The quality of a team’s depth is always tested in the NBA postseason, but this postseason is unlike any other.
Prior to Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Atlanta Hawks found themselves in that situation when Trae Young was ruled out prior to tip-off with a bone bruise in his foot. However, the Hawks did not roll over and die on Tuesday night; they fought. Without Young on the floor, Atlanta held Milwaukee to just 38 first-half points and a 82.6 offensive rating. They led by 10 points when Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered an unfortunate knee injury in an attempt to defend a lob to Clint Capela. Just like that, a Bucks team that was underperforming against a team without its star, found itself starless and in a second half hole, and the Hawks pounced.
From that moment, Atlanta ripped off a 12-2 run -- scoring in every way possible thanks to Lou Williams, who scored or assisted on 10 of the 12 points during that run. It was part of a brilliant effort from Williams, who finished with 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the floor and eight assists. Milwaukee failed to do what Atlanta had done all night: step up in the absence of your star player. Now, they head back home in a series tied 2-2 with some questions about how this offense, and defense, will operate without The Greek Freak.
In the regular season, when Antetokounmpo was not on the floor, Milwaukee was an atrocious defensive team. In those minutes, they were outscored by 0.6 points every 100 possessions, due largely to a 116.7 defensive rating; they allowed just 109.1 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor. The drop-off in defensive prowess was evident in the immediate three minutes following the former MVP’s injury, and it will be more glaring over the course of a full game should he be unable to play.
The injury is a blow to Milwaukee’s title hopes and to basketball fans and bettors who enjoy watching Giannis play. This is yet another star player forced to miss time in an insane season that has seen a laundry list of All-Stars suffer a long-term injury of some sort. But, that should not take away from what these teams are doing without their stars on the floor.
The Los Angeles Clippers won a series without Kawhi Leonard and blew out Phoenix without Ivica Zubac to force a Game 6 in Los Angeles. The Hawks were already up in that game without Trae Young on the floor. These teams are still quality units, rife with talent, so don’t let the injuries put a blemish on this postseason. There is still plenty of fun left to be had.
Updated odds on every game can be found here.
Updated injury reports for every game can be found here.
Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers (PK, 215.5)
With Ivica Zubac sidelined because of a right knee MCL sprain, the Clippers went to work with their small-ball lineup in Game 5 and worked wonders. The size advantage held by DeAndre Ayton was of no consequence, as Los Angeles outscored Phoenix by 22 points in his 37 minutes of action. Even if Zubac is healthy, one would figure the success of five-out offense forces Ty Lue’s hand and the Clippers go small once again. If that is the case, Los Angeles has a real chance at forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 in Phoenix.
Many think that the success of small-ball lineups is all about 3-point shooting, but that is hardly the case. Yes, successful shooting can be one of the results you get from playing small, but positive outcomes on offense for small lineups are predicated by dribble-penetration. On Monday night, the Clippers were dominant inside despite playing a true center for only 11 minutes. Los Angeles outscored Phoenix 58-38 in the paint, shot 20-of-24 at the rim and 11-of-18 from four-to-14 feet. Those successful trips to the paint led to drive-and-kick opportunities, and even then the Clippers shot a paltry 10-of-29 from beyond the arc in non-garbage time. If you think this success inside is an anomaly, think again: Ayton is -42 for the series, the worst of any Suns player.
The third-worst plus/minus of the series belongs to Chris Paul, who has not been playing well since returning from his two-game absence in this series. Sure, he is averaging 18.3 points and 9.1 assists, but he is shooting just 31.9% from the floor in three games and has not hit a 3-pointer since Game 3 in Los Angeles. Paul is -27 in his minutes on the floor and needs to perform much better on offense and defense for the Suns to close this series out. His struggles are part of a larger issue for Phoenix, which has averaged just 93.6 points per 100 plays in the half court against Los Angeles -- another issue brought on by the Clippers small-ball, switch-it-all defense.
The betting market has been hesitant to move the line toward Los Angeles in this spot, but it shouldn't be. The Clippers are most effective when playing small, something the Zubac injury forces them to do. They are + 3.4 per 100 possessions in this series despite sitting a 3-2 hole, + 5.3 in the two games at home and + 15.2 in the wins this series. Los Angeles is clearly better than the market is giving it credit for, and that creates value on the home team.