’s on a minute restriction, why not save some of those minutes for the end of games? In a near must win in their opener against Utah, Zion sat for the last 7 minutes as his teammates coughed up a double digit lead. On a team NBA execs want in the playoffs, New Orleans’ bosses seem to have other ideas. Question is, when will they unleash the beast? At some point, Zion has to play NBA basketball, or his development will suffer. If he’s injury prone, we’ll find out soon enough.

6. Anthony Davis dominated the Jazz Monday night with a performance the Lakers will need replicated for the next two-and-a-half months. 42 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals, plus multiple wow plays on defense carried L.A. while LeBron ramps up in the bubble. Watching Laker games, the lack of talent behind their top two is glaring, however. Could Dion Waiters be their best bench play? Can they count on Kyle Kuzma as the 3rd option? Davis cannot have games like Saturday night against the Raptors, when he took 2 shots in the first half, and only 7 total in the game. The Lakers may be the favorite, but their margins are razor thin. Davis cannot afford to be passive, especially against smaller teams like the Rockets and Clippers. When he has a mismatch, he must dominate. With no other reliable ball handlers, Frank Vogel will tax LeBron with that duty throughout. AD has to carry the scoring load on offense to allow LeBron to set up their less reliable teammates.

7. Jrue Holiday’s defense gets overlooked. Strong enough to battle bigs in the paint and quick enough to stick on guards, Holiday schooled Rookie of the Year in waiting Ja Morant on Monday in a game the Pelicans had to have. Drawing the rookie on most possessions in the first half, Holiday used his size to push Morant around, forcing him into 3-11 shooting, 0-6 from 3. Morant ended drives off balance, unable to finish at the rim because of Holiday’s presence, while Jrue’s quickness didn’t allow Ja any separation on his jumper. Though New Orleans’ defense has been abominable all season, and may keep him off All Defense teams, Holiday, at minimum, provides an example for the young Pelicans on that end if they are to become a contender in the West. His 1.7 steals per game ranked 7th in the league. His ability to switch gives their defense flexibility. When the Pelicans become a problem, Zion will be their star, but Jrue Holiday will be their backbone.

8. Put Doris Burke on the main broadcast team with Mike Breen, ESPN. Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy complain too much; do they even like NBA basketball? Burke’s understanding of the game is unmatched. She sees all and explains it with an intelligence and charisma that is a joy to listen to. She’s funny, and her love of the game shines. Add that to Breen’s exceptional play-by-play skills and knowledge, and you’ve created the perfect tandem. Van Gundy and Jackson are stale. If they aren’t complaining about referees or players, they’re over-hyping mediocre coaches. Putting Breen and Burke together makes too much sense.

9. Dame Time has arrived in Orlando, and teams out west have a fresh fear. At the controls of Portland’s offense, Damian Lillard has made the Blazers the early favorites for the 8 seed on averages of nearly 27 points and 11 assists per. A lock for an All-NBA spot, Lillard has made his case as the best point guard in the league. With Jusuf Nurkic’s return from a horrible leg injury and Zach Collins back from an early season dislocated shoulder, the Lakers should fear Dame and C. J. McCollum driving the bus. While New Orleans may have been the fans’ pick for the 8 seed, they would pose little resistance to L.A. Not so with the Blazers. A team that reached the West Finals last year, they’re healthy, have added a decent Carmelo Anthony, and possess the best backcourt in the league. LeBron’s path to title four gets tougher if Portland squeezes in.

10. Michael Porter Jr. posted back-to-back 30 point games this week and is the punch Denver’s offense needs in the playoffs. With three starters injured, the Nuggets have relied on Porter during the restart, something coach Mike Malone has hesitated to do. While he makes gobs of rookie mistakes, Denver needs to lean on the talented first-year player more if they hope to advance in the West. Everyone assumes the L.A. teams will meet in the West Finals. If Porter grew up over the layoff, and Malone will trust him, the Nuggets may force their way into the conversation. At worst, the rookie will gain valuable experience for future playoff runs in Denver.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

NBA Re-Preview

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, Zion

Can the NBA get this right? 2020 is standing on its head, desperate for attention and getting it. But can basketball steal the focus away and deliver a two-month playoff run unlike anything we’ve seen? The star power in the NBA is strong; no league markets its talent better. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and the rest have an opportunity unlike any other. They will transfix eyes on Orlando, to see if they can pull off a health and safety nightmare, and to see the stars. Will LeBron lead a rickety roster to his 4th title? Can Kawhi go back-to-back? Is Giannis ready to snag ownership of the league away from his older brethren? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook conquer their playoff demons? What will this look like without fans?


