There’s something about the negative reputation of the first round of the NBA Playoffs that’s bothersome. In an impatient sports world that just wants to get to the Finals, the path it takes to get there often gets overlooked.
With so many storylines surrounding this year’s opening slate of matchups, the association has so far delivered (and then some) with a highly competitive and highly entertaining start to the postseason.
As the remaining series close out this weekend heading into the conference semi-finals, there are plenty of moments to look back on.
Not that any team making the playoffs should be taken lightly, but surely many of us were stunned by the Chicago Bulls blindsiding the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the first two games at the Garden. How about your reaction to the Milwaukee Bucks stunning the Toronto Raptors up north to begin their series?
If that didn’t do it for you, then the Utah Jazz upsetting the Los Angeles Clippers after Rudy Gobert went down 13 seconds into Game 1 had to, right? The Atlanta Hawks have even held their own against the highly touted Washington Wizards.
Too frequently we collectively predict first-round winners without giving the opposition any fair chance or consideration. Nearly everyone is guilty of it, but people have to realize that these are the playoffs. Regardless of whether teams enter on a six-game winning streak or on a four-game skid, it’s a brand new ball game after the regular season.
Scrolling through social media, you’ll find jargon such as “[Team X] should have blown them out” or “They barely got past [Team Y]. You think they’re worthy of being a contender?”
Sorry, but that’s a horribly generic and shortsighted take. Even the greatest of teams have been tested before making their way to the NBA Finals. Some teams are simply better matchups than others, so it doesn’t make sense to definitively use this type of analysis as a barometer for what may happen in later rounds. That, and each team in the postseason is highly motivated to achieve the same goal, so every series is going to be a hard-fought struggle (at least to some extent).
The intensity and gamesmanship between players is a staple of the playoffs, year-in, and year-out. On the court is one thing, but the subtle jabs while speaking to the press take it to the next level.
Just look at how Markieff Morris caught the attention of Paul Millsap by calling him a crybaby after Game 3. That series could now potentially go seven games.
After a dust-up in Game 4, Jimmy Butler dubbed Marcus Smart a fake tough guy and the Celtics have now won three straight after falling down two games to none.
Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley went at it all series long and spoke their peace on the matter after the Houston Rockets eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It doesn’t just stop at the players. Following up another loss on the road with his Memphis Grizzlies behind two games, David Fizdale presented some damning evidence to the media regarding unfair officiating. The “take that for data” quote was such a hit as soon as he left the room that it became a t-shirt less than 12 hours later.
Not only was it a memorable moment for the league but, more importantly, it galvanized his players and gave the team new life. Sure, they came up short against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, but they gave every ounce of fight in them until the final whistle. Fiz is certainly a made man in that city.
Fizdale was one of two coaches to get fired up over the referees. After that same game where Butler fired off on Smart, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg complained about how unstoppable Isaiah Thomas is when he’s allowed to pick up his dribble. After dropping Game 5 in Boston, he was irked when a reporter referred back to it and stormed away from the media area.
It’ll be intriguing to see the next moments at the podium in round two with new matchups and fresh rivals.
Blast From The Past And Budding Superstars
Joe Johnson’s re-emergence in the playoffs has been such a joy to watch. At 35 years old, the man Quin Snyder refers to as “Joe Jesus” has not one, but two clutch go-ahead shots against the Clippers on their own home floor. Don’t look now, but the Jazz could close this thing out Friday night and he’s an enormous part of that.
Before going down with an unfortunate thumb injury, Rajon Rondo was carving up his former team as a floor general. Tony Parker took it upon himself to lock in offensively to help his team. When the Hawks have needed him most, Jose Calderon has given Mike Budenholzer some crucial minutes. Even Deron Williams found the fountain of youth and looked like his old spry self for the Cleveland Cavaliers in their sweep against the Indiana Pacers.
These guys are proving that they still have a ton left in the tank. The future, though, looks as bright as ever.
