The Breakdown: A Look at the Opening Games of the NBA Playoffs

Rockets

Apr 16, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley (2) reacts after making a basket during the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

By Jesse Blanchard

Early in the third quarter, Houston Rockets’ guard Patrick Beverley hounded Russell Westbrook the length of the floor, stuck on the MVP candidate’s hip, with no other thought in the world other than to disrupt the dribble.

So single-minded was Beverley’s pursuit that it took him blindly into a 7-foot wall, crashing against a screen set by Steven Adams and leaving him crumpled on the hardwood court.

In that moment, everyone who has ever played in pickup games against a Patrick Beverley of the world felt refreshed; and could be forgiven if they applauded a little.

Almost every outdoor court or indoor gym features such a pest. The guy who faceguards you off the ball every second, oblivious to anything else going on in that game, making even getting the ball a chore in what are supposed to be leisurely weekend runs. The nuisance who gets into your legs every dribble, narrowing your awareness of the court by making his presence felt every step of the way.

In those games, there are few things more satisfying than running such players blindly into screens, watching them get knocked off their feet time and time again.

What makes Beverley truly special is not only his ability to dodge such screens on a nightly basis, but his ability to get up and respond when he is inevitably tagged.

Beverley got up, hit a step-back three-pointer. Then another three-pointer from the corner, bouncing on one leg in anticipation, hands holstered at his hips as the ball splashed through the net. As the Thunder called timeout to stop the bleeding, Beverley let out a primal scream, then returned to the smile that was present on his face for much of the game.

James Harden’s backcourt complement finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds while holding Westbrook to 3-for-9 shooting in head-to-head confrontations, according to ESPN.

In many ways, Beverley and Westbrook are polar opposites. Which might explain why the two always seem attracted like magnets on the court. Twice, Beverley managed to reach in and swipe a Westbrook dribble, getting a breakaway dunk on the first and knocking the ball out of bounds off Westbrook on the second.

Even when separated, Beverley seemed singularly locked on Westbrook, breaking up one of his lob passes to Adams on one play, then sliding over from a help position to draw a charge on another.

Perhaps the best moment to encapsulate the evening came when Westbrook drew separation from Beverley’s full-court pressure, slowing down a little, drawing a collision as the Rocket’s guard sprinted to get back into the play.

For most of the season, Russell Westbrook has been described as a force of nature. Last night, Beverley was a storm chaser meeting a tornado head on, smiling like a madman.


From Iso Joe to Savior, Joe Johnson Lifts Jazz to Victory

Jazz

Apr 15, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA;Utah Jazz forward Joe Johnson (6) scores over LA Clippers guard Jamal Crawford (11) and center DeAndre Jordan (6) to win game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs 97-95 at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

By Dan Clayton

Anybody who knows the pathologically competitive side of budding Jazz star Rudy Gobert understands how devastating it much have been when he went down in a heap just 10 seconds into his first every playoff game.

At the same time, anybody who’s seen the work of the player Kevin Garnett once dubbed “Joe Jesus” had to know that Gobert’s early exit hardly ended the competitive portion of Game 1 of Jazz-Clips.

Veteran forward Joe Johnson brought his experience and shot-making skills to work for the suddenly improvising Jazz. He made one important shot after another, and then capped off his 102nd career playoff game with a  walk-off, game-winning floater over two defenders.

“I just wanted to get as close as I could to the basket,” Joe Jesus told reporters after the 97-95 Jazz victory. “It was a good thing it went down.”

Johnson’s go-ahead bucket came after Chris Paul tied the game with a banking runner just 13 seconds earlier. Jazz coach Quin Snyder opted against calling a timeout to advance the ball, instead attacking a Clippers defense that didn’t have time to set up. A Joe Ingles screen got Jamal Crawford switched onto Johnson, and he backed him down to the paint before firing a teardrop shot over the outstretched arms of help defender DeAndre Jordan. The ball bounced once on the back of the iron, which as it turns out was serendipitous – it left 0.0 on the clock once the shot finally cleared the bottom of the net.

“We just wanted to have it where they couldn’t set up on us,” Jazz star Gordon Hayward said of the decision to forego the timeout. “We just wanted to get it and go and let this man (Johnson) go to work.”

Betting on the guy known as “Iso Joe” in basketball circles was a pretty smart call. According to ESPN Stats, Johnson has made an NBA-best eight buzzer-beating game winners in the last 10 seasons, including regular season and playoffs.

But his impact was felt long before that final 13-second sequence. Gobert’s exit – the official diagnosis is a bruised bone and hyperextended knee – left the Jazz without one of the league’s best roll man finishers. Derrick Favors is still visibly hampered by his own knee issues, and Hayward spent the evening with ace defender Luc Mbah a Moute draped all over him.

Hayward still managed to battle his way to a 19-point, 10-rebound outing in his fifth ever playoff game, but the point is that the Jazz had a scoring void to fill. Johnson filled it. He his open threes, he methodically attacked switches and he pulled defenders away from the middle. His floater on a broken, scrambling play with just over a minute left gave Utah a 5-point lead, a cushion they’d need to withstand that final Clipper run.

Paul and Blake Griffin both played well for the home team, with 25 and 26, respectively. But Griffin didn’t have a fourth-quarter field goal, guarded mostly in that frame by – you guessed it – Joe Johnson.

The Jazz don’t know when they’ll get Gobert back from injury, and they still have a hobbled Favors and a tough defender assigned to Hayward. But they have a win in their pocket and the confidence afforded to them by the playoff resurrection of Joe Jesus.


Giannis Antetokounmpo Turning Dreams into Nightmares

bucks

Apr 15, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) goes to make a basket as Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) defends during the first half in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

By Jesse Blanchard

In the closing two minutes of the opening game of the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks playoff series, DeMar DeRozan made one last burst to the rim, only to be met by one of the long arms of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The block sent DeRozan sprawling to the floor, his momentum turned against him, and sent Antetokounmpo into a celebratory swing of his fist, earning a technical foul.

No longer just a 7-foot kid full of wide-eyed, smoothie-loving innocence, Antetokounmpo competes with fire in his eyes and muscle on his frame, bullying one Raptor after another into submission.

This season should mark something of a turning point for Antetokounmpo, where the world’s loving projections of what he could be becomes enough of a reality to measure. And once that reality starts impacting playoff odds or basketball trends in a way that’s averse to everyone outside of Milwaukee, parts of the basketball world will turn on him as quickly as the referee’s whistle following that block on DeRozan.

It’s a rite of passage for almost every NBA superstar or burgeoning super team.

Everyone loved Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant when their best days were still visions in everyone’s head and not beating their favorite teams on the basketball court. The same goes for Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

For all he’s accomplished, and for as much he’s improved, Antetokounmpo still teases with enough that’s never been seen on a basketball court for our collective imaginations to outpace his current reality.

Midway through the first quarter, Antetokounmpo drove right on DeMarre Carroll, turning his back the defender for a quick bump to create a sliver of space Giannis could slither his long frame through. With just enough room to gather, Antetokounmpo launched himself towards the rim, switched the ball to his left hand, and dunked over the top of the Raptors’ defense:

Antetokounmpo still operates best in transition, where he’s faster with the ball than any man his size should be. The length and strides create optical illusions. Antetokounmpo’s ability to pick up his dribble from beyond the elbows and get to the rim in two steps alters the timing and calculations for defenders, and the threat of his Eurostep opens new angles to the rim.

And even when opponents track Giannis down in a footrace, it’s simply a matter of extending his arm out beyond them for the finish.

The time will come when these daggers are painful enough to overcome the joys of watching Antetokounmpo. What he can be will settle into what he is, and the luster of it all will dim. But at age 22, with 28 points and eight rebounds in his first playoff game as a team leader, Antetokounmpo may already be too much for the Raptors to handle.


