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Bam Adebayo Is Making Plays, Denver Is Making Us Look Bad, And The Lakers May Need To Make Some Adjustments

chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): So, the last time we talked, we thought maybe we’d reached peak craziness in the NBA playoffs already. The Raptors and Celtics had played an overtime game that was fantastic, and it looked as if we were certainly barreling toward a Lakers/Clippers collision course.

And well … the Clippers collided with the Nuggets, instead.

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): How young and innocent we all were back then.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): LOL

chris.herring: Now we’ve got a pair of conference finals series that figure to be interesting. The Heat and Celtics kept the overtime trend alive, with Miami winning Game 1 in dramatic fashion. What are the odds that the Heat take out the Celtics in this series? It seems like a good matchup for them

dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Forty-five percent, according to RAPTOR!

tchow: Our forecast has them as basically a toss-up, with the Celtics getting a slight edge (55 percent to Miami’s 45 percent).

chris.herring: It kinda feels like they should be favored, between the lead and the fact that they match up as well as they do

tchow: That 45 percent seems low to me. Miami leads in the series, and RAPTOR doesn’t account for how much of an impact that Adebayo block will have on Jayson Tatum’s future performances.

dubin: I thought the Celtics would have much more success hunting individual matchups than they did in Game 1. They got Duncan Robinson in foul trouble very quickly, but Tyler Herro held his own, and for some reason they kept going at Bam Adebayo in pick and rolls rather than trying to attack Goran Dragić in isolation.

dre.waters: Herro was actually one assist short of being the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double in the conference finals.

chris.herring: I felt like Boston wouldn’t struggle nearly as much as Milwaukee did to create offense against the Heat defense. But Kemba Walker continues to get a ton of defensive pressure. And as Jared pointed out … challenging Adebayo is certainly an odd choice

Makes you think that will be an adjustment going forward in the series.

One thing that really stood out to me was Bam’s playmaking. The ball was in hands seemingly more than normal, so I went back and looked at the numbers. He finished with nine assists, which was impressive enough. But he came away 13 potential assist opportunities — more than double the number he averaged against the Celtics in the regular season.

Almost looked Jokić-like in terms of hunting backcuts and then punishing the Celtics with a pass to the perimeter when they overplayed the cuts backdoor.

dubin: Bam was probably the second-best passing big man in the league this year — especially on short rolls out of the pick and roll.

dre.waters: Bam’s playmaking is pretty underrated. He’s actually been their leader in assists this postseason.

chris.herring: And none of that even gets to him making the play of the game, which Tony mentioned earlier.

One of the better, more impactful playoff blocks we’ve seen in recent memory.

dubin: One thing about the Heat is that so many different guys can carry them at different times. Dragić and Herro kept them in it early, Jae Crowder just kept making threes, and then Jimmy Butler’s scoring and Bam’s block won it late.

Side note: How much do the Celtics regret turning Crowder into a shooter? He wouldn’t even be on the Heat right now if that had never happened a few years back.

dre.waters: That’s gotta be eating them up. Everytime the Heat have needed big three this postseason, he seems to hit one for them

dubin: Does anyone else think Butler is the most fascinating player left in the playoffs, by the way? He’s so strange. Some games, he completely dominates from start-to-finish. Others he disappears for long stretches, only to pop up at the most opportune times (like Game 1). He does so many things well and makes his impact in such profound ways.

chris.herring: He might be the most unusual star in the league, man. Can drop 40 one night but then hand the reins to someone else the next. Really good passer. A stud defender. But always seems to be there for the big moments.

The Heat are a scary team. Still just one loss this postseason! And they almost won that one, too.

dubin: He has such a strange shot distribution for a star, too. Plus, he parades himself to the line like 400 times a night.

chris.herring: Which helps make up for the subpar jumper.

tchow: I don’t think there was ever a question that Butler was a star in this league, albeit an enigmatic one. That partly explains all the team changes he’s had over the years. He’s a tough one to pinpoint, but these games in the bubble so far have shown how fun he can be to watch.

chris.herring: I wonder if him moving from team to teamto team makes people question how good he is, or if he’s worth it. You normally don’t see clubs move on from a guy who’s a superstar. I don’t know that Jimmy is one. But it really does feel like he impacts the game as much as the guys we call superstars. And it’s clear he considers himself on their level, if not better.

Speaking of people on Jimmy’s level: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. … All of a sudden, they aren’t in the playoffs anymore. The Nuggets disposed of them after mounting another 3-1 comeback, pulling away in blowout fashion to win Game 7.

We could start in any number of places. But how surprised were y’all by the Nuggets’ comeback, and how much of this was Denver’s doing versus the Clippers collapsing?

dubin: I want to say it’s about equal, but when you see Kawhi and PG go 10-38 for 24 points in Game 7, that makes it tough.

chris.herring: No points in the fourth quarter from either guy! Kawhi and PG were scoreless! With one free throw attempt the entire game!

tchow: In our last chat, someone who clearly knows nothing about the NBA said, “The Nuggets have had a really impressive playoff run, but I can’t see them pulling this off.” Boy, was that guy wrong.

dre.waters: Even though we had just watched the Nuggets come back from the same deficit the round before, it was still really surprising to see just how much the Clippers fell apart in the second half of that game.

Outscored 50-33 in the second half … ooof.

dubin: Denver’s defense has gotten a lot stingier (121.7 points per 100 in the seeding games, 131.1 through Game 4 of the Jazz series, 107.1 since), and Jamal Murray really just can’t miss anything. I want to give the Nuggets almost all of the credit. But man, it really feels like L.A.’s offense self-destructed.

