James Harden looks like an MVP in win over Timberwolves
There was a big debate in the closing days of the NBA’s regular season over whether LeBron James could surpass James Harden for the NBA’s MVP award.
Harden’s play Sunday, however, showed why he should win the award.
In a game that was there for the Minnesota Timberwolves to steal (more on that in a second) Harden’s ridiculous performance — 44 points on 15-for-26 shooting with eight assists — ensured that the Houston Rockets wouldn’t let them do so, and claimed a 104-101 victory in Game 1 as a result.
That said, Chris Paul did his best to try to give the game back to Minnesota anyway.
Capping a truly miserable game (14 points on 14 shots, four assists and six turnovers), Paul threw an insane pass that went out of bounds with nine seconds left when all he had to do was hold the ball, get fouled and make a free throw to seal the win for Houston. Instead, he gave the ball back to the Timberwolves down three, with a chance to tie the game.
In a game of terrible one-upmanship in the final seconds, Jimmy Butler then brought the ball up and — with Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni telling his team to foul, and them ignoring him — Butler flung up a turnaround jumper with his foot over the three-point line (meaning it would have been a two) that didn’t come close to going in.
It was a fitting end to a chaotic final 15 seconds of what was an otherwise very entertaining game — one that Harden made sure his Rockets came away from victorious.
Rockets have the burden of being favorites
The pressure is on the Houston Rockets.
Entering the playoffs, no team had more expectations heaped on it than Houston, which has been installed as the first credible challenger to Golden State since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City for the Bay Area.
With those expectations come a need for the Rockets to back them up — and that’s with a star backcourt of James Harden and Chris Paul, who have their own history of playoff struggles.
Harden (31 points, seven assists) has showed up so far. Paul? Not so much (12 points on 14 shots, plus three assists and four turnovers). Lose this game, and all the questions about how this team will hold up when the pressure mounts will come flooding back.
Why isn’t Karl-Anthony Towns more involved in the T-wolves offense?
Anyone watching the TNT broadcast of Rockets-Timberwolves can hear Chris Webber losing his mind every time Karl-Anthony Towns fails to take advantage of a switch with a smaller defender on him. The “Inside The NBA” crew said the same thing at halftime.
A constant criticism of the Timberwolves all season has been the team’s inability to get Towns more involved in the offense. Towns is quite possibly the most gifted offensive big man in the history of the sport, with the ability to score from the rim to well beyond the three-point arc.
So how is it that he only has six points on eight shots — the same or less than Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford and Derrick Rose?
Minnesota, which finds itself trailing 76-72 after three quarters, needs that to change if it wants to pull off the Game 1 upset.
Clint Capela is Houston’s X factor
When it comes to the Houston Rockets, there is — understandably — lots of talk about James Harden and Chris Paul and volume three-point shooting.
But what sums up why the Rockets are leading halfway through Game 1 against the Minnesota Timberwolves — and why I picked them to win in four games — is the play of Clint Capela.
Houston’s center — who is going to get paid handsomely as a restricted free agent this summer — has 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots at halftime, partnering with Harden to relentlessly batter the Timberwolves into submission in the pick-and-roll.
Anyone who watched Minnesota’s final regular season game against the Denver Nuggets could see how much trouble Minnesota had stopping Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic in the pick-and-roll. And, for as good as those guys are, Houston is on another level entirely.
The Rockets have proven that so far tonight – and that’s why they lead 54-47 at halftime.
Westbrook, George shine in Thunder’s win over Jazz
Donovan Mitchell played well in his playoff debut — but not well enough to get a win.
That’s because Paul George (36 points) and Russell Westbrook (29 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists) were far too much for Mitchell’s Utah Jazz to handle, as his 27 points came in a losing effort in what became a 116-108 victory for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Whether the combination of Westbrook and George will be enough for the Thunder moving forward remains to be seen. There also are injuries to George, who was sitting out the final few minutes getting his back worked on, Mitchell (left foot) and Thunder Center Steven Adams’s right hand/arm to monitor moving forward.
But the playoffs are the time for stars to shine — and Westbrook and George shone brightest Sunday, allowing Oklahoma City to strike first in this series.
Paul George is a bona fide second superstar
The Thunder were a fine team last year, powered to a playoff berth thanks to clutch heroics all season long by Russell Westbrook. But what Oklahoma City lacked was a true second superstar that made them a contender — the kind it had when Kevin Durant was still in town.
Paul George is that kind of player — and he’s playing like it Sunday night.
With 36 points — including a buzzer-beating jumper to end the third quarter — George has the Jazz on the ropes in Game 1 and is delivering in every way the Thunder could’ve hoped for when they traded for him last summer.
This gives you a glimpse of what the Thunder can be over the next few years if George decides to stay in Oklahoma City alongside Russell Westbrook. There are other things that need to be done with the roster, but that’s not a bad foundation to build from.
Rudy Gobert has four fouls. That’s bad news for the Jazz.
The Utah Jazz has entered into dangerous territory. Not only is Utah trailing by nine late in the third, but star center Rudy Gobert just went to the bench with four fouls.
While Carmelo Anthony has cooled off since his hot start, Paul George has been amazing, scoring 26 points and knocking down six three-pointers. And while the Thunder only have 16 points from players not named Anthony, George or Russell Westbrook, against a team like Utah that isn’t going to fly up and down and put up huge numbers, that’s a formula the Thunder can get away with.
That’s particularly true if Gobert can remain mostly neutralized. Steven Adams has the ability to cause problems for just about any big in the league thanks to his immense strength, and he’s doing so today.
Thunder’s Big Three respond to early Jazz run
After a rough start, things have stabilized for the Thunder — and their Big Three are the reason why.
Early in the second quarter, Russell Westbrook (12 points), Carmelo Anthony (nine) and Paul George (12) have scored 33 of Oklahoma City’s 40 points, powering what is a 36-18 run for Oklahoma City that’s allowed the Thunder to erase an early 12-point deficit and regain the lead.
This is exactly the kind of performance that was envisioned by Oklahoma City when it united the three all-stars last offseason. If it can continue like this during the postseason, the Thunder will be feeling good about their chances.
Donovan Mitchell showing no rookie jitters early
The expectation heading into Game 1 of Thunder-Jazz was that Paul George would be spending his time hounding Utah’s star rookie, Donovan Mitchell.
Instead, George started on Joe Ingles, and Corey Brewer got the assignment of guarding Mitchell. So far, it’s not working out too well for Oklahoma City.
Not only are the Thunder down 16-4 early at home, but Mitchell is a 4 for 4 for nine points early on. So much for him looking like a rookie playing on a huge stage as his team’s go-to scorer.
Combine that with some exquisite interior passing that’s set up Jazz Center Rudy Gobert for multiple dunks, and the Thunder quickly find themselves having a lot of work to do just to get back into this game.
Pacers win; LeBron James’s supporting cast struggles
The first truly surprising result of the playoffs has happened, as the Indiana Pacers went into Cleveland and stomped the Cavaliers, 98-80.
Victor Oladipo continued his outstanding season for the Pacers, scoring 32 points, while Indiana — which was 25th in three-pointers made this season — made 11 threes as a team, while the Cavaliers went 8 for 34. Any game in this series that the Pacers are going to outscore the Cavaliers from three is going to be a game that Indiana should emerge from with a win.
The major talking point after this game, despite the missed shots, will be about the supporting cast around LeBron James struggling. Jeff Green, named the start power forward for the playoffs, went scoreless and missed seven shots in 26 minutes. Kevin Love only got eight shots and finished with nine points. The starting backcourt of George Hill and Rodney Hood both were ineffectual.
Other than J.R. Smith (15 points) off the bench, Cleveland didn’t get much of anything from anyone. That will need to change in a hurry.
Sabonis poster? Sabonis poster!
Here is our Dunk of the Day: Domantas Sabonis cracking one all over Kevin Love to culminate what has been a tremendous Game 1 performance by Indiana in what should be a series-opening win over Cleveland.
LeBron James keeping Cavs afloat
Basically nothing has gone right in Game 1 for Cleveland. The Cavaliers are 10 for 18 from the foul line. They’ve gone 7 for 26 from three-point range. None of their starters besides LeBron James are in double-figures.
