NBA Playoff Things Week 2: Dame Lillard, Some New Enemies, and A Little Bit of Déjà vu

For those of you who missed the week one edition and are wondering what this is about, click right here to read that article and get caught up on what this is about. Otherwise, let’s get right into my NBA Playoff Things for week two!

  1. Greg Monroe, my New Mortal Enemy

It’s understandable that a Sixers fan like yours truly was very upset upon hearing that Joel Embiid would not be playing in game three of the Sixers-Nets series. However, I near collapsed upon hearing that Brett Brown had decided to start Greg Monroe in Embiid’s absence. My instinctual terror proved accurate as Monroe stunk up the Barclays Center with his incapability od defending the pick and roll. I’m talking like 2017 Enes Kanter level of incapability here. Often Jarrett Allen would sprint from under the basket to the top of the key in order to defend a Brooklyn guard’s defender with a quick screen, only Monroe would hang in the paint, pretending that he was communicating with another Sixer, and allowing straight line penetration for players like D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert. LeVert in particular took advantage of Monroe’s incompetence by going for 26 points, mostly composed of “I’m so wide open I can check the wind before I shoot” ten-foot pull ups.

If Embiid doesn’t play in other games this postseason (highly likely considering the severity of his knee problems), then Brett has at least three better options then rolling out the corpse of Greg Monroe at center. First, he could just give more minutes to the beloved Boban Marjanovic, who has some of the same defensive struggles as Monroe, but can actually cancel out his defensive deficiencies with how destructive he is on offense. Monroe by comparison, shot four of thirteen from the field in game 3 and further destroys court spacing, as he lacks Bobi’s soft touch from midrange as well. It’s laughable for a player to shoot 31% from the field when all his shots were either layups or hook shots. Brown could also dig up Jonah Bolden, who in recent weeks got buried at the end of the bench, and accept the youngster’s offensive weaknesses in order to get quicker and more switchable on the defensive end of the floor. But in this case, the best solution is the modern solution. The Sixers blew open game three when they put Ben Simmons in as the small ball five, as Simmons can switch onto anyone of pick and rolls, is big enough that he can still bang with the opposing bigs for rebounds, and is absolutely devastating as a screener on offense, being able to play make and attack the rim like Draymond used to do for the pre-Durant Warriors.

Although, literally anything would’ve been better than watching Monroe’s low effort, poorly thought out tactics in defending the pick and roll. The Sixers can get away with it against a team like the Nets, but this kind of coaching blunder in rotation design will cost you against teams like the Bucks, Celtics, and Raptors.

  1. Dame Lillard Baby!

Oh my goodness. I am so thankful that I forced myself to stay up into the wee hours of the night to watch the totality of game five in the Blazers-Thunder series, unlike last week, as I woke up in the morning realizing I had missed the thirty one point Clippers comeback.

A brief recap for any who did not have my good fortune in witnessing this game: Dame had an unbelievable scoring night right away, dropping thirty-four points in the first half, and with three minutes left in the third quarter, the Blazers had finally pulled head to take a nine point lead. What ensued was a rollicking nine minute run by the Thunder in which they outscored the Blazers 30 to 6. It was a barrage led by Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Dennis Schroeder, who each hit multiple threes in the run and finished with 36, 29, and 17 points respectively. Somehow, the Blazers kept believing that they would win. Down 15 with six minutes left, the Blazers climbed all the way back, as CJ McCollum finally got going in the fourth quarter, as the Blazers scored eight points in a row in under two minutes to tie the game at 113 with fifty seconds left. A Paul George mid range jumper followed seconds later by a Lillard reverse layup once again tied the game at 115 with thirty seconds left, setting up the soon-to-be legendary finish. Westbrook, in his typical fashion, put his head down and drove recklessly into the lane and threw up a layup without looking at the rim, which careened off the backboard to the Blazers. Worst of all, Westbrook took off way too early as he could’ve run the clock down to at least ten seconds, but instead gave Dame the ball with a whole eighteen seconds, a terrible mismanagement of the clock which has been a trademark of Westbrook’s career. Dame then calmly dribbled up the court with Paul George, an elite defender staring him down. Dame sat dribbling at the logo on the court with the time counting down, as George stood in his position at the top of the key. As I saw the clock get under five seconds, I immediately said, “He’s gonna pull it from the logo,” and if I was an OKC fan I would’ve screamed, “Paul, get up on him!!!” I think you all know what happens next. Lillard hits the half-court heave at the buzzer for his 50th point on the night, waves bye bye to the Thunder, and will now be immortalized in NBA history.

