Round 1, Game 2 action continued on Tuesday, April 17. The Raptors (and Drake) took on the Wizards, the Celtics handled the wounded bucks, and the Blazers struggled to disarm (diswing?) the Pelicans. If you’re on the East Coast, it was all worth staying up late for. If you fell asleep, we’ll fill you in.
Jrue Holiday, Playoff Rondo, and the Pelicans Are Embarrassing the Blazers
We need to start with Blazers/Pelicans. It may have been the nightcap, but without a doubt, it was the most watchable game of the week. Unless of course you’re from Portland, in which case you may want to keep scrolling.
Home-court advantage means nothing to the Pelicans, who finished up the 2017-18 regular season with the fourth-best road record in the NBA. The 6-seed Pelicans stole Game 1 at the Moda Center in a thrilling finish punctuated by a defensive miracle by Jrue Holiday, and that New Orleans magic carried over into Tuesday. If you figured the Pelicans would feel fine splitting their first two playoff games in three years, you don’t know the Pelicans. How ludicrous.
This team has pulled every rabbit out of the hat in the past three months: losing DeMarcus Cousins and being immediately counted out of playoff contention led to the acquisition of Nikola Mirotić and the awakening of Anthony Davis. Alvin Gentry, their engineer of a coach, has reformed his offense over and over since acquiring Cousins, this time filling in the Boogie-sized gaps, keeping ball movement fluid, and ensuring that Davis gets the touches he needs despite debilitating double-teams. Through February and March it felt like the Pelicans were storming back from 19-point deficits on a nightly basis, exhausting opponents into overtime collapses, and appropriating the void of a superstar into the most improbable Cinderella story. The Pelicans shouldn’t have won 48 games. They shouldn’t be leading a playoff series 2-0. They aren’t supposed to be here–not without Cousins. And yet, they’ve put the NBA on notice.
Game 2 started almost precisely the same way Game 1 did: on a perfect midrange pullup by Anthony Davis. But it was the early offensive aggression of Jrue Holiday that truly set the tone for Game 2, and on a night where Davis struggled to get open, Holiday’s 70% first-half shooting and lockdown defense on Damian Lillard were lightning rods to Portland’s confidence. Holiday is one of the most effective pick-and-roll defenders at his position, akin to a lethal injection to Portland’s offense. In the series, Lillard and backcourt partner C.J. McCollum have combined for 76 points on 36.3% shooting; for context, Holiday and his backcourt partner Rajon Rondo have combined for precisely the same amount of points on 51.6% shooting. Lillard and McCollum have a combined 19 assists and 15 rebounds over the two games, totals Holiday and Rondo have nearly doubled with 37 assists and 28 rebounds.
In a simple twist of fate, the New Orleans guards are outplaying Portland’s marquee duo. Holiday and Rondo are unconventional, pass-first, old-school guards who are happy to do the dirty work: crucial offensive rebounds, timely steals, defensive awareness, and in Jrue’s case, block after block after game-saving chase-down block. They benefit greatly from playing around their superstar Davis, but have gained even more in this series from performing with chips on their shoulders. Rondo is the tradeable hothead whose capacity to gear-grind has continually overshadowed his champion blood and otherworldly playmaking; Holiday, the inverse of a star NBA point guard, plays with little emotion and flair–to the point of casual fans questioning his effectiveness next to Davis, let alone his paycheck. The narratives matter little. Holiday and Rondo believe in the Pelicans more than they believe in the hype, and it’s showing.
Lillard and McCollum are shooting cold, defensively disoriented, and don’t have an Anthony Davis to defer to. They looked exhausted at the end of Game 2, and let Holiday and Rondo hammer the nails into their home court coffin. Through Games 1 and 2, the Pelicans have proven that they simply want it more.
