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Nine Thoughts on the Lakers, Dame to Brooklyn, and the NBA’s First Round

What’s the biggest key to LeBron James and Co. beating Memphis? Plus, thoughts on the return of Draymond Green, the 76ers’ biggest X factor, and why Damian Lillard on the Nets makes too much sense not to happen this summer.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

We’re now over a week into the playoffs and … lots of stuff has happened! Here’s a look at nine thoughts I have coming out of the second weekend.

1. Are the playoffs bad?

The NBA is at its best when superstars are on the court. Instead, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, and Ja Morant have combined to miss six games (and counting) in the first round. Paul George has played zero minutes. And other important, useful players have also gone down. Tyler Herro and Jaden McDaniels both fractured their hands. Victor Oladipo’s season-ending knee injury suffered on Saturday night was downright heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, the NBA is at its worst when officiating and suspensions are all anyone talks about. I have no problem with ejecting players for intending harm to their opponent, but so little is consistent about how referees are penalizing the offenders. Draymond Green was correctly dismissed from Game 2 for stomping on Domantas Sabonis’s chest, then was suspended for Game 3—an unprecedented brand of retribution administered by the league office that took a career’s worth of unseemly behavior into account.

The same night the Warriors were forced to play without Green, Embiid kicked Nic Claxton in the groin early in a consequential Game 3 and was allowed to keep playing. James Harden tapped Royce O’Neale in a similar area about an hour later and was ejected. Claxton was then tossed from the same game for jawing in Embiid’s direction after dunking on his head, which, rule or not, when you zoom out, is patently ridiculous. Dillon Brooks called LeBron James old, then knuckle rapped the King’s nether region on Saturday. He got the boot.

The adjudication of these actions is beside the point. The bottom line is, altogether, far too many of the NBA’s best players have not been on the court in the first round. Related: So much of the action has been forgettable! Aside from three or four games, none have been particularly close. It’s still early, and Round 2 could provide some instant classics. But when teams and players slog through a regular season that’s way too long only to reach the playoffs with a depleted roster, drama, excellence, and stakes are sapped from the product. It’s a real shame.

2. The Lakers are moving.

The Lakers love to run. Mainly because they kinda have to. Spacing has been an issue for L.A. all year (even after the trade deadline), and a sped-up attack earns easy baskets that underline all the stops the Lakers get on the other end.

Carrying that mentality over into their first-round series against a Grizzlies team that ranked first in half-court defense has been a key reason they have a chance to go up 3-1 on Monday night. The Lakers lead the playoffs in fast-break points per 100 possessions by a decent margin and are third in transition frequency.

No other team had a quicker pace when their opponents missed a shot at the rim this season. They look capable of almost anything when Anthony Davis single-handedly unlocks those opportunities:

Keeping this up is critical. The Lakers are flailing in the half court, as they did for much of the regular season. It mirrors their opponent’s established identity, which has been substantially hampered by the loss of two imposing offensive rebounders. The team that gives itself more chances to draw blood in the open floor will likely crack the second round.

3. Tobias Harris: X factor?

Tobias Harris is often lost in the conversation about whether this Sixers team can win an NBA title. He’s an overqualified fourth option whose skill set often feels incompatible with those of Philly’s best players, and foreseeably, he wilts in big games.

But Harris, the third-longest-tenured Sixer, is coming off one of his most impressive playoff series. During the Brooklyn sweep, he averaged 20.3 points and 8.8 rebounds, with a 65.1 true shooting percentage and two total turnovers. It was understated, which is kind of the point. To advance, Philly needs Harris—a score-first third wheel—to thrive in less glamorous areas than he was originally paid for. Crash the offensive glass, fortify a switch-heavy defense, knock down wide-open 3s, take care of the ball, and, only on occasion, punish a mismatch with a tough turnaround.

Conversely, there are also a few things Harris shouldn’t ever do, like dribble more than five times when someone passes him the ball or size his man up in a triple-threat position. When he does isolate or back someone down, the defense exhales a bit. There’s no overreaction; help is not sent. But against the Nets, Harris picked his spots and then capitalized, more often than not:

Harris’s defense on Mikal Bridges was solid throughout the first round, too. He contested shots, denied him the ball, ran him off the line, and mentally committed himself to one of the most important matchups in the series.

The big question now is whether he can replicate this success against the Celtics, who are chock-full of elite individual defenders and far superior offensive talent. Can he create second-chance opportunities in big moments, hit those open shots, and find ways to win when the ball isn’t in his hands? Will Boston feel Harris or completely forget he’s on the floor without being punished for it?

