The slow, unstoppable march of progress drags us to the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The weaker teams are left dead along the road side. Among the dead are the teams that were held back by injuries, age, inexperience – or in the case of the Rocket’s – a real hatred, the likes of which I’ve only seen in Shaq and Kobe’s last year together on the Lakers.
Now we are down to eight teams: the Warriors, Trail Blazers, Thunder and Spurs in the Western Conference and Cavaliers, Hawks, Heat and Raptors in the East. There have already been a couple of games played in the Western Conference Quarter Finals. The Spurs and Warriors both easily won there games, leaving the world wondering which powerhouse looked more impressive. Let’s take a look at these Western Conference heavyweights.
The Spurs’ 124-94 victory on Saturday night was one of the more impressive playoff beat downs in the history of the game. If there ever was going to be a passing of the torch from the Spurs big three to the new blood of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, this was it. San Antonio’s young stars combined for 63 points on 28-36 shooting.
The evolution of Leonard continues to be one of the biggest stories in the NBA. In game one he was able to hold Russell Westbrook to 5-19 shooting, while also scoring 25, grabbing five rebounds and dishing out five assists. Most players would not be able to score more than 15 points while guarding one of the leagues most aggressive guards, but Kawhi makes playing great defense look easy. This guy has already won a Finals MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year Award, he is the centerpiece of the most successful franchise of the past ten years, and by the way, he’s only 24 years old.
The Spurs played beautiful basketball Saturday night. They ran the pick-and-roll to perfection, often bring out the Thunder’s shot blockers and exploiting the lack of defense at the rim. They were also able to utilize LeMarcus Aldridge better than I thought was possible. Aldridge was unstoppable both in the post against Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka and coming off of picks in the high post. Playing in a system in which the players are looking to pass coming off of picks, Aldridge is the kind of versatile weapon that makes the Spurs unstoppable when he is playing well.
There are no easy answers for the Thunder going into tonight’s game. They absolutely need Durant and Westbrook to play better, but it’s up to Billy Donovan to find better shots for his two superstars, and Donovan has not shown himself to be very good at making game-to-game adjustments. They got by last round by Durant making tough shots, but the Spurs are not a team that you can just brute force your way through.
The other problem Oklahoma City will have to figure out is how to get Enes Kanter enough minutes to get his points without being a total disaster on defense. Nothing excites Greg Popavich more than having an easily exploitable big man on the court. Having Kanter have to play the pick and roll against the likes of Aldridge or Diaw is like throwing a chum out to the sharks.
I don’t see this series ending in a sweep, and there will probably not be another 30 point blowout in this series, but the flaws that San Antonio exposed on Saturday Night are fatal for Oklahoma City, and there is no throwing a bandaid on them. It’s going to take legendary performances out of Durant and Westrbook for the Thunder to win this series. If this is the last time we see the most dynamic duo in the NBA play together, let’s hope they go out fighting.
While the Spurs performance in game one was utter domination, the Warriors showed in their 118-106 over the Trail Blazers that they are only getting better. In the context of a team that won 73 games in the regulars season, that has to terrify the rest of the NBA.
We still don’t have a solid timeline as to when Steph Curry will return to play. In his interview during the game Curry seemed optimistic that he would at least be a game-time decision for Saturday’s game three.
We are starting to see Draymond Green become the ultimate point-forward, being able to set up the offense and get his teammates the ball where they are most lethal. Green had another triple double in game one, scoring 23 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 11 assists. With Draymond taking more of play making role in the Warriors offense, Steph Curry will be able to get more open looks coming off of screens and off of weak side action. This is going to be a huge theme if/when Curry gets matched up with the likes of Kawhi Leaonard next round.
Green also continues to be the master key that allows Golden State to play any style of basketball they see fit. Draymond is so adept at switching onto smaller players in the pick-and-roll that it can completely gum up an opposing teams offense. There was a possession yesterday in which Green switched on to Lillard off a pick and roll, stayed step for step with his man on the drive, then switches back onto the man he was originally defending to contest his shot. This all happens in flow of the game so seamlessly that you have to watch it multiple times to truly appreciate what Green is doing.
Green has mentioned his true joy as a defender is locking down bigger players in the post. He completely destroyed Mason Plumlee yesterday, holding the Trail Blazers big man to one point on 0-7 shooting. This play is pretty good representation of how Green treated Plumlee all game.
You can’t talk about the Warriors win in game one without mentioning how brilliance of Klay Thompson. Much like Kawhi Leonard, Thompson is asked to both defend the opposing teams best perimeter player as well as be the engine that drives his team’s offense. Of all the players who have benefited from Curry’s absence I think Thompson has improved the most. We all know that Klay is a dangerous spot-up shooter, but in game one the lone splash brother was making shots off the dribble both from range and at the rim. he finished the game with 37 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and from deep. He drained seven three pointers, many of which were contested and a few were shot from ranges that would even make Curry blush.
The defending champs are playing incredible basketball right now without their best player. The defense that has been come-and-go in the regular season has turned up a notch in these first playoff games. The Trail Blazers will not win a game this series if they can not free up Dame and CJ who were a combined 13-43 from the field in game one. The Warriors are not good enough to win a title without Stephen Curry, but they will be a better team because of this stretch of games without the MVP. The only real flaw I see with this team is what happens when they have to play guys like Ian Clark and Brandon Rush for extended minutes, but that problem solves itself if-and-when Curry gets back on the court.
I want to leave everyone with a lasting image of Paul George, who was the best player of the first round. His team may not yet ready to be a true contender but PG is absolutely talented enough to be the best player on a championship squad. Here is George throwing down a 360 dunk in the midst of the Pacers 101-83 loss to the Raptors. It was an audacious dunk, and while some will probably argue that it was disrespectful, I loved it. George thanked the fans of Toronto on Twitter after the game for being awesome. He is a stand-up guy. But sometimes you have to let the people know that you are not to be trifled with. I tip my hat to you Paul George, you have earned all of my respect this postseason.
Tomorrow I’ll be talking more about the Cleveland Cavaliers and their seemingly inevitable run to the NBA Finals. Tonight Cleveland plays Atlanta at home in game one of their series and the Spurs look to go up 2-0 on Oklahoma City. Enjoy the games everybody!