The second round of the playoffs officially started in Toronto, while the Nuggets and Spurs closed out the first round with the only Game 7 thus far. Here are the Winners and Losers from Saturday night in the NBA.
Game 7: Nuggets 90, Spurs 86
Loser: Spurs’ time management
In what scenario does a team facing elimination from the playoffs not foul down four points with 20 seconds left?
With the series on the line, the Spurs let the clock run down as far as the Nuggets wished it to, and Jamal Murray got a shot off with three seconds left. He missed, and after grabbing the rebound, DeMar DeRozan didn’t even have time to heave a full-court shot. Though, oddly enough (again, it’s an elimination game), he didn’t even try.
If you’re thinking, wow, how un-Popovich-like, that’s because Gregg Popovich wanted to foul. In fact, he was screaming for it at the beginning of the Nuggets’ final possession. It was the first question Pop was asked in the postgame presser, to which he replied, “Obviously [LaMarcus Aldridge] didn’t hear anybody, because he didn’t foul.” Good on the Pepsi Center crowd for showing out; shame on the Spurs for being professional basketball players who did not foul down four on the final possession of a playoff elimination game.
Winners: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray
Who needed a statement game more than Jokic and Murray? (Except DeRozan—more on that later.) After a season of sped-up expectations that saw them jump from out of the playoffs to the Western Conference’s 2-seed, the Nuggets underwhelmed for more than half of Round 1 against the Spurs and nearly let their first playoff series victory in a decade slip away at the end of Game 7. Much of the criticism was directed at their two best players, despite it being their first postseason. But Murray and Jokic combined for 44 points in Game 7, with Jokic notching a triple-double: 21 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists—and three blocks!
Of course, the Nuggets need more than Superstar Jokic to be great. In Game 6, he scored 43 points and San Antonio still won. In Game 7, the Spurs stormed back despite Jokic showing up everywhere—finishing in the post, navigating passing lanes, hitting jumpers. Murray has yet to prove he can consistently make up the difference. But in a two-point game with under a minute to play in Game 7, the ball was put in Murray’s hands. And after navigating around Jokic screens not once, but twice, Murray hit a dagger over Aldridge’s outstretched hand:
Jamal Murray. One foot. COLD-BLOODED ❄️ pic.twitter.com/eFxC46ItWB— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 28, 2019
Contested, from the midrange, and off one foot. Sounds like Murray. But he made the shot and pushed it to a two-possession game with 35 seconds remaining.
Loser: DeMar DeRozan
If there were ever a night for DeRozan to go off, it was Saturday. DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard’s careers will always be tethered after they were traded for each other last summer. (The same will happen for Trae Young and Luka Doncic.) Fair or not, the comparison is there. And it’s almost unavoidable on a night when one player goes off for 45 points (more on that below) and the other is blocked at the rim down four with 28 seconds to play.
DeRozan was flat against the Nuggets by his typical standards. After making three-quarters of his shots to keep the Spurs alive in Game 6, DeRozan shot just 7-for-21 from the floor in Game 7 and finished with a respectable 19 points, eight rebounds, and six assists. When the shots are falling, DeRozan’s midrange game is charming, downright flashy. But when he’s as bad as he was in Game 1, his efforts just look outdated. He was somewhere in between in Game 7, but he also wasn’t especially effective, no matter what the means.
Losers: The Trail Blazers
Denver and Portland should be happy that they’re facing each other as Houston and Golden State face off in the real Western Conference finals. But while the fireworks sure to come between Jamal Murray and Damian Lillard will be enjoyable, the Nuggets are probably the less favorable matchup for the Trail Blazers.
Portland was already thin at center following the loss of Jusuf Nurkic for the season. Now Enes Kanter may not be able to go after dislocating his left shoulder in Game 5 against Oklahoma City. Jokic vs. Kanter was already a losing battle for the Blazers. Jokic vs. Meyers Leonard? That’s the sort of disadvantage that could swing the series.
