Troy’s NBA Finals Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Finals

1.Up 3-1 now, the Los Angeles Lakers can feel it. LeBron James isn’t about to let his team blow the very lead he vanquished during his greatest triumph. L.A. was always about LeBron and Anthony Davis. The best teammate he’s played with, a list that includes Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Love. James and Davis mesh better than LeBron did with any of the others. AD’s All-NBA defense, interior game, outside shooting, and pick and roll efficiency have given LeBron the perfect complement. He’ll hand the team to Davis in the coming years, reducing his role in the twilight of his career. They’re the best duo in the league, better than any since Shaq and Kobe. But for this title, it’s still LeBron.

2. James will win his 4th Finals MVP to mate with his 4th Larry O’Brien trophy. Despite Davis’ masterful Game 2 and his dagger 3 in Game 4, James has guided L.A. through the bubble, the big brother for his neophyte teammates. 27.8 points, 11 rebounds, and 8.5 assists looks pedestrian next to LeBron’s name. He does it every game of every series. Since 2011 and his flame out against Dallas, he’s been the best player in every series he played, only losing when his teammates got injured or were inferior to his opponent’s. At 35 years old, he’s still the best player and one of the greatest of all time.

LeBron, the G.O.A.T.

3. But give his teammates their due. An underwhelming roster after Davis, they’ve benefited from the long runway provided by the two superstars. Without the others’ contributions, however, L.A. would be staring at a series deficit. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, shooting just 28% from 3 in the Finals, had his moment in Game 4. A huge corner 3 in the 4th quarter along with a smooth lay-in late were critical points. L.A. doesn’t win without his 15 and 5 assists. Markieff Morris is shooting 43% from 3 in the Finals. Alex Caruso has hit 41% from behind the arc. He’s a pest on defense, giving the Lakers heart off the bench. Then there’s Rajon Rondo.

4. Laker fans cursed Rondo throughout the season, perplexed Frank Vogel even allowed him on the floor. But he’s lived this before. He knows what it takes. His 6 assists per game and 3 point touch in Game 2 were invaluable. He relaxed LeBron’s ball handling duties. L.A. needed another play maker, and Rondo provided it in the most crucial moments. With LeBron winded at the end of Game 4 (his brilliant second half is the reason this series isn’t 2-2), Rondo took control of the offense. Two dagger buckets, both vintage Rondo. The Lakers leaned on the Rondo/Davis pick and roll late in the fourth and he delivered, first with a layup after beating Duncan Robinson off the dribble, then dishing to AD for his clutch 3. Despite his hate for the nickname, Playoff Rondo is real.

Rondo/Davis pick and roll last two LA possessions sealed Game 4

5. The Heat shocked many by making the Finals as a 5 seed in the East, but their grit and fight carried them to the doorstep of a title. While Miami’s organization is the embodiment of work ethic and toughness, Jimmy Butler adds another dimension. No one outworks him. He doesn’t stand for teammates who don’t value winning, and it’s caused friction at three other NBA stops. But he’s home in Miami. The beneficial relationship between team and player blossomed in the bubble.

6. His Game 3 performance was all-time great and caused NBA heads to rethink his hierarchy in the league. 42 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. Butler strapped an injury riddled roster on his back and beat an outstanding Laker team with 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Not considered a top fifteen player (he made All NBA third team this year), most couldn’t envision him as the best player on a title team. No longer. His flaws are obvious (poor shooter, so-so passer, reluctant to take over games), but his defense, mid-range game, and ability to get to the free throw line outweigh those. Plus his heart. Butler cares more than anyone else on the floor and puts in the work. He leads when others don’t know they need led. Butler’s playoff run has established him as a top ten player in the league.

7. How much more will Bam Adebayo develop and are the Heat title contenders if he takes another leap? Already one of the best big man creators in the league, Adebayo finished the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals by running the offense. His passing creativity and handles put undo pressure on all other bigs in the NBA. He’s one of the best defenders in the league, able to switch onto anyone and is an elite rim protector. Like Butler, his passion for winning is obvious. Bam has superstar potential if he hones his outside shot. A superb rim runner in the pick and roll, if he can improve his shooting percentages from beyond the paint (40% 10-16 ft., 28% 16-23 ft., 13% from 3), he becomes something different. Adebayo can be the Heat’s best player. If that happens, Miami can win the title next year.

8. For now, they have another chance. They’re size deficient against L.A. Miami tussled their way to this point, enforcing their will on opponents. They’ll do the same tonight. Watch the Laker turnovers. James’ and Rondo’s playoff experience can calm the waters for their immature teammates. They’ve been careless the last two games, helping Miami stay attached early. Can the Heat get to the free throw line? They must dominate in points at the stripe. And the 3 ball. If L.A’s bench throws bricks and Herro and Robinson get hot, Miami can win another game. But 3?

9. If/when the Lakers win, don’t forget the contributions of Frank Vogel. Until this season, LeBron shut off on the defensive end, especially during the regular season. Whether bored or saving energy, the Cleveland years were a dramatic step back for a once assertive defensive force. Vogel, one of the best defensive coaches in the game going back to his days in Indiana with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, sold James on his scheme and LeBron’s need for effort. It worked. He refocused himself, and along with AD, guided the 3rd best scoring defense in the league. Vogel got his guys to commit to his system. They struggled throughout the season on offense during stretches, but their defense never sagged. They’re about to be champions for that reason.

10. The NBA, it’s players, referees, media members, coaches, and their families deserve kudos for the bubble. No positive test results in three months of lock down is commendable. Science works, and the league studied before designing the ultimate experiment. Despite doubts, the social injustice fights outside Orlando, and the mental challenges for those involved, the NBA will crown a champion, something that felt impossible even a month before the restart. The basketball was exhilarating, with new stars such as Jamal Murray announcing themselves and a familiar one poised to raise the trophy. The NBA succeeded and kept everyone safe in the process. Props.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com

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 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

NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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