The Champs go down: McCaw, Raptors unable to stay on top of the NBA; Clippers stumble late to Nuggets

LeBron up 3-1 on Harden's Rockets with a chance to end the series in tonight's

Three years in the league, with three championship rings to show for it, no one expected Patrick McCaw to ever stop winning rings. Unfortunately, he and his Toronto Raptors fell just short of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last night - but their parting gift was one of the more enjoyable playoffs series in recent memory.

Jokes aside (McCaw hasn’t played a single minutes with the Raptors since March - maybe that’s the problem?), Kyle Lowry and the rest of the Raptors deserve a hearty handshake for pushing as deep into the post season as they did. Managing to repeat is hard enough on its own, but to do so while losing one of the best basketball players in the world would have been nearly unheard of - like a season-long Ewing theory.

In the Western Conference, the Clippers looked like they had everything well in control, until the 3rd quarter hit. They lost it late and were unable to put away the Denver Nuggets who now force a game 6 and extend the series.

Requiem for a Raptors Celtics series that brought us all so much joy

Because I’m a fan of the Golden State Warriors, my playoff experiences have been limited. As a kid, watching Micheal Jordan battle through the Knicks and Pistons, it felt like a world away. Then when the Warriors finally showed up with the We Believe team, I was just ecstatic that they did something.

Fast forward to the recent dynasty, which conditioned me to watch these playoffs as a supremely tense affair. Because I have the privilege of watching and writing about pretty much every Warriors game, that left me little bandwidth to consume other series with anything other than a cursory eye.

But this Raptors-Celtics series was the first time in a long time that I closely watched another series. Featuring buzzer beaters, interpersonal conflict, and a whole lot of gritty, gritty basketball, I think I enjoyed their matchup as much as any non-Warriors series in memory.

The Raptors, sadly, leave these playoffs. Probably bittersweet honestly, getting out of the NBA’s bubble and going home for the first time in months. They’ve got to figure out what to do about Fred VanFleet’s free agency, but should mostly be content with running it back. They do have a deep roster of aging veterans though, so their front office has some big decisions to make.

Pascal Siakam had a rough go of it. He earned an All Star berth this year on the strength of his regular season averages (23 points (36% from deep), 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists, to go along with about one steal and one block per game) during the regular season. Against Boston,  In seven games against the Celtics, his scoring average dipped to 15 points and his his 3-point percentage was historically bad. Siakam went 4-of-32 (12.5%) against Boston, the worst 3-point percentage in a playoff series in NBA history (minimum 30 attempts), as per ESPN. He’s still an excellent young player at just 26 years old… I think?

The Celtics will advance to battle against Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala and the Miami Heat when the Easter Conference Finals start on Tuesday.

Is this supposed to happen to a star-studded team?

Revered basketball sage, Sleepy Freud wondered if the Los Angeles Clippers were “playing with their food,” pointing towards some of the occasionally lackadaisical efforts we saw from the Warriors chasing their fourth title in six years. For whatever reason, this Clippers team feels like it is taking a similar amount of slack, without putting in the foundational work - it’s been talked about all season: the Clippers play with an astounding lack of urgency sometimes.

And so it went yesterday. When I went out to brave the bad air to walk my dog, the Clippers led 80-67, with a minute and-a-half left in the third quarter. What unfolded during the rest of the game?

Anyone who has watched the recent iterations of the superteams in Golden State can understand - runs happen in an NBA game, where even the worst teams have some of the best players in the world.

There’s a systemic concession that can occur when teams are elite. After all, what’s the big deal when you know you can run of 10 or 20 straight points and put the other guys away?

But that act of reeling in the other team can often turn south, and the Clippers, I think, are suffering from a couple of factors that can exacerbate the issue.

First of all, the Clippers have design problem. It’s not unique to their team, but currently, there is exactly one person on their roster that is even close to being able to contain Nikola Jokic. A beefy mountain of a man, with a great eye for making the right play and hands soft enough to pull it off, Jokic has been running roughshod over the Clippers whenever they pull Ivica Zubac:

Secondly, this problem is compounded because it is precisely that second unit attack of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell that the Clippers have deployed so destructively over the past couple seasons.

That pairing now finds itself as part of the problem. Williams is shooting just 22% from behind the arc in the playoffs run, and Harrell is struggling with…everything (seriously, click through and read some of the numbers in that Twitter thread, it’s abysmal). So the Clippers are searching for answers on one end, and getting hamstrung by one of their best lineups.

Game 6 of this series is tomorrow. Bright and early at 10am! (to avoid NFL conflicts presumably) - they’ve got to set up the LA showdown, we made a graphic for it and everything, but the Clippers have to handle their business first.

How will the Rockets respond to an elimination game?

Tonight’s game (5pm on ESPN) feels a bit like a formality. Mike D’Antoni’s bag of tricks is really just the one trick, and once their opponent proves they can out small ball the Rockets, there’s not much more to do other than hope your guys play better.

And so it goes again for James Harden and the Houston Rockets, who find themselves in a 1-3 hole facing elimination. They blasted into the playoffs on the strength of a strong offense, and a confounding, switch-heavy defense.

But now the playoffs have kicked the free throw crutch out from under Harden and you can just feel the frustration steaming off of him like loose beard hairs.

As we pointed out yesterday, Harden is not known for playoff success, but CBS pointed to what they called “the most symmetrical choke jobs you'll ever see:” 

Game 5 vs. Warriors, 2015: 2-of-11 from the field, 14 points, loss

Game 6 vs. Spurs, 2017: 2-of-11 from the field, 10 points, loss

Game 4 vs. Lakers, 2020: 2-of-11 from the field, 21 points, loss

Beyond the individual struggles, the Rockets are in the midst of a matchup nightmare scenario. Much of Houston’s success was a move precipitated by roster construction: they embraced not having a true center on the roster. Moving Russell Westbrook to the role worked for a while, but the team eventually settled on PJ “the Tuckwagon” Tucker as their de facto “big.”

The Lakers may not have the most balanced roster, but one thing they do have in spades is big dudes. They can bench JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard (which the team basically has at this point), and still run out a “small” lineup featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis at the 4 and 5. It’s a brutal lineup, made all the more dangerous because of the undeniable appearance of Playoff Rondo - as the rejuvenated ex-All Star has clearly been outplaying the supporting guards in Houston.

The weird Danuel House saga has mercifully concluded, as he got evicted from the bubble for violating the NBA’s off court protocols. Do the Rockets really need House to win? I don’t know, but then again, this is the team that made up a bunch of complicated math and emailed it to the league, along with a memo about “potential points” so you can count on them to look at House’s absence as a significant factor.

No matter how you slice it, this is a bad spot for the Rockets to be in, whether they lose the game tonight (probably), or not.