Only one series (Houston-Utah) is tied up at 1-1 apiece, but the three other 2-0 series are as diverse in perception as they could be at this moment.
The public narrative today is that Golden State is the overwhelming NBA Championship favorite, but a New Orleans victory in Game 3 Friday will have the majority recalling how they predicted a six-game series in this matchup.
Just as funny is seeing how all the Philly fanatics are ready to jump ship after seeing the 76ers lose twice in Boston, while all the Toronto Raptors backers—like yours truly—simply will deny that we ever picked against LeBron in the first place.
Sometimes when down 2-0 in a series, the underdogs think they need to make an adjustment when that is not always the case. Such could be the scenario with head coach Alvin Gentry’s Pelicans, which—until the Golden State second-round playoff series—had been experiencing great success with his lineup of Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo. In 204 minutes together during the regular season, the quintet posted a +16.8 net rating per 100 possessions (97.4 defensive rating) and then posted a +30.1 net rating (126.3 offensive rating) versus Portland in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. However, it has not been as dominant versus Golden State in the second round thus far—+3.4 net rating (91.4 defensive rating) in 42 minutes through two games—but still, it’s an advantage. And it’s good for half the game, practically. If anything, you just want to fine-tune off this template for the 10-12 minutes in between the start and close of both halves. A perusal of tendencies shows New Orleans is best when it rests Mirotic first over Davis, and brings in Darius Miller to spot him. These same tendencies also show it is best if Holiday rests next, after Mirotic hits the sideline. When these two are brought back in the game, it is OK to rest Davis and Rondo—E’Twaun Moore can be subbed out anytime—while it is good to complement Mirotic and Holiday with Miller, Solomon Hill and Ian Clark. Not saying that is the recipe for an upset. Just saying, thus far, using those combos have been a way New Orleans has been maximizing its lineups. In a nutshell, it gives them a chance against Golden State as good as any other idea.
In sports, it is always tough to analyze when confidence is gone and the mind starts playing tricks on you. Nick Anderson at the line to shoot two free throws. Because just when everyone is convinced Scottie Pippen will never be able to get over the mental hump against the Detroit Pistons—migraine…migraine—Pippen passes all psychological tests and helps Michael Jordan win six of the next eight NBA Championships. Fans love the mental images of players choking—Charles Smith for the layup attempt again, again and again—when oftentimes, they only are losing to another superhuman putting up dynastic-type performances. For right when we count someone out at ever becoming a champion—Peyton Manning, John Elway—they prove the world wrong and become linked forevermore as champs that we forgot they ever struggled in the first place. With that backdrop, we now set up the tale of Toronto Raptors All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, who have gone 4-14 representing Toronto in their postseason matchups with the Cleveland Cavaleirs in the 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015 NBA Playoffs. Will the Raptors get a win in Cleveland in Games 3 or 4? Can they drown out the noise that could possibly consume them over the next few days? Right now, they are not playing half-bad, with DeRozan posting 46 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists through Games 1 and 2, with a .509 true shooting percentage, while Lowry has 39 points, 7 rebounds and 18 assists in 73 minutes, with a .764 true shooting percentage. Still, their greatest crime is that they are not posting LeBron James-type numbers, so they will hear the criticism all week long–and should they be eliminated, all year long as well. Is it fair? Is it permanent? Who knows? Who cares? They have bigger things to worry about right now than their legacy. Toronto needs a win.
Before anyone in that Philly locker room even thinks about panicking, realize this: The 76ers’ success this season has been built on defense. Just like Boston, who had the No. 1 defensive efficiency for 2017-18, Philadelphia had the best D in the East since the All-Star break. It is time for Philly to haunt Boston with its own devices. Yes, Al Horford may have neutralized Ben Simmons for a game and Horford may have success in future matchups. But remember, center Joe Embiid has done of good job of containing Boston’s two-point game, with the 76ers holding the Celtics to 24-of-50 shooting in Game 1 (48 percent) and 22-of-46 in Game 2 (48 percent). If they just go over screens—as they did in the first half—and contest three-point shooters from behind. Perhaps they will have better chance of decreasing three-point opportunities (Boston is 32-of-71 in the two games for 45 percent). Philadelpha will not win Games 3 or 4 if the Celtics keep making hay beyond the arc, especially since Embiid has done such a great job defensively of controlling the paint.
