Win-Now Talents The Celtics Could Trade Their Draft Picks For

By Jesse Cinquini

Wanna know three certainties in life? Death, taxes, and the Boston Celtics owning multiple first rounders. As of right now, Boston is in possession of three first-round picks in the upcoming draft: the 14th, 26th, and 30th. But the Celtics don’t need three new rookies; there’s simply not enough minutes to go around on a roster in the thick of a title pursuit.

It wouldn’t make much sense for the team to stand pat with their draft choices, particularly because this class is supposedly one of the weakest in recent memory. Why not swing for the fences and try to add a piece that can play postseason minutes right away? While Boston’s assortment of picks isn’t likely to reel in a big fish, the C’s could gain a difference maker if they play their cards right.

Boston trades: Romeo Langford, Vincent Poirier, 14th overall pick

Houston trades: PJ Tucker, 2024 second round pick (from Golden State Warriors)

PJ Tucker belongs in Celtics green. The ferocity he brings to the game is infectious, and as he’s a more than capable three-point threat—Tucker has shot the long ball at a 36.9 percent clip over his last three seasons in Houston—I’d love to see him man the stretch-five in Boston. He’s also a sneaky good offensive rebounder, having averaged 1.6 per game this year.

Furthermore, Tucker’s on-ball defensive chops could be enough to solidify the Celtics as the league’s most switchable team. Imagine a five-man unit of Walker-Smart-Brown-Tatum-Tucker. Now, tell me with a straight face that isn’t a lineup programmed to make life nightmarish for the opposition. Yes, PJ is 35 years old but he should have a few years left in the tank due to playing less games in Europe and at the start of his NBA career. It would justify giving up a late lottery pick.

 Boston trades: Vincent Poirier, 26th overall pick, 47th overall pick

Denver trades: Monte Morris

This Celtics roster is a bit top-heavy. Boston gets consistent scoring from their starting five, but the second unit is a different, bleaker story; the reserves in green are mustering the fewest points per game this postseason of any squad remaining (20). Boston’s paper-thin in terms of their depth; it might be the team’s most glaring weakness. And when Marcus Smart’s starting in place of the injured Hayward, there’s no designated scorer off the pine for the C’s who they can go to for buckets.

Let me introduce you to Monte Morris, the man with the attributes necessary to shore up the Celtics’ bench scoring woes. Morris averaged 9.0 points and 3.5 assists for the Nuggets this season on 45.9/37.8/84.3 shooting splits. He’s adept at creating opportunities for points out of the pick-and-roll; Monte put up 0.92 points per play as the pick and roll ball handler during the regular season, a mark superior to those of Colin Sexton, Brandon Ingram, and Gordon Hayward. Morris would be a noticeable upgrade over Brad Wanamaker who, although he has had moments of effective play, is not the consistent offensive threat that the 25-year-old Morris is.

In 20-25 minutes off the pine, Monte is capable of averaging double-digits with Boston. The club desperately needs someone to initiate offense for the backups, and Morris has been getting buckets as a reserve for his whole career. He can distribute, orchestrate the fastbreak, finish at the rim, and shoot the rock—basically all the traits you could ask for out of a floor general. It would take a first rounder to get him, but that would be permissible.

Boston trades: Vincent Poirier, 26th overall pick, 2021 second round pick (BOS)

Utah trades: Royce O’Neale

Before we dive into this scenario, I’d like to apologize to my guy Poirier for shipping him off in each of the three hypothetical trades I proposed. His two-year, $5 million contract is super trade-friendly, so he has to be dealt in order to make these imaginary moves possible.

Now, onto Royce O’Neale. The third-year man out of Baylor is undeniably one of the top rebounding wings in the game. Sitting in the 94th percentile among positional counterparts in defensive rebounding percentage, O’Neale’s a uniquely adept board-snatcher for a small forward. You know what else he can do? Shoot the three-pointer, and with damn good accuracy, specifically off the catch. In six contests for the Jazz thus far this postseason, O’Neale has netted 43.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot treys on 2.7 tries per game.

Royce can contribute a lot as a shooter and rebounder, but perimeter defense is his calling card — and if the Boston Celtics’ success over the past few seasons has told us anything, it’s that you can never have too many wings who can defend a number of positions. O’Neale is a role player who plays to his strengths and impacts the game on both ends. His defense-first mentality and long range marksmanship would serve him well in Boston, and in my mind he’s an ideal backup behind Jaylen Brown and/or Jayson Tatum.

BONUS: Check out Zach Wilson and Matt Esposito talk about the Raptors-Celtics series on their latest podcast featuring Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm!

Seven Points For the Second Round

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.

Game Two Focus: Is There A Quick Fix For Los Angeles?

by Matt Esposito

I think so? Traditionally, blogs that start with such uncertainty don’t bode well for the writer, but here I stand. Friday night’s series opener revealed the Laker’s game plan for defending James Harden. Although it didn’t quite work, there were elements that could potentially lead to success.

