With the first round almost over, let's cruise through some winners and losers – with a focus on teams we haven't written about yet about or Round 2. The only important question for the Thunder after their third straight post-Kevin Durant flameout is whether this season signals the beginning of a long-term decline for Westbrook – and what, if anything, they can do if they believe it does. It's not really that Westbrook – after four knee surgeries in six years – is perhaps the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. He is, but that's almost trivial – a punchline. He has always been a bad 3-point shooter; he's just worse now, so he is taking the extra step away from him when he doesn't have the ball. And has been the case for the whole of his career ̵ 1; see last season's version of this same column – Westbrook has never been interested in making himself useful when he doesn't have the ball. 1 Related Paul George is the only long-range threat Thunder opponents guard off the ball. The NBA's "Jon Snow wielding a sword alone against an entire charging army" meme. The real issue is that Westbrook's shot has deserted him inside the arc. He emerged as a MVP because he became reliable – 40 percent plus what he called his "cotton shot" from the elbow. He hit 32 percent on jumpers from 15 and 19 feet this season , per NBA.com. Of 104 players at least three…
With the first round almost over, let’s cruise through some winners and losers – with a focus on teams we haven’t written about yet about or Round 2.
The only important question for the Thunder after their third straight post-Kevin Durant flameout is whether this season signals the beginning of a long-term decline for Westbrook – and what, if anything, they can do if they believe it does.
It’s not really that Westbrook – after four knee surgeries in six years – is perhaps the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. He is, but that’s almost trivial – a punchline. He has always been a bad 3-point shooter; he’s just worse now, so he is taking the extra step away from him when he doesn’t have the ball. And has been the case for the whole of his career ̵
1; see last season’s version of this same column – Westbrook has never been interested in making himself useful when he doesn’t have the ball.
Paul George is the only long-range threat Thunder opponents guard off the ball. The NBA’s “Jon Snow wielding a sword alone against an entire charging army” meme.
The real issue is that Westbrook’s shot has deserted him inside the arc. He emerged as a MVP because he became reliable – 40 percent plus what he called his “cotton shot” from the elbow.
He hit 32 percent on jumpers from 15 and 19 feet this season , per NBA.com. Of 104 players at least three pull-up jumpers per game, Westbrook ranked 104th in accuracy. Against Portland, he alternated between looking afraid to take them, and burying the thunder during a pile of endless misses. His dunks are down, and he could not always summon the explosive mid-fury that once busted conventional defenses.
The Blazers dropped Enes Kanter back in the pick-and-roll, and dared Westbrook to blow through him. Westbrook couldn’t do it.
His defense, overrated for years, came and went to one of his most focused seasons. Portland’s monster Game 5 fourth-quarter comeback started with a sloppy Westbrook closeout on CJ McCollum in the right corner, opening the door for an easy floater – a sequence that would be repeated on the opposite side four-plus minutes later. He still dies on screens, loitering around half court.
In his MVP season, the Thunder could not survive without him. This season, they were a disaster when Westbrook played without George – while thriving in the opposite scenario. That continued in the playoffs; the Thunder were plus-13 in 39 George-only minutes against the Blazers. Portland obliterated them by 33 points in 32 Westbrook solo minutes, by NBA.com
Westbrook is still a very good player. I selected him third-team All-NBA. He’s just not as good as he used to be. He lost some of what made him an MVP candidate, and refined none of the weak spots in his game. His mega-max contract runs through 2022-23, when Westbrook will be 34. The Thunder are capped out at least 2020-21. Setting aside the James Harden trade – yeah, I know – Sam Presti has used magic to keep this thin, rickety grid afloat. He thinks years in advance, and tracks devalued by young players – Victor Oladipo, for instance – because he knows they will carry trade cachet if an opportunity arises. Reggie Jackson became Enes Kanter became Carmelo Anthony became Dennis Schroder. When does the music stop?
A poor shooter needs shooters around him. Oklahoma City has been thin on shooting for Presti’s entire run. His track record suggests a fetish for long, defense-first tweeners, and some faith the Thunder can teach such players to shoot. They have failed. Others Roberson was dynamic enough on defense to thrive in the highest-stakes moments, but he’s hurt. Most of the other long-shot bets busted.
Most late first-round picks bust. Most “second draft” prospects – e.g., Dion Waiters – are just what they are. If the shooters were able to survive on defense, easy to find, every team would have a bunch.
