3 in the Key: A Victory Lap
– Defensive 3 –
Before putting my extraordinary basketball IQ to it’s next test, predicting the outcomes of the NBA Playoff’s 2nd round, I feel compelled to take a partial victory lap based on my first round predictions. As of this article being written, the Rockets and Thunder are preparing for a Game 7 after a series filled with one overtime finish and two regulation games decided by 4 points or less. Although not every game of this series has been decided by 10 or less, I’m taking a lap regardless. My requiem for the heroics of Damian Lillard’s season turned out accurate after a Game 1 Blazers win against an over-confident Lakers team. As the oracle told me, however, LeBron and Davis went on to take 4 straight to send Rip City home in a gentlemen’s sweep. Second victory lap. We’re ignoring my Sixers-Celtics series. Seriously, like I said last week, I don’t have the facilities to rationalize that one post-hoc. On to round 2!
Four months ago, predicting the league leading Milwaukee Bucks would be sent home in the second round, regardless of their opponent, was a take hot enough for 10 minute segments delivered by Max Kellerman or Colin Cowherd. For some reason though, entering the second round versus Miami, the Bucks have become a team that seems extremely easy to bet against. On paper, Miami appears to fill the same archetype Toronto did when they sent Giannis packing a 6 game series in last year’s playoffs. Long, gritty, veteran wing defenders with strong rim protection and deadeye shooting big men who can punish the Bucks drop coverage defense. Predicting this series is more of a litmus test on one’s opinion of Jimmy Butler. Personally, even in the midst of Butler’s 40-point Game 1, I don’t believe in Butler’s Kawhi Leonard impersonation enough to count on Miami to move on. Miami’s offense by committee approach simply incorporates too many streaky shot creators like Goran Dragic and Butler, frighteningly heavy reliance on younger players like Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, and career bricklaying journeyman like Jae Crowder (34% from 3) and Andre Iguodala (33.3). The Bucks offensive variance with anchoring star players like Antetokounmpo and Middleton simply seems consistent enough to weather the ebbs and flow that their defense will create for Miami. I think Miami has one more win in them, but the Bucks move on in 6, and trust me, I would love to be wrong.
The Boston Celtics have never quite sold themselves to me as a team to be relied on to secure playoff wins in the later rounds. The Celtics suffer from the same sort of offense by committee play style that I discussed regarding Miami. Watching Boston’s absolute dismantling of Philadelphia and their overwhelming of Toronto in Game 1 has me reconsidering my position, not because of a sudden change of heart concerning offenses that habitually spread the workload, but because Boston seems to have enough proven shot creators spread across the court to make it work. My beef with most offenses that dilute the responsibilities of their best ball handler in favor of a shared workload is that no one else on the court is capable of creating efficient offensive outcomes as well as your best player. This theory makes sense for teams like Houston and Dallas where drawing up a Maxi Kleber post-up or a Robert Covington isolation in favor of a Harden or Doncic pick-and-roll is outlandish. Boston, though, seems to be a team of very good players with no one star that shines the brightest. With no clear top dog, each Celtic gets enough of an opportunity to individually abuse whatever weakness the Raptors bring defensively. Toronto, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same type of versatility. When Boston can sneak by with switching guards on to Pascal Siakam and limit Lowry and VanVleet’s effectiveness creating shot opportunities for the rest of the Raptors, there just aren’t enough scary offensive threats to match the steady drip Boston brings. This series is one that could turn on an instant if Siakam figures out how to abuse smaller players like Marcus Smart in the paint, but for now, I’ll take Boston in 6 games.
– Offensive 3 –
I wrote about Donavan Mitchell last time, so this week’s laurels go to Jamal Murray. Murray’s shot making in Denver’s series vs Utah has been nothing short of sensational. What scares me about Denver’s chances in Game 7 is the recent entry of family members into the NBA bubble. As some of you may know, Jamal Murray has been known to make certain social media gaffes when it comes to his personal life, so let’s hope he can put that all aside and focus on advancing to, and succeeding in, the second round.
Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon’s seemingly deliberate sabotage of the Houston Rockets’ playoff run. I don’t believe it’s a controversial take to conclude that Houston is the better team compared to Oklahoma City. Houston’s wins have all come in blowout fashion and even Oklahoma City’s close wins seem more the result of either Eric Gordon or Russell Westbrook catastrophic decisions than OKC’s ability to brute force their way to victories. Game 3 saw Eric Gordon fumble the ball out of bounds up 2 with the game clock under 24 seconds and Game 6 ended after Russell Westbrook recorded his 7th turnover of the night by throwing the ball out of bounds for no clear reason. Mark these words, if Houston loses Game 7, it will be because of one or both of these sleeper agents.
Nate McMillan, the former coach of the Indiana Pacers, was fired after getting swept in the first round of the playoffs. At face value this is a fair outcome for a coach who hasn’t made it out of the first round in multiple playoff appearances. What’s left a sour taste in people’s mouths was the Pacers press release regarding the coaching decision. At first glance this is boilerplate language thanking McMillan for his years of dedication and yadda yadda yadda. The Pacers get into some hot water in their second paragraph however, when they decide to mention McMillan’s 183-136 record as head coach. This is of course relevant, but then the Pacers decide to add the sneak dissing caveat that his record includes a 3-16 history in the playoffs. Not only did Indiana include this obviously embarrassing tidbit about McMillan’s tenure, but also immediately released their plans to pursue Mike D’Antoni, a different coach that is still under contract! I have to imagine McMillan’s situation is like being broken up with through an Instagram post where the person pretends to compliment you by making a list of your greatest flaws. You get to the end of the monstrosity only to realize that your former partner also decided to post a story where they @ their next relationship target who currently has their own life and partner 6 states away. One hell of a way to call your shot, Pacers. Godspeed Nate.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the first round’s game 7s. See you next week for another set of wild overreactions to the 2nd round’s first couple games!