Harden’s propensity to attempt his patented stepback 3-pointer led Frank Vogel to implement a scheme that tried to prevent those shots. In particular, Los Angeles shaded Harden’s left side (his shooting hand) and in doing so wittingly surrendered a driving lane. If Harden opted out of the stepback and into a rim attack, Laker shot blockers were supposed to be waiting for a contest.

LeBron dug in to ensure Harden could not pull up. Though Anthony Davis was called for a questionable foul, his defense of Harden perfectly displayed what the Lakers were trying to do. But was the emphasis on limiting the stepback successful?

Oh, JaVale

There is an ending to that clip of LeBron guarding Harden, but it isn’t exactly enjoyable for Lakers fans. JaVale McGee rotates into help position to contest the shot. Problem is, he was flatfooted and frustratingly slow.

McGee literally walked into the paint to contest Harden, as if The Bearded One is not the best scorer in the NBA. JaVale is relying on his freakish wingspan to alter Harden’s shot yet, the former MVP can easily release a floater that for the score.

Again, witness Danny Green shade Harden out of his stepback and into a drive. McGee is in solid position once more but he walks into his contest. Harden needs to be met earlier into his decision making process if his shot is to be truly altered. Simply put, McGee’s lead-footed rotations actually allow Harden more time to consider how he must release his shot.

Los Angeles got lucky on this next Harden miss. McGee comes to a near standstill during his rotation and had minimal impact on the floater. This is a shot Harden would love to have back. Regardless, McGee must meet Harden higher in the paint. Doing so could lead to a Harden blow by, sure. But gambling that a teammate can help the helper is better than consistently giving up open paint attempts.

It Wasn’t Just JaVale, Though

Even Defensive Player of the Year candidate (and spurned winner, in my opinion) Anthony Davis made some wrong decisions. Was he in his position to take a charge call against Harden? Absolutely. But why is a near 7-foot, shot swatting extraordinaire looking for charges instead of doing what he does best?

In the play below, Davis obviously tried to draw the foul. By the time he got into position, however, Harden was already deep into his shooting motion. After denying the stepback, the goal for LA is to force Harden to opt out of the paint attempt or heavily contest it. Davis was the recipient of a bad call, but he was more likely the result of poorly executed strategy.

There Is Hope

Much has been written in anticipation of this series. Many have argued that Los Angeles should lean on their size advantage. Vogel’s defensive game plan in Game One suggested he too believed their height could limit Houston’s potent offense. To an extent, it can.

It wasn’t the Los Angeles bigs who most impressively executed Vogel’s scheme, however. It was LeBron James (naturally.) The key to bothering James Harden does not truly lie in the length in defenders rather, the rapidity in which you get to Harden before he makes his decision. Watch LeBron hurriedly get to him and forced a turnover off of a bad pass.

LeBron left his feet for the contest at the exact moment Harden gathered for his shot. This is the timing Los Angeles needs to make Harden think twice about laying it up. JaVale McGee’s defense is a hair too slow and that makes all the difference when defending a player of Harden’s caliber.

James came through once more on the defensive end. His rotation is quick and Harden must put up a tough, off-handed runner. Still, you can see that if James arrived a nanosecond later then Harden could have banked home the shot.

What Will Happen In Game Two?

Do not expect Vogel to make major personnel changes. Instead, watch to see if he alters where McGee is positioned on the court. Will he task him with cheating off shooters more so he can meet Harden higher in the paint? Doing that is a risky proposition, however. The trick to bothering Harden doesn’t depend on where you meet him on the court as much as where you meet him during his decision making process.

Vogel could depend on Dwight Howard more. Or maybe he lessens McGee’s minutes and gives them to Davis. Playing AD at the five will give even more minutes to LeBron to spend as another rotating paint protector; a role we saw him have success with. Nonetheless, the Laker’s plan to limit Harden’s stepbacks will likely continue. We will have to wait and see how they adjust to his paint drives.

The Passing Evolution of Jaylen Brown

By Geoffrey Campbell

Jaylen Brown personifies the phrase ‘more than an athlete.’ Since entering the NBA in 2016, Brown has been a role model for other young professionals regardless of occupation, whether he was speaking out about negative stereotypes often associated with athletes who don’t just “stick to sports” in 2018, or more recently, organizing a protest in his hometown of Atlanta after the murder of George Floyd. 

While there is no question that his activism off the court will have a longer and more meaningful impact, in the present, Brown’s on-court development, particularly in areas outside of scoring, is having a huge impact on his team’s postseason success. 

Prior to the beginning of the 2019–2020 season, Brown signed a four-year, $115 million extension, making him the first Celtic to be extended on their rookie deal since Rajon Rondo. The C’s committed to Brown after a season in which he averaged a career-low in three-point percentage and scored fewer points per game compared with his previous season. At the time, I could not see the Celtics, a team that had the majority of their current and future salary cap tied to Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown, while still needing to pay Jayson Tatum, contending for a title. Then again, I suppose that is why I don’t run a professional basketball team, and it’s also why most friends avoid my betting advice like a New York City subway car in August.

