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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Series Snapshots After Two Games

The game one winner of an NBA playoff series eventually wins the series nearly 80% of the time and teams that take a 2-0 lead win the series well over 90% of the time—so, for all of the cliched talk about a playoff series not beginning until the road team wins (or the venue shifts, as takes place in games three and four), the reality is that the die has likely been cast already in many of these series.

Let’s take a brief look at what has happened so far:

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee 2, Detroit 0

This series is over. The Pistons are outmatched and the only question is whether or not they can win a home game to avoid being swept.

Toronto 1, Orlando 1

Although the Magic took homecourt advantage by winning game one, this matchup still looks like one in which the Raptors’ superior talent will prevail even if that takes six or seven games. It is interesting, though, to wonder about what possible impact Kawhi Leonard’s “load management” has had on team chemistry/cohesion. The Raptors may still not be completely used to playing with him.

Boston 2, Indiana 0

The Celtics are going to win this series in no small part because they have Kyrie Irving and the Pacers do not. What I am wondering is whether or not the Pacers can successfully execute a late game inbounds play offensively or defensively. The end of game two was ridiculous. The Pacers played hard all game but lost because of inexcusable fundamental breakdowns of execution.

Philadelphia 1, Brooklyn 1

The 76ers will probably win this series based on talent but it must be said that the Nets do not look intimidated, nor are they quite as outmatched as I expected. Regardless of what happens, it is clear that the 76ers in no way resemble a championship team.

Western Conference

Golden State 1, L.A. Clippers 1

It would be shocking if the Clippers win this series but they are a shining example of the value of playing hard, not quitting, and building a winning culture as opposed to tanking to accumulate Lottery picks. The injury to DeMarcus Cousins is a devastating end to his comeback season. The Warriors have proven that they have enough talent to win a title without him but their margin for error has diminished significantly.

Denver 1, San Antonio 1

If the Spurs had held on to their game two lead, this series would be a wrap. Now, it’s a tossup, with Denver having the cushion of game seven at home if the Nuggets can take one in San Antonio. Gregg Popovich has done a tremendous job of preparing his roster throughout the season to be ready for the playoffs.

Portland 2, Oklahoma City 0

It seems like the Thunder do not have enough talent to win unless Russell Westbrook has a 25 or 30 point triple double. The Thunder need to run an offense that consistently generates shots they are able to make. There is not much value to drive and kick without having legit, deadeye shooters receiving those passes. It would also be helpful if the Thunder find an answer for their former backup center, Enes Kanter, who has been the X factor thus far.

Houston 2, Utah 0

The Rockets have dominated and deserve a lot of credit but the Jazz have been soft mentally and physically. The Jazz had been a strong defensive team but in this series they are using an anti-James Harden plan that makes no sense: you do not give an All-Star a “runway” to drive to the hoop. It is challenging to guard Harden the way that he is officiated but escorting him to the hoop is not the answer. Play him straight up, concede the 28 foot stepbacks and contest everything else without fouling. If the Jazz do that, this could still be a competitive series. Otherwise, it’s lights out.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:28 AM


Monday, April 15, 2019

All Four Favorites Win in Day Two of the NBA Playoffs

The first day of the 2019 NBA playoffs featured three upsets but day two went strictly according to form. Here are brief recaps of the NBA's second quadrupleheader this weekend:

Boston 84, Indiana 74

Neither team shot well during a game that was either a throwback or--from the NBA's perspective of featuring offense at all costs--a setback. Kyrie Irving posted game-highs in points (20, tied with his teammate Marcus Morris) and assists (seven). As expected, the Pacers play hard and they play tough defense; as also expected, without the injured Victor Oladipo they struggle to score at times and they just do not have enough offensive firepower to take out the Celtics.

Portland 104, Oklahoma City 99

Portland looked injured and vulnerable coming into this series but after the opening tip the Trail Blazers quickly shot down those notions. Damian Lillard dominated with a game-high 30 points--including several three pointers from well behind the arc--and he added four assists and four rebounds. Former Thunder center Enes Kanter more than filled in for the injured Jusuf Nurkic, scoring 20 points and grabbing a game-high 18 rebounds. Critics are too quick to focus on Kanter's defense and they do not give him enough credit for the dual impact he has as a scorer and as a rebounder. He posted a game-high +15 plus/minus number and he was the difference in the game; Lillard's performance was expected, and was balanced out by Russell Westbrook's triple double (24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists while shooting 8-17 from the field and 8-8 from the free throw line), but Kanter's paint presence tilted the outcome in Portland's favor. C.J. McCollum also played well, finishing with 24 points.

