OKLAHOMA CITY — Two days ago, Paul George started an answer to a question about the responsibility of guarding Donovan Mitchell while maintaining his offensive aggressiveness and stopped himself.
“Y’all ain’t met Playoff P yet, huh?” George said with a smile.
George, who has made a name for himself with sparkling playoff performances, had set himself up. With the memes probably chambered and ready, George was either going to live up to it or feel the wrath.
With 36 points on 13-of-20 shooting, including 8-of-11 on 3-pointers (an OKC franchise record in the playoffs) as the Oklahoma City Thunder took Game 1 against the Utah Jazz 116-108, Playoff P showed up.
“I’m going to bring it to that level on a nightly basis,” George said. “Obviously, I was hot tonight, but that’s the level I am going to bring it to every night.”
Asked how big the hoop looked for him, still on his game, George replied regarding an Instagram post: “About as big as that fish I posted.”
The Thunder’s season can somewhat be defined by the peaks and valleys George has hit throughout the season. The manifestation of the team took shape around Russell Westbrook sometime in mid-December with George slotting in as the nightly No. 2 and Carmelo Anthony as a clear No. 3 (and sometimes No. 4) in the hierarchy. The Thunder were good enough to win often on off nights from their stars, developing a bit of a formula: When two play well, they start looking really good.
And in a matchup against the Jazz, a team centered on a rookie, the Thunder entered with the two best players in the series. That’s normally a pretty good indication of who should win, but with inconsistency being the buzzword that has followed the Thunder all season, nothing was clear. There was always this idea that they were built for the postseason, with top-shelf talent ready to shine when the games mattered most, but the Thunder never established anything steady. They entered the playoffs a wild card — dangerous but unknown.
But George’s ability to elevate himself is what keeps the Thunder scary. There is no playoff version of Russell Westbrook — there’s just Russell Westbrook — but he can rise and fall in terms of efficiency and decision-making. Anthony is a threat to hit batches of 3s and could be a reliable crunch-time option in isolation when possessions stall out, but he has accepted and embraced a role playing off of his co-stars.
It’s George, though, who possesses game-dominating qualities, like those he flashed in Game 1. It was on both ends, with George suffocating Joe Ingles and disrupting the churning Utah offense while eviscerating any defender put in front of him. He had his devastating side-to-side crossover going, clearing airspace to launch from deep, yelling out, “Can’t hold me!” after one particularly ruthless step-back 3 in the second half.
George is known for his shooting streaks, and slumps, but over a longer-than-usual stretch of off nights in late March and early April, he openly questioned his mechanics and said his shot felt “funny” following a 5-of-19 shooting performance against the Golden State Warriors on April 3. A few nights later, the night before the Thunder took on the Houston Rockets in Texas, George spent more than an hour by himself shooting in the Toyota Center’s practice gym trying to work it out.
George shot it a little better against the Rockets, then a little better against the Miami Heat two nights later, and then shredded the Grizzlies for 40 points on 13-of-20 shooting on the final night of the regular season.
In the locker room postgame, with George in the back receiving treatment for a hip contusion, Anthony was ready first but asked Westbrook if he wanted him to wait until Westbrook was dressed so they could go to the interview room together. Westbrook told Anthony yes and hurried up putting on his outfit, assisted by the fact he wasn’t wearing a shirt underneath his designer gray suit. A few questions in, they were asked about “Playoff P.”
“That’s his name? That’s his new name? I’m gonna let Russ answer that one. Playoff P,” Anthony said, looking at Westbrook who shrugged in an “I don’t know, man” way.
Westbrook talked about how “P” being aggressive changes the game for the Thunder, and how his staying that way makes them a better team. This is what the Thunder envisioned when they traded for George last summer, giving up Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. A true running mate for Westbrook, someone who could dominate a playoff game and turn the reigning MVP into a secondary option.
“We knew all along that we got multiple guys that can make plays, create and be explosive offensively,” George said. “We’re not going to put that pressure on just one guy. Obviously, my job is to help Russ, and with that, it’s helping the team. It’s my job to bring it and to bring it at a high level.”
The focus from the Thunder after the game, specifically coach Billy Donovan, was that there’s a lot to clean up for Game 2. He mentioned multiple times they have to be better in Game 2. There was a sense that George’s hot shooting carried them in possibly a fool’s gold kind of way — that the shots went in this time, and if they don’t next time, then things might go the other way. But then again, maybe he’s just now getting introduced to Playoff P himself.
HOUSTON — The critics James Harden claims not to hear won’t be hushed by a spectacular performance in the series opener of the first round. For Harden, now more than ever, the playoffs are about how he finishes, not how he starts.
And the Rockets, record-setting 3-point gunners whose long-range touch (outside of Harden) failed them Sunday night at the Toyota Center, needed that kind of performance from their superstar — a player who infamously no-showed as Houston’s season ended on its home court last May.
