Over the next two-and-a-half months, we'll be cataloging every playoff moment that might determine the answers to these eight critical questions. Does a deep Celtics run increase Kyrie Irving’s chances of staying in Boston? Does every awkward Kevin Durant quote mean he's on his way out of Golden State? The higher the percentage, the more likely the answer is yes.
After the best season in their history ended with a thud, the Raptors traded franchise icon DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. With no assurances Leonard will re-sign after this season, they’ve has done everything possible to get in his good graces. Will it be enough to keep him from big-market vultures like the Clippers?
After everything they’ve done to shed their reputation as chokers, it’d be cruel if the Raptors’ Game 5 loss at home triggers a stunning Finals collapse. When Kawhi Leonard went on a 10-point scoring binge in the fourth quarter, that was supposed to be it. Instead, Toronto blew a six-point lead in the final three minutes and now has to pick itself up and finish the job in Oracle Arena’s final game. Will these next two games undo everything Leonard’s arrival has overcome this season. The bet here is that they’ll still get it done, but man, who knows?
With every win in increasingly hostile environments these playoffs, it's easy to forget that these are the Toronto Raptors. Before they traded for Kawhi Leonard, they were the franchise that couldn’t handle the big moments. When the pressure got to them, they’d revert to bad habits and lose all the poise that got them far. But now, they have Kawhi Leonard, and all of a sudden, they’ve become the franchise that holds the Golden State Warriors – the GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS – at arm’s length in a must-win game in their building, despite playing against the shot clock time and time again. That is Kawhi Leonard’s influence. That is what has the Raptors, once known as choke artists, one win from an NBA title.
It’s hard to take much away from Game 3 considering the Warriors’ injuries, but Kawhi Leonard’s supporting cast definitely brought it. Danny Green is out of his shooting slump, Kyle Lowry was superb, Pascal Siakam toasted multiple Warriors defenders, and Marc Gasol dramatically outplayed DeMarcus Cousins. Game 4 is when the real test happens.
The Raptors came out flat, got blasted in the third quarter of Game 2, and are headed out West for Games 3 and 4 in Oakland without home-court advantage. Worse, the same fear that could push Kawhi Leonard out the door showed up again: he didn't have anywhere near the help he needed for Toronto to have a chance. If the Raptors' role players don't bring it on the road, this season could unravel at the worst possible time.
The Raptors’ wire-to-wire Game 1 NBA Finals victory over the Warriors shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone paying attention. Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors are different than previous iterations that few took seriously. They’re aggressive, yet poised; consistent, yet adaptable. Most importantly, they showed they don’t need Leonard to go supernova to beat the best of the best when the stakes are highest, something that hasn’t always been true this postseason. By now, Leonard’s future is almost irrelevant. The Raptors’ gamble has paid off because they are finally being taken seriously.
The Toronto Raptors’ trade for Kawhi Leonard was a bet on their own legitimacy as a glamour NBA franchise. It was a bet that the phrase Toronto Raptors evoked something more than a remote cold-weather league outpost. It was a bet that the enduring memory of their recent five-year rebrand was success, not playoff nerves. Now, the Toronto Raptors are in the NBA Finals, with Kawhi Leonard leading the way. His all-around brilliance is one thing, but the two iconic moments in which he starred – the bounced buzzer beater in Game 7 against the 76ers and the lefty slam on Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 6 against Milwaukee – will resonate forever, whether he stays or goes. The Raptors have done all they can to convince him.
As he exited the court on which he propelled the Toronto Raptors to the brink of a place they’ve never been, Kawhi Leonard was asked about the team’s mood given the significance of the Game 5 road victory in the Eastern Conference Finals. “I mean, I haven’t even gotten to the locker room yet,” Leonard responded. “We just finished the game.” Leonard’s overly literal answers have been a fun running gag all postseason, but they also signify the way Toronto has approached the issue of his future. How do you pay off a big bet like trading the face of the franchise for a free-agent-to-be who didn’t have your franchise on his radar while planning his exit strategy? You take the gamble, focus exclusively on the present, and do everything possible to make each day better than the next. Cliche? Maybe, but that approach explains Toronto’s success this year, and also explains why the trade was worth it whether Leonard stays or goes this summer.
No matter how the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals goes, the Toronto Raptors proved two essential things to Kawhi Leonard in Games 3 and 4. One: they can keep him fresh over the long haul, allowing him to fight through injury and fatigue when it matters most. Two: they can supply him the essential help he needs to break down a dominant defense. The success of role players like Marc Gasol, Norm Powell, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet in Game 4’s blowout victory should remind Leonard that Toronto didn’t need him to carry the entire load for most of the regular season. That should be music to Kawhi’s ears.
Why did the Raptors go through all the trouble of resting Kawhi Leonard for “load management” during the regular season? Because of moments like Game 3 against the Bucks. With the season on the line, a hobbled Leonard somehow found the energy reserves to put Milwaukee away in double overtime to save the Raptors’ season. It’s hard to see how Leonard will have enough energy to duplicate that feat the rest of the series, but never say never. Even if the journey ends this round, Toronto’s willingness to keep Leonard fresh during the season has to speak volumes when he makes his free agency decision.
Through 82 regular-season games and one first-round series win, the Toronto Raptors had the supporting cast Kawhi Leonard surely craved. They had the depth to allow Leonard to treat the regular season as practice for the playoffs, a second star in Pascal Siakam, and a battle-tested group of veterans to handle tight playoff moments. But in these last nine games, everything has changed. That second star shrunk due to injury and a lack of confidence, the veterans started to run hot and cold, and the vaunted depth general manager Masai Ujiri built has disappeared through injury and ineffectiveness. It’s a testament to Leonard’s greatness that Toronto even advanced past Philadelphia, but now he’s staring at an opponent that actually has a deep roster around its star. The other Raptors better get their act together and rally from a 2-0 series deficit against the Bucks, or else Leonard’s lingering memory entering the summer will be how his potential running mates couldn’t get it done.
Could Kawhi Leonard really leave Toronto after that shot? That fading jumper over Joel Embiid’s outstretched arms that bounced once, twice, three times, four times, and finally into the bottom of the net to give the Raptors a walk-off series win in Game 7 against the 76ers? The shot that brought back memories of Vince Carter’s against the 76ers 18 years ago, except this one went in? The shot that Toronto fans will remember for eternity as the greatest moment in their franchise’s history? Kawhi is capable of anything, and a poor Eastern Conference Finals showing will obscure this moment. But man, it’s hard to imagine him in another uniform.
