Thoughts on 2 First Round Game 7s, and the Eastern Conference Second Round
September 3rd, 2020
by Alan Lu
We’ve seen a handful of riveting NBA games that went all the way down to the wire, and we were treated to two, really good Game 7s that took place between the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz, as well as the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was really hard to pick the winner of those series, but what has been equally interesting is that Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have really struggled against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, as the Bucks are down 2-0 in the second round of the playoffs.
In the Denver-Utah series, the Utah Jazz got off to a fast start, but Jamal Murray strung together several stellar performances in a row. Game 7 ended up being a slugfest as it wasn’t a smooth, well-played game, as no team had more than 80 points. In the end, Nikola Jokic was able to help nudge his team across the finish line with a go-ahead hook shot over Rudy Gobert, even though it looked like he was about to get stopped. The Jazz were unable to score down the stretch, and that was enough to get Denver both the series win and an invitation to play against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round.
After Oklahoma City made the adjustments to tie up the series at 2-2 apiece against Houston, Houston Rockets’ superstar guard Russell Westbrook returned from a quad injury to play in Game 5. He didn’t play well in either games 5 or 6, but his presence allowed his team to help steal Game 5 away from Oklahoma City, as the Thunder had allowed more shooters to get open. In Game 6, Houston struggled to make plays down the stretch, and both Harden and Westbrook had trouble with turnovers, and Oklahoma City’s defense helped force a Game 7.
In Game 7, numerous role players became the unlikely stars for each team. For Houston, Robert Covington and Jeff Green both played very well, as they were knocking down plenty of threes. For Oklahoma City, Lu Dort led all scorers in this game with 30 points, and the undrafted rookie showed off exceptional shooting and scoring skills to complement his consistently solid defensive play. It was tight all the way until the end. Houston’s P.J. Tucker in the final minute put the Rockets ahead with a rare, mid-range floater, and they never lost the lead after that. There were several wild offensive possessions, but James Harden managed to block a Lu Dort three to get a critical stop for their team.
Down the stretch, Billy Donovan’s substitutions were a little suspect, because in the final plays of the game, Steven Adams was on the floor on offense for critical stretches, including the last seconds, where they needed to create a quick shot, and they were unable to get the ball inbounds. Also, Lu Dort was not on the floor for the last possession, even though he had played extremely well throughout this game. Houston may have dodged a bullet because James Harden did not play well on offense, as he really struggled to make shots or get to the free throw line, but his big play on defense helped get his team enough momentum to get to the next round.
In the Miami-Milwaukee second round series, it was thought that the Milwaukee Bucks would be the favorites due to having the reigning MVP and a significantly better regular season record. However, they are struggling to play away from Milwaukee, and they are really having trouble executing their offense in the half-court. Miami has the personnel to slow down and contain Giannis, and the Bucks don’t have a consistent creator outside of Giannis, so Milwaukee hasn’t been getting as many open shots. Moreover, Jimmy Butler has been stellar in this series. He’s scoring at will, and he’s played shutdown defense against the Bucks, and Butler has been playing like he might actually be the best player from an Eastern Conference team instead.
Right now, Milwaukee is being outplayed by Miami, and Miami’s head coach Erik Spoelstra has out-coached Budenholzer by a long shot. Specifically, Spoelstra has done a very good job of knowing how and when to deploy various players on his roster, so he’s good at making offense-defense substitutions with Tyler Herro and Andre Iguodala, Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr. have strategically gotten minutes in short stretches. In their offense, they know how to maximize Duncan Robinson’s skill set to give them a dynamic off-ball threat alongside Butler and Dragic. Milwaukee may have a similar player in former All-Star Kyle Korver, but they don’t run him off screens the same way he did in Atlanta.
From a defensive perspective, Milwaukee’s head coach Mike Budenholzer has really struggled to adjust to the versatility of Miami’s lineups. He has insisted on playing bigger lineups, even when they are struggling on both ends of the floor. Because Milwaukee is playing bigger lineups, Miami can neutralize Giannis by pulling him away from the rim. In addition, Budenholzer has not forced Giannis to guard any of Miami’s top players, so Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Goran Dragic have been able to score at will.
This series could pose significant problems to Milwaukee unless if Budenholzer adjusts on the defensive end to swing the series back in their favor. This may require them to go small and limit the minutes of Brook Lopez, and use Giannis as a center more often. They will need players that can shoot and guard out on the perimeter, so that Giannis would have the paint all to himself on offense. Giannis guarding in Bam in theory may limit Bam’s effectiveness, as it would theoretically a key option away. Otherwise, if the Bucks lose this series, then they may need to make significant changes to their personnel and/or coaching staff. There are also questions if Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe can be reliable scoring options in the playoffs, and if they continue to struggle, they may need to add another dynamic shot creator such as Bradley Beal in order to finally meet and maybe surpass expectations as title contenders.
So far, in picking the first round series on this website, I went 7-1 in picking the correct teams in the first round. I was on the fence on the Denver-Utah series, as well as the Oklahoma City-Houston series, and my only first round loss here was in picking Oklahoma City, as Houston ended up winning that series.
I’ve already have made my 2nd Round picks in the Eastern Conference, but so far I’m not doing well in that aspect, as both Boston and Miami are up 2-0, and….I picked the other teams, though I do expect both of the series to go at least 6 games.
Here would be my the next few 2nd Round picks:
Los Angeles Lakers over the Houston Rockets in 6 games
Los Angeles Clippers over the Denver Nuggets in 6 games
It will be exciting to watch the next round of games, and time will tell to see which teams advance and which teams don’t. Currently, Milwaukee looks to be on the ropes, and while they finished their first round series strong against Orlando, their sluggish start against Miami may have been alarming, because their inability to contain top players such as Jimmy Butler combined with Milwaukee’s inability to create quality half-court offense could make the Bucks vulnerable to a surprise early exit in the playoffs.
Boston has looked really good in the series against Toronto, as they have won the first two games of their series. Toronto is a well-coached team, but so is Boston, and the Celtics have top-notch players that can consistently create their shots in Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. On top of that, they may very well have one of the best defensive players in the league in Marcus Smart. He’s shown a willingness to guard any position, and he’s been just good enough at making shots to really make an impact on offense. Specifically in the fourth quarter in Game 2, he made 5 straight threes to put Boston ahead and to get them the win. If he can continue to play well on offense, Boston could be really tough to beat. The way things are going, we might actually be headed for a Boston-Miami Eastern Conference Finals instead of Milwaukee or Toronto.