The second day of the 2018 NBA playoffs gave us an overtime thriller, the Cleveland Cavaliers struggling to compete with the Indiana Pacers, dueling buzzer-beaters and a near-upset in Houston.
The Boston Celtics survived a home playoff game without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in overtime to kick off the day. Indiana showed Cleveland needs more than just the best player in the world in order to keep up with a whole team attack. Paul George gave us a reason to believe in “Playoff P” as the Oklahoma City Thunder controlled the Utah Jazz. And the Minnesota Timberwolves gave the Houston Rockets more than they could handle before James Harden gave them more than they could manage.
Let’s take a look at all of the big moments from Sunday:
Big Trouble: Cavaliers looked terrible at home against Indiana
We hadn’t seen LeBron James lose a first-round playoff game since 2012. That season, the Miami Heat forged ahead to their first NBA championship in the LeBron era and second of Dwyane Wade’s career. But they had a slight hiccup against the New York Knicks in Game 4 to avoid the first-round sweep.
Since then, LeBron and his teams in Miami and Cleveland have mostly dominated this first part of the postseason bracket. Sunday hosting the Indiana Pacers, the Cavs got to experience how most teams have felt against LeBron in the first-round over the years.
Cleveland didn’t belong on their home court against the Pacers. They were blitzed from the start and Victor Oladipo couldn’t be stopped. Myles Turner worked his way out of his end-of-the-season funk to be a big contributor in the game. Even Lance Stephenson played the role of irritant pretty well while contributing some solid minutes off the bench. But mostly, I walked away from this game wondering if this is the end of the Cavs.
It sounds reactionary to think that way. The Cavs could certainly bounce back and win the next four games. They have the talent to do so. I’m just not sure how you watch that game and feel confident in Cleveland getting their act together.
LeBron James couldn’t pull them out of the pits of despair. The Cavs made a big run at one point but never got over the hump because nobody seemed capable of getting stops. Indiana played a slow tempo and picked apart the Cleveland defense whenever they saw fit. Performances like this won’t stop people from making jokes about this being LeBron’s last series with the Cavs. This is the worst playoff team he’s had since the 2007 NBA Finals squad. LeBron has to put on a cape or his teammates have to focus on defense or both for the eighth straight Finals appearance to happen.
Big Mistake: Letting Victor Oladipo step into these jumpers
One bit of Cavaliers defensive apathy we can easily point to in this game was how they defended Oladipo. Or a better way to put it is how they didn’t defend Oladipo.
I have no idea why they felt comfortable with Oladipo having a cushion of space to pull into with his jumper. But they made sure to give it to him a lot in the first half. When things broke down, Oladipo would take a few steps back and the Cavs’ defender would just stand inside the 3-point arc, waiting for a drive that Oladipo never intended to make.
This is just a terrible strategy. By giving this cushion and a weak contest with a hand barely up, Oladipo might as well be shooting free throws. It’s that easy of a shot for him without any real resistance. He kept walking into 3-pointers, pretending he was going to drive full steam ahead. The Cavaliers kept letting him do this without realizing the strategy was giving up more quality looks than they could handle.
Eliminate a couple of these early, and maybe the Cavs don’t have to work so hard to get back into this game. That means they may have more energy to close out the game on a more positive note. And from there, they can possibly save themselves the embarrassment of getting demolished at home in Game 1. It’s possible and likely that Oladipo still finds winning plays if you overplay the arc, but at least he’d be beating a good defensive effort instead of going through it like it was a warmup drill.
Big Reminder: Al Horford is really good
People have been hammering Al Horford over his individual stats for years. He doesn’t rebound enough. He doesn’t shoot enough. Throw in the fact that Horford often gets dominated by Tristan Thompson in the playoffs and the narrative around him and his stats can be particularly frustrating. People even doubted if he should have been an All-Star this year, despite helping fuel the Celtics to the 2-seed in the East. Hopefully, all of those people paid attention to what Horford did to the Bucks on Sunday.
Horford finished with 24 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, four assists, and two steals in the overtime victory against Milwaukee. Whenever the Celtics seemed to need a big shot, Horford was happy to take it. Aside from a couple hiccups, he played incredible defense both on and off the ball. The Bucks kept hunting out these switches with Giannis Antetokounmpo attacking Horford and those didn’t work much at all. The Greek Freak saw most of his success happen against other defenders on the Celtics. Instead, Horford led the way and helped Boston protect home court.
Maybe you wouldn’t pay him the salary he gets. Perhaps you’d like an All-Star to have better stats because the other stuff can be hard to quantify. But stop doubting him and telling people he’s not that good. Horford is really good.
Delete this post if he faces the Cavaliers again and Tristan demolishes him.
Big Embarrassment: Eric Bledsoe trying to defend Terry Rozier
With the game on the line, the Celtics felt comfortable going to Terry Rozier. The untouchable backup point guard Danny Ainge refused to deal last year has given them a huge boost with Kyrie Irving out for the year. Naturally, they wanted Rozier to create a last-second shot to win this game in regulation. Eric Bledsoe drew the defensive assignment for the Bucks and, in theory, has the advantage there. Bledsoe is supposed to be a very good defender at the point guard position.
“Supposed to” being the operative words there.
Instead, Rozier made Bledsoe look like a cat chasing a laser pointer.
It’s fine to give up a basket in those situations. Players will still get killed for it, but on-ball defense has been made very difficult to play without hand-checking. So it’s understandable if an offensive player creates some space against the defender. The Celtics shouldn’t be able to park an RV between Rozier and Bledsoe.
