Day 23 of the quest to the Larry O’Brien trophy and we have ourselves a couple of series tying road victories. Both victories featured stand out performances from their top stars when it was needed most. Let’s start in the east.
Toronto Raptors (2-2) vs Philadelphia 76ers (2-2): 101 to 96
Kawhi is ridiculous.
In a time where we are trying to figure out who will take ownership of the best player in the world title, Kawhi is playing the best basketball of his career.
Let’s start on offence, where Kawhi is the star which the other Raptors players orbit on the offensive end. When he’s on the floor, he does things like have 39 points and 5 assists on 13/20 shooting against the best defence the Sixers have to offer, which is designed to attempt to stop him and make someone else beat them. When he’s off the floor, it’s a tough out for the Raptors (although they weren’t as horribly dominated in this game than in game three).
But Kawhi isn’t a normal modern superstar either. He plays both ends at an elite level.
For the majority of the game, Kawhi was checking up Ben Simmons, who has been reduced to a player the Sixers shove in the dunker spot while they have Butler run the offence. Simmons by the way, with only 10 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in a pivotal home game, is being shut out of the series by Kawhi.
Then, when Kawhi knows he’s reduced Simmons to an off ball watcher, Leonard switched onto the hottest perimeter player on the Sixers in Jimmy Butler. Butler finished with 29 points and had an impressive all round performance….until being checked by Kawhi.
Kawhi got some help from the other guys today, specifically in the form of Marc Gasol who finished with 16 and more importantly lead the way on defending Joel Embiid who finished with only 11 in his version of a flu game.
Game 5 is shaping up to be a crazy game in Toronto. If Siakam continues to play the way he is with his calf injury and Simmons/Embiid can find their way back into top notch play, the Sixers should win the series. However if the Raptors can continue to defend at an elite level as well as find a consistent source of offence to hold court when Kawhi isn’t on the floor, The Raps should be going to the Eastern conference finals.
In any case, Kawhi is definitely in the top 3 when it comes to the ‘who’s the best player’ conversation.
Next Game @ Toronto: Wednesday (7/5) at 10am AEST
Denver Nuggets (2-2) vs Portland Trailblazers (2-2): 116 to 112
The Murray Rule: When Jamal Murray scores over 20 points and has a field goal percentage over 45%, the Nuggets win.
Evidence: Jamal Murray in Denver wins in the playoffs:
- Game 2 v Spurs: 24 points on 8/17 (47.1%)
- Game 4 v Spurs: 24 points on 8/14 (57.1%)
- Game 5 v Spurs: 23 points on 9/16 (56.3%)
- Game 7 v Spurs: 23 points on 9/19 (47.4%)
- Game 1 v Blazers: 23 points on 8/15 (53.3%)
- Game 4 v Blazers: 34 points on 10/20 (50%)
Every loss the Nuggets have had, Murray hasn’t been able to reach the 20 point threshold without shooting under 45%. The only time we got close to a full rule break was the 4OT game when Murray had 34, but on 14/32 shooting from the field.
If you’re not a stats guy, then think of it this way. Jokic is always going to play well and he hasn’t given us any clues that he wont be able to perform at a level befitting anything less than a B. Millsap is a solid player but not enough to be a second best guy on a title contender. Harris, Craig, Morris, Barton and Beasley are all very talented but don’t have the offensive talent to hold court on their own.
Murray is the key to the whole Nuggets enterprise. And he played like it today.
It seems a little simplistic to say a whole series boils down to one player, but it really feels that way with this series and Murray. If Jokic is the straw that stirs the drink, then Murray is the flavouring of that drink. Murray is the determining factor as to whether this offence is smooth and refreshing or clunky and spoilt.
I really think that Denver can move past the Blazers if Murray continues to perform on a high level like he has in their wins. If he can’t, we get Lillard in the conference finals.
Next game @ Denver: Wednesday (7/5) at 12:30pm AEST