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The Lakers’ Title-Clincher Was a Yawner, but the Celebrations Delivered
Sunday, October 11, 10:27 p.m. PT
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Worse, perhaps, than having no 2020 NBA champion would’ve been having no 2020 championship celebration. Like most of us, the players and the personnel in the bubble enjoy a good party; like most of us, those players and personnel have not partied in quite some time. (Assuming we’re all quarantine-abiding folks here.) When I saw the streamers drop and the festivities begin, I immediately realized that there would be nowhere to take them afterward. I mean, even if the players broke free of the bubble tonight—against all NBA and CDC protocols—what club is open right now in Orlando? Even if everything is open, again … Orlando.
My high school used to hold an “after prom” party for students in the hopes that it would prevent them from having parties of their own. (Small town, big church presence.) That’s what it must be like in the bubble for the Lakers (and Heat, I suppose), gathered together under the Mouse’s careful watch. Still, even with parental supervision, it was clear the Lakers’ win was cathartic after three-plus months in the bubble. (Shout-out to Dwight.) Here are the best celebrations from Sunday, ranked:
5. Dion Waiters, who played less than 38 minutes this entire postseason, on cheese varietals:
“My vibe is unmatched. I’m Champ Cheese.”
4. Kyle Kuzma sounding suspiciously like me after brunch:
“I’m half drunk right now from all the champagne, so I don’t know how to act, exactly.”
3. Everyone is naked, and J.R. Smith is a good role model:
JR Smith’s veteran leadership pic.twitter.com/ZTHeVmnSSA— Jasmine (@JasmineLWatkins) October 12, 2020
2. Shirtless JR:
Smith took his shirt off so quickly and so instinctively that vibrations from the final buzzer were still circulating around the arena. He’s Brandi Chastain (minus the starring role and generally everything else, but the proclivity to celebrate jersey-less is there). It took Smith two years to reach another postseason after his disastrous trip in 2018. There are worse things to be remembered for in a Finals than going topless.
He also was the first to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. (All that energy makes sense when you consider how much rest Smith has gotten during these Finals.) If anything, Smith is fully embracing that old friendship adage that your friends’ wins and losses are your wins and losses.
JR Smith was ready to grab that trophy lmao pic.twitter.com/yhP6rfRDby— SB Nation (@SBNation) October 12, 2020
It’s worth noting that after Quinn Cook was left at the arena, it was Smith’s IG Live under which Cook commented “Make a Uturn.”
1. LeBron FaceTiming his mom:
This explains why LeBron said, “Shoutout the late, great Steve Jobs for FaceTime” in his press conference.
And then a bonus, from Lakers assistant Phil Handy, because this really does look more fun than a high school prom after-party. To be fair, there is probably 200 times more champagne:
LeBron and the Lakers Finish Off the Heat With Ease
Sunday, October 11, 7:52 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: History is made, seemingly always, with LeBron James on the court. If you’re playing against him, then history will be made against you. The Miami Heat lost Game 6, and the Finals altogether, on Sunday, 106-93. They lost after four quarters and they lost repeatedly throughout regulation. They lost the moment Anthony Davis jogged during warmups and the moment he woke up that morning. They probably lost when Davis, possibly the best defender in basketball, asked for a trade last January.
The first half was bad. Historically bad. Miami was down by 28 at the break, the second-largest halftime margin in Finals history. There was pregame hope for the Heat, tiny shards of optimism produced by Game 5’s momentous win and the announcement that Goran Dragic would, in fact, be active for Game 6. But it didn’t add up—a left torn plantar fascia is not an injury typically played through because of the tremendous pain—and in the end, it didn’t help. Dragic was a rusty shot off the bench, contributing only five points. Everyone else on the Heat seemed off too, as if Erik Spoelstra spun them around in the locker room before tip. Tyler Herro was Tyler Human, missing as many shots (seven) as he totaled points. Bam Adebayo moved apprehensively, physically unable to hold his ground on defense. And Jimmy Butler didn’t have anything left in the tank after emptying it two nights before. LeBron finished with 28 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists; the second half turned into little more than a formality.
The Lakers’ final shooting numbers weren’t all that better—from 3, it was worse. But it didn’t matter. LeBron, the unanimous Finals MVP, went 1-for-5 from deep, and his runner-up, Anthony Davis, 0-for-3. But no one was checking for their percentages during the game, which came so easily to the Lakers that it felt more like an international friendly than an elimination game. It was the defense that created the double-digit margin between the Lakers and the Heat, a precedent set by LeBron and heeded by Davis. Almost nothing about this bubble-wrapped postseason has felt normal, though defense being the difference-maker in the playoffs is an old tradition it was nice to see again. Like LeBron in the Finals, and the Lakers being champions.
The Lakers Can’t Afford to Slow Play the Heat
Saturday, October 10, 6:34 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: The Heat were the more desperate team in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. It was obvious when looking at each team’s rotation. Erik Spoelstra cut his to the bone, playing only seven players, while Frank Vogel stuck with the same nine he has used all series.
The big change for Miami was benching Kelly Olynyk. He averaged 34 minutes in place of Bam Adebayo in Games 2 and 3 but struggled after his return in Game 4, with two points on 1-of-4 shooting in 12 minutes. There’s no reason to play him if he’s not scoring. He’s a poor defender who can’t guard Anthony Davis or keep up with any of the Lakers’ perimeter players.
But that same logic also applies to Dwight Howard, who had 15 ineffectual minutes in Miami’s Game 5 win. Howard serves no purpose in this series, yet has started every game. He guards Bam, but Miami doesn’t ask its center to create his own offense, instead using him as a screener, passer, and roll man in two-man action. That leaves Howard with two options. Either he attempts to guard on the perimeter, where he’s not effective, or hangs back in the paint, creating open shots out there.
He’s even less useful on offense. The Lakers don’t give him the ball even with Jae Crowder on him, which means he’s clogging the lane and bringing an extra defender to the sweet spots on the floor where LeBron James and Davis like to attack. The only way for him to be effective is to use his size to dominate the glass. His three rebounds on Friday will not cut it.
The Lakers have a net rating of minus-10.8 with Howard in the Finals, the lowest of any player in their rotation. The second-lowest is Kyle Kuzma at minus-2.3. But even those numbers understate how much Dwight has been hurting Los Angeles. The overwhelming majority of Howard’s minutes (59 of 70) have come with LeBron and Davis both on the floor. Los Angeles only gets so many minutes with both stars in over the course of the game. They need to maximize that time. LeBron and AD go from a net rating of plus-16.3 in 92 minutes in the Finals without Howard to minus-0.9 with him.
The odd thing about Vogel’s decision to stick with Howard in Game 5 is that he benched his starting center in the second half of Game 4. It was pretty clear at that point that Howard couldn’t help the Lakers in this series. The best explanation for keeping him in the rotation is that Vogel was hoping to steal a few minutes and not stretch his best players too much.
The Heat couldn’t afford to waste minutes on Friday. Their season was on the line so they only played their best players. But going to a seven-man rotation so early in a series does have its downsides. The Heat will have to do this two more times. Miami had to press the turbo button way before the finish line. Los Angeles still has plenty of time to catch up, and it should have a stronger finishing kick because it stuck with a deeper rotation for longer.
But there are downsides to that decision, too. Letting an underdog stick around in a series is dangerous. What if Davis is still hobbled after tweaking his heel in Game 5? What if someone else gets hurt in Game 6?
There are a million tactical adjustments happening on a possession-by-possession basis in the Finals. But all those get blown away by lineup decisions that swing 10-to-15-minute chunks of games. Vogel left points on the board by not shortening his rotation on Friday. We will know how desperate he’s feeling on Sunday by the number of Lakers we see.
Jimmy Butler and the Heat Won’t Go Quietly
Friday, October 9, 9:48 p.m. PT
Paolo Uggetti: Surely Jimmy Butler couldn’t do it again, right? A 3-1 lead is all but a death knell, and it seemed like Butler had unloaded his clip in Game 3, where he stitched together a 40-point triple-double to get the Heat a win in a series that was sliding out of their control. But Butler had an encore in store for Game 5—a 35-point triple-double; that, combined with another all-around team effort from the Heat, resulted in a 111-108 Miami win that kept the NBA’s Orlando bubble from collapsing and LeBron from hoisting the Finals trophy.
Going into Game 5, everything looked primed for the Lakers to close the series out. The GOAT debates between LeBron and Michael Jordan had already ramped back up, the Lakers had switched to their Mamba jerseys, which they hadn’t lost in all season, and from tipoff LeBron looked like he was eyeing that flight home from Orlando as much as his fourth ring. James had his 3-point shot going (6-of-8), and it seemed like every time the Heat built a lead, he’d return serve with a shot from deep or a drive to the rim. The best game of the series turned into a shotmaking duel between Butler and LeBron (who scored 40 points) that ended in a virtual push. And so it would come down to another difference maker to push the margin one way or another. That wouldn’t be Danny Green, who missed a potential series-winning 3 with 7.1 seconds to go. But it would be Duncan Robinson, who drained seven shots from deep and scored 26 points. Every single one of those 3s kept Miami alive. One fewer, and their season would have been over.
“They make you pay for every mistake,” LeBron said of the Heat after the game. “We have to understand that.”
The Heat played only seven players, but six of them (everybody besides Andre Iguodala) scored in double digits. The Lakers, on the other hand, only had three players in double digits and only got 14 points combined from the three bench players that saw minutes. Kendrick Nunn, off the Heat bench, had 14 all by himself. Miami is gritting its teeth and getting through these games with a patchwork strategy that seems to be fueled by depth and talent as much as sheer relentlessness. And nobody embodies the latter more than Butler, who got to sit on the bench for all of 48 seconds Friday night. Halfway through the fourth quarter, he looked like he had lost his legs and would run out of steam just in time for LeBron to hit a dagger. Instead, Butler guarded LeBron down the stretch and matched the best player in the world shot for shot.
Butler and Co. are still on the brink, but there’s enough evidence by now to suggest that if anything, that’s where they are most comfortable. Robinson might not score 26 points on Sunday in Game 6, but it could be Tyler Herro who does so instead. With Davis not looking 100 percent after aggravating a heel injury in the second quarter, and Butler playing the part of an ironman who will not be denied, the one and possibly two games remaining feel like toss-ups.
Total points, NBA Finals Games 2-5:— Pablo S. Torre (@PabloTorre) October 10, 2020
Lakers 438, Heat 436
The Heat have figured something out since Game 2, when both Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic were out with injuries, and whatever they’ve discovered has changed the tenor of the series. Dragic’s return feels doubtful, but the longer the series goes, the more talk that there will be an attempted comeback. And even if he can’t play, the Heat continue to show that doubting them is a fool’s errand. They can beat the Lakers with what they have, and if the Lakers let this series go to a Game 7, they just might.
Maybe Rob Pelinka Was Right About Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Wednesday, October 7, 8:02 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope channeled Robert Horry and Derek Fisher in his brilliant Game 4 performance in the NBA Finals. He hit his first three 3-pointers and finished with 15 points and five assists on 6-of-12 shooting, including two key baskets to ice the game in the final three minutes:
We will NEVER forget these two shots from KCP. pic.twitter.com/mjgtL1FySc— Lakers Lead (@LakersLead) October 7, 2020
His final basket, a layup with 2:02 left in the fourth quarter, came when he blew past Duncan Robinson on a drive. KCP is exactly the type of two-way role player the Heat don’t have in their supporting cast. He can guard Robinson, but Robinson cannot guard him.
There’s a reason that Caldwell-Pope is third on the team in minutes (30.8 per game) in the Finals, behind only LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He’s doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Los Angeles on both ends of the floor, chasing Robinson and Tyler Herro around a million screens while providing crucial floor spacing on offense.
KCP’s playoff averages (10.1 points on 41.6 percent shooting and 2.1 rebounds per game) don’t jump off the page, but his value can be seen in three important stats. He’s shooting 38.5 percent from 3 on 5.5 attempts per game, averaging 1.0 steals, and handing out twice as many assists (1.4) as turnovers (0.7).
His secondary playmaking was a huge factor in Tuesday’s win. The Lakers don’t run a ton of plays for Caldwell-Pope, but they can count on him to read the defense and make the right pass when the ball is swung his way. Four of his five assists went to Davis, and he found his star big man all over the floor:
He’s a well-rounded player with no holes in his game, which becomes incredibly important at this stage of the playoffs. He has no obvious weakness for the Heat to expose. They can’t leave him open on the perimeter, run him off the 3-point line, or attack him on defense.
