chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): There are so many things in the NBA world that have happened since the last time we chatted. The reigning MVP and the club with the best record was ushered out of the playoffs in a gentleman’s sweep earlier this week. And the Lakers and Clippers both appear to have turned a corner in their series and are beginning to look as scary as we imagined they might be.
But let’s start on another subject: Was I the only one that wanted to see last night’s Celtics-Raptors game continue forever?
dubin (Jared Dubin, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think I’d be OK if they were still playing right now.
tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): I know they were all tired, but I wanted Game 7 to start immediately after.
dubin: There have been two blowouts, but the series as a whole has been enormously fun. Adjustments on both sides, condensed rotations with really only the best guys playing — and most of them (basically everyone except Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol) playing at a very high level.
tchow: After Boston went up 2-0, I really thought we all knew how this series would end up. Coach Brad Stevens had Boston playing so well. But kudos to the Raptors, man. This is a FUN series.
chris.herring: Absolutely. To Jared’s point, it’s been strange because of the lopsided scores.
I saw an interesting stat from my college friend Dan Feldman just now.
How do you all feel about Game 7 on Friday? Obviously there’s no home-court advantage, like there would usually be in a scenario like this.
chris.herring: I picked the Celtics in seven initially, and I still feel good about that choice. I don’t think there’s any way Kemba Walker shoots as poorly as he did last game.
dubin: The box-and-one gambit looked like it was going to fail spectacularly early in the game when Jaylen Brown was going off … but it wound up keeping Kemba out of rhythm for crunch time. Success! (Toronto coach Nick Nurse loves to mess around with those defenses, as we detailed ahead of the playoffs.)
dre.waters: It’s a toss-up! My gut is telling me that the Celtics will win, but this really feels like it could go either way.
tchow: Well, this is boring. I think I would have to go with Boston as well? I think Stevens will ultimately out-coach Nurse in the end.
chris.herring: I went into this series concerned about Siakam’s ability to break down an elite defense as the No. 1 option, and Boston has made that look smart. I never thought he would struggle this much.
dre.waters: If it’s a close game late, I like the Raptors’ chances, though. None of those guys seem afraid of the moment.
dubin: Norman Powell certainly isn’t, at least.
dre.waters: Am I the only one who nearly fell out of my seat when I saw they left their season in his hands at the end of the first OT?
tchow: The clutchest shooter late in games, Norm Powell. I have ALWAYS said this.
chris.herring: Moving on, there’s obviously one series that’s in the books already: The Miami Heat (!!!) took out Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee in stunning fashion, nearly sweeping the Bucks before beating them in five games.
tchow: Oh, yeah — I thought this was the Jimmy Butler Fan Appreciation Chat Room. Did I come to the right place?
chris.herring: Depending on how you slice it, it was arguably the most lopsided upset we’ve ever seen. I want to get into what Miami did to make that happen. But what does all this mean for Milwaukee? And what were the Bucks’ biggest flaws in this series?
dubin: First of all, I want to take issue with anything other than the No. 8-seeded 1999 Knicks beating the No. 1-seeded Heat being the most lopsided upset we’ve ever seen. Let’s just get that out of the way. (Note: It probably wasn’t. But I have nothing else as a Knick fan at this point.)
As for the Bucks, the lack of adjustments, again, and the inability to create offense in the half-court in any way other than “Giannis barrels to the rim.”
dre.waters: I thought the Bucks’ lack of players who can really create their own shot killed them. Khris Middleton saved them when he played big after Giannis went down in Game 4. But they needed more from the rest of the team.
chris.herring: I think the whole “Not having Malcolm Brogdon” thing kind of bit them in the ass. Eric Bledsoe was soooo brutal, and I’ve said in a chat or two before that the playoffs were always going to be the barometer to judge whether the Bucks were right to not retain Brogdon.
dubin: He was the only non-Giannis guy they had who consistently got to the rim. In a series where Miami was comfortable letting anyone other than Giannis do that, it would have mattered a decent amount, I’d think. It also would have helped to have him as another option to guard Jimmy.
tchow: When you look at the series Brogdon had against the Heat in the first round, you could really see how someone like him could have helped Milwaukee in this series.
chris.herring: What, if anything, does this mean going forward for the Bucks? Giannis is going to get an offer for the supermax. If and when he doesn’t sign it, speculation is going to begin that he’s out the door in 2021. Hell, that speculation has already begun.
tchow: I think that speculation started the moment he missed Game 4.
dubin: I think the speculation started after Game 6 last year, and multiple teams (including the Heat) have been preparing for it for even longer than that.
chris.herring: Do you all think Chris Paul would make sense for them?
dubin: YES. Perfect fit.
dre.waters: I think he would, especially if he could play like he did against the Rockets in Round 1. Through seven games, he averaged 21.3 points and 5.3 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.
dubin: I don’t know how you do a deal given the size of his contract, but if they can swing it, absolutely.
chris.herring: I think the Giannis speculation is too early, honestly, though I don’t expect the media to sit idly by and judge when exactly it’s appropriate to sound that alarm. For all we know, the Bucks could make a tweak or three and win next year’s title.
Although, as Kawhi Leonard showed, winning it all doesn’t necessarily guarantee that your star will want to stay in that uniform anyway.
dubin: It’s the biggest domino that’s going to drop in the league in the next two years, and like I said, multiple teams have been prepping runs for multiple years. People are gonna talk about it. That’s just the way it is.
There’s just a difference between, “What will Giannis do?” and “Giannis should do [X].”
chris.herring: That’s fair.
