NBA Playoffs: Halfway Home In The Conference Semis

We’re halfway through all four of the second-round matchups in the NBA playoffs. Boston is in control with a 3-1 lead over Cleveland, but the other series are knotted at two games apiece. Here are some basic thoughts regarding each one:

Boston – Cleveland
The injury to Donovan Mitchell was a killer, in a series where the Cavs were already missing Jarrett Allen and the Celtics are playing without Kristaps Porzingis. While Mitchell is day-to-day, not having him for Game 4 ruined any chances Cleveland had of making this a series. As it was, the Celtics continued their first-round trend of winning a blowout Game 1, going soft at home in Game 2, and then making a statement with a road sweep of the middle games.

What has stood out most to me for Boston is how aggressive Jayson Tatum has gotten in these last two games. Tatum has not had a hot three-point shooting night yet in the playoffs. But in the key possessions of these key games, he’s taking the ball to the hoop, creating, and drawing fouls. On a related note, the Celtics have a reputation as a team that lives or dies by the three-ball, but the numbers say something else—when Boston hits the boards, they win.

New York – Indiana
For three games, this was the extension to the Knicks-76ers battle in the first round. Every game was a thriller. New York had a 2-1 series lead. Then Indiana dropped an absolute blowout in Game 4, a 121-89 final that wasn’t even that close. The closing sequence of Game 3 featured a big block by Myles Turner and then an improbable deep trey from Andrew Nembhard as the shot clock was expiring. That saved the Pacers. Now, the series is tied, and OG Anunoby is out with a bad hamstring.

But Indiana has injury problems of their own. Tyrese Haliburton is listed as questionable for Game 5 with back and ankle problems. Even if he guts it up, how effective is he going to be against Jalen Brunson? The Pacers are going to have to make it happen up front, with Turner and Pascal Siakam. New York just needs Brunson to keep attacking the rim and a couple of the multiple role players that surround him to heat up. This series has all the makings of one that can match the New York-Indiana classics of days gone by.

Oklahoma City – Dallas
This has the potential to be a series that Dallas will look back on with deep regret and that will mark Oklahoma City’s moving from good contender to true championship team. That was the impact of the fourth quarter in Game 4. The Mavs had won two of the first three and had seemed in control much of the fourth game. Then, the Thunder made every big play down the stretch. Luka Doncic missed a big free throw. And OKC tied up the series and reclaimed homecourt advantage.

The most obvious standout point is Kyrie Irving’s complete no-show in two different games. In both Game 2 (a Mavs win) and Game 4, he scored in single-digits and only took 19 combined shots in those two games. Do the Thunder have some magic defensive formula that they use in even-numbered games? Or does Kyrie just fade out? He needs to stay engaged, lest Dallas waste a series where P.J. Washington has played exceptionally well. Otherwise, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander will keep making those pundits who insist he should have been MVP look good.

Denver – Minnesota
How weird is this series? It’s strange enough in the NBA for the road team to win each of the first four games. But none of them have even been particularly close. Games 1 and 4 were the only ones where the final margin was in single digits and even they weren’t barn-burners. Even more than that was the intensity (or lack thereof) from the Timberwolves in their home games. After taking the first two in Denver, Minnesota looked like your future NBA champs. Maybe they will be, but they just came out flat for both games in the Twin Cities. Karl Anthony-Towns, who was terrific on the road, look disengaged at home

Each team has their constant. The newly crowned MVP, Nikola Jokic is obviously one of them. That was underscored in Game 3 when the TV commentators noted he really wasn’t stuffing the stat sheet like he often does—he only finished with a 24/14/9 line. I think we’ve officially arrived at the “taking greatness for granted” point. And Anthony Edwards for Minnesota rings up numbers and stands out for how aggressively he takes the ball to the rack. The secondary players—KAT for Minnesota, and Jamal Murray for Denver—have been the swing points so far.

Tuesday, May 14
Indiana – New York (8, TNT)
Minnesota – Denver (10:30, TNT)

Wednesday, May 15
Cleveland – Boston (7, TNT)
Dallas – Oklahoma City (9:30, TNT)

Thursday, May 16
Denver – Minnesota (8:30, ESPN)

Friday, May 17
New York – Indiana
Boston – Cleveland if necessary, this will determine game times. ESPN has coverage.

Saturday, May 18
Oklahoma City – Dallas (8:30, ESPN)

Sunday, May 19
Minnesota – Denver
Cleveland – Boston
Indiana – New York (this would be at 3:30, all others TBA)

Monday, May 20
Dallas – Oklahoma City (8:30, TNT)

Our next Notebook entry will be on 2nd-Round Wraps, where we’ll post final series numbers and comments for each matchup as they conclude.