Four series look done, while four more are just now heating up.
Welcome to Weekend 2 of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, where we look at the 16 teams left in the second season.
Even though Washington has nothing to show in the win ledger after two first-round games with Toronto, at least John Wall has worked off any rust after returning to the lineup just before season’s end. His first two games have been individually impressive, with the All-Star point guard pouring in 52 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, doling out 24 assists in 71 minutes thus far. He has not been shy coming back from his arthroscopic knee procedure, attacking the rim at will, resulting in a 19-of-21 stat line from the free throw stripe in the two contests. That said, one has to wonder why Coach Scott Brooks decided to play newly acquired Ty Lawson so many minutes (30 in two games) at the expense of one of his top 3 players, Otto Porter (57 minutes). After all, Lawson just joined the team, doesn’t know the system and Brooks is already playing him key minutes alongside Wall and fellow All-Star Bradley Beal, much at the expense of Porter. Go figure.
The two-man band of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton is putting on some type of dynamic uo display in its series with Boston, yet it is never enough to defeat a Brad Stevens-coached club that is pretty much holding the rest of the Bucks at bay, especially third member of the Big 3, Eric Bledsoe. The two Milwaukee forwards have combined for 121 points on only 72 shots, 34 rebounds and 22 assists in two games. Yet it is never enough because of Stevens’ strategy of taking away Milwaukee’s three-point shooters (Bucks are 15-for-38 on 3s through two games) and keeping them off the line (26-for-41 through two games).
What makes Tyus Jones Minnesota’s best point guard is that he knows to get the ball to the Timberwolves’ best players, Karl-Anthony Town and Jimmy Butler. Unfortunately, too many of the T-Wolves other options—Derrick Rose (29.2 percent usage rate in the playoffs), Jeff Teague (28.0), Andrew Wiggins (26.6), Nemanja Bjelica (26.0), Gorgui Dieng (19.5) and Jamal Crawford (19.1)—think they are the main show. As a result, the T-Wolves’ offense is looking downright foolish. If you had told me Butler (17.2 percent usage rate) and Towns (16.2) would combine for 37 points, I would have replied, “In Game 1?” There is no way in Houston that those two All-Stars should be limited to a combined 37 points in both Games 1 and 2!
After going from the NBA’s best three-point shooting team (.391) in 2016-17 to the League’s fifth-worst (.352) in 2017-18, was it any surprise they’ve been a pitiful 24 percent (20/83) in the three games against the Warriors during the playoffs? With Danny Green the only starter who shoots 3s with any consistency, look for this to be a point of emphasis in San Antonio this offseason. As for this postseason, Patty Mills is 6-for-18 on three-pointers; Danny Green 3-for-11; Rudy Gay 3-for-12; Bryn Forbes 2-for-8; Manu Ginobili 2-for-9; Davis Bertans 2-for-12; others 2-for-13.
If nothing else, LeBron James is playing Games 1 and 2 like they were both Game 7s of a Finals, overloading on minutes (44 and 46, respectively) and taking the ball to the hoop over and over and over again. He had 27 free throw attempts in the two games, making 20 of them, and also took 32 of his 41 field goal attempts in two-point range, making 22 of them. He is being efficient. He is being relentless. And the Cavaliers will need LeBron’s very best just to outlast similar effort coming from Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers. He is not getting three-point complements (Cavs are 31 percent from trey land) from his turnover-prone teammates (15.9 percent turnover percentage ranking second worst in playoffs). So if Games 1 and 2 are any indication, the four-time MVP who is averaging 35 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists in this series is going to need to do more of the same in Games 3 through 7.
The Heat are still getting the whistles from the refs, but shooting 35 free throw attempts (and making 26) in Game 3 was not enough, especially when Philly took a page from Miami’s book and earned themselves 37 trips to the line (making 28). It was not that way in Games 1 and 2 when Erik Spoelstra’s Heat stole a victory by going to the line a League-high 61 times (making 45), while the 76ers shot 51 (making 38). What has been most amazing about Miami’s 96 free throw attempts this postseason is how many different Heat players get to the line, time and time again. Their shooters are so well-balanced that nobody on the team has more than 16 attempts, yet they continue to get to the line as a team more often than anybody. Way to work the refs, Coach Spo.
We are not saying Victor Oladipo is LeBron James’ equal, but we are saying he has put the Pacers on his back like LeBron and has them thinking that Oladipo indeed may be the Pacer to finally lead them to the Promised Land protected by LeBron for all this decade. His series output of 54 points in 65 minutes is simply incredible, but his +28 and +11 plus-minus scores in both Games 1 and 2, respectively, are oh-so-telling of how is importance to the Pacers is similar to the ratio of LeBron-to-Cavs. And like LeBron, Cleveland has no one on its roster who has shown any inclination of being able to stop the newfound All-Star.
When I was making my All-NBA choices in last week’s column, I was literally flipping a coin between Charlotte’s Kemba Walker and New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday, as to who would be my third-team All-NBA selection. After all, Walker ranked 13th in SUPERGLOOO totals, while Holiday rated 14th. So even the numbers noted how close the competition was. Well, after watching Games 1 through 3, I regret that I chose Walker over Holiday, especially since Pelicans Holiday and Rajon Rondo have totally outclassed my second-team All-NBA pick Damian Lillard and his Trail Blazers teammate C.J. McCollum. In fact, Holiday and Rondo have both looked like deserved All-Defense honorees after holding the two Blazers to a combined 118 points on 110 shots in three playoff games. In retrospect, we are now seeing why Rondo was a four-time All-Defense selection, dating back to 2012. As we look ahead, we are also seeing Holiday himself emerge as a top defender, making his reputation at the expense of Portland’s Lillard and McCollum.
