5 Takeaways from Saturday's NBA Playoff Action
On the strength of a triple-overtime thriller between the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets alone, Saturday's NBA playoff action was the most exciting we've seen so far.
But the back-and-forth exchange between Nate Robinson and Joe Johnson wasn't the only thing that left viewers breathless.
The Memphis Grizzlies flexed their muscles for a second straight game, pounding the L.A. Clippers behind a pair of burly performances from Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Home-court advantage has meant everything in that series, but with the Clips and Grizz heading back to California for Game 5, Memphis appears to have carved out a clear edge.
I won't lie to you—the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers didn't measure up to the rest of the action on Saturday. But hey, everyone needed a break after the day's first two games, so the horrendous shooting by the Pacers and the ho-hum showing by the Hawks served at least some purpose.
And finally, the Oklahoma City Thunder got their first taste of postseason life without Russell Westbrook. Newsflash: It's harder to win without a second All-Star in the lineup.
The action was fierce and the buzzer-beaters were flying in a fantastic foursome of NBA playoff games on Saturday.
Expect the Unexpected
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It would have been easy to assume that the first-round series between the Nets and Bulls was going to be a snooze. After all, the teams both ranked in the bottom five of the league in pace during the regular season.
Transition opportunities were supposed to be few, scores would be low, and highlights figured to be limited to really nice hedges on screens.
Except it turns out that these two plodding clubs have generated some of the best postseason action we've seen this year. And anyone who wasn't under a rock on Saturday is now well aware of the fever pitch they reached in Game 4.
Nobody could have seen the riveting, 142-134 triple-overtime thriller coming, but given some of the parties involved, maybe we should have expected a series this good.
Nate Robinson plays every second as though whoever's controlling him is mashing down the sprint button, Joe Johnson knocked in a handful of clutch shots, and Joakim Noah doesn't know the meaning of the term "half-speed."
Strangely, the recipe for excitement has been there all along.
The Bulls are generally hard to watch unless you're teaching a seminar on effective team defense, and the Nets offense is about as un-inventive as they come. But put these two squads together and suddenly the games get good.
We won't get another all-time great like we just saw, especially now that the Nets are all but buried under the mental devastation of a brutal loss (not to mention a 3-1 series deficit). But going forward, it might be a good idea to start keeping an open mind about all playoff series.
The Pressure Is About to Be on D-Rose
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Barring a shocking turnaround, the Bulls are going to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Brooklyn might put up a fight in Game 5, but realistically, Chicago's momentum and the emotional fatigue of its Game 4 loss probably means that this series is all but decided.
And that means Derrick Rose is going to have to start answering some questions.
They won't be new questions, of course, as the former MVP has been dogged by queries about his return date for months. But now that he's more than a year removed from his torn ACL and has been practicing with the team for weeks, it's getting increasingly difficult to swallow the whole "I'm not mentally ready" explanation for his ongoing absence from the lineup.
Noah is playing in immense pain and the rest of the Bulls are all giving the franchise every ounce of sweat they've got. If Chicago embarks on a second-round series that'll start well beyond the one-year recovery time Rose was supposed to need, isn't he going to have to play?
It must already be difficult to look his teammates in the eye as they push through the physical pain they're all feeling and fight together on the hardwood. If Rose sits out yet another series as his team continues to run through walls for Tom Thibodeau, he's almost certainly risking whatever respect those guys still have for him.
Look, it's admittedly unfair to pressure Rose to return without knowing exactly how he's feeling. But we know Noah is hurt, and we know Luol Deng is utterly exhausted. Yet they're out there battling, giving everything for their fans and teammates.
At some point, Rose is going to have to do the same.
The Grizzlies Are Scary When They're at Their Best
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On Saturday, we saw the Memphis Grizzlies at their very best. And not only did Marc Gasol and Co. look more than good enough to soundly beat the Clippers, 104-83, they looked capable of beating just about anyone in the West.
