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Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Are these Rockets as good as last year’s version?

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Houston looks as good as last year’s team in shutting down Jazz. Again. First impressions tend to stick with us. It’s human nature. And our first impressions of this season’s Houston Rockets were not good — a 10-11 team that could not defend, Chris Paul looked like he lost a step, Clint Capela looked like he really enjoyed the offseason, and the result of a few off-season moves meant the Rockets didn’t have the same depth and versatility.

Get those Rockets out of your mind.

The Rockets playing right now — the ones that have gone 20-5 since the All-Star break and are now up 2-0 in the playoffs — are as good as last year’s team. They think better. Either way, this team is a genuine threat to the Golden State Warriors.

Just ask the Utah Jazz. They were 18-7 after the All-Star break with a +9.5 net rating, yet through two games the Rockets have dismantled the Jazz with ease. On Wednesday it was a 118-98 Rockets’ win in a game that stopped being seriously competitive midway through the third quarter.

Through the first three quarters Wednesday, the Jazz shot 35.5 percent overall and 16.7 percent from three, with an offensive rating of just 89.3. Well below a shot per possession. Utah’s offense has one real shot creator in Donovan Mitchell and when a good defense can focus on one guy, it can make his life difficult: Mitchell had 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting overall, 1-of-8 from three, with, 6 assists but 4 turnovers.

Also, the Rockets have James Harden.

He is unstoppable right now (and the exception to the lone shot creator note above). Utah switched up its defensive strategy to try to put more pressure on Harden at the point of attack, he almost seemed to prefer that and made his moves, created space, and had his way. Harden had 32 points on 24 shots, was 6-of-13 from three, had 13 rebounds and 10 assists, and none of those numbers do justice to how he dominated the game when he was on the court.

Through two games, Houston has dominated and gotten in Utah’s heads, and the Jazz can’t shoot their way out of it (15-of-65 from three through two games). Utah’s roster limitations are being exploited by Houston and it’s hard to see a path for the Jazz to bounce back, even as they head home for Game 3.

Houston’s real test is next round — they are the only team in the West that can be a threat to Golden State. Last season Houston believed it was the better team (but for one Chris Paul hamstring…), this season nobody thought that about them that way because of that slow start.

It’s time to start thinking of the Rockets that way. This team is legit. They can beat anyone.

2) Playoff Kyrie Irving dominates, Indiana’s offense still just goes flat, and Celtics win 99-91 to go up 2-0. There are two competing storylines in this game. Both are true, but one is more fun while the other has a larger say in how this series is going to end.

The fun part — playoff Kyrie Irving showed up on Wednesday night in Boston. Celtics fans didn’t get to see him last season, but he showed up in Game 2: 37 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists. Most importantly, when the Pacers were ahead in the third quarter and threatening to blow the game open, it was Irving’s offense that kept the Celtics around.

In the fourth, playoff Jayson Tatum — the guy from last playoffs everyone has been waiting to show up all of this season — made an appearance. Tatum finished with 26 points and made some key plays late in the fourth quarter. Irving wasn’t scoring in the fourth, but his presence and the way he dominated the game early had opened up everything for the other Celtics.

The second storyline is that Indiana’s offense without Victor Oladipo is prone to ugly, extended dry spells that will doom them. Indiana led by a dozen points early in the fourth but shot 4-of-17 in the final quarter, and while the Celtics play good defense this is more about Indiana. Bojan Bogdanovic led the way with 23 points and 8 rebounds for the Pacers, but Indy relies on a team approach, with a lot of guys getting some buckets to make the whole thing work. However, for stretches, they struggle with that against good teams, and they don’t have the one guy to turn to stop the bleeding right now.

That will ultimately be Indiana’s downfall in this series.

3) Bucks overwhelm Pistons. Again. I just feel bad for the Pistons — they are better than this. However, without Blake Griffin this is not near the same team, and they were going to struggle with the athleticism and length of the Bucks in the first place. Wednesday it was a 120-99 Milwaukee win to go up 2-0 in the series.

Eric Bledsoe had 27 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 26 points and 12 assists and then there was Khris Middleton with 24 for the Bucks.

The Bucks are gaining a little confidence, which is good because they will need it against the Celtics in the next round.

Bucks wallop Pistons. Again.

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The Pistons fought harder. Luke Kennard moved into the starting lineup and provided a spark. Detroit defended more actively.

But the result was largely the same: A Bucks blowout.

Milwaukee routed Detroit 120-99 in Game 2 Wednesday. Following a 35-point Game 1 victory, the Bucks have outscored the Pistons by 56 points in the series. Every team to outscore its opponent by at least 50 in the first two games of a best-of-seven series has won it.

