Bubble Ball: A review of all eight NBA Playoffs series, two games in

No intro needed here; it’s the NBA Playoffs. Instead of a normal game-a-day review, I decided to take a broad look at all eight series currently going, with a GIF representing each team. Let’s begin.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (8) Orlando Magic; series tied, 1-1

Milwaukee: No one thought they would get rocked in Game 1, but pretty much everyone expected them to respond appropriately in Game 2. The Bucks finally looked like the Bucks everyone watched from October to February…in some fashions. For reasons unknown, Khris Middleton – AKA, one of the most efficient shooters in the NBA – has had an absolute disaster of a series. He’s 5-for-20 from the field, 2-for-10 from three, and has turned it over way more than he did at any point pre-pandemic. You’d imagine he’ll find his way out of this, but the Bucks need him to do so as quickly as possible.

Giannis has gone for 59 points and 37 rebounds through two games, and often it feels like it’s just Giannis on the court. Part of this is because the Bucks are happy to run HB Dive and HB Slam with Basketball Jerome Bettis on their side, but part of it is also that no one is helping Giannis consistently. Through two games, the second-best Buck has been Eric Bledsoe, and not exactly by way of standing out. He’s averaging 14 & 6, which is fine, but not at all what you’d want the second banana of a title contender to be posting. Milwaukee looked way more attentive on defense in Game 2; now, we have to monitor how long it’ll take for them to figure out the offensive details clearly plaguing them. It’s probably not a good thing for them to have the same main problem as their 8-seed opponent, though they should be fine in this series.

Representative GIF:

Orlando: Two totally different games: looked unbeatable in Game 1, looked sweep-able in Game 2. Game 1 was strange for both teams, in that Orlando looked like the much more excited and focused roster, not at all how it went in the regular season. They keep saying that the Bubble will produce strange results that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have come about. Game 1 was an easy one to chalk up to that. In a normal world, you’d imagine that a Milwaukee slow start gets turned around at some point simply because it’s a true road game. Fans don’t affect the game nearly as much as some sportswriters want them to, but they do have an effect, and it would’ve helped the Bucks.

For Orlando, the series essentially has boiled down to this through two games: how far can Nikola Vucevic drag this roster, and will anyone step up to help him? In both games, Vucevic has been fabulous, posting 35 & 14 in Game 1 followed by 32 & 10 in Game 2. Those are Giannis-like numbers, and he’s having a heck of a series so far. That said, he needs help. In Game 1, Orlando got five double-digit point efforts from non-Vooch players, including some serious surprises in James Ennis and Gary Clark. The Magic also had an unusually great day from downtown while Milwaukee had an unusually bad one. Game 2 flipped the script: Vooch was great, as mentioned, but no one else scored more than 12 points. Also, the Magic were an awful 7-for-33 from three and took an absurd amount of bad mid-range twos. The only reason the game was within 15 points was Orlando benefitting from several questionable foul calls on the Bucks throughout the game. Until Orlando can replicate the Game 1 effort again, they’re in trouble.

Representative GIF:

(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets; Raptors lead, 2-0

Toronto: All the nice things about Brooklyn that were said do ignore that the Raptors probably should’ve won Game 2 by double digits. The Raptors had back-to-back outlier shooting performances, but Game 1’s was the positive side (22-for-44 from three) while Game 2’s was a negative (9-for-35). Odds are that, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle for Toronto. Fred VanVleet isn’t going to shoot 8-for-10 every night from three, just like he won’t always shoot 3-for-11. The Raps can thank Norman Powell completely taking over the paint for getting them over the top in Game 2; he went a perfect 8-for-8 in the paint while going 3-for-9 from everywhere else. On the whole, the Raps figured out fairly early they weren’t going to be making a lot of threes and still did a good job of getting to the rim. This is a very adaptive team that knows how to win games, and even if they aren’t always pretty, that has to count for something in a league where both 1 seeds lost their first game.

Representative GIF:

Brooklyn: As hard as they’re trying and as admirable a mission as they’re undergoing, they simply don’t have the firepower. In Game 1, they couldn’t buy a three for large stretches of the game, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was the only player that seemed to be able to score consistently. The issue lies with the fact they’ve got a bunch of role players in roles they aren’t meant to be in. Jarrett Allen is a good player, but he’s just a roll & cut big that protects the rim well defensively; the team can’t run through him. Caris LeVert would be a perfect sixth man on a better team. Joe Harris is best as a catch-and-shoot option. And so on! It’s far from a perfect roster…and yet, had they not pushed out a horrendous seven-minute offensive stretch to open the fourth quarter in Game 2, this series very well could be tied at 1.

The Nets keep throwing everything they have available at Toronto, forcing one of the worst Raptors offensive games of the year in Game 2. Their defense allowed a lot of attempts at the rim, but they also demanded Toronto shoot over them to very little success. Toronto won that game in spite of their awful three-point shooting, which included a 3-for-14 run in the second half. Where it was TLC that kept Brooklyn in it offensively in Game 1, it was a good performance by Garrett Temple in Game 2 that almost got them there: 21 points, 5-11 on 3s. They continue to play ultra hard every night, even if it doesn’t look pretty. If they could find a way to combine TLC’s Game 1 with Temple’s Game 2, they’d steal a game before this series ends.

Representative GIF:

(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Philadelphia 76ers; Celtics lead, 2-0

Boston: They’ve offered no real surprises, maybe beyond how little they’ve let Philadelphia get into the series. All three of Tatum/Brown/Walker have been pretty fantastic, though the Gordon Hayward injury news is very unfortunate. The most impressive thing, clearly, should be how strong they’ve been in forcing Philly to take a ton of bad mid-range shots. In particular, an astounding 41 Philadelphia shot attempts in Game 2 came from the mid-range, and even if they hit 17 of them, it proved that Boston’s defensive structure is not allowing Philly to get to the rim or get the shots they really need to be getting. If they play this well the rest of the way, they should be properly recognized as a championship contender.

Representative GIF:

Philadelphia: Looks like garbage, thanks. The only standout player for this overpaid, infuriating squad is Joel Embiid; everyone else looks various shades of uninterested, overwhelmed, or both. While Embiid has taken his fair share of possessions off out of frustration, he’s done his part in attempting to force Philadelphia into this series: 60 points, 26 rebounds, and, when he’s wanted to go there, some great paint work. Embiid is 7-for-10 at the rim, and to be fair, he’s shot 11-for-20 on mid-range attempts. Unfortunately for Embiid, Philadelphia is required to place four other players on the floor, and none of them have seriously attempted to provide him with the help he needs. Josh Richardson is Philly’s second leading scorer at 18 a game, but look at the other guys: Tobias Harris is 10-for-30 from the field. Shake Milton is 10-for-15, but is getting roasted on defense with ease. Alec Burks is 7-for-23. Al Horford has taken ten – TEN – shot attempts. No one else is worth mentioning.

When Embiid forces his way out of Philadelphia in one of the next two offseasons, no one should be surprised or upset with him. He has earned a shot somewhere else, and he deserves a team with either a competent owner, a competent general manager, or preferably both. Any player talented enough to average 30/13 against this legitimately excellent Boston team deserves better. The Sixers will not be winning this series; the only question remaining is if they get swept or if they have enough dignity to pull it together and get one win.

Representative GIF:

(4) Indiana Pacers vs. (5) Miami Heat; Heat lead, 2-0

Indiana: Unfortunately, a pretty short discussion to have: they simply don’t have enough firepower. Had the Pacers had Sabonis available, I really do think this would be a much different series. They probably would’ve split these first two games, and they would’ve had a much easier time scoring offensively. With Sabonis on the court this season (2,159 minutes), the Pacers scored about 112.4 points per 100 possessions. Not beautiful, obviously, but enough to push them into a top ten offensive rating. In the 1,365 minutes they played without Sabonis, they were much worse: 107.9 points per 100, or the 25th-best offense in the league.

