This episode of Triple Zeros is heavy on NBA Finals talk as Josh goes into the Milwaukee Bucks chances now that they’re down 2-0. He also gives props to Giannis Antetokounmpo for toughing it out through his hyperextended knee. That inevitably led to some Khris Middleton slander but also an acknowledgment that the series is far from over. On the other side, Devin Booker went off in Game 2 after Chris Paul‘s Game 1 explosion. Can the Phoenix Suns take a game on the road or will the Bucks hold serve at home?
Elsewhere around the Association, Chauncey Billups‘ hiring by the Portland Trailblazer is causing Damian Lillard to catch flack from fans mad over sexual assault allegations from 1997. Could that drive Lillard to find a way out of Portland? Also, three Team USA Select members have gone down with injury and Tokyo is on lockdown due to COVID with less than two weeks until the Olympics are set to begin.
Lastly, in a quick-hitting segment on the NFL, catching up on the latest in the Aaron Rodgers-Green Bay Packers drama and N’Keal Harry demands a trade (yeah, ok bud). That and much more!
Perhaps for the first time in his career, following another early exit from the NBA Playoffs, it needs to actually be Dame Time. Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers otherworldly point guard, has been the consummate professional. It would take an entirely separate article to list all he’s done for the city of Portland and his hometown of Oakland. He even won the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award this season too, so…yeah.
Damian Lillard Needs to Be More Selfish After Early Exit from NBA Playoffs
There isn’t anything else he could do to be a better face of the franchise or role model.
Now that all of the pleasantries are out of the way, he needs to be more selfish and either demand better help or a ticket out of town.
Lillard has always said the right things in the public eye; never fully condemning coaches or teammates despite the numerous times they’ve let him down. We may have gotten a bit closer to him speaking out against his current situation after being eliminated from the playoffs in the first round for the fifth time in eight years.
He also posted this quote from the late Nipsey Hussle on Instagram.
The fact is this team has a ceiling even when they are at full strength. It’s time to go in a different direction. You’re going to hear all about potential destinations, Boston and Los Angeles among them.
Can They Keep Him and Actually Get Better?
One idea could be pairing Lillard with his friend, and fellow super-team naysayer, Bradley Beal. He too is suffering in an organization that is toiling away in anonymity. Washington made the playoffs this season but was unceremoniously dispatched by the 76ers, who were without Joel Embiid for most of Game 4 and all of the decisive Game 5.
Beal finished second in the NBA in scoring behind Stephen Curry and is/was eighth in the postseason. He (like CJ McCollum) is a scorer before anything else. But in addition to just being better at it, he has a more diverse scoring profile than what McCollum does.
This is obviously suggesting McCollum has to go to bring Beal West.
This is where it gets complicated, though. The Blazers don’t appear to have the requisite firepower to make it happen outside of McCollum. They don’t own their first-round pick this season and, one would assume, any future picks would be well outside of the lottery with a Lillard-Beal tandem.
Could Lillard make his way to Washington?
They do hold their own first-round pick and could include one or both of their last two first-rounders, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, in any potential deal. Would that be enough to sway the Blazers?
Probably not barring a demand from Lillard himself and even then, once it’s made known he’s available, the teams chomping at the bit to get him will surely drive the price right out of the Wizards price range. It would take some sort of “do-right-by” agreement between the Blazers and Lillard which just doesn’t make much sense organizationally.
A Blazers-Wizards pact is certainly within the realm of possibility though that roster wouldn’t be viewed as a threat to the Bucks or Nets as currently constructed.
Indeed Boston is among the top expected bidders. But the Knicks have reportedly already started calling and don’t discount the Philadelphia 76ers should Embiid’s absence lead to Ben Simmons not being able to carry them through the next round.
Something Needs to Change for Lillard after Losing Early in Playoffs
Head coach Terry Stotts is a likely head to roll but the roster needs to be re-worked as well.
And, at this point, Lillard has proved all that he can on an individual level. It’s time for greater team successes. He can see what the Portland front office can do but after eight years, a change of scenery for him could be in order, wherever that may be.
He wouldn’t be the first superstar to leave the team that drafted him because they squandered years of his career. And he certainly won’t be the last. It needs to finally be Dame Time for real for Lillard. He needs to be more “selfish” to get what he deserves: a shot at a championship. He won’t get that in Portland the way things are.
Hoops fans we’ve been waiting for these upcoming moments for the last five months! The 2020 NBA Playoffs or what I’m coining the Bubble-offs. You all see what was done there? The road to this year’s championship will be like no other. It’s possible a team that had no business being in the tournament comes away with the trophy. Tell you one thing, if the bubble-offs are anything like the eight-game restart we’re in for some of the most exciting games you’ll ever want to see.
The top seeds are locked in, Bucks who take on the Orlando Magic and Lakers battling the Trailblazers, but there’s this thing called upsets or we can call them “bubble-sets.” See what I did there again? There’s usually one or two every playoff season and this year is no different. The rest of the field shapes out like so, the Indiana Pacers versus the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Houston Rockets.
Potential Bubble Busters
The first potential bubble buster is Dame Dolla and the Trailblazers. Upsetting the Lakers would be reminiscent of the ‘07 playoffs when Golden State defeated Dallas. They match up well but King James won’t be stopped, in year 17, averaging 25 PPG, and a league-leading 10 assists a contest. Also, they have to contend with Anthony Davis‘ 26 PPG. After those two stars, there’s a significant drop off in firepower especially with no Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo.
Portland has its own dynamic duo. Lillard is averaging 30 PPG, 8.0 APG, and is fifth in PER. Then you have CJ McCollum (22 PPG) who can light it up when he gets hot. Don’t forget, they also have an ‘03 draft alum in Carmelo Anthony; or should we say Slim Melo. Since the restart, he’s averaging 17.5 points a contest. The supporting cast appears to have the edge as well with Jusuf Nurkić averaging a double-double since coming back, Hassan Whiteside league leader in blocks at 2.9 and the bubble emergence of Gary Trent Jr.
The second team possibly popping bubbles is the defending champion Toronto Raptors. Though 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left for sunny L.A. and nobody has to deal with Drake on the sidelines. Even as the second seed in the East, the Raptors are not getting their respect. They basically have the same team with a superb coach in former Coach of the Year Nick Nurse. Veterans Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka steady the team, Pascal Siakam continues to develop into a star. Lastly, we can’t leave out Fred VanVleet, who just came off a 30- point, 11-assist Game 1 performance. It’s highly likely the Raptors will clash with the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals again. Don’t be surprised if it’s deja vu.
Grab Your Front Row Virtual Seat
This year’s playoffs will definitely have a different feel. All the games are at one site, there’s no home-court advantage or crowds. Player reactions are different as the stars adjust to not being able to feed off the fans. Role players must step up without pressure from the fans. These are all factors that will bring more excitement to this year’s games.
We had to run it back with another Clocker Sports ‘Around the Clock’ roundtable discussion. We touched on Devin Booker’s Suns going 8-0 in the bubble and still missing the playoffs, chances the NFL finishes the entire season, and so much more! Head over to ClockerSports.com for more great content and send us the topics you want to hear discussed!
We were told these playoffs would be lacking. That due to the absence of Lebron James and the foregone conclusion of a Golden State Warriors three-peat, there would be no intrigue to the 2019 NBA postseason. All that has happened is an MVP-favorite guiding his team to its first Conference Finals since 2001, two teams showed us they might be capped as currently constructed, and a host of game-winning daggers. And there was the first buzzer-beater in Conference Semifinal history. But now, with only four squads left, we can expect to not only keep seeing the awe-inspiring moments but perhaps see more of them.
NBA Conference Finals Primer
Battle of the Backcourts
Golden State will kick off the Conference Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday. The two teams split their regular-season meetings at two apiece. There is postseason history here as well as the Dubs eliminated the Blazers in the Conference Semis in 2016 (five games) and swept them in the first round of the 2017 playoffs. There have also been comparisons between the two teams leading men, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry. The nature of the series even has extra meaning for the Curry family as Steph and younger brother Seth get set to do battle, at least some of the time.
Golden State Warriors
Kevin Durant is set to miss at least the first game of the series as he recovers from a calf strain. That is no small loss as Durant is the leading per game scorer in these playoffs (34.2 PPG) and averaged 28.8 versus Portland in the regular season. They will look to Steph and, Splash Bro, Klay Thompson to pick up the slack much as they have since KD went down. Klay went for 27 points on 50 percent shooting and 7-13 from three while keeping the team afloat for three-plus quarters in the closeout game against the Houston Rockets. Steph was frigid to start that game, going scoreless for the first half only to finish with a team-high 33 points.
With Kevin Durant ruled out for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals vs the Trail Blazers…should the Warriors be worried?
Well, Golden State has won 27 of their last 28 games that Kevin Durant has sat & Stephen Curry has played. Curry averages 27.9 PPG in those games. pic.twitter.com/VTITtz82wr
The Warriors also got some vintage performances from Draymond Green (13.2/10.7/8.2.) and Andre Iguodala (13.5 PPG, 48% from three) in the last round. Green should be able to keep it up after the Blazers allowed Denver’s Paul Millsap to average 17.4 points and 8.7 boards despite Portland’s bigs all being at least 6’9”. Iggy might have a tougher go of it. Will Barton, who fills a similar role for the Nuggets, averaged 10.1 PPG and shot 34.5 percent from long distance. The length of Portland could force Iguodala to do more of the other things that make him valuable.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland was written off by some (*cough* me *cough*) when they lost center Jusuf Nurkic for the rest of the year to a gruesome injury at the end of March. They finished the season 7-2 without the Bosnian Beast and have gone 8-4 in the playoffs. His loss has been softened by the play of late-season acquisition Enes Kanter (averaging 12.9 PPG and 10.5 RPG in the playoffs) but could be felt if Boogie Cousinsreturns this series. The Blazers have to be hoping that Rodney Hood’s injury doesn’t linger; they will need the 14.7 PPG on 57 percent shooting and 50 percent from deep that he surprised with last round.
Remember before the season when KD told CJ, on CJ’s own podcast, that CJ needed to “stay on his own level” and not worry about the teams at the top of the league?
The Blazers will now meet the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday.
One of Maurice Harkless or Al-Farouq Aminu (or Sunday’s surprise contributor Evan Turner) will need to find whatever led to their outbursts from this postseason and do it every game. All conventional wisdom favors the Dubs so Portland will have to try to steal one, preferably the first one, to have a real chance. They allowed Jamal Murray (23.6/6/5.6) and Gary Harris (13.7/4.6/2.1) to put up numbers at or above their regular season outputs. As good as those two are, they are no Splash Bros. Dame (28.4/4.8/6) in the playoffs) and C.J. McCollum (25.6/5.8/3.4) will need to continue doing the heavy lifting even if the other Blazers contribute close to their playoff best.
Anomaly Meet Throwback
Our second Conference Finals matchup is anything but second fiddle. Featuring the two top teams in wins and two of the game’s top five players, Bucks-Raptors should more than live up to expectations. Milwaukee took care of the Boston Celtics in short order (five games) while Toronto needed seven games (and a Herculean effort) to advance. There is so much riding on this series and that is not considering the actual goal of winning a championship. Will the gregarious Giannis Antetokounmpo prevail? Or will the quiet, calculating Kawhi Leonard reinsert his name among the game’s best?
The Greek Freak is the odds on favorite for MVP. And while it is a regular-season award, his performance in the playoffs has been in-line with the rest of the year. He is still leading his team in points (27.4) and rebounds (11.3) per game, and he only slightly trails Khris Middleton in assists in the playoffs. He is also averaging 12 free throws a game which would have led the league. Giannis is not flying solo, however. The Bucks have five players averaging double-digits in the playoffs, six averaged double figures last round, and seven reached the mark in the closeout game. That kind of effort will go a long way for Milwaukee; not only this round but perhaps in the NBA Finals.
Odds to win the Eastern Conference, as listed by @SuperBookUSA last July:
The Bucks shoot a lot of threes; they came in second to the Rockets in attempts per game during the regular season and the playoffs. But their defense against the Cs should not be overlooked. They held Boston to 104.4 PPG, 41 percent shooting, and 35.8 from distance. That was down from their 112.4 PPG, 46.5 percent from the floor, and 36.5 from deep of the regular season. Now, the Celtics themselves played a large role in their own demise, but the Bucks did have the number-one defensive rating in the NBA. The return of Malcolm Brogdon could prove huge. Also in their favor is that Toronto is averaging roughly 11 points per game less in the playoffs than they did during the season (114.4 to 103.6) and shooting only 32.7 percent as a team from deep.
Kawhi essentially dragged the Raptors to the finish line in game seven versus the Philadelphia 76ers. He dropped 41 points and grabbed eight boards with three assists and three steals. He shot poorly, as did most of the other Raptors. But he was also often the only one looking to score late. Leonard has drawn lofty comparisons over the last few weeks as he is averaging 31.8/8.5/3.6 and slashing 53.9/40.8/86.8 in the playoffs. Against the Sixers, it was 34.7/9.9/4 with the Klaw seemingly growing stronger as the playoffs have worn on.
There is only one way this could be going better for Toronto when it comes to Leonard and free agency. Serge Ibaka (17 points!) was the only teammate above 11 points. Kyle Lowry scored just 10 points, but he did have six dishes and six rebounds with only two turnovers. Pascal Siakam is either hurt or the moment is too big for him. He is averaging 20 points and 7 rebounds in the playoffs but was very passive on Sunday. Marc Gasol has been awful shooting the ball and his 102.7 defensive rating is the worst on the team. Danny Green hasn’t been much better as the entire team is shooting 32.7 percent from deep, well below their 36.6 from the regular season.
Priming the NBA Conference Finals
There has been something for everyone in these playoffs and that should continue with the Conference Semifinals beginning Tuesday. Can Dame and CJ breakthrough? Plus, Curry versus Curry in what could be the last stanza for the Hamptons Five. The Greek Freak versus the Klaw as an MVP hopeful takes on a player reminding us of some of the all-timers. Will it take a ring to keep Leonard from running West? Can Giannis cap a potentially MVP-winning season with a shot at the Larry O? We get closer to finding all of that out Tuesday night.
Let’s look at the playoff field in the Western Conference, in particular, the most surprising and disappointing playoff teams. The 2018-19 NBA regular season is drawing to a close and the playoffs are essentially here for some teams needing wins at the end of the campaign.
Playoff Winners and Losers in the Western Conference
44. That is how many wins ESPN had the Los Angeles Clippers pegged for (at best) back in October. It was actually an improvement from the 35 wins the sports media giant projected in the summer. Sitting at 47-34, L.A. is getting the last laugh, but if they foresaw the season going this way they are the only ones.
A roster built with bench and injury-prone players has turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. Potential 6th-Man of the Year Lou Williams is averaging 20 points and career-highs with 5.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds. They have gotten 19.9 points (and 67 games) out of Danilo Gallinari and 16.5 off the bench from Montrezl Harrell. L.A.s top-five scorers are rounded out by rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet.
Los Angeles is fifth in true shooting percentage and eighth in opponent effective field goal percentage. But the elephant in the room is how far can this scrappy group go with no superstar? Especially in an era where true contenders have two and three such players. Whatever the outcome for this team in the postseason, the real target is 2019-20. With space for two max contracts this summer, the Clippers have at least given themselves a shot at a big fish (or two).
Spurs Spurn Offseason
Fifth in offensive efficiency, third in percentage of points from twos, sixth in effective field goal percentage, and second in field goal percentage. All the hallmarks of a Coach Pop-led San Antonio Spurs team. They even made the playoffs to boot; currently the seventh-seed. That seeding could typically be construed as a negative for this organization. But this year was supposed to be vastly different.
Trading Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green) for Demar DeRozan (and Jakob Poeltl) was obviously not looked at as an upgrade. And to be clear, it has not been. They are scoring more this year (111.7 PPG) than 2016 (103.4) and 2017 (105.6), the last two seasons with a healthy Kawhi. But that output has them ranked 17th this season as opposed to 10th in ’16 and 13th in ’17. Defensively they are allowing 110.2 PPG, good for 12th in the NBA. They allowed 92.9 (1st) and 99.4 (2nd) points per game in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
San Antonio’s defensive numbers taking a hit sans Leonard was always the expectation, but DeRozan has been much more than a consolation prize. While his 21.3 points per game are down from last season, that is still above his career average. Additionally, he is averaging career-highs in assists (6.2), defensive rebounds (5.3), and total rebounds (6) per game. He and LaMarcus Aldridge (21-9-2-1) present a very underrated draw for whatever opponent they ultimately face. That is especially true if they do indeed take on the young, second-seeded Denver Nuggets in the first round.
Russell Westbrook (23-11-10) is averaging a triple-double for the third consecutive season. Paul George (28-8-4) spent much of the year being rightfully touted as an MVP candidate. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season and ninth time since moving from Seattle. And yet there is as much uncertainty as ever regarding how far this team can actually go in the playoffs. Who they face in the first round will likely play a huge part in that.
OKC has raised their scoring from 107.4 (12th) last year to 114.3 (8th), but they are 19th in field goal percentage. The only playoff team with a worse effective field goal percentage (and true shooting percentage) is the Detroit Pistons. No playoff teams are shooting a worse percentage from three-point range and they are the third-worst free-throw shooting team. No player personifies the nature of the Thunder season than Westbrook. Despite the gaudy stat line, he is shooting 42.5% from the floor and 28.6% from three while hitting only 65.7% of his free throws.
George is also….culpable in the Thunder looking more like a pretender than contender. Somewhat. ‘Blame’ is definitely too strong of a word, but OKC is 8-9 since his shoulder injury. Their current three-game win streak only almost offsets the four-game skid they hit in March when they went 6-10 for the month. The Thunder would square off against the Houston Rockets if the playoffs started today. If they continue to shoot so poorly from deep and the charity stripe, they are certainly looking at a third-consecutive first-round exit.
The Portland Trailblazers are having their best season since 2014-15 at 51-29 and fourth in the West. They are sixth in scoring and 10th in true shooting percentage. Damian Lillard (25-6-4) is the picture of consistency and C.J. McCollum (21-4-3) has provided his usual support, despite missing 10 games with a knee injury. The dynamic duo, however, is not what had many excited about this iteration of the Blazers.
Jusuf Nurkic, aka the Bosnian Beast, was having a career year before suffering a gruesome leg injury. It is a big blow for Nurkic (15-10-3) who also had to bow out of last year’s postseason with an injury. Portland still has the likes of Enes Kanter, Myers Leonard, and Zach Collins to man the pivot, but therein lies the rub. The Blazers will be able to replace the points, but Nurkic was their only rim-protector. Kanter is a great rebounder and contributes on offense (12.7 PPG since joining the Blazers). But he is often the butt of jokes about his defensive (li)abilities. Leonard and Collins are also offensive guys on the court for their scoring. All three lack Nurkic’s presence down low defensively.
Portland was undoubtedly looking to shake the stigma that they cannot get to the NBA Finals. Three first-round exits mixed in with only two appearances in the second round over the past five years is a high hurdle to overcome. And the Blazers have never been known as a defensive powerhouse. They also still lack that dynamic wing player to alleviate the burden on the devastating one-two punch of Lillard and McCollum. They were poised to be more physical and dominant on the boards with Nurkic and Kanter. Now they are who we thought they were, and it is difficult to see them going any deeper into the postseason than in years past.
Still Playing in the Western Conference
All of these teams are in the playoffs so one could argue that this is nitpicking. Except these are crucial to any success they might have. Sure some are out of team control, but that will not take away the sting of impending early exits if they are unable to correct the issues they face. Perhaps it is all moot since the entire basketball universe expects the Golden State Warriors to three-peat. But on the off-chance that we do crown a new NBA champion, it is approaching far-fetched to think it would be one of the teams listed above.