We’re two weeks into the NBA playoffs and it already feels like it’s been a month. Every night has a new game to break our brain all over again — last night it was Clippers-Warriors, again — and after doing this for two weeks, I don’t even know what’s happening anymore. Imagine if the first weekend of the NCAA tournament was 16 days long. That’s the first round of the playoffs this year.
We’re nearing the end of it — with a record three Game 7s on Saturday, and possibly as many as six by the end of the weekend — so let’s try to make sense of where we are right now with a big rundown of where we’ve been. We’ll do this with some power rankings of the NBA humans involved.
(Not ranked: Donald Sterling, because he’s not a part of the NBA anymore.)
We start at rock bottom.
20. Roy Hibbert
There could be no other player in last place. Sure, you could make a case for any of the Pacers stars to be here. I thought they would all snap out of it come playoff time, and I could not have been more wrong. Everyone except David West has fallen off a cliff. Lance Stephenson has probably cost himself $30 million since January. People watch Paul George on offense now and they make this face:
George Hill, too. Remember when everyone thought that Kawhi Leonard trade was dead even? What happened to THAT George Hill?
Indiana won Game 6 in Atlanta last night, but even when it wins, it’s impossible to watch a Pacers game and not come away baffled. The whole team looks drugged. It’s a little bit like the 2010 Delonte/LeBron Cavs, but that all broke down in a matter of two games, at the end of the Celtics series. We’ve been watching this happen to the Pacers for months.
And nobody personifies it better than Hibbert. Before the All-Star Game he was as valuable as anyone in the league. He was the only guy in the NBA who could really make LeBron look human, and the anchor on both ends for the best team in the NBA. And then he just … stopped being good?
He’s not rebounding, he can’t score, he’s a liability on defense in this Hawks series, and he seems perfectly healthy, which has made the past two weeks even more confusing. Who knows when we’ll find out what happened with Hibbert. Technically he could still turn it around in the next few weeks if the Pacers win Saturday. But for now … He went from the possible defensive player of the year to Hasheem Thabeet. It would be sad to watch all this if it weren’t so amazing.
19. Kevin McHale
One of the best parts of the playoffs is finding out about players we’ve overlooked all year. Guys who are underrated and then come up huge, like Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal this season, or Mike Conley and Steph Curry last year. The playoffs expose all of them to a much wider audience.
It’s the opposite with coaches. The best coaches are guys like Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich, and unless you are into some hard-core Synergy shit, it’s tough to actually appreciate what they do so well. But we definitely notice when guys aren’t on that level. This is one of the downsides of the playoffs. It’s not fun listening to people nitpick coaches every night, but at some point it’s unavoidable.
All of this came up in thinking about McHale. The Blazers and Rockets are pretty much even talent-wise, and every game has been close, but when you watch the Rockets in the fourth quarter, they just don’t run anything. Either they pound it into Dwight Howard in crunch time — forgetting that Dwight has never been dominant in the post like that — or James Harden dribbles for 10 seconds and then takes a crappy shot. This is how they’ve blown lead after lead in the fourth quarter for the past two weeks.
Houston could still come back and win the series this weekend, but what’s happened so far has been pretty damning for McHale. After a Rockets game last week, I saw someone tweeting Anthony Carter quotes from this article back when McHale was in Minnesota:
It was a learning experience. He didn’t really know all the X’s and O’s, but he had a good assistant coaching staff that was helping him out with a lot of plays. He kind of let us run whatever we wanted. He was trying to draw plays, and it was like a little Etch and Sketch. Like a kid just messing around. … He just gave the clipboard to the assistant coaches sometimes.
On the one hand, McHale was just starting out at that point, so he’s probably gotten better. On the other hand, the Rockets’ fourth-quarter offense was bad enough that it inspired someone to go dig up that article, so … yeah.
18. James Harden
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Look at this Vine and watch Harden. That clip would be amazing in the regular season, but that’s in a playoff game. A four-point game. In the final minute. Future generations will study Harden on defense to learn exactly what it looks like to not give a f—.
Except for a few stretches that were exceptions — the last few minutes of Game 5, for instance — Harden has been shocking us like that for the entire Blazers series. He embodies all of the worst stereotypes people have about NBA players:
• Lazy on defense? (Check)
• Chucking horrible shots? (Definitely)
• Flopping and begging for whistles? (Yep)
• Indignant when someone criticizes him for all of this? (YEP)
It sucks. He can still change everything this weekend, but watching what he’s become has been a brutal reality check.
