With six first-round series done in the 2020 NBA playoffs, let’s bounce around some positives and negatives we haven’t covered in other places (i.e., enough about The Process). We’ll have more on the Jamal Murray–Donovan Mitchell firestorm before Tuesday’s Game 7.
The Mavs are here … right?
Through four games against perhaps the league’s best team, the Dallas Mavericks announced themselves as a present-day force — not yet contenders, but not as far away as their age, experience level, and superficial status as the No. 7 seed might suggest.
Their offense is real. On a lot of nights, even contenders can’t contain it. They just have to outscore the Mavericks.
Maybe the biggest on-court revelation of the season was Luka Doncic‘s improvement getting to the rim and finishing there. He shot a LeBronian 72% at the basket, per Cleaning The Glass, despite dunking only 13 times. The more of a threat he is in the paint, the more kickout options appear. This Doncic is not just a star. He’s a perennial top-5 player and MVP candidate — an elite offense almost unto himself, provided the Mavericks continue to surround him with shooting. (He’s also tough as hell, gutting out masterpiece games on a bum ankle and playing the entire second half of Game 6 Sunday until garbage time.)
Kristaps Porzingis complements Doncic on both ends, and looked comfortable in the postseason hothouse before another knee issue crept up. Dallas has five role players, and maybe six depending on Dwight Powell‘s recovery from an Achilles tear, on value contracts that run through at least 2022: Powell, Seth Curry, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Delon Wright.
They are out two future first-round picks via the Porzingis trade, but they can trade another future first as early as this summer, according to our Bobby Marks. (The how of that is complicated, but the one easy way would be to simply trade the player they select in the upcoming draft.) They also own Golden State’s second-round pick in this draft — No. 31.
Dallas is one big talent upgrade from being really scary, and the Mavs have multiple methods to acquire one: those trade assets, and the ability to access max cap room in the summer of 2021 and maybe future summers. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a free agent in 2021, and that is the name you will naturally hear in spitballing sections with (very frightened) rival executives.
But every team will want Antetokounmpo, if he even considers leaving the Milwaukee Bucks. Good news for the Mavericks: Doncic and Porzingis are good enough — Doncic especially — that the third member of any Dallas “Big Three” doesn’t have to be a multiple MVP for the Mavs to transform into a 55-plus win title threat. A back-end All-Star type who meshes with both might do the trick.
But can the Mavs count on Porzingis staying healthy? A lot of guys overcame ugly early-career injury histories: Jrue Holiday, Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, and Stephen Curry (until breaking his hand this season — a fluke) come to mind. But none of them are 7-foot-3 with a long list of lower-body nicks.
Porzingis has the offseason to recover from a meniscus tear — maybe without surgery. Fingers crossed.
Adebayo’s ability to smother Indiana’s guards on switches vaporized Turner from this dull sweep until Turner scored 22 points in Game 4 — by which point it was too late. The Heat had no fear of Turner posting up their own guards on the other end of those switches. Turner’s post game consists mostly of face-up jumpers. He rarely draws fouls. He has little inside-out passing feel; he recorded assists on only 1.6% of his post-ups this season, third lowest among 95 guys who recorded at least 50 post touches, per Second Spectrum.
The Pacers demoted Turner to corner spot-up duty while their guards attacked Miami’s weakest defenders one-on-one. When they called Turner ball screens — mostly when Kelly Olynyk replaced Adebayo — he popped for 2s instead of 3s. Turner attempted just 14 3s in 146 minutes, well below his regular-season rate; six came in Game 4.
He made seven free throws in four games. He upped his offensive rebounding rate, but not to any level that concerned Miami. A center who can’t post up switches and doesn’t generate foul shots, offensive boards, or 3s is borderline useless on offense.
Turner has to get good enough in the post to punish Duncan Robinson. That’s the bar. Beyond that, he should follow the path of Brook Lopez: turn every long 2 into a triple, and keep defending the rim like a mad man. (He averaged four blocks per game against Miami.)