So far in this series, they’re posting just 106.4 per 100, and a large part of it stems from their inability to get good shots against this Miami defense. Only 30.6% of the Pacers field goal attempts have come at the rim, while they’ve shot 20-for-51 from a midrange game that’s starting to abandon them. They have five players averaging double figures through two games, but it doesn’t mean much when the opponent has a player that can easily go 7-for-8 from three as well as a better player than your best player. Indiana might have something for the Heat next year, but it’s not going to happen in 2020.

Representative GIF:

Miami: I really didn’t expect this roster to turn out as well as it has, but they’re pretty vicious when they want to be. Obviously, you knew Jimmy Butler was going to continue to be a fantastic player, and he’s been so, scoring 46 points through two games. However, did you expect Goran Dragic to be out here scoring 44 points? Or Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro to be the team’s third and fourth-best scoring options? Or for the Heat to overcome a relatively quiet series from Bam Adebayo by way of nearly everyone else playing above their means?

This is a fun roster that’s beating the Pacers for several reasons, but a simple, easy one is that they simply get better shots. Miami is no stranger to the mid-range shot, but they’ve gotten a lot of great looks from three in this series because Indiana’s roster can’t cover lineups that have five shooting options. In particular, the two main lineups that feature Adebayo/Dragic/Butler (plus two of Herro, Robinson, Iguodala, or Crowder) are a shocking +28 in 39 minutes of play. When any one of those three is off the court, Indiana’s been able to hang around, beating the Heat by seven points in the other 49 minutes. Until they find a way to deal with those main three, though, this series is done.

Representative GIF:

Western Conference

(1) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (8) Portland Trail Blazers; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: Pretty simple equation to break down, actually: they missed a bunch of shots they normally make in Game 1, then went out and made all of them in Game 2. We call those adjustments! In all seriousness, outside of the first quarter of Game 1, the Lakers have almost entirely shut down the Blazers. In that first quarter, which essentially decided the outcome of the game once the Lakers couldn’t hit threes, the Blazers dumped 36 points on 27 possessions (1.333 PPP); over the following seven quarters, Portland’s sitting at 152 points on 171 possessions (0.889 PPP), maybe their worst two-game stretch of offense of the entire season.

What the Lakers are doing is actually pretty fascinating: they’re generally fine with letting Portland get to the rim, but in Game 2 in particular, they closed hard on potential threes and forced the Blazers into tougher twos, which they hit almost none of. Basically, two games in, Los Angeles has completely neutralized the strongest thing the Blazers have going for them. On the offensive side, they’re getting absurdly good shot quality. Through three quarters in Game 2 – i.e., before garbage time – the Lakers’ Shot Quality metric on PBPStats tied the highest they’d had in any game this year. As @Tim_NBA said on Twitter, a lot of the Lakers’ attempts looked like practice shots at the gym. If they’re going to get those looks, this series is over.

Representative GIF:

Portland: Here are some basic truths we all knew about Portland heading into this series: they have one of the two best scorers on the planet. They have a strange collection of talent that makes sense together offensively. They play a brand of defense that matadors would be offended by. So far, the first and the third have come true in separate games; the second has yet to make a serious appearance. Dame was not very good in Game 2, but neither was anyone else; his 34 points lifted a Portland offense having a bad night in Game 1 over the top. Portland gave up an absurd amount of wide-open threes in Game 1 that didn’t go in, along with getting lucky on several Laker misses at the rim.

The second issue is a clear one that has no easy resolution. The second-best Blazer through two games is probably Jusuf Nurkic, who has provided just 25 points on the offensive end and is 3-for-12 from the field when not at the rim. Carmelo Anthony, who plays 47 minutes of bad basketball only to show up for the final minute of some games, is 4-for-17 and has five turnovers. Hassan Whiteside barely looks interested on defense. Gary Trent’s gone cold from the field. C.J. McCollum: 14-for-36, 4-for-13, six turnovers. Unless Dame gets some help, the Blazers do not have enough to make this a real series, barring another Laker disaster from downtown.

