All the need-to-know info from Wednesday night’s action.
The Takeaway: Welcome to the Eastern Conference Finals, a Soft Opening
Maybe the alarm clock was set a half too late, or maybe the calypso tune just wasn’t loud enough to hear. But after allowing 79 points to the Raptors in the first half and getting dominated by Toronto’s bench, LeBron and the Cavs were jolted from their slumber in the second half, outscoring the East’s top seed 68-50 on their way to a 132-129 victory fueled by a level of offense and effort that only playoff games merit.
It’s easy to tell whether the Cavs are engaged or not by looking at LeBron’s stat line. He did everything on Wednesday, scoring 35 points and even grabbing the clutch rebound in the final seconds, but nothing was as impressive as his passing. LeBron doesn’t just have eyes on the back of his head—he plays like he has eyes all around his head.
He finished with 17 assists without giving up a single turnover. Here was the dagger:
Kevin Love added a helpful 23 points, including four 3s, and even played some great perimeter defense in crunch time. The tandem elevates not only itself but everyone around it. George Hill made 10 of his 11 shots in what was likely his best game as a Cav, and J.R. Smith added 10 off the bench in his new role. The Raptors played the first half to perfection, attacking the Cavs’ shoddy perimeter D, but couldn’t retake the lead once they gave it away. They’re still the best team in the East, but this result won’t quell doubts about how they’d fare against the Cavs in the playoffs. With apologies to the Celtics, Pacers, and Wizards, I’m ready to see this play out over seven games with a trip to the Finals on the line.
Giannis Injury Scare
That sound you heard was Milwaukee holding its collective breath as Giannis Antetokounmpo went down with an ankle injury in the second quarter of the team’s game against the Clippers.
Here’s where it happened. Hopefully they’ll tape it and he’ll be good.— Brew Hoop (@brewhoop) March 22, 2018
Also, notice that despite being frustrated and in pain, he takes the time to high five all three fans. He’s the best. pic.twitter.com/uxy5ls3czM
Giannis was diagnosed with a right ankle sprain and didn’t return. The Bucks were down seven at halftime, and losing their star player didn’t help. They fell to the Clippers, 127-120, who were led by DeAndre Jordan’s 25 points and 22 rebounds. L.A. snapped a four-game losing streak and is now back within two games of the 8-seed in the West. The Bucks stayed in the 8-seed in the East.
The Cheat Sheet
- The Brow finishes with five blocks and a team on his back. Anthony Davis hasn’t stopped carrying the Pelicans during their playoff push. Against the Pacers, AD finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds and blocked every Pacers shot in sight. New Orleans’s defense slowed the league’s 12th-best offense, holding it to only 92 points. The win puts the Pels within half a game of the fourth-seeded Thunder.
- LaMarcus Aldridge is keeping the Spurs afloat. We were so close to counting the Spurs out, and with good reason. But then they pulled us back in with five straight wins, their latest a 98-90 result over the Wizards on Wednesday, and they are now tied for the 5-seed in the West. Aldridge has gone to another level, averaging 29.6 points per game during that streak. It’s still tough to believe in San Antonio without Kawhi, but with Aldridge playing like this, there’s no doubt they’ll be dangerous in the playoffs because well, they’re the Spurs.
- What if I told you ... Dwight Howard’s still got it? Howard exploded for a 30-and-30 game on Wednesday against a Nets team that imploded and gave away a 23-point lead, ultimately losing 111-105. Thirty-two points and 30 rebounds. Thirty! That’s a Hornets’ franchise record. Howard became the first player to have a 30-30 game since Kevin Love in 2010—and only the second since 1982.
Dwight Howard was STRONG tonight.— Sporting News (@sportingnews) March 22, 2018
32 points, 30 rebounds!pic.twitter.com/fVdGmrZ91g
The Nets’ letdown won’t go unnoticed, either—at least in Cleveland. Brooklyn’s loss ties them with the Kings for the sixth-best lottery odds in the league.
- The Sixers are taking advantage of their easy schedule. Philly trounced the tanking Grizzlies, 119-105, on Wednesday. No starter had to play more than 25 minutes and every single one scored in double digits. The win, along with losses by the Pacers and Wizards, moves them into a tie for fourth in the East. Memphis, meanwhile, is just half a game back of the Suns for the best lottery odds and the worst record.
- Miami’s bench takes care of business against the Knicks. No Dwyane Wade, no problem. Kelly Olynyk nearly outscored the Knicks’ reserves by himself, totaling 22 of Miami’s 62 bench points in the 119-98 win. Combined with the Bucks’ loss, the Heat affirmed their grip on the 7-seed and are now 1.5 games up on Milwaukee. However, they stayed two back of the 6-seed. This is the sweet spot for Miami. Tumble a spot, and they’ll get the Raptors. Rise to sixth, and they’ll likely face the Cavaliers just as they turn it on.
- Denver remains in the playoff hunt. The Nuggets had what was more or less an off night in Chicago where they took care of the Bulls, 135-102, to keep pace with the Clippers and move 1.5 games back of the 8-seed.