What a week of basketball. For as crumby of a regular season as it was, we have been rewarded with some truly awesome basketball in the playoffs. The championship picture is starting to narrow, but if there’s anything we’ve learned thus far, it’s to expect the unexpected, so who knows. Anyways, let’s get caught up on each of the remaining series.
Utah Jazz lead Los Angeles Clippers 2-0
The Clippers were able to win 4 out of 5 against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round to make up for falling behind 2-0, and they’ll need to do so again to avoid a second straight early Cancun trip. While the Clippers are technically the underdog in this series, they did not trade ... everything ... to be eliminated in the second round in back-to-back years to begin the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George era.
He’s become a punchline, but the Clippers truly need so much more from Paul George. He is such an immensely talented player who has not brought it yet in this series, and while I’d normally take the opportunity to make a joke, I think the real credit here goes to Utah and Rudy Gobert.
Gobert has been tremendous for the past six quarters, and his presence at the rim has almost entirely erased the rim from the Clippers offensive attack. Los Angeles already had a propensity for pull-up jumpers as it was, and now they are taking even more of them and getting to the rim even less. The Clippers have guys who can make those shots, but it is so hard to beat great teams without a decent diet of shots at the rim.
Again, the credit here goes to Utah. They’re up 2-0 without Mike Conley playing a second. They are a well-oiled machine led by an elite scorer in Donovan Mitchell. It pains me to admit this, but Utah plays absolutely gorgeous basketball on both ends. They are for real, and it is apparent that they got the top-seed for a reason.
If you’ll allow me to stray off onto a quick tangent, I think what has frustrated me more than maybe anything else in these playoffs, injuries aside, has been the Clippers defense. They’ve built their team around a bevy of wings who are all reasonably good defenders, highlighted by Kawhi Leonard and George. Yet, in nearly every playoff series with that tandem, the opposing team’s best perimeter creator is exploding. Why is that?
Aside from probably waiting too long to play the Kawhi card on these players, a lot of it has to do with the over-willingness of this team to switch. Just because you can switch something doesn’t mean you should. Assuming Kawhi starts Game 3 on Mitchell, they cannot give up the switch just on any ball-screen. If Leonard get legitimately screened, then yeah, make the switch, but switching just for the sake of switching is letting both Mitchell and the Jazz off the hook. Switching can be really, really effective when done correctly, but there’s no sense in taking your best defender out of the play when you don’t need to.
Phoenix Suns lead Denver Nuggets 3-0
This would be an incredibly fun series with both teams at full strength, but with Denver’s injuries in the back court this is looking like a sweep. It’s a bit of a bummer. The stars have shown out, and that was evident again in Game 3 where Chris Paul and Devin Booker combined for 55 points, and Nikola Jokic put up a ridiculous 32/20/10 line. Denver just doesn’t have enough without Jamal Murray at all or Michael Porter Jr. at full strength.
Philadelphia 76ers lead Atlanta Hawks 2-1
Atlanta stole Game 1, and it’s been all Philly ever since. Ben Simmons has answered the bell, and they’ve been able to at least contain Trae Young a bit now so that he isn’t completely controlling the game. They’ve managed to make things difficult with size, and now they’re in the driver’s seat.
With a potential matchup with the Brooklyn Nets looming, it’s all about Joel Embiid. He has dominated Clint Capela, so one can only imagine what he would do to Blake Griffin. I’m really impressed with the way the Sixers have responded to their Game 1 loss, and am forever intrigued by their ceiling due to the defensive pieces they have to throw at teams.
Brooklyn Nets lead Milwaukee Bucks 2-1
Well, Milwaukee has at least ensured that this won’t be a sweep. I suppose it’s possible that they’ll win Game 4 and even the series up, but it feels incredibly unlikely that Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Joe Harris combine for 55 points on 61 field goal attempts again. Milwaukee has not shot well from the three-point line in any game yet this series, and while I normally would be willing to play the “shooting variance” card for them, that’s been an excuse for them in every playoff series they’ve lost over the last few years. At a certain point, maybe the way they play offensively just doesn’t translate quite as well to the postseason?
Even if Milwaukee does shoot it better, Kevin Durant missed an abnormal amount of good looks, and that is definitely not going to happen again. The Bucks survived Game 3 because he missed those good looks, but I’d still wager that Brook Lopez should not be on the court when Kevin Durant is in the game. If the Nets wanted to do so, they could get a clean look for Durant running the double-drag with Lopez’s assignment as the second screener. There’s a time and a place for drop coverage, and the problems are not solely on Lopez. The reality though is that if you leave Kevin Durant with room around the elbow to pull-up, that’s a losing proposition for the defense every single time.
The other problem for Milwaukee has been that Jrue Holiday has been atrocious offensively. I love Jrue. He’s one of my favorite players in the league for a variety of reasons, but he has just been horrendous on offense. They need so much more from him if they are going to truly make this a competitive series.
Jrue Holiday's shooting as a Buck in the playoffs:— Josh Eberley (@JoshEberley) June 11, 2021
44-25-60 (49.21 TS%)
Eric Bledsoe's shooting as a Buck in the playoffs:
41-25-73 (49.4 TS%)
I want to believe that this will still be a long series, but Game 3 felt like the game Milwaukee steals before ultimately getting bounced in 5 or 6. The calculus obviously gets worse for them if James Harden is able to return at any point and give Irving and Durant any rest.