Good morning. Let’s basketball.
The Ninth Wave, Ivan Aivazovsky
An instant classic. A deep shot to send the game to overtime. A deep shot to send the game double overtime. 55 points, 10 assists, an NBA playoff record 12 threes. And a painful, painful L.
All in a night’s work for Damian Lillard.
Briefly, let’s give credit where it’s due: Nikola Jokic had a superb game (38-11-9 with four blocks). Look at this freaking pass in double overtime for what would be the winning basket. Legitimately one of the best, most important and perfect passes of the NBA season. By a 7-footer being double-teamed in minute 45 of a high-stakes playoff battle.
Michael Porter Jr. was fantastic and the Nuggets deserved to win this game. To be able to withstand a historic performance from Lillard, get the crucial Game 5 victory and earn two chances to close out the series: Denver’s doing a whole lot right.
Maybe they had a little help, too.
On the flip side, it’s impossible to avoid questions and critiques of Lillard’s supporting cast. When someone has a game like that and you lose, you have to look around. Jusuf Nurkic fouled out in 24 minutes. C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell and Carmelo Anthony combined to shoot 15/47 from the floor, basically erasing Dame’s 17/24 efficiency. In the fourth quarter and both overtimes, Blazers not named Damian Lamonte Ollie Lillard Sr. shot a combined 6/27. In that same stretch, Dame had 28 points on 10/13 shooting.
The Nuggets gave the Blazers every chance to steal the game in the second overtime as everyone on the court ran out of juice. But Robert Covington blew a dunk. McCollum stepped out of bounds. Powell missed a corner three. Lillard hit two of his three shots in 2OT — the third was the one Austin Rivers thanked God for — and the rest of his team shot 0/7. You can’t win like that, clearly.
But that doesn’t define these Blazers. McCollum has had some superb playoff performances of his own. Nurkic is better than he showed in Game 5. We know that Powell can win when it counts. We all knew and we all know the Blazers are deeply flawed on the defensive end, that Covington, Nurkic and scheme can paper over but so many deficiencies. There are reasons Portland was at risk of slipping into the play-in the final weekend of the regular season, even with Dame. It’s not a perfect supporting cast.
Leaping from that reality to questions about how the Blazers should react when the series remains very much alive, however, isn’t particularly relevant. Portland made the conference finals two years ago by beating Jokic and the Nuggets in Denver in a Game 7. Do you think Dame is no longer capable of leading his team to that kind of glory? Do you hear some alarm indicating that Dame Time is up? If you believe what you witnessed in Game 5 from Lillard (I do) and you believe the other Blazers can play marginally better than they did (I do), then you should be prepared to believe Portland can save their season over the rest of this week.
And if they do, the defending champs appear to be on their way out of the bracket. Win this series and anything can happen. It clearly won’t be easy to dispatch Jokic, Porter and the Nuggets — Game 5 made that obvious. But it’s also not impossible, not when Dame is on your side. Hold off on the eulogies. Give the trade machine a break. Dame Time isn’t over yet.
Twilight of the Elite
Game 5 of Suns vs. Lakers started a half-hour after Nuggets vs. Blazers. The experience of watching Phoenix’s lead bloom via the ticker in the corner of the screen during the Dame and Jokic show was absolutely electric. The Suns went on a 24-2 run from the end of the first quarter to midway through the second.
How does L.A., with the league’s best defense, let Phoenix score 24 points in six minutes?
How does L.A., with LeBron James, score 2 points in six minutes?
Crisp, energetic and confident play from the Suns — Devin Booker had 22 on 9/13 shooting at halftime, Phoenix had just a single turnover in the first half which is a huge turnaround in this series given how much active L.A. hands had bothered them. I’m not sure if Chris Paul is all the way back, but he looks better every game now.
Without Anthony Davis and with LeBron not quite looking himself, the Lakers simply aren’t that imposing. I mean, LeBron played 20 of the first 24 minutes and the Suns were up by 30 at the half. I’m not sure you can claim a single Laker played well in the first half … and Frank Vogel tried a lot of different Lakers with 11 players getting minutes before halftime. And none of them were named Montrezl Harrell.
Harrell eventually did play the entire fourth quarter, killing time on the court with guys like Ben McLemore, Talen Horton-Tucker and Alfonzo McKinnie. Probably not what he signed up for last summer. If Davis isn’t back for Game 6 — a literal and not just figurative must-win for the champs — you wonder if Vogel will throw Harrell out there earlier, maybe even as a starter since the Lakers have so little offensive juice right now. Yes, the L.A. defense was also a problem in Game 5. But we’ve seen the defense work well in this series. The offense has been pretty rough.
Credit to the Suns, who many counted out after Game 2 with the series tied and CP3 looking rough. Teams take on characteristics of their coaches, for better or worse. These Suns are resilient like Monty Williams. And they’re talented as hell to boot.
Celtics 109, Nets 123 (BKN wins series 4-1) — Boston has some stuff to figure out this summer. Kemba Walker sat the last two games of this series — this isn’t exactly the version of “Romeo Langford starting playoff games in Year 2” Celtics fans had in mind during the 2019 draft, is it? The C’s finished their season as they experienced it all year: a little bit of dread, a lot of aimlessness, a heaping bowl of disappointment.
Nets-Bucks. I’m stoked. Game 1 on Saturday.
Blazers 140, Nuggets 147 (DEN leads 3-2)
Lakers 85, Suns 115 (PHX leads 3-2)
Mercury 84, Sky 83 — Sorry Dame, best shot of the night goes to Kia Nurse with a truly bonkers game-winner for Phoenix.
Potentially busy night on Inside the NBA’s fishing boat. All times Eastern.
Wizards at Sixers, 7, NBA TV (PHI leads 3-1)
Aces at Liberty, 7
Hawks at Knicks, 7:30, TNT (ATL leads 3-1)
Grizzlies at Jazz, 9:30, NBA TV (UTA leads 3-1)
Mavericks at Clippers, 10, TNT (Series tied 2-2)
Sky at Mercury, 10, CBS Sports Network
Fever at Sparks, 10:30
Dan Devine on the Sixers’ closing issues.
The Lakers sort of sound defeated.
Joel Embiid is listed as doubtful for Game 5. Not good.
Nice gestures by the Jazz toward Ja Morant’s family. Speaking of which, the NBA put out a video asking fans to chill. One presumes this is being played at arenas, too.
Owen Phillips on why you should take data on stepback jumper shooting percentages and quantities with a grain of salt.
David Thorpe’s assessment of the contenders midway through the first round for TrueHoop. ($)
Clint Capela spit mots en feu at the Knicks’ idea of toughness.
LaMarcus Aldridge opens up to Shams Charania in The Athletic on facing depression and the end of his playing career. ($)
Zach Kram asks what happened to home court advantage in the NBA playoffs.
Rest in peace, Mark Eaton. I had missed that Rudy Gobert had been so close to Eaton.
The NBL in Australia and New Zealand has picked up its first highly touted European prospect, Ousmane Dieng from France, for its Next Stars program that had previously pulled in LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton.
Marc Spears on what’s next for the Basketball Africa League.
Here’s Ros Gold-Onwude talking to Masai Ujiri, Joakim Noah, Dikembe Mutombo and Amadou Gallo Fall about the importance of investment in African basketball.
Be excellent to each other.
My favorite newsletter title ever
The W games are tomorrow, not today. W is dark tonight, for no good reason.