Pre-Playoffs Stage-Setting: The NBA’s return has been glorious, the quality of play fantastic and the quality of the television product surprisingly great in the “bubble.” I did not get to watch a ton of basketball during the seeding round, but Damian Lillard was the must-see player, well-earning the MVP he was awarded for his efforts. Luka Doncic was also incredible and his playoff legacy will be something I look forward to following for years. Too bad, by the way, for the Phoenix Suns; they were awesome, going 8-0 to finish off the “regular” season.
August 18th (Round 1): Rockets vs. Thunder is supposed to be the premier match-up of the opening playoff round, but I’m not seeing how that’ll happen if tonight’s Game 1 is any indication. Embodying the spirit of their injured second star, Russell Westbrook, the Rockets played with a frenetic energy, particularly on the defensive end, that could be dangerous moving forward. The Thunder looked disinterested by comparison. This is a huge post-season for the well-rested James Harden, and his Rockets look like they are going to give anyone they play fits, presuming they move forward. I assume they’ll play the Lakers, but color me unimpressed by LeBron and Co. I’d like to see Anthony Davis dominate and step into his role in the spotlight on a #1 seeded team; he looked rather lost to me in a Game 1 loss to Dame Lillard’s Blazers, as did the Lakers in general.
August 19th (Round 1): The Jazz vs. the Nuggets is going to be a series. Utah was really impressive in bouncing back to win Game 2. I’m a notorious hyperbole machine in my sports entertainment columnist other life, so take this with a grain of salt: the Jazz could make a run if they can get by the Nuggets.
August 21st (Round 1): Boston still has a trustworthy Big 3 in Tatum, Brown, and Walker. It’s clearly going to be Celtics vs. Raptors next round and Toronto will be justifiably favored given how they’ve played all year, but Tatum will be the best player in that series and he strikes me as the type who will revel in the challenge of defying predictions; he did so two years ago when Boston made a run to the Conference Finals and he just has that look right now. So does Kawhi Leonard in the Clippers vs. Mavs series, which seemed to flip with Doncic getting bullied around until he rolled his ankle; it looked to me like the Clips got in Luka’s head early and he never recovered.
August 22nd (Round 1): I got my first extended look at the Heat today and they played the kind of basketball that I most enjoy watching, moving the ball around fluidly to open players and making the art of getting open shots look easy. One of my patients is a high school teammate and friend of Bam Adebayo, so I’m invested in Bam’s success by extension; the first-time All Star was very impressive, well complimenting Miami’s shooters and its top star, Jimmy Butler, and being disruptive defensively. There’s a lot of chatter about the Heat being able to knock off the East favorite Bucks. I could clearly see why today against a Pacers team that beat the Rockets, Lakers, and Heat in the seeding games en route to going 6-2.
August 23rd (Round 1): BOOOOM! In a world obsessed more with moments of greatness than the process of greatness, I’m sure that Luka Doncic’s game-winning step-back three pointer at the buzzer to tie the Mavs with the Clippers at two-two in the series will be what everyone remembers, but that he did so after gutting out a monster triple-double (43-17-13) with a sprained ankle in a game when his sidekick, Porzingis, didn’t play? That’s what I’ll remember. Luka is a legend in the making.
August 24th (Round 1): Man, it’s so nice to have the NBA back. To have missed playoff basketball this year would have been very disappointing for this near 30-year pro hoops diehard. Whether I catch an entire game or just a few minutes, I’m thankful to have the NBA Playoffs in my life now as much as ever. Cheers to my all-but-blood-brother, Jeff, for so many years of great basketball conversations. Cheers to my little sidekick, Rudy (Le Champion of dogs), for faithful basketball viewing (and listening to me and Jeff talk about sports generally) since 2007; the Ru has seen the entire LeBron playoff-era.
As to game action, the Miami Heat looked as smooth as silk again to me. They are clearly good; looking forward to seeing how things go down with them and Milwaukee.
August 25th (Round 1): Glad to see that the Nuggets had the fight to get back in their series. Since my initial post about them, I certainly was not expecting them to go down 3-1 to the Jazz. I would have banked on that one having been 2-2 through the first four games. Jamal Murray is so streaky. Jokic is a beast, but when Murray is on, they’re dangerous and a legit threat to most of the West. Murray reminds me a little bit of Allan Houston in that way. He can be inconsistent, but you get the sense that someday the Nuggets may make the Finals because he got white hot for 80% of his Playoff games one year.
