September 5, 2020, 2:24 am
We’re fully onto the second round now, with one series on the precipice of becoming a thriller, two that look all but done (despite one being a 1-0 affair) and one whose early results might have surprised some people. Any way you look at it, we’re deep into the bubble, and for those still there the grind is really setting in. It’s been 60 days and teams are all aiming to extend their stay.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone made some waves this afternoon, decrying the NBA’s decision not to allow coaches to have guests inside the bubble. Teams have been cleared to bring additional personnel into the bubble, with many opting for another coach or a video coordinator, or in the case of the Raptors, a staffer who will be acting as a family liaison. That role is necessary, of course, because players are now allowed to have family members with them. Referees are also permitted family in Orlando.
While the NBA has done a great job securing the bubble at Disney World, it’s a bit arbitrary, and frankly harsh, that coaches are left on an island. That’s not to say that the coaches deserve to have families there over the refs — nobody should be kept from their families this long, regardless of their role in the league. It’s unclear why this is where the NBA drew the line in the sand, but it’s unfortunate. We’ve already hear from a few different people how mentally taxing the bubble environment can be, but the grind has just begun. The playoffs aren’t even halfway done yet. Everyone involved has made a commendable sacrifice just to get us this far, and hopefully those who are allowed to see their loved ones can get a much-needed recharge as a result.
This Bud’s For Who?
Miami took a commanding 3-0 series lead over the top-seeded Bucks thanks to a stifling fourth quarter where the Heat outscored Milwaukee by an insane 40-13 margin. Jimmy Butler individually outscored the Bucks in the frame, with Miami quickly erasing their eight-point deficit from the first three quarters. The Heat, led by Butler’s swagger, have simply squeezed the life out of the Bucks, who seem incapable of doing anything new or innovative. We’ll get to them in a second.
The Heat are just relentless, with their versatile wings and forwards doing a great job at taking away Giannis Antetokounmpo’s lanes to the rim. A swarming, switching defense has kept the Bucks away from their Plan A all series long and put it to bed with 12 fantastic minutes. Bam Adebayo has been particularly effective in checking Giannis and stuffed the box score with 20 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and two blocks tonight, going 7-of-8 from the field in the process. He’s almost the perfect big for today’s NBA, and few teams boast true centers with the strength and athleticism to check the reigning MVP.
Offensively they’ve made quick work of a rigid Bucks team that almost refuses to switch, exploiting drop coverage and bombing away from deep whenever the Bucks collapse too far. Tonight Jae Crowder dropped the dagger, part of a performance that featured five 3-pointers en route to 17 points, four rebounds and five assists. Goran Dragic looks like The Dragon again, netting 15 points, five boards, three assists, two steals, a block and three triples of his own. Butler led a parade to the free throw line, where he was an uncharacteristic 14-of-19, but still cooked with 30 points, seven rebounds, six assists, one steal and two threes. He’s been the best player in this series, and it hasn’t been by a slim margin either.
As for the Bucks, Mike Budenholzer looks like a dead man walking. Giannis Antetokounmpo tweaked his ankle at one point, yes, but to have him at 35 minutes when you’re down two games is coaching malpractice. To refer to 35 minutes as “pushing the ceiling” of how much Giannis can play after the fact is pretty much the final nail in the coffin here unless Milwaukee pulls off a miracle.
So much of the talk around this series has been reductive in terms of Bud ‘refusing’ to change the game plan (and Giannis not throwing the team’s defensive identity out the window to guard Butler one-on-one in some stupid quest for narrative), but it seems like his only adjustment for Game 3 was to cut Pat Connaughton from the rotation. Fine, since he hasn’t been playing well, and Donte DiVincenzo made the choice easy with 10 points and two threes in 21 relatively effective minutes off the bench tonight. But there’s got to be more. Milwaukee is banging its head against a brick wall, as if they’ve learned nothing from the way the Raptors locked down a more dynamic version of this same team a year ago.
It’s a chicken and egg problem at its core. Budenholzer is getting outclassed right now, but his hands are somewhat tied. There’s no actual tweak that the Bucks can make here that changes things substantially unless they totally alter the way they play, which is something they didn’t even dabble with despite the fact that they had the top seed locked up by the All Star break. Nobody on the bench is going to tilt the scales, or even make the team look any different by replacing a starter. The Bucks pushed all their chips into playing one way and smart teams have figured it out. It’s hard to look at this roster and find a way for Budenholzer to dramatically affect the way they play. It’s got to be the same way every single night, as Milwaukee simply can’t morph into different versions of themselves like the other three remaining teams in the Eastern Conference can.
While the fact that the Bucks haven’t tried anything new lays at Bud’s feet, the fact that they can be ripped apart by a competent playoff team falls on management and the roster they’ve assembled. Deciding to sign Eric Bledsoe is a move that has already aged poorly, especially as it cost Milwaukee Malcolm Brogdon. Bledsoe is a one-way player who gets no respect as an offensive threat. He was 2-of-9 from the field in 30 minutes tonight, getting less playing time than George Hill. And although Brogdon won’t fix all of the team’s problems, Milwaukee is aching for another scoring threat right now, as well as someone who can handle the ball and relieve pressure from their top two.
Antetokounmpo is a transcendent star but simply lacks an ace up his sleeve. If the defense is walling him off from the rim, which they are, there’s no threat of a mid-range or 3-point game. Even when he does get to the rim, the Heat can just get as physical as possible and send him to the line, where he went 7-of-12 tonight. Giannis finished the game 7-of-21 from the field (0-of-7 from deep) for 21 points with 16 rebounds, nine assists, one steal and two blocks.
When Antetokounmpo is being smothered, none of the Bucks, save for Khris Middleton in short stretches, is capable of lifting the rest of the team. The offense is unimaginative, yes, but it’s been built without any variety. Besides Middleton, which other players on this roster will do more than stand at the arc and jack up threes? If they could, which of them could do it over the course of a whole game?
Of course, that the roster prohibits significant mid-year and mid-game changes paints Budenholzer’s rotations in an even worse light. There’s no big makeover coming. No boosted tempo, no slugfests, no box-and-one. A quick change can reek of panic but it’s now been two seasons of the same story, with Antetokounmpo’s free agency looming over everything the team does. If you’re not panicking now then all has already been lost. The MVP has to get more than 35 minutes with the season on the line. It’s the only shot Milwaukee has left, and it’s probably too late anyway.
James Harden’s Usual
While the Lakers are certainly imposing, Friday had to have felt like a vacation for James Harden. After being harassed by Lu Dort all series against OKC, Harden now gets to toy with his food in the form of LA’s wimpy guard and wing rotation. There’s nobody on the Lakers besides LeBron James that can bring the physicality to throw The Beard off his game, and you know the Lakers don’t want to tax James like that given how important he is to the team’s offense. Harden feasted in Game 1 here after his defense saved the day in Game 7 against the Thunder, putting up 36 points, two rebounds, five assists, two steals, a block and three triples on 12-of-20 from the field. Russell Westbrook joined him, going for 24 points, nine rebounds, six assists, one steal and one triple. A lot of talk will be dedicated to the Lakers’ lack of 3-point shooting, but what really killed them here was the ease with which Houston got into the paint and how easily they generated points off turnovers. If you can’t keep Harden and Westbrook from charging to the rim, it’s going to be a very long series.
Eric Gordon (23 points, three triples) started off the game covering James defensively but the plan was pretty straightforward. Gordon starts on LeBron, PJ Tucker starts on Anthony Davis, and everyone switches like hell to limit LA’s ability to get downhill. That most of Houston’s roster features players of a similar build takes away obvious mismatches for anyone who isn’t a big, and they continue to thread the needle of inviting other teams to try to overpower them with size. You might think that you can bully the Rockets with big men, but that just isn’t the case. Tucker was a particular menace, with six points and nine rebounds in the box score masking how important he was in stonewalling the Lakers’ offense tonight. Robert Covington only took three shots in 39 minutes but was solid as well, collecting four steals, a block and two threes.
As for the Lakers, there’s some easy things to clean up. Frank Vogel was hopeful to get Rajon Rondo (back spasms) back into the lineup. Unfortunately for Lakers fans, Vogel’s enthusiasm was legitimate. Rondo played an absurd 25 minutes tonight, putting the Lakers in mud whenever he was on the floor. He had eight points, four assists, two steals, a block and two 3-pointers in his first game action since March but there’s no need for him to play this much, if at all. If Vogel insists on keeping Rondo in the rotation, he simply cannot play a minute alongside LeBron — it takes the ball out of James’ hands and cramps the floor even further with the Lakers continuing to miss threes. Danny Green stayed slumping with 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit 2-of-8 shots for five points and Kyle Kuzma was borderline useless with eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
If anything, the Lakers need a ball-handler who can keep the pace a little more frenetic while offering a threat to score. We’ll stop short of advocating for Dion Waiters, but it’s an option that Vogel needs to be seriously considering. Simply playing Alex Caruso, who is actually a good defender, more is the easiest call. No matter what, the Lakers need someone else initiating the offense every so often. Asking LeBron and Davis to start things up top every time is playing into Houston’s hands. Tonight’s contest felt like the Rockets were at the helm, playing the game on their terms.
As for the box score, James was relatively quiet with 20 points, eight boards, seven assists and two threes, and he remarked on Houston’s speed after the game. The Rockets basically ran LA into the ground and nobody besides Caruso was able to provide the energy to match. Davis led the charge with a solid line of 25 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, three blocks and a 3-pointer on 10-of-16 from the field, but that he went off and the Rockets won comfortably is probably a sign of concern. AD can absolutely dominate this matchup but that may result in the Lakers trading twos for threes. There’s been a ton of talk about Davis needing to play center, but this is probably the matchup where the Lakers need to keep him at the four. The stress test for the Rockets is if they have to defend multiple bigs, not just guarding one guy in the post who everyone knows is getting the ball.
Kelly Olynyk (right knee) was forced to miss Game 3, with Meyers Leonard getting some spot minutes in his place. KO gives the Heat some more versatility than Leonard, of course, so we’ll see if they bring him back for Game 4. Things got right down to the wire today so it doesn’t seem like a long-term issue.
The only bad bit of news out of Houston’s Friday was that Danuel House (head) was unable to return to the win, though the Rockets went out of their way to say that he was not in concussion protocol.
Not much in the East, with Tremont Waters (left knee sprain) questionable and Vincent Poirier (personal) out for Game 3. Neither was going to suit up outside of garbage time regardless.
Patrick Beverley (left calf) played in Game 1 but got just 12 minutes in a blowout. We’ll see how close to 100% he is in Game 2.