NBA Shootaround: Going Solo

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.

Welcome Back, Old Friend

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game TwoNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Andrew Sharp: This was LeBron, after Game 1:

“I did have an off game.”

“To be 9-of-22, that’s unacceptable.”

“What everybody else says, I don’t really care what everybody else thinks.”

“I’ve always had to feel out things, but last night it was a little bit too much feel out.”

“I may have to change my mind-set a little bit.”

This was LeBron in Game 2:

He took two shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1. In Game 2, he had 14 points by the end of the first quarter, and the Cavs were up by as much as 22.

There are many reasons to enjoy LeBron James, but games like this will always be my favorite. Sometimes we need a reminder about who’s the real MVP, and that’s when he turns into Godzilla and starts destroying buildings. It happened against the Pistons early in his career, it happened in Game 6 against the Celtics in 2012, and it happened again at the end of Game 6 against the Spurs in 2013. It happens a couple of times in every regular season.

Most of the time, LeBron seems so under control, so precise. It’s like he’s giving a dissertation on how to be the best. But every now and then, the dissertation turns into Puff Daddy’s “Victory” intro.

There are many reasons to hate what happened to Kevin Love and what it did to a budding Cavs juggernaut, but here’s one silver lining: We might get a lot more of Godzilla/“Victory”-intro LeBron. He may not have another choice here. The Cavs will need this three or four times each round if they’re going to keep this going.

It’s not just the scoring. LeBron was attacking constantly last night, and it opened up all kinds of looks for his teammates. There were wide-open 3s for James Jones, lanes for Kyrie Irving to attack, and putback opportunities for Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. The Cavs looked like title contenders again. Can LeBron be good enough to keep it that way for another month?

Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game TwoGreg Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images

Chris Ryan: Why does this dude have a match in his hatband?

Made in New York

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Ben Detrick: No team in the Eastern Conference was further from the playoffs than the New York Knicks, whose campaign of self-immolation left their roster an acrid, blackened husk. But thanks to several shards that landed in the soil along the Cuyahoga, the Cavaliers’ current rotation is littered with former Knicks.

Some are more rehabilitated than others. J.R. Smith, unrepentant gunner and repentant clubber, has provided biennial postseason doltishness. Timofey Mozgov, the Russian sentinel traded from New York to Denver in 2011, rumbles across the hardwood in a Frankensteinian gallop. And then there’s Iman Shumpert, a young Prince of the City whose aspiring nobility was poisoned by New York’s organizational toxicity.

In last night’s Game 2 victory over the Bulls, Shump provided glimpses of the Gumbi-topped talent that made him so beloved in Gotham. During a first quarter in which the Cavs roared to a 38-18 lead, he scored 10 points and drilled a trio of 3s. Later, he raked the rock from Derrick Rose, ignited a fast break, dished the ball to Mozgov, and corralled the rebound off a blown dunk. When the demolition concluded, Shump had 15 points, seven rebounds, and three steals — an outstanding follow-up to a 22-point effort in the opener.

During his first season with the Knicks, Phil Jackson’s personnel decisions at times seemed to have been peyote-induced. And for an asset-starved New York franchise, watching Shump recapture his fast-twitch exuberance in Cleveland must be a particularly painful flashback.

Nothing in This World Is Free

Los Angeles Clippers v Houston Rockets - Game TwoScott Halleran/Getty Images

Danny Chau: Houston plays the long game. Last night, it did so in more ways than one. Sometimes it takes an extra level of punishment; sometimes pride needs to be bruised just a little bit more before a team comes to its senses. When a lemon feels barren, you can either apply pressure to it by rolling it against a hard surface or zap it in the microwave to break down some of the cell walls. That’s when you get the juice.

The Rockets trailed by as much as 13 in the first half, facing a team that still didn’t have its MVP. They survived what might’ve been Blake Griffin’s best half of the playoffs, which is saying a whole lot. They survived Hurricane Lester Hudson, who must spout some kind of strange psychic energy from his fingertips, because his “push-off” on Corey Brewer turned what started as a run-of-the-mill flop into the kind of terror-induced backpedaling you’d see on Ghost Adventures, or Scooby-Doo.

Hell, they survived the most heroic effort from Hedo Turkoglu since the Battle of Tillyria in 1964.

