On Wednesday, April 25, the NBA Playoffs spoiled us. LeBron won a game on his own volition, Russell Westbrook and Paul George tipped the scales, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry rejuvenated the Raptors, and the Rockets sent the Timberwolves home. Between an otherworldly buzzer-beater and a pair of performances for the ages came a series-tipping Game 5 and an elimination. Let’s review.
LeBron vs. the World
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 26, 2018
What do you even say about this? It’s just… stunning. LeBron James lifted the wilted Cavs over the Indiana Pacers on a buzzer-beating three-pointer last night, securing a 3-2 series lead. This beauty may go down as one of the most memorable plays of his career.
But what about the defensive play that led to the shot? After Domantas Sabonis tied the game with at 95 with 33.6 seconds left, LeBron–credit Thaddeus Young’s patient defense–turned the ball over on the Cavs’ final full possession of regulation. After a Pacers timeout, Victor Oladipo hovered around half-court until the shot clock hit 5 and the game clock 8. LeBron switched onto Oladipo, tracking him into the paint. Oladipo moved left, he and LeBron jumped together, and what happened next may have given Andre Iguodala vertigo. Oladipo, who maybe should have dunked instead, saw his layup pinned to the left side of the backboard briefly before LeBron seized control of the ball and called time. Plan? “Give me the ball.”
(Legally, it’s a goaltend. Plain and simple. But much to Indiana’s chagrin, the refs can’t review anything not called on the floor. But, come on: even if the goaltend were called, would LeBron not have taken the same exact shot with the same result?)
King James, who finished the contest with 44 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists, passed Jerry West on Wednesday night to become the player with the second-most 40-point playoff games all-time. As of last night, LeBron has notched 21 of those; Michael Jordan holds the record with 38. Three days earlier, LeBron joined Jordan as the only two players to have 100 30-point playoff games, and LeBron is all but slated to overtake Jordan’s record of 109 this year–depending, of course, on how far he can drag his teammates. To put it simply, LeBron has entered territory that will make it plenty more difficult for doubters to question his GOAT status as the latter years of his career ebb away.
The team around LeBron remains an asterisk, if not a red flag. Since his 24-point venture in the Game 1 blowout loss, LeBron is averaging 37.5 points. The next highest scorers? In Games 2 and 3, Kevin Love with 15 and 19, respectively. In Games 4 and 5, Kyle Korver with 18 and 19, respectively. Love, the team’s second All-Star, is shooting at a 32.8% clip for the series. He scored five points in Game 4. The extent of his thumb injury remains foggy, but he may as well be sitting. Tristan Thompson has played fewer than ten minutes over five games. J.R. Smith has been shooting terribly inconsistently, and came up with a grand total of zero points in Game 5. Love, Thompson, and Smith are LeBron’s only remaining championship teammates from 2016, and not a single one of them is performing with postseason intensity (if they’re performing at all).
Jeff Green, who was shaping up to be an offensive spark and undercover perimeter threat, is contributing 4.2 points and 2.4 rebounds. Meanwhile, the Cavs’ trade-deadline acquisitions–George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr.–aren’t much more impressive. Point guard Hill missed Games 4 and 5 with a back issue, and played about 20 minutes in each of the first three, where he averaged 8.6 points, 1.7 assists, and two turnovers. Hood, Clarkson, and Nance are averaging 17.4 points, combined, off the bench. The Cavs have reshuffled their starting lineup three times in Round 1, and inserting José Calderón for Hill has been a net-positive, but it’s not like he’s adding much to the scoreboard.
LeBron is leading the Cavs in scoring, rebounds, assists, blocks, and minutes. He makes it look easy, but at 33 years old, he needs help. It’s well-known now that LeBron’s been conserving “pockets of energy” in order to stay fresh through his 42.7 minutes of play per night, but when the four other guys on the court produce as if they’re conserving all of their own energy, winning is only so sustainable. LeBron’s buzzer-beater marked his first three-pointer of the night and the Cavs’ first field goal of the fourth quarter since the 7:19 mark. While the Pacers were making a run, the Cavaliers subsisted on LeBron’s free throw shooting. While his making all 15 of his attempts at the line is actually a fantastic sign–free throw shooting has long been LeBron’s weakness–it goes without saying that his teammates need to be making field goals, instead of relying on lucking out.
Nevermind what the scoreboard tells you: the Pacers didn’t play well in Game 5. Oladipo had 12 points on 2-for-15 shooting, and he has now shot 12-for-50 since Game 3. Indiana’s scoring leader was Sabonis off the bench; Myles Turner and Thad Young picked up five fouls each and had just seven rebounds between them. The Pacers have not once cracked 100 points in the series. Credit Cleveland’s defense for the latter if you can muster it, but overall, the Cavs are going down to the wire in every game against an Indiana team that is not playing anywhere near its best. LeBron might be able to save the day more often than not, but he really shouldn’t have to.
OKC Evades Elimination
It only gets increasingly more difficult to describe the Oklahoma City Thunder. The team, which over the past week has looked to be an absolute bust of an experiment, pulled off the third-largest comeback win in NBA Playoffs history on Wednesday night. Down 25 points with 8:34 left in the third quarter, Chesapeake Energy Arena had become Chesapeake Apathy Arena. A smattering of boos, the players’ dejected body language, and an absolutely relentless opponent had OKC looking absolutely finished. No one would have blamed Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz for cackling openly on the sideline, for thinking ahead to Round 2 against the Rockets, for fantasizing about the next few days of rest. This clobbering was nothing extraordinary, after all. The Jazz were about to clock their fourth consecutive win over the Thunder, who maybe, after all that talk, were never actually “built for the Playoffs”.
Before he could even give the motley crew Utah anti-stars a second to crack a smile, Russell Westbrook entered some sort of unearthly cocoon and metamorphosed into the Monstar version of himself.
At halftime, Utah led Oklahoma City 56-41. Jae Crowder had 17 points on 4-for-8 three-point shooting. Joe Ingles had 14 on 5-for-8 three-point shooting; Westbrook had 12 points on 5-for-16 and three turnovers, and Paul George had 13 points on 4-for-10 with three fouls and two turnovers. In the first few minutes of the third, the Jazz toyed as usual with OKC’s perimeter defense, draining four straight threes with ease. Crowder was having himself a career night from beyond the arc.
On the other end, watching Russell Westbrook shoot three-pointers was anxiety-inducing. He missed two in the first half, unsurprisingly; while he may have stopped chucking them up recklessly during the regular season, anything goes when he’s in desperation mode. So watching him pull up from 25 feet out when on the wrong end of a 71-47 deficit was like watching OKC’s fate sealed in slow motion. Until, of course, the ball cascaded ever so elegantly through the basket. Well–lucky shot, because at the other end, Joe Ingles is about to add one more made open three to the collection he’s been gifted by the Oklahoma City defense game after game after game, and put this thing to bed. But… Ingles misses. So Russ comes down the other end and shoots again, and there’s no way he’ll make another 25-footer. Until he does. A 25-point lead is 18 now, which is really nothing, because this is the Jazz! They’ve been exposing the very worst of the Thunder for four straight games!
— NBA (@NBA) April 26, 2018
But 18 became 15. 15 slimmed down to 10. 10 was sliced in half. 5 became 3. And it was only fitting that a Westbrook three tied the game up at 78 with 35.9 remaining in the third quarter. The Oklahoma City Thunder had just completed a 32-7 run, completely flipping the script on their death march. Russ accounted for 20, while George had the remaining 12. With their backs against the wall, they’d finally found the type of scoring rhythm they’d lacked all year. Notably, Carmelo Anthony sat on the bench and watched. Westbrook and George, neither of whom sat during the second half, continued their barrage into the fourth, accounting for 22 of OKC’s 29 fourth-quarter points. In a 33-point turnaround, the Thunder managed an impossible win.
When Rudy Gobert exited the game with his fourth personal foul early in the third, the paint was suddenly a 12′ x 15′ land of opportunity. Westbrook and George went to work. Playoff P and the reigning MVP were driving, drawing contact, and drinking up the absence of Utah’s defensive anchor. It wasn’t long before Utah’s big-in-waiting, Derrick Favors, picked up his own fourth and fifth fouls. Losing their rim protectors, the Jazz began playing out of control and without direction. A major disruption to their defensive flow led to erratic offense, while Westbrook and George managed to stay cool and controlled. Heightened court awareness and an uptick in energy led to deflections, yielding transition opportunities. OKC assumed a level of defensive focus they’d failed to attain in Salt Lake City. A foil to Game 4, OKC’s headliners channeled their aggression appropriately; there was no need to waste energy scuffling with Gobert, Crowder, or Ingles this time around. They’d purged the Jazz from their heads.
Headed to SLC for Game 6 pic.twitter.com/hz6QMTZrdm
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 26, 2018
Russell Westbrook and Paul George spearheaded one of the tremendous playoff performances by a duo in years, and possibly ever. That doesn’t mean they can coast into Salt Lake City on a high. There should be concern, and there should be questions: why were they down 25 at home in a closeout game to begin with? What if Russ and Paul freeze up in the second half of Game 6, just like they did in the first four games? Do they swap out an ineffective Corey Brewer for Alex Abrines? What is Melo’s role going forward? Postgame, head coach Billy Donovan–a bit agitated, likely recovering from the anxiety of an all-but-confirmed first-round exit–implored the media, “I don’t look at it like we’re carrying any momentum. We’ve got to go in there and we’ve got to play better. This is a team that had us down by 25 points.”
Oklahoma City is down 3-2. If they want a chance at the Conference Semifinals, they need to start fresh on Friday night while drawing on the same winning tactics they employed on Wednesday. They’ll need to take Gobert out of the paint, keep Mitchell out of his element, guard Joe Ingles, and let Rubio and Crowder shoot their hearts out. They’ll need to pass the ball. They’ll need to make shots. Might sound crazy, but as long as Oklahoma City plays defense and offense, they have a shot at this.
Raptors Prevail, Rockets Advance
In other news, the Raptors shut up the cynics if just for a moment as they picked up a 3-2 series lead over the Washington Wizards. DeMar DeRozan dominated the first half and finished with 32 points, while Kyle Lowry contributed a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists. Delon Wright was an unexpected but pivotal figure down the stretch with 11 points in the fourth quarter, and 20 total off the bench. The Wizards kept it close but fizzled out in the fourth quarter, unable to make an impactful field goal in the final four minutes. John Wall had 26 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, and three blocks in a most noble effort; Bradley Beal added 20 points of his own. The teams return to Washington for Game 6, where the Wizards will look to force a Game 7. They have the trend on their side: the home team has won every game of this series so far.
While the Minnesota Timberwolves put up a halfway decent effort on Wednesday night, James Harden and the Houston Rockets pulled away in the third quarter to seal their 4-1 series victory en route to the Western Conference Semifinals. Harden scored 14 points in the third, while Minnesota put up just 15 in the same amount of time–which may have been just as bad as Houston’s 50-point third quarter two days prior. Harden notched 24 points and 12 assists, but Clint Capela stole the show with 26 points, 15 rebounds, and the series-clinching defense on Karl-Anthony Towns. Chris Paul had 12 points and nine assists. Towns, ironically, had his best game of the series, putting up 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting and collecting 14 rebounds. Too little, too late. Jimmy Butler scored just eight points before conceding to his nagging injuries. The ageless Jamal Crawford scored 20 off the bench for Minnesota, and contributed the most exciting moment of the game when he stood menacingly over former teammate Paul and stepped over him in Iversonian fashion.