This was Westbrook's ninth career playoff triple double, tying him for sixth place on the all-time list with Wilt Chamberlain. The Thunder dropped to 5-4 in Westbrook's triple double playoff games but during the telecast Mike Breen noted that the Thunder have a 110-28 record during Westbrook's regular season triple doubles. That is equivalent to a 65-17 record during an 82 game season and this highlights that Westbrook is most assuredly not chasing or putting up empty numbers but he is asserting statistical dominance in a way that directly causes, and correlates with, team success.

Paul George, who is laboring with injuries to both of his shoulders, shot like he had the weight of the world on those fragile joints: 8-24 from the field, including 4-15 from three point range. George finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds but he must shoot more efficiently for the Thunder to have a chance.

The good news for the Thunder is that this game was there for the taking in the final moments despite some of the worst outside shooting ever seen in the NBA playoffs (5-33 from three point range, a .152 percentage). The bad news is that the Thunder are an erratic three point shooting team, so if they do not improve quickly in that area and/or find a way to win the possession battle (boxing out Kanter more effectively would be a good start) then they will lose this series.

Milwaukee 121, Detroit 86

This was a classic beatdown and, short of Blake Griffin returning to health (and dominance) very quickly, there is nothing that Detroit can do to narrow the huge talent gap between these squads. Giannis Antetokounmpo posted game-highs in points (24) and rebounds (17) while also dishing four assists. All five Milwaukee starters plus two Milwaukee reserves scored in double figures.

Houston 122, Utah 90

Utah either had one of the worst defensive game plans ever seen in the NBA playoffs, or their players executed very poorly and did not follow the game plan. Either way, the "strategy" (and I use that word very loosely here) of escorting James Harden to the right side of the lane to shoot layups or make lob passes for dunks/kick out passes for open three pointers is ridiculous. As Kenny Smith put it, this is a third grade game plan for facing a kid who cannot use his off hand, not a game plan to be used against the reigning MVP. Harden should probably be shaded to the right, but he still must be guarded and his shots must be contested. Although Harden did not post great numbers by his standard this season (29 points on 11-26 field goal shooting, 10 assists, eight rebounds), Houston matched Milwaukee as all five starters plus two reserves scored in double figures.

One should hesitate to use the "s" word to describe professional athletes but I will go there with this game: Utah looked soft. The Jazz were soft with the ball (fumbling away passes, letting the ball be stripped way too easily), they let the Rockets push them around physically and they did not look mentally focused or prepared.

The difference between Utah and Detroit is that the Jazz have the necessary components to compete with, and beat, Houston. Detroit may not get beat down quite so badly in game two, but the Pistons will almost certainly be swept. On the other hand, if the Jazz enter game two with the right frame of mind and a coherent, logical defensive game plan then they could very well beat the Rockets to seize homecourt advantage. It would not be the first time that a team lost game one badly on the road only to quickly bounce back.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM


Sunday, April 14, 2019

Upsets Dominate Day One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs

As the cliche goes, "That's why they play the games." Playoff neophytes Brooklyn and Orlando are underdogs in their first round series versus Philadelphia and Toronto respectively but the Nets and Magic each now own 1-0 leads after beating the 76ers and Raptors. Another playoff newcomer, the second seeded Denver Nuggets, lost to the wily seventh seeded San Antonio Spurs.

Brooklyn was in control for most of the game, while Orlando hung around, rallied late and emerged victorious after D.J. Augustin nailed the game-winning three pointer with 3.5 seconds remaining. San Antonio led most of the way and then withstood Denver's late rally. Here are brief recaps of those three games, along with the only game that went according to form (Golden State beating the L.A. Clippers):

Brooklyn 111, Philadelphia 102

The 76ers shot horribly from three point range (3-25, .120) and had no answers for D'Angelo Russell (26 points, four assists), Caris Levert (23 points) and Spencer Dinwiddie (18 points). Russell, a first-time All-Star this season, deserves a lot of credit for maturing as a player and as a person after the disastrous start to his career with the L.A. Lakers.

Coach Brett Brown needs to take his pick and roll coverages back to the lab and come up with some improvements.

Joel Embiid is a very talented player but in terms of Philadelphia's championship potential his talent does not matter as much as his fragility; he is too often out of the lineup, on a minutes restriction or rusty because he is not on the court consistently enough.

In my playoff preview, I picked Philadelphia in six games because of the talent disparity between these teams but I also noted "I don't trust any Sixer other than Jimmy Butler in the last two minutes of a close game." Butler scored 36 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had a plus/minus rating of +11 but the rest of his big name teammates disappeared. During the game, Coach Brown referred to Butler as the only grownup in the room. I wonder how his other All-Stars/All-Star caliber players will feel about that when they hear about his remarks, but Brown is telling the truth. The "Process" is much ballyhooed but the 76ers do not resemble a legit contender and they may not be willing/able to keep this roster intact, particularly if they do not make it to at least the Eastern Conference Finals.
I still don't understand the hype about Ben Simmons, because--even when he puts up good numbers, which he did not do in this game (nine points, seven rebounds, three assists)--he does not seem to have much impact on team success. Simmons does not control the game the way that Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd did, to cite two versatile players who were not great shooters early in their careers but still had a significant impact on winning.