Three teams can win the title. While others will provide interest, only the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks feel like contenders. Forget the notion of a tainted title because of the circumstances. In fact, the 2020 champ will have endured more adversity than almost any other in history. The rings won in October, after the nonsense this year has given us, will be iconic. So who will wear them?

Los Angeles Lakers


Why they’ll win the title: Not rocket science here. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’re the best duo in the league. James will finish second in the MVP race; Davis fifth or sixth. Davis will also make either first or second team All Defense. While Davis’ defensive numbers are good, not stellar, what he does for LeBron on that end is unquantifiable. Davis protects the rim, hedges pick and rolls, and closes on 3 ball shooters at a doctorate level. He allows James do to what he does best: roam. LeBron’s defensive numbers are the best since he left Miami. Poor defenders in Cleveland, along with his blasé regular season attitude, created a fair narrative that his skills had slipped. AD’s length covers his teammates’ rear ends and allows LeBron to use his athleticism and smarts to read opposing offenses and react. A team bereft of top line defenders, Davis almost single-handedly vaulted the Lakers to the third ranking defense in the league.


But I have buried the lead. If the Lakers win the title, it’ll come down to one play, LeBron-Davis pick and rolls. The best passer and finisher in the league, the smartest player in the league, the most battled tested player in the league, controlling the offense and dishing to the most devastating finisher in the NBA. When the games slow down in the playoffs, buckets get tough. But LeBron manipulates defenses like few players in history. He’s methodical. He’s surgical. He’ll wait an extra tick before whipping a pass to Danny Green in the corner for an open 3. He’ll push the pace off defensive rebounds if he sees an advantage. He moves his teammates around at will, searching for preferable match-ups and court spacing. James will create good shots for either himself or his teammates when possessions become essential. That ability, to score points in the tightest situations, separates champions. No player is more prepared to play in the bubble and all the challenges it will bring than LeBron James. The playoffs reveal fear every year. There is none in 23.

Look at the options off this pick and roll. Davis dunk or Green 3?

Why they’ll lose: After 1 and 2, this roster is hot garbage. Avery Bradley opted out of the bubble, and his absence hurts, especially on defense. While Danny Green is a powerful wing defender, Bradley is quicker and more capable of guarding opposing point guards. With the injury to Rajon Rondo keeping him out for most of the playoffs, Bradley gave L.A. another ball handler other than LeBron. Now who handles the rock when LBJ sits? Quinn Cook? Troy Daniels? J. R. Smith? Dion Waiters? Have fun with that ragtag mix of misfits. Alex Caruso must step up for the Lakers in the bubble. Solid all season, he and LeBron are the best 2 man combo on the team, at plus 20.9 per 100 possessions. At 18 minutes per game, he’s averaged 5 points and 1.8 assists, however. Is he ready for big minutes handling the rock for a title contender?

Is anyone on this roster? Davis has playoff experience, but none as a title favorite and LeBron sidekick. The pressure on him will be immense. Kyle Kuzma was unsteady in the regular season. Give me Danny Green in crunch time. The rest of the Dwight Howards and Jared Dudleys are all yours.

Los Angeles Clippers


Why they’ll win the title: Kawhi Leonard. He established himself as one of the five best players in the league, with an argument for the one spot, with an epic title run with the Raptors that showcased every talent he possesses. After his switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis wilted, along with the Bucks. He carried the offensive load on a team made up of third options, averaging 30.5, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and almost 2 steals per. Now he’s head of perhaps the best talent in the league. Montrezl Harrell is the likely sixth man of the year, Lou Williams has won the award multiple times and is a walking bucket off the bench, and Patrick Beverley is the dog every team needs in the playoffs that will outwork the opposition while barking at them throughout a series. Then there’s Paul George. Injuries are an issue, but the layoff should find him healthy. An MVP candidate throughout much of last year, George only bows to his teammate Leonard as the best two-way player in the league. If the James-Davis pick and roll is the ultimate weapon, George and Leonard provide the best opportunity to neutralize it. Those match-ups in crunch time of a Western Conference Finals will be epic.

