Recap: The East Doesn’t Linger ; Murray and Mitchell Soar
This week should remembered by the reality that burst through the NBA bubble. The rest of the league followed the Bucks behind one message: These giant letters on the court can’t be some token you slap on the floor to get us to play - political action is necessary. It is not my job to discuss these issues but I would be remiss to pretend nothing happened and I have nothing but empathy and support for the players.
On the sports side, as Tuesday rolled around, only one series of the Eastern Conference first round was left to be decided. With 3 sweeps in 4 series (Boston, Miami and Toronto moving on), only the top team in the conference, the stunned-in-game-1 Milwaukee Bucks, had to endure the drag of a game 5 to send the Orland Magic to their nearby homes.
There have been more 50-point performances in the Nuggets-Jazz series than in any single Playoffs edition ever! The insanity of the shots Mitchell and Murray are daring to try - and somehow making - will be something we will forever remember. The Jazz entered the week up 3-1 but the Nuggets adjusted and have now tied the series as we arrive at a new week, with an improved defense when Michael Porter Jr. was moved to the bench and Jokic making 3 pointers at a high clip, the shots he can get on Gobert. In game 5, Jamal Murray followed a his previous 50 with a 48/8/8 ridiculous performance, 33 of those points in the second half which he entirely played. These two games also saw better rim protection from Denver, as Jokic is now back to hedging the screen with Jeremy Grant and Millsap behind him. In game 6, with the Nuggets collapsing aggressively around the rim, Utah shot 10 out of 21 at the rim in the minutes tracked by CleaningTheGlass. Murray had another 50 point game, 9-12 from deep, and Mitchell finished with 44 points and 9-13 on threes.
The Thunder managed to tie the series at 2 games each against the Rockets on Monday, in an incredible comeback effort. Schröder was a standout with 30 points in 16 shots. In the third quarter, the Thunder’s bench unit delivered a 21-7 run to finish the 3rd tied as Rockets went cold. However, the most interesting adjustment was made by the Rockets: Giving up on the isolation game and running a lot more screens in order for Harden to get rid of Dort, who has been amazing at defending the bearded superstar. The extra space he garnered allowed him to become more efficient and this would become much more evident in the game 5 blowout victory.
Finally, the Lakers ran through the Blazers in 5 games, as the legs gave out on Portland’s squad and the Clippers, behind a Kawhi that’s looking like the bet player in the league bar none, sent an injury-weakened Dallas team home in 6 games despite Luka Doncic’s best efforts.
Preview: No More Pushovers
The changes in calendar mean we will have a lot more overlap with 1st round and 2nd round matches. So we still have to see the conclusions of the Houston and Thunder series and enjoy what surely will be a must see game 7 between the Jazz and the Nuggets on Tuesday.
We finally have a much anticipated series between Toronto and Boston, the two biggest threats posed to the Bucks control of the East. Boston is the best transition defense in the league and Toronto is very reliant on these moments, being the 2nd team that runs the most transition and top 10 in efficiency. The Raptors need to score well enough to keep up and that should be the biggest swing factor. Both teams are great defenses, the Raptors being #1 in halfcourt defense. But only the Celtics were top 5 on both ends on this season. We will at least see a coaching matchup between two of the most brilliant basketball minds arounds.
7 out of 15 people over at ESPN predicted the Heat to upset the Bucks. Bam is one of the few bigs with enough speed and size to create some problems to the MVP, though we already saw Giannis’ spin move annihilating the Heat in the bubble. Defending Giannis in transition, lauding to the ball and shrining the floor, is the priority since over a quarter of his offense is in transition possessions. Moreover, Miami is 2nd in FT Rate offensively while Milwaukee is top 10 in defensive FT Rate - one of these must break. And, with the 3s the Bucks defense allow by design one should note that Miami is tied with Utah in bet 3pt% in the league and, more importantly, they are a clear number 1 in above the break 3s The Buck might just try to help off Crowder, Iguodala and even Butler to not give the 3 to Herro, Dragic or Robinson. Finally, how do you defend Duncan’s handoff game with Bam? Are they bringing Lopez up or do they have Giannis on him? Maybe you can start just trying to fight through the screen to run him off the line. A nice chess match for all the basketball geeks out there.
