Last season when I covered the Play-In Tournament, my review was that it was entertaining but it wasn’t competitive. In fact, I deemed that last season’s Play-In Tournament was decided before it even started. This season, the tournament won me over.
In an NBA regular season that saw an extremely tight knit grouping between the four seeds all the way through the twelve seeds, the Play-In matchups couldn’t even be decided until the last game of the season was finalized. This is the type of season the NBA needed for this tournament to mean something. As expected last season, the seven and eight seeds in both conferences won the necessary games to cement their seeding, which meant the Play-In was meaningless except for allowing the injury-plagued Brooklyn Nets to get healthy.
This season, every game has been a masterpiece. We started with the seventh seeded Miami Heat facing off against the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks in South Beach. Miami grabbed a lead of 2-0 to start the game and never led the rest of the way. Atlanta was faster, more explosive and Clint Capela dominated the boards with 21 rebounds, resulting in a 116-105 Atlanta victory. Kyle Lowry had his best game in a Heat uniform with 33 points, but the help offensively was not available. The Hawks will play the Boston Celtics in the First Round.
Rudy Gobert punched teammate Kyle Anderson in the final game of the regular season resulting in a one-game suspension, but through much of this game Karl Anthony-Towns negated the defensive hole that Gobert not being there should’ve left. This game was perfect. There was suspense, there were exquisite shots, high flying dunks and blocks, the whole package. Minnesota led most of the way with Towns putting up 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Mike Conley putting up 23 points; both players didn’t miss a shot in their first six attempts. The momentum was all Timberwolves at half as Anthony Edwards got up high to block Rui Hachimura’s dunk attempt at the buzzer, leaving Minnesota with an 11-point lead.
The Lakers were limping around in the first half with Anthony Davis wincing and clutching his shoulder and Dennis Schroder nursing a twisted ankle. Both injuries were non-existent in the second half as Davis ended up with 24 points and 15 boards, nine of these offensive where it seemed Davis had his say all night. Schroder ended with 21 points, including a three from the corner with less than two seconds left that warranted an exuberant “Ice in his veins” celebration from him and Lebron in front of the Wolves bench. Ultimately Mike Conley would be fouled on a corner three on Minnesota’s last-ditch effort to tie the game, sinking all three free throws to tie the game at 98. This effort was all for naught since no matter how great Edwards was defensively, he just couldn’t lead his team to victory on the offensive side of the ball, shooting three for 17 from the field and costing his team the game in overtime. The Lakers go on to face the Memphis Grizzlies in the First Round after a 108-102 win.
In the short history of the Play-In, before now, no tenth seeded team had won a game. This season, both ten seeds were victorious as the Chicago Bulls did what they’ve done best over the last 17 games of the season, and that is rally. The Bulls claimed the ten seed by winning 10 of their last 17 games. Zach Lavine and Demar Derozan had to be the cogs that led to a Bulls victory. Lavine scored nine points in the first half but caught fire for 30 points in the second, which helped Chicago erase a 19-point deficit. Derozan added 23 points of his own, but the real star was his daughter, Diar, who was heard shrieking every time the Raptors shot free throws. Her distraction tactics must have worked because Toronto missed a season-high 18 free throws, sacrificing their season in a 109-105 loss.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are way ahead of schedule, and it is one of the best stories in the NBA. OKC were predicted to win 24 games this season after what seemed like a devastating loss as number two overall draft pick Chet Holmgren was lost for the season after a Lisfranc injury in a Seattle Pro Am game in the summer leading up to the season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an All-Star, Jalen Williams is a finalist for Rookie of the Year and Josh Giddey is a sturdy number two option at just 20 years of age. The Thunder won 40 games, giving them an opportunity to flex their muscles against a Zion-less Pelicans team. Josh Giddey had no regard for how the Play-In statistics are not recorded as regular season or playoff statistics as he put up a near 30-point triple-double with 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, a game that the NBA history books will say never happened. Gilgeous-Alexander was locked down early, resulting in his lowest scoring first half of the season, but he caught fire, ending with 32 points of his own while Lu Dort added 27.
