With the Eastern Conference Finals match up set to begin on Tuesday night between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, the Lakers will be waiting for the winner of Game 7 between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers to determine the Western Conference Finals.
The night will see both the beginning and an end to a series, and one team's season will be over by the end of it. The NBA postseason has provided memorable moments already, from Luka's buzzer beater to the Raptors' double-overtime win to force Game 7 against Boston. But the league's biggest star, LeBron James, sits in waiting while trying to add another championship to his Hall of Fame resume.
Luka Doncic GAME WINNING BUZZER BEATER!!! Clippers vs Mavericks Ending Sequence, Luka-Morris-Luka GW www.youtube.com
After dismantling the Houston Rockets' explosive offense by changing up their lineups and inserting Markieff Morris and Alex Caruso alongside LeBron James, the Lakers were able to take away the perimeter opportunities that the Rockets have capitalized on all season to outpace their competition. By playing a smaller lineup to combat the Rockets' strengths, the Lakers made Mike D'Antoni's squad look confused and frustrated throughout the series.
It appeared that Lakers' coach, Frank Vogel, had a defensive game plan centered around taking everything away except James Harden. That sounds crazy, but Harden is going to get points regardless of how you defend him, so by focusing on taking away those open teammates spotting up for corner threes, the rest of the Rockets were largely unable to get in rhythm. That included Russell Westbrook who finished Game 5 with only 10 points in 36 minutes.
The Lakers were daring Westbrook to take open three point shots and were rewarded for it. Westbrook went 7 for 27 from three point land during the West Semi Final, which is just a tick above 25%. LeBron James was spectacular, averaging 25.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game in the series.
Those second-round numbers 👀 https://t.co/xhhvozj9Py— Los Angeles Lakers (@Los Angeles Lakers)1600188424.0
It will be interesting to see if the Lakers will utilize the smaller lineup they had success using against Houston against their next opponent. Both the Nuggets and Clippers have formidable big men, so you should expect to see more usage of JaVale McGee and possibly Dwight Howard.
The Nuggets have managed to bring their series with the Clippers back to even after being down 3-1. Denver overcame a 3-1 deficit in the first round of the playoffs against the Utah Jazz, however completing two such comebacks in one postseason has never been accomplished. Standing in front of them will be a determined LA Clippers team and the reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard.
This happened the last time Kawhi Leonard played a Game 7. https://t.co/F2WXrLGGMc— Bleacher Report (@Bleacher Report)1600183786.0
We are already aware of Kawhi's ability to perform in big moments, but it will be up to his counterpart, Paul George, who has been infamously dubbed "Playoff P" due to his spotty play in the playoffs during his career, to step up and put in a big performance in Game 7 to prevent one of the preeminent favorites to win the championship from going home early, like the Bucks did over in the East.
Although the Clippers boast possibly the deepest and most talented roster in the league, I like the Nuggets to continue their winning streak and upset the Clippers to move onto the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers. Nikola Jokic has proven to be too much to handle at times during this series, and the Clippers don't have a good answer for him defensively. Because Jokic can cause mismatches all over the court and has the vision to find open teammates, I think the duo of the Joker and Jamal Murray will continue their excellent play, especially in the second half of games (82 combined points in the second halves of the two comeback victories), and close out the Clippers.
The @nuggets come back from 19 DOWN to erase a 3-1 series deficit and FORCE GAME 7 Tue. (9/15) at 9pm/et on ESPN!… https://t.co/p2ky7iC3Ll— NBA (@NBA)1600026629.0
The Heat have surprised many by reaching the Conference Finals, but they are well coached by Erik Spoelstra, and Jimmy Butler has provided the kind of leadership that this young team has responded to. The return of a healthy Goran Dragic to the rotation has given Miami a real boost, as he's been chipping in 21 points per game during the postseason, and his leadership on and off the court is a stabilizing factor for the Heat. Rookie, Tyler Herro, has proven to be willing and able to take big shots in big moments and is a large reason why this team is thriving in the playoffs.
Shooting just a hair under 40% from three point range in the playoffs, Herro gives Butler and fellow all-star Bam Adebayo a reliable option to pass to when the paint clogs up. Butler has described the Heat as having a dog mentality heading into the Eastern Conference Finals, but a gritty and battle tested Celtics team stands in their way of getting to the NBA Finals.
Happy birthday, @JimmyButler They said he went to Miami for the weather, the beaches, & the nightlight. They sa… https://t.co/APXc9edjna— 𝙃𝙀𝘼𝙏 𝙉𝘼𝙏𝙄𝙊𝙉 (@𝙃𝙀𝘼𝙏 𝙉𝘼𝙏𝙄𝙊𝙉)1600103397.0
While the Heat have been surprising, the Celtics have managed to resurrect themselves in the wake of the disastrous Kyrie Irving experiment and become a legitimate threat to win the NBA championship this season. Kemba Walker has seized the opportunity in Boston to propel himself into the role of the unquestioned leader of a title worthy young squad.
Jayson Tatum has established himself as a superstar in the league with his play this season, and Jaylen Brown has also taken significant steps forward with increased opportunities this year. Gordon Hayward has provided a steady fourth option for the Celtics and can still score when asked to, but he's also begun to excel as a passer and rebounder, as it seems he's settling into his newfound role. Add in Marcus Smart, who continues to be one of the best defensive players in the league, and you get a team that has the potential to win now and in the future.
Here's the uniform sched for @celtics during the ECF. C's going with black unis for all home games: Game 1 - Statem… https://t.co/kg6vNOYQ8O— Marc D'Amico (@Marc D'Amico)1600197109.0
Western Conference Semi Finals Game 7
Denver Nuggets over Los Angeles Clippers (4-3)
Eastern Conference Finals
Boston Celtics over Miami Heat (4-2)
Western Conference Finals
Los Angeles Lakers over Denver Nuggets (4-3)
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In a must win game for the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul George was finally able to look like the best player on the floor in a playoff game.
After a slow start, George poured it on in the second half on his way to a game high 41 points in Game 5. The performance elevated the Clippers over strong outings from the likes of Devin Booker and Chris Paul as L.A. outlasted Phoenix 116-102.
The Clippers don't have much time to bask in their win however as they have to turn around and play two more elimination games just to make it out of the West. The Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead as Los Angeles struggled to find their identity without Kawhi Leonard. If the Clippers are to stave off elimination any longer, George has to continue this level of play.
It should also be stated that Reggie Jackson has been really good for Los Angeles throughout the playoffs and is someone that the team leans on to take and make tough shots in crunch time. His fearlessness attacking the rim provides a lot of space for his teammates.
Reggie Jackson after getting his free agency bag this summer https://t.co/kgR7AUeQZ5— Josiah Johnson (@Josiah Johnson)1624936925.0
The Suns have dropped two of the last three games, and their win came in Game 4 which saw a final tally of 84-80 so it's tough to gauge how much stock to take in that victory. What I'm trying to say is the Clippers have definitely looked the part of a Western Conference Champion the past three games, and the Suns are at risk of flaming out.
Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac (MCL sprain) will not play tonight in Game 5 of the WCF against the Phoenix Suns.— Chris Haynes (@Chris Haynes)1624923130.0
The Clippers' starting big man, Ivica Zubac, was out with a knee injury while Los Angeles out scored the Suns by 26 in the paint. So far in every game but one (Game 3 when L.A. beat Phoenix 106-92) the team that has scored the most points in the paint has ended up winning. Both teams are good from the free throw line and it gets the opposition into foul trouble so it is a sound strategy for either side. But Deandre Ayton wasn't able to get much going offensively in Game 5 finishing with only 10 points in 37 minutes.
For the Suns, they were quick to point out their own shortcomings following the loss. Coach Monty Williams noted, "It's just unacceptable the way we started the game," he continued on to compare the Suns and Clippers in Game 5, "We showed up in the first quarter, and they played with desperation."
Monty Williams: “Leadership is tricky - if you can’t get people to follow you, you’re just walking by yourself”— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel Nichols)1624922492.0
Chris Paul who had 22 points and eight assists talked about Phoenix's inability to hold onto advantages, "We've got to close quarters better," Paul goes on to say, "that's been a problem for us all series long."
Paul has been a leader both on and off the court helping this young team to play far above the level anyone expected them to this season, but he's also been a part of many teams that fell short in the playoffs.
A championship run is the one knock on his hall of fame resume, and it seemed destined to happen this year especially after the Suns jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. But he isn't the only player who has had their reputation affected by playoff performances.
The nickname Playoff P isn't an endearing one. It has become synonymous with Paul George and his failures in the postseason up to this point. Any success that the Clippers were going to have this year was always likely to be attributed to Kawhi Leonard, but now that he is sidelined it's all on PG to carry the load.
George entered rarified air Monday night joining the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant as players who scored 20 or more points in each of the first 18 games in a postseason. All of their teams reached the Finals. George is hoping to follow suit as the Clippers are headed back home to host Game 6.
Following a Game 7 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Philadelphia 76ers and coach, Doc Rivers, are questioning if Ben Simmons is the right guy to be running their offense through moving forward.
Offense being the key word here.