I hope we all remember what this series meant decades from now. That game elevated Dame into my top fifty best players of all time. I’m not being hyperbolic, I was that impressed. Typically, anyone who wins an MVP award in the NBA, being that individual accomplishment in basketball is valued more highly than individual accomplisment in any other team sport, is automatically at the very least a top fifty all time player. Westbrook’s 2017 MVP is about as valid as Lori Loughlin’s Daughter’s SAT scores. We shouldn’t be in the business of giving credit to a highlights and stats guy like Russ, when separated from KD we have seen that he is nothing more than an athletic freak that is completely incapable of properly using his inherent abilities to achieve any meaningful success in the NBA. We should be in the business of giving credit to Lillard, who is just as aggressive as Westbrook, but doesn’t oversell his emotions on the court in a selfish ploy to get the media to back you as “someone who cares 100% of the time” (just watch Westbrook lazily jog back on defense after bricking a layup and tell me he cares as much as everyone says he does). Lillard has officially elevated himself to the ranks of guys like Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and James Harden: transcendent players that will define a generation. Westbrook will be remembered as someone who was very good, but was ultimately a disappointment based on what his talents should have made him as a player.

One last thing. That Paul George comment saying that Lillard’s buzzer beater was, “A bad shot,” that is utterly ridiculous and just more proof that the culture of the OKC Thunder is far to confrontational and anger-driven for them to ever be a great franchise. Maybe that a bad shot if you’re own point guard is taking it PG, but Lillard shot 39% this year from shots more than thirty-feet from the basket, i.e. a shot from there for Lillard is still more likely to go in than a typical NBA three point shot for the rest of the league. And more importantly, did you not know that Dame had 47 points and had hit nine threes? That Lillard had been unconscious all night and had hit multiple deep, bombs away threes already. If someone is that scorching hot you have to guard him from anywhere, no matter how logical it may seem. Just a horrible excuse by Paul George, who let his team down by not properly defending the best player on the court in that moment. Just horrible.

  1. Andre Drummond’s Lack of Touch

Drummond has always lacked consistency, being selected as an all star on every other year since 2016. At times, he gobbles up rebounds, bounces all over the place to dunk in lobs and misses, and even makes nice passes in space. On off nights, he bricks countless free throws, gets lost on defense, and chucks up hapless hook shots that would be fortunate to hit the broad side of a barn door. I unfortunately witness many of those hapless hooks during game 3 of the Bucks-Pistons series. Drummond shot five of fourteen from the field, a.k.a. the guy shot 35.7% with all his attempts coming less than ten feet from the rim. Oof.

It’s not like Drummond was shooting high difficulty shots. In fact, Milwaukee conceded these paint shots to him after he rolled, with a light contest from Lopez being the only deterrent. Drummond does not take lofty shots with beautiful rotation like Dirk or Jokic, rather, he fling floaters to the backboard like he’s slamming a medicine ball. He moves too quickly, too afraid that his opening will close, and rushes a fling to the basket rather than calmly flicking the ball like they teach at youth basketball camps. Being able to make floaters is crucial for centers in the modern game, as the best defenses like Milwaukee will concede those shots in order to prevent layups and stay home on shooters. Get to work Andre.

  1. Marc Gasol’s Awkward Yet Effective Shot

It’s not surprising that Gasol has become a good shooter. He’s always been one of the league’s most coordinated big men, so his sudden jump from shooting no threes to attempting four per game in 2017 was not shocking. What shocked me was watching a VanVleet-Gasol pick and roll where Freddie V. slicked a bounce pass between the collapsing defenders back to Marc Gasol, who bunny hopped into a mid range, two handed push shot from the elbow, which softly swished through the netting. I was again in disbelief when Gasol shot a quick top of the key three over Vucevic, who had fallen asleep for just a split second. Gasol had the ball at his waist, and unlike most players that shoot above their head or at eye level, Gasol seemed to start his shot motion from his chest. You would think his shot release would be high considering he spends most of his time in the paint shooting over fellow seven foot behemoths, and in the paint Gasol shoot above his head, but clearly his natural shooting motion is that of the low release. He then proceeded to push the ball with both hands, the right hand having slightly more extension, but the left certainly having a small follow through itself. It looked so awkward that I thought it was an incoming Drummond-like brick due to his body’s movements alone. I forgot that Marc Gasol, who shot 44% from three this year, was the shot-taker. Just a reminder that wacky fundamentals are fine as long as it goes in.

  1. Running Royce O’Neale

I am not an explosive athlete in any sense of the word. Therefore, I learned to take advantages that gave me “artificial athleticism” on the court. One of those advantages is learning how to turn a player’s momentum against them. If someone on our team had penetrated the lane, kicked out, and the ball was being swung around the arc as the defenders scrambled to close outs, I knew what to do. Without hesitation, as soon as I would catch the ball, I would immediately take off dribbling to the whole at whatever side of my body the defender did not close out on. No matter how well they chopped their feet, I could scoot by all of them as they simply weren’t ready for another instant change of direction after already busting it to close out on a shooter like myself.

Royce O’Neale does this and more for the Utah Jazz. Sensing that the ball might be coming his way after his defender helps on a drive by one of his teammates, Royce does not wait to shoot a standard three pointer (even though he’s a solid three point shooter at 38.6%). Rather, Rolls Royce revs up his engine and begins sprinting as he sees the pass coming, catching it and then pounding it to his dribble simultaneously, giving him a near whole step past his man, and an easy path to the hoop for a finish. O’Neale makes up for his lack of athleticism and length by making strong and smart plays like this. He takes advantage of things that more talented players take for granted. He’s been an enormous plus for the Jazz in what has otherwise been a train wreck of a series for them against the Rockets. It speaks for itself when Royce, as enjoyable as he is, has been your second or third best player for the series by a wide margin. Too bad. I’d go to battle with Royce any day for what it’s worth.

           6. Horrible Aesthetics in OKC

I get it. Players like wearing colorful and almost wacky uniforms. They find the attention that the new jersey designs bring appealing, and so, at any chance they get, NBA teams nowadays bypass the traditions of white uniforms for the home team and the road teams wearing one solid dark color. Teams often flip the traditional distinction, which is not ideal in my eyes, but I can certainly live with it (the same cannot be said of some other people I know). However, a line is crossed when both teams wear colors.

For some reason, though, the Blazers and the Thunder always seem to violate this principle. I witnessed at least two of their four regular season games in which the Thunder came adorned in their traditional blue, while the Blazers simultaneously dawned their reds. But game three in Oklahoma City was so painful to look at that I thought might actually issue a fine to the PR staff of the Thunder.

The Blazers came in their astonishingly bright red jerseys, already an eye sore at times, yet the Thunder somehow topped their blunder by coming out in their turquoise blue, city edition jerseys–a bold choice to say the least. But somehow, we weren’t done there. I actually enjoy the newly founded tradition of home teams distributing matching t-shirts to the entire crowd of a playoff game. It create a sense of unity amongst the fans and with their team, like it really is the whole population of the arena against that opponents. OKC has always been the best at this. They’re crowds are famous for being loud and raucous, as well as constantly standing and being engaged in the action. Just watch the OKC home games back in the 2014 Western Conference Finals against San Antonio, it’s just a marvelous delight. Unfortunately, the Thunder failed us in game three. Already disturbed by the clash of red and turquoise, all members of the OKC crowd were wearing bright orange t-shirts, creating an unholy disturbance in the color spectrum. Thankfully, the Thunder got their just due for their sins, getting blown out by the Blazers in game four, almost certainly headed for another first round exit. The lesson here is that all a fan really wants is to watch basketball in the easiest way possible, and the worst thing a team or a network can do is produce a visual effect such as this that takes away from what is by itself great entertainment. The only question now is what will look uglier years from now: this game’s color palette, or Russell Westbrook’s contract?

  1. Bogut over Boogie

Everyone knows it was tough to see Boogie go down on a non-contact injury. Even though DeMarcus Cousins can be a jerk, no one wishes such devastating injuries on such a physically blessed athlete. But if I can zig where everyone else is zagging here, this Boogie injury could possibly be a blessing in disguise.

Now I’m not saying they’re a better team in totality without Boogie in the lineup. Boogie’s absence could very well be missed next round, as Golden State would probably like to take advantage of Houston’s switch everything defense by posting up Boogie for easy buckets. But in the famous words of someone who I am forgetting right now, “Sometimes you’re only one injury away from a championship.”

Andrew Bogut, brought back to Golden State where he belongs, fits better with the rotation in my opinion. He never tries to do anything he can’t and leaves the shots Golden State’s superstars. He is an infinitely better defender than Bogut, as he busts his butt to rotate just a little bit harder, and the timing when he try to block shots in order to serve as a much needed rim protector.

The Warriors had begun to look a little flat with Boogie. Opponents hunted him down with pick and rolls praying that they could get him to switch onto smaller guards (see Lou Williams against the Warriors in game one). On offense, Boogie’s three point percentage dropped to a morbid 27.3%, and since he was still more than willing to jack long range shots, opposing defenses now had two Warriors starters they could sag off on in order to clog the lane. Bogut will be more willing to serve as a roller rather than a popper off of ball screens, which is probably a better strategy than taking a shot you make one out of every four tries.

Again, it probably would’ve been better for Golden State had Boogie not injured his quad while chasing down that loose ball, but don’t be surprised if the Warriors and Zombie Bogut look really dangerous at times.

