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Studs and Duds from Week 3 of the Playoffs

Moke Hamilton looks at some of the studs and duds from the third week of the 2014 NBA postseason.

Moke Hamilton

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And then, there were eight.

With the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs set to begin on Monday night, the masses were treated to a number of thrilling occurrences.

From Vince Carter and Damian Lillard’s respective game- and series-clinching three-pointers to a brilliant Game 7 performance by Chris Paul to a series-clinching block by Paul Pierce, these NBA playoffs have been riveting.

The best part? It’s only just begun.

With the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks all meeting their demise, the field has gotten remarkably slimmer, and the studs and duds have been further revealed.

 

Duds

The Toronto Raptors, for their fourth quarter defense in Game 7

Rather than single out a player—such as DeMar DeRozan, who shot just 38.5 percent over the course of the team’s seven-game series against the Brooklyn Nets—we will collectively look at the Raptors’ inability to do anything about Joe Johnson during the final quarter of their Game 7 battle on Sunday.

Johnson is an oversized shooting guard who is big and strong enough to bang with many of the league’s power forwards and with their season on the line, the Raptors had absolutely nothing for him.

The Nets went to Johnson each and every time down the stretch and he torched their defense, scoring 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the fourth quarter.

Though the Raptors made a late charge, their double-teaming of Johnson and rotations often came late and simply allowed the Nets to build a cushion that was too much for the Raptors to overcome.

The franchise made a good decision in reportedly re-signing head coach Dwane Casey to a three-year contract, but the truth of the matter is that if they avoided foul trouble and forced the ball out of Johnson’s hands earlier, they may be in Miami preparing for the HEAT.

James Harden, for his inefficiency

Heroes are made in the playoffs, so when you come up short, you deserve some negative attention. In the 2012 NBA Finals, James Harden averaged just 12.4 points per game on 37.5 shooting from the field. His production was desperately needed, but he simply could not muster the type of effort and efficiency required to help his Oklahoma City Thunder avoid a five-game loss at the hands of the Miami HEAT.

Now, in consecutive seasons with the Houston Rockets, Harden has scored well, averaging over 26 points per game in his 12 playoff games with the Rockets, but has converted on just 38 percent of the shots he has taken from the field.

Maybe they are simply growing pains, as we do firmly expect the Rockets to be a contender for years to come, but it is a bit of a disappointment that—as the higher seed with home court advantage—Harden and his team were not able to have a better showing.

Now, the beard, like Wyclef Jean, is gone ’til November.

Roy Hibbert, for his almost too late arrival

Roy Hibbert may have come up big against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 on Saturday, scoring 13 points, grabbing seven rebounds and recording five blocks, but we cannot let him off the hook so easily.

The Pacers came into the postseason with their minds set on getting a crack at the Miami HEAT in the Eastern Conference Finals, but due to Hibbert’s all-around no-show, they were almost upset in the first round.

After barely escaping, the Pacers will see an upgrade over Jeff Teague in John Wall. Although the Wizards’ frontline is not as quick as the Hawks’, they are bigger, strong and more skilled. In the Pacers’ Game 1 loss to Washington, Hibbert had zero points, zero rebounds and five fouls.

The Pacers are in for another very tough fight and this time, they will not be able to escape without Hibbert playing at a very high level.

Zach Randolph, for losing his cool 

It is not everyday that a team is forced to play an elimination game without arguably its top gun, but that is exactly what the Memphis Grizzlies had to do on Saturday night thanks to a boneheaded decision by Zach Randolph to strike Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder, not once, but twice.

Randolph’s lapse in judgment cost him his eligibility in a Game 7 opportunity that his team worked extremely hard to earn. There is nothing wrong with losing to a higher seeded or more talented team, but it would have been nice if the Grizzlies were afforded the opportunity to compete at the highest level with all of their marbles.

When Randolph lost his, he cost his team an opportunity to advance to the second round of the playoffs and that is something that you do not see every day.

Without question, Randolph has earned the dubious distinction of being our dud of the week.

