First the bad news. If you take away Dame Lillard’s epic, historically incredible three-pointer from today’s game, the first round has been such a waste of our time.
Milwaukee equaled the record for total winning margin across a four-game series (95 points); Boston swept the most offensively challenged play-off team we have seen in a decade; Toronto, Houston and Philadelphia showed decency as they executed gentleman’s sweeps; and Golden State and Denver have worked harder than they should have done but will progress.
But first let’s bask in the glory that was that shot.
You could argue the Lillard shot was a free hit given the Blazers were up 3-1 and the game was tied, but he was expertly defended by the best perimeter defender in basketball outside Toronto, who contested hard, yet Dame still drained a 37-footer. I’m not sure what was more epic, the shot or the wave, or the post-match disregard of Russell Westbrook.
Note to Russ: you must change the way you play or do yoga or something, because your attitude and uncontrolled ferocity are not becoming of someone as athletically talented as you are. You risk wasting the best years of Paul George because you can’t get out of the way of your own ego. You cannot be the worst mid-range shooter in the NBA and continue to take those shots in the big moment. You are no longer in your prime and shouldn’t act like you are the player you are not.
Anyway, the point is that we saw some truly terrible basketball with some truly terrible and often overmatched teams. The arguments will be flying left and right that the format needs changing or that the conferences need to be abolished. Both are valid arguments, but the good news is that if the remaining results go as predicted, we are set for arguably the best second round of NBA play-offs ever.
Each series will have storylines and stars, and you can make a valid basketball case for both teams in all series. Even Golden State will be far from a certainty to beat the Houston Hardens.
Before we delve into Round 2 let’s recap what we learnt from Round 1:
While the criticism will continue, Ben Simmons reminded everyone what he is capable of. On that, the criticism of Simmons, driven by some major media outlets is actually quite pathetic. His abrasive personality doesn’t help him, but look at a stat like this and tell me deserves to cop what he is copping;
Dennis Schroeder should concentrate on playing well for five consecutive minutes rather than stir up Lillard;
Enes Kanter should concentrate on being semi-effective for more than one series rather than continue to talk a big game;
Nikola Jokic is licking his lips at the thought of taking on the aforementioned Kanter;
Marc Gasol is still a bad, bad man and gives the Raptors something that even the Warriors might struggle to contain (Toronto committed
grand larceny in acquiring Gasol for what was in effect nothing);
Utah are either very unlucky to have drawn one of the two teams they cannot beat or are just a mediocre, unbalanced team hampered by having a flawed star player and plenty of reasonable players;
Boston need to hope Al Horford can Jedi-mind trick his way into the Milwaukee psyche;
Golden State’s boredom knows no bounds, but they will need to snap out of that post-haste or they will be going home in the next fortnight; and
The Thunder should be doing everything they can to trade Westbrook, or at the very least exploring every possible option.
Ben Simmons has played 15 NBA playoff games in his career. He is 9-6, with two series victories. Simmons has 249 points, 128 rebounds and 115 assists over those 15 games – only Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson have matched those totals in NBA history through 15 playoff games.
Onto Round 2 with previews and tips for each series.
Milwaukee vs Boston
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the NBA – hardly an earth-shattering statement. Kyrie Irving is the best shotmaker in the NBA – again, not ground-breaking stuff. It is uncertain whether the winner is the team that can contain the other star the best or the team that gets help from the rest.
Malcolm Brogdon is a big out, whereas not having Marcus Smart might have helped the Celtics settle on a rotation. Aron Baynes will likely start but will need to chase Brook Lopez out to the perimeter as Horford will get first crack at Giannis.
Milwaukee have done an outstanding job of limiting player minutes this season, and there is no reason for them not to be fresh and ready to play big minutes. Eric Bledsoe embarrassed himself when these teams met in the first round last season, but you figure home court will be a massive factor in his game.
Despite the Bucks being the No. 1 seed, the Celtics are the ones under pressure here in what could be Irving’s last series in Boston. The Celtics will be no pushover, but Milwaukee take the series and head into the Easter conference finals with home-court advantage
Tip: Milwaukee in seven
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Toronto vs Philadelphia
This series could be the most competitive and intriguing of the lot, but there are so many questions on the Philly side. Will Joel Embiid be 80 per cent fit? Can Simmons navigate his way around an all-world defence? Can JJ Redick play his game against Danny Green? Will the four stars complement each other? Can Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler deal with only taking ten to 12 shots each?
Philadelphia absolutely have the talent to win the East and probably the title. Embiid is a generational centre and will cause problems for Gasol. Simmons will need to dig deep into his bag of tricks against a Toronto side with an elite transition defence, but he is well and truly capable of doing so. The bench is a problem, and it figures to be a series in which Jonah Bolden gets more run than Mike Scott (on that, why on earth the Sixers play Scott ahead of an inanimate carbon rod, let alone Bolden, is perplexing) but the fact remains that the Sixer starters will all need to play upwards of 35 minutes a game.
After losing Game 1 at home to Orlando, Toronto flicked a switch defensively and the results were very impressive. Kahwi Leonard is hoping Zaza Pachulia doesn’t appear on the Sixers bench, because that’s the only thing that stops him from complete dominance and a return to the best two-way player in the game.
Pascal Siakam was shaping as a great regular season story, but the play-offs have confirmed that he is just a great story and a borderline great player, period.
Kyle Lowry is a curious study, a late bloomer who is often so good but consistently struggles in the post-season – look for him to guard Harris and hope the ball doesn’t head that way.
Things seem to be breaking Toronto’s way, and their seven or eight-man rotation has no defensive weaknesses and varied offensive capability. That is just too much for a Sixers team that lacks in coaching and outside shooting.
Tip: Toronto in six
Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Golden State vs Houston
Yeah, I know the Warriors vs Clippers series is still going, but the assumption here is that the best team of the last decade won’t lose three straight to an eighth seed. This might be the most stacked second-round NBA play-off series in history – the star power is unmatched and the Rockets will have plenty more rest than their opponent, which is remarkable if that opponent is the Warriors.
James Harden has a 50-50 chance of winning MVP and has been better than ever this season. His offensive exploits are historic, and the idea of being the road underdog won’t worry him in the least.
It is too early in the play-offs for a Chris Paul injury, which could be a blessing in disguise as the Rockets can ensure that at least one of Harden and Paul are on the floor every minute; the first round has shown how the Clippers exposed Golden State when the benches come into play, so look for the Rockets to pick and roll the likes of Shaun Livingston, Alfonso McKinnie and Kevon Looney to death.
Golden State lost Game 5 against the Clippers despite Kevin Durant scoring an efficient 45 points, Steph Curry shooting 80 per cent from three-point range and the Clippers turning the ball over more than the Warriors. The danger signs are very real: PJ Tucker and Clint Capela can switch and defend out far enough that the Warriors don’t have the advantages they have against many other teams and Eric Gordon should be able to make things a challenge for Klay Thompson or Steph Curry.
While the Rockets will keep their bench rotations short, they will hope that Danuel House, Austin Rivers and Gerald Green can keep the ship on course in their limited minutes.
If we look back to last year’s series, there are very few personnel changes. Trevor Ariza’s minutes are absorbed by House and Paul, while Andrew Bogut will anchor the middle for the Warriors, who had Nick Young and Jordan Bell play decent bench minutes while Andre Iguodala returns. If Chris Paul hadn’t injured his hamstring last season, Houston would’ve won the title. If he stays fit this season, it could well happen again; the first step towards that happening if that the Rockets eliminate the two-time defending champs in this series.
Denver vs Portland
Again, there is a degree of risk in analyzing this series as Denver still need to win Game 7 against the Spurs, but that looks very likely to happen. The Nuggets have been an intriguing study in uncertainty this season, having one budding superstar in Nikola Jokic and trying to surround him with the best supporting cast, including a precocious young backcourt (Jamal Murray and Gary Harris), a weathered NBA vet well past his best but still capable of elite moment (Paul Millsap) and an ex-NBL battler (Torrey Craig).
After looking solid all season, they stumbled late and fell into the second seed with some crazy late-season results. Their home-court advantage is huge, as was proven in the first round, but plenty can be taken from their Game 4 win against the Spurs when faced with adversity.
On the Portland side it begins and ends with Damian Lillard, and so it should. Universally admired and classy to a fault, his ability to be humble and callous in closing out the Thunder in the first round was incredible. To shoot 48 per cent from three when you shoot so many is credit to the player he has been for a long time, and he may never have a better chance to progress in the play-offs.
Denver will throw Harris and Craig at him in an attempt to stymy his influence, but resistance is futile. CJ McCollum is a nice second option, alternating between excellent and so-so, but he needs to be the former in this series. Kanter will struggle to stay on the floor against Jokic, so look for plenty of Zach Collins and even Meyers Leonard in an attempt to stretch the Denver defence.
Both teams will keep their rotations short; the two teams know what they are and will be confident they can outplay the other team, and home court is as big an advantage in this series as it is in any of these series. If Denver start well and hold serve at home, the mountain might be too big for Portland to climb, but if Lillard plays at the level he did in the first round, Portland will be confident of moving through this very quickly.
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