We are down to eight teams in the NBA playoffs, Young is now a
villain in Philadelphia as well as New York, Kawhi Leonard is Mr.
Postseason Dangerous again, Nikola Jokic is about to go up against
Deandre Ayton in what could be the biggest postseason positional
mismatch we are going to see, and the Utah Jazz and Clippers are
about to ignite a debate on whether taking a combined 100
three-pointers in a single game (or something close to that) is
what the NBA in 2021 has become.
We are still a month away from the start of the NBA Finals, and
the Olympics are drawing nearer with a whole bunch of nations still
hoping to qualify… if the Japanese do not bail on the event. Japan
has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world, and reporters
who are going to cover the Olympics are learning that they will be
banned from public transportation in Tokyo.
Yes, 2021 remains exceedingly complicated, and every day or
night that we turn on NBA playoff games, we are reminded that the
league remains stuck in COVID-avoidance mode despite the pandemic
drawing to a close in the United States. The coaches have lost the
masks, but the players on the bench, the fans in the stands, the
actors in the Heineken commercials, the cardboard cutout fans at
Staples Center and the sideline reporters being 18 feet away
(instead of six feet away) all serve as a reminder that some people
remain mentally stuck in March 2020.
Progress on that front is glacial despite a dearth of positive
COVID tests around the NBA.
So we enter the week with the Brooklyn Nets holding a 1-0 lead on
the Milwaukee Bucks despite losing James Harden after he
re-aggravated his hamstring injury in the first minute of Game 1.
Now, we have to start wondering whether we have seen the last of
him for this season, and if so, midseason signee Mike James — who
left CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague midseason — is going to become
Joel Embiid did not look 100% healthy as he played through a
partially torn right meniscus on Sunday at home against the Hawks,
who nearly blew the game in the final minute of the fourth quarter
as they struggled to get the ball past halfcourt. Nate McMillan
will likely be drilling the Hawks on breaking the press at practice
Chris Paul and Devin Booker will be back on the national radar
tonight as the Suns open at home against the Nuggets, and two
players that will become especially relevant for the second
straight postseason will be Jae Crowder, who spent last season with
the Heat, and Michael Porter Jr., who spent most of the 2019-2020
season recovering from a second back surgery.
Role players tend to have a bigger role in the postseason than
folks previously expected, which serves as a reminder that Rajon
Rondo is still around and still carries the "Playoff Rondo"
nickname. If Patrick Beverly remains sidelined, that removes a
terrific defender against Paul, and we shall see if Reggie Jackson,
Rondo or someone else can fluster CP3 into one or two extra
turnovers per night.
The Clippers-Jazz series figures to be an epic three-point
shootout. Los Angeles led the NBA in three-point percentage at an
astounding 41.1%, while the Jazz shot 38.9% but made 1,205 threes
over the 72-game regular season. That was third-most in NBA
history. Their average of 16.7 threes per contest was an NBA
record, and they were the only team to hit 10-plus threes in every
game in a single season.
In Sunday’s games, the Hawks made 20 of 47 three-pointers while
the Sixers were 10-for-29, and Philadelphia missed 11 free throws
to Atlanta’s one. Yes, sometimes it just comes down to the little
things like shooting free throws.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting 58.3% from the foul line and
just 14.3% from three-point range. Giannis, Brook Lopez, Khris
Middleton and Bobby Portis give Milwaukee a major size advantage
against Brooklyn, but the Nets can burn fouls and send these guys
to the line if they are going to continue to get jittery from 15
Brooklyn is shooting 91.1% on free throws to Milwaukee’s 72.2%,
and in the other East series, the Hawks are at 85.5% on foul shots
through six playoff games compared to Philly’s 70.1% – the worst
average among the 16 teams that made the postseason. The Bucks have
been the NBA’s best offensive rebounding team in the postseason,
but those extra possessions are not translating into converted
three-pointers. The Bucks are at 30.7% from behind the arc. Only
the dearly departed Lakers (29.9%) and Wizards (28.9%) have shot
worse from long range.
Last year’s finalists, the Heat and the Lakers, are off starting
their summers. In hindsight, the Heat probably never should have
traded Kelly Olynyk for Victor Oladipo, and the Lakers were
victimized by injuries to Davis and James more so than anything
else – although if Rob Pelinka had to do it all over again, he
probably would have found a way to get Kyle Lowry from the Raptors
in what was a surprisingly busy trade deadline. They did get Andre
Drummond, but he is Exhibit A in how a one-trick pony with a
monster contract can become more of an albatross than an asset. The
front offices in Detroit and Cleveland already learned this the
The Nets are learning that Blake Griffin still has some game
left, but the LaMarcus Aldridge signing netted them nothing, and it
may turn out that the signings of James from CSKA Moscow and Alize
Johnson from the G-League may have huge implications. The Pacers
and Raptors both had Johnson, who is an energy and rebounding
machine. They both let him walk. Props to Sean Marks for
recognizing his talent, and we may see more of him if the Bucks’
size advantage needs to be neutralized by someone other than
DeAndre Jordan (DNP-CD in Game 1) or Nicolas Claxton.
Marks signed James after he had a falling out with his coach at
CSKA Moscow, and after getting 30 minutes of playing time in Game
1, it will be interesting to see whether Nash makes James the de
facto replacement point guard for Harden or gives that role to
Kyrie Irving instead.
The Bucks are dealing with postseason adversity for the first
time this spring after sweeping Miami in the first round, and they
are going to need better three-point shooting from someone — Lopez,
Bryn Forbes, Middleton or P.J. Tucker — if they hope to keep up
with what Brooklyn is capable of offensively.
Who would have guessed that losing Donte DiVincenzo to a torn
ankle ligament would be such a big factor. Milwaukee had George
Hill a year ago for moments such as this, but Hill is with Philly
now and went 0-for-2 in 11 inconsequential minutes on Sunday as the
folks in Philly learned firsthand that Trae Young is as strong of a
villain as he is as a scorer. Are the Sixers really the better
top-to-bottom team? Or has the national audience been sleeping on
the Hawks since they were kept off national television for most of
the NBA season?
We have a whole bunch of basketball still in front of us as the
second round kicks into high gear this week, and let’s not forget
that teams that sometimes look dead can come back like Lazarus. The
Nuggets did it last season in becoming the first team ever to
recover from a pair of 3-1 deficits, and the Clippers did it
against the Mavs after losing Game 1 and Game 2 at home and falling
behind 30-11 in the first seven minutes of Game 3 at
Leonard, Paul George and Playoff Rondo are now 0-0 against the
Jazz, and the Nuggets have the same series score against the Suns.
Mike Conley is dealing with a hamstring issue that may or may not
be worse than Harden’s, and if it keeps him out, Jordan Clarkson is
going to have his hands full. For Denver, we shall have to wait and
see who gets the assignment on Booker, who dropped 47 on the Lakers
(with 11 defensive rebounds) in the clincher. The Suns, though,
were just 1-2 against the Nuggets in the regular season, while the
Jazz were 2-1 vs. the Clippers.