It goes without saying that Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a top five player in the NBA very, very soon. His sheer dominance in the Toronto series alone showed that. Dwane Casey made a lineup adjustment that “slowed down” the Greek Freak, but it only took a couple of games for him to get right back into the swing of things. P.J. Tucker said himself that he is nearly impossible to stop, and once Antetokounmpo develops that outside shot more, he’ll take an even further leap toward greatness.
There’s another star in the making down in Atlanta, though. As the Hawks go deeper into their youth movement, they’ve given the reigns to Dennis. He hasn’t disappointed one bit. In his first five games as a starter in the postseason, the 23-year-old is the fourth-youngest player in league history to average at least 24 points and seven assists per game on over 45 percent shooting from the field.
Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas are the only players to do this at an age younger than Schroder, but keep in mind that one of those three had started in a playoff series before. This is Schroder’s first series ever with that kind of responsibility. As for other point guard names that join him, Allen Iverson, Gary Payton and his rival John Wall have accomplished this feat.
It’s a small sample size, but the sky could be the limit for the up-and-coming Schroder.
NBA Daily: 76ers Should Look To Shake Milton For Point Guard Duties
With Ben Simmons out for an extended period, the Philadelphia 76ers will need to rely on a committee of potential ball-handlers to fill those minutes. Quinn Davis looks at one of those candidates and why he should get the bulk of that responsibility.
During the Philadelphia 76ers’ first practice following the All-Star break, Ben Simmons felt some discomfort in his back. The team initially listed him as questionable for their game against the Brooklyn Nets before ruling him out after a pre-game warmup.
The official designation at the time was back tightness, a seemingly short-term nuisance. Concerns were further alleviated when Simmons was listed as probable for a showdown against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday before starting that game.
Sixers fans’ halcyon lasted no more than five minutes, as Simmons was sent to the locker room early in the Bucks game. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game and reports followed saying that Simmons would be given an MRI on Sunday.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Simmons had suffered a nerve impingement and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. The actual timeframe for his return to action will likely not be decided on until that re-evaluation.
With Simmons out for an extended period, the team will need contributions from an ensemble cast of ball-handlers. Brown was asked before the game about his decision on who will take the lion’s share of those duties. He answered that it will be “by committee,” citing Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, Shake Milton and Raul Neto as possible candidates.
Out of those four, Milton may be the best option. His combination of point guard skills and three-point shooting make him a good candidate to play with the starters as he did Monday against the Hawks.
Milton’s start was not the only surprise, as Al Horford was also moved back in the starting lineup after being relegated to the bench just before the All-Star break. The decision was prudent as that group got off to a hot start and powered the Sixers to a 41 point first quarter.
Milton was asked after the game about the conversation that preceded his starting nod.
“There was no conversation,” Milton answered. “He just came in and slapped my name on the board, that’s how I found out.”
Milton was then asked whether there was any specific preparation for the role.
“No, but it’s my job to be ready for whatever the team needs me to do, I feel comfortable on the ball, I feel comfortable off the ball. When someone goes down, and you don’t want to see injuries, but it’s next man up.”
Milton looked prepared enough, albeit against one of the league’s worst defenses. In 26 minutes, he tallied 7 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists while tying for a team-high plus-21.
While Milton is a riskier play than veterans Burks and Neto, he has a clear advantage in upside. He has shown an improved ability to get to the rim this season and has flashed nice passing ability in tight spaces.
One of the keys to running the offense while Simmons is out will be the ability to get the ball to Joel Embiid on time and on target. Here, the Sixers run one of their more frequently used plays with Richardson setting the screen for Embiid to roll to the rim. The Hawks get caught up on the screen, Milton recognizes that Embiid has sprung free and makes the pass. It’s a tad high, but Embiid hauls it in and gets the layup.
The Sixers also like to run dribble handoffs with their star center. None have perfected it as JJ Redick did in the previous two seasons, but Milton could be useful in this action. This was not on display Monday night, but they have run it with Milton earlier in this season. Here is an example from an earlier contest against the Hawks last month.
Damian Jones jumps out to contest the shot, so Milton finds the rolling Embiid for the dunk.
The obvious caveat here is that both of the above clips were from games against one of the league’s worst defenses. Milton will face more resistance against other teams who will not allow Embiid to get a wide-open role to the rim, leaving Milton with the task of either driving or hitting the pull-up jumper.
His proficiency in those plays will certainly be a factor in his playing time. His passing overall is solid and maybe the best out the Sixers’ backup guard contingent. He can read defenses well thanks to his experience as a point guard through college and in his time in the G League. If he begins to flash close to the pull-up scoring ability of Burks, he will quickly rise to the top of this group.
On the other side of the ball, Milton has held his own. He came into the season with defense being one of his most apparent weaknesses, but he has worked to improve on that end and was tested on Monday against some solid offensive players. While Milton isn’t close to the defender that Simmons and Richardson are, his length and effort level can make him serviceable on that end.
Milton was even tasked with guarding Trae Young for brief periods. Young can make any defender look silly, but Milton managed to play him tight. In this play, he does a good job of sticking with Young around the screen and recovering to block the floater.
Of course, things are a little easier when a player of Embiid’s caliber is patrolling the paint. The perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate has been upping his defensive intensity the last few games, and on the above play makes Trae Young think twice about going all the way to the basket or attempt the lob.
Basketball Insiders asked Brown after the Hawks game about the confidence he has in Milton’s defense.
“He comes in and plays as if he belongs,” Brown answered. “He can guard better than I originally thought. He’s got some legit point guard thinking in his psyche and I think he can guard multiple positions.”
Basketball Insiders also asked Milton about the impetus for his defensive improvement.
“Just having a year being around players who are as good as they are,” Milton stated. “When you’re going up against guys like these every day, it forces you to get better and it forces you to work harder.”
Given the success in Philadelphia’s first game, Milton will likely stay as the starter. With Simmons out for an extended period, Brown should stick with him in that spot to foster some chemistry between the young guard and Embiid.
If Milton continues to play well, he could carve out a role for when Simmons returns to the lineup. It’s certainly possible that a tightened playoff rotation leads to Richardson being the only guard on the floor when Simmons sits. If Brown feels more ball-handling is needed, though, it will likely come down to Milton and Burks for that spot.
Burks has the edge in experience, which is usually one of the biggest factors in rotation decisions come April. Burks also is a proven scorer out of the pick-and-roll, an area where the Sixers lack. With that said, Milton’s all-around play could be more valuable for a team with two stars that he will likely be sharing the court with.
There is time for those decisions, though. For now, the Sixers will need to find a way to go on a run and secure home-court without their star point guard.
Taking a chance on Milton’s upside may be their best shot.
NBA Daily: Samanic, Johnson Impressing With Austin Spurs
David Yapkowitz speaks with two young San Antonio Spurs standouts, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, about their time in Austin with the G League.
For rookies starting their NBA careers in today’s league, their journey is a little bit different than in the past.
In prior years, rookies who weren’t in the rotation immediately were often buried on the bench and relegated to garbage time minutes. It could be a frustrating and difficult situation for players used to being team focal points in college or high school.
What’s changed within the past decade is the way NBA teams have used the G League. The G League has grown tremendously to the point where almost every NBA team has its own affiliate. The New Orleans Pelicans became the 28th team to have an affiliate this season with the Erie Bayhawks, leaving only the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers without a G League team.
More and more NBA teams have begun using their G League affiliates to get their young players playing time and development that they wouldn’t receive by staying the entire season with their NBA parent club.
One team that has taken full advantage in recent years of having a G League affiliate is the San Antonio Spurs. When the Columbus Dragons of the then NBA D League relocated to Austin, Texas, they were purchased by the Spurs and renamed the Austin Toros. They’ve since changed their name to the Austin Spurs.
Throughout their team history, Austin has had several call-ups to the NBA, and San Antonio has used its affiliate to get young players seasoning and development. Within the past five years, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker, all Spurs first-round draft picks, saw extensive time in the G League as rookies.