But the Celtics did bet on Brown, and he has certainly rewarded them. This year, Brown finished the regular season averaging just over 20 points per game while shooting a career-high 48 percent from the field, and grabbing 6.7 rebounds per game. Yet it’s been Brown’s development as a facilitator that has piqued this writer’s interest. Meanwhile, Brown’s assist percentage has jumped from his previous playoff career-high of 9.5% in 2016-2017 to 12.3% this postseason. After taking a closer look at Brown’s film (both postseason and regular season), it’s easy to see the strides he’s made as a passer, and where he still needs to improve.

The Celtics as a team are shooting over 65 percent this postseason on shots within zero to three feet of the basket, and Brown’s emerging skills as a playmaker is one of the primary reasons for it. The first of the following two clips features Brown driving baseline, drawing in the defense, and finding a cutting Robert Williams for the easy flush. The second shows Brown’s growth as a passer: the fourth-year man out of Cal looks for the lob, sees that it’s not there, and instead threads a pass inside to Daniel Theis, who finishes the two-handed slam to extend the Celtics’ lead.

Brown’s vision and ability to find the open man extends to plays in transition as well. Here, Brown throws an outlet pass to Kemba Walker for a difficult lay-in. The second-clip is the type of *chef’s kiss* found in the kitchen at a steakhouse like Peter Luger’s: Brown rifles a picture-perfect bounce pass through four Raptors defenders, hitting Gordon Hayward in stride for the easy two. 

Since the playoffs started, the Celtics have increased both their number of three-point attempts per game and three-point percentage from their regular season averages: Through six games, the C’s are putting up 36.2 threes a game and hitting 37.3 percent of them, up from 34.5 attempts per game on 36.4 percent respectively. Once again, Brown’s ability to break his man off the dribble and find teammates, whether in the corner or with cross-court passes, has been on full display.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that Brown is still young and has plenty of room to grow. The 23-year old averaged could definitely improve his understanding of the nuances of halfcourt reads, specifically with lob passes. In the first clip, Brown throws the ball a little too far in front of Theis  (granted, there was some pretty nice help defense from Joe Harris). In the second clip, Brown has all the time in the world to set up Theis for a wide-open dunk. Once again, either Brown is looking for the lob and Theis isn’t ready for it, or Brown just airmails the pass. 

Brown has more than justified the Celtics’ decision to extend him prior to this season. It’s still jarring to think that there were teams who felt Brown was ‘too smart’ coming out of college, but Celtics fans can sit back knowing that Jayson Tatum (most likely) and Jaylen Brown will be lighting up the TD Garden for the foreseeable future. Now, if Brown can further refine his talent as a secondary creator and limit his turnovers, we could be looking at a wing tandem worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

The Thunder Couldn’t Hurt the Rockets Inside But the Lakers Can

By Andrew Lawlor

Last night, the Rockets beat the Lakers 112–97 in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, behind 36 points from James Harden, 24 from Russell Westbrook, and 23 from Eric Gordon. Much was made of the stylistic differences between the teams: Houston plays small, while the Lakers are big. But the Lakers did not lose because they played big; they lost because they did not play big enough.

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela and released Isaiah Hartenstein at the trade deadline, they officially committed to full-time small ball. Outside of two Tyson Chandler free throws in a strange situation during Game 5, the Rockets have not played a traditional center in the playoffs.

The usual downside to staying big against a team playing a small lineup is the threat of your big men being drawn outside to guard a faster perimeter player. This can be incredibly dangerous since most bigs do not have the foot speed to stay with wings or guards—think Steph roasting Rudy Gobert in the 2017 second round, or Festus Ezeli’s putrid showing against the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals. But it is not as much of a danger against this iteration of the Rockets.

Unlike many other small-ball teams, the Rockets do not utilize off-ball movement a lot as part of their offense. Instead, they mostly stand in place behind the three-point line, so a big guarding PJ Tucker or Jeff Green is not going to have to chase them around the perimeter. Sure, those players will shoot threes if left open, making it hard to help off them to protect the rim, but they also are not much of a threat to beat you off the dribble.

Houston does not use screens much to force switches. They finished only 16.3 possessions per game with the pick-and-roll in the regular season, least in the NBA. The Rockets are content to let their stars work in isolation against whoever was guarding them, so opposing big men avoid having to constantly guard James Harden or Russell Westbrook—this is part of the reason Luguentz Dort spent so many possessions on Harden in the first round. Last night, Harden’s most frequent defender was Danny Green, and Westbrook’s was Anthony Davis; both Davis and Green have the foot speed to keep up with perimeter players.

This is an area where Houston can (and should) adjust should the Lakers take control of the series. Harden and Westbrook obliterate big men on switches when they get the opportunity, but Houston does not force switches very often. As a result, OKC’s Steven Adams, a very slow, lumbering big, was able to log high minute totals in the first round without being a defensive liability.

The Rockets’ offense worked so well against the Lakers last night because the Lakers could not protect the rim, not because they were roasting bigs on switches. Houston scored 32 points inside five feet on 66.7% shooting, as Westbrook (6/11 inside 5 feet) and Harden (5/8) were able to get inside at will. The Thunder had the same issue in the first round. According to, the Rockets scored 33.8 points per game against Oklahoma City inside five feet (4th in the playoffs), though they only shot 56.5% (13th). But the Lakers have a counter.

JaVale McGee played only 12.6 minutes last night (down from averaging 16.6 in the regular season), while Dwight Howard played 11.1 (down from 18.9). This left long stretches where Davis was the only big. When Davis is guarding Westbrook on the perimeter, there is nobody back to protect the rim if he is the only big. The Lakers need another big who can help off shooters to protect the rim, so McGee and Howard need to play more. (In fact, McGee was the only Laker with a positive plus/minus (+5) last night.) Otherwise, they will continue to be beaten by plays like this, where Harden drives on Davis with Danny Green as the help defender:

Harden drives on Davis with Danny Green protecting the rim

Houston’s small ball does make it hard to protect the rim against them. They like to rearrange their players early in the shot clock to take rim-protectors out of position, and they will fire away without hesitation from outside. But Houston is not that good, percentage-wise, at shooting threes; they only made 34.5% of their attempts this season, 24th(!!!) in the NBA. Even last night, the Rockets shot just 35.9% from three on 39 attempts, which would have ranked 15th in the NBA in the regular season.

Of all the Rockets’ rotation players, only Ben McLemore (40.0%) hit threes at an elite rate this season. The rest of the team was around average or, in the cases of Eric Gordon (31.7%) and Robert Covington (33.5%), below. Most of the Rockets have reputations as good three-point shooters, but Houston won Game 1 in the paint. It may be smarter for the Lakers to help off shooters to prevent Harden and Westbrook from living at the rim and force Tucker, Covington, or the struggling Gordon (though he looked good in Game 1) to beat them from outside.

While the Lakers did struggle to contain the Rockets on defense, the bigger issue was on offense. The Lakers only scored 97 points with a 99.3 offensive rating, which would have ranked last in the league in the regular season. Bigger teams need to punish small-ball teams on defense through post scoring, lobs, and offensive rebounding. Houston generally does well defending the post since they have a lot of thick defenders, but they are susceptible to putbacks and lobs. Instead of capitalizing on those weaknesses, the Lakers got outscored in the paint and only beat the Rockets 12–8 on second-chance points.

The Lakers tried to match Houston’s small lineup for a lot of the game. They spent large chunks of minutes with Davis at center surrounded by wings. The Lakers have struggled with spacing, so theoretically this makes sense; drop a non-shooting big for a wing, unclog the paint. But many of the Laker wings do not shoot the ball well either. Replacing Howard or McGee with Rajon Rondo, a career 31.6% three-point shooter whom Houston ignores from outside, does little to improve spacing.

The Rockets help off Rondo in the corner to double Davis

When the Lakers go small, the Rockets still wall off the paint, but the Lakers have fewer lob threats and rebounders. The Lakers shot 28.9% from three last night on 38 attempts and ranked 21st in the NBA in three-point percentage in the regular season, and on top of that, Houston outscored them in the paint. That is not a recipe for success.

The Lakers should be able to win the battle inside by playing Davis alongside another big man and scoring through lobs and putbacks. Inside defenders will have to track faster perimeter players, and this will create some interior spacing. (One thing to monitor: Houston will struggle to keep up with the Lakers inside, but a bigger team like the Clippers will be able to better defend the Lakers should they advance. It will be much tougher for the Lakers to overcome spacing through size should they meet in the conference finals).

The Thunder also were not able to do much inside against the Rockets’ small lineups in the first round, scoring 29.4 points per game (12th among playoff teams) inside five feet on just 55.7% shooting (14th). Houston’s switch-heavy defense took away the Thunder’s ability to score out of the pick-and-roll, But Oklahoma City also struggled to score through putbacks (5.4 points per game) or post-ups (5.3 points per game). Adams was a major culprit, averaging only 10.1 points per game.

But the Thunder were able to find success on the offensive boards. The Thunder outrebounded the Rockets 349–303, collecting offensive rebounds on 25.3% of possessions; Adams alone collected 11.6 rebounds per game, including 4.9 offensive. That helped them extend the series to seven games. Ultimately, they could not score enough inside to win the series despite staying big, but their success on the boards points to an area where the Lakers can find an advantage.

The Lakers’ frontcourt is much better than Oklahoma City’s. Los Angeles led the league in the regular season with 45.6 points per game inside five feet on 67.0% shooting. The Lakers also had higher offensive (28.3% to 24.1%) and defensive (73.7% to 72.8%) rebounding rates than the Thunder, and scored more on putbacks (8.0 to 4.5) and post-ups (8.0 to 4.3). In the first round, the Lakers dominated the Blazers inside, averaging 46.0 points per game inside five feet, 9.2 on putbacks, and winning the rebounds 242–214. They have more than enough firepower to score on the Rockets through bully ball.

Rebounding in the 2019-20 Regular Season

Anthony Davis should feast on the small-ball Rockets; he’s more than capable of either shooting over Houston’s defenders and scoring inside on them. Last night, he had 25 points and 14 rebounds. But Howard and McGee only contributed 5 points and 7 rebounds between them. They are both legitimate threats on lobs and putbacks, and the Lakers should use them more.

The Rockets won handily last night, but the Lakers can and should counter by playing two bigs at the same time. It will help them both defensively, where they can increase rim protection; and offensively, where they can get easy baskets through lobs and putbacks. Houston is a good team, but the Lakers should still win this series.

The Bucks’ Doomsday Is Here

For a few minutes, it looked like the Bucks would fend this off for another day. Down 2–0 in their second-round matchup against the fifth-seeded Miami Heat, the 56-win, top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks finally started to look like the 56-win, top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks late in the third quarter of Game 3 on Friday night. After Andre Iguodala hit a three to pull the Heat within one, the Bucks responded with a 14–2 run, during which Giannis Antetokounmpo bullied his way to a dunk and got fouled on another dunk attempt, to go up by 12. But instead of closing out strong, the Bucks followed up with the worst fourth quarter in playoff history, and now find themselves in crisis.

For the second year in a row, the Bucks ran roughshod through the regular season on the back of their planet-eating MVP. And, for the second year in a row, an elite young coach has locked Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the paint, and Milwaukee’s inability to pry it open will prove terminal. But where last year’s loss still left room for some optimism, the disaster currently unfolding in Orlando could bring on a reckoning for Milwaukee.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, this isn’t uncharted territory for Mike Budenholzer—not entirely, anyway. Just last year, Milwaukee was on the brink of a 3–0 lead over the eventual-champion Toronto Raptors until Kawhi Leonard tightened his death grip on Giannis and devoured the Bucks for four straight games. Going back even further, in 2014–15, Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals before getting nuked off the face of the earth at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Neither of those are like this. Butler and Adebayo are bona fide All-Stars, but they aren’t at the level of Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard, and Miami’s role players don’t stack up with Toronto’s. And although they won 60 games, those Hawks ran up against a basketball celestial, and they certainly didn’t have one of their own like the Bucks do now (or even a player as good as Khris Middleton, for that matter). The Bucks have the best player in this series, better star power, and better depth than Miami. Through three games, they’ve yet to look like the better team.

It should be said: The Heat might be the Bucks’ worst nightmare this side of Los Angeles. If you were to genetically engineer the perfect Giannis-stopper, it’d look a whole lot like Bam Adebayo. South Beach’s newest defensive terror is one of a handful of players with the requisite blend of size, strength, speed, and smarts to hang with Antetokounmpo solo. Flanking Adebayo are neighborhood bully Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, and Andre Iguodala, career wing-defenders who are more than capable of neutralizing Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Milwaukee’s suffocating defense is predicated on teams missing the shots Miami made at a better rate than every team besides the Utah Jazz during the regular season. And oh, by the way, they’re playing a playoff game in September and have been stranded in Disney World for nearly three months. 

The problem is that, when teams consistently diarrhea their way out of the playoffs the way Bud’s teams have, outliers stop being outliers. Even if the Bucks had avoided the Heat, Budenholzer has looked completely outmatched by Erik Spoelstra, and there’s a not-completely-ludicrous argument that he and the other two remaining coaches in the East (Brad Stevens and Nick Nurse) are the best three coaches in the league. All three employ at least one young mega star and have similarly constructed rosters to Miami. They aren’t going away any time soon. The Bucks, as currently constructed, are still a virtual lock for the conference semifinals, and Giannis further developing his three-point shot—in spite of this series, he made genuine and significant progress this season—could render this all moot. A week ago, that seemed like a luxury that would propel the Greek Freak into demigod territory; the Heat have made abundantly clear that it’s an evolutionary necessity.

You might not know this, but Giannis’ deal expires after next season. As is tradition with any young hyper-ultra-megastar playing in a small market, the ‘is he leaving?’ speculation train picked up Giannis years ago. One of the biggest arguments for Giannis to stay in Milwaukee and buck that trend was that, unlike the New Orleans Pelicans with Anthony Davis, the Bucks have succeeded in building a juggernaut around Giannis. Antetokounmpo will be hard-pressed to find a better team than his current one (although, if reports are true, he already have eyes on a few familiar foes), and ultimately, the need for him to develop a reliable three-point shot won’t disappear if he leaves Milwaukee. But ask the Philadelphia 76ers if when a team gets so thoroughly dismantled, 

Barring a championship, this day was always going to come. A hard-fought loss in the NBA Finals—hell, even the Eastern Conference Finals—would’ve still left an air of uncertainty. But getting eviscerated by a five-seed in the conference semis could release lethal toxins into the Bucks’ airspace. The Bucks have long known that this offseason would be their inflection point. Jimmy Butler and the Heat may have just altered the trajectory it takes.

Playoff Preview: Lakers VS Rockets

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets are about to embark on a series full of superstars, three-pointers, and extreme facial hair. In round one, the Lakers took care of the Portland Trail Blazers in five games, and the Rockets won a seven-game battle against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Lakers are well-rested—in fact, they’re so well rested that anyone on the team who had annoying injuries or soreness will likely be feeling better. They’re also likely to see Rajon Rondo in game 1 since he’s listed as probable. He had been out with back spasms. The Rockets only got one day’s rest, so they could be a little drained and tired.

During the season, both teams faced each other three times, with the Rockets winning two of those games. In the Lakers’ only win, Anthony Davis did not play and LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists. In one of the losses, James didn’t play and Davis scored 17 points and 12 rebounds. Both teams will definitely be ready to battle.


We’ll see how the Lakers adjust to guarding James Harden and Russell Westbrook. With defensive specialist Avery Bradley opting out of the restart, they’ve needed other players to step up, and Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma have done that big time: they managed defensive ratings of 90.9 and 94.2, respectively, in the first round. But they’ll definitely need Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to up their defensive game as well.

X-Factors for both teams:

If you’re a fan of basketball, then you are most likely a fan of PJ Tucker and how much heart he plays with. For the Rockets to have success against the Lakers, he’ll need to slow down Anthony Davis. Davis could very well dominate against Tucker, so Tucker will have to come out ready to defend and to make Davis work hard to get the shots he wants.

Kyle Kuzma will definitely need to continue his improvement—and perhaps even play his best basketball yet—this series. Throughout eight seeding games and the first round of the playoffs, Kuz has scored a total of 162 points, which is fantastic and a good sign going forward. Kuz also played great defense against the Portland Trail Blazers; if he didn’t have a good scoring game, he was defending. He’ll likely be tasked with guarding James Harden, and that’ll be a fun challenge.

Both benches will need to step up this series and produce some reliable offense. These two teams love them some three-pointers, so they’ll need to actually knock down those shots. If both benches start knocking them down, we could see some absurdly high-scoring games.

Robert Covington has been an excellent addition to the Rockets this season and is more than capable of providing scoring should the Rockets find themselves in need. In the Rockets’ last five games, he’s averaged 16 points, 2 steals, 6 rebounds and 1 assist. He’ll need to keep that up.

Honorable mention: Danny Green could emerge this series as playoff DG and start knocking down shots from the perimeter, and if he does, the Lakers could be unbeatable. Against the Rockets this season, he’s taken 13 three-pointers and made seven of them.


This series has the potential to be a long one. The Lakers focus a lot on defense, and the Rockets (while they’ve been great on defense), have a lot of firepower on offense. In order for the Lakers to win, they’ll need to get their offense going. For the Rockets to win they’ll need to keep up that good defense and make life tough on AD. I’ll say the Lakers will win in five games, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes to seven games.

(Stats from: Basketball Reference and StatMuse)

What Can The Lakers Build On After the First Round?

By Karin Abcarians

Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers will face off against the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. This comes after they took care of the Portland Trail Blazers in five games during the first round, winning four straight after losing Game 1 of that series.

As a Lakers fan, I was beyond excited coming into the season to finally get back into the playoffs and contend for a title after several years of watching repeated disasters. After the Game 1 loss against the Blazers, I wasn’t nervous (we could’ve won!), but I did wonder if the Lakers could clean up some obvious problems they’ve seemed to have not just in the bubble, but throughout the entire season.

The Lakers offense struggled throughout the bubble seeding games. In their first game of the NBA restart against the Los Angeles Clippers, they shot 39% from the field and 30% from 3, though they ultimately managed a 103–101 victory. Then, in a 16-point loss to the Rockets on August 6, they shot 45% from the field but just 10% from beyond the arc.

Of course, you could blame it on coach Vogel trying out different lineups and players resting, but it was obvious the offense was not as good as it could (and should) be. The team often started games slowly, often leading to the opposing team getting big leads. The Lakers would then have to claw their way back into the game with a struggling offense. This was a survivable problem against the Blazers because they don’t have consistent defense; the Lakers were able to build and maintain big leads on them. That won’t continue deeper in the playoffs.

The Rockets, of course, enjoy taking three-pointers. If the Lakers slip even the slightest bit on defense and start games shooting cold, they could find themselves down and having to claw their way back in yet again. They need to attack early every game so they can finally put an end to the slow starts.

In order for the Lakers to have a fast offensive start, they need to feed Anthony Davis early and often, which leads me into a positive: Davis put up great numbers against Portland, scoring 28, 31, 29, 18, and 43 points.

For the Lakers to wrap this series up fast, Anthony Davis will need to assert himself and be aggressive on offense. Against the Rockets this season, he averaged 24.5 points, 3 assists, 12.5 rebounds and shot 65% from the field.

This series features a lot of star power with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. A positive thing the Lakers found in round one was the defense of Alex Caruso. He put the clamps on CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, making them work for their shots, finishing the series with a defensive rating of 90.9. The Lakers need Caruso to keep that defense up so that Harden and Westbrook have to work for their shots. It’ll be fun to see if the Lakers can clean up their slow starts, continue building on their great defense, and allow Anthony Davis to shine against the speedy, small-ball Rockets.

(Stats from: Basketball Reference and StatMuse)

Site Owner’s Note: Karin is the bomb. We’re so happy to have her on at The Playgrounder. It is a matter of time until she explodes, so get in on the ground floor, folks!

Rookie Review Update: The Two Extremes Of Michael Porter Jr

By Matt Esposito

In a prior review of Michael Porter Jr.’s rookie season, Nick Faggio wrote that he is a sweet shooter who need to shore up his passing vision, off-ball footwork, and defense. His play in this postseason, however, has only further accentuated these skill sets (or lack thereof.)

In turn, NBA Twitter has gone to war. Porter’s fans and critics battle for scouting supremacy. Should basketball lovers focus on Porter’s potential to drop 30 plus points on ridiculous efficiency? Or, should fans hold their nose at his defense and wonder why Mike Malone hasn’t torn out his hair yet?

This Rookie Review update seeks to bring peace to this fiery debate. Consider it a roundball United Nations, if you please. So, how has MPJ been performing during bubble and postseason play?

Defensive Woes

Do most rookies struggle on defense when they reach the professional level? You betcha. Yet, Michael Porter Jr is struggling more than most. His fundamentals need serious fine tuning and his poor IQ has surely led to fist-sized holes in some Denver studio apartments.

Porter often jumps out of his defensive stance. Given his history of back issues, this proves particularly concerning. Does he find it physically uncomfortable to stay low to the ground? Or, does MPJ simply lack the defensive discipline to do so? Additionally, his agility is below average. According to Joel Rush of Forbes Sports, Porter’s inability to slide laterally has resulted in Donovan Mitchell regularly taking Porter, “to school when they’ve (Utah) hunted him on PnRs.”

Other Jazz scorers have gotten in on the act, too. Joe Ingles routinely sought out MPJ during the closing moments of this series’ first two games. Justin Phan of The Action Network summed it up nicely in a tweet (put out before Game Five.)

Since resumption, Porter has displayed his defensive shortcomings in other ways as well. Porter’s awareness comes and goes. Being late on rotations or rotating to the wrong player is something that can be fixed in time, but is currently hurting his team.

Watch Monte Morris yell at him!

Even when MPJ knows the correct assignment, he can come up short. For instance, his technique on closeouts is troublesome. Porter closes out on shooters with his hands down, which defeats the purpose of a closeout entirely. Other times he clumsily runs so far past them that he cannot return in time to curtail the ensuing 5-on-4 chance.

Coach Malone (which for some reason I just pictured with face tats singing “ball for me, yeahhh”) has flirted with hiding MPJ on switches. This only gives more credence to the fact that Porter is truly a hindrance on Denver’s defense.

Still, there is room for optimism. Rush and I discussed how MPJ could improve. He lent his thoughts on Porter’s Game Five performance, stating that, “he’s had a couple decent possessions on Clarkson. He’s got the physical tools to improve.” Perhaps an offseason of watching missed assignments and mistakes will help Porter become less of a liability. At the very least, Porter is cognizant of his weaknesses.

Offensive Refinement

Previously, we’ve spent time delineating the inconsistency in Porter’s off-ball footwork before shot attempts. At times he runs smoothly around screens. Yet, there are moments when he is clunky or choppy. Cleaning up footwork takes reps, but MPJ has been displaying some potential in another type of off-ball movement.

Due to his high release, teams try to prevent catch-and-shoot chances even reaching Porter. To do this, players must fight over screens to deny passes. Sensing this, MPJ has started to v-cut into backdoor opportunities. Other times, he will simply cut harder or rub closer around the screen to gain the step on his man. This leads to easy scoring chances and helps Porter keep his field goal percentage noticeably high.

Porter has also demonstrated more versatility off of screens. He is no stranger to running around a pick and then cutting once more if the original play gets blown up. He has quickly evolved from a catch-and-shoot player into someone who can dart to the rim on savvy slashes or take an extra dribble off the catch if the situation calls for it. His propensity for creative off-ball movement is a huge bonus for Denver.

MPJ relies on more than cuts to retain is stellar efficiency, however. He hunts offensive rebounds the way a Q’Anon member searches for nonsensical conspiracies in leaked DNC emails. In fact, Porter is in the 97th percentile for offensive rebounding percentage, according to Cleaning The Glass.

His springiness around the rim helps assuage concerns about potential back issues. Despite having the size of a big, Porter possesses the springiness and athleticism of a forward. He utilizes his physical gifts perfectly to outmaneuver slower, earthbound rebounders.

Offseason To-Do List

Porter must dive head first into the role Denver has designed for him. He already has the perimeter stroke down pat, so Porter must study the game to provide the defensive portion of the three-and-D archetype. Working on his defensive positioning and agility is imperative as well.

Offensively, MPJ will benefit from extended run with his teammates. He has suffered from tunnel vision from time to time but this can be improved by cementing himself in a given role. Nevertheless, Porter has the dangerous albeit currently beneficial irrational confidence of a seasoned All-Star. With a larger sample size should be able to edit that “irrational” qualifier into something more accurate.

Be patient, Nuggets fans. As long as he stays healthy and continues to buy into his role, Porter can become the final piece to Denver’s championship puzzle. Weather the Twitter storm, too. Accept the criticism of his defense, it is justified and should likely progress into something less ugly. For now, Porter’s offensive gifts likely outweigh his areas of improvement. Here’s to watching him grown versus the Los Angeles Clippers!

Game Four Preview: How Will Brad Stevens Use Robert Williams?

by Matt Esposito

Everyone has a friend they never get mad at. But then one day he or she reveals they are meeting your crush at the local Dairy Queen, and you have your first fight. I caught Brad Stevens ordering a a cookie dough Blizzard last night, and it had two spoons in it. Why was I upset with one of my favorite coaches?

Robert Williams entered last night’s game around the four minute mark in the first quarter. His impact was felt immediately. Typically with Timelord, fans worry about missed defensive assignments. But this time was different. Not only did RWIII alter the Raptor’s offensive flow but, he created scoring chances for others due to his gravity and passing. Some videos help highlight his positive effect.

Rim Protection

This series, Doris Burke has occasionally pinpointed William’s defensive reverberations. Opponents reconsider their at-rim attempts when Williams is in the game; shots they would normally take if Daniel Theis or Enes Kanter is manning the five spot. Specifically, this resulted in some Raptors taking low value, midrange twos.

Above, William’s prowess as an athletic shot blocker deters Kyle Lowry from attacking the rim. Lowry had loads of success darting to the bucket against Theis, making William’s deterrence as impressive as it was important. If Stevens could pick one shot to surrender to the Toronto guard, it would be this particular two-pointer. This would not be Mr. Lowry’s first negative encounter with RWIII, however.

Here, the presence of Williams as a rim protector causes Lowry to travel. In real time you can witness Lowry rethink his eurostep due to a 6-foot-9 pogo stick running towards him. This would not be the only turnover Williams caused.

OG Anunoby – a name that psychosomatically causes regurgitation throughout Boston fandom – also had second thoughts about shooting in the paint. His hesitation led to a poorly executed, unexpected kickout pass that sailed out of bounds.

Yet, OG had reason to reconsider his shot attempt. It was only a couple possessions earlier when Williams reminded Anunoby that he possesses a pterodactylian wingspan. (I’m this close to a “Land Before Timelord” joke, don’t tempt me.)

Throughout the game there were several instances where Williams put the kibosh on Raptor’s paint attempts. Ensuing plays often resulted in turnovers, heavily contested 3-point shots, or turnovers. Regardless, limiting high percentage twos is a skill set Boston could have used more of last night, leading me to question if Timelord’s 14 minute deployment was too short. Additionally, his offensive play suggests he needs more minutes, too.


Simply put, Williams can convert two-point attempts that other Celtics bigs cannot. Trust me, I’m a Theis-aholic, so this hurts. Nevertheless, Williams’ leaping ability provides dunk attempts that only he can finish. Just look at where he took off from to hammer home this jaw-dropping slam.


Teams are aware of Williams’ athleticism and how Boston wants to utilize it on lobs, rolls and cuts. His vertical gravity is a unique threat and opens up chances for teammates. Watch Toronto defenders gravitate towards the paint because Timelord is there. Norman Powell abandons Grant Williams in the corner, surrendering an open shot in the process. These are the looks that Boston wants. They must convert them in Game Four.

This time, Brad Wanatravel Wanamaker was the recipient of a wide open opportunity. Credit Jaylen Brown for the pass, but this play is not possible without Williams drawing multiple defenders.

The greatest example of William’s gravity came on a play where Fred VanVleet committed to him. FVV should have toggled in between Williams and Semi Ojeleye. Instead, he stuck with Williams, even though Williams was in a tough position to score. Check out Timelord’s passing chops here as well.

More Than A Leaper

Speaking of passing…Boston could have used Williams to beat the many zone looks Toronto showed last night. His court vision is underrated still, and Williams can toss quality looks out of the short roll. The short roll area of the court is concurrently a weak spot for zones and one where Williams has success as a passer. Expect to see Stevens try and bust zones in Game Four by trusting his young big to occupy that role.

Williams can also punish Toronto as a screener. The Celtics experienced success running a high pick-and-roll with him yet, I was most impressed with a seal that he set during the end of the opening quarter. This is a staple for Celtic bigs; one Williams certainly learned by studying Daniel Theis.

What To Watch For

The Raptor’s zone defenses gave Boston just enough issues that Stevens will likely scheme a way to beat it. In addition to the free throw line area, the beatable parts of a zone come in the corners and dunker spot. Williams can’t shoot triples, but he sure can dunk and has shown the ability to pass from the heart of the zone.

Stevens shortly experimented with Kanter as a zonebuster but it produced undesirable results. Williams should soak up those minutes in Game Four. Do not be surprised to see a longer leash on him. Timelord’s particular impact on the game is what Boston needs to take a commanding 3-1 lead. Let’s see if Stevens gambles on the youthful center.

Bonus! Be sure to subscribe to our podcast, it would mean the world to me! You may dig this one with Blake Murphy of The Athletic. We went over the Raptors/Celtics series in some depth. Thanks!