Brief Thoughts About the Start of the Second RoundThe second round of the playoffs is off to a rousing start, with three of the four underdogs winning on the road in game one. Only the Golden State Warriors held serve, routing the Memphis Grizzlies 101-86 as 2015 MVP Stephen Curry scored a game-high 22 points. The Warriors likely would have made short work of the Grizzlies in this series even if Memphis' starting point guard Mike Conley were not injured but without Conley the Grizzlies have little chance of winning. The Grizzlies lack outside shooting, which means that the good and smart teams will pack the paint against them in the playoffs and Memphis will struggle to score 90 points.
In my second round preview, I said that the Washington Wizards might steal home court advantage but that the Atlanta Hawks would ultimately win the series. Washington indeed won game one in Atlanta. I still think that the Hawks are the better team and expect that they will figure out the Wizards over the course of six or seven games.
LeBron James had one of his classic good/bad playoff games, authoring the type of performance that has long baffled me. The good part is that he nearly had a triple double (19 points, game-high 15 rebounds, game-high nine assists)--but the bad part is that he shot just 9-22 from the field, that he committed a game-high six turnovers and that he disappeared in the fourth quarter with the game on the line when his team needed him most. James is one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history, ranking third in the league this season (25.3 ppg) and fourth all-time (27.4 ppg). With Kevin Love sidelined by a season-ending shoulder injury, the Cavs needed for James not only to produce at his normal 25-27 ppg level but to increase that production to 30 points or more. Indeed, if James had scored 27 points--all other things being equal--the Cavs would have won by one point instead of losing 99-92 to the Chicago Bulls.
James has the necessary physical abilities, basketball skill set and understanding of the game to be the greatest player of all-time--but he is not the greatest player of all-time. He has won two championships and done some great things but far too often in the biggest moments he seems to hesitate or shrink. How many times did he drive to the hoop against Chicago only to pass the ball outside to lesser players who had to take more difficult shots? In one of his late game turnovers, James drove into the lane, jumped into the air, spun away from the basket and threw the ball away. Why not go all the way to the hoop or at least take a confident midrange jump shot? Passing the ball in such situations is not unselfish and does not make him a pass-first player; his team needed him to be a big-time scorer and he shrunk from the moment. It is sometimes very frustrating to watch James play, because he just lacks something that Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and the other greatest of the greats had. I write all of this fully realizing that James can and possibly will drop 50 points in the next game--and if he does that in the effortless way that he has in the past, it proves my point: James is the best player in the world but sometimes he does not want to be the best player and carry that load.
The L.A. Clippers' 117-101 win over the Houston Rockets was very entertaining on many levels. All we heard before the game was that the Clippers have no chance without Chris Paul because the Clippers cannot even create a shot without him. That is what the "advanced basketball statistics" apparently say. The reality is that Paul is a very good player but he is also overrated. The Clippers' best player is Blake Griffin, who dominated the San Antonio Spurs in the first round as the Clippers beat the defending champions. Without Paul, the supposedly inept Clippers put six players in double figures, including three who scored at least 20 points each. Griffin produced his second straight triple double (26 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists). He put his stamp on this game the way that an MVP caliber player should. Griffin joined Wilt Chamberlain and John Havlicek as the third non-guard to post back to back triple doubles in the playoffs (Chamberlain accomplished this twice). Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Baron Davis and Griffin are the only players who notched back to back 20 point triple doubles in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Houston's James Harden--who finished second to Curry in the MVP voting--fumbled the ball all over the court (a game-high nine turnovers). Harden shot 3-9 from the field and had eight turnovers in half court sets. Lo and behold, if you do not foul Harden and do not let him shoot open three pointers he is not particularly efficient! Harden's plus/minus number (-22) was the second worst of any player on either team, trailing only his backcourt mate Jason Terry (-23).
Broad conclusions should not be drawn from one game; we know that the Clippers are better with Paul than without him--but we also know that, for all of Paul's accolades, he has never led a team past the second round. Similarly, we know that Harden is not as terrible as he looked--but we also know that he has a pattern of performing poorly in the playoffs and that in his first two years in Houston he could not get the Rockets launched past the first round. This year, Dwight Howard reasserted himself as a dominant player and guided the Rockets to uncharted second round territory but the Clippers countered his inside dominance by bombing away from outside (13-31 three point shooting) and exploiting Houston's turnovers to score in transition before he could get back on defense to protect the paint.
I realize that I may be fighting a losing battle in terms of trying to convince people of the truth about Paul and Harden, just like many people did not appreciate my takes on Carmelo Anthony and Gilbert Arenas a few years back--but the reality is that Anthony and Arenas never were players who could lead a team to a title and neither are Paul and Harden. With Paul, the problem is less skill set/desire and more just a function of barely being six feet tall, but it is an inescapable reality that very few players possess the necessary physical and mental traits to lead a team to a championship. I am not overreacting to one game; I am using what happened in one game to illustrate and explain the basis for analyses that I have made about various players for many years.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM