The first game in all except one of the conference semifinals is officially in the books. In a second round in that many hyped to be one of the most all-around intense in history, we’ve seen two blow-outs and one nailbiter. No matter what happens or what reactions show themselves following the first game of a series, everyone comes to the exact same conclusion.
“It’s only one game.”
It’s true. There’s no need to come to any drastic conclusions after only one game has been played in a best-of-seven series. No matter what Paul Pierce says. But, just because each series is still young does not mean there aren’t some causes for concern.
Just like any playoff series, there’s still plenty for every team in its matchup to have to learn and adjust to. For now, let’s take a look at those who lose their first game and the primary question they need to ask themselves as they prepare for their next go-round.
How do they withstand a Kawhi Leonard explosion?
People can fault Philly all they want for how they defended Leonard. Stopping the Raptors obviously starts with stopping Kawhi. Honestly though, when you look at his numbers, there’s not much Philadelphia can do.
Kawhi is having the finest postseason performance of his entire career. In an admittingly small sample size, Leonard has simply dominated in basically every way possible. In six games, Leonard is averaging almost 31 points on 58/51/90 splits. Those who say the Kawhi of old is back would be wrong because the Kawhi of old never played this well even when he was making Finals appearances.
It’s not like he’s facing weak defenders along the perimeter either. Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Jimmy Butler are far from a sieve on that end. Yet, Leonard has eaten them all alive. Even with an All-NBA defender like Butler, Philly had no answers for him and they could very well still not have any when the series is done.
Stopping Kawhi at the present time seems out of the question. That does not mean all is lost. There are some guys that frankly can’t be stopped when they’re playing at their best, and Kawhi has certainly proven that he’s one of them. If you shut down the rest of his team, then you still have a chance.
Shutting down the rest of the team means removing the likes of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol among others. Those guys can be stopped – Lowry has an unflinching reputation for folding in the playoffs – but the Sixers need to find the right personnel to stop them.
How they’re going to do that is anyone’s guess. Siakam has done wonderfully in the playoffs – he outscored every starter on the Sixers – and Gasol has fit like a glove in Toronto. Philly may have more talent, but the Raptors have more guys who can do the little things.
The Sixers also need to exploit mismatches on the Raptors in order to keep up. Again, that’s a hard task because Toronto holds some edges in that department as well. Gasol did an excellent job on Joel Embiid and Kawhi continues to be Ben Simmons’ worst nightmare on the court. Times like these stress the importance of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
The silver lining for Philly is that after Brooklyn handled them pretty easily in Game 1 of the first round, the Sixers tore through the Nets like a wet sheet of paper. The Raptors are a much more difficult challenge, but Philly has proven that they can get up again when they get knocked down.
Who steps up if Giannis struggles?
This was an elephant in the room that the Bucks have justifiably avoided. Giannis has taken the reins as the best two-way player in the league – That label and Most Valuable Player are mutually exclusive – so him having an off-game seemed absurd. That was, until now.
The Celtics went scorched earth on the Bucks in Game 1 – winning 112-90 – with their surprising blowout win on the road centered around their defense on the Greek Freak. Giannis may have put up 22 points and even hit a few threes, but that came at 7-for-21 shooting from the field and 5-for-10 from the charity stripe.
It only gets worse. After such a dominant series against the Pistons, Giannis and co. got a nice serving of humble pie thanks to Al Horford’s per usual excellent defense.
The Bucks’ offensive rating when Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the court in Round 1: 120.2.
Bucks’ offensive rating when Giannis shared court with Al Horford in Game 1: 63.3.
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) April 28, 2019
Now that Boston has opened this series by collectively punching Milwaukee right in the teeth, the Bucks have to wonder who can fill in for when Antetokounmpo struggles to get his game going.
Khris Middleton and Nikola Mirotic were the only Bucks who scored in double figures and combined for 29 points. More should be expected from Middleton, who was both excellent in their previous playoff matchup and was an All-Star this season while Mirotic did just about what the Bucks asked of him.
The real disappointments were Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez, who were a combined 2-for-10 from the floor. There were already some concerns that Lopez was not a good matchup in this series against Al Horford and he did nothing to quell those fears. Bledsoe, on the other hand, seems to not have gotten past his playoff demons against the Celtics. It goes without saying that Milwaukee needs these two to play better if they are hoping to beat Boston.
