Three Things to Watch in Playoffs Thursday: Don’t bet on a cold Durant, Westbrook again
These have been the most lopsided NBA playoffs in history so far. Maybe tonight’s games will bring us some drama. Did you hear that Basketball Gods, we want a close game! What must we sacrifice to please you? Anyway, here’s what to keep an eye out for on Thursday.
1) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not going to go a combined 15-55 again. As Steve Clifford reminded the media — or as Terry Stotts would be happy to tell you as he watches Damian Lillard struggle — it’s a make-or-miss league. In Game 2 Durant and Westbrook missed a lot — missed early, missed good looks late, missed potential game winners. That’s not going to happen again. There’s more drama around if the Mavs will try to break up Westbrook’s pregame dance routine again than there is about whether KD will shoot better. For Westbrook, the bigger questions surround his disinterested and poor late-game defense in Game 2 — when his offensive game was off, he was unfocused (to put it kindly) on key plays down the stretch. Don’t expect that to happen again, either.
The series is 1-1 and going back to Dallas, but the Mavs are going to have to play better because you can be sure the Thunder will. It took a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day by the Thunder for Dallas to win by one point — and now the Mavs could be without Dirk Nowitzki who is questionable with a knee injury (although he joked it’s not going to impact his game because he doesn’t move well anyway). Wesley Matthews and Raymond Felton will need to come up big (again). Expect a storm of energy from the Thunder early, but if Dallas can withstand it at home — or just come back on the Thunder in the fourth like everyone does — this series may get very interesting.
2) At home, with their backs against the wall, with maybe no Stephen Curry against them, can Houston play like they care? Through two games, it has felt like the Houston Rockets are treating their first-round playoff series against Golden State like I used to treat the last week of school before summer vacation. It’s a countdown. Nothing more. James Harden is putting up offensive numbers but serving as little more than a traffic cone for Warriors to dribble around on the other end. Dwight Howard is floating through contests and rarely getting touches. Defensive rotations are late to non-existent. Communication is non-existent. The Rockets have just been a mess.
Curry is officially questionable with his ankle injury, and what motivation do the Warriors have to rush him back? There were flashes this season — a half here, a game or two there — where the Rockets would play close to all the talent on their roster. They would look like the team we all thought preseason was a potential contender. That team likely still would not beat the Warriors, but they could challenge them, make them work for it. I would love to see those Rockets for a night. I just fear they have checked out for summer vacation.
3) Can Toronto get DeMar DeRozan going? The Indiana Pacers have a game plan to shut DeMar DeRozan down — put Paul George on him, have help when he drives, and be physical. It’s worked. Through two games DeRozan is shooting 27 percent, is hitting just 44 percent inside the restricted area, has attempted just six free throws, has one more assist than turnovers, and has a PER of 1.7. DeRozan’s lack of a three ball (0-of-5 in two games) invites some of this pressure. Through two games, the Raptors are 6.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench. On the road, in a tough place to play like the Fieldhouse, the Raptors are going to need DeRozan to be better. Dwane Casey needs to come up with sets to get him some space going downhill (they had some success with staggered screens in Game 2).
The Pacers have a different defensive problem — how will they slow Jonas Valanciunas? He has averaged 17.5 points and 17 rebounds a game through the two contests, and the Pacers have no natural matchup to slow him. He’s getting a steady diet of easy shots at the rim because the Pacers’ bigs and help defenders are getting pulled farther and farther out on the floor. The Pacers have options, but each comes with potential consequences — play off screens, have the guard go under, and you better hope Kyle Lowry doesn’t start draining threes. Pre-rotate on plays just leaves another guy open to a smart pass. And on down the line. But the Pacers need to pick a strategy and execute it because JV is killing them inside.