Round 1, Game 2 action continued on Wednesday, April 18. LeBron and his Cavs got revenge on the Pacers, the Jazz stole a road win, and the Rockets made a mockery of the Timberwolves. Let’s recap the action.
Was LeBron’s W a Cavaliers L?
The Cavaliers fell to the Pacers in Game 1 of their matchup on Sunday, resulting in LeBron James‘s first Round 1 loss in six years. For the first time since LeBron’s return to Cleveland, the Cavs won’t be sweeping their first round opponent. In a markedly unstable, idiosyncratic season, the loss fits right into LeBron’s 2017-18 narrative: defy the odds.
It’s safe to say now that Game 1 was what LeBron calls a “feel-out game”; he used the first quarter largely to study Victor Oladipo and his Pacers as they clobbered the Cavs, 33-14. LeBron was also made aware of the effort and morale of his supporting cast, and used his observations as the point of reference for how to bounce back. Noticeably passive in the first quarter of that first game (he didn’t attempt a field goal until the 1:52 mark), LeBron’s approach in the opening 12 of Game 2 could not have been more different.
It took just 62 seconds to address the three most pressing issues coming out of Game 1: Cleveland’s defense, LeBron’s aggression, and Victor Oladipo’s very existence. Kevin Love won the tip, and the next five possessions unfolded perfectly. LeBron hit a fadeaway. J.R. Smith forced Oladipo into a backcourt violation. LeBron scored again. Then, offensive foul on Oladipo. Then, a second foul on Oladipo. Victor was benched immediately, and LeBron proceeded to score the next 12 of the Cavaliers’ first 16 points, making fools of a Pacers defense preoccupied with adjusting their offense. The King was in control.
LeBron James scored the first 16 PTS (20 total) for @cavs in the 1st quarter of Game 2!
— NBA (@NBA) April 18, 2018
The Cavaliers led by 15 heading into the second quarter, and LeBron had 20 already. His performance begged us to revisit his personal top tier of playoff domination; Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals and Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals came to the front of our collective mind. A disappointing, unprecedented Game 1 loss brought out the hungry, incensed, take-no-prisoners Year 15 LeBron we’ve gotten to know all year. He had 29 at the half, but Indiana took advantage of the lesser Cavs’ deficiencies and began to make a push.
The Pacers’ 2017-18 season has been magical. Victor Oladipo’s personal glo up, his unwavering drive to humiliate anyone who thought the Pacers struck out by swapping Paul George for him, and his All-Star leadership have earned the Pacers a 5-seed season once written off before it even began. It would be uncharacteristic for him to lie down and accept any loss, even one all but cemented in the first quarter by the greatest player in the world. Oladipo and his Pacers used the second half to rub away at Cleveland’s lead, outscoring the Cavs by nine. They’d slash the lead to three with less than a minute remaining in the fourth, and even though the Cavs responded with a turnover and then by leaving Oladipo wide open on a potentially game-tying three, Indiana couldn’t stave them off.
LeBron would finish with 46 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists. Starters Smith and George Hill combined with José Calderón and Rodney Hood for 21 total points, while Love put up a lackluster 15 on poor shooting before leaving the game in the fourth with a thumb injury. A couple of bright spots: Smith and Kyle Korver, inserted into the starting lineup that night, were defensively effective; Korver, true to his nature, was also a difference-maker from three-point territory. But honestly, none of this is good enough. After the game, coach Tyronn Lue told the media, “I need to see more out of a lot of guys”, implying that Hood, Hill, Jeff Green, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. have little choice but to show out in Indianapolis come Friday. LeBron has a history of dragging bad teams onto improbable playoff runs, but if he expects to get through the East, he needs reliable support.
Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz Let OKC Beat Themselves
Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell was a game-time decision on Wednesday night after sustaining a toe injury during the Jazz’s Game 1 loss to the Thunder. Choosing competition over comfort, the relentless Mitchell came out without missing a beat in Game 2. Setting the tone for Utah with a steal off of Russell Westbrook and breakaway layup on the very first possessions, Mitchell opened up the door for big men Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert to take advantage of OKC’s lazy offensive start. Behind Mitchell, Favors, and Gobert, Utah sprinted to an early 9-0 lead over Westbrook’s Thunder.
The Thunder, behind Westbrook, surged back, caught up, and kept it competitive. Paul “Playoff P” George, playing through a hip contusion, was fouled on two three-point makes and converted one four-point play. Westbrook made momentum-building plays, like stealing an inbound pass to set up a Carmelo Anthony three. Jerami Grant was an offensive spark off the bench. And importantly, much of OKC’s defensive output focused on taking Mitchell out of the game. The Thunder were well-equipped to put away the Jazz… until they weren’t.
Old habits die hard. Rendering useless a third-quarter 19-0 run that put them up 10, Oklahoma City’s stars disappeared in the most crucial moments. Anthony, George, and Westbrook shot 0-for-14 in the final period, letting the Jazz outscore the Thunder by 12. Mitchell penetrated the paint and got to the foul line; Ricky Rubio hit threes down the stretch; Favors and Gobert out-rebounded OKC’s top glass-cleaners Steven Adams and Westbrook 11-5 in the fourth. Adams, hassled by foul trouble throughout, picked up his sixth with 2:48 to go. 13 fourth-quarter points by Mitchell put the Jazz over the top for a confidence-building road win ahead of relocating the series to Salt Lake City.
Playing through the pain, Mitchell would end up breaking a record held for 33 years by one Michael Jordan. With a total of 55 points through Games 1 and 2, Mitchell overtook MJ’s 53 to become the new standard of excellence for most points in NBA history by a guard in his first two postseason games. Mitchell, who almost vomited during Game 1 out of nervousness, is playing beyond his years. If the Thunder are going to keep him at bay, they need to refocus on efficiency, rebounding, and defensive consistency.
Where Are the Timberwolves?
In their first playoff game since 2004, the Timberwolves put up a worthy challenge to the league-best Houston Rockets in Game 1 on Sunday. After a terrible final few possessions, they fell 104-101, but Minnesota’s overall performance showed that they can still run with the elite. Losing Jimmy Butler to a knee injury set the Wolves back dramatically in February; once primed for a 4-seed or better, the Wolves closed the season fighting for their playoff lives. In a thrilling instant death regular season finale against the Denver Nuggets, the Wolves won their way out of a 14-year postseason drought. The return of Butler and the heightened responsibilities of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins made the Wolves appear a somewhat threatening 8-seed. Until Wednesday night, of course.
When Towns was outscored by washed-up sixth-man teammate Derrick Rose in Game 1, coach Tom Thibodeau implored him publicly to “be more active”. The 22-year-old Towns has a tendency to overlook the offensive mismatches beneficial to him, choosing instead to open up space for his teammates to run isolation plays. KAT needs to be selfish. He needs to be a controlling threat on the block. He scored five total points in Game 2 before being pulled midway through the third quarter. If Towns is going to be this passive, the Wolves can kiss this series goodbye.
The only good thing about this Midwest time zone is that I can just go to bed and not watch the rest of this game 😔 pic.twitter.com/LCRUUwDpam
— Meredith Minkow (@murrminks) April 19, 2018
The Wolves led 23-18 after the first quarter of Game 2. One predestined Rockets avalanche later, Minnesota was outscored 37-17 in a second quarter where Butler scored seven, Wiggins managed two, and Towns was held scoreless. The Rockets blew the game open with a 25-point lead in the third and never looked back. Nemanja Bjelica would end up leading the Wolves in scoring with 16; their notoriously overplayed starting five, all of whom played at least 33 minutes per game during the regular season, combined for 45 points in a 20-point loss. Speaking to the media after the game, Towns said, “I’m not looking for statistics and all that hype and glory and all that B.S. that doesn’t matter. I’m here for wins and dubs — whatever I’ve got to do to win the game.” A noble sentiment indeed, but Towns is doing a disservice to himself and his teammates until he realizes he’s doing whatever he can to lose.
The Rockets’ future Hall-of-Fame backcourt has been trashing the Wolves, even if James Harden and Chris Paul aren’t giving their best outputs on the same nights. In Game 1, Paul had 14 points, four assists, and six turnovers, and in spite of the win, was a -4; Harden had 44. In Game 2, Paul came back with 27 points, eight assists, and one turnover, and was a +21; Harden scored 12 on a bizarre 11.1% shooting, and was outscored by elder statesmen Gerald Green and Trevor Ariza. If the bona fide league MVP is still managing to kick your ass while he shoots 2-for-18, you’re in a lot of trouble.