After a regular season that will be remembered for the Warriors 73 wins and little else, we have finally arrived at the big stage. The NBA Playoffs are a season unto itself. When you get games like the Thunder destroying the Mavericks 108-70 on Saturday night, it's hard to justify why first round series need to be best of seven. As a hoops addict the first weekend of the playoffs is a test of how much of the product I love most I can stand in a 48 hour period. I watched every game from start to finish with the exception of the second halves of the OKC and San Antonio blowouts. I'd like to give a huge shoutout to NBA League Pass for making it infinitely easier to watch catch up on games the day after the fact, without having to watch commercials or long slogs of Hack-A... nonsense.
So what stuck out from my NBA binge this weekend? The thing that has stayed with me most is just how damn impressive Paul George played in the Pacers 100-90 win over the Raptors. For a guy who experienced a truly gruesome leg injury less than two years ago to be back playing at this level is a testament to not only modern sports medicine, but also to George's character. After a slow start, George scored 27 points in the second half. He made 77 percent of his shots and went perfect from beyond the arc. Only a handful of players in this league can get on runs that get me out of my seat, and George had me pacing for much of the second half of this game.
You add the offensive fireworks to the shut down defense he put on DeMar DeRozen and there is no doubt that Paul George is still a top ten player in this league. In a weekend filled with little revelations, George stands out more than anyone else.
The best game of the weekend was Atlanta's 102-101 win over Boston, a game that well coached, and for the most part well played by both teams. There's something about the playoffs that makes Jeff Teauge look like an All NBA point guard. He was able to carve up the Celtics defense in the first half, and helped the Hawks get out to an early lead. Paul Millsap was a monster on defense, both he and Al Hortford were able to get almost anything they wanted offensively against the Celtics bigs who just seemed overmatched from the jump. The celtics shot a dismal 23 percent from the field in the first half, with Jae Crowder (1-10) putting up one of the worst halves of playoff shooting I've ever seen. The Celtics got back in the game by playing great defense and riding the hot hand of Isaiah Thomas, who scored 21 points in the second half. Thomas is quickly becoming one of my favorite guys in the league. To watch someone his size, create shots with a man in his face is a joy. I don't think he can ever be the go-to guy on a championship team, but he could sure as hell be the microwave shooter off the bench for one. In the end the Hawks lead was just a little too much for the Celtics to overcome, and Teague was able to make a couple of clutch free-throws to secure a win. This is going to be a fun series. Both coaches will make adjustments going into game two, and it will be the team that is able to adapt fastest that will end up prevailing.
We got a reminder on Saturday Night that the Warriors are heads and shoulders above the rest of the league, but the fate of the league over the next ten years still rests on the surgically repaired ankles of Stephen Curry. The Warriors have Curry officially designated as questionable for tonight’s game, but Curry insist that he could have came back into the game against the Rockets. It seems crazy that we are only one year removed from these two teams playing in the Western Conference Finals, and having legitimate arguments over who deserved the MVP, Curry or Harden. Now we’re having arguments about Curry’s place among the all time grants, while most of the chatter among sportswriters when it comes to Harden is how he doesn’t deserve to be on an All NBA team despite his averaging 29 points and 7.5 assists. Well here's an interesting stat from the Warriors 104-78 win over the Rockets Sunday, James Harden was -27 in plus/minus which was the worst among the Rockets players. He shot 0 free throws in the 32 minutes he played, and only had two assists. This is the same guy who thought he should have been MVP last season. Obviously it is not easy to score against Golden State, but for a player who has set the record for free throw attempts in a season now two years running to not even get to the line once in Sunday's game is ridiculous. There is plenty of blame to go around on the Rockets organization for what's happened over the last year, but when your best player refuses to do the things it takes to win, there's no hope.
The Clippers had an amazing run down the stretch of the regular season, going 8-2 in their final ten games while trying to get Blake Griffin back into their rotation after… you know. Last night's 115-95 thrashing of the Trail Blazers was a clinic how in how to play offense. Chris Paul has mastered the pick and roll, and is able to able sniff out where the mismatch on the floor and exploit it in about .005 seconds. He's one of the only players in the league that is able to make blind passes that rely on his teammates being in the exact right spot at the exact right time. Paul finished last nights game with a plus/minus of +29, which is absolutely absurd. As long as Chris Paul stays healthy in this series the Trailblazers have zero shot at winning. We also saw Blake Griffin and JJ Reddick continue to play themselves into shape. I'll never get sick of watching JJ Reddick run around a thousand pin-down screens to get his shots. Griffin remains the Malone to Paul's Stockton, and to watch the two work the pick-n-roll is a treasure. It wasn't always pretty with Blake. There were times when he was bulldogging his way into the lane without regards to his teammates positioning or the shot clock, but I chalk this up to an elite player trying to feel out his offensive game after spending a lot of time off the court. What was most impressive about the Clippers win was how they were able to keep Lillard and McCollum in check. The electric Portland backcourt was only a combined 10-28 on field goal attempts with 6 turnovers. The Clips used a lot of traps on Lillard to make him give up the ball early in possessions, which threw a huge wrench in the Blazers offense. If Portland wants to have any chance of making this a competitive series they need to find a way to get their their stars into better positions to score the basketball without having to deal with constant double teams. Terry Stotts is a very smart coach, and I'm sure there will be adjustments made to get Dam and CJ going, but I can not see a good answer for this talent poor team to keep up with a Clippers squad that is playing to the peak of their potential right now.
Kudos to the Pistons for making a fight out of their 106-101 loss to the Cavs. I thought that Stan Van Gundy coached a hell of a game, and that for at least one half Detroit did not seem phased by being in a playoff series against the best team in the East. I was a little unsure about the Cavaliers forcing the action of their offense through Kevin Love early, but getting him going paid dividends late when Love was confident hitting shots when the game was on the line. Even thought the pieces still don't fit for me, it's hard to argue with the production out of Cleveland's big three in game one; collectively the trio put up 81 points with each having moments where they were legitimately carrying the offense. It was amusing to watch guys like Reggie Jackson get so worked up by the no calls James was getting when he would push off in the lane to get open looks. Welcome to the playoffs Detroit, where star players get preferential treatment because we all want to see the best players make plays, just ask Byron Russell.
On deck tonight we have Game 2's for the Pacers/Raptors, Thunder/Mavericks and Warriors/Rockets. The big question for not just tonight, but for the rest of the playoffs is how fast Curry will be able to come back from his ankle sprain, and if the injury will lead to anything worse for the MVP. I have no doubt that Kerr and the Warriors training staff will handle the situation with extreme caution. There is no need for the world champions to test their luck against a Rockets team that seems upset that they have to play with each other for three more games.
I know I didn't talk about the Thunder/Mavericks, Heat/Hornets or Spurs/Grizzlies series today, but I'll get to them in their game two matchups. Let's be honest, sometimes you have to just call a ass whooping an ass whooping and get on with our lives. Congratulations to Kawai Leonard for being named Defensive Player of the Year. A basketball is never safe when it is being dribbled in the same zip code Kawaii is in. His hands are the stuff of nightmares, and his game is improving at a rate that suggests he is some kind of Terminator level AI. I for one welcome or new basketball overlord.
Enjoy the games everyone! I'll be back tomorrow for more nonsense.