Friday night was a wild night of NBA playoffs basketball. The Hawks beat the Knicks to take a 2-1 lead in that series, while the Clippers and Celtics both avoided 3-0 holes with wins over the Mavericks and Nets, respectively.
Below are the winners and losers from Friday night’s action.
Winner: Jayson Tatum
Tatum went for 50 points as Boston effectively kept its season alive with a 125-119 win over Brooklyn, which now leads the series 2-1 heading into Sunday’s Game 4. Had the Celtics lost Game 3, you could’ve pretty much turned the lights out, the history of 3-0 comebacks in that city notwithstanding. That was baseball. It’s never happened in the NBA. Not even once.
But the Celtics have a chance to even the series on Sunday now, and they have Tatum, who struggled mightily through the first two games of the series (9 for 32 from the field; 14.5 PPG), to thank. Not exactly bad company to join:
To go with his 50-piece, Tatum added seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block. He was 16 of 30 from the field, including 5 of 11 from 3. Perhaps most important, he got to the free-throw line 15 times, netting 13. His aggression was there from the start.
As you can see from those highlights, the bulk of Tatum’s buckets were pretty well contested. The guy is just a world-class shotmaker. You worry about how sustainable this kind of isolation/self-created offense is for Boston as a whole, and surely Brooklyn still has control of this series. But when Tatum has it going like this, the Celtics can beat anyone.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard: Winners
The Clippers, like the Celtics, effectively kept their season alive with a Game 3 victory on Friday — 118-108 over the Mavericks, who now lead the series 2-1. It looked dicey early on. The Mavericks jumped out to a 30-11 lead.
“We didn’t have a choice but to stay strong, stay together, continue to fight,” Paul George said after the game.
To me, George is the biggest winner Friday night, even though Leonard — who finished with 36 points on 13-of-17 shooting — actually played better. George has become the scapegoat for every Clippers collapse; the face of their heretofore postseason failures. It’s not fair, clearly, but it’s where we are, and had the Clippers gone down 3-0 with their sixth straight postseason loss, man, that was going to get ugly for Playoff P.
But George caught fire when the Clippers were in that early hole and wound up with 29 points on 11 of 18 from the field. Kawhi was the man in the second half, but it was George that got the Clippers back in this game with 22 first-half points on 10-of-12 shooting. It kept the wolves at bay for at least a few days.
If the Clippers go on to lose this series, the kindling is still there if NBA Twitter wants to build a fire with George’s rep. They’ll ignore that he had 28 points and 12 assists in Game 2, and what he did in Game 3, and go right to the fact that he’s just 5 for 21 from 3 in the series so far, and the Clippers’ defense, which is supposed to an elite postseason unit specifically because of having star individual defenders like George, got torched in Games 1, 2 and 3 by Luka Doncic.
In other words, the PG narrative is still up in the air. We’ll see how the rest of the series goes. But for one night, George and Leonard were huge. The Clippers’ defensive strategy of mostly single-covering and switching on Doncic worked in that they were able to limit Dallas’ shooters and virtually shut their paint scoring off. (While not sending two completely to Doncic, the Clippers are shadowing the paint heavily, soft surrounding him as he probes downhill so they can still, in theory, recover to shooters). It’s hard to argue with holding the Mavericks to 108 points when Luka gets 44 himself. We’ve got a series.
Loser: Julius Randle
After a potential All-NBA regular season, Randle’s nightmarish postseason continued on Friday with a 2-for-15, 14-point showing in New York’s Game 3 loss at Atlanta. The Knicks now trail 2-1 in the series, and if Randle — and R.J. Barrett — doesn’t get something going, it’s hard to imagine how New York can create enough offense to keep up with the Hawks.
Through three games in this series, Randle is 13 for 54 from the field. That is historically bad.
Sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story. Those ones do. Randle has been awful after a season in which he seemingly established himself as a legit star in New York.
