Three Things to Know: Let’s pour one out for Phoenix, San Antonio

Leave a comment

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Portland, Memphis win and advance to play-in series. As expected.

On a day where we expected high drama, Portland and Memphis entered with a simple and clear path: Win and you’re in.

So they did. And with that, the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers advance to a play-in series for the eighth seed in the West. As the eighth seed at the end of the eight “seeding games” in the bubble, Portland need only win one of the two to advance. Memphis has to sweep them both — a tough task.

Memphis had little trouble advancing on Thursday, taking on a Bucks team without Giannis Antetokounmpo (suspension) that was just going through the motions and waiting for the playoffs to start. Memphis won 119-106, Dillon Brooks scored 31 points, while Jonas Valanciunas scored 26 and pulled down 19 boards. There was little drama in the Grizzlies win.

Portland, however, had all the drama it could handle, barely outlasting a scrappy Brooklyn team — and it took Damian Lillard playing like an MVP to get the win.

Lillard scored 42 points and carried the Trail Blazers for stretches when their offense faltered. CJ McCollum added 25 — and moved well for a guy with a fractured back — and Jusuf Nurkic added 22 and 10. Caris LeVert had 37 for a Brooklyn team that had a balanced attack, but LeVert’s potential game-winner bounced off the rim and Portland moves on.

Portland and Memphis played in the bubble back in July in the first restart game for both teams. Portland barely won in overtime, but Memphis was led in that game by Jaren Jackson Jr., who had 33 points. He is now out of the bubble recovering from a torn meniscus. Also in that game, Lillard targeted Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll and played the Memphis big off the floor — the Grizzlies do not have a good answer for that. Portland is not going to coast to a play-in game win, but it’s difficult to picture how the Grizzlies win back-to-back games.

2) Phoenix goes 8-0, but perfect wasn’t good enough

Memphis earned their spot in the play-in — they got the win Thursday, and more importantly, they were impressive in the first 65 games before the shutdown (those games still count). It was those pre-mask days when the Suns were terrible that did them in.

On Orlando, Phoenix was perfect — 8-0 behind Devin Booker playing like an MVP. The Suns outscored opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions in the bubble, with an elite offense and a solid defense anchored by Deandre Ayton. The bubble isn’t going to be the same without them.

Every young entering the restart said the same thing: It was about development. It was about using bubble games to grow a young core. Except most teams — Sacramento and New Orleans, for example — threw that opportunity to the ground and went fishing. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams, did what they said and got better. The Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs, but more importantly, they set themselves up for next season.

3) San Antonio’s playoff steak ends at 22 years

The last time the Spurs didn’t make the playoffs, “Titanic” was sinking in movie theaters, “Un-Break My Heart” was being belted out on your radio by Toni Braxton, and Allen Iverson was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. It was the 1996-97 NBA season — which you just relived through “The Last Dance” because it was in the middle of the Bulls’ second three-peat.

For 22 straight seasons, Gregg Popovich led the Spurs to the NBA playoffs — and they picked up five titles along the way — but that ended in the bubble. San Antonio played well behind DeMar DeRozan, Derrick White and a four-guard lineup, but it couldn’t climb out of the hole it dug before the league was shut down.

The always sentimental Popovich was very broken up about it.

“Looking at the past doesn’t do much good,” Popovich said, via the Associated Press. “Any success we’ve had has been because we’ve had some great players.”

Popovich also shot down speculation he was going to retire, saying, “why wouldn’t I?” coach next season.

Tim Duncan. David Robinson. Tony Parker. Manu Ginobili. The list goes on and on over 22 seasons (and even includes Steve Kerr), there were great players in San Antonio. But it was the mind and personality of Popovich that brought all those ingredients together and made it work.

The Spurs playoff streak is no more. Here’s to something we may never see the likes of again.

LeBron James calls bubble “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done” in NBA

Leave a comment

The NBA bubble has worn on players.

Paul George talked about the depression it brought on, saying he went to a “dark place.” Other teams just seemed to crumble under the weight of it when things got tight.

The strong-willed survival of all things bubble is why the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat start play in the NBA Finals on Wednesday. Just don’t think it’s been easy.

“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” LeBron said on Media Day Tuesday. “But I knew when I was coming what we were coming here for. I would be lying if I sat up here and knew that everything inside the bubble, the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, because it’s been extremely tough.

“But I’m here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to compete for a championship. That was my mindset once I entered the bubble, once I entered the quarantine process the first two days. Then right from my first practice, my mindset was to — if I’m going to be here, make the most of it and see what you can do and lock in on what the main thing is. The main thing was for us to finish the season and compete for a championship.

“So that’s just been my mindset throughout these — I don’t even know how many days it is. However many days it is, it feels like five years. So it really doesn’t matter. I’ve been as locked in as I’ve ever been in my career.”

LeBron James has been a leader in every sense throughout the bubble. On the court, he took charge when it was needed to lift the Lakers organization back to the NBA Finals for the first time in a decade.