The contrast between KCP and his counterparts in Miami is glaring. Robinson, Herro, and Kendrick Nunn can all be exploited on defense, while Andre Iguodala doesn’t have to be guarded on offense. Jae Crowder is the closest thing to a two-way player among their role players, and he isn’t as good of a defender or as consistent of a shooter as Caldwell-Pope. Crowder has come back to Earth after a blistering start to the playoffs, shooting 30.6 percent from 3 on 7.2 attempts per game over the last two series.
After being a punching bag for disgruntled Lakers fans over the last few years, Caldwell-Pope has earned his stripes in the playoffs. He’s the perfect complementary piece to LeBron and Davis, and his salary for next season ($8.5 million) now looks like a huge bargain. He turned 27 in February and will be a critical part of their team for some time to come. Don’t be surprised if he ends up having a Horry or Fisher-like run of clutch shots over the next few seasons.
You might be surprised by KCP’s contributions in the Finals, but there was one man who saw it all coming. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka said it was like “bread came down from heaven” when he signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2017:
Rob Pelinka tried telling us that KCP was sent by God to save the Lakers pic.twitter.com/kiys9rVrec— LakeShowYo (@LakeShowYo) October 7, 2020
LeBron, AD, and … Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Have the Lakers on the Brink of a Title
Tuesday, October 6, 9:58 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: Two solid quarters from LeBron James and Anthony Davis were enough to get the Lakers a win against the Heat in Game 4, 102-96, to push L.A.’s series lead to 3-1. Don’t get me wrong. LeBron and AD were there in the first half. Physically, anyway. I swear I saw them running around. One even went to the free throw line a couple of times. They were forgettable, but who isn’t when put next to, um, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tuesday’s hero? (When Caldwell-Pope, who scored 10 points in the first quarter, used to play in Detroit, his initials—KCP—were fashioned into another nickname: Kid Can’t Play.)
The expectations are as low for KCP as they are high for LeBron and AD. But all three players cleared their respective bars.
On offense, LeBron and Davis returned to form in the second half, kicked off by James’s nine-point third quarter. When the duo is operating at the height of their powers (or even a rung or two below), there is no Jimmy Buckets or (Tyler) Herro Ball or Bam Adebayo combination that can stop the Lakers.
Jimmy Buckets wasn’t really a part of Game 4 because Davis stopped him at the door. The 22-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist near triple-double was the work of Jimmy Butler, an excellent player who somehow still left more to be desired. Not that you can blame him: It’s impossible to enter top gear when being guarded by Davis.
At the end of the third quarter, sideline reporter Rachel Nichols asked Erik Spoelstra if the Heat were conserving any energy for Game 5. The answer was no. “We’re emptying the tank,” Spo said. That game plan led to Herro frantically running infinity loops around the court on defense, hustling toward LeBron as if James didn’t have 55 pounds, four inches, and 15 years of experience over him. And that game plan led to Miami having its tank emptied by two full-speed quarters from LeBron and AD, zipped-tight defense, and this guy, Kid Can Play:
We will NEVER forget these two shots from KCP. pic.twitter.com/mjgtL1FySc— Lakers Lead (@LakersLead) October 7, 2020
The Lakers Must Adjust to Whichever Heat Team Shows Up in Game 4
Tuesday, October 6, 5:53 p.m. PT
Tjarks: The Heat have adopted a new identity after losing Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic to injuries in the NBA Finals. In their Game 3 win, they were a completely different team than the one that steamrolled through the East. Miami had to completely junk its offensive and defensive game plans. Dragic was the team’s leading scorer in the first three rounds of the playoffs, while Bam was its defensive anchor, as well as leading passer and rebounder.
Erik Spoelstra reshuffled his rotation to maximize Jimmy Butler. He’s using his star in a way that Tom Thibodeau would be proud of—letting him dominate the ball the entire game and barely taking him off the floor. Butler is averaging 32.5 points on 55.6 percent shooting, 13.0 assists, and 9.5 rebounds over the last two games, while sitting for a total of just six minutes.
The key to his success has been the amount of space that he has been playing in. Miami has split the center position between Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk, two stretch big men who have opened up the paint. Butler needs the room because he’s taken only one 3-pointer in the last two games. The on/off numbers for the Heat in games 2 and 3 show just how important spacing has become for them. The two players with the lowest net ratings in their rotation (Andre Iguodala and Solomon Hill) are their two worst shooters.
Miami’s problem is the consequences of that switch on the other end of the floor. Playing Olynyk and Leonard at center creates a gaping defensive hole for Anthony Davis and LeBron James to exploit. The Heat’s solution in Game 2 was to play zone, which didn’t work at all. They won Game 3 by getting in AD’s head, fronting him in the post, throwing double teams at him, and getting him in early foul trouble that prevented him from ever finding a rhythm.
The obvious adjustment for Frank Vogel in Game 4 is to take Dwight Howard out of the rotation, much like he did in the second-round series against the Rockets. He has no role in a series against a five-out team. He can’t guard Olynyk or Leonard at the 3-point line and he gets in the way of Davis and LeBron on offense. Howard has a net rating of minus-14.8 in 47 minutes in the Finals despite playing all of them with Davis, whose net rating skyrockets to plus-11.0 in 64 minutes without him.
Playing Howard less would also create more opportunities for Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma, who have both played well in the Finals. They are more versatile defenders who have been knocking down 3s and scoring over smaller Miami defenders. Their size is an issue for the Heat, who don’t have much length and athleticism on the perimeter outside of Butler.
Spoelstra has done an incredible job of getting his team back in the series despite two major injuries, but he hasn’t found a way to guard Davis other than having his players draw fouls on him. Empowering Davis is the key for Los Angeles in the Finals. The best way for Vogel to free him up is to spread the floor for him in the same way that Spoelstra has done for Butler. The Heat don’t have an answer for that unless Bam comes back.
Adebayo’s injury status hangs over this entire series. His return would not be all upside for Miami because it would compromise their spacing around Butler. The Heat already changed their identity without him over the last two games. The next challenge could be figuring out how to reintegrate him without impacting what they have done so well without him.
Jimmy Butler Is Prepared to Make This a Series All by Himself
Sunday, October 4, 8:27 p.m. PT
Paolo Uggetti: If the Miami Heat were going to get their much-needed miracle and turn a 2-0 NBA Finals into a competition, it was going to come in only one form: It was going to have to be loud, brash, and messy. It was going to require energy, fouls, and one last dash of that infamous Heat culture. It was going to take those intangibles, but not without plenty of the tangibles the Heat were missing in the first two games. Put more simply, it was going to have to come in a Jimmy Butler–sized package, one that was delivered promptly Sunday night and contained 40 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks in 45 minutes. The result was an infusion of energy that seemed to permeate the rest of his team—who were absent Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic for the second game in a row—and make them, at least for one night and one 115-104 win, the David to the Lakers’ Goliath.
40-point triple-double in a Finals game:— Zach Kram (@zachkram) October 5, 2020
Now, we have a series. And even if it is one that might ultimately end in a gentleman’s sweep, the Heat can now go back to Biscayne Bay without bowing their heads in complete disappointment. But here I am, doing once again what Jimmy himself warned us against. LeBron says he knew Miami wasn’t going to quit, and we should stop thinking they might. Sure, when Dragic and Adebayo were put on ice due to their injuries after Game 1, this felt like a lost series. In Game 2, that notion seemed to be confirmed. But still, Butler and Erik Spoelstra got in front of microphones and gave the kinds of quotes reserved for Friday Night Lights episodes.
“We’re still expecting to win,” Butler said after Game 1. “I have to impact the game more than I ever have before.”
“If you want something badly enough,” Spoelstra said after the Game 2 loss, “you’ll figure out how to overcome it.”
“Wanting it more” is a sports cliché for a reason, but it’s also hard to overstate how Butler’s play impacted the Heat on Sunday. While foul trouble turned the Lakers’ biggest advantage—Anthony Davis (15 points, five rebounds, three assists, and a minus-26)—into a ghost, Butler’s surprising playmaking parlayed with his incredible shotmaking (14-of-20 from the field and not a single 3!) opened up lanes for players like Kelly Olynyk to score 17 points off the bench. His relentlessness made up for both Tyler Herro’s and Duncan Robinson’s struggles, but he kept finding open shots long enough to eventually make some key ones. No other supporting Heat player scored more than Olynyk, but they didn’t need to. Butler channeled elimination-game LeBron and made Meyers Leonard’s seven points in 13 minutes both possible and nearly as important as any contribution.
Jimmy Butler is the first player to outscore, outrebound and out-assist LeBron James in a Finals game, including LeBron's teammates. Via Elias.— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpears) October 5, 2020
Without Adebayo and Dragic—both of whom now have a shot to return and really make this a series—the Heat are a shell of the team that looked like the best in the East. They have no center of gravity and no conductor; on Sunday Jimmy played the role of both. Everyone else got in line behind him and followed suit. It was the only way this was going to work. Postgame, Spoelstra put it best: “How else do you say it but Jimmy Effin’ Butler?”
The Heat’s Zone Allows LeBron to Get in His Zone
Saturday, October 3, 8:17 a.m. PT
Tjarks: The Heat almost had no choice but to play zone in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Anthony Davis dominated Game 1, and the Heat’s only player with a chance of guarding him (Bam Adebayo) was out with a shoulder injury. But all that defensive adjustment did was allow the other half of the Lakers’ one-two punch to carve them up. LeBron James shredded Miami’s zone Friday, finishing with 33 points on 14-of-25 shooting, nine rebounds, and nine assists in a 124-114 victory.
Miami confounded Boston with that defense in the Eastern finals. But it was dead on arrival against LeBron. He’s the perfect counter to it. His combination of size (6-foot-9 and 250 pounds), passing ability, and basketball IQ makes it easy for him to beat any zone. There’s a reason that an NBA executive told my colleague Rob Mahoney that LeBron is “as big a basketball savant as has ever existed in the league.” He put on a passing clinic in Game 2, getting into the open areas of the floor and then quickly moving the ball to find the open man:
The other key to cracking a zone is having the playmaker in the middle also be a threat to score. That’s how LeBron closed out Game 2:
It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to shoot over a zone. And the Lakers did attempt a Finals record 47 3-pointers in Game 2. But passing the ball around the perimeter without purpose can also play into the hands of the defense. They can always extend farther out on the perimeter and contest the shot. The goal for the offense should be to pass the ball behind the perimeter defenders into the middle of the floor. Multidimensional forwards, not guards with shooting range, are a zone defense’s Kryptonite. That’s why the Lakers managed to score 124 points on Friday while only shooting 34 percent from 3.
Frank Vogel staggered the minutes of LeBron and Rajon Rondo so that one of the two was always on the court to pick apart the Heat. Rondo had no trouble attacking the zone either, finishing with 16 points, 10 assists, and 4 rebounds. It was a basketball clinic from two of the smartest players in the NBA. Miami cannot rely as heavily on a zone in Game 3 and expect anything to change.
The good news is that it may not have to. Adebayo, whose absence forced the Heat to lean so heavily on the zone, said that he should be able to play in Game 3. The Heat’s best chance of getting back into this series is to have him guard Davis, something they avoided in Game 1, and hope that he can contain the Lakers’ big man and allow everyone else to stay on their man.
Miami will probably still need to use the zone as a change-up, particularly when Bam is off the floor. But the team won’t be able to win with the zone as its primary defense, like it did against Boston. LeBron is just too big and too skilled. It’s been the story of his entire career.
The Lakers Felt Inevitable In Game 2
Friday, October 2, 9:53 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: There is a fitting description for the Heat’s position in the 2020 NBA Finals in, of all places, a book defending Karl Marx’s ideals: “If you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was.” Without Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, Miami was never going to pull off an upset in Game 2. But a team steered by Jimmy Butler and fueled by the illustrious “Heat culture” knows nothing other than to believe that they can alter the inevitable.
But what is to be done about Anthony Davis? His game is, in a word, inevitable. Some shooters, like Steph Curry, are remarkable because, at release, their shots seem impractical, but Davis is an awe-inspiring figure because none of his makes feel impractical. His body, when protecting the basket and lunging toward it on the other end of the court, stretches out like a unibrowed Vitruvian man. And on Friday night it became clear: Miami has no interior defender capable of stopping him. Davis is somehow a power player and a finesse figure, versatile and specialized, supporting actor and leading man.