Can’t wait for this Game 5 between the Clippers and the Mavericks. This is what it’s all about. We’ve not seen meaningful basketball like this since the NBA Finals in June of 2019….(2 hours later)….well, it wasn’t a 30-0 run, but it felt like it when the Clippers asserted their dominance over a depleted Mavs team. It’s like Doc Rivers told them before the game, “Release the Kraken!” That was an annihilation.
August 29th (Round 1): Even more thankful to have basketball now. Rockets vs. Thunder Game 5 turned out to be a lot like Mavs-Clippers Game 5 (Blowout Blvd. is too crowded a street). I had not watched the West 4-5 match-up since the first game, but I was just as impressed with the Rockets energy. I figure if I can feel from my red chair that Harden and Westbrook have a golden opportunity to make a run in this most unusual year and silence the critics (I’d count myself among them) who like both guys but see them as built more for regular season basketball than the playoff pressure-cooker, then surely they’re feeling that too, only times twenty. Rockets vs. Lakers, who answered the challenge after their Game 1 loss to Portland (especially Anthony Davis), offers some fascinating storylines if we get there. LeBron vs. Harden…yes please.
August 30th and 31st (Round 2): My initial impressions of the East Semis were as follows: Boston has the three best players on the court – not just the best but the three best. Siakam looked decidedly mortal; meanwhile, Kemba is clearly relishing the opportunity to play meaningful playoff basketball, Jaylen Brown seems like he is on a mission, and Tatum is becoming elite before our eyes, which is something that long-time basketball fans love to witness. And, perhaps the biggest headline, Miami looks every bit on the Bucks level. Jimmy Butler left Philly to be the main guy on a Finals contender; he wanted to step up and he has stepped up, building on his battle with Kawhi a year ago. Giannis has to score at will from the paint, I think. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Bucks respond because, don’t look now, but the Bucks and their star may just not be built for deep playoff success. They need to a find a different gear; the really good teams and coaches know how to get them out of sync. It’s time, Giannis. Time to become a legend. Butler is ready to ascend at your expense.
September 1st (Round 1): It doesn’t get much bigger than a Game 7. Young stars, my friends. We’re coming off the LeBron 8 straight Finals run and the Warriors dynasty. I think many fans are ready to see the next generation make their marks. I’m moments from watching tip off; Murray vs. Mitchell…should be good…watch out for Jokic tonight!
Called it! The Joker stole the show! I don’t care what the “experts” say about low scoring games, at least not in a case like Nuggets vs. Jazz Game 7; that was an incredibly compelling game.
September 2nd (Round 2): The Bucks just don’t have a star who can create his own shot deep into the fourth quarter of a tight playoff game. Giannis would be wise to study Tim Duncan tape. There’s too much Kevin Garnett in him (taking jump shots instead of planting himself in the low post). Credit to Miami, which found a way to win a weird game that the refs decided with two odd calls on the final two shots…the Bucks found a way to lose.
September 3rd (Round 2): I started to write about the Celtics going up 3-0, but OG Anunoby nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer and made me start over. Wow! What a shot! In direct opposition to the questionable whistles to end last night’s ECF Semi, this game ended on two brilliant plays. I wonder sometimes if a team like Toronto has something akin to muscle memory when it comes to their belief that they can win despite being down 2-0; they gutted out a narrow Game 3 win last year in the Conference Finals, nearly going down 3-0 in the series then just like they nearly went down 3-0 tonight. The Celtics are a young team whose young stars have been in the NBA’s Final 4, but it’s games like this one that younger teams have to learn how to bounce back from.
September 4th (Round 2): I was telling my friend, Jeff, after the Bucks went down 3-0 that Giannis reminded me right now of mid-2000s Dirk, who seemed to be sprinting toward the pantheon in 2006, lost in the Finals, came back the next year even better, won MVP, and then won just two Playoff games despite being the heavily-favored 1-seed. The Bucks needed their fans and a crunch-time scorer. They have neither. How Giannis responds to this post-season will be fascinating. Dirk redeemed himself. Can Giannis? Speaking of redemption, James Harden and Russell Westbrook both need it this post-season. The Rockets feel like the wildcard team that could up-end the Los Angeles narrative in the West given the lack of home-court advantage in play. I’ve watched them play five games, and in all five they have played with tremendous energy on offense and defense.
September 8th (Round 2): Wrestling and family time took over the weekend, but I came back to watch the Bucks go down in 5 to the Heat. Crazy turn of events for Milwaukee! Pre-playoff conversation revolved, in part, around whether or not this would be the year that Giannis took the leap from superstardom into the rarified level of greatness associated with champions. Out in Round 2. Now, we’ve got all the “trade Giannis because he’s going to leave anyway” columns coming out. Really tough break for a small-market team. Miami is dangerous. They’re playing great and now have all the confidence in the world.
September 11th (Round 2): Pretty amazing how quickly the Lakers have been flipping early-in-the-series narratives after game one losses in both rounds thus far. They adapted with gusto each time and now it looks like LA is going to wrap it up in five games for the second consecutive round. As for Boston vs. Toronto, which was an excellent Game 7 tonight, my hat is off to the Raptors for battling back and making it a memorable series with OG’s buzzer-beater to avoid going down 3-0 and then bouncing back from a Game 5 shellacking. Boston, as I said previously, had the three best players on the court and won because of it, but after temporarily underestimating the heart of a champion, the Raptors reminded the world that they were more last year than just Kawhi’s heroics. Cheers to them. How about Tatum’s Kobe tribute purple shoes? Celtics green and Lakers purple…the modern NBA! The Clippers may regret letting the Nuggets back in their series when they could have gone for the kill, by the way.
September 15 (Round 3): Excited for the Eastern Conference Finals, which feel wide open to me. I’ve been so impressed with Miami’s style of play. Boston, meanwhile, has got some truly gifted young players coming into their own. Will Butler be able to steal another narrative, this time from Jayson Tatum, who looks poised to ascend like many thought Giannis would this year? Butler ripped championship-ascendance away from the 2-time MVP. Tatum has Jaylen Brown, though. Bam Adebayo matching Brown’s series in his own way could swing the series. I have a feeling we’re in for another Game 7.
(3 hours later)…Bam delivers the greatest block in my 3 decades of basketball watching to seal Game 1 in overtime!!! Absolutely fantastic. Tatum looked incredible for most of the game, but Butler showed veteran savvy down the stretch. Awesome game overall, with tons of momentum swings and big plays from start to finish. Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic were the difference makers, the latter making huge plays down the stretch and the former keeping the Heat in it early when the game threatened to get away from them. Boston’s perimeter defense was great in spurts, but the Heat continue to showcase the kind of moxie that wins championships. They are truly scary. Stevens vs. Spoelstra is another great coaching match-up.
Jeff texted me the Clippers-Nuggets Game 7 result as I was finishing up my recorded viewing of the East Finals Game 1. Wow. Epic fail by LAC. Epic comeback for the Nuggets…again!
September 18 (Round 3): LeBron has to be salivating at the opportunity before him. The Clippers were the quiet favorites all year, mostly based on what Kawhi proved he could do last year in the Playoffs; the entire season, I needed to see how the James-Davis combo would handle Killer Kawhi and his deep compliment of supporting players in a playoff series before I truly believed the Lakers could win the title. That expected obstacle removed, you have to think that LeBron is like a shark smelling blood in the water. When is the last time a LeBron team felt like the heavy favorite to win the title? 2013? It’s a situation to relish for player whose only remaining goal is to catch the shadow from Chicago. For that reason, Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was unsurprising in how it played out in the big picture (the details of the foul trouble for Denver and Dwight Howard’s Super-Sub performance could not have been easily predicted). There are still questions for the Lakers to answer, but when the hardest question on the test is taken away, it’s easier to get an “A,” which in this case is the NBA Championship.
September 19 (Round 3): This is a must-win game for the Celtics, obviously. They need to knock Miami off its game and shake their surging confidence. The Heat have experienced no adversity in these playoffs, while the Celtics a week ago scored the knockout blow in Round 12 of their knock-down, drag-out with the Raptors. I like the Celtics if they can put Miami on their heels a bit, but that’ll be easier said than done. Don’t try to tell me momentum isn’t a real thing; it’s the law of attraction at work, spurring on belief that a huge goal can be achieved. Miami has so much momentum right now. They rely on a lot of young guys without playoff experience, so if you’re Boston, you’ve got to try to instigate some adversity.