Wednesday NBA Roundup: LeBron's Big Night Both Encouraging, Concerning for Cavs
Adjustments are always the story on a night full of Game 2s in the NBA playoffs.
Could the Cleveland Cavaliers recover from a dispiriting home loss to the Indiana Pacers? How many galaxies would LeBron James have to consume to make that happen?
Would Donovan Mitchell get some help from his friends as the Utah Jazz tried to even their series with the Oklahoma City Thunder?
And would Derrick Rose continue to be the only source of healing light in a world gone dark? The league's MVP once and forever? The sterling beacon of basketball excellence who absolutely would, if allowed, score 60 points a game and carry the Minnesota Timberwolves to a title!?
Oh, sorry, that last one leaked in from the insular and militant apocalypse bunker that is Pro-Rose Twitter.
Plenty of cool stuff happened during Wednesday's playoff slate. Let's get into it.
Is LeBron James, Spot-Picker, Enough?
LeBron James took his first shot 16 seconds into Game 2, roughly nine-and-a-half minutes earlier than Game 1. That was a sign, a clear indication that the Indiana Pacers' series-opening blowout victory got his attention.
As a general rule, opponents should try to avoid getting James' attention.
Following that opening bucket, James assumed custody of the early proceedings, scoring 16 straight to open the game for Cleveland and finishing the opening period with 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting. On the night, he put up 46 points on 17-of-24 shooting, 12 rebounds and five assists, carrying the Cavs to a 100-97 victory.
It was enough to make you wonder why James doesn't do this all the time.
That's how James and this season's Cavs have operated, though. Nothing is ever easy...until it looks incredibly easy. And then right around the time you ask yourself how Cleveland ever loses when it can play the James card, something flips.
And you're left wondering how it ever won.
The Pacers fought gamely, pushing the pace and forcing the Cavs to defend in transition, something they've stunk at all season. Indiana doubled up Cleveland in paint scoring, 62-30, and nearly did the same in fast-break points, 15-8.
Even with Victor Oladipo fighting foul trouble early, Indy spent most of the second half within single digits. If not for James' early blitz, Cleveland could easily have lost Wednesday.
Heading to Indiana with a 1-1 split, the Cavaliers should feel both encouraged and vulnerable.
As great as James was, Cleveland never solved Oladipo. He attacked downhill whenever the Cavs' roll-man defender dropped, just like he did against switches, traps and any other defensive scheme he saw. And the look he missed, a wide-open three with under 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game, could have changed everything.
"We got lucky," James said on the TNT broadcast afterward. "We gave up a wide-open three to Oladipo, and he missed it. ... That's easily something he can make."
Imagine if that triple had gone down. Imagine if head coach Nate McMillan, in an overabunance of caution, hadn't sat Oladipo with two fouls a mere 62 seconds into the game. Imagine if, somehow, the Cavs had lost a contest in which James was a demi-god stalking the earth in search of mortals to punish.
It could have happened.
These extremes—taking place in the span of months, weeks, single games and even quarters—sort of define the Cavaliers. The concept of switch-flipping has been central to the team since James returned in 2014. Perhaps that narrative naturally forms when James is present. Because as long as a transcendent talent is around, every bad outcome or stretch of listless play feels reversible.
Based on Cleveland's three straight trips to the Finals, everything to date has been reversible. James is the ultimate fixer that way.
Game 2 predictably featured Apex LeBron, but it unpredictably didn't produce a convincing win. Does that suggest the league's best player, even when fully engaged, can't get this team where it wants to go? Or is this all just a setup for James to bowl us over with a still higher form of greatness?
Nate McMillan Might Want This One Back
In 28 minutes with Oladipo on the court, the Pacers outscored the Cavs by 11 points. In light of that, and considering Oladipo finished with just three personal fouls despite picking up the two early ones, perhaps head coach Nate McMillan could have given his best player a slightly longer leash.
Instead, McMillan sat Oladipo only a minute into the first quarter, and he then yanked him again shortly after he picked up his third personal in the second period.
Compounding the error, McMillan gave Oladipo a rest to start the fourth quarter when James was also out of the game. Coach, Oladipo got his extra blow when you unnecessarily shelved him in the first half! He's fresh! Get him out there, and take advantage of one of the tiny windows where your team has the best player on the floor.
Indiana could still go on to win this series, but McMillan's management of Oladipo's minutes in Game 2 made the task more difficult.
JR Smith Defense, Because of Course
Just as everyone expected, JR Smith's defense was pivotal to Cleveland's series-evening Game 2 win.
OK, no one expected that. But this was a huge play, one which Kyle Korver followed with stoning Myles Turner in the post and stripping the ball, preserving a six-point lead with 1:20 left in the game.
We already hit on how Oladipo (22 points on 9-of-18 shooting) got whatever he wanted when fouls didn't land him on the bench, but it's worth noting that the Cavs have held Indiana under 100 points in two straight contests.
The Cavaliers are still having plenty of defensive breakdowns, but they're getting little snippets of defense when they need them.
Sometimes, It's the Trades You Don't Make
Had the Utah Jazz dealt Derrick Favors, it would have been totally defensible.
They could have done it last year, and there was a strong case they should have done so at this season's trade deadline. With Favors occupying a spot behind star Rudy Gobert and the broad abandonment of two-big lineups across the league, Favors, a free-agent-to-be, could have returned some value.
It's a good thing Utah never pulled the trigger.
Favors dominated in the Jazz's 102-95 Game 2 victory, posting 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 16 rebounds, three assists and a steal. He controlled huge stretches of action with his work on the offensive glass, hauling in eight of the Jazz's misses on the night. His two made threes were just gravy.
"The biggest thing for us: Derrick Favors played his ass off," Donovan Mitchell said on NBA TV afterward.
Undeniable. And now Utah is tied up with OKC at 1-1, taking home-court advantage back to Salt Lake City for Game 3.
Favors tends to look this spry only when he has several days off to rest, so he might be able to repeat this performance since playoff games are more spaced out than regular-season contests. He will have to recover his ass, though, before he can play it off again.
Donovan Mitchell Is Ready
Don't worry about the 10-of-25 shooting or the 0-of-7 mark from long range. Donovan Mitchell won a road playoff game for the Utah Jazz.
He scored 20 of his game-high 28 points in the second half and was integral to the Jazz's most resilient stretch. Utah responded to a 19-0 third-quarter Thunder run by putting on an 18-3 surge of its own. And when the Jazz needed buckets down the stretch, Mitchell got them.
On the night, the star rookie finished with 28 points, six rebounds and two assists in 43 minutes. He did all of this after leaving Game 1 with a foot injury and seeing much more attention from defensive dynamo and human octopus Paul George.
The 55 points he scored in his first two playoff games are the most by a guard in league history, per ESPN Stats & Info, surpassing none other than Michael Jordan.
This Is Why Chris Paul Is Here
The Rockets shouldn't be able to win a game in which James Harden goes 2-of-18 from the field.
When he scores 44 points and takes over down the stretch like he did in Game 1? Sure. But not when he lays an egg the size of the Toyota Center.
Good thing Chris Paul is around.
CP3's 27 points and eight assists in Wednesday's 102-82 blowout Game 2 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves meant Harden's off night didn't matter. It helped that the T-Wolves couldn't score and that the Rockets took 52 threes to Minnesota's 18, but Paul's mop-up work illustrated the benefits of the two-star system.
It had to feel especially rewarding for Paul after he struggled so badly in Game 1 and needed Harden to cover for him. Turnabout is fair play.
It's hard to think of a preseason narrative debunked as quickly, consistently and decisively as the one asking how Harden and Paul would coexist.
When they both get rolling, good night.
Karl-Anthony Towns Was Aggressive...At First
Karl-Anthony Towns wasn't a big enough part of the Minnesota Timberwolves' attack all year, particularly in the late stages of games. So it can't count as a surprise that he pulled a disappearing act in Game 1 against Houston, taking just nine shots.
The reason for his no-show was harder to discern. Was he failing to demand the ball in the post? Was he unwilling to run the floor and create his own transition opportunities?
Or was his repeated decision to space out toward the corner when guarded by a smaller defender mandated by the coaching staff?
At any rate, Towns got after it against the Rockets during the first quarter of Game 2, hitting a three, scoring down low on an assist from Andrew Wiggins and taking five shots in all. Minnesota led by five after the opening 12 minutes.
From there, the Rockets ran over the T-Wolves, rendering Towns' early aggression (and everything else that might have sparked hope) meaningless. He finished with just five points on 2-of-9 shooting, as he failed to score in the second half.
You can delve into the import of Towns' play in this series as deeply as you like. It might indicate individual frailty, a shrinking from the moment. It might reflect a lack of faith from the coaching staff. It might be a strategic failing by head coach Tom Thibodeau.
And it might mean the Rockets are just that much better than the Timberwolves.
Whatever the case, Towns needs to be better. It won't matter in this series, but it's a big deal for the future of the T-Wolves.