We’re at the point of the playoffs where the field is cutting itself down and removing the pretenders. And we’ve all lamented the unfortunate placement of the Clips-Spurs series, which is the only interesting thing going on in the first round. If you want to get sense of each playoff series my most recent podcast has you covered, but let’s go ahead and break down the four teams that played last night.
You can find me tweeting about the games and breaking down the Xs and Os as the action happens right here.
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There is no home court advantage in the SA/LAC series and each team has a group of elite players that can be counted on each night. Other than the Spurs wanting to get into the Clippers’ laughable bench, each game basically boils down to who executed and who didn’t. Other than taking the road team/underdog I’d never bet on a series like this, because anybody telling you they know how it’s going to go from night to night is smoking their lunch.
The Clippers’ big three were great as usual. Blake Griffin was all over the place on his way to 30 points, 14 boards, seven assists, four steals and one block. Chris Paul added 19 points, five boards, 10 assists and two steals, and DeAndre Jordan went for 21 and 14 with two blocks (7-of-16 FTs). Unfortunately for them they each had key mistakes down the stretch. Paul got a very questionable and probably unfair technical foul, Jordan goaltended a ball off the rim that might have been going in on the game’s deciding play, and Griffin sputtered out in the fourth quarter once again because he’s being ridden too hard.
Again, these aren’t the guys deciding things anytime these two teams lock up. It’s the role players and last night it was Jamal Crawford (eight points, 4-of-15 FGs) falling off a cliff and Austin Rivers (two points, 12 minutes) zoning out on a key free throw rebounding situation late. Meanwhile, their Spurs’ counterparts each did enough to push them over the top, with guys like Patty Mills (13 points, four treys, 4-of-5 FGs), Manu Ginobili (14 points, six assists, 18 minutes), and Boris Diaw (10 points, seven boards, one game-deciding three) giving the superstars the boost they need.
Tim Duncan (21 points, 11 boards, four assists, three steals, one block) is simply breathtaking at his age doing the things he’s doing, and along with Duncan it’s Kawhi Leonard (18 points, nine boards, three assists) that the Spurs can count on every single night. Tony Parker (old, banged up) looks like a shell of himself out there, but he did improve from an 18-point, one-assist outing in Game 4 to put up 13 points, five rebounds and three assists in his 33 minutes.
The Clippers are getting monster performances out of their Big Three every night, but franchise mismanagement has basically put this series in the Spurs’ hands due to their lack of depth. If San Antonio can get just 3-4 of their 6-7 key role players to step up they’re setup to win. That’s easier said than done because the Clippers’ starting unit is so formidable, but it’s not unreasonable because the Spurs’ role players are all quality players. Pop has multiple angles to pursue if Plans A or B isn’t working out.
And what’s also scary for the Clippers now that they’re down 3-2 heading to San Antonio – Danny Green is averaging just seven points on 30 percent shooting for the series.
Anybody following him this season knows he’s primed for a post-slump explosion (something in the ballpark of five or more 3-pointers in a game). That would more or less be checkmate because way too much would have to go right for the Clips and way too much would have to go wrong for the Spurs for Steve Ballmer’s squad to survive that. It’s still anybody’s game every single night they throw the ball up, but the Clippers have a tough road to hoe needing two wins in a row.
TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE
This series went from impossible to watch to very entertaining once the Mavs found their go-for-broke offense, but like ordering your favorite fast food you know it’s just not that good of a product. And Mavs fans can only be left to wonder what could have been if they never traded for Rajon Rondo, or at a minimum what would have happened if the blow-up occurred before the playoffs started – because they predictably perked up after Rondo hit the road.
Before I cap the Mavs-Rockets game, which the Mavs lost ending their playoff run, I want to just say that we don’t know who the liable party was in this arrangement. It’s exceedingly easy to point at the guy that got roasted in a major media article titled ‘Good at Math, Bad at People,’ especially while the chorus has already sentenced him to be exposed before his peers. But with this many reputable reporters and folks around the team in Dallas all giving Rondo no benefit of the doubt, it seems very probable that he and the team decided to let him walk out the door and walk out on his teammates.
The latter part is a distinction that will follow him until he can rebuild his career that frankly, could very well be in doubt. He just doesn’t have the lateral quickness right now to be a lockdown defender, and offensively it makes defenders fear absolutely nothing about his game. He may still make the heady play once in a while and it’s not like he’s slow, but with defenders already sagging the reduction of athleticism is an offense-killer. Can he get that athleticism back this summer? We’ll see. He’ll get killed in the media so bad this summer that it’s possible he provides a favorable risk-reward situation for a team.
But can a guy like Rondo settle into a lesser role that matches what he brings to the table?
So once you get past the Rondo issue there was a huge coaching issue missed by pretty much all the main national media as far as I could see, and that was Al-Farouq Aminu not stepping into a starter’s role at the beginning of this series. The team needed somebody to take a crack at slowing James Harden, and giving Tyson Chandler at least one teammate that isn't a league-bottom defender is a really good idea. Chandler (11 points, six boards) had a rough series because he was stuck in ‘no man’s land’ the whole time, which is what happens when you're constantly helping 3-4 different guys that can't stay in front of their man.
Right on cue Aminu had another stellar outing in his second straight start, putting up 14 points with nine rebounds, two assists, five steals and a three in his 36 minutes. Chandler Parsons’ issues improve with no Rondo on the floor, but for a team with very little ‘good’ depth his need to touch the ball a lot fits so much better with the second unit, anyway.
Rick Carlisle sort of blew it with DeJuan Blair in last year’s near win over the Spurs, but not having Aminu in a heavy minute role from the get-go and, frankly, not having Rondo’s bags packed sooner are things for evaluators of coaching to wake up on. I still think he’s a top-10 coach in this league but the Aminu thing is a Scott Brooks-level shenanigan.
And whenever they can clone me so I have some additional time, I’d like to interview a bunch of coaches about why they don’t make changes in the playoffs. There are so many examples of coaches ‘dancing with the ones that brought them’ or not wanting to react to smaller sample sizes, but when we look back at ‘good Carlisle’ he was using J.J. Barea to frustrate LeBron James. Erik Spoelstra got torched by Carlisle in that series because he wouldn’t move off of Mike Bibby, and then the following year he threw all sorts of small lineups at Brooks when he refused for the nth consecutive season to bench Kendrick Perkins.
Heat players were reportedly snickering throughout that series, knowing they had a championship in the bag because of that fact, but it remained largely unknown to Brooks (and wayyyyyy too many so-called experts). Sticking with his guns cost his team a shot at the title.
It could be that loyalty, politics and whatever internal narrative is being pushed are key roadblocks for championship-contending teams to navigate. And though I’m a big believer in not jerking around minutes, when guys like Gregg Popovich make changes on a dime it’s easy to see why they don’t get caught in the silly mistake of stubbornness.
Had the Mavericks had any shooting out of their guys they’d have probably won this game and made things interesting. Dirk Nowitzki hit just 8-of-23 shots for 22 and 14, J.J. Barea went 3-of-12 from the field for six points, six boards, nine assists and two steals, and Monta Ellis (25 points, 11-of-26 FGs, four boards, seven assists, four steals, one block, six turnovers) looked like all the injuries had caught up to him.
Dallas has serious issues to figure out with no assets that one would want to jump up and down about going forward.
The Rockets move on and while I don’t expect them to get a ton of love facing either the Spurs or Clippers, but there are a lot of people who think they’re on the same level as whoever they’ll face.
They’re simply not. The Mavs, who are situated talent-wise like a low-end Eastern Conference playoff team, made them look a lot better than they are.
James Harden (28 points, eight assists) would prefer to see the Clippers and their soft-as-cashmere wings behind gritty Matt Barnes, rather than a smart Spurs team boasting Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Dwight Howard taking most of the season off was an incredibly smart move by the Rockets – much smarter than the horse-getting-shot emoji tweet that was bound to anger the sensitive folk – because Howard looks like a young man again.
I want to set aside Howard’s future prospects with the knees because it’s an obvious risk for fantasy owners next season, but right now he is playing at peak levels and I thought last year was the best postseason appearance of his career. There are folks that point to their Finals season (2008-09) and the year the Hawks (2010-11) decided singling him up was better than getting beat by all the Magic’s 3-point shooters. The difference was that rather than his athleticism outweighing his mental mistakes, his incrementally decreasing athleticism was now being supplemented by mostly heady play and huge, clutch buckets.
Along with Trevor Ariza (five points, 11 rebounds, four assists) the duo of Harden and Howard are going to be reliable competitors next round. But beyond that it gets pretty dicey. Terrence Jones (15 points, five boards) and Josh Smith (20 points, eight boards, two threes) looked great against the Mavs, but there was little to no resistance defensively and they’ve both had bumpy seasons. Corey Brewer isn’t going to get nearly as many easy leakouts and Jason Terry (five points, 25 minutes)) is an extreme liability at this point in his career. Pablo Prigioni (five points, 22 minutes) might make the occasional smart play but over the course of a series he’ll be exposed by any good team just like Terry.
I could see the No. 2 seed Rockets losing to either squad in a gentleman’s sweep but I’ll probably end up picking them to lose in six. If Vegas or the public continues to give the Rockets excessive respect, I’ll probably recommend riding the other team through the entire series when it comes to the spread.