We’re officially here, the long-awaited mid-point of the NBA playoffs…well, kind of. At the time of this writing, the series stand as followed:
Raptors & Celtics tied 2 – 2
Heat lead Bucks 3 – 0
Rockets lead Lakers 1 – 0
Clippers & Nuggets tied 1 – 1
Some people may ask, “Why did you choose an odd number like seven points?”
Well, I thought it was a cool use of alliteration…that’s all.
1. Utilize the Size
Everyone is keenly aware of the contrast between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have what is likely the smallest long-term starting lineup in NBA history. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers, running with LeBron James as the de facto point alongside Anthony Davis plus a center, stand as one of the larger teams in the NBA.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook, as we saw in game one, should absolutely cook for the entirety of this series. Especially considering the absence of Avery Bradley, the Lakers’ top perimeter defender, Harden and Russ have to be licking their chops during warmups.
However, that same advantage is available for the stars on the opposing side…at least, it should be. I understand that this entire Houston team is built like fire hydrants, and they’re composed of a group of strong defenders. But AD and Bron should be feasting at the rim.
The Lakers’ duo definitely has the ability to step outside and mix up their offensive attack. However, if I were Frank Vogel, I’d be having my stars set up camp and live at the rim; make this series as ugly as possible. Andrew Lawlor of The Playgrounder wrote a piece breaking down how the Lakers can dominate the paint. I’m not asking for 30+ post-ups a game, but a LeBron-AD pick-and-roll where both players are running downhill should be barbecue chicken.
Anthony Davis was defended by PJ Tucker for 26 possessions in game one, and managed a grand total of zero points, and two turnovers. Even though Tucker is a fantastic defender, that shouldn’t happen again.
Get the ball inside, don’t try to match Houston three-for-three, and the Lakers can win this series. Dominate the glass and rule the paint like they’ve done all season.
2. Championship Pedigree
The Toronto Raptors were 0.5 seconds and an OG Anunoby prayer away from being down 3 – 0 heading into Game 4 with the Celtics (although, to be fair, they were a Marcus Smart manifestation of Stephen Curry away from being up 2 – 1).
Aside from a Game 1 blowout, this series has been just as close as everyone predicted. Tied at two games each heading into Game 5, and separated by just 13 total points (in the Celtics favour), these two teams are as evenly matched as you can get.
After the Celtics took a commanding 2 – 0 lead, NBA fans around the world were ready to pencil the Celtics into the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors however, know all too well what it takes to comeback in the playoffs. Last year, the NBA-champion Toronto Raptors (I still love saying that) found themselves trailing in every series except for the Finals. They were down 1 – 0 to Orlando, 2 – 1 to Philadelphia, and 2 – 0 to Milwaukee. Fighting from behind, and being resilient defines this team. A coach like Nick Nurse is going to push all the right buttons to put his team in the best position possible to win each game.
This is going to be a good finish, and at the very least is going six games. Thus far, the long-awaited Boston–Toronto series has been as advertised.
3. Giannis’ Minute Restriction
Giannis Antetokounmpo is injured heading into Game 4, meaning his status is up in the air. But there’s no way he’s been dealing with this all post-season, not to mention last year’s playoffs too. Bud must think he is, what with the inexplicably low minute totals he’s giving Giannis. My personal theory is that Coach Budenholzer is doing this to spite every one.
Let’s take a look at some of the league’s all stars, and their minute allocation in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is averaging 38.2 minutes per game, James Harden 36.1, and Kyle Lowry 35.6. The Milwaukee Bucks star stands at 33.2.
This may not look like a massive difference, but the contrast is apparent when you look at each player’s highest minute total. The most minutes Leonard has played in a single game this postseason is 46; for LeBron, it’s 41; Lowry, 46; Harden, 42. Giannis Antetokounmpo? Just 36 minutes in Game 1 against the Heat.
When you’re down 2 – 0, like the Bucks were to the Heat, Game 3 is as close as you can get to a must-win without being a literal must-win. Yet Bud only put Giannis on the court for 34 minutes, and Antetokounmpo played under 10 minutes in every single quarter.
It’s time to take the lid off now; this is legitimately do or die. I can’t imagine Giannis sitting out with this ankle injury—he’s too competitive—but maybe Bud will see this as a reason to play him even less. Who knows at this point?
4. Kawhi’s the Best Player in the League
I know, I know, you’re probably reading this after game 2 of Clippers vs. Nuggets, in which Kawhi arguably had his worst playoff performance since before the 2014 Finals. But this point still stands!
This is a belief which I have held since his miraculous playoff run last season, in which he was clearly the best player in every series throughout the entire postseason.
