The 2021 NBA playoffs are less than one week old, but we’ve already seen some epic superstar performances, upsets brewing and plenty of fans back in the stands.
Can Luka Doncic and the Mavericks send the LA Clippers home early? Are the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks headed for a Game 7 inside Madison Square Garden? Can the NBA-best Utah Jazz avoid an upset against Ja Morant and the young and hungry Memphis Grizzlies? After bouncing back from a Game 1 loss, are the Los Angeles Lakers hitting their stride against the Phoenix Suns?
Our NBA Insiders are breaking down their six biggest takeaways from the first six days of the postseason.
The East’s elite aren’t messing around …
Giannis Antetokounmpo dribbles into the lane, hits the Eurostep and then passes to Khris Middleton, who drains the 3 plus the foul.
The Milwaukee Bucks, though, were questioned during the final weekend of the regular season for not making sure they would avoid the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. By falling to Miami on the penultimate night of the regular season, Milwaukee assured last year’s Eastern Conference champions — who knocked the Bucks out of the bubble on their way to the NBA Finals — would be their first-round opponent.
That move doesn’t look so bad right now.
After a second straight evisceration of the Heat on Thursday night — this time on the shores of Biscayne Bay — Milwaukee has taken a commanding 3-0 lead, compiling what is arguably the most stunning result of the first round thus far (yes, including the collapse of the LA Clippers out West).
All of the things that people questioned about this team entering the season — from its ability to hold up in a pressure situation to just how much of a difference would Jrue Holiday make to whether Mike Budenholzer would make the necessary adjustments to succeed in the playoffs — have all been emphatically answered three games into what the Bucks hope is a very long postseason run.
Unlike the 76ers and Nets, both of whom have also taken care of business thus far against the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics, respectively, Milwaukee is facing an opponent that was thought could threaten their season. And rather than finding itself in a dogfight, the Bucks have instead smashed the Heat to smithereens in both Game 2 and 3 after escaping from Game 1 with an overtime victory.
The Nets, Milwaukee’s second-round opponent should both teams advance, will offer a far greater challenge. But if we have learned anything in this first round, it’s that this year’s Bucks are far different than those of the past two postseasons.
— Tim Bontemps
Alan Hahn and Jay Williams debate whether Luka Doncic is able to be the face of the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks.
Late in the third quarter of Game 2, the Clippers desperately needed a defensive stop, so they tried pulling the ace out of their sleeve. Kawhi Leonard, the superstar who has earned a reputation as one of the premier stoppers in NBA history, matched up against Luka Doncic.
The Mavericks responded by clearing out the right side of the court and letting their superstar go to work. Doncic backed down Leonard, pounding dribble after dribble until he got to the spot he wanted, then pivoted into a pretty one-legged fadeaway that surely made Staples Center spectator and Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki proud.
Welp, so much for that supposed solution. Head coach Tyronn Lue’s Clippers tried pretty much everything to slow down the Mavs’ superstar in the first two games of the series. They’re still searching for something that works.
“They have some good defenders, like [Paul George] and Kawhi, two of the best perimeter defenders,” said Doncic, who is averaging 35 points and nine assists per game while shooting 50.9% from the floor in the series. “You’ve just got to be aggressive. It’s playoffs. You’ve got to be aggressive.”
Aggressive is too tame to describe Doncic’s approach in the series. He’s been both ruthless and methodical, figuring out counters to every different look LA throws at him and frequently exploiting weaknesses in humiliating fashion.
Notice that Doncic didn’t mention Patrick Beverley among the Clippers’ good defenders. After bullying Beverley for an and-1 early in Game 1, Doncic barked, “You’re too f—ing small!”
Doncic didn’t mention Marcus Morris Sr., his nemesis in last season’s bubble series, either. After swishing a step-back 3 over him and then driving for an and-1 layup during Game 2, Doncic wagged his finger and declared, “He can’t guard me. Nah.”