What did Miami do in this series that was so different with Giannis? Was it simply the Heat’s personnel? It seemed like coach Erik Spoelstra implemented things to neutralize the Middleton-Giannis pick and roll that’s worked so well for the Bucks at times.
dubin: Draymond Green made a really good point on “Inside the NBA”: The Heat just did not respect Milwaukee’s shooters at all.
tchow: They were basically daring someone other than Giannis to beat them.
chris.herring: Brook Lopez made them pay for that. But Bledsoe couldn’t, at least not from distance.
dre.waters: And defensively, they had so many guys to split time guarding Giannis. Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala, Bam Adebayo and Jimmy all spent time guarding him. I think that helped keep Jimmy fresh at the end of games.
dubin: I think that if Brook Lopez beats you, just tip your cap and say well done. At least you didn’t let the MVP get anything easy.
chris.herring: “NOTHING EASY” *ZAZA VOICE*
All right, let’s look at the West now.
The Rockets and Nuggets each took an early win in their respective series with the Lakers and Clippers. But they now have dropped four games in a row between them. And in Houston’s case, they may be down a couple of really key role players. (Including one for possibly violating the bubble guidelines?)
I know these series aren’t over, necessarily … but are they kinda over?
dre.waters: It definitely feels that way in the Clippers-Nuggets series. Even when the Nuggets finally caught up Wednesday night, it just never felt like they were going to win that game.
tchow: The Nuggets really needed Game 3. They had it, too — until, you know … the Clippers started really trying on defense.
chris.herring: That’s the difference, it seems.
Last series, Utah — one of the best defenses in the league — couldn’t stop Jamal Murray. Here, the Clippers have done a pretty great job bottling him up and making life difficult for him, even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.
And if any team was going to do that, it would be the Clippers.
tchow: Definitely. The Clippers have a team that could coast until they really need to turn it on, regardless of the scoreline, and still win. The Nuggets have had a really impressive playoff run, but I can’t see them pulling this off.
dubin: It’s quite a bit different going against Royce O’Neale than it is going against Patrick Beverley, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
I thought the full-strength Clippers would be good, but they look even better than I thought they would.
chris.herring: I like Denver quite a bit. But the Nuggets are very different. They run a ton of their offense through a highly unselfish, plodding big man and a guard who runs really, really hot and cold. Their third-best scorer is a guy who is awful on defense and looks like he was told what the idea of a pass is only yesterday.
I know Denver came back from 3-1 last round. But I think a lot would need to happen for that to be the case here, against a clearly superior Clippers club.
tchow: Is there a world where, even if the Nuggets lose the series, they can keep Nikola Jokić in the bubble and just plug him into any losing team so we can watch him play more? That would be ideal.
chris.herring: What about the Rockets and Lakers? Is there anything there that inspires confidence that Houston can knot the series at two games apiece tonight?
It looks like Robert Covington, a key cog in the Rockets’ system, is going to play despite a really scary collision he had in Game 3.
dubin: Covington’s rim protection is basically the key to making that defense work, maybe even more than P.J. Tucker being a superhuman.
tchow: If Danuel House really can’t play for the rest of the season (for the aforementioned … reasons), does this mean we will see even more of the small-ball lineup?
chris.herring: I don’t even think they can really go any shorter than they already have. Just seems like the rotation gets thinner — in a figurative sense!
I never thought I’d say this, but Rajon Rondo has been huge in this series — and he’s maybe given the Lakers the advantage they needed to make this more of a breeze? I really hadn’t banked on how much good it might do LeBron James to have Rondo back. The guy is swatting layups every other time down the floor, it seems. The extra energy is really showing and making it challenging for the Rockets.
dubin: Rondo’s defense has been a nice surprise, as well. His reputation has exceeded reality on that end for a few years, but he’s been good on that end so far.
dre.waters: I didn’t expect Rondo to be this good in his return, honestly.
tchow: Playoff Rondo brings back Lakers Showtime. It all makes sense.
chris.herring: The Rockets have now lost twice in a row despite hitting at least 40 percent of their threes. That’s noteworthy, because prior to this, they had logged a perfect 16-0 mark during the season when that was the case.
tchow: One thing though that I think is necessary to point out: Our predictions still give the Rockets a better shot of winning the NBA Finals. That feels off?
chris.herring: I’ve been trying to figure that out this whole time, too. It had them as pretty heavy favorites in this series before, and even now, with them being down a game, it has them even.
dre.waters: That’s the value of 47.9 3-point attempts per game, LOL.
chris.herring: I try not to take a sledgehammer to the model, since it made me look like a fool last year, with the Raptors in the Finals. But I gave it a side-eye heading into the series. (And of course the Rockets won Game 1, which made me feel silly for questioning it.)
tchow: LOL. I think it’s fun to doubt the model and then look silly. I still think it seems like we’re headed for the inevitable all-L.A. matchup that the NBA wants. The model clearly disagrees.
dubin: Even ahead of the bubble, the model was big on the Rockets. Their full-strength roster rating was third-best among teams invited to Orlando, and their playoff roster rating was fifth. They also got the second-largest title odds bump from the neutral-site version of the projections, compared with the one where teams played real home and road games.
(The Sixers were first. But that was before Ben Simmons got injured.)
chris.herring: I think tonight is likely the model’s last shot at redemption for this series. Because barring an injury to LeBron, I don’t think Houston can beat the Lakers three consecutive times.
And if that happens, I’m going to the corner store to buy a bag of popcorn in advance to savor the one great series we’ve had this round.
That Game 7 should be great. Kind of makes me wish there was a crowd for it.
dubin: One nice thing is that it seems like no matter who makes it through, the conference finals on both sides should be awesome.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.