Just when you thought Toronto’s supporting cast turned a corner, it collectively laid yet another egg in a Game 6 defeat to the 76ers. Pascal Siakam kinda showed up, but Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol were missing in action yet again. If the gamble on Kawhi Leonard was about providing him a surrounding mix that could win in the future, the struggles of Gasol and Lowry are discouraging.
Jimmy Butler said it himself: Kawhi Leonard is unstoppable. The Sixers have learned this hard way. Now that his teammates finally joined the party in Game 5, the Raptors have an opportunity to advance to the conference finals to further their case to Leonard to stay out North.
Kawhi has been every bit the superstar Toronto has longed for, and he’s covering up for the Raptors’ annual poststeason stench. Pascal Siakam had a rough Game 3 and injury-plagued Game 4, Kyle Lowry’s had a mediocre month, and Marc Gasol has looked his age. Despite that, Leonard’s been unbelievably efficient and clawed the Raptors back to a 2-2 tie against Philly, owning them in a pivotal fourth quarter of Game 4 with the season on the line. The series is even, but Toronto has home court advantage all over again.
All those good vibes from the beginning of the playoffs? They’re gone, gone, gone after an embarrassing 21-point Game 3 loss in Philadelphia. Kawhi did his part with 33 points on a series of difficult looks, but nobody else showed up, most notably Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. (Nick Nurse didn’t exactly cover himself in glory, either). Worse, the Raptors folded early in the fourth quarter, watching Joel Embiid and company stunt on them with windmill dunks and more. It’s no hyperbole to say that the Raptors’ entire future rests on how they respond in Game 4. No pressure.
Maybe that supporting Raptors cast wasn’t as perfect for Kawhi Leonard as we anticipated. The 76ers jumbled matchups in Game 2, erasing Marc Gasol from the game and making Pascal Siakam think a beat longer than usual. The end result: Kawhi went off again, but everyone else disintegrated. You wonder if Leonard will use this game as an example of why he might actually want another established superstar by his side next year.
With every passing game, two huge questions loom larger. First: why didn’t anyone else push harder to trade for Kawhi Leonard last summer? Leonard’s 45-point Game 1 performance against the 76ers was surgical and ruthless, a devastating combination that harkened back to late-career Michael Jordan or an expressionless version of Kobe Bryant. More importantly: why would Leonard ever want to leave this supporting cast? Where else can he find a sidekick like Pascal Siakam, savvy vets like Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, and a locked-in defense that neutered the 76ers’ stars?
Toronto’s Game 1 loss looks like a distant memory. After a terrible Game 3, Kawhi Leonard put the Raptors on his back with a dominant Game 4 performance, draining dagger after dagger and looking like vintage Kawhi on defense. Game 5 was a joke, as Toronto crushed Orlando to win the series. The Raptors have overcome Game 1 defeats to win series before Leonard arrived, but not like this.
What will Kawhi Leonard want this summer? Nobody knows now, and almost nobody is ever going to know, not even those within his inner circle. But if winning over the long haul is indeed his top priority, can he really do better than having Pascal Siakam as a running mate? The emerging third-year Raptors forward bailed Leonard out of a terrible Game 3, dropping 30 points and 11 rebounds with zero turnovers in a Raptors victory over Orlando. Will Leonard find a more perfect running mate anywhere else?
As if one needed any further proof that the Raptors’ year-long recruiting blitz was worth it, Kawhi Leonard dropped 37 points on 22 shots in a blistering Game 2 performance. He’s really damn good. The more important development for Toronto’s long-term hopes was Kyle Lowry’s terrific bounce-back performance after an invisible Game 1.
Not even Kawhi Leonard could overcome the Great Toronto Game 1 Curse. He sure tried, nailing back-to-back tough jumpers to turn a three-point deficit into a two-point lead with a minute left in Game 1 against the Magic. Finally, the Raptors had a star to carry them home in tigh playoff games! But then D.J. Augustin drove for a game-tying layup and nailed a three on Leonard's botched pick-and-roll coverage to give Orlando a shocking win. It’s just one game, but one wonders how Leonard feels about Kyle Lowry putting up a goose egg
Life is good north of the border. The Raptors are on the upswing after a midseason trade for Marc Gasol, and conversations about Leonard’s future have mostly faded, despite the constant presence of Clippers executives at his games.
Turmoil and boredom have loomed over the Warriors’ quest for a fourth championship in five years. With Kevin Durant a free agent and the futures of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green unclear, is this the last ride of the league’s greatest modern collection of talent?
Not gonna lie, this update will be tough after what transpired in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. It seems clear that Kevin Durant’s torn Achilles closes the book on the version of the dynasty that included him. Even if he re-signs or opts in this summer, he won’t play next season and is unlikely to ever be his full peak self again. By the time he returns to the basketball court, Draymond Green will be staring at free agency. Those Warriors are done. Whether the dynasty continues on without Durant, though, is a bit more of an open question after Golden State’s gutsy Game 5 victory. If they win Game 6 at Oracle, anything can happen in Game 7. After that, maybe they can re-sign Klay Thompson and re-tool the roster around the Old Guard core of Thompson, Green, and Stephen Curry. Maybe. The bet here, though, is that the Warriors we once knew are taking their final breaths.
In hindsight, the Oracle Arena crowd in Game 4 of the NBA Finals should have been a tell. The place was loud, but it was also nervous, like the fans knew the weary Warriors needed an extra lift to rally like champions one more time. But at some point, every dynasty runs out of comebacks, no matter how much the battered players try to dig deep. The Warriors played Game 4 like a college student trying to function after an all-nighter: frantically and with the best of intentions, but sloppily and irresponsibly. After a 47-point Game 3, Stephen Curry looked like he had nothing left. Neither did many other Warriors, no matter how much they tried to call on energy reserves that have always existed before, but were empty this time. Against a Raptors team that finally had the poise to withstand the noise, the Warriors players – and their dynasty – simply had nothing left.
