As you may have noticed, the NBA Playoffs have been proper mental/downright insane/absolutely ridiculous/completely awesome so far. As an NBA obsessive, this is both an awesome and overwhelming time.
Attention: Adam Silver
After you do everything in your power to suspend Clippers “owner” Donald Sterling, please leave the conferences exactly as they are. The absurd imbalance that occurred this year has resulted in the most exciting first round of playoff basketball in the NBA’s history. The West is so good that all eight teams fully deserve to be here, and all four Western Conference series are must-watch basketball.
Oklahoma City-Memphis (2-2), Game 5 in OKC, Tuesday
Reggie Jackson saved the Thunder from a 3-1 deficit with his heroic Game 4. Watching Kevin Durant embrace Reggie Jackson after the game, it was telling just how thankful KD and coach Scott Brooks must have been. No offense to Russell Westbrook, but instead of running directly over the Reggie Jackson, Westbrook had the ball in his hand, screaming with happiness toward the Memphis fans. It was a telling moment. Jackson is the unheralded hero of this Thunder season. Westbrook can be pure joy to watch with his relentless attack on the rim, but the future of this team should be Durant and Reggie Jackson. Westbrook is often maligned for his unorthodox play. He is an undeniable force, worthy of leading a team by himself, but it should be clear by now that he doesn’t mesh very well. He doesn’t manage the game, possession-by-possession.
Some put the onus on Coach Scott Brooks to find a way to use the two players more cohesively, and to run more sets and less isolation. This is a valid argument, but I wonder how much Westbrook listens to any coach, or any teammate. He doesn’t show the ability to pick his spots, to take care of the ball when it matters most, or to defer to Durant in key situations. Though it is unlikely Westbrook would ever accept the role, he would be ideally suited to becoming the best 6th man in the NBA, an even more explosive offensive weapon than Jamal Crawford or Manu Ginobili. Instead, his ego may force GM Sam Presti to make a deal down the road. Tony Allen’s instincts remain unparalleled. The man plays with an inner drive that is just insane. He refuses to let anyone pick him. Some of OKC’s offensive struggles rest solely on Durant’s inability to extricate himself from Allen.
Houston-Portland (Blazers lead 3-1), Game 5 in Houston, Wednesday
Troy Daniels won’t turn 23 until July. He went to Virginia Commonwealth and set the Atlantic 10 Conference record for made three-pointers in a season in 2013. The following June, he was not drafted. At 6’4″ and 204 pounds, he doesn’t have much height, length, or strength, said the NBA scouts.
He was signed by the Charlotte Bobcats in September and waived in October. Think the Bobcats are scratching at themselves for missing on that one? A week later, he was signed by Houston. One week after that, he was again waived. He went to the D-League and continued to rain threes upon the heads of opponents.
On February 21, the Rockets signed him again, then sent him back to the D-League. On March 5, he made his NBA debut, playing all of 92 seconds. In a blowout win two nights later, he made his first NBA three-pointer and played 6 minutes. He went back to the D-League. Fast-forward one month. On April 9, against Denver, Daniels got 11 minutes of run, and connected on 4 of 6 from deep. Three nights later, he played 13 minutes, going 1 of 5 from deep. In the regular season finale, Daniels got free reign, playing 44 minutes, and made the most of it, going 6 of 11 from distance, scoring 22 points and dishing out 5 assists.
He wasn’t expected to make any noise in the playoffs. In total, he’d played 76 minutes in the NBA, 44 of those minutes in an entirely meaningless regular season game.
The playoffs started. LaMarcus Aldridge served the NBA a subpoena: I’m here. Terrence Jones can’t guard me. My Blazers aren’t going anywhere. The Blazers won both games in Houston. Troy Daniels watched from the bench, presumably happy to be there, wearing the uniform, feeling like he’d made it to an NBA roster, now getting a front row seat at the playoffs.
And then it happened. Coach Kevin McHale (perhaps with the prompting of Daryl Morey) called his number. Twenty minutes and 3 long-range swishes later, The Legend of Troy Daniels was being written. Down 2-0, Daniels helped the Rockets take a tumultuous must-win Game 3 in Portland. He followed it up with an impressive 4 of 5 shooting performance in 21 minutes last night, an overtime thriller that Wesley Mathews (among others) simply would not let the Blazers lose, with his gutsy defensive play. The most impressive moment for me, was at the free-throw line, after Daniels was fouled shooting from deep. Daniels, approached the line with poise and confidence. He calmly knocked all three down. The net barely moved they were so true.
I love it when players come “out of nowhere” as they say, and impact big games. The reality is, they all come from somewhere, in this case Roanoke, Virginia. Daniels took the moment and seized it. Like Gary Neal in last year’s Spurs playoff run. Troy Daniels: shooter. Keep it going, young man.
The Blazers on Fire
I can’t write about this series without mentioning how much I love watching these Portland Trail Blazers. Every member of this team contributes something. Everyone has a role, and nobody demands the ball. The Blazers got this far by trusting each other, and by threatening to score from every spot on the floor. That spacing, in addition to a positional mis-match, allowed Aldridge to score 89 points in the first two games.
That spacing is what the Rockets wish they had. That spacing is what the 2011 Mavericks had. Coach Terry Stotts was on the Dallas bench, assisting Rick Carlisle. Spacing is what the Spurs and Heat have. It’s how you get open corner threes. It’s how you score in the playoffs. The opposite: take a look at the Chicago Bulls. The Wizards defense can collapse on Noah at the elbow, and Gibson on the block because other than Mike Dunleavy’s Game 3 heroics, the Bulls can’t space the floor.
Damian Lillard is a joy to watch. Completely confident without a hint of arrogance. He knows he belongs in these big games. Nicolas Batum is the same way. He has worked his way into becoming a reliable three-point shooter, which opens up his lanky drives and sweet pocket passes. Batum’s defense has stifled Chandler Parsons all series, occasionally making life hell for James Harden as well. Alridge is Aldridge. Unblockable with that high release. Rarely turning it over. Fierce on the glass, devouring rebounds. Cult hero Robin Lopez has made life messy for Houston’s bigs, altering shots in the paint and never fearing the mammoth Dwight Howard. In the fourth quarter, the Blazers were saved by a Mo Williams steal with 28 seconds left, followed by Mo’s 26-footer ten seconds later, giving Portland a 105-104 lead. They went on to win another epic in overtime. Three of the four games have included an overtime period. The cardiovascular couch workout is taking years off the lives of the good citizens of Houston and Portland.
Wesley Mathews Wants It
Wesley Mathews…oh my. The man wants it! He wants it like Tony Allen and Draymond Green want it. He ripped the ball away from Dwight Howard in what was essentially a two-man wrestling match on the floor. I had to watch it again in slow-motion. 99 out of 100 NBA players wouldn’t have come up with that loose ball. Only Tony Allen, Draymond Green, Avery Bradley, Lance Stephenson and P.J. Tucker would have had a chance. Mathews came up with the ball, called a quick timeout, and let out a primal scream for the Moda Center fans. It was fitting that Mathews interrupted a would-be final shot attempt for the Rockets to seal the win. Mathews blitzed a pick all the way out at half-court and came up seizing that ball like he was going to deflate it.
Wesley Mathews is loving every minute of this. And guess what…Wesley Mathews went undrafted, too.