Harris will likely spend quite a bit of time defending Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Can he chase them around off-ball screens and make their lives difficult all around? Or will he be stiff and die on picks? This play below isn’t entirely his fault (Harris was clearly expecting Embiid to be a little higher than he was), but there’s a good chance Doc Rivers’s instructions weren’t “run into Rob Williams and do nothing”:

The Sixers need Harris, even if what’s made him a successful NBA player is excessive in their environment. What he did against the Nets was a perfect balance, though. He’s had efficient, statistically impressive playoff series before. This one went beyond numbers. And if Philadelphia wants to reach the conference finals (and beyond), that version of Harris must be present every step of the way.

4. Draymond Green will not go quiet into the night.

There was quite a bit on the line for Golden State in Game 4. Win, and the series is tied. Lose, and it’s (possibly) the end of an unforgettable era. No big deal.

Of course, the Warriors won on Sunday. And at the center of countless big plays to help push them over the top was Green, who came off the bench after serving his one-game suspension, missed about a dozen layups, and still swung the entire game’s momentum toward Golden State. The Warriors might be down 3-1 if he didn’t create this steal, for example:

According to Second Spectrum, Green matched up against Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox for 13 plays each in Game 4. How many defenders in the NBA can do that? Also, how many coaches can ask one of their bigs to just not let Malik Monk touch the ball?

Davion Mitchell ultimately took advantage and scored on a driving layup, but that’s not the point. Green does things nobody else can. And it’s thanks to him the Warriors dynasty is temporarily off life support.

5. Boston’s go-to play.

The Celtics took a commanding 3-1 lead in their series against the Hawks on Sunday night. And although they held only a modest advantage throughout, whenever they needed to settle down to get a good look, Joe Mazzulla directed his point guard to run a stack pick-and-roll—a simple action in which a back screen is set on the defender who’s guarding the initial pick.

Whether it’s Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart, Derrick White, or Tatum, the Hawks have been flummoxed by it for most of the series:

In Game 3, Boston tweaked the play in ways that kept Atlanta on its heels. Watch Sam Hauser below. Instead of coming up to back-screen Onyeka Okongwu, he simply picked his own man, De’Andre Hunter. Tatum responded by getting downhill and drawing a foul at the rim:

It’s fun stuff from an offense that’s able to throw Atlanta into disarray pretty much whenever it wants.

6. Michael Porter Jr.’s aggression.

Few players make me believe that every single shot they take is going in. Porter is one of them. Among all players who launched at least 250 spot-up 3s this year, Porter was third-most accurate. This four-point play early in the fourth quarter of Game 2 was borderline impossible and totally ordinary at the same time:

But what’s more significant about Porter’s play in the first round has been his refusal to settle. He’s shooting 85 percent on drives (LOL), blowing by hard closeouts, and attacking the basket.

Michael Malone doesn’t often play MPJ without Nikola Jokic, but he gave it a try for extended stints at the start of the second and fourth quarters in Game 2. (Denver has tightened its rotation in this series, playing Aaron Gordon as its backup 5; the Nuggets are an impressive plus-19 when Jokic sits.) What we saw in those minutes was scary, someone who can help the Nuggets crackle when they’re normally at their most vulnerable.

Denver has looked the part of a no. 1 seed in Round 1. If Porter keeps playing without fear as a turbo-charged third option behind Jokic and Jamal Murray, there’s little reason to think that will change.

7. Phoenix’s growing pains.

The Suns are up 3-1 in their first-round series against the injured Clippers. According to most numbers, they’re a potent group, generating 119.1 points per 100 possessions, and in 84 minutes, their new starting five boasts an offensive rating of 125.1. But when you actually watch them play and consider who they don’t have to compete against, it’s difficult to picture this team winning two more rounds, much less a showdown against Boston or Milwaukee.

This isn’t meant as an insult to any Clippers who’re still healthy enough to take the floor. Russell Westbrook is suddenly, um, unguardable? Norm Powell, Eric Gordon, and Terance Mann are all treating every possession like it’s Game 7. Ty Lue is coaching his ass off. The Clippers have fought in a couple of nip-and-tuck games that many expected to be decisive blowouts.

But very little about Phoenix’s success feels sustainable at this juncture. The Suns don’t get to the rim, they live in the midrange, and they play a very simple style that’s entirely based on superstar-level shotmaking and the attention two (extremely skilled) dudes garner from the defense.

Devin Booker and Kevin Durant lead the playoffs in minutes. Both have hit some incredibly (incredibly) difficult pull-up jumpers for a team that (understandably) falls victim to its own disorganization and unfamiliarity far too often.

Look at this play. Durant thinks Deandre Ayton is coming over to set a pindown, but then Booker summons him up for a ball screen. The Clippers put two on Booker and eventually give up a wide-open corner 3 to Chris Paul (which he misses). But title contenders rarely look so puzzled by their own game plan:

Playoff basketball is hard enough. Advancing through multiple rounds is nearly impossible when you’re still learning what you are and have to think through possessions just to get them off the ground. How can you take down an opponent that’s operating on instinct and benefiting from continuity and cohesion?

