NBA Playoffs Shootaround: Up in the Air
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back 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.
(GIFs by Jason Gallagher)
Chris Ryan: After Game 4, Doc Rivers said, “I just believe when the game starts, the game starts and nobody cares anymore. Golden State surely didn’t care.” We all know what events prompted the first sentence in that quote. I’m here to talk about the second sentence. I’m here to talk about Golden State sticking the knife in on Sunday. And twisting.
The playoffs are about matchups. That’s why coaching matters so much; you need someone at the helm who knows how to exploit weakness. Maybe you see that a guy is struggling with an injury, or struggling from lack of sleep because he was out too late the night before. Or maybe you see that the team you are playing is embroiled in a controversy that has jumped the fence from TMZ to SportsCenter to the kind of thing your mom calls to ask you about, and maybe they’ve been knocked off their square a little bit.
And that’s when you strike.
Yes, Mark Jackson would have liked to have won any one of or all the preceding games in this series. But he had to have this one. I’m sure Klay Thompson envisioned himself doing this earlier in the series …
… but he certainly picked the right time to do it.
After the game, Chris Paul admitted to being nervous beforehand; J.J. Redick looked like he’d just sat down and watched all the Transformers movies, back to back to back, in slow motion. This stuff must have been evident to the Warriors. It must have been evident to Steph Curry, who went for 33 points and picked the perfect night to score 27 of those 33 on jump shots, and to come to the game dressed up as a fireball.
Nothing about what is happening to the Clippers, as a team, is fair. What the Warriors did to them on Sunday, though? That’s just the playoffs.
netw3rk: You might prefer the refined strategic excellence of Spurs-Mavs, with its seasoned veterans, masterful coaching, and razor-sharp tactical execution. Me? I’d much rather watch young legs running wildly in every direction, players diving on the floor after yet another bizarre turnover, big shots, clutch steals, and free-jazz play calling. I’d much rather watch Rockets-Blazers. Sunday night’s Game 4 was like when you first started kissing: two young teams, full of reckless exuberance, overwhelmed by the moment, just wildly mauling each other’s faces. And, in many ways, it was the first proper playoff game of the series.
The first two games were the opening gambits, with LaMarcus Aldridge stomping 40-plus-point Kaiju footprints all over Houston’s face. In Game 3, Houston finally adjusted and counterpunched, with Kevin McHale making sure either Omer Asik or Dwight Howard was guarding LMA at all times. He also unleashed secret weapon/D-League 3-point gunner Troy Daniels. So, coming into Game 4, McHale had his Aldridge rules, Terry Stotts knew what McHale wanted to do, both teams had taken haymakers, and everyone had Googled Troy Daniels.
In other words, no more surprises. The stage was set for a wild, free-flowing affair. At times it seemed like no one directly involved in the game knew what was happening. It was basically pickup with awesome players.
James Harden, Howard, and Jeremy Lin all contributed in individual, snowflake-special ways to blown Rocket leads. Harden continues to be criminally negligent on defense, getting consistently manhandled by either Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum. Howard insists (or McHale insists that he insist) on posting up in big spots even though his dribble sprays around the court like an over-fizzed Coke bottle, and he’s converting post-ups at much less than a point per possession. Lin had one basket and three turnovers, one of which led directly to overtime.
Meanwhile, the Blazers keep missing big free throws, getting momentum-shifting shots blocked at the rim, and committing — or being victimized by — clutch-time fouls/foul calls, frequently involving 3-point shooters.
It was 123-120 Portland with seven seconds left in OT before Matthews finally Beverley’d Beverley, lunging knee-high at the ball for the steal to seal the game, allowing us all to finally sleep, faces covered in smeared lipstick and scratches from braces.
Andrew Sharp: We could talk about Game 3 and Nene going full Ultimate Warrior with Jimmy Butler, but what’s the point? The Wizards came out Sunday and made it all irrelevant. They did it with John Wall and Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat, and a legendary Drew Gooden game. But most of all, they did it with the Trevors.
Trevor Booker is still the best-kept secret on this Wizards team, and this Bulls series isn’t helping. He must have tipped out 300 rebounds over the past few games, keeping possessions alive, and driving the Bulls insane the way all the best role players do. He hung with the Bulls’ front line all day — except Taj Gibson, who will never stop going in — and hustled all over the place, and somehow the Wiz big men were pretty much fine without Nene.
Then there was Trevor Ariza. MVP. King. Lord of the perimeter.
You want to know a secret about the Wizards? If Ariza is hitting 3s, they become pretty much unstoppable.
Ariza went 10-of-17 from the floor in Game 4, 6-of-10 from 3, and it all turned into a game that was really close for only a handful of minutes in the second quarter. I don’t know if the Wizards should sign Ariza when this season’s over, but if he keeps playing like this, I’ll tattoo his name across my stomach.
Anyway, three wins down now. Closeout game on Tuesday, or maybe Thursday in D.C. Sunday ended with the whole stadium chanting “FREE NENE!” while the Verizon Center PA brought back the Ruff Ryders and Baltimore-flavored victory anthem from the Gilbert Arenas years. What more could you want from the playoffs?
Jared Dubin: With each TONY ALLEN game that has passed in the Oklahoma City TONY ALLEN Thunder’s first-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies, both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have shot TONY ALLEN worse than they did in the game TONY ALLEN before. Durant has gone uncharacteristically TONY ALLEN cold, having made only 24 of 82 shots (29.3 percent) from outside TONY ALLEN the restricted area in the series. Westbrook is jacking TONY ALLEN jumper after jumper, and alternately barreling to the rim with no regard TONY ALLEN for, well, anything, and just throwing the ball to the other team.
Memphis knows everything the Thunder TONY ALLEN want to do offensively before they actually do it, and has easily TONY ALLEN snuffed out the first option in nearly every one of OKC’s “sets.” There is almost never any secondary TONY ALLEN action coming in behind the play for TONY ALLEN the Thunder anyway, so their offense has just looked like a jumbled mess through most TONY ALLEN of these first four games. It’s only because of the suddenly TONY ALLEN scorching shooting of Reggie Jackson that the Thunder TONY ALLEN managed to limp back to Chesapeake Energy TONY ALLEN Arena for Game 5 with the series tied at two apiece.
The series — and really, each game — has TONY ALLEN become a referendum on whether Westbrook and Scotty Brooks should even be allowed TONY ALLEN to be associated with Durant. It’s not fair, but that’s basically TONY ALLEN what has happened here. Inside the NBA and NBA Countdown harp on Westbrook’s shot selection TONY ALLEN more than almost any other topic, and Brooks’s unimaginative offensive system TONY ALLEN and uninspired rotations are right up there as well. If the Thunder don’t manage TONY ALLEN to snag a series victory, one of them (probably Brooks) may not TONY ALLEN be back in OKC next year.
Of course, the real story of this series is that Tony Allen is everywhere.
Danny Chau: We’re talking about old school? OK, let’s talk about old school: Raptors-Nets Game 4 ended with a final score of 87-79. After the Raptors’ grand illusion of 35 first-quarter points, neither team managed to score more than 23 points in any of the subsequent quarters. There were at least three Raptors clutching at one of their knees at various points in the game, and at least three others could be spotted visibly limping. The second half of Game 4, amid one of the best first rounds in NBA history, was a reminder to the world that we mustn’t lose sight of where all this came from. These NBA playoffs are built on top of an open pit with the corpses of all the shitty regular-season games this year. The lingering stench is beginning to emanate from the hardwood, ensuring we never forget.
But, hey, we’re talking old school, right? The days when beauty was routinely extracted from even the most vile abominations? Sure, let’s talk about old school: With seven minutes left in the fourth quarter of Game 4, Jonas Valanciunas has Kevin Garnett on the left block, swivels toward the middle of the paint, and drops the most picturesque sweeping hook you’re likely to see in these playoffs; six minutes later, Kyle Lowry catches Garnett on a switch heading to the lane, and lofts a retrofitted running hook over Garnett’s outstretched arms. Two old-school moves over the old guard, honoring the past while spitting on its grave.
The series is tied at 2-2. It’s been a certain type of fun watching two teams pulse each other in a food processor. Prediction? This series is going to a Game 7, and a player’s leg will be sawn off from the knee down before the final buzzer.
Steve McPherson: Let’s get something straight: A bunch of dudes liking each other is not a prerequisite for success. Just ask Kobe and Shaq, or the post–Sgt. Pepper’s Beatles, or Some Kind of Monster–era Metallica. Tension and friction within a group are not inimical to accomplishing shared goals. They may even be productive — a little stoking of the competitive fires within a team can serve the greater good.
But just as any individual player’s personal happiness rarely has a one-to-one correspondence with a team’s success, so too does a team’s success serve as a poor barometer of the team’s mental state. A terrific fourth quarter from Paul George, alongside an unlikely David West 3-pointer and an aggressive drive by George Hill, pulled the Pacers even with the Hawks. But it does not fix the Pacers’ interpersonal issues. The question is this: Do those issues even need fixing?