Every time someone brings up the Harden trade, we talk about why it sucked for the Thunder and basketball fans everywhere. We lost out on a potential dynasty, a decade of basketball nirvana in OKC, etc. But as much as the divorce hurt the Thunder, we don’t really talk about what it did to Harden. He was everyone’s favorite random NBA player two years ago, but he’s been thrown into a superstar role in Houston, and it might be asking him to do a little too much. He’s graded on a different curve now, and it’s not as fun to watch him fail.
He plays absolutely no defense, he throws himself into people hoping for whistles, he jacks 3s at will. It works — it worked in the regular season, anyway — but it’s miserable to watch. Maybe it’ll get better this weekend.
17. Scott Brooks
Most of the McHale section applies to Brooks, too — with the twist being that we’ve been having this exact conversation for the past two or three years. There are some counterpoints to all the criticism:
- The Thunder are going to seven games with a team that’s had the best record in the league since Marc Gasol came back. Should that really be so surprising?
- OKC’s become one of the better defensive teams in the league under Brooks, and the offense has been excellent for two consecutive years. Shouldn’t that count for something?
- OKC has been too cheap to go over the luxury tax and get real players, so it’s left with Caron Butler and Derek Fisher as key role guys. Are we certain it’s Brooks’s fault this team doesn’t look like a contender?
- Lil B is Voldemort and Tony Allen is a horcrux. What’s happening to the Thunder has nothing to do with Brooks.
These are all fair points. Regardless of what you think about the Thunder, Brooks is definitely not a bad coach. But the playoffs are when lineups matter twice as much and offensive sets get scrutinized to death … and for the third consecutive year, it seems like Brooks is flunking most of these tests. Jared Dubin wrote about this in depth the other day, but yeah. Brooks isn’t a bad coach, but every playoffs you can’t help but wonder what the Thunder could do with someone better.
16. Jeff Teague
I’m still not convinced the Hawks are actually good, but Frank Vogel is definitely convinced that Teague is good.
15. Old Men in Texas
These teams have fun young players, but it’s just so much more fun to imagine this series as a battle royale between a bunch of perpetually sore, stubborn old bastards who will never stop making big shots. Vince, Manu, Tony, Dirk, Matrix, Duncan. All of them. Spurs-Mavs has probably been upstaged by about five other series in the first round, but that’s cool. Anyone who has watched knows that Manu Ginobili and Vince Carter have been just as baffling as anything else in these playoffs.
14. Kyle Lowry
The Kyle Lowry revolution won’t stop until his face is on all Canadian currency. Does Canada use stamps? Put him on the stamps too. Does Canada have a military? Make him a five-star general, because …
That’s what we’ve learned from the Raptors this season. In the playoffs, we’ve learned that nothing in the regular season was a fluke.
Not DeMar DeRozan, not Amir Johnson, and definitely not Lowry, the 6-foot point guard who will take on guys twice his size in the lane, play through pain, and then step back in crunch time and hit huge shots.
The Nets series is still a complete toss-up, but that’s not the point. The Raptors becoming a real team is the bigger story this year, and Lowry is the perfect face for all of that. I don’t just love him because he’s the closest thing we have to real-life Kyle Watson, but also because he’s got all the “f— you” instincts of Patrick Beverley, only he’s actually good. None of this stops until he’s a full-fledged Canadian icon.
13. LaMarcus Aldridge
If we’d done this list last week, he’d probably be no. 1.
As it stands, he still put together the single most outrageous performance of the playoffs … then one-upped himself the next game, had the analytics community checking their math, and left no doubt that as long as he’s healthy, Portland can hang with anyone in the league. When his jumper’s falling, he’s right there with Kevin Durant and LeBron as one of the most unstoppable scorers in basketball.
The problem is that his long 2-point jumpers have stopped falling as much — so, OK, maybe the analytics guys have a point. And he’s had a harder time scoring inside when Houston puts Dwight on him. The LaMarcus lovefest has cooled down a little bit, so he’s in the middle of this pack for now.
12. Dwight Howard
People will never stop giving Dwight a hard time, and in fairness, he’s the corniest human being alive. On some level, he’s earned all of this. But it’s probably time to just accept him for what he is. Kinda like how Harden stopped being fun once we started grading him as a franchise player, it’s a lot easier to enjoy Dwight once you think of him as a much better version of Tyson Chandler, not a crappier version of Shaq.
For all of the Rockets’ problems in this Blazers series, I don’t think Dwight’s been one of them. He hasn’t been a one-man solution, either, but that’s sort of the point. He will never be the guy who carries a team to the Finals and beats teams all by himself. This isn’t Orlando, and the 2014 Western Conference is not the 2009 Eastern Conference. But just because he won’t do that for this Rockets team doesn’t mean we should ignore everything else he does for this Rockets team.
To recap: Is he still insufferable off the court?
Is he turning into something of a sympathetic figure?
11. Draymond Green
Steph Curry has had a relatively quiet series compared to the reign of terror he inflicted on Denver and San Antonio last year. He’s definitely had his moments, but on the whole, the Clippers have kept him from going ballistic. So if Curry isn’t having another out-of-body experience, how is a Warriors team without Andrew Bogut competing with a Clippers team that should be running them off the court?
Not David Lee, or Jermaine O’Neal, or Marreese Speights, or Hilton Armstrong, or — good lord, they played Hilton Armstrong in this series? — any of those big men.
Not Klay, not Dre.
He allows Golden State to go small without becoming completely helpless down low, he can hit big shots on offense, and he’s been the glue holding this shell of a roster together. There are other reasons this series is going seven games, and all the Golden State role players have stepped up at various points, but we are crediting the entire resurgence to Green, because watching him shine will never get old.
10. Troy Daniels
In five years, that shot will either mark the beginning of a long career or Daniels will be out of the NBA and somehow that game will seem even crazier.
9. Stan Van Gundy
8. Steve Kerr
Who knows why anyone would want to be a head coach in the NBA, and that goes double for the people who are already famous enough to get rich broadcasting games. But maybe they’re looking for a new challenge, you say?
Well, maybe they can coach a high school team or something, still get paid a ton of money to go on national TV, and save themselves from getting subjected to nightly nitpicking from people with maybe 5 percent of their basketball knowledge.
Having said all that … If Kerr and Stan Van Gundy are serious about coaching next year, the first round has provided all kinds of advertisements for potential landing spots. Almost every single night ends with people imagining Van Gundy as the next coach somewhere, and Kerr is lurking as a potential choice for New York or Golden State. The more good teams that underachieve in the playoffs, the more attractive both of these guys look to good teams.
And that’s maybe the one caveat to the first two paragraphs: It makes no sense to coach in the NBA, but if you can go coach a team with championship talent and get paid a ton of money for a few years … Screw it, why not?
7. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
On the one hand, there have been moments like this:
On the other hand, they lost both of those games.
From halftime of Game 1 all the way up to Game 6 in Memphis, neither Russ nor KD had played that well. Westbrook was taking 31 shots to get 30 points; Durant was completely out of rhythm and writing reassuring messages on his shoes that made everyone so much more concerned.
Really, Reggie Jackson bailing them out in Game 4 is the only reason this series didn’t end in Game 5 with four consecutive OKC losses.
Neither has looked great, and the offense has been a disaster in close games. They basically just trade off possessions iso-ing at the 3-point line. Part of that is on Brooks, but at some point you watch the point guard clanking 18-footers while the best scorer in the world sits and watches, and you have to wonder whether that’s a healthy dynamic long term. The answer was starting to look obvious as this series unfolded.
But see, that would be too easy. Every time people are ready to say it won’t work for Russ and KD, they go out and have a game like Thursday that makes you rethink everything.
So Russ was patient early last night, while Durant finally had some shots fall, he got into a rhythm, and dominated the first two quarters. Then Westbrook came out in the second half and provided all kinds of kill shots and angry highlights, and the thought of a Thunder team without Russ and KD together was completely inconceivable. And then … If they lose on Saturday, we go right back to square one.
Maybe this can still work with Westbrook, but it’s definitely complicated. Russ and KD will never not be complicated.
6. Wizards Fans
Look at this, though.
It’s so beautiful.
Everything we said last week is still true with the Zards, with one exception: Everybody who expected the Bulls to win wasn’t really wrong.
That’s what made this so much fun for D.C. fans. Nobody should be more shocked by these playoffs than the fans who watched this team during the regular season. The Wizards were sloppy on defense, inconsistent from night to night, poorly coached in close games, and Nene never looked this good. It’s like the Wizards fans who lived through the regular season stumbled onto a whole new team.
The Wiz won one extra regular-season game to avoid Miami, landed a Bulls team that was so bad on offense the Wiz could make some of the same old mistakes without paying for them, and then they just kept winning. Everyone got more confident, and for once things actually worked out.