Historically, game one winners prevail in an NBA playoff series nearly 80% of the time, so Brooklyn's victory should not be blithely dismissed. However, at this point I still believe that Philadelphia's superior overall talent will be enough to carry the 76ers into round two--but if Embiid continues to be hobbled and the 76ers do not improve their pick and roll defense then the Nets could pull off the upset.

Orlando 104, Toronto 101

D.J. Augustin outscored Kyle Lowry 25-0. That is not a misprint and that is the story of this game, culminating in Augustin's game-winning three pointer. I think that it was ESPN's Paul Pierce who coldly--but accurately--said that we just saw "Playoff Lowry," a play on words from either "Playoff Rondo" (who historically is very good) or perhaps from last season when Paul George called his playoff alter ago "Playoff P" (and "Playoff P," while not as awful as "Playoff Lowry," was nothing much to write home about).

Lowry needs to stop complaining about Toronto trading DeMar DeRozan and start trying to figure out why he becomes James Harden in the playoffs (and that is not a compliment).

Kawhi Leonard is a great player who has proven that he can carry a team to a title but he cannot literally carry Lowry if the point guard is not going to score a single point!

The other disturbing thing about this game from Toronto's perspective is that Orlando shot 14-29 (.483) from three point range.

The Magic, who squeaked into the playoffs with a barely above-.500 record (42-40), are playing with house money, while the Raptors are (1) dealing with high expectations after acquiring Leonard and no longer having to deal with perennial nemesis LeBron James and (2) trying to do well enough to convince Leonard to not leave for greener pastures.

The Raptors are a historically bad team in game ones and, while they surely hoped that Leonard would reverse that trend, they have shown that they can win a series after starting out 0-1--at least in early rounds when they are not facing James.

Golden State 121, L.A. Clippers 104

Would you trade Patrick Beverley for Kevin Durant? Doc Rivers pulled off that deal late in game one, and he would surely agree to it every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Beverley is a cheap shot artist--I mean, defensive specialist--and professional irritant whose primary job in this series is to disrupt Durant by any means necessary. Durant is nearly a foot taller and vastly more skilled than Beverly, so Beverly can only affect Durant if Durant lets him do so. If I were two-time Finals MVP/future Hall of Famer Durant, I would channel Kevin McHale, who said of another professional irritant (Durant's teammate Draymond Green), "That guy could not grow enough to guard me." Durant should not pay attention to Beverly's shoves, smirks and trash talk; just keep putting the ball in the basket and keep moving into the second round.

Unfortunately for Golden State, Durant is notoriously sensitive and often "gets in his feelings," as the saying goes. Late in the fourth quarter, Durant shoved Beverley, Beverley jumped up and flapped his gums and before you knew it both players were ejected. Beverley is expendable but Durant is crucial--and while the Clippers only have a few games left in their season, the Warriors expect to be playing another 16-20 playoff games and cannot afford to have Durant ejected or, even worse, suspended if he accumulates a total of seven technical fouls during the playoffs.

Golden State fans high fived Durant as he walked off of the court. I agree with a comment that Jeff Van Gundy made years ago, namely that it is puzzling that fans cheer for a player doing something that is stupid, selfish and not in the team's best interest.

The Warriors had matters well in hand when Durant was ejected but you can be sure that the Clippers will double their efforts to get Durant in his feelings during the rest of the series.

Stephen Curry provided the correct response to the Clippers' physical play, exploding for 38 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. He set the career playoff record for most three pointers made. Montrezl Harrell (26 points) and Lou Williams (25 points) led the Clippers in scoring.

This series will be chippy but short, and the main danger for the Warriors is that one of their stars gets hurt or suspended.

San Antonio 101, Denver 96

The young Denver Nuggets fought all season to have home court advantage and then they threw it away in 48 minutes. The Spurs featured balanced scoring (five players in double figures but none with more than 18 or less than 14 points) and stifling defense (holding the Nuggets to .420 field goal shooting, including 6-28/.214 from three point range) to take out a Denver team that had six players in double figures but trailed for most of the game.

Jamal Murray shot 8-24 from the field and did not have an assist, so he should consider shooting less often and/or more effectively while also distributing the ball to his teammates more often. Nikola Jokic had a triple double in his first career playoff game (10 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists) but the Nuggets need for him to be more aggressive as a scorer.

I did not pick the underdog in any of these series and, despite the game one statistics cited above, I expect that the favorites will eventually prevail. The Raptors have done this before and the Nuggets have a good enough culture in place to overcome this setback. I am a little concerned about the 76ers, just because Embiid seems hobbled and I do not fully trust that team's culture or most of their stars.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM