Best NBA Playoff Moments From April 24: Marcus Smart, 76ers, & Ginóbili

On Thursday, April 24, Game 5 action came at us from coast to coast. The Celtics fought off the Bucks, the Sixers polished off their first playoff series win in six years, and the Warriors held off the rallying Spurs. Let’s review.

Marcus Smart, Game-Changer

Game 5 of Celtics/Bucks can be best summarized with this play: Marcus Smart dribbling into traffic, Marcus Smart stumbling and falling, three Bucks jumping on top of him and forgetting their defensive charges, Marcus Smart securing the ball and turning a near-turnover into a game-saving assist, Jabari Parker standing and watching a wide-open Al Horford under the basket, the Celtics putting the game out of reach. In case you missed it, Marcus Smart has returned to Boston’s lineup, and he very well could be the Celtics’ difference-maker as they press on in pursuit of the Conference Semifinals.

In 25 minutes off the bench, Smart had nine points, five rebounds, four assists, one (huge) block (on Giannis!), and three steals (it took him all of 33 seconds to notch the first). He shot just 2-for-7, but was 5-for-5 from the free throw line. Smart, on the mend from a thumb injury, was urged to return to playoff basketball by his critically ill mother, “because that would put a smile on her face if I got back healthy and back on the court.” Fulfilling her wishes, Smart’s inspired play secured a crucial win for the Celtics. Head coach Brad Stevens put it best: “You can look at stat sheets all you want with Marcus. It just doesn’t tell the story. It’s his energy, it’s his emotion, it’s the little plays that turn out to be game-changing plays.”
Postgame, Smart described himself as a “spark” who brings an energy that all at once positively impacts the mood and performance of his team and frustrates the other to no end. Smart plays with a planned recklessness, hellbent on driving opponents crazy. The offensive fouls he draws are theatrically punctuated, the loose balls he dives for are won with an otherworldly hustle, and it’s this heart and soul–missing since early March–that gives the Celtics an advantage few teams can replicate.

Smart was the bottom line of this game, but if you were hoping for more Drew vs. Who?, Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier were happy to oblige. It’s hard to pinpoint who’s gotten under the other’s skin more as the series has progressed, but in this case, a little bump by Rozier yielded a flagrant bump by Bledsoe. Hardly an altercation, the minor scuffle reminded us that there absolutely is tension between these dudes, and whether or not it’s for show is irrelevant. When the Bucks’ playoff future was looking bleak after Game 2, Bledsoe mobilized the youngsters around him when he made those now-infamous comments about Rozier. The mini rivalry added a level of grit that pushed the Bucks to level a series they briefly looked unqualified to even be playing in.

On the Bucks’ side of things, they have work to do. Thon Maker (two points) and Tony Snell (zero points) are only hindering Milwaukee out on the perimeter. Malcolm Brogdon (two points) is wildly inconsistent. Giannis was held to just 10 field goal attempts in 41 minutes, and explained after the game, “I had open shots, but they wasn’t my shots”, revealing Boston’s game plan to take Antetokounmpo out of the game. Jabari Parker and Shabazz Muhammad did impressive work off the bench, but their accounting for 28 of 30 overall bench points is an indictment of Milwaukee’s depth. The Bucks could have stolen this road win if not for a bizarre Celtics shot clock violation that was never called, but in the end, they were simply outplayed.

This series could easily become a seven-game outing. While neither team has lost at home, the even matchups and close games don’t put a Milwaukee upset out of the question. Regardless of the outcome, the Bucks have a lot to consider in the offseason: do they want Giannis leading the team in assists and worrying about distributing? What kind of point guard should be next to him? When will they face the music and start Jabari Parker? What kind of head coach will help this team find a winning identity?

The Sixers Advance

If there was any doubt that the Sixers could close out their series at home, it evaporated when news broke that Meek Mill would be released from prison on Tuesday afternoon. The unjustly incarcerated rapper and Philadelphia native has long been tied to the 76ers’ organization–so much so that team co-owner Michael Rubin personally retrieved Mill upon release. Mill has been fervently supported by NBA players across the country, and Philly’s brightest stars Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz had personally visited Meek in prison. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to let Meek walk was slated to bring good mojo to the city of Philadelphia, but it was Meek’s presence at the game on Tuesday night–however unethical the surrounding media circus–that inspired the Sixers, and helped to put them over the top.

Two years ago, the Philadelphia 76ers lost 72 games out of 82. Head coach Brett Brown led Philly to 75 wins total in his first four miserable years at the helm. Today, this very same team is perhaps the most exciting and promising in the NBA, and most terrifying to the contending teams around them. The Sixers are officially en route to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2012, but it would be lazy of us to expect them to stop there.
After the series-clinching win, an emotional and vindicated Brown addressed his persevering players, congratulating them on “a monumental effort given where we were and where we are; to win a round in the playoffs is not to be denied.” But most importantly, he insists, is that “we have so much more to grow and give.” He’s absolutely right. It’s easy to forget that this is just Simmons and Embiid’s first year playing together, yet they remain a threat to take out LeBron James en route to a Finals run. With long years of patient losing behind them, the 76ers have years of work yet to do. J.J. Redick, intended ringer of the ceremonial postgame mini liberty bell, preferred instead to let Brown relish in this first major victory, while the rest of the team showered him in thanks.

Tuesday night, Embiid finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Simmons contributed a staple stat line of 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. The game was close through halftime, but it was Redick who took the initiative to put the Heat away, scoring 19 in the final 24 minutes. After a frustrated Goran Dragić knocked Simmons upside the head early in the third, the Sixers took off, outscoring the embittered, disorganized Heat 34-20 in the quarter. Tyler Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Dwyane Wade tried to rally the Heat in the fourth, cutting an 18-point lead to eight, but a James Johnson technical interrupted a 10-0 run. Philly—behind Redick and Marco Belinelli—held fast to their pride, and settled the series.

Bench play kept the Heat in the competition, but the starters’ deficiencies cast an early shadow on Miami’s chances. Josh Richardson, attempting to brush off a shoulder injury sustained in Game 4, was ineffective through the pain and attempted just one field goal in seven minutes. Hassan Whiteside, astronomically outplayed through the series by old buddy Embiid, finished with two points, five rebounds, and one block in ten minutes. James Johnson had an inconsequential four points, and Dragić had his worst shooting game since the series opener.

There was a lot of talk about this game possibly being Dwyane Wade’s last. Father Prime refused to break any news during his postgame media availability, focusing instead on how great of shape the NBA is in now that Embiid and Simmons are here to take care of it. Humble as he is, he can’t convince me he’s not going to play his last game at home in Miami in front of the people who love him most. Nice try, D Wade.

The Spurs Go Out, But Not Without a Fight

Let’s just admit that Warriors/Spurs was a weird, sometimes unwatchable series. While it was inevitable to pessimists that the Warriors would emerge victors, the defending champs didn’t always play like they had a damn to give. Without Stephen Curry, they’ve coasted on clout more than they’ve rearranged their style of play, leaving Kevin Durant averaging 28.2 points after five games of less-than-inspiring performances. Meanwhile, the Spurs, lacking two leaders in grieving head coach Gregg Popovich and absent cornerstone Kawhi Leonard, hustled game after game to challenge the lethargic Dubs.
Manu Ginóbili willed the Spurs to a Game 4 victory at home on Saturday, cementing himself and Parker as the winningest playoff duo in NBA history. Even though the black-and-silver underdogs would relocate to a raucous Oracle Arena on Tuesday night, the NBA’s model franchise wasn’t about to take a scheduled loss lightly.

The Warriors’ lead hovered between nine and 15 through much of the second half on Tuesday, but a clutch-time surge by LaMarcus Aldridge threatened the once-inevitable outcome. The inspired Aldridge almost singlehandedly whittled the lead down to eight, then six, then four, then two with under a minute remaining. The Spurs, on the verge of forcing a Game 6, were pulling out late-game heroics that no doubt filled the omnipresent Popovich with pride. But Durant, who had a poor overall shooting night, stepped up last-second to can an icy jumper in Rudy Gay’s face–he is one of the greatest basketball players in the world, after all. One turnover and a missed three later, the Spurs had no choice but to concede.

He’d neither confirm nor deny, but Tuesday night could have been Ginóbili’s NBA finale. Retirement rumors didn’t just swirl around Dwyane Wade on Tuesday night: Manu, at age 40, has been “contemplating retirement forever”, and this close-out playoff game may have marked the last-ever appearance for the NBA’s most adored international player. Ginóbili finished the night with 10 points, five rebounds, and five assists, including crucial dishes to Davis Bertans and Aldridge down the stretch. Defying his undying stellar play, the future Hall of Famer and beloved Spur may be bringing his 16-year partnership with Parker home to rest.

Parker’s plans remain even more of a mystery. During last year’s playoffs, Parker suffered a crushing quad injury which subsequently delayed his 2017-18 debut; despite a vintage moment here and there, Parker has visibly slowed down. Midseason, the 36-year-old conceded his near two-decade-old spot in the Spurs’ starting lineup to 21-year-old Dejounte Murray. Between the unclear paths awaiting Manu, Tony, and Kawhi, the San Antonio Spurs could look very different come October. Whether or not we’re ready for the dynasty to draw its curtains, we have no choice but to wait and see.

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