Less than a week ago, the second round of the NBA playoffs seemed like it was on its way to wrapping up quickly, with the 76ers and Nets looking far superior to the Hawks and Bucks, the Suns on the verge of sweeping the Nuggets, and the Clippers down 2-0 to the Jazz with no answers for Utah’s ability to go on runs.
Things aren’t always what they seem, and that, as the cliché goes, is why they play the games.
Phoenix, at least, did complete its sweep of Denver, which couldn’t match up with the Suns in the absence of Jamal Murray, no matter how good Nikola Jokić was. But the rest of these series? They’ve made me look foolish in just a few days’ time.
“Both East series are 2-1,” I wrote. “But both also feel like the lower seed stole a game, and it wouldn’t be surprising if neither has a Game 6.”
Both now are headed to a sixth game. In the case of Brooklyn-Milwaukee, things did obviously change in an unpredictable fashion with Kyrie Irving getting hurt. Kevin Durant’s monster Game 5 pushed the Bucks to the brink of elimination, but it’s still turned out to be much more of a series than it looked like it might be after the first two games on the Nets’ home floor, and even the close Game 3 in Milwaukee that had the look of the one aberration in a gentleman’s sweep.
Philadelphia? Well, here’s what I wrote: “The Hawks have a little more help around Trae Young with John Collins and Clint Capela, but when Joel Embiid has Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons as his running mates, well, it’s not really a surprise that the 76ers took a 2-1 series lead.”
After Thursday night, who can you say Embiid really has with him? Seth Curry? Those were the only two players on the Sixers who managed to get a bucket in the second half of Game 5. Philadelphia blew a 26-point lead, now has to beat the Hawks in Atlanta just to force a Game 7, and the entire organization is careening toward an existential crisis.
It would be a lot easier if the Sixers could blame things on Embiid’s bad knee, but he’s the one dude who’s actually showing up in this series, averaging 32 points, 13 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.2 blocks, and 1.2 steals. Simmons, who already has the weird distinction of being an NBA player in 2021 who never shoots three-pointers, is clanging away from the foul line now at a comedic level — 12-for-39 in the five games against Atlanta.
The Hawks absolutely deserve credit for rallying in this series. Young keeps getting better and somehow more confident, Collins picks his spots and doesn’t miss, Capela does the dirty work on the glass, and veterans like Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams are tremendous in their roles… but this is really about Philadelphia collapsing, not only in Game 5, but also Game 4, when the 76ers made one field goal in the final nine minutes and had a brutal final possession on which Shake Milton looked as confused as everyone else about why he had the ball in his hands with six seconds left.
But the real stunner, even though it was the series that I thought had the biggest chance of turning into something dramatic, is Clippers-Jazz.
“Utah isn’t losing four straight,” I wrote.
That’s now one game away from happening.
“With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (himself Middletonian in the ability to toss in a playoff clunker), the Clippers can make Utah sweat,” I wrote.
Leonard hurt his knee, and given the full spotlight, George did the absolute opposite of throwing in a clunker. On the road, in a game Los Angeles trailed by double digits, the Olympic gold medalist forever dismissed his doubters by pouring in 37 points with 16 rebounds and five assists. It also needs to be noted that Reggie Jackson has been phenomenal in this series to pull the Clippers within a win of their first-ever conference finals appearance.
They certainly have the momentum, as do the Hawks, with both looking to complete upsets of top seeds in home games on Friday. After the way the last week has unfolded, though, I’m not gonna make any kind of assumptions or predictions about it. Having not expected either of these Game 6s to happen, it’ll be best to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the quickly-developed drama.