There’s not a more exhilarating two months than mid-April through mid-June, and it’s because of the NBA Playoffs.
For some teams, it becomes the beginning of the end. Franchises that have made a step in the right direction — the Charlotte Bobcats — and out of the darkness of a seven-win season, the obstacle is too large to eclipse. LeBron James and the two-time defending champions aren’t being overthrown by anyone that had to fight for playoff position.
For others, it marks the time to silence naysayers, forcing those who wrote you off in the first round to sit back in awe. This fits the Portland Trail Blazers, a five-seeded underdog without homecourt advantage over Kevin McHale‘s Houston Rockets. Houston, as many should be reminded, was Jeff Van Gundy’s pick to lift the gold ball to close the season, ultimately implying Portland would falter to the well-rounded offense Daryl Morey assembled in two years.
In the first portion of my Playoff takeaways, three truly stood out after the first few days of sacrificing sleep for excitement.
Rippin’ on the Road
LaMarcus Aldridge saved my soul to begin the first round series, since I was beginning to believe nobody was behind me with my “best power forward in the world” argument for the 8-year veteran. 46 points and 18 rebounds later, and Game 1 indicated we’re in store for a top three first round series of All-time. The adrenaline rush from Portland’s OT victory on Sunday didn’t dwindle until two hours after the final buzzer.
Those on the east coast didn’t dare hit the hay (it’s hard sometimes when games last until 2 AM, trust me) and we got another taste of the NBA’s most exciting duo.
Yes, the league is full of them …. so don’t kill me. Kevin Durant & Russell Westbrook, the Splash Brothers, The Dragon & Mini-LeBron, Dwyane Wade & King James, and many others fit the criteria, but there’s just something that sets Rip City’s tandem apart. Aldridge and Lillard transformed the two-man game (for this season) into a manner that makes defenses scared to death to give two inches of space. The thing about it is …. Lillard has found success using screen rolls with Robin Lopez, even when the opposition knows the sophomore is pulling up from the outside as soon as he clears the defender.
On the flip side, Aldridge found a huge portion of his offense in Game 1 coming from traditional post-ups against smaller Houston forwards (Terrence Jones, Chandler Parsons), and has been one of the few big men this season to be exceptional in all types of offensive sets. You can throw Kevin Love into that equation as well, but many are still concerned he can’t create consistent enough offense with his back to the basket.
The Portland soap opera can be paused for a second, as there were a couple other key takeaways from the opening Playoff weekend.
Masai Ujiri vs. The Truth ….. I choose reality
First of all, was Ujiri intoxicated, careless, or just high on the playoff atmosphere?
His delightful comment to the city of Toronto before Game 1 rewarded him with a $25,000 fine. Although he’ll happily pay the fine with pocket change, the home loss to the Brooklyn Nets will take longer to get over.
These are two teams — Raptors and Nets — that still fly under the radar. “How is that? They make a ton of noise in the league.” That may be true, but the amount of people putting them in the “threats to Miami” category is smaller than Kevin Garnett‘s stat sheet these days. I’m here to tell you both could wound Miami in a six or seven game series, while Brooklyn can flat-out send them packing.
Throughout the regular season, you were lucky to get a full, prepared, and healthy rotation from the Nets three days out of the month. Playing with the same readiness as they did in the Game 1 win in Canada, there isn’t anyone in the East beating the offensive load at hand. That sounds absurd, but what Brooklyn put on display was the definition of variety. First half sparks were provided by Deron Williams, and then the hot hand could switch completely to Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce.
Besides the world being reminded Pierce’s veteran makeup is always going to give him clean looks versus younger players, we were also exposed to a playoff defense that I had my doubts about entering this series. As athletic and upbeat as Toronto has been through the franchise-record 48 wins, penetrating in halfcourt sets with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan was supposed to haunt these Nets. Playing at the 5th slowest pace during the season (because of their scattered veterans), Brooklyn allowed under 100 points per game, but there’s always a select number of teams that crack an old defense.
Toronto wasn’t in that group in Saturday’s opener, and nothing was easy in terms of slashing to the rim. It’s always “just one game,” but it was more than enough to show me how difficult Brooklyn will be for this young backcourt to score on in Games 3 and 4 (at Barlcay’s Center).