Worst of all, the lack of support from the Bucks’ supporting cast in Game 1 fails to dispel the notion that the team lives and dies by the Greek Freak. It’s important to remember that Boston didn’t just steal a game from the Milwaukee. They spanked the deer on their home floor. During the regular season, Milwaukee rarely got blown out and rarely got beaten at home. Boston managed to do both.
To the Bucks’ credit, the odds of Giannis having a game that atrocious again is very low. You should expect him to come back with the vengeance in Game 2 just as much as you should expect the Celtics to be ready for him. The next game should be better than the first, but the Bucks can’t go to war with just Antetokounmpo.
It’s series like these that make you realize that Milwaukee really misses Malcolm Brogdon.
What rotation should they go with against the Warriors?
Let’s step back and take a moment to appreciate that from the looks of things, this series will be every bit like the one we had the privilege to witness last season. What we saw last May was one of the most exciting and intense playoff series in NBA history. To get that again would be amazing. Honestly, the Rockets-Warriors matchup could be the Godfather duology of playoff series.
Getting back to the series itself, Game 1 could haunt Houston when this series is over because they absolutely had every opportunity to steal one in Golden State. Even though the Warriors had the lead for the majority of the game, the Rockets kept themselves within distance.
The Rockets definitely have some legitimate gripes with how the game was officiated, but they should take pride in that Clint Capela played about as badly as he could have, Austin Rivers was out with an ankle injury/illness and James Harden didn’t have the most efficient game – but they were still in it until the closing seconds.
Besides, they’ve got other kinks to work out with their rotation. Rivers’ impending return will probably they will have to decide between Gerald Green – a plus/minus of -16 in seven minutes?! – and Iman Shumpert – who up to that point had been playing garbage time minutes – if they don’t cut out both of their minutes entirely.
The same goes for their frontcourt situation. Capela was awful but that not likely to be a problem going forward. PJ Tucker put up a goose egg yet managed to have a plus/minus of +9. The real question is who is going to get minutes off the bench.
The Rockets opted to play Nene as their backup five against the Warriors. Nene didn’t do a bad job scoring eight points and putting up a plus/minus of +7. At the same time, the Rockets relied on the 37-year-old, whose minutes had declined even further this season, in crucial minutes. They even had him on the floor during the Warriors final offensive possession in which Curry hit the dagger three to put them up for good. A bizarre decision by Mike D’Antoni.
Houston doesn’t boast the most depth in the frontcourt, but perhaps it’s worth considering giving Kenneth Faried some burn? The Warriors out-rebounded the Rockets 38-26. Faried isn’t the best option but he had the highest rebound average per-36 on the team besides Capela at 12.2 per game. Maybe he could give the second unit a bit of a jolt.
Since Houston plays Golden State just about better than anyone and was still within a hair of beating its rival, they don’t have as pressing of a concern as Philadelphia or Milwaukee. Still, the majority of the teams who win playoff series win Game 1. If any of these teams who lost are to defy the odds, they do have to make the appropriate adjustments.
NBA Daily: Can Anyone Challenge the East’s Top Teams?
The Eastern Conference Finals will likely have two of the top three teams represented. While the rest of the teams in the East battle amongst themselves, do any of them have a shot to knock off Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee in the playoffs?
The Western Conference has been dominating the league once again, in terms of quality teams from top to bottom. The 13th worst team in the West would be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Though their depth is lacking, the East still has a few teams that are championship contenders this season.
The Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks all have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals this summer. It is championship-or-bust for these franchises who have emptied their wallets in order to pursue the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Each of these teams has at least two star players and another All-Star caliber player to help them reach their ultimate goal. Each one of these teams has a legitimate MVP candidate. In Brooklyn’s case, they just might have the greatest offensive three-headed monster the league has ever seen.
Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are what separates these three teams from the rest of the conference.
This season there is plenty of parity among the remaining teams in the East. The standings change every night as these teams battle with nearly identical records. It would be a shocking surprise to not see one of Brooklyn, Philly or Milwaukee make it to the NBA Finals.
Odds are that two of these three teams will meet in the Conference Finals, but is there another team lurking that could upset the apple cart? Do any of these teams in the second-tier have enough talent and firepower to upset one of the East’s elite? Here are four teams that could play spoiler.