Anyone who saw Donovan Mitchell snatch that basketball out of P.J. Tucker’s grasp in Game 2 of the Utah-Houston series knows this rookie has superhuman strength. Anyone who saw him throw down that putback slam after bouncing Trevor Ariza off his 6-3, 215-pound body like a bumper car knows Mitchell is from some comic-book universe. And of course, those who witnessed Mitchell’s trackings at the 2017 NBA Combine know that no NBA rookie has close to the same standing vertical leap (36.5 inches) or three-quarter court speed (3.01 seconds). So all this begs the question: Is the 21-year-old Mitchell the League’s strongest guard ever? Stronger than Magic Johnson? More powerful than Mitch Richmond? One trend we noticed since the All-Star break: As the 2017-18 season gets longer, Spida gets stronger. In February, Mitchell averaged a 13.4 GameScore, which is a metric John Hollinger invented combining Player Efficiency Rating with game productivity. In March, Mitchell averaged a 14.2 GameScore. In April’s regular season games, Mitchell averaged a 15.9. Now in the playoffs, Mitchell averages a 16.6 GameScore, which derives from 26 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in 39 minutes per game on a .523 true shooting percentage. Most NBA newcomers hit a rookie wall somewhere during the second-half of the regular season. Meanwhile, Mitchell just ran through that proverbial wall and keeps getting stronger, as if he were some combination of the Kool-Aid Man and The Incredible Hulk packed in a Utah Jazz uniform.
While Philadelphia trusts The Process, Boston trusts Brad Stevens. And anyone who saw the Celtics head coach methodically pick apart the best of all of Philly’s offensive plans, well, all they can say for themselves at this points is: “Look at the big brain on Brad!” Kudos to the Butler Boy Wonder for already proving himself as the greatest NBA head coach in the game today. And even bigger credit goes to Stevens for earning that title before his own NBA team ever won a title. It just seems to be a formality at this point because Stevens is destined to one day dominate the Finals stage. Someday. That said, coaching with two arms tied behind his back in these playoffs—he was not allowed to use either Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving this postseason—Stevens showed he could again take down Philly, this time by shutting down Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons to 1 point and 5 turnovers in 31 minutes, while offensively limiting All-Star center Joel Embiid to 20 points on 8-of-22 shooting. Perhaps the most telling stat of how Stevens takes away an opponents’ super powers is seeing Simmons post a minus-23 plus-minus score in 31 minutes of action. That is a tough hole for any second-string unit to crawl out of. But it is Stevens’ imagination that has thoroughly wowed the NBA community. Who would think to put Al Horford, their 6-10, 245-pound All-Star center, on the team’s opposing 6-10, 230-pound point guard (although, in retrospect, it makes sense because of their similar size)? As a result, Horford was the Game 2 MVP, posting a plus-21 plus-minus in 37 minutes, while also tallying 13 points, making 5 of 9 shots, grabbing 12 rebounds and doling out 5 assists. Horford truly did it all in a production created by Stevens.
LeBron James is doing it again. While other MVP candidates compete amongst themselves, LeBron competes with ghosts from the past like Magic, Michael, Kobe, Timmy and Shaq. Of your retirees, that quintet would be your Commissioner Stern-to-Silver Era (1984-present) Fab Five Finals lineup based on their Finals stats, using GameScore and minutes as criteria. The reason we have jumped ahead to Finals stats is because LeBron is simply destroying the Toronto stellar first- and second-string units no matter who they throw at him. In the Semifinals, LeBron is averaging 35 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists against 1 turnover in 44 minutes per game, while posting a .538 true shooting percentage. In fact, LeBron so regularly destroys all Eastern Conference opponents, we felt compelled now to publish his Finals statistics from his last eight Finals appearances, mainly because that is the only time he faces the tougher Western Conference. We know he dominates the East. How does LeBron do against the West? You’ll soon see it really is not much different. And remember, when LeBron does square off with the West these past 11 years, he is taking on their very best. In seven Finals series, LeBron has faced the Warriors (three times), Spurs (twice), Thunder (once) and Mavericks (once), In those seven Finals matchups, LeBron certainly made his case to bump one of the aforementioned greats off our Fab Five Finals Rushmore-and-One Memorial. For in those seven Finals series, LeBron averaged 28 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in 43 minutes per game. That translates to a 22.1 GameScore in 45 Finals contests, which puts him in good company (Kobe Bryant 16.7 GameScore in 37 Finals games; Michael Jordan, 24.5 in 35; Magic Johnson, 22.0 in 34 games since stat tracked from 1984 Finals; Tim Duncan, 17.8 in 34; Shaquille O’Neal, 22.6 in 30).
Sometimes you don’t make shots. That is what happened to the Rockets in their Game 2 loss to Utah Wednesday. They didn’t make shots. You have to credit the Jazz’s League-leading D (since the All-Star break) for forcing Houston to shoot 10-for-37 beyond the three-point arc (27 percent) and 28-for-58 (48 percent) from two-point range. But the Rockets simply did not make the most of their three-point opportunities. Yet, they still competed, staying within a six-point range, even with 51 seconds left in the game. Will the Rockets make many offensive adjustments for Game 3? Nope. Coach Mike D’Antoni believes more in his troops than he believes in any opponents’ defense repeating their effort. So in this postseason-of-adjustments where everyone counters the counter’s counter, look for James Harden or Chris Paul to continue taking turns picking a side of the court to play pick-and-roll with their rim-rolling center while two opportunistic shooters await the action beyond the arc at the break and corner. Threes, frees and rim shots. The plan won’t change. Houston’s defense, however, may make adjustments, such as taking away the Game 2 lobs from Donovan Mitchell to Rudy Gobert. There was too much of that in the paint. Also, attention needs to be focused on Joe Ingles beyond the arc since he is the only Jazzman who can hurt you from three-point range. Ingles is continually doing that throughout this playoffs (29-for-57 on three-pointers for 51 percent), as he did in Game 2 against Houston (7-for-9 on three-pointers). But as for offensive changes? Nah. Houston’s confidence is too strong to look back or to question itself now.
All eyes were on Stephen Curry for the 27 minutes he played in Game 2 Tuesday, and true to his 2017-18 form when playing in 51 NBA games this season, he was the best player on the floor. Indeed, Curry scored 28 points on a .774 true shooting percentage, making 5 of 10 three-pointers, 3 of 5 two-pointers and all seven free throws en route to a game-high plus-26 plus-minus score. Curry moved laterally well for a man who spent more than a month recovering from a Grade-2 MCL sprain, literally mixing it up fearlessly enough to garner 7 rebounds and 3 steals while leading his team to a 121-116 Game 2 victory at home. The 58-24 Warriors and 65-17 Houston Rockets are the obvious championship contenders, but one has to hand back the advantage to the Warriors now, knowing that Curry is close to 100-percent health again. Yes, Houston has the homecourt advantage, and they too got back defensive ace Luc Mbah a Moute back, where they will need him to help defend Kevin Durant. That said, the Warriors still have many advantages over the Rockets, in categories as diverse as playoff experience, teammate familiarity and perhaps even coaching as well. The other contenders’ hope that once grew strong in March and April—back when Golden State played .500 ball without Curry, Durant and an injured Klay Thompson—has all but evaporated as the once-weary Warriors now appear at full strength once again, ready to amp things up for this six-week stretch run.