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 Top Ten

LeBron James, NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.Did anyone expect LeBron James to lose a playoff series to James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Their Western Conference Semifinal isn’t over, yet the path it will take is clear. The Rockets are better behind the superstars and play a scheme that will overtake basketball soon. But playoff basketball is different, and LeBron is, well, King. He makes everyone on the floor with him 10-15% better with his vision, intelligence, and leadership. James knows what his team needs. In the first quarter of Game 2, following a poor Anthony Davis performance, LeBron fed AD, dishing three assists and getting him 11 early points. He knows he needs a confident Davis to win this series, and the title. In the fourth, after Houston flipped a 16 point deficit into a 2 point lead, LeBron took over, scoring 8 and locking down on defense (2 blocks and 2 steals). LeBron James is one of the three best in history because he knows the game better than everyone on, and off, the court.

Coach LeBron

2. L.A.’s biggest hole in the bubble had been a ball handler and creator to take some ball distribution off LeBron’s plate. Enter Rajon Rondo. It was easy to dismiss Rondo’s need for the Lakers; his minutes have been a debacle most of the season. But he’s played in tense games and won a title. An old head was the elixir L.A. needed. 18 assists and 6 steals in Laker wins in Games 2 and 3 gives James someone to turn the offense over to when required. Though older, his defense is important too. He’s long and smart, and gives Frank Vogel someone to put on opposing ball handlers. They’re thin on wing defenders, and while Rondo is slower now and more apt to fall asleep, when locked in, he can disrupt offenses. The Lakers need less help because of LeBron. If Rondo continues playing this way, their title hopes soar.

3. James Harden is eviscerating the Laker defense. No one can stay in front of him. When not facing double teams, he gets to the basket with ease, either drawing help for an open 3, or getting layups or foul shots. But when he sits, blah. Russell Westbrook scored 30 Tuesday night, but remains….. off. He can reach the bucket at will, but settles for too many 15 footers that ricochet off the basket, taking out family members in the audience. Whether his bout with COVID-19 or the quad injury lingers is anyone’s guess. Harden attacks more and creates better shots for his teammates. The Rockets have another victory in this series in them, maybe two. Their scheme gives the Lakers fits and has caused Vogel to lessen his JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard minutes (smart). But LeBron is smarter than them, and they know it.

4. The obituary on the pathetic performance of the Milwaukee Bucks in the bubble has been written. Now tough decisions by their front office are due. Will Mike Budenholzer be back? When offered the super max extension this off-season, will Giannis Antetokounmpo sign it? The second question is most important, but the first affects their title chances for next year more. Coach Bud is exceptional, yet lacks the flexibility to make the moves postseason basketball demands. He’s style is comparable to Dusty Baker. While both have had great success in the regular season, neither bends when it matters most. It’ll likely cost both titles. But if he’s fired, who gets hired? Ty Lue, Billy Donovan, Nate McMillan, and Kenny Atkinson are a few free agent coaches available, but are any good enough to push this roster into the Finals? Hard to say, but Jon Horst better make sure Giannis is on board with any decision he makes.

5. Antetokounmpo will be a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and 4 time All NBAer at the end of this season. Any hopes of the Bucks ever winning another NBA title rest with him. Does he want to stay in Milwaukee? While other superstars have jumped to other organizations when failing with their current one, Giannis may be different. “Some see a wall and go in [another direction]. I plow through it. We just have to get better as a team, individually and get right back at it next season.” Doesn’t sound like someone ready to team up with Steph Curry or Luka Doncic. Here’s hoping he stays put. It would be refreshing to see a star fight for the franchise and city that drafted him and refuse the easier path. It would also make a title even more special to him.

