With at least two games in the books for each series, the only thing predictable is the unpredictability. From LeBron James suffering a first round loss for the first time in almost six years to James Harden going 2-for-18 in a Houston Rockets blowout win, it looks like we’re in for a wild ride this postseason.
I’ve wrangled our own Brady Klopfer, Dave DuFour, Shane Young and Eli Horowitz to run through some early playoff thoughts.
4. LeBron James Award-Winning, or Popcorn Flick?
King James is still royalty (the 35 points, 11 boards, 8.5 assists, and 58 percent shooting he’s averaging though the first two games is worth a bow), yet Cleveland is deadlocked 1-1 with the feisty Indiana Pacers after a blowout loss and a three point win.
Brady Klopfer: The Room. This film is both horrible and amazing. It is known for being one of the worst movies of all time (famously called “the Citizen Kane of bad movies”), yet it has embraced that label and even led to The Disaster Artist, a successful film about how bad The Room is.
Where am I going with this, vis a vis the Cavaliers? This team is both in lots of trouble, and in very little.
In Game 2, LeBron flexed his GOAT-like muscles and reminded us he’s still the best player in the world with no one even in his rearview mirror. And yet, despite seemingly disposing of Indiana within a few minutes at homein a must-win game, with Victor Oladipo in foul trouble, the Cavs barely hung on to win.
LeBron is The Disaster Artist, making the most out of a deliriously grim situation. Because of it, Indy will be thwarted. But the Cavs are The Room–at times so bad you can’t believe this was actually someone’s idea. Their defense (if you can call it that) is catching up to them and if Indiana is exposing it, just imagine what Toronto will do. This looks like the year LeBron watches the NBA Finals from his home theater.
Dave DuFour: In 2001’s “Glitter”, Mariah Carey plays a young singer who dates a DJ that helps her break into the music business. Things go awry when her star begins to outshine his.
Needless to say, Victor Oladipo is Mariah Carey right now. The Cavaliers are in big-time trouble. After being embarrassed in Game 1, LeBron came out of the gate in Game 2 looking like Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet. The Pacers withstood his ridiculous performance (46/12/5) and managed to have a shot at tying the game late, but ultimately lost.
Despite the loss, we learned a lot about this Pacers team. They are a tough matchup for a Cleveland team that has played little to no defense all year. Cleveland is in real danger of a playoff flop (see “Glitter” 2001).
Eli Horowitz: Wedding Crashers. The Pacers came into this series with the same confidence and swagger Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson used to woo the Cleary sisters.
They’re a good enough team to take this close to the finish line but ultimately, like Wilson and Vaughn, they’ll be outed for who they really are: a really solid team lacking enough firepower to beat LeBron James in a seven-game series.
As bad as the Cavaliers are defensively, the Pacers were 12th in offensive rating in the regular season, according to Basketball Reference. That’s not quite good enough to take advantage of Cleveland’s lethargy. As great as Victor Oladipo has been, I’ll bet on LeBron to out-duel him in seven games.
Shane Young: LeBron and this current iteration of the Cavaliers are every hilariously bad and predictable horror movie. The title that fits them best, however, is “I Know What You Did Last Summer.”
Like every movie with a masked killer chasing a group of friends, it always ends the same way. The brave, strong-willed, and respected character is always the last one standing, watching others die along the way in the weirdest scenarios.
LeBron is always the favorite to make it through the East, and he should have enough energy to outlast the Pacers once he counters Indiana to take back home-court advantage.
The Pacers have already inflicted more damage than Cleveland is used to in the first round but we all know it’s not major trouble for them until it’s a 3-1 series deficit.
The Cavaliers are every exhausting scary movie that we can predict, step-by-step, even if the quality is so low they won’t sniff any awards.
3. Are the Timberwovles Out of Time?
Chris Paul went 5-for-14 with more turnovers (6) than assists (4) and the Houston Rockets hung on to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves. Then, Harden shot a pitiful 2-for-18, including 1-for-10 from deep, and Houston crushed Minnesota by 20.
Heading back to the Target Center, you’re mind-swapped with Wolves’ coach Tom Thibodeau…what do you emphasize on the whiteboard to give your squad a shot in game 3?
Dave DuFour: If I’m Tom Thibodeau, I am waking up in a cold sweat saying, “35,” over and over again.
Karl Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler have combined to take 35 shots through the first two games of this series. Derrick Rose and Andrew Wiggins combined for 29 attempts in Game 1 alone (23 in Game 2), which was probably the best opportunity for the Timberwolves to steal a game in this series.
The Rockets are a steady downpour and you have to score to have a chance. We know the Wolves defense can’t stop them, so they will need their two best players to be assertive going forward.
Brady Klopfer: Minnesota is outmatched. They have less talent, depth, experience, and worse coaching.
But if all your cars are running on fumes, at least drive your Ferrari instead of your Hyundai. Through two games, Karl-Anthony Towns has taken 18 shots, and Jimmy Butler 17. Andrew Wiggins has taken 29. Derrick Rose has taken 23. Jamal Crawford has taken 20. That is inexcusable.
Minnesota can’t win this series but they can make things interesting and ride into next season on a positive note. Thibs should be calling an endless stream of 3-5 pick and rolls and repeatedly feeding Towns in the post. It’s all they’ve got.
Shane Young: Thibodeau must feel like the most helpless person in sports right now. We know he’s eager to be competitive to prove no offense is too deadly for his old-school defensive principles.
There’s just no adjustment Minnesota can make defensively to limit Houston’s pick-and-rolls with such an abundance of space on the court.
If they try to take away the primary action of Harden or Paul, it’s Capela eating them alive (particularly Towns) as the rim-runner.
The only thing the Timberwovles can do is let Jimmy Butler see if there’s any scoring explosions in him. Their only hope to win a game was probably Game 1, where Houston couldn’t hit the side of a barn. The math doesn’t work out for them when they rarely take three-pointers …. or get the ball to their best players. Sorry, Minnesota. Pray.
Eli Howowitz: If I’m Thibs I’m putting Jimmy Butler on James Harden, Taj Gibson on Clint Capela, and telling Taj to zone back back on the pick and roll while Butler scrambles over to pester Harden as he gets into the lane. That combination could even do some switching.
The bottom line is the Timberwolves need to contain the Harden pick and roll with two, and Butler and Gibson might be the only combination that can get this done. Karl-Anthony Towns can take his turns at is as well, but I’d almost go unorthodox and try to hide him on Trevor Ariza.
Offensively, I fear the Timberwolves are too far gone as Jamal Crawford, Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague and even Jimmy Butler have a propensity to play hero ball instead of playing through Towns at the elbows and low post while moving off-the-ball.
2. The Disappearance of Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard had an MVP-level season. His season of 26.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game this season has been matched or exceeded by LeBron James, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. Factor in the three made threes per contest and the list shrinks to Dame, Curry, and Harden.
But he’s struggling mightily against the rugged defense of Jrue Holiday and the engulfing length on Anthony Davis.
The Portland Trail Blazers are in an 0-3 hole. Is there ANY adjustment Portland can make to spring Lillard? Do his reoccurring playoff struggles tint how you view Dame?
Eli Horowitz: The criticism of Damian Lillard is unfair. The Blazers only have two consistent offensive threats, which has allowed the Pelicans to double, hedge, trap and basically do whatever they want defensively to crowd Dame.At the end of Game 2, the Trail Blazers went with Zach Collins, who missed a wide open 3-pointer and had a misguided drive attempt after New Orleans left him open to swarm Lillard.
There’s only so much Terry Stotts can do X’s and O’s wise when he has offensive liabilities all over the floor. On the other end, when the Blazers try to trap and hound Jrue Holiday, veterans Nikola Mirotic and Rajon Rondo have the confidence to knock down shots. So no, his play doesn’t taint his reputation, it shows how flawed the roster construction is in Portland.
Shane Young: Before Game 3’s loss, I was thinking they could’ve initiated more Spain pick-and-roll action to bring New Orleans’ feisty defenders a bit further away from the rim.
The only adjustment that might work is for Holiday and Davis to somehow disappear. They’ve terrorized Portland’s backcourt. Lillard had a few moments in Game 3 getting SOME separation from Holiday when Nurkic executed a couple of hard screens to delay the recovery.
But ultimately, there’s nothing Lillard can do when the Pelicans are putting Davis in defensive roam mode — allowing him to guard Aminu or a different non-threatening wing, then simply playing off of him to aggravate in the middle. It’s been hard for Lillard or McCollum to find the open role players because the passing lanes are so congested with lengthy, hungry defenders.
Much like Minnesota, the Blazers are finished. You shouldn’t put it past Lillard to come out and shake off the cobwebs for a 40-piece on the road Saturday, but expecting that when New Orleans has held him to 33 percent from two and 32 percent from three so far … would not be wise.
Pelicans have this in four, just like we all Jrue it up.
Brady Klopfer: Portland’s painful reality is, despite Lillard’s MVP campaign and C.J. McCollum’s excellence, the Blazers simply aren’t a very good offensive team.
Lillard may be their engine but their success this year came on the defensive end of the court. Portland finished the season a below-average 16th in offensive rating, behind the Utah Jazz.
Offensive execution issues are often compounded in the postseason and that’s what we’re seeing with Portland. To have any success scoring, Portland needs to find spacing for Lillard. Short of Jusuf Nurkic becoming a post threat overnight, that needs to come from bulk shipment of off-ball sets and screens.
Lillard is happiest with the ball in his hands. When he breaks free off a screen, he is far too quick to run straight back to the ball. Run elevator screens for him. Run him corner to corner with a pair of baseline picks. Anything to create space without him forcing the issue. As for his postseason struggles, they shouldn’t alter any opinions of him. If he has these struggles on a more offensively competent team, then we can talk.
Dave DuFour: If Lillard is going to turn his series around, Portland is going to have to find a way to get him off the ball.
In the first two games, Jrue Holiday has been a bulldog and Lillard has been a bone. Dame has made a living off of some of the toughest looks any player has to take in the league but he doesn’t play against defenders like Holiday every night.
Lillard is 2-for-18 with Holiday defending him in this series. He is 11-for-23 against anyone else. Finding ways to get him open without the ball should be priority number one for Terry Stotts. After his MVP caliber season, Lillard really needs a signature playoff performance to avoid the “playoff bust” label.
1. Rookie of the First Round
The Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons has been scintillating: 20 points, 10 rebound, and 9.7 assists (against only 3.3 turnovers) per game through three games while co-piloting his Philly squad in a 2-1 series lead over the Miami Heat.
Fellow rookie Donovan Mitchell has been torrid in his own right: 27.5 points, 8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals per game and a thrilling flurry of big shots to lead his Jazz to a 1-1 tie with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Simmons seems to have Rookie of the Year sewn up, but which rookie has had the most impressive post season so far?
Shane Young: I still think it’s Simmons and that’s not any form of “Mitchell hate” either. It seems like you can’t praise one without it being assumed you’re dissing the other, so let’s do it the right way!
Mitchell is obviously thriving in his first two playoff games as the Jazz’s top scoring threat, but Simmons is reaching frightening levels defensively while also being the primary playmaker for his team.
Through three games, Simmons has guarded — and handled — a plethora of players. His size and frame allow for some insanely switchable lineups. You never truly feel as if he’s matched up against someone who creates a disadvantage.
With the way Cleveland looks, there’s a chance a rookie point guard is running the show in the NBA Finals. Like, what? Is this 1980?
In all seriousness, Simmons just understands the game on such a high level his brain is probably one of a seasoned veteran. He may never be able to shoot, but that makes this type of impact he has even more shocking.
Brady Klopfer: Both rookies have been called on to step their games up in the postseason – no small task for a pair of first-year players who were nothing short of brilliant all year.
And yet, both have exceeded expectations. But just as Simmons was more impressive in my eyes during the regular season, he’s been the better player in the postseason. His ability to defend at a high level across four positions (even with Joel Embiid sidelined) offers tremendous value to a young Philly team. Then again, Mitchell almost single-handedly won Game 2 for Utah, so he’s not the loser in this race; he’s merely 1B, just as he was in the regular season.
Eli Horowitz: Donovan Mitchell is continuing the fourth quarter heroics he demonstrated all year, playing like a seven-year veteran who’s been in the playoffs before. We almost expect it from him even though he’s a rookie. If I have to choose though, it’s Ben Simmons, who’s basically averaging a triple-double and has been dominant even in the absence of Joel Embiid.
Dave DuFour: Donovan Mitchell is the first rookie since Kareem to score 27 or more in his first two playoff games. I love Donovan Mitchell almost as much as I love cherry picked stats to make him look good. What Ben Simmons is doing for Philly, while playing lock down defense, is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t want to dodge the question, I am just unable to legitimately choose one guy or the other. This is my favorite rookie class of all time and I’m very happy that the ride isn’t over yet.
Stay tuned for Part II of the first round round table, and make sure to follow @DaveDuFourNBA, @CoachHorowitz13, @BradyKlopferNBA, @ShaneYoungNBA, and the world’s best moderator, @SnottieDrippen (me).