1.Up 3-1 now, the Los Angeles Lakers can feel it. LeBron James isn’t about to let his team blow the very lead he vanquished during his greatest triumph. L.A. was always about LeBron and Anthony Davis. The best teammate he’s played with, a list that includes Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Love. James and Davis mesh better than LeBron did with any of the others. AD’s All-NBA defense, interior game, outside shooting, and pick and roll efficiency have given LeBron the perfect complement. He’ll hand the team to Davis in the coming years, reducing his role in the twilight of his career. They’re the best duo in the league, better than any since Shaq and Kobe. But for this title, it’s still LeBron.
2. James will win his 4th Finals MVP to mate with his 4th Larry O’Brien trophy. Despite Davis’ masterful Game 2 and his dagger 3 in Game 4, James has guided L.A. through the bubble, the big brother for his neophyte teammates. 27.8 points, 11 rebounds, and 8.5 assists looks pedestrian next to LeBron’s name. He does it every game of every series. Since 2011 and his flame out against Dallas, he’s been the best player in every series he played, only losing when his teammates got injured or were inferior to his opponent’s. At 35 years old, he’s still the best player and one of the greatest of all time.
3. But give his teammates their due. An underwhelming roster after Davis, they’ve benefited from the long runway provided by the two superstars. Without the others’ contributions, however, L.A. would be staring at a series deficit. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, shooting just 28% from 3 in the Finals, had his moment in Game 4. A huge corner 3 in the 4th quarter along with a smooth lay-in late were critical points. L.A. doesn’t win without his 15 and 5 assists. Markieff Morris is shooting 43% from 3 in the Finals. Alex Caruso has hit 41% from behind the arc. He’s a pest on defense, giving the Lakers heart off the bench. Then there’s Rajon Rondo.
4. Laker fans cursed Rondo throughout the season, perplexed Frank Vogel even allowed him on the floor. But he’s lived this before. He knows what it takes. His 6 assists per game and 3 point touch in Game 2 were invaluable. He relaxed LeBron’s ball handling duties. L.A. needed another play maker, and Rondo provided it in the most crucial moments. With LeBron winded at the end of Game 4 (his brilliant second half is the reason this series isn’t 2-2), Rondo took control of the offense. Two dagger buckets, both vintage Rondo. The Lakers leaned on the Rondo/Davis pick and roll late in the fourth and he delivered, first with a layup after beating Duncan Robinson off the dribble, then dishing to AD for his clutch 3. Despite his hate for the nickname, Playoff Rondo is real.
5. The Heat shocked many by making the Finals as a 5 seed in the East, but their grit and fight carried them to the doorstep of a title. While Miami’s organization is the embodiment of work ethic and toughness, Jimmy Butler adds another dimension. No one outworks him. He doesn’t stand for teammates who don’t value winning, and it’s caused friction at three other NBA stops. But he’s home in Miami. The beneficial relationship between team and player blossomed in the bubble.
6. His Game 3 performance was all-time great and caused NBA heads to rethink his hierarchy in the league. 42 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. Butler strapped an injury riddled roster on his back and beat an outstanding Laker team with 2 of the 5 best players in the league. Not considered a top fifteen player (he made All NBA third team this year), most couldn’t envision him as the best player on a title team. No longer. His flaws are obvious (poor shooter, so-so passer, reluctant to take over games), but his defense, mid-range game, and ability to get to the free throw line outweigh those. Plus his heart. Butler cares more than anyone else on the floor and puts in the work. He leads when others don’t know they need led. Butler’s playoff run has established him as a top ten player in the league.
7. How much more will Bam Adebayo develop and are the Heat title contenders if he takes another leap? Already one of the best big man creators in the league, Adebayo finished the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals by running the offense. His passing creativity and handles put undo pressure on all other bigs in the NBA. He’s one of the best defenders in the league, able to switch onto anyone and is an elite rim protector. Like Butler, his passion for winning is obvious. Bam has superstar potential if he hones his outside shot. A superb rim runner in the pick and roll, if he can improve his shooting percentages from beyond the paint (40% 10-16 ft., 28% 16-23 ft., 13% from 3), he becomes something different. Adebayo can be the Heat’s best player. If that happens, Miami can win the title next year.
8. For now, they have another chance. They’re size deficient against L.A. Miami tussled their way to this point, enforcing their will on opponents. They’ll do the same tonight. Watch the Laker turnovers. James’ and Rondo’s playoff experience can calm the waters for their immature teammates. They’ve been careless the last two games, helping Miami stay attached early. Can the Heat get to the free throw line? They must dominate in points at the stripe. And the 3 ball. If L.A’s bench throws bricks and Herro and Robinson get hot, Miami can win another game. But 3?
9. If/when the Lakers win, don’t forget the contributions of Frank Vogel. Until this season, LeBron shut off on the defensive end, especially during the regular season. Whether bored or saving energy, the Cleveland years were a dramatic step back for a once assertive defensive force. Vogel, one of the best defensive coaches in the game going back to his days in Indiana with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, sold James on his scheme and LeBron’s need for effort. It worked. He refocused himself, and along with AD, guided the 3rd best scoring defense in the league. Vogel got his guys to commit to his system. They struggled throughout the season on offense during stretches, but their defense never sagged. They’re about to be champions for that reason.
10. The NBA, it’s players, referees, media members, coaches, and their families deserve kudos for the bubble. No positive test results in three months of lock down is commendable. Science works, and the league studied before designing the ultimate experiment. Despite doubts, the social injustice fights outside Orlando, and the mental challenges for those involved, the NBA will crown a champion, something that felt impossible even a month before the restart. The basketball was exhilarating, with new stars such as Jamal Murray announcing themselves and a familiar one poised to raise the trophy. The NBA succeeded and kept everyone safe in the process. Props.
1.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.
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.
1.Did anyone expect LeBron James to lose a playoff series to James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Their Western Conference Semifinal isn’t over, yet the path it will take is clear. The Rockets are better behind the superstars and play a scheme that will overtake basketball soon. But playoff basketball is different, and LeBron is, well, King. He makes everyone on the floor with him 10-15% better with his vision, intelligence, and leadership. James knows what his team needs. In the first quarter of Game 2, following a poor Anthony Davis performance, LeBron fed AD, dishing three assists and getting him 11 early points. He knows he needs a confident Davis to win this series, and the title. In the fourth, after Houston flipped a 16 point deficit into a 2 point lead, LeBron took over, scoring 8 and locking down on defense (2 blocks and 2 steals). LeBron James is one of the three best in history because he knows the game better than everyone on, and off, the court.
