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    Tuesday, August 25, 2020

    Thunder Beat Rockets at Their Own Game, Other NBA Playoff Takeaways

    With Monday's slate now in the books, the NBA's four-games-per-day marathon is officially over. The Miami Heat completed their sweep of the Indiana Pacers, and the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors both did their jobs on Sunday as the playoff field begins to whittle itself down to just the contenders.

    In that sense, most of Monday's games served as previews, a chance to evaluate the best teams before their games truly start to count. So what did we learn from the eighth day of the NBA playoffs? Here's everything you need to know about today's games.

    Remember when LeBron James singlehandedly beat the entire Eastern Conference in the 2018 playoffs? Well, take a gander at these numbers:

    2018 Playoffs.         LeBron
    Games 3-4 LeBron
    Points per game
    Assists per game
    Rebounds per game
    Minutes per game
    Field goal percentage
    3-Point percentage

    The #WashedKing narrative was always contrived. Nobody honestly believed that something as common as a groin injury in a lost season had truly felled LeBron for good. But James averaged an inefficient 22 points during the seeding games. He then tallied only 33 in total during the first two games of the Portland series. The notion that James had dropped from the lofty heights of "Greatest Player on Earth" down to the status of a rank-and-file top-10 or top-15 player was not totally farfetched. For all that LeBron was still doing on the court, it's enormously difficult to lead a team to a championship without scoring.

    And there are still qualifiers to consider here. The Blazers have one of the worst defenses in playoff history, lacking anyone even properly sized for the task of guarding LeBron, and injuries have so decimated them that, despite their Game 1 win, they never really had a chance in this series anyway.

    But if the past two games have proven anything, it's this: the boogeyman is still hiding under every contender's bed, ready to strike the moment they let their guard down. He's a little older, a little slower and a little greyer. But even at 35, no player in basketball should inspire greater fear over a seven-game series than LeBron. If he can do what he's done against Portland four times out of seven against everyone else, the Lakers are going to win the championship.

    The Thunder are beating the Rockets at their own game
    The trouble with showing your cards as blatantly as Houston has is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. By trading for Robert Covington at the trade deadline, the Rockets submitted their thesis statement to the entire basketball world for consideration. Big men don't matter. Rebounds don't matter. The only things that matter are 3-pointers and free throws, and the best way to get them is to surround one or two stars with a never-ending supply of shooters.

    Circumstance forced Oklahoma City's hand in Game 3. Steven Adams left the game early with an injury, so in order to combat Houston's (lack of) size, the Thunder tried a gambit they've avoided all season. Their three-point guard lineups have decimated opponents all year, but they never pushed those groups any further by removing a center. In overtime of Game 3, they had no choice. They ran with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Lu Dort and Danilo Gallinari. They proceeded to outscore Houston by 11.

    Billy Donovan kept it in reserve until the final moments of Game 4, but trailing by one with around four minutes to go, he played his trump card. That same fivesome outscored Houston by five if you exclude a meaningless Danuel House buzzer-beater when the outcome had already been decided.

    Houston has problems of its own to contend with. James Harden is clearly struggling with the ball-handling burden Russell Westbrook's absence has thrust upon him. The Rockets' shooting comes and goes. But a less-than-optimized Thunder team allowed them to win the first two games with relative ease. But now the kid gloves are off. Oklahoma City can match Houston stylistically, and while its small-ball produces different shots (Chris Paul has never seen cleaner mid-range looks), the Thunder has proven capable of matching the Rockets shot for shot. Now it's up to Mike D'Antoni to come up with a response, but with no playable big men on their roster, this won't be as simple as tweaking the lineup.

    Don't take Giannis for granted
    Look, humans are simple creatures. We like things that are shiny and new and we like the classics, but we ignore everything in between. Luka Doncic has been the most exciting player in the postseason, and fans are already anointing him the new face of the league. LeBron James' revival has been the most exciting overall storyline, and nothing could generate a more entertaining postseason than the King reclaiming his throne. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo is laying waste to the poor Orlando Magic, and nobody seems to have noticed.

    Some of the game-to-game excitement is leading people to forget this, but 31-16-7 averages in a playoff series are not normal, even against an opponent as depleted as the Magic. Amazingly, the basketball world seems to have forgotten about the 25-year-old mutant who is about to win his second MVP and first Defensive Player of the Year award.

    The next two rounds will be an important refresher. The viewing public pressed the panic button on Milwaukee after its Game 1 loss to Orlando and seems to have stopped watching from there. That's fair to an extent. The Bucks have dominated the Magic since, and boring greatness is still boring. But don't be surprised when the real games start and the MVP reminds you that he has the trophy for a reason. Luka can have the first-round headlines. Giannis is playing for the last round.

    The Heat have everything
    The Pacers got swept in the first round, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they played badly. Their four healthy starters gave them over 75 points per game, so it wasn't a star-power problem. They exceeded their regular-season averages in both 3-point percentages and attempts, so it wasn't bad shooting luck either. Allowing 112.7 points per 100 possessions isn't great, but shooting luck is the biggest culprit there. The Heat made 47.2 percent of their open 3-pointers, per NBA.com. That's nearly a 10 percentage point boost over their regular-season average. All in all, the Pacers played the caliber of basketball they expected to, that they needed to in order to win. And they still lost.

    The difference? Miami's unrivaled versatility. The Heat aren't top-heavy, and the majority of their role players struggle on one side of the ball. But when you have several high-end 3-point shooters (Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kelly Olynyk), ball-handlers (Herro, Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, Kendrick Nunn, even Bam Adebayo) and switchable defenders (Butler, Adebayo, Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, Derrick Jones), you essentially have the ability to mix-and-match to your heart's content and combat any possible tactical decision an opponent makes.

    They closed Game 3 with a defense-first, veteran-laden group. Erik Spoelstra wasn't ready to lean on the kids quite yet. But who lifted Miami in Game 4? Herro, a rookie. They got six points out of Butler, their max-contract superstar, and still beat the Pacers by double digits on Monday. They aren't a perfect team, but they're an annoying one. A lot of playoff basketball revolves around exploiting mismatches, but even on the few occasions when they exist, the players are so good on the other end that they can make more of the situation there.

    The Bucks are going to be strong favorites in their second-round series, but Miami's depth is going to give them fits. Milwaukee's defense is designed to take away shots at the rim and corner 3-pointers. They beg opponents to take above-the-break 3-pointers. Almost everyone in the Miami rotation can make them. The Heat had the league's best 3-point percentage this season, and between Adebayo, Butler, Crowder, Jones and Iguodala, have as many bodies to throw at Giannis as anyone. This wasn't a fluke. It wasn't the result of Indiana injuries. The Heat were just better, and there's a reasonable chance they'll be better than the Bucks next round as well.
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    Item Reviewed: Thunder Beat Rockets at Their Own Game, Other NBA Playoff Takeaways Rating: 5 Reviewed By: BrandIconImage
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