 

Studs

Jason Kidd, for his coaching adjustments and tough decision making

It took a late block by Paul Pierce and perhaps a bad decision by Kyle Lowry to not settle for a 12-foot pull-up, but Jason Kidd has guided the Brooklyn Nets to the second round for the first time since 2007. Ironically enough, their first round series saw them defeat these very same Toronto Raptors.

And their starting point guard? It just so happened to be Kidd.

Kidd deserves tons of credit for his even-keeled and laid-back demeanor. Despite what was occurring around him, his quiet confidence kept his locker room together, but what he deserves more credit for is the tough decision he made following Game 5 of the series.

The Nets squandered Game 4 and followed it up with a loss at the Raptors in Game 5. Trailing the series 3-2, he opted to sit the productive Shaun Livingston in favor of the defensive stalwart Alan Anderson. He also pushed standout rookie Mason Plumlee down the depth chart and allowed Andray Blatche to play Plumlee’s minutes.

Anderson and Blatche came up huge for the Nets and the decision to bench Livingston and Plumlee was a tough one considering each of their parts in the Nets’ success this season.

But Kidd made the call, his team won the final two games of the series, and now, they travel to South Beach for a showdown with the Miami HEAT.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, for their response to adversity

This space was going to belong solely to Durant for the way he handled and responded to the adversity he faced after coming up fairly short through Game 5 against the Memphis Grizzlies. After shooting just 40 percent from the field over the course of the first five games of the series, he responded.

In Game 6 and Game 7, Durant shot 23-for-41 from the field and averaged 34.5 points in those two victories. He understands that criticism comes with the territory and was one of the first to acknowledge that he had to pick it up.

Then, he did.

As for Westbrook, although he does have a propensity to be a bit trigger-happy, his Game 7 stat-line of 27 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds was almost as jaw-dropping as his 10-for-16 shooting from the field.

Although the Grizzlies were without Zach Randolph, the Thunder handled their business the way contenders are supposed to and despite the adversity, Durant and Westbrook led the way.

Better late than never.

Damian Lillard, for being the best sophomore we have seen in a long time

It is not everyday that the masses are privy to a series-clinching, buzzer-beating, 25-footer, and it is almost never that the shot comes at the hands of a second-year pro who has yet to celebrate his 24th birthday.

Lillard is the real deal, and we have known that for quite some time, but the shot that he hit to sink the Houston Rockets on Friday night was truly remarkable.

The game-winning play was drawn up for LaMarcus Aldridge, but Nicolas Batum told the media that given Lillard’s track record of hitting clutch shots and a botch defensive switch by Patrick Beverley and Chandler Parsons, that blowing up the play and going to Lillard was a no-brainer.

Now, the Blazers have won their first playoff series since 2000 and will have an opportunity to overthrow the defending Western Conference Champion San Antonio Spurs.

Because the Spurs have excellent interior defense and plus-perimeter defenders, Lillard may find himself with his team’s fate in his hands once again.

Already, though, he has proven those 24-year-old hands to be quite capable.

Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, for everything

For the verdict on Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, check out Sunday’s roundtable between Joel Brigham, Jessica Camerato and myself.

And as for Doc Rivers? The job he did keeping his team focused on their ultimate goal and the way that he managed his communications with the league, its player union and the public was graceful and classy.

As one of the leaders of the franchise’s front office, Rivers found himself in an impossible situation but still found time to game plan against and out coach Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson. Things looked bleak after the Clippers were trashed in Game 4, but a Rivers team is to never be counted out.

Anyone with a long-term memory can think back at how Rivers’ Boston Celtics competed and won despite often daunting circumstances. Now, as the Clippers open up their second round series against the OKC Thunder, they do so knowing that they have one of the league’s top motivators and basketball minds patrolling their sidelines.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?

The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.

Bobby Krivitsky

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After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.

Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.

Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.

Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.

 

 

While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).

One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.

Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.

So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.

Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.

If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season. 

Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.

If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.

