Do you know what was so much fun about the games we saw leading up to the Play-In Tournament? They had a playoff-like atmosphere to them. Anytime Portland, Memphis, Phoenix, or San Antonio tipped, you really felt their desperation in every second they played. The pressure grew on them with each passing game. If those regular-season games felt like the postseason, imagine what the actual postseason is going to feel like!
It’s not going to shake anyone’s world by saying that making the playoffs brings pressure amped up to 100 – and no one is exempt from it either. There’s plenty of pressure on LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, but they’ve been through this already, so it’s nothing new to them. Giannis Antetokounmpo is under similar pressure and he isn’t as familiar as his fellow competitors, but he’s only 25 and just started playing for an actual winning team last year. Really, the pressure is more on Milwaukee as a team knowing the Greek Freak’s contract situation that will be coming up less than a year from now.
The degree of pressure varies too. For example, there won’t be nearly as much for some of our newcomers, like Luka Doncic. There will definitely be more on him as his career progresses, but no one is going to hold it over him if Dallas gets easily ousted in the first round this year. He and the Mavericks have proven all they needed to. They are way ahead of schedule, and this is just the first step in what should be an awesome new era of basketball. Better yet, who better to give them a taste of life with the big boys than playoff veterans like Kawhi Leonard and Doc Rivers?
But the following players are ones who have been around the block before; they have monkeys on their back. If they are able to shake them off, that could change their legacy for the better, but it’s going to be quite a challenge for them to do so.
Houston has captured that rare status of being one of the most doubted teams in spite of the talent they possess yet has a roster construction so unique that no one can wholeheartedly write them off. We knew it was primarily on Harden’s shoulders to prove that the small-ball full-time strategy can work, but sadly, he’s now facing a tough foe led by a former star teammate with revenge heavily on his mind. To make it worse, he has to do it without his All-Star teammate.
But it’s a good chance to prove he’s improved his playoff chops. Having been an MVP candidate for five of the last six years, Harden doesn’t exactly have the best playoff reputation to his name. Over the last three years, he blew that series against San Antonio without Kawhi Leonard, choked away 3-2 lead against Golden State, then failed to capitalize when the Warriors lost Kevin Durant the year following,
Now Harden has to take on the biggest workload he’s had in three years with his former MVP teammate down. If there’s a time for him to prove that he can step up his game with higher stakes, now is the time to do it.
Even with all the issues that have plagued a once-promising Sixers season, Philly miraculously got the matchup they’ve wanted all season. It’s not been the most graceful season – but at least they got the best of their division rival this season, winning their series against the Boston Celtics 3-1, and now they get to face them on a neutral court. Ben Simmons’ injury alone will make them overmatched against the Celtics. That’s why this is perfect for Joel Embiid.
With this being his third go in the playoffs, this is Embiid’s chance to prove that he is the superstar. No one is denying Embiid’s talent as a player, but he still has yet to dominate a playoff series. He’s dominated individual games, but over a series against a strong opponent? Not quite. Simmons’ absence is an all-around downgrade, but we’re going to see what he looks like as the unquestioned alpha of this team.
This time, Embiid won’t have to go up against Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Marc Gasol, or Ed Davis. Instead, the best line of defense Embiid will go up against is Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Robert Williams III. Situations like these are when all-timers prove they are everything they were expected to be. The chips are down. The enemy has a weakness. If Embiid is the superstar we’ve talked him up to be, he has to take every advantage he can in this Boston series.
Whether they come up victorious or not, this has to be Embiid’s best series to prove he really is a franchise center. Bar none.
The pressure really is on Boston’s top four players, but there is something that puts Walker in the spotlight compared to his teammates – playoff success. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were within minutes of making the NBA Finals two years ago. Gordon Hayward ended Lob City the year before that. Walker has been in the NBA for about a decade and, before this season, he’s made the playoffs twice.
The Double J’s progress has made Boston a sexy pick to make the finals, but what will put the Celtics in the conversation with the top contenders in the league is a playoff-ready Kemba, which is not a given.
The last time Walker made the playoffs was 2016 and his production as the leader was all over the place. One night he was putting up 34 points, the next he was putting up 14 – but the fact that Kemba failed to show up for the biggest game of the season was not a good look.
There’s no need to mention his balky knee. He’s looked fine thus far, so there should be nothing holding the point guard back from giving Boston his all. We could very well see the All-NBA Walker when the playoffs come, but we may also see the one that couldn’t get out of the starting block in much weaker Eastern Conference from 2016.
George may very well have the best playoff resume out of everyone on this shortlist – yet, he hasn’t been out of the first round since 2014. In that time, he’s broken his leg, separated his shoulder, watched his All-Star caliber teammates see their careers vanish at the drop of a dime, etc. Some of his playoff failures over the last six years are on him, but not all of it.
Now, he’s on the best team he’s been on since the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers. This season, Paul George has been about as good as Paul George could be. His numbers are substantially down from when he was making a legitimate MVP bid last season, but the pressure will be on him to bring the Clippers their first championship. But there’s a little extra spice to it too.
Kawhi Leonard left a picture-perfect situation up north to play for his hometown, believing that George would be right there by his side to form one of the better 1-2 punches in all of the NBA. We know Leonard will be at his best come playoff time, but he couldn’t do it alone in Toronto and he certainly won’t be able to do it alone in Los Angeles. The pressure isn’t on George only to help L.A. win. He also has to prove that Leonard made the right decision.
Beyond that, there are plenty of others that’ll face the music this week as well. With the Jazz competing with Philadelphia for the most dysfunctional playoff team of the year, and in the wake of losing their best shooter for the season, Donovan Mitchell’s the undisputed carrier of fates in Utah.
Anthony Davis will face the most pressure he’s ever had throughout his entire career. Teams are going to dare him to beat them while they do everything to blanket LeBron – that can be explained in more detail right here.
Jimmy Butler will be going through George-like pressure when Miami makes its playoff run. He could have stayed with the 76ers and been their go-to guy on a championship-caliber team, but instead, he elected to be the man on his own team.
A lot is going to unfold from now until October. When everything does, we’re going to see exactly what these guys are all made of. They better make the best of it, because next season, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving are all coming back into the picture.
NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?
Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.
This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.
As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.
And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.
Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.
Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.
At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.
While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.
In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.
But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.
Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)
A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.
First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?
When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.
Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.
Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.
Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.
And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest. And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.
But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.
And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.
Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.
So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.
NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?
The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.
As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.
1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)
The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.
Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.
Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.
Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.
Ben Simmons comments on his Defensive Player of the Year race against Rudy Gobert: “I scored 42 points on him in Utah, and apparently I’m not a scorer.”
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) April 13, 2021
2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)
Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.
Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol.
If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?
3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)
If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.
Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.
While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.
4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)
The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball.
But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game.
If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)
The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable.
Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15.
While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)
The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.
As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.
Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.
NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?
Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.
The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.
The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.
Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.
As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)
But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?
The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.
The timing of the injury is apropos.
The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.
Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.
A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.
Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.
But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.
Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.
But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).
And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.
Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.
Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.
Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.
The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.
So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.
The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.
And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.