But good teams stay good as their stars because they nail a couple of long-shot bets. One of the Thunder’s stars – the remaining foundational thunder star, the one they in many ways chose about Harden – appears to be aging, and aging badly. Presti surely has a plan, even as it appears in cap realities. Let’s see what it is
A lesser team – hell, most teams – would have broken apart after the four-game humiliation New Orleans inflicted on Portland a year ago. The Blazers didn’t run from it. They took time to hurt. They acknowledged weakness. And then, they fortified themselves.
They didn’t overhaul their system, either. They got better at it, and added new wrinkles. Lillard came back with new ways to skirt trapping defenses. They stormed out of the street, survived a winter schedule, and again in March and April. They believed, after losing Jusuf Nurkic – their second-best player for much of the season.
They knew they could win, but also that they could lose without fracturing. Losing no longer scared them. “There’s nothing for us to be afraid of,” CJ McCollum told me in November, “because the worst has already happened.”
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They were ready for Oklahoma City’s blitz defense. Lillard picked the Thunder apart. He was down the redoubtable Steven Adams. On one Lillard pick and roll midway through the third quarter of Portland’s pivotal Game 4 win, Adams failed to rumble beyond the 3-point arc. Lillard, who was surprised by the open space in front of him, walked into an easy triple to put Portland up 12.  Billy Donovan then shifted Adams away from Portland’s screen setters, and had him guard Maurice Harkless off to the side. It was surrender. It was merciful. A year ago, Lillard’s confidence melted under pressure from New Orleans’ trapping defense. You could see it. He broke. This time around, he broke the Thunder.
The whole team played with poised ruthlessness. McCollum cooked pull-up jumpers and rescued wobbly all-bench units. Portland’s guards will never have classic postseason size, but the ability to make tough shots – to make something from nothing – is a must-have playoff skill, too. Al-Farouq Aminu, The Blazers’ quiet soul, did a little of everything. Harkless scrounged for double digits. Bit players stepped up.
The Blazers spent the season asking: Why not us? Why can’t we be the second best team in the Western Conference? Why can’t we make the conference finals?
But perhaps they didn’t really ask what they were really asking: If Durant departs from Golden State, why can’t we challenge the NBA Finals?
Maybe they’ll never get there. Nurkic has a long recovery ahead. Zach Collins looks like a guy who can make the leap, but actually making it a different thing. The cap is strangling them. LIllard-McCollum backcourt
But right now, the Blazers look like a case study in persistence – proof there is value in staying good in a league that too often disparages prolonged goodness.
If you paid attention during the regular season, you knew White was good. San Antonio’s best player for much of its series against Denver, with a 36-point eruption in Game 3 that stood as the best single-game performance of the first round – a two- way masterpiece bordered on perfection – until Lillard’s 50-point.
Foul trouble slowed White in Game 5. Tiny cracks emerged in his defense. But zoom out, and the spurs must be thrilled with how it looks in the postseason hothouse.
The Nuggets are ignoring him off the ball – White will have to shoot better from deep eventually – but it hasn’t mattered. When he man dips into the paint to help, white is a few feet left or right, girds himself for a pass, and charges into the lane before his defender can figure out where he has gone. He reduced Jamal Murray to a quivering, uncertain mess, head turning frantically upon realizing he had sprinted to where no longer was. (Denver has since been Murray on lesser threats.)
Once on the move, White has overwhelmed every Denver guard with sheer physicality. If he can’t get around them, he just drives through them.
On defense, White is doing everything the Nuggets need someone to do against him. He helps and recovers on a string, head up, never losing track of the ball or his man. He thinks one step ahead of the offense. I mean, look at this:
White sees that DeMar DeRozan has left Will Barton to double Nikola Jokic; he starts rotating there. But he also knows Barton, a hellish slump that that point in Game 3, probably doesn’t want to shoot. He approaches him slowly, on balance, ready to pivot and intercept Barton’s pass.
White and Dejounte Murray – each drafted at No. 29 – should make a formidable long-term backcourt duo. What the Spurs have done avoiding any bottoming out – or anything close to it – since drafting Tim Duncan 22 years ago is remarkable.