Off the court, he has been a consistent and loud voice for social justice — and he has put his money where his mouth is. That has made him a target of conservative talking heads, to which LeBron has largely shrugged. He’s thinking bigger picture, not their short-term distractions.

Right now, however, he’s thinking about winning NBA Finals.

 

NBA Finals Preview: Five key things to watch when Lakers face Heat

Leave a comment

—This is not the NBA Finals preview we expected to write heading into the season because this had never happened in NBA history: Two teams that were 10 seeds a season ago, two teams completely out of the playoffs, are competing in the NBA Finals one year later.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat both have the advantages of market and management, and both used that leverage last offseason to land big stars — Anthony Davis and Jimmy Butler — who could lead them back to this point.

The Lakers and Heat meet in an interesting chess match of a Finals — the Lakers have the two best players in the series, but the Heat have the better ensemble and have thrived in the bubble. Miami also creates some matchup challenges the Lakers have yet to see this postseason.

Here are the five things to watch, five things that will help decide the 2020 NBA Finals (with my prediction at the end).

1) Bam Adebayo vs. Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis has been the best offensive player so far in the playoffs — he is averaging 28.8 points per game and is scoring with ease from all three levels. He’s a devastating finisher at the rim, he is hitting 36.6% from three (on 2.7 attempts a game), and when he gets the ball and faces up he’s been unstoppable, including from the midrange. Portland and Denver went big but slower against him, Houston has no center, and none of those teams had an answer for Davis.

Miami has Bam Adebayo.

No one player will stop Davis, but Adebayo is an All-Defensive Team player with the length, instincts, and athleticism to make Davis work. Adebayo is a fantastic isolation defender, by far the best Davis has faced this postseason. Davis will get the ball and drive, but the buckets will not come as easily — ask Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Bam is a great player, Davis said of Adebayo. “Bam is a lot like [Nikola] Jokic. He handles the ball a lot, pushes them on the breaks for them, he makes great passes, scores. He’s like their energy guy as well. So, it’ll be fun. Two Kentucky guys. Coach Cal [John Calipari] probably texted and called me enough about that.

But it’s going to be a fun matchup… That team leans on him a lot. I think it was Game 4 where he took that pressure, and took the blame for not playing well, and ended up losing. And he comes out in Game 5 and almost had a triple-double.”

When the Heat have the ball, Adebayo is at the heart of Miami’s attack — he was the difference in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against Boston — and like Davis, he attacks the rim. Davis can defend him but it’s going to require a lot of energy on the defensive end.

Miami likely will use Jae Crowder to guard Davis at times as well, they will go under every pick and play back in the paint, daring Davis and the Lakers to be jump shooters. It’s the right strategy, but the way Davis is playing he will make Miami pay anyway.

2) Miami’s shooters get red hot

The Lakers have been a fantastic defensive team through the playoffs in part because they are quick on their rotations, scramble well when things break down, and they don’t give up a lot of threes (32.9 attempts per game, second-lowest in the playoffs).

If Miami is going to win this series, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and the rest of the Miami shooters are going to have to change that dynamic. The Heat have to keep moving to get open then shoot over the top of the Lakers’ defense all series, stretching their defense across the court.

“The way they move off the ball, they share the ball,” LeBron said of things that have impressed him about the Heat. “Everyone is live on the floor. There’s not one guy that you can disrespect or be off throughout the course of an offensive possession. And they do a hell of a job of moving without the ball, sharing the ball, cutting, passing.”

The Lakers have length, but do they have a defender who can stay in front of this Goran Dragic — the guy in the bubble playing like the All-NBA version of himself from six years ago? If he gets into the paint and hits a few shots, the Lakers’ defense will collapse down and suddenly, two quick passes and Heat shooters will have an open three. That’s bad news for L.A.

Miami was streaky from deep against Boston — Herro had a great game but Miami shot under 30% from deep in games two, three, and four — and they can’t be against the Lakers. Miami’s chances in this series hinge on its ability to shoot lights out.

3) Lakers dominating the offensive glass

The Los Angeles Lakers have grabbed the offensive rebound on 29.7% of their missed shots these playoffs, and those second-chance points have helped fuel their run to the Finals. With Davis and JaVale McGee/Dwight Howard up front, the Lakers’ size inside has been a problem for teams. Even big teams. It’s been all season long.

Pat Riley used to tell his Showtime Lakers “no rebounds, no rings,” and that will apply to his Heat now — if Miami doesn’t keep the Lakers off the offensive glass they will lose. Miami plays with incredible energy (which has helped them on the offensive glass at critical points), and they will need to focus that energy on the boards this series.

4) Jimmy Butler and Heat try to make LeBron a jump shooter

The most telling action to watch in this series is how Miami defends the LeBron/Davis pick-and-roll.

The Heat got to the Finals playing zone defense (more on that is a few paragraphs) and being a switching team in man-to-man. However, they may look like more of a basic drop defense against the Lakers — go under the pick, pack the paint and protect it, and dare the Lakers to become jump shooters.

