The NBA play-offs reaching fever pitchFriday, June 04, 2021
BY MARK ARCHER
The first round of the National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs is in its closing stage and the only sweep came in the Eastern Conference series between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat. Miami eliminated Milwaukee in the second round of last year's play-offs on their way to the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, but the Bucks had other ideas this year and duly returned the favour in a very clinical manner.
After needing overtime and a last-minute Khris Middleton shot to secure a close 109-107 win in game 1, the Bucks proceeded to blowout their opponents by 34, 29 and 17 points, respectively, in the other three games. Led by two-time NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (23.5 points, 15 rebounds and 7.8 assists during the series), the Bucks played the most impressive defence of all teams in the first round, and that includes the defending champion Lakers.
They held the Heat to just 38 per cent shooting in the first three games which provided confidence aplenty going into game 4 last Saturday (May 29). The Heat had seven players in double figures at the end of the game (only one with 20+ points) but that proved to be too little as their opponents had six players in double figures with four in the 20+ range.
Milwaukee made quick work of their first-round obstacle and their reward is now a second-round matchup against the 'Big 3' of the Brooklyn Nets who dispatched the Boston Celtics in five games. The series starts tomorrow (Saturday, June 5) and promises plenty of intriguing matchups and contrasts. Giannis should be able to muscle over Brooklyn's frontcourt, but it will take all a yeoman effort to slow down the three-headed attack of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The top regular season offense versus the top postseason defence and everything else in-between — Oh boy!
As for the Lakers, their postseason appeared gloomy from the start — LeBron James and Anthony Davis were just returning from weeks-long layoffs due to injuries, and the team chemistry was way different from that observed entering the play-off 'bubble' last year.
The Lakers had to survive a 'play-in' scare against the Golden State Warriors to book the No 7 seed in the Western Conference and earn the right to face the No 2 seeded Phoenix Suns. The Suns were impressive in their game 1 win but surrendered home court advantage after a seven-point, game 2 loss in Phoenix.
The Lakers took game 3, 109-95 last week Thursday (May 27) when the series went to Staples Center but game 4 on Sunday (May 30) and (especially) game 5 on Tuesday (June 1) undoubtedly belonged to the Suns. Anthony Davis retired early from game 4 due to a groin injury and that seriously jeopardized the Lakers' chances of a win and threw a wrench in their hopes for a title defense.
LeBron and his remaining teammates were outplayed and lacked the requisite firepower to get past the Suns who registered a 100-92 win, to return the series to Phoenix with home court advantage intact. The Suns had six players scoring in double digits — Chris Paul led the scorers with 18 points and nine assists. Devin Booker and Jae Crowder scored 17 each while DeAndre Ayton scored 14 points and grabbed 17 rebounds.
In the closing moments of the game, it appeared the weight of the years and the frustration of the times were too much for LeBron. With the Lakers down 95-88 and Dennis Schroder missing a tough lay-up, LeBron visibly gave up on the game and possibly on the 2021 season. Instead of chasing back on defense, James paused for a moment then jogged back to the other end, leaving his team undermanned which facilitated Crowder hitting a three-pointer and the wind out of the Lakers' sails — had LeBron sprinted back into defense, the result may have been different and the ensuing game 5 would have been more competitive.
The Lakers entered game 5 with Davis in street-clothes and were humbled following a 30-point blowout. The Suns led 66-36 at half-time and never looked over their shoulder; LeBron scored 24 points for the Lakers but never really got going and was a picture of dejection as he entered the locker room before the game concluded.
LeBron is averaging just under 22 points per game in this series, the second lowest in any play-off series for his entire career, besting only the 17.8 points per game he put up in the 2011 Finals when the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks. This is also the first play-off series in which he has shot under 50 per cent from the field since the 2016 Finals. Added to the fact that his free throw percentage is at 58 per cent for the series, turnovers are at a career-high and 40 per cent of his shots are from behind the arc, this is not the 'force-of-nature' the NBA has become acquainted with.
Blame it on age, apathy, or deference (maybe a little bit of each), but this version of LeBron has very little influence on the game and imposes less dominance than a rookie in his first game. He's still doing his thing, just not as forcefully, consistently or efficiently.
There are intriguing matchups every day in the playoffs and the second round is all set to begin. There was only one sweep in the opening round but it's a long way to the Finals — stay tuned.
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