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The Bubble Blog Playoff Archive

All of The Ringer’s blog coverage of the 2020 NBA playoffs’ first two rounds

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This page contains The Ringer’s Bubble Blog coverage of the first two rounds of the 2020 NBA playoffs.

Click here for our current coverage of the conference finals.

Click here for an archive of our coverage during the seeding games.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game One Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

There’s a Hole in the Middle of the Clippers—and the Nuggets Are Exploiting It

Monday September 14, 6:55 a.m. PT

Jonathan Tjarks: Doc Rivers is making the Clippers’ second-round series against the Nuggets harder than it needs to be. There are a million factors behind his team’s shocking collapses in games 5 and 6, which forced a decisive Game 7 on Tuesday. But the one that should be easiest to fix? Their coach’s decision-making.

Rivers seems to have decided that playing Montrezl Harrell against Nikola Jokic is the hill that he wants to die on. And he is, in fact, dying on that hill. The advanced numbers don’t even seem real. Their net rating goes from minus-11.3 in 108 minutes with Harrell on the floor in the series to plus-12.2 in 180 minutes when he’s off. They have a net rating of minus-21.9 in 53 minutes when both Harrell and Jokic are in.

None of this should be that big of a surprise. Despite winning Sixth Man of the Year this season, Harrell hasn’t been the same player inside the bubble. He doesn’t have the same energy, which is exposing major holes in his game. He’s an undersized big man without shooting range or great defensive instincts, who’s matched up against one of the best centers in the NBA.

Harrell’s problems with Jokic are fairly predictable, considering what happened in their first-round series against the Mavs. Los Angeles had a net rating of minus-11.6 in 110 minutes with him, and plus-22.5 in 183 minutes without him. He’s not the only reason the Clippers have been underperforming in the playoffs. But the numbers speak for themselves.

A lot of the clichés about their struggles make more sense when you put them through the prism of Harrell’s disappearance. Dallas pushing the Clippers to six games in the first round should have been a wake-up call that one of their best players was hurting them. Los Angeles should have taken Denver more seriously, in that it can’t continue to lose games while hoping that Harrell figures things out.

Even more concerning than Harrell’s struggles is the fact that Rivers doesn’t seem to be aware of what’s happening. He waved off Harrell’s struggles after Game 6, telling The Athletic’s Jovan Buha: “Trezz is up-and-down for us right now. We know that. Listen, if you go on just plus-minus, which I think a lot of people do, I don’t think either one of our fives were effective. And so we have to get better play out of them.”

There are only two explanations for that quote. Either Rivers has lost the ability to read a stat sheet or he’s gaslighting the media. Ivica Zubac, the team’s starting center, was plus-11 in Game 6, and the Clippers have a net rating of plus-14.4 with him on the floor in the series and minus-10.4 with him off.

Sticking with Harrell has also prevented the Clippers from exploring how Jokic would fare against a smaller lineup with either JaMychal Green or Marcus Morris at the 5, which would force the Nuggets center to defend the 3-point line. It’s not like they could be any worse on defense than Harrell, either. But will Rivers deploy that strategy in Game 7 after barely even trying it in the first six games?

It’s possible that Harrell rewards his faith with a big game on Tuesday that helps them advance to the Western Conference finals. But it’s not like a matchup with Anthony Davis is going to be any easier for him. The Clippers need their coach to be a lot quicker on the draw to win an NBA title.

Rivers has been living on what he did with the Celtics for a long time. This wouldn’t be the first time that the Clippers have blown a 3-1 lead in his tenure. The same thing happened to them against the Rockets in 2015. If they lose Game 7 to the Nuggets, they need to start asking some hard questions about their coach.

The Clippers Keep Disappearing When It Matters Most

September 13, 1:57 p.m. PT

Uggetti: These are the kinds of games that make you believe in weird things, the kinds of collapses that revive theories about the Clippers’ curse, the kinds of comebacks that let you think for a second or two that the Nuggets have something like destiny backing them. Otherwise, how else to explain what we just saw?

This wasn’t just the Clippers up 19 at one point, blowing the lead and losing by 13 points in a 111-98 Game 6. It was the Clippers controlling a game they were expected to win, then suddenly being replaced by ghosts, looking like they wanted to be anywhere but on the court, and being overtaken by a team that did not want to go home. The Clippers, as a franchise, have now lost six games that would’ve sent them to the Western Conference finals, which they have never played in.

Despite being down 3-1, Denver looked like the more comfortable team. Last round, they were down 3-1 to the Jazz before winning three games in a row. In contrast to their counterparts, the Nuggets have now played in five elimination games this postseason and won all of them. While on the brink again on Sunday, the Nuggets seemed to bring their remaining collective energy together, which resulted in the kind of performance their yearslong continuity was built to produce. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic had 21 points and 34 points, respectively, Jokic seemingly draining one of his acrobatic parabola shots every time the Nuggets needed him to. Gary Harris, plenty stout on defense, added 16 points—more than any Clippers player not named Kawhi Leonard or Paul George—while Denver’s bench tacked on 30 points. In the second half, the collective beat out Los Angeles’s two stars, who had no help, went cold, and had to deal with obstacles like Montrezl Harrell (minus-19 off the bench in 15 minutes), and no other Clipper making more than one 3 in the entire game.

It was a top-to-bottom failure that led Doc Rivers to plead with his team during a timeout. “We’re better than this!” he told them as shown on the broadcast. But are they? All season long we’ve wondered when the Clippers would snap out of their cruise control. It’s been enough to get them to this point, but it’s feeling more and more like this is who they are. They’re still talented enough to win the title, but that doesn’t matter if they can’t reach the Finals in the first place. In some ways, this entire season has been building up to a Clippers-Lakers conference finals and those regular-season matchups were the only glimpses of what an engaged Clippers team could look like. But now, while LeBron spends his Sunday relaxing and watching football, the Clippers have to spend the day explaining how they let this one get away while preparing for a Game 7.

Houston’s Mike D’Antoni Experiment Is Over

Sunday, September 13, 1:03 p.m. PT

Uggetti: The first domino of the Houston Rockets’ offseason has dropped. After his team was eliminated by the Lakers in five games Saturday, head coach Mike D’Antoni wasted no time in letting the Rockets know that he had no plans of staying in Houston after his contract expired once the season ended. According to Adrian Wojnarowski’s report, D’Antoni turned down multiple offers for an extension before the season began. In other words, after four seasons at the helm of the Rockets’ small-ball experiment, D’Antoni was ready to bolt.

It’d be wrong to brand D’Antoni’s Houston tenure as a failure—his team made the playoffs every season, won over 60 percent of its games, and was within a game of the NBA Finals in 2018—but it’s also hard to describe it as a success. The Rockets didn’t win the title they thought they could and crumbled under the weight of their 3-point-heavy strategy more than once. It was evident on Saturday night that this group needed a change, and while ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that GM Daryl Morey was not going anywhere and that the team would continue doubling down on playing small ball, D’Antoni’s time in Houston has long seemed like it was running out.

Now what? The Rockets likely have little choice but to run it back given Russell Westbrook’s contract (over $130 million in the next three seasons) and an owner with shallow pockets. Finding a coach to both fit the style they want to play and also get James Harden to reach a higher level in the playoffs isn’t an easy task, either. There are early reports that the Rockets are interested in Sam Cassell, a longtime Clippers assistant who started his career in Houston, and Ty Lue, the former Cavs coach who is currently a Clippers assistant and has become the trendy name on the market. The Sixers were reportedly after him, but now it seems like they might be interested in D’Antoni, who spent a year as an assistant under Brett Brown before taking the Rockets job. D’Antoni has also been linked to Indiana and New Orleans, where Zion Williamson awaits, ready to be unlocked. Welcome to the coaching carousel!

D’Antoni clearly believes he’s getting out at the right time, but while he should have plenty of choices for his next gig, the Rockets are left without a coach and with a lot more damning questions they have to answer heading into next season. It feels like they missed their window, and now with D’Antoni gone, they have to find a way to open another one.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Rockets Are Out—and Mike D’Antoni May Soon Be, Too

Saturday, September 12, 9:15 p.m. PT

Haley O’Shaughnessy: “We’ll put together a run,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told the broadcast after the first quarter of Game 5 on Saturday. Houston was behind, and much like Games 2, 3, and 4, a big enough run never came. The Rockets finished Game 5 and the series behind, too, losing 119-96 to the Lakers. Houston exits the playoffs in the second round for the second year in a row. In fact, for a team that swapped its second-best player in Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook one summer ago, everything feels uncannily familiar. There was no fight despite facing elimination once again. The shooting was nightmarish. Shots of sad D’Antoni filled the screen. James Harden was very much not the leader Houston needed. Despite scoring 30 points, he only hit two of his eight 3s and took four free throw attempts—tied for his third-fewest trips to the line in all of 2019-20.

There’s no modern playoff tradition quite like Houston’s postseason collapse, with the speed and inevitability of a lit firecracker and none of its vivacity. The only urgency the Rockets showed against the Lakers in Games 4 and 5 was shooting so terribly that the series ended as quickly as possible. On Saturday, the team took 49 3-point shots and made just 13. And it allowed the Lakers to hit 19 3s on 51.4 percent shooting. It’s always ironic when the perimeter is the reason for Houston’s demise because D’Antoni’s spaced-out, 3-heavy attack is the only identity these Rockets claim. But it’s also logical: The Rockets have no choice but to shoot through their problems, as they did in the third and fourth quarters, missing 16 straight 3-point shots. They live by it and die by the 3 and have so far been gainfully employed despite it. After Saturday, though, D’Antoni’s contract will expire. With Westbrook essentially untradeable, a scapegoat is needed. A split, which has been rumored on-and-off for years, would never be so clean.

“We’ll see what happens,” D’Antoni said after the loss. “I had four years. Hopefully it keeps going, but you just never know.” There is reason for both sides to let go. D’Antoni hasn’t led this team (or its many past versions) as far as it should’ve gone, or as convincingly, and Houston’s elimination felt as inescapable against Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso as it did against the dynasty Warriors. Houston built its roster to beat those Warriors, but it still couldn’t advance in a playoff landscape where they stayed home. That’s because the opponent the Rockets never figured out how to overcome was the Rockets themselves. The run for this team as it is isn’t going to come. Another offseason, like the one before it and the one before that, to think it through. Although this time, it may start with a news dump.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Seven Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Jayson Tatum Is Teetering on Superstardom With This Playoff Run

Saturday, September 12, 6:36 a.m. PT

Tjarks: In the end, the Raptors had no answer for Jayson Tatum, whose all-around brilliance (29 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists) helped the Celtics win Game 7 on Friday and advance to the conference finals. There’s nothing a defense can do, even an elite one like Toronto’s, against a star who can do everything on the court at a high level.

Tatum is a versatile wing with the size (6-foot-8 and 210 pounds) that every team in the league is looking for. In a series where offense was at a premium, his ability to score over smaller defenders made all the difference. Toronto didn’t have a player like him. The Raptors’ two best offensive players were a pair of 6-foot-1 guards (Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet). They could be bothered by bigger and longer defenders in a way that Tatum couldn’t.

But what makes the Celtics’ 22-year-old star really special is that he could have the offense run through him while also hounding Lowry on defense. There aren’t many elite scorers with the physical tools to also be elite defenders. Even the ones who have them tend to be more focused on offense at Tatum’s age. His defense and rebounding allowed him to contribute to this series even when he struggled to score efficiently.

The big jump that Tatum has made in his third season is playmaking. He’s averaging 4.3 assists per game in the playoffs after averaging 2.5 in his first two postseasons. Tatum has always been able to score from all over the floor. Now he’s leveraging that ability to set up his teammates. His progression has allowed the Celtics to overcome the absence of Gordon Hayward, the best passer among their wings, who has missed the entire postseason due to an ankle injury.

In a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last year, Warriors GM Bob Myers explained why versatility is so important in the playoffs, using former Celtics star Paul Pierce as an example:

“The more dimensions you have to your game, the harder you are to take away [in the playoffs]. Shoot a 3. Get fouled. Drive to the basket. What should I have done against Paul Pierce? I’ll let him shoot 3s. No. Let him go to the rim. No. Foul him. No. There are too many things he does. Let’s pick on him defensively. No. That’s what makes a Hall of Fame player.”

There’s a reason that teams built around wings with size, athleticism, and shooting tend to win in the playoffs. The Celtics are 5-2 in playoff series with Tatum in his three seasons, and are making their second trip to the Eastern Conference finals. He’s a difference maker against teams that don’t have players like him, and not many teams do, even in the postseason.

That eventually changes as you advance deeper into the playoffs. Tatum lost to LeBron James in 2018 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019. Now he faces Jimmy Butler in 2020. The final step for Tatum is becoming the best player on the floor in a playoff series when facing an even bigger wing than him. He doesn’t have the same type of power as players like LeBron, Giannis, and Butler. The key for Tatum is to be a better shooter and more efficient scorer. He shot 42.3 percent from the field against the Raptors. He will have to do better against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. And he’s going to have to do that while being guarded by Butler.

But the fact that he’s even in those conversations shows just how incredible he has been in his first three seasons in the NBA. Tatum might not be the best young player in the league, but he is the most well-rounded. Assuming he stays healthy, he will be knocking teams out of the playoffs for a long time to come.

The Celtics Emerge Victorious From the Best Bubble Series Yet

Friday, September 11, 11:45 p.m. PT

Devine: It came down to the final minute, because of course it did. In what other way could Game 7 of the second-round series between the Raptors and Celtics—with all due respect to Donovan and Jamal, the best and most thrilling series of the 2020 NBA playoffs so far, to these eyes—resolve except with heart-stopping pressure as time ticked away? Of course it all came down to 60 seconds left on the clock, with one solitary damned bucket separating these two teams, with a berth in the Eastern Conference finals resting on 10 players exhausted by the weight of both the moment and all those minutes they’d played. Nothing else would’ve fit.

The Celtics had taken a 10-point lead on a pair of Jayson Tatum free throws with 4:51 remaining, but Toronto had scratched and clawed its way to a 9-1 run—Norman Powell pulling up from midrange, the haunted Pascal Siakam finally getting a layup to drop, Kyle Lowry driving and grifting, the small-ball lineup defending like the team’s life depended on it—to cut the deficit to 89-87. A stop and a bucket, and the defending champs would be all square, just one more shot away from snatching victory from the jaws of defeat for the third time in this series.

Tatum drove, and he missed, and Powell—the overtime hero of Game 6, one of the reasons the Raptors had survived to play on Friday night—was off to the races. They got the stop; next up, the bucket, and another reminder that to vanquish the Raptors, the Celtics were going to have to rip their hearts out.

That’s when Marcus Smart decided to get his Kano on:

The two-time All-Defensive First Teamer matched Powell stride for stride, leapt, and punched the Toronto swingman’s layup attempt with his left hand off the glass and right into the arms of teammate Jaylen Brown, preserving Boston’s lead and snuffing out Toronto’s best shot of getting level.

The final dagger, though, was Tatum’s to deliver. On the ensuing possession, Lowry’s sixth foul sent Grant Williams to the line, giving the rookie center a shot to seal the game. After a maybe-trying-to-ice-the-rookie challenge of what had clearly been a foul by Lowry, Williams stepped to the line and missed his first; if he missed the second, Toronto would get one more chance to tie or take the lead.

Provided, of course, they could secure the rebound. Which Tatum wasn’t especially interested in letting them do.

The All-Star forward capped another monster night—a game-high 29 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, a steal, and a block in 44 minutes, making him the second-youngest player to put up 25-10-5 in a Game 7 in NBA history, after only his hero and idol Kobe Bryant—by extending the possession, forcing another foul, and pushing the lead back to three by splitting his pair. Toronto still had a chance to tie, but with Lowry fouled out, Siakam’s postseason-long offensive struggles (13 points on 5-for-12 shooting, five turnovers against three assists) making him a shaky late-game option, and with Boston’s defense snuffing out a pet Toronto action, Fred VanVleet’s attempt to go it alone against the rookie Williams came up empty ...

… and that was it. A pair of Kemba Walker free throws finished up a 92-87 victory. Celtics win, 4-3, and advance to face Jimmy Butler and the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Toronto goes home. The champs are dead; long live the champs.

It was the right result, given the run of play. The Celtics were the better team for most of the series, posting blowout wins in Games 1 and 5, and twice coming within a hair’s breadth of ending things, whether in essence (Toronto needed an OG Anunoby miracle to avoid falling into an 0-3 hole) or in actuality (Kemba did get fouled on that final-seconds Game 6 drive, after all). Their length, speed, discipline, floor balance, and defensive versatility absolutely decimated Toronto’s offense, holding Nick Nurse’s team to just 100.9 points per 100 possessions in the series—a full 10 points-per-100 below the Raptors’ regular-season mark.

Tatum and Brown (21 points, eight rebounds, four steals, two assists in 43 minutes) shined on the wing on both ends. Walker persisted through Nurse’s preferred box-and-one treatment. And Smart, an unerring war rig of a combo guard, shot 39.3 percent from 3-point range on nearly nine attempts a game while also putting out defensive fires all over the court, sacrificing his body for possessions time and again, and coming up with the biggest stop of the series. Him squaring up with Jimmy Butler in the next round might constitute an extinction-level event. Miami is excellent, and just ran the East’s no. 1 seed out of the bubble, but Boston—which expects Gordon Hayward back at some point in the conference finals—has a golden opportunity to make the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

The Raptors, meanwhile, saw their bid for back-to-back titles sputter out before the final four. Game 7 marked something of an ignominious end to a surprising and brilliant title defense. There were too many unforced errors (18 turnovers leading to 31 Celtic points, a backbreaker in a game with such small margins); too many empty possessions for Siakam, who throughout his time in the bubble looked dramatically overtaxed as the no. 1 option; too few answers for how to generate a good look when Boston hustled back in transition. Toronto got by on collective belief, “balls of steel,” toughness, and ingenuity, and it was pretty awesome to watch. But eventually the magic ran out, and now team president Masai Ujiri will steer the team into an uncertain offseason.

The 34-year-old Lowry, who inked an extension before the season, will be back; so will the 26-year-old Siakam, who did the same. The Cameroonian forward had a career year, but he’s going to hear all sorts of slander about his disastrous postseason after these playoffs, and he knows it; it’ll be fascinating to see how one of the league’s preeminent player development stories works to continue to grow his game between now and the start of next season. (Whenever that winds up being.)

VanVleet, however, is about to enter unrestricted free agency, and could be the top target of teams (New York, Detroit) with a hole at the point and major salary cap space to spend. If all else is equal, the Raptors would love to keep him around, and you’d figure he’d love to keep playing for a winner; but if a max deal comes his way, Ujiri’s going to have to think hard about whether to match it and sacrifice the financial flexibility to go after a mega-star free agent in the 2021 offseason—like, say, Giannis Antetokounmpo, to whom Ujiri and the Raptors have long been linked—or to let the guard walk. (My guess: Toronto pays to keep FVV around, understanding that you’re better off keeping the core of a contender together and clearing out the cap space for your big free agent addition later than finding yourself without the players to entice said addition to come to town at all.)

Centers Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka will hit the unrestricted market, too; the latter was a fantastic source of bench offense all season and came up big at times in the playoffs, while the former struggled brutally in the bubble and was virtually unplayable against Boston by the end of the run. Does Ujiri try to bring either or both back? If not, where does Toronto turn in the middle next season, and what’s the long-term plan at the position to pair with Siakam and Anunoby (who, by the way, is now eligible for an extension of his rookie contract)?

Questions abound in an inflection-point offseason in Toronto, one that could set the Raptors up for ongoing title contention or represent the first step in a much larger makeover. While they turn to the future, though, the Celtics press on in the bubble. Next up: Jimmy Buckets, the Heat, and what should be another war full of brutalizing defense and late-game anxiety. Can’t wait.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Clippers Couldn’t Keep the Hammer Down Against Denver

Friday, September 11, 8:15 p.m. PT

Devine: Hey, Clippers? You should’ve listened to your friends George Clooney and Matt Damon.

For the first two and a half quarters of Friday’s Game 5, the Clippers were on cruise control, once again stifling the Nuggets’ offense, and getting just enough scoring and playmaking from their stars to keep Denver at arm’s length. With Nikola Jokic scuffling and turning the ball over, Jamal Murray firing away but off-target, and headline-grabbing rookie Michael Porter Jr.—you know, the one who bemoaned his lack of second-half touches in Game 4—all but invisible, it seemed like it was all over but the shoutin’, just a matter of time before the Clips got serious enough to put the hammer down and end the Nuggets’ season.

But the Clippers—who so often throughout the season recalled a lion that needed a good stretch and yawn before it ate its prey—never quite got around to the hammering. And the Nuggets—who entered Friday with the silver-lining confidence of having just come back from a 3-1 deficit in the previous round against Utah—decided they felt like sticking around Disney for a bit longer. After trailing by as many as 16, the Nuggets came roaring back late, cranking up their defensive intensity, blitzing the languorous Clips with a 38-point fourth quarter, and shocking Doc Rivers’s club to score a 111-105 win and force a Game 6 on Sunday.

A late third-quarter run sparked by some grind-it-out possessions from Paul Millsap (who scored 14 of 17 points in the frame, tied for the third-highest-scoring quarter of his postseason career) got Denver back within hailing distance at 80-73 entering the fourth. The Nuggets’ second unit kept up the charge, with Porter Jr.—who, as I mentioned earlier Friday, had logged just eight assists in 279 minutes in his first postseason—racing down the floor in transition and hitting Mason Plumlee in stride for an alley-oop dunk that cut L.A.’s lead to just two:

Denver’s reserves made their early fourth-quarter run with Leonard getting his customary rest on the bench. Rather than rush him back in to stop the bleeding, Rivers left him—and center Ivica Zubac, who’s held up well defensively against Jokic—on the bench a bit longer. That proved unwise, as it allowed Denver’s stars to start to find their touch and playmaking rhythm. Jokic (22 points on 9-for-17 shooting, 14 rebounds, five assists) and Murray (26 points on 25 shots, but 5-for-7 from deep, eight rebounds, seven assists, just one turnover in 40 minutes) combined for a 14-2 run that gave Denver its first lead of the game.

After his team spent most of the second half settling for jumpers rather than pressuring the paint—L.A. attempted 25 3-pointers after intermission, compared to just nine shots inside the restricted area—Leonard tried to will the Clippers back into the proceedings, working his way to the line and getting back within two points with just under two minutes to go. That’s when Porter—who hadn’t made a shot through three quarters, but who was hustling his ass off defensively throughout the fourth—showed why he’s got the kind of confidence that had him piping up about getting the rock after Game 4:

Porter’s final two minutes: seven points, one block, one near-turnover while woofing at Zubac after said block … and the win.

After blowing the Clips’ doors off by 20 points over the final 17 minutes of game time, Malone’s squad has a new lease on life. After watching its vaunted non-Kawhi and PG depth pieces contribute a measly 14 points on 6-for-19 shooting in the second half, letting Millsap chisel away that double-digit lead late in the third, and failing to pull the trigger on the subs that could’ve settled things down before they got too out of hand, Rivers and co. have some missed opportunities to rue between now and Sunday afternoon. It’s still more likely than not that the Clips eventually close this series and advance to the first Western Conference finals in their franchise’s history. But they’re going to have to actively finish the job; the Nuggets proved last round against Utah, and again on Friday, that they won’t just do it themselves.

We’ve wondered all season what it might look like if the Clippers not only got all of their dudes on the court at the same time, but actually locked all the way in on both ends for the full 48 minutes. It’d behoove them to show us all the answer in Game 6, because if you fumble away another crack at it, suddenly you’re facing a Game 7. And if you lose focus in that game for just one second, a whole franchise can get hurt.

LA Clippers v Denver Nuggets - Game Four Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. Dilemma Could Decide Its Playoff Fate

Friday, September 11, 12:48 p.m. PT

Devine: The series changed, really, when the Clippers made Jamal Murray their top priority. After the flamethrowing breakout star of Round 1 scored 27 points to help lift the Nuggets to a Game 2 victory that tied the Western Conference semifinals, the Clippers trained their defense on stifling Murray, deploying Paul George and Patrick Beverley at the point of attack and backing them with a Kawhi Leonard–led armada of help defenders to prevent Murray from seeing any daylight.

The results have been conclusive: Over the past two games, Murray’s shot 34.4 percent, Denver’s go-go offense has barely managed a point per possession, and the Clippers have taken a commanding 3-1 lead. Nikola Jokic has continued to shine—the All-NBA big fella’s averaging 25-11-5 on 51/41/83 shooting splits in the series—but for Denver to extend its season in Friday’s Game 5, head coach Michael Malone must find another reliable source of offense.

Hmm? What’s that? Oh, OK, someone’s calling in with a suggestion. Go ahead, caller, you’re on the air:

If, by some miracle of media avoidance on Thursday, you hadn’t yet heard Michael Porter Jr.’s postgame response to a question of how he went from scoring 15 points in the first half of Game 4 to going scoreless on just two shot attempts after it, the rookie clarified that his quiet second half had nothing to do with the Clippers changing their defensive strategy, and suggested, mid-snack, that the responsibility for changing that rests with Malone:

“I mean, that’s really up to the play calls, that’s really up to the coaches, who they want to put the ball in whose hands,” Porter said. “We kept going to [Nikola] Jokic and ‘Mal [Murray], and they’re two amazing players, you can never get mad at that. But I just think to beat that team, we gotta get more players involved, we gotta move the ball a little bit better. We can’t be predictable against that team.”

Porter later added: “If I’m gonna be out there on the floor playing a lot of minutes, I think I should voice that [concern]. I’ll probably talk to the coaches, just tell them what I see being out there on the floor. Just letting them know, ‘Look, they know what we’re doing.’ Like, we gotta swing the ball. We’ve got a lot of players who can play basketball and score. We gotta get some more guys involved.”

The 22-year-old rookie with just under 1,200 professional minutes under his belt quickly came under fire for speaking out of turn, flouting the long-established NBA chain of command by criticizing his coach for organizing his offense around his top two stars, and, most importantly, for airing those critiques publicly rather than taking them up within the confines of the locker room. For this, Porter was roundly pilloried by all manner of NBA veterans, with the more charitable interpretations characterizing it as a teachable moment for a player teeming with talent who doesn’t yet grasp how to fit his talent into a team.

That conflict continues to rest at the heart of a fascinating conundrum in Denver. Because the thing is: Porter’s not necessarily wrong. The Nuggets do have to be more versatile and less predictable against L.A., and with Murray bottled up and ace disruptor Will Barton sidelined, he likely is their best chance of introducing the sort of chaos-agent point production that they’ll need to stay alive. But it’s hard to hear the message if you don’t trust the messenger, and Porter—eyes always on the rim, but not always on the prize—still hasn’t fully earned Malone’s trust.

Through four games against the Clippers, Denver’s averaging just 103.4 points per 100 possessions, second worst of any team in Round 2. That’s 9.4 fewer points-per-100 than the Nuggets managed in their top-five finish in regular-season offensive efficiency, and 13.4 fewer than they put up against Rudy Gobert and the Jazz in Round 1. They essentially lost Game 4 with a dismal offensive start—12 points on 5-for-17 shooting in the first quarter, more turnovers (five) than assists (four)—as the Clips snuffed out Denver’s pet actions, handsomely winning their bet that nobody but Jokic would make them pay.

This is the space in which Porter can flourish. Now two years removed from major back surgeries, the athleticism that made him such a tantalizing prep prospect just springs off the page, revealing more off-the-bounce juice than just about anybody on the Nuggets roster:

So, too, does the degree to which his size, high release, leaping ability, and shooting touch make him a matchup nightmare. Porter’s ability to get a shot off against just about anybody—pulling up in transition, spotting up off the catch, shooting over a hard-charging closeout with a hand in his face—could be a valuable release valve to help take pressure off Jokic and Murray:

Porter boasts the best plus-minus of any Nugget in the 2020 playoffs, and the top mark among their rotation players in this series: Denver has played L.A. even in his 97 minutes, and has been outscored by 31 points in the 101 minutes he’s been on the bench. Denver’s rebounding percentage soars with Porter’s 7-foot wingspan on the court, especially on the offensive boards, and those second-chance opportunities can matter a great deal when your half-court offense is struggling. For what it’s worth, Denver lineups featuring the Jokic-Murray-MPJ trio have outscored L.A. by nine points in 34 minutes of floor time in this series, scoring at a clip much closer to the Nuggets’ typical offensive flow than virtually every other lineup configuration Malone has tried.

The stats and the eye test tell the same story: Porter brings a different level of offensive firepower to bear than either Paul Millsap or Torrey Craig. But those two veterans bring a different level of defensive discipline and aptitude than Porter has shown in a postseason littered with miscues big and small, whether on the ball or (more frequently) off of it:

As vital as his offensive potential is, in the guts of the game, Porter can be a liability. In Game 3, the Nuggets held a seven-point lead with just over eight minutes to go, and looked to have the Clippers on the ropes. In the next minute and a half, though, everything changed, with Porter at the center of Denver capsizing: Porter was pushed him all the way from the arc to the restricted circle by Marcus Morris, who then flipped in a floater; he slammed into an Ivica Zubac screen in transition that let George get off an open 3-pointer; then he tunnel-vision drove a fast break into a turnover that sent L.A. out in transition, resulting in a corner 3 by Lou Williams. Just like that: 8-0 run, Clips back on top, timeout Denver.

