This this was not a fun, attractive, or well-played NBA game. The Pacers, turnover-prone all season and barely able to handle the ball without George Hill, committed 19 turnovers and seemed to be on the verge of losing the ball on every possession. The Knicks committed 30 fouls, about 10 more than the average team commits in a game, and at one point in the third quarter, I think every player had at least four fouls. It was truly awful. There were so many low points that the entire game transformed during some third-quarter nadir into a 48-minute-long low point.
It happened around the 4:45 mark of the third quarter, where my meticulous notes about X's and O's and crowd tomfoolery abruptly stop and transition into a single harrowing sentence: “I have no idea what is going on right now.”
Before they broke out in Game 5 and started to look like themselves again, something had been off with the San Antonio Spurs’ offense. In the first four games of their series against Golden State — the first legit playoff team the Spurs had faced after their first-round bye — scoring points and getting clean looks, especially from the perimeter, was beginning to feel like work. It was an unusual feeling for a team that played the league’s prettiest, most well-oiled offense before Miami found a new groove this season. It felt like the last four games of their conference finals loss against Oklahoma City last year, when the Thunder’s athleticism and amped-up scheme forced enough extra steps into the Spurs' process to turn the league’s best offense into an average one.
Something has been going on with New York’s offense, the league’s third-best in the regular season, since the day the playoffs started. New York has averaged just 97.3 points per 100 possessions in the postseason, by far the worst mark of anyone who advanced beyond the first round, and such a monumental drop from their regular-season number (108.6) that we can’t just chalk it up to tougher competition.
1. It’s almost refreshing how little “maybe Kevin Durant isn’t clutch!!??!” idiocy we’ve been hearing over the last three days, after Durant’s shaky shooting performances down the stretch of the last three Thunder losses. Durant has shot 2-of-14 in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime (with the scoring margin at five points or fewer) over those three games, per NBA.com, and he shockingly bonked two free throws with 39 seconds left in Game 3 that would have brought Oklahoma City back within two. He missed a midrange jumper right before those free throws (and probably got fouled) and two more isolation jumpers in the last minute of overtime on Monday.
When the Warriors lost David Lee to what the team assumed was a season-ending injury in the team’s first playoff game, I was skeptical that Golden State would be able to reconstruct its offense on the fly against an opponent devoting nearly 100 percent of its scouting resources to the Warriors. It wasn’t that Lee was some kind of indispensable two-way destroyer for the Dubs; he’s a very clear minus on defense, and though he puts up gaudy individual rebounding numbers every season, his teams have generally rebounded better with him on the bench.
It was mostly that Lee was such a central cog in just about every Warriors offensive possession. He was by far Golden State’s most common screener for Stephen Curry, and on those deadly pick-and-rolls, Lee could do just about everything — pop for jumpers, roll to the hoop, catch at the foul line, and break down the defense with his dribbling/passing skills. He also soaked up a lot of Golden State possessions with a solid post-up/isolation game, particularly from the left wing. Only Curry attempted more shots per game or used a larger share of Warriors possessions.
The first round started as a boring chalk-fest, with six of eight series going to 2-0, and only Nuggets-Warriors promising to double as both competitive and aesthetically pleasing. It transformed into madness, of course, with four Game 6s on a single delightful Friday night.
The conference semifinals have skipped right to the promising stage, with all four series tied at 1-1 as the league takes a breather tonight. Let’s use this blessed off day to do those errands we’ve been postponing, break out that vacuum, hit the gym, spend time with our loved ones, and take stock of where these four series might go from here — starting today with the two series that began first, but for some reason don’t resume until Saturday.
This year’s NHL playoffs have featured plenty of sights that fans aren’t accustomed to. We have rare appearances by teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders, veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester’s long-awaited postseason debut, and the first Ottawa-Montreal matchup in 86 years.
And yet, a lot of it still feels familiar. That’s because no matter which teams are involved or how they match up, there are a few things you can count on each year. The names might change, but there are certain types of players that always seem to make an appearance. Here are the 10 players you can expect to meet every year in the NHL playoffs.
But, holy cow, did Hibbert announce himself to a national TV audience that might have ignored the Pacers this season, including during their first-round win over the Hawks. Hibbert finished with five blocks and played a huge role in holding the Knicks to just 15-of-34 shooting in the restricted area, per NBA.com. There will be nights when the Knicks miss an unusually high number (for them) of 3-point shots and midrange jumpers, and Carmelo Anthony is going through a streak of such nights right now. But if an opposing defense controls the paint like the Pacers did last night, New York will have to work very hard to win even when more of the jumpers fall.
Do you guys remember the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs? They’re still in the playoffs, I swear! That Heat-Bucks series was actually this season. I know — it seems like it might have been Miami’s first-round series last season, but it really was just a week ago the Heat wrapped up the most predictable sweep of this season’s first round.
The biggest story out of Miami since then has been Shane Battier’s decision to grow something like a Fu Manchu mustache. They may have also scheduled some exhibitions against the Generals, just to stay fresh. The Spurs have presumably been on a wine-tasting tour with Gregg Popovich, and rumor has it franchise higher-ups forced Pop to undergo a media-training refresher after he was strangely polite to sideline reporters during the Spurs’ first-round whitewashing of the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
The Thunder offense has been tough to watch since Russell Westbrook’s injury, mostly because it’s less an “offense” than a series of predictable, slow-moving sets designed to maximize the talent of two individual superstars. Take one of those superstars away, and those same predictable, slow-moving sets aren’t as powerful.
This isn’t Miami or San Antonio, where there is a system of constant movement, screening, and side-to-side action that functions in the same general way, creating the same efficient shot types, regardless of which parts you plug into it. And so the Oklahoma City offense without Westbrook has become drudgery for Kevin Durant. He’s isolating much more, which means the team is isolating much more — on nearly 22 percent of its offensive possessions in three games without Westbrook, up from about 14.5 percent in the regular season, per Synergy Sports. They’re getting fewer shots out of the pick-and-roll or via transition, two Westbrook specialties, and Durant is not exaggerating by much when he suggests Houston is quadruple-teaming him.
Tonight is a night for both rejoicing and sadness: Depending on the results of three crucial games, including two elimination games, this could be the last night featuring more than two games until next season opens. This is a bad thing for fans seeking a variety of entertainment options, especially on nights with one or two blowouts, but a good thing for the spouses and loved ones of us poor saps watching every single one of these first-round bad boys.
A lot is at stake in tonight’s tripleheader, obviously. A game-by-game look at some key questions on this busy Wednesday, in order of Most Intriguing to Least Intriguing:
That’s right — I’m giving Most Intriguing status to this season’s NBA TV/Illegal Streaming/Ratings Basement special. (It’s a league rule, by the way, that the NBA TV Special first-round series must include either Indiana or Atlanta every season. Seriously — I think it’s in the new collective bargaining agreement. Plenty of good seats still available on the cheap for tonight in Indy, by the way. Catch the fever!) After three boring blowouts, these two finally gave us a competitive contest in Game 4, albeit one in which the Hawks were in control after a blistering second-quarter run. Some key questions:
• Can Indiana figure out the Hawks' “big” lineups?
Rarely have so many non-involved NBA people watched a playoff game out of sheer curiosity as was the case Saturday night, when the NBA world tuned in to see how the Thunder would function without Russell Westbrook. Things went well in many basic senses. Oklahoma City won, Kevin Durant didn’t pass out from a Luol Deng–ian minutes requirement, and the Thunder’s offense, no. 2 in the league in points per possession during the regular season, checked in with a scoring mark that would've tied San Antonio for seventh-best overall, per NBA.com.
And yet the verdict from those curious onlookers was almost unanimous: The Thunder might be in even deeper trouble than we thought. Oklahoma City has never had an offensive system in the way the Spurs or Heat do — a structure in which each possession features a series of movements, countermovements, built-in options, and side-to-side actions the teams run through until the most desirable shot becomes available. The Thunder instead have a series of pet plays designed to produce certain end outcomes — a Serge Ibaka midrange jumper, an open Kevin Durant shot, a driving lane for Westbrook, or a favorable isolation for one of the perimeter stars. There aren’t really third, fourth, and fifth counters; if the first or second actions don’t produce a clean look, the players mostly stand still and watch Durant or Westbrook go to work.
David Lee is a punch line, mostly because of his poor defense, but his ability to do just about everything on offense has made him a core part of a Warriors team that has won by scoring like hell, surviving on defense, and cleaning the glass. Now he’s gone for the season, the bad-luck victim of a hip flexor just 29 minutes into his very first NBA playoff game. The Warriors might be fine without him, and even improve on defense, but they’ll have to do so venturing into borderline unknown territory with lineup combinations that haven’t worked in tiny sample sizes. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Golden State will have to carve out an entirely new identity on the fly, a task even more difficult because of another injury everyone's forgotten about.
Injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried have George Karl understandably scrambling for healthy rotation parts, but I’m not sure the world is ready to watch the Wild Child front line play heavy minutes. On their very first possession as a duo against Houston on April 6, Jeremy Lin blew by McGee’s overly aggressive and off-balance help defense on a pick-and-roll and launched a layup that Anthony Randolph, helping from the weak side, blatantly goaltended.
Randolph and McGee have combined for at least a dozen moments of sublime chaos since, including a half-dozen alone in Denver’s wild and very necessary win Monday night in Milwaukee — more silly goaltending infractions, two completely out-of-control offensive fouls by a stumbling Randolph, and at least one McGee into-the-stands rejection so dumb McGee expressed immediate regret that he didn’t just catch the ball.
As others have noted recently, there's been a lot of hand-wringing over Oklahoma City’s alleged vulnerability as we finally, mercifully approach the playoffs. The Thunder have lost three of their last four games against their brethren in the West’s top five, and four of their last five against 50-win teams once you toss in Sunday’s exciting Knicks win in OKC. That string of losses is either a random blip or an indication of some deep fatal flaw, and it has dropped the Thunder to a middling 7-7 against the quartet of Denver, San Antonio, Memphis, and the Clippers. Each loss brings screaming reminders that the Thunder dealt away their third-best player before the season, and have since watched that third option morph (predictably) into one of the league’s 10 or 12 best players.
Two nights ago, as the Spurs and Thunder tangled in a rematch of last season’s most exciting playoff series, it was easy to drool over another San Antonio–Oklahoma City conference finals. The old lion, its pinpoint system bolstered by some new tweaks in talent and Gregg Popovich’s playing rotation, scrambling for one more Finals appearance at the expense of the young bucks who appeared to solve that system last June.
And then, a jolt: Remember the Clippers? Remember in January, when the Western Conference was a three-team discussion? The Clippers ceded the spotlight after Denver ended their 17-game winning streak, and that light has never really returned. The Clips have gone a pedestrian 20-14 since the streak; did the league lose a contender when everyone stopped looking and the presumptive title favorite began its own monster streak?