NBA Playoff Things Week 3: Khris Middleton, Some Sixers’ Thoughts, and Unhealthy Passes

For anyone who has still not read the first two editions of my weekly playoff article, you can click here to get an explanation on what this is all about and read the week one edition and you can click here to read last week’s update. Other than that, let’s get right into NBA Playoff Things Week 3!!!

 

  1. An Overwhelmingly Athletic Sixers Team

 

I have never been so happy to be wrong. I arrogantly predicted in my NBA Playoff Preview that my own Philadelphia 76ers were overrated and due to their lack of chemistry and basketball intelligence would get destroyed in five games by the Toronto Raptors. Game one went exactly how I thought it would, and despite a Philadelphia victory in game two, I still saw that as more of the Raptors losing the game than the Sixers actually playing well enough to win the game.

BUT HOLY CRAP GAME THREE! The Sixers came out like gangbusters and dominated all night. I could touch on a lot of the great things I saw: Embiid finally waking up and controlling the game, a justification of Simmons’ cheap shot on Lowry, Jimmy Butler forcing the Sixers to reconsider giving him a max contract this summer, and much more. But one thing stood out to me more than anything else–defense.

The Sixers didn’t really have any strict method, but if they saw a mismatch on the court (particularly when a smaller guy was being backed down in the post), another Sixers would sprint over to double team the ball. One such play happened in the first quarter when Embiid came to double Ibaka in the post, and as Jeff Van Gundy pointed out on the broadcast, this was a big mistake by the big man, as the Sixers were out of position after Ibaka passed out of the double team, and the ball eventually found Danny Green in the corner for a wide open three. I was afraid the Sixers might keep having this problem as the game progressed.

But when the Sixers double later in the game, there were much different results. The Sixers defenders were still out of position, but they simply sprinted harder than ever to continually rotate and cover the open man. Usually these overrotations lead to baskets too, but the Sixers’ combo of length and speed swallowed up the Raptors’ players on the perimeter, leading to wasted Toronto possessions and even some fast break opportunities for Philly when Toronto panicked anticipating these closeouts. The only player who was able to handle Philly’s athleticism all night was Kawhi Leonard, whose gone up another level this series. Meanwhile Lowry has been dominated by Jimmy Butler, Gasol seems tentative, Siakam has played well but got beaten physically in game three, and the bench mob of Powell, VanVleet, and Ibaka has been outplayed by James Ennis and Greg Monroe of all people.

I usually believe that scheme and intelligence will win out in a series when the two teams are of comparable ability, but game three might have shown us something. Maybe this isn’t a case of comparable talent. The Sixers are overwhelming the Raptors at the moment.

 

  1. What is Khris Middleton?

I find Middleton’s name ironic considering the kind of player he is. Back in 2016, he was the Bucks’ best player as Giannis was still developing, and averaged 18 points per game. He then tore a ligament and missed most of 2017, the season where Giannis took the mantle as the face of the Bucks. But Middleton returned strong in 2018 as he averaged a career high 20 points per game on a career best field goal percentage. But he dropped back down again this year, only averaging 18 points per game on worse shooting numbers, and his 2019 all star selection was more of a nod to the success of Milwaukee in general rather than an acknowledgment of any achievement by Middleton. Some games, you forget that Khris Middleton is on the floor. He only really does two things out on the court, he plays solid defense and he hits off the dribble, isolation jumpers. If his shot isn’t falling, he usually doesn’t do much else in the game. But, when he does get it going, man oh man is it impressive.

Boston has now brought out the best in Middleton two years in a row. Last year he averaged 20 points per game for the series and hit an unbelievable thirty-five foot buzzer beater to send game one to overtime. In the current series, Middleton is averaging 21.3 points per game on 50% shooting from the field and a blistering 65% from three! In game two, he administered an absolute butt-kicking to the Celtics, dropping 28 points on seven of ten shooting from three. It’s also weird how Middleton scores, He doesn’t blow by anyone or create any great separation with step backs, but he usually just catches the ball a couple feet above the arc and lazily dribbles between his legs, lulling the defender to sleep, then he instantly raises the ball up high above his head for his trademark high release, and lets that sucker fly. When he’s making them, you feel like he’s unguardable, like he’s a poor man’s Kevin Durant, using his great shooting stroke with his 6’8” stature to make any sort of contested shot. Yet when he far too often has a game where he shoots below forty percent from the field on those same attempts, you wonder how any player that takes this many bad shots could be considered an all star.