Harden torched the Timberwolves for 44 points on 15-of-26 shooting, including 7-of-12 from 3-point range. The rest of the Rockets made only 3-of-25 3-point attempts — a rare 12 percent brickfest for a team that broke its own one-year-old record for 3s made in a season — but Harden was simply too good to let eighth-seeded Minnesota start the series by sneaking out an upset.
Time after time, “The Beard” hit big shots when momentum seemed to be swaying to Minnesota’s side. Soon after the Timberwolves took a lead midway through the fourth quarter, Harden re-entered the game and immediately went on a do-it-himself 7-0 run, hitting a floater off the glass, driving for a layup and drilling a pull-up 3 in transition.
At that point, after Minnesota head coach Tom Thibodeau called timeout, Harden strutted down the center of the court and pointed to the hardwood as if to remind everyone that this is his house.
Harden’s brilliance, highlighted by his 13 points in the fourth quarter, allowed Houston to overcome a rather forgettable Rockets playoff debut by Chris Paul. Paul uncharacteristically had more turnovers (six) than assists (four) and finished with only 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Paul is the co-star Harden helped recruit last summer, a pairing that led the Rockets to a franchise-record 65-win regular season to claim the top overall seed. But Sunday night, Paul’s six turnovers tied for his second-most in a postseason game (he had eight against the San Antonio Spurs in 2012).
Paul’s final blunder — an unnecessary airmailed pass out of bounds with 8.7 seconds left — could have really bitten the Rockets. But Jimmy Butler, playing with a black wrap on his sore right wrist, airballed a tightly contested 3 that could have tied the game, completing his 4-of-11 shooting night.
It also helped Houston’s cause that Minnesota’s other All-Star, center Karl-Anthony Towns, had the kind of awful playoff debut that will invite a lot of criticism during the three long days before Game 2. Towns was oddly an afterthought offensively, scoring only eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
Houston’s Clint Capela dominated the matchup between two of the NBA’s best young big men, producing 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds by halftime, feasting on feeds from Harden, who finished with eight assists. Capela is the first player with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in either half of a playoff game since Kevin Durant on May 15, 2014.
Harden never even watched the film that that Game 6 stinker against the Spurs that ended his season a year ago. He certainly has no interest in revisiting it now, not when he has the opportunity to make the kind of history that would make any previous playoff failures distant memories.
Sunday night was the first step. Harden and the Rockets have 15 more to go.
The remark was likely motivated by the fact that the Cavs believed they had a George-for-Kevin Love swap in place before the Pacers pulled off their surprise trade with the Thunder.
Oladipo was the best player on the court Sunday, when Indiana beat Cleveland 98-80 to go up 1-0 in their first-round series. He scored a game-high 32 points on 11-for-19 shooting (6-for-9 from 3) and added six rebounds, four assists and four steals in the wire-to-wire victory.
Gilbert’s remark got back to Oladipo, who said Sunday that he was “aware of it.”
“You could say it added fuel to the fire, I guess you could say,” Oladipo said after Game 1. “But that was so long ago. It came up recently, obviously, because we were playing the Cavs in the series, but I’m aware of what he said. Can’t control his opinion. All I’m focused on is myself and becoming the best Victor Oladipo possible.”
Oladipo closed the game with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter, outplaying LeBron James, who had just four points on 1-for-3 shooting in the final frame.
Sunday marked just the second nationally televised game for the Pacers all season, with the other coming when George made his return to Indiana with the Thunder. Oladipo certainly made the Pacers worth watching in Game 1.
“We’ve been playing like this all year,” he said. “Been playing hard on both ends all year. It just hasn’t been magnified. So it’s the playoffs now, we’ve been doing this all year. Now everybody sees, so it’s like, it’s kind of shocking to everybody, I guess you could say. But we’ve been playing hard. We’ve been playing our butts off on both ends of the floor all year.
“We’re fully aware of LeBron. We’re fully aware of his team, and we realize it’s not going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean we’re just going to come in here and just fold. We planning on winning. That’s why we came to this series. That’s why we came to play this game is to win, not just to come here and just be OK. That’s what we’re focused on: taking it one game at a time, trying to win every game.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, who said before the series that he planned to focus his defensive schemes on taking away the Pacers’ biggest strength, said Cleveland was effective in executing its plan against Oladipo, despite his 32-point night.
“We did, as far as in the pick-and-roll game,” Lue said. “I thought he hurt us catch-and-shoot, off the ball, relaxing, not being aware. I have to go back and look at it. When he did hurt us a couple times, we switched. He made a couple of 3s, which is going to happen. You’re going to give up something. As far as the blitz, I thought we did a good job of getting into him. We got a couple of steals early, which we didn’t convert on, but for the most part, defensively, we were pretty good.”