2. L.A.’s biggest hole in the bubble had been a ball handler and creator to take some ball distribution off LeBron’s plate. Enter Rajon Rondo. It was easy to dismiss Rondo’s need for the Lakers; his minutes have been a debacle most of the season. But he’s played in tense games and won a title. An old head was the elixir L.A. needed. 18 assists and 6 steals in Laker wins in Games 2 and 3 gives James someone to turn the offense over to when required. Though older, his defense is important too. He’s long and smart, and gives Frank Vogel someone to put on opposing ball handlers. They’re thin on wing defenders, and while Rondo is slower now and more apt to fall asleep, when locked in, he can disrupt offenses. The Lakers need less help because of LeBron. If Rondo continues playing this way, their title hopes soar.
3. James Harden is eviscerating the Laker defense. No one can stay in front of him. When not facing double teams, he gets to the basket with ease, either drawing help for an open 3, or getting layups or foul shots. But when he sits, blah. Russell Westbrook scored 30 Tuesday night, but remains….. off. He can reach the bucket at will, but settles for too many 15 footers that ricochet off the basket, taking out family members in the audience. Whether his bout with COVID-19 or the quad injury lingers is anyone’s guess. Harden attacks more and creates better shots for his teammates. The Rockets have another victory in this series in them, maybe two. Their scheme gives the Lakers fits and has caused Vogel to lessen his JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard minutes (smart). But LeBron is smarter than them, and they know it.
4. The obituary on the pathetic performance of the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble has been written. Now tough decisions by their front office are due. Will Mike Budenholzer be back? When offered the super max extension this off-season, will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign it? The second question is most important, but the first affects their title chances for next year more. Coach Bud is exceptional, yet lacks the flexibility to make the moves postseason basketball demands. He’s style is comparable to Dusty Baker. While both have had great success in the regular season, neither bends when it matters most. It’ll likely cost both titles. But if he’s fired, who gets hired? Ty Lue, Billy Donovan, Nate McMillan, and Kenny Atkinson are a few free agent coaches available, but are any good enough to push this roster into the Finals? Hard to say, but Jon Horst better make sure Giannis is on board with any decision he makes.
5. Antetokounmpo will be a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and 4 time All NBAer at the end of this season. Any hopes of the Bucks ever winning another NBA title rest with him. Does he want to stay in Milwaukee? While other superstars have jumped to other organizations when failing with their current one, Giannis may be different. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.” Doesn’t sound like someone ready to team up with Steph Curry or Luka Doncic. Here’s hoping he stays put. It would be refreshing to see a star fight for the franchise and city that drafted him and refuse the easier path. It would also make a title even more special to him.
6. Can the Miami Heat make the Finals? The Milwaukee match-up was tailormade for them. Jimmy Butler’s toughness, Bam Adebayo’s swiss army knifeness, and the 3 point shooting they can surround them with makes for an arduous opponent. Goran Dragic has averaged 21 per during the playoffs, giving the Heat an efficient, 3 level scorer, something Butler, for as great as he’s been, can’t provide. But will their defense hold up against either Boston or Toronto? They could build a wall and keep Giannis out of the paint, grinding Milwaukee’s offense to a halt because of his meager shooting touch. But their next opponent will have more weapons capable of attacking the rim and shooting from deep. Erik Spoelstra may need to shuffle his lineups. He’ll face tough offense vs. defense decisions in crunch time. Andre Iguodala or Duncan Robinson? How much to play Kendrick Nunn? Who will Kelly Olynyk guard if it’s Boston, and will they rather have Derrick Jones Jr.’s athleticism on the floor? He’ll need Jae Crowder to continue shooting well from deep. A 34% shooter from 3 during the regular season, Crowder is hitting 40% of his 3’s in the playoffs. His shooting allows Miami to have a plus defender in late without sacrificing floor spacing on offense. Spolestra is clever enough to find the answers, but the Heat will face more match-up questions in the Eastern Conference Finals than they did against the Bucks, making them the underdog.
7. Give it all to the Toronto Raptors. They aren’t as talented as the Celtics, but damn, their balls are steel. In eking out a victory in a for-the-ages Game 6 against Boston, the Raptors showed their hearts. Norman Powell hit two 3’s in the overtimes. Pascal Siakam struggled all game (and isn’t a number one option), yet drilled a huge jumper in the second overtime. And Kyle Lowry. Gone are the days in which Lowry fails in the playoffs. Lowry willed the Raps to the win on defense, frustrating bigger Celtics into turnovers late before swishing the de facto game winner over Kemba Walker in the second overtime. Toronto works for every ounce they get and showed again why they’re champions. A deserved winner of an exquisite playoff game.
8. Boston cannot lose this series. They’re the better team on both ends of the floor, yet are flunky when it gets tight. Their two main ball handlers in crunch time, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, are struggling in those moments. Tatum’s stat line last night is nice (29 points, 14 rebounds, career high 9 assists), but he turned the ball over late and was indecisive with the smaller Lowry on him on multiple occasions. Kemba was awful (5 points on 2-11 shooting). He created a few easy buckets on lobs to Daniel Theis but otherwise couldn’t find himself. And the Raptors are going at him on D. He’s Boston’s weak link on that end and will continue to be Toronto’s target. Walker has never played in NBA games with these stakes. The Celtics need him in Game 7.
9. Did Marcus Smart ever show? He was Boston’s best player in Game 6, cool amongst the chaos. Smart’s 6 threes interpolated his stellar triple double (23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). He and Jaylen Brown were the only Celtics ready for the moment. The C’s need better execution in crunch time, and if Kemba isn’t up to the task, put the ball in Smart’s hands. He’s maddening, unorthodox, and a winner. If his 3 ball is off, Toronto may go under screens against him, allowing them to work less on defense. But Smart finds a way. Brad Stevens is likely reticent to trust his playoff future to Smart, but he may have no other choice.
10. Clippers-Nuggets feels preordained because of Kawhi Leonard. He gets to wherever he wants on offense and takes whatever he wants of defense. His mid-range game is automatic (he’s shooting 69% on shots less than 10 feet from the rim). He’ll lead L.A. into the next round. The Clips don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic, who may get them another victory in the series, but Kawhi, Paul George, and (mostly) Patrick Beverley have frustrated Jamal Murray. They’re too big and strong, and too good defensively for the 6’4” guard to shake. His eruption in the prior series guaranteed Doc Rivers would have a game plan designed to stop him. Gary Harris has been a bright spot for Denver’s future in this series, having a Fred VanVleet like resurgence following his return from injury. He’s shot 46% from 3 against L.A., up from 33% during the regular season, along with playing outstanding lock down defense on the Clipper wings. The Clippers are still sleep walking, however, coasting when possible and only motivated in near must win games. That won’t do against the Lakers. LeBron won’t allow them to cruise through any Conference Final games, and if they try, he’ll punish them. The time is now for the most talented team in the league to prove they can win the title.
