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As the dust settles, here’s a rundown of the winners and losers from the first 11 days of the opening round, with an eye towards the reopened championship race.
Winner: LeBron James
There are two timelines to consider when it comes to Stephen Curry’s MCL sprain. First, there’s the official recovery timetable, released Monday, which estimated that he could return in roughly two weeks. Then there is a second timeline: How long does it take for Curry and the Warriors to fully recapture their 73–win, damn–near–unbeatable form?
It’s possible, of course, that Curry returns on schedule, reenters the rotation and can’t reclaim his MVP flow. Honestly, he was shooting so exquisitely and captaining such a precise attack before his health setbacks that it’s almost unfair to expect him to flip that switch in May or June, especially when he’ll be facing top–level competition in a series format. This isn’t an unnecessarily cautious take: Curry vastly exceeded his career-high in scoring this season, he smashed the NBA record for three–pointers, he put together the most impressive 50/40/90 shooting season of all time and he spent roughly five straight months “in the zone.” Now he’s on the sideline watching with a murky understanding of when he’ll be ready to rock again. That’s seriously jarring.
Curry’s first timeline will be a major concern for Golden State’s second–round opponent (Clippers or Blazers) and, should the defending champs advance, their conference finals opponent (Spurs or Thunder). For LeBron James and the Cavaliers, however, it’s Curry’s second timeline that truly matters.
Remember that James lost his last two Finals against opponents who blew his teams off the court with overwhelming chemistry. Who could forget Game 3 of the 2014 Finals, when the Spurs started Boris Diaw and scored a stunning 71 first–half points to shock the Heat? And who could forget Game 4 of the 2015 Finals, when the Warriors started Andre Iguodala and rolled to a 21–point road win over the Cavaliers? This season, Golden State holds comfortable advantages over Cleveland in all the major categories—wins, point differential, offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency—and Curry outpaced James in all the major advanced statistical categories. The champs swept the season series, to boot. At full strength, it’s hard to make the case, on paper, that the Cavaliers are capable of upsetting the Warriors.
But there’s just no guarantee that those Warriors return and James stands to be the biggest beneficiary of Curry’s uncertainty. If Golden State can’t withstand Curry’s absence, or if it can’t compete with San Antonio (in the most likely scenario), James’s path to his first title in Cleveland is significantly easier. If Golden State does survive the West, James at least gets the benefit of knowing Curry isn’t on an eight–month magic carpet ride and it may be easier for Cleveland to junk up the Finals and/or keep up in a small ball shootout if Curry isn’t firing on all cylinders.
James isn’t only a winner because of Curry’s adversity. On the contrary, everything has been coming up wine and gold over the last two weeks. Cleveland survived some early scares to sweep Detroit 4-0, the rest of the East is busy beating itself up in extended series, and Miami, which appeared to be the conference’s best shot at unseating Cleveland after two big wins over Charlotte, looked far more mortal when that series shifted.
After a 2015 playoff run that resembled a minefield—complete with multiple injuries to stars and David Blatt–related tension, among other issues—James’s Cavaliers are truly off to a dream start in 2016.
As a postscript, James should be regarded as a winner for one more reason: his unbelievable durability. The fluky nature of Curry’s knee injury and Chris Paul’s hand injury this week served as reminders that a team’s championship hopes can be altered by something as random as a wet spot on the court or a misplaced swipe at the ball. James, however, is impervious to random calamities. During a postseason career that dates back to the 2006 playoffs, James has never missed a playoff game for any reason. He’s led the league in playoff minutes five times, he’s averaged 42.5 MPG in 182 postseason games over 11 years, he’s made five straight trips to the Finals, he’s been on the receiving end of an untold number of hard fouls, and he’s battled vicious legs cramps— but he’s always been there for his teams. James has been such a permanent fixture that it’s easy even for the most attentive observers to overlook the scope of his accomplishments. Salute.
Loser: Blake Griffin
After all the plans for revenge, after all the goofy free agency courting of DeAndre Jordan, after all the preseason talk about the possibility of breaking up the Clippers’ core if this year didn’t produce real progress, after an 0–4 season series against the Warriors, and after two major injuries and a much–ballyhooed comeback attempt, Blake Griffin’s postseason is over after just four games and 127 minutes. That qualifies as a Disaster with a capital “D.”
Aside from a strong performance in Game 1 against Portland, in which he hammered home multiple poster dunks and lived at the free–throw line, Griffin was a relative nonfactor in a matchup that he should have dominated. The lingering effects of the quad injury he first sustained on Christmas and the broken hand he suffered during an off-court incident were obvious: he struggled in isolation against smaller defenders, he often lacked his trademark explosiveness and he never found the range on his jumper.