But, again, the tricky part: Malone yanked Porter for Millsap after those stumbles, and Denver’s offense just died, producing only six points in the next five minutes. The Clippers loaded up on Jokic and Murray, trying to force someone else to beat them; as a result, Jerami Grant wound up taking five shots with the game in the balance, he missed four of them, and all of a sudden it’s the Clippers, not the Nuggets, with a 2-1 lead.

Maybe Denver still loses that game, only differently, if Porter stays in; he might have knocked down some of the looks that Grant clanged, but he could just as easily have continued to give up even more open ones on the other end. And maybe the Nuggets still would’ve lost Game 4 even if Malone had more frequently prioritized getting the ball into Porter’s hands. After all, it’s not much of a mystery what he wants to do when he gets it:

Porter has logged just eight assists and 17 potential assists in 279 postseason minutes, ranking in the 0th percentile in both assist rate and assist-to-usage ratio among forwards in the playoffs, according to Cleaning the Glass. “We play an offense where the ball moves—you trust the pass, you trust your teammates,” Malone said after Game 4. Or, maybe you don’t. And maybe they don’t in return.

It’s been the central issue with the rookie’s position on this team all season: Porter’s tunnel vision and defensive lapses leading the defense-first Malone to prefer more reliable options in front of him—Millsap, Craig, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangómez—which limited his minutes, and thus his ability to develop chemistry with the rest of the guys who are going to be on the floor in winning time in the postseason. Well, that time is here, and Beasley and Hernangómez are gone, and both Millsap and Craig were scoreless in Game 4. One more loss, and the season’s over.

Malone has to play Porter when it matters most, but he has plenty of reason to feel like he can’t play Porter when it matters most. The Clippers have put him to a choice, though. Which way he goes, and how Porter and the rest of the Nuggets respond, could determine whether their season ends—and maybe a whole lot more than that.

Los Angeles Lakers v Houston Rockets - Game Four Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s No Rockets Gimmick That Can Overcome LeBron and the Lakers

Friday, September 11, 6:57 a.m. PT

Jonathan Tjarks: The Lakers called the Rockets’ bluff in their second-round series. Houston won Game 1 by being the more progressive team, playing small ball for 48 minutes and exposing Los Angeles’s traditional centers on both ends of the floor. The Lakers made the obvious adjustment, benching JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Turns out, the Rockets never had a Plan B.

The underlying problem in Houston became clear in its double-digit Game 4 loss on Thursday. The team’s starting lineup, which features two defensive-minded role players in Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker, didn’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up when Los Angeles went small. The Rockets’ starters have a net rating of minus-13.0 in 53 minutes in the series.

Houston made a comeback in the fourth quarter when it went even smaller in an attempt to keep up. The four-man unit of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, and Austin Rivers has a net rating of plus-28.0 in 12 minutes in this series. The same type of lineup had success in the Rockets’ loss to the Warriors last season, except with Chris Paul in place of Westbrook. That group had a net rating of plus-3.8 in 36 minutes.

But it’s hard to see Houston squaring its series against Los Angeles when it is that small on the perimeter. The difference between the two teams is that the Lakers are still pretty big even when they go “small.” Harden has to guard LeBron James in that lineup, and it would be hard to send effective double-teams at Anthony Davis given the lack of length of everyone on the floor.

The missing piece for the Rockets is players with size and skill on the perimeter. They need players who combine the defensive chops of Covington and Tucker with the offensive game of Gordon and Rivers. The talk about them missing a big man is missing the point. They don’t have a great big wing or a combo forward. They have never had those types of players in the Harden era. The odds are that they will never win an NBA title until they do.

The Rockets always have used gimmicks to make up for not having the right types of players around their star. They have a huge personnel disadvantage against the Lakers. No one would ever pick Harden and Westbrook over LeBron and Davis. It was the same issue against the Warriors. Forget Kevin Durant. Harden never even had a teammate like Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, or Draymond Green. Houston often gets crushed for thinking outside the box, but that was the only advantage it ever really had.

It’s hard to see where the Rockets go from here. They emptied out their cupboard of future draft assets to trade Paul for Westbrook. The only effective way for Harden and Westbrook to play in tandem was to use Westbrook like a frontcourt player. He has the athleticism and tenacity to play bigger than his size, but even that has limits. One of the best adjustments that Los Angeles has made in this series was putting Davis on Westbrook. There’s not much a 6-foot-3 interior scorer can do in that matchup.

There have been a lot of rumors that Mike D’Antoni might be coaching for his job. He was linked to Indiana long before the Pacers fired Nate McMillan. But a new coach can’t change the personnel issues in Houston. The bigger question is what changes GM Daryl Morey can make to convince Harden to stay in Houston. The Rockets have hit their ceiling and there are not many paths to changing this team. If Harden wants to play with the types of players necessary to win a title, he might have to go somewhere else.

The Rockets May Not Be Out Yet, but It Sure Feels Like They Are

Thursday, September 10, 7:48 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Houston has been eliminated from the playoffs in every spiritual, emotional, and metaphysical way, though reality will remind you that Thursday’s 110-100 loss to the Lakers only puts the Rockets down 3-1 in the second round. It seems really unlikely that the team comes back from this. The vibes aren’t there. The vitality that wowed in Game 1 is gone, replaced by a low-energy tempo that felt more like Sunday morning than Thursday prime time.

A series comeback—or even one additional win—requires guaranteed greatness from James Harden. Elimination games aren’t his strength; check his 11.1 percent 3-point-shooting performance in Game 7 of the first-round series against the Thunder for reference. The Beard hasn’t met the most embarrassing fate among former MVPs in these playoffs (that goes to Giannis Antetokounmpo, which I’m sure brings Harden solace), but he did pass Reggie Miller on the all-time playoffs scoring list as he shot 2-for-11 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3 on Thursday. (Harden had 21 points thanks to an astounding 20 free throw attempts, along with 10 assists, four rebounds, three blocks, two steals, and five turnovers.)

Were it a close game, Danuel House’s absence would be a more permissible excuse. (I know it ended as a 10-point game; trust me, even with its mini push at the very end of the fourth, this contest was never winnable for Houston.) But the advantage was so dramatically tipped to the Lakers’ side in fastbreak points (19 points to the Rockets’ 2) and points in the paint (62 points to the Rockets’ 24) it was as if the Rockets had yet to fully buy in on the idea of running to the hoop before taking a shot. Before this series began, it seemed like the smallest-ball Rockets had a chance against the Lakers. Now, it’s doubtful they make it past five.

LA Clippers v Denver Nuggets - Game Four Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Michael Porter Jr. Is Already Concerned About His Touches

Thursday, September 10, 10:29 a.m. PT

Uggetti: Michael Porter Jr.’s first postseason could have been remembered for when he hit a literal high point. His highlight poster dunk over Montrezl Harrell could have played on a loop between now and whenever he begins his sophomore season. Instead, Porter took to the podium after Wednesday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 4 to complain about not getting enough touches.

When asked about having only two shot attempts in the second half and what he thought he could do in that type of game, Porter said, “That’s really up to the play calls, it’s really up to the coaches. We kept going to [Nikola Jokic] and [Jamal Murray]. They’re two amazing players. You can’t be mad at that, but I just think to beat that team we gotta get more players involved.”

Porter, who is averaging 12 points on 56 percent true shooting in the playoffs, went on to say he’ll probably talk to the coaches and make a point to mention that the team should get more guys involved. He also said that he felt like if he is going to be on the floor playing a lot of minutes (he’s averaged 25 per game in the playoffs), he is entitled to voice that opinion. Nuggets coach Michael Malone, for his part, said that the Clippers were being aggressive by keying in on Porter and that the ball simply didn’t find him.

While MPJ has certainly shown bursts of star potential in his rookie season, he’s still, well, a rookie, and one who is nearly unplayable at times on defense. Then again, if you know a bit about Porter’s backstory, this kind of, let’s call it bravado, is nothing new. This is a player who has been branding himself as the next Kevin Durant since he was a teen and has, at times, played like it, despite the numerous injuries he’s suffered. This is likely his first time being on a team where he hasn’t been the best player. The morning after Porter’s comments, The Athletic’s John Hollinger, a former Memphis Grizzlies executive, pointed out on Twitter that while the medicals were the primary reason Porter dropped to the 14th pick in the 2018 draft, it may not have been the only reason. Damian Lillard was a bit more succinct:

Malone hesitated to play Porter many minutes this season. It seemed like the type of clash that often occurs between a coach who wants to win now and a front office that needs a clearer look at the bigger picture. After Porter’s first full season, it’s tough to deny that his talents could help make the Nuggets a true contender. But it’s also impossible to ignore everything else, from the defense to these latest comments, that could be the reason Malone sat him in the first place.

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets - Game Four Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Kawhi Is Letting the Nuggets Choose Their Poison

Thursday, September 10, 7:00 a.m. PT

Tjarks: Kawhi Leonard turned to his new finishing move in the Clippers’ Game 4 win against the Nuggets. He set up his teammates all over the floor, tying a career playoff high for assists (nine) and fueling a 96-85 win to give his team a 3-1 lead. This has become a trend. Kawhi has eight career playoff games with seven or more assists. Six have come in the past two seasons: games 5 and 6 against Milwaukee, games 3 and 6 against Dallas, and games 2 and 4 against Denver.

It’s a simple formula. Kawhi puts so much pressure on the defense over the course of a series that it cracks and begins double-teaming him all over the floor. They decide that they can’t let him beat them with scoring, so he beats them with passing. And then they go home.

He has not been quite as dominant against the Nuggets, with his lowest scoring average (23.8 points on 47.3 percent shooting) in any series in the past two seasons. They have swarmed him with multiple defenders from the beginning, and he has responded with the highest assist average (6.5) in his career.

But Kawhi dominated in every facet of the game on Wednesday, finishing with 30 points on 10-of-22 shooting, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks.

The Clippers made life easier for him in Game 4. They ran a ton of pick-and-rolls for him at the top of the key with three shooters surrounding the play, simplifying his reads and putting the Nuggets’ defense in an impossible position. Kawhi picked them apart from there.

There were plays when he accepted the double-team behind the 3-point line and found his big man rolling to the rim:

Ones when he found the open shooter on cross-court passes to the corner:

And ones when he got the ball into the teeth of the defense and spoon-fed his center for a dunk:

Playmaking has been the final piece of the puzzle for Kawhi. He wasn’t a brilliant passer from day one like LeBron James. Kawhi came into the NBA as a 3-and-D player, then slowly turned himself into an elite individual scorer. But it was only when he learned how to leverage his scoring to set up his teammates that he became capable of carrying a team to a title.

There’s nothing a defense can do to stop him anymore. He has a counter for every strategy. It’s easy to see why the Clippers have been so confident this season, to the point that they sometimes don’t take their opponents seriously. They know they can always count on Kawhi to save them. That’s what has happened in every series that he’s played in the past two seasons.

ESPN’s Malika Andrews asked him to describe his impact in a postgame interview. Kawhi responded matter-of-factly, as he always does: “I’m just trying to help my team win. If it’s rebounding, making shots, playing good defense, or making plays for [my teammates]. That’s all I’m trying to do.”

It really is that simple when you are as good as Kawhi. He has no holes in his game. He can do everything on the court at an extremely high level. All that is left is for his opponent to decide how it wants to lose.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers Have an Answer for Everything Denver Can Throw at Them

Wednesday, September 9, 10:43 p.m. PT

Devine: It feels weird, if you’ve spent any part of the last few decades paying attention to the NBA, to have the phrase “the Clippers” and the word “inevitable” sharing space in your brain without them being accompanied by a modifying term like “failure” or “disaster.” But ever since the wee-hours power play that saw Kawhi Leonard bring Paul George with him back home to lead arguably the NBA’s deepest roster, it’s felt like something close to an inevitability that the Clippers would be one of the last teams left in the chase for the 2020 championship.

That sense of certainty came rushing back early in Wednesday’s Game 4, as the Clips—who’d blown Denver’s doors off in Game 1, but dropped Game 2 and needed a strong closing kick to take Game 3—took the court and promptly suffocated the league’s fifth-ranked regular-season offense, keeping the Nuggets in single digits until there were less than two minutes left in the opening quarter. It’s not entirely right to say that L.A. never looked back in its 96-85 win; Denver did climb out of an 18-point hole to tie the game at 48 early in the third, thanks to the playmaking of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and some hot shooting from rookie reserve Michael Porter Jr. But even that just felt like forestalling a foregone conclusion, the momentary slippage reminding the Clippers that they still needed to show up for the test despite having proved they knew the material: They responded with a 21-5 run over the next six and a half minutes.

At the center of it all, again, was Kawhi Leonard, the metronomic mauler and placid face of doom, burying Denver beneath a barrage of line-drive jumpers and perfectly weighted passes—30 points on 10-for-22 shooting, 11 rebounds, nine assists, four steals, two blocks, and just one turnover in 39 minutes:

With Leonard dominating, Paul George continuing to make life miserable for Jamal Murray (just 11 points on 13 shots before the final five minutes, though he’d tack on a few more in what amounted to unofficial garbage time), and nobody else on Denver posing much of a threat to the L.A. defense—especially once the ball went away from Porter Jr. in the second half, a decision the rookie appears to have some, uh, notes about—it felt like all that was left was to just fill in the final score. The Nuggets have a no. 1 option who can go toe-to-toe with anyone in Jokic, who finished with 26 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists in 39 minutes. But unless Murray can shake George, or expected veteran helpers like Paul Millsap and Gary Harris suddenly rediscover their shooting strokes, Denver just doesn’t have the firepower to outgun Kawhi’s crew.

It’s possible that Malone and Co. find some answers between now and Friday’s Game 5; after all, we’re just one round removed from this same Nuggets team going down 3-1 to Utah and battling all the way back to win the series. But Denver isn’t playing the Jazz anymore. These Clippers have an answer for everything—the top-end talent to overwhelm an opponent, mix-and-match roster options for whatever the Nuggets can throw at them, and perhaps the best balance on both ends of the court of any team in the bubble. L.A. might not close things out on Friday, but after another convincing win on Wednesday, the Clippers’ first conference finals appearance in franchise history is starting to feel … well, there’s that word again.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics - Game Six Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Toronto’s Wild Title Defense Is Still Alive

Wednesday, September 9, 8:45 p.m. PT

Devine: The Celtics have the stingiest defense in the playoffs, a pick-and-roll locksmith who snatches ankles and throws daggers, a pair of ascendant two-way stud swingmen, a smart and adaptable coach, and some tough, versatile role players who show up big when it matters most. They have the look of a team that can absolutely win the NBA championship.

First, though, they have to get out of the second round, and that means finishing off the Raptors. And man, is that one whale of a fuckin’ task.

Toronto survived another first half of offensive gridlock and another dispiriting outing from Pascal Siakam (12 points on 5-for-19 shooting, 0-for-5 from deep); survived a killer first half from Jaylen Brown and a 23-point triple-double from Marcus Smart; survived Kemba Walker carving up the defense to create corner 3 after corner 3 after corner 3; and survived backbreaking late-game buckets by Daniel Theis playing with a small-ball lineup. It took nearly 24 consecutive minutes of cardiac-arrest-inducing basketball in which the margin never got larger than two possessions, and it took every second of two overtimes, but Toronto survived.

Thanks to a monster performance by longtime linchpin Kyle Lowry and some late-game heroics from reserve wing Norman Powell, the Raptors scored a 125-122 double-overtime win against the Celtics, knotting the best series of the second round at three games apiece. Game 7, for a spot in the Eastern Conference finals against the waiting Miami Heat, tips off Friday night at 9 p.m. ET.

After a brief rest at the start of the second quarter, Lowry checked back in with 9:03 to go in the first half, and never left the court again. He played the final 43 minutes of Game 6, doing absolutely everything he could to stave off elimination, scoring a game-high 33 points on 12-for-20 shooting, including 6-for-10 from 3-point range, to go with eight rebounds, six assists, two steals, and just one turnover in 53 minutes of peerless work. The 34-year-old capped perhaps the finest game of his decorated Toronto career by backing down Walker in isolation and drilling a tough turnaround fadeaway 14-footer to give the Raptors a four-point edge with 11 seconds to go in the second overtime:

Lowry had the chance to shut the door, though, because Powell helped put Boston on the brink. After struggling through most of the series, the 27-year-old swingman—who’s had his share of big postseason performances in Toronto—came through huge in the clutch. (Well, mostly.) With Toronto bigs Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka struggling to contain Walker in the pick-and-roll in the fourth quarter, coach Nick Nurse slotted Powell in as a defensive replacement to allow the Raptors to switch assignments more easily and scramble out to open shooters. Powell scored 15 of his 23 points in the overtime sessions, including a huge steal and an and-one layup in the final minute:

It looked—it felt—plenty of times on Wednesday like the Celtics were on the verge of putting the Raptors away. Brown was the best player on the floor for most of the first half and was brilliant in the balance, pouring in 31 points with 16 rebounds and harassing Siakam into yet another evening of misfiring. After playing through some early shot-making struggles by focusing on facilitating, Jayson Tatum found his touch, popping for 29-14-9 and scoring five points in the final 30 seconds. Walker never found his touch in Game 6—just five points in 51 minutes on 2-for-11 shooting—but he blitzed Toronto in the high screen game early in the fourth, collapsing Toronto’s defense to trigger a 3-point barrage that put the Raptors on their heels. Boston led by three halfway through the first overtime, and scored the first four points of the second overtime. They were so close to putting the Raptors down for good.

Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, though, and not in playoff series. A week ago, the Raptors were a half-second away from an 0-3 deficit; now, they’re 48 (or maybe 53, or maybe 58, or … ) minutes away from their second consecutive conference finals. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, and to beat the Raptors, you’ve got to kill ’em. Boston hasn’t quite been able to yet, and so the NBA’s most improbable and longest-running championship defense is still alive.

The Rockets Need to Help Russell Westbrook Help Them

Wednesday, September 9, 6:55 a.m. PT

Tjarks: Russell Westbrook had his best game of the playoffs in the Rockets’ Game 3 loss to the Lakers, totaling 30 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals, and one block. But there was still a glaring absence in his stat line: He took 24 shots but attempted only two free throws. Houston, now down 2-1 in the series, needs Westbrook to live at the foul line to have a chance at coming back.

Free throws have always been a huge part of Westbrook’s game. He’s a volume scorer who has never been a good 3-point shooter, which means the best way for him to score efficiently is to draw fouls and get free points at the charity stripe. A star guard cannot live on 2s alone.

That skill has completely disappeared since his return from a quad injury in this year’s playoffs. He’s averaging 2.8 free throw attempts in six games, a massive drop-off from his career postseason average of 7.3.

Part of the issue is that he’s settling for tougher shots. Refs call more fouls for players who force action at the rim. According to Basketball-Reference, Westbrook is taking only 30.6 percent of his shots within 3 feet of the rim in the playoffs, compared to 44.1 percent during the regular season.

Being guarded by Anthony Davis hasn’t helped. The Lakers 7-footer has swallowed up Westbrook on defense. NBA Advanced Stats has Westbrook shooting 4-of-14 from the field with Davis as his primary defender. Look how hard he has to work just to get a shot off:

But his struggles go beyond Davis. Westbrook hasn’t been able to punish mismatches against less capable defenders. The best version of Westbrook would blow by Alex Caruso and finish through contact at the rim, not spin in slow motion and double-clutch a fadeaway:

That’s where the Rockets guard’s health becomes a question. Westbrook has always been able to mash the turbo button on plays like that. He needs that power back. He doesn’t have the shooting touch to be a finesse player.

If he can’t find the Fountain of Youth in the next 48 hours, he will need some help from his coach. Mike D’Antoni should be able to scheme up some easy shots for him, whether it’s by using him as a cutter or having him screen more for James Harden. Asking this version of Westbrook to get all of his offense from isolations and pick-and-rolls is a recipe for disaster.

D’Antoni also needs to wage a public relations war against the referees. He can’t just complain sarcastically on the court. He has to exert pressure off of it. That’s part of the job description in the playoffs. Westbrook not getting to the line should be the first thing that he mentions in any press availability. It wouldn’t be the first time the Rockets have done that.

The odds are against Houston in this series. The issue isn’t the Rockets’ lack of traditional big men—they already played the Lakers’ centers off the floor. It’s that Westbrook and Harden are not as big as Davis and LeBron James. The Rockets need everything to work in their favor to make up for the difference. And that starts with Westbrook getting more calls, whether it’s by hook or by crook.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets Don’t Appreciate Vintage LeBron (and Rondo), but We Do

Tuesday, September 8, 10:09 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Every stellar LeBron James performance these days seems to carry with it a veneer of nostalgia. It’s as if we’re now in full view of the countdown clock on his career—even if it sometimes feels like he could play 10 more seasons—and can feel like we don’t have many of these kinds of games left. At age 35 and in Year 17, it is astounding that LeBron’s consistent greatness is still guaranteed, but it’s even more bewildering that his best-player-in-the-world dominance, though not as common, is still within reach.

Tuesday’s 112-102 win in Game 3 was one of those nights where LeBron came out of the gate looking to compose another classic.In the first half, he poured in 29 points, knocking down 3s and getting to the rim with ease. In the second half, he tried to get his teammates going after missing two early 3s. He then decided that if he couldn’t manufacture points on his own he could at least erase some of the Rockets’. In the third quarter alone, he pinned Eric Gordon’s layup, swatted James Harden’s floater, and plastered Austin Rivers’s layup to the backboard. But despite the big performance from LeBron (who finished with 36 points) and Anthony Davis (26) the game was still tied after three quarters.

When LeBron exacts control over a game on both ends, not only does it feel pointed, but it also means he typically doesn’t need much from the motley crew around him in order to win. So when one of those role players does go above and beyond, it’s like giving LeBron another cheat code. Enter *triple checks notes* Rajon Rondo? In the last two games, it’s Rondo who has tapped into one of the last vestiges of Playoff Rondo and assumed that crucial role. Rondo is doing a little bit of everything (21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, nine assists in 30 minutes in Game 3), including hitting some shocking 3s—he sank three on Tuesday night—but his presence is also integral because of what it allows LeBron to do, or rather to not do: initiate the offense. With LeBron as the de facto point guard most of the time, the load is constantly heavy, but with Rondo in the game he can play off the ball or steal some rest on the bench. Given that Rondo fractured his thumb before the Lakers even played one game in Orlando and wasn’t back inside the bubble until a few weeks ago, no one save for Rondo himself may have foreseen the fact that he’d be a big reason why the Lakers are up 2-1 in the conference semifinals.

Rondo hasn’t just been a necessary safety valve. In the last two games, he’s totaled 31 points, averaged nine assists, and shot 4-of-10 from 3-point range. He’s only played three games in the bubble, but the latter two have been timely, helping fuel close Lakers wins. On Tuesday, the boost he gave off the bench seemed to follow LeBron’s tone and spark the team’s defense. In the second half the Lakers put handcuffs on the Rockets (who only scored 38 points after halftime). It’s telling perhaps that for all of Rondo’s faults, he and LeBron were the only two players on the floor down the stretch to have won a title. It’s one of those traits that may matter more than we think, but also can’t be quantified unless measured by how confident and comfortable LeBron and Rondo look on the floor. And right now, they both look right at home.

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Heat Just Turned the Title Favorites Into Dust

Tuesday, September 8, 7:44 p.m. PT

Uggetti: There was a point in late December, basically centuries ago, when the Bucks were on a 70-win pace and looked like an unstoppable force and unquestionably the best team in the league. The Bucks’ historic regular season was the crux of their shining résumé entering the postseason as the East’s top seed. They were considered the indisputable title favorites because of their top-five offense, top-five defense, and the soon-to-be back-to-back MVP.

But a glance at their regular-season record against the Miami Heat should have given us pause on how this second-round series would go. In three prior matchups, the Heat won two games, including one without Jimmy Butler in Milwaukee.

All season long, the Heat seemed to be the team that gave league-best Milwaukee the most trouble. The hints were there: When Bam Adebayo held his own against Giannis in the paint, or when Butler showed he could close out better than anyone on the Bucks, one could have surmised that the Heat would give the Bucks a run in a playoff series. A lot of people saw the writing on the wall, even if the numbers still favored the Bucks.

Once the second-round series began, a Freaky Friday situation seemed to occur. The Heat looked like the juggernauts from Game 1, and the Bucks looked like the underdogs. After going down 3-0, Milwaukee was able to claw its way to one win—in overtime and without Giannis, who sprained his ankle and did not play in Game 5. Miami finished the gentleman’s sweep Tuesday, and by the time the buzzer sounded on the Heat’s 103-94 win, the series felt less like a shocking upset and more like the natural conclusion for a team that looked as woefully outmatched as the Bucks.

Miami is now 8-1 in these playoffs. The Heat are the first fifth seed to make a conference finals since 2013, and they’re running on the fuel of their culture and collective chemistry. At this point, it’s not about whether they can win the title or not, but more about how they could do it.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, has to take a step back and look at its reality, which is inching closer and closer to the worst-case scenario. After being branded as the Steve Kerr of the Bucks, Mike Budenholzer could turn out to be the fall guy following this failure. Giannis is eligible for a max extension this offseason, and though he was unlikely to sign it regardless of the results of these playoffs, it could preface an eventual departure in free agency. In a lot of ways, this series could turn out to be a harbinger: If Giannis stays and wins, it’ll be woven into the story as the disappointment that usually precedes triumph. If Giannis eventually bolts, this series may be viewed, in retrospect, as the inception of the breakup. And who knows: Given how impressive the Heat looked as a team and an organization, and how much cap space they have next offseason, it may also turn out to be the origin story of a new superteam.

Giannis Is Out. Can Khris Middleton Save the Bucks Again?

Tuesday, September 8, 3:45 p.m. PT

Devine: Two days after outlasting the Heat to extend their season without the NBA’s reigning MVP, the Bucks will have to do it again. Giannis Antetokounmpo will not suit up for Milwaukee in Tuesday’s Game 5, as the sprained right ankle he first tweaked in Game 3 and then reinjured early in the second quarter of Game 4 will keep the superstar on the shelf as the Bucks look to stave off elimination.

As was the case on Sunday, Antetokounmpo’s absence means the Bucks will need Khris Middleton to slide up from his role as a central-casting second banana and assume the responsibility of a no. 1 offensive option with the season hanging in the balance. The All-Star forward was equal to the task in Game 4: Middleton scored a career-playoff-high 36 points, 34 of which came after Giannis’s exit, 30 came after halftime, and nine came in overtime to outscore Miami by himself:

Middleton stepping up his production with Giannis on the sideline isn’t anything new. He did the same throughout the regular season, averaging 30.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per 36 minutes of non-Giannis floor time, according to NBA Advanced Stats, posting a sterling .599 true shooting percentage while using 32.4 percent of Milwaukee’s offensive possessions—it was superstar-level offensive work.

Of course, if this series against the Heat has shown anything, it’s that what worked so brilliantly for Milwaukee during the regular season won’t necessarily work for Mike Budenholzer’s club in the crucible of the playoffs. It remains to be seen how Middleton fares with a long, fast, smart, and nasty Heat defense trained solely on him for the full 48 minutes, throwing the sort of traps, double-teams, and exotic pressure packages at him that he doesn’t typically see when sharing the floor with the likely back-to-back Most Valuable Player.

During his pregame media session, before the Giannis news broke, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra sounded unconvinced that his charges could rattle the 29-year-old Middleton ...

… but you’d still expect Miami to crank up the heat (sorry) on the Bucks’ newly minted main man. Derailing his smooth offensive game could deliver Spo and Co. to their first Eastern Conference finals since LeBron James left town. If Middleton is able to overcome the defensive pressure—and if Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, Budenholzer, and the rest of Milwaukee’s supporting cast are, too—then the Bucks might just live to fight another day, and maybe buy Giannis some more time to have a say in how this stunning series resolves.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics - Game Four Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Who Wants to Replace Ibaka?

Tuesday, September 8, 1:37 p.m. PT

Devine: After a bell-to-bell beheading in Game 5 that left them one loss away from the end of their title defense, the last thing the Raptors needed as they prepared for Wednesday’s win-or-go-home Game 6 was for one of their core players to come up limping. Well, about that:

Serge Ibaka addressed the media at Toronto’s Tuesday practice with a walking boot stabilizing his left ankle. It’s unclear when during Game 5 the 30-year-old big man injured his ankle, but evidently he’s uncertain he’ll be ready to go come Wednesday night: “I’m just trying to see how I feel tomorrow,” he told reporters. And while head coach Nick Nurse sounded an optimistic note about his backup center taking the court in Game 6, the Raptors have officially listed Ibaka as questionable—a designation that threatens to further strain a Toronto rotation already stretched to its limits.

Ibaka’s averaging 23.2 minutes per game against Boston, fifth most on Toronto, and more than starter Marc Gasol. The Raptors have been much more stout defensively with Gasol in the middle, allowing 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than when Ibaka’s on the court, according to NBA Advanced Stats. But they’ve also been more potent (relatively, at least) on the other end in Ibaka’s minutes, scoring 8.5 more points-per-100 with him in the lineup rather than Gasol.

Ibaka has been a sorely needed source of shot-making; against a locked-in Celtics defense that’s making life miserable on everyone in a Raptors uniform, his ability to knock down pick-and-pop jumpers could be a saving grace on a few crucial possessions, as it was when he chipped in 18 points in 22 minutes in Toronto’s series-evening Game 4 win. Losing that when your back’s against the wall would be … not ideal!