2. LeBron has arrived. James slow played the bubble, and even the first two games of the playoffs, but the 34,9, and 9 he’s averaging over the last two has awakened the Laker team, transforming into the title contender everyone expected. Without another competent ball handler, L.A. needs James to get quality looks for his underwhelming teammates. Rajon Rondo will return soon. Most teams would view those words as a threat, but for the Lakers he’s needed to run the offense in the minutes James sits. And what to make of Anthony Davis? He’s dominant in some moments, yet has halves like the first in Game 3 in which he took just 3 shots. LeBron cannot win a fourth ring without a dominant Davis, and AD even admitted to feeling the pressure of the playoffs beside an all-time great. He’s complained about playing the 5 all year, yet the Lakers’ best lineups, and his superior position, is in the middle. Davis needs to suck it up and bang with the big boys if he wants a ring.
3. I questioned if Donovan Mitchell had the chops to be an alpha, A1 scorer on a contender, and he proved me wrong. He’s averaging 37.6 in the series against Denver and has two 50 point games. Mitchell is showing the ability to score efficiently and involve his teammates. Utah expected to contend this year but struggled with chemistry issues, folding new players into the lineup (Mike Conley), and seemed destined for another early round exit. Mitchell is changing things in this Denver series, but will it continue? He’s picking on the poor defense of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr., dissecting the Nuggets by hunting favorable match ups. If the Clippers are next, however, how will he navigate Paul George and Kawhi Leonard? More size and defensive acumen will present problems. How Mitchell handles those challenges deeper in the playoffs will show us how many steps he’s taken.
4. And how about Mitchell’s sniping opponent, Jamal Murray, dragging the Nuggets to a Game 5 win? Denver seemed finished early in the second half, down 15, showing little fight and having zero answers on defense. Then Murray happened. 33 points in the second half, Murray’s speed got him to the rim with ease or created space for his dead eye jumper. Though flaming, he didn’t force his shot either. Late assists on 3s to Michael Porter and Nikola Jokic sealed the win. Murray is tantalizing, yet cannot find consistency. His scoring numbers in this series (36,14,12,50,42) prove as much. The Nuggets need to know what’s coming each night if they’re to make the jump to contender. Denver’s defense is awful and may prevent them from coming back in this series, but Mitchell vs. Murray is must watch.
5. The Luka Doncic show from Sunday was unprecedented, and a welcome to superstardom moment for him. Luka controls an offense unlike anyone we’ve seen. He isn’t fast, but he’s quick enough. He’s not huge, but he’s big enough. Doncic’s footwork is majestic. His fundamentals, perfect. He reads defenses, moving defenders with his eyes and slight movements and jab steps that open corner 3s, driving lanes, or whatever the hell else he wants. Dallas is a title contender for the next decade, though they still may need a piece. But Luka is the future. His control of the team at 21 years old defies logic. His injured ankle, Kristaps Porzingis’ hurt knee, and the overwhelming talent gap between them and the Clippers seem too tall a mountain to climb. Never fear though, Mavericks fans. MVP awards and championship trophies are on the horizon.
6. Kawhi Leonard is one of the greatest defenders of all time. But you’re telling me he couldn’t have fought harder through this screen at the end of Game 4? Luka is taking that shot. He isn’t passing it to Maxi Kleber. So why give in and ride Kleber into the paint? And I understand that Reggie Jackson made a 3 and an outstanding hustle play to keep the Clippers in the game, but why give Luka a chance to work a switch onto him? He should’ve been on the bench. Baffling.
7. What’s left to say, standing over the dead carcass of the 76ers’ season? Brett Brown couldn’t motivate his players and got canned on Monday. Ben Simmons won’t shoot. Joel Embiid won’t get in shape. Philly needs a reboot, and tough decisions concerning the stars are on the horizon. The new coach will sell the front office on the idea that he, and he alone, can figure out the Embiid/Simmons problem, but even if he can, Al Horford is owed 81 mil over the next 3 seasons, while Tobias Harris is guaranteed 149 million over the next 4. Neither contract is tradeable, Horford is declining and an awful fit next to the two stars, and Harris isn’t the clutch, end of game scorer with the ball in his hands the team is paying for. Even if Simmons and Embiid can co-exist, is Philly a title contender as constructed? A lot of soul searching is in store this fall in Philadelphia.
8. Boston-Toronto. The series everyone wanted and expected has arrived. The Celtics and Raptors were 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the regular season in fast break points, so look for each team to run at any opportunity. Once the defenses get set, scoring will become difficult. The Raptors were 2nd and the Celtics 4th in defensive rating, and each team’s length will cause problems for the other. So who can score in the half court? Jayson Tatum has continued his breakout into superstardom in the bubble, shooting 3s well and penetrating more often. Jaylen Brown averaged 21.5 against the Sixers and shot 6 free throws a game, a welcome bump in his aggressiveness. If Kemba Walker’s 24 per game continues against Toronto, the Raptors are toast.
9. But the Raptors, with Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka, have the length and quickness to match-up with Boston’s rangy scorers. Will Toronto score on their end? They were middle of the league in half court scoring, so Boston will try to keep them from running. Is Pascal Siakam a good enough offensive player to carry the load? How will Kyle Lowry fare? It’s his team, and Lowry must drive their half-court offense. He needs to score, but also construct scoring opportunities for Siakam and open 3s for Fred VanVleet. He buried his playoff demons in an epic Finals Game 6 in Golden State last year, and that Lowry has to show up here. Without a big series from him, Boston wins.
10. Houston might be the better team, but Oklahoma City has fought harder in games 3 and 4. James Harden, a renowned playoff -what disappearer?- was fine with 14 in the second half of Game 3, but only took 8 shots, and 1 in overtime. His 13 in the second half of Game 4, also fine, came on 14 shots. The Rockets can’t afford fine from their MVP. Houston designed their offense to utilize his talents. Any drop off from him is trouble. Chris Paul is controlling games for OKC and attempting to bury some of his own playoff demons. While Paul has a litany of poor playoff performances, no one questions his heart. His team is under-manned and shooting deficient, but they play harder. Houston needs to prove they can match the Thunder’s intensity, or they won’t make it to a hyped second round series against the Lakers.
Can the NBA get this right? 2020 is standing on its head, desperate for attention and getting it. But can basketball steal the focus away and deliver a two-month playoff run unlike anything we’ve seen? The star power in the NBA is strong; no league markets its talent better. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and the rest have an opportunity unlike any other. They will transfix eyes on Orlando, to see if they can pull off a health and safety nightmare, and to see the stars. Will LeBron lead a rickety roster to his 4th title? Can Kawhi go back-to-back? Is Giannis ready to snag ownership of the league away from his older brethren? Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook conquer their playoff demons? What will this look like without fans?
Three teams can win the title. While others will provide interest, only the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks feel like contenders. Forget the notion of a tainted title because of the circumstances. In fact, the 2020 champ will have endured more adversity than almost any other in history. The rings won in October, after the nonsense this year has given us, will be iconic. So who will wear them?
