Before we recap the weekend, let me quickly address the last week’s events. As anyone reading this knows, the NBA postponed Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday’s games last week after the players decided, prompted by the Milwaukee Bucks leading the charge, to boycott their games to protest the Jacob Blake shooting. I won’t be diving into those events in detail. However, the NBA players accomplished actionable change for those that are not entirely caught up despite just a three-day hiatus from basketball. Among the initiatives started during the players’ boycott, arenas in most NBA cities will be turning into polling sites for the 2020 presidential election. That is a significant win and a sign of what professional athletes can accomplish in a short amount of time by using their platform. Kudos to the NBA players for taking a stand and continuing to work for social justice in our society. After three days off, NBA Playoffs action continued Saturday, and there’s a lot to dive into. So let’s take a look back at the weekend’s games:
Kawhi and the Clippers Close Out Luka’s Mavs
Jeff Van Gundy said at the end of Game 6 that Luka Doncic is “easily a top-5 player right now.”
I couldn’t agree more.
But Kawhi Leonard proved in Game 6 that even being in the top-5 doesn’t get you to the top of the mountain. There’s still another level at the top, and that’s where Kawhi Leonard lives.
Kawhi had 33 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals en route to a closeout Game 6 win 111-97 over the Mavericks.
It’s wasn’t just the stat line though, it was the way he makes it look so easy. Particularly in the 4th quarter, when the Mavericks cut the Clippers lead to six, Leonard entered the game, scored a quick six points of his own, and it was the Clippers game from there. He’s on another level, which is why this team is one of the favorites to win an NBA title.
Leonard averaged 32.9 PPG, including closing out with five consecutive 30 point games. He also tacked on 10.1 RPG and 5.1 APG. Throw in Paul George snapping out of his funk a bit over the past two-game; this is more like the team we expected.
I have to spend some time talking about Luka Doncic in this section. The Mavericks’ future is so incredibly bright with this kid (yes, he’s 21, he’s still a kid). Luka was two points from his third 40-point game of the series in Game 6. He finished averaging 31 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and 8.6 RPG.
The Clippers can still play LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in these NBA Playoffs. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone putting a performance on the Clippers like Luka just did. Hats off to Doncic and the Mavericks for a great series.
Bucks and Lakers Advance to the Second Round
I’m sensing a common theme as I scour twitter during the NBA Playoffs (which is probably a mistake on my part). People seem to be down on the Bucks and the Lakers in a big way.
I mean, I get it. Both teams lost ONE whole game to an 8-seed. And both teams have struggled to get out out of the gate offensively in the playoffs. So sure, the two best teams in the NBA during the regular season are in trouble.
For those who couldn’t tell, that’s called sarcasm.
Everyone needs to calm down. The top two teams in the NBA won their first-round series 4-1 while looking just ok. To me, that’s a scary thought for the rest of the league. Two of the NBA’s oldest teams basically just had five games to shake the rust off before playing legit competition.
Both teams are still top-5 defenses. And both teams still employee guys named LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo (and Anthony Davis).
This is not to count out the Heat or either the Thunder or the Rockets. The Heat were 2-1 against the Bucks this year. And Miami is a top-5 defensive team that’s shooting the ball great in the playoffs. The Rockets are a matchup problem for any team, and the Thunder are incredibly scrappy.
However, I’d be shocked not to see both the Bucks and the Lakers in their respective conference championships. Both team’s defenses, as mentioned, are elite. And both teams have the best player on the floor in any series they play other than potentially against the Clippers, which always matters in the playoffs.
I can’t believe I have to say this, but stop sleeping on the Lakers and Bucks.
Celtics Overwhelm Raptors in Game 1
Time for a HUGE overreaction
Maybe the Raptors aren’t as good as we thought they were.
I’m not saying I agree with that, but let’s consider the following for argument’s sake.
The Raptors finished the regular season 53-19. In games against opponents who made the playoffs, Toronto was 23-17. Against non-playoff opponents, they were 30-2.