Coming into this season, San Antonio had two first-round picks, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, who didn’t figure to be in the rotation right away. To this point, Samanic has yet to suit up for San Antonio and Johnson has played in only four games. Both have spent the majority of their time in Austin.
Samanic was an intriguing prospect with a bit of a versatile skill set when the Spurs made him the 19th overall pick in last summer’s draft. He can score in the paint, handle the ball a bit and has improving range on his jump shot.
A native of Croatia, Samanic played professionally in Slovenia and Spain before declaring for the 2019 NBA draft. As a youth, he participated in the Adidas EuroCamp, an NBA pre-draft camp, and he had a few Division 1 schools monitoring him. He opted to play professionally while preparing for the NBA.
He’s spent the entirety of his rookie year thus far in Austin, where he’s been adjusting to the American pro game.
“It’s much different. I go from game-to-game and we practice a lot so that’s made it easier,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “Being with this group has helped me a lot, too. Just being more physical, coming here and adjusting to the physicality.”
In 31 games with Austin, Samanic is putting up 15.3 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the field to go with 7.6 rebounds. He’s had several double-doubles and after struggling a little bit early in the season, seems to have found a bit of a rhythm. He’s shooting only 31.9 percent from three-point range on the year, but in January, he was at 34 percent.
He credits the staff in Austin with helping his game and getting him adjusted to NBA style play. He knows that this season is mostly about development in Austin, but he does have the goal of making a difference for San Antonio by next year.
“I can bring the same things I bring to Austin. Whatever [Gregg Popovich] needs me to do, I’ll do,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “I just want to adjust as much and as quick as possible. Get experience and then next year, I’m trying to be in the rotation in San Antonio.”
In Johnson’s case, he’s been brought up to San Antonio for a few games here and there, but has also spent the majority of his rookie season with Austin. He was a highly-touted prospect at Oak Hill Academy and played only one season at Kentucky before declaring for the NBA draft.
Once projected to be a lottery pick, Johnson has the ability to be an impact player on the wing. He can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He has a strong inside game too and has the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. He’s shown flashes in the G League of why he was considered to be a steal when the San Antonio grabbed him with the 29th pick.
He, too, credits the G League with helping him adjust to the NBA level and is confident he can contribute to San Antonio’s rotation if needed.
“I think the main things are pace and just staying in shape. Getting up down, getting my body right and eating right,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Just playing hard and playing defense. Everything else will come in time. As long as I can be myself and do what I know I can do, I’ll be fine.”
Johnson has been one of the top standouts for Austin this season. He’s started in 29 of the 30 games he’s played in the G League and put up 20 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. The one area he stands to improve upon is his outside shooting, as he’s only converting on 23.3 percent of his long-range attempts.
He was recently named to the Western Conference mid-season All-G-League team and if his performances are any indication, the Spurs could have another diamond in the rough on their hands. So far, he’s been impressed with the level of competition he’s faced up against in the G League. He knows that since he has an NBA contract, he’s getting everyone’s best shot night in and night out.
“I think it’s everything you can ask for. You’re playing against great players, night in and night out,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “You don’t get to take days off. Everybody is grinding, they’re hungry, we come in and they’re ready to play. You’ve got to be ready every night.”
The G League regular season ends next month, but Austin is one of the top teams in the league and could be playing into mid-April in the G League Finals. Johnson will likely be assigned to Austin for the duration of their playoff run, making next season his opportunity to get minutes in San Antonio.
For now, he’s continuing to work on his game and be ready for whenever his name should be called upon.
“I just want to get better and be the best Keldon Johnson I can be,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Throughout my rookie season, just staying consistent is the main thing. Just get better honestly, that’s my main goal.”
NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 2/25/20
Robert Covington’s off-ball disruption, the Philadelphia 76ers’ revamped rotation and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unsurpassed individual dominance highlight this edition of Defensive Player of the Year watch. Jack Winter dives in.
The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.
Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.
Robert Covington – Houston Rockets
The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.
The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.
But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.
The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.
Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.
Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.
The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.
Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.
Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation
Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.
There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.
The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.
Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.
Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.
Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.
Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.
But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.
It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.
Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.
Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.
Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.
Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby