Celtics, Rockets score huge wins in day 4 of the NBA’s restart
The NBA continued on Sunday with six more games, including two thrillers in Portland vs. Boston and Milwaukee vs. Houston. Let’s take a closer look into what transpired:
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This was arguably the game of the day, with brilliant performances by the stars on both sides down to the wire. For much of the contest, it didn’t appear that this would be the case. Boston grabbed a double-digit lead by the middle of the first quarter and was in firm control, leading by as much as 23.
This stretch served as a reminder for why Portland had a bottom-five defense before the stoppage. The Celtics were driving-and-kicking them into oblivion, and when that didn’t work, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker (who looked good again, despite the minutes restriction) rained off-the-dribble 3’s.
It wasn’t even that the Blazers were too clunky with Collins/Nurkic frontcourt – the Boston players just had either a speed or a size advantage at nearly every position across the board. Enes Kanter also showed out against his former team, finding crevasses in Portland’s ghastly defense (Hassan Whiteside was a complete statue out there) for layups and offensive rebounds.
Boston’s big men weren’t exactly putting on a defensive showcase either, but their perimeter players were doing a great job of helping off some of Portland’s shakier shooters to disrupt the paint.
Jusuf Nurkic, who looks to be all the way back from his gruesome leg injury, played a major part in keeping the Celtics from completely blowing the game open in the second half. After a Jaylen Brown four-point play pushed Boston’s lead back to 20 with 5:32 left in the third, Portland went on a 41-19 run to take a two-point lead with just over six minutes remaining.
They had some hot shooting by Gary Trent Jr. and C.J. McCollum, but the surge was driven by the transcendent shot-making of Damian Lillard. Nobody in the league is more fun to watch than Dame when he’s on a hot streak. This demonstrated why he’s the scheme-breaker that he is, as Brad Stevens was forced to switch his team’s defensive coverages to put two on the ball and force Lillard towards the sideline.
On the other side of the floor, Portland had their bigs defend more aggressively on the perimeter in order to force the Celtics to score in 2-point territory (which is smart, since they shoot 61.7 percent at the rim as a team, good for 23rd in the NBA). They were also helping aggressively off Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye, who were liabilities. Boston offense became static, with Tatum, in particular, stopping the flow.
In the end, however, Stevens’ adjustment slowed the Blazers down just enough offensively, and the Celtics were able to make enough plays to take the victory. Jaylen Brown hit a few daggers. Gordon Hayward took advantage of the smaller Trent Jr. in the post.
My main takeaway from this game is that Portland needs a near-Herculean effort from Lillard to hang with the contenders. Maybe if they had Trevor Ariza and a healthy Rodney Hood this would be a bit different. Right now, though, beating out two of Memphis/San Antonio/New Orleans is the focus, and they definitely have a shot. All of these are playoff games for the Blazers, and the minute totals of their star back-court reflect that.
For the Celtics, this was a solid bounce-back after the loss to Milwaukee on Friday. All of their perimeter guys looked good, though Portland doesn’t have the guns to test them. Their center rotation remains an issue against certain match-ups.
This matchup is very fascinating in terms of basketball theory with two extremes butting heads: the Bucks in their ability to shut down the paint and the Rockets in their pursuit of solely threes, layups, and free throws (and disregarding the traditional height norms in the process). How this played out on the court was just as interesting as it is on paper. Let’s start on the other side of the floor, however.
In the first half, Houston’s switching really threw the Buck’s offense haywire. The only time that they ever scored consistently in the half-court was through Khris Middleton one-on-one jumpers. Houston’s help rotations exposed their limited passing ability as a group, forcing heaps of turnovers.
Coming out of halftime, it was clear that Mike Budenholzer and the coaching staff had a clear emphasis of 1) feed Giannis Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez in the post, and 2) swarm the offensive glass like crazy. Aside from spotting-up inside the arc, the Bucks were playing 1990’s NBA basketball. It was pretty jarring to see. Giannis and Lopez ate, to be sure, but the rest of the team got very little from three-point range (a trade-off that the Rockets probably accept).
On the other side, Houston got all the three-pointers they wanted and more. Lopez was “guarding” P.J. Tucker, and he was helping off of him regardless. The only Rocket who could ever break the paint was Russell Westbrook, but even then he was kicking it out for long-range shots. This was where the Bucks missed Eric Bledsoe as a point-of-attack defender. Unlike Friday’s contest, James Harden didn’t have his step-back working. Wesley Matthews has always done a solid job on him, going back to that 2014 first-round series.
In the end, the math barely eeked out in Houston’s favor, but the results are almost secondary to me. These two teams are so unique in terms of their style that I’d see seven-game series between them as close to a dream scenario, even though the Bucks’ statistical profile is far superior. What would it take for either one of these teams to be stretched beyond the breaking point? Add in the fact that both coaches are seemingly unfazed by the variance gods, and you truly have a perfect storm for basketball theory to be acted out in real-life.