John Wall and the Theory of Relativity

Wizards

Apr 16, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) shoots as Atlanta Hawks forward Ersan Ilyasova (7) looks on during the second half in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

By Jesse Blanchard

In the open court, Washington Wizards’ point guard John Wall is often described as a blur, which isn’t entirely accurate.

Wall works with such ease in the open court that it all seems effortless. Every feint, dribble and step is perfectly in view and crystal clear. The only real signs of his hurry is his movement relative to everyone else on the court as he zooms past them before they can quite grasp his speed.

It reminds of the smooth grace San Antonio Spurs’ point guard Tony Parker once operated with in changing gears, only infused with Russell Westbrook-like athleticism.

The Atlanta Hawks boast a quality defense, full of rangy wing defenders and a rim protecting force in Dwight Howard. But Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s teams forever appear to pit a team needing to be greater than the sum of its parts against the best player in a series.

This weekend, after a rough first half, Wall zoomed through the gaps of the defense and dissolved the chemistry that catalyzes the Hawks’ defensive rotations.

At the opening of the third quarter, with the Wizards still trailing, Wall had a bead on Hawks’ point guard Dennis Schroder. Wall sized up Schroder and two other retreating defenders as he passed half court, somehow giving a hesitation dribble without really dropping out of full speed.

In the fractions of a second before the defensive wall near the rim could set, Wall was already spinning past Schroder, collapsing the defense and opening a passing lane to Otto Porter in the corner.

The speed at which Wall moves across the court borders on reckless, but every movement is composed. His mind, in that moment, is still moving faster than his body and the result is something out of the X-Men movies, where Quicksilver manipulates the scene around him at his leisure.

And when Wall rose up for a jumper that bounced in off the rim, all there was left to do was shrug.

Sometimes that’s all you can do when the difficult is made to look easy.


Tony Parker and the Wild, Wild, Westworld

Spurs

Apr 15, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker (9) dribbles the ball as Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (left) defends during the second half in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

By Sarah Cilea

In records kept by the court of public opinion, Tony Parker has died as many deaths as a Westworld host.

Too old.  Too many miles.  Lost a step.  Can’t shoot well enough.  Can’t defend well enough.  A liability.  Unplayable.  It’s all been said, and that was last year.  Many reports from the front in 2017 have been even more scathing.  If it sounds daunting to deal with, Parker is quick to dismiss the notion.

The lifelike robots in HBO’s sci-fi series cannot see the things that will hurt them.  Parker claims a similar ignorance.  When asked whether he is impervious to the social media talk about how he’s “lost it” Parker responded, “I don’t really read it, to be honest.  I’ve got two kids.  It’s a lot of work.  I don’t have time for all that.”

Nevertheless he knows.  Not unlike his fictional counterparts, Parker takes his time out for repairs but keeps coming back for more.

The Fox Sports Southwest broadcast of Game One between his Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies posed this question as trivia: What active player has played in the most career playoff games?  Despite the fact that there’s a guy out East who has been to six straight Finals, Parker—with 214 playoff games—is the answer at 34 years of age and 16 years in the league.

The mileage shows in various ways.  He’s picked up a wealth of corporate knowledge he gladly shares with his younger and newer teammates.  His command of team schemes is at this point part of his DNA.  The nagging injuries linger longer than they would in the body of a 20-something and limit his effectiveness.  He doesn’t venture into the paint quite as often as he once did, or finish as regularly when he does.  He’ll go weeks at a time without attempting 10 shots in a game.

Then, every so often, he’ll have a night like Saturday.  Parker opened his latest playoffs by scoring the Spurs’ first basket of the game, a tough turnaround hook over Mike Conley.  When the Spurs took their first lead more than 15 minutes into the contest, it was their starting point guard who hit the corner three to put them up.

Coming into the series all the talk surrounding the underdog Grizzlies was about their considerable advantage at the center and point guard positions, how they would have to exploit and expand their gap over Parker to have a chance.  For at least one night, Parker denied them that.

He remained aggressive and by the time the smoke had cleared from the series opener Parker had 18 points in 22 minutes on 8-of-13 shooting (a perfect 2-of-2 on threes).  After guarding Conley for about the first six minutes Parker received an assist from the defensive efforts of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.  Altogether they limited Conley to just 13 points in 30 minutes on 5-of-14 from the field.  Conley did dish seven assists, grab five rebounds and three steals, but he failed to score a single point after halftime as the Spurs pulled away with a 32-15 third quarter.

Parker’s role will continue to change.  He’s no longer the 19-year-old rookie speedster he was 16 years ago, the Finals MVP he was a decade ago, or even the player who was instrumental in leading the Spurs to back-to-back Finals appearances and their last title just three years ago; he is the combined experience of all of them, and the wisdom, skill, wear and tear that come along.

He knows this much: playoff games can be as treacherous as a Westworld loop, and the momentum can reset even quicker.  Nothing that happened before has any bearing on what will happen next.  The only certainty?  Come Monday night Parker will be back in the game, looking to prolong the ride.


Paul George Wishes to Take Legacy Into His Own Hands

Pacers

Apr 15, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) dribbles against Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) in the second quarter in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

By James Holas
Follow @SnottieDrippen

Fighting to be more than an afterthought in the LeBron James era, Paul George opened the Indiana Pacers’ first round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers meeting his nemesis head on…until he couldn’t.

With the game on the line and out of future possessions, the ball was taken out of George’s hands by a double team and, much like his own legacy up to today, his fate was left for someone else to decide. After CJ Miles’ shot clanged off the rim, there appeared to be some frustration:

Two years after snapping his leg like a matchstick, the long-armed wing with lethal ball skills and top flight defensive instincts seemed primed to cement himself among the league’s elite again. GM Larry Bird’s roster overhaul, on paper, made the Pacers sleeker, and with up-tempo point Jeff Teague and stretchy young big Myles Turner, Indiana was ready to make themselves comfy among the Eastern powerhouses.

Cut to the present, and the script has gone off the rails. George’s pacers slogged through a forgettable 42-40 season and staggered into the playoffs, barely clinging to the seventh seed in a weak Eastern Conference. Game One of his first round showdown with his foil, LeBron Jame,s was a microcosm of his Pacers’ saga.

“Playoff Paul George” has been a thing since 2013.

His numbers spike across the board in the postseason, and Saturday was no different. George’s late season surge continued after averaging almost 29 points and eight rebounds over the last five weeks of the season, George’s full repertoire was on display.

Kevin Durant’s combination of height, handle and shot making is second to none, but the 6’9” George, when he’s rolling, poses many of the same matchup nightmares. Snake-quick crossovers into step-backs over JR Smith, stare down threes over Lebron, midrange jumpers in Kevin Love’s mug—Paul George had it all going, and he was happy to give it to whoever Cleveland put in front of him.

With the Pacers down four, with under a minute left, George splashed home a Durantian three to put the Cavaliers under pressure. And with the game in the balance with under 10 seconds left, Paul George absorbed a harried double team and kicked the ball to CJ Miles, then raced to meet a return pass that never came. Miles’ jumper as time expired bounced harmlessly off of the rim, the Cavaliers escaped with a 109-108 win.

The Final tally for Paul George: 29 points, five made threes, five boards, seven assists and yet another loss to the King of the East, his 27th in the 39 games he’s played against a Lebron-led team. There are no moral victories in the NBA, no bonus points for a superstar making the right play in a loss. The seventh-seeded Pacers had everything break their way against the star-studded Cavs, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

The Pacers can’t hang their heads. The rest of the series and the unsolvable riddle of Lebron James is nigh. Paul George will probably be brilliant, and it probably won’t matter. Every story doesn’t have a happy ending. Years down the road, the brilliance of Paul George in the Lebron James era may be but a footnote on James’ glorious resume.


Jimmy Butler Eclipses Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics

Jimmy Butler

Apr 16, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) goes to the basket past Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) and center Kelly Olynyk (41) during the third quarter in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

By Jesse Blanchard

For a moment late in the fourth quarter, Boston Celtics’ star Isaiah Thomas found a slither of daylight near the rim, only to be eclipsed by Chicago Bulls Forward Jimmy Butler for the chase down block.