Adebayo destroyed Indiana’s offense. We talk a lot about guys who can “guard 1-to-5,” but most of them can’t hang with stars at the positional poles. Adebayo really can guard 1-to-5. His leap as a passer unlocked a new subset of offense for Miami, but his defense turned this series. Without Domantas Sabonis to brutalize switches — as both scorer and passer — Indiana had nothing left.
Miami finished plus-55 with Adebayo on the floor — and minus-13 in the 55 minutes he sat.
A very different and much tougher assignment awaits in Giannis Antetokounmpo. If you built a defender for Antetokounmpo in a lab, he would look something like Adebayo. Remember when Al Horford at least gave Antetokounmpo a bit of trouble? Adebayo is a younger, quicker, hoppier Horford — size of a center, speed of a guard.
Miami will likely want Adebayo sticking to Giannis instead of switching. (Adebayo-on-Giannis also raises the question of who guards Lopez. The answer will likely be Jae Crowder to start, and it will be interesting to see if Lopez can exploit that size advantage on the block — and how much the Bucks ditch their normal offense to hunt that matchup. Miami could also reinsert another center — Kelly Olynyk or Meyers Leonard — into its starting five, but that seems like overthinking it.)
Adebayo looks as ready as anyone could ever be. Buckle up.
Broom detritus again: The Pacers
Another year, another sweep. At least Malcolm Brogdon thrived in the postseason spotlight again.
The Pacers’ decision to fire Nate McMillan two weeks after agreeing to a semi-bogus extension with him did not exactly shock league insiders. There had been buzz about McMillan’s status — and Mike D’Antoni’s potential candidacy, reported last week by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski — all season.
Indiana sputtering doesn’t fall only on McMillan. Sabonis’ absence killed the Pacers. The thornier long-term issue is that Victor Oladipo has not looked anything like he did during his 2017-18 All-NBA campaign since injuring his leg midway through last season.
He was tentative and ineffective in the postseason. He has barely made half his shots at the rim since his injury, and almost 60% of his attempts in the playoffs were 3s. He recorded 10 assists and 14 turnovers.
Maybe it’s appropriate to toss this season into the dustbin of history. Oladipo played only 13 games before the NBA paused for five months — and then 10 more after.
But he fell off some from his All-NBA level last season even before his injury. He was an (Eastern Conference) All-Star, but not close to All-NBA. There is a big difference.
Brief extension talks with the Pacers went nowhere before this season, as I first reported in February. As he enters the final year of his contract, the Pacers — and any team interested in trading for Oladipo — have to ask: Was 2017-18 an outlier? To what degree?
Meanwhile, the Pacers need a new coach after an embarrassing about-face with McMillan. Indiana having no backup plan against Miami without Sabonis beyond, “I guess, just drive against Tyler Herro 100 times?” falls on McMillan. It took a full game of their guards driving into Adebayo — and having Adebayo devour them — for the Pacers to even arrive there.
The Pacers conceive of themselves as a team on the cusp, and it’s fair of their brass to wonder if the prerequisite for any leap is finding a coach to modernize their offense.
But can that leap happen if 2017-18 Oladipo is gone?
A point guard rises again: Goran Dragic
The Dragon torched Indiana: 23 points and five assists per game on 48% shooting — including 12-of-29 from deep. The Dragic-Derrick Jones Jr. pick-and-roll became the fulcrum of Miami’s second-unit offense — and a way to keep Jones on the floor for defense. (Jones might be too skinny for Antetokounmpo, but he’ll get some reps.) The Dragic-Adebayo two-man game sliced up the Pacers in fourth quarters.
Dragic playing at this level is huge for Miami. It opens scoring pathways beyond Jimmy Butler‘s bruising game and Adebayo’s midpost facilitating. The Heat need that variety — some straight-up star shot-making — late in close games.