Doubling Doncic has often had disastrous results, too, due to his sound decision-making and Dallas shooting 50% from 3-point range in the series. Case in point: the dagger 3 hit by red-hot Tim Hardaway Jr. late in Game 2 that came off a touch pass from Dorian Finney-Smith, who flashed to the middle of the floor when the Clippers sent a second defender at Doncic 35 feet from the hoop.
If the Clippers don’t find some answers quickly, they’ll start a long summer soon.
— Tim MacMahon
The Lakers look like the Lakers again …
Anthony Davis scores 34 points, LeBron James adds 21, and Devin Booker and Jae Crowder are both ejected before the game ends in the Lakers’ 109-95 win over the Suns.
Injury absences had derailed the second half of their season, and in both the play-in game against the Golden State Warriors and Game 1 against the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers didn’t look quite right. At their best, the Lakers dominate the paint at both ends of the court, pulverizing their opponents to score high-efficiency buckets around the rim while shutting down the lane to opposing traffic.
That was completely absent In Game 1, when the Suns actually outscored the Lakers in the paint by eight points in a nine-point victory. LeBron James and Anthony Davis managed only 31 points on 11-for-29 shooting, and Deandre Ayton had the same number of rebounds (16) as Davis and Andre Drummond combined.
Things started to change in Game 2, as Davis got much more aggressive as a scorer and the Lakers won a tight battle inside. The Lakers outscored the Suns 42-40 in the paint and grabbed 38 boards to the Suns’ 31. The Lakers won a hard-fought game on the road by seven points, but there were still questions as to whether the Suns’ loss might have been more attributable to Chris Paul‘s shoulder injury than the Lakers’ strength.
But in Game 3, the Lakers returned to the type of bully ball that characterized their championship run last season. They dominated the middle, outscoring the Suns 46-26 in the paint and smashing them 51-35 on the boards. They controlled the action comfortably, at both ends of the court, for the entire 48 minutes and seemed to squeeze the life out of their adversary. Just like they did to every postseason opponent in the playoff bubble.
The Lakers look like themselves again — a scary thought for the rest of the playoff field.
— André Snellings
… And Ja Morant looks like he’s built for the playoffs
Ja Morant shows out with a reverse alley-oop, then throws down a monster jam in the lane as Rudy Gobert gets out of the way.
The evidence that Morant is at his best when the spotlight is brightest keeps adding up. After cementing himself as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft with a triple-double (17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds) in an upset win in the first round of the NCAA tournament with Murray State, Morant capped his Rookie of the Year campaign with his highest-scoring output (35 points) in the Memphis Grizzlies‘ play-in loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
It’s hard to believe now that Morant took a slight step backward in his second regular season, seeing his efficiency decline with added scoring responsibility (as Jaren Jackson Jr. missed the bulk of the regular season) and the lingering effects of an ankle sprain in December. The Warriors exploited Morant’s poor outside shooting (30% on 3-pointers) during the regular-season finale, holding him to 16 points on 7-of-21 shooting (1-of-6 from 3) in a Memphis loss with the eighth seed in the play-in tournament on the line. The rematch five days later was a different story.
Morant scored 35 points on 14-of-29 shooting with five 3-pointers to propel the Grizzlies to the playoffs. That kicked off a torrid run that has seen him score 108 points over the past three games between the play-in finale and the first two games against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, smashing his previous high over any three-game stretch in his career (91 points).
Morant was at his most sensational in Wednesday’s Game 2, where his 47 points were the most ever in a playoff game by a player age 21 or younger, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Morant riddled one of the league’s top defenses, needing just 26 shots in large part because he got to the free throw line 20 times.
Whether Memphis can parlay a split in Salt Lake City into a stunning upset or not, Morant’s performance has made it clear that bigger playoff stages are in store for him and the Grizzlies.
— Kevin Pelton
Playoff basketball in The Garden is back …
Stephen A. Smith is hyped after the Knicks tied the series against the Hawks at Madison Square Garden.
You can’t begin to discuss the Knicks-Hawks series without mentioning guard play.