Here are the best-of-seven series with the most-lopsided first two games. The 2-0-leading teams that won the series are in green. The 2-0-leading teams that lost the series are in red. This Milwaukee-Detroit series is in cream.

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The Pistons can’t stop Giannis Antetokounmpo (26 points, 12 rebounds and four assists). With Kennard (Detroit-high 19 points) starting for defensive specialist Bruce Brown, the Pistons also couldn’t contain Eric Bledsoe (27 points). Khris Middleton (24 points) provided his usual steady production.

Meanwhile, without Blake Griffin, Detroit lacks a difference-making star. Andre Drummond (18 points and 16 rebounds) had nice individual moments but was -32 (another terrible plus-minus for him).

The Pistons are just overwhelmed by the superior Bucks, and it’s hard to see that changing.

Bucks roll past Pistons 121-86 in series opener

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points and 17 rebounds in just 24 minutes, and the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks showed they were serious about making a playoff run with a 121-86 rout of the Detroit Pistons in Game 1 on Sunday night.

The MVP candidate ran and dunked all over the Pistons, who only really caught him when center Andre Drummond shoved him to the ground with both hands late in the third quarter after Antetokounmpo grabbed an offensive rebound with Detroit trailing by 41 points.

Drummond was given a flagrant 2 foul and ejected. He threw a kiss to the Fiserv Forum crowd as he was escorted off the court.

Antetokounmpo struggled at the foul line, making only 5 of 12 attempts, but was 9 for 17 from the field and 1 of 5 from 3-point range.

Seven Bucks players scored in double figures. Eric Bledsoe had 15 points, and Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton each added 14. George Hill scored 16 points off the bench.

Luke Kennard paced the Pistons with 21 points off the bench and Drummond had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Reggie Jackson also had 12 points. Detroit played without forward Blake Griffin, who sat out with a left knee injury.

Detroit shot 38% from the field, converting 35 of 92 attempts.

The Bucks rolled to a 27-point lead in the first half, taking a 70-43 margin at halftime. Antetokounmpo had 14 points and 10 rebounds while Lopez added 14 points and Hill contributed 13.

Detroit shot 34% in the half (18 of 53) and made just 3 of 14 3-point attempts.

Pistons coach Dwane Casey said his team made a big step forward in qualifying for the playoffs but vowed to fight against the heavily favored Bucks.

“We’re not in the class of where Milwaukee is with their program right now,” Casey said. “They were not two or three years ago.

“I remember coming here a couple years ago (with Toronto) and playing against them. They were getting started, building what they’ve got now. Their patience has paid off. It’s a great experience for us to come in and play against a great team like Milwaukee.”

TIP-INS

Detroit: Casey said Griffin was “day-to-day but too sore to go” in Game 1. The Pistons forward averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 75 games in his first full season with the Pistons. … Griffin was called for a technical for protesting Drummond’s ejection . Former Bucks forward Thon Maker faced his former team and started in Griffin’s place. He avoided a flagrant foul when he brought Antetokounmpo to the floor in the second quarter. Maker came to Detroit in the three-team trade in February that brought Nikola Mirotic to the Bucks from New Orleans. He had four points and four rebounds in 22 minutes and was booed heavily by the home crowd. “You don’t have to say giddy-up to Thon Maker,” Casey said. “He wakes up in the morning ready to go.” . Former Bucks assistants Sean Sweeney and Tim Grgurich are on the Pistons’ staff. . Detroit entered with a 14-3 playoff record against Milwaukee, winning all four series.

Milwaukee: Mirotic was available and played 15 minutes while scoring four points. “He’s just getting back in conditioning and health and everything like that,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. Mirotic had missed the last 11 regular-season games after fracturing his left thumb on March 19 against the Los Angeles Lakers. . The Bucks’ 70 points were the second-most in a first half in franchise history. They scored 77 in March 1970. . Budenholzer said he was concerned about the rebounding battle and going against league-leading rebounder Drummond (15.6 per game). “It’s going to take our whole group to make sure we’re taking care of the defensive boards. It’s not the big guys’ job or the center; we have to do it collectively,” Budenholzer said. The Bucks had a 54-46 rebounding advantage.

UP NEXT

Game 2 is Wednesday night in Milwaukee.

Pressure’s on: Five players who must dominate for their teams to make playoff runs

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Starting with our first team in the run-down gym at a local park, our coaches told us “basketball is a team sport.” It’s not about the individual, it’s about the team. The whole “there’s no I in team” cliche.

Then we start playing and realize quickly individuals matter. For some teams, they matter A LOT.

Enter the 2019 NBA playoffs. The best team will win, but for some of these teams to make a deep playoff run it will require one of their individuals being dominant. These are teams either built around, or that just require, this one player to be a star and then some.

Here are five players who have to step up and dominate for their teams to make playoff runs.