A counterfactual I’d love to see: How many games would the spurs have won this season had they traded Kawhi Leonard for a more rebuild-oriented package centered on picks and younger players? DeRozan steadied them as a playmaker and scorer. He can and will play alongside the Murray / White duo. She bought White and Bryn Forbes time to grow. He added profit. But I wonder: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
Russell has more than 19 points against the burly Sixers, and played with his usual fearlessness. The playoff stage did not shake him. But if you harbored Russell as a No. 1 option against top competition, these playoffs deepened that anxiety.
The Sixers dropped Joel Embiid back and invited Russell to take shots he likes – floaters, midrangers, off-the-bounce 3s. They put larger-than-usual defenders on him – mostly Ben Simmons – and they could miss him more. They shot it would not adapt
Russell shot 36 percent, and 32 percent from 3, with just 13 free throws and 18 assists in five games. He got to the rim at his usual (very low) rate.
Russell is good. This season was not a case of Russell making more than usual on an inefficient shot diet. Making more shots is not always a fluke thing. It’s a skill guys improve. Beyond that, Russell played a craft, smarter floor game.
But it’s fair to wonder how any team can go with a No. 1 option taking these sorts of shots, earning as few free throws, and playing below-average defense. Caris LeVert looked like Brooklyn’s best player before his foot, and he started looking like it again against Philadelphia. Spencer Dinwiddie is really good
Maybe the balliest move on the board is Brooklyn signing-and-trading Russell – or re-signing him to the first chance – at the peak of his value. There would be some PR hit in dealing away the first All-Star nurtured under the Sean Marks / Kenny Atkinson regime. Russell still needs a point guard, but a Russell-Devin booker backcourt amounts to long-term defensive suicide. The Suns end up in draft to draft Yes Morant would make the issue moot before trade season. I’ve long been intrigued by a trade centered on Russell and Aaron Gordon, but Russell doesn’t quite fit the Jeff Weltman / John Hammond player type.
Indiana makes some sense; Russell and Oladipo could split ball action duties, and Oladipo could defend both guard positions – allowing more leeway in hiding Russell. It’s unclear what Indiana would send back, especially since Brooklyn already has a young center in Jarrett Allen. Other teams will have a free agency with holes at point guard.
It’s easy to dismiss the idea of Brooklyn trading Russell. The Nets probably won’t. But smart teams consider everything, and plot out dozens of scenarios. The Nets are smart. If you think they haven’t had an internal spitballing session about Russell’s trade value, you’re kidding yourself.
Oh, you thought he was fake – a regular-season mooch who would quake in the playoffs? Drink some hot sauce. She was Toronto’s best player in the highest-stakes moments of their highest-stakes first-round game – their close-ish Game 3 win in Orlando. He defended everyone. When the Magic slotted smaller defenders on him – as they had to play their best five-man lineup – Siakam beasted them.
He was an ironman, leading the team in minutes, and bridging the gap between the starters and small-ball lineups featuring Leonard at power forward. He’s real.
So is Jokic. Even Jokic fans were curious how his idiosyncratic game would translate to the playoffs. Would Jokic’s pet backdoor pass? Could he do top scorers in the post and draw double-teams?
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The slow, old-school spurs are a soft landing spot in that regard; they don’t have the tools to stretch Jokic beyond his breaking point. He has been up well after an uneven start. Denver’s defense has given up only 102 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor over five games, a NBA.com tick below Milwaukee’s league-best season-long figure. He is what San Antonio wants to do early, and his way into position. He has 15 deflections, sixth most overalls.
He can’t snuff emergencies at the rim; It wasn’t surprising to see the first three games as Denver’s perimeter defense hemorrhaged straight-line drives. As Denver tightened up with more focused effort, some of the assignments and one lineup change – Torrey Craig for Will Barton – Jokic has looked better (minus some blown box-outs against the relentless Jakob Poel).
His offense has sustained. Jokic is taking 20 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists, and is finding more ways to puncture San Antonio’s defense. His two-man game with Murray started to sing in Game 5. Almost every post-up for Jokic produces an open shot, and Jokic has gradually figured out where and how to hunt for position on the block. A favorite tactic Jokic leaned on the past two games: picking-and-popping, catching the ball, pump-faking, and then dribbling into deep post position.
He will face teams more or next season. But Jokic is, and the Nuggets showed real mettle winning Game 4 in San Antonio after melting down a bit in Game 3.
Utah is now 2-8 over two postseasons against the Rockets . An interesting debate raging in league circles: Is it more about a singularly bad matchup – and the Rockets being awesome – or maybe the signal that Utah is built for the regular season?
