As the saying goes, you ain’t done it ‘til you’ve done it in the playoffs. The regular season is the bread and butter but the playoffs… the playoffs are the glorious meat in the sandwich. The taste, you might say. And that’s fair because what do you think of when people talk about the Los Angeles Clippers? Do you think about a team with multiple All Stars that’s won over 50 games now five seasons in a row or do you think of a franchise that’s never made a conference finals?
It might be a bit of both, since it’s the stacked nature of that team which builds up those expectations, the kinds of expectations which the Philadelphia 76ers damn sure don’t deal with. Ever since Chris Paul’s been in town, this is supposed to have been a team competing for championships. They have the talent, they have the coaching pedigree, they have the regular season numbers.
This season could be their last chance. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have player options on their contracts for next season. So do Marreese Speights and Luc Mbah a Moute, while J.J. Redick, Brandon Bass and Ray Felton are free agents… for what all that’s worth. The supporting cast is crucial but the real cash is with the stars and if CP3 or Blake were to leave (Blake seems the more likely) then… it’s hard to imagine the other one going full Russell Westbrook and keeping that team relevant without their superstar teammate.
So this postseason really matters, otherwise we’re talking about the final depressing chapter in a book that features such classic scenes as the Donald Sterling Affair (yo, don’t name ya kid Donald, please), the trade for Doc Rivers, DeAndre Jordan’s free agency scandal, a brief appearance from Lance Stephenson, Chris Paul’s shot that beat the Spurs in game seven of the first round in 2015… and The Collapse that followed in the next series against the Houston Rockets. Just to bring up old wounds here, they won game three by 25 points, won game four by 33 points and were up by 19 points in game five with a 3-1 lead… and lost. Not only the game but the series. Some teams don’t ever seem able to outrun their ghosts.
Up against the Utah Jazz here in 2017, the Clips have the home advantage but there are plenty of people that see them losing to a younger, hungrier Utah Jazz side. The Jazz who are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and hoping to win a series for the first time since 2010 – back in the Deron Williams, Paul Millsap days. Funny thing is though, the Jazz might be standing at the same crossroads as the Clippers are, what with Gordon Hayward likely to dip his toes in the waters of free agency with a player option of his own, and George Hill (and Joe Ingles) gonna do the same. Hill’s a really handy guard who shoots the three well and can spin some plays but there are guys who they can get to pick up his minutes next time around (though not at the 8mill salary he just played on). Gordon Hayward, not so much.
Gordy’s a fantastic player, one of the best players in the league which your bandwagon mates don’t even know about. The ninth overall pick in 2010 just made his first All Star game (in his seventh season) and casually went about putting up some career numbers, building on a couple of great years already. The last three years he’s averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists shooting at 45% from the field. That’s some sustained production there. This time around he averaged 21.9 points and hit 39.8% from three. He’ll be looking at a very large contract soon, whether he re-signs in Utah or not.
But Gordon Hayward’s never done it in the playoffs. Neither has his even more talented teammate Rudy Gobert, who is already under contract for the foreseeable future and therefore the reason why Hayward leaving wouldn’t be the end of the world for Jazz fans. Gobert, aka The French Rejection, aka The Stifle Tower… he’s one of the two major frontrunners for Defensive Player of the Year and a possible First Team All-NBA starting centre. Gobert and Hayward haven’t come outta the blue, they’ve been on a steady ascent for a few years but this is their first journey to the big time together (Hayward played a few games in his second season back in 2012). In other words, this is their first chance to announce themselves to the world while everyone’s watching. Not just in Sportscenter clips or cheeky tweets but in big, bold, high definition telly. The big stage. It also might be their last chance as a duo.
Except that seventeen seconds into game one of their first round series against the Clippers Rudy Gobert collided with Luc Mbah a Moute off the ball and fell to the floor clutching at his knee. He’d need assistance just getting off the court and was probably in the car on the way for an MRI before the first quarter was out.
Without their defensive anchor, there was every chance that panic might set in. With Gobert in the lineup the Jazz have been utterly ruthless to score against, without him they’re dead average. Not bad… but average. Yet this Utah side didn’t crumble. And while Hayward scored 19 points with 10 boards, it was a couple playoff veterans that carried them. George Hill had 16 points including a late triple that gave Utah an 8-point lead but Chris Paul was brilliant in reply and he dropped bucket after bucket in response. Paul had 25p/11a, including a floater with 13 seconds left to tie the game up. However it was 35 year old Joe Johnson who drove down the court, whipped up a floater of his own that bobbled around, skipped up and fell back down through the net for the victory. Ka-ching.
Joe Johnson? This was his 102nd career playoff game. Yeah, he’s done this thing before.
Meanwhile in Toronto things got ugly as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan shot a combined 9 of 32 from the field as the Raptors got busted at home against the Milwaukee Bucks. DeMar still scored 27 because he knows how to get to the line even on the off days but Lowry, yikes. 0/6 from deep and a mere 4 points all up in 34 minutes.
It was only one game and things can swing in a hurry (ask the Clippers). Problem is that Lowry and DeRozan had similar shooting struggles last playoffs too. The Raptors needed seven games to get past the Pacers as DeRozan shot 31.9% and Lowry 31.6% and combined for 10/61 from triple-zone.
The Raps still got by and ended up in the Eastern Conference Finals and everything, thankfully with much improved numbers from their starting backcourt, but damn it was ugly at times. Way below what this team is capable of. With flashbacks to them dramas and a home-court defeat kicking off their 2017 playoffs, the mood in Toronto is a little more Melancholy Skyscraper Drake than it is Drake On Stage With Future At Coachella. Lowry and DeRozan are each three-time All Stars now, each coming off career highs in points. They’re great players. But you only have to look at the Clippers organisation to see what happens when you can’t repeat that excellence while the spotlight is on you.
There was a moment late in that opening game where DeRozan was going up near the hoop, down by 19 with no chance of a comeback but looking to at least finish things off with some crumb of dignity going up for the layup. He’d swiftly slid around a Serge Ibaka screen on the perimeter, dodging two defenders in one slick move, drawing in the wing defender from his left. As DeRozan leapt towards the hoop, the defender was still rooted to the ground, DeMar was soaring over him. Then up swung this arm so long it looked like Michael Jordan’s in the climax of Space Jam. SWAT. Shot blocked and an exclamation mark added to the score. (Btw, the tech was an absolute disgrace of a call!).
That defender was Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak. The likely Most Improved Player of this season – not because he’s emerged from obscurity but because he’s done something even tougher: he’s made the jump from good to GREAT. He’s 22 years old and just led his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals all in the same season. That’s a playoff team too, mind. Watching Giannis play basketball is one of the most visceral, most stunning things in the sport. Where Russell Westbrook is jaw-droppingly relentless, Giannis Antetokounmpo is jaw-droppingly impossible.
Oh and the Bucks? Haven’t won a playoff series since 2001.
This isn’t his first playoff appearance but it is his first as an All Star. And he was superb. 28 points and 8 rebounds, shooting 13 of 18. There was nobody could guard him, not even DeMarre Carroll or Serge Ibaka, two premier defenders in their own rights. If you’ve been following the Bucks all season then you’ve seen Giannis do this several times. If you’ve spent the season mostly focussing on your own side and maybe a few big names (Westbrook, Harden, Durant, James, Curry, etc.) then you might not have lucked upon such a spectacle before.
Good thing then that these are the playoffs. The focus of the entire basketballing media is streamlined down to a few games every day, there’s no more sliding under the radar. You do something amazing and people take notice. You do something terrible… same deal. That’s the brilliance of the playoffs. Like Giannis, the good become great in the NBA regular season. But only in the playoffs do the great become legendary.
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