3 in The Key: The Week Before Playoffs

Welcome to the second iteration of ‘Three in The Key’  presented by Tyler Jones who will recap the remainder of the 2020 NBA season.

Defensive 3

Requiem for the Portland Trail Blazers

         Sports fans set impossible standards for players, coaches, and teams; it’s what we do. The NBA world expects perfection from the game’s brightest stars. Slogans like “Doesn’t mean a thing without the ring” follow any discussion of the 73-9 Warriors while the overarching philosophy of “Rings Culture” tarnishes the legacy of all-time greats like John Stockton or Charles Barkley. Sports fans are a reactionary bunch, and frequently incorrect. Make no mistake, the Blazers are the latest victim of the collective NBA fan’s imagination. The heroic story we’ve watched unfold over the past two weeks has seemingly lost sight of what exactly the Blazers were playing for. Simply making the playoffs is not the destination of a team’s journey, it’s the first step on a much longer one. The Blazers are now looking down the barrel of a 7 game series against two of the planet’s 10 best players. Simply put, the storybook ending to this impossible Cinderella run will never come. The inevitable outcome of this series shouldn’t surprise anyone, but guys like Lillard and McCollum will still have to face the consequences of disappointing an NBA world desperate to latch onto an underdog. Lebron and the Lakers will move on in 4 games and the 2020 Blazers will be relegated to history as another footnote of an incredibly unusual NBA season. 

Predictions: Lakers in 4. Lillard averages 35+ pts but the Blazers lose every game by 10 or more.


Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images


Red River Rivalry on the hardwood

          Sports media often misses the point of rivalry. A rivalry does not exist because rosters built seventy years ago butted heads or because two cities are located within five-hundred miles of each other. Rivalries are built by two components: a shared animus between players currently on rosters and repeated confrontations between the two teams in crucial games. Enter the first round matchup of Rockets-Thunder. Two franchises intrinsically linked by the most lopsided trade in NBA history, the recent exchange of two of the game’s most electrifying point guards, and repeated conflicts under the game’s brightest lights. The dramatic subtext of this series is of course the absence of Russell Westbrook from a Houston roster constructed to bring out the best from his game. Houston will have to buoy this series without their starting point guard, and second most important player. This series can, and should, be a defining playoff moment for James Harden. On the other hand, Harden’s former teammate Chris Paul is leading the feel good team of the season in OKC. The Thunder have built a culture that has mashed the cognitive play of veteran journeymen like Gallinari and Schroder with the unbridled energy of rookies Darius Bazley and Lu Dort. The effectiveness of OKC’s three guard lineup is the key to OKC’s success in this series. In the regular season the lineup of Paul/Schroder/Gilgeous-Alexander/Gallinari/Adams posted a +30 net rating in 177 minutes. This Thunder arrangement holds the best net rating of any 5-man lineup in the NBA that has played 150 minutes or more together. Houston’s switch everything defense, however, seems uniquely suited to defend against an offense heavily reliant on perimeter screening and dribble drive penetration given that all 5 Houston defenders are wing-sized players more capable at containing dribble penetration. My only hope beyond what this series is already set to offer us is a quick and healthy return for Russ. 

Prediction: Rockets in 7, with every game decided by 7 or less.


Photo by Troy Taomina/USA Today Sports


Joel Embiid vs The World

          When the Philadelphia 76ers take the floor versus the Boston Celtics in Round 1, all of their eggs will lay in the basket of Joel Embiid. Although Embiid was already the heart and soul of the Sixers, Ben Simmons’ absence against Boston means Embiid’s workload has only gotten heavier. Embiid’s performances versus Boston have been historically erratic, but the Philly center does have a second gear he unleashes come playoff time. In their 17’-18’ playoff matchup, Embiid posted a +5.3 net rating while on court even while struggling offensively relative to his usual statistics, posting only 23 ppg on a measly ~50% true shooting. In the 2018-19 playoffs Embiid was dominant in both of the Sixers series. Embiid’s on-court net rating was all the way up at 20.8, meaning the Sixers were manhandling the opposition in an unusually lopsided way. This same dominance, on top of at least semi-reliable outside shooting from Embiid’s teammates, is a requirement if Philadelphia has any chance of pushing Boston into an extended series. The issue with Embiid, however, is not his performance on-court, it is the unreliable nature of Embiid’s body to hold up under the strain of large minutes loads and the relentless nature of playoff basketball. This is Joel’s chance to show the NBA sphere that he has entered the upper echelon of star power, an opportunity to cement himself as one of the few athletes in the game capable of leading a team even against unavoidable adversity like key injuries to star teammates. I hope he and the rest of the Sixers can battle the mental strain of a disappointing season, the loss of Ben Simmons, and the physical wear-and-tear that has so frequently plagued them to turn the Eastern Conference playoffs into must-see TV.

Prediction: Sixers in 7. The Sixers get uncharacteristically hot from deep, Thybulle cements himself as a true lockdown defender in this league, and Joel Embiid finally leads his team past Boston.


Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports


Offensive 3

There is no justice in this world. Devin Booker leads the Phoenix Suns to an unbeaten 8-0 record in the bubble and still misses the playoffs because the team’s record was so poor before the shutdown. I have to believe the Suns would be a playoff team if DeAndre Ayton didn’t get busted for PEDs and smacked with a 25 game suspension at the beginning of their year. Ayton’s inability to show up for a coronavirus test prior to the Suns bubble game last week honestly makes me think he has no interest in competing at the highest level. Let’s hope someone can get this guy’s head on straight cause he is an incredible basketball player on a team poised to make waves next season.

Pour one out for Luka Doncic. No one deserves to be hounded by Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard for 7 games. Doncic is 2nd in the NBA in touches per game and 7th in the league in average seconds per touch among players averaging 25 or more minutes per game. Those frequent instances of Doncic ball possession will be plagued by constant harassment from the bevy of perimeter pests the Clippers can throw at him. If you’ve ever played pickup ball while matched up against a guy whose only skill is “hustle” then you have to   feel some sort of empathy for the absolute hell Luka’s life will be for the next week and a half.

The amount of NBA players leaving the bubble to witness the birth of children is astronomical. Mike Conley is only the latest, and most extreme, example as he’ll likely miss 2 or more playoff games to leave the bubble, but Dennis Schroder has already done the same thing, and Gordon Hayward says he plans to. Apparently nothing on Earth has been hit harder by the pandemic than NBA pregnancy schedules because the timing on these births is truly awful. I don’t want to be overly inflammatory, but if my starting point guard planned to leave the bubble to witness his kid’s birth, in the back of my head I’m thinking that guy needs to get his priorities straight. Pregnancy lasts 9 months, but championships are forever. 


I hope you all get the opportunity to catch a game, watch your team take home a playoff W, and enjoy another week of this bizarre situation we all find ourselves in. As always, see you next time.

Contact me on Twitter @tjjszn !


             Photo By Danny Moloshok