ANTHONY DAVIS: UNGUARDABLE pic.twitter.com/CKf4it3aBJ— Top Ball Coverage (@TopBallCoverage) October 3, 2020
Davis’s 32 points and 14 rebounds on Friday were inevitable. The Heat’s 124-114 loss was inevitable, despite scoring spurts that dragged them back within 10 as late as 4:51 in the fourth quarter. Miami was missing two starters. The team flourished (temporarily) early in Game 1 because of Dragic and Bam, the former who targeted and capitalized on Los Angeles’ less flexible defenders by driving inside and setting up his young teammates ready to pull up on the perimeter. Without Bam, Miami was helpless in defending the rim and the paint. In Game 2, the Lakers outrebounded the Heat 44-37.
Is a sweep inevitable? Resorting back to zone defense won’t work for Miami, but searching for a funky alternative is a silly exercise. No one player or wall of players is going to deter the probable Finals MVP. By the way, 377 words have been written in this humble blog and not one has contained any part of the name “LeBron James” (33 points, nine assists, and nine rebounds, which put him fourth all-time in total boards during the Finals with 508, passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) Yeah, the greatest player in the world is here, too. Miami isn’t the type of team to go quietly, but they’re up against two players that can handle a kicking and screaming opponent without much trouble.
Bam and Goran Out for Game 2
Friday, October 2, 3:26 p.m.
Uggetti: The Miami Heat will have to try to even the NBA Finals Friday without both arguably their best player and their second-leading scorer in the playoffs. After being diagnosed with a neck sprain following the Game 1 loss to the Lakers, Bam Adebayo is reportedly still struggling with pain and a lack of mobility, and will miss Game 2. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, there’s hope that Adebayo could be healthy enough to play in Game 3 on Sunday. Goran Dragic is also reportedly out with the torn plantar fascia that he suffered in Game 1.
No Adebayo means the Heat will be without their anchor on both ends of the floor. He’s the only player Miami has who can theoretically keep up with Anthony Davis on defense, and also one of its most versatile players on offense. In the conference finals, Adebayo averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists along with nearly two steals and a block. But in Game 1 of the Finals, he played only 21 minutes and was a shell of himself due to the injury. The Lakers’ size advantage was clear even while Adebayo was on the floor. Without him, the Heat will likely be dwarfed even more. Erik Spoelstra will have to reach deep into his bag of tricks and come up with weird lineups, including likely dusting off both Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk.
Dragic, meanwhile, is averaging 20 points a game this postseason and has at times been a propelling force on offense for the Heat. The loss of the 34-year-old likely means more Tyler Herro, who scored 14 points in Game 1 but was also a whopping minus-35 for the game, and more Kendrick Nunn, who played 20 minutes on Wednesday after being relegated to spot duty throughout the playoffs. With more of former starters Nunn and Leonard, it’s possible the Heat may start to look more like the maybe-contender they were this regular season and less like the world beaters they were in the postseason.
That Adebayo isn’t lost for the whole series may be the only flicker of hope for the Heat. Whether Miami is able to steal this game or not, there’s now at least a chance that it’ll see one of the two starters on the floor again this series.
Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo Are Doubtful for Game 2
Thursday, October 1, 1:24 p.m.
O’Shaughnessy: Miami’s underdog status was further solidified on Thursday as the team announced that starters Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo are both “doubtful” for Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Friday. Their absence strips the Heat of scoring, passing, interior protection, and a chance. It’s only Game 2, but another uphill battle is the last thing Miami needs.
Jimmy Butler, who rolled his left ankle in Game 1, was wearing a wrap when speaking to media on Thursday, but said he’ll play on Friday.
Dragic, suffering from torn plantar fascia in his left foot, might not return the entire series. His status as “doubtful” instead of declared out for good is surprising and goes against precedent with the injury. Across sports, the consensus is that recovering from a torn plantar fascia takes weeks. If not shutting down Dragic is purely a morale move, I support it. Knowing that Dragic won’t return is knowing this all could end very soon. The Heat have suffered in the playoffs when Dragic is substituted off the court and replaced by Kendrick Nunn—who, despite starting 67 games this regular season, has been an abomination in the bubble. Dragic is the team’s second-best scorer and its mindful, subtle orchestrator, picking out the weak spots (Dwight Howard) to drive against, calmly laying it in or handing it off.
The Dragic-Adebayo pick-and-roll was extremely effective against the Lakers early on in Game 1, but both parties could be missing from Game 2. Fortunately, Adebayo’s diagnosis of a neck strain leaves much more room for hope that he’ll recover quickly; a neck strain doesn’t indicate the same finality that a torn plantar fascia typically does, and Adebayo finished the series against the Celtics despite straining his shoulder in Game 4. But without Adebayo, Anthony Davis can do whatever he pleases inside. (He still can even with Adebayo active, but to a lesser degree.) And if the Heat remain committed to small ball even without Adebayo, its basket will be the most exposed it’s been all season—against the Lakers, in the Finals.
Miami Will Have to Figure Things Out Without Goran Dragic
Wednesday, September 30, 9:44 p.m. PT
Uggetti: The Heat were still processing the aftermath of being blown out by the Lakers in Wednesday’s Game 1 when the news came down that Goran Dragic had suffered a plantar tear in his left foot during the first half of the game. Dragic didn’t return to the game and was reportedly seen walking out of the arena postgame. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski also reported, Dragic was able to put pressure on the foot and his return to the series has not been ruled out.
Joe Johnson suffered a torn plantar fascia in his foot during G2 of the 2013 first round vs. Chicago. Johnson would go on to receive an injection in his foot before each game. He would struggle shooting 25.6% from 3 and 41.7% from the field. 2/14 in a G7 loss.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) October 1, 2020
It's a torn left plantar fascia for Goran Dragic, source tells AP, after he went through evaluation for much of the last couple hours.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) October 1, 2020
For reference: Udonis Haslem once came back from one of those in a week. Other guys take much longer.
Quicker turnaround times for games in the bubble could mean Dragic would miss at least a game, even if he was to return this series. Miami can’t afford to wait on his health, and their options to replace his minutes are limited. Dragic paces the Heat and fuels their ball movement. He’s become one of Miami’s three best players in the bubble. Erik Spoelstra could give Rookie of the Year runner-up Kendrick Nunn some of Dragic’s time. Nunn hasn’t been used too often in the bubble, though he did have 18 points in 20 minutes off the bench in Game 1. Miami could also turn the ball over to Jimmy Butler and make him their de facto point guard. Regardless, Spoelstra will likely need to find lineups that feature a bit more size (hello, Meyers Leonard?), something they clearly lacked Wednesday night.
“Be ready to go with or without Goran,” Butler said postgame once he heard about Dragic’s injury. “We are capable of it. We have to be capable of it.”
The Lakers Created a Nightmare for Miami in Game 1
Wednesday, September 30, 9:28 p.m. PT
Uggetti: Until tonight, the Miami Heat had been charging through the playoffs like a March Madness Cinderella. Few teams in the bubble had their cocktail of culture, depth, and synergy, and the combination had been good enough to make them—a 5-seed—Finals-bound. But in a 116-98 Game 1 loss to the Lakers, all of the good vibes they’d built up in the past few weeks fizzled out in a dramatic, disastrous performance in which everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.
For a blip, or more precisely, a quarter, Game 1 looked like a toss-up. The Lakers were up 31-28 after one, but that close score was a mirage. From the 5:38 mark of the first quarter, when Miami led 23-10, the Lakers outscored the Heat 55-25. By the half, L.A. was up double digits; the windmill dunk LeBron James downed after the buzzer was the game’s dagger in spirit.
This didn't count but umm ...— #RingerNBA (@ringernba) October 1, 2020
WHAT THE HELL LEBRON??? pic.twitter.com/itFhDK4Rxy
It wasn’t just that the Lakers got Bam Adebayo into quick foul trouble in the first half, or that their small lineup with Markieff Morris was still bigger and faster than Miami. It wasn’t just that L.A. improbably hit 40 percent of their 3s after being a subpar 3-point shooting team in the playoffs, or that Tyler Herro was an abysmal minus-30 in the first half. It was that, for everything Miami messed up on the court, there was also plenty outside of their control that went wrong.
In the second quarter, Jimmy Butler rolled his ankle, and though he returned and kept playing, he was hobbling well into the fourth quarter. When the second half started, Goran Dragic was nowhere to be found: It turned out he had suffered a plantar tear in his left foot during the first half, an injury that may end his season. And in the third quarter, Adebayo hurt his shoulder—the same one he hurt in the conference finals—and didn’t return to the game with what was called a shoulder strain. (The X-rays on Adebayo’s shoulder were negative.)
To recap: The Heat were bludgeoned on the court by a better team and their three best players suffered injuries. That’s not exactly how Miami wanted to start off a series against LeBron and Anthony Davis. It’s not all doom and gloom for the Heat just yet, though. The Lakers’ 3-point shooting is going to regress because, well, it has to—they’re averaging 35.8 percent from deep in the postseason. Meanwhile, Miami’s own shooting (31 percent from 3, 43 percent from the field) should get a boost. Yet it’s hard to watch what transpired in Game 1 and think that the Heat can win four games in this series without some major adjustments and a truckload of good breaks. Before tip off, this series may have seemed close, but after just one game, it looks more lopsided than expected, and, for Miami, it could get much worse.
The Series-Changing Move That Catapulted the Heat to the Finals
Monday, September 28, 7:59 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: Andre Iguodala came up big for his team on the biggest stage, like he has done so many times in the past. He scored 15 points on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting, including 4-of-4 from 3, to go along with three rebounds, two steals, and one assist to help the Heat close out the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern finals. Iguodala also had the team’s second-highest plus-minus (plus-20) in 27 minutes.
It was an amazing turnaround for a player who looked like he had lost a step after coming over in a midseason trade. Iguodala sat out the first half of the season in Memphis, and there were concerns about how much gas the 36-year-old had left in the tank after five straight trips to the NBA Finals with Golden State. His offensive explosion on Sunday was his highest-scoring game of the season.
Erik Spoelstra changed the course of the series with a key lineup adjustment after Game 3, which Boston dominated in Gordon Hayward’s return. Spoelstra shortened his rotation, benching Kelly Olynyk, Kendrick Nunn, and Derrick Jones Jr., and increased Iguodala’s playing time from 9.7 minutes in the first three games to 24.8 over the last three.
Iguodala also changed positions, taking over for Olynyk as Bam Adebayo’s backup at the 5. That switch eliminated the biggest hole in Miami’s rotation. It went from getting destroyed when Bam was off the floor in Games 1-3 (net rating of minus-28.9 in 33 minutes) to destroying Boston when he sat in Games 4-6 (plus-26.2 in 25 minutes).
The difference was all Iguodala. Unlike Olynyk, the 16-year veteran is an elite defender who can match up with players at all five positions. He can switch screens and stay in front of smaller guards, hold up in the post against big men, and make help-side plays in a zone. Iguodala is also a crafty passer with the ability to make plays on the move and find cutters. He essentially became a smaller version of Bam, allowing the Heat to stick with their scheme for all 48 minutes. Look at how patiently he works the two-man game with Jimmy Butler in this sequence:
Brad Stevens didn’t adjust until it was too late. He stuck with two traditional big men—Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter—even though they didn’t have a matchup advantage on Iguodala. Theis, who is only 2 inches taller, couldn’t score over him, and is a significantly worse perimeter defender and playmaker than Iggy. Kanter could to a degree, but gave those points back on defense. Miami ran Kanter and Theis through screens on and off the ball, knowing that would force Boston to send help and create openings elsewhere. Tyler Herro mercilessly exploited the Celtics’ inability to extend out on the perimeter throughout the series.
Stevens’s adjustment in Game 6 was keeping Theis and Kanter in the paint and daring Igoudala to shoot. It was the same way defenses used to guard him during his days in Golden State. But it backfired spectacularly. While Iguodala isn’t a great shooter, he’s a clutch player who comes up big when it matters most:
The risk-reward didn’t make sense for Boston. Stevens was doing everything he could to hide Theis and Kanter on defense even though they weren’t giving him much on offense. He finally made the right adjustment in the second half, using Grant Williams as a small-ball 5 who could switch screens and prevent Iguodala from getting loose on the perimeter. The Celtics went on an ensuing 22-12 run with Williams to regain the lead in the fourth before Stevens went back to Theis for a fateful minute and a half stretch. Bam had six points and one assist in four possessions with Theis on him, giving the Heat a lead they never gave back.
