Now that the playoffs have begun it is time to make far-reaching, reactionary, scorpion pepper hot takes. So, with that said, let’s begin:
The first story of the first fleet of games, Paul George. This is just a great sports story. It is not Leicester City winning the Premier League great, it probably isn’t as big as the retirement of Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, and it also does not have anything on the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, but this is a big event. To aid the squeamish, I won’t post the video of George’s injury at the Team USA scrimmage, but it was awful. Now, nearly two years after that event, PG13 is playing like a superstar in the playoffs.
In Game One against Toronto, George tallied thirty-three points, six assists, four rebounds, four blocks, and two steals. Moreover, Indiana was +16 with George on the floor. Finally, Toronto shooters shot 36% worse from three and 6.7% worse overall when being guarded by George.
PG13 is, arguably, the best two-way player in the NBA. Throughout his career he has been a better offensive player than Kawhi Leonard, though, the latter has consistently been better defensively. Nonetheless, George is a clear second best two-way player currently in the NBA. He is the best player in this Toronto-Indiana series and the second best player in the Eastern conference, behind LeBron James.
Do I think it is a guarantee that Toronto looses this series? Absolutely not. Sure, George is far-and-away the best player in the series, Toronto has a habit for choking, and the Raptors just lost home-court; but, the Raptors have consistently dominated the Pacers all season. Indiana’s “big three” of Paul George, George Hill, and Monte Ellis is extremely limited, albeit experienced. They will use their length to trouble Lowry and DeRozan, consequently the Raptors will need DeMarre Carrol, Cory Joseph, and Jonas Valanciunas to continually play at a high level for the Raptors to beat the Pacers, something that has not been a problem this season.
Regardless of the final outcome, seeing PG13 return to playoff superstardom is a pleasant sight for NBA fans. If Indiana can build a strong team around George and rookie phenom Myles Turner they will challenge LeBron’s Cavs in the next years.
The second story after the first game is Kevin Love. This is a guy that, over the past two years, has been subtweeted by his own teammates, had a Celtic straight out of Game of Thrones pull out his arm socket during the playoffs, has constantly debated fitting-out or fitting-in, went through free agency, and been subject to trade rumors. This is also a guy that I have written about multiple times (see here and here) who was being criminally misused all season. Finally, this is a guy who has surrendered his past stardom for the betterment of his current team. This all culminated in a superstar, dominant performance in the playoffs last night.
Kevin Love had twenty-eight points, thirteen rebounds, one assist, one steal, and the Cavs were twelve points better with Love on the court than the Pistons last night. For most of the game, Love was the primary offensive option. This was very problematic for a Pistons defense that has forced shooters off the three-point line all season. Essentially, Love’s ability to spread the floor made Detroit uncomfortable. The biggest surprise, though, was that the Cavs with Love at the center position – something that was criticized by Cavs’ coach Jim Boylan – was an estimated thirty-seven points per 100 possessions better than Detroit. A small-ball, flamethrower lineup with Kevin Love playing center is a nightmare for Detroit, as it mitigates their biggest defensive strength: size.
Additionally, Love was beneficial on the other side of the ball. Yesterday, Pistons players shot 6.7% worse against Love than they did against other defenders. Moreover, using NBA.com’s new hustle stats, out of 181 players, Kevin Love was tied for tenth most contested shots during the first playoff games. Defense is not Love’s greatest strength. He lacks the necessary lateral quickness to be an elite defender; however, his head is always in the game and that showed last night. If Love plays at this level throughout the playoffs, on both sides of the ball, Cleveland will reach a level previously unseen this season.
Now, five things I like:
- Hassan Whiteside finally playing like a star. Whiteside, going against a very good NBA center in Al Jefferson, had an outstanding showing. He didn’t sulk and was arguably the second best player on the floor for Miami last night.
- On that note, Luol Deng looked like Chicago Deng. His three-point shooting allowed Miami to spread the floor and let Wade and Whiteside do their thing. This will make Miami a legitimate threat to Cleveland in the East.
- Playoff pass efficiency. Nine out of the sixteen teams had a passing efficiency greater than 10%. This is important, because as I have written about earlier, it adds a previously undiscussed aspect to teams that rely on ball movement all while creating a more entertaining game.
- Ian Mahinmi’s defense. Ian has always been a good player, someone who can contribute on a playoff team, but this season he is becoming a defensive focal point. Against Toronto, he defended ten shots at the rim, three of which went in. That means his DFG% at the rim was 30%, which is the third highest for all possible players. Ian effectively replaces Roy Hibbert’s impact from the playoff Indiana teams, which is huge for the Pacers going forward, as Myles Turner is a holistically weaker defender.
- Atlanta’s defensive effort. The Hawks are really just trying to be a poor man’s Spurs offense, yet, they provide even more energy than their San Antonio brethren on defense. In Saturday’s game they contested a league high 80 shots. If they hope to beat Cleveland, however unlikely, this type of defense is necessary.
Five things I dislike:
- Hassan Whiteside getting third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Congrats to Kawhi Leonard, he deserved to be a consecutive winner, but Whiteside did not. Opponents shot 2.2% worse against him as the primary defender than they did in general, however, this number is only 64th best in the association. He has the potential to be a great defender, yet, is not one yet and did not deserve to be named the third best defensive player this season.
- Russell Westbrook’s effort on defense. Seriously, for a player as gifted as he is, he was awful in the first game against Dallas. Westbrook contested two shots in thirty minutes, second worst for all 100 players who played more than than twenty minutes in the first batch of games. Amazingly, the Dallas shooters shot 16% worse when being guarded by Westbrook, however this is also a result of poor point guard play on behalf of the Mavericks. If Westbrook exhibits that low of effort against San Antonio, Golden State, or Cleveland he will be annihilated.
- Toronto getting in their own way. This team reminds me of last year’s Atlanta Hawks. The level they play at during the regular season is identical to what they give in the playoffs. They don’t have any star players that can lead
- Avery Bradley’s injury. This is mainly because the Celtics have a gear that we haven’t seen yet, and if Bradley is out for the series, Atlanta will clean house. Mainly because Bradley is the Celtics second leading scorer, and arguably their best defender, forcing opponents to shoot nearly 3% worse when he is the primary defender. The Hawks have just been underwhelming. They are a very good team, but they cannot get off the treadmill of mediocrity, and this makes them boring. Also I would have much rather watched a Celtics-Cavs Eastern Conference semifinals, where the two teams hate each other, than a Hawks-Cavs series that will end the same way the Eastern Conference finals did one year ago.
- Houston’s complete lack of effort. These guys simply do not care. When you look at the other blowouts it is not a result of lacking effort. Charlotte has a significantly worse coach, Memphis and Dallas have significantly less talent, and Portland got outplayed. Houston, though, is not significantly less talented. They have two career all-stars in Howard and Harden, great defensive wings in Beverley, Ariza, and Brewer, and a good bench unit with Montiejunas, Smith, Capella, Terry, and McDaniels. They simply did not put in the necessary effort to compete, and for playoff basketball, that is a shame.