Most of Toronto’s 19 turnovers — compared to just Brooklyn’s nine — were due to pressure on inside cuts, and the Raptors’ inability to control passes in the middle. But, as shown in the clip above, Brooklyn instituted pressure on multiple ball screens, forcing Toronto to improvise and burn the shot clock over and over. In this offensive possession, Lowry and Greivis Vasquez act as the ball handlers and try to create any type of offense with the quarter winding down. However, Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, and Deron Williams completely lock down after the Raptors’ bigs screen for the guard. By hedging every screen and recovering perfectly, Brookyn’s defense literally gives Vasquez no room to operate, thus creating a turnover. Mason Plumlee would be called for an offensive foul on the other end, but Brooklyn capitalized more times than not.
Lowry’s cage appears slightly rattled in halfcourt penetration to open this series, and it’s a shame considering he’s already been given his share of disrespect this season.
When Williams was on the Lowry assignment, he fared well enough to limit Lowry’s looks near the cup. Three of Lowry’s seven field goals came from the perimeter, mostly in transition when Williams allowed too much space. That’s the main area you have to watch Lowry, but Brooklyn’s help defense in the paint forced the point guard into harder attempts as the game progressed. Williams’ foot speed is just good enough to cut him off when attacking, but it’s the collective team effort from the Nets that stood out.
It takes a lot of the attention off DeRozan, who shot horribly (3-of-13) in the opener, and that can be the only problem Brooklyn faces moving forward. Garnett, Plumlee, and Pierce didn’t mind getting physical with Lowry, but it becomes much tougher when the larger, more athletic DeRozan is heading full force to the paint.
Durantula has crawled to the Playoffs
Vince Carter may be “half man, half amazing,” but Kevin Durant is just purely amazing. That’s not even the proper term. His skill level not only rises every day he wakes up, but it reaches unbelievable peaks in clutch moments.
Just a year ago, against these same Memphis Grizzlies, Durant’s killer instinct was heavily questioned. That, of course, was because he went home three round early when his sidekick hit the injured list. In the rematch for this postseason, Memphis has the same “grinding” gameplan to limiting Oklahoma City. Saturday’s Game 1 showed the perfect example of the defensive switch for the Grizzlies, as the 25-point comeback nearly gave Memphis the first game edge.
Game 2 shattered the hopes of those who picked the Thunder in five games, with Memphis winning an overtime battle highlighted by a circus 4-point play, unlikely heroes (Kendrick Perkins) tying the game with a tip-in at the buzzer, and crucial missed opportunities for Oklahoma City down the stretch. Memphis gave the Thunder a ridiculous amount of chances to strike and take a lead in overtime, especially with Mike Conley‘s two critical turnovers. Giving up homecourt advantage and heading to FedEx Forum, Oklahoma City’s chances of winning three straight games against this hard-nosed defense seems impossible as we look at it today.
Then again, if there’s anyone to overcome the impossible …. it’s the league’s Most Valuable Player.
In the first two games of the series, Durant has shot 47.2 percent from the floor and knocked down 8-of-19 shots from 3-point range (42.1 percent).
For teammate Russell Westbrook, it’s great that he’s being aggressive and trying to prove a point by going straight at Memphis. I’m not one of those who criticizes the guy for looking to press the issue with his own offense, because it usually means taking some of the attention off Durant. However, you would love to see Westbrook have a better sense of where to get his looks, and when to hold back from his beloved pull-up jumper.
In the first two games, Westbrook’s shooting is barely eclipsing 40 percent (40.4), and he hasn’t been able to develop a rhythm from long range, shooting just 1-of-7 in Game 2′s loss.
Game 2 perhaps showed that no matter how athletic and great of a shot blocker Serge Ibaka has grown into, the frontcourt of Oklahoma City is no match to stop Zach Randolph and his type of inside bullying, with his mix of stepping outside like the mass majority of today’s power forwards. If your front court assets don’t have willingness to expand their game to the mid-range area, defenses feast on the lack of options and spacing you create.
That’s why both of these teams deserve to move on to the second round, because Memphis is hanging with a top offense despite being deprived of a scoring champion with a freakish wingspan. The Grizzlies scoring in triple digits has to be a concern for the Thunder, and they know as well as anyone that it could be the demise of another title run if it happens in Tennessee.