We're back to normal in the NBA for the next few nights, with
doubleheaders tonight, Friday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The only
folks more disgusted than Michael Malone last night were those who
scheduled their TV time around what turned out to be a 123-98 rout
of the Denver Nuggets by the Phoenix Suns as the lone playoff game
of the evening. Let’s just say the videotape of that game is not on
its way to Springfield.
Malone went off afterward, saying there were multiple players on
his roster who “quit,” which is about as strong of a statement as
you will ever hear from an NBA coach. Malone said he would look
down his bench to find somebody who wants to give a better effort,
and we get to find out who that will be Friday night.
"This was an embarrassing performance from myself all the way
through the last player," Malone said. "We're walking out of here
with our heads held down, rightfully so. And there's a reason that
their crowd is yelling 'Suns in 4!' and they're calling for a
sweep. Because if we play like this back in Denver, this is going
to be a really quick series.
“We had no juice, no energy, no passion, no fight, no urgency,
no grit, whatever adjective you want to use, we did not have it,"
Malone said. “So I guess for Game 3, I'm just going to try to find
guys that will at least go out there and leave it all on the line.
I may have a hard time coming up with five guys that fill that, but
these two games, these second halves have really been
disappointing, and that's an understatement."
With Will Barton on a minutes restriction as he makes his way
back after missing 20 games with a hamstring injury, Malone’s
choices are limited. The Nuggets are shooting just 43.4% from the
field, and have recorded only 25 assists in their first two games
combined against Phoenix. Monte Morris is just 2-for-17 (including
1-for-7 on 3-pointers), so he would be Candidate A on the list of
“Guys Who Will Not Take Their Warmups Off In Game 3.” After
producing at a high level in Round 1, Austin Rivers has missed
two-thirds of his shots, which is not exactly what you want from a
It is still early in the second round, but it is a crucial
juncture for a couple of teams on the precipice of joining the 22
teams already planning for next season. Tough business, the NBA;
just ask Nate Bjorkgren and Danny Ainge, or Terry Stotts and Steve
But who will Malone turn to? And who will Mike Budenholzer of
the Bucks go to as his team tries to climb out of a 2-0 deficit?
Let’s look into the crystal ball for those two, and the teams that
are competing in the Hawks-76ers series and the Jazz-Clippers
Markus Howard, Nuggets
Howard was the NCAA's scoring leader last season at Marquette,
and Malone turned to him in the final three games of the regular
season, when he shot 22-for-41 overall and 10-for-22 from
three-point range. Howard fell out of favor after going 3-for-14 in
a Game 4 loss to Portland in the first round, but the 5-foot-10
rookie, 22, was a prolific scorer in college with three 50-plus
point games and four 40-plus point games during his final three
seasons as a four-year starter at Marquette. As Calvin Murphy and
others can attest, guys under 6-foot can be impactful NBA players
from time to time.
Malone needs to find somebody who wants to prove himself and who
can hit a three-point shot. The Nuggets came back from the dead
twice last season, but Wednesday night’s game was especially bad,
and if Denver’s players are not moving around on offense (on a
majority of possessions they were not), they have no shot. But if
they get back to doing what has worked for them for two seasons,
they can recover at home. Game 3 is as much of a must-win for them
as it is for Milwaukee in the East, but the Bucks are facing a much
more difficult opponent than Denver is. And Malone does not have
many other pure scorers to choose from.
Nuggets runner-up: Michael Porter Jr.
Rajon Rondo, Clippers
With Mike Conley sidelined and Jordan Clarkson continuing to
come off the bench, one would imagine the Jazz would be at an
operating deficit in the backcourt. We really did not see that in
Game 1, even though it came down to Rudy Gobert blocking a
three-point attempt by Marcus Morris on the final play of the game.
That last chance would not have been possible without Rondo -- who
assisted on Paul George’s three-pointer with 38.4 seconds left
after grabbing an offensive rebound -- then picked up a defensive
rebound with 15.9 seconds left off a miss by Donovan Mitchell.
Rondo logged 28 minutes with 5 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists,
and we shall see tonight whether coach Ty Lue plans to increase his
minutes now that Patrick Beverley is basically out of the
Rondo was a huge difference-maker for the Lakers last season in
the second round against Houston and in Game 5 of the 2011 NBA
Finals against the Heat (19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including
3-for-4 on 3s). The 35-year-old has 129 career playoff games under
his belt, and if history repeats itself we are going to see him
wave off Father Time at least once more in this postseason. Starter
Reggie Jackson logged only 17 minutes and fouled out of Game 1, and
if this series goes to 2-0 in Utah's favor, it would not be the
least bit surprising to see Rondo among the starting five.
Clippers runner-up: DeMarcus Cousins
Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks
The only advantage the Bucks have over the Nets is a size
advantage, but they have not even come close to exploiting it in
Games 1 and 2, so Coach Mike Budenholzer (already without Donte
DiVincenzo) needs to look down his bench and find somebody who can
shoot, rebound and provide toughness. Portis is that guy if Bud has
faith in him, which is an open question after Portis logged only 17
minutes in each of the first two games.
Back in April, Portis was playing an average of 21.8 minutes and
scoring 12.5 points per game on 50.6% shooting, including 47.5%
from downtown, and what exactly he did to have his role reduced so
significantly has not been adequately explained. The 26-year-old
averaged career-highs in field goal percentage (52.3%) and
three-point percentage (47.1%), and should not be gathering cobwebs
when the Bucks are being run out of the gym against a Nets team
without James Harden. If there is anyone in this series who can
come in and turn things around with toughness on both ends of the
court, it is the sixth-year veteran, who was signed in the
offseason because the Bucks were lacking a guy just like him when
they were eliminated from last year’s playoffs against Miami.
Bucks runner-up: PJ Tucker
John Collins, Hawks
The last time Collins took more than 11 shots in a game was May
12 against the Wizards, when he went 5-for-12. In the previous game
he was 10-for-14 (also against Washington), and in the one before
that he was 10-for 15 (against the Pacers). The 23-year-old
averaged 12.2 shot attempts per game in the regular season, but in
seven playoff games, he has not yet reached that number (either by
design or via happenstance). Whatever the case, the Hawks can play
with the Sixers if Collins and Clint Capela can combine to
outperform Joel Embiid on the offensive end (hey, Embiid is so good
that sometimes you need two guys to match his production).
But Collins, despite strong shooting percentages, is either not
having enough plays run for him or is not being assertive enough.
He has been to the free-throw line only four times in this series,
so maybe it is time for Nate McMillan to tell Collins to spend less
time outside the three-point arc and more time in the paint on
offense, where he is shooting 62.5% on shots from between 3-10
feet. The restricted free agent-to-be has about 120 million reasons
to be better than he has been through the first seven playoff
Hawks runner-up: Lou Williams