2020 NBA Finals Preview

The Miami Heat are doing exactly what the past five NBA Champions have done.  We just haven’t realized it till now, after they’ve pulled upset after upset in the 2020 playoffs and are just four wins away from pulling off another en route to a NBA title.

Their formula throughout these playoffs has changed over and over.  That was the key that drove the Raptors to their Finals win last year and Golden State to all of theirs in years prior.

Miami’s firepower simply overwhelmed Indiana in the first round.  Then, a ridiculous defensive effort uprooted the league’s best regular season team in the conference semi-finals.  Boston followed, and subsequently squandered thanks to a different Heat menace taking over almost every night.

Miami has answers to almost every question brought to them.  What happens when the threes aren’t going in?  Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro and even spurts of Bam Adebayo can go get their own shot.  What about a bad night from Butler?  Remove him from the list above and there are your counters.  The opponent wants to stop interior shot creation?  Good luck helping off Duncan Robinson, Herro, a once steaming hot Jae Crowder and Miami’s other group of wings from beyond the arc.

Aside from injuries, the biggest reason why Toronto beat Golden State last year was their ability to have multiple creators on the floor at once.  Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet were crafty guards.  Kawhi Leonard was Kawhi Leonard.  Pascal Siakam was an athletic marvel who was hard to stop.  Danny Green was lights out.  Their big men were switchable enough that they weren’t played off the floor.

Miami is a sibling of that Toronto team, and it’s why they’re in the Finals.  It really shouldn’t be shocking, despite the fact that they’ve been picked against routinely.  It makes sense that Miami is here.  This is no walk in the park for the Lakers.

Los Angeles has the two best players in this series and that’s about it.  It’s – obviously and unsurprisingly – been enough throughout the entire regular season and playoffs.  LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been purely unstoppable against Portland, Houston and Denver in all three rounds.  The biggest reason the Lakers have continued to win is because those teams had no counterpunch strong enough to overcome LA’s star duo.

Miami probably doesn’t either, but they have the best personnel out of any of the Lakers’ previous opponents to limit the punch Davis and James can bring.  Lowering the strike reduces the counter.  

The Heat are capable of doing that.  They made a trade before the deadline in February to address this very issue.  Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala are the exact type of guys you throw at James – not to stop him but to at least make him work harder and differ more.  Butler also exists as an option, as does Derrick Jones Jr., whose minutes should increase in this series for the exact task of guarding James.  That’s four bodies the Heat can rotate in and out, and it gives them the ability to switch everything possession-by-possession if they so choose.

The Heat need to go down swinging with a switch-everything, wing-heavy scheme against James.  Their zone defense has been impressive and pesky throughout the playoffs, stalling Boston on multiple occasions throughout the Eastern Conference Finals.  But Boston only had one zone-breaker in Gordon Hayward, whose injuries limited his real impact.  There was too little aggression from the Celtics, and it cost them the series.

James has been a force throughout the bubble, getting to the rim like it’s no one’s business.  His performance to close out the Western Conference Finals in Game 5 illuminated that.  Denver had no answer.

The best way to beat a zone is to be aggressive.  As Brad Stevens told his players against Miami, you have to “step in.”  James isn’t going to have trouble doing that.

More concerning for the Heat’s zone is what it gives up down low.  The three point line and baseline tends to be wide open when the scheme is deployed.  With a single big on the floor, Los Angeles can put Davis, JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the floor in the dunker spot and get lobs.  With two bigs, Davis could be stretched out to the perimeter, and Howard or McGee can occupy the spot, leaving Miami vulnerable and forcing them to play Meyers Leonard for the first time in these playoffs.

The Lakers big lineup, which worked well against Denver thanks to Howard’s stunning lockdown of Nikola Jokic, is only viable against a zone for the Heat though.  If they go to it against any other scheme, they have the size advantage, but not the math advantage.  The extra big the Lakers play is overmatched by a Miami shooter, who’s going to be able to knockdown threes.  Los Angeles could score every time down low and still be outscored with the way Miami has shot the ball throughout the playoffs.

The Heat give themselves a chance to win by avoiding the zone.  If they deploy it,  Frank Vogel should immediately go big.  Erik Spolestra is too smart to let it hurt the Heat, so he’ll likely adjust right after, forcing both sides back to square one: man-to-man defense and switching.

Miami’s personnel against Davis is intriguing but also troubling.  Adebayo was a brick wall against Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round, which was seemingly impossible given the Greek Freak’s seven foot frame against Adebayo’s undersized 6’9 (Which, as written here, probably says more about Antetokounmpo’s still-lingering issues) stature.  But Adebayo stood taller, and sured up any remaining doubts about his defensive ability.

Davis is a bit of a different cat.  Adebayo’s a better switcher than he is a rim protector, even with the second round performance, meaning he can contain Davis when he’s away from the rim.  But he’s the shot creator and jump-shooter Antentokounmpo isn’t.  With the back-to-back MVP, there was never a reason to worry about tight close-outs or contesting a jump-shot.  That aspect of Davis’ game is what makes calling him a big man tough.  He’s really a wing who feeds in the post.

Then you still have to worry about Davis’ post-up game.  Doubting Adebayo at this point seems silly, but so does doing the same for Davis.  Miami doesn’t really have a bigger option that’d be more effective, so they’re just going to have to strap in and ride with Adebayo.

Miami’s second-biggest advantage in the series is that while James and Davis are clearly the top two players in the series, there’s a decent case that the Heat have the next seven or so.  Butler, Herro, Robinson, Crowder, Dragic, Adebayo, Iguodala and even Kendrick Nunn or Derrick Jones Jr. are all probably the third best player on the Lakers right now.  The Heat’s depth is still outstanding.  The Lakers instead have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

If there’s a case for Miami to go zone, it’s that giving up the three point line doesn’t matter that much against the Lakers.  Danny Green is having a tough postseason shooting, which is unfortunate given the expectations the Lakers had for him.  At the same time, Green tends to be good every other postseason, and after last year, this was coming.  The rest of their shooters are average – Miami is going to be willing to let Markieff Morris and KCP shoot.  The Rajon Rondo shooting streak has to die at some point as well.

In terms of overall talent, Miami probably has more.  But the playoffs are about stars – the Lakers are living proof of that.  While the Heat are capable of limiting the damage Los Angeles inflicts, Crowder’s long been overrated as a LeBron-stopper, Iguodala is old and Butler has to save himself for offense.   Adebayo would be an interesting guard on James, but then who’s on Davis?

It takes a special group to bet against James.  The Warriors were that.  That’s why they were picked every year from 2015-2018 against his teams, and that’s why they won three times out of those four.  

Miami doesn’t quite breach those waters yet.  With a series win, they will.  With a strong fight, they still could.  At this point, it’d be stunning if they didn’t put up a true fight.

Prediction: Lakers in 7

A Dumb MLB Season Is About To Get Dumber

Consider everything abnormal, truly insane or simply stupid about the 60 game MLB season.  Two teams that had close to or exactly half their rosters sick with COVID-19 at one point had to sit out of the season for two weeks and get healthy.  The San Francisco Giants came within one run and one loss of miraculously making the playoffs.  The league leader in ERA came in at 1.63, with the top five all finishing below 2.10.  Yu Darvish has a legit NL Cy Young case.  Three full-time batters hit over .340.  The Seattle Mariners weren’t horrible.  The Miami Marlins are in the playoffs, and overcame an outbreak of the virus on the way there.  If the regular season was dumb – and it certainly was – then MLB’s playoffs are about to be even dumber.

You can first pinpoint this with the amount of teams in the postseason, and baseball’s plan to narrow those down.  Eights teams in each league will play a three game set against the highest or lowest seed available (No.1 vs. No.8, No.2 vs. No.7, etc).  The variance of sixty games is mightily high.  MLB has decided to carry that on in the utmost way into its postseason.  Whoever wins Game 1 of the Wild Card round just has to win one more time to move on.

That could produce massive upsets, which certainly makes for great TV and entertainment, but doesn’t exactly ensure that the sport’s best teams are playing for the championship.  You could argue that was never MLB’s plan this year – the loss of revenue from playing just 60 games and a lack of fans is obviously massive; driving up TV viewership could have been their only goal.  But what a three game series in the first round of the playoffs does is put teams in a funky spot when it comes to evaluation and planning for years to come.  Shouldn’t MLB be trying to foster real competition between its best teams?  Nothing makes for better TV than a great game between two awesome rosters in the playoffs.  

Baseball rarely produces a championship from the its best team though.  Even in 162 game seasons and a normal playoffs, the variance is too high.  But MLB is truly embracing that now, putting its teams, players and employees at risk.  How are the Blue Jays supposed to feel if they win the World Series?  There’s a worry that their young team comes crashing back down next season, because they can’t get it done for a season that’s 2.7 times longer than the one they just had.  What about the Marlins?  That’s a poor team that could get tricked into believing in themselves with a deep playoff run, then spend a bunch of money over the offseason, stink in 2021 and be out not just lost gate revenue but millions on players they probably shouldn’t have paid for.  The Giants almost made it into October.  Regardless of what their success could have been, they could have easily torn the team down in the offseason as its core is on average 30 years old.  That wouldn’t be a great look for a team that surprised everyone and made the playoffs.

MLB is playing with fire here.  There are excuses – or asterisks – for most of the teams in the playoffs if they happen to win the World Series.  The Dodgers?  No fans to put pressure on their necks.  No real stakes considering the short season.  The Braves?  Their bullpen only had 60 games worth of stress on it, not 162, giving them more strength for the playoffs.  The Cubs?  A 33 year old with 104 ERA+ in the two seasons before 2020 is a Cy Young candidate thanks to 12 starts and a 28 year old career minor leaguer who threw a no-hitter in his 27th MLB game ever saved their pitching staff and season.  The Padres – well – the Padres are just awesome, and no one has seen this as stunning.

Lets switch leagues.  Like San Diego, the Rays were built for this and are likely going to be contenders from now on, so they have a lack of an asterisk aside from the variance 60 games brings.  The short season allowed the Twins still-shaky rotation to not be a major problem and nip their success.  The same can be said about Cleveland’s offense minus Jose Ramirez, or the Yankees’ pitching.  Houston’s in the postseason thanks to MLB’s seeding travesty and their weak division.   Toronto and the White Sox follow similar patterns to San Diego and Tampa Bay: you could see it coming – both teams will be here for awhile and the only question those teams have to answer is whether they can be consistent over a much longer season.

This isn’t advocating for you to not watch the MLB postseason.  It’s just a warning that whatever is about to transpire may not be deemed truly representative of the sport.  Teams will be celebrating as they move on and win, but upstairs, it’ll create headaches for those in charge.  

The 2020 MLB season mimics life quite well.  It seems as if we’re in an alternate universe just waiting to be transported back, but life is still actually going on, and we’re kind of having our time wasted right now. 

The Vikings and Rams Have Traded Places

It should be every single NFL team’s job to make their quarterback’s life easier.  A QB’s life is already hard enough.  To succeed in the NFL, you need to be one of the 15 most important athletes in sports.  Nothing is harder than playing quarterback, let alone being average or better at it.

The list of quarterbacks that are average or better is small, which leaves the majority of the NFL in a precarious spot.  Don’t have a quarterback?  Well, you’re in rough shape.

But there are ways for teams to not put themselves in that pickle and not be dragged down by their quarterback so much.  The Rams and Vikings are two teams that have had to combat this in the past few seasons, and their up-and-down success is proof that it’s no easy task.  The effects of taking on such a project are showing this year – one team for the better, and one the worse.

The loss of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski was concerning for Minnesota coming into the 2020-21 season.  Not only was he a home run hire for Cleveland and their needs, but Stefanski had made his living with the Vikings turning Kirk Cousins into a serviceable quarterback – one that could get his team quite deep into the playoffs.  Stefanski did this by heavily utilizing the play-action scheme, which was effective thanks to the emergence of Dalvin Cook as one of the NFL’s best running backs.  Cook baited defenses hard, which opened up the field for Cousins – a passer who’s notoriously not been able to make tight throws downfield.

The key was to not make Cousins have to do too much, and Stefanski didn’t.  Cousins posted a 12.9 percent mark in the NFL’s Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rating in 2019-20 – a stat that measures how often a QB throws into tight coverage.  That mark was the sixth-lowest in the NFL last season, though the true rank is even closer to the bottom as players who didn’t have the same sample size (David Blough and Delvin Hodges for example) ranked above Cousins on the chart.

This was a good thing.  Cousins isn’t talented enough to make “aggressive throws.”  Keeping that percentage low was Stefanski’s job, and he did it well.  He’s already doing a similar thing with Baker Mayfield in Cleveland.

The play-action helped reduce Cousins’ aggressive throws dramatically.  In 2019, Cousins and Stefanski passed out of those sets 130 times, tenth most in the NFL.  Cousins averaged 9.5 yards per attempt out of the scheme, a good number overall and given his limitations.  It was quite effective.