Compounding the concern: Losing Ibaka would mean that Nurse will have to lean even harder on the remaining players from last season’s title team that he does trust—though it’s an open question how much harder he can lean, considering Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby all averaged between 39.7 and 43.4 minutes per game from games 2 through 4 before getting a blowout-induced breather on Monday. It likely also means dipping into the deeper bench for frontcourt ballast, in the form of whippet-thin stretch shot-blocker Chris Boucher (minus-2 in 12 minutes in Game 5 after DNP-CDs in the previous two games) or undersized forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (nine minutes in two appearances in this series, all in the Celtics’ huge Game 1 and Game 5 wins).

Nurse’s search for units that work against Boston’s two-way wing depth might force him to lean harder into smaller lineups with Anunoby and Siakam sliding up to the 4 and 5 spots to get maximum shooting and playmaking on the floor. Those no-center lineups saw very limited regular-season run and haven’t looked great in similarly curtailed postseason appearances; making them viable will likely require another Toronto perimeter player to make a meaningful contribution. If Norman Powell (just 35.7 percent from the field in this series) has another Playoff Norm performance up his sleeve, this would be a great time for it. And while you can understand Nurse’s reticence to trust rookie Terence Davis in a spot this big against an opponent this good, it might not matter whether he trusts Davis or not. The league’s preeminent throw-shit-at-the-wall head coach needs to find something to extend his team’s season to a winner-take-all Game 7. Losing one of his few trusted hands might force him to go small or go home.

Playoff P Shows Up (in a Good Way) for the Clippers

Tuesday, September 8, 8:47 a.m. PT

Tjarks: Paul George reminded us why Kawhi Leonard demanded the Clippers deal for him last summer. The Clippers’ second banana was their best player in Monday’s Game 3 win over the Nuggets that gave them a 2-1 series lead. He took over the game on both ends of the floor, scoring 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting while putting the clamps on Jamal Murray, the star of Game 2.

After getting blown out in Game 1 following a less-than-48-hour turnaround from their Game 7 win over the Jazz in the first round, the Nuggets have gone toe-to-toe with the Clippers over the past two games. They were in control for most of Game 3, and would have won comfortably were it not for George, the one Los Angeles player who seems to have a matchup advantage in the series.

His combination of size (6-foot-8 and 220 pounds), athleticism, and shot-making ability is a huge problem for the Nuggets’ smaller guards. There’s just not much a 6-foot-4 defender like Murray or Gary Harris can do beyond helplessly putting a hand up and hoping that he misses:

The problem for Denver is that George isn’t missing. He’s averaging 24.3 points per game in the series while shooting 45.8 percent from 3-point range and 50 percent from 2. It’s a far cry from his miserable slump in the Clippers’ first-round series against the Mavs, in which he averaged 18.5 points per game and shot 27.5 percent from 3 and 35.8 percent from 2.

PG’s been even better on defense, where he’s taken the primary assignment on Murray, and cooled off the hottest player in the bubble. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Murray is shooting 4-of-16 from the field (25.0 percent) with George on him, compared to 99-of-188 (52.7 percent) against everyone else in the playoffs.

George is the perfect foil for a player like Murray, a slippery ball handler who can pull up and shoot with unlimited range. George isn’t giving the Nuggets star any airspace. His ability to get around screens has been crucial in slowing down the pick-and-roll between Murray and Nikola Jokic, the foundation of the Denver offense. Watch how difficult George makes Murray’s life on these plays:

The Clippers would be in a lot of trouble in this series were it not for George. Nikola Jokic has demolished their big men, while Jerami Grant has managed to slow down Kawhi. But the beauty of the way Los Angeles is put together is that it’s almost impossible to stop both of its stars. The normal adjustment when a player like George goes off is to keep your best perimeter defender on him as much as possible. But Denver can’t do that because Grant already has his hands full with Kawhi.

There’s great synergy between the two on both ends of the floor. Murray is one of the only guards in the NBA who can create space off the dribble against Kawhi, turning him into a meme in Game 2. So the Clippers just put George on him instead. No one else in the NBA has that kind of one-two punch on the wings.

Kawhi wanted the Clippers to pair him with another two-way perimeter star in the offseason before he would sign with them. We are seeing exactly why against the Nuggets.

The Nuggets Won Some Retweets; the Clippers Won the Game

Monday, September 7, 9:22 p.m. PT

Justin Verrier: When they’re rolling, the Denver Nuggets look like their offense is being drawn up by Mike Leach:

The problem is Denver’s defense often performs like it’s in a college football shootout, too. For every Magic Johnson pass that Nikola Jokic throws and every long stride Michael Porter Jr. takes to get to the rim quicker than the opposition realizes, the Nuggets are just as likely to give up a basket with far less gusto the other way. Which is how a Los Angeles Clippers team playing with the verve of Kawhi Leonard at a press conference managed to outlast a barrage of Nuggets highlights and claim a 113-107 win in Game 3 to reclaim a one-game lead in their second-round series.

“We were not gonna be the team that lost tonight,” Paul George told reporters.

The Nuggets’ show was spectacular while it lasted. Nikola Jokic was largely relegated to a bystander in the first round as Jamal Murray went blow-for-blow with Donovan Mitchell, but even with a wrist injury that nearly kept him out of Monday’s game, Jokic tapped into his inner Elway, with the kind of back-shoulder fades and pinpoint passes that made him an MVP contender. He nearly had a triple-double at the half, and finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, and three made 3s—all of which he made over a minute-and-a-half span in the third quarter.

Not to be outdone, Porter Jr. (18 points, 10 rebounds) kept the highlight reel humming, with a few smooth offensive plays that showed how the pseudo-rookie can take Denver’s already electric offense to another level:

In all the Nuggets had 32 assists—the most in a playoff game in three decades.

But Michael Malone was quick to throw cold water in the mid-quarter TNT interview, noting that despite the fireworks show in the third, the Nuggets had only won the quarter by two points. He has seen this kind of offensive explosion go for naught too many times before. And he was about to see it once more.

Paul George put up 32 points, Leonard chipped in 23, and the Clippers slowly wrestled control of the game away from Denver. Murray tried to switch into closer mode late, but Leonard shut down the hero act quickly by delivering a literal fuck-you block:

Wait. Enhance:

“That’s an extra long middle finger—it kept growing or something,” George told reporters.

Not metaphoric enough? On the Nuggets’ final offensive possession, Murray got the ball at the top of the key with Kawhi in front of him. Down six with 20 seconds left, the odds were against a Nuggets comeback, but 142 points to overcome a 3-1 deficit puts the improbable back on the table. Murray dribbled and danced at the top of the key. And then kept dribbling and kept dancing. After nearly half the shot clock had passed and with nowhere to go, he shoveled a pass off to Jokic, who clanked a 26-footer to end the game.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Five Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Raptors Are Running Out of Options

Monday, September 7, 6:45 p.m. PT

Verrier: Nick Nurse doesn’t hesitate to throw shit against the strategic wall. Zone, box-and-1, triangle-and-2—everything is in play, if only for a brief moment, to throw off the opponent. So midway through the second quarter of Monday’s 111-89 Game 5 loss, with the Toronto Raptors’ deficit to the Boston Celtics extending further and further like a Chris Boucher stretch, Nurse tried something a bit different: He shrunk his lineup, going without a center and entrusting forwards Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby with the frontcourt duties.

The lineup had instant success as Fred VanVleet drove on Brad Wanamaker with the floor spaced for an easy bucket. But the Raptors failed to score on their next three possessions and Marc Gasol rumbled back onto the court.

Nurse tried something similar, with the lanky Boucher next to Siakam, and then again with Boucher and Anunoby, and then again with Boucher surrounded by four guards. But with the Celtics’ lead hovering in the 20- to 30-point range, the coaching creativity that’s spurred the Raptors’ rise this season—and their comeback in this second-round series—increasingly began to feel like a desperate search for an answer that wasn’t there. And as a result, the Raptors are back to playing catchup in this series.

The Celtics, meanwhile, returned to their same basic approach—both because it’s worked for almost the entirety of this postseason and because they don’t have much of a choice. Gordon Hayward’s injury has limited Boston’s versatility, but it’s also streamlined its decision-making, leaving a rotation that leans into its best self: the smallish starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Daniel Theis, with Wanamaker and whichever big men does the least amount of self-inflicted damage off the bench.

Like in their Game 1 blowout win, the Celtics weren’t particularly good on offense—Tatum was 5-for-15 from the floor, and the team as a whole made just 11 3-pointers. But the defense clamped down on everything Nurse tried, Theis (5-for-5) did every little thing in the trenches, and Brown bounced back from a horrid Game 4 to finish with 27 points. It was a much subtler form of dominance, which makes the performance all the more impressive.

“They looked faster, stronger, and hungrier than we did,” Nurse told reporters after the game.

The effort was reminiscent of the Raptors’ run from the last season: Though the Celtics don’t have a Kawhi, at least not until Tatum plays with more offensive consistency, all the pieces seem to fit. The Celtics have two-way ability and IQ up and down a shortened rotation, and they have the right coach to position them in ways that elevate their best attributes. One more similar performance against those same Raptors will put the Celtics one step closer to a similar feat as last season’s Toronto team.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Two Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers Out-Small-Balled the Rockets in Game 2

Monday, September 7, 7:06 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The Lakers benched their centers and beat the Rockets in Game 2 on Sunday to even the series. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard combined for only eight minutes, with the former spraining his ankle and the latter receiving a DNP-CD. They played for 24 in Game 1.

The result was that Anthony Davis played mostly at the 5, and exploded for 34 points on 15-of-24 shooting. There was a lot more room for him to operate in the paint without McGee and Howard getting in his way. Forget the memes. It’s very difficult for P.J. Tucker to guard him without help.

The Rockets’ best chance will be to send multiple defenders at Davis. The question is where those defenders will come from. They have to call L.A.’s bluff. Just because the Lakers aren’t playing any traditional big men doesn’t mean they don’t have players who can’t be left open on the perimeter.

Houston found that out the hard way on the other end of the floor. Los Angeles “put” Davis on Russell Westbrook on defense, but only in the loosest sense of the word. Davis guarded Westbrook when he had the ball and played like a free safety when he didn’t. These are the kinds of plays that he can make on defense when he doesn’t have to respect his assignment on the perimeter:

Los Angeles treated Westbrook the same way that Houston treated Luguentz Dort in the first round. Westbrook could not make them pay for leaving him wide open, finishing with 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting and seven turnovers. Westbrook, the only Houston starter with a negative plus-minus (minus-14), admitted that he was running around without being effective. The key is for him to drive the gaps, move the ball, and get into the paint, where he is a threat. Settling for 3s is not an option—even if the Lakers leave him open. He was 1-for-7 from deep on Sunday.

Things looked different when Westbrook was not on the floor. Doubling James Harden well behind the 3-point line isn’t nearly as effective when the other four Rockets can all hit 3s. Watch them ping the ball around the floor until they find Tucker, who hit four 3s in Game 2, open in the corner:

The question for Houston is how much of the Russ treatment it can give to some of Los Angeles’s perimeter players. The Lakers don’t have a bunch of knockdown shooters around Davis and LeBron James. As a team, they are shooting 34.6 percent from 3 on 34.3 attempts per game in the playoffs. LeBron and Davis are their only players shooting higher than 40 percent.

Houston tried that strategy against Rajon Rondo, but he did a better job of combating that defense than Westbrook. There were several times when he drove into the lane and created an open shot for Markieff Morris, who scored 16 points in 23 minutes while shooting 4-of-5 from 3.

The Rockets can’t help off McGee and Howard when they are planted on the bench, which means they have to help off someone else. They just have to choose carefully about whom to leave open and respond in real time if that player heats up, or finds a different way to beat that coverage.

Daryl Morey built the Rockets under two assumptions. That they would win a battle of styles against a bigger team, and that no one could beat them at small ball. Coming into the series, many expected the Lakers to challenge that first assumption. They are challenging the second instead.

Anthony Davis Proves Too Tall a Task for the Small-Ball Rockets

Sunday, September 6, 9:18 p.m. PT

Matt Dollinger: David was lucky he never had to face Goliath in a best-of-seven series. P.J. Tucker isn’t as fortunate. The Rockets’ undersized “big man” is known for his heart and hustle, but he’s maybe best known for his lack of height. Rather than towering over opponents, the generously listed 6-foot-5 Tucker tries to bulldoze through them at waist-high. He wears his height disadvantage like a badge of honor. And teammates, broadcasters, and media members alike love to remind you what the small-ball 5 is capable of despite his undersized frame.

You know who probably found that stat pretty annoying? Anthony Davis. Sure, the top-seeded Lakers were stunned in a Game 1 loss to the Rockets to open their second-round series, but Davis finished with 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting. The narrative that Tucker “shut him down” was not what he wanted to hear. Sure, he and the rest of the Lakers needed to play better. But the 7-footer likely had a little extra pep in his step heading into Game 2.

The results: a game-high 34 points on 15-of-24 shooting and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes. Some big men can look lost when facing the small-ball Rockets, but Davis looked like he was playing on an 8-foot rim in Sunday’s 117-109 win to even the series. With no one able to bother his shot, Davis rose up from all over the floor to convert baskets. From the elbow, the post, the lob, the baseline, the turnaround—it didn’t matter. Tucker and Co. were able to take advantage of a somewhat passive Davis on Friday, but the Lakers’ star came out determined to take advantage of any and all mismatches in Game 2.

Houston provided plenty of scares in the second, particularly from Tucker, who totaled 18 points and 11 rebounds and hit four 3-pointers while providing enough energy to keep the Rockets in the game. James Harden had 27 points but shot just 6-of-12 from the field, as the Lakers’ defense suffocated him every time he touched the ball. That led to more opportunities for Rockets not named James Harden—which is usually a bad thing. Eric Gordon responded with an efficient 24 points, but Russell Westbrook turned in a heinous 4-of-15 shooting effort. He finished with more turnovers (seven) than assists (four) or made baskets. The Lakers dared Russ to shoot, and Russ happily, inaccurately, and regrettably obliged. (I also can’t let Jeff Green off the hook—he went scoreless, boardless, and was a team-worst minus-26 in 21 minutes.)

Tucker and Co. did their best to deny Davis the ball and swarm him each time he possessed it, but eventually the Rockets’ lack of a respectable frontcourt defender caught up to them. Some nights, Davis will struggle or won’t hunt for his shot. Others, he’ll be engaged and absolutely wreck you. Those are the risks you take with small ball. What works against Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel isn’t necessarily going to translate when you run into Anthony Davis.

With JaVale McGee only playing eight minutes before injuring his ankle and Dwight Howard sitting on the bench as a DNP-CD, Davis played almost all of his minutes at the 5 in Game 2, a recipe for Lakers success all season long. There’s simply no stopping a 7-footer with AD’s skill set when the opposing team looks like the junior varsity squad next to him.

There’s a chance the Rockets get the best of the Lakers once again. They hit 22-of-53 3-pointers (41.5 percent) in Game 2 and needed just a few more to fall for this to be a completely different series (and blog post). But as long as Davis is on the hunt and LeBron James is playing like himself (28-11-9 in Game 2), it’s hard to imagine Houston’s limited roster finding a way to slow down Goliath. Er, Davis.

Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat - Game Four Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Giannis Goes Down, but the Bucks Stay Upright With Game 4 OT Win

Sunday, September 6, 4:20 p.m. PT

Dollinger: A twist of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ankle appeared to cement the biggest twist of the 2020 NBA playoffs, but Khris Middleton and the shorthanded Bucks refused to go out in a sweep. With the NBA’s MVP on the sidelines after leaving early in the second quarter, Middleton put Milwaukee on his back down the stretch, outscoring Miami by himself in overtime and earning a 118-115 win in Game 4.

After playing through a sprained ankle in Game 3, Antetokounmpo badly twisted the ankle again with 10:18 remaining in the second quarter. Antetokounmpo drove into the lane, got tangled up with Andre Iguodala, and then landed awkwardly. He was able to drain one of his two free throws before leaving the floor. The Bucks trailed only 31-30 at the time. But with the way the first three games had gone, it felt like any hope of a comeback hobbled off the floor with Antetokounmpo.

Alas, the Bucks had other ideas. Antetokounmpo’s absence left a mammoth void on defense, but it appeared to free up his complementary teammates to do more. Middleton delivered his best impression of a ball-dominant star, scoring 36 points and taking seemingly every shot down the stretch (he finished 12-of-28 from the field, 3-of-7 from deep and 9-of-9 from the line) and playing 48 minutes, the most of any Bucks player this season. Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe each added 14 and George Hill (12) and Donte DiVincenzo (10) chipped in with double digits off the bench to give the Bucks the bang they’ve so desperately lacked this series.

But Middleton, who also had eight rebounds and eight assists, was truly the difference. In the first three games, the Heat defense had surprising success bottling up Giannis by clogging the paint and finding a way to body and bother the 7-footer on offense. Middleton’s performance had been respectable (23 points on 45.5 percent shooting), but not spectacular, and the Bucks desperately needed more of the latter considering the Heat’s lights-out performance so far this playoffs (Sunday marked Miami’s first loss of the postseason).

After Giannis went down, Middleton answered the call. He started demanding the ball and directing teammates to their spots on the floor. He showed the type of assertiveness we’re accustomed to seeing from Jimmy Butler—a vocal leader who demands the best from his teammates and even better from himself. He scored nine of Milwaukee’s 11 points in overtime and drained a 3-pointer with under 10 seconds remaining in OT to put the Bucks up 4 and seal the win.

Despite the feel-good win, the top-seeded Bucks are still just one game away from an unfathomable exit after boasting the NBA’s best record and a historically good regular-season defense. A second-round exit would likely trigger an exit for other members of the organization, too, whether they’re in the front office, on the bench, or on the court. With Antetokounmpo just a year away from free agency, the stakes are incredibly high for a team with its back against the wall.

As for Giannis’s short-term future, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said his status for Game 5 remains uncertain. Despite Sunday’s outcome, Milwaukee will need the MVP to have any chance of becoming the first no. 1 seed to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs. A comeback is borderline absurd to imagine at this point. But so, too, is the East’s best team and the NBA’s MVP needing a miraculous overtime win to avoid a second-round sweep.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Two Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nuggets’ Star Tandem Refuses to Back Down in Game 2

Saturday, September 5, 9:20 p.m. PT

Uggetti: It is not a sight you see often. When Kawhi Leonard guards someone, the result is typically a defensive highlight—Kawhi snatching the ball away like a bully on the playground. This time, though, with just over two minutes left in Game 2 against the Nuggets, Jamal Murray put Leonard on his heels, then quickly danced his way back behind the arc and sank a 3 in Kawhi’s face:

It was that kind of night for Murray—who, after struggling in Game 1, scored a game-high 27 points on Saturday—and it was that kind of night for Kawhi. Leonard shot 4-of-17 from the field, scored only 13 points, and couldn’t do enough on defense to help the Clippers flip any switch down the stretch. It was easily his worst game in Orlando, and even though Paul George scored 22 points, it was not enough to avoid a 110-101 loss.

The Nuggets roared out of the gate early, shooting a ridiculous 71 percent from the field in the first quarter. That pace didn’t last the rest of the game, but it gave Denver enough of an initial advantage that the team wasn’t hurt by its inevitable regression. When Nikola Jokic (26 points and four 3s) and Murray are hitting shots, the Nuggets will always have a chance, but what led them to the Game 2 win was a combination of that scoring and the defense of Jerami Grant and Gary Harris, who seemed to be everywhere at once on that end. Denver held the Clippers to 41 percent shooting from the field.

From start to finish, the Nuggets played like this was a Game 7—which, for them, it kind of was, given how lethargic they looked in Thursday’s 23-point Game 1 loss. Even during a terrible shooting night, though, the Clippers still had an outside shot at a comeback in the fourth. For that reason, L.A. probably doesn’t feel any less confident after this loss. But, as the Celtics will readily warn you: Don’t give a team an inch (or in their case, 0.5 seconds), because they might just take it and turn it into a mile.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics - Game Four Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The Raptors Have Wrestled Back Control From the Celtics

Saturday, September 5, 7:10 p.m. PT

Uggetti: You didn’t really think the defending champions would take their ball and go home after going down 2-0 in the second round now, did you?

Game 1s have never been Toronto’s forte, so in retrospect, it makes sense that the first game of this series—a 112-94 Celtics win—looked more like a mirage than an indication of things to come. The second and third contests were more emblematic of what this matchup was supposed to be: two evenly matched teams, small margins, fleeting leads, and a chance for either to win in crunch time. The Celtics took Game 2 by a hair; the Raptors stole Game 3 via an OG Anunoby 3 with 0.5 seconds left. And that win came with a postgame warning, courtesy of Fred VanVleet.

“They fucked up,” VanVleet said of the Celtics. “They fucked up now.”

The Raptors followed up VanVleet’s statement on Saturday by making shots—38 percent of their 3s after making less than 33 percent in their first three games—and wrestling out a 100-93 win to even the series at 2-2.

The last three contests between these teams have been competitive enough to make it feel like this series could easily go seven games. But it’s also hard to argue with VanVleet. Boston could have iced the Raptors in Game 3; instead they’re alive, VanVleet’s confidence is once again through the roof, Kyle Lowry is back on his offensive-foul-drawing hijinks, and Nick Nurse is flexing his coach-of-the-year muscles. Case in point: In the fourth quarter Saturday, with the game close, Nurse started throwing curveballs on every defensive possession. Man to man? Check. Box-and-one? You bet. A version of a zone defense? Why not. The second-best defense in the league held the Celtics to 93 points; this season, Boston has had only four games of 93 points or less.

A crucial part of the Raptors’ ability to jell and reach the heights they did during the regular season (and their first-round series against Nets) was the play of Pascal Siakam. Through the first three games of the series, Siakam didn’t reach 20 points. On Saturday, he tallied 23 points, added 11 rebounds, and never turned the ball over. Nearly every Raptor embodied that energy in Game 4, and it made this team look far more engaged and in rhythm than the previous three games. Each of the remaining contests will be brawls, but after being on the ropes following Game 2, the Raptors didn’t fall down. They leapt back into action and landed a few punches of their own.

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden Looks Like He’s Back to Being James Harden, and the Rockets Look Like They Can Give the Lakers a Series

Friday, September 4, 10:13 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: There’s a stigma surrounding James Harden in the playoffs, one that he perpetuated just two days ago against the Thunder in the series’ deciding game. But we won’t talk about that. New rounds mean new beginnings. Harden reminded the world on Friday that he’s more than the memes, as he led all scorers with 36 points on 60 percent shooting. The Rockets rolled past the Lakers, 112-97, despite L.A. having five days of rest compared to Houston’s one.

It’s not shocking that Harden, the league’s leading scorer in the regular season by a hefty margin, bounced back from a ghastly performance. What was shocking, though, was how masterfully the rest of the Rockets performed. Coach Mike D’Antoni announced before the game that Eric Gordon would be guarding LeBron James, at least to start the game, to mixed reviews of delight (from non-Rockets fans) and horror. But it worked. LeBron was held to 20 points and showed hesitancy to drive to the basket with Gordon challenging him at the perimeter. Given how well rested LeBron was, it was disorienting to watch him settle for 3s against a defender he should be able to easily dissect. In turn, Gordon flourished offensively. (This has not been the case during the regular season and at points during the postseason; Gordon’s slump has gone on for so long that it was beginning to appear permanent.) Whenever Kyle Kuzma was tasked with locking down Gordon, the 31-year-old had his way as if Kuz were just an extra body in shooting practice.

P.J. Tucker was assigned Anthony Davis. You know that frustrating feeling in the dead of summer when a bee won’t leave you alone? You’re sweating from the heat. You’re annoyed, but you can’t swat it for fear of retaliation. Then you realize it’s a wasp. You stand completely still. It stings you anyway. That must be how it feels to be guarded by Tucker.

Thanks to Tucker, Davis managed only 25 points. (He was also blocked by Gordon in the fourth.) LeBron did not score in the final quarter, and Gordon and Russell Westbrook combined for more points (47) than AD and LeBron (45). There’s very little chance that the Lakers superstars will submit to that again. Fans will point out that, actually, L.A. lost its first game against Portland, and look how that turned out. Houston has now proved it’s capable of a competitive series, though, in its first postseason without the dynasty Warriors to contend with.

The Bucks Are on the Brink—and Coach Bud Still Won’t Play Giannis Like He Needs To

Friday, September 4, 7:56 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: A fun fact about Mike Budenholzer—on top of the fact that he led a Danish professional basketball team in points in 1993-94, is a Capricorn, and lettered in golf all four years in college—is that he’s a masochist. There is simply no other explanation for his decision-making this postseason. Milwaukee lost to Miami again on Friday, 115-100, as his first-seeded Bucks fell into an 0-3 deficit. That is one loss short of a sweep. If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance that you know that. But it can’t be overstated that the once-title favorites are one game away from a sweep. A sweep. Four losses. In the second round. Bucks. Giannis. Sweep.

Bud’s insistence on resting Giannis during crucial stretches of games has been as perplexing as it has been detrimental. Giannis’s minutes this series: 36 in Game 1, and 35 in games 2 and 3. (The reasoning couldn’t possibly be exhaustion. The likely MVP averaged 31.7 minutes in the first round against the Magic.) Jimmy Butler proved immediately in Game 1 that no minute against the Heat can be left un-sweated or un-hustled. Miami’s unit is a pumping heart collectively beating 200 times per minute; every second that Giannis or Khris Middleton watched from the sideline cost Milwaukee. (This has been the story all season, by the way—there’s no way Budenholzer didn’t know how easily the Bucks slip without their two best players, one of whom won the Defensive Player of the Year award this week, was a top-five scorer in the regular season, and, again, will probably win his second MVP award soon.)

This should’ve been the Bucks’ redemption game. Being down 2-1 isn’t impossible to come back from. Giannis is the best player in the series. If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance that you know that. That normally counts for something. (Meyers Leonard disagrees.) Milwaukee led by 12 entering the fourth quarter, and despite another shooting night by Giannis most aptly described as yikes (0-for-7 from 3, 33.3 percent overall), the Bucks were commanding the court. Dazzling defensively, winning the battle of the boards, protecting their basket. They ended with fewer rebounds and blocks, and were outscored 37-13 in the fourth quarter, going 0-for-15 outside the paint in the final 17 minutes of the game, per Kirk Goldsberry. Giannis sat for two minutes—from 8:41 remaining to 6:51 remaining—in the midst of Miami’s run. In the fourth quarter. Of a must-win game.

There’s a chance Giannis was hurt. Halfway through the first quarter, he grimaced after landing under the basket. There was a discernible limp back to the bench when Bud called for timeouts, and additional grimaces after drives. But that doesn’t explain the coach’s game before, or the game before that, or the series before. Plus, after the loss, he said, “I feel great. Yeah, I could play more.” Bud agreed, saying it “didn’t affect the way he used Giannis tonight,” and that he “doesn’t regret not playing him [or Middleton] more.” Here’s a quote from Budenholzer last season after Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals:

It was one of the most self-indicting quotes I’ve read from a coach. Plus, Giannis was averaging under 40 minutes that series. And in this series, he’s averaging below it again. Not to mention that it was also only after Giannis reentered in the fourth that he was assigned Butler on defense; whether that was his decision or Bud’s, we don’t know. (Giannis was quite defensive after being asked about not taking on Butler after Game 1.) Typically, the DPOY guards the most dynamic player. If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance that you know that. But I’m not entirely sure what I know at this point. Budenholzer’s choices have been too bizarre to reason with, even with his job increasingly inching closer to the line. What the fuck—if I get one hall pass for saying “fuck” on The Ringer, I’m using it now—does he know that we don’t?

The Exhausted Nuggets Never Had a Chance Against Kawhi in Game 1

Thursday, September 3, 9:22 p.m. PT

Zach Kram: Denver lost Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals even before the opening tip. After overcoming a 3-1 first-round deficit, culminating in a Game 7 slugfest that wasn’t decided until the final shot, the Nuggets had to play a superior Clippers squad just two days later.

The Clippers already held a huge advantage over the Nuggets based on talent alone: The Ringer’s Restart Odds, which don’t account for fatigue, gave the Clippers a 94 percent chance to win the series, by far the highest for any team entering the second round. The added exhaustion all but eliminated Denver’s hopes in Game 1, as L.A. coasted to a 120-97 win; Denver’s points by quarter fell from 31 in the first, to 20 in the second, to 16 in the third, at which point coach Mike Malone shrewdly removed his starters to afford them additional, much-needed rest.

The Clippers’ greatest advantage came on the offensive end. Even including Game 7, when the Jazz scored just 78 points, the Nuggets allowed 120.5 points per 100 possessions in the first round—a mark that would have ranked last in the regular season by 5.7 points. And that came against a middling Utah offense, which was missing second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic; against the Clippers, who ranked second in regular-season offensive rating, the Nuggets are hopelessly outmatched.

Kawhi Leonard was the chief beneficiary Thursday. He scored 29 points on 12-for-16 shooting, and he would have scored many more points if the Clippers had needed them, as he became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1987-88 to reach 29-plus points in his first seven playoff games. Denver doesn’t have any individual defender who can hope to stay in front of him on drives or bother his midrange shooting form.