With 3:20 to go in Game 2, the Blazers took their first lead of the night. The Pelicans were missing free throws, Lillard had converted a momentum-swinging four-point play, and with an entire building behind the Blazers, a comeback home win felt imminent. Somehow, the Pelicans converted the Moda Center’s energy and some New Orleans magic into diesel fuel. They responded immediately: a Mirotić rainbow three, relentless rebounding leading to a Holiday three, a steal by Davis off of Lillard, even more heart-stopping offensive rebounding off of free throw misses by E’Twaun Moore, and finally Rondo’s dagger to Portland’s heart. With grit and pride, the Pelicans got stops, came through offensively, put trust in unlikely heroes, and pulled off the unthinkable.
The Pelicans head home with confidence and a lot of house money. Will they bring out the brooms?
The Raptors Are Enjoying Killing the Wizards
The Toronto Raptors can, for the first time in franchise history, call a 2-0 playoff series lead their own. Silencing speculative doubters everywhere, the Raptors’ postseason is indeed living up to their historic regular season. They’ve rectified the Game 1 curse, Kyle Lowry is locked in and making the right plays, and DeMar DeRozan is exploiting Washington’s distracted defense. As a team, the Raptors are shooting 44.6% from three over both games, and are relying on an even scoring distribution from bench players and starters alike. Meanwhile, the Wizards may have wanted us to believe that they aren’t an everyday 8-seed, but over two games, they’ve done little to convince anyone otherwise. As the teams descend upon Washington for Game 3, the Raptors are far from worried. If DeMar and Kyle’s giddiness to the point of hysteria at the podium over a Matrix reference is any indication, the series will be short. The Playoffs are a lot lighter when you’re in comfortably in control and driving your opponents to the brink of sanity.
Early in the third quarter of Raptors/Wizards on Tuesday night, NBA TV cameras caught Washington’s John Wall, Marcin Gortat, and Bradley Beal with a Renaissance painting-esque portrayal of their rough season. Wall and Gortat are seen arguing on the bench during a timeout, while Beal appears exasperated, if not about to flee Canada. Wall would churn out 29 points and nine assists in his Wizards’ losing effort, but the next man up was sixth man Mike Scott with 20. All-Star Beal was in foul trouble all game long, scoring just nine points on 27.3% shooting. Gortat was held scoreless. If Wall and Gortat really settled their differences back in February, they have some work to do, because nothing about the woeful Wizards is deserving of optimism. Coach Scott Brooks often looks ready to keel over and die on the sideline. If this franchise is serious about winning, Wall and Beal are going to have to sit down together this summer and weigh their future as a backcourt.
Let’s just blame Drake.
Point Guard Beef: Terry Rozier vs. Eric Bledsoe
The Milwaukee Bucks are down 0-2 to the Celtics, and Milwaukee point guard Eric Bledsoe is so disillusioned, he doesn’t even remember the name of the guy kicking his ass. When asked to evaluate matching up with his defensive liability, Kyrie Irving replacement Terry Rozier, Bledsoe had little to offer: “Who? … I don’t even know who the f**k that is.”
In case you missed it, Rozier is the guy who made absolute shambles of Bledsoe in the final seconds of Game 1. If not for Khris Middleton bailing him and the Bucks out on an absurd game-tying three half a second later, Bledsoe would have had to deal with even more negative publicity for his blunder. Did Eric think Terry would drive? Was he expecting help? Did a Nerdluck get him? Is Rozier that scary?
Terry Rozier is relatively unknown, but a specific cult of Celtics fans would probably die for him. He’s helped carry a champion’s city to an unlikely 2-seed and hasn’t cowered in the face of adversity. Rozier and the inexperienced players around him have had to grow up quickly under the green lights. Stepping up and into the challenge of filling an elite point guard’s role, Rozier’s scored 23 points in each of his first two playoff starts. Jaylen Brown became the youngest Celtic to score 30 points in a playoff game on Tuesday, while Jayson Tatum is learning first-hand the gravity of the NBA postseason after a disappointing Game 2 output. Along with veteran leaders Al Horford, Marcus Morris, and Greg Monroe, the depleted but optimistic Celtics are pushing an even more vulnerable Bucks team to the edges of their identity crises. Maybe Bledsoe’s stab at Rozier is tactical. This junior rivalry could bring out the Bucks’ best–whatever that means–in Game 3.