Portland is going to look back on this as a game — maybe THE road game — they should have won.
However, the history books will record this as another game where the Warriors were dominant in the third quarter, got 61 points from the Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, had Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala playing great defense, and the champions just made more plays down the stretch and won. As they have done so many times before.
Golden State held on for a dramatic 114-111 win that has them in command of the series up 2-0 heading to Portland for Game 3 Saturday.
“We stole that game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said afterward. “I thought they outplayed us for much of the night, the majority of the night, but we brought enough competitive fire to overcome their great play.”
Curry carried the Warriors offense for stretches of the night and finished with 37 points, although hitting just 4-of-14 from three. Thompson had 24 points, while Green had 16 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and had his best game of these playoffs.
Portland was in control through much of the first half. Part of that was the Warriors returning to their sloppy ways with the ball — Golden State had 10 first-half turnovers leading to 18 Portland points — and showing a lack of intensity on defense.
However, the lead was more about what Portland did right, starting with shooting 11-of-22 from three in the first half. CJ McCollum had 16 points, Damian Lillard played within himself and handled the trapping defense with six assists and zero turnovers, and they had strong bench play with seven points each from Seth Curry (who also had a steal from his brother) and Rodney Hood.
More importantly, in the first half — and largely through the game — Portland cleaned up the defensive issues that were so glaring in Game 1. Bigs came out a little higher to contest Curry and Thompson, but also guys did better getting over screens to challenge.
In the third quarter, the Warriors came out taking the game more seriously, cranking up their defensive intensity, being much more aggressive with their traps. In particular, the Warriors locked in on Lillard, who had been both a playmaker and a scorer, and made his life more difficult. Green and Kevon Looney owned that end of the court. The defense sparked a 13-0 run and the Warriors briefly retook the lead, although it was tied after three.
The fourth was back-and-forth, but the Trail Blazers had a six-point lead in the final minutes.
Then the Warriors, as they do, found another level of intensity.
“We’ve done this before, I think our experience helped us,” Kerr said.
That new level of play was just enough. And a little too much for Portland.
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:
Margin per game
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.
Two Game 7s with much more on the line than trips to the next round.
Toronto and Philadelphia both went all-in on winning this season, gambling on big time free agents to be who could put them over the top, and if they did then those stars may want to stay. The Raptors have Kawhi Leonard, Philadelphia has Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Plus, Sixers coach Brett Brown may need to win to hold on to his job.
Denver and Portland see themselves as the teams who have got next in the West, franchises poised to rise up as Golden State fades away. A trip to the Western Conference Finals would be validation, fall short and there will need to be some soul searching.
The NBA has got the drama on Mothers’ Day, but what is it going to take to win those games? Here are three things to keep an eye on.
1) Will the Raptors knock down their threes and give Kawhi Leonard some help? Leonard has been the best player in the East this postseason, a beast that justifies both the Raptors gamble on him and the way they managed his minutes — or, more accurately, let him manage his own minutes — during the regular season. Leonard has averaged 33.7 points with a 67.7 true shooting percentage, plus 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game against Philadelphia this series.
Toronto’s defense has more and more been to throw multiple defenders at Leonard, trying not to let him beat them.
Which puts the pressure on everyone around Leonard — Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol. Philly’s defense is willing to give up threes, and when Toronto has hit them it has won. The above foursome has shot 38.3 percent from three in Toronto’s wins and 26.2 percent in the losses (on almost the same number of attempts).
For all the crazy things that can happen in a Game 7, the goal is still simply to put the ball in the basket. If the Raptors can do that from three, they will win. If they miss, particularly early on, it could lead to….
2) Will Ben Simmons get some early transition buckets, start playing downhill, and be a force in Game 7?Joel Embiid is the lynchpin for everything in Philly — he is +80 through six games in a series where his team has been outscored by 17 points overall. Embiid is the Sixers’ rock. Jimmy Butler has been Philadelphia’s best player and their go-to pick-and-roll ball handler in this series, and he has been brilliant (and endeared himself to Sixers fans).
However, Ben Simmons may be the bellwether. He got early opportunities in Game 6 in transition where he is most dangerous, that got him confident and aggressive, and from there he went on to 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He led the blowout Game 6 win.
“We just missed so many shots early and they were just playing off the rebound so often,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after Game 6. “They were getting the rebound and pushing it out on us, and we didn’t do a great job in transition.”
Jared Dudley was not wrong, Simmons can fade into the background in the halfcourt. With Butler dominating the ball, Simmons slides into the dunker position and can see very few touches from there. Then he gets passive on offense, and it spirals.
If Simmons is getting out in transition early and being aggressive, it’s an excellent sign for Philadelphia.
3) Is Rodney Hood the third scorer Portland needs to win?Damian Lillard is going to get his, he’s one of the best scorers in the sport — and he’s clutch. He was made for Game 7s. Which is why Denver is going to work to get the ball out of his hands, and this is why C.J. McCollum has been so critical for Portland in this series.
However, Portland will need scoring from a third source to win on the road, and that may be Rodney Hood. He had 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Game 6 and was the MVP of the night. He’s had a few games like that these playoffs, having found a role on this Portland team that eluded him in Cleveland and Utah last season.
If Hood gets going again, Portland has a chance.
Denver vs. Portland has been the tightest of second-round series and what separates the teams in this game — Paul Millsap having a good night, Nikola Jokic diming guys up, Lillard going off, Hood having a night — may come down to the slightest of things. This has been the most entertaining second-round series, in part because neither team can really stop the other, but if one side finds just a little defense that may be the deciding factor.