Los Angeles Lakers
Why they’ll win the title: Not rocket science here. LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’re the best duo in the league. James will finish second in the MVP race; Davis fifth or sixth. Davis will also make either first or second team All Defense. While Davis’ defensive numbers are good, not stellar, what he does for LeBron on that end is unquantifiable. Davis protects the rim, hedges pick and rolls, and closes on 3 ball shooters at a doctorate level. He allows James do to what he does best: roam. LeBron’s defensive numbers are the best since he left Miami. Poor defenders in Cleveland, along with his blasé regular season attitude, created a fair narrative that his skills had slipped. AD’s length covers his teammates’ rear ends and allows LeBron to use his athleticism and smarts to read opposing offenses and react. A team bereft of top line defenders, Davis almost single-handedly vaulted the Lakers to the third ranking defense in the league.
But I have buried the lead. If the Lakers win the title, it’ll come down to one play, LeBron-Davis pick and rolls. The best passer and finisher in the league, the smartest player in the league, the most battled tested player in the league, controlling the offense and dishing to the most devastating finisher in the NBA. When the games slow down in the playoffs, buckets get tough. But LeBron manipulates defenses like few players in history. He’s methodical. He’s surgical. He’ll wait an extra tick before whipping a pass to Danny Green in the corner for an open 3. He’ll push the pace off defensive rebounds if he sees an advantage. He moves his teammates around at will, searching for preferable match-ups and court spacing. James will create good shots for either himself or his teammates when possessions become essential. That ability, to score points in the tightest situations, separates champions. No player is more prepared to play in the bubble and all the challenges it will bring than LeBron James. The playoffs reveal fear every year. There is none in 23.
Why they’ll lose: After 1 and 2, this roster is hot garbage. Avery Bradley opted out of the bubble, and his absence hurts, especially on defense. While Danny Green is a powerful wing defender, Bradley is quicker and more capable of guarding opposing point guards. With the injury to Rajon Rondo keeping him out for most of the playoffs, Bradley gave L.A. another ball handler other than LeBron. Now who handles the rock when LBJ sits? Quinn Cook? Troy Daniels? J. R. Smith? Dion Waiters? Have fun with that ragtag mix of misfits. Alex Caruso must step up for the Lakers in the bubble. Solid all season, he and LeBron are the best 2 man combo on the team, at plus 20.9 per 100 possessions. At 18 minutes per game, he’s averaged 5 points and 1.8 assists, however. Is he ready for big minutes handling the rock for a title contender?
Is anyone on this roster? Davis has playoff experience, but none as a title favorite and LeBron sidekick. The pressure on him will be immense. Kyle Kuzma was unsteady in the regular season. Give me Danny Green in crunch time. The rest of the Dwight Howards and Jared Dudleys are all yours.
Los Angeles Clippers
Why they’ll win the title: Kawhi Leonard. He established himself as one of the five best players in the league, with an argument for the one spot, with an epic title run with the Raptors that showcased every talent he possesses. After his switch on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference Finals, Giannis wilted, along with the Bucks. He carried the offensive load on a team made up of third options, averaging 30.5, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and almost 2 steals per. Now he’s head of perhaps the best talent in the league. Montrezl Harrell is the likely sixth man of the year, Lou Williams has won the award multiple times and is a walking bucket off the bench, and Patrick Beverley is the dog every team needs in the playoffs that will outwork the opposition while barking at them throughout a series. Then there’s Paul George. Injuries are an issue, but the layoff should find him healthy. An MVP candidate throughout much of last year, George only bows to his teammate Leonard as the best two-way player in the league. If the James-Davis pick and roll is the ultimate weapon, George and Leonard provide the best opportunity to neutralize it. Those match-ups in crunch time of a Western Conference Finals will be epic.
Landry Shamet provides shooting off the bench, Ivica Zubac has played sneaky well in the starting lineup, and Marcus Morris is a prototypical body to steal minutes for George and Leonard on defense against LeBron. And Morris shot 41% from 3 on the season. No roster in the league has the combination of talent and experience that the other L.A. team possesses.
Why they’ll lose: Some in-fighting occurred between the holdovers from last year’s spunky Clippers team and the recent additions. Did the layoff allow them to re-focus on what’s important? How will Paul George fare? Early in his career, his playoff battles with LeBron pushed those Heat teams to the brink. Can George sit behind Leonard, or will he disappear at crucial moments? PG13’s so-so ball handling skills rear their head at inopportune times, so he needs to knock down open jumpers and eliminate crunch time turnovers. And can they handle size? Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and even Steven Adams could give them fits in a 7 game series. Harrell will see 4th quarter minutes at center, yet he’s only 6’8”. Zubac has been good, but does Doc Rivers trust the unathletic big man in high-pressure situations? Will Paul George or Kawhi Leonard have to guard skilled opposing big men? An interesting sub-plot to watch as the playoffs progress.
Why they’ll win the title: They’re the number 1 offense in the league. Their defensive rating per 100 possessions also leads the league by 3.3 points. Giannis is the unquestioned MVP. LeBron was excellent in leading his Laker team, but perhaps it’s Giannis’ league now. 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, in only 31 minutes per game. He dominates opponents in the paint with deft footwork and power. He glides in the open floor, the most devastating fast break in basketball. And the defense. He stretches from baseline to baseline, a rim protector, on ball stopper, and rotation expert rolled into one. Bucks GM Jon Horst stacked the roster with excellent defenders (Brook Lopez deserves an All Defense nod, and Eric Bledsoe strong consideration), but Antetokounmpo is on another level. He cares, and it shows by his hustle and desire to gut opponents. Giannis didn’t come to make friends, and a title is the only acceptable outcome for Milwaukee. If the Clippers don’t have the best roster in the league, the Bucks do. George Hill, Khris Middleton, and Kyle Korver all shoot over 40% from 3. Ersan Ilyasova and Wes Matthews are over 36%, devastating shooting to arrange around Giannis. And that number 1 defense? They do things differently that most. Milwaukee has allowed the most 3s made and taken against them in the league, yet they stifle the paint, only allowing teams to shoot 41% against them on the season. They rarely foul; teams shoot the sixth lowest amount of free throws in the league against them. They must keep LeBron and Kawhi off the line in any Finals matchup.
Why they’ll lose: Can they afford to give 3s to Toronto, Boston, or either of the L.A. teams? Mike Budenholzer has been outstanding in Milwaukee, but refuses to budge from what they do in a seven-game series. Being who you are is great, but small tweaks make the difference. The Bucks must adjust their defensive philosophy according to their opponent. If a second round match-up against the Heat, the best shooting 3 ball team in the league, occurs, Milwaukee must adapt. Miami lines up well with them, and a few games of hot outside shooting may put them on the ropes.