Landry Shamet provides shooting off the bench, Ivica Zubac has played sneaky well in the starting lineup, and Marcus Morris is a prototypical body to steal minutes for George and Leonard on defense against LeBron. And Morris shot 41% from 3 on the season. No roster in the league has the combination of talent and experience that the other L.A. team possesses.

Why they’ll lose: Some in-fighting occurred between the holdovers from last year’s spunky Clippers team and the recent additions. Did the layoff allow them to re-focus on what’s important? How will Paul George fare? Early in his career, his playoff battles with LeBron pushed those Heat teams to the brink. Can George sit behind Leonard, or will he disappear at crucial moments? PG13’s so-so ball handling skills rear their head at inopportune times, so he needs to knock down open jumpers and eliminate crunch time turnovers. And can they handle size? Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and even Steven Adams could give them fits in a 7 game series. Harrell will see 4th quarter minutes at center, yet he’s only 6’8”. Zubac has been good, but does Doc Rivers trust the unathletic big man in high-pressure situations? Will Paul George or Kawhi Leonard have to guard skilled opposing big men? An interesting sub-plot to watch as the playoffs progress.

Milwaukee Bucks

Why they’ll win the title: They’re the number 1 offense in the league. Their defensive rating per 100 possessions also leads the league by 3.3 points. Giannis is the unquestioned MVP. LeBron was excellent in leading his Laker team, but perhaps it’s Giannis’ league now. 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, in only 31 minutes per game. He dominates opponents in the paint with deft footwork and power. He glides in the open floor, the most devastating fast break in basketball. And the defense. He stretches from baseline to baseline, a rim protector, on ball stopper, and rotation expert rolled into one. Bucks GM Jon Horst stacked the roster with excellent defenders (Brook Lopez deserves an All Defense nod, and Eric Bledsoe strong consideration), but Antetokounmpo is on another level. He cares, and it shows by his hustle and desire to gut opponents. Giannis didn’t come to make friends, and a title is the only acceptable outcome for Milwaukee. If the Clippers don’t have the best roster in the league, the Bucks do. George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver all shoot over 40% from 3. Ersan Ilyasova and Wes Matthews are over 36%, devastating shooting to arrange around Giannis. And that number 1 defense? They do things differently that most. Milwaukee has allowed the most 3s made and taken against them in the league, yet they stifle the paint, only allowing teams to shoot 41% against them on the season. They rarely foul; teams shoot the sixth lowest amount of free throws in the league against them. They must keep LeBron and Kawhi off the line in any Finals matchup.

Why they’ll lose: Can they afford to give 3s to Toronto, Boston, or either of the L.A. teams? Mike Budenholzer has been outstanding in Milwaukee, but refuses to budge from what they do in a seven-game series. Being who you are is great, but small tweaks make the difference. The Bucks must adjust their defensive philosophy according to their opponent. If a second round match-up against the Heat, the best shooting 3 ball team in the league, occurs, Milwaukee must adapt. Miami lines up well with them, and a few games of hot outside shooting may put them on the ropes.

Will Eric Bledsoe show this postseason? Describing Bledsoe’s performance in last year’s playoffs as a train wreak would be too kind. He was unplayable against Toronto’s Lowry/VanVleet backcourt, benched in favor of George Hill. Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s best guard last postseason, but he’s now in Indiana. Bledsoe has rebounded, averaging 15 on 35% 3 shooting and 5.4 assists per game while playing defense at an All NBA level. He has to produce this year, or the Bucks won’t win the title. His defense is too important to be on the bench during crunch time if he becomes a human turnover and brick layer on offense. As he goes, the Bucks will go.

The Rest


Houston Rockets

What will James Harden look like with a four-month rest leading into the playoffs? Perennially gassed by May from the load placed on his shoulders in the regular season, is Harden a playoff choker, or just overused in the regular season? We’ll find out in the bubble. Throw in a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets are the league’s biggest conundrum. A title would surprise, but any other result would not. First round loss? Sure. Western Conference Finals? Maybe. A roster built to run opponents off the floor and hoist 3’s from everywhere, they’ve once again redefined what small ball means. They start no one over 6’8”, and while Tyson Chandler (7’0”) may see sporadic minutes, look for the Rockets to run opposing bigs off the floor. While Harden and Westbrook will draw the spotlight, the key to Houston’s success will be P. J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Both need to guard above their weight class on defense and punish power forwards and centers on defense by dragging them out of the paint and knocking down 3s. If Tucker and Covington succeed, the Rockets will surprise in the West.