In the days leading up to this year’s trade deadline, there was much talk about the Celtics going all-in on a trade for Butler, with Boston ultimately standing pat.

The arguments against seemed reasonable at the time, with doubts over whether Butler’s inclusion would be enough to unseat the Cleveland Cavaliers. Such doubts were amplified by upcoming contracts to sort through, with a number of team-friendly Boston deals coming up for pay raises.

With a cache of prime future draft picks, future flexibility is very appealing.

But one report, if valid, seems like a knife-turning, secondary dagger to Butler’s 30-point, nine-rebound performance in the Bulls’ 106-102 upset of the Celtics.

Near the deadline, TNT’s David Aldridge reported that the sticking point over any deal between Chicago and Boston was Jae Crowder.

Now, Crowder is a fine player on a value contract who checks off all the boxes needed for an analytics’ plus-minus love crush. He spaces the floor, makes smart decisions and provides quality defensive versatility across several positions. Any team would be lucky to have him.

But this weekend was a reminder of how much we can overthink things, and that Crowder should never be a sticking point in a deal for a superstar like Butler.

Jimmy Butler scored coming off pindown screens for jumpers, in rhythm three-pointers, and muscling drives—often with Crowder getting a front row view. That he did so without always dominating the ball figures to translate well into any scheme Brad Stevens could come up with.

It would take a lot for the Celtics’ assets to turn into a core better than they have in Al Horford, Thomas and a slew of quality role players headed by a brilliant tactician. The last time they held so many aces up their sleeves, Boston whiffed on Tim Duncan one year and missed out on Tony Parker another.

This weekend was a reminder of the advantage of having the best player in a seven-game series, and with Paul George and a lesser Pacers’ team taking the Cavaliers to the brink in the game one, it’s a reminder that opportunities can be as fleeting as Thomas’ path to the rim.


Warriors

April 16, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) celebrates with guard Shaun Livingston (34) against the Portland Trail Blazers during the fourth quarter in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Trail Blazers 121-109. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

By Jesse Blanchard

There were fireworks abound to open the playoff series between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers, with the Warriors taking a 121-109 victory. But no three-point bombs burned as brightly as the fire in Draymond Green.

CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard combined for 75 points, shooting 57.1 and 46.2 percent, respectively, but Green managed to disconnect the pair from their teammates just enough for the Warriors’ offense to outpace them.

Green isn’t the best or even most important player on the Warriors’ roster (that distinction goes to Stephen Curry), but he, as much as anyone, makes them unfair.

In a season swooning for triple-doubles, Green showed the true measure of all-around brilliance, posting 19 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, five blocks and three steals.

It is true that he doesn’t generate the volume or momentum in the same singular way Russell Westbrook does, but he fills in the gaps and the stat sheet in ways that aren’t fully reflected by his box score.

The ability to grab a rebound in traffic and quickly make a long outlet to Kevin Durant for a dunk is just as valuable as Westbrook’s end-to-end flurries off uncontested rebounds. Green is a one-man short circuit to most switching defenses, catching Lillard in the post and making the touch pass lob to Javale McGee.

Defensively, the blocks will make noise, as they should. Offensive players can meet Green at the rim head on, get into his body, and still fall victim to his long arms—making Green a more versatile shot blocker than those who simply come from the weak side.

But it’s his ability to slide his feet with the likes of Lillard or McCollum to wall off the paint, then rotate over to bump a cutter, then make one more rotation to alter a shot—all on the same possession—that makes him such a truly horrifying defensive player.

Draymond Green is the Warriors’ Swiss Army knife forged with American steel in flames that threaten to consume him if he doesn’t unleash it all on opponents. In Lillard and McCollum, the Trail Blazers have a backcourt that can approximate the firepower the Warriors bring to the mix. But even they can’t be everywhere at once in the same way Draymond Green can.


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