Welcome to The Rotation, our daily playoff wrap-up of our favorite stories, large and small, from last night’s NBA action.
John Wall has a message for his younger self
by Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh)
Remember when John Wall was all green, wide-eyed and wet behind the ears? He was this long, twitchy, ball of kinetic energy, forever careening wildly through the defense, a sports car with the pedal mashed to the floor. He wasn’t quite as bullish as Russell Westbrook but certainly left a trail of devastated china shops in his wake.
That old Wall was an enthralling highlight machine, but also more spectacle than anything else. Actually, you know what the best way to remind yourself what John Wall used to be? Watch Dennis Schroder! Insane athleticism, but a body that sometimes seems like it’s moving three times faster than his mind. A natural proclivity for tying to out-oomph the defense. Equal parts highlight and chaos.
Last night, as he pushed the Wizards to an emphatic Game 2 victory, Wall kind of stepped through a metaphorical time machine and did this to Schroder. (Make sure the kids are in another room before you hit play.)
If you’re curious about the trash-talk specifics, try reading Wall’s lips on this alternate view.
That’s a message from Wall to Schroder, but also Wall to his younger self.
“What the f— is wrong with you, boy? Get your inner Shere Khan going. Stop messing around and get to beasting.”
By Daniel Rowell (@danieljrowell)
With three minutes remaining in Wednesday night’s Game 2 matchup between the Thunder and Rockets, Oklahoma City down 104-106, Westbrook took a fadeaway jumper at the top of the key and missed. On the next possession, he left Patrick Beverley open in the far right corner while shading towards the lower block to help against a drive from Gordon, giving up an open 3-pointer. On the next possession, he pulled up from 25-feet over Nene off a screen and again, missed. Out of a time out, Harden set up Gordon for another 3-pointer, followed by consecutive missed 3-pointers from Oladipo and Westbrook, before Beverley threw an outlet pass to Gordon who scored off a goal-tended fastbreak layup. 114-104 in just under 2 minutes.
Westbrook had 51 points, 13 assists,10 rebounds and 4 steals in a 115-111 loss. The first 50+ point triple double in the history of the NBA playoffs. He’d score his team’s final seven points in the remaining minute and a half. Afterwards, when asked about his stat line, Westbrook provided an emotional reply, “I don’t give a f— about the line, we lost.”
The moment took me back to a postgame presser a little under a year ago, where Westbrook and Durant were asked about a comment from Mark Cuban that Durant was the only superstar on the Thunder. Before Westbrook could answer, Durant put his hand to Westbrook’s microphone and interjected, “He’s an idiot.”
Something about watching Westbrook’s historic performance lose it’s gravity in the finals minutes behind a few missed shots, and the raw response, alone on a podium was heartbreaking.
This isn’t the 2016 Thunder. Durant is gone and Westbrook now is the sole superstar on a team that is down 2-0 in the opening round. And I don’t really care about what Durant’s absence means for the Thunder and their playoff hopes, but there is this other side of the game that makes a moment like tonight sad. The storylines have moved on from the teammates’ split, but sometimes the memories linger — like having a teammate who can stand with you at a podium and tell a owner he’s an idiot on your behalf. Watching Westbrook take a deep breath, alone, off the microphone and lick his lips after dropping a line like “I don’t give a f—” brings our new reality to those moments that made KD and Russ so fun, and f—, that’s sad.
Patrick Beverley gives the Rockets an edge
By Chris Manning (@cwmwrites)
With 2:09 to play, Rockets guard Patrick Beverley hit a 2-pointers to put his Rockets up five over the Rockets. His three came in the midst of a 10-0 run for Houston that won Game 2 and put them up 2-0 as the series moves to Oklahoma City.
For a team playing Russell Westbrook, and for the man guarding him and continuing a feud that started years ago, Beverley gives the Rockets an edge no one else on their team provides. On every possession, he is there to meet Westbrook, to match Westbrook’s insanity and intensity with his own. By doing that, he frees up the Eric Gordon’s and Lou Williams’ of the world to do their thing.
This isn’t to say Beverley is shutting down Westbrook — the possible MVP still picked up a 50-point triple-double on Wednesday and came close to leading his team to a win — but he’s doing enough. Ignore his plus-minus of -7 — it really doesn’t matter. When he’s basically playing against Westbrook all game, that’s going to happen.
In 34 minutes Wednesday, Beverley was 6-of-9 from the field, 2-of-4 on 3-pointers, pulled down 6 rebounds, dished out 4 assists and only had 2 turnovers. And, yes, he picked up five fouls, but all came in battling Westbrook; he uses his fouls as a tool to remind everyone that he’s on the floor.