Luckily for Milwaukee, Khris Middleton hit that crazy shot to send it to overtime, but the Celtics eventually defended their home court.
Big Playoff P: Paul George was on fire
The Thunder can’t have just one guy attacking the vaunted Utah defense in this series. A lot of Russell Westbrook can go a long way in any given basketball game. But the Jazz also love to choke the life out of these hero-ball moments by swarming defensively and keeping everything between the basket and the 3-point line.
Throw Paul George and his hands of lava into the mix and that doesn’t quite work out for Utah.
The Thunder received an epic shooting performance from Playoff P, as he finished with 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting and 8-of-11 from deep.
Utah couldn’t keep him inside the arc. They normally run shooters off the 3-point line and dare them to attack the rim with Rudy Gobert holding down the fort. George didn’t adhere to that style of defense from the Jazz. He simply made his mark by lighting them up any time they poorly rotated against him. The Thunder didn’t actually do much sharing the ball in this game, but it didn’t affect how they scored against Utah after the first few minutes of the game.
Moving forward, the Jazz have to even out that matchup between George and Joe Ingles. Utah has to keep George contained on the perimeter while making him work harder against Ingles. The Jazz run so much of their pick-and-roll offense with Ingles as the initiator and that simply wasn’t there in Game 1.
If OKC can keep the Jazz from getting Ingles the ball in playmaking situations, they’ll stifle a lot of that offense. If George keeps lighting them up, maybe the Thunder will become a much bigger threat in the public’s mind.
Big Rookie Performance: Donovan Mitchell had a great, scary debut
After seeing the big rookie performance of Ben Simmons on Saturday, Donovan Mitchell had an even bigger spotlight on him for Sunday. Mitchell responded incredibly well, even though the Jazz ended up losing the game. He knocked down his first four shots of the game and looked pretty comfortable attacking against the Thunder’s defense. At times, he looked a bit sloppy against the activity of Corey Brewer or the physicality of Steven Adams. However, Mitchell still managed to put his fingerprints all over that game. He kept trying to single-handedly bring Utah back into it when their offense stagnated beyond repair.
His 27-point, 10-rebound performance did have a big scare though in the second half. Mitchell left the game to get X-Rays on his foot because of a pinky toe injury. The results came back negative and Mitchell went back into the game. But that wasn’t the good news the Jazz were hoping for. Mitchell still looked visibly hobbled on the court and had to come back out of the game. The training staff checked on him and Mitchell could be seen telling them he was fine. He convinced Quin Snyder to let him back into the game.
After a bit more hobbling, Mitchell’s night was ended by the Jazz. I’m a bit dubious on the idea that Mitchell should’ve been allowed to talk his way back into the game. It wasn’t decided at that point completely and the Jazz did make a big run with reserves at the end. But Mitchell also didn’t look fine, despite what he said. He moved so gingerly that it was obvious he needed to come out. Luckily, it doesn’t appear that he did further damage. The Jazz have until Wednesday to get him ready for Game 2.
Big Player Domination: James Harden destroyed
James Harden’s step-back jumper has become so lethal that the conversation isn’t if anybody can stop it, but whether or not the referees should stop it. Harden maybe takes an extra hop or performs a double step-back from time to time. Steve Kerr thinks it’s a travel. Some viewers and defenders think it’s a travel. But if they don’t call it (even during the times it might be), then someone has to figure out how to stop it.
The Wolves certainly couldn’t, as Harden kept them off-balance all night en route to 44 points. Whether it was Jimmy Butler or Andrew Wiggins or Derrick Rose (???) defending him, Harden feasted against all defensive options.
He helped feed Clint Capela early and often. Harden’s effort also overcame a miserable performance by Chris Paul throughout the contest. Surprisingly, the Wolves hung with the Rockets all game long and had a chance to tie it. Houston didn’t get much help for Harden outside of Capela. The rest of the roster was 3-of-25 from deep, and they sorely missed Ryan Anderson, who usually torches the Wolves. All things considered, Houston “escaped” with a home victory but also took care of business. The Wolves wasted what will probably be their best chance at stealing a game in this series.
Harden has a lot to prove this postseason and this was a great start toward doing just that. The question is, how will the Wolves adjust to try to get the ball out of his hands while also not giving up tons of open 3-pointers?
Big Question: Where was Karl-Anthony Towns?
Karl-Anthony Towns only took nine shots in 40 minutes in Game 1 against Houston. That’s not nearly enough shots for a player of his caliber. People were demanding KAT get the ball and challenging the Wolves for not feeding him more in switch situations. It’s a valid criticism of the team for why that doesn’t happen more in this game. But as you’re criticizing the team, be sure to direct some of that Towns’ way, as well. Because it’s as much his fault as it is the fault of his teammates and coaches not feeding him.
All season long, this has been an issue. The Wolves do a generally poor job of feeding the post. Like just basic post-entry passes don’t seem to have good angles or proper spacing to execute. That makes it tough on any target, including Towns. But KAT also does a very poor job of establishing position in these situations, even against smaller defenders. Towns lacks lower body strength to establish and hold post positioning. It’s something he has to get better at in the offseason in order to keep turning him into one of the deadliest offensive weapons in the NBA.
The Wolves also can’t waste six-to-nine precious seconds of a deteriorating shot clock waiting for KAT to be available for the pass. He has to seal his man and demand the ball. At this point, the Wolves just bypass a lot of these options if it isn’t there right away. They end up attacking in isolation instead. At some point, both sides have to figure this out and remedy it.
But until then, a night like Towns was having with his offensive struggles didn’t need to spend more time not having him in position to help out. Everybody needs to work on that moving forward.
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