Simmons is an all-world defender possessing the ability to guard virtually any opponent on the court from the perimeter to the rim. But it was his lack of offensive help throughout this playoff season that stood out beyond any accomplishments this year. Simmons joined Rudy Gobert as unanimous selections for the NBA's All-Defensive First Team this year and also finished fifth in the NBA in assists per game with 8.8 per contest.
For a player that relies so heavily on driving to the basket to get shots off close to the hoop, it's expected for that player to draw plenty of contact resulting in a lot of free throw opportunities. That was certainly indicative of what we saw from Simmons in the first two rounds of the 20-21 playoffs.
He got to the line 45 times against the Hawks in their second round matchup, but only converted 15 freebies which equates to a 33% free throw percentage in the series. Simmons shot just 34.2% from the stripe if you include their first round games against the Wizards, which accounts for the worst free throw percentage by a player with at least 70 attempts in a postseason in NBA playoff history.
With a minimum of 70 attempts, Ben Simmons' 34.2% free throw percentage this postseason is the worst in a postseaso… https://t.co/EvEcQxEe8m— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPN Stats & Info)1624244835.0
In the four games that Atlanta beat Philly in this series, they lost by a combined 17 points. If Ben Simmons shoots just 70% from the line and makes 31-45 during this series, that adds 16 to Philadelphia's series point total. Obviously, the attempts might not directly impact the losses, but from a very broad overview, it would draw the series significantly closer — especially taking into account that three of the four losses the 76ers took in the series were lost by four points or fewer.
Also let's not allow people to say that the free throw stat is overblown and out of context. It's not. Shaquille O'Neal, who is notoriously one of the worst free throw shooters in league history, still managed a career playoff free throw percentage of 50%. That's why we saw the conception of "Hack-a-Shaq" where teams would intentionally foul O'Neal to put him on the line rather than allowing him to hurt them in other ways.
We've begun to see teams adopt this practice now with Simmons, which is just flat out embarrassing for a player of Simmons' pedigree. We have seen what he's able to do with the ball. He flies down the court on fast breaks, is a brilliant creator for teammates, and is one of the better finishers at the rim that we have in the league today.
We've already touched on his defensive prowess that has elevated him to becoming NBA All-Defense multiple times and a three time All-Star. But what do the Sixers do with Simmons before next season?
The 24-year-old point-forward still has plenty of time to work on his game. We've seen other players add a jumper later in their careers to great success; just ask Vince Carter how that works. But, usually, in order to develop a perimeter shot, there is at least a solid foundation to build on — that being the ability to consistently hit free throws.
Simmons is a career 60% free throw shooter, and he shot right around the mean during the regular season. The decline in made shots from the charity stripe in this postseason is cause for concern that this isn't the beginning of a trend.
Add to that Simmons' reluctance to take shots further away from the basket, and defenses have the luxury of ignoring Simmons in the half court set. We have seen teams (like the Jazz and 76ers) that rely heavily on the pick and roll get shut down in these playoffs, and it's teams like Atlanta and Phoenix that are able to spread defenses thin by putting multiple shooters on the court at one time succeed.
In 34 career playoff games, Ben Simmons has made 5 shots outside of 10 feet (from the basket).— Paul Hembekides (@Paul Hembekides)1624277710.0
Joel Embiid was phenomenal in the postseason, so let's not ignore that fact. Also, he was playing on one knee and still almost willed the Sixers to a win. But again, Embiid was not 100% in the playoffs, which limited his abilities.
Doc Rivers answers a question whether Ben Simmons can be the point guard of a championship team https://t.co/8xL35u98RC— Rob Perez (@Rob Perez)1624244460.0
Following their loss, Doc Rivers was asked if he thought Ben Simmons could be the point guard of a championship team, to which he responded, "I don't know that answer to that question right now," which doesn't provide a whole lot of confidence in Simmons' status with the team next year. Trade rumors have already begun to circulate, and it would make sense for this Philly team to hit the reset button now.
If Simmons continues to be exploitable in big moments, as we've seen him be so far in his career, his value is only going to go down. Adding further complications into the situation is the team just agreed to a new contract extension with Simmons and is due to make between $33 and $40 million per season over the next four years.
As the two cornerstone pieces of The Process appear to be two Scotties without a Mike, the early departure for the East's top seed will likely mean a big shakeup in the near future. If Embiid is healthy, he is elite without question. Maybe Philadelphia will go out and add around their two stars, but unless the organization is confident that Simmons can avoid another atrocious offensive performance in future playoff series, all they have is a really good regular season team.
The Phoenix Suns are just a win away from sending LeBron James home in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the King's illustrious career.
After stating that "These shoulders were built for a reason," James referring to facing the challenge of taking on added responsibilities after Anthony Davis was ruled out for Game 5, the Lakers and LeBron disappointed in a big way Tuesday night. L.A. started off hot jumping out to a 10-5 lead behind a couple shots from James and a three from Davis' replacement Markieff Morris. But it didn't take long for the wheels to completely fall off for the defending champion Lakers as they spent most of the first half trying to remember how basketball works.
LeBron looking on during Game 5Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Two numbers stick out in the Game 5 loss for the Lakers and those are 34.5 and 12. Los Angeles shot 34.5% from the field on Tuesday night and were minus 12 in turnover ratio. No matter who's on your team, if you can't shoot and you can't protect the ball, the outcome is already determined.
The Suns weren't simply beneficiaries of a poor performance however as the Suns put it on the Lakers early and often and they never let their foot off the pedal for 48 minutes. Phoenix ended with 15 more assists, had seven more combined steals and blocks, and outscored L.A. in the paint by 12 points. Devin Booker and Cameron Payne were spectacular and they seemed to hit big shots every time the Lakers appeared to threaten a comeback. Mikal Bridges was effective on both sides of the ball adding three steals and two blocks to help electrify his team with the defensive effort.
🗣 DEVIN BOOKER— Phoenix Suns (@Phoenix Suns)1622601795.0
The idea of effort is something that was lacking on the purple and gold side last night though. It didn't take long after Booker started hitting everything that the Lakers team started playing sloppy and launching up bad threes in a failed attempt to not let the game get out of hand. Well it did.
The two teams were among the best defensive teams in league this season, the Suns finished seventh in overall team defensive rating and the Lakers first. The Lakers typically like to use their defensive prowess to control pace and work in the half court with their combination of speed on the wings and their combination of big men down low that includes Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis (when healthy), and former Sixth-Man of the Year winner Montrezl Harrell. Incase you forgot Harrell does in fact still play for the Lakers, but before last night if you blinked for too long you would've missed him on the court.
WHY ISN’T MONTREZL HARRELL GETTING PLAYING TIME?????@MONSTATREZZ #FreeMontrezl https://t.co/j55u9zg9kN— NBALakersReport (@NBALakersReport)1622603465.0
For some unknown reason Trez has been an afterthought in Frank Vogel's rotations, not only in this series, but throughout parts of the regular season. With AD being ruled out for Game 5, it would've been logical to think that we'd see an uptick in minutes for the high energy reserve, and we did. But not until the game was far out of hand in the second half. While the Suns were building a 30 point lead we saw Phoenix's guards cooking the slower big men of the Lakers off pick and rolls.
30 points is the largest lead at half in Suns playoff history. 🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/UoozhMf6Io— Phoenix Suns (@Phoenix Suns)1622604230.0
It's understandable to want some size to limit Deandre Ayton, but when it's Booker, Payne, and Bridges hurting you offensively why not see how a quicker and more agile defender like Harrell might fare slowing down the pick and rolls? We saw Jae Crowder having success doing that on the other side for the Suns all night!
It's not fair to just talk about how bad the Lakers were, in fairness it looked like they were getting open looks and were just collectively having an unlucky shooting night. Maybe they all got it out of their system now? But the Suns would have beat anyone on that home court last night. Let's give all credit to them by playing one of the best games ever seen against a LeBron James-led playoff team. Devin Booker is an absolute star and this team plays with a very focused chip on their shoulder which has been manicured by Chris Paul. His leadership has made ALL the difference for this Phoenix team and it can be seen most on the defensive side of the ball. The Suns players have adopted Paul's attitude and intensity on that end and it all paid off last night.
We've seen LeBron actively frustrated during playoff games on the court, and last night is one of the most cringe-worthy to have seen. James spent way too much time talking to officials about calls, and not just between whistles. It would be interesting to know how many possessions the Lakers played four on five because James never made it back on defense before the Suns put more points on them. LeBron was seen leaving the court with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter, and sure it could be to start receiving treatment on the injured ankle. But we know the real reason he left. We can only hope he didn't punch anything on the way to the locker room.
While the teams will travel back to L.A. for Game 6, the Lakers know they are in a must-win situation. We saw the rest of the team around LeBron scrambling because they felt the pressure. James was the only Laker in the second half that kept the team functioning. When we've seen a visibly dejected James like we did last night, it's been because he knew his team didn't have it. I don't think that's the case with this Lakers team.
There's plenty of talent on the roster even without Anthony Davis. Maybe Game 6 is when we get to see Harrell getting some meaningful minutes. Maybe Vogel can devise a way to get Andre Drummond more involved offensively. Maybe AD plays and isn't slowed by the groin injury. Or maybe you should've listened to us back in January when we told you the Suns were a pretty good basketball team.