The center matchup ultimately decided this series. Stevens got all the downsides of staying big against Bam without any of the upsides because their big men couldn’t guard him anyway. Spoelstra figured out his blindspot and used Iguodala like a mini-Bam to exploit that matchup for all 48 minutes. He won almost every lineup decision on the margins in this series, allowing the Heat to upset a Celtics team with more individual talent.
None of it would have been possible without Iguodala. Miami’s decision to trade for him at the deadline and give him a $15 million extension raised eyebrows around the league. But they knew his playmaking, defensive versatility, and experience would be valuable at some point in the playoffs. He’s going to his sixth straight Finals, and he wasn’t just along for the ride. The Heat wouldn’t be there without him. It’s a fitting capstone to a Hall of Fame career.
The Celtics Invited Bam Adebayo to End Their Season. He Obliged.
September 27, 8:14 p.m. PT
Uggetti: With 6:53 left in Sunday night’s Game 6 and the Celtics up one point, Brad Stevens subbed Daniel Theis into the game for Marcus Smart. With that one single move, Stevens may as well have started packing his suitcase and heading back to Boston. He couldn’t have predicted exactly what would happen, but by putting Theis out there, he gave the best player of the night the equivalent of a bullfighter’s red muleta.
Bam Adebayo immediately went to work. First, he downsized the 6-foot-8 Theis with a drive-in dunk that left the rim trembling. Two points. On the next possession, he froze him with a short jumper that went in and drew a helpless Theis’s fifth foul. Three more points. After Jayson Tatum (who was 9-of-26 from the field) missed a shot, Adebayo went at the rim again, this time drawing the defense and finding a wide-open Jimmy Butler for a layup. Two more points. Bam—yes, he’s earned one-name status by now—wasn’t done. He drove again and drew Theis’s sixth foul. By the time rookie Grant Williams took his place, only one minute and 22 seconds of actual gameplay had passed and the Heat were up by only a single point, but the game, which ended 125-113, had already been lost. Bam had taken over, Miami had its much-needed boost of energy, and the Celtics had no answer.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens on where team came up short vs Heat in Game 6: "Adebayo deciding he's just going to drive the ball put us in a bind with the shooters around them. Their physicality is something we hadn't talked about enough."— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) September 28, 2020
The Heat’s playoff run has featured a steady diet of Bam. But while Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, and Jimmy Butler have all had their moments, there had yet to be a true Bam game when his regular-season exploits were highlighted on a bigger stage. When the Heat needed it the most, Game 6 became that. In 39 minutes, Bam scored 32 points on just 15 shots. He took 11 free throws, added 14 rebounds and five assists, and saved Miami from blowing another second-half lead and having to play a Game 7. It was a stat line that no Heat player had replicated in the postseason since LeBron James—a superstar stat line from a superstar that, unlike LeBron, few predicted would turn into this type of player.
One of those people who visualized Bam’s success and willed it into existence was Pat Riley, who watched from the stands as the Heat celebrated a Finals berth—their first since LeBron’s departure in 2014. The story lines going into a Heat-Lakers final are enough to fill daytime debate shows for weeks. LeBron will be vying for a fourth ring against the second team he left. It’s the favorite vs. the franchise no one thought would be back to the mountaintop this quickly. The Heat’s return to this peak is a testament to what Riley and Co. have built, sanded over, and revived. And when that culture results in what Bam did in the fourth, it almost looks unstoppable. But I suspect Anthony Davis will have something to say about that.
LeBron and the Lakers Put an End to the Nuggets’ Playoff Run
Saturday, September 26, 10:03 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: Entering Game 5, it seemed far more likely that the Lakers would continue their streak of beating 2020 playoff opponents in five games than the Nuggets would theirs, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. The predictable outcome proved predictable for a reason: Los Angeles closed out the Western Conference finals with a 117-107 win in Game 5 on Saturday, ending a delightful Nuggets run.
The general NBA fan’s postseason love affair with Denver—particularly Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic—was exciting and intense, and, we can only hope, is something that continues long into the future. Sometimes you adore players because you have to. They’re on your team, and their success is yours. But sometimes an outsider sweeps you off your feet. That was Murray and Jokic this playoffs: mesmerizing as a duo on the court and endearing in joint postgame interviews. We watched as they grew in real time. They overachieved against the Jazz, then embarrassed the Clippers, rendering the once-Finals favorites helpless.
These were not your regular-season Nuggets. Yet Game 5 never really felt like it had a chance of going Denver’s way. Murray, hobbling around the court on a bum ankle, was held to 19 points. Denver was outrebounded and shot astray from the perimeter, shooting 26.7 percent as a group. Nikola Jokic was in foul trouble the entire game and limited to just 29 minutes. Mason Plumlee wasn’t equipped for the series. And, of course, the Nuggets were, after all, playing against the league’s best tandem.
Where Denver defied expectations, LeBron James and Anthony Davis lived up to theirs. Anything less draws criticism—some of it fair. (Just in Game 4, I wrote about how deeply concerning 35-year-old LeBron’s energy level was.) It is totally believable that LeBron could close a series like he did Game 5, with a 38-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. He’s the best player of this generation and maybe ever. But that expectation of excellence doesn’t make these performances any less spectacular— particularly the four consecutive buckets James sank with less than four minutes remaining, putting the Nuggets away for good and sealing the Lakers’ first Finals appearance since they won it all in 2010.
Davis, on the other hand, has never made the Finals. The furthest he’s competed is the second round. This is only the third postseason of his eight-year career, though the sentiment was always that should he ever get some real help, AD could live up to his potential. (In Game 5, he certainly did—27 points with 50 percent shooting and a perfect showing at the line.) LeBron is as helpful a partner as Davis could wish for. The Finals are his chance to be a franchise redeemer (not quite in the way the Pelicans had hoped when they drafted him in 2012), LeBron’s chance to inch closer to his fourth ring, and L.A.’s chance to argue that Lakers exceptionalism never disappears for very long. Ugh.
The Celtics’ Glut of Talent Is Starting to Overwhelm the Heat
Saturday, September 26, 6:35 a.m. PT
Tjarks: Boston’s talent kept its season alive with a Game 5 win over Miami. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 58 points, while Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart chipped in 15 assists in secondary roles. The Celtics didn’t even need that much help from Gordon Hayward, who has been turned into a $32 million role player now that he’s coming off the bench.
Having that much talent is an incredible luxury. Tatum, Brown, and Hayward are all 6-foot-8 wings with the ability to defend multiple positions, create their own offense, and knock down 3s. An NBA team is lucky if they have one of those types of players. The Celtics have three. Walker is a four-time All-Star and one of the most deadly 1-on-1 scorers in the league. Smart is a first-team All-Defensive selection who plays bigger than his size and has blossomed into an offensive force, averaging 14.1 points and 4.8 assists per game in the playoffs.
Getting five players with that much skill on the same team is hard enough. Doing it when they are all in their athletic prime is almost impossible. Hayward and Walker both turned 30 this season. The rest are in their 20s. Boston is an absolute juggernaut of a team.
As great as Miami’s zone defenses have been in the East finals, the team has been relying on them for the same underlying reason that most NCAA teams use them: They don’t have nearly as much talent as their opponent. Their best scorers cannot match up with Boston’s best scorers. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are elite two-way players, but Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro are giving up a lot of size and speed to their counterparts. It’s why Toronto played so much zone against Boston in the second round, and it didn’t even have to worry about Hayward, who was still sidelined with an ankle injury.
The Heat, who hold a 3-2 series lead on the Celtics, have been winning with team basketball on both ends of the floor and timely plays in crunch time. Their zones have kept the Celtics off-balance, while their motion offense has created a ton of open 3s and cuts for their role players. Erik Spoelstra has squeezed every last bit of production out of his team.
But all you need to know about the difference between these teams is their margins of victory. Miami’s three wins have come by a total of 11 points. Boston’s two have been by 24. Hayward’s return in Game 3 has covered for a lot of questionable decisions made by Brad Stevens. Spoelstra conjured up a win against a full-strength Celtics team in Game 4 by shortening his rotation. But his margin of error is nonexistent, which is why the Heat have been blown out in two of three games since Hayward came back. Spoelstra has done all that he can to get his team to the brink of the NBA Finals. He needs his best player to carry them over the finish line.
Butler, who is averaging 18.4 points on 43.6 percent shooting and 4.4 assists per game in the series, has been oddly passive with the ball. He hasn’t led the Heat in scoring once in five games. Butler has been content to run the offense, set up his teammates, and bide his time until the fourth quarter. Bam has been the Heat’s best two-way player in the series, while Dragic and Herro have been doing the heavy lifting on offense, and their shooters have been on fire. But that formula can only take them so far. Miami shot 7-for-36 for 3 (14.9 percent) on Friday. The well has gone dry.
Butler came to Miami because he thought the franchise would put the best infrastructure around him to compete for a title. They have more than lived up to their end of the bargain. Now they need their franchise player to do the same on the biggest stage. Stars become more important the deeper you go into the playoffs. The Heat need Butler to step up and be the best player on the floor to earn a closeout win.
Jayson Tatum Saved Boston’s Season In Game 5. Now He Has To Do It Two More Times.
Friday, September 25, 9:16 p.m. PT
Uggetti: Just two years ago, Jayson Tatum announced himself to the rest of the league with a deafening dunk on LeBron James in the middle of an Eastern Conference playoff game. It was a perfect manifestation of the kind of player he was coming into the NBA—full of raw athleticism and sky-high potential. In the two years since, Tatum has grown into a borderline two-way superstar. The goalposts have shifted: Now, the Celtics need him to be their best player to have a shot at a title. To that end, Tatum was inconsistent in the first four games of this season’s conference finals against the Heat, but in a Game 5 121-108 win, he delivered.
Friday night was a complete performance that highlighted Tatum’s progression as a player. After scoring only 10 points in the first half of Game 5, Tatum seemed to shake out of his funk at halftime and activate the aggressive mode that turns him from a glorified role player into a no. 1 option. In a 41-point Celtics third quarter, Tatum spearheaded the burst by scoring 17 points and flipping a seven-point Heat to a double-digit Celtics lead, which they didn’t give up the rest of the way.
Tatum finished with 30 points on the night, but those 17 in the third quarter came in an impressive, seven-minute flurry that saved the series for Boston. The 22-year-old did it by repeatedly attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line, something he’d done sparingly earlier in the series. Tatum got to the line eight times in the quarter, mixing in a couple of 3s and impressive off-balance shots, and it was enough to put Miami on its heels. Though his jump shot has always been smooth, Tatum’s game reaches another level when he falls in love with the rim. On Friday, he got to the line 14 times—a mark he reached just two times previously all season.
The Celtics need more of those performances to come in the immediate future. Despite the talk of Boston’s wing versatility and depth, in playoff moments like these when pressure builds, every team needs a superstar who can create and make shots off the dribble and get to the line as a way to control the pace. In Game 5, Tatum was just that. Now, for the Celtics to stay alive, he’ll need to be that guy two more times.
Rajon Rondo Is Playing Just Like His Coach. No, Not Frank Vogel.
Friday, September 25, 8:00 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: Rajon Rondo had yet another strong performance in the Lakers’ win over the Nuggets in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. This has been going on for far too long to be a fluke. Playoff Rondo is real. And he’s spectacular.
Rondo became a journeyman once the Celtics traded him in 2014, playing for five teams in six seasons and not living up to expectations at almost every stop. His jumper was as streaky as ever, his defense cratered, and he spent a lot of time hunting for assists without actually improving the offense. The same thing happened when he got to Los Angeles two years ago. The Lakers were barely above water (plus-1.4 in 984 minutes) when he was on the floor this season.
But Rondo did show signs of being able to flip the switch in the playoffs. He powered the Bulls to a 2-0 lead on the Celtics in 2017 before being injured, and was a key contributor with the Pelicans when they blitzed the Blazers in 2018. Now he’s doing it on the biggest stage in the NBA, playing huge roles against the Rockets and Nuggets after missing their first-round series against the Blazers with a broken thumb.
Rondo has been doing a little bit of everything. He’s playing defense again, competing on the boards, running the offense when LeBron is out, knocking down 3s, and providing timely buckets. On Thursday, he finished with 11 points (4-of-6 shooting), 7 assists, and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes.
He’s playing the same role Jason Kidd, now a Lakers assistant coach, did in his second stint with the Mavs. Rondo wasn’t as good as Kidd in his prime, but both are former All-NBA point guards who turned themselves into elite role players on title contenders at the end of their careers. Look at Rondo’s playoff numbers this season in comparison to Kidd’s when the Mavs won a championship in 2011:
Rondo-Kidd playoff comparisons
Kidd was incredible on defense for Dallas, guarding players like Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James. Rondo has been doing the same thing in the last two rounds, taking turns on Westbrook, James Harden, and Jamal Murray. Like Kidd, he’s a big point guard with an ideal combination of length (6-foot-9 wingspan), strength, basketball IQ, and tenacity that allows him to match up with bigger wings. No opponent could bully either.
The question for the Lakers is whether Rondo’s 3-point shot will hold up. Both Kidd and Rondo were streaky jump shooters when they were younger, but the former proved himself as an extremely reliable spot-up shooter during his time in Dallas. Defenses will continue to leave Rondo (31.6 percent career 3-point shooter) open on the perimeter, if for no other reason than it’s better than letting LeBron and Anthony Davis play 1-on-1 in the rim.
But while outside shooting may eventually regress to the mean, the rest of Rondo’s performance seems fairly sustainable. Rondo has been the Lakers’ third-best player in many games over the last few weeks, and has been a fixture in crunch time. He’s one of only six players in their rotation with a positive net rating (plus-2.1 in 94 minutes) against Denver.
This may not be a one-time deal, either. Rondo is 34, three years younger than Kidd was during most of the 2010-11 season. He could be doing this for a long time to come, especially since he knows how to ration his energy during the regular season. Unlikely as it may seem, Playoff Rondo may end up being one of the key pillars of the LeBron and Davis era.
The Lakers Have the Nuggets Right Where They Want Them—and Right Where They Don’t
Thursday, September 24, 9:55 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: The Lakers somehow have the Nuggets both exactly where they want them, and exactly where L.A. should be most afraid. After a 114-108 Lakers win on Thursday, L.A. holds a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference finals—but that’s familiar territory for the Nuggets. Just a month ago, Denver was down 3-1 in the opening round of the playoffs against Utah. The Nuggets went on to win the following three games to advance, but in the next round, they fell into another 3-1 hole against the Clippers. Denver managed to climb out again, though, and in the process became the first team in NBA playoffs history to come back from consecutive 3-1 deficits.
LeBron James knows about coming back from a 3-1 deficit. His 2016 Cavs team practically trademarked it, stunning the Warriors into such submission that they signed a free agent so big it made them foolproof, LeBron-proof, 3-and-1-proof. So far, no team has been 3-and-1-proof against Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic (and sometimes Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, or Monte Morris). Watching Game 4 was watching LeBron process that truth in real time:
I wonder if he could tell that Murray’s move was identical to Michael Jordan’s iconic layup in real time. Do you recognize tributes to GOATs if they’re happening against you? LeBron is rarely on the receiving end; typically he’s the one being honored in side-by-side videos comparing young players’ attempts to his vintage plays, not the one disrespected in the same frame. He wrapped Game 4 with 26 points, eight assists, and nine rebounds, a handful of shots for which he settled, and some egregious fouls (that weren’t called) late in the game.
Low-power mode LeBron is something we’ve grown accustomed to the past couple of seasons. First he conserved energy by driving less, then came the notorious pull-up 3s; later, he simply began walking more on the court. LeBron’s body language—the lumbering handful of steps he takes before breaking into a run, the now-permanent furrowed expression—is that of a very tired man. One who is 35, not 30.
LeBron’s exhaustion is juxtaposed this series with Murray’s indefatigable animation. Murray doesn’t have to be as measured with his energy, which is apparent with each ridiculous attempt at the basket. He shoots from all angles like a young man not yet cynical about the limits of space and gravity, a happy-go-lucky guard making this entire playoffs thing really difficult for the greatest player who’s ever lived.
Murray nearly led all players on Thursday night with 32 points, outdone only by Anthony Davis, who finished with 34. The Nuggets’ 23-year-old likely would’ve topped AD had LeBron not switched onto him with five minutes left in the fourth. Twice Murray tried to make his way to the basket; twice LeBron bodied him out of it. The Lakers should feel fortunate that their adopted legend still had the energy left to handle Murray (read: blatantly foul without repercussion), but it just might be a long series. That’s how the Nuggets like it.
The Celtics Are Getting Outplayed—and Outmaneuvered—by the Heat
Thursday, September 24, 8:58 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: Erik Spoelstra has been one step ahead of Brad Stevens in the East finals. Boston had seemingly swung the tide with a dominant win in Game 3 following the return of Gordon Hayward. But Spoelstra made all the right adjustments in Miami’s 112-109 victory in Game 4 on Wednesday, giving them a commanding 3-1 lead.
The most important tweak Spo made was shortening his rotation. He went from playing 10 guys in the first three games to just seven in Game 4 (not counting four minutes for Solomon Hill). The Heat had a net rating below minus-20 in the series when Kendrick Nunn, Derrick Jones Jr., or Kelly Olynyk saw the floor. None played on Wednesday.
The benefit isn’t just playing his weakest players less. It’s playing his best guys more. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic, and Tyler Herro were all on the floor longer than they were in the first three games of the series, while Andre Iguodala played almost as many minutes (27) as he had in the previous games combined (29). Iguodala was more effective than Olynyk as a small-ball 5 against the Celtics, and his lack of shooting was less of an issue without another nonshooter (like Jones) next to him. Iggy’s not the same player that he was at Golden State. Spoelstra has had to be creative to squeeze some production out of the 36-year-old.
Stevens has not been able to match his counterpart. He went to an eight-man rotation in Game 4 but didn’t play his five best players together (Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown) until crunch time. That lineup has been extremely effective in the series, with a net rating of plus-58.1 in 11 minutes. The problem is that Stevens has been focusing too much on what they do poorly instead of what they do well.
The benefits of that lineup are twofold. It’s harder to zone a five-man unit with that many shooters and playmakers, which has been a staple of the Miami defense. And it’s easier to switch pick-and-rolls involving Bam Adebayo, the foundation of the Heat’s offense, with a more mobile defender like Brown or Hayward on him. Going small against Bam exposes his inability to create his own shot, the biggest weakness in his game.
Stevens also isn’t embracing what makes that group special even when he does use them. There were two critical breakdowns in the fourth quarter when the smaller Celtics lineup trapped a pick-and-roll with Bam as the screener, giving him easy 4-on-3 plays at the basket. These coverages defeat the whole point of Boston going small:
Stevens has stuck too long with Daniel Theis, a good player in a bad matchup this series. The Celtics center is typically hanging back in the paint when his man screens on the perimeter, allowing the Heat guards to get open jumpers and driving lanes, while also not threatening them on offense. Herro (37 points in 35 minutes) was incredible in Game 4 in part because so many of his baskets came directly off breakdowns involving Theis:
Boston’s normal starting lineup, with Theis instead of Hayward, has a net rating of minus-8.7 in 61 minutes against Miami. It is bleeding points on both ends of the floor and its coach isn’t doing anything to stop it. It’s not that the Celtics should never play bigger lineups. But they should use Grant Williams when they do.
There are a lot of little decisions in the Celtics’ rotation that could be cleaned up, while the Heat are pitching a near-perfect game. Here’s how you know something is wrong. Both teams have a net rating of exactly 0.0 in the series. They have played to a draw and yet Miami is up 3-1. These types of series are won in the margins. Spoelstra has the edge in all of them.
Miami Already Has One Foot in the Finals
Wednesday, September 23, 9:43 p.m. PT
Uggetti: The Miami Heat are one game away from the NBA Finals. Not many people saw that coming before the season, or even prior to the restart, but Miami has looked every part of a contender in the bubble. Much of the rhetoric around this year’s Eastern Conference finals revolved around the fact that Boston had a more talented team than Miami. But four games in, it’s impossible to deny what’s right in front of our eyes: The Heat have just as much talent as the Celtics and are using it more effectively.
Miami’s talent synthesis was on full display in Wednesday’s pivotal Game 4. Whereas Boston has been a team mostly buoyed by known quantities like Kemba Walker and stars in the making like Jayson Tatum, Miami has established stars, young guys on the rise, and, for now, perfect chemistry. For every great Jimmy Butler performance, there’s a Tyler Herro game waiting to be unleashed. And for every Butler Instagram post about Herro, there’s a quote from Herro about Butler:
Herro on Heat Live Postgame: “I more wanna do it for Jimmy (Butler), though... He hasn’t been to the Finals. I wanna do it for him... He’s been a great big brother for me since I’ve been in Miami, and I know how much it means for him to win. And I wanna help him get there.”— Izzy Gutierrez (@IzGutierrez) September 24, 2020
Game 4’s 112-109 victory was the perfect time for Herro to turn his right arm into a flamethrower and score 37 points off the bench not just by draining 3s (five of the Heat’s 10) but by freezing the Celtics’ defense at every level and becoming the best player on the floor. Herro played 36 minutes or more only on six occasions in the regular season, but the Heat needed every one of his 36 on Wednesday. Erik Spoelstra’s main adjustment following his team’s Game 3 loss was to do less and let his chosen players cook. The Heat shortened their rotation to seven players (and Solomon Hill got a random four minutes), and it made all the difference.
“Shooters shoot. Whether they’re going in or not, we’re going to shoot,” Herro said during the early weeks of the bubble. “I plan on making my shots.”
Herro’s explosion coincided with strong performances from Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Goran Dragic. They supplied the baseline production and Herro added the kerosene. It’s easy to dismiss a performance like Herro’s as an aberration, but in the larger context of who the Heat are, this is exactly why they’ve arrived at the foot of the Finals: Members of Miami’s supporting cast—be it Herro, Jae Crowder, or Duncan Robinson—always seem to deliver.
It’s remarkable how each one of those players can stand out while staying within Miami’s system. Butler still hit a clutch jumper late in Game 4. Adebayo still made his usual defensive presence known. Dragic was a team-high plus-11, and Andre Iguodala had three steals. But in an ugly game, someone had to give it a makeover. The Heat deployed Herro while the Celtics were left scrambling. Now, Boston is one game away from going home while a 20-year-old has Miami with a foot in the Finals door after doing something only Magic Johnson has ever done before.
The Nuggets Have the Depth for a Long Series. The Lakers Do Not.
Wednesday, September 23, 7:27 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: The Nuggets seemingly have a new hero in every game. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have been incredible in the playoffs, but they are also flanked by one of the best supporting casts in the NBA. PJ Dozier came out of nowhere to provide a spark and play the entire fourth quarter of Game 2 of the West finals, and then Jerami Grant and Monte Morris each played huge roles in Denver’s 114-106 win in Game 3.
Grant, whom Denver acquired from Oklahoma City as part of its firesale last summer, has gone from defending Kawhi Leonard in the second round to matching up with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis in this series. There aren’t many players in the league who have the length and athleticism to handle those assignments while also being able to produce like Grant did on offense in Game 3: a playoff career-high 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including 2-of-5 from 3.
Morris, a homegrown player, is yet another example of the incredible job the Nuggets have done in the draft over the last few seasons. They found one of the best backup point guards in the NBA with the no. 51 overall pick in 2017. His performance in Game 3 (14 points on 5-of-7 shooting and one assist) is right in line with what he did during the regular season, when he averaged 9.0 points on 45.9 percent shooting and 3.5 assists in 22.4 minutes per game. Morris, who is better than several starting point guards around the league, outplayed Rajon Rondo on Tuesday.
The difference in production between the two benches has been one of the biggest stories in the series, which the Lakers lead 2-1. The Nuggets have more good players than they can even use. They couldn’t find minutes for Dozier after his strong play in Game 2. The net rating of backup center Mason Plumlee (plus-23 in 35 minutes) shows just how effective their second unit has been. And Plumlee played only five minutes in Game 3 because Michael Malone moved Grant to the 5 when Jokic was out.
The Lakers don’t have nearly as many good options in their supporting cast. They have been using a 10-man rotation, which is at least two or three players too many. JaVale McGee has given them nothing. They benched him in the second half in Game 3, just like they did in Game 1, and may not play him much going forward. L.A. has also been suffering with Markieff Morris (net rating of minus-9.4 in 36 minutes) and Kyle Kuzma (minus-7.6 in 71 minutes) on the floor against Denver. The two combo forwards allow them to use smaller lineups, but playing smaller doesn’t really matter if the opposing team doesn’t respect their jumpers.
The good news for the Lakers is that AD’s game-winner in Game 2 allowed them to jump out to a 2-0 lead while playing an extended bench. Now the adjustment they have to make for Game 4 on Thursday is shortening their rotation and playing their best players as much as possible. They have a net rating of plus-10.8 in 80 minutes with both LeBron and Davis on the floor. Things fall apart quickly once Frank Vogel starts playing too many reserves.
But there are obvious downsides to that strategy. Davis is 27 years old with nearly unlimited energy. His 43 minutes in Game 3 are a floor for how much he can play in the rest of the series. But are LeBron’s 37 minutes closer to his ceiling? He’s a 35-year-old who has not been as effective in the second half this series. The longer the West finals go, the more important the Nuggets’ depth advantage becomes. The Lakers can’t pace themselves in Game 4—they have to ride LeBron and AD. The problem is that would only put them up 3-1. And we have already seen what Denver can do with that.
Jamal Murray Helps the Nuggets Seal—Not Steal—Game 3
Tuesday, September 23, 10:25 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: What’s the benchmark for a playoff legend? Jamal Murray, 23, is sprinting to that label faster than instant ramen gets made, cooking on high heat, throwing assists, and spinning silk out of swished 3s along the way. Denver led by as many as 20 and won Game 3, 114-106, thanks to Murray’s exploits and despite L.A.’s best comeback attempt.
On Tuesday, Denver was not the one clawing back. Although down 0-2 entering the game, the unexpected playoffs disruptors and the first team to ever make two straight 3-1 comebacks held the advantage at the break, marking their first halftime lead in their last seven games. The Nuggets’ feared, inevitable boom in the third quarter wasn’t necessary. (Though it did come; Denver outscored Los Angeles 30-22.) It was the Lakers who tiptoed back into the game this time, one Kyle Kuzma layup and LeBron James rebound at a time. Then they suddenly thundered forward, forcing the Nuggets to commit four straight turnovers, including a superstar no-call steal from Rajon Rondo. The Nuggets’ 20-point lead shrunk to just a three-point advantage midway through the fourth. Traditionally, that’s where LeBron refuses to lose. Or, recently, where AD nails a winning shot. But not in Game 3. Not against Jamal Murray.
Murray sealed the win with what was, so far, the best 84 seconds of the Western Conference finals. First, with 2:17 left and up four, Murray spins and spins and breaks free and connects:
On the following possession, he finds Paul Millsap under the basket, then immediately receives the ball back after it’s evident Millsap is overpowered. Murray shuffles through multiple Lakers defenders, is seemingly trapped, then stealthily feeds Millsap—now completely open under the basket—once again. Murray finished the game with a team-high 28 points, and his 12 assists—some sharp and quick, others patient, like the feed to Millsap—were also a team best.
Beautiful late find from Murray to Millsap when Rondo leaves him to get out to Harris in the corner. Not sure he makes that pass last year pic.twitter.com/4tSs0z2PJZ— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) September 23, 2020
Finally, Murray delivered a wink of a shot to end it. Another 3. This one, a Steph-like 29 feet out, crowded by Anthony Davis. The shot has also become synonymous with Murray: so smooth it takes the net aback, too stunned to even move.
TÁ MALUCO QUE BOLA FOI ESSA— MANO DE OKC (@thundaodamassa) September 23, 2020
DO MEIO DA AVENIDA pic.twitter.com/wgBNFdPwnE
Murray’s heroics saved the game but Jerami Grant (who scored a career playoff-high 26 points) and Monte Morris (who tied his playoff high with 14) were instrumental in forming the formidable lead in the first place. Still, there is no win, and no series, without their fearless, young, and suddenly playoff-poised leader.
Can P.J. Dozier Provide the Spark the Nuggets Desperately Need?
Monday, September 21, 12:35 p.m. PT
Tjarks: P.J. Dozier’s performance in Game 2 of the West finals should be remembered for more than just his missed free throws. The Nuggets’ third-year guard went 1-for-5 from the line in the fourth quarter, which could have made all the difference in their 105-103 loss to the Lakers on Sunday. But he still affected the game in a number of ways, establishing himself as an important contributor for Denver both in this series and going forward.
Dozier did a little bit of everything in 14 minutes of playing time on Sunday, with three points on 1-of-2 shooting, one rebound, one assist, one steal, and one block. Michael Malone inserted Dozier, who has been on the fringes of the rotation, for a spark at the end of the third quarter. He played so well that Malone never took him out, playing him the entire fourth quarter ahead of Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr.
At 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, Dozier has the size, length (6-11 wingspan), and athleticism to be an impact defender. The Nuggets were switching screens in the second half to slow down LeBron James, who scored 20 points before halftime, and Dozier had the physical tools to at least bother him, helping hold him to just six second-half points. These are the kinds of help-side plays that coaches love:
But he’s not just a defensive specialist. His one basket in Game 2 came when he beat Anthony Davis off the dribble at the 3-point line, then finished through contact after drawing a foul on him in the lane:
It’s an incredible come-up for a 23-year-old on a two-way contract who is on his third NBA team in three seasons. Dozier is best known in the NBA for being given Kevin Durant’s jersey number (no. 35) when he was a rookie in Oklahoma City. But he isn’t really a Cinderella story.
He was the second-best player on a South Carolina team that made the Final Four in 2017. He wasn’t drafted because he couldn’t shoot 3s. Dozier has spent the past few seasons bouncing back and forth between the G League and the NBA, working on his jumper. The work appears to have paid off. He averaged 21.2 points on 43.4 percent shooting, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.7 blocks in the G League this season, while shooting 33.0 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts per game.
It’s unclear how big of a role Dozier will have in Game 3. He played only two minutes in the entire Clippers series after averaging 20 minutes in four games against the Jazz. He lost his spot in the rotation when Harris returned from injury in Game 6 against Utah, and the logjam of talented perimeter players in Denver will make it hard to find playing time for him. But his combination of size, athleticism, and offensive ability might force Malone’s hand.
Denver has a lot to figure out in the short term down 0-2, but it found out that Dozier belongs in the long term. His performance in Game 2 reminded me of a breakout playoff game that Will Barton had in 2014 when he was a little-known reserve in Portland. A lot of teams would be interested in Dozier this summer, except the Nuggets own team options at the minimum for the next two seasons.
The ability to find quality players like Dozier on the margins has been one of the keys to the Nuggets’ rise to the top of the West over the past few seasons. Remember his name. You will be hearing it again.
That Was the Anthony Davis Moment We’ve Been Waiting For
Sunday, September 20, 8:23 p.m. PT
Uggetti: With just over three minutes left in Sunday’s Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Anthony Davis smoothed out a messy game and turned it into a work of art. Isolated on the right wing with the shot clock running down, Davis deftly stepped back on a teetering Paul Millsap and delivered a perfect 3-pointer in Millsap’s face to give the Lakers an eight-point lead.
The Lakers offense then froze, with Davis being the only one who scored during the remaining three minutes. It was enough for Denver to grab a 103-102 lead with 2.1 seconds on the clock, but also enough time for Davis to step up to the same spot he had just a few minutes prior and do it again. This time, he put the finishing touch on a masterful second half by canning a catch-and-shoot, game-winning, buzzer-beating 3:
In the first quarter, LeBron James scored the Lakers’ first 12 points. Davis ended the 105-103 win by scoring the Lakers’ last 10 points. The stepback on Millsap was a proper reminder of how much the 6-foot-10 Davis is a walking violation of the laws of physics, but the game-winner will go into Davis’s career reel; it was the playoff moment he, and everyone who has watched him, has been waiting for.
“It was the biggest shot of his life so far,” Rajon Rondo said postgame.
Despite scoring only nine points in the first half, Davis still ended up with 31 for the game. That number tracks with his average in the playoffs, which hovers around 30 and has been a crucial part of why the Lakers dispatched the Blazers and Rockets in five games each. But given his sparse playoff résumé, there’s always been an expectation that Davis could be doing more, that he could show more of a killer instinct (whatever that means), and that he should be willing to play center as much as possible. Davis’s reluctance to play that position has always been clear, but as he told the TNT crew postgame, he’s been willing to do so more and more especially in the playoffs. So far, that’s been enough.
It’s impossible to put Davis into a positional or stylistic box, which is what makes him one of the most special players in the league and the main reason why LeBron has a shot at a fourth title this season. But people still try to make him fit into a narrative. Of course, on Sunday it didn’t matter whether Davis was playing center, power forward, or point guard, or whether he had a killer instinct or not. All that mattered was that he was capable of hitting that shot and he did.
“I want those shots,” Davis said in his walk-off interview. “This is what they brought me here for.”
The Celtics Stuck to Their Best in Game 3; Now It’s the Heat’s Turn
Sunday, September 20, 9:20 a.m. PT
Tjarks: The Celtics were finally able to use their best lineups in Saturday’s win over the Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Gordon Hayward’s return from an ankle injury that kept him out of virtually the entire postseason allowed Brad Stevens to shorten his rotation. He only gave six players double-digit minutes on Saturday, with five—Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker— getting 192 out of a total of 240 possible minutes.
Boston took control of the game at the end of the second quarter when Stevens played those five together. That group was plus-9 in a little over two minutes of action, imposing their will on Miami on both ends of the floor. Their first defensive possession showed what they could do. Brown and Tatum blew up the two-man game between Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, forcing a turnover that led to a dunk. The Celtics two young stars had combined for a similar play a few minutes before. These two sequences were a statement of force:
The Heat won the first two games of the series by selectively deploying a variety of zones that flustered the Celtics. That didn’t work with Boston putting five players who could all shoot, pass, and dribble on the floor together. There’s a reason ESPN’s Bomani Jones coined the phrase “zone is for cowards”—it’s not that hard for a group of sufficiently talented players to crack one. Playing a zone means that you are leaving someone open. So all the offense has to do is move the ball and find the open man, and the open man has to knock down shots.
Hayward was a crucial piece of the puzzle. He didn’t score much in Game 3 (6 points on 2-for-7 shooting) but he did everything else (5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 1 block). Integrating him back after so much time off would have been difficult had he demanded the ball. Instead, he settled into a role as a Swiss Army knife, which he’s better off in anyway. There aren’t many players his size (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds) who can do so many different things on the court. Hayward’s ability to score and pass from the middle of the floor posed huge problems for the Miami defense:
The other key was Grant Williams, who helped put the game away in a seven-minute stretch in the third quarter after not playing in the first half. Williams is the most skilled player and most versatile defender in the Celtics’ big man rotation. His ability to play on the perimeter on both ends of the floor allowed them to play without a traditional big man for most of the second half.
Boston hadn’t used those lineups much in the regular season because of injuries as well as concerns over their ability to match up with bigger teams. But there was no reason not to play them against a Miami team that wins with speed instead of size. Hayward, Smart, Tatum, Brown, and Walker played six minutes together in Game 3 after only playing in 18 in the regular season.
The Heat don’t have an obvious adjustment. Bam is not Giannis Antetokounmpo; he can’t just single-handedly dominate a smaller lineup at the rim. Their best chance in Game 4 is to shorten their rotation. They have used 10 players in this series, and their bottom three in net rating (Derrick Jones Jr., Kendrick Nunn, and Kelly Olynyk) are all below minus-20. Boston only played their best players in Game 3. Miami has to do the same.
Gordon Hayward Wasn’t a Hero, but He Was Enough in Game 3
Saturday, September 19, 9:56 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: Gordon Hayward, who’d been upgraded from “doubtful” to “questionable” to “active” before Game 3, was the subtle difference-maker for the Celtics in Saturday’s much-needed 117-106 win over the Heat. His contributions won’t seem so subtle by Wednesday, when the two teams play next and Boston attempts to square the series. Four days is an unusually long break in the 2020 playoffs, and what changed for the Celtics between Game 2’s disappointing loss and Game 3’s feel-good win will be analyzed over and over and over again. But the difference was subtle, in that Hayward wasn’t—and won’t be—the hero: He totaled six points, five rebounds, four assists, three steals, and one block in 31 minutes off the bench. Most essential was his presence, which cracked the effectiveness of Miami’s zone, which had previously flustered Boston’s Big Three—Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and especially Kemba Walker. With their versatile teammate back, the trio combined for 72 points.