Take Orlando and Brooklyn out of that equation, two of the worst playoff teams in a long time, then the Raptors were just 16-17 against the remaining playoff teams in the NBA. That includes 3-7 vs. the remaining teams in the East and 1-3 against the Celtics, who they are currently playing.
Yes, Toronto looked like arguably the best team in the NBA in the first round. But I would argue back that the Brooklyn Nets are, by no fault of their own, the worst team in NBA playoffs history.
So, while plenty of people are likely surprised by the Celtics beating the Raptors 112-94 in Game 1, is it possible they shouldn’t be?
A lot has been made of Boston’s lack of depth, particularly without Gordon Hayward. But in Game 1, Toronto’s lack of depth was apparent. The Celtics defense, which ranked 3rd in the NBA this year, held Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam to a combined 8-32 from the field with 24 points.
And for all that talk of Boston’s lack of depth, when their bench players come in, they do exactly what’s expected, play incredible defense. Robert Williams, Brad Wanamaker, and Semi Ojeleye were exceptional in their Game 1 minutes.
Look, I don’t know if I believe what all these numbers tell me. I still think the Raptors are very good, and this will be a long series. But if it’s not, you know what they say; numbers don’t lie.
Russ Returns and Rockets Defense Dominates
It’s been impossible to get a real read on this series.
Just when you thought the Thunder stole back all the momentum, the Rockets come out and put one of the more dominant performances by any team in the NBA Playoffs together, winning 114-80. That’s the lowest amount of points the Rockets have given up to an opponent in the Mike D’Antoni era.
Their major adjustment defensively in Game 5: Let the James Harden stopper do his best James Harden impression. Lu Dort, who’s been one of these playoffs’ great surprises, was atrocious on the offensive end. He finished the game 0-of-9 from three-point range, one of only ten players in NBA history to shoot at least nine threes and not make one in a playoff game. The Rockets were leaving him alone and letting him shoot, and he did just that.
There was also the return of Russell Westbrook. And while just a casual glance at the stat sheet would indicate it wasn’t the greatest return for Russ, stats can be deceiving. Westbrook finished 3-13 from the field with seven points. But he also finished with seven assists and zero turnovers. Where his impact was felt almost immediately, though, was the pace of the game.
The Rockets entering Game 5 had a pace of 99 possessions per 48 minutes. In Game 5, that jumped to 104, their season average, which was second in the NBA. Russ was able to get the Rockets back to their normal tempo, a nightmare for the Thunder, who were one of the slower teams in the league this year.
It’s been a back and forth series, so we’ll see what Game 6 has in store, but the return of Russell Westbrook was a huge boost for Houston.
Murray’s Historic Run Continues, Nuggets Tie Series 3-3
Denver vs. Utah has taken the mantle, for the moment, as the most entertaining series so far in the NBA Playoffs.
Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray both deserve credit for that distinction. After Game 6, and Denver tying the series 3-3, Murray maybe more so than Mitchell.
The Nuggets are looking to become the 12th team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a seven-game playoff series. Jamal Murray is making history trying to get his team to that point.
With 50 points tonight, Murray became the 6th player in NBA Playoffs history to score 40+ points in three consecutive games. He joined Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, and Bernard King.
But that’s not it. Murray also became the 4th player ever to have multiple 50-point games in the same playoff series. The others: Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, and Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell did it in this series!
And if you missed Murray’s powerful postgame interview, do yourself a favor and find it. If you weren’t a fan because of his game, Murray’s words should make you an instant fan because of the man he is.
Only a performance like Murray’s could overshadow Donovan Mitchell, who scored 44 points in Game 6 and is now averaging 38.6 PPG in the series.
Now Murray looks to try and continue his historic run with a chance to become the first player in NBA history to score 40-plus in the final four games and win a seven-game series. What a performance, what a series.
If only we could have this series forever, instead of these teams playing a Game 7 for the reward of facing Kawhi Leonard in the second round.