NBA playoffs: From Ricky Rubio's resurgence to the terrifying young 76ers, 20 things we've learned
Plus, LeBron James' Cavs are still figuring stuff out, while a couple of rookie are way ahead of schedule
Now that we're finished with the second weekend of NBA playoff basketball, let's zoom out and take stock of everything that has happened. Only one series is over, but we've learned quite a bit about our beloved league:
1. Holiday's star turn
If I had told you 10 days ago that Jrue Holiday would be the best guard in the Pelicans-Blazers series and it wouldn't even be close, how long would you have thought it would last? Four games?
This is the best place to start in explaining how New Orleans disposed of Portland so quickly. Holiday made Damian Lillard's life a living hell for a week, hounding him on the perimeter and chasing him around the court whenever he had to give up the ball. Holiday was extremely physical, but mostly stayed out of foul trouble. On possessions where he guarded Lillard, the All-Star shot 8 for 31, per NBA.com's matchup data. The Pelicans rendered Lillard's pick-and-rolls -- so lethal during the regular season -- effectively useless.
Holiday's defensive performance itself was a series-changer. The truly remarkable thing is that he was just as good on the other end. He had 41 points (on 15 for 23 shooting) in the clincher on Saturday and averaged 27.8 points, 6.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds with a 62.7 percent true shooting percentage in the series. This was dominant, and it followed a career-best regular season. It's time to start thinking of Holiday as a genuine star-level talent.
2. The Brow might be the best center in the NBA
Part of the reason Holiday was so effective on defense is that he knew he had Anthony Davis behind him, disrupting everything the Blazers tried to do. Whether Davis was defending pick-and-rolls or roaming around in a free-safety role, he was a force. And that's before we even get to the offensive end -- he knocked Portland out with 47 points on 15 for 24 shooting in Game 4 and finished the series averaging 33 points, 12 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals. No player has been better in the postseason.
It is worth noting that Davis almost exclusively played center against the Blazers. They had no answer for this, especially with a clean-shaven Nikola Mirotic playing as inspired as he was. New Orleans has established an identity playing this way, and even though Davis has said in the past that he does not want to be a full-time 5, this has to affect the front office's thought process when dealing with a potential DeMarcus Cousins max contract this summer.
Anthony Davis erupts for an #NBAPlayoffs career-high 47 PTS, 11 REB, 3 BLK to propel the @PelicansNBA to the 2nd round! #DoItBigger— NBA (@NBA) April 22, 2018
(AD's 47 are the most points scored in a series-clinching win since Kobe Bryant (48) in 2001). pic.twitter.com/cgy3J47g9i
3. The 76ers are terrifying
Here's the scariest thing about the Sixers: They can play much better than this. Joel Embiid shot 2 for 11 and their shooters were all cold and Miami had a double-digit lead at home halfway through the third quarter and none of it mattered. Philadelphia, this young and charming team, out-executed Erik Spoelstra's Heat in the fourth quarter, dominated them on the glass and took control of the series with a rookie point guard running the show as if he has been here before. (More on him later.), as Philadelphia's one glaring regular-season weakness -- turnovers -- reared its ugly head in almost farcical fashion. The Sixers turned the ball over on a quarter of their possessions in Game 4 and
The masked Embiid is still getting his bearings on offense after being out for three weeks. JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli are being blanketed by pesky perimeter defenders. The Sixers have been awesome, but they have things to clean up. And while there is a long way to go, anything short of a conference finals appearance will now feel a bit disappointing.
4. Rubio is there for you
I can't recall a guy shooting 38.5 percent play better basketball than what we've seen from Ricky Rubio through three games against the Thunder. The Jazz guard is averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.3 steals against last year's MVP, playing as if he has been waiting his entire life to make the NBA playoffs. (He has been.)
Rubio ideally wouldn't be shooting 17.3 times a game, but it is important that he plays with an aggressive mindset and does not hesitate when left open on the perimeter. He has certainly done that, while providing the passing, rebounding and defense that have always made his teams better when he's on the court throughout his career.
Oh, and he pulled off this "Friends" sweatshirt the day of his first playoff triple-double:
5. The Cavs are still figuring stuff out
Maybe the Cavaliers should have won Game 3 against Indiana, in which they surrendered a 17-point lead and allowed Bojan Bogdanovic to score 30 points. Maybe they should have lost Sunday's Game 4, in which seven Pacers scored in double figures but Victor Oladipo finally cooled off. Kyle Korver has been Cleveland's second-best player in both of its wins, and the only game that didn't feel like a coin flip -- the opener -- was won by Indiana.
The Cavs still don't really know who they can rely on or which lineups to trust. Tristan Thompson got his first run of the postseason in the fourth game and logged just seven minutes. Maybe they'll make it to the Finals and we'll look at this whole thing as a learning experience, with Indiana forcing them to get their act together. That line of thinking, though, is popular almost entirely because they employ LeBron James. Based on how they have performed, they haven't earned the benefit of the doubt.
6. Let's stop and praise the Pacers
There is a tendency to frame every Cleveland-Indiana game as a referendum on whether or not the Cavs are good enough. Given that James has been to the NBA Finals seven straight times, this is understandable. I would like to take a moment, though, to focus on Indiana, a team that won 48 games in the regular season and finished with a better net rating than Cleveland.
Domantas Sabonis has found his place in this matchup in the last couple of games. Indiana's regular season does not look like some kind of fluke., James' first-round opponents tend to be teams that barely snuck into the postseason. The Pacers are not that, and they have put James in a position that he generally doesn't need to be in at this time of year. He has had to play major minutes and carry an enormous load just for this series to be tied after four games, and this is not entirely about his supporting cast being weaker than normal. Oladipo has been phenomenal for most of the series, Bogdanovic has done a fantastic job staying in front of James and, after a rough start,
7. Lance rocks
Love or hate his antics on the court, the playoffs are more fun when Lance Stephenson is involved.
8. The math problem is real
I still can't get over the absurdity of Game 2 of the Houston-Minnesota series. It was a 102-82 Rockets victory, but they didn't win because their offense was firing on all cylinders. They shot just 36.5 percent, with likely MVP James Harden missing 16 of his 18 shots. As a team, Houston missed 36 3s, going 16 for 52 from deep compared to the Wolves' 5-for-18 mark.
While the Wolves were able to win Game 3 (partially on the strength of uncharacteristically good 3-point shooting), that second game shows how style can win a fight. The Rockets didn't win only because 3s are worth more than 2s -- they also limited their turnovers and won the battle of the boards -- but this made it possible to blow Minnesota out despite shooting so poorly.
9. CP3 is some kind of sorcerer
How else can you explain this comically high-arcing finger roll?
chris paul is having Too Much Fun pic.twitter.com/KBWZdAZP5h— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) April 19, 2018
10. The Raptors' new offense has translated … mostly
Good news for Toronto: The Game 1 streak is over, and the Playoff Raptors don't look all that different from the regular Raptors (aside from the unfortunate absence of Sixth Man of the Year candidate Fred VanVleet, who is dealing with a serious-sounding shoulder injury.) Blitzing Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan is no longer an effective strategy against them, and when everybody is moving the ball, they look like a normal No. 1 seed.
Bad news for Toronto: Presented with a golden opportunity to return home with a 3-1 lead, the Raptors lost their way in a series-changing, seven-minute stretch in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Instead of traps, Toronto has had trouble with switches. The Raptors have shown that they know what they are supposed to be doing now, which makes the situations where they get stagnant, throw the ball away or turn down open 3-pointers stand out even more.
11. Built for the playoffs or not, Thunder's issues remain
A common regular-season refrain in Oklahoma City: This team was built for the playoffs. It might play down to the competition, but it is capable of standing tall with the league's elite. Regardless of the Thunder's record, they will have upside in the postseason based purely on their star power.