This conversation is obviously difficult to have considering two of the guys who would typically be in it (Steph Curry and Kevin Durant) missed essentially the entire season this year.
However, if you held a fantasy draft of the teams left in the playoffs, and gave me the first pick, I’m going with Leonard. He’s this postseason’s second-leading postseason scorer among remaining teams at 29.9 points per game (only 0.6 behind Harden), is scoring efficiently, and has been quite the playmaker for a guy who historically hasn’t necessarily excelled in that area. He’s averaging a career high in assists this season (4.9), and managed to make another leap to 5.3 this postseason.
Kawhi also has the ability to be the best perimeter defender in the league when locked in, is a fantastic rebounder, and possesses the clutch gene in spades.
Leonard single-handedly willed his team to a first-round win over the Dallas Mavericks, and based on the Clippers’ first two games against the Denver Nuggets, he may have to do the same here. Game 1 saw Leonard put up an efficient 29 points in a Clippers blowout, but he struggled in Game 2, finishing with only 13 points in a loss.
Kawhi Leonard is the only player who has proven to be consistently dominant on both the defensive and offensive ends, and clearly has a knack for the playoffs.
5. The Buck Can’t Jump Over the Wall
Nick Nurse showed the world what it takes to slow down Giannis and the Bucks: Do everything you can to stop Giannis from getting to the net, and allow his teammates to do whatever they want.
A lot of people believe that Milwaukee’s front office did a great job surrounding Giannis with talent that fits him perfectly. In my humble opinion, this team could be much better if they had simply bought into acquiring players who possess elite-level three-point shooting.
Toronto last year and Miami this year have proven that they don’t respect the roster Jon Horst has placed around the (presumably) back-to-back MVP. Even an All-Star like Khris Middleton has the space to create off-the-bounce, and he just can’t do it. I think Middleton would be fantastic as a third option, but I do believe you need a primary and secondary ball-handler ahead of him in the pecking order.
A lot of people believe that it’s Giannis’ limitations which are holding Milwaukee back. I will admit that there is some of that. If Giannis had a reliable jump shot, and could create his own shot, it would cure quite a few of the problems ailing the Bucks’ offense.
However, if you truly watch these games, he is still drawing the attention of two to three Heat defenders every time he drives. There are quite a few moments where Giannis is surrounded by a mammoth wall of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Jae Crowder. The rest of the Bucks need to hit open shots and attack closeouts more effectively in order to punish Miami for double- or triple-teaming Giannis.
Coach Budenholzer has also yet to adjust to this defense which, after four straight losses in the ECF last season, you’d think he and his staff would have a counter down by now.
Off-ball screening actions, maybe some different entries into Giannis, rather than Giannis with a full head of steam, and spacing. That works to an extent, and I think we’ve reached that extent. Down 3 – 0 to the Heat, Milwaukee had better hope that they have figured this out, or else they’ll be going home empty-handed again.
6. Rockets’ Guards Licking Their Chops
I truly believe that Houston can win this series, and the majority of that belief stems from the Lakers’ inability to defend opposing guards. They struggled to guard Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in round one, and Harden and Westbrook are a step up from those two.
Danny Green has lost a step, Kyle Kuzma (while he’s been good in the bubble) is inconsistent, Rajon Rondo has only played one (bad) game, and Caruso…is honestly a solid defensive player, actually. These are the guards, along with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who will be getting the majority of the defensive assignments on Houston’s backcourt.
In Game 1, Russ and Harden combined for 60 of the Rockets’ 112 points. The Lakers may have to resort to their “break in case of emergency” measure and make LeBron defend them in this series (shout out to Rob Shaw for the quote on the most recent episode of The Playgrounder Podcast). Can LeBron even handle these two though?
7. Heating Up
I think there was a common belief this season that the four remaining East playoff teams could’ve been sorted into three tiers:
Tier 1: Milwaukee Bucks
Tier 2: Toronto Raptors & Boston Celtics
Tier 3: Miami Heat
Not really much of a hot take with Milwaukee on its deathbed, but that obviously isn’t true. Miami has proven they belong right in that top tier (and the Bucks have shown that they were never as far above the rest as we thought). Erik Spoelstra is most definitely a top-three coach in the league, Jimmy Butler is a legit number one, and this gritty supporting cast is peak Miami basketball.
Up 3 – 0 on Milwaukee, this series is all but over, and Miami will soon have one of the two spots in the Eastern Conference Finals. Goran Dragic has upped his game back to all star form, Bam Adebayo is easily a top-five center in the NBA, and shooters like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson round this offense into form. There aren’t enough positive things to say about this team, including Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, who are both proving to be strong trade-deadline acquisitions.
Watch out world, because Miami is here, and they have a real chance at coming out of the East.