After reaching the NBA Finals last season in the bubble down in Orlando, the HEAT have definitely cooled off this year. They had a slow start at the beginning of the season, then had a long pause as health and safety protocols wreaked havoc on their roster. Not having Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic available really hurt them, but the tide could be turning.
Butler himself has been on a tear since returning to the court — and his teammates have followed his lead. Bam Adebayo has quietly had another outstanding year and they finally got their man Victor Oladipo before the trade deadline passed. Unfortunately, his recent injury put a serious damper on their hopes of getting back to the Finals.
UPDATE: Victor Oladipo will not be accompanying the team on the west coast road trip and will be further evaluated.
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) April 9, 2021
Miami needs Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson to play more consistently, especially with Oladipo out. Veterans Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza should help in the postseason as they incorporate another perimeter shooter in Nemanja Bjelica. They have the star power and the experience needed to make another run, but the odds are stacked against them.
After a dismal start to the season, the Hawks appear to have figured out their identity. Much like the situation in Boston, this team was tasked with trying to build chemistry during a pandemic without essentially any practice. That is a difficult proposition and something that was going to take time. They also still needed to develop their young guys like Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Onyeka Okongwu.
After turning things over to Nate McMillan, he has been able to coach up this young squad, even without some of their top talent. Every player on the team has missed a chunk of time this year and they have had to seriously rely on their depth to get them through most of the regular season. Having won 15 of their last 20 games, they now find themselves in a position to have home-court advantage when the playoffs begin.
The vision that Travis Schlenk had in the offseason is finally becoming clear. The incredible play of guys like Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and even Solomon Hill has been vital to their success. They will still lean on Trae Young and John Collins for their offense but the talented pieces around them are what will make this team tough to beat in a seven-game series.
The Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises this season, even after the acquisition of All-Star forward Gordon Hayward. Charlotte is the true definition of a team, as they have multiple guys that have stepped up and played well in spots throughout the season. PJ Washington, Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Bismack Biyombo, Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins of Cody and Caleb have all contributed to their success.
The play of LaMelo Ball had him sitting at the top of the rookie class before he suffered his broken wrist. His phenomenal first season may be over, but the organization is holding out hope that he may be able to return in the playoffs should Charlotte earn a spot in the postseason. Hayward is also back on the shelf as he continues to deal with a sprained foot. Charlotte has been able to stay afloat during their absences, which is a huge credit to James Borrego.
One more major difference-maker for the Hornets this season has been Terry Rozier. The electric guard is one of the top 40 scorers in the league this season and has been one of the best clutch performers as well. He is shooting a career-best 41 percent from behind the arc and 46 percent overall from the floor. They can be a dark horse come playoff time, but they will need their two best players healthy in order to have any chance.
It has been a very strange season for the Celtics, who entered the year with high expectations. They have been the greatest mystery this season and a puzzle that Brad Stevens is still trying to put together. Jaylen Brown has taken his game to another level and Jayson Tatum has had his moments as well. Both have cooled off since the All-Star break and Kemba Walker has been hot and cold from game to game.
Marcus Smart missed a lot of time and they brought in Evan Fournier at the trade deadline but he has yet to fit in like many thought he would. Chemistry could be the issue, but no one has really been able to put their finger on their kryptonite. The good news is that Tatum appears to finally be returning to health after his battle with COVID.
Jayson Tatum said he’s been using an inhaler before games since testing positive for COVID-19. Said he’s still not quite back to 100 percent, but that he’s “close.” Tatum tested positive back in January.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) April 14, 2021
The center position has been a revolving door for this team all season, with Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tacko Fall, Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet all trying to fill the void left by Enes Kanter. They could have had the league’s leading shot-blocker Myles Turner, but Danny Ainge let Hayward walk for nothing instead.
On paper, this team is oozing with talent and should be much better than their record indicates. They may finally be figuring things out, having won six of their last seven games, including four straight. If their issues are truly fixed and if they can stay healthy, they will be a team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Rajon Rondo Brings Leadership, Playmaking to Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Los Angeles Clippers made a big trade deadline move last month when they shipped out locker room favorite and perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo.
The Clippers have had one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA this season, but even so, they have had times where the offense seemingly stalls and they can’t seem to generate easing scoring opportunities especially late in games.
The calls for a true point guard only got louder after those games and the team finally gave in and rolled the dice on one of the league’s better playmakers, especially come playoff time. Williams has been a good playmaker himself throughout his career and he was averaging 3.4 assists per game prior to the trade.