           8. Andre Igoudala’s Short Space Playmaking

Iggy has always been regarded as one of the league’s smartest players. Always knowing when to make the right passes, when to take his shots, when to lock it in on defense, and how to conserve himself for the playoff time. I noticed in Warriors-Clippers game four another reason why I appreciate Iggy so much. The Clippers were high hedging pick and rolls, trying to get the ball out of Curry and Durant’s hands. To their credit, both did their job, willing to slip bounce passes to their screener, Iggy, now operating in space at the free throw line. Iggy took it from there. He would take one elongated dribble and step to the rim, and now the defense is scrambling. Iggy is athletic enough that if a defender doesn’t completely sell out to try and block his shot, that he’ll stuff it through the rim and the defender’s head. Thus, the defender often opts in favor of jumping for the block, and sensing this, Iggy against the Clippers would shovel it off to a Warrior waiting in the dunker’s spot, often Draymond Green or a surprisingly useful Kevon Looney. And don’t even try keeping all your defenders in the paint to funnel this, Iggy will sense that immediately and look to flip the ball for a deadly corner three immediately. There are very few guys that combine athleticism and intelligence so seamlessly, and it’s why Iggy, who will never make the Hall of Fame, will at least be remembered in the Hall of Really Really Good.

              9. The CJ McCollum Resurgence

I’ve gone back and forth with CJ. I liked him even before he emerged as the league’s Most Improved Player in 2016, strangely because back when I played a lot of NBA2K15, I could always score a lot with CJ. Strange, but true. Anyways, I was high on CJ for a while, as I even began to ponder in 2017 (the year in which the Blazers disappointed most of us finishing as a 42-40 eighth seed) that Portland should trade Lillard and build around McCollum. I then came back to reasonability. Lillard kept balling out, CJ’s play stagnated. Some began to argue he should be an all-star, I saw him as nothing more than a scorer that doesn’t make other better and is an absolute defensive liability. That suspicion was re-affirmed this season, CJ’s worst in years.

But man oh man, has CJ turned it around. Lost in the Lillard-Westbrook duel is how no one, not even Paul George, could contain CJ. What’s really surprising is that CJ, always elite at mid-range pull ups, is now launching off the dribble threes. I swear I haven’t seen him miss one yet. Just watch how nasty these threes are, especially the instance where he rejected the ball screen with a nasty cross into a deep shot. CJ finished the series averaging 24.4 points per game and shooting over 40% from three, and even after struggling for all of game five, CJ put the team on his back from the six to two minute stretch in the fourth quarter. He nailed several high-difficulty floaters and pull up jumpers, the most important one being his nasty “I’m gonna hit this right in your eye” seventeen footer after crossing over Paul George. That tied the game and set up the Dame Lillard buzzer beater that I already raved about.

I think I’m rooting for Portland to make the Western Confernence Finals now. They deserve it for all the hard work CJ and Dame have put in, and especially for how they absolutely smacked around a more talented team in OKC. Keep cooking CJ.

           10. Sixers’ Game 4 Déjà vu

I feel like I have to talk about this game because it was by far the most entertaining game to this point. From the back and forth nature of the game’s scoring, to Ben Simmons and Jared Dudley’s developing rivalry, to the free for all fight that spilled over into the crowd, and finally, to the Sixers’ comeback that culminated in a Mike Scott three of all people.

After that now infamous fight, I knew the Sixers would win. Why? Because I saw the same game last year on a lesser scale. Anyone remember the Sixers-Heat series from last year? It was a five-game series that was praised by everyone as the best of the first round for its increased physicality, which started after the Sixers lost a game at home, responded with an emphatic game three road win, then culminated in a fantastic game four. The Sixers trailed nearly the whole game four against Miami last year, a game that even had its own third quarter scuffle. Robert Covington fouled Goran Dragic hard to prevent a fast break layup, Dragic embellished the foul with a flop, and suddenly James Johnson (recently voted the guy most players in the NBA would not want to fight, mind you) rushed over to square up with Covington. From there, the Heat remained in the lead by about four to eight points for rest of the game, up until the last two minutes, when the Sixers finally took control with several clutch baskets, the most memorable being a thunderous Ben Simmons dunk. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound like what just happened in the Sixers-Nets series. Embiid has even been saddled with an injury that caused him to miss one game, similar to Embiid missing time with his broken orbital last year.

The Sixers in back to back years have played as the three seed against the six seed, have played teams that make up for lack of talent with depth and intensity, and have had some of the most entertaining five game series we’ve ever seen. What is it about the Sixers that brings this out? Personally, I think it’s the confrontational, trash-talking attitude of their young starts Simmons and Embiid. Their confidence and swagger enrages other teams, giving us the postseason drama we crave. So far, this mindset has worked well for the Sixers in the first round, but now they need to prove they can use it to overcome a team like the Raptors.