It was quite a weekend of action from the NBA bubble down in Orlando. Lots to address, we did our best to trim down our mess of notes, thoughts and reactions.
Bucks vs. Celtics
-The Bucks’ defense just leapt off the screen for me. I cannot recall a single attempt Boston had around the basket that was not met by two leaping long-armed men from Milwaukee—and this was without Eric Bledsoe, their best backcourt defender. Brook Lopez was unbeatable inside last night. This is one of the better defensive teams in recent memory.
-Speaking of defense, everyone should be paying closer attention to Donte DiVencenzo. He is a stout individual and team defender, but is also progressing rapidly on the offensive end, knocking down 3’s and hunting more aggressively for opportunities with the ball in his hands. Before the superteam era, it was almost an annual tradition for a role player to break out in the Finals; the Big Ragu is my odds-on favorite for that coming out party this year.
-Continuing with Milwaukee’s defense, I’m unsure how much of Jayson Tatum’s game from the underworld (2/18 from the field, one of those two FG’s being when Wes Matthews accidentally tipped the ball into the wrong hoop) should be attributed to the Bucks’ straightjacket of an effort versus just an off night. That may have been the worst game of his career. This isn’t First Take, I’m not going to make an existential declaration based off one game, but it was tough to see him come out so flat, especially considering he was arguably the league’s hottest player at season’s suspension.
-I honestly thought that was a good call on Marcus Smart, he hadn’t established position outside the restricted area when Giannis took off. Plz don’t send me hate mail, Boston fans.
-Brook Lopez was wide open in the corner when Giannis sealed the game with that and-one, not sure if Giannis didn’t see him, or if he just refused to give up the ball in such an important moment. Either way, job well done.
-The world has seen demon face Lebron, jersey-biting Kobe, untucked jersey Kyrie, game 6 Klay, etc. We are on the brink of adding a new member to that exclusive meme’d fraternity: stank face Giannis. Once he pulls this look out the bag, start the bus.
Mavs vs. Rockets
-I feel like that was a quintessential Rockets victory in 2020. Give up 149 points, be down for most of the 2nd half, and yet just continue to hang around and find a way to get the more important bucket when it really matters. Harden’s been doing this in the regular season for years; they really just don’t seem to lose the important ones before the playoffs (now in the playoffs is obviously a different discussion).
-Have we somehow underrated James Harden again? That was a herculean effort last night.
-Wouldn’t the Rockets be a perfect opportunity for Porzingis to practice some actual post moves instead of exclusively trying to shoot over everyone? I came into this season in the “Porzingis is a budding superstar” camp rather than the “Porzingis is a good, but limited, second option” camp. However, I really don’t think the former can materialize if he can’t even back down and take a jump hook over Jeff Green. It’s the classic dilemma of hoping to see a player expand his game versus just letting him play to his strengths.
-I don’t mean to go armchair psychologist here, but something just seemed a bit off with Luka last night. His final numbers looked good, but on poor efficiency and 1/9 from 3, and I also just didn’t see that eagerness and showmanship that has turned him into a superstar. He looked tentative, and almost discouraged, inexplicably. He also didn’t look especially comfortable physically; looked like he picked up a couple nicks throughout the game. Hope to see more from him going forward.
-I am always on the “don’t foul when up 3” side of the debate, and finishes like last night are why. Yes, Harden is obviously a terror to guard with the game on the line, but I’d rather a team show some faith in their defense rather than leave the door open for fluky rebounding hijinks like we saw at the end of regulation.
-Mark Jones said jokingly in the 2nd quarter, “first team to 125 wins”. Life comes at you fast.
-Russ glaring at the camera in the locker room like it woke him up from a nap is the NBA comedy I needed at this point in my life. He bore a striking resemblance to Ice Cube looking at Jonah Hill with disgust in the Jump Street movies.
Clippers vs. Pelicans
The Clippers responded accordingly following their loss to the Lakers. Paul George is scorching hot to start in Orlando and the Clippers are showing that their depth is going to be a huge advantage for their title hopes and a problem for everyone else. Say what you want about Reggie Jackson’s career journey to this point, but he is giving the Clippers needed minutes and production in the backcourt with Lou Williams out of the lineup and not wanting to over extend Pat Beverly until necessary in the playoffs. Speaking of the playoffs, things are not looking good for the Pelicans after two games. First they can’t hold a 16 point lead against the Jazz and then they come out sleep walking against the Clippers. How do you come out flat needing a win against an elite Clippers team that just lost to the Lakers? Very confusing. Also confusing is what they want to do here with Zion.
Pacers vs. Sixers
Easy to share this now, but the emergence of TJ Warren was just a matter of time. I was that guy watching his games at NC State repeatedly saying “this guy is a pro, he’s gonna be a problem in the league in the proper place”. Clearly Phoenix wasn’t the proper place, shocker there. For the Pacers, he fits in perfectly with Brogdan, Oladipo and Sabonis for the long haul. With Sabonis likely out for the postseason, Oladipo still easing his way back and the majority of the defenses still not very sharp, Warren is going to remain a problem in the bubble, HE’S A PRO. Also, don’t forget the DNA of this Pacers team, it starts with Coach Nate McMillan. McMilan plain and simple was a tough ass guard in his day and coaches in the same manner. Clearly it fits the Pacers personnel perfectly.