Yet, despite all of that, the Cavaliers are only down by eight after three quarters. James (20 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists) will likely get a triple-double, but Cleveland will need more from its supporting cast if it is going to complete this comeback and win.
One nice adjustment from Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue: going away from Jeff Green, who has been awful (0 for 4 and a minus-8 in 21 minutes) in favor of Larry Nance as Cleveland got back into the game in the third. I’d expect more of that in the fourth, and as the series moves forward.
Jeff Green and Kevin Love have three total points at half
Cleveland’s decision to start the playoffs playing Jeff Green at power forward and Kevin Love at center was supposed to help the Cavaliers continue with the kind of offensive production they’ve had all season.
That’s why Cleveland’s biggest problem in the first half – which sees them trailing the Indiana Pacers 55-38 – is that Green and Kevin Love have gone 1 for 6 from the field for three points. That simply isn’t going to be good enough — not against the Pacers, and certainly not against the better teams Cleveland is expected to face later in the playoffs.
The fact the Cavaliers have gone 2 for 14 from three-point range and 6 for 11 from the foul line hasn’t helped, either.
Few teams can get hot faster than Cleveland, so it would be foolish for anyone to think this game is over. But if the Cavaliers can’t get their offense in gear — and, specifically, start getting more from Love and Green — this could get ugly.
Cavs struggling on offense to start
The Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled on defense all season. That wasn’t expected to change during the playoffs. What has been a constant, though, is Cleveland’s offense being able to score on anyone.
That’s what made the opening quarter of the Cavs’ series against the Indiana Pacers so surprising. While Indiana getting hot and scoring 33 points isn’t all that surprising, it was jarring to see the Cavaliers put up just 14 in the first quarter, while committing seven turnovers and going 5 for 20 from the field, including 0 for 8 from three-point range.
“We did a good job of keeping them out of transition,” Pacers Coach Nate McMillan said during his between-quarters interview on ABC.
Cleveland has the ability to get hot in a hurry, and likely will in the second quarter. But this was a jarring start — and a much-needed early confidence boost for an underdog Pacers team on the road.
Celtics down the Bucks, 113-107, in overtime
It wasn’t easy, but Boston managed to survive Sunday, winning 113-107 in overtime over Milwaukee to take Game 1 of their best-of-7 series.
Boston forced 20 turnovers (that turned into 27 Celtics points) and grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, allowing the injury-ravaged Celtics to create just enough offense to survive an upset bid by the seventh-seeded Bucks.
Milwaukee did get huge performances from Giannis Antetokounmpo (35 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists before fouling out) and Khris Middleton (31 points, eight rebounds and six assists) but Eric Bledsoe was awful (nine points, four assists and five turnovers before fouling out) and the Bucks outside of Middleton combined to shoot 3-for-14 from three.
A wild ending to regulation
Bucks-Celtics was billed as an evenly matched series thanks to Boston’s myriad injuries. So it is fitting that this series will feature the first overtime game of the 2018 NBA playoffs.
After Terry Rozier completely embarrassed Eric Bledsoe to hit what appeared to be the game-winning three-pointer with 0.5 seconds left, Khris Middleton answered with a three of his own from about 40 feet away to tie the game at the buzzer – and only after a replay review confirmed the shot had left his hand just in the nick of time to count.
Middleton and Giannis Antetokounpo have carried the day with 62 points so far – allowing the Bucks to stay in the game despite an awful performance from Bledsoe. Three players are in double-figures for Boston, led by 22 points for Al Horford.
Who will emerge as the Robin to their star’s Batman?
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in this series. Al Horford is the second-best. Neither of those facts are in dispute.
Where this series will likely be decided, though, is in who are the third- and fourth-best players. There are candidates on both sides: Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe for Milwaukee, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for Boston.
So far in this game, it’s a mixed bag – which is why it’s a 70-66 lead through three quarters. Middleton has been excellent for Milwaukee, scoring 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting. Bledsoe, on the other hand, has been awful (four points on 2-for-9, plus three assists and three turnovers). For Boston, Brown has 16 points, and Tatum has 13 – including a big three-pointer at the end of the third.
The better of those duos in the fourth quarter will likely decide this one.