Houston’s starting lineup

Toronto Raptors

The defending champs have mastered carrying a chip on their shoulder. Overlooked as the champs, the fans and players in Toronto are tired of being scoffed at, and they should be. Perhaps the best fit roster in the league, the Raps have length and shooting at every position. Pascal Siakam made MVP noise over the first two months of the season before injuries slowed his ascend to superstar. He’s a perennial All-Star, however, and Kyle Lowry’s clutch Game 6 in last year’s Finals removed the playoff choker tag from his career. Lowry is battle tested and tough. The second best defense in the league, try to find a weak spot. Marc Gasol, Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby are smart, long defenders who lock up opponents. While they lack the firepower to beat Milwaukee, a second round series against Boston could be a classic.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, who else? While my Lonzo Ball love is well documented, and he and Zion are glorious together, Pels games are must watch because of the rookie. Now in shape, the future of the league is here. Though New Orleans’ goal will be to play their way into the 8-9 Western Conference play-in game, the groundwork for their future will begin construction in Orlando. Are Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and Jrue Holiday the correct pieces around the phenom? Can they make a push for the Western Conference Finals as soon as next year? Williamson is that good, but are his teammates? GM David Griffin can’t afford to waste one off-season in New Orleans. Every game played by New Orleans in the bubble will be an evaluation for how high their expectations will be next year.

Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum made the leap in February. 30 points and 8 rebounds on 49% shooting, 48% from 3, the numbers, and his on-court confidence, screamed superstar. Thrust into championship contender talk, Boston seems to be a smidge short. But what if February Tatum makes his way to Orlando? Jaylen Brown has some believing he’s the better of the two players. Kemba Walker makes big shots in big moments, and Marcus Smart wins games. Giannis is a tough match-up on a smallish Boston team, however. Their lack of size, less of an issue against Toronto, will prove costly in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Philadelphia 76ers

We should consider them with the title contenders. What happened? Philly posted the best home record in the league, yet the 20th best road mark. What does that mean in Orlando? Confused? Welcome to the 2019-2020 76ers. Joel Embiid is engaged, sometimes. What kind of shape will he be in? He and Ben Simmons are a janky fit. Brett Brown moved Shake Milton into the starting lineup during bubble scrimmages to allow Simmons to play more power forward. But is taking the ball out of his hands, and deadening his passing abilities, the right move? And why has Al Horford been such a poor fit? His offense and shooting has suffered with less space provided to him by his Philly teammates, and another year on his body has made him 5% less effective on defense. Listen, the Sixers have the talent to make a Finals push. But the questions only continued to pile up throughout the season. How many are too many?

It feels like the Lakers. The Bron-Davis duo is too good on both ends of the floor, and James has stared down more adversity in his career than perhaps any player in history. He was built for this moment, and at 35 his title chances are dwindling. The Bucks and Clippers are deeper, and probably better teams. But when buckets in the closing minutes get tough, I know I can rely on that James-Davis pick and roll. One of the greatest to ever do it gets his fourth ring.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

 

How important to the Cleveland Cavaliers present, and future, is Larry Nance Jr.?

Cleveland Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr., NBA, Patrick Beverley, Trae Young

As the losses for the Cleveland Cavaliers mount, it’s imperative to pull back. View the franchise from afar, with an eye toward the future. What players deserve to be there? When the Cavs are a playoff contender, who from this squad makes an impact? Are there difference makers already in place, guys who do things big and small that affect wins and losses?

Larry Nance Jr. is one such player. He isn’t a superstar and will never develop into one. His skill set, however, is essential to winning. Nance can be a top 4-6 player on a playoff team. While his limitations prevent him from leading a franchise, teams don’t win without meaningful contributions from players such as Nance, willing to do whatever is asked and having the talent to do so.