But in Rondo, the Clippers get a premier playmaker and floor leader who has won two championships and whom the Lakers often closed games with last year in the postseason. Rondo made his Clippers debut on Easter Sunday in the team’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers and although his numbers didn’t jump off the stat sheet (2 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists and 4 turnovers in 12 minutes of play), he played with a lot of energy and pushed the pace well, something the Clippers haven’t always been so good at this season.
After the game, Rondo summed up what his role on the team is going to be quite simply.
“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing out on the court for my teammates.”
Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was a little more effusive in his thoughts on how Rondo will fit in on the team and how much better they will be with his addition. The Clippers have spoken all season long about needing to push the ball in transition and try and generate easy scoring opportunities on the break and that’s something Lue noticed right away with Rondo.
“You could just tell his pace brings a different something to our team and offensively he’s getting the outlet close to half court before the first pass is made. That generates pace for us and we need that,” Lue said. “As slow as we run sometimes, it’s probably going to have to be something that we adjust to, but I think he makes the game easier. When you get out and run in transition, a lot of teams can’t get back and get a match so we will get open shots. With him generating the pace, that’s going to be good for us.”
One area in particular that the team is hoping Rondo can help with is taking some of the ball-handling pressure off of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both players have really stepped up in transitioning to primary ball-handling roles, something they haven’t had to do thus far in their careers.
They’re both averaging career-highs in assists at 5.0 and 5.4 respectively and have done well moving the ball around and getting good shots throughout the game for themselves and their teammates. But there have been times when the ball stagnates a bit and both Leonard and George end up taking tough contested shots late in the game.
With Rondo on board, the Clippers have a player that will keep the ball moving and can help get both of them easy looks down the stretch, something he did to perfection last year with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in easier spots as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense,” Rondo said. “If we are able to create stops to get on the break, my job is to advance the ball and let those guys attack one-on-one before the defense is set.”
In his first game playing alongside Rondo, George immediately saw the benefits and how Rondo will take pressure off of both him and Leonard.
“You just see his intangibles, you see he just sees plays happening,” George said. “I thought it just made the game easier getting it up to him, letting him push the ball, letting him initiate instead of a lot of times myself and Kawhi doing it. We got a guy that can do it, it’s just going to make the game easier for us.”
A team’s point guard is often an extension of the head coach on the court and Rondo certainly has been that throughout his career. He’s been a vocal leader on the court and in the locker room and his stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding, he’s been a very positive influence wherever he’s been.
He’s looking forward to working alongside Lue and doing his best to implement Lue’s schemes on the court both offensively and defensively.
“Just try to be on the same page as my coach. Not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and be an extension of [Tyronn Lue] on the court.”
NBA Western Conference Bright Future Watch
The Western Conference is loaded with talent this year, but who will be the teams that dominate it in the future? Zach Dupont takes a look at which teams have the brightest future in the Western Conference.
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the current season as we head towards the climax of a great race for the Western Conference title. But there are already reasons to look past this year and get excited about the teams who could dominate the Western Conference past 2020-21.
Who are the teams that could strike next year? And who has set themselves up to have a bright future in the Western Conference?
The Denver Nuggets are primed to become a force in the Western Conference for years to come and could easily be the favorites heading into next year. The Nuggets’ four best players, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, are all under contract for next season, and all of them are younger than 26-years-old. Jokic has proved himself to be one of the best players in the NBA over the past few seasons and has emerged as a favorite for the MVP award this year. In 2020-21, Jokic is averaging 26.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while shooting 57 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Jokic’s wingman Murray is no slouch either, posting the best numbers of his career with 21.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting and 41.2 percent shooting from three. Combine Jokic’s MVP play and Murray’s high-end scoring ability with the shooting and potential of Porter Jr., and the defensive ability of Gordon and the Nuggets emerge as a clear threat in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets also won’t be lacking for depth next year like many of their rivals. Monte Morris is locked up for the next few seasons, and Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options for next season that they could easily accept. The Nuggets can also keep Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier for next season, as both are on non-guaranteed contracts. There are also younger players on the roster who have shown some promise and could be a factor next season. Zeke Nnaji showed potential as a stretch four in limited showings this year, and Bol Bol is still an exciting talent. Denver will even have some money to play with in free agency this offseason, although the looming extension they will owe Porter Jr. will make options limited. Paul Millsap will no longer be on the books at near $15 million a year, and if either Barton or Green decided to decline their player options, that would give the Nuggets more cap flexibility.
