Biggest Takeaways from Last Night’s NBA Playoff Action – Bleacher Report

Sports 04 May 2017
Biggest Takeaways from Last Night’s NBA Playoff Action – Bleacher Report

NBABiggest Takeaways from Last Night's NBA Playoff ActionGrant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 4, 2017Biggest Takeaways from Last Night's NBA Playoff Action0 of 10

    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Wednesday's NBA playoff action proceeded according to plan…as long as your plan included the Cleveland Cavaliers hammering the Toronto Raptors and the San Antonio Spurs sharpening up after a Game 1 blowout loss to the Houston Rockets.

    LeBron James was a monster while only taking the opposition with minimal respect. Kawhi Leonard upgraded his software and the stars shone. Ultimately, the Cavs cruised to a 2-0 series lead following their 125-103 shellacking of the Raptors, and the Spurs evened things up at 1-1 after smoking the Rockets by a final of 121-96.

    The storylines developing in both series are only gaining intrigue—even in the East, where the Raptors face do-or-die adjustments.

    Everybody's cards are on the table. Countermeasures have already been deployed. So now, in addition to chronicling what's been deciding these matchups, we're getting into the stage of competition where things get desperate. Where counters to the counters are critical.

    Here's everything you need to know about Wednesday's postseason tilts—and everything to keep in mind as these series progress.

LeBron Felt Pain, Then Delivered Some1 of 10

    As LeBron James continues being impervious to the stress of heavy minutes, deep playoff runs and injury of any kind, we could commission a multibillion-dollar study to figure out how he's doing it.

    Or we could accept that he's Patrick Swayze in Road House, a man for whom "pain don't hurt."

    Based on his reaction to an ankle sprain in the second quarter on Wednesday, let's go with the second option.

    James tweaked his left ankle stepping on P.J. Tucker's foot on a drive, and it seemed to aggrieve him momentarily. He hopped around for a bit, tightened his shoelaces and then did what you see in the clip above.

    That second triple pushed Cleveland's team total to 8-of-8 at that point, and in addition to proving he was far from injured, James re-emphasized the nonchalance he showcased in Game 1.

    Toronto doesn't scare the Cavs, and James has bigger things in mind anyway—like passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time playoff scoring list, which he did in the third quarter.

    He finished with 39 points, six rebounds, four assists and zero pain on 10-of-14 shooting.

    Also of note: James is 19-0 in series after taking a 2-0 lead, per ESPN Stats & Info.

    Stick a fork in this one.

A Place for Jonas2 of 10

    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Channing Frye made Jonas Valanciunas look bad enough in Game 1 to make the possibility of the Raptors center not playing at all seem possible.

    But the two bigs shared the court during the first quarter, and the floor-stretching Frye once again exploited the immobile Valanciunas.

    Frye hit a pair of treys in succession as Valanciunas was too slow in reacting on a kickout and then too poorly positioned in no-man's land on the pick-and-pop. Despite scoring 10 points of his own in the period, Valanciunas' minus-two plus-minus figure told the real story.

    Frye finished with 18 points on 5-of-7 shooting from deep.

    From now on, if Valanciunas plays when Frye is at center, it should trigger a coaching malpractice investigation against Dwane Casey. It just can't happen.

    That's not to say J-Val needs to be shelved entirely. He punished Cleveland inside, scoring on short rolls and looking far more comfortable in the post than he did at any point against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. He managed 23 points on 13 shots overall, and his final plus-minus of minus-13 looks pretty good in a game his team lost by 22 points.

    If Tristan Thompson plays the 5 for the Cavs, Valanciunas can have a positive impact.

    That may not sound like much, but every little edge counts for a Toronto team that needs to push all the right buttons to avoid a sweep.

Polar Opposite Point Guard News3 of 10

    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    It's not that Kyrie Irving dramatically outplayed Kyle Lowry. Both were excellent during their time on the floor, with Irving tallying 22 points and 11 assists and Lowry answering with 20 points and five assists on 7-of-12 shooting.

