LeBron James, Lakers need more from Anthony Davis in Game 2, while the Grizzlies may be the NBA's most exciting team
The extent of the task ahead increased in transparency for the Los Angeles Lakers at the sight of LeBron James holding on for dear life as Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder teamed up to pry the ball from his clutches.
Riding the adrenaline of the franchise’s first playoff berth in 10 years, the Phoenix Suns were a breath of fresh air as they embraced the playoff spotlight to sink a labouring Lakers outfit in Game 1.
Perhaps the only downside being the prospect of the result awaking the monster. How will the champions respond?
Live NBA Playoffs 5: LA Lakers @ Phoenix 25.05 2700
The LABrons need more
This is not the 2014 Miami Heat or the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James used to be able to lead anyone to the FInals. The crazy thing is, the 2021 LA Lakers possibly have more talent than both of James’ final seasons with his previous teams, but they don’t look like it. When he leaves the floor, nothing seems to work.
Even when James is on the court, with a sizeable, good defensive unit around him, DeAndre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns rolled to the rim for lobs and dunks with ease last night – to the point where he was so surprised to be wide open that he passed the ball away in confusion during the third quarter.
Deandre Ayton is the 2nd player in postseason history to shoot 90% (or better) in a 20-point, 15-rebound game against the Lakers, joining Bill Russell, who did it in Game 2 of the 1965 NBA Finals h/t @EliasSports pic.twitter.com/T0CXG8LBQW
It should probably come as no surprise that Chris Paul struggled to stay in the game after a shoulder contusion – he has a habit of suffering injuries in the playoffs. He still managed the game relatively well and had a big impact at certain points, including a tough mid-range shot of the outstretched arms of Kyle Kuzma.
Nobody was stopping Devin Booker, who finished with 34 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.
“It gives me a real advantage to be able to dissect a team; you know what we did wrong in the previous games,” James said. “Game 1 has always been a feel-out game for me.”
James was solid, and finished plus-2 in +/-, which was the best on the team. His right-hand man, and the player who should have been taking over as the main guy for the Lakers (or at least the reliable 1B to James’ 1A) was nowhere on offense. Anthony Davis spent the regular season averaging 21 points and eight rebounds, but he lacked energy as the Suns defense nullified anything he tried. He finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and finished with minus-18 in terms of +/-.
“There’s no way we’re winning a game, let alone the series, with me playing the way I played,” Davis said after the game. “This is on me. I take whatever responsibility, for sure. I’ll be ready for Game 2.
Phoenix kept him away from the basket, so he had to post-up from beyond the top of the key, and it didn’t help that Andre Drummond was filling the lane. Davis tried to initiate a passing game with Drummond but the Suns were wise to it and made it difficult for the latter to catch much. The only occasions when Drummond did any damage was on put-backs after grabbing seven offensive rebounds. To unlock Davis, they probably need to play him at center and send Drummond to the bench.
The Lakers are still good on defense, but their offensive system is built entirely around James. Without creative sets or a player with great vision like Rajon Rondo – who helped the team win a championship last season – they are struggling to find open looks. Simply put, in 2021, after a year of nagging injuries, he might just be too old to be on a team this bad offensively.
The most exciting team of the year award goes to…
The Memphis Grizzlies are showing why the person who came up with the play-in tournament will not get fired.
Without fledgling big man Jaren Jackson Jr for most of the season, Ja Morant led this proud group of exciting up-and-comers – making up the youngest team in the playoffs – that features just a handful of savvy veterans who know their role. But now Jackson is back, they are doing damage to some of the most notable teams in the NBA.
During the play-in tournament, the San Antonio Spurs looked to avoid missing their second consecutive playoffs for the first time ever in franchise history. The Grizzlies went up big but Gregg Popovich’s team fought back, only to come up short against this composed young group.
There was no fear against the Golden State Warriors and their recent championship dynastic history. They were kept at arm’s length for most of the play-in game, with Dillon Brooks face-guarding Stephen Curry to make life difficult for the scoring champion.
And after winning two games to make the playoffs, up against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, they showed how they are better than their record suggests.
The Jazz have good perimeter players, but without Donovan Mitchell in the first game, Brooks had the easier defensive assignment of Mike Conley. This meant the Grizzlie had more energy to be a go-to scorer.
Former two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert had his hands full with the physical, gritty Jonas Valanciunas and they played themselves to a draw. Brooks and Morant drove to the rim when Gobert was on the bench and came back from an early deficit, then maintained the Grizzlies’ threat throughout the second half before Gobert fouled out, which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Memphis didn’t get much from Jackson Jr, who struggled with foul trouble and still has some game time rust after missing 61 games this season. But he managed seven points and three rebounds, while his long arms were useful in stealing the ball three times, blocking one shot and changing shots all over the court. If he can get his offense going as well, the Jazz will need Mitchell back. But they will also need a better gameplan to avoid becoming the first-ever top seed to be eliminated by a play-in team.
Robin Lopez alert
Feeding Robin Lopez in a situation where you need a bucket is not ideal, but it was working (?) when the Washington Wizards were within reaching distance of the Philadelphia 76ers down the stretch.
The way the eighth seed got within four points in the final few minutes against the top-seeded 76ers, however, was thanks to the consistent scoring of Bradley Beal. He shot 56 per cent from the field and put the Wizards in a position to win despite some excellent performances from several players from Philadelphia.
Joel Embiid was back to his MVP self in the first half, making tough shots with three players draped over him.
The big scorer of the evening was Tobias Harris. It is his ability to go off like this that earned him a five-year $180m contract in 2019. It might be criticised from time to time, but his size on defense and the ability to put up 37 points in a big game could bode well if the 76ers come up against the Brooklyn Nets later in the playoffs.
The size of Embiid, Harris, as well as Ben Simmons, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle and Dwight Howard is the reason we saw the likes of Lopez receiving key minutes down the stretch, despite hardly playing in the rest of the contest.
Beal and Russell Westbrook will do everything they can to keep the Wizards in this, and if Lopez can use his size effectively – he hit three out of his four funky hook shots in the clutch – Washington could pick off one or two of games in this series. They won’t win enough to advance, but it will provide useful tape so others can prepare a strategy to take down the best team in the Eastern Conference.
The series to watch
We knew it going into the playoffs: the Eastern Conference Finals rematch from last season between the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks is going to be the series to watch in this first round.
Despite having a worse winning percentage and a lower seed this year, the Bucks are betting on being better this year, thanks to the addition of Jrue Holiday, a third go-to player down the stretch. It has arguably been missing in previous seasons, as an over-reliance on coach Mike Budenholzer’s five-out system that puts the ball in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s hands to do everything on offense. But Holiday’s presence was felt on offense and defense, as he stole the ball for an open lay-up down the other end to go ahead in overtime.
The Heat have a good Giannis-stopper Bam Adebayo, though, the Heat big man needs to be more aggressive on offense. The Bucks sagged off him and don’t think he can hit enough mid-range jumpers to keep them honest.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler is all business. He was his usual intense defensive self and made a great play driving at the rim to put the Heat all even with the Bucks at the end of four quarters.
But to win Game 1 of this series, Holiday wasn’t needed. Instead, the Bucks went to the perennially overlooked second star: Khris Middleton.
He took on the task of taking the last shot, got a switch in the pick-and-roll, then rose up over the long arm of Duncan Robinson for the go-ahead bucket that would ultimately win the game.
In Game 2, the Bucks dominated the Heat, showing that Milwaukee’s plan to be ready for the post-season is taking shape. But if anything can wake up Butler and Miami, it’s an embarrassing loss just before returning home for a two-game stretch. Expect this battle to continue – it’s the series to watch.
Clippers bark worse than they bite
The picture of Marcus Morris, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard screaming after the latter’s poster dunk over Maxi Kleber is a scary sight. Three great defenders showing they can be intimidating on offense as well.
These staredowns after Kawhi's monster dunk! 😂#NBAPlayoffs #NBATwitter #TheJump pic.twitter.com/qHPiu0s2xg
But that might have been the high point of that game.
The real danger man in this series between the LA Clippers and the Dallas Mavericks is Luka Doncic. He bullied whoever guarded him, including a ferocious drive against Patrick Beverley when the Slovenian embarrassed the feisty guard.
Doncic, ante Beverley #NBASaturdays pic.twitter.com/aWCqbxW6V3
He had great support from Tim Hardaway Jr with 21 points, Dorian Finney-Smith on 18 and Jalen Brunson scored 15. But until they can find someone to stop Doncic doing whatever he wants on the way to a 31-point triple double, the Clippers might find themselves being eliminated early from the playoffs for the second season running.
The NBA Playoffs are just more fun when the New York Knicks are involved, no matter the result.
The Brooklyn Nets look dangerous, but they hardly have much of a challenge against a weakened Boston Celtics. Prepare the brooms.
The Denver Nuggets can’t guard guards, and the Portland Trail Blazers have two of the best in the league.
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