Chris Paul's Revenge Series and Top Monday NBA Playoff Takeaways
Monday clarified an awful lot in the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, both of whom dropped the first game of their respective first-round series, gained complete control of the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers.
Milwaukee cruised to a 121-106 victory over the Magic, while the Lakers annihilated Portland, 135-115 (and it really wasn't even that close).
Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat eliminated the Indiana Pacers with a 99-87 Game 4 victory that came one day after Butler's former team, the Philadelphia 76ers, was swept.
The one series that tightened features the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder. It's now tied 2-2 following OKC's 117-114 win, and there's a real chance Chris Paul might eliminate the team that unexpectedly traded him just over a year ago.
If you're looking for an idea of what might happen next for all of the above, keep scrolling.
Chris Paul's Revenge
Over the course of the two seasons CP3 was in Houston, the Rockets were plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions when Paul was on the floor and James Harden was off. They were plus-7.2 when Harden played without Paul.
In the former arrangement, when Paul had the reins of a Mike D'Antoni offense, the future Hall of Fame point guard averaged 25.5 points and 12.2 assists per 75 possessions with a 59.7 true shooting percentage.
Of course, if Houston had to choose between him and Harden, there was no way it could go with the aging floor general on a massive contract—not when Harden was the other option. But if Paul ends up eliminating the Rockets in the first round (with or without Russell Westbrook), it'll be tough not to relitigate the trade.
Houston had to give up two first-round picks and two first-round swaps to unload Paul. Last summer, that contract was daunting, and the undersized guard was entering his age-34 season.
But CP3 has more than lived up to his salary in 2019-20. He finished the regular season in 11th place in Basketball Index's simple average impact, which combines catch-all metrics from around the internet into one number. Westbrook was outside the top 50.
If the latter comes back and helps the Rockets win this deadlocked series, the trade might look a bit better. But if Paul can lead OKC to the upset, he'll have beaten his old team both on and off the floor.
On Monday, he went for 26 points, six rebounds and three assists. It was a performance much like the ones he rode to those great advanced numbers all season.
In this system, CP3 doesn't pile up as many assists as he did in previous stops. He's happy to defer to the younger guards as he did in Game 4. Dennis Schroder had 30 points while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 18 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.
The variety of ball-handling might be the perfect counter to Houston's micro-ball defense. Paul, SGA and Schroder are all capable of taking switchy wings off the dribble.
Bucks Seize Control
Game 1 between the Bucks and Magic felt like an aberration the moment the final buzzer sounded.
Monday's game served as further evidence that's exactly what it was.
In 34 minutes, Giannis was plus-20 and had 31 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists. His Eurostep dunk all over Nikola Vucevic was the exclamation point, but the 17 threes the team hit could be a more important indicator moving forward.
Milwaukee entered the playoffs with a historically dominant defense, but a superstar performance from Vucevic in Game 1 (35 points, 14 rebounds and four assists) took a little shine off.
The Bucks have figured that end out.
After mustering 106 points Monday, Orlando fell to 14th among playoff teams in offensive rating. Vuc is still getting his (29.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game), but the rest of the roster has been pretty well held in check.
At this point, the series result feels inevitable, which makes it difficult to avoid looking forward to the Heat.
There's no real answer to Antetokounmpo, but Miami has some interesting options to throw at him.
Of course, he went 4-of-5 against Bam in an Aug. 6 meeting in the bubble, so maybe he's starting to figure that matchup out. Either way, Antetokounmpo will likely face a variety of defenders, including Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala.
The key will be those players forcing Giannis to kick it out a bit more than usual (or maybe even convincing him to take a few more jumpers of his own).
But if the Bucks' shooters keep connecting (the team is shooting 39.1 percent from three in the playoffs), Milwaukee should overwhelm again in the second round.
Losses to Miami won't be anywhere near as surprising as Game 1 against the Magic, though.
Jimmy Butler's Validation
As a member of the 76ers, Jimmy Butler was painfully close to an Eastern Conference Finals berth alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Within a few months, the player who'd consistently said he was all about winning ditched the intriguing young stars for the seemingly rebuilding Miami Heat.
At the time, it was a head-scratcher for plenty.
In Monday's episode of ESPN's The Lowe Post podcast, Bleacher Report's Yaron Weitzman shed a little light on the breakup.
Coach Brett Brown didn't love working with Butler. In fact, he lobbied to move on from the star. Butler, meanwhile, wasn't keen on the relationship either. He felt the team lacked direction and structure.
Just over a year later, Butler has been more than validated.
Philly is done, swept by the Boston Celtics. And on the same day Brown was fired, Butler led his own sweep, of the Pacers.
And though the Bucks will be favored in the conference semis, Miami is competitive, deep and disciplined. In many ways, the Heat mirror their star. And they won't lay down for Milwaukee.
FiveThirtyEight's projection system gives Miami a 34 percent chance to pull off an upset.
The Blazers' Pumpkin Turn
Portland deserved every bit of love it got over the course of its time in the bubble, but time is just about up for this Cinderella story.
The Blazers' Game 1 victory over LeBron James and the Lakers seemed only to light a fire under the West's top seed.
L.A. has won each of the last three games by an average of 17 points. And that level of dominance may make it difficult to justify giving too many more minutes to Damian Lillard, who suffered a knee injury (the extent of which is not yet known) in Game 4.
Even before he got hurt, Portland started to show the glaring flaws that led it to fight just to make the playoffs.
Lillard is a superstar. Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum are stars. But after that, it's mostly question marks.
It certainly would've helped to have Rodney Hood (out with an Achilles injury), Trevor Ariza (opted out of the restart) and Zach Collins (ankle surgery), but it's hard to imagine those players bumping the Blazers up to the tier of contenders.
So, that leads us to the question for perennially good (but not great) teams in today's NBA.
Is it time to start over?
In the Blazers' case, that'll never mean trading Lillard. He's one of the greatest offensive players in league history, and he's repeatedly professed his loyalty to the city and organization.
It might not hurt to explore the market for McCollum, Nurkic or anyone else, though. Portland would need a borderline no-brainer to move either of those two, but there's no way to know if that deal is out there without looking.
The Wild West
The higher seeds in the East are 15-1. The only surprise of the first round was Orlando's Game 1 victory over Milwaukee. And after Monday, all the action on that side of the bracket is just about wrapped up.
The West, meanwhile, is as wild as ever.
The Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks are tied 2-2, with Luka Doncic turning in one of the greatest individual series of all time, regardless of experience level. He's averaging 31.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 9.8 assists against two of the game's top wing defenders, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
On Tuesday, just a couple of days after capping a 40-point triple-double with a game-winning, buzzer-beating three, he'll have a chance to lift the Mavs to a 3-2 lead over the No. 2 seed.
Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell's duel will continue, as well. In Game 4, each reached 50 points as the Utah Jazz went up 3-1 over the Denver Nuggets.
After the monster game, Murray is averaging 28.0 points, 6.5 assists and 4.5 threes per game while shooting 52.9 percent from deep. Mitchell's been even better with 39.5 points, 5.8 assists and 4.5 threes.
What kind of encores do they have in store?