Injuries and exhaustion have historically been the two most powerful forces that end NBA dynasties. Kevin McHale’s broken foot, followed by Larry Bird’s creaky back. Magic Johnson and Byron Scott sitting out in the 1989 Finals, followed by James Worthy’s bum ankle in 1991. Karl Malone’s absence for the Lakers in 2004. Scottie Pippen’s severe back pain in the 1998 Finals – overcome by the Bulls, yes, but then that dynasty died, too. The Heat’s mental toll in 2014. On and on. Will injury an exhaustion consume the Golden State Warriors, too? Facing a 2-1 series deficit, an ailing Klay Thompson, the prospect of an entire series without Kevin Durant, and many more maladities, it sure looks like it. There’s not much time left for Golden State to dig deeper one last time.
Kevin Durant was out. For a stretch, Klay Thompson was out, too. But the Warriors still secured a critical win in Toronto in Game 2, using a signature third-quarter surge to get it done. This team can win no matter who's on the floor. Durant or not, the champs are still the champs, and they'll still be the champs until someone takes them down
The Warriors don’t seem terribly worried about their Game 1 NBA Finals loss to the Raptors. The key talking points from Steve Kerr, Draymond Green, and others were clear: we weren’t familiar with this Raptors team, we were sloppy, and now we have tape and experience to use to shut them down during the rest of the series. They shouldn’t panic, because it’s just one game and they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. Still, this defeat at least pokes a hole in the argument that everything will be fine and dandy without Kevin Durant, both now and in the future.
Rich Kleiman, the agent for Kevin Durant, recently told the Wall Street Journal that KD is “100 percent undecided” on his next team. “He’s not scripting his future when he’s playing the way he plays and practices the way he practices,” Kleiman said, shooting down the idea that KD has a master plan. To back that up, Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that a) the Clippers have become an “increasingly dangerous threat” to sign Durant, and b) he’s skeptical of any assertion because he’s been told different things all season. Maybe Kleiman is telling the whole truth after all. Then again, with the way the Warriors are playing with Durant sidelined due to injury, maybe their dynasty won’t entirely rise or fall based on his decision.
Since Kevin Durant went down due to injury, Stephen Curry has scored 33, 36, 37, 36, and 37 points in five Warriors victories. Oh, and he also dropped 18 points in the 14 minutes after Durant went down in Game 5 against the Rockets. Let there be no doubt that Curry, at 30 years old, can still front a title contender on his own.
Ever since Kevin Durant went down, one Warrior has risen up to seize control of the team. It’s not Stephen Curry, despite his gaudy numbers. It’s Draymond Green. He put together a virtuoso performance in Game 3 against Portland, with 20 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists, and countless defensive plays that make you wonder if he can really see the future. Not coincidentally, Green has also showcased a softer side in the press, encouraging Jordan Bell after a missed dunk, admitting that he was “doing more crying than playing,” and suggesting he stopped being so demonstrative because he saw his son picking up those bad habits. Genuine, or politicking? At this point, Warriors fans won’t care, but it’s worth watching when Durant returns.
Are the Warriors better without Kevin Durant? On the surface, the question is insulting. Haven’t the last two Finals proved otherwise? When the going gets tough, isn’t Durant the ultimate safety net? All these things may be true, but so is this: the Warriors are 29-1 in their last 30 games with Stephen Curry and without Durant after rallying to beat the Blazers in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals. Yes, the Warriors will face a much stiffer test than Portland if they reach the Finals. Yes, the Durant-less Warriors are benefiting from a small sample size and will likely be less successful over the long run. But the argument that the Warriors’ dynasty will roll along just fine even if Durant leaves this summer keeps getting stronger.
As great as Kevin Durant is, there is a school of thought that the Warriors’ pre-KD core can keep the dynasty rolling next year even without him. That often seemed absurd, since the team’s depth isn’t the same and the old guard is several years older. But after watching that old guard storm into Houston to steal Game 6 and advance to the West Finals with Durant out due to injury, maybe it’s not actually that absurd. With or without KD next year, maybe the Warriors will actually be just fine.
Everything about this Golden State Warriors season is shaken up now that Kevin Durant has suffered what's believed to be a calf strain that will keep him out for at least Game 6 of the second-round of the playoffs, and possibly longer. The Old Warriors' guard is now in control, which not only means a tougher route to a title, but success coming as a double-edged sword. If Golden State beats the Rockets, then the Blazers or Nuggets, and then takes a championship without KD, why would he come back? If they fall short, maybe his need is recognized and appreciated and he comes back, but how much losing would it take to get that point? Everything is in limbo for the Dubs, and these next few weeks could be the ignition or extinction of their dynasty
Honestly, the Warriors look exhausted. Yes, this series might be different if Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry drained wide-open game-tying three-point attempts in the closing seconds of Game 4. They didn’t, which means the Warriors and Rockets are knotted up at two games apiece. But the Warriors have a bigger problem on their hands if they get through this second-round war: fatigue. The minute loads for Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are piling up, on top of the years of mental exhaustion to go through so many deep playoff runs. Forget the future: will the Warriors even have enough energy to win this title?
Kevin Durant is rolling, but the Warriors completely gave up in a Game 3 loss to the Rockets after Steph Curry got rejected by the rim on a last-second dunk attempt that could’ve cut a lead to one possession. KD, specifically, wasn’t even in frame. The Warriors might win another title, but it doesn’t feel like that’ll keep KD there. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, “the Warriors are bracing for possibly a seismic change within that organization.” Win or lose, this could still be it.
It still doesn’t feel like the entire Warriors cast is coming back next year. Kevin Durant’s been brilliant in these playoffs, and will be had anywhere he pleases. But beating down on the Rockets, a common enemy for every Warriors player and fan, had to feel good. And if they can sweep them? That much better. In the long run, maybe crushing Houston’s hopes won’t be the difference-maker, but the Warriors’ unity has looked as strong as ever in these last two games.
We knew the Rockets would be the ultimate test of the Warriors’ resolve, and that’s still the case after Golden State’s Game 1 victory in a game marred by officiating controversies. Houston will respond, and we’ll see then how tight the Warriors’ camaraderie really is. But the way Golden State dominated in crunch time – with a double drag screen that got Kevin Durant great looks against switches, followed by Durant waiving on Stephen Curry to hit the dagger three over Nene on the same alignment – further reinforces the players’ message that reports of locker-room disintegration are greatly exaggerated.