Even if the Game 1 blowout can be attributed in part to the unforgiving churn of the playoff schedule, Leonard and the Clippers can benefit from this matchup in the long run. Before Game 1, the Restart Odds predicted about a two-thirds chance that the Clippers would advance after just four or five games. In other words, Leonard can expect plenty of rest in advance of a potential Western Conference finals showdown against the Lakers, and a potential Finals appearance beyond.

Thanks to the large lead, Leonard didn’t need to play in the fourth quarter Thursday. He recorded just 32 minutes, already his second game this postseason at that number or below, after he played 33-plus minutes in 23 of 24 games last postseason. Leonard won that title anyway, but he was clearly dragging at points. Now he might be fresh, and as unstoppable as ever. The Nuggets certainly aren’t getting in his way.

OG Anunoby’s Buzzer-Beater Saves the Raptors’ Season

Thursday, September 3, 7:10 p.m. PT

Kram: OG Anunoby just saved the Raptors’ season. The defending champions aren’t dethroned just yet.

Let’s fast-forward right to the last minute of Toronto’s 104-103 win against Boston in Game 3 on Thursday. Trailing by two with 30 seconds remaining, Fred VanVleet missed a 3-pointer, but scooped in a layup to tie the score after Anunoby secured the offensive rebound. But on the other end, Kemba Walker worked his trademark late-game magic. Escaping a trap and dribbling past Marc Gasol, Walker snuck a pass past the Raptors back line and found Daniel Theis all alone for a dunk. With just 0.5 seconds left, the Celtics led by two, and were poised to take an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the series.

But the Raptors had one final chance and executed to perfection. Inbounding from the right side of the court, Kyle Lowry lofted a crosscourt pass over the head of every Celtic on the floor—including Tacko Fall, the 7-foot-5 center inserted for the final half-second specifically to obstruct the inbounds pass. No matter. Lowry found Anunoby all alone in the left corner, and the third-year wing didn’t even need to move his feet.

He squared, caught, and released just before the buzzer, and the shot swirled around the rim and in. All it took was half a second for Toronto’s playoff hopes to swing back to the realm of the plausible.

If the rest of this now-extended series brings more competitive games like Thursday’s, NBA fans are in for a treat. The Raptors’ backcourt excelled in Game 3: Lowry and VanVleet combined for 56 points, with VanVleet in particular finding his shooting stroke (5-for-13 on 3s) after a brutal first two games.

If games 1 and 2 in this series were a showcase for Jayson Tatum (27.5 points per game) and Marcus Smart (20 points per game, and 11 made 3-pointers), Thursday was Walker’s time to shine. Tatum struggled from the field, shooting 5-for-18, and Smart was extinguished (4-for-15) after catching fire in the first two games. But Walker picked up their slack and tallied 29 points on just 15 field-goal attempts, and added the gorgeous assist on the would-be game-winner.

The Celtics ran rampant in Game 1 in this series, but games 2 and 3 have been similar affairs, with similar scores, both coming down to the final seconds. Boston eked out a three-point win in Game 2, but as befits the even competition, Toronto took Game 3 to achieve a split of the close contests. Now they have a fighting chance to climb all the way back from the brink of despair. The Raptors proved last summer just how powerful a single dramatic buzzer-beater can prove.

James Harden Bails Himself Out With a Series-Saving Block in Game 7

Wednesday, September 2, 10:30 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: The block is what will be remembered. James Harden, often lambasted for his defense, snuffed out a potentially franchise-altering 3-point shot with 4.8 seconds left in Game 7 on Wednesday. Had it gone in, the Thunder would’ve taken the lead and likely the game with it. It probably would’ve gone in too, because the ball was shot by Luguentz Dort, an unlikely prince of precision in Wednesday’s pivotal game. He was the leading scorer for both teams with 30 points; the rookie was given major minutes in the series because he could lock out Harden like a forgotten iPhone passcode. Ironically, prior to Wednesday, there were times that Billy Donovan might’ve cut Dort’s minutes because he was an impediment on offense at times. (Dort shot 0-for-6 from 3 in Game 3, and 0-for-9 from 3 in Game 5.) But when you find a man who can stop a walking foul call, you stay with him.

Houston won Game 7, 104-102. You probably always knew that it would. Oklahoma City was never supposed to be here, never supposed to advance this far. Dort wasn’t supposed to hit six 3s. Chris Paul wasn’t supposed to still be this effective, this vibrant, this annoying at 35, and Dennis Schroder wasn’t supposed to be this helpful. And now the Rockets will face the Lakers, like they were always supposed to, and this series will be remembered as the birth of Dort and the one Harden rescued from disaster.

There is that nagging stat line, though, filled with low percentages and inefficiencies that allow bad memories of playoff Harden to creep back in: 17 points on 4-for-15 shooting and 1-for-9 from deep. “Offensively,” Harden said after the game, “I played like shit.” It’s an annual inadequacy. One of the highest scorers and best 3-point shooters in the league melts into mediocrity on the game’s biggest stage. Against the Spurs in 2017, Stephen A. Smith legitimately worried that Harden had been drugged; against the Warriors in 2018, Harden painted over an MVP year with a summer of being memed. If the Rockets lose to the Lakers in the next round—a likely outcome, considering LeBron James, Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ defense, and Houston’s many shortcomings—it’ll be another early playoff exit for Harden. In December, I wondered whether we’d ever be satisfied with James Harden. For now, the answer is yes, thanks to the block—not his shots—that disentangled the Rockets from a first-round exit to their de facto rivals.

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Two Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Bucks (and the Officiating) Were Very Bad in Game 2

Wednesday, September 2, 8:26 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Fouls shouldn’t be subjective. Whether Jimmy Butler is a top-15 player in the league is subjective. (Well, except when Butler hit two free throws with zero on the clock for the Heat to edge the Bucks 116-114 in Game 2. That’s inarguably top-15 stuff.) Whether a coach’s time management is good or bad is subjective. (Actually, except for Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer’s time management on Wednesday, when he gave Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton breathers down the stretch that the Bucks couldn’t afford.) But fouls shouldn’t be subjective. There are rules to this game. Rules that are untwistable and uncompromising, no matter how shamelessly Steve Javie will try to bend them on the broadcast to back up his referee brethren’s decisions on the court.

Fouls decided Game 2 between the Heat and Bucks on Wednesday. Some were recklessly committed by the players, some were recklessly whistled by the officials. By the end of the first half, Giannis’s and Middleton’s impetuousness landed them in foul trouble with three apiece. Toward the end of the third quarter, a flagrant was called on Kyle Korver after Andre Iguodala landed on Korver’s foot coming down from a 3-point attempt, switching momentum in the Heat’s favor.

Much later, with 4.3 seconds left and the Heat up 3, Goran Dragic, arms straight as the wooden plank Bucks fans wished the refs would walk off, was called for a 3-point shooting foul against Middleton. Middleton responded by hitting all three free throws.

Finally, the finisher: After Jimmy Butler took the last shot of the game from the left corner, Giannis brushed his midsection.

The game was tied. Time had expired. Officials sent Butler to the line, where he did the most clutch thing to do. He hit both, two of his five points in the second half (after dropping 40 overall in Game 1), and put the no. 1 seed in the East down 0-2 in the second round. Toronto, the no. 2 seed, is also down 0-2 to Boston. It’s the first time in playoff history that a conference’s 1 and 2 seeds have started a round down 0-2.

Milwaukee’s shortcomings shouldn’t take away from how electric Miami looks as a unit. But on Wednesday, the Bucks’ possible premature demise overshadowed their opponent’s upside. Their strengths—like Middleton’s ability to create for himself and others and the (regular-season) elite defense—are showing up for single quarters only, or worse, in flashes. Giannis is shooting like he wants to take the attention off of Paul George:

In each of the five postseasons Giannis has reached, he’s shot worse at the free throw line than he did in the regular season. He missed a pair with 43.9 seconds remaining that would’ve made it a four-point game. Going limp in the playoffs isn’t a Giannis-exclusive problem. Bud is carrying over his Hawks tradition of flaming out early. The Bucks’ defense is sloppier and less consistent in the bubble than it was in the regular season, when Ringer staffer Zach Kram made the case for it being historically elite. Butler isn’t losing to that. Hell, Tyler Herro isn’t losing to that. Going 0-2 is deeply concerning. Going 0-3 would be franchise-altering. That isn’t subjective.

Utah Jazz v Denver Nuggets - Game Seven Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Have the Mitchell-Gobert Jazz Hit Their Ceiling?

Wednesday, September 2, 6:23 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The margins in the NBA playoffs are unbelievably thin. If Mike Conley Jr.’s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer of Game 7 went down, the Jazz would be thinking about how they match up in a second-round series with the Clippers. Instead, it rimmed out, and now they have to ask some hard questions about their future.

Donovan Mitchell, who is still only 23, took his game to another level in the Jazz’s first-round series with the Nuggets, averaging a preposterous 36.3 points per game on 52.9 percent shooting. He should only get better over the next few seasons. But how many of his teammates can you say the same about?

Utah has a relatively old supporting cast around its franchise player. Rudy Gobert (28) is still in his prime. But Conley and Joe Ingles are both 32, and Bojan Bogdanovic, whose offense was sorely missed in this series while he sat out with a wrist injury, is 31. The latter three are in the back half of their careers, while Gobert may not have much room to grow. He’s already an elite rim protector and roll man. Is he suddenly going to become a better perimeter scorer or defender? The same thing applies to Royce O’Neale (27) and Jordan Clarkson (28), who seem settled in their roles as a 3-and-D wing and sixth man, respectively.

The Jazz likely have hit their ceiling. Even if they outlasted the Nuggets, they would have been huge underdogs against the Clippers. They are 1-3 in playoff series in the Mitchell and Gobert era, and barring a surprise run by Denver, none of their losses came against teams who made the NBA Finals.

It’s not clear where they should go from here. Mitchell is up for an extension on his rookie contract, while Clarkson will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and Gobert will be next offseason. Pay all three and they won’t have much salary cap flexibility to improve their roster. But it’s not like Utah ever has been much of a free-agent destination, anyway.

The bigger issue is the lack of young players who can grow with Mitchell. Compare them with the Nuggets, who have a young nucleus of Nikola Jokic (25), Gary Harris (25), Jamal Murray (23), and Michael Porter Jr. (22).

What happened in Utah is no one’s fault. The front office had built a veteran team around Gordon Hayward, only to lose him in free agency, and then plugged Mitchell into the same role as a rookie. The upside for Mitchell is that he was able to compete in the playoffs immediately. The downside is that he doesn’t have another lottery pick on the same timeline as him.

There are some similarities between Mitchell and Damian Lillard, who spent his first few seasons in Portland with veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, and Wesley Matthews. Those players are all gone now and Dame’s in his prime. The Blazers have made the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons, but constantly retooling on the fly has made it hard for them to build a title contender around Lillard.

The Jazz could be in the same boat with Mitchell. They will likely offer him a five-year extension this summer. Gobert may be the only one of his current teammates still in the league at the end of it. Selling Mitchell on a bright future in Utah will not be easy.

Nuggets-Jazz Had Enough Left for One More Wild Finish

Tuesday, September 1, 10:35 p.m.. PT

Devine: After six absurd games that featured 1,406 combined points, four separate 50-spots, and a team that looked dead in the water clawing back from a 3-1 deficit to level things, you had to wonder what the Jazz and Nuggets could possibly have in store for an encore on Tuesday’s win-or-go-home Game 7. The answer, surprisingly: a slowed-down, rough-’em-up, positively Riley-era Knicks-Heat-ass defensive slugfest.

Even more surprisingly: The team without the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is the one that came out on top, as the Nuggets survived—barely—the wildest series of the opening round for an 80-78 win.

By the late stages of Game 7, Utah and Denver were like punched-out prizefighters just trying to muster up the juice to throw one last haymaker and hope it connected flush. The Nuggets opened up a 19-point second-quarter lead, thanks to some great minutes from reserves Michael Porter Jr. and Torrey Craig. The Jazz erased that by the eight-minute mark of the fourth, with Donovan Mitchell sloughing off a rough start and some dominant two-way interior play by Rudy Gobert, who played the entire second half. The West’s no. 3 and 6 seeds fought in a phone booth the rest of the way, neither team able to create more than two possessions’ worth of breathing room.

In the final minute, Mike Conley stayed one step ahead of an excellent Denver defensive possession long enough to find Gobert for an equalizer ...

… only for Nikola Jokic to chopped-and-screwed-pirouette his way into a sweeping hook that put the Nuggets back on top:

With 17.4 seconds left, the Jazz had the ball and a chance to either knot it up or take the lead; first, though, they had to inbound the ball. Denver wing Gary Harris played suffocating defense on Mitchell, denying him an easy path to the ball and blowing up Utah’s preferred play; the Jazz had to take a timeout—their final timeout—to find another way to get the ball in and attack. If the rest of Game 7, which featured two tired teams pressing a little too tightly and clanging away, wasn’t quite the final chapter this explosive and eminently watchable matchup demanded, the ending of Game 7 sure seems to qualify:

From Harris picking Mitchell’s dribble and poking the ball loose, to newly minted folk hero Jamal Murray choosing to push for a fast-break layup rather than pull the ball out and force Utah to foul, to Craig totally smoking said layup as Conley contested, to Gobert grabbing the rebound (and maybe stepping out of bounds?) to give Utah one last chance, to Rudy not recognizing Mitchell was all alone in the frontcourt cherry-picking, to Conley pulling up for a would-be game-winner from almost exactly the same spot where he’d knocked one down earlier, to the ball being halfway down before rattling out at the buzzer …

this was an appropriate capper for a batshit series, one that burnished the postseason reputation of Mitchell (36.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.9 assists in 37.7 minutes per game on 53/52/95 shooting splits) and made a bona fide star of Murray (31.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 6.3 assists in 38.1 minutes per game on 55/53/92 splits). The two young flamethrowers, who combined for the highest-scoring series by opposing players in postseason history, shared an emotional and very cool embrace after the conclusion of their seven-game duel:

Plenty of prognosticators picked Denver to advance before this series, expecting that the Jazz would struggle to score with Bojan Bogdanovic lost to wrist surgery. But it’s the way Utah lost this series that will sting: losing a lead late in the fourth quarter of Game 1 after a costly eight-second violation by Mitchell; frittering away a 15-point third-quarter lead in Game 5; squandering a 3-1 series lead despite Mitchell playing out of his mind. “We kind of eased off the gas,” Mitchell lamented.

By the end of Game 7, they were all but out of gas, with Conley, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, and Royce O’Neale all struggling to knock down shots with the outcome in the balance. That opened the door for Denver to nose past them at the finish line, led by another monster Game 7 by Jokic—30 points on 12-for-23 shooting, 14 rebounds, four assists in 39 minutes. Denver’s prize for eking past the Jazz? A date with Kawhi Leonard and the second-seeded Clippers, who’ve been chilling since knocking off the Mavs, that tips off on Thursday.

Yes, Jamal: Thursday.

Yeah, man. It is a bummer. Sure beats the alternative, though.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game Two Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Marcus Smart Stole Game 2 and All of the Raptors’ Good Vibes

Tuesday, September 1, 7:24 p.m. PT

Devine: You fools; you simpletons; you cretins. You thought that penalizing Marcus Smart for this world-historic and obvious flop late in the third quarter of Game 2 was going to harm him?

On the contrary: Calling the feds on the Celtics’ chief griftlord—and, after a challenge, putting his Celtics 12 points behind a Raptors team desperate to get even after dropping Game 1—only emboldened him. Hell, more than that: It unleashed him.

After Toronto squandered a half-dozen late-third-quarter possessions that could’ve pushed its lead to 20 entering the final frame, Smart—a 31.8 percent career 3-point shooter, a 34.7 percent marksman from deep this season, a woeful 2-for-15 from distance in Boston’s first-round sweep of the 76ers—suddenly found himself wreathed in flames.

Smart drilled three consecutive triples off of Jayson Tatum feeds to winnow Toronto’s lead to one with 9:46 to go. He drilled a fourth to tie the game at 82 less than a minute later. And then, he stroked another, this time for a four-point play thanks to a late contest by OG Anunoby, to put Boston—who repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and, Tatum aside, couldn’t hit a goddamn thing for most of the first three quarters—up by one with 7:55 to go.

Sixteen points in three minutes and four seconds, out of nowhere, to completely change everything. It was wholly ridiculous—which is to say, it was some real Marcus Smart shit.

Boston’s longtime talisman wrested control away from the Raptors, who continued to brick looks of varying quality against the Celtics’ no. 4-ranked defense. Tatum—at 22 years old, the grown-up in the room and the star in the gym, scoring a game-high 34 points with eight rebounds and six dimes—kept the Celtics’ foot on the gas, drilling a cold-blooded 3 and working his way to the line for a pair. Kemba Walker was a positively frigid 2-for-14 through three quarters, then started scorching when it counted; he made all four of his shots in the final frame, including a signature stepback midrange dagger after dusting Serge Ibaka on a switch to put Boston up by three in the final minute.

With every Boston basket, you could feel more and more blood draining out of the Raptors, who—just like in Game 1—absolutely could not buy a bucket when it mattered most. No. 1 option Pascal Siakam, 2019 playoff hero Fred VanVleet, captain Kyle Lowry: all of them misfired, again and again, as Toronto went 3-for-13 from the floor in the final 7:55.

VanVleet let loose a would-be game-tying triple in the closing seconds, but you knew it wouldn’t find the net; his 12th 3-point try came up wanting, and Boston finished off a 102-99 win to take a commanding 2-0 lead. The defending champions, who are now 1-5 against the Celtics this season, must now beat Boston four times in five tries to continue an improbable title defense after losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency.

All season, the Raptors soldiered on without the superstar who led them to their first championship, racking up wins behind a suffocating defense, an elite transition attack, and an egalitarian offensive approach. In the playoffs, though, socialism tends to stumble in the face of superstars, and the big question trailing the Raps entering the postseason was what Nick Nurse and Co. would do against an opponent that could shut off the easy stuff. Like, for example, a Celtics team that snuffed out transition baskets better than anybody this season, with a group of excellent and long perimeter defenders to make you earn every inch.

Without Kawhi to shoulder-block his way wherever he wants to go for that lethal line-drive midranger, which Raptor would generate offense in the half court, and especially in crunch time? Through two games of these conference semis, the answer appears to be: nobody.

Siakam started strong on Tuesday and did a better job of trusting the pass rather than repeatedly trying to play bully ball in the post, notching six assists and just one turnover in 43 minutes. But he sputtered late, going 0-for-3 from the floor in the fourth and brutally stepping out of bounds with Toronto down by three with 31.5 seconds to go. Lowry tried to match Smart grift-for-grift, keeping the Raps close with five fourth-quarter free throws, but he missed every 3-pointer he took on Tuesday. VanVleet went just 3-for-12 from distance, earning himself an ignominious entry in the history books.

The Raptors’ top three options are a combined 32-for-98 (32.7 percent) from the floor; VanVleet and Lowry are 6-for-35 from deep. Toronto, an average half-court offense during the regular season, has scored a putrid 82.6 points per 100 possessions against Boston’s set defense through two games. You know that cliché about it being a make-or-miss league? Yeah, well, it’s a cliché for a reason, and if the Raptors don’t shift to the front end of that saying fast, their delightful victory-lap season is going to meet a rude ending.

They can get right. Fortunes change quickly in the postseason, especially when it comes to something as fickle as a jump shot; sometimes, all it takes is one. Don’t believe me? Just ask the dude who ripped out Toronto’s still-beating heart.

Game 7 Preview: Three Keys to the Last Murray-Mitchell Shootout

Tuesday, September 1, 1:09 p.m. PT

Tjarks: The wild first-round series between the Nuggets and the Jazz takes center stage in Game 7 on Tuesday. Here are the three big tactical questions in a series that has already given fans everything:

1. Can Utah get the ball out of Jamal Murray’s hands?

There comes a point where you have to change a defensive game plan that isn’t working. That point has long since come against Murray, who is averaging 47.3 points on 64.2 percent shooting over the last three games. The Jazz would literally be better off fouling the Nuggets every time down the floor than allowing that to continue. The obvious adjustment is to send more defensive help toward Murray and force him to beat them as a passer.

Utah will have to find a balance between swarming Murray without creating four-on-three opportunities for Nikola Jokic in the pick-and-roll. It should be possible given the amount of streaky 3-point shooters in the Denver rotation. Murray is a score-first player with unlimited confidence in himself. Will he have the patience to hand out 15 assists? And will guys like Paul Millsap, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Gary Harris (who made his first appearance since March in Game 6) knock down shots in a pressure-filled Game 7?

2. Will Donovan Mitchell trust his shooters, and will they make shots?

Mitchell has gone point-for-point with Murray in a shootout for the ages, averaging 41.7 points on 53.3 percent shooting over the last three games. But the Nuggets were able to make just enough defensive adjustments in Game 6 to slow him down. Denver’s plan was a lot like what I suggest the Jazz do with Murray: make him see multiple defenders when he gets into the lane and selectively leave the worst shooters open. The gamble was that Mitchell would force up bad shots in traffic like he does in this clip:

Denver has no prayer of stopping him without one defender. All it can do is send help and leave his teammates open at the 3-point line. That means there is no reason for Mitchell to ever take a bad shot. Something will always be open if he’s patient. He just has to figure out the defensive strategy and make the right play. But that also means players like Joe Ingles (1-for-4 from 3 in Game 6) and Royce O’Neale (1-for-3) have to pull the trigger on open spot-up 3s. If they don’t, Mitchell might lose confidence in them and play one-on-five.

3. How short are the rotations?

LeBron James has made a career of playing 48 minutes in elimination games. That might not be realistic for mortals, but it’s something both teams have to think about. Utah was plus-2 in Mitchell’s 40 minutes in Game 6 and minus-14 in his eight minutes on the bench. Denver goes from a net rating of plus-4.8 with Murray on the floor in the series to minus-28.4 with him off. Even if those two can’t dominate the ball the entire game, they could still help as spot-up shooters off someone else. Playing the stars more would also mean playing the bench players less, and both teams have a lot of weak spots in the backs of their rotation.

Surprise heroes always emerge in Game 7s. That’s even more likely in a series played on a neutral court with two teams that are so dependent on 3-point shooting. Who will crack under the pressure? Who will thrive in the spotlight? It will be fun to find out.

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game One Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Bucks Have the NBA’s Best Defender. Maybe They Should Use Him?

Tuesday, September 1, 6:33 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The Heat landed the first blow in their second-round series against the Bucks, winning Game 1 behind Jimmy Butler’s playoff-career-high 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting. Now the question is how Milwaukee will adjust.

Mike Budenholzer made some head-scratching defensive decisions in the loss. Wesley Matthews started on Butler and held him to 1-of-4 shooting in 5:32 (per NBA Advanced Stats) as the primary defender. But Budenholzer benched him in crunch time for Pat Connaughton, who struggled on both ends of the floor, and put Khris Middleton on the Miami star instead. Middleton couldn’t contain Butler off the dribble, allowing him to shoot 5-of-5 from the field in 4:02 as the primary defender down the stretch.

Drawing conclusions from such a small sample size is dangerous. But the data back up what we know about all three players. Butler loves using his size to bully weaker players, and Matthews, who is built like a tank, is significantly stronger than the taller but leaner Middleton.

But that’s not even the biggest issue with Milwaukee’s strategy. Giannis Antetokounmpo actually had less time on Butler (0:38) than Connaughton (0:49). Look what Giannis is doing on these plays (absolutely nothing) while Butler takes over in the fourth:

The scary thing for Bucks fans is this exact same thing happened in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Budenholzer refused to put Giannis on Kawhi Leonard even while he routinely bulldozed through Middleton. Kawhi shot 17-of-31 in 42:43 with Middleton on him and 5-of-13 in 7:14 with Giannis on him.

To be sure, matchup numbers aren’t everything. A ball-dominant wing like Leonard or Butler can always call for a screen to force a switch. But there also have been plenty of times when both were isolated against Middleton and Giannis watched helplessly from the other side of the court.

Using Giannis’s length and athleticism on the help side is a key part of Milwaukee’s defensive philosophy of selling out to prevent shots at the rim at all costs, which helped the Bucks have one of the greatest defensive seasons of all time in the regular season. The problem is that renders the Defensive Player of the Year useless against an offense built around an elite midrange shooter in the playoffs.

Giannis won that award largely because he’s one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA. Budenholzer has to play to his strengths and give him a chance to win the series.

He’s not as polished offensively as either Butler or Leonard. Giannis is a 25-year-old with a developing jumper who’s still figuring out how to punish defenses who can build a wall against him in the paint. The way for him to win these superstar matchups is to unleash him on defense.

The most bizarre part about Budenholzer’s refusal to adjust last season is that he watched Nick Nurse win the series by doing the exact same thing. Milwaukee was up 2-0 when Nurse moved Kawhi onto Giannis. Budenholzer never adjusted, and Toronto won the next four games. The whole point of having a defender like Kawhi or Giannis is to put them on the opposing team’s primary scorer. Budenholzer essentially watched a fire burn down his house while he was holding a fire extinguisher and never even tried to use it.

If Butler scores on Giannis at will, Milwaukee can tip its hat and acknowledge that the better player won. But not even trying Giannis on the Heat star is unacceptable.

The Rockets’ Collapse in Game 6 Was Almost Too on the Nose

Monday, August 31, 10:05 p.m. PT

Rodger Sherman: When the Houston Rockets traded Chris Paul and two first-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Russell Westbrook in July 2019, some minor deity working in the “comical sports outcomes” branch of heaven got to work. Monday night, we got to see their plan begin to come to fruition: Paul willed the Thunder to a Game 7 against the team that traded him away, while Westbrook errantly spewed basketballs into unoccupied air.

The Rockets were four minutes away from eliminating the Thunder with a 98-92 lead in Game 6. That’s when Chris Paul hit back-to-back 3s, displaying pinpoint accuracy targeting the hoop as well as Robert Covington’s ass:

Paul keeping his new team’s hopes alive was narrative catnip enough—but then something strange happened with Westbrook. First, he airballed a midrange pull-up shot by several feet. Not inches—feet.

My first thought was that the shot must have been blocked. But no, it was clean. And the defender made no contact with him. It was just a complete and total misfire in a tied game. Shortly after Westbrook’s miss, Chris Paul hit two free throws to take a two-point lead. Needing a bucket to tie the game, Westbrook drove again, but decided to pass. Unfortunately, his no-look pass sailed off into the advertising boards:

What exactly happened to Westbrook here? We’ve seen players miss critical shots or commit brain-melting turnovers before, but Westbrook’s performance in the final minute of this game was something different. Was he under the control of a first-time video game player? Was he living the real-life sequel to the 2012 film Thunderstruck, the movie in which an Oklahoman teenager accidentally swaps his talents with Westbrook’s old teammate Kevin Durant? Is Westbrook secretly still a deep undercover OKC operative, trying to help the Thunder win despite wearing Houston’s uniform? (And now an actual basketball question: Why didn’t James Harden have the ball?)

Paul scored 28 points with no turnovers and was plus-20 for the game; Westbrook committed seven turnovers, missed both of his free throw attempts, and was minus-9. Oklahoma City won 104-100. I’d like to thank all those cosmic employees in the “comical sports outcomes” branch of heaven. I’ve been a longtime fan, and we’re a Westbrook 0-for-17 line in Game 7 away from this being your finest work yet.

The Heat Look Well Suited to Stop the Bucks

Monday, August 31, 7:36 p.m. PT

Sherman: You could think of the Miami Heat as the Milwaukee Bucks Lite. The Bucks had the NBA’s best record and have the reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on their team. Antetokounmpo is a wing who can’t really shoot, which is a rarity these days, but he’s such a devastating driver and attracts so much attention that the Bucks are one of the best shooting teams in the league. The Heat are also led by a wing who can’t really shoot, Jimmy Butler, who shot just 24.4 percent from 3 this year, but his driving and kicking allowed the Heat to finish second in the NBA in 3-point percentage. The difference, I suppose, is that Giannis is hypothetically much, much, better than Jimmy. One is the league’s MVP, the other’s career accomplishments top out at the All-NBA third team.

But if there’s one thing Jimmy Butler hates, it’s the idea of anybody thinking they’re better than him. (Well, that and apparently children.) Butler scored 40 points in Game 1 of the Bucks-Heat series, including 13 of Miami’s final 16 points. That performance iced a 115-104 win to give Miami a 1-0 series lead and put the presumptive title favorites in a hole for the second straight series.

Maybe this is a fluke. After all, Milwaukee’s first-round series began with a loss to the Orlando Magic, before the Bucks woke up and dominated Orlando in four straight easy wins. But there’s reason to believe the Heat’s win could be replicable. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor has talked extensively about the way Heat center Bam Adebayo can neutralize Antetokounmpo, which he seemed to do Monday night. (It’s unclear what Adebayo had to do with Antetokounmpo going 4-for-12 from the free throw line.) Giannis, who led the league in points in the paint with more than 17 per game, had just six against the Heat.

Miami went 2-1 against Milwaukee in the regular season, and the one loss came during a sleepy bubble game that Butler and point guard Goran Dragic both skipped. And while the consensus opinion is that Milwaukee is significantly better than Miami, FiveThirtyEight gave Milwaukee just a 63 percent chance of beating the Heat.

Perhaps the Heat are more than just a pale imitation of the Bucks. Maybe they’re the team best suited to stop them.

