The first round of the NFL draft may be capturing the nation’s attention on Thursday night, but the NBA playoffs stop for nothing—not even the monolithic National Football League.
National broadcasts on TNT will be directly competing with the action at Radio City Music Hall as two nationally televised contests are on the slate along with another on NBA TV.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat start the night off by continuing their repeat quest against the Milwaukee Bucks. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have come away with two double-digit victories over Milwaukee, taking a commanding 2-0 series lead into the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Expected by most to be dispatched in a four-game sweep, the Bucks will need a victory to avoid that unfortunate distinction.
Elsewhere, the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls head to the United Center to break their 1-1 tie. Thanks, in large part, to a brilliant performance from Joakim Noah, Chicago was able to steal a close victory at the Barclays Center in Game 2. Derrick Rose’s absence still lingers for the Bulls, but the more they win, the closer he likely is to a return.
Finishing off the night will be the best basketball series of the entire first round. The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers have turned their series into an old-fashioned slugfest where it seems street rules often apply to those driving in the lane.
In other words, Thursday is looking like one of the biggest sports nights of the year. And if you ever tire of watching young men walk up to the podium and shake Roger Goodell’s hand, it’s always nice to know what NBA contest you’ll be flipping over to.
With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of when and where you can watch Thursday night’s action.
Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks (Miami leads 2-0)
When: 7 p.m. ET
Where: BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee
Give this much to the Bucks—they didn't totally embarrass themselves in either game at AmericanAirlines Arena. Though the defending champs walk into Thursday night's clash well on their way to the sweep everyone expected, Milwaukee has kept games relatively close, especially in the first half.
Heading into the halftime break, the Bucks have been down a combined 11 points. Being down is never a "good" thing, and Miami has never allowed Milwaukee to feel even remotely in control of either of the two games. But the first halves of these games have at least carried the guise of a semi-competitive series—even if it turns out to be a facade (which it is).
Of course, the second 24 minutes has given credence to the theory that the Heat aren't even taking these games seriously until they have to. Watching these contests, it's looked like a hungry cat playing with a half-dead mouse. You know that the finishing blow is coming; the only question is when. The Heat have outscored the Bucks by 24 points in the second half, with their fourth quarter performances being particularly dominant.
Box scores of each fourth quarter tell a similar story. In Game 1, Miami defeated Milwaukee 30-21. In Game 2, the Bucks closed the gap to 30-22. It seems on the surface like a flipping of the offensive switch. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade simply take over the game, dominate at the rim and call it a day, right?
Not exactly. There has been a flip-switching during the fourth quarter of this series, but it's been on the defensive end in this series. Perhaps because the final scores have been blowouts, it's been largely ignored that the Heat's offense has not looked in playoff form thus far against Milwaukee.
That was especially the case in Game 2. The Heat may have scored 30 points in Sunday's fourth quarter, but it wasn't because of an especially ascendant fourth quarter. They shot only 9-of-23 from the field, ascending only because they were able to grab six offensive rebounds for critical extra possessions.
The Heat have been particularly bad in pick-and-roll situations. After having been among the three best pick-and-roll teams in the league during the regular season, Milwaukee has held Miami to just 0.67 points per possession in those sets, per Synergy Sports.
While those struggles are mostly due to LeBron and Wade simply not hitting the shots they normally do, the presence of Larry Sanders inside has caused some hesitation for Miami.
That's certainly not enough to make the Heat even slightly vulnerable tonight or the remainder of this series. It's just a little part of the game worth noting as Miami marches on to what should be an easy sweep.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls (Series tied 1-1)
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: United Center in Chicago
Watch: NBA TV
After getting pummeled in a Game 1 contest where only Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer showed up to play, everyone in the Barclays Center knew a different Bulls team was showing up on Monday. Even short handed—with Derrick Rose still out with a knee injury and Joakim Noah essentially playing on one leg—Tom Thibodeau’s squad wasn’t going to lay down and die.