There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.

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NBA Daily: Don’t Forget About Romeo Langford

Once a top-five high school recruit, Romeo Langford has yet to make an impact in his brief NBA career.

Dylan Thayer

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As a highly-touted high school prospect, Romeo Langford found himself at the fifth spot in the 2018 ESPN Top 100. His play earned him a spot in the 2018 McDonald’s All-American Game among big-name recruits such as Zion Williamson, and after a very successful high school career, the five-star shooting guard decided to take his talents to Indiana over both Kansas and Vanderbilt. 

Langford’s time as an Indiana Hoosier was short-lived as he only spent one year with the team before declaring for the draft. He played in thirty-two games despite tearing a ligament in his thumb. His shooting percentages reflected this injury as he shot a meager 27.2 percent from three and 44.8 percent from the field, per Sports-Reference. Both of these percentages were not reflective of the electric, efficient scorer he was at New Albany High School. 

Selected with the No. 14 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics, there was a lot to be excited about. For starters, the Celtics were able to draft a player just inside the lottery who many thought would be a top-five pick before the 2018-19 NCAA season. They were also able to get a resilient player that grinded through his injury and was still able to pace the BIG 10 in freshman scoring with 16.5 points per game. The potential with a healthy Langford is there, and that’s what led to him being a Boston Celtic.

During a 2019 interview with Boston.com, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke highly of their rookie. 

“If they would have been more on the national radar, and he would have not hurt his thumb, he probably would have been even more discussed,” Stevens said at the Celtics practice facility. “He’s a guy we were all well aware of before his first game at IU.”

If it was not clear by this quote, big things were expected from the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. 

Unfortunately, his first season on the Celtics was not much of one to write home about. Across 32 games, he managed to average only 2.5 points with 1.3 rebounds in 11.6 minutes per game, often finding himself with Boston’s G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.

This should not be a big indicator of how things will end up for Langford though – as flourishing Charlotte Hornets star Terry Rozier was also an afterthought off the Celtics’ bench in his first season, even though many people saw his future potential. In a Feb. 7th matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, Langford made the most of a starting opportunity, dropping 16 points on 5-for-11 shooting, including 2-for-5 from three-point range, and 3 blocks. Later, he would then undergo season-ending surgery to repair the scapholunate ligament of his right wrist during the team’s playoff run in the bubble.

As the 2020-21 season heads towards the All-Star break, Langford has yet to suit up as he still is recovering from surgery. But according to a report by NESN, Langford should be healthy enough to return following the pause. 

This then leaves the question: where does Langford fit on the Celtics roster, if at all? Amidst a disappointing start to the season, many fans and people around the Celtics have begun to sound the alarm. When the owner even comes out to 98.5 The Sports Hub and acknowledges the fact that the young Eastern Conference finalists are not currently a contender, there should be plenty of reason to panic.

The Celtics’ troubles have been all over the place this season, but the one that seems to be the most glaring is the lack of explosive scoring outside of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. There has been some great play off the bench by Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams, but players like Grant Williams, Jeff Teague and Semi Ojeleye have struggled to be consistent factors. 

As the Celtics continue to look for splashes in the trade market, there is a lot of uncertainty around Langford’s future as the team now seems to lack tradable assets outside of the core. 

Despite his long injury, Langford is still a much more desirable piece than Javonte Green or Grant Williams. Moving on from Jeff Teague may be a route that the Celtics opt to take as well because he has failed to make much of an impact off of the bench, and this would open up playing time to test out a 100 percent healthy Langford. 

Langford could bring a great burst of energy off the bench for the Celtics if healthy, and so exciting to see how he fits alongside the outstanding rookie point guard in Pritchard. With Langford on the second unit, it would open up the floor for Tatum as he would have another solid scorer to kick the ball out to. 

Could Langford end up being the guy that fixes the bench scoring problem for the Celtics? Only time will tell, but based on his high school and collegiate careers, he very well might be 𑁋 if he’s still on the team past the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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