But the loss of Stefanski has resulted in the loss of the play-action, and could be the reason for Minnesota’s 0-2 start.  While the defense was somewhat expectedly picked apart by Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, the offensive side of the ball should have been Minnesota’s strength this year.  That has not been the case.  The Vikings are fresh off an 11-point showing against the Colts, and while they did put up 34 against the Packers in the season-opener, Cousins only attempted 25 passes (completing 19 of them, which is quite good).  The completion percentage, and yards-per-attempt (surprisingly) were impressive, but for Cousins to throw that little when Cook only carried the ball 12 times – albeit in a shootout – shows a lack of trust from the coaching staff in his ability.

It’s clear the group isn’t copying Stefanski.  So far this season, Cousins has only thrown out of the play-action ten times in two games, which ranks 26th in the NFL out of 35 players with more than one passing attempt.  That’s turned into just 58 yards, or 5.8 yards per attempt.

Adjust these numbers for a 16 game pace and they aren’t pretty.  If Cousins keeps throwing out of the play-action as little as he has in the first two games, it would amount to just 80 play-action passing attempts over the course of the season, dramatically lower than the 130 mark posted in 2019.

In addition, Cousins’ aggressiveness rate has risen to 21.6 percent so far in 2020, ranking as the sixth-highest in football.  Keeping that number low for Cousins is a key to his success, and the Vikings haven’t done it thus far.

Continuing to win and have success with an average quarterback is hard.  Minnesota is undergoing serious change in a lot of areas within their team, including coaching.  That can make the task of elevating a QB’s play even more challenging than it already is.  That said, another team has figured it out this season after encountering Minnesota’s 2020 struggles last year.

The Rams were one of the most disappointing teams in football in 2019-20.  Their 9-7 record felt much worse, thanks to the fact that the Super Bowl runner-ups missed the playoffs and watched their franchise running back crumble before their eyes.  Jared Goff regressed, and Los Angeles looked like a team whose future was bleak despite holding a team to 13 points in the Super Bowl the year before.

Head coach Sean McVay has been regarded as revolutionary, but his schemes and principles are quite simple.  That could be the product of Goff being his quarterback – things must be simple and easy for him to succeed.

The Rams ascent to being one of the best teams in football during the 2018-19 season was rooted in making things easier for Goff.  Los Angeles had a thumping run game with Todd Gurley and one of the league’s best defenses behind Aaron Donald.  Gurley’s 1,831 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns made defenses key in on him and not Goff, causing play-action to be an extremely effective tool for the Rams.  According to Football Outsiders, Los Angeles possessed the league’s highest play-action percentage in 2018-19, with 36 percent of the team’s plays coming from the scheme.  That resulted in the league’s second-best result via play-action, as the Rams averaged 9.4 yards per play.

Last year saw no change in the usage of play-action from Los Angeles, but a decrease in its effectiveness occurred.  Goff’s yards per attempt out of play-action dropped to 8.06, and the former No. 1 overall pick looked like a shell of his 2018 self, missing passes across the field and sinking the Rams offense to 16th in Offensive DVOA – perfectly average.

Why the decrease in effectiveness?  Gurley’s regression and constant injury nag led to a 1.1 yard drop in his yards per rush attempt, and a one-third reduction in total touchdowns.  A lesser running threat reduces the success of play-action – why should linebackers and the rest of the defense bite on the hand-off when the running back poses no real threat?  The Rams offensive line didn’t help Gurley or Goff out – it was a group that was either inexperienced or washed.  Goff needs a clean pocket to operate in – when things get chaotic or messy, it can lead to bad decisions from him.  A half-percent increase in interception rate articulated those troubling choices well.

To rebuild Goff’s production – and ultimately the offense’s as a whole – the Rams had to get back to basics this season.   The running game ranks third in the NFL thus far, averaging 172 yards a game.  Malcolm Brown has elevated into the lead half-back role, and has carried it quite well.  Back-up Darrell Henderson, in addition to rookie Cam Akers, have complimented the former Texas running back nicely (Henderson led the Rams rushing attack in Week 2).  Los Angeles has continued to stay creative with its speedy receivers, as Robert Woods has gotten four carries on end-around plays – Cooper Kupp also got 15 yards on a sweep motion against Philadelphia Sunday.  

The rush has predictably made things easier for Goff out of play-action.  The Rams have passed 31 times out of play-action this season, the second-highest total in the league.  Goff’s yards per attempt are lower than one would hope for at 8.7, but Los Angeles hasn’t needed anything more from him thanks to a 2-0 start.

Minnesota and LA have the same problem at the helm of their offense, and they’ve both been able to fix it in the past.  A season after one team found the answer and the other struggled, the roles have been reversed.  The answer laid within in the Rams, and now it’s Minnesota’s turn to find it.

The Clippers And Bucks Need To Panic

There are a lot of cliches and philosophies that don’t apply to the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks right now.  “It’s year one.  Give it another year.” is a classic.  “This team is young.  They’ll be back more experienced.” is another.  “You can’t fire the coach after all he’s done in the regular season.  It’s not fair.” is how you know you’re either in denial or know if the coach is gone, then you’re gone soon too because he has the owner by the collar.

Typically, making panic, win-now moves doesn’t work out too well.  Keeping a long term outlook as opposed to a short-term one is what front offices do – it’s what helps keep them employed.  Panicking, which requires the dumping of assets, often supplies one season’s success instead of multiple down the road.  Why win one championship when you could win multiple?

But the Clippers and Bucks don’t have years.  They have a single year.  At the conclusion of whenever next season begins, each of their respective superstars have the chance to leave if they so choose.  Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are all free agents next offseason, and barring a miraculous colliding of forces, it’s impossible for all three to be coming off a championship when they enter the market.

Which means change for the two franchises has to come in the meantime in order to lessen the odds that they’re forced to construct major teardowns at the end of next year.  Change also means severely deviating from core principles.  That’s a scary task to endeavor.

Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer are typically regarded as good coaches.  If they’re on your bench, your team is generally going to have a certain level of success.  Rivers has championship pedigree from his title in Boston in 2008 and has been known for gritty, overachieving teams in the Clippers post-Big Three era (During it, not so much, but it wasn’t his fault the combination of owners were overtasking him as GM and head coach).  Budenholzer is the classic modern coach, known for encouraging his offenses to move the ball, shoot threes and attack the rim while instilling religious switching defensively.  

But both made egregious mistakes throughout the playoffs and perhaps even before it – mistakes that could be fireable offenses.

While it worked quite well in the regular season, it was clear that the Miami Heat were going to pose a problem for the Bucks.  The Heat – statistically – were the best three point shooting team in basketball this year.  Milwaukee’s defense gave up a ton of shots – open or not – from behind the arc and still finished as the best defense in the league by far per defensive rating.  This was the case because Budenholzer’s defense relied on paint protection, which unsurprisingly dominated thanks to Brook Lopez, Antetokounmpo and yes, Budenholzer’s principles themselves.  They did some historic things.  But Miami changed that quick.

Simply, the Heat weren’t a different team every night.  They weren’t surprised by what Milwaukee was bringing to the table.  They had time to study it and think about how to expose it.  If they couldn’t get the job done in Game 1, then they could come back in Game 2 and try something new.  They also didn’t have a ruckus crowd cheering against them when rising up for shots.  They weren’t traveling on planes the day before games.  They didn’t have to adjust their eyes to a new arena and backdrop behind the hoop every night.  They were simply playing in a gym.

Because of that, Miami was hitting three after three because every single Buck went under screens or dropped so far into the paint that their feet were on the baseline while Milwaukee’s head coach sat there and did nothing about it.  This occurred for two whole games.

Obviously, Budenholzer isn’t responsible for Antetokounmpo’s injury, which hindered him in Game 3 and kept him out of Games 4 and 5.  But he’s also not responsible for the fact that Antentokounmpo’s style of play isn’t exactly keen to the playoffs, and that the back-to-back MVP has no semblance of shot creation or three-point shooting in his game.

The Bucks aren’t just Budenholzer’s fault.  It’s also partially Antetokounmpo’s, for reasons we’ll discuss later.  But the problem with Budenholzer’s actions in the second round is that his lack of adjustments – which could have consisted of simply going over screens instead of under them – didn’t even give the Bucks a chance.

Sure, it’s common to continue what works best for you in the regular season in the playoffs.  But the concept of going over or under screens isn’t some wizard-y technique or scheme.  This is basketball 101 stuff.  It’s not that hard of an adjustment to make.

Habits are habits, and sometimes those can be tough to break, but when your season is on the line and nothing else is working, that’s when things have to change.

While Antetokounmpo failed at busting Miami’s wall and couldn’t offer any counter on the offensive end, Budenholzer could have salvaged some of the series, and perhaps let Boston or Toronto lock Antentkounmpo up to the point where it became the Bucks downfall.  But Budenholzer stood and watched it crumble against the Heat early.  For that, it should probably cost him his job, because the Bucks can’t afford to let this happen again.  

In Los Angeles, Rivers will likely be harder to fire because of the ring he’s won.  But his errors could be considered more costly, not only because the Clippers second-round loss to the Nuggets not only added another blemish onto his playoff resume, but the reason for their downfall can be rooted in an issue that didn’t just arise once Denver was his team’s opponent.

We never got to see the Clippers in full force this season.  They were riddled with injuries at times, and Kawhi Leonard continued his stringent load management regime.  But there were times everyone was healthy, and there were brief glimpses of what this team – which was considered a title favorite – could be.

But it just never came.  We never saw it.  The Clippers never had a stretch where they truly felt like the best team in the league.  We just assumed they would get there.  Golden State spoiled us with their switch flipping, and it’s a testament to how good those teams actually were.

The Clippers letting us down falls heavily on Rivers as head coach.  Even when the pieces existed for the Clippers to go on a run and impress us all pre-bubble, it never happened.  The team never elevated to the level it could have or should have defensively.  That lack of effort created bad habits for the playoffs – Los Angeles thought they could get away with the same effort they had in the regular season against Denver in the playoffs.  That changed fast, and before the Clippers knew it, bad defensive effort turned into a Game 7 after being up 3-1 in the series.

Rivers didn’t help himself in Game 7 either, for reasons more comparable to Budenholzer.

Already finding himself struggling to motivate a team to play off-ball defense, Rivers watched the two-man game of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic eviserate every hedge or double thrown their way.  If Clippers defenders doubled Murray after a screen, he found a way to dump it into Jokic – who was able to do whatever he pleased with it – or get the shot off.  If defenders dropped off Murray and doubled Jokic, it left Murray open for a shot that you likely didn’t want him taking down the stretch of a big game, given his playoff hot streak.

The easy counter to all of this – Murray’s shooting, Jokic’s passing from the roll to open defenders thanks to lacking off-ball D and Jokic’s barreling toward the paint or settling for easy rainbow jumpers – would have been to simply not hedge or double anyone and just play man-on-man defense.  But Rivers never pivoted to that, and instead watched Jokic and Murray pull Denver away by 20-plus points.

There were issues with playing man-to-man.  It was not Montrezl Harrell’s series – the free agent to-be was completely played off the floor on the defensive end.  He was too small for Jokic and constantly got lost in basic switches – a sign of the Clippers lacking defensive diligence in the regular season.  Ivica Zubac just didn’t have the athleticism to hang with the silky smooth Serbian.  Murray was also hitting everything he took, which displayed an impressive elevation of play from the young Canadian.  There was a chance no one was stopping him.

Still, Rivers could’ve put George or Leonard on Murray, which was the tactic that worked early in the series and had the Clippers up 3-1.  But that never happened, thanks to what seemed to be conditioning problems for the team as a whole.  Perhaps they weren’t ever prepared for the defense the playoffs require.

That ultimately falls on Rivers.  While George and Leonard were horrible in the fourth quarter and missed every shot under the sun, bad quarters from even the best players can happen.  Game 7 happened to be an inopportune time.  Leonard isn’t a choker and doesn’t deserve some of the criticism that came his way – the guy has won two Finals MVPs for two different teams and was probably on pace to do it again.  Anyone who believes Leonard chokes in the playoffs has short-term memory, because a slew of games just over a year ago proved that to be false.

George is a different story.  This was test-case No.3 of him severely struggling in the playoffs.  Obviously, the environment of the bubble is a lot to deal with in addition to everything else going on in the world right now.  George acknowledged that his head wasn’t totally right at times throughout the Clippers’ stay in Orlando, but as ESPN’s Zach Lowe mentioned, it’s not like every other player isn’t going through the same thing.  In addition, it doesn’t seem like George’s teammates are too sympathetic of his struggles as well.  It’s probably time for us to lower our expectations for George as a playoff performer and simply as a viable co-star in general.  Time and time again, he comes up short, and it really, really hurts his team.

George’s inability to step up in the fourth could hurt Rivers’ case more.  By the time Game 7 hit, expecting the former Thunder and Pacers star to be the savior seemed unreasonable given how the playoffs had gone for him.  That meant Rivers needed to extract all the defense possible out of the team, since the burden would eventually fall on Leonard to produce late in the game.

