Recap: Boston v Toronto was a Classic
When Boston completely blew out the Raptors in game 5 no one could predict the incredible night that extended the series. Game 6 was the event that defined this week in the basketball world. A double overtime thriller that had 20 different possible endings, surely the game of the season, and the Raptors somehow crawled out of that fight with a chance to fight another day. I wrote an entire breakdown of the game you can find here, check it out! (There are, like, clips and stuff. You can’t say no to that!). But in an absolute dogfight - Both teams had an eFG% around 47% - Boston ends up taking the cake 92-87 on game 7. A crazy ending to the game: Boston can’t score a field goal for nearly 4 minutes (a lot of trying to attack OG); Powell has a fast break for the tie with less than a minute to go but Marcus Smart blocks the lay up against the backboard with his fingertips! (Him and Brown were amazing defensively); With a 3 point deficit in hand Grant does an incredible job contesting VanVleet on one play and denying him the ball in the Raptors last effort. An unforgettable series.
The Nuggets starred in two riveting comebacks from 15-point deficients mid-3rd quarter to bring the series to a 3-3 tie. Their rim protection and effort on close outs has been light years beyond anything seen in the Utah series. Jokic is free from Gobert and the Clippers have absolutely no idea how to deal with him (his game 6 stat line is a whopping 34/14/7 and he’s shooting 45% from 3 in the series). Montrezl Harrell carries a lot of blame - a terrible pick and roll defender, he is destroyed by Jamal Murray and can’t bother Jokic at all. Harrell was -15 in 8 minutes in the second half of game 6 after being -19 in 7 minutes in game 5’s second half.
The Lakers sent the Rockets home with 4 consecutive victories, on their way to the Western Conference Finals they were always predicted to reach. Davis playing full time at the 5 opened up everything: Improved spacing helped the team’s offence and both James and AD had a much easier time finishing at the rim and on defense it allowed them to be athletic and mobile enough to double Harden and still recover and rotate once he releases the ball. Russell Westbrook had an atrocious series, still clearly far from the condition he was pre-shutdown.
In quick hitters, Miami finished the job against the Bucks in game 5, with Giannis sitting out injured. Also, two more coaching jobs open up as Billy Donovan is out in OKC, who surely now looks to breakdown and rebuild, and Mike D’Antoni leaves the Rockets, as it was expected after the relationship with owner Tilman Fertitta deteriorated. D’Antoni will be one of the main free agents this coming off season.
Preview: The Final Piece
Miami and Boston open the week on Tuesday with the start of the Eastern Conference Finals. The series hinges on the Celtics offense because the Heat will have some trouble scoring at high rates so if it’s a rock fight you are giving them an advantage. Plus, the more successful they are at attacking the likes of Herro or Dragic the more Spo is forced to consider having less total minutes on those players, which in turn hurts Miami’s chances of scoring anything at all.
But despite matchup hunting being essential against the switching defense the Heat are likely to deploy (especially with no clear answer to guard Kemba), Stevens’ team was very poor at this during the Raptors series. But the Raptors zone did a lot of damage and no team is more versed in that coverage than Miami - I’m curious to see how much we see it since Bosotn started figuring it out a bit around game 6. Adebayo is the main threat on the other end because he creates high on the floor but he’s also able to drive to the basket without other creating for him and the Celtics don’t help at the rim. He can make a lot of buckets or at least draw a ton of fouls.
The Clippers - Nuggets series stands as the last bastion of the second round. Game 7 will take place the same day as the first Eastern Finals game and the chips are down to see if the Clippers can play with intensity over 2 halves. Doc Rivers might live to regret it if he doesn’t keep Harrell in the bench - the 6MOTY should not play a single minute against Jokic. The Lakers patiently await the team that emerges victorious.
In Focus: The Whispers in Milwaukee Turn to Screams
The regular season is about your strengths but the playoffs are about your weaknesses. I’m paraphrasing Nate Duncan but it’s a valuable quote that could not apply more to the fallen contenders and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself.
The NBA and its fanbase love drama, and I do as well. Just a couple of weeks ago, I would have told you without hesitation that Anthony Davis will stay in LA and Giannis will re-sign with the Bucks. This was what we all knew deep down (and probably still know) but that never stopped anyone from clicking in the next “Can the Knicks use their cap scape to land a superstar in the summer?” article or “Are starts excited by the prospect of playing with RJ Barrett?” think-piece (Spoiler: it’s a no on both accounts. Sorry Kicks fans). But for all our certainties, the Milwaukee Bucks had a chip-on-Butler’s-shoulder-sized wrench thrown in their plans and the speculation about the future of the 2-time MVP’s1 future (absolutely fuelled by a sense of big market entitlement) has gone from an annoying buzzing to haunting screams that will surely drive the Bucks Front Office people to the brink of insanity.
