The NBA’s version of the Elite Eight is in full-force and as the clock ticks, the hourglass sifts on the season of four more teams that hope to play for the Larry O’Brien trophy. At the end of the day, though, we know that there will only be two, and unfortunately for those that reside in Rip City, or support the team that hails from there, we know it will not be the Portland Trail Blazers.
Entering week five of the NBA Playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs have not only beaten the Blazers, they have embarrassed them, dropping them into the all-too-familiar 0-3 hole and beating them by an average of 18.7 points per contest.
After a first round full of exciting finishes and scores of fans walking around with exposed cuticles due to the nail biting, the second round has been a bit of a dud comparatively speaking.
But of course, not the biggest one. That designation will be revealed below.
Nene, Because He Should Have Been Ready For This Challenge
After dismantling Joakim Noah, Nene has regressed a bit in the second round. Facing tougher interior opposition than a one-footed Noah, Nene has combined to shoot just 8-for-28 over the Wizards’ past two games and has seemed to be just a shell of the offensive force that he was against Tom Thibodeau’s team. Though his defense has been mostly on-par with what we have come to expect from him, from top to bottom, the Wizards need to find a way to both score more than 63 points (like they did in Game 3) and not cough up a 19-point lead (like they did in Game 4).
As a veteran on this team and one of the few that has tasted this type of playoff intensity, Nene needs to lead the way and find a way to be more effective if the Wizards are to have any chance of advancing
Russell Westbrook, For Not Passing to Kevin Durant When It Mattered Most
If you ask those who are associated with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s players, most of them will have you believe that the ire that Russell Westbrook often comes under for shooting too much is a foolish media-creation.
But when you are playing with the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and you have an opportunity to hit him for a game-winning three-point shot in a pivotal Game 4 of a playoff series, you pass him the damn ball, even if you are playing in your hometown.
Westbrook got a clean look at the buzzer of Sunday’s Game 4 against the Los Angeles Clippers, and certainly, flashbacks of the heroics that Damian Lillard provided in Game 6 of the Blazers’ first round series against the Houston Rockets probably flashed across his subconscious as he received the ball at mid court and proceeded to fly up the floor and take (and clank) the game-winning shot.
That was Durant’s shot, and there was more than enough time to get him the ball. As great as Westbrook has been thus far this series (27.5 points, seven rebounds, 8.8 assists on 54 percent shooting from the field), he failed to make the pass when it mattered most.
As a result, his Thunder are locked in a series that they could easily lose and though his passing to Durant in that moment may not have changed that, it would have sent a loud and reverberating message to all of his critics.
Instead, the Thunder now face a must-win Game 5 in a series that they should be leading 3-1.
The Portland Trail Blazers, For Getting Schooled
The Spurs are no strangers to one-sided beatings in the NBA playoffs. Way back in 2007, some wondered whether the upstart Utah Jazz, being led by Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, had a chance to topple the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
Five games later, the world knew better and as the Spurs went on to sweep the Cleveland Cavaliers and finish up their latest NBA title run by going 10-1 over their final 11 playoff games, we got a stark reminder: you need to be ripe before you can become a champion.
From top to bottom, the Trail Blazers are learning that the hard way.
Offensively, the Spurs are more disciplined and run a far superior system than the Houston Rockets and defensively, there is simply not competition.
Damian Lillard is shooting just 37.5 percent from the field and unless that changes in a serious way, the Blazers will fall to the Spurs just like Boozer’s Jazz once did.
It has been a wonderful season for the Blazers, and their future is quite bright. But there is no question that a more spirited and competitive fight should have been had. For sure, they are the dud of the week.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, For Refusing to Fall
20.3 points, 12.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game against a defense like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s? That is something worth celebrating.
Through four games, Chris Paul has been every bit as good as Kevin Durant and we will also send an honorable mention to Blake Griffin for the fearless and reckless manner in which he has continually challenged the intimidating interior defenders of the Thunder.
After winning Game 4 in dramatic fashion, the Clippers are tied in a three-game series with the Thunder and though this writer picked the Thunder to take this one in seven games, we cannot discount the Clippers as a real threat to not only topple the Thunder, but to win the entire thing.
What we recall most about the go-ahead three-pointer by Jamal Crawford was Paul’s surveying of the floor and immediate recognition of the fact that Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins converged in the middle of the paint to cut off Blake Griffin’s drive. The last time the Clippers ran that play, Griffin ended up converting a three-point play and Scotty Brooks ensured that would not occur again.
So Paul did what Paul does—he got his teammates the ball in a position to do something with it and Crawford responded by hitting the game’s biggest shot.
Again, we say, a team with Paul at the helm is never out of any game. Period. And, they’re never out of a series, either.
Paul George, For Galvanizing His Team and Showing Some Rare Mental Toughness
It is not easy sticking to one’s guns. This writer predicted that the Indiana Pacers would win the 2014 Eastern Conference Championship and changing predictions is simply not something that we do.
We said that even when the Pacers trailed the Atlanta Hawks 3-2 back in the first round and we will continue to say it.