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Six Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

King Kawhi Is Lurking in the West After Dispatching Luka

Monday, August 31, 9:19 a.m. PT

Tjarks: Don’t crown Luka Doncic as the best player in the NBA just yet. For as great as he was against the Clippers, he wasn’t even the best player in the series. Kawhi Leonard played at a near-superhuman level, averaging 32.8 points on 54 percent shooting, 10.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 2.3 steals per game while leading L.A. to the six-game series win.

He led both teams in points, rebounds, and steals, and was second only to Doncic in assists. The Mavs had no answer for Kawhi’s size and strength on the wing. He took the ball into the teeth of the defense and created a high-percentage shot for himself any time he wanted. Dallas, like most NBA defenses, wants to concede long 2-point shots. But normal rules don’t apply to Kawhi. He shot 22-of-28 (78 percent) on shots between 10-16 feet from the rim in the series. They might as well be layups for him.

And unlike Luka, Kawhi never had an off night, either. He scored between 29 and 36 points in every game. And he took his performance to another level once the series was tied at 2-2, shooting above 60 percent from the floor in games 5 and 6.

His fingerprints are all over the Clippers’ first-round win. With Patrick Beverley out with a strained calf, Doc Rivers started a 3-and-D wing (Landry Shamet) at point guard to improve their defense. He knew that he didn’t need a traditional floor general to run the offense. Kawhi attracted so much defensive attention that he could create open shots for his teammates. His assists were the most telling number in the series: He averaged 6.25 in their four wins and just three in their losses.

As if that wasn’t enough, Kawhi also found time to put out countless fires on defense. He defended 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis in Game 3, using his ability to switch the pick-and-roll between Porzingis and Doncic to take that play out of the Mavs’ playbook. He then moved onto combo guard Trey Burke in games 5 and 6, neutralizing the player who had emerged as the Mavs’ second option with Porzingis out. How many other players in the NBA could defend players with skill sets as different as Doncic, Porzingis, and Burke over the course of a series?

That combination of offensive dominance and defensive versatility is the formula that Kawhi used to lead the Raptors to an NBA title last season. He looks more than ready to do it again.

Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz - Game Six Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Jamal Murray’s Transcendent Night Ties the Series 3-3

Sunday, August 30, 10:17 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: Where to begin? The sheer weight of Jamal Murray’s numbers? Sure, let’s start there. Murray pushed the Nuggets to a 119-107 win over the Jazz on Sunday with another 50-point performance to even their first-round playoff series 3-3. (Combined with his 50 points in Game 4 and 42 points in Game 5, Murray is now the sixth player in NBA playoff history to record three straight 40-point games, and the third to ever score at least 142 points over a three-game stretch in a postseason.) The milestones don’t end there, or seemingly at all; he’s also the second player with three 25-point halves in a single series over the past two decades, and has already scored more points in a single series than any Canadian ever. (Niche, I know. But worthy of honour all the same.)

The records—which often feel too arbitrary and too specific at the same time; if you’d told me Murray had the most points of any Pisces on a Sunday in the last 16.5 years, I’d nod along respectfully—don’t prove his excellence to me as much as the pure beauty of his game does. The silk-draped 3s that don’t bother the net on their way in, the pirouettes around defenders, the glossy handles before he pulls up before the inevitable happens:

Then there were Murray’s words during the postgame interview, when he was asked to articulate complex and deep-rooted emotions. Unable to speak at one point, Murray—who was wearing shoes with George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s faces on them—was pushed to explain how he persevered to pull off such a performance after feeling the weight of the previous week, when the NBA players went on a wildcat strike in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Here’s what he said:

The Mavs Have a Luka, but They’re Gonna Need a Little More

Sunday, August 30, 4 p.m. PT

Verrier: Luka Doncic’s first postseason didn’t end as triumphantly as it began, but at least he was able to walk away from it. With Kristaps Porzingis sidelined and the Los Angeles Clippers’ defense finally getting right midway through the first-round series, each possession turned into a trip through a blaster machine for the Dallas Mavericks’ wunderkind. Doncic sprained an ankle, Marcus Morris stepped on said sprained ankle, and if that wasn’t enough, Morris also threw in a judo chop that got him ejected from the Clippers’ 111-97 series-clinching win in Game 6.

No one can question Luka’s ability: The 21-year-old dropped a record 42 points in his playoff debut, drilled a game-winning buzzer-beater in Game 4 to tie the series, and rallied the Mavs to within six in the fourth quarter on Sunday before Kawhi Leonard closed the door for good. Not since LeBron has superstardom been so clear so quickly. But the supporting cast around Doncic still needs work.

It’s hard not to wonder how this series would’ve played out had Porzingis not missed all but two and a half games, but what-ifs are the unfortunate tax for committing a max deal to an IRL Groot with a hard hair part and a long history of lower body injuries. The one thing Dallas can control is their team’s second-best player moonlighting as team enforcer when Doncic gets knocked around, like he did in Game 1, leading to Porzingis’s ejection. The Mavs don’t need to stoop as low as Morris did, but there’s a clear lack of toughness beyond their two stars that also shows up in their subpar defensive performances. An unnamed Mavs front-office staffer put it this way to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon: “We need to get some dogs.”

Morris, ironically enough, would be a perfect fit; in between bopping unsuspecting defenders, the free-agent-to-be has the stretch and positional versatility to give Dallas’s defense some grit without sacrificing its historic offensive production. But when Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, the Mavs, barring a major shake-up, will be left with options at only the midlevel exception, presumably making Morris a tough get before any amends even begin. They could break up their midlevel and roll the dice on a Jae Crowder? Maybe a Kent Bazemore? Any long-term money will cut into the $30 million ESPN projects them to have in 2021.

The Mavs’ easiest path to improvement may be the draft, where the nos. 18 and 31 picks could be used to land a pair of wing prospects or packaged to bring on a vet. The when and the how of the moves they make could prove tricky, but their path, at least, is abundantly clear: The Mavs will be a contender as long as Luka is healthy; now they just need to get him the right help.

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

OK, Maybe the Raptors Do Need a Kawhi

Sunday, August 30, 1:30 p.m. PT

Verrier: The Toronto Raptors have waged a year-long campaign against conventional wisdom. Expected to fall off after losing Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors reclaimed their championship bona fides through a never-ending procession of quality contributors, quantum leaps from virtually every starter, and Nick Nurse tapping into his inner coaching warlock. Know how they say a trend is passé by the time the New York Times writes about it? The Raptors were long minted as title contenders before LeBron James made up that the media doesn’t give them their due.

But here’s the thing about conventional wisdom: It’s usually widely accepted for a reason. And the preseason read on the Raptors was so tepid, it wouldn’t have even been bloggable. Losing perhaps the best player in the world would make any team worse. The Raptors, believe it or not, can be both good and worse in certain ways than last season.

In their first postseason test post-Kawhi (all due respect, Tyler Johnson), a 112-94 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of their second-round series, the Raptors very much played like a team that needed a reigning Finals MVP. The Celtics shut off one of the most prolific transition offenses in the NBA, and without Leonard to turn to in the half court, Toronto was left with a hobbled Kyle Lowry and a pressing Pascal Siakam. Siakam, Leonard’s heir apparent as the Raptors’ big wing scorer, picked up three fouls two-thirds of the way through the first quarter and never looked right, especially on post-ups. He finished with just 13 points on 5-for-16 shooting, bringing his grand total from the floor through five postseason games to a whopping 39.7 percent. Lowry and Fred VanVleet were no better, totalling 17 and 11 points, respectively.

The Celtics, meanwhile, looked like the Rockets with worse branding. Without Gordon Hayward, Boston has leaned on its skinny-fit lineup, with one of the league’s smallest starting backcourts and two wings that together might not make up the girth of James Harden on an empty stomach. But with Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum orbiting Daniel Theis, the Celtics can bury a team with skill, playmaking, and grit. And even though the Celtics themselves struggled offensively—Tatum looked disjointed at times, Theis was a mess in between 15 rebounds—they got up early, withstood Toronto’s attempt to go big, and then watched the best-executing team in basketball burn.

The Raptors aren’t done yet, not until Nurse has a chance to dig into his wizard’s cap adorned with a personal logo for solutions. But without Kawhi, he’ll need to find something else, anything else.

The Blazers Are Leaving the Bubble, but Not Before Salvaging Their Season

Saturday, August 29, 9:48 p.m. PT

Kram: Not every NBA team should need to win a championship for its fans to enjoy the season. That sort of zero-sum analysis is a recipe for misery for 29 of the 30 fan bases every year; the more realistic goal is some thrills in the moment, and some smiley memories and highlights to revisit in the long term. So although the Trail Blazers’ season is over well short of a title, after a series-ending 131-122 loss to the Lakers on Saturday in a Game 5 played without Damian Lillard, the restart still salvaged an otherwise lost season for the team.

After a trip to the Western Conference finals last season, the Blazers could never strike a workable rhythm until they got into the bubble. Jusuf Nurkic missed the entire regular season up until that point while rehabbing a leg injury; Zach Collins joined him on the bench after undergoing shoulder surgery early in the season, and Rodney Hood tore his Achilles soon after. Portland started the season 3-2, then lost four games in a row and never reached .500 the rest of the way, before entering the bubble 3.5 games behind Memphis for the no. 8 seed.

That malaise was all forgotten in Orlando, months later, with Nurkic and Collins back in the fold, the former looking like he hadn’t lost a step at all. (Another Collins injury sidelined him for the playoffs.) True to Lillard’s wishes, the Blazers had a real opportunity to advance to the playoffs. With Dame on a volcanic scoring run, Carmelo Anthony re-living the glory days, and Gary Trent Jr. suddenly automatic from 3-point range, they won six of eight “seeding games” in the bubble, all close, then beat the Grizzlies in a tight play-in contest to qualify for the playoff field. In the first eight bubble games, Lillard averaged a league-best 38 points per game and shot 44 percent from distance. And for Lillard, of course, “distance” really means distance.

The team’s momentum persisted with a Game 1 win against the mighty Lakers. Then L.A. realized it could generate an open shot anytime it wanted against Portland’s defense, and Lillard got hurt. McCollum was already playing through a lower back fracture, and the no. 1 seed, as is typical, soon cruised against the no. 8. Game 5 served as a microcosm of the whole series: The sweet-shooting Blazers led through much of the first half before the talent imbalance, with Lillard back in Portland with a doctor, pushed L.A. ahead for good. LeBron James and Anthony Davis combined for 79 points on just 37 field goal attempts in the finale.

Yet despite the early exit, and despite the inferior result compared to last season, this Blazers’ campaign was full of thrilling moments and smiley memories. Portland fans have Lillard’s logo shots and McCollum’s masterpiece against the Grizzlies; they have Melo’s three fingers pressed against his forehead and Nurkic’s vicious rumbles through the lane. They have a host of ever-more-delirious wins in the final seconds during a two-week dream, and most of all, they have their superstar, now with an argument for the most feared scorer in the league.

The Blazers will hope for a better result next season—more wins, a higher seed, a deeper run in the playoffs. But the 2019-20 campaign wasn’t a failure. In the bubble, they were the most fun of all.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Rockets Thwart Dort and the Thunder by Letting Him Shoot

Saturday, August 29, 7:57 p.m. PT

Kram: Dort-mania has hit a snag, and Oklahoma City’s playoff momentum with it. After the Thunder took games 3 and 4 to even the series, the Rockets regained the advantage Saturday night, turning a three-point halftime lead into a 114-80 blowout win in Game 5. The Thunder scored just 35 points in the second half.

The Thunder’s comeback in this series started with Luguentz Dort, the rookie wing who spent most of the season on a two-way contract, but has proved a capable and willing defender against some of the league’s top scorers. Dort missed Game 1 with a knee sprain, and James Harden went wild; Dort then began guarding Harden, and the three-time scoring champ cooled. Entering Game 5, Harden had shot just 24 percent when being defended by Dort in the series (including 24 percent from distance); against all other defenders, he shot 57 percent overall, 41 percent from distance.

The Rockets adjusted in turn. Russell Westbrook made his series debut after missing time with a leg injury, and though his surface stats display rust—just seven points on 3-of-13 shooting—he added a much-needed dose of zip and creativity to the offense. With his sidekick back, Harden was as efficient as ever, scoring 31 points on just 15 field goal attempts.

But the main adjustment came on the other end of the court, where the Rockets treated Dort like the Warriors handled Tony Allen once upon a time. They welcomed any and all shot attempts from the rookie, who shot just 30 percent from 3-point range this season with an awkward, arcing stroke. And Dort complied, taking open 3 after open 3—and, crucially, missing open 3 after open 3. Dort took the most shots of any Oklahoma City player in Game 5, 16 in all, but he made just three and went 0-for-9 from deep. (With the game out of hand, he sat for most of the fourth quarter; if not, he might have challenged the playoff record of 11 missed 3s without a make.)

One imagines that Billy Donovan didn’t plan for Dort to take the most shots on a team with Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari. But the way the rest of the team was shooting Saturday, better distribution wouldn’t have mattered. The Thunder as a team shot just 31.5 percent from the field, and a ghastly 16 percent (7-for-45) on 3s. They set the NBA record for worst 3-point percentage in a playoff game with so many attempts; the only other playoff performance in the same neighborhood was the Rockets’ infamous 7-of-44 showing in Game 7 against the Warriors in 2018, when they missed 27 in a row.

The Thunder likely won’t miss so many open shots in Game 6. They also should get Schröder back, after the sixth man was ejected in the third quarter Saturday for a crotch shot against P.J. Tucker. (Tucker responded by making contact with Schröder and was ejected too.) But Houston is daring the Thunder’s middling-or-worse shooters to let fly, and is content to live with the results. In the second round of the 2014-15 playoffs, the Warriors were scuffling but grabbed hold of their matchup with Memphis after exaggerating their defensive schemes to exploit Allen’s weakness. The Rockets did the same against Dort, and now might have wrested control much in the same way.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Tyson Chandler Finally Enters a Game. Barely.

Saturday, August 29, 7:57 p.m. PT

Kram: Before Saturday, Tyson Chandler had last played in an NBA game on February 9—when he logged all of 1.6 seconds against the Jazz. With the Rockets ahead by two points at the end of the game, the 7-foot Chandler entered to guard the inbounds pass; Bojan Bogdanovic nailed a game-winning 3-pointer anyway.

Before that cameo, Chandler hadn’t played since January 18. As an emergency veteran center in a super-small system, few situations warrant his services. He didn’t play after the Clint Capela trade, and he didn’t play during the team’s sometimes lackadaisical eight “seeding games” in the NBA bubble, and he certainly didn’t play in the first four games of its 2020 playoff run. As my colleague Paolo Uggetti wrote earlier this week, Chandler’s role in Orlando is mostly as a locker-room presence and pseudo-coach on the sideline, and a physical reminder of how to win a championship; Chandler is the only Rockets player with a ring (having won one with the Mavericks in 2011). “He’s a valuable piece, whether he’s in the rotation or not,” Mike D’Antoni said.

But lo and behold, Chandler reentered the rotation Saturday—sort of. Midway through the third quarter of Game 5, with the Rockets leading by 18 points, Dennis Schröder pulled a Draymond Green against P.J. Tucker as the latter set a screen. Tucker responded by mashing his head against Schröder’s; both players were ejected.

As part of the fallout, the Rockets received two free throws—but with Tucker ejected, Thunder coach Billy Donovan could choose any player from the Houston bench to take the pair. Naturally, he selected the career 64 percent free throw shooter who hadn’t played in more than six months or taken a live free throw since last December.

Thus, Chandler finally entered a game! Here was his chance, as a championship veteran, to make a mark on the 2020 postseason. As he told The Ringer earlier in the week with a laugh, “You know, I always tell Coach, if you want to switch it up I’m right here. And I’m ready.”

So how did Chandler respond? He missed one free throw, then watched the second clang off the back rim. D’Antoni called an immediate timeout to make a substitution and prevent Chandler from amassing a single defensive possession. His final stat line: zero minutes, zero seconds, two misses. Move over, Hemingway (apocryphally); there’s a new saddest six-word story in the English language.

Orlando Magic v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Five Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Bucks Reflect on Wednesday’s Strike and Advance to the Second Round

Saturday, August 29, 4:35 p.m. PT

Kaelen Jones: After three days away, the NBA returned Saturday with the same matchup it had scheduled before its pause. The Bucks picked up where they left off, continuing their protests of police brutality and racism, as well as their dominance on the court. Milwaukee’s 118-104 victory over the Magic not only clinched their first-round series, but ensured that the Bucks’ urgent messages about equality in the United States will continue to be in the spotlight.

Before Saturday’s game, veteran Bucks guard Wesley Matthews told reporters that the rest of the league was “completely blindsided” by Milwaukee’s decision to strike on Wednesday in wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The decision spurred other major sports leagues to sit out games in protest, and pushed the NBA to take immediate, concrete steps toward supporting social justice and racial equality, including turning arenas into polling sites for the November general election.

“What needs to be understood about minorities—and not just African Americans, but just minorities—in any type of prominent role, whether you’re an athlete, an activist, a doctor, a teacher, anything: You’re a beacon of hope,” Matthews said. “So you take a room full of guys that now have a platform and a responsibility that may or may not have been asked of them … there was just a lot of mixed emotions about what do we do going forward and how do we make sure we don’t waste this moment.”

Before Saturday’s tipoff, George Hill, who played a vocal role in sparking the Bucks’ decision to strike, remained in the hallway while Bucks and Magic players knelt during the playing of the national anthem. Hill later told reporters that he missed the anthem because he was, um, using the bathroom. Hill also explained he decided to sit out Wednesday’s game just before tipoff was scheduled and “told [teammates] to continue to make change and let’s build from it.”

During Sunday’s game, the Bucks looked dominant throughout stretches, leaning on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who tallied 28 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. Khris Middleton also chipped in 21 points to help see Milwaukee through to the next round, where the East’s no. 1 seed will square off against the fifth-seeded Heat. Miami found success against the Bucks during the regular season, winning two of the teams’ three matchups.

Miami is well suited to test the Bucks: The Heat boast a scrappy unit that includes defensive stalwarts in Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, and they allowed the fifth-fewest opponent points in the paint (44.1) per game during the regular season. The paint, of course, is where Giannis thrives.

The big question facing the Bucks is whether or not they will get consistent production from players surrounding Giannis. While Antetokounmpo is a triple-double threat every night, he’ll need more support from Middleton, as well as veterans Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez. While relying on Giannis alone might have been enough to get by against the lowly Magic, the Bucks will need more from their supporting cast to survive against Miami.

Can the Mavs Overcome Kristaps Porzingis’s Absence the Rest of the Series?

Friday, August 28, 4:56 p.m. PT

Devine: The Mavericks will have their backs against the wall when they face the Clippers on Sunday down 3-2 in their first-round series. The job of extending their season became even harder on Friday, when Dallas announced that center Kristaps Porzingis—who had missed Games 4 and 5 with “right knee soreness”—has actually been dealing with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, which will sideline him for the remainder of the series.

The Mavs say the 7-foot-3 Porzingis suffered the injury in Game 1, when he chipped in 14 points and six rebounds in 20 minutes before getting ejected early in the third quarter after picking up a pair of exceedingly weak technical foul calls. He received treatment and continued playing, scoring 23 points in Dallas’s Game 2 win and popping off for 34 on 11-for-18 shooting, including a 5-for-9 mark from 3-point range, to go with 13 rebounds in a Game 3 loss; that means he averaged 28.5-and-10 on 58/62/87 shooting splits with a torn meniscus. Which is, y’know, pretty good.

The injury represents a potentially disappointing end to Porzingis’s first season in Dallas after a blockbuster trade from New York and nearly 20 months on the shelf following a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left (read: the other) knee. Porzingis needed some time to knock the rust off, reestablish his shot-making rhythm, and find his footing in a high-octane Mavericks offense piloted by all-world creator Luka Doncic. But after a shaky start and a bout of knee soreness around New Year’s Day, the fourth-year big man hit his stride, averaging 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.1 blocks per game over his final 21 outings; in that span, he posted a .609 true shooting percentage on a 29 percent usage rate, a marriage of scoring volume and efficiency that only 19 players have managed for a full season.

Porzingis spaced the floor and bombed away, shooting 35.2 percent from deep on a whopping eight 3-point attempts per 36 minutes. He protected the rim (opponents shot just 51.6 percent against him at the basket, tied for 13th out of 247 players to face at least 100 such shots) and cleaned the glass (he pulled down 25.1 percent of opponents’ misses, by far the best defensive rebound rate of his career). He complemented Doncic when they shared the floor, and stepped into the spotlight when he sat; by season’s end, Dallas was blowing teams’ doors off by 10.1 points per 100 possessions of KP-no-Luka floor time, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

The Mavericks will now need even more scoring and playmaking production from Doncic, who was brilliant without Porzingis in Game 4 (43 points on 18-for-31 shooting, 17 rebounds, 13 assists, a buzzer-beating, game-winning stepback 3 that will live in lore) but who struggled in Game 5 (22 points on 6-for-17 shooting, four assists with five turnovers) without a top-flight release valve to alleviate the pressure when L.A. sent traps and hard hedges his way on the perimeter. Whatever heroics the second-year superstar’s able to provide against the Clips, though, the prognosis on Porzingis’s latest lower leg ailment will likely mean a lot more to Dallas’s chances of rising to the ranks of bona fide championship contenders in the years to come.

Will Russell Westbrook’s Return for Game 5 Tilt Rockets-Thunder?

Friday, August 28, 1:54 p.m. PT

Devine: Russell Westbrook will return to the court on Saturday when the Houston Rockets take on the Oklahoma City Thunder for Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, according to Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

The nine-time All-Star and 2016-17 NBA Most Valuable Player has been sidelined since August 11 by a strained right quadriceps muscle, but was ramping up for a return before Wednesday’s unprecedented strike by NBA players. After a couple of extra days to rest and heal, plus a full-speed five-on-five scrimmage on Thursday and a day of practice on Friday, Westbrook is reportedly ready to hit the ground running. “He looked as explosive as ever,” a source told ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski after Thursday’s scrimmage.

After two and a half weeks on the shelf, how much time Westbrook will see in the pivotal Game 5 of a 2-2 series remains unclear. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters Friday that he anticipates Westbrook’s minutes will be restricted, but that no determination had yet been made.

Houston has continued to score in bunches against Oklahoma City despite Westbrook’s absence, averaging 114.1 points per 100 possessions—about one point-per-100 ahead of its regular-season mark—through four games, thanks to James Harden’s customary offensive onslaught, Eric Gordon replacing Westbrook’s penetration (14.3 drives to the basket per game, 10th most in the playoffs), and outsized contributions from role players like Danuel House Jr. and Jeff Green. But getting back Westbrook—one of the league’s most dominant offensive forces in the second half of the regular season, averaging 31.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game on 51.1 percent shooting from Christmas Day through the March 11 shutdown—would return Houston to full strength, restoring a vital source of transition offense and half-court shot creation, a more potent complementary scoring option than Gordon next to Harden, and another bankable contributor to add depth to a thin and taxed Houston rotation that’s dropped two straight to the Thunder.

Westbrook told reporters Friday that had the NBA and its governors not taken the first step toward greater support of social justice and racial equality that the league and players union announced earlier in the day, he would not have wanted to resume playing. But with those elements of advocacy in place, and the chance to continue pushing for more gains, he’s eager to get back to business.

“Just take it day-by-day. That’s all I can do,” he said. “I’m excited to play. But I’m more excited we’re playing for a cause.”

Games Will Begin Saturday After the NBA and NBPA Agree on New Advocacy Initiatives

Friday, August 28, 12:07 p.m. PT

Devine: The 2020 NBA playoffs will resume Saturday, the league and its players’ union announced Friday afternoon. The resumption will come three days after the Milwaukee Bucks declined to take the court for their Wednesday game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sparking strikes across multiple sports. It also comes in the aftermath of a meeting between players, coaches, and members of the league’s board of governors aimed at identifying “next steps to further our collective efforts and actions in support of social justice and racial equality,” according to a joint league/union statement.

The initial steps include:

  • The creation of “a social justice coalition” comprised of players, coaches, and governors focused on action on issues like making it easier for people to vote and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.
  • Franchises that own and control their arena property will work with local election officials to set their facilities up as voting locations for November’s general election, with the goal of providing safer in-person voting options in the middle of a pandemic. If it can’t be turned into a voting site for some reason—say, if the deadline for turning into a polling location has already passed—team governors will work to “find another election-related use for the facility, including but not limited to voter registration and ballot receiving boards.”
  • The NBA, its broadcast partners, and the players’ union will work on a new line of TV ads, “dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity,” to appear during each playoff game.

A number of NBA teams had already announced plans to turn their arenas into polling sites, including the Kings, Hornets, Hawks, Bucks, Cavaliers, Pistons, and Wizards. The Rockets, Pacers, and Jazz unveiled similar plans this week. The leaguewide voting push comes on the heels of the LeBron James–fronted More Than a Vote effort, an initiative aimed at preventing the disenfranchisement of African Americans that this week launched a new drive to recruit poll workers in predominantly Black districts for this election season.

The NBA also announced its schedule for Saturday and Sunday’s games:

The decision to return to play comes after a “what comes next?”–focused meeting between players and coaches on Wednesday night that reportedly grew contentious at times and ended “ugly.” According to multiple reports, a number of players took issue with the Bucks choosing to walk away from their game with the Magic without discussing it with the other teams. Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that some, including James, “took issue with Bucks guard George Hill” for publicly saying on Monday that players “shouldn’t even have came to this damn place,” for his role in convincing his teammates to stay in the locker room rather than take the court against Orlando, and for setting in motion a chain of events without clear goals or a defined endgame in mind. Haynes also reported that Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley and union executive director Michele Roberts got into a disagreement over the potential financial losses players could suffer if they decided not to return to play, though the specifics of that disagreement remain unclear.

Despite the Lakers and Clippers reportedly voting to walk away from the remainder of the playoffs on Wednesday, the players ultimately decided to come back to the court, believing the combination of the new concessions they could extract from the league and ownership and the opportunity to continue addressing a massive audience presented them with the best opportunity to make an impact.

“It’s bigger than basketball, but the platform is one of the largest platforms on the entire earth and we’ve got to continue to leverage that platform,” Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala, the first vice president of the National Basketball Players Association, told Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press. “The reason why we came down here was continuing to shed light on it. And we didn’t want that to be taken away by those who don’t want us to see that mission seen all the way through.”

The Players Decide to Resume the NBA Playoffs

Thursday, August 27, 9:55 a.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: On Thursday, the NBA’s players decided to resume the playoffs after holding a morning meeting, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. It was a quick decision—Woj’s tweet came out less than an hour after the meeting began—after a whirlwind Wednesday during which the Milwaukee Bucks held a wildcat strike by sitting out their Game 5 matchup against the Magic, and demanded that the officers involved in Jacob Blake’s shooting be held accountable.

The initial players’ meeting held late Wednesday night gave the impression that a resolution would not come so easily. The Athletic’s David Aldridge reported that the meeting ended “ugly.” Members of the Clippers and Lakers reportedly wanted to end the postseason, including LeBron James, who walked out of the meeting early. But by the next morning, he’d had a “change in position,” according to Yahoo!’s Chris Haynes, “among others, relaying it was in their best interest to finish out the season.” According to Woj, the NBPA detailed the financial implications of ending the season, which included a possible lockout next season amid an already uncertain financial time for the league.

Players ultimately agreed to continue the postseason, but “want to find new and improved ways to make social justice statements,” The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported. Thursday’s games have been postponed, but action could reportedly resume on Saturday. Later Thursday, there will reportedly be another meeting with owners and two player representatives from each team to “[formulate] action plans to address racial injustice issues” and discuss the details of resuming the postseason.

The NBA Season Hangs in the Balance as Players Mull Strike After Meeting

Wednesday, August 26, 10:52 p.m. PT

Devine: NBA players and coaches inside the bubble met Wednesday night to figure out their next move after the Bucks’ decision not to suit up against the Magic sparked a wildcat strike that led to the postponement of three playoff games, with more potentially on the way. Players did not reach a final verdict on how to proceed with the postseason, with The Athletic’s David Aldridge reporting that the meeting ended “ugly,” according to a source. They plan to meet again on Thursday at 11 a.m. ET, the same time as the league’s board of governors will hold an emergency meeting.

One thing that does seem clear, according to multiple reports: The Lakers and Clippers, the top two seeds in the Western Conference, threw their support behind continuing the work stoppage in an effort to hold the NBA’s governors accountable for effecting change, and to demand justice for Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday.

Reports of the Lakers and Clippers, led by superstars LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, pushing for a cessation of the season—with James reportedly walking out of the meeting before its conclusion, and the rest of the L.A. teams following him—came after several other title contenders had started momentum on a labor action, including the East-leading Bucks, who got the ball rolling with their refusal to exit the locker room against Orlando. (That they did so without looping in the Magic, or the other teams in the bubble, reportedly caused quite a bit of consternation, and was a topic of discussion in the meeting.) The Celtics were also reportedly one of the teams to raise an issue, with multiple players broaching the topic of not playing or even exiting the bubble to protest.

The more reporting trickled out of the meeting, the more it seemed that the teams with the most to lose in the event the season shut down were willing to put their championship chances on the line in the interest of making a tangible impact in the fight against police brutality and systemic racism. But despite that apparent alignment at the top of the food chain, the collective of players and coaches from the 13 teams still inside the bubble comprises more than 250 people; perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of them appear to have been in lockstep on short notice after an emotional day.

Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that every non-L.A. team—which, presumably, would include those other contenders—voted to continue the season; Aldridge also reported there was “uncertainty about what will happen” come Thursday. “Everyone is still too emotional,” a source told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “There needs to be more time to come together on this.”

And so the players will keep talking, keep trying to identify the specific things they want to see provided or addressed—by the NBA, by the owners of its 30 franchises, by its corporate partners, by elected officials in Wisconsin and elsewhere—before they decide whether they feel comfortable enough with entertaining a fractured nation, or whether they’d rather shut this Disney World experiment down and deal with whatever fallout comes with it.

Without the players—and especially the megawatt marquee superstars like LeBron—there’s no product to promote, no broadcast against which to sell advertising. This gives the players leverage, and an opportunity to push the titans of industry who run the league to bring their influence to bear in pursuit of justice. They have the world’s attention; now they have to use it. As Houston Rockets player development coach and longtime activist John Lucas told the players, according to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Today was historic. Don’t F it up.”

Kenny Smith, Chris Webber React to NBA Players’ Decision to Strike After Police Shoot Jacob Blake

Wednesday, August 26, 6:04 p.m. PT

Devine: There are no NBA or WNBA games on Wednesday, as members of the Milwaukee Bucks and the other teams slated to take the court tonight decided instead to sit out, demanding justice for Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man shot seven times in the back by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday. Live coverage of the NBA’s players’ choice to engage in a wildcat strike continued, though—and it led to some powerful and compelling moments.

During TNT’s Inside the NBA telecast, studio analyst Kenny Smith—a two-time NBA champion during his 10-year playing career—decided that he couldn’t in good conscience just sit and discuss the players’ choice to use their public platform and the power of their labor to bring pressure on the powers that be in Wisconsin. “Right now, my head is, like, ready to explode,” he said. So, instead, he joined them.

“I haven’t talked to any of the players, but even just driving here, and getting into the studio, hearing calls and people talking … and for me, as a Black man, as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players, and just not be here tonight,” said Smith, who then took off his microphone, stood up, and started to walk away from the TNT desk. “And figure out what happens after that. I just don’t feel equipped to do that.”

Smith’s TNT colleague Chris Webber, who has been serving as a color commentator on game broadcasts from inside the NBA’s campus environment in Orlando, saluted Smith for walking off, but decided to stay on, “because I feel like we only have the same couple of voices talking during this time.”

Webber spoke passionately, emotionally; at times, he appeared to be holding back tears as he spoke. His words are worth reading in full:

I keep hearing the question, like, “What’s next, what’s next?” Well, you’ve got to plan what’s next. You have to figure out what’s next. I’m very proud of the players. I don’t know the next steps; I don’t really care what the next steps are, because the first step is to garner attention, and they have everybody’s attention around the world right now. And then leadership and others will get together, and decide the next steps.

So we know that it won’t end tomorrow. We know that there’s been a million marches and nothing will change tomorrow. We know: “vote.” We keep hearing, “Vote, everybody vote.” But I’m here to speak for those that are always marginalized—those that live in these neighborhoods where we preach and tell them to vote and walk away.

Charles Barkley came to my high school. Just seeing him in the locker room—seeing his hands, and his body—that inspired me. You can’t be something until you see it. And when I tell you the little kids that have called me, upset—I have a godson that has autism, and I just had to explain to him why we aren’t playing. I have young nephews that I’ve had to talk to about death before they’ve even seen it in a movie.

If not now, when? If not during a pandemic, and countless lives being lost, if not now, when? … We know nothing is going to change. We get it. If Martin Luther King got shot and risked his life, Medgar Evers—if we’ve seen this in all of our heroes, constantly taken down—we understand it’s not going to end. But that does not mean, young men, that you don’t do anything. Don’t listen to these people telling you don’t do anything because it’s not going to end right away. You are starting something for the next generation and the next generation to take over.

Later, more than three hours after deciding not to play in their scheduled game against the Orlando Magic, the Bucks’ players exited their locker room and delivered a team statement to the assembled media. It was delivered by guard George Hill, who on Monday, in the aftermath of Blake’s shooting, said he thought players should never have traveled to the NBA bubble in the first place, and swingman Sterling Brown, who was Tasered and subjected to excessive force in a wrongful arrest by Milwaukee police in 2018.

Over the last few days in our home state of Wisconsin, we’ve seen the horrendous video of Jacob Blake being shot in the back seven times by a police officer in Kenosha, and the additional shooting of protestors. Despite the overwhelming plea for change, there has been no action, so our focus today cannot be on basketball. When we take the court and represent Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we are expected to play at a high level, give maximum effort, and hold each other accountable. We hold ourselves to that standard, and in this moment, we are demanding the same from lawmakers and law enforcement.

We are calling for justice for Jacob Blake and demand the officers be held accountable. For this to occur, it is imperative for the Wisconsin state Legislature to reconvene after months of inaction and take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality, and criminal justice reform. We encourage all citizens to educate themselves, take peaceful and responsible action, and remember to vote on November 3.

NBA Players Stage Playoff Strike Days After Police Shoot Jacob Blake

Wednesday, August 26, 3:53 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Three days after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin—just 45 minutes south of where the Milwaukee Bucks play and practice—Bucks players held a strike in lieu of Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic, leading to a postponement of all playoff games scheduled for Wednesday.

“We’re tired of the killings and the injustice,” George Hill told The Undefeated.

Less than an hour after the Bucks declined to take the court for their 1 p.m. PT game, playoff games between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, and Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers were also postponed because of anticipated strikes, according to reports. NBA players will hold a meeting Wednesday night to determine their next steps, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Beyond basketball, the Milwaukee Brewers decided to follow the NBA’s suit and not play their game Wednesday against the Cincinnati Reds, and there were reports that more baseball games could feature a similar strike. In the WNBA, pregame press conferences were pushed back as the players discussed what to do about Wednesday night’s games.

Click here to read more about this developing story.

Denver Nuggets v Utah Jazz - Game Four Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

If They Want to Win a Title, the Jazz Need to Defend the 3

Wednesday, August 26, 6:24 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The Jazz can’t stop the Nuggets, just like the Nuggets can’t stop the Jazz. For as bad as Denver’s defense has been in the first-round series between the two teams, Utah’s hasn’t been that much better. The trend continued in Utah’s 117-107 loss in Game 5 on Wednesday. Denver stayed alive with an unconscious offensive performance, shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from 3.

This series is a Mountain West shoot-out. The Jazz have the best offensive rating in the NBA playoffs (127.4) and the Nuggets have the fourth-best (119.7). But no one really expected Denver to play defense, while the Jazz have built their team around a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert.

Utah is designed to stop teams who attack the rim. Gobert covers up the paint and their four other defenders funnel penetration to him. That strategy hasn’t held up against a Denver team that surrounds a guard who can shoot 3s off the dribble (Jamal Murray) with four other shooters. Murray finished with 42 points, on 17-of-26 shooting, and eight assists in Game 5, hunting weaker perimeter defenders in the pick-and-roll, creating space off the dribble, and pulling up for open shots. There are times when it doesn’t matter whether Gobert is even on the floor.

The best way to defend Denver is to play five good perimeter defenders with the length and athleticism to switch every screen, but Utah’s roster isn’t suited for that strategy. The Jazz start two 6-foot-1 guards (Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley Jr.), another wing without the foot speed to stay in front of guards like Murray (Joe Ingles), and a traditional big man more comfortable in the paint (Gobert).

The Jazz, who are up 3-2 headed into Game 6 on Thursday, may still advance because of how easily they can score on the Nuggets. But they have won first-round series against flawed teams like the Clippers (2017) and Thunder (2018) before. The problem comes when they advance to face a team that can score and defend at an elite level on the perimeter. They lost to the Warriors in 2017, and to the Rockets in 2018 and 2019. The new version of the Clippers, who can do many of the same things and are up 3-2 on the Mavs in their first-round series, is looming.

Los Angeles can attack the same weak spots that Denver has against Utah while playing much better on the other end of the floor. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George (well, maybe), and Lou Williams will score on Utah’s perimeter defense. So the Jazz will need just as much offensive firepower to upset them.

They still have the same underlying problem they had in 2017. Their second-best player is a defensive-minded center who cannot impact the game defensively in the latter stages of the playoffs. Gobert should be the third- or even fourth-best player on a championship team. If it wants to make a serious run, Utah needs to find somebody to pair with Mitchell to push Gobert down the pecking order.

Paul George Awakens As Clippers Drop 154 on Mavs

Tuesday, August 25, 11:02 p.m. PT

Devine: Credit to Doc Rivers for making an absolutely crucial adjustment before Tuesday’s Game 5: getting Paul George to start making shots again.

After a dismal stretch against Dallas—just 34 total points on 10-for-47 shooting in games 2 through 4, including a 4-for-25 mark from 3-point range—that he said coincided with his going “to a dark place” marked by anxiety and depression, George sloughed off all the “Pandemic P” slander and returned to form as the second star who elevates the Clippers to championship contention. PG started off with four makes in the first six-plus minutes, and stayed in a rhythm throughout, pouring in 35 points—one more than he’d managed over his previous three games combined—on 12-for-18 shooting in just 25 minutes of work, the first 35-in-under-25 in NBA playoff history, according to Stathead Basketball:

With George finally off the schneid and Kawhi Leonard (32 points on 12-for-19 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists, one Boban bullying) on his customary Terminator shit, the Clippers stormed out of the gate with a 41-point first quarter. Unlike in Game 4, though, when L.A. squandered a 21-point second-quarter lead and gave Luka Doncic the chance to author the first legendary postseason moment of his NBA career, the Clips never took their foot off the gas, repeatedly pounding a porous Dallas defense en route to an emphatic 154-111 win to take a 3-2 lead in the first-round series.

That’s not a typo, by the way: The Clippers scored 154 points on Tuesday, the third-highest total in a playoff game, regulation or otherwise, in NBA history. They shot 63.1 percent from the field, with a franchise-playoff-record 22 3-pointers on 35 attempts, the most accurate high-volume long-range postseason performance ever. And they posted an absolutely scorching .778 true shooting percentage, the highest single-game mark in NBA playoff history. Going up against a Dallas team that famously boasted the most efficient regular-season attack the NBA had ever seen, the Clippers reached an even higher level of execution and shot-making, burying the Mavs beneath an avalanche of buckets to push them to the brink of elimination.

As impressive as the Clippers offense was, though, it was their defense that allowed them to build an early lead and hold off any charges. Yes, Dallas was once again missing no. 2 option Kristaps Porzingis, as the 7-foot-3 scorer continues to battle right knee soreness. But while Doncic and Co. weathered his absence in Game 4, scoring at a lights-out rate of 120.7 points per 100 possessions—well above even their league-leading regular-season mark—Dallas sputtered to a punchless 103.8 points-per-100 on Tuesday, thanks in part to the Clips dialing up more aggressive coverages on Doncic’s pick-and-rolls.

As my Ringer teammate Jonathan Tjarks noted after Game 1, Doncic opened the series by targeting Clippers center Ivica Zubac in the pick-and-roll, taking advantage of a scheme that called for the 7-footer to drop way back into the paint to protect the rim and his natural quickness advantage over the big man to routinely get whatever he wanted. Fearing routine roasting, Rivers decided to limit his starting center’s minutes, playing Zubac fewer than 23 minutes in three of the first four games of the series. But despite how bad it looked when Zubac got caught out in deep water flailing at a Luka stepback, the numbers suggested that Doncic wasn’t quite as comfortable attacking the Clippers defense when Zubac—who held opponents to the league’s third-lowest field goal percentage at the rim this season among high-volume interior defenders—was patrolling the paint:

In Game 5, Doc rolled with Zubac more readily in the first half, calling on the fourth-year big man to come up to the level of Dallas’s screens for Doncic, to either trap or hedge hard, and then to haul ass back into the paint. Zubac more than held his own, staying with Doncic when he drove on switches, helping force passes to less threatening options, and recovering to his own assignment and protect the rim. With his teammates flashing active hands in the passing lanes behind him, Zubac helped key a Clippers defense that threw off Doncic’s scoring and playmaking rhythm, limiting the 21-year-old wunderkind to just 22 points on 6-for-17 shooting with more turnovers (five) than assists (four):

Maybe the ankle sprain that had Doncic listed as a game-time decision before his Game 4 heroics was a factor in his limited effectiveness on Tuesday, too. But Zubac’s size and activity, combined with the physicality of Leonard, George, and Marcus Morris—who might have gotten a little too physical with Doncic at one point—played a major role, neutralizing Dallas’s top option and sending the Clippers on the way to the most lopsided playoff win in franchise history.

NBA Players Discuss Boycott After Police Shooting of Jacob Blake

Tuesday, August 25, 6:52 p.m. PT

Devine: Three months ago, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. The horror, captured on video, spread on social media, touching off nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism—protests supported, attended, and even organized by a number of NBA players.

On Sunday, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man who witnesses said “was unarmed and shot in the back,” in front of his three sons, ages 3, 5, and 8. The 29-year-old is now paralyzed from the waist down, according to his father; he will need “a miracle” to walk again, according to his attorney. The horror, captured on video, also spread on social media, touching off more nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

“I know people get tired of hearing me say it, but we are scared as Black people in America,” LeBron James told reporters on Monday. “Black men, Black women, Black kids, we are terrified.”

This time, though, neither James nor the lion’s share of NBA players can respond by taking to the streets in an expression of rage, grief, and solidarity. They’re at Disney World, of all places, competing for an NBA championship in a carefully constructed environment that was designed to prevent them from contracting COVID-19. This bubble also separates them from the communities where they congregated and protested earlier this summer.

“We’re down here playing in the bubble to do these things for social justice and all that, and to see [incidents like police shooting Blake] still going on, and we’re just playing the games like it’s nothing, it’s just a really messed-up situation right now,” said Bucks guard George Hill, whose team plays its home games about 40 miles north of the block where officers shot Blake in the back. “... We can’t do anything. First of all, we shouldn’t even have come to this damn place, to be honest. Coming here just took all the focal points off what the issues are. But we’re here, so it is what it is. We can’t do anything from right here.”

Hill later elaborated to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated: “We shouldn’t be playing, with all that’s going on. We’re down here for money purposes only. These games are only overshadowing what is really going on.”

Before the league’s restart, a coalition of players led by Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley, raised a number of concerns about the plan to resume play—among them the prospect that providing the nation with a fresh source of entertainment, however well intentioned, would serve as a damaging distraction from the ongoing national protest movement.

“Regardless of how much media coverage will be received, talking and raising awareness about social injustice isn’t enough,” Bradley, who later opted out of playing in Orlando for family reasons, told ESPN back in June. “Are we that self-centered to believe no one in the world is aware of racism right now? That, as athletes, we solve the real issues by using our platforms to speak? We don’t need to say more. We need to find a way to achieve more. Protesting during an anthem, wearing T-shirts is great, but we need to see real actions being put into the works.”

There’s only so much that NBA players can do to try to spur those sorts of actions; there’s only so much they can control, inside the bubble or outside of it. One thing they do have a say over, though, is whether or not they play—and the prospect of sitting out a game has been broached.

The Raptors, who are scheduled to take on the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs starting Thursday, have discussed the possibility of a boycott, too.

“We knew coming here or not coming here was not going to stop anything, but I think ultimately playing or not playing puts pressure on somebody,” Toronto guard Fred VanVleet told reporters on Tuesday. “So, for example, this happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin, if I’m correct? Would it be nice if, in a perfect world, we all say we’re not playing, and the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks—that’s going to trickle down. If he steps up to the plate and puts pressure on the district attorney’s office, and state’s attorney, and governors, and politicians there to make real change and get some justice.”

VanVleet acknowledged that getting justice for Blake isn’t as simple as players choosing not to suit up, but he emphasized the importance of doing more than just talking to the media: “At the end of the day, if we’re gonna sit here and talk about making change, then at some point we’re gonna have to put our nuts on the line and actually put something up to lose, rather than just money or visibility.”

Utah Jazz v Denver Nuggets - Game Five Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Combat by Champion? There’s No Other Way to End Nuggets-Jazz

Tuesday, August 25, 7:52 p.m. PT

Sherman: Back in the day, there used to be a thing called “combat by champion.” Instead of having two big armies fight each other, leading to thousands of deaths, each side would just send out their best guy. They’d fight, one would die, and the war would be over. (It’s worth noting they may not actually have done this back in the day—but it happened with Brad Pitt in Troy, which they show on TNT a lot, so it must be somewhat historically accurate.) I bring this up because I’ve been watching the thrilling Jazz-Nuggets series—and we need to do a version of this with Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray. (Without swords.)

Heading into the playoffs, neither player considered one of the NBA’s must-watch stars. Mitchell made his first All-Star Game this year; Murray still has yet to make an appearance. Even on their own teams, they were overshadowed (perhaps literally) by their more established big-man teammates: two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and All-NBA first-teamer Nikola Jokic.

But Mitchell and Murray have thrown endless flames for five games. In yet another epic Tuesday night, Mitchell hammered home the dunk of the playoffs so far:

While Murray exuded smooth on this splendid spinner:

Murray exploded for a game-high 42 points in Game 5 to lead the Nuggets to a 117-107 win and extend the series. He shot 17-of-26 from the field and bested Mitchell, who had “only” 30 points in the losing effort. In the series, Mitchell is averaging 37.6 points per game while shooting 51 percent from 3. Meanwhile, Murray is averaging 30.8 points while shooting 52 percent from 3. Neither player had ever scored 50 points in a game, regular season or postseason, before this series. Now they’ve combined to do it three times in five games. In Game 4, the pair became the first opponents to score 50 points against each other in a playoff game.

The two are perfect counterparts. They’re both point guards capable of drilling 3s or driving to the hole. They’re both 23 years old. Mitchell went to Louisville and Murray went to Kentucky. (They actually played against each other once in college, although neither guy scored 50 points.) And for some reason, they are both simultaneously peaking in the same week in the same gym in Orlando.

So here’s what I propose. The NBA should quickly ratify a rule that Game 7 in any series may be settled by combat by champion. Both teams would have to agree to it, which wouldn’t happen all the time. But if they agreed, both teams would send out one player to decide the series in a game of one-on-one. Game to 50, twos and threes, half court, call your own fouls. (And I cannot stress this enough: No swords.) It might sound extreme, but we’re already playing games in a biodome at Disney World.

Dame Is Out for Game 5, and the Blazers’ Time May Be Up

Tuesday, August 25, 3:14 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: If Monday’s blowout loss wasn’t enough of an indication that the Trail Blazers would soon be departing the bubble, Damian Lillard’s second MRI all but seals it. Lillard will miss Game 5 against the Lakers due to a right knee sprain suffered in Game 4. For Portland, the positive is that the diagnosis wasn’t worse. (Though Yahoo Sports reports that Lillard is currently unable to extend his right leg.) The team’s time at Disney was very likely going to end on Wednesday regardless. The Blazers are down 3-1. If Lillard were healthy, he might lead them to an additional win. But the Lakers defense is squashing the torrential scoring the Blazers rely on to survive.

There’s nothing wrong with a little Blazers optimism, though: The loss of Lillard opens the door for Anfernee Simons, the 21-year-old guard who is viewed by some as a key to the Blazers’ future. For Portland to win, however, Simons needs to perform better than he has his entire career. (His best game this season came in February, a 22-point and seven-rebound performance in which he went 6-for-7 from deep. It’s in there somewhere!)

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Four Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The Thunder Are Out-Small-Balling the Rockets

Tuesday, August 25, 6:45 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The Thunder may have figured out the Rockets. After refusing to downsize until overtime of their Game 3 win, Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan unleashed his small-ball lineup in crunch time of OKC’s Game 4 win on Monday. Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, and Danilo Gallinari now have (small sample size alert!) a net rating of plus-61.5 in 11 minutes together in the series.

Just because Houston doesn’t play a traditional big man doesn’t mean it plays like a small team. The Rockets are designed to bait opposing teams into trying to smash them in the paint. They want to battle in the trenches. They have a team of defensive-minded grinders who are, as Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in last season’s playoffs, built like middle linebackers. Posting up players like Eric Gordon, James Harden, and P.J. Tucker is a recipe for disaster.

Houston struggles more with speed than size. The Rockets don’t have anyone who can deal with lightning-quick point guards, and their lack of rim protection means there isn’t a second line of defense when an opponent gets past his man. The key to beating the Rockets is moving the ball around the perimeter and attacking them off the dribble.

That’s why Schröder, the quickest of Oklahoma City’s three point guards, was the hero in Game 4. He came off the bench to score 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting, running pick-and-rolls until he forced switches against defenders who couldn’t stay in front of him:

The Rockets are essentially the NBA version of a college basketball team that presses full court but doesn’t like to be pressed. They don’t know what to do against a team that is smaller than them. The assumption always has been that you can’t beat Houston at its own game. But how often has that even been tried?

Houston could beat Oklahoma City without Russell Westbrook when it was facing centers who couldn’t keep up in a small-ball series. But the tables have turned now that Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are sitting in crunch time. The Thunder averaged 103 points in their two losses and 118 points in their two wins.

The Rockets simply don’t have a lot of players who can create their own shot. The only thing players like Tucker and Robert Covington can do on offense is hoist 3s. Houston ended up attempting an NBA playoff record 58 in Game 4. That’s why Jeff Green, a journeyman who has played for eight teams in the past six seasons, has been such a revelation for them in this series. He gives them a frontcourt player who can have the offense run through him and take some of the pressure off Harden. That has been the missing piece in the Harden era.

Westbrook was supposed to be the unconventional answer to that problem, an überathletic 6-foot-3 point center who could collapse the defense and add some much-needed dynamism to their offense. The most important question in this series is whether he will return for Game 5 on Wednesday after missing the first four with a strained quad.

The Thunder have turned this series into a shoot-out. Harden will need to play like a superhero for the Rockets to win it if he doesn’t have their second-biggest weapon at his side.

The Blazers’ Cinderella Run Is All but Over

Monday, August 24, 9:36 p.m. PT

Sherman: LeBron James is tiring of mortals. After the 8-seeded Portland Trail Blazers stunned the top-seeded Lakers in a Game 1 victory, LeBron has bounced back with the impatience of a god frustrated at the insolence of his creation. The Lakers won 135-115 Monday night to take a 3-1 series lead, and it could’ve been worse. L.A. led by as much as 38 in the second half, and James played only three quarters, going 10-for-12 from the field with 30 points and 10 assists. He even hit a shot from Damian Lillard range:

Lillard, on the other hand, scored just 11 points, his lowest total since March, and left Monday night’s game in the third quarter with a knee injury. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported that Lillard underwent an MRI to determine the extent of the injury. It’s currently unknown whether there’s any structural damage, or whether Lillard will be able to return for Wednesday’s game, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll make much of a difference to the series. The Lakers are a great team; the Blazers are Damian Lillard.

The past two years have been filled with iconic moments from Lillard—his bombs-away buzzer-beater to take down Oklahoma City in last year’s playoffs, his bubble run in which he averaged 36 points and got Portland into the postseason. You can make a pretty great highlight reel just out of his 30-plus-foot 3s in the bubble. But there’s only so much he can do. The Blazers had the 27th-worst defense this year (the second-worst defense in the postseason is Dallas at 17th), and this team remains devoid of top-tier help.

Think about the context of Lillard’s incredible bubble run. With the Blazers in win-or-go-home mode, Lillard scored 51 points in a 3-point win over the Sixers, 61 points in a 3-point win over the Mavs, 42 points in a one-point win over the Nets, and 31 points in a four-point play-in game win over the Grizzlies. But you know what’s better than clutch wins? Winning by 20, like the Lakers did Monday night. It’s fun to watch Lilllard score 40 points with his back against the wall—but the Blazers don’t seem to have any way of winning besides Lillard scoring 40 points.

Lillard, a Weber State alum, sorta feels like the guy who scores 30 points per game for a mid-major college team. There’s still a game left in this series, and maybe more. But it seems like the Cinderella run is over.

The Pacers Are Stuck in No-Man’s-Land—on the Court and With Victor Oladipo

Monday, August 24, 8:00 p.m. PT

Sherman: You expect the 4-versus-5 matchup in the NBA playoffs to be close. Both teams finished with similar regular-season records and played most of the same opponents. Are they going to beat the 1-seed in the second round? Probably not. But hey, they should at least push each other pretty hard and provide some fun basketball in the interim.

All of that seemed true heading into the first-round series between the Pacers and Heat. Indiana, the no. 4 team in the East, went 45-28 in the regular season; no. 5 Miami went 44-29. The two teams split a pair of seeding games against each other in the bubble, and both had players previously named to the All-NBA third team (Victor Oladipo and Jimmy Butler.)

Instead, though, Miami swept Indiana, finishing up the series with a 99-87 win on Monday evening. It was a comfortable sweep: Miami won games 1 and 4 by 12 points and games 2 and 3 by nine points. And across all contests, Indiana held a second-half lead for a grand total of nine seconds, after a JaKarr Sampson jumper in the fourth quarter of Game 1.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, this type of postseason showing isn’t exactly a one-off. This was the second time in two years that there’s been a sweep in the 4-5 series … because last year, the 5-seeded Pacers got swept by the 4-seeded Boston Celtics. Indiana has made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons … and lost in the first round five times in a row. They pushed the Finals-bound Cavs to seven games in 2018, but have won a total of just six games in five playoff trips.

The good news for the Pacers is that there’s reason to believe they can be better than this. Domantas Sabonis sat out the entire NBA restart due to plantar fasciitis, which robbed Indiana of its lone All-Star this season. Victor Oladipo played well, but he’s had health issues, too—he played in only 19 games this year after a 2019 quad rupture and initially planned to skip the restart to continue his rehab process. And in the bubble, T.J. Warren flashed as a potential star, averaging 31 points per contest in the seeding games before cooling off to a regular 20 points per game in the Heat series. With Warren in his first year with the Pacers, we’ve never seen all three of those guys play a full season together.

Now the question for Indiana has to be: If Sabonis, Oladipo, and Warren are all together and at full strength, can they win a playoff series? Can they win multiple playoff series? It would’ve been nice to get an answer now, because Oladipo will be a free agent in 2021. Just about everybody thinks the Pacers are eventually going to reach an agreement to lock their star player up for the long term, but three years after trading Paul George to OKC and getting Oladipo and Sabonis in return, Indiana may wonder if it could work another trade to build something new instead of going all in on a core that hasn’t gone anywhere. The Process has failed in Philadelphia, but seeing a team get bounced in the first round in back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back years is as strong an argument as any for blowing things up and starting over instead of building around players without much promise.

Thunder-Rockets Is Coming Down to Benches (and Babies)

Monday, August 24, 5:15 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: How did Houston, who broke the NBA playoff record for most 3s attempted in a game with 58, and who shot those 3s quite well at 39.7 percent, lose to Oklahoma City in Game 4? Who single-handedly scored more points than the entire Rockets bench and Robert Covington combined? And what made James Harden so frustrated that he knocked over a sanitation station in the middle of a pandemic?

The answer, my friends, is Dennis Schröder. Thirty points on 10-for-16 shooting. Three assists. A 117-114 win. Tie series. None of this is surprising, exactly: The team with better bench production has won each game this series. On Monday, the Rockets used just three players off their bench: Jeff Green (10 points), Ben McLemore (three points), and Austin Rivers (zero points … in 15 minutes). A rocky opening game aside, Schröder’s been a consistent reinforcement for the Thunder, who depend on Chris Paul to play as substantially as his direct deposits from the contract he signed with the Rockets. Compared to Houston, OKC’s scoring attack is more diverse. Often this gives a team an advantage over the Rockets, whose “live by the 3, die by the 3” mentality can backfire on any given off night.

But Game 4 wasn’t one of those infamous games where Harden, Eric Gordon, and the rest of the roster shoots 45-plus 3s but can’t hit a single one. They did the thing they’re known for extremely well—and it wasn’t enough. Schröder played much more like a Rocket than any of their own reserves by cashing in on 4-of-7 shots from 3-point range.

His ability to drive inside, disrupt defenses, and hit clutch outside shots like the one to close the third quarter makes Schröder one of the best bench players in the playoffs so far. He’s also what helps make OKC’s three-point-guard lineups so devastating. If he continues to dominate the Rockets reserves, the trend of the best bench deciding the game could continue. In Oklahoma City’s two wins, he’s averaging 29.5 points per game. In its two losses, only 9.5.

The real secret to Schröder’s success, of course, is his familial status. On August 3, he left the bubble for the birth of his second child, an absolute cutie pie named Imalia. As we’ve learned from Fred VanVleet last year and Mike Conley this postseason, newborn babies are the keys to playoff success.

Another key to playoff success: health. Russell Westbrook’s absence has loomed large in this series, with Houston in desperate need of another playmaker. Mike D’Antoni said on Sunday that it “feels like [he’s] getting closer” to returning, which didn’t make it sound like he would be ready for Game 4. As a father of four and generally really good basketball player, Westbrook might be Houston’s best chance. For now, Schröder and the Thunder bench reign.

The Legend of Luka Grows With Porzingis Sidelined

Monday, August 24, 7:38 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The Mavericks lost Kristaps Porzingis, who missed Game 4 against the Clippers with a sore right knee, and somehow became an even more potent offense without him. Luka Doncic leveled up again in the absence of his costar, with 43 points, 17 rebounds, and 13 assists, and a buzzer-beating stepback 3 in OT that has already gone down in history in less than 24 hours.