Trae Young, the 22-year-old slight-of-stature target of criticism proved the moment was neither too big nor the lights too bright. He sealed Game 1 for Atlanta with a final-second game-winning floater. For New York, former MVP and 2021 Sixth Man of the Year finalist Derrick Rose has been leading the way over newly minted Most Improved Player Julius Randle. Rose has provided the steady hand for the Knicks, averaging 21.5 points over two games.
The Hawks’ defense and length have befuddled the Knicks through the first two games. Randle has been hard pressed to find a clean look in the paint against Atlanta’s Danilo Gallinari and John Collins — Clint Capela has been shading heavily to reinforce the primary defender. Randle’s 4-of-13 performance from 3 hasn’t done much to cause Atlanta to adjust either. But what has been impressive is New York’s bench scoring — 64 and 55 points in Games 1 and 2, respectively — outscoring the starters in both outings.
Rose has been the bench catalyst, allowing Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley, Taj Gibson and Obi Toppin to play with more freedom. Toppin, in particular, has had some great moments, his athleticism matches up well against the Hawks and he shoots well enough from 3 to keep their defense honest. The Knicks are still waiting for their star to truly get going; Randle offered glimpses in the second half of Game 2 but has yet to put it together.
Young is obviously circled on the Knicks’ scouting report — he’s averaging 31 points in the series — but Bogdan Bogdanovic has challenged even the best teams’ 3-point defense during the regular season. Bogdanovic’s timely corner 3 in Game 1 was only second in magnitude to the actual game winner. And though Young makes up in playmaking ability for what he lacks in size, the Hawks boast good size and length 2 through 5.
If the Knicks’ regular-season defense and Randle get back on track, I still like them to move on. But if Young keeps getting into the paint, and Bogdonavic and De’Andre Hunter are hitting from deep, it spells Bad News Bears for New York.
Either way, it’s incredible to have playoff basketball back in The Garden.
— Monica McNutt
… And so are the fans, for better or worse
Stephen A. Smith reacts to two separate incidents Wednesday night involving fans at NBA arenas.
The opening week of playoff games has brought back both the wonderful — and regrettable — reminder of the impact of fans.
The scenes of nearly full arenas, rocking with noise during momentum-shifting runs, has been a glorious sight. Playoff games are about the atmosphere. Whether it’s quieting down a raucous crowd as a road team or cranking up the home fans, the NBA experience is enhanced by the buildings themselves. It’s what so many of our long-lasting memories are built around.
The chants, the roars, the stunned silences — the ambiance enhances the game. Watching Madison Square Garden come to life has been a cathartic experience, the community power of sports on display and the look, feel and sound making things feel somewhat normal again.
On the flip side, with fans back in the mix, it has also been an all-too-uncomfortable reminder of how fragile that relationship between players and fans can be. From Russell Westbrook having popcorn dumped on him to Trae Young getting spit on to Ja Morant’s family being harassed, the NBA felt the force of unruly fan behavior, giving the triumphant return of basketball atmosphere a black eye.
The NBA has a fan code of conduct, and with teams putting out statements and condemning fans’ actions, the league hopes this isn’t a blip on the radar. Because the NBA went almost a full year with largely empty arenas and fake crowd noise, trying to recreate the rollicking atmospheres of intense playoff environments. But nothing replaces having real fans in the building.
— Royce Young
U.S. men’s basketball team gains momentum with win over Spain in final game before Tokyo Olympics
LAS VEGAS — Team USA built some needed momentum for the Olympics with a quality win over current world champion Spain 83-76 Sunday night in its final exhibition game before heading to Tokyo.
After falling behind by as many as nine points in the first half, Team USA showed off its shooting muscle in a second half and started to resemble the type of squad coach Gregg Popovich envisioned when picking the roster.
Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Zach LaVine combined for nine 3-pointers, and Keldon Johnson — who was promoted to the senior team on Friday after Kevin Love‘s departure — immediately showed how fresh and young legs can make a difference.
Johnson, who plays for Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs, scored 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting and was a team-best +18 as his aggression in running the floor and within the offense stood out. The large crowd at Mandalay Bay rewarded Johnson with an ovation after he checked out in the fourth.
LaVine, who like Johnson has the advantage of having more rest because his Chicago Bulls missed the playoffs, also showed great energy as he has through the last two weeks in Vegas. Though he sometimes has drawn Popovich’s ire with defensive lapses, his athleticism is needed and it showed with two more power dunks on his way to 13 points.
The Americans are dealing with an array of challenges from losing Bradley Beal and preparation time because of COVID-19, to fatigue from the compacted season that has affected their conditioning to a lack of depth as three core players are playing in the Finals.
It’s left them not looking like any national team of the modern era and it has shown this last week in Vegas, where they went 2-2 and rarely looked like the overwhelming gold medal favorites they have been installed as.
They don’t have the personnel or the manpower to play the up-tempo attack that former coach Mike Krzyzewski made a trademark in winning the past three golds at least not until re-enforcements arrive. Their pace at times is downright slow, leaving them to rely on players unfamiliar with each other to react and read in the halfcourt.
But they do have firepower as Durant ended with 14 points and Lillard added 19, those two have carried the team’s offense.
Spain was led by Ricky Rubio‘s 23 points.
The Americans open Olympic pool play Sunday against France in Saitama, outside Tokyo. Depending on when the Finals end and travel schedules, they could play that game with just nine players.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday seals Game 5 win with clutch steal, alley-oop pass
PHOENIX — As Suns star Devin Booker drove into the lane inside the final 30 seconds of Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Saturday night, it felt like it was about to be a storybook moment. The Suns were trailing by one, and Booker — who had already hit 40 points for a second straight game — looked ready to push Phoenix back into the lead.
But then, out of nowhere, Jrue Holiday appeared.
“I was just trying to score the ball,” Booker said. “[Holiday] was behind me. I turned and he was right there.”
And, as Booker spun back toward the middle of the court, Holiday got his hands on the ball, popped it up in the air and caught it.
“I guess I was just in the right place at the right time,” Holiday said.
Then, after taking four dribbles and moving into the frontcourt, he lofted a picture-perfect alley-oop pass to Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim for an emphatic dunk plus a foul.
“The pass was all about trust,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, he could have pulled the ball out, let the clock run and get a good shot. But he trusted me, threw the ball out there, and we were able to get a bucket.”
And just like that, the Bucks went from being on the ropes to in control of the NBA Finals in a span of less than four seconds. A few moments later, Milwaukee emerged with a 123-119 victory over Phoenix, pushing the Bucks to within one win of their first NBA title in a half-century.
Game 6 is Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum.
“Going home to our fans, going home to Milwaukee is a great opportunity for us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But you have to go out and play. It’s at this point, you could feel it tonight, the high-level basketball on both sides of it.
“It’s going to be the same in Game 6. Both teams are going to come out, expect really, really good basketball. We’re going to have to compete defensively and we’re going to have to make plays, play together. It’s more about that. But to be going home to our fans, Fiserv has been rocking. It’s been huge for us, and we’re excited about our opportunity in Game 6.”
When the Milwaukee Bucks sent a bushel of draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for Holiday in the offseason, he was seen as the missing piece that would finally allow Milwaukee to find the postseason breakthrough it had been waiting for.
Saturday night, that was exactly what Holiday proved to be. He bounced back from a dreadful start to the series offensively with 27 points and 13 assists and continued to be a terror defensively, picking Booker’s pocket not only on that play late in the fourth quarter, but also midway through the third, when he buried a 3-pointer on the left wing as part of a Milwaukee run that broke the game open.
It was a complete, two-way performance from Holiday, long considered one of the NBA’s best two-way guards, and a validation of Milwaukee’s decision to go all-in on him after his predecessor, Eric Bledsoe, had failed in these situations as the Bucks were eliminated in the playoffs as the East’s top seed each of the past two seasons.
“I saw it in Portland, when he was in New Orleans and we got swept in the first round,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said. “Just the way he defends on a nightly basis and the way that he’s able to do it in different ways. He’s physical, he’s quick, he’s strong. He’s got a lot of things to him. And he’s got quick hands.
“First Team All-Defense play. It was a Defensive Player of the Year [play]. It just kind of shows we’re built on defense. The last two games, we’ve had a big defensive stop to kind of push us over the hump, and they have been made by a guy who is First Team All-Defense.”
Entering Game 5, however, a Holiday offensive explosion didn’t appear to be in the cards. His shooting had been a talking point throughout the series, thanks to him shooting 34.8 percent through the first four games, including a 4-for-20 performance in Game 4.
Still, Holiday said that isn’t anything he’ll carry with him into the next game.
“Doesn’t really cross my mind,” he said. “I feel like at the end of the day, whatever I can do to help my team is most important. I went 4-for-20 the game before and we still won, and I know I can do other things to affect the game. I know when my shot is going and I’m trying to make plays for others, it is definitely an added bonus.
After Milwaukee managed to pull out Game 4, thanks to some incredible heroics from Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton down the stretch, Antetokounmpo said he believed in Holiday and trusted him to make the right plays going forward to lead the Bucks to victories.
Holiday repaid that confidence — and then some — with his performance Saturday night.
He opened the game with a mid-range jumper that hit nothing but net, a good sign for his confidence. But after a couple of quick baskets, Holiday exited the game with two fouls with 6:42 to go in the first quarter.
At that point, with the Bucks trailing by 5, Jeff Teague checked into the game. The Suns repeatedly targeted him and went on a 21-10 run to take a 16-point lead after one.
But then, with Antetokounmpo on the bench after playing the entire first quarter, Holiday proceeded to take over. As Milwaukee stormed back into the game, outscoring Phoenix 43-24 to take the lead going into halftime, it was Holiday who willed the Bucks back into it. He scored 14 points while going 6-for-7 from the field in the second quarter alone.
“I thought there was a couple stops and he was able to get to some good spots,” Budenholzer said. “Brook [Lopez] and Bobby [Portis] screening for him in transition. It starts with our defense. I thought that group played really well defensively. [Pat] Connaughton hit some big 3s in that stretch.
“They made every shot in the first quarter. We felt like it could balance out.”
It did — and then some — across the second and third quarters. The Bucks shot 32-for-45 overall and 10-for-17 from 3-point range on their way to outscoring the Suns 79-53, completely flipping the game in their favor, even as Booker was doing his best to match Milwaukee’s scoring by himself.
For as good as Holiday was, he wasn’t alone. After the home team had won each of the first four games of this series, the Bucks came alive on the road in Game 5 to break that trend. Middleton had 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 41 minutes. Antetokounmpo had another routinely dominant performance, finishing with 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists. And Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton chipped in a combined 23 points and six 3-pointers off the bench.
“It makes everything more balanced and makes life easier for everybody,” Middleton said of the team-wide offensive attack. “Knowing that we play together and we have everybody clicking on all cylinders, we’re tough to guard.
“Obviously on defense, we can click. We can switch and we know how to have each other’s back. But when we are all playing well, we’re one of the best teams, for sure.”
Even with all of that, however, the Suns didn’t go down without a fight. The Bucks led by 10 with 3:25 remaining and eight with 2:23 to go, only for the Suns to then rattle off seven straight points, while Middleton missed a pair of jumpers, Holiday missed another and Antetokounmpo bricked a pair of free throws.
All of that set the Suns up with a chance to win the game when Booker brought it over halfcourt with 30 seconds to go. Instead, it turned into the moment Holiday proved he was worth everything the Bucks gave up to go get him.
Now, he and the Bucks have to do it one more time to win the title.
“I feel like now, you’ve got to give it your all,” Holiday said. “We’re literally coming down to the last game, game or two.