It’s been a month since Hayward injured his ankle in Game 1 of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Sixers. The break was long enough for Hayward to return home, and long enough for Brad Stevens to see the team’s shortcomings exploited in this series without him. Calling Hayward the answer against the Heat after Boston fell down 0-2 is an oversimplification; without Brown’s aggression, there’d have been no comfortable double-digit lead Saturday. (He finished with 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting. There’s a clear correlation between Brown asserting himself and the Celtics winning: Boston went 16-4 in the 20 games he took at least 17 field-goal attempts in the regular season.)
Miami, which had lost only once all postseason heading into Saturday, also looked uncharacteristically lusterless in Game 3. Jae Crowder and Goran Dragic (with Marcus Smart guarding the latter) finally cooled down, shooting a combined 4-of-20, which served as a reminder of just how hugely and unexpectedly important they’ve been in the playoffs. Kelly Olynyk failed to make a shot. Without the wee babes—Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro combined for 62 points on 22-for-40 shooting overall—the game would’ve been over at the half. Finally, there’s Jimmy Butler, whose 17-point performance was entirely respectable and forgettable at the same time. It constitutes nothing more than a hand wave and a throw-away line in a blog praising Gordon Hayward. If Butler is not the picture attached to the postgame blog and some “Jimmy Buckets” pun isn’t used in the headlines, it’s almost certainly been a dull, lifeless loss for Miami.
The series will be decided by which team is consistently, collectively stronger. Which team can take advantage of the subtler performances. It should serve as some consolation for the Heat that this loss wasn’t entirely because Hayward returned. They can relish in the fact that they were unimpressive independent of that, too, as they’re sipping on overpriced Big Face Coffee espressos the next four days.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! No, It’s Dwight Howard Dominating a Playoff Game in 2020!
Saturday, September 19, 7:25 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: Dwight Howard was ready when his number was called. After playing only 16 minutes in the Lakers’ entire second-round series against the Rockets, the veteran center changed Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets with his energy and defensive activity. Howard finished with 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting, three rebounds, two steals, and two blocks, and was plus-14 in 16 minutes.
Despite being in his 16th season in the NBA, Howard is still an incredible athlete. He gave Nikola Jokic a lot more trouble than JaVale McGee on Friday, which is why Frank Vogel moved him to the starting lineup in the second half. Look at the timing on this block:
He was everywhere on defense, wrestling with Jokic in the paint, rotating over and blocking shots on the help side, and even getting out on the perimeter at times and causing turnovers. Howard got under the skin of Denver’s star center too, drawing a needless offensive foul when the two got their arms locked up past the 3-point line.
Just as important was that he made Jokic work on the other end of the floor. While the days of Dwight’s teams running plays for him are long gone, there are still other ways for him to impact the game on offense. Howard ran the floor in transition, crashed the offensive glass, and drew another foul on Jokic by getting deep post position on him early in the shot clock:
Jokic played just 25 minutes in Game 1 due to foul trouble, and was forced to the bench early in the second quarter as the Lakers stretched their lead. He will have to make some adjustments in Game 2, given that Howard will likely start. It will be hard for him to play bully-ball against one of the strongest players in the NBA. The Clippers had no one like Howard on their roster. Ivica Zubac doesn’t have the athleticism to bother Jokic, while Montrezl Harrell was the definition of barbeque chicken.
Jokic should be taking Howard off the dribble and attacking him at the 3-point line, much like he did to Rudy Gobert in the first round against the Jazz. Gobert, like Howard, is an elite interior defender who can seal off the paint. So Jokic started bombing 3s, averaging 6.6 attempts per game against Utah, more than double his career average (2.7).
At 34 years old, Howard is a limited player at this stage of his career who isn’t going to win a series by himself. But he’s still a useful piece for the Lakers, which is why they signed him after a lost season with the Wizards. He can give them 15-20 solid minutes per night against Jokic, keeping Anthony Davis out of foul trouble until he takes over the assignment late in games.
Howard’s willingness to buy into a smaller role shows how much he has grown off the court. He’s on his fifth team in five seasons and it’s been a long and humbling fall for the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He became an easy punching bag for those who never liked him personally. It could not have been easy for someone of his stature. Howard is an eight-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA First Team selection who was the best player on a team that made the Finals. He has a significantly better resume than a lot of players widely considered to be better than him.
There are people who may never vote for him to make the Hall of Fame, but a player should not be defined by whether or not he has a plaque in a glorified office building in Springfield. The more telling numbers are Howard’s seasons in the NBA (16), seasons as a starter (15), and career earnings ($238 million). Anyone who can reach those marks must have been pretty good at basketball. Contending for his first title at 34 is icing on the cake.
The Nuggets Can’t Beat a Full-Speed Lakers Team
Friday, September 18, 9:29 p.m. PT
Uggetti: It is an increasingly rare sight: LeBron James leaping high in the air, all 250 pounds of him, then coming down to finish an alley-oop with the force usually reserved for use by the young. That’s what happened in the first half of Friday’s Game 1 of the West finals against the Nuggets, not once, but twice.
In the second half, Dwight Howard provided an encore—two alley-oop finishes of his own—while Anthony Davis added a garnish with an acrobatic one-handed alley-oop finish. That kind of play, typically reserved for All-Star Games, is representative of all of Friday’s Game 1, a 126-114 Lakers victory. A few days before, Nuggets coach Michael Malone had warned that his team needed to avoid this scenario. Alas.
“We cannot make this a jumping contest, because they have the advantage,” Malone said. “They are the best running team in the NBA. … If this is a track-and-field event, we’re going to lose.”
Game 1 certainly looked the part of a meet, with the Lakers dominating every event. The Nuggets coughed it up 15 times, which led to 20 points for L.A. But the Lakers weren’t just running on every one of those turnovers—thee were running after made Denver baskets too. Los Angeles wanted to make the game a sprint, and they did, turning the Nuggets into mannequins on defense. The Lakers finished with 16 fast-break points, which, coupled with their 54 points in the paint, was enough to maximize their strengths, while they also thrived in their weak spots too. Case in point: They shot 42.3 percent from 3.
Denver’s best shot at making this a competitive series is to slow things down and pull the Lakers into a half-court game where they’ll have to deal with the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll while staying alive on the other end. But that was not what happened on Friday. Davis (who has had an incredible postseason and will have a field day with this matchup) notched 37 points, the Lakers bench added 48, and a hyper-engaged LeBron only needed to score 15 points. And yes, I am obligated to include here that the Lakers did have a 37-28 free throw edge (which the Nuggets complained about postgame), but they were easily the more aggressive team and would have won even without the favorable whistle.
This regular season, the Lakers were 31-8 when LeBron dished 10 assists or more. In Game 1, he had 11 through three quarters and finished with 12. As frightening as it may be to have LeBron barreling through the meat of your defense or dunking above it, during this stage of his career, it’s equally dangerous to see him targeting teammates with perfect passes. And should those teammates have a decent shooting night? Forget about it. All the Nuggets can do is hope they will be able to do enough to change the rhythm of the next game. If they can’t, well, make it 10 Finals appearances for LeBron, who, after all these years, can still get up.
The Heat Are Breaking the Celtics
Thursday, September 17, 9:08 p.m. PT
Dan Devine: In Round 2 of the 2020 playoffs, the Heat stepped up to the Bucks—owners of the best record in the NBA, led by the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, one of the favorites to win it all—and just straight up put them in the Cobra Clutch, applying constant pressure until the East’s no. 1 seed broke. Now, in the Eastern Conference finals, the Heat are taking on the Celtics—by some projection systems (though not ours) the new favorite to win it all—and doing the same damn thing.
After another Miami comeback on Thursday produced a 106-101 win to put Boston in an 0-2 hole, it seems like all that pressure might just be starting to get to the Celtics:
Marcus Smart is screaming in the #Celtics locker room and there is a bunch of arguing going on. Smart comes out say “y’all on that bullshit!” Team is imploding. Smart is in bathroom and there is still screaming coming from locker room.— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) September 18, 2020
After frittering away a 14-point lead and losing Game 1 in overtime, the Celtics started strong on Thursday, riding aggressive bursts from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Kemba Walker to a 60-point first half. While Boston’s activity and ball movement produced a ton of good looks—the C’s shot 58.1 percent from the field through the first two quarters—Miami seemed to be stuck in the mud, with All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo combining for just 10 points on 12 shots. If not for the hot shooting of Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro, the Heat might’ve been down by 20 at intermission; instead, Miami was within hailing distance, trailing by 13 entering the third … which is when the Heat started showing what makes them so scary right now.
Sick of watching his motion offense bog down, head coach Erik Spoelstra changed the geometry of Miami’s half-court approach, emptying out the near-side corner while Adebayo and Goran Dragic ran the pick-and-roll. Removing a shooter from that corner also removed a defender, leaving no Celtic close enough to tag Adebayo on the roll. Stationing Butler and Robinson on the weak side of the play occupied Boston’s backside defenders too, and made them unsure of how or when to help down into the paint.
Once Bam got loose, the Heat just kept finding him in the flow. The result: 15 third-quarter points for Adebayo and 37 for Miami as a team, knocking the Celtics back on their heels.
While Miami’s offense got on track, the Celtics’ attack fell apart. Spoelstra dialed up 2-2-1 and 2-3 zones—with longer defenders like Butler, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Jones Jr. at the top of the floor—that totally wrecked Boston’s rhythm. The Celtics struggled at times to find good shots against Toronto’s zone schemes in Round 2, and those same woes reared their heads in Game 2: The C’s scored just 17 points on 4-for-12 shooting and committed seven turnovers in the third, allowing Miami to seize control of the game.
Even after that decisive third quarter, though, Boston had its chances. Tatum, Brown, and Walker sparked a 15-2 run (capped by a Kemba triple) that gave the Celtics a 94-89 lead with 4:25 to go. But down the stretch, Miami’s closers took over. Butler, who’d been quiet offensively all night, cranked things up on the defensive end with a pair of huge steals and saves that produced easy buckets:
Dragic—who, quiet as it’s kept, is Miami’s leading scorer this postseason—came up big again, scoring nine of his team-high 25 points in the final frame, including a pair of huge stepback jumpers, the latter of which put the Heat up six with 57 seconds to go:
A Brown triple cut led to three, and after a Butler turnover, Boston had one more opportunity to knot it up. Brown got a great look at a 3 from the left corner, but it came up empty, and Miami finished the game off at the line … and, of course, with one more hustle play by Jimmy to seal the 2-0 lead:
Jimmy Butler seals the deal with the deflection! pic.twitter.com/Y1fP8eub6p— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) September 18, 2020
It’s a brutal start to the conference finals for the Celtics, who missed a golden opportunity in Game 1 and made so many miscues in Game 2: 20 turnovers leading to 26 Miami points, empty possessions against the zone, Brad Stevens being slow to go small and start switching when the Heat were killing Daniel Theis, Tatum somehow winding up with just 12 field goal attempts in 42 minutes, etc. Frustration over all those unforced errors apparently boiled over inside the Boston locker room after the game:
Marcus Smart is screaming at someone in the Celtics locker room — or several people. The yelling continues as Smart exits the locker room, swearing.— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) September 18, 2020
Smart wasn’t the only one yelling. There were definitely items thrown and a lot of yelling. #Celtics— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) September 18, 2020
There were loud clanks — like someone throwing items — coming from the Celtics’ locker room. https://t.co/0D9SokSr5u— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) September 18, 2020
Celtics Coach Brad Stevens on the screaming that could be heard from Marcus Smart and others in Boston’s locker room postgame: “Guys were emotional after a hard game, hard loss.”— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) September 18, 2020
Kemba Walker: "Nothing happened in the locker room. I don't even know what you guys are talking about. We'll be fine. We'll be fine."— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) September 18, 2020
Maybe, as Kemba said, they will be fine. The Celtics have lost two games to a really good team by a combined eight points, were within an open corner 3 of all square with 15 seconds to go, and shot themselves in the foot in each of the two losses. They could use another playmaker to combat Miami’s zone, and Gordon Hayward’s return may be in the wings. Boston’s not a million miles away from a completely different reality; this series is still very much in the margins.