That narrative-defining Warriors-Rockets series is now set after Golden State took care of the Clippers in Game 6 in STAPLES Center. Kevin Durant dropped 50 points, including 38 in the first half, and the Warriors looked like the old Warriors after a bizarre drop-off in Game 5. So why is the percentage down? Because Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson both played through ankle pain, and while they’re expected to suit up for Game 1 in Oakland in 36 hours, that extra game of wear and tear may prove to be damaging in the long run.
At what point does boredom morph into something far more damaging? That’s the question we should be asking after the Warriors failed to close out the Clippers at home in Game 5. L.A. was firmly in control the whole game, then held off a late Golden State rally thanks to Lou Williams. In the process, they didn’t let the Warriors step on the gas for a few minutes and sneak by anyway. It’s still hard to see the Warriors losing this series, but the way they’re closing it out is a bad omen for this year and an even worse omen for their future beyond this season.
Ahhhh, that’s right, the Golden State Warriors have Kevin Durant. Maybe they won’t have him beyond this season, but at least they can call on him to casually dominate Patrick Beverley in a blowout Game 3 win before holding off a spirited Clippers rally in Game 4. There will be tougher tests for the Warriors’ cohesion on the horizon, but they at least passed their first one with flying colors.
Um, have you seen the Rockets through the first two games of their first-round series? Guess who likely awaits the Warriors in the second round, assuming Golden State beats the Clippers?
It’s possible we’ll laugh one day at the Warriors’ inexplicable 31-point blown lead in a Game 2 first-round loss to the Clippers. Lord knows non-Warriors fans got plenty of jokes off because the numbers “3” and “1” featured prominently. At the same time, the defeat also revealed the mental fatigue and boredom that threaten to end this Golden State dynasty, even if the Warriors do recover and win it all this year. Making matters worse, DeMarcus Cousins is done for the year after a non-contact quad injury.
The wound that opened up after Kevin Durant and Draymond Green shouted at each other during a game in November may never fully close, but it’s largely been put to the side for now. The Warriors have certainly been listless at times, but a late-season rout of the Nuggets – and, oddly, an on-brand feud with officials – suggest they’re getting their edge back.
Houston came agonizingly close to knocking off the Warriors last year, but seemed to take a step back in the summer. After a terrible start, a superhuman James Harden stretch – and, to a lesser extent, Chris Paul’s return to health and shrewd moves by GM Daryl Morey – Houston again looks like Golden State’s biggest threat. Can the Rockets actually break through this year?
Last season, the Rockets could blame injury and/or divine intervention for not getting past the Warriors. (They also blamed the refs, but that’s neither here nor there). Chris Paul injuring his hamstring was unlucky, and missing 27 straight threes was a once-in-a-lifetime cold streak at the worst time. This season, though? This season will hurt for a long, long time. How do they get past losing a winnable Game 5 after Kevin Durant’s injury, then blowing it on their home floor in Game 6 with KD sidelined? Will they ever get another opportunity to break through? You can never say never, since James Harden is still in his prime and the Warriors might not be the Warriors next year, but it sure feels like the Rockets’ title window just slammed shut.
Down just three points in the third quarter when Kevin Durant suffered a game-ending injury, Houston had to capitalize. But it didn't, losing a five-point game and heading to the brink of elimination. The Rockets have to win two straight now against the Warriors while they're at their most vulnerable, or forever regret what may be their last chance with this group. Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker aren't getting any younger, after all. If the Rockets ever want to taste glory, they have to shut down a team it couldn't three years ago. The Old Warriors are back and beatable, but it won't be easy.
The knock on James Harden is that he’s not as good in the postseason as he is during the regular season. Great defensive opponents are primed for his sorcery. Referees swallow more whistles. The mental fatigue of isolating again and again and again and again piles up. But after a sublime 38-point, 10-rebound performance to lead the Rockets to a Game 4 victory in Golden State, it might be time to declare that narrative out of date.
Houston snagged Game 3 in overtime with a brilliant showing from virtually everyone. James Harden returned to his star self, Eric Gordon was huge, and Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker thrived late. The Warriors’ lead is down to 2-1, which should be pleasing for Houston fans. But Game 3 only barely fell Houston’s way, and largely because Steph Curry had one of the worst showings of his life. That probably won’t happen again.
James Harden being poked in the eye limited his minutes and his game at a time Houston couldn’t afford a bout of bad luck. The referees may have called a fairer game, but the Rockets didn’t take advantage, falling a second time at Oracle to trail 2-0 to the Warriors. It doesn’t look good! Sure, Houston hang tough and crawled back from double-digit deficits to bring the game within four points in the final minutes. The Rockets almost had enough. But they’ve played this almost game once before. How much longer can they exist in the realm of good, but not good enough?
“I just want a fair chance. Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called, and we’ll live with the results.” Those were James Harden’s words after the Rockets’ narrow, controversial Game 1 defeat to the Warriors in the second round. (Let that sink in for a second: James Harden believes he’s not getting a fair shake from officials. What cruel irony for the Rockets!) Whether he actually has a point in this case, the focus on officiating obscures Harden’s 35-percent shooting in these playoffs, even after destroying Utah in Games 1 and 2. Harden’s efficiency dropping as referees swallow their whistles more in the playoffs? The Rockets have seen that story before, and it doesn’t usually end well.
There’s no better way to put it: James Harden and the Rockets have the Utah Jazz shook. The second-best defense in the NBA changed its entire scheme to account for Harden’s brilliance, and so far, it’s failed miserably. Houston outscored Utah by 52 points in the first two games in Houston, with Harden tossing up a 32-point triple double in Game 2. Then, Houston's defense joined the party, overcoing a rough Harden game to steal Game 3 in Utah. Suddenly, that potential Warriors second-round matchup looks scary … for the Warriors.
The one defensive strategy that sorta worked on James Harden during the regular season may no longer work. In Game 1, the Jazz tried mimicking the Bucks’ extreme approach of letting Harden drive right and stopping him at the rim. This time, Houston was ready. Harden drew the defense and found open teammates everywhere, and Houston dropped 122 on a great Jazz defense. If that strategy won’t work on The Beard and his mates, what will?
The Rockets’ late-season push re-opened the possibility of another competitive seven-game series with the Warriors, but that series will happen a round sooner than expected (if at all) after a dramatic final day of the season dropped Houston to the No. 4 seed.