6. Can the Miami Heat make the Finals? The Milwaukee match-up was tailormade for them. Jimmy Butler’s toughness, Bam Adebayo’s swiss army knifeness, and the 3 point shooting they can surround them with makes for an arduous opponent. Goran Dragic has averaged 21 per during the playoffs, giving the Heat an efficient, 3 level scorer, something Butler, for as great as he’s been, can’t provide. But will their defense hold up against either Boston or Toronto? They could build a wall and keep Giannis out of the paint, grinding Milwaukee’s offense to a halt because of his meager shooting touch. But their next opponent will have more weapons capable of attacking the rim and shooting from deep. Erik Spoelstra may need to shuffle his lineups. He’ll face tough offense vs. defense decisions in crunch time. Andre Iguodala or Duncan Robinson? How much to play Kendrick Nunn? Who will Kelly Olynyk guard if it’s Boston, and will they rather have Derrick Jones Jr.’s athleticism on the floor? He’ll need Jae Crowder to continue shooting well from deep. A 34% shooter from 3 during the regular season, Crowder is hitting 40% of his 3’s in the playoffs. His shooting allows Miami to have a plus defender in late without sacrificing floor spacing on offense. Spolestra is clever enough to find the answers, but the Heat will face more match-up questions in the Eastern Conference Finals than they did against the Bucks, making them the underdog.

7. Give it all to the Toronto Raptors. They aren’t as talented as the Celtics, but damn, their balls are steel. In eking out a victory in a for-the-ages Game 6 against Boston, the Raptors showed their hearts. Norman Powell hit two 3’s in the overtimes. Pascal Siakam struggled all game (and isn’t a number one option), yet drilled a huge jumper in the second overtime. And Kyle Lowry. Gone are the days in which Lowry fails in the playoffs. Lowry willed the Raps to the win on defense, frustrating bigger Celtics into turnovers late before swishing the de facto game winner over Kemba Walker in the second overtime. Toronto works for every ounce they get and showed again why they’re champions. A deserved winner of an exquisite playoff game.

8. Boston cannot lose this series. They’re the better team on both ends of the floor, yet are flunky when it gets tight. Their two main ball handlers in crunch time, Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, are struggling in those moments. Tatum’s stat line last night is nice (29 points, 14 rebounds, career high 9 assists), but he turned the ball over late and was indecisive with the smaller Lowry on him on multiple occasions. Kemba was awful (5 points on 2-11 shooting). He created a few easy buckets on lobs to Daniel Theis but otherwise couldn’t find himself. And the Raptors are going at him on D. He’s Boston’s weak link on that end and will continue to be Toronto’s target. Walker has never played in NBA games with these stakes. The Celtics need him in Game 7.

9. Did Marcus Smart ever show? He was Boston’s best player in Game 6, cool amongst the chaos. Smart’s 6 threes interpolated his stellar triple double (23 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). He and Jaylen Brown were the only Celtics ready for the moment. The C’s need better execution in crunch time, and if Kemba isn’t up to the task, put the ball in Smart’s hands. He’s maddening, unorthodox, and a winner. If his 3 ball is off, Toronto may go under screens against him, allowing them to work less on defense. But Smart finds a way. Brad Stevens is likely reticent to trust his playoff future to Smart, but he may have no other choice.

10. Clippers-Nuggets feels preordained because of Kawhi Leonard. He gets to wherever he wants on offense and takes whatever he wants of defense. His mid-range game is automatic (he’s shooting 69% on shots less than 10 feet from the rim). He’ll lead L.A. into the next round. The Clips don’t have an answer for Nikola Jokic, who may get them another victory in the series, but Kawhi, Paul George, and (mostly) Patrick Beverley have frustrated Jamal Murray. They’re too big and strong, and too good defensively for the 6’4” guard to shake. His eruption in the prior series guaranteed Doc Rivers would have a game plan designed to stop him. Gary Harris has been a bright spot for Denver’s future in this series, having a Fred VanVleet like resurgence following his return from injury. He’s shot 46% from 3 against L.A., up from 33% during the regular season, along with playing outstanding lock down defense on the Clipper wings. The Clippers are still sleep walking, however, coasting when possible and only motivated in near must win games. That won’t do against the Lakers. LeBron won’t allow them to cruise through any Conference Final games, and if they try, he’ll punish them. The time is now for the most talented team in the league to prove they can win the title.


