7 Takeaways from Wednesday's NBA Playoff Action
The favorites once again controlled Wednesday's three-game slate of NBA playoff action. But the expected results came about in some surprising ways.
The Indiana Pacers tapped into a previously undiscovered part of their offensive arsenal, surprising the Atlanta Hawks with a newfound perimeter attack en route to a 113-98 win.
The Oklahoma City Thunder got a slightly more predictable late-game effort from Kevin Durant in their Game 2 victory over the Houston Rockets. But OKC needed every one of KD's big buckets to stave off a feisty performance from first-time starter Patrick Beverley.
And finally, the San Antonio Spurs took care of the Los Angeles Lakers on the strength of their three suddenly healthy stars.
The outcomes weren't stunners, as all three higher seeds took hold of 2-0 leads in their respective series, but within those predictable results were some intriguing storylines with far-reaching implications.
Irritating Russell Westbrook Produces Mixed Results
Patrick Beverley found himself in the Rockets starting lineup for the first time, and the well-traveled point guard made the most of his opportunity by relentlessly pestering Russell Westbrook.
That strategy, which appeared to be deliberate on Beverley's part, peaked in the second quarter when he crashed into Westbrook as the Thunder point guard motioned to the official for a run-of-the-mill timeout after crossing half court.
Westbrook went down in a heap, clutching his right knee. More angry than injured, Westbrook slammed his hand down on the scorers' table when he eventually got up and proceeded to play at a frenzied pace for the rest of the game.
On some occasions, the furious Westbrook looked unstoppable. Immediately after the timeout, he stole the ball from Beverley and went coast-to-coast in a blur, laying the ball in on the other end. And he continued to attack like a man possessed. (He really did, by the way, appear to be possessed by something. He was livid all game long.)
But because this is Westbrook we're talking about, the wild aggression he showed came with a downside. His penchant for bad shots and wild drives seemed to increase when he saw red.
On the night, he hit just 10-of-26 from the field and made only one of his seven three-point attempts. And much to the dismay of his Thunder teammates, many of Westbrook's errant jumpers were the direct result of his emotional response to a pesky Beverley.
But his repeated attacks on the rim yielded 10 free-throw attempts, so it wasn't all bad for OKC.
Hey, when Bruce Banner turns into the Incredible Hulk, it's hard to know what his anger is going to make him do. Pissing off Westbrook probably isn't a great idea as a general rule, but it almost worked for the Rockets in Game 2.
James Harden Is Going to Sleep Well Tonight
James Harden's regular-season averages of 25.9 points in 38.3 minutes per game don't really paint a clear picture of just how heavily the Rockets lean on their star guard.
Heavy use is one thing (Harden ranked eighth in usage rate during the year), but a rough-and-tumble style that results in a ton of foul shots and even more floor burns make Harden's minutes more demanding than most.
Against the Thunder on Wednesday, the story remained the same.
Harden scored 36 points in 45 minutes, getting to the line a whopping 20 times and hitting the floor nearly that often. Fatigue and the responsibility of serving as the team's primary ball-handler combined to create an ugly line score in the accuracy department, but the heavy dose of foul shots helped offset a 9-of-24 night for Harden that included just one made three-pointer in seven attempts.
The Rockets are not going to win their series against the Thunder. In fact, they probably just missed their best opportunity to steal a road contest in Game 2. But Harden has given his team everything it could have possibly asked for.
Surely exhausted, he'll sleep well after this one. And after the Rockets postseason concludes, he'll probably catch about two weeks worth of well-deserved Z's.
Houston's Zone Almost Worked
Some late zone defense from the Rockets caused the Thunder to go cold for nine consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter. The move by coach Kevin McHale was bold, as the Thunder certainly have the athletes to exploit the holes in all but the most tight-knit schemes.
But the gimmick worked for a solid stretch and only a big performance from Kevin Durant down the stretch saved Oklahoma City from defeat.
KD started hot, hitting six of his first 11 shots, but then faded into the background until the fourth quarter. Thanks to a three-pointer with 2:28 left, Durant put OKC back on top for good and got Houston out of its troublesome defense.
It's hard to know whether Houston will feature its zone again in the series, but avoiding man-to-man matchups is probably a good idea for the Rockets because, outside of Omer Asik, there aren't really any good individual defenders on the roster.
For a few minutes, it looked like the Rockets might have found a way to compete. OKC will adjust in Game 3, and if Houston can't stop the Thunder with its zone defense, there might not be any options left.
The Pacers Have a New Weapon...Maybe
The Indiana Pacers hit only 34 percent of their long-range attempts during the regular season, an accuracy rate that ranked just 22nd in the NBA.
But against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, the Pacers looked like they had collectively taken a page from franchise icon Reggie Miller's old book. Indiana pumped in 10 three-pointers, including seven of its first 13 attempts.
The Pacers shot 25 long bombs, and while 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc might not sound like a big deal, it is for a team like Indiana. With a rugged frontcourt rotation, budding star in Paul George, and a defense that allowed fewer points per 100 possessions than anyone during the regular season, Indiana could be unbeatable with the addition of a reliable three-point attack.
Just imagine the space that a three-point threat would give Roy Hibbert and David West in the lane. And George's driving angles would broaden substantially.
It was just one game, and outside of a hot early stretch, the Pacers didn't really do much damage from distance. But Game 2 provided a glimpse of the next necessary step in Indiana's development.
Gerald Green Is Fun
Gerald Green has slipped in and out of the Pacers rotation this year, but a hard fall on an offensive foul took Lance Stephenson out of action in the first quarter, causing coach Frank Vogel to turn to Green.
The 15 points were nice, but solid offensive outputs aren't why Green is so much fun.
It's the dunks!
One of the NBA's best aerial artists, Green is good for at least one good highlight per game—provided he gets enough minutes. He crammed one home on Josh Smith halfway through the second quarter (visual evidence above) and also caught a touchdown pass from David West to close the half with a streaking dunk.
It's not all that informative to point out that Green is a fun player, but what else was I going to use this slide for? A dissertation on how the Hawks have absolutely no chance against a more motivated, better organized and hungrier Pacers team?
That's no fun at all.
Dwight Howard Looks Healthy
Consider this the silver lining in an otherwise cloudy day for the Lakers: Dwight Howard has his lift back.
L.A. endured a pretty thorough beating at the hands of the Spurs, but Howard turned in a performance that may have represented the best evidence yet that he's nearly 100 percent healthy after an arduous, season-long recovery from back surgery.
There have been signs for the past couple of months that D12 was rounding into form, as his numbers after the All-Star break included spikes in points, rebounds and blocks per game. But based simply on the way he moved around against the Spurs, it appears Howard is feeling better than he has all year.
He got up for lobs from Pau Gasol, swatted away shots that he wouldn't have come close to reaching a few months ago, and generally showed the supreme athleticism that made him such a dominant interior force during his time in Orlando.
The Lakers are now just two losses away from elimination, but the franchise has to be excited that Howard now resembles the player they thought they were getting in the 2012 summer.
Now that they know Howard's healthy, the Lakers will be even more motivated to keep him around when he hits unrestricted free agency this offseason.
But Unfortunately for the Lakers, So Do the Spurs
Coming into the postseason, the only real concern with the Spurs was the team's overall health. Tony Parker missed three weeks in March because of a sprained ankle and had been dealing with a sore shin during the season's final month. Plus, Manu Ginobili had a hamstring issue that seemed to genuinely worry coach Gregg Popovich.
Well, we now know that Parker and Ginobili are fine and Popovich may have been exaggerating his concerns to the media. (That last part shouldn't be a surprise, as the notoriously cagey coach has always taken every opportunity to gain an advantage.)
Parker diced up the Lakers defense to the tune of 28 points on 9-of-20 shooting, with 24 of his points coming after the break.
And Ginobili amassed 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds in just 19 minutes off the bench.
With Tim Duncan continuing to display a robotic (or possibly magical) immunity to age, and Kawhi Leonard more than ready to serve as a big piece of the rotation, San Antonio is a seriously dangerous team.
They wiped out the Lakers by 11 points in Game 2, and with health apparently no longer a concern, the Spurs are primed to make a run toward the Finals.