The combination of Wall and Beal was a nightmare for Chicago, and all the talk about their potential finally feels like it’s coming true. Now they’re headed to the second round, and every player in the rotation looks better than they have all year. ESPN is commissioning House of Cards posters for Wall and Beal, Marcin Gortat is misquoting Training Day but correctly quoting Bad Boys 2 and 300, and … I don’t even know anymore. It’s all so beautiful.
5. Adam Silver
Has there ever been a commissioner with a higher approval rating than Adam Silver right this second? It won’t be like this forever. It may not even last until the end of the day Friday, because there’s a 50 percent chance he stupidly suspends Paul George for Game 7. But let the record show that, at least this week, the entire world actually liked a commissioner. Amazing happens.
4. Doc Rivers
Speaking of Silver … If you canvassed the entire NBA, I’m not sure you could’ve found a better leader than Rivers for what happened this past week. He was calm, insightful, understanding, and also the perfect amount of pissed off. From start to finish, he helped everyone make sense of this.
Now the Clippers could go from being a team with a horrible scumbag owner perpetually holding them back to a team owned by Oprah and Larry Ellison in the biggest media market in America, with perfect weather and the potential to sign a giant local TV deal. Rivers is not responsible for all of that, but after watching him this week, it would be pretty cool to see him help lead the transformation.
On the court? It’s still a little weird to talk about basketball with this team. We’ll know everything’s officially back to normal when everybody’s comfortable bitching about Chris Paul’s flopping again.
Against the Warriors, DeAndre Jordan might be the most valuable player in the series. That’s its own testament to Rivers. But the Clippers haven’t been able to totally take advantage of him yet, which is partly on the coaching.
Paul is hurt again now, Blake Griffin didn’t play as well last night, and the Clippers are leaning way too much on guys like Matt Barnes and Darren Collison to make the half-court offense work. On the other hand, nobody played well for L.A. last night and it was still a one-point game that came down to the final seconds. We’ll see what happens Saturday.
3. LeBron James
Right now he’s just watching the rest of the East like this:
2. Tony Allen
There are a lot of reasons to love the NBA, especially when the games are as good as they’ve been the past two weeks. But the biggest reason the NBA works has nothing do with who actually wins. I hate comparing anything to Game of Thrones or The Wire — because people compare everything to those shows — but it’s the simplest way to explain it.
In either show, you have probably 30 characters at any given time, and the main character is the world they all occupy. Every season, major characters come and go, bit players jump in and out, and because the storytelling and character development is vivid enough to make you care about everyone involved, you end up getting invested in about 10 subplots at once, slowly realizing that you kinda love every single character.
That’s the NBA.
It’s more than just having favorite players. Without even realizing it, we get invested in everyone. Where they’ve been, what they’re like off the court, where they’ve failed, etc. Then we watch them all collide in the playoffs and all the stories get more interesting.
I realized this while talking to a friend about Allen, the guy who just spent an entire week living inside Durant’s head. The guy who’s constantly standing, even when he’s on the bench, and might actually kill someone with a towel one day. The guy with an endless motor on defense and questionable motor skills on offense. The guy from Chicago who wasn’t supposed to make the NBA yet somehow turned himself into the MVP of this series, regardless of what happens in Game 7.
Brian Phillips described him like this:
What an amazing player. I mean, terrible at many things, capable of truly staggering mistakes, but still: amazing. On the bench, he was out of his seat and flexing with excitement — there’s no other way to describe it — after just about every Memphis basket. … I don’t think I’ve seen such an unself-conscious human being. It’s actually unnerving. … It’s a completely unpretentious, fearless, and vanity-free approach to basketball, ugly and inspiring, totally honest and openly dishonest at the same time.
The NBA is where random characters like Allen come through just as vividly as the superstars, and then sometimes you get to watch a guy like Allen go off and just dominate everyone. What’s better than that?
1. Dame Lillard
But with all due respect to Allen, nobody’s had a better first round than Dame Lillard. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t play defense and sometimes takes horrible pull-up jump shots. Watch him for an entire game and you will forget all of that. Whether he’s drilling pull-up 3s or blowing past people for floaters at the rim, he has a special knack for just breaking people’s hearts.
“I don’t really believe in the clutch gene,” my roommate was saying Sunday night. “But man. Dame Lillard makes you wonder.”
He’s been doing this all year, but the playoffs — and Houston’s horrible defense — just amplify all of it on national TV.
So a league full of stars officially has another one, and he’s got two chances to finish off Houston this weekend. That means this section is either the greatest jinx ever, or Lillard’s playoff debut is about to get even more ruthless. To be continued …