There's a ton to discuss from Sunday's four-game slate. Two teams were swept out of the playoff picture. Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Lowry are both getting MRIs. Luka Doncic put on a show for the ages. Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray each hit 50 points in an epic duel. Let's Dose.
Celtics vs. Sixers
Boston finished a 4-0 drubbing of the Sixers in style on Sunday, winning 110-106 to complete the sweep -- this game wasn't as close as the final score suggests. They were simply more talented and cohesive, displaying greater intensity on defense, and the outcome of the series was rarely in doubt. Kudos to coach Brad Stevens and crew, who will turn their sights to the Raptors in the second round.
Kemba Walker came out firing in this game, making 8-of-15 FGs and 12-of-13 FTs with a 4-of-9 mark from deep-- he had 19 points on six shots by halftime. After Game 2 in this series, Kemba was asked about Philly's defense against him and replied, “It’s different. I really haven’t seen that much space in a very long time." He continued to make them pay on Sunday, and did his damage despite being under the weather during morning activities. The best news might be that his knee looks perfectly fine, and Boston is confident enough to have played him 35+ minutes three times in the series. His second-round matchup vs. Kyle Lowry will be a lot of fun. Hopefully, Lowry's left ankle doesn't limit him (more on that in a bit).
The Celtics' ability to get out and run has been central to their success, scoring a playoff-high 23.0 fastbreak points. Jaylen Brown leads all players with 7.0 per game, including this sweet 360 dunk on a breakaway earlier in this series. That will be an interesting factor vs. the Raptors, who gave up 22.0 fastbreak points in their first three games vs. Brooklyn -- second-most behind only the Sixers. If the Celtics can run off rebounds, they could gain an edge vs. an otherwise tough defense.
One area of concern is that Boston had a mere four points from their bench by halftime, and 11 all game. Brad Wanamaker has stepped up admirably throughout the season, Semi Ojeleye has his moments, and Enes Kanter is usually reliable for some buckets. The second unit has a different look with Marcus Smart starting, though, as Gordon Hayward's absence forces guys further down the depth chart to make an impact. On nights when they don't do much, it's going to be a very top-heavy approach.
The Sixers season ended with a whimper, and to add injury to insult, Tobias Harris exited in the third quarter in a scary scene. His legs were taken out from under him and his head slammed into the court. He walked off the court under his own power and amazingly returned in the fourth quarter after clearing a concussion test and getting his eye patched up. “I’m still in some pain with it," he said afterward. "I got stitched up. My ribs are kind of affected.” He finished with 20 points, five rebounds, two assists and two 3-pointers and was efficient (5-of-9 FGs, 4-of-4 FTs) which wasn't the case in Games 1-3 when he shot a combined 33.3%.
Without Ben Simmons (knee), Harris didn't need to average eight assists or lead the postseason in steals, but he did need to produce more than 15.8 points per game. That's caused plenty of understandable hand-wringing from Sixers fans, who look at his contract (owed $113 million the next three years, all fully guaranteed) and cringe. Harris is still in his prime at 28 and he's a better player than what was on display in Orlando, but I'll be leery of taking him before the 60-80 range on draft day.
Philly's game plan of feeding Joel Embiid endless post possessions obvious wasn't sufficient to win a game, let alone the series. He's easily atop the pack for post-ups per game (9.0), way ahead of second-place Nikola Vucevic. To his credit, Embiid has also been efficient from the post with 1.15 points per possession. The Celtics did their best to swarm him from different angles, but there's only so much Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter could do against him defensively.
This game was also the latest example of Embiid looking ragged once he's north of 32 minutes, but he gave it everything he had and just came up short (sometimes literally on shots). When they weren't running through Embiid, though, this offense simply fell apart without Ben Simmons. The same can be said for the defense, which had the third-worst Defensive Rating in the playoffs. Whether or not he develops a 3-point shot (always a popular offseason topic), Philly simply needs a healthy Ben Simmons to get deep in the playoffs.
It remains to be seen whether Simmons' absence provides coach Brett Brown enough cover to keep his job after another disappointing playoff exit. Early indications are that it won't, with Adrian Wojnarowski reporting after the game, "Brown is without internal momentum to return for his eighth season as coach, and a final decision could come soon." Tying my points together nicely, after the loss Embiid went on "a pretty extended rant about why he can’t just post up on every possession." It sounds like he was pointing the finger at himself, but it also doesn't sound like his coaches dissuaded him. General manager Elton Brand could also be in the hot seat for orchestrating deals that saddled Philly with a ton of cash tied up in Al Horford and Tobias Harris, the latter of whom landed a max deal.
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Clippers vs. Mavs
This game belonged to Luka Doncic, but we'll start with the Clippers and get to the Mavs in a minute. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George shot a combined 5-of-16 in the first half of this game, yet they still jumped out shooting 61% from the field while building an early 21-point lead. That was trimmed to eight by halftime, and they were smacked in the third quarter when Dallas went on a 16-0 run to grab their own eight-point advantage.
This game ultimately headed to overtime after a missed game-winner by Kawhi in regulation, resulting in a back-and-forth affair with multiple fouls on 3-point shooters, a clutch 3-pointer by Marcus Morris, and just a bit too much Luka Doncic. This whole game is worth re-watching on League Pass, but at least check out Doncic's highlights. If you don't even have time for that, just watch his game-winning step-back 3-pointer.
Paul George is struggling mightily at 29% shooting through four games in the series. Yes, Kawhi and Lou Williams can carry the offense if needed, as witnessed tonight. Leonard had 32/9/4 and defensive stats, while Williams set a playoff career-high with 36 points on 13-of-20 FGs and 8-of-9 FTs in a truly masterful performance. However, PG's struggles mean they need secondary players who can step up and take off some of the burden. In Game 1 it was Marcus Morris, for instance, and in Game 3 it was Landry Shamet. On Sunday it was Ivica Zubac with 15 points, though all but two of those came in the first half.
Reggie Jackson's line looks nice with 14 points, four boards, two assists, one steal and four 3-pointers. L.A. was +16 with him on the court, but that masks the fact that he was exploited during any switch onto Luka Doncic. No surprise there, and he did a decent job making it hard for Doncic to force the switch in the first place, but it's a reminder that he's frequently a defensive liability. Until Patrick Beverley (left calf) gets back in the lineup, it'll be R-Jax, Landry Shamet and Lou Williams picking up the slack. There's no replacing his defensive tenacity, of course.
For Dallas, this game began with a shocker. Minutes before tip-off it was revealed that Kristaps Porzingis would not be playing due to right knee soreness. That burned plenty of DFS owners who couldn't yank him for a replacement, and it's doubly irritating since the knee wasn't even listed on the 2pm official injury report -- he was listed as 'probable' with a left heel bruise. The same sore right knee cost Porzingis 10 games earlier this season, but he also played through it a few times in recent weeks. He's having an MRI on Sunday night and we'll just have to wait for results and hope it's nothing serious.
Luka Doncic's sprained left ankle had him as a game-time decision, but he suited up and had a triple-double ... by the third quarter. That's his second straight trip-dub in the postseason (only Magic Johnson did that at a younger age) and he did it on one good ankle. His importance for this team really can't be overstated. It's not just the triple-double stats that stand out, either. He's averaging 6.7 more drives per game than anyone else in the postseason, and is averaging 2.7 more passes than anyone else. That ability to break down defenses is the reason guys like
Trey Burke started in place of KP, despite his own sprained left ankle, and instantly made an impact with 15 first-half points. He finished with 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting, five rebounds, two steals and one assist in 37 minutes. His speed was critical for breaking down L.A.'s defense, and he hit multiple key buckets to give Luka some welcome support offensively. He wasn't on the court for the final play of OT with 3.7 seconds, which initially looked puzzling, but that allowed Maxi Kleber to set a successful screen to free up Luka -- the rest is history. Burke will be an interesting DFS target if Porzingis and Patrick Beverley both sit again in Game 5.
Raptors vs. Nets
The Raptors swept their way into the second round with a 150-122 win vs. the Nets, led by bench players Serge Ibaka (29 & 15) and Norman Powell (27 & 5). Beyond the series sweep, the co-headline is that Kyle Lowry turned his left ankle in the first quarter. At first he tried to play through it, but was limping around and waved to the bench to pull him. After being ruled out for the rest of the game, it was determined that he'll have an MRI on the arch of his left foot on Monday. There's a chance this was precautionary, considering Toronto was already up 3-0 in the series, but we'll know more when the MRI results are released. If he misses time, Norman Powell should be the biggest beneficiary (more on that below).
This series was a formality, considering the Nets were playing without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince, Jamal Crawford, Nicolas Claxton and Michael Beasley. Credit is still due to Toronto for not taking their foot off the gas, winning their four games by margins of 24, five, 25 and 28. Fred VanVleet in particular has looked unstoppable offensively, coming in averaging 25.3 points with a ridiculous 6.5 assist/turnover ratio (Tyus Jones was highest this regular season at 5.2).
You can go down the line and all of Toronto's key guys played well, if not at peak efficiency, with the exception of Marc Gasol. He was scoreless in Game 2, had just three points in Game 3, and is 27.2% from deep since play resumed in Orlando. Even he got traction Sunday with 9/4/5 and 3-of-4 shooting. Fellow big man Serge Ibaka was fantastic with 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting Sunday, hitting three 3s with 15 rebounds and two blocks in a mere 20 minutes. He showed all season that he can still be a 20-point guy when called upon, so don't sleep on him for DFS purposes. Norman Powell was also fantastic in 24 minutes on Sunday, scoring 29 points on 9-of-14 FGs and 6-of-6 FTs with five boards and some defensive stats. That set a franchise record for most points from a reserve, though he did start for Lowry in the second half. I'm not sure if that disqualifies him -- if so, the record transfers to Ibaka for his performance tonight.
Toronto's next opponent will be far more challenging. Boston's defense held Philly to under 40% shooting for the series, Kemba Walker looks totally healthy, and they have two young stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Plus, an excellent head coach and enough depth to manage the absence of Gordon Hayward (ankle) indefinitely. The Celtics won the season series 3-1 but that all gets thrown out when Game 1 tips off. After all, the Raptors are themselves a battle-tested team full of reigning champions and the newly-minted Head Coach of the Year. They're (mostly) healthy and have great chemistry at both ends, keeping a tight seven-man rotation with a handful of minutes for an eighth -- who that is varies night to night.
It'll be a very fun series and I'm excited to watch it, though as a DFS manager I might stay away. Even a stud like Jayson Tatum will face plenty of minutes with defensive-monster Pascal Siakam draped all over him, making me a bit hesitant to spend up for him. Although, I mentioned the fastbreak angle earlier (under Celtics) and that could convince me to queue up Jaylen Brown at the right price. And I can envision Ibaka torching Enes Kanter.
For the Nets, even this first-round series was strictly about player development, putting guys like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen into the crucible of a playoff environment. Brooklyn clearly emphasized 3-point shooting as a strategy to overcome their massive loss of talent due to injury and opt-outs, but it wasn't enough vs. a superior Toronto squad. The only team attempting more 3-pointers per game is the Rockets (of course). It didn't help that they made only 32.1% of their triples through the first three games, including a mere 23.3% from Garrett Temple -- who launched 10 per game by himself. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot also attempted 10 threes per game (2-of-9 on Sunday), which basically sums up what happened for Brooklyn in the series.
Caris LeVert was the center of a good defense's attention and ultimately had far too little help around him, although he was fantastic on Sunday with 35/6/6 and six 3-pointers . He had 26 points in the first half alone, setting a personal best for any half. All series long he was aggressive driving the ball (21.0 drives per game), but with the defense collapsing he still shot just 37.2% overall. It didn't help that Joe Harris exited the bubble after Game 2, or that Jamal Crawford's hamstring prevented him from playing in a game. We'll see an entirely different Nets team on opening night 2020-21, so there's not a lot of meaningful info to glean from their play in Orlando. One question that must be answered is whether coach Jacque Vaughn's future is impacted by the sweep. He wasn't given the tools to succeed of course, and Nets management will look at the totality of what he's done since taking over the job. Right now, it's hard to tell which way the wind is blowing -- unlike, say, for Brett Brown in Philly.
Bonus Note: Jarrett Allen somehow didn't take a shot for the entirety of Game 3, then went 17:27 tonight before his first attempt. He wasn't on the court the whole time, of course, but that's still over 75 minutes of consecutive game time in which he didn't take a shot. Two of his shots tonight came after his own offensive rebounds, too. Credit the Raptors defense for taking him out of things. At least he continued to be a beast on the glass, averaging 14.8 boards in the series.
Nuggets vs. Jazz
The Nuggets were coming off a massive 124-87 blowout in Game 3, and needed a win tonight to even the series at 2-2. As a result, they shook up the lineup by starting Monte Morris and Jerami Grant in place of Michael Porter Jr. and Torrey Craig. The new starting five of Morris/Grant/Jamal Murray/Paul Millsap/Nikola Jokic had played zero minutes in the regular season and three in the playoffs. The results were good, but not good enough in a tough 129-127 defeat. Jamal Murray was phenomenal from the opening tip, finishing with a career-high 50 points, sinking 18-of-31 shots with nine 3-pointers. Everything that left his hand tonight looked pure. He also had seven assists, a career-high 11 rebounds and a career-high-tying one block. He got help from Millsap, who bounced back after a string of bad games, as well as Jokic (of course), who notched 29/7/6. Morris and Grant chipped in admirably but didn't do much to move the needle in DFS despite heavy playing time.
Gary Harris (hip) was updated to 'doubtful' prior to this game, suggesting he's at least inching closer to a return. Once his hip is fully healthy, though, he'll still need to regain conditioning. And let's not forget that he wasn't exactly playing well prior to the league's shutdown, with averages of 10.4 points on 42.0% shooting, 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He'll take some minutes from Torrey Craig, and possibly Michael Porter Jr. when defense is a priority, but I'm neither sold on him as a DFS play nor worried about his impact on Craig or MPJ. Will Barton is still seeking a second opinion on his sore right knee, so it's not as though Denver is overflowing with wing depth.
Speaking of Porter Jr., the Jazz continued to attack him relentlessly on defense, going right at him the moment he checked into this game. At least he's regained his offensive stroke. After a rough Game 1, he's now a combined 17-of-31 (54.8%) in the past three games He's burned plenty of DFS owners in the playoffs, returning mere 3.8x value -- only Al Horford and Andre Iguodala have been lower. The problem for MPJ is that he's a victim of his own success in the seeding games. He was on fire in those matchups, but then again, he wasn't facing a Utah team geared into playoff mode. With his salary inflated by the seeding games, there's just been no way for him to exceed expectations. His salary keeps falling, though, so there's still the possibility he'll be a value play at some point.
On the Utah side, we saw another stellar game from Donovan Mitchell with 51 points on 15-of-27 FGs and 17-of-18 FTs. He's now the fourth player to have multiple 50+ scoring games in the same playoff series, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson. He also had seven dimes and four boards, and sank some impressive shots, but there wasn't much defense being played by either team. Mitchell is 42-of-44 from the line in the series and Denver has proven totally incapable of stopping his downhill drives into the paint. Unless they shore up that defense, it's going to be hard to stop Spida and co. from closing out this series on Tuesday.
Utah came in with an effective field goal percentage of 60.1%, easily the best in the playoffs thus far (Dallas is second at 57.6%). They were at 67.1% in this game. Their guards have been penetrating at will, aided by Rudy Gobert's formidable screening ability, and their ball movement has been exemplary. It's not just the 'eye test' either, as they also lead playoff teams with 307.0 passes per game, resulting in 68.0 points off assists. With Mitchell in full attack mode during Game 4, they weren't quite as pass-happy with only 14 assists on 42 made field goals. Mike Conley should only improve the ball movement, and his rocky regular season with Utah will be a distant memory if he keeps playing like this. Through two games he's averaging 26.5 points, 4.0 assists and 65.4% shooting, including a scorching 11-of-16 from downtown.