In Focus: The Completed First Round Series
I wrote an overview on the 6 first round series that already have finished, with notes on main performances, stats, some adjustments and overall thoughts. But I will spare you an undiscriminated wall of text here and will leave you here the one about the Lakers and Blazers series. But if you have an interest on the others, the complete set can be found in this link.
Los Angeles Lakers 4 - 1 Portland Trail Blazers
Game 1 was an offensive struggle, with both teams were below 100 points per possession. The Lakers made their way inside at will but simply were missing every shot at the rim - 55.8% was on the 16th percentile for the NBA season - and their halfcourt offense had a 77 ORTG. The LA team, according to a source from Seth Partnow, fell an unprecedented 46 points below expectation from shot location and difficulty. And any offense they got was with Lebron doing absolutely everything.
Lillard continued to bend defenses like no other player currently around and, as the 4th rolled on, CJ and Lillard were making heat checks left and right. The Anthony, Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, and Trent lineup is incredible on offense (133.1 ORTG in the regular season with a +15.7 Net Rating) and the way Melo has been spotting up, in the seemingly endless open 3s the gravity of other players generates for him, has been encouraging and surprising. But to play these five is to indeed bet on outscoring the opponents since this combination will be particularly vulnerable to the Lebron/AD pick and roll.
But the Blazers never really were able at any point of the series to score enough to be a real threat. In game 2, the starters were 4-20 on threes. The Lakers finally made their shots at the rim, particularly Anthony Davis with a 31-point display, shooting 62% from the field. He devoured Whiteside in putbacks in the 1st quarter, as well as Javale McGee finally showing up in the bubble to the tune of 5 offensive boards.
In game 3, the 40+ minutes and the weeks of must-win situations started to weight on Dame, CJ and Nurkic and they would look extremely tired the rest of the series. This game was important because the Lakers were actually +6 in the minutes without Lebron and it’s hard to see the Lakers lose in such a situation. This was fuelled by the Caruso and AD pick and pop, the first finishing with 7 assists. Lebron and AD were both collecting all sorts of points at the line because of physically imposing themselves on a tired Portland team. Lebron was 38/12/8 with 17 FTA and AD was 29/11/8 with 3 blocks and 14 FTA. James finally was attacking the rim like his old self.
It was also the first game where Portland started with both Nurkic and Whiteside in the starting unit. I understand they had better numbers with both of them but it just makes the Portland rotation screwed up, takes their best option on Lebron away from the floor and worsens Lillard’s space. They might want to match up 2 bigs against the Lakers 2 bigs, so they don’t have to do it when the Lakers have Kuzma out there (and they don’t have enough options not to play the two centres some minutes) but I believe it was a decision that did not improve their defense - Whiteside has been a clear negative the entire stint in Orlando - and significantly lowered their defensive ceiling in their most important minutes.
The dominant performances from the two Lakers stars would continue for the final couple of games. In game 4, Anthony Davis looked like a defense onto himself. He was deflecting balls in passing lanes and blocking drives by the Blazers guards, although it’s noticeable the lack of burst they seemed to have. The Lakers led 15-0 and 24-8, scoring a 43 points on their first 24 possessions and were still averaging more than 1.5 points per possession at the end of the third quarter.
Despite the great shooting night for Lebron (4-5 from deep, including a Lillard-range 3), the most encouraging part is 10-18 3pt shooting from the main role players: Green, KCP and Kuzma. The Lakers absolutely need them to beat high-end opposition.
With Lillard out due to a knee sprain for the elimination game, it was never a proper contest. Davis had 43 points in 36 minutes and Lebron had a 36/10/10 in 33 minutes. The Lakers had an incredible midrange shooting night (10-18) and protected the rim in their trademark fashion.
This final game saw once again the issues of the bench unit as Caruso’s playmaking is still not good enough or him to run minutes without Lebron and the duo of Howard and Morris both had a -11. In a better day for Kuzma this might not be such an issue but they have no one who can take those shots in that scenario. Regardless, the performances that Lebron and AD put on for the last 3 games were nothing short of dominant and those minutes might be enough to carry the Lakers much deeper into the post-season.