Middleton is a free agent this summer, and the Bucks have a very important decision to make. If Middleton keeps up this Andrew Toney-like Boston Strangler persona and helps drag Milwaukee to the Finals, then you give him an ample contract and don’t think twice about it. However, say Middleton tails off in this series, gets outplayed by guys like Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris, and Milwaukee loses in six, and you start to wonder which team would actually want to deal out the cash for a guy who in not exactly Mr. Reliable. For Khris Middleton, there has been a lack of “middle” level play in his game. The Bucks better hope that the elite side of Middleton sticks with them for the rest of the playoffs.

 

  1. The Slick Back-Door Feeds of Nikola Jokic

While the beauty of Joker’s passes is not a hard thing for any casual fan to observe, I feel like I still have to talk about it. Every time any defender of a perimeter takes a wrong step too far up the court, Jokic immediately bounces a pass that both perfectly leads his cutting teammate to the basket, but slides right underneath the arm of the scrambling defender. In a league where everyone plays the same analytically-sound way, a team whose offense is based around guards cutting for passes from an overweight Serbian is a delight to see.

I think what makes Joker’s passes so effective is that his defender are surprised when he throws them. Sure, they got beat by the slightest fraction of a step on a back-door cut, but they’re still busting their but to cover up the Denver player, and they feel pretty safe. All of a sudden, Jokic in a nonchalant manner bounces a pass at a low to the ground angle that hits his man right in stride.

Many questioned whether or not Jokic was for real, whether or not he could produce in the playoffs. Well, Joker has upped his averages in every category, with a rollicking stat line of 24.8 points per game, 9.1 assists, 12.6 rebounds, and three triple-doubles to boot. Jokic has more than exceeded expectations, and Denver’s playoff struggles fall solely on the poor play of his supporting cast, namely, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton.

 

  1. Lowry’s Annoyingly Excessive Flops

I don’t even consider this a biased Sixers’ rant, but it probably is. Lowry has been at the top of the NBA leaderboard for charges drawn for five straight years now. Give him some credit, a lot of that is evidence of Lowry’s excellent defensive anticipation and the value he gives to his team outside of basic stats. However, none of that justifies what Kyle continues to do. No player, no matter how great their anticipation, should ever get more than two charges called against in opposing team in one game. Most of charges called in games are just a defender kind of setting up in the paint, kind of getting bumped into by an offensive player, then flailing their body back like they were hit by a smart car, and the on court sight looks so admirable that the officials feel the need to make that emphatic call where they pump their fist the other way.

Stop, just stop. Actually consider whether or not the offensive player was out of control, and whether or not the defender is just invading and impeding their space, not sacrificing their body. Lowry’s antics are really upsetting because he first has the audacity as a six footer to push back and elbow bigger guys in the post as they try to back him out in a clean fashion, then act like he was the one who was receiving elbows and being treated unfairly. Lowry doesn’t even need to be pushing in the first place! As Zach Lowe says, Lowry is freakishly strong and is, “The Cynderblock of the NBA.” I counted four Lowry flops leading to offensive fouls, multiple cheap shots highlighted by a hip check to James Ennis which he pretended he didn’t know about, and an attempt to antagonize Ben Simmons by backing his butt over Ben’s face, and he got his comeuppance courtesy of a Simmons elbow.

I’m not justifying Simmons, but I feel empathy for him for having to deal with a guy like Kyle Lowry, whose entire defensive strategy is based on overphysical cheating and tricking the officials. Fortunately, Simmons and Butler have swallowed up Kyle when he’s on offense and have put the entire Toronto franchise in fear. Okay, biased Sixers’ rant over.

 

  1. Corner Specialist Jaylen Brown

I mean it say when I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jaylen Brown miss a corner three while my eyes were staring at the television. The 2018-19 season started horribly for the third year combo wing, as he lost his starting job to Marcus Smart of all people. But starting in February, Jaylen began turning things around, and an injury to Smart himself allowed Brown to be reinstated in the starting lineup.

Whenever the ball swings to him in that left corner, he always, AND I MEAN ALWAYS, lets that three pointer fly without any hesitation. Why is Brown so good at this shot? Here are a couple of reasons.

Speaking from personal experience, the corner on the left side is a magical place. Being on the left gives your elbow and hip natural alignment, and you have a straight line view of the basketb, which stops you from trying to aim the ball. Just ask my little brother, I’ll shoot the left corner three eight days a week. Any confident right handed shooter covets that corner. Jaylen Brown further helps himself with his mechanics. His elbow never wavers, following through in a straight and controlled flick, and not flailing around like a certain teammate of his. I’ve also noticed how Brown is able to can these threes even under super tight contests from his opponents, and this is due to his excellent elevation. He’s always been a springy athlete (just look to his game three posterization of Giannes as evidence of that), and he consistently raises up to his maximum vertical on his threes, rendering the contests of lesser athletes ineffective.

This specialty of Brown makes him a fantastic fit for the modern NBA, and don’t think Boston hasn’t had the conversation about they would much rather keep Brown in an off season trade for Anthony Davis than Jayson Tatum and his flailing elbows.

