In case you missed it, we’re three days deep into the 2018 NBA Playoffs–so if you’ve been rolling in Coachella dust or are just waking up from a coma, pay attention. Over eight Game 1s, we were treated to appetizers like the Phantom of the Process, Playoff P, and the LeBron/Lance rematch we were hardly prepared for. On Monday, April 16, we moved on to the first of our Round 1, Game 2 matchups: 76ers/Heat followed by Warriors/Spurs. Here are the most important takeaways.
Father Prime: Don’t Call It a Comeback
After the Miami Heat were blown out of the Wells Fargo Center in Game 1, it felt like a short series was imminent. The flourishing, streaking 76ers–even without Joel Embiid–looked like just too much for a floundering Heat defense to manage. But we and the Sixers may have forgotten about a guy called Dwyane Wade. After going for 11 points in the deflating 130-103 loss two days earlier, Flash came back with a dominant 28-point performance, stunning Philadelphia, and reminding us that he isn’t quite finished.
Unless it’s a Wade Wine, don’t call it vintage. Yes, he’s a sixth man. Yes, he’s 36 years old. Yes, he’s publicly contemplating retirement. But this is the Playoffs, and three-time champion Dwyane Wade knows how to lift up a struggling team. Wade, who averages 22.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1 block over 174 career playoff games, came up clutch for his Heat–but not before rewriting the record books.
In the latter part of a first half in which he alone outscored the 76ers, Wade hurdled Larry Bird on the all-time playoff scoring list. With his 16th point of the night, Wade earned 10th place–and just kept it moving. He had work to do. Philadelphia surged in the fourth, cutting Miami’s lead to two; with just over four minutes to play, Father Prime reentered the game and made an immediate impact.
First, a timely steal leading to his own fast-break dunk. One possession later, an assist to a cutting James Johnson, extending a two-possession lead. Wade immediately set the tone for the Heat defense: Kelly Olynyk blocked an easy Ben Simmons layup, keeping the Sixers frozen at 96 points. One play later, Wade secures a mammoth offensive rebound which leads to a Goran Dragic jump shot, putting the Heat up eight and pressuring the Sixers to call timeout.
With less than a minute to go, Flash took Simmons to school. If you watched him run the iso live, you knew in your hardest of hearts that it was going in. Dwyane Wade iced a Game 2 win for South Florida like it was 2006, and saved a series with a destination of disappointment. Don’t call it classic. And don’t you dare try to give any credit to Kevin Hart.
Klay Thompson Lighting Up the Spurs
It almost looked like the Spurs would pull one out at Oracle Arena and even the series. Almost. Without Steph Curry, the Warriors appeared more than vulnerable heading into the Playoffs; behind their worst loss of the Steve Kerr era and a 7-10 record over the final 17, some felt ready to write them off completely. What a waste of energy. The Dubs, including their three non-Curry All-Stars and a resurrected Andre Iguodala, are alive and kicking. They earned a 21-point win in Game 1, and while they may have looked shaky in the first half of Game 2, the Warriors recalibrated, thanks to an eruption by the chocolate milk endorser himself.
Notorious for their volcanic third quarters, Golden State predictably outscored San Antonio by 11 in the third after trailing by six at halftime. By the beginning of the fourth, Kevin Durant was up to 28 points, and Klay Thompson had a respectable 15. A disrespectful 16 was incoming.
When Klay catches fire, there’s not much to do but stop, drop, and roll. He literally could not miss in the final 12. Spurred by a couple of clear path free throws courtesy of Bryn Forbes, Klay watched the ball go through the basket and never looked back. Fed by Shaun Livingston, David West, Iguodala, and Durant, he’d go off for 16 fourth-quarter points on perfect 6/6 shooting. Oracle was buzzing, and the Spurs had little choice but to sit and watch as their season started to slip away. The Warriors stole back Game 2 with a 15-point win, and head into Texas with a champion’s confidence.
Gregg Popovich Not Very Subtly Calling Out Kawhi Leonard
This is far from a great moment if you’re a Spurs admirer, but it’s a moment nonetheless, and a big one at that. In response to reports all but confirming Kawhi Leonard’s permanent absence from the 2018 Playoffs, the NBA universe is preparing for the once-preposterous: Kawhi is leaving San Antonio. Leonard, an unconventionally quiet superstar and the saving grace of an aging Spurs dynasty, has flipped one of the oldest unwritten basketball laws on its head by waging a Cold War on the NBA’s model franchise. Citing personal concerns over a lingering quad injury, Leonard has departed from his team–even though he has long been cleared by the Spurs to play.
When asked about LaMarcus Aldridge’s performance in a losing effort against the Warriors on Monday night, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich didn’t hold back on his compliments. Aldridge, elected an All-Star this year behind his best production in three years as a Spur, reconciled with Popovich prior to the 2017-18 season after requesting a trade out of San Antonio. Aldridge, Popovich, and the Spurs have adjusted their system around each other. Without Leonard, Aldridge has been allotted that much more freedom.
Popovich told reporters, “LaMarcus has been a monster all year long. He’s led our team at both ends of the floor. He doesn’t complain about a darn thing out on the court. He just plays through everything. I can’t imagine being more proud of a player, as far as playing through adversity and being there for his teammates, night after night after night. He’s been fantastic.”
These comments are less curious than they are blatant. Popovich’s pointed emphasis on LaMarcus’s two-way play–Leonard has long been lauded the “best two-way player” the NBA has to offer–and his aversion to complaining through adversity are no accident. Popovich is clearly drawing a contrast between Aldridge’s dependability and Leonard’s bizarre absence complicated by his apparent distrust of the Spurs’ medical team (if not the entire organization). After reports that the Clippers are building a trade package for Leonard, and Popovich’s dismissive, repetitive references to “Kawhi and his group” when prodded, there is undeniable tension.
Leonard, conspicuously, did not travel with the Spurs to Oakland for their first-round playoff series. Whether or not Leonard is physically capable or comfortable engaging in basketball play remains irrelevant: he isn’t even present to sit on the sideline in support of his teammates, who have worked arduously without him to simply secure a playoff seed. Leonard is allegedly in New York, working with a secondary team of physicians. Is it a self-imposed exile? Or has Kawhi lost the patience, trust, and support of the Spurs organization?