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.
The Low Five
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Danny Chau: History is written by the victors, and in the alternate timeline in which the Clippers weren’t decapitated by the Rockets in the final three games of the series, maybe we’d revise their story to put a positive spin on their Achilles’ heel. Something like: They were the shallowest team in the playoffs, and it was all by design. It was all just one long episode of Doomsday Preppers. Those countless runs forfeited by the reserves were famine simulations. The trauma of Game 6 against the Rockets became a rallying cry: survive the Spurs, survive this, and you can survive anything. In end times, you can rely on only those you can trust. The Clippers bench — a round of Russian roulette with a revolver that’s got five loaded chambers — was anything but trustworthy. It was high-stakes survival training. But we could call it that only if they’d survived. They didn’t.
History says you don’t win championships with severely imbalanced rosters. With Elias Sports Bureau data provided to Grantland, I looked into every playoff team of the last 20 seasons and the percentage of total minutes the team’s starting five used in the postseason. In their 14 playoff games, the Clippers played their starters 73 percent of the team’s total postseason minutes, the highest percentage of any team in the playoffs this year.1 Excluding the blowouts in Games 3, 4, and 5, the Clippers played their starters slightly over 76 percent of the time, which would have been the highest of any championship contender since the 2005-06 Suns and Pistons. Only three of the last 20 NBA champions have won playing their starters that much. The last time it happened was 2004.
In the last 20 seasons, the distinction of most-used starting lineup belongs to the 1996-97 Atlanta Hawks, whose top five guys played 2,044 of their 2,400 total playoff minutes. Eighty-five percent!
With rest and depth becoming more essential to team management than ever, we likely won’t see it again by any postseason team, let alone a legitimate contender. The Clippers came close. We’ve heard that before. Forever close, but never there. Last week, Brian Phillips noted that the Clippers’ annoying indignity is a form of poetry they’ve foisted upon the world. But after yesterday, with their season cut short, they’re no longer the ones crafting the prose. For my money, and for all the ostentatiousness in their play and their antics, the Clippers might be best represented in the soft imagery of a Matsuo Basho haiku:
can’t quite land
on that blade of grass
My Only Wish Is I Die Real
Team Seeking Conference Finals
Jason Concepcion: In a time when tools like SportVu and Synergy allow us to look at basketball with possession-by-possession granularity, enabling us to quantify how Player A affects his teammates as opposed to how Player B does, and just when it seems that, armed with this information, our understanding of the game has never been more clear-eyed, more certain, more mathematically pure, we get a series like Rockets-Clippers.
The Rockets winning in seven is, in itself, not a shock. But the journey is not the destination, and this series was about as predictable as a ride through the Willie Wonka LSD-terror tunnel. It was notable for the way in which every game saw the loser be defeated in embarrassing fashion. It was a symphony of losing. The winning team didn’t just advance, it justified its very existence in its current form. This is the transitive nature of playoff losses.
This series saw Houston’s cogs, notably Josh Smith’s emoji-flames fourth quarter in Game 6, and Pablo Prigioni’s tackle box full of handmade “little things” in Game 7, shouldering the weight of a successful playoff team in ways that must’ve made Doc Rivers consider adherence to old friends and family.
The “great players of questionable heart and toughness” knocks on Dwight Howard and Breakfast Defector James Harden have been passed along to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, with the former having to yet again grapple with unfair questions about his clutchness, the latter having spent much of Game 7 looking two parts exhausted and one part shook — the Clippers Cocktail of Despair.
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Chris Ryan: Blake Griffin averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 boards, and 6.1 assists over 14 games in the postseason. He has basically been unguardable for a month, he’s had the media breathlessly declaring he was having the best playoffs of anyone in the league, he’s drawn comparisons to Charles Barkley and Larry Bird, and he played “point forward” when Chris Paul missed Game 1 of the conference semifinals with an injury. Even for a guy who spends most of his time up in the air, Blake took a leap in these playoffs.
But the image I take from this Blake postseason isn’t going to be him effortlessly conducting an offense from the high post, or sending Aron Baynes through a wormhole. It’s going to be the vision of a hapless Blake Griffin with the ball, wide open, the Clippers down eight, with 1:14 remaining in Game 7, desperately looking for J.J. Redick. Griffin eventually got his shooting guard the ball. Redick’s effort clanged off the rim and Trevor Ariza plunged the dagger at the other end.
Griffin had a look from his treasured spot, a few feet inside the arc, in the middle of the court. He had a lane where he could have engaged Dwight Howard at the basket. The Clippers were looking for 3, sure. The troubling thing? Blake Griffin was looking for someone else.
Look at (Troll) God
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Andrew Sharp: As recently as five or six days ago, Daryl Morey was a punch line. One of the great things about the NBA playoffs is how quickly we get to watch the world change its mind.
The Clippers are fatally flawed again, and Chris Paul is Sisyphus, and Daryl Morey looks like a genius. Really. For all the work put in by Dwight Howard taking this series from 3-1 to 4-3, those little moves Houston made everywhere else were the difference. It was Corey Brewer (!) and Josh Smith (!!!) who engineered one of the most incredible comebacks in playoff history. Then it was Trevor Ariza burying the Clippers with six 3s Sunday.
Corey Brewer (mid-December pickup from the T-Wolves), Josh Smith (a widely mocked signing later in the month), and Trevor Ariza (dollar-store Chandler Parsons replacement after Morey misplayed his hand this summer) put the Rockets over the top. For every little weapon the Clippers didn’t have around their superstars, the Rockets had two. (Shout-out to Pablo Prigioni!)
I wrote about Morey over the summer — another time when he was a national punch line. I compared him to Chris Paul. It’s fun to reread that after the series we just watched. Chris Paul is good, but not perfect, and the same has been true for Morey. They each have their own ways of driving people insane, and until they win a title, we’ll focus on everything they do wrong.
That’s probably still true of Morey. But the Rockets just got a step closer, and it was due in no small part to their GM, someone who’s easy to root against but always dangerous to bet against. He trusted (and rested) Dwight, he put faith in Smith and Brewer, he didn’t panic after Parsons left. Dork Elvis played this exactly right. If that makes you mad, well, don’t worry, this is the playoffs. Anything can change in a week. Until then, though: Gotta bow down to the King.
Coach From the North Country
Kirk Goldsberry: Bob Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota, around this time of year in 1941, and raised in the tiny little iron-mining town of Hibbing. Nobody cares. Kevin McHale grew up there, too, and he’s way more important now. Anyone who can turn Josh Smith into a pivotal player on an NBA conference finalist immediately becomes more transcendent than some fella who simply revolutionized popular music.
Coaching reputations are stubborn things — just ask pre-Ubuntu Doc Rivers. And maybe it’s time we reconsider the idea that McHale is anything less than a really good NBA coach. He went electric in this series, leading a seemingly mismatched lineup to a huge comeback win against a star-studded opponent, one that was led by one of the top three coaches in the league.
I mean, how many roads does a McHale have to walk down before we call him a really good coach?
The other dude from Hibbing will always have Blood on the Tracks and Blonde on Blonde, but those ordinary artifacts are nothing compared to the masterpiece McHale just recorded.
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Ben Detrick: In the orgy of NBA trade deadline action, one of the least titillating swaps was the one that sent Pablo Prigioni from the Knicks to the Rockets in exchange for Alexey Shved and a pair of future second-rounders. It was one of the Knicks’ most defendable personnel decisions: Shved averaged 14.8 points a game and utilized his bird-chested mopeyness to become one of those quasi-competent players who make the traumatic dregs of a lost season slightly tolerable.
Over in Houston, Prigioni played 17 minutes a night as Jason Terry’s backup (the pair of basketball elders became known as “the grandpas” to teammates). The Argentine shot poorly from deep but quietly did useful old-man things: His miserly assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.47 would have been best in the NBA if applied to the entire season, and his steals rate was among the league’s leaders (almost the same as Kawhi Leonard!).
If you’re unfamiliar with Pablo’s treacherousness, know this: No one on this blue planet is better at stealing inbounds passes.
It’s some supernatural X-Files shit, where opponents don’t see him lurking there, like his flesh is camouflaged into a parquet pattern. In the Rockets’ Game 7 triumph, Prigioni practiced his dark arts again, snaking away a couple inbounds passes that led to critical buckets. He harassed Chris Paul full-court, had a plus-minus of plus-20 in 20 minutes, and contributed four points, four assists, three steals, and zero turnovers. And, even more enchantingly, it was his 38th birthday yesterday. Feliz cumpleaños, abuelo!