Meanwhile, Dragic is now starting after coming off the bench all season. Miami is starting the lineup I listed as its most intriguing group before the bubble: Dragic, Butler, Robinson, Crowder, and Adebayo. That unit had logged only 27 minutes pre-bubble. It represents the Heat’s best shot at two-way balance, though Erik Spoelstra found other combinations against Indiana — including a crunch-time five featuring both Herro and Andre Iguodala.
That starting group really sings if Dragic or Crowder provides a bit more offense than expected.
The Heat gambled dealing two first-round picks — including their unprotected 2021 pick — for Dragic on an expiring contract in 2015, and then re-signing him to big money. The returns have been uneven, but Dragic is rising to Phoenix-level heights just as Miami’s best post-LeBron team coalesces. If that continues, Miami has a real shot to topple Milwaukee. It would also present the Heat an interesting offseason dilemma. Dragic is a free agent, and Miami is hoarding space for the summer of 2021.
After the Blazers are eliminated from the playoffs, Carmelo Anthony makes it clear that he wants to play again next season and prefers to remain in Portland.
Anthony proved the doubters — including this one — wrong by reestablishing himself as a useful rotation player, even if the Melo revival was (at times) a little exaggerated. Anthony shot 45% on 2s in seeding games and 41% in the first round. Portland scored just 0.89 points on Anthony isolations against the Lakers when Melo let fly or passed to a teammate who fired — a below-average number almost identical to his regular-season mark, per Second Spectrum. He no longer produces many free throws.
But Anthony drilled 42% from deep on decent volume, and cooked from the block; Portland poured in almost 1.25 points per possession via Melo post-ups against Los Angeles, a mark that would have ranked in the top 10 among all players in the regular season.
A lot of that vintage bully-ball came against switches after Melo screens for CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard. This was the primary manifestation of Melo buying into a supporting role: He sacrificed his body as a screener, and feasted on the results — mismatches down low, and pick-and-pop 3s.
He gave everything on defense, something he did not do over his prime. He made big plays — blocks, steals, those patented sideways swipes — in crunch time of seeding games when Portland had to have them. He probably fared better overall against LeBron than Gary Trent Jr. Playing Anthony on the wing over a full season isn’t a recipe for good defense, but he held his own there for a team that didn’t have options.
Meanwhile, Whiteside reinforced every doubt about him in four plodding, invisible games after helping Portland steal the opener. He missed boxouts, blew rotations, and failed to do anything useful with the ball when the Lakers doubled Lillard and McCollum. With Portland down to nine players in a must-win Game 5, Whiteside picked up five fouls in 16 minutes — eliminating himself from the game. The fifth came after a blown boxout on JaVale McGee.
Not the impression Whiteside needed to leave heading into free agency.
The “Uh-oh” Award: Playoff Kawhi Leonard
Stepping into the void: three Clippers role players
Landry Shamet entered the postseason probably the most likely of LA’s guards to fall out of the rotation. Patrick Beverley‘s injury opened a spot in the starting five, and Shamet flourished in it: 11-of-24 from deep, with enough knifing decisiveness off-the-bounce to keep the machine moving when defenders ran him off the arc. He’s a slight liability on defense, but he competes and knows where to be. The Clips’ temporary starting five is plus-22 in 51 postseason minutes.
Shamet treaded water on defense with Luka Doncic on the floor; Doncic didn’t really exploit Shamet when Dallas had the ball. (He didn’t need to.) Recent volcanism from Mitchell and Murray aside, the Clips won’t face any perimeter threat as well-rounded (or physically imposing) as Doncic in the conference semifinals. If your ace off-ball shooter — and Shamet is that — can tread water on defense, you should probably find minutes for him.
Shamet is a cleaner fit than Reggie Jackson around LA’s stars. Jackson is no better on defense than Shamet (he might be worse), and his decision-making with the ball can go haywire. But Jackson is now 42-of-91 from deep as a Clipper after draining 16-of-28 against Dallas, and he’s feasting on more corner 3s than ever. The Clippers can occasionally use extra ballhandling juice. Jackson has made a case.