Late, when hitting the 3-pointer that pushed Houston forward right at the perfect moment, Beverley capped off a very on-brand performance. Against the possible MVP, he didn’t back down for a single moment. On the other end, he did a little bit of everything in support of his team’s MVP candidate. And when the Thunder forgot about him for just a moment, he reminded them that he was on the floor. Because that’s just what Beverley does.
The collective effort wins
By Kevin Yeung (@KevinHFY)
Russell Westbrook balled out. When Marshawn Lynch played behind a terrible offensive line with the Seattle Seahawks, he compensated with a sheer exertion of will. Last night, Westbrook decided he didn’t care about a thing called spacing and just, simply, balled out. All game long, the Rockets were dedicating their entire defense to Westbrook, playing off the Andre Robersons and Jerami Grants of the Thunder roster. It didn’t matter. Russ crammed himself into the paint, finding layups for himself or his teammates; by halftime, he already had 22 points and 10 assists. When it was all said and done, Westbrook finished with history’s first ever 51-point triple-double in the playoffs.
As for James Harden, that guy struggled to start the game. He wasn’t bad, which would be exceptionally rare for James Harden, but he just wasn’t his usual level of great. The Rockets trailed for most of the game, and it took great performances from Eric Gordon, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley to make up the difference. The key, though? They couldn’t have won if it weren’t for Westbrook shooting 4-for-18 in the fourth quarter.
That’s the downside to doing it all by yourself; a tremendous physical feat, to be sure, but it’s hard to win if you’re the only guy dragging your team forward. When Westbrook sat for a few minutes of rest at the end of the third quarter, the Rockets immediately snapped off a scoring run. When he came back in to play the entirety of the fourth quarter, he couldn’t make enough shots or create enough passes. Fine scoring nights from Roberson, who turned defensive inattention into backdoor opportunities, and the Thunder big men fizzled out when Westbrook did. On a night where Victor Oladipo struggled, Russ had just himself to save the Thunder. It’s to his credit that they nearly won anyway.
Ryan Anderson also struggled, but the Rockets were positioned to deal. While Westbrook missed repeatedly, Houston’s shooters started hitting, and most importantly never stopped shooting. This is the Mike D’Antoni vision: instead of the team leaning on their MVP performer, he can lean on them. In many ways, Harden and the skills he brings to the table are the team’s system, but the system continues to function even when he struggles. Gordon still feels the ebb and flow of off-ball scoring. Beverley still knows when they need a floater or a corner three. Lou Will still does what Lou Will does, and in Houston, the paradise where shooters shoot to heart’s content? No question about it.
With a plurality in weapons, the Rockets could stem the tide until Harden played himself back into form. He helped towards the comeback win, but it wouldn’t have been possible without support from his guys. It’s hard to win them all by yourself.
Play of the Day: Trail Blazers lock in on a nice HORNS play
The Portland Trail Blazers were blown out once again on Wednesday night, but they still found time to sneak in a wonderful HORNS set that had the Golden State Warriors scrambling.
The Blazers set up in the classic HORNS formation—the ball in the middle, two players at opposite elbows, and two in opposite corners. The two at the elbows are usually big men, but Portland puts a twist on it by using CJ McCollum as one of the players at the elbow. Damian Lillard entered the ball to Meyers Leonard on the right, setting into motion a frenzy of screens and fake handoffs before Leonard eventually handed to McCollum for a quick pick-and-roll. Leonard caught the pass from McCollum in the paint and was able to finish before the defense caught up.
The key to this play is that it’s very similar to a lot of the things the Warriors do to give opposing teams fits. There’s no set play, no precise plan Lillard and McCollum are following, which leaves the defense unable to guess at to what’s coming next. In this iteration, Lillard set a down screen for McCollum at the left elbow, but when McCollum wasn’t immediately open, he turned right around and set another screen for Lillard. Leonard moved to hand the ball to Lillard, but Klay Thompson got in the middle of it to deter the pass. Lillard, unable to get the ball, cleared out and McCollum stepped up into the handoff pick-and-roll with Leonard.
There are at least four or five options for Lillard, McCollum, and Leonard in what looks like a fairly simple play. All three have to be on the same page in order to successfully execute, since the entire set relies on the read-and-react ability of the Portland stars. Whatever the Warriors give them is what they’ll take, whether it’s an open three from McCollum on the original down screen, a flare screen for Lillard when he’s unable to get the handoff, the handoff-and-roll we see in the clip above, or a multitude of other branches. Unless the Warriors play nearly perfect defense, something will come open and the Trail Blazers will take full advantage.