Troy’s Top Ten

Giannis Antetokounmpo, NBA, NBA Playoffs

1.The Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo are in dire straits. A difficult match-up with a determined star and Hall of Fame coach, an expert at navigating the playoffs, has set the organization and its soon to be two-time MVP up for disaster. Milwaukee’s blistering regular seasons the past two years have positioned them as championship contenders, an identifier they don’t seem ready for. Coach Mike Budenholzer has proved this year and last, along with his stint in Atlanta, that, for as savvy as he is with X’s and O’s, he’s deficient at making needed adjustments in the playoffs. Giannis is a free agent after next year; he’s eligible to sign a super max contract extension after this one. If the Bucks cannot find a way out of this series and into the NBA Finals, the rumors of a Giannis exodus from Milwaukee becomes a tidal wave this off-season.

2. Game 1 screamed ineptitude from Milwaukee’s bench. Khris Middleton continued getting scorched, possession after possession, guarding Jimmy Butler in the fourth quarter. Yet Giannis, the Defensive Player of the Year, or even Wes Matthews, guarded Miami’s star. Giannis played dumb after, asserting he only followed coach’s orders. True, Budenholzer should have ordered the switch. Antetokounmpo has a responsibility as a leader, however. If he envisions himself a champion, he has to take the challenge to terminate an opponent flaming his team in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Especially considering his struggles on offense. The Bucks stagnated on that end too. No ball or player movement, Budenholzer staples, ground the Bucks to a halt. Middleton hucked up prayers, and Giannis tried dribbling into a sea of Miami defenders, turning the ball over and taking ill-advised shots early in the shot clock, rushing to beat the Heat before their defense settled. When Milwaukee ran pick and roll, regardless of the ball handler, with Giannis as the screener, they created looks for him and open 3’s for his teammates. They ignored it too often, however, and are staring at an opponent who doesn’t fear them. Trouble.

3. In the closing minutes of both fourth quarters, the Bucks strained to get points. Giannis and Middleton cannot get points on their own. Their teammates are standing and watching. This was the number 1 offense in the league? Minus George Hill, no one on the roster has played consistent, tough playoff minutes. Milwaukee is being outworked. Erik Spoelstra is embarrassing Mike Budenholzer. Giannis has played only 36 minutes in each game. MVPs cannot sit that long during the playoffs. The Bucks aren’t playing hard, or smart. And take a glance at these rosters. Who is the favorite again?

4. Though Miami figured to rain threes on the Bucks’ defenders in Game 1, Goran Dragic and Butler attacked. Without Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee’s perimeter defenders could not keep the Heat ball handlers in front of them, forcing Giannis and Brook Lopez into foul trouble early, and tentativeness late. Miami is liquid on offense, however, and flooded Milwaukee with 3’s in Game 2. Whatever Milwaukee tries on defense, the Heat has an answer. And they give a rip. Butler is a bona fide dog, a playoff closer in the truest sense. For all his shooting troubles, Butler feels the moment and delivers when his team needs him. Dragic has scored his entire career. He’s tricky with the ball and can score on all levels. Both are masters in the pick and roll, and using Bam Adebayo as a rim runner makes the top-rated Bucks defense look slow and unsure in the half court. The Heat are ready for their moment and have the only validated playoff closer in the series on their roster. Good luck, Milwaukee.