It is probably some of both, though the “good regular season” backhanded compliment is a little reductive. It really just means “not as good as the very best teams,” and, like, duh. Utah is clearly good – perhaps the third-best team in the West. The Jazz shot about 25 percent – preposterous! – on wide-open 3s, per NBA.com; hit at an average rate, and the series looks different.
The jazz is better at producing good shots than making them, but this was an anomalous performance even at their standards.
Every drop-back rim protector like Rudy Gobert is going to be a problematic matchup at some point over the four playoff series. If it were Houston and Harden, it would have been someone else. If your goal is a championship, you have to grapple with that. You need some other stylistic card to play. Clint Capela’s switchability becomes more important in the playoffs
And yet: After the shock-and-awe of Games 1 and 2 – some of it self-inflicted with a radical strategic shift – Utah’s defense was sound. That includes Gobert. He has fared better against Golden State than you would expect given his foot speed and the five out, go-go stylistic card the Warriors can play.
This is true: Among Utah’s perimeter players, only Donovan Mitchell can exploit switching defenses that become more prevalent in the playoffs – and he’s not great at it yet. He is not efficient from anywhere, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is not where it needs to be. He either misses too many easy kickout passes, or sees them and decides to force the issue. Some improvement will come with experience.
Really, all of this hand-twisting about Mitchell, Westbrook, Russell, and even George makes you transcendent you must be as no. 1 option – how impossible, how rare – to elevate to normal roster into contention. Being an All-Star isn’t enough. Being All-NBA sometimes isn’t enough.
Flip it around: Every postseason seems to illustrate the limited importance of big men who can’t (or don’t) post switches – Gobert and Myles Turner in this first round, for instance – and stretch-whatevers who can’t make play with the ball. In some ways, that fretting is fair. Things get harder in the playoffs. Defenses switch more. They poke at any weakness. It matters that guys are comfortable working with their backs to the basket against guards.
But they are also unlucky in that they don’t play with Harden, or Stephen Curry, or Kevin Durant, or LeBron James. Capela can’t (or doesn’t) post up switches, and it doesn’t matter, because Harden can exploit the other end of those switches in almost every circumstance. Mitchell can’t. Voltron every healthy perimeter player on the Pacers in some super-player, and that guy probably couldn’t, either.
Utah is a really good team that needs a little more top-end scoring and playmaking talent to crack the NBA’s most rarefied territory. The Jazz knew that before this series. More talent allows for more schematic versatility. Beyond the obvious thing, I should not worry that its best players or fundamental belief systems are somehow at odds with playoff success. Marc Gasol. Serge Ibaka was thriving as a full-time center. Nabbing Gasol would mean demoting Ibaka to reserve duty, and no one was sure how it would take that. (Nick Nurse experimented with flipping the starting job between them, but it was clear from the start that Gasol would supplant Ibaka.)
Jonas Valanciunas had found his water level as a backup scoring force. Why risk chemistry for a marginal upgrade? [TheLakers’seasonisoverWhat’snext?
But Ujiri and his staff knew better. Gasol is much more than a marginal upgrade, even if he’s barely shooting – just 5.6 attempts per game against the Magic! He has changed the look and feel of Toronto’s team. He shored up the Raptors’ defensive rebounding. He yields nothing in the post; Nikola Vucevic couldn’t dislodge him, and he gives Toronto a chance to guard Embiid without sending urgent double-teams
He and Kyle Lowry share a basketball sensibility – head-on-a-swivel selflessness that can bleed into fastidiousness – and together, they injected a sometimes sloggy half-court offense with new verve. With about five minutes left in the third quarter of Toronto’s Game 4 blowout, Gasol caught a pass on the left elbow with two shooters – Siakam and Leonard, looking dangerously like the “Thanks, I’ll be taking the ball from you now “Kawhi from two years ago – open on the right side.
In one motion, Gasol turned his head, glanced at Siakam, and fired the ball to Leonard. Ibaka can make that pass; he needs a second to scan the floor. That second is everything. Gaseous gift second back to the Raptors, and alone has justified the trade.
Oof. Vooch got six years to get back into the playoffs, and ran into a brutal matchup – a post-up bulwark in Gasol surrounded by a harrowing group of fast, handsy, high-IQ help defenders. Vucevic just couldn’t do anything. A bad way to end what was otherwise a fantastic contract season.
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