What’s next in four thrilling NBA conference semifinal series?
After Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III was a late scratch Monday night, Al Horford picked up the slack with a playoff career-high 30 points in a series-tying Game 4 win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Despite shooting 9-for-37 from 3-point range, the Golden State Warriors rallied late to take a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Memphis Grizzlies, who hope Ja Morant can return after missing Game 4 because of a knee injury.
Behind 31 points from James Harden and part two of the triumphant return of Joel Embiid, who missed the first two games of the series because of a concussion and a fractured orbital bone, the Philadelphia 76ers evened their showdown with the Miami Heat. For top-seeded Miami, the health of guard Kyle Lowry has been a question mark hovering over this series.
In Dallas, Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul had his second straight bizarre performance in a loss, fouling out early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 after committing seven first-half turnovers in Game 3. Meanwhile, Dallas’ role players stepped up on Sunday; Mavs not named Luka Doncic hit 19 of their 20 3-pointers, led by eight from Dorian Finney-Smith and four from Davis Bertans.
With three series tied and a fourth featuring the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies on the brink, where is each headed as the conference semis shift to critical Game 5s?
Lowry returned to the East semifinals knowing his left hamstring was less than 100 percent. But the veteran point guard knows Miami needs him — even after taking a 2-0 lead — as the series shifted back to his hometown.
The 36-year-old gave it a go, but it has been clear through Games 3 and 4 that Lowry won’t be anywhere close to himself the rest of the way — if he returns to the court at all.
“If you’re asking if I’m going to try and play,” Lowry said after Miami’s Game 4 loss on Sunday, “yes, I’ll be trying to play Game 5.” Lowry’s prodigious basketball IQ was the only thing pushing him through the injury he suffered in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks that cost him his next four games.
That Lowry played 55 minutes in Games 3 and 4 combined, until tweaking the hamstring early in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and sitting the final 9 minutes and 42 seconds, was a reminder of why Miami was so excited to bring him to South Florida last summer and believed he would be a perfect fit within the vaunted “Heat Culture.”
But Lowry rarely, if ever, showed any kind of burst on the court. His shooting — 3-for-14 from the field and 0-for-8 from 3-point range for the series — has been impacted by his injury.
James Harden goes for 31 points and nine assists, leading Philadelphia to the Game 4 win and tying the series at two.
Lowry’s counterpart, James Harden, was in the same situation a year ago. Harden, then with the Brooklyn Nets, returned from his hamstring injury to play against the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 East semifinals, averaging 46.3 minutes throughout the final three games of the series while struggling to move.
Like Harden last season, Lowry has still managed to provide a few signature moments. He ignited one of Miami’s best stretches of Game 4 in the second quarter. And he somehow forced Joel Embiid, who is a foot taller than him, into botching a post-up opportunity.
But for a team that acquired Lowry to generate better half-court offense in the later rounds of the playoffs, it’s a devastating injury.
*If necessary | All times Eastern
Even in the Heat’s wins at home, Miami’s offense didn’t look convincing and was cushioned by both Bam Adebayo getting whatever he wanted against DeAndre Jordan and Paul Reed inside with Embiid sidelined, and Philadelphia going a combined 14-for-64 from 3.
No one knew that more than Lowry, which is why he came back and played these past two games on a hamstring that isn’t right. And it’s why, if he can’t give Miami anything more in Game 5, the Heat easily could be facing elimination when this series heads to Philadelphia for Game 6 on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
— Tim Bontemps
Paul hasn’t been the same player since turning 37 — four days ago.
He was in vintage “Point God” form while the Suns jumped out to a 2-0 series lead at home, particularly during his 14-point flurry early in the fourth quarter to put away Game 2.
But Paul had a bizarrely bad birthday weekend, when he had more turnovers (nine) and fouls (10) than buckets in a pair of road losses as the Mavs evened the series.
Some of Paul’s struggles can just be chalked up to uncharacteristic sloppiness. He’ll likely never have a seven-turnover first half again, as he did in Game 1. And it was a shocking mental mistake to pick up his fourth foul just before halftime while chasing an offensive rebound he had minimal chance of grabbing.
But let’s give some credit to Dallas, with an assist to Father Time.
“Just making it hard for him, picking him up full-court,” Mavs forward Dorian Finney-Smith said postgame. “Just make him tired. He’s up in age, so we’re just trying to use it against him.”
Tim Legler can’t explain Chris Paul’s Game 4 struggles, but he expects Paul to bounce back in Game 5.
Reggie Bullock is the Maverick primarily responsible for making Paul work for 94 feet. Bullock, 31, certainly isn’t a spring chicken by NBA standards but is young enough to consider Paul a mentor after playing for his AAU program as a teenager.
“Hopefully, I’ve got a little more energy in my tank than he does,” Bullock said between Games 3 and 4.