Will Eric Bledsoe show this postseason? Describing Bledsoe’s performance in last year’s playoffs as a train wreak would be too kind. He was unplayable against Toronto’s Lowry/VanVleet backcourt, benched in favor of George Hill. Malcolm Brogdon was Milwaukee’s best guard last postseason, but he’s now in Indiana. Bledsoe has rebounded, averaging 15 on 35% 3 shooting and 5.4 assists per game while playing defense at an All NBA level. He has to produce this year, or the Bucks won’t win the title. His defense is too important to be on the bench during crunch time if he becomes a human turnover and brick layer on offense. As he goes, the Bucks will go.
What will James Harden look like with a four-month rest leading into the playoffs? Perennially gassed by May from the load placed on his shoulders in the regular season, is Harden a playoff choker, or just overused in the regular season? We’ll find out in the bubble. Throw in a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook, and the Rockets are the league’s biggest conundrum. A title would surprise, but any other result would not. First round loss? Sure. Western Conference Finals? Maybe. A roster built to run opponents off the floor and hoist 3’s from everywhere, they’ve once again redefined what small ball means. They start no one over 6’8”, and while Tyson Chandler (7’0”) may see sporadic minutes, look for the Rockets to run opposing bigs off the floor. While Harden and Westbrook will draw the spotlight, the key to Houston’s success will be P. J. Tucker and Robert Covington. Both need to guard above their weight class on defense and punish power forwards and centers on defense by dragging them out of the paint and knocking down 3s. If Tucker and Covington succeed, the Rockets will surprise in the West.
The defending champs have mastered carrying a chip on their shoulder. Overlooked as the champs, the fans and players in Toronto are tired of being scoffed at, and they should be. Perhaps the best fit roster in the league, the Raps have length and shooting at every position. Pascal Siakam made MVP noise over the first two months of the season before injuries slowed his ascend to superstar. He’s a perennial All-Star, however, and Kyle Lowry’s clutch Game 6 in last year’s Finals removed the playoff choker tag from his career. Lowry is battle tested and tough. The second best defense in the league, try to find a weak spot. Marc Gasol, Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby are smart, long defenders who lock up opponents. While they lack the firepower to beat Milwaukee, a second round series against Boston could be a classic.
New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson, who else? While my Lonzo Ball love is well documented, and he and Zion are glorious together, Pels games are must watch because of the rookie. Now in shape, the future of the league is here. Though New Orleans’ goal will be to play their way into the 8-9 Western Conference play-in game, the groundwork for their future will begin construction in Orlando. Are Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Derrick Favors, and Jrue Holiday the correct pieces around the phenom? Can they make a push for the Western Conference Finals as soon as next year? Williamson is that good, but are his teammates? GM David Griffin can’t afford to waste one off-season in New Orleans. Every game played by New Orleans in the bubble will be an evaluation for how high their expectations will be next year.
Jayson Tatum made the leap in February. 30 points and 8 rebounds on 49% shooting, 48% from 3, the numbers, and his on-court confidence, screamed superstar. Thrust into championship contender talk, Boston seems to be a smidge short. But what if February Tatum makes his way to Orlando? Jaylen Brown has some believing he’s the better of the two players. Kemba Walker makes big shots in big moments, and Marcus Smart wins games. Giannis is a tough match-up on a smallish Boston team, however. Their lack of size, less of an issue against Toronto, will prove costly in the Eastern Conference Finals.
We should consider them with the title contenders. What happened? Philly posted the best home record in the league, yet the 20th best road mark. What does that mean in Orlando? Confused? Welcome to the 2019-2020 76ers. Joel Embiid is engaged, sometimes. What kind of shape will he be in? He and Ben Simmons are a janky fit. Brett Brown moved Shake Milton into the starting lineup during bubble scrimmages to allow Simmons to play more power forward. But is taking the ball out of his hands, and deadening his passing abilities, the right move? And why has Al Horford been such a poor fit? His offense and shooting has suffered with less space provided to him by his Philly teammates, and another year on his body has made him 5% less effective on defense. Listen, the Sixers have the talent to make a Finals push. But the questions only continued to pile up throughout the season. How many are too many?
It feels like the Lakers. The Bron-Davis duo is too good on both ends of the floor, and James has stared down more adversity in his career than perhaps any player in history. He was built for this moment, and at 35 his title chances are dwindling. The Bucks and Clippers are deeper, and probably better teams. But when buckets in the closing minutes get tough, I know I can rely on that James-Davis pick and roll. One of the greatest to ever do it gets his fourth ring.
The unfair pressure on Collin Sexton started the moment his name was announced 8th during the 2018 draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ franchise was about to lose LeBron James for the second time; another long rebuild awaited. The pick acquired from the Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade, the one Koby Altman refused to swap to add one more piece for a chance to dethrone the Warriors, was used on a 19-year-old from Alabama. Sexton was the new savior.
The adversity has washed over Sexton’s career. One upheaval of the system, or his role in it, after another. The vets grew tired of his style before Thanksgiving last year. A coaching change from Ty Lue to Larry Drew. A Rising Stars snub. The drafting of another small guard. A coaching change to John Beilein. Division among fans over his long-term role. More head butting with vets (Kevin Love). A coaching change to J. B. Bickerstaff. Criticisms of his game, his lack of defense or passing, and his eventual fit in the league are fair. The tide is shifting on Collin Sexton, however.
A week in which he averaged 31 per and 2 team wins has furthered the narrative change. Instability and indecisiveness among the front office and coaching staff stunted his development; unfair expectations were unreachable. The comparison I made to Russell Westbrook is on point in this respect. Both players play hard and fast, and fans have chastised them far more for what they can’t do than credited them for the havoc they cause opposing defenses.
Since the Cavs traded Jordan Clarkson on December 23 and the coaching staff gave Sexton more scoring responsibility, he’s averaging almost 22 per game. Sexton is quick; his speed and hesitation moves allow him to get his shot against any defender. Only 20 players in the league net more per game. Sexton’s ability to get consistent buckets cannot be dismissed. The 76ers, for instance, will probably fall short of expectations, in part because of a lack of a ‘me first’ scorer late in games.
And he’s taking better shots. Last year, 35% of Sexton’s shots were mid-range jumpers; that number is 22% in ‘19-20. His eFG% is 51.4% this season, up from 48% a year ago. He’s become pickier about where he fires from and has gotten smarter at using screens to get to his spots. Whatever criticisms fans and media members have of his game, Sexton isn’t a chucker.
But can he pass? Will he ever develop into a playmaker? These improvements have been more incremental. Sexton seems to want to get his teammates involved, yet struggles to see the nuances in the passing game. He fails to make the correct reads. On a break against the Celtics, Kevin Porter (33.5% from 3) was on his right behind the line; Matthew Dellavedova (21%) on his left; both wide open. He dished to Delly, and the shot took out a fan. Sexton’s bull mentality serves him well as a scorer, yet curbs his development when getting his teammates involved.
There are signs of improvement, however. He’s averaged 4.3 assists since the All-Star break. On two straight possessions against San Antonio he made passes he wouldn’t have seen even a month ago. The progression is obvious.
