Isaiah Thomas, once believed to be an afterthought as the 60th and final pick in the 2011 draft, has blossomed into a leader, an All-Star in both performance and popularity and has found his NBA home with the only franchise that was willing to give him the real chance he so desperately deserved. The little man—who no longer lives in anonymity and is instead a household name for basketball fans around the world—couldn’t have picked a better night to have his big moment in order to inject life back into his team’s season.
Cleveland’s band of brothers came together to deliver once again, and Kawhi Leonard, fresh off of being crowned Defensive Player of the Year, put together another convincing highlight tape to be submitted to the “Best Two-Way Player in the League” file. If you were wondering, that folder contains mostly other clips of Leonard’s striking and dynamic growth as a player.
We got three good games on a Friday night. Current mood: better than all right.
Cleveland @ Detroit: Cavs 101, Pistons 91
Injuries: Reggie Bullock (DNP, leg)
The Cavaliers hold a commanding three games to none lead, but they’ve had to expend plenty of energy to do it.
Capable of serving as a real hurdle for Cleveland to clear, this Pistons team—which should rack up more than 50 victories next year—again showed just enough to make things interesting before seeing LeBron’s Cavs pull away. Kyrie Irving, who played a phenomenal game with 26 points on 11-of-20 shooting—including a game-sealing 3-point dagger—has continued to look extremely impressive, Kevin Love kept it going with a very tidy double-double (20 points, 12 boards, 7-of-10 FGs) while James added 20 points, 13 rebounds and seven dimes on an inefficient 8-of-24 performance from the floor, including five turnovers. The Three Musketeers finally have it clicking on all cylinders, averaging a combined 70.7 points, 22.0 rebounds and 15.0 assists in the series. LeBron must feel a sigh of relief now that he’s not carrying the load alone. That has never been a good role for him.
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Detroit got solid though unspectacular efforts from all of its starters and actually shot 48.6% from the field, but their (in)ability to hit the long-range shot—6-of-23 from distance—really contributed to what will be their ultimate demise. It was nice to see Reggie Jackson hand out 12 helpers while turning it over once, but a 5-of-16 shooting night—including a 1-of-8 showing from downtown—cannot result in 13 points and a lousy two free throw attempts. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s promising play—18 points, three triples and four steals—is developing into a regular theme, and he keeps looking like an indispensable piece to what Stan Van Gundy is building. KCP is going to be an under-appreciated fantasy asset in drafts next season, meaning he’s a name to stash away on your cheat sheet now. Tobias Harris—who projects as a top-50 value in Detroit—chipped in a versatile 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a steal, a block and a trey.
It had to be hard for Andre Drummond to watch the Pistons season slip away from the bench, and Detroit’s franchise center was the only starter not to exceed 39 minutes in playing time. The final stat line (17 points, seven boards, two blocks, 8-of-14 FGs) is nice enough considering the limited minutes (27), but his issues at the free throw line (1-of-6 in Game 3, 6-of-24 in the series) will serve as a stumbling block in both fantasy and reality unless he can improve in dramatic fashion or there are significant changes to the current ‘Hack-A-Whomever’ rules. Regardless, AD should have no issue commanding max money in restricted free agency this offseason.
Atlanta @ Boston: Celtics 111, Hawks 103
Two technical fouls, three flagrant fouls and one very legitimate first-round playoff series between the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics that would swing heavily in one direction if Isaiah Thomas is subject to suspension for this play.
Fueled by a career-high 42 points from Thomas on 12-of-24 shooting, 5-of-12 3PM and 13-of-15 FTs, the Celtics were able to hold on for Brad Stevens’ first career playoff win. Stevens played switch-a-roo with the first five swapping in Jonas Jerebko and Evan Turner in place of Jared Sullinger and Marcus Smart, a move that paid off as his team built a 17-point cushion after the first 12 minutes. Following that blazing hot start, Boston saw Atlanta climb all the way back despite getting eight points from both Al Horford and Paul Millsap. While Horford was able to provide value in other ways with 13 rebounds, six assists, two steals and four blocks, Millsap really fizzled with more shots (nine) than points (eight) to pair with 10 rebounds and two steals. Millsap—who was remarkably consistent during a true breakout year—has struggled in his last two games, averaging 6.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, a steal and 2.0 blocks on a stinktastic 4-of-21 (19%) showing from the floor.
For the second straight contest, Kyle Korver hit five triples en route to 17 points, and he’s now shooting a ridiculous 12-of-21 (57.1%) over that span, including an incendiary 10-of-16 (62.5%) from behind the 3-point line. If the Hawks can get that Korver consistently, Atlanta is capable of transforming into a totally different team. Dennis Schroder shook off his ankle injury to pop off for 20 points (8-of-14 FGs) in just 22.5 minutes off the bench, but he’s an unattractive deploy in all formats with Jeff Teague averaging 19.7 points, 7.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 3.3 turnovers thus far in the opening round.
Given Jerebko (11 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, one block, one triple), Turner (17 points, seven assists, five steals, one block, one three, five TO) and Amir Johnson (15 points, seven boards, two blocks, 7-of-8 shooting) played critical roles in the win—with Smart adding 11 points, three boards, five assists, two blocks, two 3PM and four turnovers—it’s almost safe to say that Stevens knows what he’s doing. Almost.
Note: The previous sentence was authored in sarcasm font.
San Antonio @ Memphis: Spurs 96, Grizzlies 87
The Grizzlies went small to start by replacing Chris Andersen with Tony Allen, a formula—combined with a commendable effort—that provided Memphis with a better chance at success than anything Dave Joerger had attempted prior. Although the broken-down Grizz clawed, scrapped and really made the Spurs work their way through three competitive quarters—even leading by one heading into the last 12 minutes—it simply wasn’t enough against Kawhi Leonard, who exploded for 32 points, seven boards, four steals, five blocks and six triples without turning the ball over, who proved to be too much to handle down the stretch for a Memphis team that had no answer for him. An absolutely brilliant 24-year-old superstar with an already impressive resume that has plenty of room for additional accolades to be tacked on, Leonard is more than ready to assume the tremendous responsibility of being named San Antonio’s cornerstone.
Leonard’s huge night will deflect attention away from Tim Duncan (six points, three boards, two blocks, 13.5 minutes) and Tony Parker (two points, seven assists, three turnovers, 1-of-8 FGs) trending in the wrong direction, but the Spurs are going to need more than Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge (16 points, 10 rebounds) to advance to the desired point in their postseason. Danny Green kicked in 11 points, three triples and three blocks—where that has been is anyone’s guess—with Manu Ginobili scoring 11 points, handing out five assists and connecting on three 3-pointers.
To say Memphis is stretching it thin would be like saying you only need one bag at the grocery store when you’re trying to walk out with two cases of seltzer and a watermelon. Matt Barnes enjoyed his most prolific game of the series with 17 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals, but he was really the only one who played major minutes to show up statistically with Vince Carter (11 points, eight rebounds, 3-of-12 FGs), Zach Randolph (20 points, 11 rebounds, 9-of-21 FGs) and Tony Allen (five points, 0-of-8 FGs) combining to hit just 12-of-41 (29.3%) from the field. JaMychal Green, who got just 13 minutes of run, made the most of them with 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks on a perfect 5-of-5 shooting. Maybe he plays a little more in a do-or-die Game 4, but there isn’t any kind of magic elixir available to the Grizzlies that will save their season. It’s over.