The good, the bad, and the shits from Monday’s second-round NBA playoff action:
Game 2: Sixers 94, Raptors 89
Winner: Jimmy Butler
In the words of Paul Pierce: “That’s why they got [him] here.” The Sixers’ series-tying Game 2 win over the Raptors was gritty, messy, but somehow successful—in other words, it was a perfect Butler game. In the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter, with the Raptors roaring back into the game, Butler took over and scored 12 points. He got to the free throw line, hit tough jumpers, and drained a clutch 3 off a Steph-like pass from Joel Embiid:
Embiid’s pass was notable because it was one of his few highlights. He had been a game-time decision with gastroenteritis (trust the Zantac), and though he played through it, he struggled to be his usual self. “If you’ve had the shits before … you would know how it feels,” Embiid said postgame. But he wasn’t the only one having an off night. The most any other Sixer put on the board was 13 points. Philly needed every bit of Butler’s 30 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists.
Philly’s moves this season have given it a superteam of sorts, albeit a flawed one. Unlike the Warriors, whose superteam boasts surefire Hall of Famers and whose style can be flashy and beautiful at its best, the Sixers have proved to be, at times, an awkward fit. It’s why they often need to win ugly. And no one knows how to win ugly better than Butler. His season began in a heap of controversy as he tried to take down the Wolves from the inside, but now in the playoffs, Butler has been the Sixers’ saving grace more than once. Or as Brett Brown put it after Game 2, Butler is the “adult in the room.” Talk about redemption.
Winner: Greg Monroe’s and Brett Brown’s Adjustments
The Eastern Conference has a love-hate relationship with Monroe, who has played for each of the East’s top four teams over the past two seasons. But with Embiid sick and a shoddy depth chart behind him, the Sixers desperately needed Monroe to give them real playoff minutes in Game 2. It wasn’t exactly ideal for Philly, a presumptive contender, to rely on a guy who gives off strong “traditional center in the mid-2000s” vibes. But it worked!
Monroe played only 12 minutes in Game 2 before going out with an ankle sprain and not returning, but he gave the Sixers what they needed and then some. (Call it Martyr Ball.) He finished with 10 points and five rebounds, a handful of effort plays and some big-time rim protection on a couple of occasions. Brett Brown trusted Monroe, and it paid off.
Brown also trusted James Ennis III, who played 24 minutes and added 13 points and six rebounds. Behind strong showings from Monroe and Ennis, the Philly bench outscored the Raptors’ bench 26-5. Brown still made a few mistakes, like trying to play Boban Marjanovic for a quick minute, but all in all, his adjustments paid off. The biggest one may have been a simple defensive switch: putting Embiid on Pascal Siakam. Siakam still got 21 points but he had to work three times as hard to get to that mark (9-for-25); Marc Gasol, who was now Tobias Harris’s cover, also struggled, shooting 1-for-6 and finishing with five points. That sound you hear is Brown’s hot seat cooling off just a bit.
Loser: Raptors Not Named Kawhi Leonard
Leonard was in his usual death-machine mode. Ben Simmons, not Butler, defended Leonard, and he did a fine job of it, but Kawhi still finished with 35 points and a team-high six assists (which is not a good sign for Kyle Lowry, who is, y’know, the Raptors point guard). But almost no one else in a Raptors uniform showed up. Siakam and Lowry added 21 and 20 points, respectively, but most of their scoring didn’t come until late in the game. The aforementioned Gasol was colder than ever, and Danny Green made only one shot all game; he missed three 3s in the fourth quarter, including one with 10 seconds left that could have tied the game.
Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet were a combined 2-for-10 from the field. Even Jodie Meeks got a shot in his disastrous two-minute stint and missed it. The Raptors as a whole shot 36 percent from the field and 27 from 3. Take out Kawhi’s shooting, and those numbers drop to 29 percent from the field and 26 percent from deep. It was like Toronto was the team playing on the road.
After so much talk about the Raptors’ depth, the first two games of this series have shown that it may not be so reliable. Kawhi can score 35 points a night, but now it seems like he must if the Raptors have a chance. It may not be the best way to sell the possible free agent on sticking around past this postseason.
Game 1: Nuggets 121, Trail Blazers 113
Winner: Nikola Jokic
Jokic owned this game, scoring 37 points on 18 shots, but efficiency doesn’t protect you from a smack in the face. After being struck in the left eye by the Blazers’ CJ McCollum, inciting a flagrant-1 foul, Jokic winced, sank his two free throws, and moved on. He didn’t miss on any of his 12 attempts from the line in the game.
The doughy big man is able to impact a game with his passing as much as his scoring, but he’s also been criticized for being too passive. Not this time. Jokic was aggressive from the jump, but not reckless. He cooked Portland in the paint, missing only two of his nine shots there. Then he expanded his game out to the 3-point line, hitting a 3 from nearly every point around the arc. Oh, and there was playmaking, too (six assists to five different players). And even though he was all over the floor, he still managed to pull down nine rebounds—more than any Blazer.
After not cracking 40 minutes a game this season, Jokic has now played 43 and 41 minutes in his past two games, as sure a sign as any that it’s playoff time and he needs to deliver. Game 1 of this second-round series was a dominant performance from start to finish, the kind that we’re seeing from Damian Lillard this postseason. Lillard finished with 39 points Monday night—two more than his All-Star counterpart. But Jokic got the win.
Loser: The Blazers Defense, or Defense in General
If you like drawing charges, weak-side help, and rim protection, this is not the series for you. As good as the Nuggets and Blazers were on offense this regular season (seventh and third in the NBA on offense, respectively), they were hardly balanced out by iron curtains on the other end (10th and 16th on defense, respectively).
The Blazers defense suffered the most in Game 1, allowing the Nuggets to put up 121 points and shoot over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from 3. It seemed like every time Lillard tried to start a comeback effort, a Nuggets player would end up open on the ensuing possession, or Jokic would remind us that Enes Kanter isn’t a defensive stalwart, especially with his injured shoulder. It didn’t help that Portland coughed up the ball 18 times; Denver took advantage and thrived off those turnovers for 23 points (12 in fast-break situations). The Blazers hadn’t played since last week while the Nuggets were coming off a Game 7 on Saturday. One team certainly looked more awake.
The Nuggets aren’t known to be a defense-first team by any means, but so far, they’ve only been a little worse in the playoffs, allowing about three points more per 100 possessions than they did in the regular season. They were able to hold McCollum to 16 points and all of Portland’s role players other than Rodney Hood to a combined 15 points. Still, coach Michael Malone wasn’t exactly signing the praises of his unit afterward. “I did not like our defense tonight,” he said postgame, despite the win. Get used to hearing that for the rest of this series.
Winner: Gary Harris’s Core Strength
I have watched this 10 times now, and I’m still not sure how the ball went in the hoop. Harris was coming down and still found the strength to not only get the shot up, but give it the perfect spin it needed to rattle in. Harris finished with only 11 points, but each of them felt crucial. Unlike the Blazers, who couldn’t do enough around Lillard, the Nuggets provided balanced production around Jokic. Paul Millsap had 19 points, Jamal Murray added 23 and a team-high eight assists, and the bench chipped in 28. As a result, there never seemed to be a moment when the Nuggets lacked difference-makers. Take Mason Plumlee for example—the former Blazer added six points, six rebounds, and five steals.
It was the ideal Nuggets performance: Jokic at the helm and everyone else following suit. The Nuggets’ Game 7 performance against the Spurs was an impressive way to win a series that at times seemed to be slipping away. But in Game 1 of this series, they looked like the team they’ve been all season, the one good enough to claim the the 2-seed in the Western Conference.