The Bucks and Clippers firing their coaches might be a bit risky heading into seasons so important.   For all the gripes raised about the Clippers lack of chemistry, bringing in someone other than Rivers means installing a new system and building new relationships between coach and player.  With Rivers back, Los Angeles can at least learn from their mistakes in the 2019-20.  The Bucks face a similar problem with Budenholzer – what if the new guy isn’t the right fit, and Milwaukee is worse than they’ve been in previous seasons (Which has still been quite good – making round three is hard)?  In that case, Antentokounmpo is out whether he adjusts his game or not, and he’ll likely be justified.

Yet, if you sit Rivers and Budenholzer down and ask them what happened, any answer that doesn’t blame themselves feels scape-goatish, and probably makes you wonder why you shouldn’t fire them right then and there.

There are changes that need to be made in both franchises that don’t have anything to do with who’s on the bench.  As mentioned above, even if Milwaukee adjusted defensively, got a healthy Antentokounmpo and was able to beat Miami, problems were on the horizon.  First, an adjusted defense still wouldn’t have made up for Miami’s performance on that end, where a combination of Bam Adebayo, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala not only walled Antentokounmpo off but stopped him in man-to-man sets.  Crowder simply went head-to-head with the two-time MVP and won, despite being five inches shorter.

Teams are able to figure out how to defend Antetokounmpo drives once they have the time to prepare for it.  In the regular season, a team is playing Dallas – per se – two nights before Milwaukee, have an off day and then have an 1.5 hour practice to prepare for Milwaukee’s basic sets, rather than creating a complicated defensive scheme involving walls to stop Antentokounmpo.  It was easy for the Bucks to ride him in the regular season – no team had time to get as creative as it takes to stop him.

Miami did though, because they took care of Indiana in timely fashion and had only one opponent to focus on during their off period.  The playoffs are a conglomeration of information and personnel bull-rushing the opponent with everything it has.  Teams key in on every rotation, every play and every lineup of their lineup and know how to stop it.  That just doesn’t occur during the frantic regular season.

When Miami hit Antentokoumpo with the wall in addition simply to absurd effort and overall defense, he froze because he didn’t have a counter.  There’s no off-the-dribble shot creation in his game, because his jump-shot has proven weak even after an offseason of work in 2019 and because his handle just isn’t that tight (Which, to be fair, is a tough skill to master when you’re that big – we need to appreciate Kevin Durant more).

It’s likely time for a shifting in Antentokounmpo’s game, at least in the playoffs.  There’s no doubting that Antentokounmpo is an unstoppable force in the paint, even though he doesn’t play like a center.  He gets to those spots by driving instead of posting up, but his presence on tip-ins and plays around the rim is still unguardable on both ends.  No one’s been as dominant inside the paint in terms of points and rebounds since Shaq.  The numbers Antentokounmpo puts up are staggering.

So in this case, does Shaq need his Kobe Bryant?  Connect the dots.  Bryant was one of the game’s most gifted scorers ever – any shot was his, whether it be off the dribble, off the catch, driving, you name it.  Shaq couldn’t get those shots.  Neither can Antentokounmpo.

Obviously, only one player in the NBA currently exists that’s better than Bryant, and he isn’t teaming up with Antentokoumpo any time soon.  But the point remains that Antentokounmpo needs a creator next to him – someone that’s more efficient and simply better than Eric Bledsoe is on the offensive end.  He’s not only got to be a good enough passer to get Antentokounmpo entry passes, but also be a player good enough to help push Milwaukee to the Finals next year.

Chris Paul figures to be on the move once again, and while he’d be perfect for the Bucks (Rumors have already linked Milwaukee to him), there’s practically no trade that exists that would make sense for both parties.  Oklahoma City is clearly entering a rebuild, and wouldn’t want to take back an Eric Bledsoe-type as he carries a $16.8 million cap hit next year and will be 31 by the time the season starts. Milwaukee moving anyone else would be a surprise, as they represent themselves as core pieces or don’t have the salary to cover for Paul’s $38.5 million cap hit.  The Bucks lack assets too – Donte DiVencenzo is the only Buck that would make sense for the rebuilding Thunder, but his rookie deal is only worth $2.9 million next year.  Him and picks doesn’t satisfy the CBA.

Paul is a hard one for Milwaukee, and other options are limited.  Goran Dragic would be a beautiful fit, but the free agent will likely be cashing in this offseason after a renaissance year in Miami.  Paying him and Bledsoe is a tough swallow, and if the Heat make the Finals, him leaving seems like a reduced possibility.  Milwaukee could also look at Fred VanVleet, though his price level will topple Dragic’s largely.  

The poor free agent class makes the trade market more appeasing, though non-CP3 trades have their limitations too.  It would be odd to see them do so after the season they just had, but if Toronto decides to blow it up and move veterans, Kyle Lowry would make sense as a passer and creator for the Bucks offense.  Rumors have existed about Victor Oladipo’s unhappiness in Indiana, though he may not be the passer Milwaukee needs to unlock Antentokoumnpo.  Plus, if the Bucks wanted a Pacers guard, they probably should have just kept the one they let go last summer.  

While he and Wizards continue to shoot down the noise, Bradley Beal’s time in Washington still feels numbered as the ceiling on a team with him and John Wall is pretty low.  Like Oladipo though, Beal’s strength isn’t passing, which would be problematic in the playoffs with Antentokounmpo at center.  Plus, Milwaukee’s lack of young assets makes a deal unlikely.

Finding a trade partner in the West is near impossible, as every team in the conference will be looking to contend next year.  That said, Jrue Holiday was almost dealt at the trade deadline in February, and the Pelicans could look to go all-in on their youth with a new head coach.  A call to Portland could be placed about CJ McCollum, but once again the lack of point guard skills rings true.  In addition, that would be two win-now teams dealing with each other.  A deal for McCollum probably means Khris Middleton is in the deal back to the Trail Blazers.

Milwaukee doesn’t have many pivots, which is what makes this season so frustrating and its end such a disaster.  While Antentokounmpo has things he needs to change, his coach didn’t give the team a chance to overcome those deficiencies these playoffs.  If the Bucks need serious change over the course of the next year– which Antentokounmpo seems willing to give them – then a change on the sidelines is necessary.  

All of this, of course, is predicated on the fact he is a Buck next season, which the front office controls, not him.  An unwillingness of Antentokounmpo to sign long-term could force the Bucks hand to move him, and with the lack of true fixes characterized above, it might be hard to blame them for doing so.

The Clippers have more potential fixes but an even worse future if they don’t work.  If Milwaukee is forced to move on from Antentkounmpo and start over, they’ll at least get a haul in return and have assets-galore.  Los Angeles has the opposite, as they’ll be left with nothing after giving up the largest trade haul in NBA history for George and in theory Leonard.

In addition to simply trying on the defensive end and not rolling out bone-headed schemes, Los Angeles probably needs some more proven size.  Even with simple defensive schemes, Jokic was torching them in the series, as he does most bigs in the league.  Harrell’s effectiveness may not have cost him his roster spot but certainly did cash, so he could be back, but the combo of him and Zubac just didn’t work against Denver’s flashy center.  Philadelphia figures to be active this offseason, and Al Horford, despite the contract, would be a nice addition if a trade could be worked out.  Atlanta could look to move one of Clint Capela or Dwayne Dedmon, as both are making starter’s money and would never play together.  If Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert’s relationship is too strained, the Clippers could look into a deal with Utah for one of the league’s best defensive players, though the Jazz’s asking price would likely be massive and require assets the Clippers don’t have or would be unwilling to part with (George).

Marc Gasol is a free agent, and if Toronto pivots toward more of a tear-down, he could be looking for a new team.  Derrick Favors could make some sense as well, though he was extremely productive for the Pelicans last season and they could bring him back.  Aron Baynes and Serge Ibaka could be names that also make sense – though Ibaka might be out of the price range.

The Clippers have options because they’re Los Angeles and they have two stud players.  They’re also more motivated – or perhaps more panicked – than anyone because of the implications involved.  A title has to be secured, but in order to do so, the first issue worth addressing is making sure that the players know what it takes to get there.  For that to happen, leadership and accountability must be present, and it wasn’t last season.

Nuggets-Lakers Preview

The Denver Nuggets are starting to feel a bit inevitable.  It’s a wild proclamation for a team noted for its prior postseason shortcomings and talent that was good but not quite good enough.  But they’re a bag with a bunch of toys.  One night Jamal Murray can kill you with incredible shooting and shot-making.  The next Nikola Jokic can dot your defense up with sick passing, flat-footed rainbow jump-shots or pure size that’s about as close to Shaq as we’ve ever seen.  Even Michael Porter Jr. can appear out of nowhere and use his shot creation skills to put you down a few points.

These playoffs, Denver has turned itself back into the team it was during the 2018-19 season, utilizing the creativity it holds.  Jokic isn’t only feeding guys around him, he’s creating for himself because he’s just bigger than everyone else.  Jokic’s ability to do that contributed heavily to the team’s upset of the Clippers in seven games during the second round.   In addition, when you have Murray not only being a bit more consistent with his postseason performance, but elevating his play to a level where it affects winning at a greater rate than in the past, it kind of made the Nuggets unguardable, and simply better than the Clippers.

Denver might have gotten a bit lucky.  The Clippers blown 3-1 lead was mostly their own fault, thanks to embarrassing defensive effort and a lack of adjustments made by head coach Doc Rivers.  Those are the type of mistakes the Lakers likely won’t make, or at least we don’t think they will.  That was said about the Clippers – who should’ve beat the Lakers in a potential Western Conference Finals – and look what happened.

But the Lakers might actually be better suited to take Denver down.  While Jokic and Murray went to a level that seemed unprecedented, the Clippers didn’t have the best personnel to defend one of them.  Montrezl Harrell was played off the floor thanks to his height disadvantage with the Serbian stud.  Ivica Zubac was the Clippers counter to Harrell’s struggles, but he didn’t have the feet to keep up with the surprisingly fluid and athletic Jokic.  

Anthony Davis had a legitimate case for Defensive Player of the Year.  He was the anchor of a Lakers defense that stunned everyone with a finish in third place in Defensive Rating.  That effort is why he finished third on this MVP ballot.

The Lakers rim protection has been phenomenal this year in addition to the Davis.  The revitalization of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee’s steadiness has somehow worked.  Unlike most teams, who fear Jokic because of the lack of size on most rosters, the Lakers are the most equipped team in terms of the sheer amount of bodies they have.

Murray is a much bigger issue for them, given their personnel.  That’s frightening, considering what he did in round one and in Game 7 against the Clippers.  But the Lakers were faced with a similar titanic force in their first round series against Damian Lillard, who entered the matchup fresh off the seeding games’ MVP award.

LA handled Lillard by simply out-producing him instead of pressuring him defensively.  Without Avery Bradley, and at the time Rajon Rondo, the Lakers didn’t have someone they felt great about sticking on guards like Lillard – no one on that roster was going to limit damage.  Instead of trying to stop Lillard, they attacked Portland’s weak defense with their stars, LeBron James and Davis.  Expectedly, those two were insurmountable.  Lillard’s eventual injury also helped.

The Lakers work on James Harden in the second round was impressive, and could offer a solution against Murray.  Doubling Harden completely shut down the Rockets offense, as he was their primary initiator and creator.  Houston’s offense is meant for him to do one thing and practically everyone else do another singular thing (stand around and shoot threes).  The lack of creativity with Harden locked down killed their flow.  Their only other option was putting the ball in Russell Westbrook’s hands, which predictably didn’t go so well.

The problem with the Lakers treating Murray like Harden is that the Clippers’ downfall was rooted in doing just that.  Throughout Game 7, the Clippers hedged Murray after every screen or doubled Jokic when he rolled.  Rivers’ lack of an adjustment, in addition to reckless off-ball defense, cost the Clippers the series.  Denver picked apart the Clippers doubles, which should scare the Lakers.  They’re likely back to square one with defending Murray, which results slapping a combination of Rondo and Alex Caruso on him.

James and Davis should make the Lakers problems with Murray not matter.  They made that the case in the first round against Lillard.  But the Clippers superstar duo couldn’t overcome it last round, which creates a .500 track record in these playoffs of teams stopping flaming hot guards with offense instead of defense.  The Lakers are going to be the tiebreaker regardless of how this series turns out.  

But with James and Davis, it really shouldn’t matter.  This is James’ series.  Fresh off what he’ll likely perceive to be a MVP snubbing, James should be able to dominate Denver.  Their best bet is Jerami Grant, who’s a lengthy, athletic defender but probably doesn’t have the strength to limit James.  Paul Millsap has finally came along – the Nuggets could utilize him in switches against the runner-up MVP as his strength will be greatly needed.  Still, Millsap’s foot-speed is lacking.  Gary Harris is a bit slight, but could be another option if James expectedly torches the other two.

Davis is in a tougher spot.  Jokic isn’t a good defender, but he’s not the black hole he’s been in years past, and like it does offensively, his sheer size helps.  Davis should play conversely of how he did against Houston.  Instead of getting down in the paint, posting up and hitting easy shots, dragging Jokic out to the perimeter, making him defend mid-rangers, three-pointers and drives from the versatile Davis has to be the Lakers game-plan.  Force Jokic to shuffle his feet, move and work hard defensively.  Posting up allows him to sit back and use his size.