Sometimes the Suns get a positive result from smoke and mirrors. Here, Booker and Paul yell orders that Ayton and Torrey Craig barely understand, before Booker takes advantage by catching Westbrook off guard:

And here’s Durant expecting Craig to set a screen against a Clippers defense that’s prepared for him to come off an Ayton pindown (Nicolas Batum is on Ayton, ready to switch):

Instead of audibling, though, Craig just stands in the corner, muddying up the play. Eventually, KD gets the pick, forces help, and gets Craig an open look. But stuff like this is why reps and continuity matter. Finding ways to incorporate Durant has been a much heavier lift than it would have been had he been traded to the Suns last August.

The Celtics, Nuggets, Warriors, Bucks, and Grizzlies have several years’ worth of competition and conflict to lean on. They’ve grown together. They’ve failed together. Their chemistry is unimpeachable.

The Suns are extraordinarily talented (albeit top-heavy), and Booker, in particular, has sunk some shots that stretch credulity. But even if we don’t harp on their defense (a mess) or their depth (nonexistent), too often this team looks like it’s trying to shove a two-star Michelin meal in the microwave. That won’t cut it in later rounds; they’re extremely fortunate Leonard sprained his knee.

8. Jimmy Butler vs. Jrue Holiday.

In a series that hasn’t received basically any attention, for obvious reasons, a brutal, riveting one-on-one matchup wages on. With Antetokounmpo out, the Bucks and Heat have their best players checking each other from the jump. My chest hurts just watching them battle. Both are so physical, aggressive, and unwilling to cede a centimeter. There’s very little switching out of the fight. It’s old school. When Jimmy is on an island against Jrue, or Jrue is on an island against Jimmy, the world around them disappears. Both want to score on each other.

There are moments that feel like these two are cosplaying George Foreman and Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle. They bump each other off line. They obfuscate with subtle fakes that the other quickly figures out. They turn their shoulders into a battering ram. They duck under screens and provoke contested jump shots. They adjust and execute. It’s a pair of crafty two-way stars in their prime competing in a series that’s surprisingly up for grabs and playing chess with a pair of mallets. Whenever Caleb Martin takes the Holiday assignment from Butler, it’s a minor basketball tragedy.

9. Where do the Nets go from here?

What a year! Brooklyn entered this season as a title contender. The team left it as a speed bump. What now? Bridges’s emergence as someone capable of assuming a top-shelf scorer’s burden—after the trade deadline, only Zach LaVine took more shots—and potentially becoming an All-Star is massive. Claxton became one of the league’s best defenders, and there’s suddenly draft capital for the Nets to dangle this summer in a trade.

What they need is obvious. Before Game 3, Jacque Vaughn was asked about his team’s inability to get downhill and create shots attacking the paint. He sat back, looked toward the ceiling, and spoke the truth. “I’m just going to be as simple as possible,” Vaughn said. “It’s personnel.”

The numbers say that before they were eliminated over the weekend, Brooklyn led the postseason in drives per 100 possessions, and only three teams did it more after the trade deadline. But by and large, the Nets weren’t at all effective in the way Vaughn means.

Translation: Brooklyn has fantastic supporting pieces and role players. All it needs to complement, accentuate, and uplift its army of two-way wings is a flamethrowing point guard. Preferably one who can create his own shots, draw two defenders, run effective pick-and-rolls, and balance out the roster, which is desperate for more playmaking.

This summer the Nets may have two marquee options. The first is Trae Young. For a variety of reasons that are self-explanatory to anyone who’s watched the Atlanta Hawks play basketball for the past two years, Sean Marks may be unwilling to go down that road. The second is Damian Lillard, who just so happened to be at Barclays Center last week and is also close with Bridges.

Lillard is one of the NBA’s top 75 players of all time and is coming off his best season. He also has proven leadership chops that would enrich Brooklyn’s culture instead of plunging it into acid. Dame’s on-court weaknesses would be hidden in the shrubbery of the long, versatile defense, which can provide exactly what he’s never had all these years in Portland.

Brooklyn can move Spencer Dinwiddie to the bench and give itself a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, then unleash Bridges as the capable no. 2 offensive option he’s more suited to being. The Nets don’t have any intriguing young players to offer. What they do have is Ben Simmons’s contract, Patty Mills, four unprotected first-round picks from the Suns, one unprotected first-round pick from the Mavericks, and their own first-round pick in 2029.

Blazers fans won’t like my hypothetical trade, but for a team that’s stuck between two separate timelines and could rebuild around Shaedon Sharpe, Anfernee Simons, and whoever they get in this year’s draft (Portland has a 10.5 percent chance at landing Victor Wembanyama), it’s pretty damn good.

And if Lillard has his eyes set on playing for the Nets—which he should?—Portland will likely acquiesce in favor of other offers that are theoretically more favorable. They’ll do right by the best player in franchise history.