The Pacers, led by Oladipo, of course, were better.
“I thought he played with a lot of confidence. I thought he made good decisions out there on the floor,” Indiana coach Nate McMillan said of his star guard. “We talked about some of the things that Cleveland would do. I thought he recognized those and did a good job of attacking. He’s been a guy who has created a lot of things for us on both ends of the floor.”
McMillan, it should be noted, never presented Gilbert’s comments to the Pacers to try to hype them up for the series, but he acknowledged the impact they might have had as they found their way back to his team on their own.
“The game itself, playing the game the right way, is what we use as motivation,” McMillan said. “Now, I’m sure our guys have heard that. I’m sure Victor, somebody might have told him that here in the last couple days. But I haven’t used that type of information as bulletin board material. For us, it’s about going out and giving all we have playing the game the right way, playing the game together. That has been the motivation from this group.”
Cardi B just did what Beyonce refused to last year — making her debut at Coachella while SUPER pregnant … but her ever-growing baby bump didn’t slow her down one bit.
Cardi hit the stage Sunday night for Day 3 of the festival, where she performed hit songs from her album “Invasion of Privacy.” She was rockin’ an all white mesh top and high-waisted pants that kept her baby bump from being too visible.
But still, there was no hiding that bump, and Cardi wasn’t slowing down one bit just because she was preggo — she twerked all over the stage and hyped up the crowd. She even brought out 21 Savage, YG, G-Eazy, Chance the Rapper, and Kehlani for surprise cameos. Safe to say, pregnancy ain’t no thang for Cardi when it comes to getting that Coachella $$$$.
The former couple said, “While this decision was a difficult one, we continue to have a great deal of love and respect for one another,” adding, “We ask that you respect our privacy during this time in our lives.”
Earlier Sunday Cena tweeted out a quote from Walt Whitman … “Keep your faith always toward the sunshine — and shadows will fall behind you.” He said the quote is for anyone feeling down.
John may have given a hint of trouble last month, telling Us Weekly, “It takes being able to mesh two lives. I would never ever want Nicole to be in a position where she says ‘I’m holding you back from doing this because I feel it’s wrong for us.’ And I would never say that to her. That’s why she’s super busy and sometimes we don’t see each other for months at a time, but when we do see each other, it’s our time together.”
BOSTON — For the first 47 minutes, 49 seconds of Sunday’s Game 1, the Eastern Conference first-round series between the injury-ravaged Boston Celtics and starless-beyond-the-Greek-Freak Milwaukee Bucks was about as unsexy as most anticipated.
There were turnovers — 35 combined — and some painful scoring droughts (the teams will suggest it was “playoff defense”). The Bucks often forgot how to score when Giannis Antetokounmpo went to the bench and a Boston team playing without the services of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart often found that their best offensive option was simply a wild late-clock isolation by Marcus Morris.
But the final 11 seconds of regulation were a delirious stretch that somehow morphed Sunday’s tilt from a rock fight to an instant classic.
Let’s relive four critical moments through the eyes of the players and coaches involved:
Brogdon makes the Celtics pay
The Celtics were clinging to a 96-93 lead with 15 seconds to go after a pair of Al Horford free throws (he scored 13 of his team-high 24 points at the line) and the Bucks called timeout to draw up a play. Antetokounmpo inbounded, took an immediate hand-back, and accelerated down the middle of the floor.
Celtics guard Terry Rozier cheated over to help when Morris was slow to react but that left Malcolm Brogdon wide open in front of the Boston bench. Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ pained reaction after Brogdon connected told the story of a broken defensive series.
Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks guard: “It was really for Giannis to come off and make a play, find somebody or shoot it. And he found me so I shot it with confidence.”
Brad Stevens, Celtics head coach: “We could’ve done better. That one we could’ve done better.”
Scary Terry atones
With 11 seconds remaining and the ball, the Celtics elected to take the clock all the way down and tried to spring Jaylen Brown off a stagger screen. Instead, Rozier, the third-year guard starting due to Boston’s injuries, drove when Eric Bledsoe hedged high to close the passing lane to Brown (who the Bucks had switched on a screen to cover anyhow).
When Bledsoe raced to recover, Rozier stepped back and had all sorts of space behind the arc, drilling the would-be game-winner with less than one second remaining.
Terry Rozier, Celtics guard: “[Brown] was coming off a stagger and I gave him a look and I kind of figured that Bledsoe would bite. It kind of allowed me to make a move to get to my step-back [3-pointer]. That was an option for me to shoot, it was an option for Morris to slip to the basket [after screening for Brown]. Just all three options and I went with mine.”
Jaylen Brown, Celtics guard: “I didn’t even see what happened. [Rozier] did some dribble, behind-the-back crossover. He was wide open. Hell of a move and a hell of a shot.”