 

  1. The Celtics’ Unhealthy Love for Jump Passes

Watching the Celtics’ out of nowhere collapse in game three, I saw many problems, but none more perturbing than this. At least once, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, and Kyrie Irving each drove to the paint and left their feet high up off the ground. But the Bucks are a good team, and had rim protectors like Giannis and Brook Lopez already in position to protect the rim. Even though the Celtics players saw these gigantic masses of humanity standing in between them and the basket, they still tried to elevate and finish, but thought better of it once in mid air and tried to contort their bodies in mid air to throw baseline drag passes. But once again, Bucks are a great defensive team, and they consistently anticipated this maneuver in order to get a number of steals leading to fast breaks. And this doesn’t even include the other Celtics’ players that probably committed this sin. I have so many critiques. Why are you leaving your feet when everyone short of Kyrie and an amped up Jaylen Brown has any chance of finishing over Giannis? Why are you going into the paint without a plan? Why do you feel the need to constantly whip out bad passes that lead to fast breaks for the best transition team in the league? This is just a microcosm of what turned out to be a very costly game for a Boson team looking to pull the upset.

 

  1. Denver’s Ugly Royal Blues

Denver has always had some of the league’s best threads. From the Carmelo-era powder blues, to their 2010s yellow alternates, and of course their legendary rainbow uniforms, the goofy and awesome jersey of the Nuggets has made them even more enjoyable to watch on TV.

But this year, they debuted their royal blue “Mile High City” uniforms. Furthermore, they have worn these atrocities in Six out of their Ten Playoff Games!!! For crying out loud, they’ve worn them in three out of seven home games. Why, just why?

Royal Blue is just too much of a bold, stand alone color. At least when they played the Spurs, the dark color did not clash with anything due to the Spurs’ pallet consisting of black, white, and gray, but when facing the bright red Blazers, the Nuggets’ seem out of place and displeasing to the eye.

Now, I am a horrible artist, so I probably shouldn’t criticize the designs of Nike and the choices of the Denver PR staff. However, I am blessed to have a girlfriend who is a talented artist and has a great visual eye. When my girlfriend, Zaria, tuned in with me to watch Denver and Portland play, I asked her what she thought of the uniforms. She said, “I don’t really like the royal blue uniforms.” I then told her of how Denver this season wore a much darker, less bold shade of blue for their traditional road uniforms, and historically have been a team that wears light, powder blue. She immediately retorts, “Why don’t they just wear light blue? Everyone loves light blue.” Exactly Zaria, exactly.

 

  1. Rodney Hood’s Overtime

While everyone who actually has a social life was out doing something with their friends on Friday night, I had the privilege of watching Blazers-Nuggets game three for nearly four consecutive hours up until 2:30 AM. When games get into legendary territory like this one, their always becomes a name attached to it. We kept going back and forth between the CJ McCollum game, the Nikola Jokic plays 65 minutes game, the four overtime game, and many more variations. But when the buzzer sounded, there was no doubt, this was the Rodney Hood game.

After several disappointing seasons in a row including a catastrophe of a showing for the Cavs in last year’s playoffs, Hood was on the verge of being nothing more than an NBA journeyman with a bad contract and a bad attitude. Yet that all changed on Friday night. His seven point scoring run left me in awe as he finally did what so much of his prognosticators had said he could do. He used his supreme length and size to shoot over smaller defenders like Jamal Murray, and with the game on the line, he didn’t panic, but made the right choice to wait until he was wide open to launch his game winner.

I find it even more impressive that he pulled this off after being disengaged from the action for nearly 30 minutes of game time. It’s coaching doctrine that once you get into a surreal, high-stakes overtime game that you stop making any substitutions with around four minutes left in regulation. The events happening on the court go past any rational explanation, and you forget about rotation and the players’ energy levels in favor of a Phil Jackson-esque belief in the five guys you have out there. It’s why I always hate when coaches sub in a supposedly great foul shooter who hasn’t played the whole game when trying to hold the lead. Do you know how nervous that guy probably is knowing that the only value he can possibly have is tied to having to make that one shot, and that up until now he had no idea this pressure would fall to him?

Yet, Hood came through, and has endeared himself not only to Portland fans, but to basketball lovers worldwide. Hood’s salvation also begs the question: should coaches sub more in overtime playoff games? My answer would be that we stick with the traditional no-sub method for the first two overtimes, but once a third overtime (and with it complete exhaustion) are reached, that it’s time for the Coaches to figure out two or three guys on their bench that they can still trust after all of this, and give the drained on court players alleviation. If only someone had told Michael Malone this after he played Nikola Jokic a preposterous 65 minutes. Oh well.

 

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