NBA Weekend Roundup: Keeping things close

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Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (23) drives to the basket over Houston Rockets’ P.J. Tucker during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo

This weekend carried some major implications for the NBA Playoffs. In the Eastern Conference, the Heat and Celtics had the opportunity to take commanding leads of their respective series, while in the Western Conference, the Lakers, Rockets, Nuggets and Clippers were all looking to take the early lead. But six games later at the time of writing, three series are deadlocked and only one (sorry Bucks fans) looks to be over, setting the table for an incredibly intriguing and decisive week. 

The Bucks-Heat series kicked off the festivities on Friday, with Miami holding a 2-0 lead on the No. 1 seeded Bucks. Through three quarters though, it looked like Milwaukee had finally figured out the matchup, as they entered the fourth with a 12-point lead. But after deciding to sit reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — who had injured his ankle earlier in the game — to start the final quarter, things took a turn for the worst for Milwaukee. The Heat caught fire early and never looked back, posting an insane 40-13 quarter, and stretching their series lead to 3-0 on the back of another 30-piece from Jimmy Butler. 

The two teams met again Sunday, and with the series on the line, Antetokounmpo came out swinging. The Greek Freak scored 19 points in his first 11 minutes played, but after a collision with the Heat’s Andre Igoudala, reaggravated his ankle injury and was forced to leave the contest. With Antetokounmpo out, it was Khris Middleton who stepped up and willed the team to keep it close against a complete Miami offense, highlighted by an insane 23-point third quarter that cut the Bucks’ deficit to three. A back and forth final quarter saw Middleton and Heat rookie Tyler Herro go toe-to-toe trading buckets, but it was the Bucks who came out on top in OT to at least force a fifth game. Antetokounmpo is questionable for that matchup, diagnosed with a sprained ankle. 

Next up on Friday was the first meeting of the highly touted Rockets-Lakers series. The Rockets’ historically small lineup facing off against a team composed of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Javale McGee was poised to turn some heads, and did not disappoint. 

In their first meeting Friday, the Lakers had no answer for James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The three-time scoring champion poured in 36 points and five assists while Westbrook added 24 points and another six assists on his own. Their small-ball lineup got whatever they wanted on offense, simply outplaying LeBron and the Lakers en route to a 112-97 victory. But we saw LA stumble out of the gate against the Blazers as well, so no one was ready to count them out just yet, and rightly so. 

In Game 2, the Lakers adjusted their game plan to shut down the Rockets backcourt. Lasering in on the two All-Stars, the Lakers held James Harden to 6-12 shooting while Westbrook shot a measly 4-15 in the game. A third-quarter push spearheaded by Harden put the Rockets back in the picture, but LeBron and Davis were ready for the challenge, combining for 62 points in a 117-109 win to even the series at one. The two teams will meet again on Tuesday for Game 3. 

Toronto Raptors’ Marc Gasol (33) fights for the opening tip with Boston Celtics’ Daniel Theis (27) during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo.

Back in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics and Raptors met for Game 4 of their series Saturday, with the Celtics holding a 2-1 lead. With momentum on their side after O.G. Anunoby’s buzzer beater in Game 3, the Raptors put together a great team effort to knot the series back at two. Five players scored in double figures headlined by a 22/11/7 game by Kyle Lowry, but even when the offense wasn’t clicking, the defense stepped up in its place. 

After shooting over 40% from 3-point land in their first two games, the Celtics looked ice cold in Game 3, going 13-40, including a combined 3-17 brick show by Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. The shooting slump is sure to pass but with the series tied at 2-2, the next game will play a crucial part in who makes it to the conference finals and who gets sent packing. 

Wrapping up Saturday’s games was the Clippers-Nuggets series in which the Clippers held a 1-0 lead. After going seven games with the Jazz and getting absolutely dismantled in Game 1, many people had begun to overlook the Nuggets as a contender, but since Gary Harris’ return they have been a different monster, as seen in Game 2. 

It took one quarter for Denver to turn heads, dropping 44 points on the backs of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. The two were trading buckets like clockwork and formed a perfect duo to tear down the Clippers defense early on. LA made adjustments and slowed them down, but the 19-point deficit they faced after one was too great to overcome, resulting in a Nuggets win and yet another even series, now tied at 1-1. Jokic earned the game MVP, dropping 26 points and 18 rebounds in the win, just one day removed from calling himself slow. 

But it wasn’t only the Joker’s performance that was a surprise, as Kawhi Leonard seemed to struggle for the first time in this game. After being among the most efficient scorers in the playoffs from the midrange and inside, Kawhi scored just 13 points on 4-17 shooting. This tells you just how deep the Clippers actually go, as they had six other players go for double digits in Kawhi’s absence, but still came up just short. They remain many fans and analyst’s favorite to go all the way, so it should be interesting to see how they bounce back in Game 3. 

NBA action continues this week, in what will likely be the deciding games for a couple series as we inch closer to the season’s conclusion. This upcoming week’s basketball is must-watch TV. 

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