But holy cow, thank goodness we finally have some reason to believe it.
In Game 3 against the Wizards, the Pacers showed us once again that they can be an indomitable defensive force, stifling and frustrating the Wizards into scoring just 63 total points and holding John Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene to a combined 15-for-46 from the field.
The next game, they erased a 19-point deficit and stole Game 4 at the Verizon Center.
Per ESPN, Paul George became the first player in NBA history to score 39 points, grab 12 rebounds and hit seven three-pointers in an NBA playoff game.
Roy Hibbert now seems to have rediscovered his mojo and all of a sudden, despite all that has occurred to this point, the Pacers are one win away from getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals—this time, with home court advantage.
They are on the cusp, and when they needed it most, George came up with a 28-point second half in Game 4.
Tony Parker, For Showing Damian Lillard Who’s the Boss
Who’s the best point guard in the NBA?
Chris Paul? Russell Westbrook? Derrick Rose? Rajon Rondo? Where does Goran Dragic rank? How far down the line is Kyrie Irving?
This past season, we have heard a few pick up on the idea that Mike Conley is underrated, but really and truly, who is more underrated than Tony Parker?
Of the aforementioned point guards, how many of them have championship rings? How many of them have been the MVP of the NBA Finals? How many of them are the best point guard to come from their continent?
The answer is one, and in each instance, the answer is Parker.
Over the course of last season’s NBA Finals, Parker was the most consistent force for the Spurs and he just so happened to pull off one of the most amazing shots ever witnessed in Game 3.
So are you surprised that he has taken the challenge of going directly at Damian Lillard and showing him who’s boss?
Are you surprised that he is averaging 26 points, 8.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game on 52 percent shooting from the field?
Are you surprised that Parker is the impetus behind the Spurs beginning to shovel dirt on the grave of the Blazers’ 2014 NBA season?
If so, why?
Parker has been one of the league’s most consistent floor generals over the course of the past decade.
But just in case you forgot, he figured he would remind you.
And we are glad that he did.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.
Winslow and the Miami HEAT Are “Believing in Each Other”
Justise Winslow discusses the all-around team effort of the Miami HEAT with Basketball Insiders.
The days of LeBron James in Miami are over. Chris Bosh isn’t there anymore, either. No more Ray Allen or Shane Battier. Dwyane Wade is back, but he’s not “Flash” nowadays.
Actually, check the entire Miami HEAT roster; there’s no superstar. They have an All-Star in Goran Dragic, even if he was the third alternate. But during this most recent playoff push, the HEAT don’t have a worldwide household name to plaster all over billboards as a reason for their success.
With 10 games remaining until the playoffs, Miami doesn’t have a player averaging more than 33 minutes per game. Instead, they have 11 players who average at least 20 minutes a contest. Their approach is that of a deep rotation, and its led them to a 39-33 record and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. All while the rest of the league is star-driven.
One of those key cogs to the Miami machine is third-year wing, Justise Winslow. A former top-10 pick out of Duke, Winslow is enjoying most efficient season so far for the HEAT. To him, the fact that his squad isn’t littered with names like LeBron and Steph doesn’t make a difference.
“I think our team is extremely confident in each other,” Winslow said. “I think that’s a big thing is that we all believe in each other. We play to each other’s strengths, and most importantly we’re a defensive-minded team. We hang our hats on the defensive end, and that’s really what gets us going as a team.”
Winslow isn’t exaggerating. The HEAT is seventh in the NBA in defensive rating. Head coach Erik Spoelstra harps on the team’s defensive scheme and preparation. Without a go-to scorer capable of getting the team 30 any given night, Miami needs to do their job as a collective unit on the defensive end of the floor night in and night out.
“Each night the coaching staff preaching to us that we have enough, no matter who is in the lineup,” Winslow said. “So it’s just about going out there and executing and putting together a good game of 48-minute basketball. I think our belief in each other that we have enough to get the job done is key.”
In the current NBA landscape, a lot of the playoff contenders are centered around players with big resumes and bigger names. As a result, the HEAT get lost in the shuffle of the national conversation from time to time. Their culture of togetherness and slight from the media outside of their city could make for the perfect “chip on the shoulder” recipe. Or so you would think. Winslow doesn’t believe the chatter, or lack thereof, matters any to Miami.
“We don’t pay too much attention to that,” Winslow said. ‘We’re so focused, and locked in on our team, and each other, and trying to win each game. For us, it’s about having the respect of your peers, of the other team. I think every night no matter who we have or who’s healthy, I think teams know we’re going to be a tough, physical team. Guys in this league don’t want that, you don’t want to have to play against a Miami HEAT team that’s going to be physical, that’s going to get into your body, that’s going to make you play a hard, 48-minute basketball game.”
Because of the HEAT’s brand of basketball, an 82-game season can be grueling. For Winslow, keeping his body right throughout the grind is important to him. After dealing with a few injuries last season, and ultimately being shut down for the year last January to undergo right shoulder surgery for a torn labrum, Winslow was determined to make sure he kept his body in check throughout his comeback so he would be available for a long playoff run.