A Kyrie Irving-shaped hole for the Celtics
There were plenty of fears about the Celtics being able to score without Kyrie Irving in the playoffs.
Those fears are being realized in the second quarter.
Boston is now 2 for 16 with four turnovers in the second quarter — allowing Milwaukee to outscore the Celtics 26-7 and flip the game back around in the Bucks’ favor.
If the Bucks don’t give the Celtics easy scoring opportunities in transition, it’s going to be extremely difficult for Boston to score. That has been proven out by the way the first half has unfolded.
Jabari Parker is still struggling
It was a rough first quarter stint for Jabari Parker, who was minus-13 in four minutes as the Bucks fell into a huge hole.
Milwaukee’s defense predictably struggled with Parker — who has never been a strong defender, and that was before he tore his ACL twice – on the floor. It will be interesting to see if Bucks Coach Joe Prunty has to limit Parker’s minutes moving forward in the series, as there is little doubt Celtics Coach Brad Stevens will be trying to take advantage whenever Parker is in the game.
Bucks-Celtics is underway, and Boston looks like the more put-together team
This Bucks-Celtics series was easily defined in a couple of ways. The Bucks have talent, but are often disorganized, while the Celtics have myriad injuries but will be well-drilled and won’t make mistakes.
Through one quarter, that’s how it’s playing out – and Boston is better for it.
Milwaukee committed an absurd eight turnovers in the first quarter – leading to 15 Boston points – as the Celtics closed the first quarter with a 15-0 run and shut the Bucks out over the final 4:17 to take a 29-17 lead after one.
This quarter is exactly how Boston needs to play to win this series: play suffocating defense, and use that defense to create turnovers that lead to easy scoring opportunities for a team that is going to struggle to get easy baskets now that it doesn’t have Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward for the entire playoffs.
The last time we saw the Milwaukee Bucks, they were getting absolutely obliterated in their season finale – a 130-95 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers.
So why, then, did I pick them to beat the Boston Celtics in their upcoming playoff series? One reason: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Yes, the Bucks have a lot of problems. They fired their coach, Jason Kidd, midway through the season. Jabari Parker has (understandably) looked rusty coming back from his second torn ACL in three years. Their defense leaves much to be desired.
But having a top-five player in the world can erase a lot of problems. That’s particularly true in the playoffs, where with days off between games and a long summer ahead, players like Antetokounmpo can play 40-plus minutes. Given Milwaukee is 9.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Antetokounmpo on the bench (including over 6 points per 100 worse defensively), per NBA.com, and that extra time on the court could make all of the difference.
A healthy Celtics team, though, would still be more than enough to beat this Bucks squad. But the Celtics are far from healthy. They’ve been without Gordon Hayward all season, but losing Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis for the playoffs (and Marcus Smart presumably for the entire first round) leaves Boston down four rotation players, including two all-stars.
Brad Stevens may be a magician, but magicians needs tools to pull off their tricks. Will rookie Jayson Tatum, sophomore Jaylen Brown and third-year guard Terry Rozier be good enough to help Boston advance? Potentially. And Al Horford’s presence will help ensure Boston’s defense is good enough to give the Celtics a chance if their shooters can knock down threes.
Talent tends to win in the playoffs, though. And not only do the Bucks have Antetokounmpo, but they arguably have three of the four best players in the series (depending on where one ranks Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton in comparison with Tatum and Brown). How those four players perform could actually wind up being the bellwether for how this series goes.
But if I have to hang my hat on something in making a prediction, I’ll live with riding with one of the NBA’s best players against an injury-riddled opponent.
Antetokounmpo hasn’t had a huge moment in the playoffs yet. He’s good enough to make beating the Celtics his first.
Some quick-hits on today’s other games:
– The Cleveland Cavaliers have spent all season playing zero defense, leaving observers curious as to whether they plan on playing some in the playoffs. Judging by how Coach Tyronn Lue is aligning his players before they begin, though, it seems like the Cavaliers are betting on their offense to carry them instead.
To that end, entering the playoffs with a starting lineup of Jeff Green at power forward and Kevin Love at center – eschewing better defensive options inside in Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. – makes sense. That could wind up being particularly true against an Indiana Pacers team that doesn’t have the kind of bruising low-post presence that Cleveland’s next two likely opponents – the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers – will have.