The Nuggets have the most intriguing mix of high-end talent and youth in the west, and while they’re already a threat this season, next season, they may be the favorites.
The Grizzlies may not be where Denver is as a team now, but long-term, they are equally as exciting. The Grizzlies are loaded with young talent up and down the roster, and they already have one of their stars of the future. Ja Morant has been a sensation since entering the league last season, and with another year of experience under his belt, the league should be worried about the Grizzlies’ potential. Morant is averaging 18.8 points and 7.4 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Morant is joined by fellow youngster Jaren Jackson Jr., a two-way big with loads of potential. Jackson has yet to see the floor this year, but he showed the ability to protect the rim like an elite defender and knock down a high volume of three-pointers in his first two seasons of action.
The Grizzlies core may be focused around Morant and Jackson, but what makes Memphis more exciting than other teams out west is the roster’s pure volume of prospects. Brandon Clarke was a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft and has already shown to be a great center who can impact the game on both offense and defense, De’Anthony Melton is one of the league’s most underappreciated defensive players at just 22-years-old and Desmond Bane is already knocking down over 45 percent of his three-point attempts in his rookie season. From top to bottom, Memphis has exciting young talent. Together with their established talent like Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, you’ve got a team primed to compete in the Western Conference in 2021-22.
Memphis may not be a title favorite next year, but their ability to acquire talented youth will only make them better and better every season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have some major decisions to make this offseason, but they are a team to watch out west next year no matter what they do. New Orleans has maybe the most exciting young talent in the NBA in Zion Williamson, who has emerged as one of the most efficient and dangerous scorers in the league this season. Williamson is putting up 26.3 points per game this season on an absurd 62 percent shooting and 66 percent true shooting. At just 20-years-old Williamson is already an All-Star, and he will inevitably improve over the next few seasons with his ceiling being as high as anyone’s in the NBA. New Orleans has managed to pair Williamson with another All-Star level player in Brandon Ingram, who has averaged nearly 24 points per game in each of the past two seasons. The Pelicans’ big decision this offseason will be what to do with their point guard, Lonzo Ball. Ball has always been a talented distributor and defender since entering the league, but this year he has taken a step forward as a scorer, averaging a career-best 14.5 points per game and 38.4 percent shooting from three. Ball is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason, and it’s not a given that he will be back next year.
New Orleans already has a core to build around, and they have young depth pieces to add to the already exciting potential of the roster. Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kira Lewis are a pair of young point guards who have shown a lot of potential and could fill in nicely for Ball if he departs this summer. Alexander-Walker is putting up more than 10 points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he has shown glimpses of being a defender and shooter in the same mold as Ball. Lewis is a speedy rookie out of Alabama who has found playing time hard to come by, but if either Ball or Eric Bledsoe find themselves not in New Orleans next year, he has showcased skills that could put him in the conversation for major minutes.
If Zion takes another step next year, and the whole team cleans it up defensively, the Pelicans could become serious players in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers may not be full of young players with high-end potential like other teams on this list, but they still represent the West’s most dangerous threat when healthy. Every season the question “when will he finally slow down” is asked about LeBron James, and every season LeBron shows he is still one of the most dominant players in the NBA. LeBron Is 36-years-old, and this season he has put up 25.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game and, before getting injured a few weeks ago, was one of the favorites for the MVP award. LeBron’s running mate, Anthony Davis, is equally dangerous and could be considered the NBA’s best two-way player. The Lakers have both Davis and LeBron locked in for next season, and the presence of those two players alone makes them a title threat in the west regardless of the team put around them.
One benefit of having superstars like LeBron and Davis is that it becomes much easier to sign role players. The Lakers will already have the services of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marc Gasol next season, and Montrezl Harrell has a $9.7 million player option for next season. But the draw of potentially winning a championship will bring the Lakers role players on cheaper contracts than they would have signed elsewhere, as evident by Gasol, Andre Drummond and Wesley Matthews’ contracts.
The Lakers may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of bright futures, but LeBron and Davis will keep the Lakers’ future bright for as long as they remain in LA.