1) James Harden, Houston Rockets. The step-back three. The drives that lead to floaters or fouls. Collapse on him and he finds the open man at the arc, or the big man rolling to the rim for the lob. James Harden has become an unstoppable offensive force.

He has to be. The man averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds a game this season. He has the highest usage rate in the league (40.5, the only higher one ever was Russell Westbrook his MVP year). Harden had a 32-game streak of at least 30 points. He had to do all of it. When Harden started that scoring streak the Rockets were below .500 and the 13 seed in the West. He carried them to the four seed, and since the All-Star break the Rockets have been as good as any team in the NBA.

Houston has a brutal road ahead: Utah and it’s league-best defense since the All-Star break, with Rudy Gobert in the paint, is first. Win that series (the Rockets are favorites) and the reward is the Golden State Warriors. Harden has carried the Rockets this far, we’ll see if he can carry them up that Everest of a mountain. Just don’t doubt if The Beard is capable.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. We all talk about how Houston’s offense is built around Harden, but the same is true of Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo. The style is just different. The Bucks put four shooters around him to spread the floor and open it up, but that only works because Antetokounmpo is unstoppable one-on-one. That forces help, he makes a pass, the ball swings and the Bucks get a clean look at a three.

It has dominated in the regular season, the Bucks had the fourth best offense in the NBA.

The pressure is now on Antetokounmpo to carry that offense into the postseason. There he will see new challenges and looks defensively — expect some teams to try zones — and the Greek Freak is going to have to adapt. He is going to have to get his buckets, and more importantly keep drawing so much attention that Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and the rest keep getting good looks.

Plus, he needs to keep making defensive plays. The Bucks are without Malcolm Brogdon for at least the start of the playoffs, without him as a perimeter defender more pressure will fall on Antetokounmpo and Lopez to protect the paint.

3) Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard is already Mr. Everything to the Portland offense, a top-20 usage rate of 29.3 and the team’s leading scorer and assist man at 25.8 points and 6.9 dimes a game. There was already a lot of pressure on him.

Then Jusuf Nurkic had his freak leg injury. Portland’s second-best player this season (third if you want to argue CJ McCollum was better, but I think it was Nurkic) was gone. Lillard’s outlet under pressure was gone. McCollum, the other scorer Portland can count on, is back in the rotation but missed time with a plantar fascia issue. It puts even more on Lillard, who will see a lot of traps (just like last playoffs), and will have Paul George draped on him much of the time.

The Trail Blazers got swept out of the first round by the Pelicans last season and it was embarrassing for the franchise. This season they get the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and if the Trail Blazers are crushed again changes could be coming. It’s on Lillard.

4) Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder. Back in December, Paul George was a force of nature: 30.8 points and 8.9 rebounds a game, all on an insanely efficient 63.1 true shooting percentage. It was much the same in January, 29.6 points and a 60.1 true shooting percentage. He vaulted himself into the MVP conversation. In those months, the Thunder were 29-18.

After the All-Star break, battling a shoulder issue, George averaged 26.4 points per game with a true shooting percentage near the league average at 54.3. He wasn’t the same on either end. OKC had a record of 12-13.

Russell Westbrook will put up numbers, but don’t expect efficiency. If the Thunder are going to make any kind of run, it will be because George returned to peak form — and some of that peak was against Portland, he destroyed them this season. Which is why this is concerning.

If George is not elite it could be another quick exit for the Thunder.

5) Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz. Donovan Mitchell admitted that it took him a while to adjust this season. He was now the guy at the top of all the scouting reports, teams were putting their best defenders on him and taking away his preferred moves. In December Mitchell averaged 18.2 points a game (his only month below 20) with a 47.3 true shooting percentage that was well below the league average. He was struggling.

Mitchell watched the film, went to his counters, trusted himself and stepped up his game. After the All-Star break he averaged 26.7 points a game with a very efficient 58.1 true shooting percentage. He was back and the Jazz were one of the best teams in the NBA.

Utah drew Harden and the Rockets in the first round. If the Jazz are going to pull the upset, Mitchell is going to have play near a James Harden level — and get more help (and defense) than Harden does. It’s possible, this should be a close series, but the pressure is on Mitchell to make it happen.

Five teams that can knock off Golden State Warriors

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There’s going to be a parade this June in Oakland. It’s all but set, city officials quietly have started the planning already. The Golden State Warriors are going to win the NBA title and there is nothing anyone can do about it…

Or can they?

The Warriors are the favorites to with the NBA title. Again. As they should be. However, there are teams that can challenge the Warriors, this is not going to be a cake walk. And unlike the past couple of years, the Warriors biggest challenge will be in the Finals.

Here are the five teams that have a shot at beating the Warriors this season.

Raptors small icon1) The Toronto Raptors.