Trae Young: Winner
Young is stamping his superstar card in his first postseason. The Hawks took a 2-1 lead over the Knicks on Friday, and Yuong finished with 21 points and 14 assists. He is virtually unstoppable in the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t finish well with his left at the rim, which would seem to encourage New York to push him that way, but he’s not usually getting all the way to the rim, and his floater (first clip below) and whip passes out to shooters (second clip) are equally deadly going either direction.
Check out this group Young just entered:
It remains wild that Young and Luka Doncic were traded for one another. Both these guys are so great. It’s crazy that Atlanta wound up with a player like Young and still, in most people’s eyes, lost that trade. Luka is just that special. But Young isn’t all that far off, and Atlanta has put a team around him that can legitimately win and is on a good track to at least the second round if they keep this up.
Luka Doncic: Winner
I don’t care that Dallas lost Game 3. Doncic is a winner. The man put up 44 points on 54-percent shooting, including 7 of 13 from 3. It’s Doncic’s third 40-point effort in nine career playoff games. For the series, Doncic is averaging 38 points, 9 assists and 8.6 rebounds on 46-percent 3-point shooting (he’s made at least five 3s in each game). Add in his showing in the bubble last postseason, and here’s what you get:
The Clippers, as mentioned above, have taken the defensive approach that they’re going to switch pick and rolls and guard Doncic one-on-one for the most part, and he’s duly dismantling them. The reason they’re doing that is they don’t want the other Dallas players to get going.
It worked, to a certain degree, on Friday. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Maxi Kleber combined to make 8 of their 13 3-pointers, and the Mavericks collectively outscored the Clippers by 21 from the 3-point line. But the Clippers absolutely shut the paint off and Kristaps Porzingis (who, really, should be listed as a loser here) couldn’t hit anything and has now been dreadful in two of three games in this series.
The Clippers pressed up hard on Doncic in the second half. Kawhi Leonard worked to stay with him through screens or with quick switches back. Rajon Rondo applied some heat. Terrence Mann did the same at times. We’ll see if that’s enough as the series goes on. Something tells me the Clippers will have to start forcing the ball out of Luka’s hands at some point with traps and double-teams, but Dallas is loaded with capable shooters/playmakers who can exploit effective 4-on-3 advantages.
That is the thing to watch moving forward. How long will the Clippers continue to let Doncic murder one defender? Also, pay attention to Luka’s free-throw shooting. It’s a mess right now. He’s 13 for 27 in the series. That’s under 50 percent. Toward the end of Game 3 he was clearly uncomfortable at the line, pulling the string short on multiple attempts. You have to figure these games are going to be close the rest of the way, and Luka is going to need to make his free throws at some point.
Kyrie Irving: Loser
Irving made his postseason return to Boston on Friday, and it didn’t go well for him. The Nets lost, and while Kevin Durant and James Harden combined for 80 points on 13-of-21 3-point shooting, Irving was only able to chip in 16 points and two assists on 6 for 17 from the field.
We know the history here. Irving was traded to Boston in 2017. He didn’t play in the postseason his first year there, and Boston made the conference finals without him. That offseason, at an even for season-ticket holders, Irving made an announcement — an unnecessary one, at that — that he intended to re-sign as a free agent with Boston. That year, he did play in the playoffs and the Celtics lost in the second round with Irving all but visibly quitting on his team over the last few games against the Bucks.
Then he left for Brooklyn.
This is to say nothing of Irving comments about Celtics fans prior to Game 3, when he said he hoped there wasn’t any “subtle racism” coming from the Boston crowd. I’m not getting into any of that. I have no idea what Irving’s experience in Boston was like. What I do know is there are a lot of basketball reasons Boston fans don’t like Irving, and surely he would’ve liked to come into town in Game 3 and put the Celtics to bed. He didn’t do that. Brooklyn, most likely, is still going to win this series, but it’s now at least a series.