September 1, 2020, 4:42 am
The NBA served up two games on Monday night and there was no shortage of excitement and basketball action. The Heat took a 1-0 series lead over the top-seeded Bucks. A bit of a surprise to almost everyone except veteran Jimmy Butler. In the second game, a seemingly ageless Chris Paul used his experience, skill and savvy to lift the Thunder over the Rockets and for a Game 7.
Turning Up The Heat
The remaining four teams in the Eastern Conference are definitely at the top of their game and are all serious contenders for the title. Competition is heating up and no team can and should rest on their laurels because no opposition can be taken for granted – a tough lesson learned by the Bucks tonight.
Coming into this series, the Bucks were favored to come away with the Game 1 win. However, someone forgot to pass along that memo to Jimmy Butler, who torched Giannis Antetokounmpo and company with an explosive 40-point performance. His strong play allowed the Heat to come away with the Game 1 win to the tune of a 115-104 end score. Considering that the Bucks had the Defensive Player of the Year on their side, it was a head-turner that Butler was able to pop off like that. He was on a tear, shooting 13-of-20 from the field. And when the Bucks tried to slow him down, they instead sent him to the line, where he punished them with 12-of-13 shooting from the stripe. His was actually a superb two-way performance, adding two steals and one block while committing only one personal foul. Plain and simple, Jimmy B shooled the Bucks. Hard.
Speaking of “schooling,” there was a lot to process here for the Bucks. For Giannis especially, who posted a very lackluster performance. While he did flirt with a triple-double, Giannis committed six turnovers and went an abysmal 4-for-12 at the line – not the kind of night that inspires winning basketball at all. He was off his game and will need to refocus if he’s going to lead his Herd to a Game 2 win and even up the series. This is a key crossroad for the Greek Freak. The Heat have a great coach and a bulldog of a vet in Butler, so Antetokounmpo will have to be the one doing the stifling while keeping his own composure. Make no mistake, he and Butler will be going toe-to-toe more than once before this series is over and done with, which means that it’s either he brings his A-game or goes home earlier than intended.
Of course, Butler and Antetokounmpo didn’t play one-on-one. On the Heat side, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic came up big. Adebayo was Chairman of the Boards in this game with 17 rebounds to go along with his 12 points, six dimes and two steals. Dragic, for his part, played an excellent game. Call him old all you want, but the 34-year-old Slovenian Dragon brought the fire tonight with his 27 points (9-of-15 FG, 7-of-7 FT), six boards and five assists. 2019-20 has been an Adebayo coming out party and tonight he put his athleticism and improved game on full display. He did what needed to be done and became the rebounding point-center that complemented Butler and Dragic to a tee.
The Bucks were without Eric Bledsoe and George Hill just didn’t cut it. It was a good thing that both Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez came out to play tonight, putting up 28 and 24 points, respectively, each hitting four 3s apiece. Well and good but at the end of day, it was defense and strong work on the glass was what took the Heat over the top.
The Heat will just need to keep on replicating tonight’s success for three more games in order to advance to the Eastern Conference championships. The Bucks, on the other hand, will need to need to crank things up several notches as far as work on the defensive end is concerned.
Stolen (Traded) Thunder
It’s time to stop underestimating the Thunder. Seriously. Just ask the Rockets, who learned the hard way that this supposedly “rebuilding team” are no pushovers. Thunder emerged victorious in Game 6, downing the favored Rockets 104-100, riding on an impressive vintage performance from Chris Paul.
After the dust settles in this series, it will be judged mainly on one thing – whether or not the Rockets’ decision to trade Chris Paul (and picks) for Russell Westbrook was the right decision. Westbrook is coming off a restrictive injury and is not quite 100 percent just yet. On the other hand, previously injury-prone Chris Paul has managed to stay healthy and keep his hamstrings fast and loose, kind of like his play on the open floor. So, on a player-v-player comparison, it isn’t exactly fair. It will actually all boil down to which team winds up victorious in Game 7 and will be taking home the bacon, instead of just going home empty-handed.
If you told me that the Rockets-Thunder series would go to a Game 7, I wouldn’t believe you at all. As far as I’m concerned, the Thunder have managed to overperform beyond any expectations I’ve set for them and it’s been resulting in some amazing basketball. For what it’s worth, Chris Paul has been key and instrumental in making them click as a team, part of why he’s a shoo-in to be a future Hall-of-Famer. He plays at an elite level and elevates his teammates to rise above their limits and it allowed them to push the Rockets to the brink – who knows, maybe even pull off an unexpected, mind-blowing upset.
Paul did it all tonight, exploding for 28 points (10-of-20 FG, 5-of-5 FT), three treys, seven rebounds, three assists and three steals. He committed zero turnovers, which says a lot and it undoubtedly set the context for the Thunder. Even though Shai Gilgeous-Alexander took somewhat of a backseat in this one with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting, he did still help facilitate the offense with his team-high six assists. It was really more of a veteran’s show as Danilo Gallinari played Robin to CP3’s Batman and chipped in 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting (four 3s), five rebounds, one assist and two steals.
On the Rockets’ side, Westbrook looked like he did more harm than good with his seven turnovers. He did score 17 points in his 27 minutes on the floor, for whatever that was worth. James Harden scored 32 points and added eight rebounds, seven assists and three triples, but we expect that kind of thing by now and we’re all accustomed to seeing him do that kind of thing night in and night out. But whether or not the Rockets win with Harden going off has been in question on multiple occasions.
Robert Covington was the Rockets’ unsung hero, whose heroics were valiant but unfortunately not enough. He brought an amazing two-way performance with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting (four 3s), five rebounds, five steals and three blocks. If only he could do this kind of thing on a regular basis… That said, he did do it tonight and yet the Rockets still lost.
All I can say is that I can’t wait one minute for Game 7 to take place. Both teams will bring it hard and leave it all on the line. For what it’s worth and just to put it out there, I’m rooting for the underdog Thunder to complete the stunning upset over the Rockets.