Sexton doesn’t have to lead the league in assists. He’s beginning to reap the benefits of his improved vision, however. It opens driving lanes when defenders have to wait that extra tick before helping against him. His enhanced passing led to his scoring outburst last week. The Cavs have others who can initiate offense. Sexton just has to do it enough to remain unpredictable.
The NBA creates this early conclusion jumping by placing 18-19-year-old kids in losing situations. Fan bases expect greatness from players who aren’t physically or emotionally mature enough to deliver it. Cleveland’s franchise thought it grew into a contending outfit after 4 years of employing one of the greatest of all-time and expected to stay there. It doesn’t work that way. Teams gutted because of cap hell and exiting stars, especially those in less desirable markets, don’t recover from those losses. Sexton isn’t a perfect player, few are. He fights, plays hard, and has never missed an NBA game despite his size, qualities that should play well in Cleveland. His scoring ability is rare and will only improve. Instead of judging Collin Sexton against what he can’t do, focus on the talents he brings to the organization. He won’t carry a franchise, but that isn’t his job. Allow Sexton to be his own player; it’s Koby Altman’s job to fit the correct pieces around him.
What’s What Around the League
1.Jae Crowder can stop bricking threes whenever. Though his percentage is bad from behind the arc (32%), it’s the shots he misses that are most disturbing. 68% of his 3’s are wide open or come with no defender within 4 feet. Teams allow him to shoot from deep and he doesn’t punish them. Though the league seems to like Crowder, execs pass his contract around the league like the flu. With the plethora of young shooters eager to contribute off Miami’s bench, the Heat would be wise to leave Crowder in his warm-ups during the playoffs.
2. What’s going on in Brooklyn? A “mutual separation” with Kenny Atkinson last weekend should send off alarm bells to Nets fans. Atkinson was an integral part of turning the asset poor Nets into a desirable free agent destination for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. With both missing essentially the entire season, Atkinson has taken a roster of 4s and 5s and guided them into the East playoffs. Considered by many as one of the best young coaches in the league, something stinks. Durant and Irving are mercurial; neither expressed confidence in Atkinson. Regardless, this isn’t a hopeful sign for the future in Brooklyn. Is there a coach alive that can placate these two? A franchise expecting to compete for a title in the coming years may be in for more turmoil than they’ve bargained for.
3. The Lonzo Ball bandwagon boards here. Lonzo is the engine that drives New Orleans. He’s a winning play maker, doing the things successful teams need to stack victories. Always pushing, Lonzo leads the breakneck New Orleans pace, and with weapons like Zion, Brandon Ingram, and Jrue Holiday on the break, the Pels run opponents ragged. With his improved shooting (38% from 3, up from 31% in L.A.), aided by a change in his arm and elbow placement on release, excellent defense, and superb passing, Lonzo is the glue that will hold the Pelicans together for years to come. Though facing a steep challenge to make the playoffs (4 games back of Memphis with 18 to play), they’ll be staples in the Western Conference bracket soon. Ball will be an important, and overlooked, part of their success.
5. When NBA talking heads get bored, the drive to create a narrative kicks into overdrive. LeBron James’ and the Lakers’ big weekend has reopened the MVP race for some; those in need of something to talk about. Victories over the Bucks on Friday and the Clippers on Sunday have plenty jumping on the “James for MVP” bandwagon. LeBron is an all-timer; no discussion there. In fact, the Lakers are now the prohibitive favorites. With LeBron and Anthony Davis dominating, who their teammates are seems immaterial. Can one weekend reshape the MVP race, though?
6. The Bucks are three games better in the standings. Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t have a top-five talent playing alongside him. Need numbers?
Player Efficiency Rating
Box Plus Minus
Value Over Replacement
PPG, APG, RPG per 36 minutes
The per 36 numbers matter because Giannis averages 30 minutes per game. He’s missed Milwaukee’s last two, and Phoenix and Denver waxed them. LeBron deserves every ounce of praise thrown his way. To do what he’s doing given his age and minutes played over his career is stupefying. There’s a better-than-average chance his experience and intelligence will take over in the playoffs, and he’ll win his 4th title. He isn’t the MVP, however.
7. Which brings us to Kawhi Leonard. He’s missed too many games, and the Clips coast through too many others for him to sniff the MVP race, but he’s made it clear his goal is to manage his body for the playoffs. The L.A. match-up seems inevitable; LeBron has Davis, while Kawhi has a deeper roster around him. Paul George will need to step up to offset the damage Davis will do to the Clippers interior, but the heavy lifting falls on Leonard. His run in last year’s playoffs was historic, yet he missed Kevin Durant and LeBron James. With the power of a title and a Finals MVP in his pocket last summer, he made moves befitting of the league’s alpha. Since 2012, only Kawhi has stood toe-to-toe with LeBron and vanquished him without a roster stacked with 4-5 Hall of Famers. If Leonard does it again this year, the league’s G.O.A.T. will be indisputable.
8. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a future All-Star. Not sure what this is.
9. Lou Williams shoots the 3 at 36%, but how much better would he be if he just took the easy ones? Channeling J. R. Smith, Williams turns simple, wide open jumpers into something else by taking 1-2 dribbles and falling to his left instead of just catching and shooting. They look pretty when they drop, but hurt his team when they don’t. Twice against the Lakers Sunday, Williams went for style points instead of, you know, actual points. Include the fact that the Lakers hunted Lou on defense, and Sunday was a rough one for the perennial Sixth Man of the Year. The Clippers will need more from Williams in the playoffs.
10. Utah against the Raptors Monday night at home: Bojan Bogdanovic 5 points, 2 assists, 24 minutes, -23 Rudy Gobert 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block, 31 minutes, -22 Donovan Mitchell 11 points, 3 assists, 34 minutes, -30 The Jazz should have been considered a sleeper for a Finals appearance after acquiring Bogdanovic and Mike Conley in the off-season, but things have gone sideways. Conley, confusingly, doesn’t fit. Mitchell scores sporadically; Gobert’s defense has even fallen off a bit. Jordan Clarkson may be the most consistent player on the team, which says a mouthful. Even with a successful regular season, the questions concerning their playoff readiness would surround the organization. What seems more likely now, a Finals run or a first round loss to the Thunder?
Perhaps the thing missing from this Cleveland Cavaliers team is something unseen or undefined. Collin Sexton is a bucket getter, while Andre Drummond snarls rebounds and junks his way into 16-20 points per night. Darius Garland has moments, but his inexperience shows more often than not. Cedi Osman, Dante Exum, and even Tristan Thompson lack it, and it holds them back. Most of the parts on Cleveland’s roster have no feel.
To reach another level in the NBA, players and coaches need to understand the game and what to give at any moment. LeBron James is one of the greatest players in history because of his size, speed, passing acumen, and work ethic. James’ most important quality, however, is his intelligence. Distinguishing when to get his teammates involved versus when to take over a game on his own. Is he needed on defense, or is his energy best saved on offense? His team is getting destroyed on the boards; LeBron rebounds. Kyle Kuzma heats up; James feeds him the ball. Danny Green is struggling defensively; James takes his man for a four-minute stretch. LeBron is the obvious example, but other players in the league feel the game, knowing what it needs from them.
It’s the reason Kevin Porter Jr. is the future of the Cavs’ franchise. Though only 19, Porter has the feel his teammates lack and the abilities to give what they need from him. He isn’t the best scorer or rebounder, passer or defender. He does a little of everything.
Feel on the court is the innate ability to make the right play. Cross-court passes to the open man for a corner three. When to attack the basket off the pick and roll, and when to take the shot or dish to the roll man. Pushing the ball in transition, or pulling back to half-court to run offense. Though young and still mistake prone, these are the things Porter executes better than his teammates. He sees the floor well, knowing where his teammates are at all times. His talent level, size, and athletic ability contribute, but Porter understands the game.
Per 36 numbers aren’t gospel, but they give a peek into Porter’s future. 15.5 points, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 5 rebounds, and a half a block. Nothing noteworthy, except that he gives the Cavs a little of everything. And he’s just a rookie. Porter spent the first month of the season lost, struggling to fit on an NBA roster. A 30 point game last week. Six assists in 26 minutes against Philadelphia. Four 2 or 3 steal games over the last month. He’s gaining confidence in his place in Cleveland and the NBA.
If the current rebuild transitions into a franchise competing for the playoffs within a few years, it will be because of Kevin Porter. Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., and maybe Dylan Windler can be nice pieces on a good team, but Porter has star potential. Playoff teams need an All-Star, someone capable of getting crunch time buckets in isolation and creating open looks for teammates. Porter possesses those talents. Will he mature into that player?
What’s What Around the League
1.If the Clippers’ roster has a problem, it is a lack of size. Yet on the buyout market, L.A. signed another score first guard from Detroit’s scrap heap, Reggie Jackson. Since a useful stretch in Oklahoma City off the bench in the Durant/Westbrook years, Jackson has gotten paid and seen his worth plummet. Can he be of use to the championship hopeful Clippers? A 10 point 7 assist outing Friday in a huge win against the Nuggets notwithstanding, anything Jackson brings to the Clips is redundant. What does he do differently, or better, than Lou Williams? Is he going to out shoot Landry Shamet? Will the 6’3” guard lock up the opposition on defense in crunch time? It’s difficult to envision Jackson playing any meaningful minutes in May and June for the Clippers; this signing was done to keep him from the cross hallway competition rather than help the Clips.
2. Bradley Beal has erupted over the last week, averaging 41.5 per to climb into 2nd in the league in scoring. Bereft of anyone to help carry the scoring load or exert any effort defensively, Wizards’ games are only a stage for Beal to cook. Will he hit 12 threes? Can he score 60 while being tripled teamed? Beal is one of the top 15-20 players in the league, giving the Wiz an interesting decision to make. Trade rumors swirled in the off-season before he signed a two year, 72 million extension to the 5 year, 127 million dollar deal signed in 2016. Does Washington see any long-term success between Beal and John Wall, if and when Wall returns from an injured Achilles, or would the franchise rather have the massive haul it would receive by trading Beal? Two young players and multiple 1st rounders for the dynamic guard would make the front office think. New Orleans has a stash of picks from the Anthony Davis trade, as does OKC from their myriad of transactions. Both teams are on the rise and would benefit from a star instead of an abundance of future rookies. Beal, Ingram, Lonzo, and Zion? Sign me up.
3. The Nuggets have stayed in the 2-4 position all season out West, and Nikola Jokic, after a slow start, deserves to be in the MVP discussion once again. Denver has title aspirations, however, and will need more than Jokic’s passing and shot making to advance in the Western Conference playoffs. The leap Jamal Murray made in last year’s playoffs turned into a back slide for most of the season, yet Murray has shown signs of stepping back into the leadership role he must garner in order for the Nuggets to compete with the Lakers and Clippers. Averages of 24 points and 5.6 assists over his last 8 portend an awakening for Murray, an always intriguing but never-quite-consistent conundrum for Mike Malone. Gary Harris, Murray’s young backcourt mate, has struggled all season, leading many to call for his benching. Denver can’t afford growing pains from both. In the year of the duo, Denver’s is the weakest. Murray needs to be a reliable force, a strong two behind Jokic, for the rest of the season and playoffs if the Nuggets are to contend.
4. Nutmegging is cute at all, but watch yourself around vets.
5. Doug McDermott is an analytics department’s wet dream. 54% of his shots are 3’s, and he makes 43% of them. 26% of the rest of his shots are within 3 feet; he feasts off of defenses overplaying him, back-dooring opponents to death. His size (6’7”) makes him an adequate defender, and his 7 million salary is a steal. While Victor Oladipo eases his way back into playing shape, it’s fair to wonder how much damage the Pacers could do in the playoffs. With the Bucks blow torching the league and Toronto and Boston beginning to separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference pack, Indiana is once again the forgotten squad. Perhaps the star power isn’t there and Oladipo will need until next season to return to 100% from his injury. The Pacers are deep, however, and T.J. Warren (22 ppg last 7) seems more comfortable in Indy. Watch out for them in May.
6. Injuries are killing Portland’s chances of making the playoffs. They’re missing four starters and the one that matters most, Damian Lillard, hasn’t dressed for any of the Blazers’ last six games. The 8th seed race in the West will provide needed intrigue over the last third of the NBA season, and while the masses are rooting for a Zion-LeBron 1st round matchup, Memphis, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, and even Phoenix are on the periphery of the race. While N.O.-L.A. is glitzy, Portland would provide the biggest chance of an upset. Lillard and C. J. McCollum are battle tested; they know how to score against defenses designed to stop them. For all the Lakers’ size, their guard play lacks punch. Portland has slogged through this season; only Lillard’s 6 game, 48 point average onslaught produced any consistency. LeBron and Anthony Davis are the best duo in the league, but they don’t want any part of a hot Portland backcourt in the 1st round.
7. This is obscene.
8. Caris LeVert is a young but dynamic player; his 51 point outburst last night in Boston is evidence of that. Injuries have disrupted his entire career, however. He’s only played over 60 games once in his 4 years in the league. Brooklyn will sneak into the East playoffs because of the garbage at the bottom of the conference, but the real question for the Nets is how he’ll look beside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant next year. LeVert is shooting 41% overall, 38% from 3, and 30% on jump shots. How will that play alongside two All-Stars? Is he someone who needs the ball in his hands? If so, he may benefit Brooklyn as a sixth man. He has good size and shows promise on the defensive end (3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor). After a red-shirt year, the pressure in Brooklyn will ratchet higher in 2021. Finding the correct role for LeVert will be paramount.