There’s just one problem: The Heat live in those margins, and tend to tilt them their way through constant, unyielding effort. That approach has gotten them within two wins of the NBA Finals, and gotten Boston to the point where there are “loud clanks” coming from inside the locker room. Keep it up, and all that pressure might just break another favored contender, and deliver Jimmy and Co. to the big dance.
The Clippers Played the Blame Game Better Than They Played Game 7
Tuesday, September 15, 11:11 p.m. PT
Chris Ryan: The untold stories of the NBA bubble will be objects of fascination for years to come. What happened with the Bucks? What was the deal with the Sixers? Harden and Russ? Did Mike D’Antoni and Brett Brown know they were goners before they even got to Orlando? What future superteam-ups were hatched while poking through boxed lunches in Disney World? Only time, shoe-leather reporting, and anonymous sources will tell, but you don’t need to be Bob Woodward to figure out the story with the Clippers: They weren’t as good as people thought they were (and I’m including myself and the Clippers in “people”), they weren’t in great physical shape, they didn’t particularly get along with one another, and they might not have really wanted to be there in the first place.
How do I know? They just told us. It didn’t take long after completing their historic collapse to a Nuggets team that barely put away Royce O’Neale for the Clippers to start pointing fingers in the mirror. Lou Williams blamed the chemistry; Paul George blamed the lack of familiarity and experience with one another; Doc Rivers blamed fitness and some rocky quar experiences. They were all right, they were all wrong, and none of it really mattered because they were up against a psychic Serbian big man and a Jamal Murray who was fully hearing Jimi.
Let’s quickly run through the self-assessment though. Williams’s claim that the chemistry was bad is probably the most tantalizing excuse because it allows us to play armchair psychiatrist.
Clippers’ Lou Williams after Game 7 loss to Nuggets: “We did have championship expectations. We had the talent to do it. I don’t think we had the chemistry to do it and it showed.” pic.twitter.com/D2wOFYKKyM— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) September 16, 2020
Was there an Old Clips (Trez, LouWill, Pat Bev) vs. Nu Clips (PG-13, Kawhi) divide? Did this team lack a Marc Gasol or Kyle Lowry to speak up when Leonard and George preferred to let their play do the talking? For all I know, JaMychal Green is General George Patton in the locker room, but the Clippers certainly played like they weren’t rowing in the same direction. This was a team that looked like they expected the game to come easily to them, and when it didn’t everything ground to a halt.
This segues nicely into Paul George’s postgame comments about the 2019-20 Clippers Experiment not being a one-season-and-done proposition:
“I think internally, we’ve always felt this was not a championship or bust year for us. We can only get better the longer we stay together."— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 16, 2020
—PG on the Clippers being expected to win pic.twitter.com/UuPKDphaMY
Trust the process. See how far that gets you. By the way, if you want to find the source for the “this is our year” talk that was coming from the Clippers all season, look no further than … Paul George. You can’t play with house money when you are the house.
Finally, we should address the physical conditioning note that Doc sounded. This certainly throws the scent off of Doc’s own “we skate to one song, and one song only” attitude toward adjustments, but it’s worth noting just how candid anonymous sources were after the game, with someone or someones telling The Undefeated’s Marc Spears that “several Clippers were so fatigued during Game 7’s 104-89 loss that they struggled to play stints longer than three minutes and asked out of the game for a breather in the fourth quarter.” I can’t begin to imagine what it takes to stay in in-season shape through a five-month break in the middle of the season, a quarantine, the surreal experience of living in a Disney hotel, all of it. But I saw a lot of flat jumpers, shots careening off the side of the backboard, and passes with no mustard on them. Maybe it was a matter of legs, but maybe it was a matter of desire.
My last tweet before I finish this glass. They did vote they ain’t wanna play no more. . . But I didn’t think they was gonna go out like that— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) September 16, 2020
Which brings us back to the untold stories of the bubble—of the meetings, the closed-door conversations, the votes, the excused absences, and the truly unique circumstances all these players and coaches are facing. A lot of these stories will take years to come out. But the story of the Clippers? Just ask them.
The Nuggets Crash the West Finals After the Clippers Wreck Their Season
Tuesday, September 15, 10:18 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: Two bona fide NBA superstars—one a two-time Finals MVP, the other famous for once being super clutch in a Gatorade commercial—were just out-superstarred by a 23- and 25-year-old, the former who entered the series exhausted, and the latter who just admitted last week that he had patience on the court because “I cannot really run fast.” It is unfathomable, stunning, endearing, and disorienting all at the same time. The Denver Nuggets are in the Western Conference finals. They crushed the Clippers in Game 7 on Tuesday, 104-89, overcoming a double-digit deficit for the third straight game and becoming the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 hole twice in the same postseason.
I don’t want to talk about Los Angeles. Tonight is about Denver. We’ll be talking about Steve Ballmer’s team the entire offseason, however long it stretches into the winter. (And these press conferences just brimming with trepidation and the sense that the Clippers may turn on each other will provide plenty to dissect, as well.) Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, though—we might only be celebrating them briefly, if LeBron and the top-seeded Lakers handle them as they did the Rockets and Blazers. Give Murray and Jokic their flowers. Together they presided over Game 7 and reduced the highly expensive and highly touted Clippers rotation into plebeians. Murray exploded for 20 points in the second quarter, the highest output in a quarter in Game 7 history, and finished with 40 points. Jokic registered a triple-double by the end of the third quarter and ended with 16 points, 22 rebounds, and 13 assists. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, meanwhile, combined for just 24 points—fewer than Murray scored in the first half by himself—and shot a dreadful 26.3 percent from the field, including a 2-of-18 showing in the second half.
After Denver’s tight series against Utah, I expected them to squeeze two wins out of the Clippers before being eliminated. The undertone of the Nuggets’ organization over the last two years is that, while certainly talented, they aren’t capable of winning when it really matters. They can dominate the regular season, second in the West in 2018-19 and third in 2019-20, but their outstanding, unsolved issues (3-point shooting and 3-point defense, for example) had routinely rendered them a feeble foe in the postseason. They were already a “Maybe next postseason!” team before this one began.
But it turned out that next year is actually this year, the Clippers’ year, Kawhi and Paul’s year. Maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to make the same mistake I did this round and to discount the Nuggets against the Lakers, who have no guard to lock down Murray and will have their hands full with Jokic. Do not dismiss the Nuggets’ success and completely paint this series as a Clippers choke job; though L.A. shot atrociously (37.8 percent overall and 25.7 percent from deep) in Game 7, Denver still had to take advantage of its opponent’s failings, persisting when it mattered most and not giving up its hard-won advantage after breaking open the game in the second half. On SportsCenter after the game, Nuggets coach Mike Malone told Scott Van Pelt, “Part of me is like, how the hell are we doing this?” Denver’s young players were not weighed down by the expectation—the obligation, really—to win that Kawhi and George were burdened by. I mean they were just having fun with it:
Another NBA record: The Nuggets are 6-0 this postseason in elimination games, tying Denver’s 1994 squad for the most season-saving wins. Coincidentally, the Lakers own the same series record against the Nuggets in the postseason. The entire Western Conference finals are made up of must-win games for Denver. They’re far more ready for that than anyone ever imagined.
Bam’s Must-See Block Is Just the Start of a Must-See Series
Tuesday, September 15, 8:15 p.m. PT
O’Shaughnessy: It could have been anyone, but it was Bam in the end. Bam Adebayo, runner-up for the 2020 Most Improved Player award, terminated the Celtics’ chance at winning Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals with arguably the block of the year. His outstretched fingers forming a garrison, the basketball’s rubber wincing from its force, the backboard it was pinned against mocking Jayson Tatum’s attempt with its reverberation. Bam was the winner. Bam was the story in a game full of narratives and would-be heroes.
Eight seconds earlier, it was teammate Jimmy Butler. He was going to be the man who saved the Heat in overtime, with a floater I would call the Butler Special if there weren’t already so many other shots and plays and steals that he’s made that deserve the title. Miami prevailed on Tuesday, 117-114, despite a dizzying game of fluctuating shooting and momentum swings. The Heat finished the first quarter with just 18 points, their lowest-scoring and worst-shooting (27.3 percent) performance in a quarter this postseason. Then, in the second quarter, they exploded for more than double that output (37 points) and shot a scorching 68.2 percent from the field. In the third quarter, they swung the other way again, shooting just 1-for-8 from deep,and totaling just 16 points, replacing the first quarter with a new playoff low. In the fourth, 35 points. Of course.
I hope that inconsistency isn’t the narrative of this series. There are many better story lines to choose from. Like Marcus Smart, a career 31.8 percent 3-point shooter, suddenly becoming Boston’s X factor on offense. (He scored 26 points and shot 6-for-13 from deep in Game 1.) Or Jae Crowder’s career renaissance? Or how about Tyler Herro’s coming out party? Maybe Bam becoming this year’s playoff Pascal Siakam? Jimmy Butler finally achieving his potential with a team he chose? Jayson Tatum on the brink of superstardom (game-high 30 points in Game 1), but being stonewalled by a hungrier team (he missed his final seven shots in regulation and OT)? (Did you know that he’s only 22? Fun fact: He is, indeed, only 22.)
Or, tragically, it could be Kemba Walker not being better than K**** I***** was for Boston. (Kemba did hit a jumper in the last minute of regulation to push Boston ahead with a go-ahead 14-footer with 23 seconds left in overtime, but also shot 1-for-9 overall from 3, continuing a particularly deplorable streak.) Maybe Jaylen Brown can keep topping expectations? The Heat culture reigning once again after years of post-LeBron dormancy? I don’t know which narrative will prove most prominent, but I know this series will be a testament to the thrilling post-LeBron parity in the East. Last year, the Raptors provided a delicious, satisfying first taste; this season, it’s a full-on feast. The Celtics and Heat are two teams desperate for success. That old cliché is back. Anything can happen.
Three Keys to the Eastern Conference Finals
Tuesday, September 15, 10:57 a.m. PT
Jonathan Tjarks: The Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics (no. 3 seed) and Heat (no. 5) will be the first in 51 years (!) that doesn’t feature the no. 1 or 2 seed in the conference. But just because this series was unlikely doesn’t mean that it won’t be fun. Here are three keys to watch:
1. Jimmy Butler vs. Jayson Tatum
Tatum was the difference in the Celtics outlasting the Raptors in the second round, averaging 24.3 points on 42.3 percent shooting, 10.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in the series. Toronto didn’t have anyone who could match up with him. It will be a different story against Miami, which has a supersized two-way wing of its own in Butler.
Butler, who averaged 23.4 points on 52.3 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in a five-game demolition of Milwaukee, will try to use his size and strength to bother Tatum on both ends of the floor. He’s not as good a shooter as his younger counterpart, but he’s a better defender, interior scorer, and passer. Butler has lived at the free throw line in the playoffs, averaging 10.7 attempts per game. He will guard Tatum but Tatum may not guard him to stay out of foul trouble. The player who wins this matchup will go a long way toward determining the outcome.
2. Does Bam Adebayo have another level to reach?
One of the hidden keys to Miami’s surge in the playoffs has been inserting Jae Crowder into the starting lineup for Meyers Leonard and moving Bam to the 5. Adebayo has been playing like a new-age version of Draymond Green, anchoring the Heat defense against bigger centers and distributing the ball from the high post to their waves of cutters and shooters.
They will need even more from him against the Celtics. Boston is a much smaller team than Milwaukee, and doesn’t have an obvious matchup for him. Daniel Theis, like Bam, is a savvy small-ball center who can hold up in the post, but he’s not anywhere near as athletic. Not only does Adebayo need to dominate Theis on offense, he may also have to help defend Jaylen Brown, who lit up Miami in the regular season.
3. When will Gordon Hayward come back and what will he give the Celtics?
Boston has survived without Hayward, who has missed virtually the entire postseason with an ankle injury but is expected to return at some point in this series. The Celtics don’t need him to be the star they expected him to be when they signed him in the summer of 2017. But his combination of size, shooting, and playmaking on the wing would still be helpful for a team that looked painfully short of quality reserves by the end of the Raptors series.
The Heat have multiple weak spots in their perimeter defense. Hayward would likely be guarded by some combination of Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, and Kendrick Nunn. If he can exploit those guys and force the Heat to play more defensive-minded players like Andre Iguodala and Derrick Jones Jr., it could dramatically reduce the amount of space they have on offense. It’s hard to expect much from Hayward at this point. But any contribution from him could be the difference in a tightly fought series.