For Philly, it is a shame to waste a monster game from Joel Embiid (41 points, 21 rebounds) and strong showings from both Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris against a conference foe, but also a very good sign they can be effective together in this new lineup. Their defense is another issue. I am not saying Simmons, Harris or Richardson should have been able to stop a red hot Warren by themselves one-on-one, but when do you get to the point in the huddle where you say “enough is enough, no more”? Warren ended up going 20-29 from the floor, perhaps run a double at him and make the Pacers play out of it? Matisse Thybulle, arguably the Sixers top perimeter defender, only played 11 minutes and change in this one which didn’t help.
Well, that was interesting. Fresh off of an emotional and impressive win over the Clippers to open their restart, the Lakers were “handled” by the defending champs, as you could sense the Raptors are on a mission in Orlando. Kyle Lowry exposed what we thought would be a glaring weakness, the Lakers’ inability to contain solid opposing point guards. Lowry was more than solid with his 33 point, 14 rebound, 6 assist performance including 12 of 15 from the FT line. The Toronto defense anchored by their front line held LeBron and AD to 22 FGA combined in almost 70 minutes combined. I’m still processing that.
This was fun! From Paul Pierce in virtual attendance both celebrating and agonizing at different points through the action to stretches of brilliance from Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Damian Lillard to the continued steady play of Gordon Hayward, there was a lot to take away from this one. The Blazers, whose front court now includes Nurkic, Collins, Whiteside, Hezonja and Melo, must punish teams in the paint early and often, which will make life easier for Lillard, CJ McCollum and the emerging Gary Trent on the perimeter. The Celtics, whose glaring weakness is frontcourt size, were able to withstand a monster Blazers rally (which was a combo of Nurkic in the paint and their elite backcourt getting red hot) to take the lead late. With Kemba Walker still on a minutes restriction, Tatum, Brown and Hayward were all terrific as the Danny Ainge decision-making over the past three years despite the unpredictable (Hayward injury, Irving & Horford departure) have all paid off to set this team up for short and long term success starting with the Tatum/Brown combo. On this week’s Pure Hoops Podcast, B.J. Armstrong spoke about both players, as he feels Tatum is positioning himself to be a future league MVP.
Considering Armstrong played alongside the greatest wing combo of all-time, I think he’s got an eye for this type of thing.
Rockets vs. Bucks
-I can’t stand watching them, but it’s not just the 3’s with the Rockets; they were unbelievable defensively last night. You’d think just dumping the ball into the post and either finishing or kicking would come easily, but everyone on the floor for them is thick and strong and can bump a big for long enough to let the defense collapse, and everyone on the floor is fast enough to close out to shooters. They’re also great at poking the ball away and just disrupting the dribble penetration that you’d assume would always end in easy layups with no big on the floor. They’ve just won two nail-biters in a row against elite offensive teams; this is a tough team to put away. Westbrook really does give them an unpredictability that they didn’t have with CP3 as well.
-Harden is actually one of the better defensive matchups against Giannis in the league among guards. It’s not about being as big as he is (no one is), it’s about being as strong, and Harden comes close.
-Giannis still has a lot of work to do as a passer, he still seems to panic when his first move to the rim doesn’t end in a layup. There are often cross-court passes to be made, he’s just not seeing them. It’s obvious, but if the defense is forming the “giannis wall”, or collapsing three guys on him inside, there’s usually at least some ball-swinging action that could be initiated.
-The Bucks (specifically Brook Lopez) were helping strong side on Harden every time, I feel you have to force him to make the cross-court pass by staying home and having the weak side baseline defender shift to help inside, especially considering all the length Milwaukee has. It was shooting practice for Jeff Green and PJ Tucker all night in the corners. I guess Milwaukee feels like that’s the shot they’ll live with.
-The disparity of playing styles was obviously on full display last night, but my god these team comparisons are wild. The Bucks outscored the Rockets 60-20 in the paint, but the Rockets shot 21/61 (!!!) from 3, compared to the Bucks’ 9/35.
Jonathan Isaac Injury
In case you missed it, Jonathan Issac came down in the 4th quarter of last night’s game with an apparent left knee injury [link ideally], and had to be taken off the court in a wheelchair. I’m hoping for good news, but I’m not optimistic. One must ask, why was he in the game up 20 plus points in the 4th quarter while he is still finding his way back into a comfort zone following his injury earlier this past season?
That looked exactly like Derrick Rose’s 2011 ACL tear, just coming down at an awkward angle on a hop-step. It bears mentioning that it’s the same knee that he injured back in January this season. If it is an ACL tear, Isaac now has to be a guy whose injury history is a major part of the package. I have to expect a recovery time well over 12 months. Next season is also his contract year. Brutal blow to one of the league’s best defenders and an exciting young player, as well as the Magic, who currently sit in 7th place in the East.