9. Ben Simmons has a back injury that will sideline him at least two weeks. Joel Embiid’s shoulder gets re-tested next week. Al Horford doesn’t fit, and rumors swirl that Philadelphia will try to move him over the summer. The 76ers’ season can be saved with a run to the Finals, but is that realistic? The injuries never stop, and the pieces don’t fit. If the likely implosion occurs in May, Brett Brown will get canned and Simmons or Embiid (likely Simmons) will be on the trading block. Have fun with that Elton Brand.
10. Per usual, dysfunction, injury, and in-fighting plagued Sacramento this season. Though a strong second half has them on the edge of the Western Conference playoff race, the Kings organization still cannot get out of its own way. Buddy Hield and Dewayne Dedmon (before being traded to Atlanta) fought with teammates and the organization early, and De’Aaron Fox’s injuries almost killed any shot the franchise had of carrying over success from last season’s 39 win team. Perhaps the quickest player in the league, Fox speeds up Sacto’s pace, allowing Marvin Bagley (only 13 games played this season), Hield, Richaun Holmes, and Bogdan Bogdanovic to excel in the open court. The Kings are surging behind a healthy Fox, winners of three straight and up to 9th in the West. A future exists where the Kings are a perennial Western Conference playoff team and Fox an annual All-Star. Can this young core overcome their inept organization?
Christmas is all about traditions. The decorating of the tree, the unwrapping of gifts, Cousin Eddie, the NBA on T.V. The pillars of the holiday are Clark W. Griswold and the chance to overindulge on basketball. Though two months old, most consider Christmas Day to be the unofficial start of the NBA season. The league takes full advantage of its ownership of the day by showcasing the best players and rivalries to viewers who may be tuning in for the first time. So whether you’re trying to catch up on the happenings in the league over the first quarter of the season, or looking for something witty to say to your family while the games play in the background during the unwrapping of gifts, here’s a preview of the Christmas Day games and an abundance of Christmas Vacation GIFs to help describe them.
Boston Celtics-Toronto Raptors
The day kicks off with the defending champs playing host to the Celtics, two Eastern Conference teams on the periphery of the title conversation. Boston’s young, talented forward duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, after disappointing seasons a year ago, are thriving once again. Both are in the conversation for All-Star game spots. Gordon Hayward has returned to All-Star form as well despite missing time with injuries. The biggest change, however, has been the switch from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker at point guard. Irving is enigmatic and aloof. He clashed with his young teammates and struggled in a leadership role. Enter Walker, a more affable leader only looking to win after many disappointing years in Charlotte. The fighting and backstabbing has ended in Boston and the Celtics have the toughness to compete in the playoffs with Eastern Conference behemoths Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Kyrie hate lingers in Boston, however, and is holding them back. They need it off their chests once and for all.
After winning the title, then losing Kawhi Leonard, most expected the Raptors to free-fall, even enter tank mode. Strong leadership from Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka, combined with Fred VanVleet’s ability to carry over his success in last year’s Finals has kept Toronto in the Eastern Conference mix. The reason for the Raptors’ early season success, however, is Pascal Siakam. He’s replaced Leonard as a legit MVP candidate, averaging 25 a game and playing elite defense. Siakam is torching the league.
Milwaukee Bucks-Philadelphia 76ers
Presumptive Eastern Conference finalists before the season, the Bucks have buzz sawed through the league. At 26-4 they’ve blazed out of the gate, owning the best record in the league without the help of a non-caloric silicon based kitchen lubricant.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is dominant. The obvious MVP choice to this point, he’s added the 3 ball to his game, shooting it at 34% on the season. He hit a career high 5 to defeat the Lakers last week. Bucks fans shouldn’t take him for granted.
Embiid is the league’s most dominant smack talker, despite promising in the off-season to curtail his trash talking. After clashing early in the season with rival Karl Anthony-Towns, leading to a semi-wrestling match, it’s clear Embiid is a dog with a bone.
Houston Rockets-Golden State Warriors
After Klay Thompson’s ACL injury in the Finals, losing Kevin Durant in free agency, and trading Andre Iguodala, Steph Curry broke his hand early in the season and will miss at least two more months. The Warriors are a shell of themselves, a team gassed and torched after five straight Finals appearances.
Draymond Green is the only healthy reminder of what the Warriors were, and he’s slogging through the season, watching DeAngelo Russell jack up shots and a slew of journeymen and rookies desperate to find a home in the league. With the worst record in the NBA, it won’t get any better for Golden State.
The Harden-Westbrook marriage in Houston is proceeding as expected. Westbrook has taken a backseat to James Harden, allowing him to control games with his over dribbling, foul drawing, step back three taking style. It works, however, as Harden leads the league in scoring, posting an eye-popping 38.8 points a game. Viewers hate watching the Rockets, yet Houston doesn’t care what the rest of the league has to say about their style.
Problems will arise in the playoffs, however, if Westbrook can’t improve his 3 point shooting (23.7%). Playing off the ball, Russ will have to hit open jumpers behind the line to keep defenses from packing the lane.
L.A. Clippers-L.A. Lakers
Christmas’ marquee match-up, the two L.A. teams have hoarded top end talent and, along with Milwaukee, are the three teams most likely to raise the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. A duel of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George vs. LeBron James and Anthony Davis is the best the league has to offer.
They’ll battle throughout the year. The Clippers, with Leonard and George, along with Patrick Beverley, have three of the best individual wing defenders in the league, and can shut down anyone defensively. Leonard proved his chops in last years’ playoffs and, despite some load management criticism, may still be the best player in the league come June. LeBron took offense to his torch being passed to Kawhi last off-season, however, and has teamed with Anthony Davis to form one of the best duos in the league’s history. If LeBron stays locked in and AD continues his MVP-type season, the Lakers are title favorites regardless of their so-so supporting cast. The rest of the league would love to rid themselves of these two juggernauts.
New Orleans Pelicans-Denver Nuggets
An attempt to showcase rookie phenom Zion Williamson by the league backfired as Zion’s knee injury lingers. The Pelicans, expected by many to push for a playoff spot, have floundered without the first overall pick. Many thought the rest of the roster would tread water until his return, but other than Brandon Ingram (averaging 25 a game) New Orleans has disappointed.
At first expected back by mid-December, the wait for Zion’s debut continues. Some reports have him returning after the All-Star break; others say he’ll miss the entire season. Fans’ frustration continues to mount, eagerly anticipating the debut of the best talent to enter the league in a decade.
While most of Denver’s roster worked out during the off-season in hopes of a run to the Finals, their MVP candidate, Nikola Jokic, took on all comers at the dinner table.
Jokic has been working his way into shape over the first two months of the season while his teammates have kept the Nuggets afloat, currently 3rd in the West. Denver is young and talented, but the road in front of them is steep. Without more from Jokic, rookie Michael Porter Jr., or a significant trade, a match-up against either L.A. team in the playoffs won’t end well.
Here’s hoping everyone has a joyous Christmas season. Happy Holidays and much success for all in 2020!