Dallas is also determined to prevent Paul from operating in his comfort zones in the half court. He’s an exception in the modern NBA, a player the Mavs want to force into the paint instead of watching him launch midrange jumpers, where he is elite. Paul went 10-of-15 from the midrange in the first two games; he was just 3-of-6 from those spots in Dallas.
The Mavs also took a couple of pages out of the CP3 playbook and used them against him. After he hunted Doncic in Game 2, draining the Mavs superstar by targeting him on defense, Dallas similarly put a bullseye on Paul. He’s been an elite defender throughout his career, but the 6-foot Paul isn’t equipped to deal with the 6-foot-7 Doncic backing him down.
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And Paul had to begrudgingly respect the Mavs pulling out a few tricks after he got into foul trouble.
Did Doncic flop on Paul’s fourth foul in Game 4? Paul asked Doncic at the time whether he really pushed him that hard. “No, not that hard,” Doncic slyly replied, “but it was a smart play.” “Yeah, I know,” Paul grumbled.
“We’re being taught by one of the best point guards ever on the other side how to do things,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “That’s pretty cool this time of the year.”
— Tim MacMahon
Another late scratch, another Celtics win. Maybe Boston should try this more often.
Prior to Game 2, Marcus Smart was ruled out 90 minutes before tip-off with a right quad contusion; the Celtics won 109-86. Prior to Game 4, Robert Williams III was ruled out 90 minutes before tip-off with left knee soreness: The Celtics won 116-108.
While coach Ime Udoka would surely like to have his full complement of players available at all times, shortening his rotations has worked to Boston’s benefit.
In Game 2, Udoka essentially played seven players in the blowout victory. On Monday, Udoka briefly went with Daniel Theis as the eighth man but played him just 91 seconds in the second half as he stuck with a seven-man group for the majority of the final two quarters.
Seemingly the more physical team has won each game, but that style has started taking its toll.
“The whole team was exhausted,” Smart said postgame. “But we wanted to make sure we weren’t the more tired team and to keep going no matter how tired we were.”
Marcus Smart tries to pick up Giannis Antetokounmpo for over 10 seconds before giving up and leaving him on the floor.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was visibly gassed in the fourth quarter. After one tough finish down the stretch, he laid on his back staring at the Fiserv Forum ceiling for an extended period trying to catch his breath — the Bucks even pulled Antetokounmpo for a 49-second stretch in the fourth quarter when they were trailing.
Antetokounmpo has played at least 38 minutes in every game this series and topped out at just over 41 on Monday. Following the Game 4 victory, Udoka said that while he understands Milwaukee is hunting Brown and Tatum in matchups to make them work defensively, the Celtics are trying to do the same with Antetokounmpo.
The winner of this series might come down to who has more gas in the tank.
— Andrew Lopez
Despite a valiant effort playing Monday’s Game 4 without injured star Ja Morant, the Grizzlies will return home needing a win to extend what has been a magical season.
The formula that helped Memphis go 20-5 without Morant during the regular season allowed them to lead throughout the game. Predictably, the Grizzlies struggled to score without their leading scorer but compensated with stout defense — taking advantage of the Warriors’ sluggish, turnover-heavy start: The Warriors had 11 turnovers and shot an unthinkable 2-of-20 from 3-point range in the first half.
In 25 games without Morant, Memphis held opponents to 8.6 points per 100 possessions below their usual average, a mark that would have led the NBA by a wide margin.
Steph Curry and the Warriors rally late to grab the 101-98 win over the Grizzlies in Game 4.
Poor opponent shooting has also been a hallmark of the Grizzlies’ success without Morant. Teams shot just 31.5% from 3-point range against Memphis in those 25 games. Golden State fell short of even that standard, finishing at 24% (9-of-37) despite key late 3s by Stephen Curry and Otto Porter Jr. — yet the Warriors found just enough offense to complete the comeback.
All eyes will remain on Morant’s knee, injured in the late stages of the Warriors’ Game 3 blowout win. If Morant can’t play, Memphis will have to continue relying on defense and timely scoring.
Golden State’s small lineup might actually be a more favorable matchup for Adams, who subsequently spent time in the NBA’s health and safety protocols before being cleared and not getting off the bench in Game 3. His size created problems on the offensive glass for the Warriors, and the Grizzlies were plus-13 in Adams’ 27 minutes. He finished with 10 points and 15 boards.
Memphis will also want to revisit the shot selection of guard Dillon Brooks before a must-win game. Despite making his final two shots, including a 3-pointer from a listed 38 feet at the buzzer, Brooks finished 5-of-19 on difficult attempts.
While Morant’s absence put more pressure on Brooks to create offense, this isn’t a new problem. Not counting Game 2, when he played three minutes before being ejected for a flagrant foul on Gary Payton II, Monday was Brooks’ fifth game this postseason shooting worse than 30% from the field. To extend their season, the Grizzlies will need better from Brooks.
— Kevin Pelton