Nance is a Swiss army knife; not great at anything yet capable of everything. About to turn 27 on New Years’ Day, he’ll enter his prime as a player without an obvious flaw. A poor outside shooter to this point in his career, Nance dedicated his summer to becoming a dangerous option on the perimeter. Bigs who knock down 3’s are among the most valuable commodities in the league, providing space for penetrators to attack the basket on offense and keeping size on the floor to discourage the same on defense. Nance recognized a weakness in his game and worked to eliminate it. Before this season, he’d shot just 168 threes in his career, making 28% of them. He’s already fired 58 this year and his percentage has skyrocketed, canning 39% from deep. A key to the comeback against Milwaukee on Friday night which fell short, Nance Jr.’s 3 threes pulled Giannis and Brook Lopez away from the basket, allowing Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton more space to get to the rack. Because of the diminutive size of Sexton and Darius Garland, opponents’ length has caused each problems early in the season. Nance’s (and Kevin Love’s) shooting will be essential going forward to clear the lane for their teammates.

Nance(22) sets a good screen to free Garland(10). Nance’s man follows Garland to the bucket. Nance makes them pay by burying the 3

Another overlooked aspect of Nance’s game is his passing acumen. A big whose touches can be sporadic, he was 2nd on the team last year, averaging 3 dishes per contest. While his numbers have dropped this season to just 1 per game, Nance sees the floor well, possessing the size to see over defenses and the ability to find the open teammate. He’s adept at pocket passes in tight spaces, quick bounce passes to other bigs or cutting guards that open up the Cavs’ offense.

Perhaps leading to lower assist totals, Nance is scoring in double figures for the first time in his career. His true shooting percentage, 12th in the league at 64.1% according to teamrankings.com, is another sign of his improvement. He’s averaging 2 points per game more than a year ago despite having almost the same usage rate. Nance is scoring more without burdening the offense. He just fits in any lineup John Beilein wishes to put him in.

The enhancements to Nance’s game over a year ago aren’t specific to his shooting numbers. He struggled to stay on the court last year, committing 3 fouls per game. Nance has cut those in half this year to 1.5. His turnover rate dropped from 1.4 to 0.9, all while playing the same number of minutes. He has examined his game and has shown he can improve upon weaknesses. Though he’ll never be an All-Star, the bet here is that Larry Nance will become a valuable contributor to playoff teams in the future.

One fact for the front office to be cognizant of concerning Nance is who he’s on the floor with. At 6’7”, Nance is undersized at the center position and struggles to guard 5’s. The best lineups featuring him include Tristan Thompson. For all his attributes, he cannot overcome his size issue. Talented bigs such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid can shoot over him. The Cavs lack of size has become more glaring as the season has progressed and will need addressed in future drafts. A long, athletic 7 footer is a must. In the short term, playing Ante Zizic next to him will help. Zizic is a mystery, though he’s shown flashes of talent during the little time he’s had on the floor. Given the lack of size, Beilein should try to find him some minutes. A healthy John Henson would help, too. Henson gave the Cavs’ second unit a boost defensively in the eight minutes he’s played this year. While counting on anything from the oft-injured center is foolish, his presence in the lineup would help Nance, Love, and Thompson, all over-matched when guarding the center position.

What’s What Around the League

1. If you could transport a player from today’s game back in time, allowing them to play in an era better suited for their game, DeMar DeRozan would be a good choice to ship to the ‘90s. DeRozan’s mid-range game is exquisite. He averages 21.7 a game and shoots 52%, taking nearly all of his shots inside the arc. But on a Spurs team also employing LaMarcus Aldridge, its redundant. San Antonio is 7-13, 12th in the West, and stuck in a time warp. DeRozan would have been more appreciated twenty-five years ago, before math taught us the value of the 3. He makes 27 million this year, with a player option for the same next year. Does anyone want to pay that much for a semi-high usage rate player who has a sketchy playoff history? DeRozan got caught on the wrong side of the 3 point revolution.

2. Brooklyn, 4-7 with Kyrie Irving, is 6-2 since he’s sat with a shoulder injury. Instead of bashing Irving, let’s give credit to Spencer Dinwiddie. Since Kyrie’s injury, Dinwiddie is averaging 24.5 points and 8 assists, up from 17 and 4.5 when Kyrie was on the court, in full control of the Nets’ offense. Dinwiddie has performed this role before, taking the reins of Kenny Atkinson’s squad when DeAngelo Russell went down with injury last year. He’s a pro, respected by his teammates and trusted by Atkinson to get the offense in their sets. He’s also their go to option in crunch time, hitting a game winner in Cleveland at the buzzer on Monday. Did the Nets make a mistake in signing the dynamic, if mercurial, Irving? Let’s see how the Nets fare after Kyrie returns and gains more court time with his teammates before jumping to conclusions.