While his numbers aren’t flashy, Winslow is showing improvement. His 49.3 true shooting percentage is the highest of his career, along with shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc, Winslow made strides in arguably the biggest knock against his game since coming out of college.
Because NBA players have the freedom to form partnerships with whichever companies they’d like, Winslow made the choice to strike up a partnership that he felt would not only help him off the court but more importantly, on it as well.
“My partnership with MET-Rx has been great,” Winslow said. “They’ve really helped take my game to the next level with all their nutritional supplements, and the Big 100 bar. So, for me, I’m always looking for ways to stay off my feet, but also get in the best shape possible and this was just a great way to help.”
The grind of the NBA season is also eased for playoff teams by a veteran presence. So, when the HEAT brought back franchise legend Wade at the trade deadline, their locker room suddenly had a face and feel of someone who’s been there before. A player who reached the pinnacle, with the very team that traded for him nonetheless.
Getting Wade back to Miami was crucial for the team’s playoff run down the stretch, and more importantly for Winslow, who benefited greatly from his time with the future Hall of Famer when he was fresh out of college.
“First and foremost, it was great to get him back,” Winslow said. “Just the role that he played in my career as a rookie, and everything I learned from him. But then also, just the energy and positivity that he brought to the locker room, and also the community of Miami, the city of Miami as a whole. It was a much-needed energy boost, and good vibes that he brought back for that post All-Star break push for playoffs. So, it’s just been great having him back, and it’s kind of rejuvenated the team and the locker room, and just the city in general.”
Wade is the MVP-caliber player he once was this time around, though. But that’s okay. This version of the Miami HEAT is charging toward the postseason with a team-first mentality.
NBA Daily: The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. is an elite prospect, but questions surrounding his back will determine his landing spot in the NBA.
The Road Ahead for Michael Porter Jr.
While some of the highly thought of college players have made their intentions on declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft known, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr still hasn’t made his proclamation. Most people in NBA circles believe he’ll be in the 2018 NBA Draft class—you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t think he’s in.
Back in November, the Missouri staff was somewhat vague and guarded about Porter’s condition until it was announced that he’d have back surgery on a couple of problematic discs in the lumbar area of his spine. The procedure is called a microdiscectomy and by all accounts was a success.
Porter missed virtually all of his college season but opted to play in the post-season for Missouri, who got eliminated fairly quickly.
There were certainly a lot of ugly things about Porter’s game. He looked out of shape, and certainly wasn’t the overwhelming dominating force he’d been in high school. Some executives applauded his decision to play, even though he wasn’t at a 100 percent. Some pointed to that fact that too many college players play it safe and that’s not always viewed positively. Almost no one Basketball Insiders spoke with was holding the less than stellar outing against him. In fact, most had far more positive things to say than negative. There was one resounding theme from the NBA executives who spoke about this situation—none of it matters until they see his medical.
Assuming Porter does as expected and hires an agent and enters the draft, the next challenge he’ll face is how open he wants to be to teams looking at drafting him.
In recent years, NBA teams have not shied away from using high draft picks on injured or recently injured players. Once a team can get a sense of how the player is recovering, they can make a value judgment.
Agents often use this information and access to the player to help steer their client to the situation they deem most favorable. While fans and outsiders often get caught up in the pick number a player ultimately lands at, more and more agents are concerned with fit, especially for a player that may need time to get back to 100 percent.
Most agents would want to steer their client to a team with favorable medical staff, a team with a proven track record of patience or more importantly, a team with the best chance at a long and fruitful career.
This won’t be good news for some team that could end up in the top 10, as it’s more likely that Porter isn’t made available to everyone. NBA executives will tell you, they can certainly draft him if they wanted to, but most teams won’t draft a player if their medical staff doesn’t sign off, and without information and access how can they do that?
There is a significant financial difference in going third in the draft ($5.47 million) and 10th ($2.964 million) – but several agents commented that the short-term money shouldn’t drive the long-term decision, especially if the player isn’t 100 percent. The fit and situation typically trump everything in these situations.
Another concept to consider is while Porter did play, there are questions about whether he’ll host a pro-day, take part in private team workouts or simply let his body of work drive his draft value.
Almost no one who spoke about this situation believed Porter would take part in the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, as he’d have to subject himself to the medical testing that’s part of that event.
The common perception on Porter is he’s a top-five talent, although it seems more likely that his camp is going to try and work the process to ensure he lands in a favorable situation. That could mean he falls out of top-five selections, simply because he and his agents choose to.
There is still a lot that needs to play out for Porter, including his announcement that he will enter the draft. But given where things stand with him, it’s more likely than not he’s coming into the draft, and it’s more likely than not he’ll have a lot of questions NBA teams will want to understand before his real draft position is clear.
The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago this year and is scheduled for May 15th. The annual Draft Combine, also in Chicago, gets underway on May 16th.
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