    The contrast here is in both players' forecasts from here.

    Irving's playoff career-high assist total suggests he's finding a shoot-pass balance in his game, a scary thought for opponents. It also means the Cavs made everything—which they did, hitting 54.7 percent of theirs shots on the night. Assists are easier to come by when a whole team catches fire.

    For Lowry, though, the outlook is bleak. He went down with a nasty ankle sprain in the third quarter when Norman Powell fell into his left leg. Lowry left the game, returned noticeably hobbled and ultimately shut it down during the fourth period of the blowout loss.

    He'll get treatment and try to play in Game 3, according to Michael Grange of Sportsnet, but it's tough to imagine he'll be in top form.

    We may be looking at a short series either way, but the Raps have no hope without Lowry.

Cleveland Springs the Trap4 of 10

    Some traps feel like they're rooted in fear. Defenses sell out, sending two bodies at an offensive weapon they desperately want to give up the ball.

    Others seem almost predatory, like they're picking on the target.

    The Cavs are sending the second kind at DeMar DeRozan, who reacted to several traps (including the one above on the first play of the game) just like he did for most of Game 1: slowly and uncertainly without much success.

    DeRozan kept the ball for a beat too long, searching for escape routes or hunting a way to split the two defenders rather than decisively whipping the ball to the open man and creating an advantage. Watching him react that way, it's clear after two games that Cleveland is doubling (or hedging hard at) DeRozan less because it's afraid of a scoring explosion and more because it knows DeRozan can't or won't make the right decision quickly.

    When coupled with Serge Ibaka's glacial decision-making—whether in the short roll or simply swinging the ball to the weak side—it's easy to see why the Raptors ranked dead last in assist rate during the year.

    We'll see if Toronto's early tweak, involving Lowry in screens to free DeRozan, which brings Irving into the play as one of the trappers, pays off later in the series. Irving lacks the length and defensive competitiveness to maximize the advantage of the double-team.

    But based on the way DeRozan has handled extra pressure so far, it may not matter who the second defender is.

    As Matt Moore of noted, DeRozan is a minus-53 in 65 minutes on the floor during the series.

    More broadly, the Raptors as a whole aren't handling Cleveland's trapping scheme well. Toronto simply lacks the decisive personnel to counterattack consistently.

Toronto Can't Get Good Shots5 of 10

    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The traps flummoxed DeRozan, Lowry went down just after halftime, Powell turned it over whenever he tried to dribble and the Raptors got off just 17 threes on the night.

    All that against a Cavs defense that was clinically dead for six months.

    Just how? How is this possible?

    There's no one answer for Toronto in a situation like this. An inability to score in this series was the last of the Raps' concerns, and maybe they never spent any mental energy on offense—which would have been excusable given the challenge defending the Cavs presents.

    Maybe instead of digging into processes, we should focus our advice on results.

    So, Toronto: Take better shots, and you'll score more points.

    That means more triples and more looks at the rim. Do it however you can. Fight. Claw. Take contested threes. Anything!

    Analyst Nate Duncan noted 13 of Toronto's first 24 shots were twos outside restricted area. On the night, the Raptors tried 48 non-RA two-pointers, hitting only 20 of them.

    Compare that to Cleveland's shot selection—only 24 non-RA twos weighed against 33 three-point attempts—and you've got the game in a nutshell.

    And finally, something wild: Cleveland played pretty good D to force all those low-efficiency looks.

Spurs Go Small?6 of 10

    San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has always resisted small ball, but Game 1 indicated the Spurs were too big and too slow to stick with their conventional frontcourt sets against the Houston Rockets.

    For a few minutes in the second quarter, Pop relented, sliding Leonard to the 4. Then, when Jonathan Simmons played power forward in a super-small group with Patty Mills, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs blew the game open.

    The clip above shows what can happen when the floor is a little more open and semi-transition chances materialize because guys can, you know, run. Simmons scored 14 points and posted a plus-15 in only 20 minutes.

    Pau Gasol got himself a dunk shortly afterward, as the Spurs upped the pace with James Harden on the bench.

    It goes against type, and the roster simply isn't equipped with the wing depth to make prolonged small ball work, but the Spurs have to stick with it for as many minutes as possible going forward.

Get Better, Tony7 of 10

    We've already done a disservice to Parker by not leading with him in the Spurs-Rockets section.

    On a night he passed Kobe Bryant on the all-time postseason games played list, Parker had to be carried off the floor after suffering a non-contact injury to his left knee.

    Parker put together some vintage efforts to help beat the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, and he had 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting before leaving Game 2.

    "It's not good," Popovich told reporters afterward.

    Maybe he wouldn't have swung the series for the Spurs, but his team was already short on creators. And in the bigger picture, a potentially significant injury for one of this era's biggest winners is a huge bummer—especially when he's 34.

    Parker will have an MRI on Thursday.

Round 2 Goes to Leonard8 of 10

    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Harden started with a 1-of-6 effort in the first quarter Wednesday and didn't get much better from there, scoring 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting while handing out 10 assists.

    Leonard, meanwhile, posted 34 points, seven rebounds and a career-high eight assists while making a scorching 13-of-16 shots from the field.

    We spend so much energy dissecting strategy and personnel groupings and matchups in postseason analysis, and it's true the guys orbiting stars influence how they play. But sometimes, it comes down to which supernova burns hottest.

    Harden appeared to aggravate his ankle injury in a first-quarter spill after tripping over the basket stanchion, so maybe he gets a pass.

    But one good way to predict the rest of this series might be to just ask which MVP candidate outperforms the other.

Can Spurs Compete in Battle of 3s?9 of 10

    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Being tied with the Rockets in made threes at halftime was as good a sign as any for the Spurs, who matched Houston's six triples in that span.

    After Game 1, it was unclear whether San Antonio could keep pace with the Rockets' high-volume attack. What was not in dispute, though, was the fact the Spurs couldn't expect to win the series making under half of Houston's total.

    By the end of Game 2, San Antonio had lost the deadlock but still finished with a respectable nine made triples to Houston's 11, far better than the nine they posted against Houston's 22 in Game 1.

    Some of that had to do with San Antonio's defense and the Rockets' regression to the mean a bit, but anything that keeps this margin respectable is a plus for the Spurs.

    It'll always be difficult for the Spurs to match Houston's attempt total; they don't have the spacing of small lineups or the distributors to generate high volume. But if the Spurs keep getting quality looks for Danny Green, Mills and Leonard (who shot a combined 6-of-11 from distance), they'll be fine.

Odds and Ends from Spurs-Rockets10 of 10

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
  • Gasol started at center over David Lee and blocked four shots on the night, grabbing 13 rebounds for good measure. Gasol can't move, but he's a fine rim protector at a standstill, and he spaces the floor on offense. Houston will devise more ways to attack Gasol in space, but San Antonio made the right adjustment in Game 2.
  • Ryan Anderson matched up on Green to start the game, shifting LaMarcus Aldridge to Trevor Ariza and unlocking all sorts of strategic back-and-forth. Aldridge didn't have to deal with Harden's pick-and-pop sets involving Anderson, and Green had to battle with Anderson on the boards. There's give and take all over the place with these tweaks, and it'll be interesting to see how much more Houston will look to Anderson (who had 18 points and four offensive boards) on the block against a mismatch.
  • Leonard ducked under screens several times against Harden, inviting step-back three-pointers. Harden shot just 2-of-9 from deep and didn't get into the lane quite as easily as he did in Game 1. This is a high-risk move, and Harden will shoot it better going forward, but credit San Antonio for having the guts to try it.
  • How great are the playoffs?

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Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or Accurate through May 3.

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