5. While the Raptors earned their playoff experience with a title last year, not having Kawhi Leonard to settle half court possessions is causing problems. The Celtics have the best go to scorer in the series (Jayson Tatum), and Boston’s superb transition defense stymied Toronto’s speed in Games 1 and 2. The Raps’ offense gums up. While Serge Ibaka has been great, shooting the 3 ball at 50% and providing length defensively, the rest of the squad is AWOL. Pascal Siakam needs to find more than 16 shots. He’s struggling to get easy buckets against Boston’s length. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet have to work Kemba Walker early and often, the weak link in Boston’s athletic, rangy defense. Whoever Walker is guarding has to attack him and force Boston’s defense into rotation. They tried this in Game 2 with success, yet didn’t remain disciplined enough to stay with the strategy. Boston is too good in transition for the Raptors to count on offense from the break. They have to get the Celtics moving on defense in the half-court, then knock down shots. They’re only shooting 32% from behind the arc in the series. That should change, but it starts with attacking Kemba.

More Kemba in the pick and roll, Toronto

6. Time to add Boston to the collection of title contenders. Only the Clippers can match their length on defense. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker are the best scoring trio in the league. Marcus Smart is maddening, a hate watch for anyone other than Celtic fans. He’s one of the best wing defenders in the league, however, gets every loose ball, and makes 3-4 plays per game that affect wins and losses. And once every couple of weeks he gets hot from deep and wins a game with his shooting. They’re size deficient, and Giannis could give them problems in the next round, as would the Lakers. The answer to whether they’re a true contender falls on Tatum. He’s been a superstar to this point, but will he keep it up? Tatum made it to the line 14 times in Game 2, a huge positive for Boston. He’s struggled early in his career with passivity. An aggressive Tatum is a must if the Celtics hope to challenge for the title. After this round, he’ll see either Giannis or Jimmy Butler, then Kawhi and Paul George or LeBron and AD. Is he ready to stand firm against the league’s elite?

7. Jamal Murray vs. Donovan Mitchell was the best show put on in the bubble. Why watch basketball, if not to see the ball go through the rim, and from deep? Murray shot 53% from 3, Mitchell 51%. Bad defenses? Yes. But these young’ns, questioned in the early stages of their careers (both are 23) whether they could lead teams, carried their rosters throughout this seven-game series. A “Can you top this!?” gunning contest erupted, and each showed an ability to meet the moment. The Nuggets are over matched against the Clippers, and Murray will struggle often with Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard in his jock. So what? Can they win titles? Are they perennial All-Stars? Do they deserve their max contracts? Forget the blather. Enjoy these two for what they are. Worry later about what they can be.

Murray’s shot making to end Game 6 is just………

8. Game 7 pressure showed itself in the Denver and Utah 80-78 final score, an enormous drop over the first six games, in which the teams averaged 234 points combined. If Denver hopes to compete with the Clips, however, they better hope they found some plus defensive lineups. Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Monte Morris all looked strong in Game 7, but the return of Gary Harris for the Nuggets was key. Harris hounded Donovan Mitchell in the closing minutes, forcing bad shots and swiping the ball away on Utah’s penultimate possession. Harris was, and is, a complete disaster on offense, however. 1-9 on Tuesday, he launched ill-advised shots early in the shot clock and looks uncomfortable putting the ball on the floor. Offense comes and goes for Denver’s defensive stalwarts, but they must be on the floor if the Nuggets have a chance at slowing L.A. on offense. For a competitive series, these guys must knock down open shots, relieving a bit of the scoring pressure off of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.

9. Just because the bubble is protecting players from COVID-19 doesn’t mean they can’t pick up something else. Marcus Morris seems to have contracted a case of Draymond Green disorder. He swung down on Luka Doncic in Game 6 of their first round series, earning an ejection and $35,000 fine. The league should have suspended him for at least another game. He targeted Doncic throughout the series, calling him a racially insensitive remark, stepping on his ankle, and waylaying the Dallas star with hard fouls. Morris claims he’s not dirty, yet continues with the non-basketball stuff. He’s taken on the role of enforcer, and regardless of whether he’ll cop to it, seems more interested in picking fights than playing basketball. If his antics continue against Denver, the league needs to take more drastic action.

