August 30, 2020, 11:22 pm
After a trying, emotional week, we’re back to playoff basketball. There was some sloppiness in this weekend’s games, which shouldn’t be all that surprising considering the players’ existential conversation and the continued racial injustice plaguing America. Some minds are clearly adrift but the playoffs are going full steam ahead as the weight of what the NBA is trying to accomplish continues to add pressure to an already-demanding bubble situation.
Paul George and Danny Green have spoken about how negative the bubble can be, especially for mental health, as there’s no escape from anything. You’re either watching basketball or checking your phone, where the public reaction can be extremely harsh. Combine that with what’s going on outside the bubble, and the emotions that the Black community has to grapple with every day, and it’s no wonder that the season was pushed to the brink. The lack of a family support system in Orlando is huge, and being away from loved ones hits even harder in the wake of another instance of racial injustice. That the players collectively came close to walking away after the Jacob Blake shooting should come as no surprise given how many players were openly debating whether or not they even wanted to return to play — either individually or as a league. For as much work as the NBA had done to further the players’ cause, t-shirts and floor logos can only do so much. The players used their power to push for meaningful action instead of empty gestures, and while there is still a long way to go it is a positive start.
The Bucks got Wisconsin’s Attorney General on the phone within a couple hours of deciding not to play in Game 5. That’s power. We’ll see what unfolds next, but the players seem prepared to keep applying upward pressure on the NBA’s owners, who have the wealth and connections to actually improve the state of the world more than some commercials ever could. The NBA and its players are not meant to fix all that ails modern American society, but it is inspiring to see them try in the middle of their own unique situation.
As for the on-court action, the Celtics’ shooters got off to a roaring start in a Game 1 romp over the Raptors, who found a lid on the rim for much of the day. The Heat and the Bucks are set to dance in what should be a fun, physical matchup. Kawhi Leonard was just slightly better than Luka Doncic as the Clippers dispatched the Mavs. We’re still waiting on the two middle series in the Western Conference to wrap up before filling out our second round brackets, but the possible matchups look outstanding either way.
If the Jazz win Game 7, they’ll take on the Lakers. While LA got it sorted out in time against Portland, Donovan Mitchell should be licking his chops with the way LA’s guard group has played in the postseason. Rudy Gobert will have his hands full with Anthony Davis and LeBron James barrelling to the rim. The Lakers had a hard time getting their secondary guys going against a Swiss cheese Blazers defense and would then have to contend with a feisty Jazz group that hangs its hat on the defensive end.
In that scenario, the Clippers would be set up against either the Rockets or Thunder. If OKC can pull off the upset, we’ll have a great matchup between a Chris Paul-led group that was primed to rebuild facing off against the man whose trade request toppled the entire house of cards. Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander would all be trying to exact their revenge on the Clippers, who haven’t hit their top gear after being anointed in the offseason. The Clips would otherwise have a date with The Beard and The Brodie, whose switch-everything roster might be enough to wear down Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. No team plays as distinctly as the Rockets, making them a fascinating opponent for just about anyone they’d come across.
If the Nuggets win Game 7, they’ll take on the Clippers. It’s not a great proposition given Denver’s still missing Will Barton and deploying a limited Gary Harris, but Nikola Jokic should be able to feast on Ivica Zubac down low while Jamal Murray would have a chance to enjoy a game or two with Patrick Beverley either limited or absent entirely. The way Murray’s going, it might not matter who’s in front of him.
That would set up the Lakers against either Houston or OKC, with the Lakers’ lack of guards presenting a problem in either case. If the Rockets get hot from deep, the Lakers may simply not have enough firepower to keep up, especially if Danny Green continues to slump. Their small-ball lineup will also present some unique stylistic choices for LA offensively, though PJ Tucker and Robert Covington are plenty capable of rising to the defensive challenge despite being a little undersized. On the flip side, watching CP3 try and pick apart a Lakers defense that’s found its mojo will be a treat; like a master safe cracker at the vault doors. The Thunder will also get a little more use out of Steven Adams than they did against Houston.
Both LA teams would be favored in either matchup, but behind closed doors they’re both probably rooting for whatever keeps them away from the Rockets.
As for the picks, let’s go with the Nuggets over the Jazz in Game 7. Utah just doesn’t appear to have the offensive firepower to keep up if Donovan Mitchell isn’t playing out of his mind. The return of Gary Harris, even in a limited role, will allow Mike Malone to dial back Michael Porter Jr.’s minutes, taking away Utah’s main exploit. They can’t just spam attack the rookie for free points; well they can, just in 20 minutes instead of 28. In the end, there seem to be more ways for the Nuggets to win than the Jazz have, if that makes sense.
Initially I picked the Thunder in seven, so I’m bound to that, but if I had to do it all again I’d take the Rockets in six. OKC just wasn’t able to capitalize enough on Russell Westbrook’s early absence, and the Rockets are now at full strength with the Thunder having no margin for error. The optimistic Thunder supporters out there can talk themselves into Westbrook’s return (he was very inefficient in Game 5) maybe gumming up the works, as he won’t be able to jump right back into rhythm — maybe. Plus, betting against a cagey, motivated Paul is never a safe call. We’ll see what happens.
There’s going to be some variables in the West as the Lakers and Clippers wait for the other series to wrap up. And since the series will be going every-other-day, we’ll take a look at things by matchup rather than by calendar date.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat
Game 1: Monday, 6:30 PM EST
Game 2: Wednesday, 6:30 PM EST
Game 3: Friday, TBD
Game 4: Sunday, TBD
Toronto Raptors vs. Boston Celtics
Game 2: Tuesday, 5:30 PM EST
Game 3: Thursday, 6:30 PM EST
Game 4: Saturday, TBD
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets
Game 6: Monday, 9:00 PM EST
Game 7 (if necessary): Wednesday, 9:00 PM EST
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Game 7: Tuesday, 8:30 PM EST
Jimmy Butler (left shoulder strain) says he’s ready to go, which will be huge for Miami. Butler’s never the type to sit out through anything minor so the comments aren’t surprising, but ultimately it’s going to come down to how effective he can be. His left arm was pretty much useless in the second half of the Heat’s Game 4 win against the Pacers, and Butler looked like he was purposely avoiding lifting it. We’ll see how much he’s healed over the last week.
On the other side of that matchup, Eric Bledsoe is questionable to play with a right hamstring strain. His minutes have been down in the bubble, perhaps because he got a late start because of COVID-19, or maybe just because he hasn’t been all that effective. Bledsoe has been stuck between 24 and 28 minutes in each of his first five playoff games, and his lack of shooting is something that opposing defenses are happy to exploit, as we saw in last year’s playoffs. If he can’t go it would mean more work for George Hill and Donte DiVincenzo.
CJ McCollum, who played admirably for the eliminated Blazers, doesn’t believe he’ll need surgery to repair the vertebral fracture in his back. That’s great news and obviously the ailment doesn’t appear to be super serious, given that McCollum still played a ton in the bubble.
Gary Harris made his bubble debut on Sunday and logged 21 minutes. He didn’t have much in the box score but he’s a stabilizing presence on the perimeter that’s going to lift Denver’s floor. We’ll see how much he gets in Game 7.