Don’t get stuck in the “the Raptors are not a playoff team” past, this is by design a very different Toronto roster heading into the playoffs. And it’s a team that matches up well with what Golden State — they are long and switchable on defense, they know how to get buckets, and they now have a clear closer.

Nobody is going to stop Kevin Durant, but Kawhi Leonard can slow him, make KD work, and be left on an island against him (relatively) allowing other defenders to stay home with their guys. While I don’t put much stock in regular season games as postseason predictors, way back in November Leonard and Durant had a back-and-forth showdown that was one of the more entertaining games of the year.

Danny Green is a strong defender who can be put on the hotter of Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry, then Kyle Lowry can do a solid job on the other. Pascal Siakam can get Draymond Green and help off him while daring Green to shoot jumpers, and Siakam can be the five when the Warriors go small with Green at center. Marc Gasol will likely start on DeMarcus Cousins, but Serge Ibaka can get time, too. Then the Rockets bring Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet as needed.

Toronto’s fifth-ranked offense this season is still going to score points against the Warriors. They can score inside and out. And when the game is on the line Leonard will get the chance to show why he was once Finals MVP.

The Warriors would and should still be favorites in this potential Finals matchup, but the Raptors are poised to make it work.

Bucks small icon2) The Milwaukee Bucks.

A team needs long, switchable defenders and an elite offense to beat the Warriors. The Bucks had the fourth best offense in the NBA this past season, led by MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo. So check that box. As for long, switchable defenders, the Bucks are built around the Greek Freak, Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, and the physical at the point Eric Bledsoe. Check.

The Bucks are one of the few teams that can take and make threes at the pace of the Warriors and they may be willing to play that way. If Warriors defenders have to slide out to arc to stop shooters — especially Cousins chasing Brook Lopez out of the paint — it opens up the lane for Antetokounmpo’s drives, and nobody is stopping those.

What the Bucks need is Brogdon back and healthy to put on Klay Thompson. Also, Milwaukee would need to find a way to keep playing their base defense, which has Lopez dropping off picks to clog the paint, without giving up too many threes to the Warriors. Finally, when the Warriors go small the Bucks can go with Antetokounmpo at center lineups.

It would be a big step for the Bucks to challenge the Warriors, but on paper they have the tools.

Rockets small icon3) The Houston Rockets.

This is the same team that was ahead at halftime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on their home court less than a year ago….

Well, they’re not the same team exactly. But they are playing closer to that level than they have all season — Chris Paul looks more like his old self, Clint Capela looks in shape, Danuel House Jr. and PJ Tucker have found a groove as role players, and since the All-Star break the Rockets have the second-best defense in the land and the best net rating (+10.7).

The Rockets still have James Harden and nobody — on the Warriors or on the planet — can stop him. If he has other guys knocking down some shots around him and the Rockets keep defending, they are the only team in the West with a chance. The Rockets do not have Trevor Ariza or the same depth that made them a genuine threat to the Warriors, a Rockets team that might have a ring if CP3 had stayed healthy. But the Rockets are still the second best team in the West and the only team with a shot at the Warriors.

If the Rockets and Warriors meet it will be in the second round — and that could be good for Houston. What has slowed the Rockets in recent seasons was Harden just running out of gas from the load he has to carry, or Paul getting injured. Does meeting in the second round make it less likely either of those things happen, meaning the Rockets have a better chance? Maybe. The Rockets will have to fight their way past a very good Jazz team to find out.

Celtics small icon 4) The Boston Celtics.

The preseason favorites in the East have shown flashes this year where you can’t help but think “that’s a contender, they can push the Warriors.” Boston just hasn’t been able to sustain it.

The matchup on paper is interesting. Kyrie Irving has battled Stephen Curry to a standstill in the Finals before. Al Horford can be effective against Golden State whether Cousins is in the paint (Horford is a better post defender than people think, and on offense he could pull Cousins out to the three-point line to defend his shot) or if the Warriors go small and Green is at the five. Horford blows up the mismatches Golden State banks on.

The Celtics would need Marcus Smart back and healthy. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier all need to play as well as they did last playoffs. A lot of things need to go right and the Celtics have not been able to sustain that this year.

But Boston has the pieces to be a potential threat to Golden State.

Sixers small icon 5) The Philadelphia 76ers.

Philly being on this list comes down to one thing: They have the second best starting five in the league. The one starting five that can challenge the Warriors best lineups.

Joel Embiid (who can outplay Cousins, but didn’t play well against the Warriors this season), Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and sharpshooting J.J. Redick have a ton of potential. When on the court together, the unit has been dominant on both ends.

The problem is they haven’t been on the court together that much and there are chemistry questions. Plus, behind this five there is little depth.

Philadelphia has a long way to go to really be a threat to the Warriors, but if they make it out of the East they may be that team by June.