10. James Harden saved himself with a game saving block on Lou Dort’s 3, allowing the Rockets to escape into the second round. Game 7’s typically turn sloppy, and Harden is still uncomfortable in win or go home situations. 17 points on 4-15 shooting provide another example of Harden’s timidity during legacy altering games. He becomes unsure of himself, taking bad shots and making questionable decisions on drives to the rim. The lack of success in the past has crept into his present mindset. The Rockets should push the Lakers in the next round. They match up well. L.A. has no answer defensively for Harden or Russell Westbrook. Anthony Davis will dominate, but can any of the ancillary Lakers punish the Rockets for going small? The Lakers can’t shoot and the Rockets will attempt to bludgeon them from 3. The Houston small ball experiment is on the ballot in round 2. But this is James Harden vs. LeBron James. The greatest thinker, maybe in league history, versus an unsure superstar in crunch time? An entertaining series, sure, but the result is obvious.

 

Troy’s Top Ten

NBA, NBA Bubble, NBA Playoffs

1.The Eastern Conference champion seemed a lock entering the bubble, but Milwaukee has looked……… off, and Toronto and Boston have taken turns as media darlings throughout the seeding games. But what about the Heat? Like almost everyone else, their play has been inconsistent, and Jimmy Butler missed three games before returning against Indiana. While Butler will decide their ceiling, the energy boosts come from Bam Adebayo. He starts fast breaks off of rebounds by pushing the pace on his own. His 5.1 assist per game average is eye popping for a center; his dishes are bettered at the position by only the best passing big man in history, Nikola Jokic. Adebayo is a powerful roll man on offense, while also able to find Miami’s plethora of 3 point shooters lined around the arc. He’s long on defense, quick, and in the right spots. No one guards Giannis, but Bam flustered him into a 6-18 shooting night in early March. His size, length, quickness, and take no B.S. attitude is the perfect antidote for Antetokounmpo. Consider: Miami led the league in 3 point shooting percentage on the season at 38.1%. The Bucks give up the most 3’s in the league. Milwaukee doesn’t want the Heat in Round 2.

2. Dallas’ young core of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have the Mavs in the playoffs, but for them to rise to title contender, they’ll need a reliable 3rd scorer. The Mavericks lead the league by 3 points per possession on offense, the best rating in league history. That number speaks to the brilliance of Doncic. Tim Hardaway Jr. has had a fantastic season after being thrown in by the Knicks in the Porzingis trade (15.3 points on 43% shooting, 39.8% from 3). The consistency just isn’t there, however. Look at his scoring numbers in the bubble. 2,22,8,8,27. Hard to count on that in the playoffs. Hardaway is an improved player, and valuable as a shooter flanking Luka. But his destiny is as a sixth man. Trey Burke’s 12.8 points and 43% 3 ball shooting in the bubble has been eye opening, but you want to count on that for a full season, or a big playoff series? Hardaway sliding down a notch, and finding a strong 3rd piece (Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan types) would make the Mavs a 2021 contender.

3. Among the arguments for the Warriors’ trade of De’Angelo Russell to the Timberwolves at the trade deadline for Andrew Wiggins and a protected 2021 1st rounder was they wouldn’t get more out of him and his max contract. But there’s always an opportunity cost. What if Philly blows it up during whatever this off-season looks like? Ben Simmons may be the perfect complement to Golden State’s star trio and would make the Warriors the favorites again in 2021. His defense, transition work, and passing acumen fit, and his lack of shooting becomes negligible next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Simmons for Russell and either the Warriors 1st this year, or that T-Wolves pick would have piqued interest from the Sixers. An adept pick and roll point guard in Russell, capable of knocking down 3’s next to Joel Embiid, along with a new head coach? Philly GM Elton Brand would have to think long. But Golden State’s trade for a blah Wiggins negated even the chance for a monster deal that would’ve improved both teams.

4. Bol Bol picked up minutes for the Denver Nuggets during the restart, and while it’s too early for judgment, there are glimpses of something. Being 7’2” makes him a rim protector, he can shoot 3’s like his dad, and this play shows at least some athleticism. He won’t give them anything in the playoffs, but Bol is an intriguing lottery ticket.