That should be enough for the Lakers to get this series done.  But the Clippers failed us in that regard, and it puts a sudden unease over this prediction and the series as a whole.  The good news is that the Lakers were able to learn from their crosstown counterparts, and James isn’t one that’s going to bow down and not take an opponent seriously.  Then again, you could have said the same about Leonard.

If Denver can do this – once again – it goes down as the most stunning run to a NBA Finals ever – the bubble environment be damned.  If the Nuggets win the Finals, then place an asterisk on it all you want.  But there were basketball reasons it happened – not just personal, mental or situational reasons.  If basketball prevails once again this series, however, then the Lakers are going to be back in the Finals, and everything might just feel normal again.

Prediction: Lakers in 6

Heat-Celtics Preview + The Keys To Game 7 Of Clippers-Nuggets

The series that will determine who represents the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals is arguably the most even on-paper matchup we’ve had in the NBA Playoffs so far.  The Boston Celtics and Miami Heat were unlikely to see each other in the postseason given their respective spots in the standings throughout the regular season.  That’s typically the case when there’s not much difference between two teams.  The standings are meant to pit good against worse in the first round of the playoffs.

But Miami threw a wrench in that structure, upsetting the undisputed best team in the league by virtue of win total and night-to-night performance in the Milwaukee Bucks during the second round.  As surprising as it was to see Milwaukee fall, how it happened made sense – Miami took advantage of the Bucks inability to adjust defensively by bombing threes while stopping Giannis Antentokounmpo in his tracks.  

What’s more surprising is what that series leaves behind.  Either the Celtics or Heat are going to make the NBA Finals.  That wasn’t something anyone foresaw being a legitimate scenario not only before the season, but perhaps even before the league’s shutdown.

Miami and Boston play extremely similar styles and have almost identical personnel.  Both teams are heavy on wings, have one real big in their rotation, can switch everything defensively (and usually do) and have battle-tested crunch-time scorers.  

Few advantages are found.  Miami’s so deep that just by pure volume they likely possess more firepower.  Jae Crowder’s ability to actually hit shots has added him to a three-point caravan that includes Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kelly Olynyk and Goran Dragic.  Marcus Smart has had a Crowder-like breakout, improving from just average beyond the arc to someone who can get hot and hit six threes on any given night.  His emergence pairs him with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward as firepower options– practically Boston’s entire starting lineup from the regular season.

Miami’s bench is just deeper.  It’s a team that can play ten guys if it wants to.  Boston’s rotations have been shrinking – as expected – throughout the playoffs.  Gordon Hayward’s eventual return will help, but even then, Boston is looking at Smart, Robert Williams and potentially Grant Williams (More on him next) as bench players.  Only one of those guys is providing substantial offense.

The Heat also have Bam Adebayo, who’s the type of player Boston is most ill-equipped to defend.  Toronto partially exposed the Celtics problems defending bigs last series – Serge Ibaka continually stretched Daniel Theis out to the three point line and sunk shots from there.  One of the Raptors biggest mistakes was not going to him more, though pulling Pascal Siakam late in Game 7 for Ibaka is something Nick Nurse just couldn’t do given Siakam’s importance to the team.  

Adebayo doesn’t have the stretchiness Ibaka does but he can make Boston pay even more.  In ways, Ibaka’s role as a shooter helped Boston defensively.  He didn’t have the ability to create his own shot off the dribble or put the ball on the deck and get to the rim.  This forced Theis to only step up and close out on jumpers, rather than shuffle his feet and stay in front of someone driving

What makes Adebayo so unique isn’t just the defense he brings or his passing, but his ability to create for himself like a guard.  Putting the ball on the deck and driving to the rim is a common trick of his, and if he misses the layup, his second bounce is so quick that he’s able to get the tip-in.  

Theis has zero chance against that.  Few of Boston’s bigs do.  Their only option out of the bigs is Grant Williams, who played in crunch-time of Game 7 and survived as a rookie.  

Williams’ biggest asset out of Tennessee was his defense.  His ability to switch at the NBA level was questionable, but it’s certainly been proven throughout his first season.  Because of the athleticism and quick feet, he’s Boston’s best bet against Adebayo on the defensive side.  Offensively, it presents challenges though.  The Celtics are likely playing four-on-five with Grant Williams on the court.  His shooting – though better than predicted based on his draft prospectus – hasn’t came along and his lack of general size (6’6, 236 pounds) doesn’t make him a viable lob or quick and easy basket threat.  If he plays, Boston probably has him hide far in the corner.  It could drag Adebayo out there, clearing the lane for rim attackers and making the star center’s life helping much harder.  Miami probably counters by hiding their worst defender on him – likely Herro in crunch-time, and then it’s four on four.

The Celtics can survive offensively with Williams on the court.  The reasons why are their biggest advantage in the series.

While the Heat have more firepower, Boston has the best player in the series.  They also likely have the third and fourth-best as well.

The ceiling of what Jayson Tatum can do on a given night is higher than Jimmy Butler.  Tatum was better this season, earning a spot on the All-NBA second team and establishing himself as a true star.  Kemba Walker is a top 25 player in the league at his best.  Jaylen Brown approaches the top 30 when he’s on.

Boston has more creators and more guys with higher ceilings – more guys who can get their own shot and beat defenders one-on-one.  Miami beat Milwaukee because they took advantage of what was given to them: open threes and the opposition’s best player refusing to be aggressive and do what he does best.  He also never had the ability to create one-on-one.  That’s not to say Miami was lucky – the job they did initially against Antentokounmpo’s drives bulled him into not attempting them later in the series, pre-injury.  But the likely MVP never offered any other counter because there’s nothing else in his arsenal.  With Boston, almost every guy on the floor has more than one weapon, and they have the nuke with Tatum.

Prediction: Celtics in 6

Now for some quick hits on Tuesday’s Game 7 between the Clippers and Nuggets:

  • It’s really amazing – and also quite pathetic – that we’re here with the Clippers.  Milwaukee was the best team in the league but the Clippers always should have been title favorites, because questions about the Bucks viability in the playoffs remained and were obviously answered.
  • For the most part, it is an effort problem that’s resulted in Los Angeles staring down their playoffs lives.  The defense has just not been there the past two games, enabling Denver to come back from a 3-1 hole.  The offense hasn’t been moving the ball, and is taking bad shots out of isolations from guys that shouldn’t be isolating instead.  
  • It’s the type of laziness that Golden State displayed from 2015-2019 at times.  The difference is that 1) we knew Golden State were champions and they had that to fall back on (This Clippers team does not) and 2) the Warriors displayed historic offensive production and could get as hot as we’ve ever seen from three point land at any time, making no deficit insurmountable.  The Clippers have not shown us either of those things throughout this regular season and playoffs.
  • Which is why them playing like they have that ability in their back pocket isn’t just disappointing but nonsensical.  While they should win the title, they aren’t as good as they perceive themselves to be, and it’s landed them in an elimination game.
  • Some props need to be given to Denver.  They haven’t just gotten lucky thanks to the Clippers porous defense.  Nikola Jokic has been a legitimate star for the Nuggets, and has torched Los Angeles.  The Clippers have tried everything against him – Montrezl Harrell is too small and is still getting back into form after missing significant time.  Ivica Zubac can’t defend Jokic’s pops out to the three point line.  Kawhi Leonard has been busy stifling Jamal Murray.
  • Paul George is a great defender but he’s not strong enough to possibly help stop Jokic.  That takes Leonard-like strength as a wing.  
  • Jokic has won Denver the past two games.  But that was in addition to bad defense against other Nuggets and inefficient offense from the Clippers.  
  • Denver needs Jokic to go off again and one other player to pop in order to win Tuesday.  Michael Porter Jr. is certainly a candidate – he’s killed the Clippers in the series, but their effort to defend him has been weak.  If he can elevate to his potential, then a good defensive effort from Los Angeles may not matter.
  • It still seems as if Denver doesn’t have enough.  But that’s only if the Clippers aren’t locked in.  You would hope they are tonight.

Overreacting To The Cardinals Win + Week 1 Game Notes

DeAndre Hopkins’ assertion Sunday afternoon after Arizona’s 24-20 win over the 49ers was right.

If the Cardinals could play how they did against San Francisco and beat the reigning NFC champions, then anything could be possible with this team, and the sky could truly be the limit.

Arizona didn’t play that well against San Francisco.  The first half felt eerily similar to last year’s season opener against Detroit.  The ball wasn’t moving downfield.  Kliff Kingsbury’s glitzy offense was filled more with screens and dink-and-dunk sets, resulting in few chunk plays.  The defense looked overwhelmed with the speed of San Francisco’s running back Raheem Mostert and tight end George Kittle, who’s the type of target that Arizona’s habitually struggled with over the years.  It kind of felt like a carbon copy, except this season, it wasn’t the expectation.  A little bit more of a fight should have been posed from a team with a revamped defense and second year quarterback that some projected as a sleeper contender.

But then, it flipped.  Arizona’s pass catchers finally broke through screens, or started getting open downfield.  Hopkins couldn’t be tackled, and looked like the best receiver in football.  Kyler Murray countered the 49ers speed offensively with his own, which San Francisco’s defense couldn’t keep up with.

The step forward that Murray is expected to take this season could come in the form of him running the football more effectively.  Last year, Murray did a good job extending plays, escaping pressure, and most importantly: not taking hits while doing it.

But Sunday, Murray showed us more of what he’s capable of with his legs.  Arizona didn’t run any designed runs for him, but the second year QB’s ability to not just avoid sacks but gain chunk yards after escaping them has clearly improved.  Murray’s making plays with his legs rather than saving them.  He’s making defenders miss.  He’s scoring touchdowns.

These type of runs – specifically from this field position – didn’t happen last year.  Murray never allowed himself to really get into the open field.  If he did, he went down immediately.

Now, Murray has learned how to use his gifted running ability while still being safe about it.  This could add even more to the playbook for Kingsbury, who should probably start being a bit more aggressive early and throughout games with his play-calling.  He’s got Hopkins now instead of Damiere Byrd.

Hopkins still had an incredible day, catching a career-high 14 passes for a ridiculous 151 yards.  His presence was enough to limit all other Cardinals receivers to just 12 catches for 79 yards.

Arizona can’t have the slow starts, nor can they allow weapons like Kittle and Mostert to torch them.  It was a rough showing for rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who had limited playing time after giving a long touchdown to Mostert on a slant route.

The 49ers offense was limited without wide receivers Deebo Samuel and rookie Brandon Aiyuk, but in the future, the Cardinals won’t be able to get away with some of the faults of their performance Sunday.  That makes what they could do without them quite intriguing, and perhaps downright scary for the rest of the NFL.

Instead of quick hits this week, we’re going to run through some game notes from every other game Thursday through Sunday.  Overreactions are even more plentiful this year, thanks to some of the outcomes Sunday brought us in addition to the shortened offseason clearly affecting certain teams.  In game notes, we can run through and cover everything we need to.

Jaguars-27 Colts-20

  • The Colts seemed to be one of the teams most affected by a lack of cohesion.  New quarterback Phillip Rivers looked like the exact player he was last year in Los Angeles, throwing two costly interceptions at the worst occasion possible Sunday.  Indianapolis’ first drive of the day was their best, as they slammed the ball down Jacksonville’s throat en route to a 7-0 lead.  But the Colts finished the day with 88 yards on the ground and no running back of their’s surpassing 28 yards individually.  Marlon Mack’s season-ending Achilles injury certainly didn’t help, but the Colts offense Sunday looked similar to the ones Rivers led with the Chargers the past few years.  It’s possible that isn’t a coincidence.
  • If this were a normal overreactions column, Jacksonville’s win still wouldn’t get a spot up top, because, well, this wasn’t entirely unexpected.  The Jaguars likely won’t be players in the AFC South race, but they certainly showed off their frisky side against Indy.  Gardner Minshew has made it clear from the very start of the season that it won’t be an easy decision to move on from him if Jacksonville decides to go that route, as he completed 19 for 20 passes (!!!) for 173 yards and three touchdowns.  Two of those went to DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr., Minshew’s most intriguing targets.  If that trio can play the way they did Sunday, Minshew is going to have serious talent to work with, and that could unlock something special.

Bills-27 Jets-17

  • Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this dud of a game was a reinforcement of what Josh Allen likely is.
  • While the third year quarterback was Buffalo’s leading rusher, he missed multiple throws in the red zone and fumbled the ball twice, though neither resulted in turnovers.
  • It didn’t matter.  The Jets put up an unsurprising stinker in their first game of the season, mostly thanks to Le’Veon Bell’s injury (which clearly hobbled him) and the lack of rookie wide receiver Denzel Mims.
  • But, while it is just Week 1, Allen didn’t exactly come out of the gates firing, and against this Jets team, that may be a little concerning.
  • Buffalo seems to be getting a bit creative with Allen though.  There were multiple designed runs for the third year QB early, which is something you just don’t see called for someone of Allen’s size and stature.  It’s clearly effective, but it can’t be the Bills best aspect of their offense.