But how Cleveland’s defense holds up – and if its offense is good enough to carry it whether the “D” shows up or not – will be the main thing to watch for as the Cavaliers try to make a fourth straight NBA Finals.
– There might not be an individual matchup I’m looking forward to more in these playoffs than Paul George vs. Donovan Mitchell.
George has been one of the league’s best perimeter defenders for some time, and the Oklahoma City Thunder can unleash him on Mitchell – the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz as a rookie – and allow him to make Mitchell’s life miserable every second he’s on the court.
It’s been an impressive rookie season for Mitchell, but it feels like it’s too much to ask to find a way to have success against a veteran like George – not to mention a veteran who, time and again, has stepped up his game to another level in the playoffs.
This is just one of many reasons why Jazz-Thunder is a series I’m fired up to watch every second of – and one I hope goes as long as possible.
– The Minnesota Timberwolves have a fundamental problem in their quest to make their series against the Houston Rockets interesting: they need to change the math.
Houston is one of the league’s most prolific three-point shooting teams; Minnesota is one of its worst. It is that difference, as much as anything, that is going to make Minnesota’s life difficult against the Rockets. To win, Minnesota will have to prevent Houston from scoring at will from beyond the arc, and will have to try to increase their own output at the other end.
This season, that equation hasn’t worked out too well, as the Rockets have won all four meetings – three by 18 points, the other by nine. To make matters worse, Houston has scored at least 116 points in all four meetings, and 120 or more in three of them.
There is a reason, after all, that this was the only series I picked to end in four games. Until further notice, three will continue to be more than two.
Raptors in 7: I want to pick Washington to win this series. The Wizards match up well with Toronto and have shown no fear for them this season (splitting four games without John Wall playing in any of them). But it’s just impossible to put that much faith in this Wizards team after the way they’ve played this season. So while Toronto will once again have a hard time, they will find a way to advance.
Bucks in 6: Upset! I feel equally unsure about this series, as I can’t trust Milwaukee and Boston has a million injuries. But the Bucks do have Giannis Antetokounmpo — and I’m picking The Greek Freak to have his first playoff moment and lead the Bucks to the second round.
Sixers in 7: Another tough series to call. Philadelphia has a lot more talent than Miami — but a lot less experience. Teams generally have to take gradual steps in the playoffs — and rarely make it to the conference finals on their first try, as the Sixers are predicted to do. But with Joel Embiid likely to come back early in the series, we’ll tip the odds, ever so slightly, in Philadelphia’s direction.
Cavs in 5: LeBron James has made it to the NBA Finals for seven straight seasons. He isn’t losing in the first round. It’s been a tremendous season for the Indiana Pacers and former DeMatha star Victor Oladipo, but it ends here.
Rockets in 4: Minnesota simply can’t guard Houston. This should be a high scoring — but short — series.
Warriors in 5: With Stephen Curry hurt, Golden State limping into the playoffs and San Antonio’s pedigree, the Spurs will get a game. But if this series is any more competitive than that, the questions about Golden State’s ability to repeat as champions will gain far more credibility in my eyes.
Pelicans in 6: This should be a really fun series, and Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has a penchant for coming up big in big moments. But Anthony Davis has taken a step forward this season and established himself as a top five player in the NBA, and he has yet to win a playoff game. This is his time to make a statement, and I think he will by getting the Pelicans to the second round.
Thunder in 7: This is, without question, the best and most compelling series of the first round. But the Thunder have a couple things going for them. The first is home court — which, in a close series, is a huge edge. The second is that Paul George, one of the NBA’s best players and wing defenders, is going to be guarding Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell. It’s been an incredible debut from the Louisville product, but asking him to be the leading scorer on a playoff team against an all-world defender like George feels like too much for Utah to overcome. But this is easily the series I’m most looking forward to watching.
Sunday’s schedule and results (all times Eastern)
- Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics, 1 p.m. (TNT)
- Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
- Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
- Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Hop into the comments section below starting at 12:30 p.m. to chat with The Post’s Tim Bontemps about all of your NBA questions.