Game 1: Raptors 108, Sixers 95
Winner: Playoff Kawhi
One of the best nicknames a player can get is simply adding “Playoff” to his name. Playoff Kyrie. Playoff Horford. Playoff Rondo. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to remember that Kawhi Leonard (a.k.a. “the Klaw,” a.k.a. 2014 Finals MVP, a.k.a. “the Hand”) is a part of that list: In Toronto’s Game 1 win over Philadelphia to open their second-round series, Leonard had 45 points—a career-high in the postseason—on 16-for-23 shooting, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and one block in 38 minutes. After missing the playoffs for the first time last year, Playoff Kawhi is back. And he could take the Playoff [Player Name] prize.
Kawhi’s monster claw leads to a Pascal jam pic.twitter.com/OC0WIXzowC— Leigh Ellis (@LeighEllis) April 28, 2019
I’m so happy for Pascal Siakam. These playoffs are going to be the moment we reflect on his official arrival as a household name. Siakam scored 29 points alongside (and, in part, thanks to) Leonard in Game 1. As a tag team, the two scored 74 points on 38 attempts, but more remarkable was Leonard’s solo play. Defenders turn to hitchhikers against him in one-on-one situations—he’s taking you wherever he wants to go. He’ll beat you in the half court, and he’ll beat you in transition. He’ll beat you in a pick-and-roll with a little help from his friends, and he’ll beat you by himself in isolation. Enjoy the ride. We often talk about how Giannis Antetokounmpo has improved every season. We should be saying the same about Leonard each playoffs.
Loser: The Raptors’ Series-Opening Tradition
I didn’t even check the money line for Raptors-Sixers before Game 1 tipped. Yes, it was in Toronto, and yes, Kawhi Leonard was 13-0 against Philadelphia in his career, and yes yes, the Raptors went 3-1 against the Sixers in the regular season, with wins in both home games. But those numbers are meaningless when curses are in play. And there are few active curses like the Raptors in a Game 1. Here’s a record that does matter: Toronto entered Saturday having gone 2-14 in playoff Game 1s. Most recently, they lost the opening game of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic, a team that finished two games over .500 and squeezed into the playoffs in the last days of the regular season.
Kyle Lowry’s individual performances in Game 1s have been equally bad. Heading into Saturday’s second-round opener, he had shot just 31.7 percent from the field in Game 1s since joining the Raptors in 2012. In Toronto’s first game against Orlando in Round 1, Lowry shot 0-for-7 from the floor, 0-for-6 from 3, and 0-for-2 from the charity stripe [obligatory comment about how free throws ARE NOT free]. Lowry actually bricked all of his 3-point attempts on Saturday, too, but he was 4-for-6 from inside the arc and finished with a near-double-double (nine points, eight assists).
So I, like many Americans and probably even Canadians, allocated my funds where history and basketball divination guided me: with Philly. And I, like many Americans and probably all Canadians, was happy to lose it. The Raptors aren’t cursed; they’re just the better basketball team.
Loser: Elton Brand
It’s not Brand’s fault that Jimmy Butler was cold from the 3-point line (0-for-3). Brand, the Sixers’ first-year GM, wasn’t the puppeteer pulling the strings on JJ Redick’s stroke during his scoreless first half. He wasn’t responsible for Mike Scott sitting on the sidelines in a boot, either. But Brand is the man who built this team: one that, after a single game against the Raptors, has proved it will need each of its starting five to play at his peak to beat Toronto.
Redick and Tobias Harris may be two of the best shooters in the NBA at their positions, but beyond them, it gets pretty grim. The Sixers rely on 3s for 30 percent of their points, yet they start a point guard who refuses to entertain the very idea of shooting and a big man who always wants to shoot. Joel Embiid finished 1-for-3 from deep in Game 1 after shooting 23.1 percent from behind the arc against the Nets in Round 1.
And while Redick and Harris are necessary for the offense, they’re detriments against Toronto on the other end. That’s long been the story for Redick, who only helps Philly if his shot is falling; if he’s point-less, so is having him on the court. Harris isn’t a negative to the same degree, but against Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, he also isn’t much help. (Harris did contribute in other ways: 15 rebounds, six assists, and a steal in addition to his 14 points in 38 minutes.) Redick led all Sixers with 17 points in Game 1; all but one of his 12 shots came from the perimeter. I’ll leave you with this: Their best 3-point shooters made seven 3s, and Philly still lost by 13.