Yes, basketball is an emotional game, but who says all those emotions have to be of the shiny, happy, love-thy-fellow-man variety? Or even of the ice-cold, ultracompetitive Kobe face variety? People get sucked into some petty, indefensible shit: John Lennon had Yoko Ono IN A BED, IN THE STUDIO and the Beatles still made Abbey Road.
Rifts in a collective don’t develop, they’re unearthed. They’re there when things are successful as surely as they are when things are crumbling. If the Pacers are going to claw past a scrappy, inspired Hawks team, someone has to be the sin-eater, the one to swallow the garbage of the season to get it off the table. It doesn’t have to fix anything, just squash it.
Jason Gallagher: We all knew what would happen.
Remember two weeks ago? Knowledge of the NBA, at least on some level, was an attainable thing that everyone could touch, feel, and hold. We all knew what we knew and had no room for foolish what-ifs because there was no way we were wrong. It was a simpler time back then. Favorites were favorites, 8-seeds were afterthoughts, and there was no chance in hell the Dallas Mavericks were beating the San Antonio Spurs.
We all knew what would happen.
There was no way the Mavs could compete with Dirk Nowitzki averaging 15 points through the first three games against San Antonio. Impossible that a coach who finished outside of the top 10 in COY voting could outscheme, outperform, and out-strategize the coach of the damn century. And if you even tried to come at us with this “Mavericks successfully playing defense against the Spurs,” you’d be the target of every Twitter joke the basketball interwebs had to offer.
We all knew what would happen.
Of course, I could admit that Monta Ellis had evolved into a fine player. It’s been written about by everyone who owns a keyboard. We all gave him a collective pat on the back, but never actually considered him to be any kind of a threat in the playoffs against the near-perfect Spurs, let alone to fearlessly lead these Mavericks to a 2-1 series lead with 20 PPG.
We knew this would happen until …
Our knowledge — what we thought we knew — was lost. It went down through the bottom of the net. Everyone was certain these Mavs didn’t stand a chance, but this squad of veterans, rejects, and misfits has every intention of showing us all how little we actually know.
Brett Koremenos: Unlike the Phoenix Suns, who stole everyone’s hearts with their surprising ascent on the back of their underrated young talent, Charlotte made its regular-season push with a host of underappreciated journeymen. Most of the Bobcats’ core contributors this season, from Al Jefferson to Chris Douglas-Roberts, were players who were overlooked or undervalued by other teams around the league. If you were looking for the basketball version of the Island of Misfit Toys, this was your team.
Everything about this team is embodied by Jefferson (whose unfortunate health setback has been the one letdown of an otherwise incredible postseason). Around the league and in the blogosphere, Jefferson’s defense had become something of a punch line — the reason he’s on his fourth team despite his prodigious post-up skills. But head coach Steve Clifford has changed all that by challenging Jefferson on the defensive end of the floor and installing a system that plays to his strengths (staying in or near the paint at all times). On top of that, he’s emerged as a leader for the Bobcats’ motley crew this year.
“He keeps his teammates together. He keeps it loose,” team president Rod Higgins told me recently. “But he also challenges those guys in the right way.”
One player in particular who has benefited from Jefferson’s presence has been the well-traveled Josh McRoberts.
“As Michael Jordan always says, he’s the connector,” Higgins said. “He connects the guys out there on the floor.”
Players like Anthony Tolliver (on his sixth team) and Douglas-Roberts (his fourth) have also had their roles in the Bobcats’ surprising season. Tolliver’s shooting improvement has allowed him to become a sneaky impactful player when he’s on the court, as evidenced by his appearance in four of Charlotte’s top-six two-man lineup combinations on the NBA stats site (minimum 150 minutes). “He’s a pro’s pro,” Higgins said. And Douglas-Roberts came in when the Bobcats’ wing rotation was in shambles and played well enough to earn a stay through this whole playoff run.
“One thing Coach [Clifford] always said about CDR is that he’s an awfully tough competitor. He wouldn’t back down from anybody,” Higgins said. “Coach would tell me stories about him not backing down from Kobe.”
Charlotte as a whole has been as feisty as Douglas-Roberts all season, especially as the team gamely fights for survival against Miami despite its best player being hobbled by a foot injury. Tonight’s game likely marks the end for the Bobcats, but maybe they can deliver one last, unexpected outcome. After all, it’s been the story of their season.
Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs, Chris Ryan, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Andrew Sharp, Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, Danny Chau, Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets, Steve McPherson, Miami Heat, Charlotte Bobcats, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Jason Gallagher, netw3rk, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Jared Dubin, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder