Friday night’s Chicago-Cleveland game was one for the ages. It was tough, it was physical, it had 19 lead changes, and it all came down to a last-second, off-balance, deep, game winning 3-point shot that was banked in by none other than the former-MVP Derrick Rose.
Rose still didn’t shoot a great percentage from the field, connecting on just 10-of-26 of his shot attempts (38.5 percent from the field), but he made the shot that mattered most, with just 3.0 seconds left in regulation. Rose finished the game with a game-high 30 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, one 3-pointer, one steal, one block and three turnovers over 39 minutes of action. He was aggressive all game long, and finally made it to the charity stripe (after having shot zero free throws over the past three games), finishing 9-of-10 from the line. He played some solid defense against Kyrie Irving, and he positively affected the game for Chicago in numerous ways. Rose is also probably the only guy in the league that can look legitimately bored while hitting one of the most epic shots of the playoffs so far.
As per usual, it was Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose doing the heavy lifting on offense, and while Jimmy started slow, he finished strong with 20 points (7-of-17 FGs, 5-of-6 FTs), eight rebounds, two assists, one 3-pointer, one block and an impressive five steals through 44 minutes. He and Rose combined to score all but two of Chicago’s final 25 points, and while Rose will make the headlines for his heroics during Game 3, Jimmy Buckets is just as deserving of praise for Chicago’s Game 3 win. Butler’s defense has been smothering this postseason, as he’s holding his opponents to just 34.6 percent shooting from the field, and he did a stellar job on LeBron James during Game 3, limiting him to just eight makes on 25 attempts.
Mike Dunleavy was a silent star for Chicago, scoring an efficient 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting, to go with six rebounds, three 3-pointers, two assists, one steal and a block over 39 minutes. He’s been getting a lot of open looks throughout the playoffs, and his 3-point shot making has been a difference maker for Chicago. When the Bulls have come away with a W so far through this year’s playoffs, Dunleavy has averaged 13.8 points and 3.5 three-pointers, while getting up 8.3 field goal attempts. Conversely, in Chicago’s three playoff losses, Dunleavy has averaged just 4.7 field goal attempts to go with 4.0 points and 0.7 three-pointers. Obviously the game is not completely reliant upon Dunleavy, if Chicago’s go-to guys aren’t getting it done, Dunleavy isn’t going to carry the team to victory. But it’s worth noting, that when he’s able to become a reliable third-scoring option for Chicago, they have been able to get the win. With Pau Gasol (hamstring) going down in this one, Dunleavy could have some more opportunity coming his way on offense.
Yes, Gasol tapped out midway through the third quarter with a strained left hamstring, finishing Friday’s win with six points, four rebounds, four assists, and three blocks through 22 minutes of action. Hamstring injuries are very tricky, leaving Gasol’s status up in the air for Sunday’s Game 4. He’s scheduled to undergo an MRI on Saturday, so we’ll have more clarity on this situation once those results are made public.
Luckily for the Bulls, they have a plethora of very talented big men, and Gasol’s injury finally opened up the door for Nikola Mirotic to get some meaningful minutes in Chicago’s rotations. Mirotic didn’t disappoint, scoring 12 points on 3-of-8 shooting (5-of-6 from the line), with eight rebounds, one 3-pointer, two steals and one turnover in 22 minutes. With the end result of Mirotic’s inclusion in the rotation being a W, I think it’s likely he has more minutes coming his way. Taj Gibson also stepped up for Chicago, and while his nine points, nine rebounds, and one block aren’t exactly eye-popping numbers, his defense was crucial to Chicago’s Game 3 win. Gibson is holding his opponents to a ridiculous 26.1 percent shooting from the field, and with Joakim Noah’s minutes trending down, Gibson’s totals may be on the rise. Derrick Rose even gave Taj an endorsement after the game, saying he liked when the Bulls went small playing Taj at the five because it really opened up the floor.
Why did it open up the floor? Because when Gibson was playing at center, the offensively inept Joakim Noah was sitting on the bench. Noah brings a ton of energy to the Bulls, but he really looks like a guy that’s playing hurt, and he finished Friday’s contest with just four points on a putrid 1-of-8 shooting performance, with 11 rebounds and three blocks. He also played his fewest amount of minutes (22) so far through this postseason, and while Joakim will never make any excuses, his offensive game is in the gutter right now. He’ll likely continue to start, but it’s looking like Tom Thibodeau may be inclined to trim down his minutes.
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Onward to Cleveland
Cleveland got beat in almost every meaningful category on Friday, yet they still managed to keep the game close. The Cavs lost the battle on of the boards 54-39 (while giving up 18 offensive rebounds), they gave up 44 points in the paint, and they allowed Chicago to convert on 23 fast break points. And still, just three points decided the game.
Cavs’ head coach David Blatt revealed after the game that Kyrie Irving has been playing with a hurt foot, and Irving acknowledged during his post-game presser that he’s been bothered by a right foot strain since Game 2 against Boston. Now, it’s worth noting that Irving has had some quality games since Game 2 of the Cavs’ first-round series, but he appeared to tweak his ankle/foot during the opening minutes of Friday’s Game 3, and he just didn’t look quite right for the remainder of the contest. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-13 shooting (0-of-7 on shots in the paint), four rebounds, three 3-pointers, two steals, one block, two turnovers and zero assists over 38 minutes of action. This was the first time throughout the postseason that Irving failed to register a single assist, but in general, he was passive for much of the contest. It’s playoff basketball, everyone is banged up, and no one is making excuses, but this is an injury that will be monitored closely heading into Sunday’s Game 4. To be clear, I don’t see this forcing him to spend any time in business attire, and I’m expecting a bit of a bounce-back performance during Game 4.
LeBron James flirted with a triple-double, scoring 27 points, with eight rebounds, 14 assists, one steal and one block through 44 minutes. His 14 assists propelled him past Tony Parker, Steve Nash, and Larry Bird for 4th all-time in career-postseason assists, but that’s where the good news ends. James really struggled from the field during Game 3, hitting just 8-of-25 of his shot attempts while turning the ball over an unfortunate seven times (which accounted for the most turnovers he’s committed this postseason). Now, while some credit should certainly go to the quality defense that Jimmy Butler displayed, James definitely settled for far too many jumpers. The dominant, slashing LeBron James from Game 2 that took 18 attempts in the paint was nowhere to be found during Game 3. James admitted after the game that he’s been terrible from 3-point range this postseason, and that he probably needs to start laying off on those shots, as evidenced by his 1-of-7 performance from beyond the arc. When James puts his head down and starts attacking, there's really no one in the league that can stop him, and that's what I expect to see during Game 4 on Sunday. The turnovers are also a problem, but for a guy who boasts a usage rate of 34.7, turnovers are going to be an issue.
However, it wasn’t all doom-and-gloom for the Cavs. Tristan Thompson again went to work on the glass, pulling down 13 rebounds (four on the offensive end) to go with 10 points and a playoff career-high three blocks over 41 minutes. The Cavs don’t really have a true power forward to play behind Thompson, so he should continue to log heavy minutes for Cleveland the rest of the way. J.R. Smith also made his return from a two-game suspension, and buried some clutch 3-pointers late to keep the game close. He finished with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting, four 3-pointers, two rebounds, and one assist. He came off the bench on Friday, but given that Iman Shumpert struggled to duplicate his success from the first two games of the series, scoring just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting, with two 3-pointers, one rebound, one assist, one steal, one block and one turnover, I’d expect Smith to return to the starting lineup sooner rather than later. Shumpert came into the game nursing a groin injury, but his 37 minutes would suggest that the injury is now behind him.
While the Chicago-Cleveland game was nothing short of thrilling, the Houston-Los Angeles matchup resulted in a less-than-captivating 124-99 blowout win for the Clippers.
The Clippers went into the half holding onto a narrow 64-57 lead over the Rockets, but that lead got blown wide open in the third quarter behind an amazing performance from…. Austin Rivers. Yes, Austin Rivers went off again on Friday, and it’s about time we start giving this young man credit. He finished the game with a playoff career-high 25 points, six rebounds, two assists, three 3-pointers, one steal, one block and two turnovers. He sparked the Clippers’ second-half run, leading them on an 18-0 run to close out the third quarter while scoring 15 of his 25 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field. This marked the second heroic performance from the young Rivers, who was a major part of stealing Game 1 in Houston when Chris Paul was sidelined, and he had the fans at Staples Center chanting his name. He even hit a step-back 3-pointer and did James Harden’s cooking taunt. However, consistency and a lack of peripheral stats remains a major hindrance to Rivers’ fantasy value, and while he’s had a few moments shining on the NBA’s largest stage, he’s still not going to be much of a fantasy factor next season.
Chris Paul toughed it out through 23 minutes, scoring 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting to go with seven assists, three rebounds, two 3-pointers, two steals and just one turnover. Rivers inspired play, combined with the blowout nature of Game 3 allowed Paul to spend much of the second-half as a cheerleader on the sidelines, but he should be in uniform from here on out. Just expect him to take an early seat any time these games get out of hand.
Blake Griffin logged his 10th consecutive double-double with 22 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and seven turnovers, and watching him this postseason has been an absolute pleasure. He’s stepped up as a leader for the Clips, and his passing has been stupendous as he leads all power forwards in assists per game with 7.3. He’s also playing some lockdown defense, holding his opponents to just 40.9 percent from the field. DeAndre Jordan went to work on the glass, hauling in 15 rebounds (five offensive) to go with his six points, three assists, one steal and three turnovers.
J.J. Redick blew up for a playoff career-high 31 points (11-of-14 FGs, 4-of-4 FTs), with five 3-pointers, one rebound, one assist and one steal, while playing some excellent defense against James Harden. Jamal Crawford joined the party, scoring 12 points, with three rebounds, three assists, six steals, one 3-pointer and two turnovers through 27 minutes.
The Rockets looked like they gave up in the third quarter, and consistent effort remains an Achilles heel for a deep, and talented Houston team. Kevin McHale gave a dejected postgame interview, rehearsing the same tired lines he’s probably sick of saying. After commenting on a number of things they didn’t do effectively, including not playing physically, missing layups, and missing open shots, McHale summed everything up by simply saying: “We didn’t necessarily do anything good.” He was right, as the Rockets had 17 wide open shots (defined by the defender being 6+ feet away from the shooter) but only managed to connect on five of those attempts. And of the Rockets 18 open shots (defined by the closest defender being within 4-6 feet of the shooter) only seven went down. It wasn’t pretty.
James Harden led the Rockets in scoring with 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting, to go with 11 assists, three rebounds, four 3-pointers, one block and five turnovers over 36 minutes. However, the Clippers managed to keep him out of the paint, and he ended up only going to the line five times. Los Angeles had a clear plan in this one, and that was to limit Harden’s trips to the line, which is a very effective strategy. In losses, Harden averages just 6.7 free throw attempts, compared to his gaudy 11.6 freebies in wins. If the Clippers can continue to play Harden the way they did during Games 1 & 2, while limiting the production of Houston’s role players, it’ll be very hard for the Rockets to climb out of the 2-1 hole.
Dwight Howard grabbed his fourth-consecutive double-double, scoring 14 points (5-of-11 FGs, 4-of-11 FTs), with 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. With regards to fantasy, it’s always the same story with Dwight. He can be a pretty elite asset in points leagues, but in leagues where the free throw category is in play, he can really weigh a team down.
Aside from big D12 and Harden, the Rockets team really struggled. Trevor Ariza’s shooting woes continued as he finished with just 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting with two rebounds, one assist, one 3-pointer, on steal and one turnover. Terrence Jones connected on just 4-of-10 shots, while shooting 4-of-6 from the stripe to finish with 12 points, two boards, and an assist. And Josh Smith bricked away to the tune of seven points on 3-of-10 shooting, with nine rebounds, one steal and two turnovers. These guys did miss quite a bit of open shots tonight, but they also seemed uninterested at times. I think Harden will have an MVP-like game during Game 4, but Terrence Jones and Josh Smith have been struggling throughout this second-round series, and I don’t see that suddenly changing.
Jason Terry was ejected from the game during the fourth quarter for an obvious cheap shot against Blake Griffin, but I don’t feel it was outrageous enough to warrant any kind of suspension from the league. Especially considering if the league did decide to enact that suspension, they’d basically be handing over the series to Los Angeles forcing the 37-year-old Pablo Prigioni into a starting role for Houston. In the unlikely scenario that Terry is suspended, I would assume Harden plays nearly the entire game.