Dallas coach Rick Carlisle made a brilliant switch Sunday by going smaller with his starting lineup and inserting Trey Burke, who has been a revelation since signing with the Mavs as a substitute player before the bubble. Burke destroyed the Clippers’ defense, which isn’t playing a traditional point guard with Patrick Beverley out. He finished with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting.

Burke has been the perfect tag-team partner for Doncic in this series. Doncic goes from a net rating of plus-16.7 in 53 minutes with Burke to minus-11.6 in 89 minutes without him.

The journeyman point guard gives Dallas a second ball handler who can pressure defenses at the rim. The Mavs’ other primary scorers—Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Seth Curry—are all mostly jump shooters. Doncic can swing the ball to Burke after drawing multiple defenders in the paint and count on him to do the same thing. He doesn’t have to do quite as much on offense with Burke sharing some of the ballhandling responsibility, which has been an issue for the Mavs, particularly in crunch time. Burke’s presence on the floor is stretching the Clippers’ defense past its breaking point. It’s the role Dennis Smith Jr. was supposed to fill in Dallas.

The Mavs have to keep Burke in the starting lineup even if Porzingis returns for Game 5 (he underwent an MRI on Sunday and has yet to be ruled out). The adjustment if he does return will probably be to take one of Maxi Kleber or Dorian Finney-Smith off the floor. This is not a series for defense. Dallas couldn’t stop Los Angeles if it was allowed to play six or seven defenders at the same time. The Mavericks’ only chance to pull off the upset is to keep pouring in the points.

The same is true for the Clippers. The Mavs have the no. 1 rated offense in NBA history and the no. 18 rated defense in the league this season. Getting even smaller on the perimeter with Burke will only make it harder for them to get stops.

The good news for Los Angeles is that it has a pretty obvious source of untapped offense on its roster. Paul George is shooting 10-for-47 from the field (21.3 percent) over the past three games. No player in the NBA should be shooting that poorly against a defense as bad as Dallas’s, much less a six-time All-Star who averaged 28.6 points per game in last season’s playoffs.

The upside for the Clippers is that the Mavs starting Burke gives George one more weak defender to attack. The downside is that he might be so far in his own head that it doesn’t even matter.

Donovan Mitchell Is Leaping Past the Nuggets

Sunday, August 23, 10:05 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Less than a week ago, Donovan Mitchell sat at a table in Orlando with his head buried in his phone, while Jamal Murray took a video of him after spoiling Mitchell’s 57-point game. The Nuggets had taken Game 1 behind Murray’s own big shot-making and 36 points, but it’s all they have earned so far. The Jazz have responded by winning three games in a row, and Mitchell, well, he just went and punched in another 50-point game on Sunday night. This time, the 51-point performance actually resulted in a win that placed Utah within a game of the second round. And this time, it was Murray’s 50-point night that wasn’t enough.

The NBA’s Orlando bubble has given us a loophole. In a normal season, the leap that a player makes over the summer months is seen starting the following season. Current circumstances have made it so that some players are showing us their leaps now. See: Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, and Mitchell. Mitchell is in only his third season in the league, but the way he’s played in this series, exposing the Nuggets’ already-weak defense, has made him seem like a player who’s not just ascending, but one who already can coerce a game and an opponent to bend to his will.

Mitchell—who joins Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson as the only players with two 50-point games in a playoff series—is averaging nearly 40 points per game in this series, shooting 56 from the field and 51 percent from 3 while dishing out nearly six assists per game. He orchestrates the Jazz’s offense, shepherding it in the middle of the game and igniting it in crunch time, which he did at the end of Sunday’s game. After the typically mild-tempered Paul Millsap parlayed a block of Mitchell into a stare down and some extracurricular words, Mitchell immediately put Millsap on an island, gave him a spin, and drained a 3 in his face to seal the Jazz win. It was the perfect, wordless comeback to Millsap’s stare, but Mitchell didn’t stay quiet for too long after:

I can only hope that later tonight or tomorrow I’ll log onto social media and see that Mitchell has taken a video of running into Millsap and Murray somewhere in Disney World holding their own Ls.

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

For the Raptors, the Nets Were a Speed Bump. Kyle Lowry’s Injury May Not Be.

Sunday, August 23, 6:45 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Game 4 of the Raptors-Nets series may as well have been simulated. Or at the very least, they should have used a running clock. The Nets never had a chance and really, they never had a chance in this series, either. But as Toronto trounced Brooklyn 150-122 (with a playoff-record 100 points from their bench) Sunday night to sweep the first-round series, there was some concern about what happened at the end of the first quarter when Kyle Lowry injured his ankle after stepping on Chris Chiozza’s foot. For a moment, Lowry tried to walk it off and keep playing, but his limping and grimacing indicated he should exit—or in his case hobble—to the locker room:

The Raptors didn’t need Lowry to return, but it certainly seems like that wouldn’t have been possible anyway. He left the arena to get tests done on his ankle. While Brooklyn was merely a speed bump for the Raptors in the first round, what awaits Toronto in the second round is a team that also swept its first-round opponent: the Celtics.

Boston versus Toronto is primed to be a competitive series, so any time Lowry misses could be enough to swing a game, and with it, even the whole series. On one hand, if anyone is well suited to account for the loss of a player, it’s the Raptors, who are one of the deepest, most versatile teams in the bubble. Toronto has already excelled despite dealing with myriad injuries all season long. On the other hand, replacing a player like Lowry who adds not just stats but also effort and leadership on both ends is like trying to replace a car’s engine. Toronto better hope it can get Lowry back as quickly as possible and, in the meantime, that it can do a serviceable job of stepping up while he’s out.

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Luka Is All You Need

Sunday, August 23, 4:54 p.m. PT

Jones: It didn’t matter that Luka Doncic was playing on a sprained left ankle. It didn’t matter that Kristaps Porzingis was ruled out of Sunday’s contest with right knee soreness. It didn’t matter that the Mavericks trailed the Clippers by 21 points in the third quarter. With Doncic, anything is possible. So with the Mavericks down by two with 3.7 seconds left in overtime, Doncic didn’t flinch. He buried a 27-foot stepback 3-pointer—on a bum ankle—at the buzzer, lifting Dallas to a 135-133 win and tying the first-round series at two games apiece.

Doncic tallied 43 points, 17 rebounds, and 13 assists. He’s been the series’ best player and proved it once again by stepping up at its most crucial moment. The 21-year-old’s poise and talent, at his age, is rare. On Sunday, Doncic became the ninth player in NBA history to log back-to-back playoff triple-doubles. Only Michael Jordan and LeBron James have recorded multiple playoff triple-doubles at 21 or younger.

“He’s a guy that lives for these moments and is completely fearless,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said of Doncic. “He’s got such great heart that if he was able to feel anything close to decent, I really felt he would play today.”

The Mavericks played inspired basketball Sunday. Carlisle even said that in his 18 years as an NBA head coach, “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team fight as hard.” Doc Rivers, on the other hand, wasn’t as pleased with his squad. During the game, he was shown urging players to amp up their intensity and show emotional investment. It didn’t appear to resonate.

“I thought we were very emotionally weak tonight,” Rivers told reporters after the game.

Perhaps Doncic’s teammates were inspired by his determination. Trey Burke scored 25 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 21, and Seth Curry dropped 15. Even Boban Marjanovic, who played in 16 minutes, contributed 10 points and seven rebounds. The 7-seeded Mavs shot 50 percent from the field, rallying from an eight-point halftime deficit to eventually mount an 11-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Still, the Mavs were far from perfect. Dallas has struggled in previous games maintaining leads, and it squandered another double-digit advantage in Sunday’s fourth quarter. Kawhi Leonard (32 points) and Lou Williams (36) propelled the Clippers late in regulation, once again making up for a no-show performance from Paul George, who scored just nine points on 3-for-14 shooting in 45 minutes. Across the past three games, George has averaged just 11.3 points on 21 percent shooting.

“To be honest,” George told reporters, “in hindsight, if I shoot the ball better, this series would be a lot different.”

George is likely right. Until he gets back on track, the Mavs appear to have enough to overpower the Clippers. Because what they have is Doncic. A playoff legend is only beginning.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Four Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

The Sixers’ Season Is Over, and Brett Brown May Not Make It Back to Philly Employed

Sunday, August 23, 2:35 p.m. PT

Jones: The buzzer may not have even finished sounding in the Sixers’ 110-106 defeat to the Celtics in Sunday’s Game 4 when the first sign of Brett Brown’s likely fate arrived. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Philadelphia Sixers coach “is without internal momentum to return for his eighth season as coach and a final decision could come soon.” That news, and the series sweep, serve as a pointed indicator of where Boston and Philly stand.

Last offseason, the Sixers reconstructed, losing both Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick—two players essential to their identity—while signing big man Al Horford on a four-year, $109 million contract and Tobias Harris to five-year, $180 million deal (the fifth-largest contract in NBA history at the time). By the All-Star break, Horford was coming off Philadelphia’s bench. As Jonathan Tjarks explained before the playoffs began, coach Brett Brown’s decision “was a long time coming. The lack of spacing [resulting from Horford’s presence in the lineup] was suffocating Philly’s offense and sending the season spiraling in the wrong direction.” Once Simmons suffered a knee injury that required surgery earlier this month, it became even more evident just how much the Sixers were relying on Simmons and Embiid, and that the supporting cast didn’t offer the type of help the pair needs. Horford and Harris, for instance, combined to make two 3-pointers during the entire series. After Sunday’s game, Brown conceded the lack of shooting was a problem.

“Space became an issue [this season],” Brown told reporters, before adding, “I don’t believe I did a good job coaching that.”

It’s been more than seven years since former Philadelphia GM Sam Hinkie urged to trust the process. The Sixers looked like they’d reached the promised land as recently as last postseason, when they pushed the eventual champion Raptors to a seven-game series that closed on a miraculous Kawhi Leonard jumper. Now, Philly’s roster isn’t built to compete at the level the franchise wants, and Brown’s future as coach is fairly in question. Embiid was asked about Brown’s future after Sunday’s loss. His response: “I’m not the GM.”

Meanwhile, Boston’s trajectory continues to point upward. Deep into the second quarter, the Sixers had drawn more than 20 free throws and hadn’t committed a turnover, yet the Celtics trailed by only one at halftime. Kemba Walker—whom the Celtics signed to a four-year, $141 million contract last summer in favor of re-signing Horford—was a large reason why, pouring in 20 of his 32 total points during the first half. Jayson Tatum added 28 points and 15 rebounds and Jaylen Brown chipped in 16. The three-man tandem was enough again to overcome Embiid, who dropped 30 points for the third consecutive game. Boston is on track to face the Raptors in the second round, and if their Big Three can continue to lead the way, they should push Toronto in a similar manner to how Philadelphia did last year. The Sixers will be able to only watch for the rest of the playoffs; what figures to be a long offseason in Philly could determine if they’ll get to that level again anytime soon.

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Thunder Come Up Big by Finally Going Small

Sunday, August 23, 7:30 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The Thunder narrowly avoided an 0-3 deficit Saturday with a dramatic 119-107 overtime win against the Rockets. The absurdity of the final minute of regulation will be talked about for a long time if Oklahoma City can make a comeback in the series. But what happened in overtime is why they have a puncher’s chance.

Billy Donovan has been stubbornly sticking with his two traditional big men—Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel—against a team that doesn’t play one in its rotation. The Thunder coach finally went small in overtime, playing three point guards (Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) with his best perimeter defender (rookie Luguentz Dort) and frontcourt scorer (Danilo Gallinari). It was the first time those five played together all series.

It’s hard to take away much from their OT dominance (outscoring Houston 15-3) given that James Harden fouled out in the first minute. But there are a lot of good reasons for the Thunder to go small.

It’s unclear what Adams and Noel are even supposed to be doing against the Rockets. They are defensive-minded players with no one to guard. Houston stations five players around the 3-point line for the entire game. Neither can spend as much time protecting the rim as they would against the vast majority of the NBA.

Nor can they do much on offense. Asking Adams and Noel to punish smaller defenders in the paint is playing right into Houston’s hands. The Rockets would love nothing more than to take shots away from the Thunder’s most gifted scorers. Even using them as a screener in the pick-and-roll isn’t as effective as it would normally be since the Rockets switch every screen.

Donovan clearly values what Adams and Noel bring to his team. But they can’t do those things against Houston. Their job description has been eliminated. They are being asked to do the job of a smaller player on both ends of the floor.

There’s no real argument to close games with either big man over any of the five players that Donovan played in OT in Game 3. His three point guards are his best two-way players. Dort’s defense on Harden has been incredible. Gallinari is his most well-rounded offensive player, and an experienced small-ball 5 after playing the position for the Clippers against the Warriors last postseason.

The Thunder have nothing to lose. Jeff Green is averaging 19.7 points per game on 61.1 percent shooting in the series and has a net rating of plus-20.8 in 108 minutes. Going up against Adams and Noel has turned him into an All-NBA player.

There isn’t that much separating these two teams, especially with Russell Westbrook out with a strained quad tendon. He will probably return at some point in the series, which will make Oklahoma City’s need to downsize even more important.

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Three Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

From Dame Time to Nap Time

Saturday, August 22, 9:20 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: For all the heroics and time-zone changes that a Blazers-Lakers series can offer, it always had potential to be sloppy. The sloppiest, probably, when you factor in L.A.’s affection for poor shot selection and Portland’s defense entering the playoffs, which was the third-worst in the bubble. My, how they’ve delivered.

It was never quite Dame Time on Saturday during Portland’s 116-108 loss to Los Angeles, despite Lillard finishing with 34 points. Or maybe it was, and I just couldn’t get past how tired he looked. Everyone shared that body language. Jusuf Nurkic—10 points, seven rebounds, three assists—get to a bed, please, immediately. Even the Lakers defense, which has otherwise looked damn near championship level, turned in apathetic two possessions in the fourth quarter.

The shot clock hit 14 before LeBron James crossed halfcourt; Anthony Davis didn’t bother at all. If you could’ve bottled the possessions, it’d be 50 mg Melatonin. The score was 105-96 at that point in the game with less than four minutes to go—still within reach for the Blazers. (It’s necessary to mention that LeBron nearly notched a triple-double with 38 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists, and that tends to exhaust a person.) More slipshod moments came each time the Lakers stars approached the free throw line. AD shot 50 percent from the stripe, LeBron 70 percent.

The exceptions which did appear particularly intentional and energized were Carmelo Anthony (20 points, six rebounds, two assists, four steals, one block) and the Lakers defense overall, outside of that mind-boggling lapse in transition. The former has been more influential for the Blazers than any one Lakers role player can claim, and the latter is the reason L.A. will advance in this series, the next series, and most likely, the next after that. In an era when offense dominates and defense is old folklore, I promise you that getting stops is as important as our grandparents claim it to be. That is, if the Lakers can find the same energy going forward.

Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Past, Present, and Future Clashed in Rockets-Thunder. The Present Lost.

Saturday, August 22, 7:47 p.m. PT

O’Shaughnessy: The case for time not being linear was made during the fourth quarter of Rockets-Thunder, a game the Rockets lost in overtime, 119-107. James Harden, very much the modern point guard, entered the fourth with 34 points. No one else was even close to that, as it should be. Harden is 30. This is his time. But the fourth quarter in Saturday’s game was co-opted by Oklahoma City’s backcourt. That starts with Chris Paul, 35, a legend. He’s past his prime, but he’s still got it—clearly, by the way he blew past the formidable Rockets defense in the final minute of regulation to bring the Thunder within three. But CP3’s time is probably past. His last push for a ring was likely with Harden, before being shipped to OKC in the Russell Westbrook trade. Alongside Paul now is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 22. The future. The energy. The length. He just looks like the new wave. Except he’s arrived early:

Humans don’t often get to see time splayed out like that. The Past dribbling at the top of the key, scanning the floor, being switched onto the Present, his former teammate. Bypassing him to drive to the basket. Alas, the Past changes course before he arrives at the hoop, and thrusts the ball out to the Future. And the Future forgot to wait.

There are many weird dynamics in the Rockets-Thunder series. (OKC legend Westbrook, who was very much an AAU dad on the sidelines once again on Saturday, would be the biggest story of this series if he were playing.) So long as Harden and the Rockets wins out, though, the dynamic between him and Paul—one is older and probably won’t win a ring, which is why Houston parted with him; the other very much still can—will stay in order. But Chris Paul is a nuisance, and won’t even give Harden space on the court:

A minute into overtime, Harden fouled out. He sat as Shai passed to Paul, who hit a 3, then another 3, rendering the game unwinnable for Houston, its two superstars in their prime watching from the sidelines.

The East Closes In on the Most Lopsided First Round Ever

Saturday, August 22, 4:15 p.m. PT

Zach Kram: You would be forgiven for briefly falling asleep midway through Saturday’s first two NBA playoff games, as Milwaukee blew past Orlando and Miami outlasted Indiana. For the most part, the East’s four first-round series have been absolute yawners. Toronto, Boston, and Miami are all one game away from a sweep, while Milwaukee has cruised to consecutive double-digit wins after being caught flat-footed in a Game 1 loss. If these series continue as expected, the 2019-20 East will set a conference record for the most lopsided first round since the expansion to a best-of-seven format in 2002-03.

Most Lopsided First Rounds Since 2002-03

Season Conference Wins by Losing Teams
Season Conference Wins by Losing Teams
2019-20 East 1 (so far)
2006-07 East 2
2018-19 East 2
2003-04 West 3
2019-20 West 3 (so far)
2003-04 East 4
2007-08 West 4
2010-11 East 4
2014-15 East 4
2015-16 West 4
2017-18 West 4

Instead of enjoying a quartet of competitive clashes, NBA fans have been left to lament what could have been, if only injuries hadn’t intervened. Look at the carnage:

  • Indiana is playing without Domantas Sabonis, their only All-Star representative this season, and with a compromised Victor Oladipo, who is shooting just 35 percent in three games against Miami. Sabonis was one of only three centers to average at least five assists per game this regular season. If Indiana had its fulcrum—and counterpart to Bam Adebayo, another of those passing centers—it would have made for a more even series, and a more watchable one.
  • Philadelphia is playing without Ben Simmons, leaving the team without its best playmaker and designated Jayson Tatum defender. This 3-6 matchup might have been the best series of the first round if only Simmons were around.
  • Brooklyn is playing without, well, just about everyone—Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan, Joe Harris and Jamal Crawford —as their series with the Raptors reaches its inevitable end. Even discounting Durant, who didn’t play at all this season, the Nets would have been much more competitive with those other players available; as is, they only have a couple players who could even crack Toronto’s rotation.
  • Orlando is playing without Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, and others. And while the Magic still would have been massive underdogs to challenge the Bucks at full strength, watching Isaac try to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo would have been catnip for NBA nerds.

The only benefit from a blah first-round landscape is, hopefully, a crackling second round with all the top teams rested. No. 1 Milwaukee is poised to face no. 5 Miami, while no. 2 Toronto would play no. 3 Boston.

It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from the East bracket thus far, given all those injuries, but Miami might be playing with the most offensive rhythm of any club; Erik Spoelstra’s unit is a whirring, cutting, sharpshooting mass of role players surrounding Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. The Heat are positioned to exploit the Bucks’ main weakness: Milwaukee allowed more 3-point attempts than any other team this season, and Miami shot 37.9 percent on 3s as a team, second-best in the league. Adebayo might be the East’s best-suited defender to check Giannis. And the Heat took two of three from the top-seeded Bucks during the regular season, and led by 17 at halftime in their only loss.

Boston against Toronto should develop into a fascinating chess match between Nick Nurse—awarded the NBA’s Coach of the Year trophy Saturday morning—and Brad Stevens. The Celtics won three of four meetings this season, though three of those games came back in 2019, and Gordon Hayward’s absence now shortens Boston’s rotation. Yet even without Hayward, these two lineups overflow with dynamic guards and wings. The matchup looks as even as possible: Boston ranked third this season in net rating (plus-6.3 points per 100 possessions) and Toronto fourth (plus-6.1). Hopefully more injuries won’t get in the way.

Doc Rivers Outsmarts the Mavericks to Seize a 2-1 Lead

Saturday, August 22, 10:53 a.m. PT

Tjarks: Doc Rivers made four key adjustments that helped the Clippers win Game 3 and take a 2-1 lead against the Mavericks on Friday. There was a lot that other coaches could learn from.

1. Replacing Reggie Jackson with Landry Shamet

Jackson struggled on both ends of the floor while replacing Patrick Beverley, who is out indefinitely with a calf injury, in the Clippers’ Game 2 loss on Wednesday. Luka Doncic targeted him in the pick-and-roll, while his streaky shooting and poor decision-making hurt the offense.

Unlike Jackson, who is a scoring point guard who prefers to hunt for his own shot, Shamet is a 3-and-D wing who threatens the defense just by moving around the floor and has to be run off the 3-point line when he catches the ball. He had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting in Game 3, including some great finishes when he attacked close-outs and got to the rim.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George also assumed more playmaking responsibility without Jackson next to them. They combined to finish with 15 assists on four turnovers, after handing out only four assists on five turnovers in Game 2.

2. Putting Ivica Zubac on Dorian Finney-Smith

Rivers had his starting center defend Finney-Smith, the worst offensive player in the Dallas starting five, after he guarded Porzingis in the first two games. Finney-Smith is less dangerous than Porzingis as a screener in the pick-and-roll, which made it easier for Zubac to defend Doncic on those plays. The switch also made him a better rim protector because he could help off Finney-Smith more than he could Porzingis.

3. Putting Kawhi on Porzingis and George on Maxi Kleber

The best way to slow down Doncic is to make it harder for him in the pick-and-roll. Rivers put his two best perimeter defenders on the Mavs’ two big men, knowing they would be able to switch any screen they set for Doncic and defend him one-on-one. That was a big difference from games 1 and 2, when the Clippers had to send help whenever Porzingis screened for Doncic.

4. Playing Montrezl Harrell less against Boban Marjanovic

Harrell is one of the front-runners for Sixth Man of the Year, but he’s looked rusty after missing all of the seeding games, while the 7-foot-4 Marjanovic is a terrible matchup for him. He’s so much bigger than the 6-foot-8 Harrell that he can easily score over him, and his massive frame prevents Harrell from powering through him. Harrell isn’t a great shooter, so he can’t force Marjanovic to defend him outside of the paint, where his lack of speed becomes a liability.

Rivers played Harrell five minutes in the first half of Game 3, and took him out as soon as Boban came in. He played him 12 minutes in the first half of Game 2, including a four-minute stretch when the Mavs went on a 15-2 run while Harrell was matched up with Marjanovic.

This is where Doc’s ability to command respect becomes important. Plenty of coaches in his shoes could have seen that Marjanovic was a problem for Harrell. But far fewer would have benched Harrell and risked angering him in the process. Rivers doesn’t have to worry about anyone’s feelings. He has built relationships with his players to where he can sell them on sacrificing for the team.

None of Doc’s four adjustments were too complicated. But there are a lot of coaches in the playoffs who wouldn’t have made them, judging by how they have handled their teams over the past week. Rivers is a proven, championship-winning coach with a long track record of playoff success. He’s once again showing that he knows how to make the right adjustments to put his team in a position to succeed.

This theme could be really important if the Clippers face the Bucks in the NBA Finals. Mike Budenholzer could not keep up tactically with Nick Nurse in last season’s Eastern Conference finals. Milwaukee fans had better hope he learned his lesson if he ends up going against Rivers.

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Three Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Dallas’s Postseason Now Hinges on Luka Doncic’s Ankle

Friday, August 21, 10:02 p.m. PT

Jones: Luka Doncic’s sprained ankle snuffed the Mavericks’ chances of winning Friday night’s Game 3. The question is whether or not it will spoil Dallas’s hopes of pulling off the series upset altogether.

In the third quarter, Doncic twisted his ankle as he attempted to defend Kawhi Leonard. Doncic immediately tumbled to the floor and limped off the floor before hopping on one leg to the locker room. Despite spraining his left ankle, Doncic returned for the start of the fourth quarter, but he subbed himself out after only three minutes and was then ruled out for the remainder of the game. The 21-year-old superstar buried his face in his hands on the sideline before departing for good.

The Clippers dominated in their 130-122 win. And unlike Los Angeles’s Game 1 victory, which was clearly aided by Kristaps Porzingis’s ejection, the Clippers were in control when Doncic suffered his injury Friday. Leonard was the leading force, dropping 36 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists. The Clippers also earned inspired efforts from Landry Shamet (18 points) and Montrezl Harrel (13 points) to help propel Los Angeles to a 2-1 series lead.

The Clippers weren’t at full strength—Patrick Beverley (left calf) sat out for the second straight game. And they’re still waiting for Paul George to show up. The six-time All-Star followed up a lackluster 14-point performance in Game 2 with an 11-point outing Friday night. If Los Angeles hopes to have any shot at achieving its goals of reaching the NBA Finals, it will need more out of George. But his play might not be as much of a concern this round if Doncic is out for a long period of time.

Doncic is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Saturday. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle told reporters that he is “unsure of the exact severity of Luka’s left ankle. … He did come back and try it, obviously, and wasn’t moving great, so we’ll see where he is come tomorrow and then Sunday morning.” Doncic said, “It’s not that bad. … A little sprain. We’ll know more tomorrow.”

The fate of Dallas’s upset bid, and its postseason future, will depend on Doncic’s diagnosis.

The Sixers Had Hope Again … Until It All Came Tumbling Down

Friday, August 21, 8:06 p.m. PT

Jones: After back-to-back crushing defeats—including a 27-point blowout loss—the 76ers finally put up a bit of a fight against the Celtics on Friday night. The problem: Just as it seemed that Philadelphia had found a way to eke out a victory, everything came crashing down. And after a 102-94 loss in Game 3, the big questions that will face the franchise entering the offseason are looming closer and closer.

The Sixers had a chance to go up by two possessions with less than two minutes left. Then Marcus Smart intercepted a Joel Embiid pass and pushed it ahead to Jaylen Brown, who scored an and-1 to bump Boston ahead, 95-94.

Philadelphia’s Josh Richardson got called for a blatantly obvious clear-path foul on Jayson Tatum on Boston’s ensuing possession, nudging the Celtics even further ahead. And Kemba Walker put the game away by drilling a fadeaway reminiscent of his UConn days over Al Horford.

The Celtics weren’t even at their best. Facing foul trouble for a good portion of the night, Tatum tallied just 15 points on 6-for-19 shooting. Brown slowed down a bit, scoring 21. Walker poured in a team-leading 24. Boston shot just 25.7 percent from 3. It was all enough to outlast the Sixers, who somehow managed to hang in the contest through what appeared to be sheer will.

Embiid was dominant—just ask Daniel Theis, who fouled out trying to keep him in check. Embiid finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds, and the Sixers leveraged their size to dominate on the boards, registering 20 offensive rebounds to Boston’s three. For a moment, it looked like the Sixers had a chance to stay alive in this series.

But it all came crashing down in the final minutes. Zack Kram’s Restart Odds now pin the Sixers’ odds chances at just 1 percent. After the game, Philly already had to face their likely fate, as Brett Brown was asked about his job security and Embiid’s goals for the postseason had become far less ambitious. “I don’t want to be swept,” he said. “I don’t want that on my résumé.”

Sunday’s game could be the catalyst for major changes this offseason. It could also be the last for Brown. And if you don’t think that he’s aware of it, well …

Mike Conley, New Dad, Drains 3s, Leads Utah to Victory

Friday, August 21, 4:10 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Last season, Fred VanVleet became a father during the playoffs and credited his newborn for a series of particularly good performances during the Finals. (Garrett Temple’s and Gordon Hayward’s families are also expecting newborns.) But thanks to the season’s pandemic-influenced shift, Mike Conley’s newborn was born in the middle of a playoff series instead of in the middle of his vacation. So Conley had to leave the Orlando bubble to be there for his child’s birth and then quarantine for four days upon returning. In his first game back, Conley pulled what I’m now calling a VanVleet. His new dad power led to an absurdly efficient 27-point performance in 25 minutes Friday as part of a blowout 124-87 Utah win that gave them a 2-1 series lead over Denver.

Conley took 13 shots and made nine of them, seven of those 3-pointers. This is no small deal. During the regular season, his first with the Jazz, Conley never made more than six 3-pointers in a game, and that happened only once. After spending his entire career in Memphis and playing with a ground-bound center in Marc Gasol, Conley had trouble meshing in Utah alongside both Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz’s rolling center Rudy Gobert. His offense suffered alongside his on-court chemistry struggles: Conley shot 40 percent from the field and scored only 14.4 points per game—his lowest output since the 2001-11 season.

But Conley got a second offseason and Quin Snyder and the Jazz have had a second chance at integrating him into the fold. Snyder himself has said he approached this second training camp with a more open mind.

“I coached our team a little like a younger team, and looking back I may have done that a little differently,” Snyder said early on in the bubble. “So we’re doing it differently now. We don’t have to spend as much time connecting guys, creating habits.”

So far, things seem to be headed in the right direction. Making a lot of 3s certainly helps. And apparently, so does having a newborn.