If the Clippers are unable to hold off the hard–charging Blazers and exit in the first round, Chris Paul’s hand injury, as lamentable and unfortunate as it is, won’t provide sufficient cover for the disappointment. Indeed, Doc Rivers made his bed by questioning the long–term potential of his core last fall and now he must lay in it, as awkward as that might be. Curry going down right before the second round was the Clippers’ big break; that break lasted all of 24 hours before the Paul/Griffin double whammy led to a new flavor of heartache that nearly matches last year’s meltdown. How can Rivers bring back this same group now? That question will linger even after the dust has a chance to settle.
While the Warriors breathe a sigh of relief that they won’t need to deal with Paul during Curry’s absence, the Blazers and their fans should lock themselves in a room, close the blinds, crank up the party music, and dance like no one is watching. To be clear, there’s a difference between celebrating an injury and celebrating the opportunity created by an injury. For Portland, a snake–bitten franchise that has advanced out of the first round just once since 2000, a surprising regular season has quickly morphed into a shocking and glorious postseason thanks to the opportunity created by the Paul and Curry injuries.
Last week, the Blazers were down 0-2 with their backs against the ropes, needing Damian Lillard to shake off Paul’s careful defense and break through after some poor shooting nights. Lillard responded right on cue during Game 3, the Blazers finished off a Game 4 victory as the injuries mounted for the Clippers, and they’re now in position to take advantage of a seriously weakened Clippers roster. Here’s a look at how L.A. played with and without Paul and Griffin this season.
|<p> <br><u><strong>On/off</strong></u> </p>||<p><u>Minutes</u></p>||<p><u>Off. Rating</u></p>||<p><u>Def. Rating</u></p>||<p><u>Net Rating</u></p>|
Both Paul and Griffin ON
Paul ON, Griffin OFF
Paul OFF, Griffin ON
Both Paul and Griffin OFF
* via NBAWowy.com
Note the drastic drops in offensive efficiency when Paul is off the court and the poor defensive numbers when both of L.A.’s stars are absent. Rivers is left with an effective center in Jordan, a proven shooter in J.J. Redick, a hit–or–miss volume scoring threat in Jamal Crawford, the competitive and streaky Austin Rivers, a whole bunch of role-playing question marks, and home-court advantage. Portland, on the other hand, has the best player left in the series (Lillard), two major defensive matchups it now longer has to worry about (Paul and Griffin) and superior depth thanks to the trickle–down effect caused by the Clippers’ injuries.
If that’s not enough to get Rip City excited, there’s also the possibility of facing the Warriors in their Curry–less state of uncertainty. Portland scored a major blowout win over Golden State, Lillard loves to play at home in Oakland, and role players like Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless and Ed Davis have looked increasingly effective as the first round has gone on. None of that should scare the defending champions, who still have an elite defense and two All-Stars to work with until Curry comes back, but the Blazers would be firmly in the “They have a shot!” category if both teams advance.
And, really, even the existence of this hypothetical breakdown is a testament to Portland’s unbelievable combination of resilience and good luck. The Blazers have beaten expectations again this week, maturing past the “pleasant surprise” label they earned by far surpassing preseason expectations in a rebuilding year. Suddenly, thanks in part to outside circumstances, this is as seriously as the Blazers have needed to be taken this late in the year since Damon Stoudamire, Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace were squaring off against the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Totally surreal.
Losers: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Toronto’s Clank Brothers, have been at it again for the third straight postseason, struggling to maintain their All-Star form once the pressure gets turned up. In fairness, Lowry has contributed his standard doses of all–around contributions in Toronto’s wins and DeRozan enjoyed a breakthrough performance in Game 5 to help the Raptors take a 3-2 series lead over the Pacers. It’s also worth noting that George Hill and Paul George represent one of the toughest pairs of positional matchups for the Raptors’ guards in the East.
Still, the misses have rained down mercilessly: Lowry is shooting just 31.4% percent in the series while DeRozan is only slightly better at 33.3%. To make matters worse, Lowry now finds himself among the five worst postseason shooters in the modern era (DeRozan also places in the bottom 20).
1. Lindsey Hunter
2. Ronald Murray
3. O.J. Mayo
4. Kyle Lowry
5. Anthony Peeler
6. Stephon Marbury
7. Larry Hughes
8. Greg Anthony
9. Lou Williams
10. C.J. Watson
11. Rafer Alston
12. Marvin Williams
13. Sasha Vujacic
14. DeMar DeRozan
There are plenty of possible explanations: Lowry is being well-defended, or he’s pressing to shake his label as a postseason bust, or he’s rushing when he gets open looks, or he’s simply unafraid of high-difficulty attempts, or some combination of all of those.
The good news for the Raptors is that coach Dwane Casey found a lineup that was able to overcome the shooting struggles to pay major dividends down the stretch of a crucial Game 5 win on Tuesday. Casey’s go-to five included Lowry, DeRozan, guards Cory Joseph and Norman Powell, and defensive-minded center Bismack Biyombo. That super-small configuration throws size out the window in favor of an intriguing mix of Lowry’s play-making, DeRozan’s attack mentality, and three of Casey’s steadiest rotation players and best defenders. Plus, Powell’s three-point range helps compensate for DeRozan’s floor-shrinking while Joseph’s ball-handling skills eases some of the burden off Lowry’s shoulders.
That group played eight fourth-quarter minutes as the Raptors beat the Pacers 25-9 to retake control of a see-saw series. It should certainly get more run if Toronto is able to finish off Indiana and advance.
The only team that’s been immune from the madness in the West has been the Spurs, who slapped together one of their trademark sweeps against the Grizzlies, the type that leaves their opponents completely humbled and thankful that it’s over. San Antonio won its four games by an average of 22 points and it made full use of its awesome home-court advantage and suffocating defense to hold Memphis to an average of 71 points in the two games at the AT&T Center.
This was as close as the NBA playoffs get to a “bye.” San Antonio managed to keep its entire roster under 32 MPG for the series while also pocketing a week of rest before its highly–anticipated second-round tilt against Oklahoma City. Gregg Popovich couldn’t ask for anything more, right?
Well, sort of. In addition to the Curry and Paul injuries, which both clearly improve San Antonio’s chances of winning the West, there was the little matter of Oklahoma City’s brief struggles with a depleted Dallas team. Although the Thunder prevailed in five games and notched four double–digit victories, they looked downright bad when Kevin Durant struggled through a career–worst shooting night in Game 2. Given that Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard is set to match up against Durant in the second-round series, the Spurs have to like their chances of throwing off the Thunder’s attack with enough regularity to exploit their other advantages.
Rare Photos of Tim Duncan
To boil this down, the Spurs got a sneak peek at how badly the Thunder struggle, especially late, when the game slows down and the defensive intensity rachets up. The same can’t be said going the other direction, as San Antonio was never truly pushed by an injury-ravaged Memphis squad. Popovich was always going to be favored in his matchup against rookie coach Billy Donovan, but the first-round revelations should give him an added edge.
Loser: Reggie Jackson
Kevin Durant provided the best podium moment of the playoffs when he clapped back at Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for his suggestion that Russell Westbrook isn’t a superstar. On the flip side, Reggie Jackson, Durant’s former teammate who departed Oklahoma City in acrimonious fashion last year, provided easily the worst podium performance to date.
After Jackson drew a late technical foul for losing his cool over a no-call late in a close Game 1, Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy stuck to the script and told reporters that his point guard had to be better given the circumstances. Minutes later, Jackson attempted to justify his lack of composure and poor decision-making, telling reporters that he didn’t regret his behavior and adding, “I wish I got the call. I wish they had seen me get slapped on the arm. I felt it was blatantly obvious. I’ve got to let [the referees] know.”
Oh yeah, great strategy.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it. At the end of Game 4, Jackson went after the officials even more fiercely following another no-call on the game’s final possession. On that play, Jackson attempted to draw a foul while launching a potential game-winning three that missed badly. Afterwards, he told reporters that the NBA needed to institute a “system [of] fines, suspensions, being fired” for poor officiating decisions.
Jackson’s repeated saltiness reeked of poor sportsmanship and it showed an ignorance towards the NBA’s refereeing apparatus. In recent years, the NBA has begun publishing “Last 2 Minute” reports to add a level of accountability to every major late-game officiating decision and it conducts extensive reviews of each referee’s performance. When calls are missed under controversial circumstances, the NBA acknowledges them publicly, putting individual officials under the spotlight.
The worst part of all of this? Jackson’s request for the call at the end of Game 4 was totally misguided. NBA officiating guru Joe Borgia explained why in a thorough video breakdown of Jackson’s final shot, noting that Jackson initiated the contact on the play by going out of his way to jump sideways into Kyrie Irving. Finally, the NBA’s “Last 2 Minute” report for the game noted that the game officials actually missed two potential fouls committed by Jackson in the final 90 seconds. Congratulations, Reggie Jackson, you played yourself. While no one is claiming the NBA’s referees are perfect, this is about as weak as it gets.