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NBA

It All Changes So Quickly

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers dunks the ball against Dorian Finney-Smith #10 of the Dallas Mavericks during the first half of Game Seven of the Western Conference first round series at Staples Center on June 6, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Mavericks were rolling. Luka Doncic scored 39 points in their 127-121 win over the Clippers, the second straight game that the fifth-seeded Mavs had taken in Los Angeles to open their first-round matchup. People were making fun of Kawhi Leonard for leaving Toronto. When asked how the Clips could slow down Doncic, The Athletic Clippers beat writer Law Murray wrote, “At this rate, prayer.” The Dallas Morning News compared the Clippers’ 2-0 series lead to the team’s run into the 2011 NBA Finals. The paper’s Brad Townsend noted that teams with 2-0 advantages were 254-17 all time.

That was three weeks ago, and the Mavericks are an afterthought. The Clippers were not really able to stop Doncic—he really only had one awful game in the series, a 25-point LA win in Game 4—but it didn’t matter. They took the series in seven games. Now the Clippers are in Round 2 of the playoffs while The Athletic is instead writing about Mark Cuban’s “shadow GM,” a former professional gambler and Bill Simmons associate, “causing a rift with Luka Doncic.”

I thought about how the NBA looked three weeks ago while watching the end of the Sixers’ 103-100 loss to the Hawks on Monday night. Philly led by 18 in the second quarter, and it didn’t matter: Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid made just one shot in the second half, combined, and now the series is tied at 2. I was thinking about how I and other Philadelphians had been feeling just, say, 90 minutes ago. I was pretty freaking optimistic! The Nets had been beset by injury. The Bucks looked pretty bad before James Harden and Kyrie Irving went down with injuries and they started looking better by comparison. The Sixers, on the other hand, had beaten the Hawks by double digits in consecutive games. They were up 18 points!

And now the series is tied and, as my colleague Chris Thompson and others have noted, the Sixers could be in trouble. Sixers coach Doc Rivers said the Hawks outworked the Sixers “the whole fucking game.” Embiid said after the game that he could not jump in Game 4. Ben Simmons had 8 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists at halftime and did not get a triple-double. Did the Hawks just figure the Sixers out in the second half of Game 4?

Think of how many other series have felt like this just in this young postseason. The Times wrote that the Nets had “brushed aside” the Bucks after a 39-point win in Game 2. “After seemingly silencing all the haters following an impressive first-round sweep against the Miami Heat, the doubt is slowly creeping back in as Milwaukee’s postseason woes are back to haunt them,” meme-y NBA site Clutch Points wrote. The haters were silenced! Now the woes are back to haunt! The Clippers have already seemed dead in the water twice, the second time after they down 2-0 to the Utah Jazz, with Donovan Mitchell nearly outscoring Paul George and Leonard all by himself. Now that series is tied after the Clips’ win last night. A section heading in The Salt Lake Tribune today reads, “A quick list of everyone I’m disappointed in.” I have one of those for the Sixers, too.

What’s interesting is that I don’t think these takes and feelings, reactive though they are, are really that much of an overreaction. So many playoff basketball games really do feel like the end of the world, and every game really does matter. I’m still thinking about missed free throws from 20 years ago. When those missed shots are fresh, they almost beg for fan and media freakouts. And if the Sixers rout the Hawks in Game 5, are they suddenly back on track? What if the Hawks win? Is the series over in the other direction?

This is all a little silly, of course. A team has to win 4 games, and the series isn’t over until some team does. But knowing this is very different than feeling it, and my heart is going to keep declaring series winners and losers after each game, and my brain isn’t going to be able to resist making these wild swings in my opinion about who’s going to win. The only true constant in all this volatility is Ben Simmons missing free throws. It doesn’t help, but it’s nice to have something to rely on.