If I told you before the start of the playoffs a team was going to lose the first two games of their first-round series at home, fall behind 30-11 in the first quarter of Game 3, trail 3-2 facing an elimination game on the road, and overcome all of the above to advance in seven games, you probably would not have picked the Los Angeles Clippers.
This was the front-running team who disappeared in the biggest of moments in the NBA bubble last year, a group that seemed ready to pack it in after another disappointing start to this postseason run.
But if I told you before the start of the playoffs a player was going to lead this comeback, score 45 points on 72 percent shooting in Game 6 on the road, follow it up with 28 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, and four steals in Game 7, and shoot 60/40/90 in the series (61.8 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from three, 90.6 percent from the free-throw line, to be precise), you probably would have picked Kawhi Leonard.
That is the contradiction of the Clippers. They have the most stoic superstar in the game, with a supporting cast that has developed a reputation for talking the talk but not backing it up on the court. They have a number one player who just two years ago was drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan, with a franchise that has a history of incompetence and postseason collapses.
Count me as one of the people who did not even think the Clippers would make it back to Staples Center for Game 5 after losing their first two games there. I was wrong. Aside from Leonard’s brilliance, role players including Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Terance Mann, and even Luke Kennard stepped up in the seven-game series against the Mavericks.
After surviving their first-round series against Dallas, the Clippers now head to Utah to face the best team in the regular season. Is this the year they finally get out of the second round for the first time in franchise history? The field is wide-open in the West, and aside from Nikola Jokic, the Clippers have the best player in the conference.
With Leonard looking like he’s embarking on another championship narrative, this just might be the year. We’ll see if the Clippers will surprise us again in the next round, for better or worse.
A few other thoughts...
Mike Budenholzer is back at it again…?
Speaking of the same old narratives, the Milwaukee Bucks opened their second-round matchup against the Brooklyn Nets with a 115-107 loss in Game 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was not in foul trouble at any point during the game, finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds on 16-of-24 shooting in 35 minutes. Milwaukee’s best player sat for extended stretches while the game was still competitive, as head coach Mike Budenholzer seemed eager to continue with his regular-season rotations and minutes for his stars. He confirmed as much afterward:
The Bucks can point to a plethora of factors for losing Game 1. They went 6-for-30 from beyond the arc, Khris Middleton — who needs to play like a star in this series — had 13 points on 6-of-23 shooting, and Milwaukee seemed content trading baskets and playing at Brooklyn’s preferred pace. But if Budenholzer isn’t willing to push his best player beyond 40 minutes in this series, then this series just feels like a formality.
At some point, there has to be a willingness from the head coach to tread into more uncomfortable territory and, to put it simply: coach to win now. The Nets are the most significant challenge standing between the Bucks and an NBA Finals appearance. Milwaukee has a legitimate chance to win this series, especially after James Harden left Game 1 with a hamstring injury that might keep him out for the rest of this round.
The Bucks have a legitimate shot at a championship and spent the entire regular season preparing for this moment. It would be a shame for this series to devolve into a referendum on whether Budenholzer deserves another shot with this team. After one game, it appears we might be headed in that direction.
Spoiler: A brand-new champion will be crowned
With the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, and Dallas Mavericks — three teams who have won titles in the past 10 seasons — eliminated in the first round, and the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Toronto Raptors watching from home, recent champions are not represented at all in the second round of the playoffs. In fact, all of the remaining teams have either never won a title or are in the midst of an extended championship drought:
David Stern once said his preferred Finals matchup was the Lakers versus the Lakers, a reference to the league’s preference of having superstars and big markets make deep playoff runs for television rating purposes. The numbers might take a hit in these playoffs, but I think this will be a net positive for the long-term health of the league. There’s a new crop of young stars being introduced to a national audience in these playoffs, and there’s also a large segment of basketball fans who find this remaining field to be a breath of fresh air.
For all the drama the NBA conjures up during the regular season, things usually go chalk in the playoffs. The teams we expect in the Finals typically make it. The superteams who we predict to win it all at the start of the season generally get there. There’s an actual level of unpredictability to the remainder of the playoffs. Of course, the Brooklyn Nets could just spoil everything and run the table the rest of the way, but there are new teams and fresh storylines for the rest of the postseason, which is something we rarely get to say about the NBA playoffs.
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