This stuff doesn't sound great right now. Just like in the regular season, Oklahoma City has been inconsistent in its series against the Jazz. Just like in the regular season, at their worst the Thunder look like they desperately need some kind of system to nudge them toward better decision-making. Utah is a powerhouse on defense and this was never going to be easy, but there's no real excuse for Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to go and Westbrook to not even attempt a shot in the fourth quarter of Game 3.
12. Gobert the acrobat
We see you, nimble giant Rudy Gobert.
I was just about ready to bury the Bucks after their Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were getting buckets, but there was little else to feel good about. Then Thon Maker, for the second year in a row, became a playoff hero in Game 3 and gave Milwaukee some life. After tying the series on Sunday, it is easier to be optimistic about the Bucks' talent getting them past the Celtics..
It is still hard to trust them, though. Eric Bledsoe has been actively harmful on both ends, Maker cannot really rebound and Tony Snell is invisible most of the time. Jabari Parker played perhaps the best 25 minutes of his NBA career on Sunday, but this was just a couple of days after . Matthew Dellavedova deserves more minutes but I'm skeptical that will happen. Tyler Zeller is starting at center. Almost nothing this team can do will surprise me.
And then there are the Wizards, who have also erased a 2-0 series deficit and also have a habit of coming back from the dead. I'm not sure how many of their own fans even thought they were going to overcome Bradley Beal fouling out with five minutes left in Game 4, but they sure were excited when it happened.
Washington, like Milwaukee, has terrible habits when it comes to shot selection. Its playoff rotation is bizarre and confusing -- I guess Ty Lawson just totally took Tomas Satoransky's job, which, cool! -- and Beal was not himself in the first two games of the series. And yet the Wizards, a No. 8 seed, have outscored their opponents overall through four games. If they start involving Otto Porter offensively, maybe they can even pull off an upset.
14. The Heat are a bunch of bullies (in a good way)
Miami-Philadelphia has been thrilling largely because Spoelstra's team has been grabbing, holding, hitting and talking trash to the Sixers on just about every possession since the start of the second game. I love the intensity from an entertainment perspective, but it is also smart tactically. Philly is the more talented team, so the Heat want to test their toughness and composure by being as physical as possible and daring the referees to call a foul on every play. (At times, it has felt like the refs are indeed doing that.)
15. We must appreciate Manu while we still can
Look at this 40-year-old:
Manu Ginobili hasn't announced his intentions yet, but Tuesday's game could be his last. Can we get one more clutch 3, behind-the-back pass and circus shot?
16. Rising stars, indeed
Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell are ridiculous. Both rookies are playing even better than they did in the regular season, and you can see them adjusting to the way their opponents are defending them during these playoff games. If either of them is the least bit fazed by this stage, it is not showing.
17. When Simmons becomes a threat outside the paint …
How will anyone deal with him in a few years? Look at the touch on this shot and tell me he can't develop a consistent jumper.
18. The Morris Twins do everything together
On Saturday, Celtics forward Marcus Morris was fined $15,000 for criticizing referees and Wizards forward Markieff Morris was fined $25,000 for pushing a referee and escalating an altercation. The NBA's announcements were 12 minutes apart. It was kind of lovely.
19. Brown's upside could be even higher than we thought
Jaylen Brown has never been quite as smooth or offensively gifted as fellow young Celtic Jayson Tatum, but this Bucks series is showing what he can do when empowered to be a scorer. Building on a few big performances at the end of the regular season, Brown has averaged 23.8 points on 51.4 shooting while making 46.4 percent of his 3s on seven attempts per game, looking like a two-way star in the making and absolutely nothing like he was advertised coming out of college. Remember, he is younger than Simmons and Mitchell.
20. Weird time to be a Blazers fan
No one likes to see their team get swept, but it's worse when the team isn't that young anymore and it's hard to see an obvious pathway for improvement. Portland general manager Neil Olshey appears to already be in Evan Turner saying that "building an identity outside of our two strong scorers" should be a priority, Olshey's front office is not in a position to simply add pieces to the core., and . While it's hard to argue with
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