Patriots-21 Dolphins-11

  • Here’s a team that might be able to get away with their quarterback’s running ability being their best offensive approach.
  • While it was the Dolphins, New England looked reincarnated Sunday.  Ryan Fitzpatrick’s three gifts to the Patriots defense were turned right into offense, and Cam Newton’s rushing and efficient passing added a new element to this group that we’ve never seen before.
  • Fitzpatrick is a 50-50 bet to be competent, and Sunday he wasn’t.  But this year doesn’t totally matter to Miami.  The sooner we see Tua Tagovailoa, the better, but that doesn’t mean the Dolphins need to rush him.
  • Newton’s odds for Comeback Player of the Year were +175 in Vegas prior to the weekend and the fact that they were ever positive just seemed silly.  Newton didn’t exactly light it up, but if the Patriots want to shy away more from his running game (which they will need to), then Sunday was an exciting precursor.

Ravens-38 Browns-6

  • The Browns clearly can’t have nice things.
  • Like the Colts, it’s important to understand that Week 1 this year is even harder than most, especially with a new head coach and scheme in the fold.    Plus, the Browns had to deal with Lamar Jackson and Baltimore.
  • Cleveland had one good drive – one that resulted in their grand total of six points on the day (Six because, well, they missed the extra point).  It looked like a drive straight out of Minnesota’s playbook the past few years, where Nick Chubb ran hard, opening up the defense for Baker Mayfield.  These are the type of easy yards the Browns have to – and should – get.
  • But their defense gave them no chance.  Against Jackson, it’s hard for defenses to do their job well.  But there’s a difference between that and not putting up a fight, which Cleveland didn’t do Sunday.  The Browns secondary was lit up by Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown.  Jackson was practically perfect, going 20/25 while averaging 11 yards per attempt.
  • Cleveland’s defense has to better, but the offense failing to execute on third down (3-12) and some questionable coaching decisions – fake punting down seven just nine minutes into the game –  from the newcomer Kevin Stefanski was the dagger.  Baltimore wasn’t exactly the best trial run for the Browns, but plays like Mayfield’s interception on the first drive of the game are inexcusable for someone who’s been around long enough.  Cleveland had chances to keep this close, and they let them all slipped by.

Washington-27 Eagles-17

  • There was a reason to be bearish on Philadelphia heading into this season and Sunday’s game was an exact reason why.
  • The Eagles injuries – particularly on the offensive line – were the cause of their fall to Washington.  Philly started two rookies, who gave up eight sacks to the Football Team’s menacing front.  Rookie Chase Young ate, as expected, gaining 1.5 sacks in his debut.
  • This is not what Philadelphia will be, barring health.  The question is whether that health can actually come around.  If not, get used to what we saw Sunday.

Seahawks-38 Falcons-25

  • After barely holding onto his job last season, Dan Quinn made a pretty compelling case to be fired after Week 1 of this new season.
  • Matt Ryan completed 37 of 54 passes for 450 yards and two touchdowns while having three different receivers catch nine passes for 100 yards plus and the Falcons still managed to lose by two possessions to Seahawks, thanks to a disgraceful defensive performance.
  • Seattle finally turned away from their common run-heavy schemes, and let Russell Wilson attack a weak Falcons secondary.  It’s a single game, and it’s Week 1, so it’s not wise to believe this is going to be customary from the Seahawks going forward, but it certainly shows their potential if they do let Wilson cook.
  • The case could be made that Atlanta was just the first team to fall victim to Seattle’s new ways – perhaps they weren’t expecting such aggression.  But at the same time, this is still a Brian Schottenheimer offense, and if this is truly Seattle’s new way of conducting business, then it shouldn’t have been this effective right off the bat given the reduced offseason.
  • Quinn’s a defensive coach, too.  Every coach in the league likely had a plan for whenever Seattle got their act together.  It seems like he was the exception.

Bears-27 Lions-23

  • Week 1 resulted in a lot of classic performances and stereotypes coming true: A crushing Cowboys loss.  The Texans looking overwhelmed.  The Raiders blowing a lead, and the Lions collapsing yet again.
  • Worst of all, Detroit blew their late lead to Mitchell Trubisky of all people.  Thanks to a missed field goal, some three outs and a brutal late interception by Matthew Stafford, the Bears rallied back from being down 23-6 in the second half, completing Detroit’s second Week 1 collapse in as many years.
  • It’s asinine that we’re doing this, but props to the Bears for actually executing when it mattered offensively. Trubisky’s 6.7 yards per attempt in the game tells you all you need to know about Chicago’s first half performance (Honestly, it felt like Nick Foles was about to come out before the rally started).  But the Bears took advantage of classic Lions miscues and did something with them.  It’s been awhile since a Chicago offense did that.
  • This, in addition to the outcome of the Minnesota-Green Bay game (more on that shortly), is why some picking the Lions to win this division was a little crazy.  When have the Lions ever done anything that wasn’t average or not disappointing?  Never.  The answer is never.

Raiders-34 Panthers-30

  • For most of Sunday’s game, the Raiders were arguably one of the NFL’s best looking teams.
  • Las Vegas might have unlocked Derek Carr.  Henry Ruggs III played a lot better than his line showed Sunday – the Raiders were aggressively trying to get him the ball downfield, which showed a promising progression from Carr.  The two connected once downfield for 45 yards – a ball that was an absolute dot.  In addition, the Raiders got Carr some easy throws to Josh Jacobs and Darren Waller, while sprinkling in mixes of rookie Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow.
  • Las Vegas has some intriguing pieces, and while their defense almost blew what was a 12 point lead entering the fourth quarter, the offense looked quite good.  Granted, this came against a revamped Carolina group in their first real action of the season, but the willingness of Carr to not dink and dunk the entire time was extremely promising.  Jon Gruden emptied his war chest with play-calling, and it brought out some intriguing possibilities.
  • Carolina seems to have their own quarterback problem already.  Aside from Teddy Bridgewater’s deep shot to Robby Anderson, the Panthers just couldn’t muster much through the air.  Bridgewater missed passes, and was caught just dinking and dunking it for most of the game.  This is what the Panthers signed up for, but to not do anything else against a not very talented Raiders defense is more than disappointing.

Packers-43 Vikings-34

  • Everyone who thought Aaron Rodgers was washed certainly had themselves a fun Sunday.
  • The loudest voices in that crowd were Vikings fans, who proudly proclaimed the demise of Rodgers loudly last year.  Instead, he lit them up in Week 1.
  • Minnesota’s defense was overhauled, which means they should probably be given some breaks.  But Rodgers looked like he was in his prime Sunday, picking apart the defense play-by-play.  That performance came with limited weapons around him too – which is a stark contrast from how last year went.  Perhaps year two of Matt LeFleur’s system has meshed Rodgers with his receivers more, or maybe that little extra motivation from the guy behind him on the depth chart provided the spark.
  • The Vikings offense looked like it missed Stefanski greatly.  Minnesota couldn’t get anything going in the run game, which didn’t help Cousins out through the air.  In a game where Dalvin Cook only rushed 12 times for 50 yards, Cousins 25 pass attempts show a lack of confidence in him from the coaching staff.  If that’s the total production from the Vikings offense in future games, then it’s going to be a long year.

Chargers-16 Bengals-13

  • This game was exactly how a matchup between the most average quarterback and a rookie quarterback should go.
  • Neither team really played good defense.  It was stunning lack of production offensively that defined this one – Joe Burrow’s 5.4 yards per attempt and Tyrod Taylor’s tally of 6.9 tells the whole story.
  • That said, Burrow showed some real flash despite a non-flashy stat-line.  His 23 yard rushing touchdown made him look like a poor man’s Kyler Murray.  The ability to lead what should have been the game-winning drive  is not something we typically see from a rookie in his first game.  Burrow’s poise on the Bengals last drive – which ended in a bad offensive pass interference call (Not the only one of the day!) on AJ Green – was super impressive.  Now it’s just about consistency.
  • The Chargers getting lucky because of a call instead of getting screwed by one or themselves is nice to see for a change.  They kind of actually deserve it.
  • Despite the win, the Chargers are going to have real problems offensively this year.  It probably doesn’t matter if they make a change at QB, because Justin Herbert is going to play like a typical rookie or even worse given his readiness level.

Saints-34 Buccaneers-23

  • The adjustments the Saints defense made after Tampa Bay’s almost effortless first drive of the game clearly worked.
  • The Buccaneers looked unstoppable after going up 7-0.  Tom Brady looked like prime Brady instead of what we saw last year.  Tampa Bay’s pass catchers either caught deep passes from their new quarterback or drew PI penalties thanks to their imposing presence.  Brady then capped it off with a classic QB sneak.
  • But it was the highlight of their day, which isn’t something you want to occur just seven minutes into the game.  While Tampa Bay looked unstoppable, so did the Saints, who didn’t even use Michael Thomas to secure the win.
  • Bruce Arians’ comments after the game – while shocking – were true, and Brady acknowledged that.  Brady’s two interceptions, including the brutal pick six, were the difference in the 11 point loss.  New Orleans wasn’t lighting up the stat sheet or the scoreboard necessarily – they just wore the Bucs down, and capitalized in the red zone.   That was answerable for the Bucs, and they weren’t able to.
  • Brady didn’t exactly look washed – the first drive was evidence of that.  But the decision-making was certainly questionable, and is probably creating flashbacks of years past for everyone on the Bucs sideline.

Rams-20 Cowboys-17

  • Yet another disappointing Week 1 debut was the revamped Cowboys, who played like the lost offseason didn’t do them any favors.
  • Encouraging was their use of Ezekiel Elliot in the passing game, but Dallas’ offense looked like Jason Garrett was still on the sidelines.  Dak Prescott only averaged 6.8 yards for attempt – a sign that his talented receivers weren’t getting open enough for him thanks to Jalen Ramsey or Mike McCarthy’s schemes, which mimic Garrett’s a little too closely.
  • Dallas’ defense didn’t help.  The Rams looked much like their 2018-19 selves, with Jared Goff not playing like total garbage and the run game carrying the load.
  • If the Cowboys defense was going to mimic ones of the past that continually finished near the bottom of the league this year, the offense figured to bail them out.  It’s Week 1, and new schemes take time, but that didn’t happen Sunday night.  Jerry Jones waited too long to fire Garrett, and it’s possible that if he’s not fulfilled with this year’s result, then he could get a little trigger happy if the Cowboys don’t flip it around.

Chiefs-34 Texans-20

  • Kansas City still looks like the best team in football even after Sunday’s games and it’s for a completely different reason than it has been the past two years.
  • The Chiefs didn’t dominate the Texans thanks to their generational quarterback.  They did it by feeding their rookie running back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
  • Edwards-Helaire takes pressure off Patrick Mahomes to deliver all the time, as if he needed it.  The rookie represents a new spice to Kansas City’s offense, giving them even more versatility than before.  Houston’s defense didn’t have a chance.
  • Kansas City might be truly unstoppable the year.  That undefeated prediction doesn’t seem so crazy after all.

2020-21 NFC Predictions And Thoughts

A scheduling mishap cancelled the promise made yesterday about the NFC preview coming on a different medium.  In response, we’re going to quickly run through predictions for the conference’s divisional standings, accompanied with some thoughts and polished off with the playoff standings.

NFC East:

  1. Dallas Cowboys, 12-4
  2. Philadelphia Eagles, 8-8
  3. New York Giants, 5-11
  4. Washington, 3-13

Projecting the Cowboys to win this division, let alone win more than 10 games, is a bit daunting.  But this year, it feels undeniable.  Whether Mike McCarthy can actually get the best out of Dallas’ vaunted wide receiver group is to be determined, but he can’t be worse than Jason Garrett was.  Dak Prescott will certainly have a chip on his shoulder after him and Dallas failed to agree on a contract extension, and with this arsenal surrounding him, he should be able to prove his worth.  It shouldn’t surprise us if Dallas makes a deep playoff run – their highly-touted offense is backed up by a defense that’s continued to improve over the years.  This is not a group comparable to what the Chiefs have had to deal the past two seasons.  It’s much better, and with this offense, it makes this team terrifying.

The Eagles and Falcons are starting to go hand-in-hand with each other – tons of talent that is consistently banged up, so much so that is results in a lost season over and over again.  Philadelphia is already dealing with injuries prior to Week 1 – most notably Andre Dillard and Jalen Reagor.  Projecting injuries should only occur when it’s a team is notorious for being bitten by them, and with Philadelphia, they certainly have that in their record books.

In addition, there are holes here.  The Eagles aren’t as stacked as they were when they won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback.  Even with a healthy Reagor, wide receiver is still a bit concerning.  Alshon Jeffrey was on the trade block in camp, and he’s this team’s second option.  Carson Wentz made due last year, but we’ve still never seen him elevate to the level he played at in his rookie season since offensive coordinator Frank Reich left for Indianapolis.  The secondary still feels like it’s a turnstile even with Darius Slay in the picture.  The defense – specifically the front seven – has the chance to carry a banged up, potentially average offense.  But that was also the case last year and the secondary blew it.  Slay will help, but that for him trade felt a little rich considering the former Lions cornerback is past his prime.