The downfall for the Thunder, it looked like, would be their size as we saw with other games during this tournament: Jonas Valanciunas dominated down low with 16 points and 18 rebounds, and Brandon Ingram led New Orleans with 30 points including an improbable, deep, contested three with under 10 seconds left while Herb Jones had 21. New Orleans just had too many miscues with Josh Richardson sparking Josh Giddey’s fury with a flagrant foul shove in the third quarter, Herb Jones throwing away the final attempt at victory with a sloppy inbounds pass, and ultimately putting Gilgeous-Alexander, a 90% free throw shooter, at the line too many times as he was a perfect eight for eight guiding the second youngest team in the league to a 123-118 victory.
The results of these games gave us our win or go home, battle for the eighth seed games: Miami versus Chicago and Minnesota versus Oklahoma City.
Unfortunately for Bulls fans, but maybe fortunately for the ears of fans inside Kaseya Center, Diar Derozan wasn’t present as Demar noted that she had to be in school, and her presence was dearly missed as Miami shot 28 for 32 from the free throw line and sunk Chicago 102-91. The first quarter of this game gave me flashbacks to Dion Waiters versus Tim Hardaway Jr in the 2014 Rising Stars game as Max Strus and Alex Caruso were torching three pointers back and forth. Strus would tie a Play-In game record with seven made treys, leading the Heat in scoring with 31 points–tied with Jimmy Butler who once again displayed his ability to put the Heat on his back when the pressure is the highest. Bam Adebayo refused to have a repeat performance of his game against Atlanta as he snagged 17 rebounds. For Chicago, Demar Derozan led the way with 26 points and nine assists while his partner in crime, Zach Lavine struggled, shooting six for 21 with no made threes only putting up 15 points. Andre Drummond came into the game in the third quarter, playing 10 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing eight rebounds. Had Drummond gotten some minutes in the fourth quarter, the 15-to-one run that Miami closed out the game with may have been challenged. Ultimately, Miami heads to Milwaukee for a series that seemingly happens every year, and Chicago heads home with hopes that Lonzo Ball can eventually be healthy and push the limits of what this team can really be.
Rudy Gobert was back in the starting lineup for Minnesota as they fought against Oklahoma City in the Target Center for the final playoff spot. Nickeil Alexander-Walker got the start at small forward, matching him up defensively guarding his cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. This was crucial in the first half as when Alexander-Walker wasn’t guarding his cousin, he switched onto Josh Giddey, holding Gilgeous-Alexander to 10 points and Giddey to only two. The two J-Wills would keep them in the game as Jaylin Williams was fighting ruthlessly on the glass against Rudy Gobert and Jalen Williams put up 14 points on four for five shooting. Offensively, Karl Anthony-Towns proved that, if he could stay healthy, he is a top ten player in the league, putting up 15 points and five rebounds, including an improbable circus shot-and-one. Towns would leave in the second quarter with an apparent hand injury and then return after halftime. Anthony Edwards found his footing again after an abysmal performance offensively against Los Angeles with 11 points, six rebounds and four assists in the first half. Meanwhile Kyle Anderson clearly had put his beef with Gobert behind him as his drive to win put the game in “Slow-Mo,” adding 11 points of his own along with five rebounds and two assists in the first half, one of those assists feeding Gobert his only field goal attempt in the half on an alley-oop.
Unfortunately for OKC, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander would leave the game two minutes into the second half after taking an elbow to the face after a failed alley-oop attempt from Gobert. Gilgeous-Alexander channeled Rocky Balboa as he returned just a few minutes later with gashes around a black eye. Despite his determination, Karl Anthony-Towns and Minnesota’s three-point shooting was just too dominant in the second half, leading by as many as 29 points. As “MVP” chants erupted throughout Target Center for Towns, Gilgeous-Alexander never gave up, forcing his way to the rim for free throws time and time again, changing those chants into “Refs You Suck” chants instead. This courageous run would only last so long as the size of the Timberwolves was too much to overcome for the young Thunder team. Minnesota would dominate the fourth quarter to come out on top 120-95. Oklahoma City couldn’t break into the Playoffs this season, but with an overachieving team with overflowing chemistry and 15 first-round picks over the next five years, the future is extremely bright. The Timberwolves will head to Denver to take on the back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets.
Leave a Reply