This kid has something. Is it anything?

5. As for Philly and Joel Embiid, he needs a swift kick to get physically and mentally ready to guide a contender. The Sixers are nowhere bound now that Simmons’ injured left knee will require surgery and keep him out for the rest of the season. With a chance to rally the troops after his teammate’s injury, Embiid huffed through the first half on Saturday against Orlando, scoring 6 points, before deciding to join the game in the second half, dominating the 3rd quarter and exerting the Sixers to a tougher than needed victory. The Embiid experience is frustrating. He could be the best player in the league if he got in shape and gave a rip. Will he ever care enough? The franchise needs an overhaul, if only to provide the shakeup needed to see what their star is about.

6. Ya’ll know his name. 37 points, 9 assists, 41% from three in the bubble. Dame Dolla, Dame Time. Whatever you call him, call him one of the best in the league. Damian Lillard has gone supernova the last two weeks, carrying the Portland Trail Blazers to the brink of the play-in 8-9 game out West by being the best player in Orlando. Lillard created some stink during shutdown, asserting that if the Blazers weren’t playing for anything, he wouldn’t leave the bench during the restart. He’s showing all now why the NBA used smart judgment in giving all teams invited a shot at the playoffs. The league has overlooked Lillard for All-Star games and All NBA teams in the past, but no more. 45 last Thursday. 51 Sunday. 61 Tuesday. Dame is one of the most clutch, big game players in the league, and now will be a lock when analysts argue their top ten players for the nth time. Only Steph is a better point guard, and Lillard gives Portland a puncher’s chance against the Lakers in round 1, though LeBron and AD likely are too much.

7. However, another, perhaps more unlikely, guard has also looked MVPish to this point. Devin Booker has dragged Phoenix to the brink of the play-in game. The Suns are 7-0 in the bubble and Booker, another under appreciated Western Conference guard, has graduated from sideshow on a loser to legitimate superstar. Wins will do that. He’s become a playmaker (6.5 assists on the year) and his shooting percentage has skyrocketed from his first two seasons (from 42% to 48.8%). DeAndre Ayton’s development on both ends helps, and Phoenix’s future, murky after suspect drafts and bad trades (T. J. Warren for cash considerations, oof) is more interesting now that the young’ns have flexed. Hope for a Phoenix-Portland play-in. Memphis has bombed in the bubble, but these two have been fire. Lillard vs. Booker this weekend, please.

8. Doug McDermott has no shot anyway, but what do you do with this? Harden makes 45 look easy, but shots like this aren’t. The most dangerous weapon in the NBA will, at worst, make the Rockets compelling.

9. The Goran Dragic/Derrick Jones Jr. pick and roll in the second quarter against the Pacers this week illustrates the danger the Heat pose in the playoffs. Dragic is perhaps the most over-qualified bench point guard in the league, able to shoot from distance and carve defenses in the pick and roll. Jones Jr., while smallish, is bouncy and quick, an outstanding rim runner. The Pacers couldn’t crack it, and other teams’ bench units are on alert. Miami’s can flip a series.

Dynamic pick and roll duo

10. Boston worked Toronto last week, a 122-100 thumping causing some to question their Toronto love. Boston’s long guards could give the Raptors smallish backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet fits. The Raps want to push the ball, and Brad Stevens’ aim in a playoff series will be to slow down Toronto’s deadly running game. The Toronto D will cause Boston fits though, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown will find scoring opportunities much different in the playoffs than last Thursday, when they posted 18 and 20 on 50% shooting. Two more evenly matched teams don’t exist. Other than L.A.-L.A., no other match-up is more anticipated in league circles. While the playoffs start next week, the first round may be a slog. But Toronto-Boston, Milwaukee-Miami, Lakers-Rockets, and Clippers-Nuggets second round match-ups are a dream. Bring on the playoffs.

All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com