At some point, in front of their fans, staring down a 1-0 series deficit, the Rockets realized they were playing for pride. Of course Jason Terry would win the jump ball against Hedo.1 Is there a more prideful player on that roster? For a team that is often depicted as shameless, they stormed out in the second half like a band of men who knew they were blameworthy. They rallied back, and they won a critical game. How? By wearing down the Clippers’ main threats and bludgeoning L.A. with their completely shameless brand of basketball. In the third quarter, the Rockets had as many made free throws as field goal attempts. In total, they took 64 free throws last night, six away from the all-time playoff record (70), set 59 years ago.

There is life in Houston, and pride has been restored for now. But what does it mean that it took such an effort to beat a team that has played the last two games rudderless?

Taxes

Ryan: There is something called the Coach’s Son Tax, and for Austin Rivers every night must feel like April 15. Rivers has not been bad. He’s averaging 13.5 a game in the Rockets series. He is filling in for the best point guard in the world, and he has not stunk up the joint. He has also been very entertaining. For as respectable as his numbers have been, his lowlights — the kind that Vine was seemingly invented for — have been spit-take funny.

People don’t like coaches’ kids because of the perception that they benefit from an unfair advantage: You’re starting only because of your dad. In my limited athletic experience, I have generally found that nepotism to be real. I’ve also found that coaches’ kids are the athletes with the most pathos. They’re always the ones crying into a jersey after a tough loss. They’re always the ones staying late after practice, shooting free throws, trying to prove something to their father. A lot of coaches’ kids are dickheads, and whether that applies to Austin Rivers doesn’t really matter — he’s going to pay the tax. He’s going to pay his teammates, which is why Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes made this video playfully mocking him:

@blakegriffin32 w/AR iso impersonation #GetTheF&$kOutTheWay

A post shared by matt_barnes9 (@matt_barnes9) on

And he’s going to pay the fans, especially when he does something like this:

This is the second time in two games that Austin Rivers has been within touching distance of glory and his body has betrayed him. It was fucking hilarious. But even as I was laughing my ass off, I couldn’t help but notice how his head dropped once he realized what had happened. I’ve seen that look before.

Blake Got Tired

Los Angeles Clippers v Houston Rockets - Game TwoScott Halleran/Getty Images

Jason Concepcion: During a timeout in Game 1 of the Heat’s 2012 second-round matchup against the Pacers, head coach Erik Spoelstra told LeBron James that he “cannot get tired, period.”

In the second quarter of the Clippers’ Game 2 loss to the Rockets, Blake Griffin was doing everything for the Clippers but flying the team charter. The Clippers ran approximately 100 Blake isos in the middle of the court, and the Rockets responded as if Griffin catching the ball at the foul line was the Enigma machine. He splashed midrange jumpers in Josh Smith’s scowl; bullied James Harden, breakfast defector, on the switch; and took Dwight Howard — at that point the only Rocket who seemed to understand he was actually in a must-win playoff game — out to the perimeter depths where big guys fear to tread. He tossed a sumptuous lob to DeAndre Jordan and brought the ball up the floor like an unholy combination of 1993 Barkley, 1994 Anthony Mason, and Create-a-Player.

Griffin scored 12 points in the second quarter (26 in the half), shot 6-for-6 from the floor, dragged down three rebounds, doled out two assists, blocked a shot, and was essentially the Clippers’ yin and yang, alpha and omega.

He would hit just two more shots for the rest of the game.

In the third quarter, Howard picked up Griffin deeper on the perimeter and made a point of attacking him on offense. The Rockets shook themselves out of their stupor and started bringing double-teams at him, swarming into his passing angles, with Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer throwing sand into the gears of Griffin’s dribble handoffs. More important, they started playing hard.

All of those things contributed to Griffin’s second-half struggles. But also, Griffin did the one thing he absolutely cannot do, period. He got tired.

Criticism of Griffin’s game has always centered on the things he supposedly wasn’t capable of. How else to bring down a player who flies so high? “He has no post moves.” (He scored 0.95 points per post possession this season.) “All he does is dunk.” (Nah.) After Game 1, the Inside the NBA crew opined that Griffin couldn’t get his own shot. During the season, people complained he wasn’t dunking enough. (With the Clippers bench essentially a rickety two-legged stool, how else to keep one’s legs fresh?)

This is the drawback to being able to play basketball like a superhero: People expect it all the time.

Filed Under: NBA, 2015 NBA Playoffs, NBA Shootaround, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Austin Rivers, James Harden, LeBron James, Andrew Sharp, Ben Detrick, Danny Chau, Chris Ryan, Jason Concepcion, Blake Griffin, Iman Shumpert, Corey Brewer