NBA First Round Playoff Ponderings: Kicks, Cup Checks, Barbs, Charges, Nurses, Nuggets and Old Man Strength

The Toronto Raptors have fired Nick Nurse, which immediately ranks as one of the most inexplicable coach-cannings in recent memory.  Four years ago, under Nurse, the Raptors won an NBA championship, becoming the first (and remaining the only) Canadian team to ever do so.  Since then, they have regressed, reaching the post-season only twice and missing them altogether in 2023, finishing 41-41. 

That’s largely because their former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard sought Southern California pastures, but not even Kawhi, whose best or at least healthiest years are behind him, could have saved Nurse and these Raptors.  Since joining the Clippers four seasons ago, Kawhi has played in only 150 games.  He exemplifies everything fans complain about when it comes to load management.

It’s hard to second guess Toronto GM Masai Ujiri who built that championship team but there is no way this team as currently comprised, with Pascal Siakam and Fred Vanvleet as their two main superstars, should be expected to win at best more than a playoff series.  Not when Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia boast MVP candidates year after year and appear poised to compete in the East for the next decade.

But someone must always take the fall for a mediocre season and that man is Nick Nurse.  Apparently, Toronto wanted to go in a different direction and Nurse was no longer part of that plan.  All Nurse did while there, in addition to winning a title, was amass a .582 winning percentage in the regular season and a .610 post-season winning percentage for a franchise that has a .481 winning percentage.  You do the math.

There will be plenty of gigs available for Nurse once the season ends and that next franchise will be happy to have him.  Toronto will go in their new direction Nurse-less but my guess is they won’t come close to the success they had under their former coach, especially if they don’t do something about a roster they think is better than it is.

I am happy to report that I was dead wrong about the Denver Nuggets.  For some reason, despite their number one seed, I never felt wowed by this team, dismissing them as title contenders like most everyone else.  Then I watched how they mind-f@cked the Minnesota Timberwolves into a gentleman’s sweep. 

We all know about two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and how he’s redefining the game from the center position but this team, now healthy, is not only loaded but deceivingly exciting to watch.  Coming off an 18-month rehab stint, the man they gave a max deal to, Jamal Murray, is a forty-point night waiting to happen.  The draft pick of multiple back surgeries, the smooth and unfazeable Michael Porter Jr., is turning out to be the most impactful 14th pick since the Kings took Predrag Stojakovic at that spot in 1996.  I have yet to see Porter Jr. take a bad shot this series.  And Aaron Gordon who underachieved under the pressure of having to be the Orlando Magic’s best player is now thriving as the Nuggets fourth best.

Under head coach Mike Malone, the Nuggets played chess while the talented Timberwolves played checkers, putting the Nuggets on a collision course with Kevin Durant’s Phoenix Suns in the next round.  If you miss a minute of this series, you’ll be sorry.

Despite maintaining home court advantage, the Nuggets may very well be underdogs against the more popular Suns.  If that’s the case, I know exactly where I’ll be putting my money. 

Now for some lessons in not poking the bear.  Dillon Brooks recently called LeBron James old.  Brooks wasn’t inaccurate.  LeBron is the third oldest player in the NBA.  LeBron responded to this slight by leading his Lakers on a 35-9 first quarter outburst the very next game, a lead from which the young Memphis Grizzlies could not recover.  In Game Four, LeBron notched his first ever 20-20 game.  Let’s hear it for old man strength.

I’m all for healthy trash talk, both on and off the court.  A man like Brooks will never back down.  He has occasionally frustrated the chosen one in this series, but I’m not sure inspiring LeBron James into better play is the best defense against an historic offense.  Despite being the seven-seed and a slight underdog, the elder statesmen of L.A. have both looked, and played like, the better team.  Up three games to one, they look like a lock to take this series.  I’m not sure whether a subdued Dillon Brooks is the wise option for the Grizzlies, or if that’s even possible, but the Grizz, who are not 100% health-wise, look outmatched, outmanned and out vet-smarted by the Lakers.

Speaking of health, you’re not watching a Lakers game until you’ve witnessed Anthony Davis grab another part of his aching body while writhing on the floor in agony.  If you’re a Lakers fan, you’re holding your breath every time he does so.  So far, Davis is playing like a Western Conference Finals MVP candidate, leading all players in both rebounds and blocks per game, but he’ll have to stay healthy if the Lakers want any chance at making a serious run. 

Let’s go ahead and talk about how these playoffs are being officiated or more appropriately how they’re being adjudicated.  We’ve already seen Draymond Green tossed from a game and suspended for kicking an opponent.  Joel Embiid kicked an opponent and got off scot-free.  Both James Harden and Dillon Brooks have been ejected from games for wristing opponents in the groin and those aren’t the only cup checks I’ve seen.  NBA players this post-season are getting a little too down with O.P.P. 

I’m not defending pecker checking as a defensive strategy but with regards to the Green and Embiid kicks, if the officials were to take a closer look at both instances, they’d find both Green and Embiid were provoked to the point of frustration, as if that were the instigators’ intent.  Sabonis had been egging Green the entire series, knowing it was only a matter of time before he lost his cool.  Similarly, Brooklyn defenders were unnecessarily physical with Embiid to the point where it seemed they were trying to hurt the man intentionally.

As it stands right now, the officials have lost control of a number of these series.  If we see tempers flare, and further suspensions doled out, potentially affecting the outcomes of games, we will have the referees to blame and a busy off-season for the commissioner’s office. 

I’ll be the first to admit I gave the Clippers a puncher’s chance in their series against the Phoenix Suns.  Sure, the Suns hadn’t lost a regular season game since signing Kevin Durant, at least not one that he’d played in, but the Clippers have three first ballot Hall of Famers on their roster as well.   The problem is only one of those Hall of Famers is healthy.  While Russell Westbrook can win you a game all by himself, he’s not going to win four games against a team starting Kevin Durant. 

Paul George was ruled out for the series (when is he not?) and as we discussed earlier, Kawhi Leonard only mustered two games.  After scoring over 30 in Games One and Two, he didn’t play in Games Three or Four.  The Suns took full advantage leaving Clippers fans to wonder what could have been if only their stars could have been healthy.

The Sixers swept the Nets and will face the winner of Boston-Atlanta (aka Boston, we think).  Elsewhere, the Milwaukee Bucks are having a hard time with their eight-seed matchup, the Miami Heat.  The Heat have lost both Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo but still rely on the unextinguishable Jimmy Butler, who is one of only seven players averaging thirty points a game this post-season (bonus points if you can guess the other six).

This is not a good matchup for the heavily favored Bucks, especially if their MVP is playing hurt.  Speaking of hurt, can we please stop all the internet outrage about outlawing the charge?  In the opening games, superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ja Morant both hit the floor driving the lane as defenders drew charges against them.  They both missed games as a result.  I’m all for the league looking at how to officiate or legislate what a defender can and can’t do but to call for the outlawing of a defensive maneuver because two stars coincidentally went down on the same night is a tad impulsive.

In the category of most surprising/least surprising outcome, we have the third-seeded, heavily disrespected Sacramento Kings giving the defending champion Golden State Warriors all they want.  De’Aaron Fox is slowly proving that he’s the best player you’ve never heard of and Damontas Sabonis is doing more than just getting Draymond Green thrown out of games.  I still feel the Warriors will emerge victorious in this series but the Kings, who made the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and are led by the first ever unanimous coach of the year, are proving they’re a team that no one wants to play, especially Golden State.

And finally, you gotta feel for Donovan Mitchell, who is still trying to find where he put that clutch gene.  Last summer, the Utah Jazz dismantled their roster and started from scratch.  Mitchell was one of those casualties.

Jazz fans were conflictedly happy to see him go, most of us wondering why a superstar like Mitchell could never get his team farther in the playoffs.  Far be it from me to criticize one of the most exciting young talents in the game but the facts don’t lie.  In real time, we are watching why Donovan Mitchell cannot be the best player on his team. 

The numbers don’t necessarily bear this out to be true.  Donovan Mitchell still scores in bunches, averaging 28 points per game but his teams are 2-5, soon to be 2-6 in the post-season.  Perhaps it’s unfair to blame Mitchell’s lack of team success squarely on him but that’s what happens in the NBA.  When you’re the face of the franchise, you are measured against those that came before you.  Until Mitchell can lead his team to wins of merit, he’ll continue to carry the burden of never getting it done.

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