LeBron James’ absence from the playoffs opens a power vacuum in the NBA’s superstar class. Giannis Antetokounmpo may not win MVP due to James Harden’s brilliance, but at 24 years old, he’s in position to become the next face of the league for the next decade. A deep playoff run will allow him to seize James’ throne.
Even as Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated the 2018-19 season, there was always a lingering worry that his rapid rise to the top of the league was too good to be true. Could he really bulldoze his way to the summit in his first postseason try without a consistent jump shot, second star, or the poise that only develops from experiencing postseason battles? Finally, he's come up against an opponent that can expose those weaknesses. Antetokounmpo followed up muted performances in Games 3 and 4 against Toronto with something much worse in a pivotal Game 5, particularly down the stretch. Kawhi Leonard has outshined him, both on offense and, crucially, on defense, where he’s absorbed Antetokounmpo’s power and sent him into a mental tailspin. Maybe we anointed Antetokounmpo too soon. Maybe he, too, needs to overcome real failure before rising above it.
What does it say about you when a 30-point, 17-rebound, five-assist night is mundane? That’s what Giannis Antetokounmpo produced in the Bucks’ Game 2 rout of Toronto, yet the story after the fact was about Milwaukee’s amazing depth. Does the system elevate Giannis, or does Giannis elevate the system? The better question: does it really matter?
LeBron James’ ultimate legacy is that he utterly broke so many potential challengers on the way to the Finals every year. Bron didn’t just beat teams; he doomed them to messy breakups and failed promises. Giannis Antetokounmpo has a loooong way to go before he can match LeBron’s resume, but he’s on the verge of completing his first complete and utter humiliation of a rival. With 39 points and 16 rebounds in a Game 4 win, Antetokounmpo has sent Kyrie Irving and the Celtics into an existential crisis from which that group may never recover.
A NBA superstar doesn’t really arrive until they dominate a pivotal playoff game while leaving the opponent aggrieved about officiating or some other factor outside of their control. Welcome to your first Playoff Moment, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks’ superstar notched 32 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks, and two steals to lead his team to a Game 3 victory in Boston. Sixteen of those points came at the free-throw line, much to the chagrin of the Celtics. “It’s getting ridiculous at this point,” Kyrie Irving said. “It’s just slowing the [expletive] game down.” Right or wrong, it’s telling that Antetokounmpo’s aggression has put the Celtics on tilt.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had a quality bounce-back Game 2 after laying an egg in Game 1. He was much more decisive attacking the Celtics’ defense, and that aggression finally paid off with a 15-point third quarter that put the game away. Still, Antetokounmpo has not been the best player these playoffs so far, and one good game in a key spot won’t change that on its own.
Every great star has a game where every lingering doubt about their game rains down in one cruel playoff moment. That moment has arrived for Giannis Antetokounmpo. He went just 7-21 from the field in Game 1 against Boston, repeatedly getting stoned by Al Horford and Boston’s disciplined defense in a 112-90 defeat. If not for an uncharacteristic 3-5 performance from three-point range, Antetokounmpo’s stat line would have looked even worse. Maybe the past few weeks has been too easy for him, because he didn’t look remotely up to the challenge Boston presented. The only good news: it was just one game, giving him plenty of chances for redemption.
There is a single player owning these NBA Playoffs, but it’s not Giannis Antetokounmpo, at least not yet. Instead, it’s Damian Lillard, who cemented his place in history by nailing a 37-foot dagger to give the Portland Trail Blazers a 4-1 series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. While it’s going a step too far to say that Lillard is now THE new face of the league, his emergence is a sign that perhaps there are many new faces of the league, and not just Antetokounmpo.
Coming into Game 4, the only thing missing from the first-round Bucks’ demolition of the Pistons was a signature Giannis Antetokounmpo game. That’s no longer the case after Antetokounmpo dropped 41 points, nine rebounds, and four blocks in leading Milwaukee to a sweep. More importantly (at least for the sake of this question), Antetokounmpo produced two signature highlights: a chasedown block of Ish Smith that had Pistons fans gasping, and a swooping tomahawk-turned-layup finish down the lane that mirrored Michael Jordan’s from the 1991 NBA Finals. (Sadly, Reggie Miller’s call on the latter didn’t hold a candle to Marv Albert’s legendary “OHHH, a spec-TACULAR move from Michael Jordan.”)
Antetokounmpo is doing nothing wrong, leading Milwaukee to an easy series lead over a shorthanded Pistons team. But with the way James Harden is playing, Antetokounmpo may have some catching up to do to reclaim his “face of the NBA” throne. Don’t worry, though. He’ll have his chances.
Antetokounmpo has finished the season with a flourish, leading the Bucks to the top overall seed. He’s started to showcase more of his personality, displaying a hard edge while maintaining his youthful exuberance. Antetokounmpo looks like the fresh new hero the league needs.
Thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rise, new coach Mike Budenholzer’s schematic changes, and a deep roster, the Bucks raced to the league’s best record during the regular season. But Antetokounmpo has never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, and will be a free agent after next season. Is this the Bucks’ best and possibly only chance to break through?
Here’s a stat that says it all about the Milwaukee Bucks: during the Eastern Conference Finals, they are scoring an average of 137.4 points per 100 possessions in transition and 83.4 points per 100 possessions in half-court situations. Those numbers got even worse in Game 5, as Milwaukee’s half-court offense melted down in crunch time in a 105-99 defeat. The Bucks’ hopes of breaking through rested on their defense and transition attack being so powerful that it could disprove the old cliche that the game slows down in the playoffs. Just as it looked like they’d win that bet, they found their match in the Toronto Raptors. If the Bucks can’t find another way to win at the highest levels, maybe they were paper tigers all along.
As the old cliche goes, every journey to success has that fork-in-the-road moment where a team either overcomes adversity or folds. That moment has arrived for the Bucks. The lingering doubts they seemed to have silenced in their first 11 playoff games are now back on the table after back-to-back losses in Toronto. Their spread-and-Giannis offense proved to be too simple against a locked in defense. Their own vaunted defense was spread out and then torn to pieces in Game 4. Their role players shrunk away from home, and their non-shooting starting point guard is staring old playoff demons back in the face. The Bucks still have plenty of advantages in the series, but they’ve put themselves in a position where these next three games will either validate or completely undo all the hard work that got them here. No pressure.
After an overwhelming team effort led to a Game 2 rout of the Raptors and a 2-0 series lead, we can almost certainly put this question to bed. Milwaukee is now 10-1 in the playoffs, with nine double-digit wins and seven games in which it led by 20 points at some point. It’ll take a collapse of epic proportions for the Bucks to be considered paper tigers.
The Milwaukee Bucks trailed by double digits in the third quarter of Game 1 against the Raptors. At one point in the third quarter, they were shooting 18 percent on three-pointers. In the ensuing fourth quarter, Giannis Antetokounmpo had one field goal, whereas the much-maligned Kyle Lowry had five. This was the game for Toronto to get. Instead, the Bucks won by eight, thanks to Brook Lopez pouring in 13 points in the final frame and 29 for the game. These guys are so, so good and it seems wild in retrospect that anyone doubted them.
In hindsight, the panicked reactions to the Bucks’ public nonchalance after getting blown out by the Celtics in Game 1 look hilarious now. Coach Mike Budenholzer shrugged off the need for major adjustments, and Giannis Antetokounmpo refused to guarantee a Game 2 victory. Both broke from the script, which suggests that coaches and stars need to have a SENSE OF URGENCY when bad things happen. Three games later, the Bucks are one win away from the conference finals, with two wins in Boston to show for it. Milwaukee has taken a steady, less-is-more approach all season, and many wondered if that’d hurt it in a truncated playoff series. So far, it hasn’t.
Now that was a statement. Facing their first real test of the season, the Bucks went back to their identity and smashed the Celtics in Game 3 to regain control of the series. They did it their way: relentless transition attacking, stingy defense at the rim, timely shooting, and a lot of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The series is far from over, but Game 3 was proof that Milwaukee’s style certainly works even against teams designed to beat it.
When we refer to the Bucks as “paper tigers,” what we’re really saying is they can’t (or won’t) make the game-to-game adjustments needed to win in the playoffs. Their coach and star both downplayed the need to change much up after a 22-point Game 1 defeat, which seemed like a bad omen. But in the end, actions speak louder than words. In Game 2, the Bucks changed their starting lineup to elevate Nikola Mirotic, altered their defensive style to switch more, and found more creative ways to break through the Celtics’ defensive wall. The result was a much-needed blowout win and a loud statement to their detractors that they are, in fact, adaptable.
Think of every argument suggesting the Bucks were actually a paper tiger this season. Their point differential was gaudy … but what’d happen if a team locked into their style? Giannis Antetokounmpo was the regular-season MVP … but what if a team exposed his shooting woes? Brook Lopez was the key to the league’s best defense … but what if a team had the personnel to make him defend away from the basket? All of those fears came to fruition in a 112-90 Game 1 loss to the Celtics. Al Horford shut down Antetokounmpo on one end and pick-and-popped Lopez to death on the other, dominating as a one-man rejection of the importance of the regular season. The Bucks need to find their playoff gear, and fast.
Blake Griffin’s heroic return didn’t seem to matter much, as the Bucks won Games 3 and 4 by double digits to sweep the Pistons in their first-round series. So why has the Bucks’ percentage stayed flat? Because the Celtics await in the next round, and Boston looks as locked in as ever after brushing aside the Pacers
How’s this for an opening statement: Bucks 121, Pistons 86. OK, so Detroit didn’t have Blake Griffin due to injury, but the combination of seven players in double figures and a stifling defense made this seem like a typical Bucks regular-season game. Crushing Detroit, in and of itself, proves little, but the rout happening on the same weekend the Raptors and 76ers lost Game 1s at home means it carries extra weight.
The Bucks’ joy ride hit a minor speed bump when starting guard Malcolm Brogdon suffered a foot injury. Still, they enter the playoffs as a 60-win juggernaut with a championship-level point differential and terrific records against other playoff teams.
Rumors about stars leaving mid-market teams for glamour franchises dominated another season. Even the Bucks' success took place in the shadow of Giannis Antetokounmpo's looming 2021 free agency. Can teams outside that spotlight, like the Blazers, Nuggets, Jazz, and Pacers, show it's possible to organically build a title contender?
The Portland Trail Blazers don’t need to beat the Golden State Warriors to be considered a part of the NBA’s “ruling class,” but they do need to at least push a Kevin Durant-less Golden State in this series to cement their spot. So far, not so good. Portland played a lot better in Game 2, but ultimately blew a 17-point lead and looked powerless trying to stop the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll. Afterwards, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said his team “stole” the game, suggesting his team took Portland lightly. That’s not a great sign. Portland could use some Damian Lillard magic as this series shifts, if only to regain some pride.
The Portland Trail Blazers should have been done after last year’s four-game sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. They were a small-market, capped-out team hitting the NBA glass ceiling in especially cruel fashion. Time to get Damian Lillard to a superteam. Time to move C.J. McCollum. Time to start over. That’s how this usually works. Thirteen months later, the Blazers are in the Western Conference Finals, despite making zero significant offseason changes. They got there thanks to a Game 7 win at Denver, a game in which Lillard went missing, but McCollum, Evan Turner, Zach Collins, and many others picked up the slack. How fitting, given the organization’s perseverance in the face of last year’s lowest of lows.
Technically, someone will lose the Blazers-Nuggets series, and it’ll sting. Though Denver is young and Portland almost certainly will have Damian Lillard locked up for a long time, there’s no guarantee the playoff bracket breaks this nicely for each in the future. But considering the way this playoff run has raised the profiles of both teams – and particularly both team’s star – it’ll be important for each team to maintain perspective. Lillard and Nikola Jokic are household names now to even casual NBA fans, and that has tremendous long-term value to their franchises.
Mike Malone says Jamal Murray is growing up in front of our eyes. Back-to-back 34-point games, followed by a 9-assist, 0-turnover night will do that. Can Murray's hot streak last, or do the Trail Blazers have something hidden up their sleeve? If Denver can expect this kind of play from their point guard every night, the Nuggets may be well on their way to elite status.
Who actually won the four-overtime Game 3 thriller between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers? In an obvious sense, the Blazers won because they actually won the game, 140-137, to take a 2-1 series lead. In another sense, nobody really won, because they both have tired legs and will have to play Game 4 in less than 48 hours. But as the dust settles on this series, both teams should feel like they’ve earned something precious: recognition. Who could have imagined these two teams participating in the game that broke Twitter?
We are guaranteed to have one of these teams in the conference Finals. The Denver Nuggets limped over the line like a marathon runner, but they did defeat the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7. That sets up a second-round series with Damian Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers, with the winner reaching the doorstep of the Finals. Most figure these teams are dead meat in a matchup with either Houston or Golden State, but you never know. Now’s the chance for casual sports fans to get familiar with Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic.
Damian Lillard just nailed a 37-foot step-back bomb at the buzzer to send OKC packing and Portland to the second round. The Trail Blazers, who kept their team together after experiencing playoff failure last season, have a legitimate path to the Western Conference Finals. This is Lillard's world. We're all just living in it
The Portland Trail Blazers are on the brink of a breakthrough. Sunday’s 111-98 Game 4 win over the Thunder showcased the brilliance of Damian Lillard, but it also displayed the internal improvement that powered Portland’s success following last year’s embarrassing sweep. It would have been easy for a small-market team like Portland to demolish its roster and start over. The Blazers didn’t do that, and now their path for a deep playoff run is opening up.
The Indiana Pacers fought hard, but they were ultimately swept by the Boston Celtics in four competitive defeats. In the end, the other team had great offensive talent, and the Pacers, without Victor Oladipo, simply didn’t. It was asking a lot for them to beat Boston, but a sweep should leave a sour taste in their mouth. With three free agents in the starting lineup and a Domantas Sabonis extension looming, the Pacers have some tough decisions to make.
The Utah Jazz are at that unfortunate fork in the road. Defeating the Houston Rockets was always going to be a tough task, but going out like this – losing Games 1 and 2 by a combined 52 points, then blowing Game 3 on their home floor despite James Harden missing his first 15 shots – has a way of punctuating their status in the league’s hierarchy. The Jazz are hardly frauds, but they’re also clearly not close to being the contenders their regular-season point differential might suggest.
After four days of the playoffs, only one team has a 2-0 series lead. That team: the Portland Trail Blazers, seen as an underdog to Oklahoma City despite having home-court advantage in the series. But that was before Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum erupted in Game 2, leading the Blazers to a 20-point victory and command of the series. With Portland now in control and Denver struggling against the seventh-seeded Spurs, the bottom of the West bracket may be opening up for Portland’s long-awaited breakthrough.
The first weekend of the playoffs was a rude awakening for these regular-season darlings. Denver lost Game 1 to the Spurs in the exact manner skeptics feared: with mental mistakes, nervous bricked threes, and errors late. Utah was non-competitive against Houston, while Indiana scored eight (yes, eight) points in the third quarter in a Game 1 loss to Boston. Even Portland’s five-point victory was shaky: the Thunder nearly stole the game despite shooting 5-33 from three-point range.
Denver’s quest to finish ahead of the Warriors failed, Portland lost center Jusuf Nurkic for the season, and Indiana’s nice run after Victor Oladipo’s injury hit a late speed bump. The Jazz look dangerous again, but they got the hardest first-round matchup of the bunch.
An organization once infamous for turning delayed gratification into a marketing slogan suddenly adopted an extreme win-now posture this year. The 76ers cashed in their war chest with blockbuster trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Can the core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Butler, and Harris come together quickly enough?
In the hours before Game 7 against the Raptors, multiple reports suggested 76ers coach Brett Brown was coaching for his job next season. It seems absurd to pin so much on one game, but it fit Philly’s all-in posture this season. So now what? How will the 76ers evaluate their core after they lost Game 7 to Toronto on a miracle buzzer beater by Kawhi Leonard? Will the front office give extra credit for the way the team battled in a Game 7 on the road, or will it remember the countless cringe-worthy possessions down the stretch? The pain of this defeat is obvious – just look at the tears on Joel Embiid’s face after Leonard’s shot went in – but overreacting this summer could make it worse.
What will the 76ers choose to remember when making offseason decisions? Contests like Game 5, when they looked completely disjointed and overmatched, or ones like Game 6, where everything clicks? Philly’s domination of the Raptors to force a Game 7 shows the tantalizing possibility that a core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Jimmy Butler presents. They simply overwhelmed Toronto, and not for the first time this series. But if Philly loses Game 7, will these moments linger long enough in the decision-makers’ minds?
Joel Embiid was sick for Game 5, and the Sixers were all out of sorts. If they lose in the second round, which they are one win away from doing, all their mid-season wheeling and dealing will have been for nothing.
The series is knotted at two with Toronto after Philly followed up its Game 3 blowout with a tight defeat at the hands of Kawhi Leonard in Game 4. Now, this series is swaying back in the Raptors’ favor. One game after the new starting five finally clicked together, the 76ers relied too heavily on Jimmy Butler hero ball in the Game 4 defeat. The Sixers have room to skate by Toronto still, but they’ll need more production out of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. If they fall flat, it’ll prove The Process wasn’t ready for this big of a leap just yet.
We’ve been waiting for the 76ers’ new starting five to showcase its full potential all season. Finally, they did it in Game 3, dominating the Raptors with a stunning display of speed and power. Joel Embiid led the way, but Jimmy Butler was terrific, Tobias Harris had his moment, and Ben Simmons set the table beautifully. Within the frenzy of a loud Wells Fargo Center, the all-in 76ers may have finally come together.
The first of the 76ers’ two midseason all-in deals has not exactly gone smoothly this season, but Game 2 against the Raptors showed why the 76ers made the trade. In a tight, physical, must-win game, James … sorry, Jimmy Butler, carried his younger teammates with 30 points and 11 rebounds, several of which came in key situations to lock down a four-point victory. This element – a tough veteran with the know-how to can get buckets and make winning plays when opponents take away the 76ers’ two young stars – is exactly what Philadelphia was missing last year.
Um, Sixers, you’re not playing the Brooklyn Nets anymore. Philly’s 108-95 Game 1 defeat to Toronto was worse than the final score indicated. Their vaunted starting five was outscored by Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam all by themselves, with Leonard in particular torching Jimmy Butler and, later, Ben Simmons. “We have to treat him like Giannis and get the ball out of his hands,” Simmons said afterwards, which wasn’t exactly the loudest endorsement of Brett Brown’s gameplan. Bottom line: the 76ers looked completely outclassed against a top East rival, which is exactly what this season’s all-in push was supposed to prevent.
The good news for the 76ers? They finally have a common enemy that’s not themselves. That enemy proved to be one Jared Dudley, the veteran Nets forward who first riled up Ben Simmons prior to Game 3 (oops), then triggered an altercation that got him and Jimmy Butler ejected in Game 4. “First of all, he’s a nobody,” Joel Embiid said afterward the game. Without Dudley and Butler, Game 4 was an instant classic, won by the 76ers after a clutch corner three from midseason acquisition Mike Scott. Then, Philadelphia closed out the series with a blowout Game 5 win. Philly’s roster is still flawed, but at least the stars are rallying to each other’s aid.
Jared Dudley’s comments suggesting Ben Simmons is “great” in transition, but “average” in the half-court weren’t really that inflammatory. Why were they perceived as such? Because no matter Dudley’s intentions, the comments highlighted the premise Simmons and the 76ers dearly hope is false: that he, and the team by extension, do not possess the skill and know-how to thrive when opponents are ready for them. That’s why Simmons responded with a vengeance in Game 3, breaking Brooklyn’s will with a 31-point performance. If Simmons can continue to be far better than average in half-court situations, maybe the 76ers’ grand experiment will work after all.
Within seconds of receiving the opening tip of Game 2, Ben Simmons stepped on the gas, foregoing a scripted set play for an all-out blitz to the rim. He missed the shot, but it set the tone for a bounce-back game in which the 76ers bullied the Nets until they crumbled. Brooklyn hung in for a half, but Philadelphia threw a knockout punch with a 51-point third quarter, leading to a 145-123 win and a 1-1 series. In the process (get it?), the 76ers reminded us — and possibly themselves — that brute force can still mask a lot of problems.
That playoff opener couldn’t have gone any worse. A series of bizarre press conferences made it seem like Joel Embiid wouldn’t play in Game 1 against Brooklyn due to lingering knee pain. He suited up in the end, but he and the rest of the 76ers (sans Jimmy Butler) played so badly in a 111-102 loss that fans repeatedly booed the team. Making matters worse, ESPN caught Embiid and Amir Johnson looking at a cellphone on the bench during the game, which is against league rules. Yiiiikes.
Butler has struggled to adjust his game to fit with Embiid and Simmons, leading to rumors of discontent. Embiid has also missed time with nagging injuries down the stretch. The 76ers at least secured the No. 3 seed and finally won against Boston, but they sit well behind Milwaukee and Toronto in the East’s pecking order.
Two weeks before the season started, Kyrie Irving told fans he planned to re-sign with the Celtics. He then spent the next several months undermining that premise during a disappointing Celtics regular season. A drama-free playoff run will likely determine whether Irving stays – and, potentially, if Anthony Davis joins him in Boston via trade.
After shooting 4-18 from the field in a Game 2 loss in Milwaukee, Kyrie Irving said that “there’s no extra burden” on him because “this is what I signed up for.” After an 8-22 performance in a Game 3 defeat at home, Irving declared, “I don’t think you’ll see another 8 for 22.” Irving was right: he instead went 7-22, including 1-7 from three-point range, in a demoralizing Game 4 loss that pushed Boston to the brink of elimination. “For me, 22 shots, I should have shot 30,” was his response thereafter. He said a bunch of other stuff, too, but it’s looking increasingly likely that these are the quotes and performances Celtics fans will remember from his Boston career. The real question is whether those fans will even mourn Irving’s departure if he indeed leaves in free agency.
Boston immediately squandered the home-court advantage it gained earlier in the series, falling in Game 3 to the Bucks thanks to a Giannis Antetokounmpo onslaught. It’s hard to say the Celtics played poorly, but Antetokounmpo clearly pierced their defensive wall and the Celtics missed opportunities on the other end. Officiating will be the dominant subject after Antetokounmpo shot 22 free throws, but Boston’s players also know they must be better in Game 4. Lose, and Irving’s free agency will immediately zoom to the forefront of the conversation. No pressure.
If there’s any silver lining from the Celtics’ Game 2 blowout loss to Milwaukee, it’s that Kyrie Irving played so poorly that he had to take full responsibility. To his credit, Irving recognized that his nine-point performance on 4-18 shooting can’t happen again. “There’s no extra burden,” he said. “This is what I signed up for. This is what Boston traded for me for.” That’s a mature response to failure that we haven’t always seen this season. Time will tell if his actions back up his words.
As a dramatic regular-season wound down, Kyrie Irving had one simple message: wait until the playoffs. He repeatedly expressed his confidence that things would be different when the games mattered, when the slog of the regular season ended. So far, so good. After sweeping Indiana, Irving and Al Horford dominated the 60-win Bucks in Game 1, allowing Boston to take command of the series. Maybe Irving and the Celtics were actually playing possum the whole time.
After pouring it on in Game 2, Kyrie Irving shot a combined 11-31 in two games against the Pacers in Indiana. Had this been the regular season, maybe that would have underscored Irving’s own misgivings about his supporting cast. Instead, Irving watched the much-maligned Jaylen Brown pour in 23 points in a Game 3 win, then got to enjoy Gordon Hayward looking like his old self in helping Boston complete the sweep in Game 4. “I’m happy that we’re all just diving into it, having a blind faith in each other,” Irving said after the second win. Blind faith is an interesting choice of words given the way Irving backtracked on his own declaration to re-sign in Boston before the season began.
The Celtics’ narrow Game 2 win over Indiana feels more significant than the final margin suggests. Not only did Irving drop 37 points on a series of leaning fadeaways nobody else could score, but he also trusted his teammates in crunch time and watched them come through. On the Celtics’ game-sealing possession, Irving accepted a trap, swung the ball to Jayson Tatum, and watched him drive and dish to Gordon Hayward for a dunk. Afterwards, Kyrie was beaming. “Finally getting a chance to lace ‘em up for the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs, there’s nothing like it,” he said.
Irving’s future remains cloudy, though things are at least better than they were in February, when Irving defiantly walked back his preseason promise to re-sign. A good sign: Irving stayed upbeat despite sitting on the bench down the stretch of a late-season win over Miami.