Look, I am not a negative guy. When I coached college basketball, I wanted my players to play with confidence, so I tried to be as encouraging as possible. In my first piece about coaching youth basketball, I ended with this advice:
“Have fun. By your own example, teach your young players that basketball is fun. Put another way, avoid being one those coaches who suck all the fun out of the game. If you are deadly serious while coaching, your young players will find it difficult to have fun. Conversely, if you have fun while coaching, your players will too. Coach like you like doing it.”
I try to carry that positive attitude into other parts of my life. For instance, even though I am not a good golfer, after a round I try to focus on the few good shots I hit, instead of the many more that were not. At work or when I am out and about, I try to be nice to everyone.
All that being said, I am having trouble writing nice things about this year’s playoffs. The teams I want to win keep getting eliminated, some in 4-0 sweeps. My post about the first round was entitled “Injuries and blowouts have marred the NBA Playoffs so far”. Pretty cheery, right?
Since I wrote that post, other star players have suffered injuries, including Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. And Chris Paul missed several games because of COVID-19 protocols. And I turned off last night’s Bucks blow-out of the Hawks at halftime, with the Bucks up by a zillion points.
Unfortunately, as you can see from the title of this, I will be pointing out some more negative stuff. From the start of the Play-In Tourney, I have noticed many players put up brutal box-score lines. For this piece, I will not pick on average players or bench guys who did not play well in particular games. Instead, this will focus on true stars in the league, the players who should be rising to the occasion on the NBA’s biggest stage.
These brutal games began with Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, who started with a 4/14 shooting line, with only 1 rebound and 4 assists in the Hornets’ loss in their one chance to advance. Ball was an incredible minus 35 in the 27 minutes he was on the floor as the Pacers won 144 - 117. The Spurs’ leading scorers weren’t much better in their “one and done” loss to the Grizzlies: DeMar DeRozan went 5 for 21, with 3 boards and 3 assists in 38 minutes. While Dejounte Murray had 13 boards and 11 assists, he went 4 for 17 from the floor, putting up a fairly ugly 10/13/11 triple double. If either had played even an average game, the Spurs could have made up the 5 points the Spurs needed to overcome the Grizzlies’ 100 - 96 win.
In my Injuries/Blowouts piece, I already pointed out how badly Bubble Playoff star Jimmy Butler and this season’s Most Improved Player Julius Randle played in their teams’ First Round losses. Other stars also had terrible games in Round One. Celtic star Jason Tatum had games of 6 for 20 and 3 for 12 in the Celtics first two losses to the Nets. In the second game, Tatum’s line was 9 points, 4 boards and 1 assist. Yechh. Laker point guard Dennis Schroeder (who is not a star but wants to be paid like one) had a disastrous Game Five against the Suns, in a game the Lakers had to win: Schroeder went 0 for 9 (including 0/4 from three) for a remarkable (in a bad way) 2 points, 4 boards and 1 assist line.
Those games were all losses for the star’s team. In the Wizards sole win against the 76ers, Russell Westbrook put up a 3 for 19 shooting line, missing all four of his three-pointers — but he did get 21(!!) rebounds and 14 assists. Similarly, Damian Lillard shot 1 for 10 in a Blazers’ win over the Nuggets, helped by Dame’s 8 boards and 10 assists.
Round Two of the playoffs had similar star stinkers. The Bucks’ Khris Middleton started the series against the Nets with a 6 for 25 shooting night, missing all 4 threes. In Game 7, Jrue Holiday shot 5 for 23, 2 for 9 from three — and the Bucks won anyway. In Games 5 and 7, our old favorite enemy James Harden put up 1 for 10 and 5 for 17 shooting nights, making only 2 threes in those two games. (Game Five was Kevin Durant’s amazing 49/17/10 game, which I mention only so I can say something nice about someone.) Paul George started the Jazz series with a 4 for 17 line in 37 minutes of the Clippers’ loss, meaning one of the best players in the world scored less than one hoop for each nine minutes on the floor.
In the 76ers surprising series loss to the Hawks, each of the 76er stars had a terrible game in a Hawks win: Joel Embid went 4 for 20 in Game Four. Tobias Harris 2 for 11 in Game Five (his line was 4 points, 4 boards and 3 assists in 38 minutes). At least Harris shot the ball. All-Star guard Ben Simmons took only 4 shots and 2 free throws in Game 7, meaning that Hawks fans could ignore Trae Young’s 5 for 23 game (2 for 11 from three).
As I write this on Saturday afternoon before the Clippers - Suns Game Four, we haven’t yet had many terrible games in the Conference Finals — but we have had a few! Middleton “earned” another mention with his 6 for 23 game in the Bucks’ Game One loss to the Hawks, including zero made threes in 9 attempts. (“When you are shooting well, keep shooting. When you are not, shoot out of it.”) The Suns star guards followed that advice in their Game Three loss to the Clippers, 5 for 21 for Booker, 5 for 19 for CP-3. At least they had excuses — the face mask for Booker, the COVID involuntary vacation for Paul.
I ended my Injuries/Blowout piece with my hope to expect the games to get better. And they have, with many more close games, though these playoffs are still marred by key injuries on every team. I will end this with confidence too. Star players will play better the deeper we get in the playoffs. If not, everyone can look forward to another piece like this one. Someone has to do it.