3. The Toronto Raptors’ defense, and Marc Gasol specifically, held Joel Embiid scoreless this week. Embiid shot 0-11 from the field, and with Al Horford now a teammate, Gasol has become the new Embiid stopper. The Raptors continue to surprise in their title defense. Expected to be a trade candidate at the deadline, why would Toronto trade Gasol now? This Raptors team, with Pascal Siakam vaulting into the MVP conversation, has as good a shot as any Eastern Conference team to make the Finals. Gasol’s defense against Embiid in a seven game playoff series would be invaluable.

4. At 12-7, the Indiana Pacers have continued their success without Victor Oladipo despite a slight remake of the roster over the summer. Domantas Sabonis is a beast in the paint, averaging 18 and 13. Malcolm Brogdon has been better than expected, posting 19 points and 8 dimes a game. Nate McMillan continues to impress, imploring a funky roster to play over their heads. What happens when Oladipo returns? He and Brogdon seem to be a perfect backcourt duo. Both are good defensively and either can handle the ball or play off it. The question will be what Oladipo looks like when he returns. If he can get 90-95% healthy by playoff time, the Pacers could spring an upset.

5. Is there anything better than the Patrick BeverleyRussell Westbrook feud? Started during the 2013 playoffs when Beverley lunged at Westbrook and injured him as he dribbled toward the sideline to take a timeout, which knocked Russ out the rest of the season, don’t look for cooler heads to prevail anytime soon. Both players run hot, which is why I love them. Each’s game is imperfect, but both play with a fire that demands respect. A Clippers-Rockets playoff series is a must.

6. It takes a light brush of the arm or a hot breath in the face of a shooter for the defender to get whistled for a foul. Meanwhile, offensive players in the post get beaten, arm barred, and slapped without so much as a second look. Protecting shooters is important, but players are taking advantage of quick perimeter whistles. Referees need to watch the tape. They’re getting fooled into calling fouls when little contact occurs on jump shooters while allowing big men to get mugged in the paint. While the three point shooting revolution has ultimately been good for the NBA, watching players shoot foul shots isn’t. Give perimeter defenders some leeway.

7. Trae Young torched Indy Friday night with 49 in and O.T. loss before watching James Harden score 60 in 3 quarters on Saturday. Shooters need no help.

8. There seems to be a good player somewhere inside Mo Bamba, but he only appears in fits and starts. Long and athletic with touch from 3, Bamba’s size and skill set fit today’s NBA. He was 5-5 on threes in Cleveland last week and, after looking lost defensively earlier in the year, has become more aggressive on that end, averaging 2.5 blocks in his last 5 games. Orlando’s jammed frontcourt lacks minutes, but they need to find some for the sixth pick in the 2018 draft. Nik Vucevic’s injury has opened up minutes at the center position for Bamba, but he’ll need consistent time on the court once Vucevic returns to continue his development. If not, a smart team with minutes would be wise to buy low on Bamba if Orlando relegates him to the bench.

9. After a so-so sophomore year, Jayson Tatum is turning a corner, although just like a semi-truck. While slow, Tatum is improving his shot selection, taking 2.5 more 3s and 1.3 more foul shots this year over last. These numbers are key for Tatum’s career arc. He’s also taking 5.5 shots more per game overall, another welcome sign, considering his disappearing act in games in the past, going shifts on the court with no one recognizing he was on the floor. Tatum is the key to the future of the Boston Celtics. For the franchise to reap the benefits of the draft pick haul from the Nets, to prove they spent the picks wisely, Tatum must become a superstar. Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown are fantastic; they’re secondary players on a championship team, however. For the Celtic rebuild to be a success and for Boston to win a title, Tatum must get to the level he showed during the playoff run his rookie year.

10. I’m all for fresh ideas to spice up the regular season, but an in-season tournament isn’t it. The NBA has proposed a single elimination tournament, college style, perhaps in December. Christmas Madness, if you will. Rumors are the league would award the winning team a draft pick, yet that won’t be incentive enough to create the do-or-die atmosphere present in the college game. The league struggles with getting its star players on the floor now. Think Kawhi Leonard will play through injury for a semifinal game against the Jazz? Tournaments work only with high stakes. Home court advantage in the playoffs won’t do it, either. Since no team’s season would be over with a loss, fans and players will not care. Back to the drawing board, Adam Silver.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com