Ivica Zubac showed casual fans he is no token starter. He averaged 12 points and seven boards against Dallas, and piled up LA’s best plus/minus. (Playing so much with both Leonard and Paul George helps.) He has magnet hands, and balletic pick-and-roll chemistry with Leonard. He led the league in offensive rebounding rate.
The Clippers on defense tried to keep him away from Doncic pick-and-rolls, but Zubac provided some resistance when the Clippers trapped Doncic in Games 5 and 6. Zubac unfolded to his full height and wingspan, enveloping Doncic. That doesn’t sound like much, but not enough bigs do it. He forced Doncic to take some half-dribbles backward, and throw a few passes a little higher and softer than Doncic might have preferred. Every millisecond of delay gave the three defenders behind the play more time to recover. He can bang with either Rudy Gobert or Nikola Jokic next round.
Vucevic is the anti-Myles Turner on offense: a willing 3-point bomber who abuses little guys on switches with a pivoty, soft-touch post game. After Marc Gasol stole a piece of Vucevic’s soul in last season’s first round, it was heartening to watch him pick-and-pop the Bucks into more of a fight than anyone expected.
Vucevic finally bonked some jump hooks in a 9-of-25 performance in Game 5 Saturday, and if there’s one nit to pick on offense, it’s (as usual) the lack of free throws. Eleven in five games isn’t enough. But Vucevic was Orlando’s only source of scoring.
In three (brief) playoff appearances, Fournier has never shot better than 35.3% or averaged more than 12.8 points and 2.6 assists. Three or four years ago, some within the Magic hoped Fournier would turn into a second or third option on a good team. A subset of those folks considered him a superior prospect to Oladipo.
Fournier has had some nice shooting seasons, including this one, but he has never advanced as a playmaker. His game has not withstood increased attention from postseason defenses.
Fournier is almost 28, so he probably is what he is — a fifth starter or sixth man on a good team. That’s fine. He’s good! He just never made the expected developmental leap.
Also: I enjoy that the Magic last season maintained the tradition of Toronto losing every Game 1, and then created their own tradition — one they continued this season: upsetting a heavy favorite in Game 1 and losing the next four. Do this one more time, and we’re naming it after the Magic.
Undisputed winner: ESPN’s Tim MacMahon
Caruso hasn’t shot well, but in every other way he has risen to a larger burden with Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo out. Caruso ran 23 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions against Portland, a huge jump from 14 in the regular season, per Second Spectrum. Almost the full increase has come via his two-man game with Anthony Davis.
The Lakers against Portland poured in almost 1.25 points per possession on pick-and-rolls between those two when one of them launched or passed to a teammate who fired. Caruso dished 5.4 assists per 36 minutes, up from 3.8 in the regular season.
This all stems from a tiny sample against an awful defense, but the Caruso-Davis dance gave the Lakers at least the whiff of an organizing principle when LeBron James rested. The Lakers lost 76 non-LeBron minutes by “only” six points against Portland. That’s progress! Caruso, as always, was a contributor to L.A.’s stingy defense.
Kuzma is grinding on defense against whatever player the Lakers ask him to guard. His ability to hang with smaller guys — even CJ McCollum, albeit playing with a fractured vertebrae — allowed Frank Vogel to use supersize lineups featuring Kuzma as nominal shooting guard alongside James, Davis, and either Markieff Morris or Dwight Howard. I suspect he will get chances against (gulp) James Harden if the Rockets advance.
All that said, Caruso and Kuzma went 10-of-38 from deep against Portland. They have made 136-of-430 — 31.6% — combined on 3s for the season. The Lakers’ supporting cast is the pivotal wild card in the title chase. At some point, these guys have to make shots — especially if the Lakers need to play more with Davis at center, which requires an extra perimeter player on the floor.
Now: on to the (already underway) second round!