There was a lot of reason for optimism. Mike Budenholzer developed the perfect strategy for regular season domination and the Bucks have run through almost everyone in their path. Giannis grew into the most impactful 2-way player by any advanced metric out there and, above all else, he’s a high character guy and fiercely loyal to those close to him and those that believed in him. This is a person that almost gave up his chance to come to the league because he didn’t want to separate from his family. He’s such a loyal personality he actually wanted to keep Jason Kidd in his role despite being the worst head coach in the entire league, just because it was his first coach and someone he bonded with. He’s a such a family man that he has 2 brothers being paid by NBA teams, just in an elaborate way to appeal to him. I mean, the Lakers have played (as of writing) 35-year old JR Smith in 57 actual playoff minutes this year and they still don’t feel comfortable playing Kostas a single second2.
Miami has pulled an upset over the best team of the last couple of regular seasons but yet multiple “insiders” at ESPN were predicting this outcome. The stagnation of Milwaukee’s offense has been an underlying issue that showed it’s ugly head whenever the Bucks weren’t blowing out teams in 3 quarters or less and and Miami, with it’s relentless off ball motion and league leading 3pt% squad, were built to exploit the extremely rigid defensive scheme. Coach Bud displayed zero interest in tweaking the way his team played in any shape or form, and rode his strategy and principles straight to an embarrassing 5 game exit.
A lot of the “shooters” in this Bucks team have the ability to spot up but only Korver and Khris (and the latter, only to an extent) can actually shoot on the move and have it in their games to pop off screens and punish any sliver of open space. Miami loaded up on the ball and stunted Giannis out of his drives and the lack of off-ball action made it easy for Miami to rotate and recover. By the time the Greek Freak realised he could bulldoze through stunts that would not translate in actual sagging off the perimeter he scored 19 points in 11 minutes but the team was already down 0-3 and he would not return once an ankle injury dictated the end of his involvement in the series.
And in a similar vein to his coach, Giannis was exposed for a lack of counters once his plan A was removed from the equation. He lacks a way to make a team pay for taking the rim away from him - He actively continues to desperately go back to the same well and way too often it resulted in offensive fouls or live ball turnovers. And looking at the current roster it is fair to ask what exactly are the alternatives, lacking any real creators outside of Bledsoe that Giannis could pair up with in a more of a screening role. But Eric has no respect in the playoffs after teams figured out that his shooting is inconsistent and he can be forced into mistakes when put in the spot as a decision maker and for all the quality Middleton has he isn’t someone that runs the offense and his game contains no attacks to the rim on a live dribble. One would hope that maybe they could have found an extra piece to handle the ball and create out of pick and roll… or that they kept it.
It might be low-having fruit and it might not have been his presence that somehow magically won the series, but the decision to let go of Michael Brogdon is the giant elephant breaking everything in the living room. This was not a choice between matching Brogdon’s offer sheet as a somewhat overpaid restricted free agent versus keeping Eric Bledsoe; It was a choice between matching his contract or staying out of the Luxury Tax. I understand the Tax has actually hurt smaller teams by creating a ceiling only rich teams are willing to break through instead of being some sort of equaliser, as it was intended. But you can disagree all you want but, owning an NBA team isn’t anyone’s main venture or source of revenue and if you aren’t willing to pay the Luxury Tax in a real window of contention then maybe you don’t have enough money to own an NBA team.
Giannis has apparently met with the Bucks ownership group, and while he did not demand a trade, he “expressed a desire to be in a winning culture with a team that displays a willingness to be untraditional in their approach to building a title team.”. He is asking for management to go the extra mile for the Bucks chance at a title but so far there is no indication the team is willing to fully commit to those steps. The Bucks will offer the veteran extension at their franchise player; The prospects of him accepting have sharply reduced given how the year played out3. The most likely scenario has him run out his contract and push his decision to his free agency so the next league year will be the ultimate test for the ability of the Bucks to build the contender that can thrive with Giannis - or at least a group he believes has that ability.
Their advantage will always be how Giannis really seems to care about the city and being a driver of success in that small NBA market. He’s also a fierce competitor at heart and legends like Dirk Nowitzki - the NBA’s previous once-in-a-lifetime European find - waited around and faced disappointment and criticism for as much as possible before achieving well-earned rewards and validation but Marc Stein will probably tell you that his status as a Dallas “lifer” hinged on that 2011 title. Though Giannis is much younger, the league moves a lot faster nowadays and talent tends to agglomerate in the “player-empowerment” era. It’s a tough cross being on the list of the best players to never win a title.
The entire league is watching. The groundwork for Antetokounmpo’s future with the Bucks started being built last year and the foundational cracks are on full display.
1 We all know it. Can the NBA actually give out these awards when it matters? Is there anyone who actually likes the way it’s being done recently?
2 I am 40% sure they will have now-Lakers-Assistant Jason Kidd come in as an active player before they actually play the younger Antetokounmpo.
3 And in this era, even if he does sign it, the demand to be moved if he feels no positive action occurred is till very much a possibility. This recent meeting seems to make his goals much clearer.