The second round of the NBA Playoffs has been nothing short of tremendous, featuring two upsets as well as two series going all the way to Game 7. There have been many surprises during this round, as two teams that were slotted by many experts to advance to the Conference Finals, and perhaps the NBA finals, failed to do so. The Los Angeles Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks were both eliminated in different, albeit shocking fashions, forcing two remarkably talented teams to pack their suitcases and wait for the next flight out of Orlando.
Western Conference, Los Angeles Lakers Def. Houston Rockets 4–1:
Despite losing by fifteen points in Game 1, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers rallied to convincingly defeat James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the Houston Rockets in just five games.
Houston’s three-point oriented offense was stymied by the Laker’s defense, which focused on double-teaming Harden and chasing Houston’s array of spot-up shooters off the three-point line. Westbrook also struggled, as his inconsistent jump shot proved time and time again to be a liability throughout the series.
In some ways, the Lakers were the worst possible matchup for Houston’s small-ball lineup, with the 6’5’’ P.J. Tucker serving as the Rockets’ nominal center. There was little rim-protection to stop James’ patented drives, nor was there a defender tall enough to guard the 6’10’’ Anthony Davis. Davis, who is averaging 27.6 points per game in the playoffs along with 10.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, dominated the Rockets in Games 2 and 4. James, meanwhile, is averaging 26.6 points on 55.3% shooting to go along with 10.3 rebounds in his 16th season. Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel helped to minimize the damage Houston’s undersized rotation could inflict by making the prudent adjustment of playing Markieff Morris over Javale McGee and Dwight Howard, preventing Houston from taking advantage of the Lakers’ slow-footed bigs. In the closeout Game 5, Houston folded, showing poor effort on the defensive end as the Lakers cruised to a 119-96 victory and their first trip to the Conference Finals since 2010.
Western Conference, Denver Nuggets Def. Los Angeles Clippers 4-3:
The L.A. Clippers—a team that many picked as the favorite to win the title at the beginning of the season—were handily beaten 104–89 by the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 on Tuesday, Sept. 15, marking the end to what was nothing short of an epic collapse.
As quite possibly the best team on paper going into the playoffs, the Clippers were completely exposed on both ends of the floor by the Nuggets, squandering a 3–1 series lead as well as multiple double-digit advantages in Games 5 and 6. Clippers’ stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George floundered in the crucial Game 7 scoring just 24 points combined while shooting 10 of 38 from the field. Following this monumental failure of a season, major questions must be asked about the Clippers’ chemistry and roster construction going into the offseason.
Major credit, however, must be given to the Denver Nuggets and their resilience for pulling off such an upset. Young Nuggets stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray gave heroic performances in Game 7, Murray continuing his fantastic playoff scoring run with 40 points while Jokic recorded a triple-double with 16 points, 22 rebounds, and 13 assists. Denver’s comeback victory makes history, as they become the first team in NBA history to win multiple series in the same postseason while trailing 3–1. Denver will be riding this momentum into the Western Conference Finals, where they hope to pull off another upset against possibly the best team remaining in the league, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Eastern Conference, Boston Celtics Def. Toronto Raptors 4-3:
The Toronto Raptors, the reigning NBA champions, were eliminated from contention on Friday night with a Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, with Boston winning 92–87. This gritty seven-game series was a heartbreaking end for a Toronto team that clearly overachieved during the regular season, especially when considering the loss of Kawhi Leonard in free agency.
This loss of Leonard was clearly felt in these playoffs. Pascal Siakam, Toronto’s rising star, and main scoring option, severely underperformed against Boston’s stifling defense, forcing guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet to pick up an unsustainable amount of the scoring slack. However, Toronto displayed terrific effort throughout the series, pushing a more talented Celtics team to the brink and very nearly advancing to the Conference Finals.
Boston was led by Jayson Tatum, who decisively proved to be the best player in the series. The 22-year-old forward scored 29 points to go along with 12 rebounds, 7 assists, and defense. Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown was also phenomenal on both ends, efficiently scoring a much needed 21 points in a rock fight of a Game 7. As the Celtics advance, they will need to step up on both ends of the floor to compete with the red hot Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Eastern Conference, Miami Heat Def. Milwaukee Bucks 4-1:
The Defensive Player of the Year and likely MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, watched from the sideline as his team was easily defeated by the fifth-seeded Miami Heat. Antetokounmpo, who sprained his right ankle in the first quarter of Game 4, was ruled out for the closeout Game 5 where his Milwaukee Bucks were beaten 103–94.
Although Miami was impressive all season long, it was shocking to see them overcome the NBA’s No. 1 overall seeded Bucks in just five games. Their swarming defense and the play of Heat center Bam Adebayo severely limited Antetokounmpo’s effectiveness, as Miami took advantage of Antetokounmpo’s weak shooting ability and playmaking woes. To make matters worse, Antetokounmpo’s supporting cast failed to make enough open threes to keep Miami honest. With Antetokounmpo’s free agency looming, this frustrating playoff burnout does not bode well for Milwaukee’s future.
Jimmy Butler, Miami’s star acquisition in last summer’s free agency, outplayed Antetokounmpo throughout the series, leading his team to what would have been a sweep if not for the overtime shot-making of Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in Game 4.
While the Bucks hunt for ways to improve back in Milwaukee so they can keep their MVP caliber player for the long haul, Miami stays in Disneyworld to face the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
Jack McEvoy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org