Views from the Bubble: Upsets, instant classics in the NBA playoffs

Giannis Antetokounmpo is pictured. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Heat topple top-seeded Bucks

For the second consecutive season, the Milwaukee Bucks had the NBA’s best regular season record, the league’s best regular season defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions and arguably the league’s most dominant player in soon to be back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. And for the second consecutive season, the Bucks have failed to win the Eastern Conference.

The fifth-seeded Miami Heat, who finished the disrupted regular season 12 games behind the Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings, defeated Milwaukee 103–94 Tuesday night to win the series 4–1 and clinch a spot in the conference finals.

Antetokounmpo did not play in Game 5 after suffering a gruesome sprained ankle during Game 4. Even before Antetokounmpo’s injury, the Heat thoroughly outplayed the Bucks and took a commanding 3–0 series lead. Jimmy Butler set the tone for the series in the Heat’s 115–104 Game 1 victory, pouring in 40 points from 13 on 20 shooting. Butler was at his best in crunch time, scoring 15 points in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter.

Before the postseason began, Butler sat down with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols and told her, “We can win [the NBA championship] … I don’t give a damn what anyone says.” So far, that assessment appears legitimate. After sweeping the fourth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the first round and defeating the Bucks in the conference semifinals, the Heat are 8–1 in the playoffs and look like the hottest team in the NBA.

In an era marked by superstars joining forces to form so-called “superteams,” the Heat have relied instead on exceptional depth to find success. Each night feels like somebody new steps up, propelling the Heat to victory. Starting power forward Bam Adebayo scored double figures in each game against the Bucks and his backup Kelly Olynyk reached double figures in three of the five games. Coach Eric Spoelstra has given young sharpshooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson the bright green light from deep and both players have taken advantage in the playoffs, with each player hitting several clutch threes against both the Pacers and Bucks. Savvy veterans Goran Dragic and Jae Crowder have also played great minutes throughout the postseason, averaging 21.1 and 12.8 points per game, respectively. As if there are not enough weapons at Spoelstra’s disposal, seasoned NBA journeyman and former finals MVP Andre Iguodala provides experience off the bench for the Heat. Miami will play the winner of the Celtics-Raptors series for a spot in the NBA championship.

After another disappointing playoff exit, the Bucks head into an offseason in which they are almost certain to offer Antetokounmpo a five-year supermax extension. Whether or not the MVP signs an extension with the small-market Bucks will be among the biggest storylines of the NBA offseason.    

Lakers take 2–1 series lead

The first-seed Lakers defeated the fourth-seed Rockets 112–102 on Tuesday to take a 2–1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals. Lebron James (36 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and Anthony Davis (26 points, 15 rebounds, six assists) led the way for the Lakers in Game 3. The series provides an interesting matchup as the Lakers have three starters listed at 6 feet, 9 inches or taller, while the small-ball Rockets’ tallest starter is 6-foot-7-inch forward Robert Covington. Golden State Warriors power forward/center Draymond Green went so far as to suggest in a tweet that NBA centers should be rooting for the Lakers because their value will be diminished if a diminutive lineup takes down the Lakers. James Harden (33 points, nine rebounds, nine assists) and Russell Westbrook (30 points, eight rebounds, six assists) each played efficiently on Tuesday, but the star duo will need somebody else to step up in a big way to defeat the Lakers.

Raptors force Game 7 of Eastern Conference semifinals

The Boston Celtics were in cruise control in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, up two games to zero and leading the Toronto Raptors 103–101 after Daniel Theis’ dunk with 0.5 seconds left. Then Kyle Lowry sent a cross court inbounds pass over 7-foot-5-inch Tacko Fall and into the hands of his teammate OG Anunoby, who calmly knocked down the buzzer-beating game-winning three. The Celtics blew the coverage leaving Anunoby wide open in the corner. In his post-game presser, Jaylen Brown, the defender nearest Anunoby, said there was a miscommunication and called the mishap an “f-ing disgrace.” The Raptors rode their momentum into a Game 4 victory in which they shot 17–44 from three while the Celtics went an abysmal 7–35 from behind the arc. In Game 5, Boston held Toronto to 11 first quarter points, went into the half up 27 and easily won 111–89, taking a 3–2 series lead. 

Officials in the Bucks-Heat series were heavily criticized for calling ticky-tack fouls in the last seconds of Game 2, resulting in game-winning free throws for the Heat with no time left on the clock. The officials in Game 6 of the Celtics-Raptors series seemed to have the polar opposite philosophy. With the game knotted at 98 and seconds left in regulation, Kemba Walker drove hard through the lane and was clobbered by Raptors guard Fred Van Vleet. As Walker went flying the whistle stayed quiet. A missed prayer from Pascal Siakam sent the game into overtime.

Each team’s defense buckled down in the first overtime and Jaylen Brown hit two clutch free throws to tie the game at 106. Norman Powell’s three-for-the-win rimmed out, sending the game to double overtime.

Back-to-back dunks from Jayson Tatum and Daniel Theis put the Celtics up four, but the Raptors refused to go away, getting a quick bucket from Kyle Lowry and a pair of free throws from Powell to tie the game at 110. In a hectic flurry of offense, the Celtics and Raptors proceeded to trade buckets on six consecutive offensive possessions.

The Celtics ultimately blinked first with Powell picking Tatum’s pocket and converting an and-one on the other end to give the Raptors a four-point lead. Tatum brought the Celtics back to within two with a floater but Lowry sealed the game with an unbelievable fadeaway jumper over Walker to put the Raptors up four with 11.7 seconds left. The Raptors walked away with a 125–122 win.

The Raptors thrilling double-overtime Game 6 victory means there will be a Game 7 on Friday night. Whichever team advances to play the Heat in the conference finals will be at a major energy deficit after a strenuous seven-game series that has seen several players from both rosters play grueling minutes. In Game 6 both the Celtics and Raptors had four players hit 50 minutes and Siakam, Lowry and Tatum played the entire second half and overtime periods. 

Clippers, Nuggets tied in 2–2 series

The Denver Nuggets only had one day off after their thrilling Game 7 win over the Utah Jazz. They played tired in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers and were easily defeated 120–97. Anyone who thought the Nuggets would fold does not know the character of their young star Jamal Murray who, as a kid in Canada, was doing deep-knee squats with hot tea balancing on his thighs to make sure he held the position. Murray scored 27 points in Game 2 and his Serbian partner in the front court, Nikola Jokić, added 26 as the Nuggets defeated the Clippers to even the series at one game a piece. In Game 3 Paul George stepped up big for the Clippers, leading the charge in the fourth quarter as the Clippers outscored the Nuggets 29–19 en route to a 113–107 victory and a 2–1 series lead. 

The Clippers won Game 4 last night by a score of 96–85.

Correction: A previous version of this article included subheadlines that incorrectly presented the results of the Celtics vs. Raptors series and the Clippers vs. Nuggets series. The article has been updated to reflect these changes. The Daily regrets this error.