Best second round ever

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The final buzzer sounded on the second round of the 2019 playoffs.

Yet, the suspense was still rising.

Kawhi Leonard‘s final shot bounced, bounced, bounced, bounced then hung on the rim for an excruciatingly long split second. Finally, it fell – the fitting end to an all-time great second round.

The first Game 7 game-winner at the buzzer in NBA history capped a playoff round that also included triumph, heartbreak, redemption, hostility, high stakes, close games, quadruple overtime, two tight Game 7s, an intensifying rivalry and a comically bad prediction.

Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo played great. Kevin Durant played great until he got hurt. Stephen Curry played terribly until he played great. C.J. McCollum played great when it mattered most.

The Bucks, Raptors, Warriors and Trail Blazers advanced. The Celtics, 76ers, Rockets and Nuggets will have a summer to lick their wounds.

There’s no simple way to judge a playoff series, but it generally rests on the quality of teams and quality of games.

These eight teams were excellent. For the first time since 2008, there were no first-round upsets by seed. That left only the league’s strongest teams for the second round. The Bucks have been excellent all season. Nobody questions the Warriors’ talent. The Raptors could be a sleeping giant after their moves around the trade deadline.

Milwaukee, Toronto, Golden State, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston and Denver combined to outscore opponents by 5.5 points per game (regular season and first round) entering the second round. That’s the sixth-highest mark since the NBA adopted its current 16-team postseason format in 1984.

To judge game quality, I created an excitement score – one point for every game decided by five or fewer points, one point for every overtime and one point for every Game 7. Admittedly, the system is skewed toward this year. But after watching these fun games, how could it not be? The 2019 second round’s excitement score of 18 (11 close games, five overtimes and two Game 7s) is higher than any other year’s second round.

Here’s how every second round in the current playoff era rates by margin per game entering the round and excitement score within the round:

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Year Margin per game Excitement score
2019 5.5 18
2018 4.6 8
2017 5.1 5
2016 5.9 12
2015 4.8 8
2014 4.2 5
2013 4.7 8
2012 4.3 8
2011 4.5 7
2010 5.3 2
2009 5.4 7
2008 5.9 10
2007 4.0 6
2006 4.4 17
2005 4.3 7
2004 4.7 11
2003 4.2 14
2002 4.4 5
2001 4.4 9
2000 4.3 10
1999 4.3 5
1998 5.4 5
1997 6.3 15
1996 5.6 7
1995 4.0 14
1994 4.3 15
1993 4.9 12
1992 5.7 10
1991 4.9 11
1990 4.9 8
1989 4.0 7
1988 4.5 9
1987 3.9 17
1986 4.7 16
1985 4.2 5
1984 2.7 9

So, is this the best second round ever?

There’s a case for 1997, which featured Bulls (69-13) over Hawks (56-26), Heat (61-21) over Knicks (57-25), Rockets (57-25) over SuperSonics (57-25) and Jazz (64-18) over Lakers (56-26). That year also had two Game 7s (Miami-New York and Houston-Seattle).

But, considering the ramifications for the teams involved, I’d favor the round we just watched.

The Bucks are more likely to pay to keep humming. The Warriors are seemingly improving their odds of keeping Durant. The Raptors have a better chance of retaining Leonard. The Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard are more likely to sign a super-max extension this summer.

On the other hand, the Celtics could lose Kyrie Irving. The 76ers might fire Brett Brown and must deal with pending free agents Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris and J.J. Redick. The Rockets are still stuck behind Golden State and only getting more desperate as they age. (At least the young Nuggets should feel content with their playoff run).

So much rode on this second round, and the games lived up to the hype.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob: We won’t tank

Former Warriors forward Harrison Barnes
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The Warriors are an NBA-worst 12-43. Stephen Curry will eventually get healthy. Klay Thompson will eventually get healthy.

This is Golden State’s best opportunity to secure a prime draft pick.

Warriors owner Joe Lacob, via Mark Medina of USA Today:

By the way, we’ll try to win every game. I’m not really about, ‘Let’s lose every game so we can get the best pick.’ You try to do that, you’re messing with the basketball gods. So we don’t believe in that.

Former Warriors executive Travis Schlenk (now Hawks general manager) admitted to tanking in 2012. Golden State had to convey its first-round pick if it didn’t land in the top seven. So, the Warriors traded their consensus top player, Monta Ellis, for an injured Andrew Bogut. Golden State lost 17 of its last 20 games, kept its pick and drafted Harrison Barnes.

The basketball gods were so mad, the Warriors went to the playoffs the next seven seasons and won three championships and two other conference titles.

Of course, Golden State will tank, which I define as any decision made – at least in part – to improve draft position through losing.

Management won’t instruct players not to give full effort. But tanking will show up in numerous other ways. The Warriors will be cautious with Curry’s and Thompson’s returns. Young players will get more minutes. If necessary, Steve Kerr might “experiment” with odd lineups not conducive to winning. Players often see these approaches, realize where the team is headed and lose focus late in lost seasons. That leads to even more losing.