And the fact that it was their offense that was so bad made it even more surprising, I think. There were some cracks in the defense throughout the year, but you’d think they could generate some points against a defense that was kind of hopeless until like two weeks ago.

chris.herring: I want to be really clear: The Nuggets were excellent. Paul Millsap had a turning point. Michael Porter Jr. redeemed himself. Gary Harris was a factor. The contributions of Murray and Nikola Jokić go without saying, and when one got going, it opened up things for the other, because of how the Clippers went about trapping and doubling.

So I’ll be the first to credit the Nuggets while also saying that this was terribly disappointing from the Clippers.

tchow: I think the surprise is kinda our own faults, too. (“Our” meaning just NBA media.) It feels like all season, you’ve heard over and over that the Clippers had a championship-caliber roster, and the franchise itself was not shy about confirming that. I mean, making those moves in the offseason, they clearly had a title-or-bust idea going into this season. But you just heard it over and over again, so when they collapse like this, the surprise is in large part because we built them up in our heads. Or at least I did.

dubin: By the way, Murray just had a fantastic series while being guarded almost exclusively by Kawhi, PG and Pat Beverley. Think he’s gonna have an easier time against Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo?

Three of those four guys are consistently good defenders, and one (Rondo) has been good in the postseason. But man, they’re not on the level of the guys the Clippers threw at Murray.

chris.herring: I think that question is one that might define the series, Jared. That along with what happens between Jokić and Anthony Davis.

I really hope Lakers coach Frank Vogel doesn’t wait as long as Doc Rivers did to make adjustments, though.

tchow: Yeah, I’m going to be really interested to see how the Nuggets end up matching up against the Lakers, defensively more so than offensively.

dubin: There’s a 112 percent chance that Vogel is going back to the big lineup to start the series, right? I feel pretty confident in that happening.

tchow: I think the big lineup would be the obvious choice for the Lakers. Exploit one of your clear advantages.

chris.herring: … And that seems like a clear mistake to me.

Saw this note from Anthony Slater over at The Athletic:

The Lakers this year, against the Nuggets:

  • With Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee, 52 minutes total, and the Lakers were outscored by 18.
  • With Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard: 42 minutes, and the teams were even.
  • With Anthony Davis and neither big alongside him: 56 minutes, and the Lakers outscored Denver by 34.

tchow: OK, never mind then. Frank, if you’re reading this, rethink your starting five for Game 1 tomorrow.

Doesn’t Anthony Davis HATE playing center though?

dre.waters: Pretty sure he does, LOL.

dubin: If AD didn’t state publicly at almost every opportunity that he wants to be a power forward, I don’t think JaVale or Dwight would get any playoff minutes. But alas, AD does state that at basically every opportunity. It was one of the first things he said upon being traded to the Lakers.

chris.herring: Won’t the Lakers HATE Anthony Davis if he doesn’t play center in this series for long stretches, and they lose because of it?!

tchow: Yeah, this is probably a case of the needs of the team being more important than the wants of a player — but this is also the NBA.

dre.waters: I mean, if you’re literally playing for a shot at the championship, I would think Davis would be willing to make the sacrifice, if necessary.

dubin: Right? Bang with Jokić for four to seven games, and then you get Daniel Theis or Bam in the Finals, in what should presumably be less physically taxing (in the way Davis likes to avoid) matchups.

chris.herring: I took the Lakers in this series, but I’m also fully prepared for the Nuggets to make me look like an idiot one more time, for good measure.

As Jared said before, Murray isn’t going to see better defenders than he did last round, which has to be encouraging for the Nuggets. And the Nuggets do have a handful of bodies they can throw at LeBron James, though LeBron should be able to produce still.

tchow: Well, if Murray can play the way he played against two NBA All-Defensive second team players (Kawhi and Bev), maybe he’ll have another great series against just one NBA All-Defensive first team player in Davis, especially since Davis will probably guard Murray a total of zero minutes.

dubin: LeBron might be holding himself a little celebration at the fact that he gets to play Paul Millsap in the playoffs again.

chris.herring: Beats having to go through Kawhi for an entire series, you’d think.

dubin: Jerami Grant did a better job on Kawhi than I thought he would, but LeBron is even another level of physicality. That’s gonna be real tough on Grant.

chris.herring: The Lakers end up facing a slate of defenses that are ranked no better than 15th on their way to the Finals, if they get there.

dubin: Pretty nice road for a team that struggled in half-court offense for most of the year.

tchow: And then they would a defense ranked in the playoff top five on the other side of the conference in the Finals. Rude awakening?

chris.herring: If the Nuggets end up winning the series, what will have been the difference, do you think? Murray? Aside from Murray, what do the Nuggets have that puts them over the top?

tchow: They have point guard/center Nikola Jokić who puts them over the top.

dre.waters: I think Harris, Porter Jr. or Jerami Grant will have to be the difference. Denver is going to need someone else to step up offensively.

dubin: I would say the most likely factors would be Murray, cold shooting from the Green-KCP-Kuzma-Morris crew, and the Nuggets getting good games from Harris and two of Millsap-Grant-Porter every night.

chris.herring: Yeah: No. 1 on my “Family Feud” board would be cold Lakers shooting from the outside.

You have to be able to make the Nuggets pay for playing Porter Jr. long minutes. Gary Harris probably has to be a factor on both ends; not just defense.

dubin: It remains completely insane that the Clippers didn’t hunt Porter on defense like the Jazz did.

tchow: We should actually do a “Family Feud” board of things most likely to happen for the remainder of the playoffs and see who gets three X’s first. That’s kinda how “Family Feud” works right?

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.