Especially LeBron. The problem is, back off LeBron and he sees a runway. That is where Butler comes in — he has to have a fantastic defensive series keeping LeBron from taking over (and it’s fair to question if he still has the athleticism to do it, even against an age 35 Lebron). Guys have been trying to find a way to slow LeBron for 17 seasons, and with limited success. For Miami to have a chance, Butler (and to a lesser degree Andre Iguodala) will have to make him work hard for his points.

“He’s seen everything,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of LeBron. “At this point in his career, it’s just about winning. And his ability to do what he does at his age is incredibly uncommon. But there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to be able to maintain that.”

LeBron will hunt for switches and try to get Herro or Robinson on him — he is relentless at forcing the matchup he wants (even if Miami is fairly good at avoiding the switch). The Heat rookies could be in for a long series.

Then there is the Miami zone.

Miami will use it to protect the paint — pack it in a little, take away lanes for LeBron to drive, remove passing lanes to cutters, and try to take LeBron out of his comfort zone. The challenge is Miami likes to put its bigger wings out top in the zone to overwhelm smaller ball handlers (think Boston’s Kemba Walker), but that’s not going to work against LeBron. Still, the Lakers have not done as well against a zone in the playoffs (less than a point per possession, but just 30 possessions according to Second Spectrum tracking data, so it’s small sample size theater). The Lakers will need to figure it out, as Boston eventually did, because the Heat will run it until the Lakers beat it.

5) Which team stays out of foul trouble

Nobody ever pities the referees, but they are in for a brutal series.

Both the Lakers and Heat attack the paint and put pressure on the officials to make calls — and the Lakers have fouled a lot these playoffs. Both teams will target getting key opponents in early foul trouble — watch the Davis/Adebayo matchup in particular and LeBron/Butler. Both teams will be physical.

“You got to be smart about ticky-tacky fouls,” Adebayo said.

How games are officiated — is it called tight, or do they let them play a little? — will mean a lot in this series.

Expect a lot of complaining — from players, from coaches, and from fans — about the officiating. Expect letters and video to be sent to the league by both teams. Expect fines for complaining.

Despite what fans think, the referees will work to be impartial in the NBA Finals, but it’s going to be hard for the referees to stay out of the middle of this series.

Prediction: Lakers in six. As many problems as Miami poses for the Lakers, LeBron will figure out the puzzle.

Report: Delonte West enters rehab with help of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with Delonte West
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Every so often, a video or picture goes viral of Delonte West – who played primarily for the Celtics and Cavaliers and whose NBA career ended with the Mavericks in 2012 – on the street appearing to be in rough shape.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban did something about it.

TMZ:

Mark Cuban is personally helping Delonte West get back on his feet … with the Dallas Mavericks owner picking up the ex-NBA star at a gas station in Texas.

We’re even told Cuban has offered to help cover Delonte’s cost for treatment.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Good for Cuban for stepping up. And hopefully West gets the help he needs.

Report: Clippers likely would’ve ousted Doc Rivers with any result shy of title

Doc Rivers and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Clippers’ loss to the Nuggets was devastating. L.A. was a huge favorite. Blowing a 3-1 lead added to the misery. As did the Clippers’ history of futility, which was supposed to end with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

But Doc Rivers’ job appeared safe in the aftermath.

Then, the Clippers suddenly ousted him as coach yesterday.

What changed?

Jovan Buha of The Athletic:

There was no aha moment or event that led to the Clippers’ and Doc Rivers’ decision to mutually part ways on Monday afternoon, league sources told The Athletic.

Following the Clippers’ premature postseason ouster, Rivers and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer held several candid meetings and conversations, league sources said.

They discussed where things went wrong for the Clippers in the playoffs and forecasted their visions of the organization’s future, including the team’s style of play, the makeup of the roster, player development and on- and off-court leadership.

After hours of back-and-forth, the sides concluded they had differing visions of the team’s path forward

Even if the Clippers had lost deeper in the postseason, say, to the Lakers in the conference finals or to the Heat in the finals, Rivers likely would not have been back next season.

Of course, the Clippers want to present themselves as having made the rational decision. Nobody wants to be the organization that overreacted to a single situation.

The Clippers’ issues – specifically a lack of chemistrymanifested throughout the season. Rivers handled that poorly. That’d be true whether or not the Clippers had enough talent to get by the Nuggets or Lakers, anyway.

Process over results is a nice ethos.

It’s difficult to implement, though.

The collapse against Denver left such a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. However people think they would’ve reacted to a different outcome, it’s impossible to know for certain. So, I have some skepticism about whether Rivers still would’ve been ousted if he guided the Clippers to the Western Conference finals and especially NBA Finals.

That said, he didn’t. Not this year. Not any year.

So, it was easier for the Clippers to move on with a coach they viewed as flawed. They never faced the difficult decision on a coach they viewed as flawed but also had more success. We just can’t know with certainty how that would’ve gone.