Don’t get mad at Golden State for tanking. Hate the system that rewards it.

Though feel free to send a little animosity toward the Warriors for acting holier than though while tanking like everyone else does in a similar position.

Report: Kyrie Irving likely to miss an ‘extended period’ after shoulder procedure

Kyrie Irving
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Kyrie Irving injured his shoulder earlier this season, opted against surgery, missed 26 games, returned, injured his knee then aggravated his shoulder.

It might be time for that shoulder surgery.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends Irving’s season. The Nets are looking forward to pairing Irving and injured Kevin Durant next season.

This latest setback raises questions about Irving’s ability to stay healthy and productive. We shouldn’t assume Durant will ever return to his elite form, either. But at least Brooklyn has major upside with such talented players.

Even they don’t get an opportunity to take advantage this season, the Nets (25-28) will likely still make the playoffs. Spencer Dinwiddie will take charge at point guard, just as he did with Irving previously sidelined.

Brooklyn will visit Boston on March 3. Celtics fans were salty about Irving missing the Nets’ previous trip to Boston. I doubt that changes if Irving doesn’t face his former team in a couple weeks.

But Irving and Brooklyn are looking at the bigger picture after a significant injury like this.

Is Brandon Ingram worth a max contract? Will he get one?

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Brandon Ingram has made the leap to become an All-Star player this season. His jumper has become a weapon — another success story for Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson — and his ability to get to the bucket was never in question. Now he’s averaging 24.9 points per game and is shooting 40 percent from three (up from 33 percent the first three years of his career).

Will that get him a max contract this summer? Does he deserve one?

It depends on who you ask. From Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

Most executives believe Ingram isn’t worth a max contract, which makes his future difficult to predict.

“I wonder if [Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] will hardball [Ingram] and say, ‘Get an offer,'” one executive asked. “Where is he getting it from?”

Another exec went the other way, suggesting Griffin could offer Ingram a full max to ensure he couldn’t take a short-term deal elsewhere, cementing him as the No. 2 option alongside Zion Williamson.

“Securing the extra year and not allowing him to sign a two-plus-one with someone is worth it,” the executive said. “Is the few million less you might save really worth the extra year?”

There are a number of struggling teams in need of talent that could step in and try to poach Ingram with a two-year max offer this summer: The Hawks, Hornets, Knicks, and Pistons all have the cap space and a fit.

Whether they will make that offer — possibly tying their hands in the 2021 free agent market — remains to be seen. Ingram is an All-Star averaging an efficient 24.9 points per game this season, he has real value, but max contract value? I’ve had sources this season tell me they expect he’d get the max but he wasn’t quite on that level.

Do the Pelicans see him as a max player?

They didn’t last summer. After the trade from the Lakers (which sent Anthony Davis to L.A.), Ingram didn’t get a max contract extension offer from New Orleans and told NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman he would “absolutely not” have signed for less. The Pelicans were hesitant to extend Ingram because he was coming off a season-ending injury — blood clots in his arm — that could linger, plus how well would he pair with Zion Williamson. Ingram had no hard feelings about it.

“I understood everything that went on with the contract and everything, because they wanted to know if I was going to be extremely healthy, if something was going to come back,” Ingram told NBC Sports. “Once I figured out the reason why they didn’t want to do the extension, we didn’t go any further with it. I knew it was not going to be the number we wanted.”

Ingram has stayed healthy, and the Pelicans are +7.3 points per 100 possessions when Ingram and Williamson are on the court together (small sample size alert). Ingram has more value to the up-and-coming Pelicans than he does any team trying to sign him away, meaning the Pelicans likely match any offer.

The question remains, will that offer be a max? Ingram expects it to be, but the rest of the league is undecided.

Nikola Jokic says he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season

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For November, Nikola Jokic averaged 15.8 points per game, with a below-league-average 51 true shooting percentage and hitting 23.6 percent from three.

In February, Jokic is averaging 27 points a game with a 66.3 true shooting percentage and is knocking down 35.3 percent of his shots from three.

The difference? He admitted he dropped 20-25 pounds during this season, thanks in large part to an improved diet. Look at what Jokic said to ESPN over the All-Star break.

“I think I didn’t shoot it that well in the first [part of the season], my shots were always off and short and I was a little bit overweight.”

He then went on to say he has dropped 20-25 pounds.

It was pretty obvious to observers that, despite playing for Serbia at the World Cup (where his team beat Team USA), he had shown up to Nuggets training camp heavy. Jokic is so skilled that even heavy he was a good player, but he was not the elite center the Nuggets need to be a threat.

He is back to being that Jokic now, looking like an All-NBA player who deserves some MVP ballot consideration — and the Nuggets need that version of him.

Denver comes out of the All-Star break as the two seed in the West, but only 3.5 games separate seeds 2-5. Denver has a tougher remaining schedule the rest of the way than any of the other teams in that mix, slip up a few games and the Nuggets could start the playoffs on the road.