Yet again, Gasol was the best player on the floor, piling up 24 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 42 minutes. It should go without saying, but the Defensive Player of the Year was also totally dominant in the lane, turning drivers aside and shutting down L.A.'s interior passing angles.
Zach Randolph played brilliantly for a second straight game, too. All told, the Grizzlies shot better than 50 percent from the field, dominated on the glass by a margin of plus-17 and totally shut down all of the Clippers' supporting players.
After scoring in single digits in Game 3, Paul tallied 19 but still struggled mightily against the rugged defense of Tony Allen, Mike Conley and all of the big men Memphis threw at him in its pick-and-roll defense.
Memphis is still only tied 2-2 with the Clips, and with two more games yet to play in Los Angeles, this series is far from over.
But Memphis looks good.
If the Grizzlies can eke out a series win against a Clipper team that represents one of the worst matchups they'll face in the postseason, they might very well be able to emerge from a Western Conference that is now suddenly much weaker after the Russell Westbrook injury.
Nothing's decided yet, but we now know that when the Grizzlies are at their best, they're a real beast.
The Pacers Have a Problem
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Even after losing Game 3 by an ugly margin of 90-69, the Pacers aren't really in much danger of letting their first-round series get away from them. Don't forget: In Games 1 and 2, Indiana beat the Hawks by a comfortable average of 16 points and hardly broke a sweat in doing so.
But looking ahead, the Pacers' shooting woes could become a real problem. That shouldn't really be surprising, though, as Indiana spent a full 82-game season as a defensively dominant, but secretly flawed team.
On the year, the Pacers had the league's very best defensive efficiency rating, as they held opponents to just 96.6 points per 100 possessions. Roy Hibbert was a beast in the middle, Paul George turned into one of the NBA's best wing defenders and the team's overall scheme was right there on the cutting edge with the Chicagos and Memphises of the league.
All of those things are still true, but unfortunately, so is the fact that the Pacers can't shoot. During the season, Indiana ranked 22nd in three-point percentage and tied for 19th in true-shooting percentage.
Those problems were on full display Saturday night, as Indiana made just four of its 25 attempts from long range and shot a comically poor 27.2 percent from the field. The awful perimeter performance was particularly discouraging because it represented a fall back to earth after an encouraging 40 percent shooting effort from long range in Game 2.
George Hill hit nearly 37 percent of his threes during the regular season, and Paul George was right around 36 percent. Other than those two, no player that played significant rotation minutes was better. The Pacers don't have to turn into the Golden State Warriors to be competitive, but they really do have to find a way to knock down more open shots.
The Hawks still haven't topped 100 points in any game during the series, so Indiana will almost certainly manage to get by on the strength of its defense alone. But that won't be the case against some of the East's better clubs.
Life Without Russell Westbrook Is Harder, but Not Impossible
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The Thunder went up 3-0 on the Rockets with a closer-than-expected 104-101 victory, and it sure wasn't easy.
After building a healthy 17-point advantage at halftime, it seemed as though the Thunder were going to cruise to a comfortable win in their first playoff game without Westbrook. But the Rockets fought back gamely, outscoring OKC 27-14 in the third quarter and making life extremely difficult on the suddenly solo Durant.
KD didn't hit his first shot in the third quarter until only 27 seconds remained in the period. Houston trapped, occasionally pressed, and generally created chaos in an effort to wear Durant down. That strategy, combined with Scott Brooks' strange decision to play Durant for a heavier load than usual in the first half (despite a big lead) led to a clearly fatigued KD fighting all by himself down the stretch.
The highlight dunks were there, and an incredibly friendly roll on Durant's final three gave the Thunder a win and a nearly certain series victory (no team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit).
But this game showed OKC—and Durant, in particular—what life is going to be like without its second-best player. Durant has no safety blanket now, and instead of picking and choosing the most efficient shot options, he's going to have to force the issue.
Durant finished with a career playoff-high 41 points, but he needed 30 shots in 47 exhausting minutes to get the job done. The Thunder are still a very good team, but Saturday night, we found out why they can't be great without Westbrook.