As we round into the second round of the playoffs, the subplots are getting juicer by the series. Three more come at you today. So here they go!

1.NUGGETS RE-SHAPED IDENTITY BEHIND JAMAL MURRAY’S LEGENDARY OFFENSIVE OUTBURST

Congratulations if you had money on Jamal Murray scoring 221 points in seven games against Utah! I (absolutely) did not. What he was able to accomplish against a stingy Jazz defense was remarkable. Murray defined the term ‘unconsious’. 25 feet from the basket? No problem! Oh, now you want me to sneak past a towering Rudy Gobert? Sure! It was a remarkable display of shot-making that we had not seen in a playoff series in quite sometime. Whether this is the new Jamal Murray or simply a hot streak remains to be seen. One thing is clear. Denver clearly evolved their offense to spotlight Murray in the pick-and-roll.

What that meant to Nikola Jokic? Take a look:

A couple of things are at play here. One, Murray was an absolute demon as a ball handler. We also saw Jokic move from distributor to floor spacer. The Nuggets star averaged 5.4 assists per game in the series. A sharp decline from his regular season numbers. Mike Malone wisely exploited Utah’s drop pick and roll coverage. Jokic shot 56% from beyond the arc on passes from Murray. The pick and pop game was a massive reason for Denver’s turnaround. 

How this looks against the Clippers will be very interesting. Utah is severely capped on wing defenders. Los Angeles is not. Doc Rivers has Kawhi Leonard AND Paul George at his disposal. That changes the equation a bit for Denver. But don’t count out the Nuggets exploring this partnership with Ivica Zubac on the floor. The Clippers can counter with a quicker (but lighter) Montrezl Harrell. This could be the invitation Jokic needs to return to his dominant inside presence. How Los Angeles solves the Murray-Jokic conundrum will go a long way to determining the outcome. 

2. MIAMI SHREDDING THE HEART OF MILWAUKEE’S DEFENSE

Much is made of Milwaukee’s ‘pack the paint’ defense. Mike Budenholzer’s squad unapologetically stuffs the lane with bodies. It is a strategy that helped Giannis run away with the Defensive Player of The Year award. The Bucks are big. The Bucks are tall. But are the Bucks built for Jimmy Butler and Co.?

Thru two games the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. The Heat love to stress you with shooters. Give Jimmy Butler space and he will slice your defense to pieces. Look at how stretched Milwaukee’s defense is against this small Heat lineup:

Milwaukee entered the series allowing 15.4 shot attempts inside the restricted area during the playoffs. That number sky-rocketed to 25 after Miami’s resounding Game 1 win. While we saw considerable improvements from the Bucks in Game 2, the question still remains. Does Milwaukee have enough perimeter defense to manage an open paint?

Again, look at the offensive output of Miami’s most used lineups:

It is now Mike Budenholzer’s turn to shine. Do we see a little more zone from Milwaukee? Maybe some more defined traps towards Butler and Dragic. Either way, time is running out for the East’s heavy favorites. 

3. HOUSTON’S ANSWER THE QUESTION: “IS SIZE OBSOLETE?” 

No one is going to debate the value of an elite rim protector. I am there as well. Give me Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid and I am clearly better off defensively. BUT, do I need any of those guys to be a great defense? I think Houston is well on their way to answering that question this postseason. Why?

Take a look at how the Rockets have built the playoff’s best defense. Yes, I said the playoff’s best defense!

Houston is the epicenter for creative ‘outside the box’ ideas. Most lineups do not have a single player over 6’8″. The defense is now comprised of long arms, strong athletes and a ton of hustle. Robert Covington loves to get his paws on passing lanes. James Harden has entirely shed the (incorrect) label of a poor defender. PJ Tucker can defend positions 1 to 5 pretty effortlessly. When they turn the ball over, all five guys quickly hustle back into position. It is awesome to watch.

The Rockets also understand the value of math. Leave bad shooters open and disrupt driving lanes. So far, the experiment has been a massive success. But with the over-sized Lakers next, is this headed for a sizeable crash? Or is Houston about to re-invent how we think about defenses moving forward? Stay tuned!

EXTRA THOUGHT: WHAT IS NEXT FOR THE OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER?

Sam Presti, take your victory lap! Just a season ago, the Thunder were stuck in NBA purgatory with Russell Westbrook’s massive contract clogging the books (and an unhappy Paul George). 44 wins and a Game 7 later, they are now a sneaky good destination. What was supposed to be a re-building year quickly morphed into a super fun and extremely competitive team. After a rough season in Houston, OKC turned Chris Paul’s albatross contract into a significant trade asset. It also leveraged Paul George into a potential superstar in Shai Gilegeous-Alexander (SGA). The Thunder are loaded with draft picks and cap flexibility. So what is next in store?

If you are Presti you have to build around SGA. Chris Paul has been tremendous, but enabling SGA to run the offense will go a long way to building his star power. What that means is flipping CP3 into guys who work off the ball and space the floor. The Thunder finished the season 27th in three point attempts and 17th in efficiency. I love the idea of SGA and Dennis Schroeder operating with an open court. Both are lethal shot creators. Give them what they need and watch Oklahoma City take off very soon!

*all stats from NBA.com

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