Representative GIF:

(2) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks; series tied, 1-1

Los Angeles: In some ways, this has been a perfectly fine defensive series for them. Dallas has been forced into a lot of mid-range looks they don’t normally want, the Clippers are winning the battle on both the boards and on turnovers, and fouls have been fairly even. But when you’re playing a team that has the ability to shoot way over what’s expected, you’ve got to match it on your own end, and the Clippers largely haven’t thus far. Kawhi has been as awesome as anyone would’ve hoped: 64 points, 22 rebounds. Lou Williams has 37 off the bench, Marcus Morris, 33. Everyone else has been varying shades of disappointing. Paul George is an embarrassing 14-for-39 this series, including a brutal 6-for-21 from three. Reggie Jackson, God only knows why, has played 43 minutes and is shooting 1-for-8 on twos. Ivica Zubac needs more minutes, but he hasn’t been the defensive stopper Los Angeles normally gets and has needed.

On the whole, the Clippers have a few kinks they’ve got to work out, but I imagine that they still feel fairly confident they can get out of this series and onto the second round. Kawhi looks like Playoff Kawhi, and when Patrick Beverley is back, they’ll be able to have the perimeter defense they need to slow Dallas down from downtown. Offensively, they need to find a way to up the quality of shots they’re getting. Dallas doesn’t have a very good defense, but the Clippers have settled for a lot of less-optimal shorter mid-range looks and haven’t gotten to the rim at the level I personally would’ve expected. Just 27.9% of Clipper shots have come at the rim so far, 3.5% below their regular season rate. On the flip side, they’ve taken considerably more threes than usual and haven’t hit them as well as you’d expect, going 17-for-56 on non-corner threes. Kawhi and PG are a combined 8-for-30 on these looks, and I know they’re better than that.

Representative GIF:

Dallas: The argument that Dallas could be up 2-0 in this series right now does hold some merit. Obviously, they were up by five points in Game 1 before Porzingis was unfairly ejected, and they dominated all of Game 2 when he was in. That being said, a 1-1 series is probably fair. The Clippers forced a lot of Dallas misses in the second half of Game 1 that likely wouldn’t have changed much had Porzingis been in; no ejection would’ve changed the outcome of Game 2. The funny thing about this series thus far is that Dallas really hasn’t gotten a ton of great shots. Per PBPStats, their Shot Quality measurement has been right at 50% in both games, and they actually got considerably more combined rim/three-point attempts in Game 1.

In Game 2, though, they lit it up on longer mid-range shots (8-for-13 on 14+ foot attempts) and took way more advantage of the threes they got, going 13-for-29 after a 15-for-43 performance in Game 1. Luka continues to be at the wheel of this series. He’s hitting more threes than expected, and I think that’ll fall, but more important is that he’s using the gravity he draws to find tons of open shooters. Obviously, the Game 2 bench performances were awesome, but Dallas can’t expect that every night. What they can expect is for Luka to force his way to the rim and, if he demands a double team, pass out of it for an open shot. It’s a simple gravity game, and time will tell how well it works. Perhaps we all shouldn’t have collectively underrated the team with the third-best margin of victory in the West this season?

Representative GIF:

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Utah Jazz; series tied, 1-1

Denver: The Nuggets possess the second-best offense so far, with three players dropping 20+ points per game and the team as a whole shooting over 50% from downtown. (35-for-68, to be exact.) This has been a wild series that’s suddenly turned into the most entertaining series in the bubble. Nikola Jokic is doing his normal stuff, going for 57 points and 21 rebounds, but it’s been Jamal Murray’s emergence that has lifted Denver. Murray’s 34 points in Game 1 and complete dominance of the fourth quarter and overtime got Denver over the top on a night where they had no one to stop Donovan Mitchell.

If the Nuggets had Will Barton or especially Gary Harris available, their defense would look far less hopeless than it has so far. Harris is the team’s best perimeter defender and almost certainly the guy they’d choose to stick on Mitchell. The Nuggets still haven’t picked a firm return date for him, but they seem to think he’ll be back before the end of this series. Whether it’s for the best for his personal development may have to be tossed aside; if he can’t come back by Game 4, it may already be too late.

Representative GIF:

Utah: Feels like they have to be pretty happy with the way things are, no? You got an all-timer of a performance from Donovan Mitchell in the Game 1 overtime loss followed by a team-wide demolition of Denver in Game 2. Amazingly, through two games, Utah is the best-shooting team in the field of 16…followed by the Nuggets in second place by a hair. I think both teams will regress, of course. Utah’s shot quality is about the same as it was in the regular season, but the difference is pretty easy to spot: the Jazz are taking and making a ton of non-corner threes.

Through just two games, Utah is 26-for-67 on these three-point attempts, with Mitchell and Joe Ingles combining to go an absurd 18-for-39. (The rest of the Jazz, just for clarity, are 8-for-28.) Mitchell’s 87 points through two games almost undersells just how insanely good he’s been in the bubble; it might very well be the best two-game stretch of his entire career. Couple that with an unusually efficient Jordan Clarkson and Rudy Gobert scoring more than usual and you’ve got the best offense in the playoffs thus far.

Representative GIF:

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Oklahoma City Thunder; Rockets lead, 2-0

Houston: How about that? A team with no Westbrook, largely underrated in terms of their potential, comes out and beats the trendy Thunder by double-digits in both games. Most remarkably to me, the Rockets survived a 42-minute dud from James Harden in Game 2 by having several really good performances surrounding him. The key to this team all along has been its supporting cast: when Harden creates open shots for them, will they hit them? Two games in, the answer is starting to look pretty positive. The non-Harden Rockets are 31-for-84 from three (36.9%), about 2.7% ahead of where they were in the regular season. Couple that with Houston playing really tough, consistent defense and forcing several bad Thunder turnovers.

Suddenly, you’ve got a team that has one of the five best players in basketball, a supporting cast capable of hitting 15+ threes in one game, and a defense willing to do what it takes to be one of the ten best in the sport. Sounds fairly dangerous, no?

Representative GIF:

Oklahoma City: What was supposed to be a coming-out party for this overachieving roster has turned into a two-game disaster, and it might get even worse with Russell Westbrook’s impending return. The shorthanded and, well, short Rockets have thoroughly owned Oklahoma City through two games, leaving the Thunder no room to breathe on either side of the court. While we knew Oklahoma City likes to take a bunch of analytically-unfriendly shots, they also hit a lot of them and make them worth their time. Obviously, any roster with Chris Paul is going to be that way. So it comes as more than a bit of a surprise that the best mid-range shooting team in the regular season has been one of the worst in these playoffs. Oklahoma City is 9-for-25 on short mid-range attempts, third-worst in the field of 16. On Paul’s beloved longer mid-range attempts, the Thunder have only gotten off 20 through two games, below what I would’ve expected. Couple this with a sudden emphasis on taking more threes – aside from Gallinari and Schroder, not this roster’s strong suit – and it looks like a roster that’s lost sight of what it’s supposed to be.

On the other end of the court, most thought that Houston would get more than their fair share of open threes, but Oklahoma City would own the boards. This really hasn’t been the case. The Thunder own a small edge in OREB% thus far, but in Game 2, Houston got an astounding ten offensive rebounds off of missed threes. On their OREBs in total, Houston got 14 extra points in a game decided by 13. Unless OKC shoots more efficiently from mid-range or takes a greater ownership of the boards, their lights are dimming quickly.

Representative GIF:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s