Five wins might seem a little harsh for the Giants, but there’s no doubting that they’re the third best team in this division, and mathematically that’s just going to bring your record down.  Saquon Barkley gives them a baseline, but it’s about how far they can elevate above that.  Daniel Jones still needs a true No. 1 receiver, and a combination of Garrett and Freddie Kitchens as his offensive coaches doesn’t spark hope for any real improvement.  That said, Jones blew away expectations last year, and has the looks of someone who could hold down the fort similar to how Andy Dalton did in Cincinnati for years on end.  There’s potential for success there.  New York just has to build it, and they’re still in the preliminary stages of that this year.

As written Thursday, Washington rivals the Jets for the worst roster in football.  The future, in spots, is bright.  But there’s a lot of youth in a new system, which doesn’t bode well given the limited offseason the team just had.  It could be another tough year for Dwayne Haskins Jr. under center, but he’s been in about as bad a situation a young QB could ask for so far.  It’s just going to take some time.

NFC North: 

  1. Green Bay Packers, 11-5
  2. Minnesota Vikings, 9-7
  3. Detroit Lions, 7-9
  4. Chicago Bears, 5-11

This division is wide open, which could make some of the records listed above seem a bit stereotypical and surprising.

But convincing ourselves that this division turns out any other way takes work.  Let’s start from the bottom.  The Bears defense is great, and the case can be made Chicago could be in for another 2018-19 season, where Mitchell Trubisky wasn’t good but didn’t suck either.  The problem is that Trubisky was bad last year, and there’s no reason to believe he can get any better.  The effects of a bad Trubisky terminated the defense, and while Chicago managed to get to 8-8, they missed the playoffs and felt extremely underwhelming.

Trubisky contributing in a non-negative way this year feels impossible, which turns our attention to Nick Foles.  The offseason deal for the former Jacksonville QB made sense, but he’s not likely to be the Bears’ savior.  Foles’ success in Philadelphia featured three important ingredients: Great defense, great weapons and great coaching.  Chicago has only one of those three things.  A case can be made for Foles’ potential receivers – Allen Robinson is extremely underrated and Anthony Miller’s ceiling out of college was a good No. 2 option.  But the Bears need the likes of rookie Cole Kmet to step up big if Foles is going to succeed.

In addition, Matt Nagy is no Reich.

The Bears have a great defense.  But to go 8-8 and have that group carry you, you need the other side of the ball to at least hold up their share.  It’s hard to trust Chicago’s offense to do that.

Detroit has emerged as a sleeper pick this season with the division’s wide-openness.  It’s a plausible case.  If everything that’s able to go wrong with Minnesota or Green Bay does, the Lions are next in line.  But as it has for years now, Detroit’s roster just has a level of competence to it and that’s it.  Hence, a mediocre 7-9 record.  If a coaching change was made over the offseason, perhaps there’d be more hope here.  But until there’s a bit more excitement and firepower, Detroit’s going to be stuck in the middle.

Minnesota sneakily made more changes than any other team in football over the offseason, and with a lack of preparation, it will make those losses and the continuity they brought sting.

The exodus of defensive talent brings a lot of youth and inexperience to the forefront.  With Danielle Hunter out for the beginning of the season, the Yannick Ngakoue trade is a saving grace for the team’s pass rush.  Run defense feels like a major problem, though the linebacking core was the least hard-hit by the offseason moves.

But Minnesota’s biggest losses could be offensively.  Kevin Stenfanski, as mentioned yesterday, should do wonders for Cleveland and Baker Mayfield.  That leaves Kirk Cousins without his offensive coordinator though, and while Cousins put a firm cap on the team’s ceiling, Stefanski likely did all he could during his time with the Vikings to overcome that.  In addition, he put Case Keenum a win away from the Super Bowl.

Cousins without Stefanski’s perfect scheme to hide his flaws is a bit terrifying.  In addition, one of his top targets is gone in Stefon Diggs.  His replacement is a rookie receiver who was catching balls from one of the best quarterback prospects in some time.  That’s not a slight on Justin Jefferson – it’s more about tempering expectations.  The offensive line still has holes too, and those proved to be a big problem even with Stefanski in the mix over the years.

All of this uncertainty leaves Green Bay, who has no shortage of their own.  But they do have the best quarterback in the division and arguably the most consistency (Detroit makes a fine case there as well).  While the Packers 13-3 record last season felt generous, they did overcome all of the offensive struggles, which could have been the product of year one in Aaron Rodgers’ first new system in years.

Rodgers is also going to have a chip on shoulder with the Packers selection of Jordan Love in April’s draft.  That’s kind of terrifying if you’re an opposing defense, regardless of the weapons around him.  In years past, it’s yet to be enough.  But in this division this year, it very well could be.

NFC South:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-3
  2. New Orleans Saints, 12-4
  3. Atlanta Falcons, 6-10
  4. Carolina Panthers, 4-12

It’s quite impressive that this isn’t the NFC’s best conference record-wise.  From a contenders standpoint, it is.

Tom Brady didn’t look like Tom Brady last year, but that’s okay for multiple reasons.  One, it should probably be expected that at 43 years old he won’t be slinging it like he used to.  Two, the Buccaneers have the perfect pieces in place to give Brady what he needs.

As noted with a couple teams above, countering non-elite quarterback play takes surrounding talent and coaching.  Brady had only one of those last year, and the other element was so poor it negated what the former brought.  Tampa Bay has flipped that on its head, giving Brady one of the best wide receiver duos in football in addition to his former favorite target Rob Gronkowski.  The Buccaneers have the best weapons core in football.  It’s so good that they have three starting-caliber tight ends.  

It’s the perfect set-up for what Brady needs at this stage of his career.  With it and a good defense in place, he should dominate.

The Saints aren’t far behind the Bucs though.  The talent across their roster is among the tops in the league.  A potential decline in Drew Brees is protected by the likes of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, though the weapons group isn’t as deep as Tampa Bay’s.

New Orleans just has to get past their postseason nightmares.  While there’s nothing wrong with their roster, projecting the Bucs ahead of them is just protection for what could come.  The Saints record can come out on top, but they may not be the ones left standing last.

As mentioned above, it’s really easy to just be over the Falcons.  It’s a group that is bitten every year with injuries and ultimately results in their downfall.  An even tougher division this season doesn’t help, and could be their swan song even if they keep the ship afloat.  It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see them turn it around, but it’s not a winning proposition.

Carolina would be more intriguing if not for the large amount of changes in an offseason that wasn’t.  While it has no impact on their roster, what Cam Newton could be about to do in New England creates a somber scene for the Panthers.  A swap of him for Teddy Bridgewater seems baffling, even for the biggest fans of Bridgewater.

Joe Brady could have something to say about that, though.  The former LSU offensive coordinator was a home run hire for the Panthers, as was former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule.  Brady can get the absolute best out of Bridgewater once they get comfortable.  

The problem is that Bridgewater’s success doesn’t always translate into winning.  It can take a lot around a guy like him for that to happen, which the Panthers don’t have right now.  Their once fearsome defense is now limited to just a good defensive line, and Christian McCaffrey is still the No. 1 running back and wide receiver.  D.J. Moore needs to step up, as do the other pass catchers.  Brady can make that happen, but it may not see its full development until at least next year.

NFC West:

  1. San Francisco 49ers, 12-4
  2. Seattle Seahawks, 11-5
  3. Arizona Cardinals, 10-6
  4. Los Angeles Rams, 6-10

While the South has the NFC’s two most likely Super Bowl representatives, the best division by record lies here.

It’s probably time to stop doubting Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers.  It’s clear they know what the limitations are of their quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, so they’ve decided to go all-in on figuring out how to change or work around them.  After not having enough receiving talent, the 49ers added Brandon Aiyuk to the mix, which gives them an additional set of hands who can catch the short passes Garoppolo tends to throw and take off with them.  Deebo Samuel doubles that skill on the other side, and George Kittle gives the former Patriots QB an easy target over the middle of the field.

Shanahan knows how to solve problems, and the passing game was a slight one last year.  While San Francisco’s run heavy scheme had great success in 2019-20, it was their downfall against the mighty Chiefs in the Super Bowl, and could be the same this year against the likes of Dallas, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, all of whom have quarterbacks that can make throws and have an array of weapons to catch them.  If the Niners can put the two together, they’re right in that upper tier.  

If the 49ers suffer a Super Bowl hangover though, they could get eaten up quickly.  Seattle’s defense looks primed for a rebound despite a troublesome pass rush – the talent on the back-end gives off Legion of Boom vibes, which is a big upgrade as the secondary was secretly one of the league’s worst last year (They could not cover anybody).  Offensively, their reliance on running the ball remains frustrating, but with the ascension of D.K. Metcalf last season, there could be some scale-tipping towards the aerial attack and letting Russell Wilson do his thing. 

Seattle might drive us crazy, but they always seem to get it done.

Arizona is the preseason hype team this year, and that buzz is deserved.  The trade for DeAndre Hopkins still feels fake.  There’s no way the defense is the worst in the NFL again after practically the whole offseason was spent upgrading it.  There’s no new system being installed – the Cardinals went through the aches and pains of that last season, in addition to the typical rookie quarterback year from Kyler Murray.  It’s go time for the Cardinals, and the roster should be ready for it.

The Rams fall from grace remains stunning.  Their projected record here could be too.

Most of it has to do with a brutal schedule and the tough division.  There’s a world where a lack of improvement from Jared Goff has the Rams falling off the rails.  Los Angeles’ roster feels similar to Detroit, where there’s two-three real above-average players and the rest is just competent.  That may be negated by coaching in Sean McVay, but Goff’s decline under him last season didn’t spark too much hope.  The weapons around Goff aren’t too special – Cooper Kupp’s return will help.  But a rookie running back and a questionable interior offensive line don’t provide a lot of support.  The defense should be there and play a role in lifting the team as a whole up, but like Atlanta, improvement could still mean a phasing out from real contention.

NFC Playoff Standings:

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  2. Dallas Cowboys
  3. San Francisco 49ers
  4. Green Bay Packers
  5. New Orleans Saints
  6. Seattle Seahawks
  7. Arizona Cardinals

How Every AFC Team Can Have A Successful 2020-2021 NFL Season

This year’s NFL preview will be split into two parts across two different mediums.  With Chiefs-Texans – two AFC teams – kicking off the season tonight, below is a breakdown of how every team in the conference can have a successful season, followed by predictions for the division standings and playoff standings.  Tomorrow, the NFC preview will go up, but in a different way than usual.  Stay tuned.

Baltimore Ravens: Win Super Bowl 55

Kansas City is Baltimore’s only excuse left.  A loss to them in the AFC Championship Game or a loss in Super Bowl 55 are the only acceptable outcomes for the Ravens this year, or else it’ll be three straight years of playoff letdown.

Despite Earl Thomas’ stunning release, the Ravens roster is better than it was last season.  They’ve added a necessary punch to both sides of the ball.  J.K. Dobbins will serve as a pass catcher out of the backfield next to Mark Ingram, and Devin Duvernay could emerge as the second wide receiver they need aside Marquise Brown.  Defensively, the line is now stacked after stealing Calais Campbell from Jacksonville, and Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison give them some youth in their linebacking core.

Even with a lack of receiving talent, this is one of the best rosters in football thanks to its best player and leader, Lamar Jackson.  He’s perfectly capable of back-to-back MVPs, and if he’s so special that he becomes the first player in over ten years (Peyton Manning 2008 and 2009) to do it, then the Ravens should be good enough to take home the Lombardi.

Buffalo Bills: Hope the Patriots aren’t good, win the division and see legitimate growth from Josh Allen

Just when it seemed to be the Bills year, the Patriots struck again.

The Cam Newton signing may not have the impact we all think it does, but it certainly raises New England’s potential.  New England’s ceiling is legitimately being Super Bowl Champions yet again.  If that (unlikely) scenario rises, the Bills are the Bills we’ve seen for the past 20 years.

Regardless, the extra playoff spot – new this year – helps significantly.  It’s a bit of a buffer incase Josh Allen doesn’t improve, which is more of a detriment to the front office and his long term viability than it is the team’s record (We’ve seen Buffalo be average-to-good with Allen in his current form).  If Allen is who he is, the Bills are stuck being at-best .500 with a quarterback being their only problem.  That’s not someone you want to commit to long-term.

Allen should be able to improve slightly.  The Bills got him Stefon Diggs, a true No. 1 receiver he’s lacked throughout his career thus far.  He’s the perfect anchor next to John Brown, Cole Beasley and Dawson Knox, who’s an intriguing middle of the field target that could alleviate Allen’s noted downfield struggles.

If Allen doesn’t take the step up or is perhaps worse, the Bills can run the ball.  Zack Moss seems primed to be Buffalo’s lead back at some point this season with his tight ball security and workload ability.  Moss was a beast in college at Utah, and was the focal point of a good offense that typically had average quarterback play.

Buffalo’s defense is the valley and the offense is the mountain.  The Bills have one of the best defensive groups in the league.  It’s deep and has almost zero holes.  It’s the type of group that can drag an average offense and quarterback to a .500 record and into the playoffs.  It could take this team even further than that, dependent on Allen’s performance.

Expecting Buffalo to win the division could be a little overzealous.  The Patriots are always scary, and Allen’s a wildcard.  But this defense is so good that anything above average from the other side could have them in the playoffs, and even making noise.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Burrow proves he’s the real deal right away

The Bengals go as far as Joe Burrow takes them this season. 

There’s talent on defense, but it’s not a group that will carry an average offense to a decent record.  The offensive line is a little frightening in spots, though the debut of 2019 first round pick Jonah Williams should add some stability.

Potential lies in what Burrow has to work with.  The Bengals just committed to running back Joe Mixon for four years  – he gives a potentially struggling Burrow a nice backbone to rely on.  Every receiver in the mix has questions, but conversely the group could be one of the best in the league if everything works out right.  John Ross just needs to put it together.  AJ Green just needs to stay healthy.  If one of those two things happen, Burrow will be out of excuses.  Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate are fantastic options as No.2 and No.3 receivers, but elevating them to a primary role like Boyd was in last year leads to a dip in production.  Green and Ross staying healthy would also alleviate pressure on Tee Higgins, who was a steal in the second round of April’s draft.  Rookie receivers are a 50-50 bet, though.  Higgins being a luxury is the best option for him now.

If the weapons go off the deep end, Burrow is going to have to make up for it.  That may not be too much to ask from him given what we saw last year at LSU.

Cleveland Browns: Confirm Freddie Kitchens was Baker Mayfield’s – and the team’s – problem

Even though the Browns haven’t done anything substantial in  ~ check notes ~ 25 years, this team is running out of excuses.

While this is head coach Kevin Stefanski’s first year at the helm – a year in which he’s had very little time to teach a new offensive system and work with Baker Mayfield – the clock is ticking.  With a roster this good, owner Jimmy Haslam, who’s the sole reason for the franchise’s dismaying history, is likely to be impatient.  He was with former general manager John Dorsey, who helped orchestrate and build important parts of this group, and he’s been the same way with literally everyone he’s hired since owning the team.

The hope is that last year’s letdown was solely rooted in the inexperience of Freddie Kitchens calling plays, leading to Mayfield’s lack of progression and the team’s overall poor performance.  Stefanski has gotten the absolute best out of Kirk Cousins, and was in the room when Case Keenum almost went to the Super Bowl.

Mayfield may not be the superstar some thought he could be – which includes Dorsey, who drafted him No. 1 overall in 2018 – but there are ways to salvage him.  Mayfield seemed overwhelmed last year despite weapons like Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry around him.  Nick Chubb was fantastic in 2019-20, but didn’t seem to get the ball enough.

Stefanski had gotten away with Cousins at quarterback in Minnesota by relying on Dalvin Cook heavily in the run game.  That opened up the play action for Cousins, which simplified things and allowed for easier throws.  Chubb could be Cook-lite, and using Mayfield only when necessary could result in the success similar to what Cousins had when he was throwing to a two-headed monster at receiver in Diggs and Adam Thielen.

The Browns division is tough, though.  Baltimore is expecting a championship, and Pittsburgh could be in for a rebound year.  But with the expanded playoffs, Cleveland should be at least in the fold, and if they miss it, contender status in 2021-22 shouldn’t be too much to ask for.

Denver Broncos: Contend for a playoff spot, and hope Drew Lock makes use of his weapons

Like Cincanatti, the Broncos probably go as far as Drew Lock takes them.  The difference is that the basement is much higher with Denver.

Even with Von Miller potentially being out for the season and Bradley Chubb possibly not ready for Week 1, the Broncos have one of the best defenses in football.  A suspect linebacking core has a first line of defense in front of it, thanks to newly acquired Jurrell Casey and staples like Shelby Harris around on the defensive line.  Behind them is also a new Bronco in AJ Bouye – who was received for nothing from Jacksonville – and Justin Simmons at safety.  You would never guess Denver lost its best cornerback to the Chargers in free agency with the secondary they’ve put together.

Lock can show us he’s not the guy this season and the Broncos could still be quite good.  There’s legitimate 2018-19 Bears potential here, but projecting Lock to be as bad as Mitchell Trubisky feels like an insult.

First, Lock isn’t only supremely more talented, but has way more to work with than Trubisky ever did.  Jerry Jeudy falling to the Broncos at No. 15 overall in the draft was a god-send, and pairs him an already established No. 1 wideout in Courtland Sutton.  The slot features KJ Hamler, who could probably play outside despite his size thanks to his vertical jump and speed, and Noah Fant just needs to not drop footballs thrown his way to be unstoppable.

To get into the playoffs or further, it’s going to be up to Lock.  He has everything he could ask for as a young QB.  Denver will be watching closely.  If he’s not it, they have to pivot fast, because this roster is too good to waste.

Houston Texans: Win the division, and hope DeShaun Watson can carry the load once again

Houston is one of the most frustrating teams in the NFL.  They have the best quarterback in their division by far.  They have one of the most fearsome defensive players in football.  They have a defense that’s close to elite status, but a few key holes prevent that from being so.

They only added to the frustration in the offseason by trading DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson and a second round pick.  While they have a bit more depth in their receiving core now, every player in the rotation has questions.  The only question they had to answer with Hopkins was whether he was the best or second best receiver in football.

Once again, it’s up to DeShaun Watson.  The case can be made that it was up to him with Hopkins as well, and that adding more options reduces the odds that it does come down to him, but reducing your already low amount of elite talent seems unwise.  If everyone is healthy (the biggest question) and plays well (another big questions), then Houston’s receiving core could actually be better than it has been in the past.  Will Fuller’s only question is his health.  The same can be said about Brandin Cooks, who gives Houston speed they’ve desperately lacked in the Watson era, and Randall Cobb then fits perfectly as the third option, which is probably his ceiling at this point in his career.

These are a lot of “ifs”, and deservedly so.  There’s no real reason to believe anything can go right with Houston, but if it does, then they should be the best team in the division.

Indianapolis Colts: Hope Phillip Rivers isn’t washed

The Colts decision to presumably move on from Jacoby Brissett as their starting quarterback is still confusing, especially considering Phillip Rivers is 38 years old and Brissett is 27.

Performance also matters.  Brissett beat expectations last season until T.Y. Hilton went down, leading to a dip in production that was understandable.  Rivers looked old by making bad decisions, blatantly missing throws and failing once again to get a Chargers team to meet its preseason hype.

Sure, Rivers dealt with a lack of weapons and injuries up and down Los Angeles’ roster, but Brissett did as well in Indianapolis.  On top of that, Brissett never made costly choices.  He may not have elevated the Colts, but he certainly didn’t hurt them.  

The Colts need to hope that last year’s Rivers is a product of a Chargers team that was clearly ready to move on. Indianapolis has some barriers in place that could prevent that, most notably head coach Frank Reich, who got Nick Foles to win a Super Bowl, had Carson Wentz playing the best football of his career thus far, made Eric Ebron not drop passes and catch touchdowns instead while also making Brissett look like a viable Andrew Luck replacement early last year.  If anyone can suck any remaining value out of Rivers, it’s Reich.  The Colts also have a bounty of running backs in line to help take the burden off Rivers, even though having Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor in the same backfield seems a bit unnecessary.  

There could be some scary parallels to the Chargers, though.  The Colts receiving talent behind T.Y. Hilton is still a bit weak.  Michael Pittman Jr. could be a stud, but giving Rivers inexperienced receivers isn’t what he needs at this point in his career. In San Diego/Los Angeles, injured weapons held Rivers back a lot.  It limited the talent he had to work with.  Indianapolis might not experience injuries, but they could face similar talent deficits.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Make sure Gardner Minshew isn’t (?) your guy

Speculation about Jacksonville tanking this year in order to obtain Trevor Lawrence feels odd and a bit contradictory. 

Gardner Minshew wasn’t amazing last year, but he wasn’t bad enough that the Jaguars felt he couldn’t be something.  He was the exact reason they traded Nick Foles away to Chicago.

Minshew deserves another year to prove himself.  If there’s no improvement or outlook toward success, then Jacksonville can start over in the 2021 Draft.  But this roster isn’t bad enough to tank, and it’d be disappointing to see them finish with the worst record in football.  A tough schedule won’t help, but Jacksonville could come away looking better than a poor record suggests.

Minshew has more around him than given credit for, which could be the Jaguars line of thinking if their plan is to truly move on.  If Minshew fails, Jacksonville could easily say that they gave him enough to work with.  DJ Chark is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and Jacksonville got insane value with Collin Johnson in the fifth round and Laviska Shenault Jr. in the second of April’s draft.  Shenault Jr. is a big question mark health wise, hence his fall in the draft.  While rookie receivers are tough to bet on, if the Jaguars are truly insistent on Minshew not being the guy, they’ve done enough propaganda work to justify it by adding talent for him to sling it to.

In the backfield, they’ve done the opposite.  But Leonard Fournette’s release had a lot more to do with him not being good at football than it did Jacksonville tanking or purposely not helping Minshew.  Them getting a true sense of what Minshew brings means running the ball less, and they’ve enabled themselves to do that with the dumping of Fournette.

There might be nothing Minshew can do to save himself as the Jaguars long-term answer this season.  But don’t be surprised if he makes it a bit more controversial than we anticipate.

Kansas City Chiefs: Repeat as Super Bowl champions

There isn’t much to go over here.  Kansas City is probably better this year with a workhorse running back now in the fold.  Clyde Edwards-Helaire, while going way too high in fantasy drafts, gives the Chiefs a dimension offensively they haven’t had since they began shredding the league in 2018.  Damien Williams – who opted out of the season – was never getting 20 carries a game and putting up 120 yards on them.  He would have been the perfect secondary back to Edwards-Helaire this season, but now it’s all on the LSU rookie.

Kansas City doesn’t have to rely on him though.  Why would they?  Patrick Mahomes is probably the most talented quarterback ever, and that shouldn’t be controversial to say.  The man got a $500 million contract for a reason.

Repeating is hard, and the Ravens are on their tail.  But for a team led by as much talent as Kansas City is, in addition to the continuity they possess in a year where it will matter greatly, a Super Bowl loss would be a disappointment.

Los Angeles Chargers: Hope whichever quarterback that’s playing is just good enough

The Chargers were in a tough spot this offseason.  Practically their entire roster was set and stacked with talent, except for the most important position: quarterback.

It’s a sticky situation.  Most of the time, starting over at quarterback means rebuilding.  The Chargers have a roster that looks like it just finished a rebuild.  It shouldn’t be starting one.

In a way, having a roster as stacked as Los Angeles’ is could be a good thing, especially once/if Justin Herbert ever takes over.  The Chargers might be good enough to overcome his likely mistakes.  Their loaded defense, which is so good that the loss of Derwin James hurts but isn’t a death blow, could be good enough to carry a poor-to-average offense.

The offense is a question mark.  Regardless of the quarterback play, it might be tough for it to be competent.  To be successful, Tyrod Taylor needs significant help around him, on the field and on the sideline.  Austin Ekeler getting the full-time role at running back should lead to increased production, but the receivers, while intriguing, are tough to project.  Keenan Allen is a stud, but health is always a question with him, making the new contract he was just handed feel risky.  Mike Williams is already dealing with an injury, and Hunter Henry’s almost a shoe-in every season to miss some amount of time.

The good news is that head coach Anthony Lynn has a prior relationship with Taylor from their Buffalo days, and the offensive line is as good as it’s ever been the past six years or so.  Still, it’s going to be up to one of these quarterbacks to elevate this team past mediocre.  Health is the key with Taylor under center, and a quick learning curve would be needed with Herbert running the show.  The lack of a true offseason is a disaster for a QB like him, who needed substantial time to develop anyways.  It’s possible we see Taylor for an extended period of time this year, and if everything goes right and they get some luck, he could keep the job for all 16 games.

Miami Dolphins: Be careful but don’t hold back Tua Tagovailoa

While inhibiting a talented defense, the Dolphins are still likely a couple years from being real players, making this season a bit of a wash.  If Tua Tagovailoa was 100 percent and ready to go, things could be different for the Dolphins.  But Ryan Fitzpatrick is primed to be the starter to open the year, and could have that job for awhile depending on how Miami’s medical staff feels about Tagovailoa suiting up.  He needs to be 110 percent in order to do so.  There is no reason to take a risk here.

If Tagovailoa plays, the goal for the Dolphins should be to evaluate him and see what else they can do to support him.  Miami not adding a receiver to his mix of weapons in the draft was a bit surprising, and it leaves a below-average core surrounding him.  The Dolphins have a variety of different running backs to use, which could be a strategy they utilize heavily given Tagovailoa’s lack of weapons.  At the same time, the offensive line still has some holes despite the draft capital used to plug them.

Miami likely won’t be relevant this year, and they shouldn’t strive to be.  Getting a top pick in the 2021 draft and coming into next year ready to contend with Tagovailoa ready from Day 1 should be the goal.

New England Patriots: Prove everyone wrong, and find out if Cam Newton is the long-term answer

The Patriots hopes of legitimately making noise this year dwindled after opt-outs hit them hard.