And die they didn’t. Playing a quintessential Thibodeau-style game, Chicago again became the bully who fought its way to a No. 5 seed in the East without Rose. The Nets shot only 35.4 percent, knocking down a piddly 4-of-21 shots from beyond the three-point arc. Just when it seemed like Brooklyn was about to go on a scoring barrage, the Bulls held fort and suffocated the Nets’ spacing.
Much of that credit rests at the feet—or rather, foot,—of Noah. Still dealing with plantar fasciitis, which Noah has categorized as feeling like playing with needles under his feet, the Bulls center ascended in the final 12 minutes on Monday. He scored nine of the Bulls’ 21 points, grabbed six of their 14 rebounds and swatted a critical Brook Lopez shot as Brooklyn was trying to mount a last-minute comeback.
It was the type of performance you’d expect from a fully healthy Noah—not the shell of himself we saw in Game 1. Heroic is a word too often used this time of the year, but Noah put the proverbial “S” on his chest to bring this series to a tie heading back to Chicago.
The Nets will find out Thursday night whether Joe Johnson has a similar hero gene. Johnson has also been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis and is a game-time decision for Game 3, according to ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo. The Brooklyn guard is coming off a dreadful performance on Monday night, shooting 6-of-18 en route to a struggle-filled 17 points.
At the time, it simply looked like Bulls guard Jimmy Butler was outworking him in isolation situations. Butler is widely regarded as one of the best young perimeter defenders in the league, and his quickness and pestering pressure could bother any opposing guard.
Re-watching the film with Johnson’s foot in mind, the prism changes. Butler still did a fantastic job, but if Johnson doesn’t have his first step, creating separation will be impossible.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Memphis Grizzlies (Los Angeles Leads 2-0)
When: 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: FedExForum in Memphis
In a first round in which most series already feel preordained, Clippers vs. Grizzlies has unquestionably taken the marquee. For all the heroics of Noah, the run-and-gun ferocity between Denver and Golden State and the Twitter feed of Kobe Bryant, the two battles at Staples Center have been the most intriguing basketball matchups.
It doesn’t hurt that Game 2 had the most exciting individual moment of the early postseason, either.
Taking on, arguably, the NBA’s best on-ball defender in Tony Allen, Chris Paul drove to the basket, lofted a difficult lob over the outstretched arms of Darrell Arthur and Allen and banked home a game-winner. Never mind that Paul pushed off or that Allen committed two fouls or that Blake Griffin essentially tackled Arthur down in the paint. That moment is why the NBA playoffs are the best brand of basketball on the planet.
CP3’s shot gave the Clippers a commanding 2-0 series lead. For all the talk about how a road team has to win for a series to truly start, most NBA coaches would tell you that’s a sportswriter cliche. Being down 2-0 means your team has to win four of the next five games, a near-impossible task when teams are so evenly matched.
So while the Clippers are a heavy favorite to advance for a clash against Oklahoma City in the second round, that doesn’t mean the intrigue will subside. No matter how lopsided this series becomes on the overall scoresheet, each contest should be decided by a razor-thin margin. And Thursday night’s game, more than anything, is almost guaranteed to come down to the wire.
Overmatched and outplayed in Game 1, the Grizzlies came back vengeful on Monday night. Memphis forced the Clippers to shoot only 2-of-15 from beyond the arc as the outside completely disappeared for Los Angeles. Chauncey Billups had a particularly miserable game from deep, leading plenty of armchair coaches to wonder why Vinny Del Negro kept him in the game over the more effective Eric Bledsoe.
The simple answer is that Billups provides spacing while Bledsoe does not. It’s far easier for Paul to create pick-and-roll shots at the elbow—something the Clippers have done brilliantly thus far—if the weak-side help defender has to respect his man. Notice in the clip above how Tony Allen can’t over-help on Paul due to the fear of Billups at the corner.
As for why Billups was in the game late when Del Negro went to his “Here Chris, you take it” game plan is a little more questionable. Either way, don’t be shocked if Billups continues to get extensive minutes in what should be another fun game to watch.