With the first round nearly over, let’s cruise through some winners and losers — with a focus on teams we haven’t written about yet, or aren’t writing about ahead of Round 2.
The only important question for the Thunder after their third straight post-Kevin Durant flameout is whether this season signals the beginning of a long-term decline for Westbrook — and what, if anything, they can do if they believe it does.
It’s not really that Westbrook — after four knee surgeries in six years — is perhaps the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. He is, but that’s almost trivial — a punchline. He has always been a bad 3-point shooter; he’s just worse now, so bricky that opponents are braver taking an extra step away from him when he doesn’t have the ball. And as has been the case for the entirety of his career — see last season’s version of this same column — Westbrook has never been much interested in making himself useful when he doesn’t have the ball.
Paul George is the only long-range threat Thunder opponents guard off the ball. George running a pick-and-roll is the NBA’s “Jon Snow wielding a sword alone against an entire charging army” meme.
The real issue is that Westbrook’s shot has deserted him inside the arc. He emerged as an MVP candidate in part because he became reliable — 40 percent-plus — on what he calls his “cotton shot” from the elbow.
He hit 32 percent on jumpers from between 15 and 19 feet this season, per NBA.com. Of 104 players who attempted at least three pull-up jumpers per game, Westbrook ranked 104th in accuracy. Against Portland, he alternated between looking afraid to take them, and burying the Thunder under a pile of endless misses.
His dunks are down, and he could not always summon the explosive midair fury that once busted conventional defenses.
The Blazers dropped Enes Kanter far back in the pick-and-roll, and dared Westbrook to blow through him. Westbrook couldn’t do it.
His defense, overrated for years, came and went even in one of his most focused seasons. Portland’s monster Game 5 fourth-quarter comeback started with a sloppy Westbrook closeout on CJ McCollum in the right corner, opening the door for an easy floater — a sequence that would be repeated on the opposite side four-plus minutes later. He still dies on screens, loitering around half court.
In his MVP season, the Thunder could not survive without him. This season, they were a disaster whenever Westbrook played without George — while thriving in the opposite scenario. That continued in the playoffs; the Thunder were plus-13 in 39 George-only minutes against the Blazers. Portland obliterated them by 33 points in 32 Westbrook solo minutes, per NBA.com.
Westbrook is still a very good player. I selected him third-team All-NBA. He’s just not as good as he used to be. He lost some of what made him an MVP candidate, and refined none of the weak spots in his game.
His mega-max contract runs through 2022-23, when Westbrook will be 34. The Thunder are capped out through at least 2020-21. Setting aside the James Harden trade — yeah, I know — Sam Presti has used magic to keep this thin, rickety roster afloat. He thinks years in advance, and tracks devalued young players — Victor Oladipo, for instance — because he knows they will carry trade cachet if an opportunity arises. He has somehow turned disgruntled players and bad contracts into semi-helpful things: Reggie Jackson became Enes Kanter became Carmelo Anthony became Dennis Schroder. When does the music stop?
A poor shooter needs shooters around him. Oklahoma City has been thin on shooting for Presti’s entire run. His track record suggests a fetish for long, defense-first tweeners, and some faith the Thunder can teach such players to shoot. They have failed. Andre Roberson was dynamic enough on defense to thrive in the highest-stakes moments, but he’s hurt. Most of the other long-shot bets busted.
Most late first-round picks bust. Most “second draft” prospects — e.g., Dion Waiters — just are what they are. If shooters who could survive on defense were easy to find, every team would have a bunch.
But good teams stay good as their stars age because they nail a couple of long-shot bets. One of the Thunder’s stars — the remaining foundational Thunder star, the one they in many ways chose over Harden — appears to be aging, and aging badly. Presti surely has a plan, even as he appears pinned in by cap realities. Let’s see what it is.
A lesser team — hell, most teams — would have broken apart after the four-game humiliation New Orleans inflicted on Portland a year ago. The Blazers didn’t run from it. They took time to hurt. They acknowledged weakness. And then, they fortified themselves.
They didn’t overhaul their system, on either end. They got better at it, and added new wrinkles. Lillard came back with new ways to skirt trapping defenses. They stormed out of the gate, survived a hellish winter schedule, and surged again in March and April. They believed, even after losing Jusuf Nurkic — their second-best player for much of the season.
They knew they could win, but also that they could lose without fracturing. Losing no longer scared them. “There’s nothing for us to be afraid of,” CJ McCollum told me in November, “because the worst has already happened.”
They were ready for Oklahoma City’s blitzing defense. Lillard picked the Thunder apart. He wore down the redoubtable Steven Adams. On one Lillard pick-and-roll midway through the third quarter of Portland’s pivotal Game 4 win, Adams failed to rumble beyond the 3-point arc. Lillard, perhaps surprised by the open space in front of him, walked into an easy triple to put Portland up 12.
Billy Donovan then shifted Adams away from Portland’s screen-setters, and had him guard Maurice Harkless off to the side. It was surrender. It was merciful. A year ago, Lillard’s confidence melted under pressure from New Orleans’ trapping defense. You could see it. He broke. This time around, he broke the Thunder.
The whole team played with poised ruthlessness. McCollum cooked pull-up jumpers, and rescued wobbly all-bench units. Portland’s guards will never have classic postseason size, but the ability to make tough shots — to make something from nothing — is a must-have playoff skill, too. Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers’ quiet soul, did a little of everything. Harkless scrounged for double digits. Bit players stepped up.
The Blazers spent the season asking: Why not us? Why can’t we be the second-best team in the Western Conference? Why can’t we make the conference finals?
But perhaps even they didn’t realize what they were really asking: If Durant departs Golden State, why can’t we challenge for the NBA Finals?
Maybe they’ll never get there. Nurkic has a long recovery ahead. Zach Collins looks like a guy who can make the leap, but actually making it is a different thing. The cap is strangling them. They are always one bad playoff matchup from facing the same old questions about the smallish LIllard-McCollum backcourt.
But right now, the Blazers look like a case study in persistence — proof there is value in staying good in a league that too often disparages prolonged goodness.
If you paid attention during the regular season, you knew White was good. I’m not sure anyone expected him to work as San Antonio’s best player for much of its series against Denver, with a 36-point eruption in Game 3 that stood as the best single-game performance of the first round — a two-way masterpiece that bordered on perfection — until Lillard’s 50-pointer.
Foul trouble slowed White in Game 5. Tiny cracks emerged in his defense. But zoom out, and the Spurs must be thrilled with how at home he looks in the postseason hothouse.
The Nuggets are ignoring him off the ball — White will have to shoot better from deep eventually — but it hasn’t mattered. When his man dips into the paint to help, White skulks a few feet left or right, girds himself for a pass, and charges into the lane before his defender can figure out where he has gone. He reduced Jamal Murray to a quivering, uncertain mess, head turning frantically upon realizing he had sprinted to where White no longer was. (Denver has since hid Murray on lesser threats.)
Once on the move, White has overwhelmed every Denver guard with sheer physicality. If he can’t get around them, he just drives through them.
On defense, White is doing everything the Nuggets need someone to do against him. He helps and recovers on a string, head up, never losing track of the ball or his man. He thinks one step ahead of the offense. I mean, look at this:
White sees that DeMar DeRozan has left Will Barton to double Nikola Jokic; he begins rotating there. But he also knows Barton, in a hellish slump at that point in Game 3, probably doesn’t want to shoot. He approaches him slowly, on balance, ready to pivot and intercept Barton’s pass.
White and Dejounte Murray — each drafted at No. 29 — should make a formidable long-term backcourt duo. What the Spurs have done avoiding any bottoming out — or anything close to it — since drafting Tim Duncan 22 years ago is remarkable.
A counterfactual I’d love to see: How many games would the Spurs have won this season had they traded Kawhi Leonard for a more rebuild-oriented package centered on picks and younger players? DeRozan steadied them as a playmaker and scorer. He can, and will, play alongside the Murray/White duo. He bought White and Bryn Forbes time to grow. He added wins. But I wonder: How many?
Russell averaged more than 19 points against the burly Sixers, and played with his usual fearlessness. The playoff stage did not shake him. But if you harbored doubts about Russell as a No. 1 option against top competition, these playoffs deepened that anxiety.
The Sixers dropped Joel Embiid back and invited Russell to take shots he likes — floaters, midrangers, off-the-bounce 3s. They put larger-than-usual defenders on him — mostly Ben Simmons — and bet they could pressure him into more misses. They wagered he would not adapt.
Russell shot 36 percent, and 32 percent from 3, with just 13 free throws and 18 assists in five games. He got to the rim at his usual (very low) rate.
Russell is good. This season was not simply a case of Russell making more than usual on an inefficient shot diet. Making more shots is not always some fluky thing. It is a skill guys improve. Beyond that, Russell played a craftier, smarter floor game.
But it’s fair to wonder how far any team can go with a No. 1 option taking these sorts of shots, earning so few free throws, and playing below-average defense. Caris LeVert looked like Brooklyn’s best player before he busted his foot, and he began looking like it again against Philadelphia. Spencer Dinwiddie is really good.
Maybe the ballsiest move on the board is Brooklyn signing-and-trading Russell — or re-signing him to trade him at the first chance — at the peak of his value. There would be some PR hit in dealing away the first All-Star nurtured under the Sean Marks/Kenny Atkinson regime. The trade market for Russell might not be as strong as you’d think.
Phoenix still needs a point guard, but a Russell-Devin Booker backcourt amounts to long-term defensive suicide. The Suns ending up in position to draft Ja Morant would make the issue moot before trade season. I’ve long been intrigued by a trade centered on Russell and Aaron Gordon, but Russell doesn’t quite fit the Jeff Weltman/John Hammond player type.
Indiana makes some sense; Russell and Oladipo could split ballhandling duties, and Oladipo can defend both guard positions — allowing more leeway in hiding Russell. It’s unclear what Indiana would send back, especially since Brooklyn already has a young center in Jarrett Allen. Other teams will come out of free agency with holes at point guard.
It’s easy to dismiss the idea of Brooklyn trading Russell. The Nets probably won’t. But smart teams consider everything, and plot out dozens of scenarios. The Nets are smart. If you think they haven’t had an internal spitballing session about Russell’s trade value, you’re kidding yourself.
Oh, you thought he was fake — a regular-season mooch who would quake in the playoffs? Drink some hot sauce. He was Toronto’s best player in the highest-stakes moments of their highest-stakes first-round game — their close-ish Game 3 win in Orlando. He defended everyone. When the Magic slotted smaller defenders on him — as they had to in playing their best five-man lineup — Siakam beasted them.
He was an ironman, leading the team in minutes, and bridging the gap between the starters and small-ball lineups featuring Leonard at power forward. (That said, the Siakam-as-solo-starter lineups should probably vanish as the competition ramps up.)
So is Jokic. Even Jokic fans were curious how his idiosyncratic game would translate to the playoffs. Would amped-up defenses scheming for him yield Jokic’s pet backdoor passes? Could he bulldoze top defenders in the post, and draw double-teams? Most pressing: Could he survive on defense?
The slow, old-school Spurs are a soft landing spot in that regard; they don’t have the tools to stretch Jokic beyond his breaking point. He has held up well after an uneven start. Denver’s defense has given up only 102 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor over five games, a tick below Milwaukee’s league-best season-long figure, per NBA.com. He susses out what San Antonio wants to do early, and lumbers his way into position. He has 15 deflections, sixth most overall.
He can’t snuff emergencies at the rim; it wasn’t surprising to see Jokic teeter over the first three games as Denver’s perimeter defense hemorrhaged straight-line drives. As Denver tightened up with more focused effort, some toggling of assignments and one lineup change — Torrey Craig for Will Barton — Jokic has looked better (minus some blown box-outs against the relentless Jakob Poeltl).
His offense has sustained. Jokic is averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists, and is finding more ways to puncture San Antonio’s defense. His two-man game with Murray started to sing in Game 5. Almost every post-up for Jokic produces an open shot, and Jokic has gradually figured out where and how to hunt for position on the block. A favorite tactic Jokic leaned on more the past two games: picking-and-popping, catching the ball, pump-faking, and then dribbling into deep post position.
He will face teams more equipped to exploit his defense, next round or next season. But Jokic belongs, and the Nuggets showed real mettle winning Game 4 in San Antonio after melting down a bit in Game 3.
Utah: Regular-season team?
Utah is now 2-8 over two postseasons against the Rockets. An interesting debate raging in league circles: Is that more about a singularly bad matchup — and the Rockets being awesome — or might it signal that Utah is built for the regular season?
It is probably some of both, though the “good regular season” backhanded compliment is a little reductive. It really just means “not as good as the very best teams,” and, like, duh. Utah is clearly good — perhaps the third-best team in the West. The Jazz shot about 25 percent — preposterous! — on wide-open 3s, per NBA.com; hit at an average rate, and the series looks different.
The Jazz are better at producing good shots than making them, but this was an anomalous performance even by their standards.
Every drop-back rim protector like Rudy Gobert is going to run into a problematic matchup at some point over four playoff series. If it weren’t Houston and Harden, it would have been someone else. If your goal is a championship, you have to grapple with that. You need some other stylistic card to play. Clint Capela‘s switchability becomes more important in the playoffs.
And yet: After the shock-and-awe of Games 1 and 2 — some of it self-inflicted with a radical strategic shift — Utah’s defense was sound. That includes Gobert. He has fared better against Golden State than you’d expect given his foot speed and the five-out, go-go stylistic card the Warriors can play.
This is true: Among Utah’s perimeter players, only Donovan Mitchell can exploit switching defenses that become more prevalent in the playoffs — and he’s not great at it yet. He’s not efficient from anywhere, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is not where it needs to be. He either misses too many easy kickout passes, or sees them and decides to force the issue. Some improvement will come with experience.
Really, all of this hand-wringing over Mitchell, Westbrook, Russell, and even George makes you appreciate how transcendent you must be as a No. 1 option — how impossible, how rare — to elevate a normal roster into contention. Being an All-Star isn’t enough. Being All-NBA sometimes isn’t enough.
Flip it around: Every postseason seems to illustrate the limited importance of big men who can’t (or don’t) post up switches — Gobert and Myles Turner in this first round, for instance — and stretch-whatevers who can’t make plays with the ball. In some ways, that fretting is fair. Things get harder in the playoffs. Defenses switch more. They poke at any weakness. It matters that those guys aren’t comfortable working with their backs to the basket against guards.
But they are also unlucky in that they don’t play with Harden, or Stephen Curry, or Kevin Durant, or LeBron James. Capela can’t (or doesn’t) post up switches, and it doesn’t matter, because Harden can exploit the other end of those switches in almost every circumstance. Mitchell can’t. Voltron every healthy perimeter player on the Pacers into some super-player, and that guy probably couldn’t, either.
Utah is a really good team that needs a little more top-end scoring and playmaking talent to crack the NBA’s most rarefied territory. The Jazz knew that before this series. More talent allows for more schematic versatility. Beyond that obvious thing, I’m not sure Utah should worry that its best players or fundamental belief systems are somehow at odds with playoff success.
The Raptors did not appear to need Marc Gasol. Serge Ibaka was thriving as a full-time center. Nabbing Gasol would mean demoting Ibaka to reserve duty, and no one was sure how he would take that. (Nick Nurse experimented with flipping the starting job between them, but it was clear from the start that Gasol would supplant Ibaka.)
Jonas Valanciunas had found his water level as a backup scoring force. Why risk chemistry for a marginal upgrade?
But Ujiri and his staff knew better. Gasol is much more than a marginal upgrade, even if he’s barely shooting — just 5.6 attempts per game against the Magic! He has changed the look and feel of Toronto’s team. He shored up the Raptors’ defensive rebounding. He yields nothing in the post; Nikola Vucevic couldn’t dislodge him, and he gives Toronto a chance to guard Embiid without sending urgent double-teams.
He and Kyle Lowry share a basketball sensibility — head-on-a-swivel selflessness that can bleed into fastidiousness — and together, they injected a sometimes sloggy half-court offense with new verve. With about five minutes left in the third quarter of Toronto’s Game 4 blowout, Gasol caught a pass on the move at the left elbow with two shooters — Siakam and Leonard, looking dangerously like the “Thanks, I’ll be taking the ball from you now” Kawhi from two years ago — open on the right side.
In one motion, Gasol turned his head, glanced at Siakam, and fired the ball to Leonard. Ibaka can make that pass; he needs a second to scan the floor. That second is everything. Gasol gave that second back to the Raptors, and that alone has justified the trade.
Oof. Vooch waited six years to get back into the playoffs, and ran into a brutal matchup — a post-up bulwark in Gasol surrounded by a harrowing group of fast, handsy, high-IQ help defenders. Vucevic just couldn’t do anything. A bad way to end what had otherwise been a fantastic contract season.
Gordon is the unheralded ingredient in Houston’s success over the past two seasons. He is more than a 3-point expert, though he shot 49 percent against Utah in a series that became a slog — a battle in which Houston needed every bucket to breathe — after Game 2.
He is playing with both physicality and hunger. Just when you expect Gordon to spot up for another 28-footer, he puts his head down, shoulder-checks some sucker, and burrows to the rim for more of a sure thing. Houston needs more of that during stretches when the 3s stop falling, and the game gets away from them.
Gordon absolutely stonewalled Mitchell on the other end. A great series for an important, underappreciated player.
I don’t really care that Gilgeous-Alexander has struggled with his shot outside his 25-point outburst in Game 5, or that the Warriors stick Draymond Green on him precisely because Green can ignore him and rove. Sometimes you watch, and know: This dude is ready. The stage — postseason games against the superteam that has defined much of SGA’s basketball life — does not unnerve him.
He has defended Curry and Klay Thompson, and switched across all sorts of assignments without suffering too many hiccups of hesitation and miscommunication — blips Golden State feasts upon. He fights, and he pokes, and he has defended the Warriors with more steady ferocity than most veterans 10 years his senior manage.
Shamet doesn’t have Gilgeous-Alexander’s physical gifts, but he has fared better than anyone could have expected chasing around both Splash Brothers — first Thompson, and then Curry for the latter part of the series. Both have stayed within their roles on offense, never overstepping but also never shying away when the situation requires they shoot or drive. They have played with a certain polish.
There are certain random mid-rung teams that win a place in the hearts of NBA nerds: the 2017 Heat team of misfit toys that finished 30-11, or the Suns that accidentally won 48 games behind Goran Dragic‘s mad rushes. Even if they can’t stretch this to Game 7 — and holy cow, imagine that! — these Clippers are going to be one of those teams.
In Houston two seasons ago and now as the slithering, juking, gliding soul of these weirdo Clippers, Williams has shed his reputation as an empty calories gunner whose game — all those sly shooting fouls — drops off when refs swallow the whistle in the postseason. He has been too crafty for the Warriors.
Harrell has been too fast, too fierce, and probably too furious. They are still out here, partying.
The Warriors, keeping it interesting
In 2017 and 2018, the Warriors experienced one playoff series among eight longer than five games. Four were sweeps. The ragtag Clippers, a No. 8 seed starting two rookie guards and — over the past two games — an out-of-position “center” they acquired two months ago, have pushed the Durant-era Warriors to where only last year’s 65-win Rockets have ever taken them.
Golden State still blitzes through quarters and halves in which they look invincible — when they get stops and run, and turn into a wave of sound and energy that overtakes everything in its vicinity.
But they are now 12th in both points allowed per possession and defensive rebounding rate in the playoffs — my God, those soft non-box-outs of Patrick Beverley in Game 5! — after a mediocre regular season on that end. They have made mistakes — of sloth, but also of communication and connectivity — uncharacteristic of this team. The Warriors of the 2017 and 2018 postseasons do not drop two home games to these Clippers. They do not blow that 31-point lead in Game 2, not all the way. Maybe it gets to six, or eight, but they don’t lose.
Durant fluctuating between pass-first KD and “I’m Kevin Durant!’ has been … strange. His free agency hovers over everything. They are a win away from the one series in which they could really use — maybe need — DeMarcus Cousins.
When I had Bob Myers, Golden State’s president, on my podcast last month, I told him the league’s great hope was that for whatever reason — Durant’s free agency, complacency, some kind of tension — the Warriors would crumble when someone punched them in the face. He didn’t seem worried.
They are one of four teams still playing in a first round in which juggernauts have stomped lesser lights. They have been punched. They have been my pick to win the title all season, over the field. I officially don’t feel great about that pick. Something isn’t quite right. Let’s see how they respond.