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The Reaction: Jazz climb mountain of improbability; Celtics, LeBron flex their six-packs

The playoffs continue to surprise us. Long live the NBA playoffs.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I am reminded of William’s Goldman’s famous phrase:

Nobody knows anything.

That includes yours truly.

(Goldman also wrote this)

***

1. Ben Simmons, presumed Rookie of the Year, asks “Wha happen?

The Facts: The 76ers ran out to a 21 point lead early in Boston, finally looking to max out their considerable talent and potential over the shorthanded Celtics. It looked to be curtains as Philly led 51-30 with 5:22 left in the 1st half. However, the Celtics went on a 21-5 run against the Sixers to cut the lead to 5 entering the half, and it was a new ball game.

Boston surged forward in the 3rd, winning the quarter 28-19, with rookie Jayson Tatum scoring 10 in the quarter. Meanwhile, Ben Simmons, fellow rookie and expected Rookie of the Year, turned into a shrinking violet, scoring only 1 point on 0-5 shooting in 31 minutes of action.

The Sixers came back to take the lead in the 4th, but in a seesaw affair, it was role players Robert Covington and Dario Saric that held more poise than their highly touted teammates. In the end, Boston held on to take the 2-0 lead.

The Reaction: The look on Simmons face in the 4th quarter could not have more clearly said, “This is harder than I thought it would be.” Simmons looked shell-shocked at the heightened level of intensity and a defense that knows exactly what they want to do with him and his talents. By contrast, Celtics’ rookie Jayson Tatum scored 21 on 7-14 shooting, repeatedly attacking the rim and draining step-back jumpers, looking like a legit ROTY contender himself. It’s amazing what pressure and consequence do to players.

Meanwhile, Philly as a whole started hot but, as the shooting cooled off, didn’t seem to have a sense as to how to maximize their comparative advantages, namely Joel Embiid in the middle. In my coverage of the latter day wunderkind Thunder — you remember those kids, right? — I used this clip often.

It’s the same argument I have for the Pelicans all the time. If you have the most dominant player on the court (Anthony Davis), you have to know how to use him to full effect. So far, Philly is failing on this level, and as a result they are down 0-2 to a shorthanded Celtics team that is the embodiment of grit.

2. Raptors turn into nervous schoolgirls around LeBron

The Facts: The Toronto Raptors, playing well throughout the 1st half, imploded yet again in the 2nd half against LeBron James, who finished with 43-14-8 against only 1 turnover. The Cavaliers, looking a wee bit shaky in their opening round, shot 60% from the floor for the game and 42% from three. They recorded 25 assists against, get this three turnovers. It was no contest.

The Reaction: And here is the funny thing about it being no contest, a game that was a 20 point lead for the Cavs much of the 4th quarter. The Raptors didn’t play badly. They shot 54% from the floor, 40% from three, dished out 26 assists, won the rebounding battle, and had a lead at halftime. Yet mid-way through the 3rd, it became painfully evident that this Raptors team, retooled during the season to be ready for this exact moment, are still entirely and completely incapable of handling LeBron.

What James does to the Raptors and other teams like them — talented, yet unsure — is turns each contest into a possession game. Meaning, he reduces the math so that it is played on a possession by possession basis, kind of like a coin flip, where he poses the question, “Who is better in this specific iteration?” Having LeBron almost always is a winning coin flip over not having LeBron, even if you’re the best team in the conference. And as the coin keeps flipping, James keeps scoring, passing, and finding ways to win the individual game within the game.

The result is a Toronto team that is playing well yet completely (again) out of their league. It’s sad. I’m legitimately sad to watch this play itself out, because I like them a great deal. And now they must go on the road faced with the possibility of never playing another home game the rest of these playoffs.

3. James Harden says, “Get out of my face to Donovan Mitchell Utah fan with iPhone

The Facts: The Rockets, looking to take a 2-0 lead in the series and their date with Golden Destiny, ran into a bit of a roadblock in the shape of Patrick Bateman and his band of smooth criminals. Falling behind early, the Rockets took control in the 2nd half, looking like they had completely hacked this NBA game, with James Harden running his spread offense to perfection. However, the Jazz were not deterred and, behind a surging bench effort, held onto the lead in the 4th and shocked the Rockets on their home court.

The Reaction: The Rockets are a grand Morey-ball experiment purportedly perfected. Ok, that’s fine, and it may even be true. But if you’ve read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, you know that there is something in there that undermines the statistical artistry Harden, Chris Paul and the rest are seeking. And that is, statistical predictions matter most when you have a large sample size to extrapolate. And the playoffs are anything but.

The playoffs are a small sample size where it is increasingly easy to vacate the predictive nature of data sets and trend lines, and all it takes is a single disruption to the model.

That disruption is Donovan Mitchell.

Jayson Tatum is a fantastic player. Ben Simmons is Rookie of the Year. But if you were to put a t-shirt cannon gun against my head, I probably take my chances with DM. Because he positively had a Westbrook kind of game — 17 points on 6-21 shooting to go along with 5 fouls and 3 turnovers, but 5 rebounds and 11 assists to go along with what is probably the dunk of the playoffs so far:

To be sure, James Harden and company are still going to come at the Jazz in waves, and they are still the favorites — don’t forget, they hung a 50 point quarter on the Timberwolves last round. But their model — and James Harden in particular — is predicated on rolling up a sufficient amount of percentages until they take hold and bury the other team, like they did against Minny.

But as suffocating as they can appear, they are akin to the original Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! At first appearance (or the 100th), it seems impossible, but over time, you can begin to see the weaknesses in the code, but you have to stay in the fight long enough to capitalize when the boss twitches his eyebrow beard.

Which is not to say that Utah has solved the game, but that they do have the personnel, the system, the defense, and the resolve to stay in the game all night long until they solve pieces of it. What piece did they solve in game 2? The Rockets are going to have a seriously difficult time figuring out what to do with Jazz bench players Alec Burks and Dante Exum, who were flying down the court with the ball and nobody wearing a red jersey could keep up. They got to the rim at will either to finish or set up Derrick Favors for lobs.

The more I watch Utah, the more I realize that they had to beat the Thunder. A team, even our OKC team, cobbled together and dysfunctional as they were, should not be able to defeat a team like Utah. And they didn’t. So even as we know we’re in for some months of pain, it has become easy to root for Utah knowing that they’re the kind of team OKC should aspire to be.

And the thing is, the Thunder know it too. Remember this?