Where would the Thunder be without Paul George? I’ll tell ya, they’d be 0-2, with the Thunder three-point shooters looking like San Antonio’s clankers. Through two games against the Jazz, PG’s teammates are 13-for-41 beyond the arc (.317), while Paul George himself is 12-for-23 (.522). He is the one OKC player keeping Utah’s exuberant defense honest. Otherwise, the Jazz would be running away with this series. And this is no knock on Russell Westbrook, who is his normal, spectacular self, averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the first two games against the Jazz. It is just that OKC’s Big 3 (Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony) take two-thirds of their team’s shots, and if Westbrook (.483 true shooting percentage this postseason) and Melo (.463) cannot bring the efficiency, at least George can, at the most elite level (.619).
The Jazz have been able to take advantage of Oklahoma City’s smaller lineups—especially when undersized big Patrick Patterson fills in for OKC’s lone center Steven Adams. On the offensive boards alone, Utah is grabbing 25 percent of their own missed field goal attempts—thanks to big men Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, who each have pulled down 9 offensive rebounds in Games 1 and 2 already. If the Jazz continue to get that type of performance, this series is over, especially if Donovan Mitchell improves his shooting stroke (.530 true shooting percentage) after taking 47 shots in the first two games.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid get all the hype, but let me tell you a little something about Dario Saric, Philly’s undercover superstar who is dominating this first-round series. Not only is Saric the top scoring Sixer, with 64 points on 52 shots, but he is also their third-best rebounder (21) and third-best playmaker (10 assists) while posting a team-high +29 plus-minus score. In fact, the space Saric provides as a stretch 4, is not only getting his teammates better shots, but it is also contributing to the big-time scoring and rebounding efforts from reserves Marco Belinelli (62 points in 93 minutes) and Ersan Ilyasova (39 points and 28 rebounds in 79 minutes). The complementary styles of these stretch players have also contributed in Philly becoming the top offensive rebounding team of these playoffs, which is crazy considering Embiid has only played 30 minutes this postseason thus far.
Serious question: If you could start a franchise with one of the following two quartets, would you choose: A. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, or B. Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic. Again, this is a serious question. Before you laugh it off–as Portland may have been prone to do–ask yourself the question, Is anybody playing better than New Orleans right now. Now consider this, they are destroying the Portland Trail Blazers 3-0, even without the services of injured Cousins. Their shooting has been spectacular, their defense even better and the respect they are garnering from officials is exemplary. They are truly playing like a playoff-smart team; credit playoff vet Rajon Rondo for maximizing the learning curve for these playoff-baby Pelicans.
When you realize Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are all playing minutes that otherwise may have gone to injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart, well, then you start to realize how special this Boston team is, to be up 2-0 over Milwaukee. In retrospect, that is not surprising since they all posted good SUPERGLOOO numbers in 2017-18: Rozier (15.90)’ Brown (19.85); Tatum (21.08). What is surprising is how third-stringers Shane Larkin (+4), Semi Ojeleye (-15) and Guerschon Yabusele (-3) have been able to play double-digit minutes in this series without being big liabilities themselves. Kudos to Coach Brad Stevens drawing that type of level play from another inexperienced lot.
Strange as it was, Serge Ibaka entered the playoffs as Toronto’s most prolific playoff performer to date, from his days as a young Oklahoma City power forward. That experience has served Ibaka well in Games 1 and 2 thus far. Ibaka came out of Game 1 with a dominant 23-point, 12-rebound performance against Washington. He also blocked 2 shots on D, while being spot-on on O, while making shots from parts all over the court: 3-for-7 on three-pointers, 5-for-7 on two-pointers and 4-for-4 at the free-throw line in 32 minutes of game action. In Game 2, he helped DeMar DeRozan take over, as the All-Star guard erupted for 37 points on 23 shots, while Ibaka eased into the background with a 10-point, 9-rebound, 3-block performance. Ibaka’s importance showed up all the same in the plus-minus margin with the former Thunder big posting a +32 in 37 minutes of play.
With Kevin Durant spraining his ankle at the end of Game 3, the Warriors might be so inclined to bring back and rested-and-recuperated Stephen Curry, who has probably had more than enough rest time recovering from his Grade 2 MCL sprain. That said, the Warriors have been just fine without their two-time NBA MVP with Splash Brother Klay Thompson playing in sync with his adopted Splash Brother Durant to the same tune that Klay & Curry played at as a dynamic duo years ago. Through Games 1 through 3, Thompson was putting up 27, 31 and 19 points, while his complementary star KD was posting 24, 32 and 26. Talk about balance. It is that type of symmetry which has made them impossible to guard—even without Curry, even when playing against the Spurs’ D, which ranked second in the NBA in 2017-18 defense.
If I was inevitable 2017-18 NBA MVP James Harden, I would frame the most recent Game 2 box score against Minnesota and keep it for posterity. Oh, what joy it would bring me to see the game where I went 2-for-18 on my shots and my team still won by 20. It is truly amazing how great this team has become this year, thanks to the addition of future Hall of Famer Chris Paul and the rise of future All-Star center Clint Capela. With those two playing like stars, and the remaining role players playing like strong starters, nobody is rolling on all cylinders from start to finish quite like these new vets from Houston. Can it last another two months?