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Observations from the start of the 2020 NBA Conference Finals

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The Nuggets look overmatched against the Lakers, and rebounding has been key for the Heat and Celtics.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In my last post, we ran a poll asking Pounders to tell us who they wanted to win the Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Nuggets. While the Nuggets knocked the Spurs out of last year’s playoffs, there was little doubt that Spurs fans would be rooting for the Nuggets and against the Lakers in this series.

Too many playoffs over too many years, with the Western Conference title often at stake, makes it impossible for Spurs fans to root for the Lakers. Adding LeBron James to the mix likely did not help, not even with favorite ex-Spur Danny Green on the Lakers. I didn’t necessarily expect an 86% - 14% split favoring the Nuggets, but I didn’t not expect it either.

For me, it was a closer call. Before graduating to Spurs fandom last decade, I had been a lifelong Lakers fan. I have been around long enough to root for Jerry West at the end of his career, the Magic-Kareem Showtime Lakers, then Kobe with Shaq and later Pau Gasol. But as the Lakers disintegrated, it became impossible for them to remain one of my two favorite teams.

However, this playoffs offered a possible reprieve. With the Lakers playing the Rockets, the Clippers up 3 - 1 against the Nuggets, and the (ugh) Celtics favored in the Eastern Conference Finals, a resurrection seemed possible — match-ups with the Rockets, Clippers and Celtics would make it easy for even a fallen Lakers fan to come home.

Rooting for the Nuggets against the Clippers made me appreciate the Nuggets, even as they went down 3 - 1. At the same time, every right thinking fan outside of Houston could root for the Lakers over the Rockets. But while the Lakers held up their end of the bargain, the Nuggets vanquished the Clippers. So I had two teams I had just rooted for now playing each other. How would I choose? Before Game One, I sent this email to local hoops legend Mike Ross, a lifelong and local Lakers fan:

“Mike: Good luck with the Lakers. I don’t know who I will be rooting for yet. I would be rooting for either of them against the Rockets, Clips or Celtics. I think I need to start watching and just see what happens.”

Which I did. I started watching Game One and saw what happened. I discovered that while I wanted my guy Danny Green to do well and make his shots, I rooted for the underdog Nuggets. Funny how the mind works. Alas, that meant I was rooting for a Denver team that got outplayed in Game One and looked like the weaker team while doing so.

The Lakers were able to throw three different bigs at the Joker, and it wasn’t funny. I don’t know if people recognize how big the Lakers starting line-up is, with two seven footers, big guards in DG and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and a football tight end playing point guard. And they get even bigger when Kyle Kuzma replaces either DG or KCP. Though they are huge, that big Lakers team is also fast, especially when running downhill on transition. And just to have some fun, Lakers coach Frank Vogel (who is doing a great job) went with a small group later in the game, with LeBron, the Morris twin Spurs fans don’t hate at the moment (I can’t tell them apart), Alex Caruso, Playoff Rondo, and Kuzma.

Big, small or in-between, and with some help from the zebras, Game One Lakers were just better than Game One Nuggets. Maybe the Nuggets are just trying to get down 3 - 1 again so they can turn it on, but I don’t think so.

Other thoughts

1. The score at the end of the first quarter was 38 - 36 Nuggets. With apologies to my Clipper fan friends, both teams scored more in the first quarter than the Clippers scored in the second half of Game Seven against the Nuggets.

2. One last look back on how well the Raptors did all year, including the playoffs. Pundits commented on how they did that without Kawhi Leonard. Rarely did anyone mention that the Raptors also lost another starter from their championship team: Danny Green. With Toronto, DG averaged over 10 points per game, shooting 46% from three. DG and Kawhi were also the Raptors’ two best perimeter defenders. The Raptors lost both starters as free agents, getting nothing in return. All of which makes this Raptors season even more remarkable.

3. In a comment to my last post, reader dksurf99 made a great point that I had mentioned to a few friends but neglected to put into my post:

“Even though he put up big numbers, Kawhi definitely does not look right. Guy can barely jump and relies on instincts, great movement and his physique.”

Posted by dksurf99

on Sep 17, 2020 | 6:02 PM

Although Kawhi was rightfully named Finals MVP in 2019, he had several games against the Warriors in which he was physically compromised. After Games Two and Five, I pointed that out:

“Kawhi Leonard’s box score for the game looked good — 34 points, 11 rebounds (5 offensive) and 3 assists — but he shot only 8 for 20 overall, and 2 of 9 from 3, and had 5 turnovers. At no point did he jump aggressively and rise up over a defender. Once again, long-time Kawhi watchers (like me) surely saw that he still has no explosiveness, which makes his production even more remarkable. In essence, he did all of that without being able to jump. At one point, Mike Breen started talking about whether Kawhi was healthy by saying that ‘Leonard doesn’t seem to have...’.

I thought he was going to say “any lift” but instead said “any limp”. If you wanted proof that Kawhi is compromised, at one point DeMarcus Cousins (playing his first extended minutes in nearly two months) beat him on a drive. And on the play when Andre Iguodala made the three-pointer to clinch the game, Shawn Livingston beat Kawhi to a floated pass by Steph Curry — something that would not happen to a 100% Kawhi Leonard. Indeed, a 100% Kawhi steals the pass and goes coast to coast to tie the game with dunk.”

************

“Once again, Kawhi Leonard was clearly physically compromised, which led to his pedestrian 22 points/6 boards/3 assists line, on 7 of 16 from the floor and 1 of 5 from three. The guy he was covering most of the game, Andre Iguodala, matched those 22 points, on better shooting – 9 for 15, 3 of 6 from three. Most telling was how the Raptors defended the Warriors’ final play out of the time-out. They had Kawhi, former Defensive Player of the Year, covering the in-bounder.”

After the Clippers completed their collapse against the Nuggets, I pointed out that Kawhi went 1 for 11 in the second half of Game Seven. Thanks to DKSurf for reminding me to point out a probable reason for Kawhi’s disappointing performance.

4. In the Fun with Box Scores highlight of the day, let’s look at Game Two of the Heat - Celtics series. The Celtics shot a strong 50% from the floor, a solid 37% from three and 79% from the line (with ten more free throws than the Heat). The Celtics also out-rebounded the Heat 41 - 38, but they lost for several reasons.

First, as I have pointed out several times, “total rebounds” is often a meaningless stat. Instead, you want to know how many offensive rebounds the teams got. In Game Two, the Heat grabbed 11 offensive rebounds to the Celtics’ 6, which translates into 5 additional possessions. The Heat also had only 9 turnovers to the Celtics’ 20 — which meant 11 more possessions for the Heat. Each of those additional possessions means another chance to shoot, and thus to score.

For the game, the Heat were able to take 18 more shots than the Celtics. As a result, even though the Celtics shot a higher percentage, the volume of shots by the Heat allowed them to win Game Two. Last night’s game was different.

The teams had virtually the same number of turnovers and offensive rebounds, resulting in each team taking the same number of shots from the floor — 85. Once again, the Celtics shot a higher percentage, which resulted in a Boston win and a much more interesting series. And saying the Celtics shot a higher percentage might be downplaying their defense. The Celtics shot a higher percentage because their defense forced the Heat to shoot a lower percentage. By picking up the Heat much higher on the floor, the Celtics were able to minimize the effectiveness of the Heat’s motion offense. Other than the wonderful Bam Adebayo and should-have-been-a-Spur Duncan Robinson, no Heat player made half of his shots. And in Game Three, the Heat could not overcome their poor shooting (39% overall, 27% from three) with volume.


Game Two between the Lakers and Nuggets is tonight at 6:30 PM CT on TNT. Can the Nuggets get their first win of the series before inevitably going down 3-1? Tune it to find out!