“At this point, there’s no excuses.”
Phoenix Suns drop third straight, look to ‘regroup’ trailing 3-2 in NBA Finals
PHOENIX — If there ever was a time for Monty Williams to come up with one of the adages he has been heralded for, it was after his Phoenix Suns‘ 123-119 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Saturday.
The defeat was Phoenix’s third in a row on the Finals stage after the coach’s group had dropped three in a row just once all season, back in January. And it came in excruciating fashion: The Suns squandered an early 16-point cushion and fell down 14 in the fourth, only to have their chance to take the lead back in the final minute go awry.
So Williams kept his message matter-of-fact, looking ahead to Tuesday’s Game 6 in Milwaukee, with the Bucks up 3-2 in the series.
“We got to win one game to put them back on the plane,” he said. “That’s it. And you have to have that determination that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to put them back on the plane.”
Devin Booker followed up 42 points in Game 4 with 40 points in Game 5, becoming the first player in Finals history to lose back-to-back games in which he went for 40-plus points. He needed one more play to go his way.
Booker grabbed the rebound off a Jrue Holiday miss with 29.2 seconds remaining in the fourth and pushed it up the floor, with the Suns trailing just 120-119 after a 12-3 run in the previous three minutes.
Booker advanced all the way to the heart of the paint before picking up his dribble. After his pump fake to get P.J. Tucker off his feet didn’t provide Booker enough space to get off a close-range shot because Giannis Antetokounmpo hustled over to help on defense, the Suns shooting guard tried to recalibrate.
But right as Booker tried to pivot to create some room and swung his left shoulder, Holiday was waiting on his hip, out of Booker’s peripheral vision, and lunged at the ball, stripping it away from Phoenix’s young star.
“I was just trying to score the ball. He was behind me,” Booker said afterward. “I turned and he was right there.”
The Suns had been 7-of-10 from the field with zero turnovers on possessions when Booker drove to the basket in Game 5 prior to the Holiday steal, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Holiday timed his swipe perfectly and started the Bucks on a break, threading a ready-made alley-oop pass to Antetokounmpo that he dunked home, while absorbing a foul from Chris Paul, who pushed Antetokounmpo in midair.
“A great play by Jrue,” Williams said. “I don’t have any other words for that one.”
The game wasn’t quite over yet, as the slam put Milwaukee ahead 122-119 with 13.5 seconds remaining and an ensuing Antetokounmpo and-1 free throw to come.
The two-time MVP missed, as he did with seven of his 11 free throw attempts on Saturday, but Antetokounmpo tapped his own board back to Khris Middleton, who was fouled and tacked on another free throw to put the game out of reach for Phoenix.
Much like Game 4, when the Suns were doomed by 17 turnovers and 17 offensive rebounds allowed, it was a turnover and an offensive rebound yielded that tripped them up in Game 5 too.
“That was a horrible miss,” said Suns center Deandre Ayton, who was lined up to try to secure the rebound and couldn’t get a hand on it. “It was just an athletic play, you know; he tipped it behind him knowing that his teammates are there. It was a bad miss.”
The question is whether the series has turned to the point where the Suns will be remembering the 2021 Finals as a missed opportunity for years to come.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” said Paul, who bounced back with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 11 assists and just one turnover in Game 5. “We didn’t expect it to be. It’s hard. Coach said it all year long: Everything we want is on the other side of hard, and it don’t get no harder than this.
“So, we got to regroup, learn from this game. But it’s over. We got to get ready for Game 6.”
Trailing for the first time all series — and for just the second time all postseason, after the Los Angeles Lakers had the Suns down 2-1 in the first round before Phoenix then won nine straight playoff games — Game 6 is as much of a must-win game as it gets for the Suns. Phoenix can either force a Game 7 and give itself a chance at the first title in the 53-year history of the franchise or deal with the disappointment of what could have been as the Bucks celebrate a championship on their home court.
“I like it,” Ayton said. “Tables are turned now. Now, we’re the desperate team.”
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