Will Barton reportedly irate about Seth Curry’s comment, amused by Evan Turner flipping off Nuggets
Update: Apparently, Evan Turner copped to flipping off the Nuggets, but says he was provoked.
Jason Quick of The Athletic:
Some context: Turner’s middle finger was in response to Nuggets’ rookie Michael Porter Jr., who flipped off Portland in the closing moments of Game 5. Turner also said the Nuggets bench was “talking crazy” telling the Blazers the series was over. https://t.co/mSmr7GpkAS
“He waited for a few people to get in between us, and when a few people were in between us, he put his finger in my eye,” Curry said of Barton. “You know what I’m saying. I can’t allow people to put their fingers in my eye.
“That’s real sassy. They got a few sassy dudes over there. Front-runners. And we can’t allow that.”
Turner gestured toward Denver’s bench, but McCollum was standing between. Maybe Turner was just signaling to McCollum. On the telecast, it’s unclear whether Turner is even sticking up his middle finger:
Shown a photo taken by The Denver Post of Turner giving the Nuggets that one-finger salute, guard Will Barton was amused.
Dial up the tension for Game 7 Sunday. There are enough slights here, real or imagined, to fuel both teams.
Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Dominant Kawhi Leonard will not let Raptors fold
The NBA playoffs are reaching critical stages and there can be a lot to unpack with a few intense games every night, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Dominant Kawhi Leonard will not let Raptors fold, evens series with Sixers 2-2. We have seen this movie before, the one where the Toronto Raptors look on paper to be the team to beat in the East, but when faced with real adversity — previously in the form of LeBron James, this year in the form of Joel Embiid and Philadelphia — they come apart. The star players miss key shots, the role players fade, the defense stumbles, and the house of cards crumbles.
Sunday on the road, down 2-1 in a series where Philly had won two in a row and looked in Game 3 like they had figured things out, was the kind of moment where the Raptors have faded before.
Kawhi Leonard flipped the script and did this.
Leonard scored 39 points, drained 5-of-7 from three (8-of-12 on shots outside the paint), did not flinch in the clutch, terrorized Ben Simmons on defense, and lifted up his teammates — who gave him some help — to get a 101-96 road win.
Philadelphia and Toronto are now tied 2-2, making this a best of three that moves to Toronto on Tuesday.
This is why the Raptors rolled the dice on Leonard in a trade. It was challenging to get a feel for these Raptors at points during the season because of the words “load management, but this is why they went down that road — because peak Leonard changes the course of games, series, and franchises. In his last six games, Leonard has averaged 35.5 points per game on 62.5 percent shooting, hitting 52.6 percent from three and killing it all over the floor. If it wasn’t for that lanky scorer in the Bay Area, we’d be saying Leonard is the best player in these playoffs.
He’s doing it and, it seems, barely breaking a sweat in the process.
“I think that’s not fair to the Sixers,” Leonard said after Game 4. “I’m definitely breaking a sweat out there.”
Leonard’s play lifted up the other Raptors. This is the Kyle Lowry the Raptors need every game, attacking and aggressive on his way to 14 points and 7 rebounds, Marc Gasol had his best game of the series (16 points), Serge Ibaka stepped up into the minutes an injured Pascal Siakam could not and played well, and Danny Green hit shots and made plays.
Joel Embiid — still battling a virus we learned — did not put up huge numbers (11 points, eight rebounds) but his defense remains critical to Philly’s chances.
The Sixers just need to do better when Embiid sits, and Greg Monroe appears not to be the long-term answer to that. While one-game plus/minus is a flawed stat, it’s worth noting the Sixers were +17 in Embiid’s 35+ minutes, but in the 12.8 minutes he sat they were -22.
Jimmy Butler had 29 points on 18 shots to lead Philadelphia.
The Sixers have tried to make it hard on Leonard — look at that dagger shot above, it’s a step-back three over Embiid’s outstretched arm, how many guys in the league could hit that? — it just hasn’t mattered. Leonard has been brilliant, and when he gets a little help the Raptors are the deeper team in this series, and it shows.
Leonard and these Raptors felt like they were changing the movie ending on Sunday. If they can do it again Tuesday we will all start to buy in.
2) Denver is learning fast, wins Game 4 on the road to even series with Portland. This was supposed to be a learning experience playoffs for a young Denver team. This was one of the NBA’s youngest teams and its core guys — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, in particular — had never been in the playoffs. There were going to be hard lessons that they would learn from.
Or, maybe they are more ready than we think.
For the second series in a row, these young Nuggets got down 2-1 and then won tough Game 4 on the road. Tired legs from Game 3 be damned, Denver got 34 points from Murray and a triple double — 21 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists — from Jokic, and the Nuggets got a 116-112 win on the road in Portland.
This series is tied 2-2 with Game 5 back in Denver on Tuesday.
This has been a series all about offense, which means the team that can get even a few key stops has a massive advantage. Denver did that in the third quarter of Game 4, holding Portland to just 14 points in the quarter on 35.1 percent shooting. Led by C.J. McCollum (11 points in the fourth) and Damian Lillard (15) the Trail Blazers made a comeback, they scored 35 points as a team in the fourth. However, down the stretch, Portland could not get stops. Murray had 12, Will Barton hit a couple of key threes, and the Nuggets scored 32 in the fourth to hang on and get the win.
This is the most entertaining series in the second round because these teams are so evenly matched. That was obvious in the 4OT game, but in this Game 4 it was more of the same: Denver had one more made field goal (40-39) but Portland had one more made three (12-11), with Denver making just three more free throws. It’s so close. And in those games it will come down to the little things.