Eric Bledsoe, Bucks guard: “I heard a play call. I was trying to play the stunt and [Rozier] did a great job of reading it. And he made a big shot.”
Rozier: “I haven’t seen [the play]. I’m looking forward to seeing it though.”
Middleton with the Hail Mary
Down 99-96 with 0.5 seconds left in regulation, the Bucks didn’t have many options in the catch-and-shoot situation, but the Celtics might have given Milwaukee a bit too much space in hopes of avoiding a bad foul. Despite having all five defenders above the 3-point arc, Antetokounmpo was able to fake rookie Jayson Tatum toward the hoop then threw a short pass to Middleton, who quickly launched a 35-foot heave over Brown.
It dropped, video review confirmed that Middleton got the shot off in time, and Game 1 was headed to overtime.
John Henson, Bucks center: “When Rozier hit that 3 [with] 0.5 seconds everybody was just like, ‘We’re going to have to throw something up.’ Khris got a great shot. We work on stuff like that every day and it went in.”
Khris Middleton, Bucks forward: “That’s a play we’ve been practicing for a couple weeks now, preparing for that moment. We actually flipped the side of the [floor] we usually run it in practice on. Just got a good look. Giannis was surveying the floor. [I] just tried to get open [and] knew it was at that point where it was a catch-and-shoot situation. So [I thought] if I get it in my hands, just let it go. Somehow it dropped in for me.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks forward: “First of all, before the timeout, I asked Khris if he wants the ball. He said, ‘Yes, give me the ball.’ I was looking at Tony [Snell]. Tony was wide open under the rim, then I looked at Bledsoe, then I looked at Khris again. He was far away, so I thought I can’t give him the ball, it’s too far, but I didn’t have no option. I gave it to Khris, and thank God he knocked the shot down.”
Marcus Morris, Celtics forward: “It happens. I think everybody probably thought the game was over with 0.5 [seconds] left. We guarded the 3-point line, he got a long 3 and made it.”
Brown: “I know Brad was saying just guard the 3-point line, but switch on the flares. We’re thinking screens are coming. He shoots it from the hash mark with 0.5 seconds left. That’s a hell of a shot. Take my hat off to him.”
Joe Prunty, Bucks interim head coach: “At the end of the day we had a couple of things in mind that we needed to look at because of what their defenses are. We went with what we thought was the best. Khris ended up popping to an area that he ended up getting a wide-open look. Great shot by him. Good poise by Giannis to be able to inbound the ball.”
Morris: “Playoffs, man. Crazy stuff happens. I think we all had to take a deep breath like, ‘damn,’ and be resilient.”
Al Horford, Celtics center: “That’s tough because I thought it was over. Everybody always says play to the last second and everything but, half a second, I figured we were good. As soon as he shot it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ I just had a feeling.”
Stevens: “Well, obviously Middleton made a 30-footer and you don’t want to foul in that situation, but, you know, we could’ve done better.”
Celtics collect themselves in OT
Middleton’s bomb could have easily took the wind out of Boston’s sails, especially with Horford, the team’s only healthy All-Star, looking a bit gassed after carrying the team for much of the night. Instead, Horford, who usually defers to big man Aron Baynes on opening tips, won the jump ball against Antetokounmpo to start overtime and Boston didn’t get down when the Bucks pulled ahead early in the session.
Rozier: “I was mad as hell that [Middleton] made that shot, No. 1. But we knew it’s a battle. It’s the playoffs. It happens. He hit a crazy shot, especially with 0.5 [seconds], so you know that’s tough. Going into overtime, let’s do it. Let’s stay together and let’s win this game. You get to the huddle and people was upset a little bit because you wanted to go home and wrap up Game 1. But you’re still living in the moment.”
Brogdon: “For me personally, I tried to stay even keel. My shot, Khris’ shot, Rozier’s shot, I try not to let any of that affect me. I think Khris’ shot was most noteworthy since it pushed us into OT. That was a bit more of a high. The moral of the story is we didn’t pull this one out.”
Brown: “We just take a deep breath. Brad said [Middleton’s shot] was good and he got it off [while they were reviewing it]. It was behind us at that point. Now, we got to focus on overtime and that’s what we did.”
Stevens: “I think you can tell a lot from the fight on the [jump ball to start overtime] and we got the tip after two tips and running through the [defender] to get a loose ball, and that’s when I knew we were reset. You just get back out there and play, you’re ready to play, and I thought our guys — I knew they wouldn’t hang their head about it.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics rookie forward: “We could have easily been deflated at the end of regulation, but we all stood together, and we executed. We played really well in overtime.”
Rozier: “You have to fight and that’s what we did. We had each other’s back and we never stopped believing that we were going to win and we did what we have to do in overtime.”
Stevens: “Sometimes I think they’re at their best when those things happen, you know? I think it’s just a resilient group of kids. Not kids, men.”