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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



At Sunday, April 14, 2019 2:31:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Lowry and Harden are indeed laughably bad in the playoffs. Of 173 total players who've started 50 playoff games and shot at least 500 playoff shots, only 33 of them have shot 42% or worse. Harden, damning with faint praise here, tops that list of thirty-three as the only one who shot (exactly) 42%, while Lowry is closer to the middle of the pack (12/33). Several of the members of this group can be somewhat excused as long-range specialists (Kevin Love, for instance, took a lot of his shots from 3 and made those at a very good clip, but they still drag his overall percentage down).

Other current players in this club:

Vince Carter
Kevin Love
Mike Conley
Russell Westbrook
Jeff Teague
Demar DeRozan
JR Smith
Harrison Barnes
Carmelo Anthony

The all-time loser is defensive specialist Mookie Blaylocke, with a career playoff FG% of 37%. Russell Westbrook has the unfortunate distinction of having taken the most shots (1,986) while still not making very many of them (.413), though like Blaylocke he contributes in other ways (defense for Mookie, passing and rebounding for RWB). Harden, to his "credit" has the highest True Shooting percentage of the gang (.580) while the immortal Clifford Robinson takes the boobie prize by that metric with a TS% of just .462.

If you want to further narrow that group to those who also shot like crap from 3, here's the list with the added filter of shooting at or below 34% from deep:

Tim Hardaway
Jason Williams

Of that group, only Westbrook, Robinson, DeRozan, and Snow shot 30% or worse from 3, so Harden and Lowry can at least claim the (very slight) pyrrhic high ground there, I guess?

At Monday, April 15, 2019 10:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, a lot more to it than just looking at FG %'s.

Leonard has not proven he can carry a team to a title. The year his team won the title, his team had either the best or 2nd best cast, but played like the best cast by far in the playoffs. He wasn't the best player on his team. In fact, he was a distant 3rd best player on his team at best, and wasn't even close to making the AS team.

TOR also has a better record this season without Leonard. In fact, their 17-5 record(which is a large enough sample size) without Leonard would be on pace for the league's top record over 82 games.

At Monday, April 15, 2019 12:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, Lowry was a team high +11 for the game. He had 7 rebounds, 8 assists, only 2 TO's, and only 7 shots taken. So, he didn't kill the team by shooting too much. And TOR did perfectly fine when he was in the game. But, when he sat, they were outscored by 14 points in 14 minutes.

You're overrating Leonard quite a bit. He should have more than enough help to easily beat ORL even without Lowry. And Lowry did contribute. It's not like he was totally useless out there.


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