Zach Collins Is Out for the Season, Putting a Dent in Portland’s Upset Hopes

Friday, August 21, 3:15 p.m. PT

Uggetti: With Jusuf Nurkic back after missing most of the season due to a broken leg, the Blazers have transformed into a different, better team inside the bubble. But the opportunity to parlay a resurgent Nurkic with a healthy Zach Collins, who himself had missed most of the season with a shoulder injury, is now gone. Collins suffered a stress fracture in his left ankle in the play-in game against the Grizzlies and will miss the rest of the season, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

The Blazers are tied in their series with the first-seeded Lakers, and in a matchup against Anthony Davis they could use another big body like Collins. So far, Portland has had to try to defend the Lakers’ cent—uh, power forward—with undrafted rookie Wenyen Gabriel and a combination of Hassan Whiteside and Nurkic. That hasn’t worked: Davis has totals of 59 points and 22 rebounds in two games. This isn’t to say Collins would have been some sort of Davis stopper (who is?), but it would have given Portland more depth in the frontcourt, and really more depth in general.

Depth is something the Blazers are severely lacking in Orlando. Beyond Collins, they are missing Rodney Hood, Trevor Ariza, and Nassir Little too. Somehow, someway—well, mostly because of Damian Lillard’s ability to be a flamethrower from 30 feet—Portland has made it to the postseason and now taken one game off the Lakers. After being more or less blown out in Game 2, when Lillard dislocated a finger (he’s expected to play in Game 3), the Blazers are now in a precarious position while they try to manufacture an upset. The pressure is back on them, and losing Collins for the rest of the year while Lillard deals with a finger injury can’t exactly be the way they wanted to go into a pivotal Game 3 on Saturday.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Two Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

Is LeBron Showing His Age Against the Blazers?

Friday, August 21, 7:03 a.m. PT

Tjarks: The Lakers dominated the Blazers on Thursday to even their first-round series at 1-1. But they have much bigger goals than getting past the no. 8 seed. The issue is the cracks in their armor they have shown in the first two games of the playoffs.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a GIF is probably worth a million. This is LeBron James trying to bring the ball up the floor against Gary Trent Jr., the son of someone he once faced in the NBA:

LeBron looked every bit of his 35 years as he gingerly bent over to pick up the ball while a 21-year-old raced around him to snatch it. There have been moments in the first two games when James has turned back the clock, like when he threw down an alley-oop in the first quarter, but he just hasn’t been moving as well as he once did.

He’s averaging 16.5 points per game on 41.9 percent shooting against Portland, even while being defended primarily by 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony and Trent, who is significantly smaller than him.

Look at this play when he gets a running start to attack Jusuf Nurkic. He can’t create much separation on his spin move to get around the big man, or explode over the top of him at the rim:

Maybe this is nothing. Maybe LeBron is just saving himself for a long playoff run. The odds are that he will eventually explode for a 30- or 40-point game against a defense as poor as the Blazers’ (ranked no. 27 during the regular season).

But he’s also no. 8 all time in career minutes (48,551) and no. 1 among active players. Vince Carter was no. 2 before retiring at the end of the season. Pau Gasol (no. 3) may be right behind him.

In his 17th season, LeBron is still big and skilled enough to dominate without being the best athlete on the floor. He did become the first player in NBA history with at least 20 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists in a playoff game in Game 1. But the Lakers may still have to make some concessions to his age as the level of competition increases down the line in the playoffs.

Orlando Magic v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Two Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

The Lakers and Bucks Restore Sanity in the NBA Playoffs

Thursday, August 20, 8:44 p.m. PT

Sherman: We had fun during the first games of the NBA playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers’ Cinderella run—which started 3.5 games behind the no. 8 seed and ended with a win over Memphis in the play-in tournament—continued with a win over the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday. (We can call it a Cinderella run because it took place at a neutral site with a guy from Weber State leading the way, not because it happened at Disney World.) And the mediocre Orlando Magic harnessed the power of the Magic Kingdom themselves to defeat the team with the NBA’s best record, the Milwaukee Bucks. It was the first time both of the NBA’s no. 8 seeds had won the first games of their series since 2003.

Thursday, though, our hopes of a potential first-round upset fell apart. The Bucks beat the Magic 111-96 after leading by as many as 23. Even with Nikola Vucevic scoring 32 points and Khris Middleton shooting 1-of-8 from the floor, the Bucks looked miles better than the Magic. Giannis Antetokounmpo grabbed a season-high 20 rebounds and decided to help out the flailing poster-printing industry with a few hammer dunks in Game 2.

A few hours after Giannis finished making art, the Lakers absolutely obliterated the Blazers, 111-88. LeBron James scored only 10 points, which might be the most worrisome thing about the loss for Portland, a game in which Anthony Davis scored 31 points and Damian Lillard suffered a dislocated left index finger. It’s not expected to keep him out of Game 3, but I can’t imagine it’ll make things easier for Portland, either.

For the first few days of the postseason, it seemed like anything was possible in the bubble: The top seeds didn’t have home-court advantage—in fact, the top seed in the East was literally playing in the home city of the 8-seed—and it appeared the unprecedented 2020 season would yield some unprecedented results. But clearly, the best teams in the NBA have had enough of the zaniness, using Tuesday’s wake-up calls as fuel for Thursday’s demolitions.

And to be honest, it’s probably a good thing. We watch March Madness to see upsets. We watch the NBA playoffs to see the best players on earth dig deep and play their hearts out in pursuit of a title. I was briefly thrilled by the idea of the Magic or Blazers advancing to the second round, but in the long run, I’ll probably be happier if we get to see LeBron and Giannis go head-to-head in the NBA Finals. Long live chalk!

The Rockets Didn’t Need Star Power to Put OKC in a 2-0 Hole

Thursday, August 20, 5:30 p.m. PT

Devine: Heading into their first-round series against the Thunder without injured superstar Russell Westbrook, everyone figured that the Rockets would need MVP centerpiece James Harden to carry an even more monstrous offensive load than usual, and Eric Gordon to step in as Houston’s secondary shot creator. Game 1 followed that script, with Harden exploding for 37 points while Gordon added 21 on 17 shots with four assists in a 15-point win. In Game 2, though, the duo combined to shoot just 11-for-36 from the field and a ghastly 2-for-21 from 3-point range … and the Rockets still won by 13?

Even though Harden struggled mightily to find his shooting touch, especially when defended by rookie tank Luguentz Dort, and Gordon continued his season-long inability to connect from distance, Houston still took a commanding 2-0 lead on Oklahoma City by relying on two things most might not associate with the Mike D’Antoni–era Rockets: defense and depth.

Houston absolutely clamped down on the Thunder after halftime, holding OKC to just 39 points on 38 field goal attempts. With the exception of a bounceback effort from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who scored 18 of his game-high 31 points after intermission, Oklahoma City once again failed to create many quality looks against Houston’s frenetic and physical defense. The Rockets’ precise and aggressive switching largely prevented OKC’s ball handlers from finding advantageous matchups and kept them away from the paint:

The Thunder took nearly twice as many shots outside the lane as inside it in the second half, went just 7-for-25 on them, and committed 10 turnovers (including four rough ones by sixth man Dennis Schröder). That sort of defensive performance can allow you to survive when your ace doesn’t have his best stuff, and with P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, and the rest of the gang toggling between relentless box-outs and frantic closeouts, it’s the sort of showing the not-so-small-ball Rockets are built to make; through two games, they’re holding Chris Paul and Co. to 44.2 percent shooting (down from 46.8 percent in the regular season) and 108.6 points per 100 possessions (down from 111.1-per-100).

Even with its defense cranked up, though, Houston needed offensive alternatives as Harden and Gordon misfired. Austin Rivers chipped in 11 points in the first half to keep the Rockets afloat. Jeff Green continued his strong play as a perfectly cast backup small-ball 5, adding 15 points and seven boards. Covington and Tucker found their strokes, combining for 24 points on 9-for-14 shooting; Tucker went a perfect 4-for-4 from deep, including a dagger from the right corner with 1:30 to go in the fourth. And Danuel House Jr. was massive, pouring in 19 points with nine rebounds and three assists, mixing in spot-up triples with drives and even some eye-popping dishes:

D’Antoni, who famously leans on his main guys harder than just about any coach in the league, still went only eight deep in his rotation on Thursday—or 7.5, considering Ben McLemore played only 14 minutes. But Houston got the contributions it needed to pick up Harden’s slack and, perhaps most important of all, to win the minutes when he sat; the Rockets outscored Oklahoma City by 14 points in the 12:22 that Harden didn’t play, is now plus-19 in 26 non-Harden minutes through two games, and took over the game in the second half with the former MVP off the floor.

How long that trend can hold remains to be seen; in general, you’d imagine D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey aren’t too keen on the idea of trying to win a whole lot of games with Harden scoring 21 points and missing nearly 70 percent of his shots. A team like Oklahoma City, which is light on threatening shooters and quick-twitch creators, might be a perfect matchup for Houston; against teams with more offensive threats, more two-way players, and more credible options to go small, the Rockets might more desperately need the kind of overall oomph that Russ brings to the table. So far, though, Houston has been able to buy Westbrook more time to get right and put Oklahoma City’s back up against the wall by proving that it can win even when Harden doesn’t have his fastball. For teams with championship aspirations, sometimes winning ugly can be a pretty beautiful thing.

Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers - Game Two Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Please Welcome Miami Back to the East Contender Ranks

Thursday, August 20, 3:04 p.m. PT

Devine: The Heat are halfway to the second round after a 109-100 Game 2 win over the Pacers that felt more comfortable than the final score might suggest. There were reasons to believe this first-round matchup would carry considerable intrigue: Bubble monster T.J. Warren vs. nemesis Jimmy Butler! Bam Adebayo, who still feels some type of way about getting cut from Team USA, vs. Myles Turner, who made the team! Victor Oladipo, trying to recapture his mojo against a team to which he’s been linked! Through two games, though, the Heat have roundly outclassed the Pacers—and, in the process, reestablished themselves as an awfully dangerous contender in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers desperately miss injured All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis, who averaged 17.5 points on 58.3 percent shooting, 10.5 rebounds, and five assists in two meetings with Miami this season. Without Sabonis’s ability to go toe-to-toe with Adebayo, mash smaller defenders on switches, orchestrate offense from the post or on the short roll, and attack the glass, Indiana’s offense is cut off at the knees. Plus Oladipo (a team-high 22 points on Thursday, but just 5-for-16 from the floor with seven turnovers against four assists through two games) still lacks the top gear needed to dust his defender one-on-one to get into the paint, leaving the Pacers without the shot-creation juice to compromise a long, smart, active defense.

Time and again in Game 2, Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon worked to put Heat swingman Duncan Robinson on an island and attack him in isolation. But even when Indiana got what it wanted, Miami shrunk the floor, showed help in every gap …

… and dared the Pacers’ complementary shooters to beat them off the catch, instead focusing its efforts on either shutting down passing lanes or recovering quickly and contesting the shot.

Sometimes they got burned—Indiana shot 12-for-34 from deep, with Turner drilling all three of his tries—but more often, they kept the Pacers from creating or cashing in on quality looks; Indiana scored at a 103.1 points per 100 possessions clip in Game 2, according to Cleaning the Glass, well below its pre-hiatus (110.9 points-per-100) and in-bubble (108.7) regular-season marks. That’s just not going to do it against a Heat team that was feeling it from deep on Thursday, going 18-for-35 from beyond the arc with five different players knocking down multiple triples.

Leading the way there, as he did all season, was Duncan Robinson, whose remarkable journey from undrafted Division III recruit to all-world NBA sniper continued with a Heat-high 24 points in 25 minutes on 7-for-8 shooting from distance:

One reason the Heat are such an intriguing team to monitor this postseason is because Erik Spoelstra can mix and match his roster as circumstances dictate. After riding Robinson to open up the offense and build a lead through the first three quarters, Spoelstra went away from him in the fourth, opting instead for veteran Andre Iguodala to flank Butler, Adebayo, and guards Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro in order to more effectively balance perimeter defense and playmaking.

Spoelstra’s been proactive throughout the bubble, shaking things up in search of units that give the Heat the best chance to hold up on both ends against elite playoff competition. After starting rookie guard Kendrick Nunn and floor-spacing center Meyers Leonard for most of the season, Spo has put them on the bench in Orlando, sliding Adebayo to center, putting Jae Crowder alongside Butler and Robinson on the wing, and reinserting the veteran Dragic into the backcourt. So far, so good: That lineup has blitzed opponents by 35 points in 47 minutes in the bubble, and has knocked the Pacers on their heels from the opening tip.

If Miami can take care of business against Indiana, a massive matchup with the top-seeded Bucks looms in the second round—provided, of course, Milwaukee can take care of its business against a frisky Magic team. Few teams can line up with Milwaukee as well as the Heat: Bam can match up against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Robinson could stretch the Bucks’ perimeter defense to its breaking point, and Butler—who, after a disastrous regular season shooting the ball, has opened the playoffs 9-for-19 outside the restricted area and 4-for-5 from 3-point land—has proven to be a low-turnover shot creator who can get Miami looks in crunch time. Miami seems to be hitting its stride at the right time, with a combination of firepower, defensive steel, positional versatility, and coaching mettle that’s tailor-made to thrive in the postseason pressure cooker.

Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers - Game Two Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Paul George Is Letting the Mavs Off the Hook

Thursday, August 20, 6:54 a.m. PT

Tjarks: Paul George deserves all the “Playoff P” jokes after his awful performance (14 points on 4-of-17 shooting) in a Game 2 loss to the Mavericks on Wednesday. Dallas had one of the worst defenses in the NBA during the regular season. They should not be able to slow him down, much less stop him.

The problem is clear when you go back and look at the primary defender on those shots—Kristaps Porzingis (five), Tim Hardaway Jr. (five), Maxi Kleber (three), and Dorian Finney-Smith (two). That’s a list of the Mavs’ best defenders. George’s only shot against one of their weaker defenders (Trey Burke) was a 33-foot heave at the end of the third quarter. Luka Doncic and Seth Curry are nowhere to be found on that list. As a great thinker once said, George is letting the Mavs off the hook.

George needs to look at what Doncic is doing. Doncic took only three of his 17 shots against either George or Kawhi Leonard in Game 2. When those players are guarding him, he calls for a screen and tries to shed them. He would much rather shoot against Ivica Zubac, Reggie Jackson, and Lou Williams.

There’s no reason that George can’t do the same thing. Just because he can create a shot over Hardaway or Finney-Smith on the perimeter doesn’t mean that he needs too. All he has to do is have the guy Luka is defending screen for him. This is what happened when he tried that in Game 1 (in which he scored 27 points and the Clippers won):

George isn’t dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean. He’s laying in a pool drinking saltwater.

The Mavs’ offense is too good for even the Clippers to slow down, precisely because they ruthlessly target the weakest spot in the opposing defense. Los Angeles has to do the same thing to them. Dallas always has at least one of Doncic, Curry, and Burke in the game. George can attack one of them every time down the floor and create either an easy shot for himself or one of his teammates. It’s the adjustment that he has to make in Game 3.

Los Angeles knows what it will get from Kawhi each night. It needs that same kind of consistency from its no. 2 option. It shouldn’t be as hard for him as he made it look on Wednesday.

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Two Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

The Mavericks Are Beating the Clippers at Their Own Game

Wednesday, August 19, 9:59 p.m. PT

Kram: Luka Doncic left the floor with six minutes to go in the third quarter of Wednesday’s game against the Clippers. Aside from a 23-second cameo, during which time he picked up his fifth foul, he didn’t return until four minutes and change remained in the fourth. Across the entire second half, he made just one shot from the field. If there were ever a scenario in which Dallas would blow a game it led from the opening tip, it would be this: the Mavericks’ best player on the bench, and both of the Clippers’ superstars on the court.

Yet in the time Doncic sat in the second half, the Mavericks expanded their lead from three points to 13. They went on to win by 13 too, beating the Clippers 127-114 in Game 2 to tie their first-round series. The Clippers’ planned postseason formula was to surround two stars with a deep reserve of talent, but Dallas has co-opted that notion for now.

The stars, of course, produced as expected. Although quiet in the second half, Doncic shone in the first, and he finished the game with 28 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists—as well as just one turnover, after coughing up the ball 11 times in Game 1. Kristaps Porzingis, freed from the shackles of an unjust ejection, added 23 points on just 13 shots; he and Doncic both made more than half of their 3-point attempts and made frequent forays to the free throw line.

But the Mavericks’ bench stole the spotlight and kept the Clippers at bay with Doncic mired in foul trouble. The trio of Trey Burke, Seth Curry, and Boban Marjanovic combined for 44 points on a scorching 19-for-28 shooting line, and the Mavericks had a positive scoring margin with all three on the court. (Curry was a game-high plus-30 in 26 minutes.) With Patrick Beverley sitting out with a calf strain, L.A.’s defenders couldn’t consistently stay in front of Dallas’s jitterbug guards, who found success in both scoring and creating easy looks for teammates.

The Clippers, meanwhile, were mostly out of rhythm, aside from Kawhi Leonard’s game-high 35 points. Paul George played into a career-long pattern of playoff inconsistency, struggling through foul trouble and shooting just 4-for-17 from the field. The only real positive from the non-Kawhi group came from Montrezl Harrell, still returning to game form, who played 22 minutes and displayed his typical bursts of energy off the bench.

The Clippers cannot be remotely pleased with their overall performance through two playoff games. Although not as inept as their championship-favorite brethren—both the Bucks and Lakers lost their Game 1s in confounding fashion—they have looked a beat slow for large stretches of both contests against Dallas. Had Porzingis not been ejected from Game 1, they might be in even worse trouble; as is, they’ve managed only a split while the Mavericks’ best players have each missed almost an entire second half.

A veteran team with Leonard, George, coach Doc Rivers, and more should be able to adjust somewhat in its attempts to contain Dallas’s attack. But the Mavericks boasted the most efficient offense in league history in the regular season, so it’s not as if their varied distribution of points is a surprise. I’ve been saying all summer that Dallas profiled as the best dark horse in the West. The team has shown why through its first two games, and now has a real series—and a real upset chance—on its hands.

Also: Boban forever. Marjanovic’s stat line from Wednesday was 10 minutes, 13 points, nine rebounds, and one instant meme:

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The 76ers Are Out of Options—and Nearly Out of Time

Wednesday, August 19, 6:18 p.m. PT

Kram: The 76ers didn’t play good basketball on Wednesday. They weren’t good on offense: Joel Embiid scored 34 points on 21 shots, but the team shot 5-for-21 on 3-pointers and struggled to score after a hot first quarter. They weren’t good on defense: The Celtics canned 19 3s-pointers, most of them taken without a defender in sight, and no 76er could stay in front of Jayson Tatum or Kemba Walker. And they weren’t good at the intangibles, scoring just one fast-break point and losing the rebounding battle despite Embiid’s imposing presence on the glass.

The end result of all that lackluster play: a 128-101 loss in Game 2, and now a 2-0 deficit against a divisional rival in the first round. To advance, Philadelphia must win four times in five tries against a superior opponent; our Restart Odds estimate a roughly 3 percent chance of that happening.

The 76ers started Wednesday’s game with a scorching performance from the field; they took a 25-11 lead in large part because Embiid found his best spots to score. But two key adjustments switched the momentum. First, Boston dabbled with different defensive looks, including a zone, which forced the 76ers offense into a standstill. With the likes of Tobias Harris (4-for-15 from the field, 13 points) and Al Horford (four points) adding little on that end of the floor, and Philadelphia reluctant to even take outside shots, the team had no reliable route to points aside from Embiid.

Second, Boston ran the Philadelphia defense through a torturous series of pick-and-rolls. The 76ers’ drop coverage—in which the big guarding the roll man drifts back into the lane instead of challenging the ball handler head-on—opened up plenty of runway for Tatum and Walker to probe the defense unencumbered. Even wunderkind defender Matisse Thybulle, who moved into the starting lineup in Horford’s place Wednesday, couldn’t slow Tatum, who finished with 33 points on 12-for-20 shooting (8-for-12 from distance). And the Celtics committed just six turnovers as a team—only two in the first three quarters.

With Gordon Hayward on the shelf for at least a month with a sprained ankle, Boston’s already-thin rotation was another man shorter Wednesday, but the Celtics’ bench still dominated its counterpart. Boston’s reserves made seven of nine 3-point attempts—more makes than the entire 76ers team—and scored a combined 41 points, versus Philadelphia’s 20. It was a complete shellacking, all up and down the roster. And now the 76ers have two days to figure out how to change, well, all of that, or else their season will push even further to the brink.

Utah Jazz v Denver Nuggets - Game Two Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Donovan Mitchell (and Apparently Jordan Clarkson) Cannot Be Ignored

August 19, 4:29 p.m. PT

Uggetti: Two games into the playoffs, Donovan Mitchell is playing like a fluorescent highlighter streaking across a blank, white page. He’s been unignorable and more or less unstoppable against the Nuggets. In Game 1, the Jazz needed him to play hero ball to carry the team to overtime. Mitchell scored 57 points, the third most in playoff history, but it wasn’t enough to save Utah. Wednesday’s Game 2 was a different story. Mitchell played the hero role again, but he did it by being the best player on the floor, making his teammates better, and controlling the game like it was a yo-yo in his hand.

Mitchell took less than half as many shots (14 to 33) as he did in Game 1, but made a scorching 71 percent of them. He took half as many 3s but made the same amount (six). He was far more efficient and more of a combo guard shepherding his team toward a 124-105 win, than a straight-up scorer, adding eight assists, including this circus-like pass:

Of course, it helped Mitchell that this time, the rest of the Jazz were also incandescent, draining 20 of their 44 3-point attempts and shooting above 50 percent from the field. No bench player had a better game than Jordan Clarkson, who poured in 26 points off his hot hand. Coupled with Rudy Gobert’s usual defensive efforts, it was exactly the type of helping hand Mitchell needed. It was also, apparently, the kind of opportunity the Utah Jazz’s official Twitter account had been looking for to take an unexpected shot at yours truly:

I was not expecting to catch a random stray shot from an NBA team while sitting on my couch watching basketball. A quick Twitter and Google search, aided by my Ringer colleagues, spit out two recent tweets that might have caused the barb:

Objectively true.

Harmless, and, I would argue, a compliment.

Look, I stand by whatever it is I said about Jordan Clarkson if only because I imagine it’s no different from what all of us have said about Clarkson at one point: He’s a streaky player whose greatest skill (shot-making) can also very quickly become his biggest downfall. To be fair, Clarkson has helped the Jazz more than not since arriving in Utah, and with Bojan Bogdanovic out, this is exactly the kind of production they need from him. So yes, at least for one game, Clarkson successfully got off his shots. I can’t hate on the team’s Twitter account for doing the same. Thanks for the followers!

Adjustment Theater: The Raptors Go Small to Escape the Nets

August 19, 2:48 p.m. PT

Uggetti: I don’t imagine that Marc Gasol yells about a lot of things. Stubbing his toe? Perhaps. A driver cutting him off in traffic? Maybe. But a whistle for traveling on a basketball court when he believes he absolutely did not? Absolutely:

I would not want to be on the opposing end of an angry Gasol, slimmed down or not, whose out-of-character outburst earned him a technical. It was that kind of day for Gasol, who only played 17 minutes and scored 0 points, and was effectively rendered a nonfactor by Jarrett Allen, who looked like the player Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving think DeAndre Jordan is.

You have to hand something—I don’t know what exactly—to the Nets. They’re not exiting the bubble quietly despite having every reason to do so. The Blazers can tell you about it, and now the Raptors can too. Game 2 wasn’t as easy for Toronto as its Game 1 blowout win, but like all good contenders, the Raptors were able to make adjustments. They waited out their terrible 3-point shooting performance (25.7 percent), and showed off their experience and versatility in a 104-99 win.

Nick Nurse didn’t wait for Gasol to foul out or pick up a second technical before making an adjustment. Instead, he went away from Gasol in the fourth quarter and opted to downsize. Serge Ibaka played 26 minutes and only scored eight points but was a team-high plus-18, and the trio of him, OG Anunoby, plus Norman Powell—who had 24 off the bench—was enough to give Brooklyn too much to handle down the stretch. In other words, the league’s second-best defense clamped down, and it wasn’t without Toronto’s usual lineup tricks:

Next to Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, who are about as stout of an undersized defensive backcourt as you can get, Anunoby’s versatility on that end also makes him a key cog in the Raptors’ quest to repeat without Kawhi Leonard. His 7-foot-2 wingspan and box-like frame gives him the potential to defend wings of any size—and some bigs too, when the situation calls. Against the Nets, he may not have to worry about going above and beyond his usual assignments, but in series to come, Anunoby—who missed all of last year’s playoffs—should be able to hang with the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown while also being able to switch onto 4s and even 5s. Against a team like Boston, Gasol could get played off the floor by their small lineups, and that’s where a breakout series from Anunoby would go a long way.

In the regular season, the Raptors’ strength was their depth, and despite shrinking their rotation in the playoffs, their positional flexibility remains one of their biggest advantages. It also stands in stark contrast to a team like the Bucks, who lost Game 1 to Orlando and may need to be pushed to the brink before Mike Budenholzer makes any tangible changes. Nurse never hesitates to tinker and toy with lineups and rotations. And a game like Wednesday’s is a sobering reminder that the Raptors aren’t perfect. But the narrow escape also shows they have all the right ingredients to be a title contender too.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Something May Be Wrong With the Lakers, but Nothing’s Wrong With Dame Lillard

Tuesday, August 18, 11:24 p.m. PT

Devine: All season long, the Lakers bludgeoned opponents with brute strength. Behind the mammoth frontcourt of Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard, L.A. ranked third in defensive efficiency, first in blocked shots per game, second in points in the paint, and first in shooting percentage at the rim before the league’s March 11 shutdown; it rode that size advantage all the way to the best record in the Western Conference. Unfortunately for LeBron James and Co., though, all that no. 1 seed bought them in the NBA’s restart was a first-round date with a Trail Blazers team that can go toe-to-toe with their bigs up front—and, more importantly, enjoys a massive mismatch in the backcourt, where Portland employs the most dangerous man in the bubble.

After the Lakers took a six-point lead on a Kyle Kuzma layup early in the fourth quarter, Damian Lillard took over, scoring or assisting on 14 of the Blazers’ 22 points in the last eight minutes to push surging Portland past L.A. for a 100-93 upset win. Lillard finished with a game-high 34 points (9-for-21 from the field, a perfect 10-for-10 from the foul line) to go with five rebounds and five assists for the Blazers, who are now 8-2 in the restart, and who joined the Magic as the first pair of eighth seeds to knock off their top-ranked opponents in Game 1 since 2003.

Dame didn’t do it alone. CJ McCollum continued to grit his way through a fracture in his lower back, pouring in 21 points, including a pair of huge buckets midway through the fourth. Jusuf Nurkic (16 points, 15 rebounds, three assists) battled the Lakers’ bigs and foul trouble all game long; Hassan Whiteside was massive off the bench, blocking five shots and altering many more. Little-used rookie Wenyen Gabriel replaced the injured Zach Collins in the starting lineup and provided energy and active defensive work; Carmelo Anthony competed defensively against his longtime pal LeBron, chipped in 11-10-5, and drilled another clutch 3.

When the league resumed play in Orlando, it seemed unlikely that the Blazers would make much noise, let alone snag the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. Three weeks later, they’ve got a 1-0 lead on LeBron and AD, in no small part because it’s becoming easier with each passing day to believe that all things are possible whenever Damian Lillard crosses half-court.

Something else it’s getting easier to believe? The Lakers’ offense is a problem. And not in the way people use “problem” on social media, where they follow it with a bunch of Face With Steam From the Nose emojis. Like, a problem problem.

L.A. scored 93 points against a Portland squad that entered the playoffs with the second-worst defense in the bubble. They’re the first team to fail to crack 100 against the Blazers since January 7. They shot 35.1 percent from the field as a team, including an abysmal 17 percent outside the restricted area; Lillard made more 3s by himself (6-for-13) and Portland made more 3s in the fourth quarter (6-for-10) than the Lakers did as a team in the entire game (5-for-32). Said coach Frank Vogel after the game: “We didn’t make shots. I think we’re going to shoot the ball better than we did tonight.” That might be true; in fairness, the Lakers’ overall shot quality doesn’t seem to be dramatically different from what they produced before the hiatus. And besides: It’d be hard to shoot it worse.

The Lakers’ offensive woes aren’t anything new. Even while they were rolling before the shutdown, they struggled to score, ranking 25th in offensive efficiency after the All-Star break. Only the Wizards averaged fewer points per possession than the Lakers in seeding-game play. And now, in the franchise’s first playoff game in seven years, a team led by MVP candidates LeBron James (23 points, 17 rebounds, 16 assists) and Anthony Davis (28 points, 11 rebounds) could conjure up only a putrid 77 points per 100 half-court plays, according to Cleaning the Glass—several sub-basements below what the league-worst Knicks coughed up over the course of the full season.

This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen to a LeBron team, and yet it’s been happening to these Lakers for a while now. The decision to play big, with Davis flanked by either McGee or Howard, comes at the cost of floor spacing, and neither LeBron (16-for-49 from deep in the bubble) nor AD (7-for-29) are shooting well enough to decongest things. If the Lakers’ guards aren’t making 3s—Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso shot a combined 2-for-15 on Tuesday—the offense goes into cardiac arrest. L.A.’s saving grace all season has been its lethal transition offense, but in Game 1, even that withered on the vine: