The NBA playoffs move in cycles. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. And sometimes it’s tough to tell what’s real and what’s not.
On Friday night, the Houston Rockets walloped the Los Angeles Lakers, and might have exposed a bigger issue for LeBron James‘ team. And the Miami Heat continued picking apart the East favorites, the Milwaukee Bucks, showing they might be the real contenders.
Against the Boston Celtics, the Toronto Raptors looked cooked before barely escaping Game 3 with a last-second win. Did that dramatic finish give them the jolt they need to climb back into this series and potentially advance?
And the LA Clippers sleepwalked at times through their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks before finally turning on the jets in Game 5. That momentum carried over to Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, when they demolished the Denver Nuggets. Have they reestablished themselves as the favorite to win it all?
Our experts separate the fact from the fiction on all four series, telling you whether to buy the hype or avoid getting burned.
Real or Not: The Rockets are a matchup nightmare for the Lakers
The Rockets eschewed the “rules” the Lakers used to build their team. The Lakers are centered on two transcendent stars, a huge front line and excellent inside-out defense. This is a tried-and-true formula for postseason success, allowing them to control pace and scoring margin, dominate the glass and produce high-efficiency shots while preventing opponents from doing the same.
The Rockets don’t rely on that approach. Their offense is built around two MVP-winning isolation scorers who can each collapse a defense and generate wide-open 3-pointers for their cadre of 3-and-D players. James Harden‘s high volume of 3-pointers off the dribble and ability to get into the paint and draw fouls (11.8 free throws attempted per game during the regular season, leading the NBA) requires defensive focus, and Russell Westbrook is essentially able to play a point guard version of 5-out where the shooters around him create lanes for him to attack the rim.
Standard defensive strategy built around a large, talented front line simply doesn’t slow down this attack, and might be a liability at the 3-point line. When the Rockets’ shots are falling, they can trade 3-for-2 for a Lakers team lacking 3-point shooting and thus render moot the offensive efficiency James and Anthony Davis can generate.
At the other end, the Rockets’ scrappy, physical, switching team defense creates turnovers (17.0 per game in the postseason, first in the NBA) and is surprisingly stout against post-ups with defenders who are short but stocky.
Game 1 was a textbook illustration of the way the Rockets’ strengths can create fault lines in the Lakers. Harden and Westbrook penetrated at will and created easy shots for the entire team, and P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington led a scrappy, lockdown defensive effort that forced the Lakers into difficult shots. — André Snellings
Real or Not: The Heat can win the championship
Why not? The East is wide open right now with the No. 1 seed down 3-0 and the No. 2 seed narrowly avoiding the same fate thanks to OG Anunoby‘s buzzer-beating 3.
Miami’s 3-0 series lead over Milwaukee is at least as much a product of how well the Heat are playing as it is the Bucks’ shortcomings. Throughout the playoffs, Miami has looked like a balanced, dangerous team with pieces that fit well at both ends of the court.
In Jimmy Butler, the Heat have a star who’s capable of taking over close games down the stretch, as he did in both Game 1 and Game 3 against the Bucks. In Bam Adebayo, they have a different kind of star who controls games with his defensive versatility and unorthodox playmaking. And Goran Dragic has turned back the clock to give them another dangerous shot creator.
For as well as Miami has defended Giannis Antetokounmpo, I’m not sure the Heat match up quite as well with the Celtics if they eventually square off in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics’ depth of perimeter creators will test Miami’s ability to stash Duncan Robinson on a lesser threat — particularly if Gordon Hayward is able to return for that series.
Additionally, the Heat’s shooting will probably cool at some point. Based on the location and type of shots, as well as the distance to the nearest defender, Second Spectrum’s quantified shot making (qSM) measure shows them overperforming by the fourth most of any playoff team. So I don’t think Miami would be favored in a potential Finals matchup against whichever team wins the West.
Still, the Heat weren’t favored to win this series and here we are. We can’t count out Miami’s chance of winning a fourth NBA championship. — Kevin Pelton
Real or Not: The Celtics-Raptors series is up for grabs
The Celtics have been the better team through three games, but NBA history is littered with squads that started a series with the upper hand only to lose their grip in Games 3 and 4.
One recent example? Last year’s Eastern Conference finals, when Nick Nurse’s Raptors were down 2-0 against the Bucks, only to turn around and win four straight en route to the NBA championship.
And the year before, in 2018, Brad Stevens’ Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers despite a 2-0 series lead fueled by the play of a rookie, Jayson Tatum, and a second-year swingman, Jaylen Brown.
This year, Toronto has underperformed in shooting, while Boston has exceeded its expectations, especially from 3-point range.
Who can forget when Marcus Smart basically morphed into Klay Thompson in the second half of Game 2, hitting a dizzying array of 3s and propelling the Celtics to a huge comeback win. That was awesome, but it’s also unsustainable.
Meanwhile, the Raptors have made just 25.9% of their 54 3-pointers in this series when the closest defender has been at least six feet away, per Second Spectrum. During the regular season, they made 41.2% of such looks — the second-best mark in the league.
Taking it one step further, you might be surprised by which Raptors are struggling the most on these open looks: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Marc Gasol are a combined 3-for-24. That also seems likely to improve, as these guys are too good to shoot this poorly for a whole series.
I expect Toronto to start making more 3s and this series to go down to the wire. — Kirk Goldsberry
Real or Not: The Clippers are now the title favorites
The Lakers and Clippers are still on a Western Conference finals collision course, even considering the Lakers’ Game 1 letdown against Houston. And right now, yes, the Clippers are the favorites to win the L.A. bubble battle and — apologies to the East — the NBA championship.
But the Clippers are the better overall team. They’re deeper. They score more points and shoot better. Leonard is already playing at a Finals MVP level. And the Clippers haven’t even yet hit a consistent stride or reached their full defensive potential.
Seven games into their postseason run, the Clippers have been whole only twice, which has put their depth and flexibility on display.
When Patrick Beverley was out and George went through a playoff slump, players such as Lou Williams, Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac, Reggie Jackson and Landry Shamet stepped up. Morris has been everything the Clippers were looking for, providing inside-outside scoring, the ability to defend multiple positions and enforcer-like toughness.
Despite missing their starting point guard in five of their seven playoff games, the Clippers have averaged the most points (125.7) per game in the postseason, eight more than the Lakers entering their Game 1 against Houston.
As good as James and Davis have been, the Lakers’ shooters haven’t been as dependable. The Lakers are the worst 3-point shooting team left in the bubble at 33.3%. The Clippers are the top 3-point shooting team remaining in the playoffs at a 40.5% clip.
Defensively, the Clippers haven’t always been on the same page but have held opponents to 97 points in each of the past two games. They will send waves of defenders like Beverley, Leonard, George and Morris to wear down James. And they will, without a doubt, try to get physical with Davis with Zubac, Montrezl Harrell, Morris and JaMychal Green.
The Clippers have the better bench with Harrell and Williams, the owners of the past three Sixth Man of the Year awards, who have yet to fully click as Harrell finds his rhythm after a month away from the team. And they have a head coach with championship experience in Doc Rivers.
Most important, they have Leonard, who might be feeling the best he has felt at this point of the postseason after four-plus months off.
Leonard is averaging postseason career highs with 32.3 points, 4.9 assists and 56.2% shooting to go with 9.0 rebounds. And he indeed has the Clippers looking like the favorites to win it all. — Ohm Youngmisuk