While their secondary still remains among the best in football, it seems far-fetched that the defense could carry the offense like it did last season.  That means it will be up to Cam Newton to return as close to MVP form as he possibly can.

Newton doesn’t have too much help around him offensively – New England’s weapons core hasn’t changed much from what Tom Brady had to work with last year.  Newton could play well and the offense could still struggle.

But if Newton is good enough with the group he has, it could lead the Patriots to invest more into it in the offseason, and try and contend again in 2021-22 with Newton under center.

Bill Belichick is out to prove a lot of this year.  New England won’t be irrelevant.  But they have bigger things to worry about than making the playoffs.  A reckoning of the future should be on the forefront, and this season can be used to develop a strategy for it.

New York Jets: Hope Sam Darnold gives you any confidence in him

Washington and the Jets have the worst rosters in the league and it’s not close.

That makes New York’s task of truly evaluating Sam Darnold extremely tough.

It’s probably fair to assume Darnold will never be a star.  If that was true, he’d already be getting it done.  That doesn’t mean he can’t be fixed, it just means that there’s probably a firm ceiling on what he can be.  

Whether it’s high or not, the Jets are a long ways away from reaching that, unless Darnold makes the progression himself.  It would be quite stunning, giving his receiving talent and his head coach.  Perhaps the Jets need to move on from Adam Gase, and hope Darnold can have a rejuvention similar to Tannehill after he got out from under his former coach’s teachings.  But by then, it could be time to pay Darnold, and instead moving on could be a more viable option

Las Vegas Raiders: Figure out whether Derek Carr is the guy or not

The Raiders seem to have gone as far as they want to when it comes to giving Derek Carr chances.  It’s possible they could have done more, but investing two high picks in April’s draft and giving Tyrell Williams a healthy contract certainly shows some form of respect.

Williams won’t play this season after suffering a shoulder injury.  It’s unfortunate, but it can’t let either side dictate what happens this season at the quarterback position.  If Carr’s the guy, he should be able to overcome it.  On the flip side, Carr relying on two rookie receivers to help him this season maybe isn’t the most fair play.

Las Vegas’ defense is better than years past but probably won’t do the offense any favors.  With that precedent, it’s really going to be up to Carr to carry the offense.  The front office seems impatient with him, evident in their Marcus Mariota signing that was surprisingly rich (Two years, $17.6 million).  Even with the picks they spent on Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards, it feels like a ploy to get Carr out.  Ruggs III is not the receiver Carr needs.  He’s best as a downfield threat, which are not routes Carr exceeds at making throws to.  

Las Vegas’ front office could be putting Carr in a catch-22 here.  They give him weapons like Ruggs III, and he says they don’t fit him.  Why, they ask?  Well, Carr can’t get the ball to them. An exchange like that might give the Raiders the answer they need to hear.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Hope Ben Roethlisberger stays healthy and is actually good

The Steelers going 8-8 in 2019-20 with a combination of Mason Rudolph and Delvin Hodges as their quarterbacks was no fluke.  It was a testament to the talent on the roster and the coaching of Mike Tomlin.

This year, both of those things remain the same, and their biggest barrier is now likely out of the way.

Ben Roethlisberger is a large unknown in multiple ways.  First, he has to stay healthy, or else the Steelers are going to be a reincarnation of last year’s team after not attempting to upgrade backup quarterback over the offseason.  Second, even if Roethlisberger does stay healthy, what to expect of him is tough to quantify.  It’s been two years since we’ve seen a legitimate game from the long-time QB, and it wasn’t all pretty.  In 2018-19, Roethlisberger put up his typical numbers but also led the league in interceptions.  Pittsburgh missed the playoffs, and at-times bone-headed decisions from Roethlisberger were costly.  It’s been two years and a new UCL since we saw that QB.

Week 1 last year wasn’t all that promising either, but it’s hard to judge just a single game.  

The unknown with Roethlisberger is frustrating from a projection standpoint and disappointing from a fan point of view.  Pittsburgh has the talent to compete with the likes of Baltimore for the division, and the Chiefs and those same Ravens for a trip to the Super Bowl.  While continuity is being praised heading into this season, the Steelers have less of it than we may think, and that could be costly.

Tennessee Titans: Hope regression doesn’t strike

The problem with the Titans is that last season feels like the ceiling of what this roster can achieve.  Derrick Henry was arguably the best running back in football, which slightly came out of nowhere.  Ryan Tannehill played as well as he had in his career so far and breached the waters of average, emerging just above the surface.  Tennessee found themselves in the AFC Championship Game after beating two of the best teams in the league throughout the playoffs.  All of it was stunning.

Which is why none of it feels repeatable.  Henry was on a historic run toward the end of the season and postseason – that type of production just doesn’t reproduce.  Tannehill had never played that well in his life, and it still wasn’t necessarily good enough.  The Titans feel like a team destined for a hangover, even though they didn’t make the Super Bowl.

Unlike most teams that experience a drag the next year, the Titans got better.  Adding Jadeveon Clowney a week before the season’s kick-off was a steal, and makes their front seven terrifying.  They sured up potentially holes in the secondary with LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton in the second round of April’s draft – how he fell that far remains mystifying.  

Any team that made changes – smart or not smart, positive or negative – could be coming into this season behind those who didn’t due to the lack of a preseason and real training camp.  Tennessee didn’t really overhaul anything, and their changes weren’t super significant.  They essentially ran it back.  Even if the Titans are projected to be worse after last year’s historic run, at least we know it’s coming.

AFC Standings Predictions:

AFC East

  1. Buffalo Bills, 11-5
  2. New England Patriots, 9-7
  3. New York Jets, 2-14
  4. Miami Dolphins, 2-14

AFC North

  1. Baltimore Ravens, 15-1
  2. Pittsburgh Steelers, 10-6
  3. Cleveland Browns, 10-6
  4. Cincinnati Bengals, 2-14

AFC South

  1. Tennesse Titans, 12-4
  2. Houston Texans, 10-6
  3. Indianapolis Colts, 6-10
  4. Jacksonville Jagurs, 2-14

AFC West

  1. Kansas City Chiefs, 16-0
  2. Denver Broncos, 8-8
  3. Las Vegas Raiders, 5-11
  4. Los Angeles Chargers, 3-13

AFC Playoff Standings

  1. Kansas City Chiefs
  2. Baltimore Ravens
  3. Tennessee Titans
  4. Buffalo Bills
  5. Houston Texans
  6. Pittsburgh Steelers
  7. Cleveland Browns

To Beat The Lakers, The Rockets Have To Adjust

The NBA Playoffs are always about adjustments.  

We’re seeing what happens when a team doesn’t make them with the Milwaukee Bucks right now.  Down 2-0 to Miami, Mike Budenholzer’s team has stuck to their traditional ways: going under screens, protecting the paint, not switching and giving up tons of threes.

It’s hurting them.  Miami’s three point shooting has been the difference thus far, in addition to the continued problem of Giannis Antentokounmpo not having a half-court or isolation game.  That would be negotiable if the Bucks were defending at an acceptable rate.

The Bucks have a lot at stake in this series, which makes it even more surprising that they’re not making the necessary adjustments. Antetokounmpo is a free agent after next season, whenever that begins.  The Bucks essentially have these playoffs and next year’s to convince the soon-to-be back-to-back MVP winner to stay with them long-term.  Not even getting to the Finals this season may not only jeopardize him staying with the team, but it could lead to him wanting out before his contract even expires.

The Houston Rockets have a lot at stake too.  Rumors have been floated about head coach Mike D’Antoni’s future with the team if a disappointing playoff exit occurs.  GM Daryl Morey could see the boot as well.  Perhaps most importantly, another early playoff exit from James Harden would be devastating for his resume – perhaps being fatal even if he were to get over the hump someday.

Houston got through the first round without making real adjustments to their style of play.  They were able to beat Oklahoma City in the ways we thought they could.  They made a number of threes that the Thunder couldn’t come close to matching, and swallowed their offense with length, size and switching on the defensive end.  It was too much for a Thunder team that possessed craft but not enough creativity and impact offensively.

But OKC came close.  The Thunder stretched Houston to seven games, and only lost by two in the series finale.  That was a bit more of a nail-biter than a team like Houston – who has aspirations of winning the Finals – would like to experience in just the first round.

How did they get there?  Well, Houston never pivoted when they should have.  The Rockets might make a lot of threes, sure – you don’t make them without taking them.  But Houston takes them when they shouldn’t.  Harden had another bad performance in Game 7 against OKC, continuing his career-long trend of not showing up for big games.  He started 1-6 from the field and 0-3 from deep in the first quarter, and by halftime, he was 2-8 and 1-5, respectively.  In the third, he was 0-4 from the field and 0-3 from deep.  Here was his last three point attempt of the quarter.

Some nights you just don’t have it, and it’s okay to recognize that.  Here, Harden doesn’t.  He’s already 1-8 from three when he takes this shot, which is only a good one unless you’ve hit three in a row and are on complete fire.

These are the type of possessions and shots Houston can’t afford against the Lakers starting Friday night.  They’re what cost them against Oklahoma City.  It’s why that series went seven games.  It’s not just Harden that takes them.  It’s everyone – and the worst offenders (Russell Westbrook) are those who have no business shooting them even if they’re open looks.

Oklahoma City was a bad matchup, but not necessarily because of their personnel or schemes.  The Thunder were a bad matchup for practically everybody because of the effort they exert and how hard they play.  That grit doesn’t just apply to Houston.

The Lakers are truly a bad matchup for the Rockets, and it’s because of their roster. Sure, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are two of the five best players in basketball, making them an issue for every team, but the Rockets are in a different category.  Davis is a serious problem.  

Houston’s smart decision to go super-small with PJ Tucker at center could bite them here.  Los Angeles is going to do all they can to get Davis the most touches possible against the 6’7 Tucker, who despite posing issues to Davis in the past should be overwhelmed if the Lakers feed AD enough.  Davis shouldn’t be taking jumpers this series – not because he’s bad at them, but just because they’ll be less efficient baskets given his matchup with Tucker.

Despite some of Tucker’s prior success against Davis, it could be wise to make Robert Covington the de-facto center.  His defense against the Thunder was outstanding, especially late in Game 7.  He made multiple help rotations to stifle OKC’s guards at the rim – if they even got there.  He’s a bit more wirey than Tucker, which could help prevent Davis’ drives from the perimeter.  At the same time, the sturdiness Tucker brings would help in the post.

You can’t put it past Davis to score every time this series.  Like Houston, he needs to adjust and not settle.  Get low and get the ball.  Your life should be easy if you do that.

If Davis is scoring every time, Houston has their work cut out for them.  They need their shots to go in.

When Houston isn’t dead cold from three, they’re usually able to win.  Even if the percentage isn’t as pretty as you’d like, it’s the volume of shots that are made.  That’s what OKC experienced.  Even if Davis scores every time, the age-old “three is bigger than two” argument still prevails.

But when what happened in Game 4 against Oklahoma City happens, that’s when things get dicey for Houston, especially against the Lakers.  The Rockets have to know when they’re cold, and have to adjust when that’s the case.  What does that look like?  Not taking shots like the one Harden took above.  Or shots like these.

All of these were taken while the Rockets were in the midst of 5-21 shooting stretch from behind the arc.  Houston lost by two points, which could have easily been made up in at least one of these three possessions.

In the first one, it’s a simple isolation with zero ball movement, which probably would have been nice to utilize given that the ball was having a hard enough time going in the basket.  In the second clip, Harden settles for a deep three after not using a screen by Covington.  It was late in the shot clock, but Harden had time to get a floater up instead of taking the shot he did, which bricked the front of the rim.

The third clip is perhaps the most egregious.  Harden has Nerlens Noel on him, who has zero shot of containing a potential drive – it would likely result in a foul.  The shot clock is winding down again, but there’s time to get a floater off like the second clip.  Chris Paul is helping way off his man, which could have resulted in a last minute kick opportunity to the league’s best corner shooter in Tucker.

These are just bad shots that didn’t have to be taken, especially considering the circumstances of being cold as ice from deep.  Unlike Oklahoma City, the Lakers are probably going to able to score every time if they so choose with Davis, and we haven’t even mentioned James yet.  Empty possessions like those above from Houston could put them in a hole fast.

Davis could be more important than James this series.  Whichever Houston defender between Tucker and Covington isn’t on Davis will be on James, and while neither will stop him, those aren’t the worst options in the world.  He won’t be faced with the defense Portland offered.

Houston’s defense against the drives of Thunder guards offered some hope in their fight against James this series.  Their performance late in Game 7 represented their ceiling, and it’s a pretty high one.  The Rockets have the ability to make James really work.

The Lakers have the ability to make him not, though, and that lies strictly in Davis’ effort and shot selection.  Unless Houston adjusts, which seems unlikely, this is his series.  If the Rockets do limit their low quality shot attempts, move the ball a bit more, shoot well and insert the no-jumpers rule for Westbrook, then they can win this series.  It’s 100 percent in their hands.  If all of those occur, LeBron’s impact will be reduced just enough, and Davis’ monster games won’t matter.  Three is that much bigger than two, but you just can’t cherry pick it.  

Prediction: Lakers in 7