NBA playoffs: How two contenders shifted their series — and how two hot teams got even hotter


How much has each NBA conference semifinals shifted after Game 2?

For the Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks and Memphis Grizzlies vs. Golden State Warriors showdowns, plenty.

In Boston, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 59 points as the league’s No. 1 defense limited the Bucks to 3-for-18 from the 3-point line, while in Memphis, Ja Morant‘s playoff career-high 47 points lifted the Grizzlies to the series-tying win in the most thrilling matchup of the second round so far.

For the Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns vs. Dallas Mavericks series, it was more of the same.

Miami continued to take advantage of short-handed Philadelphia with another double-digit win. While newly crowned Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro fueled Game 1, it was the duo of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo pacing the Heat with a combined 45 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists.

In Phoenix, Chris Paul led a fourth-quarter run that broke Game 2 wide open against Luka Doncic and the Mavs.

After Thursday’s off day, what’s next in Game 3? Our NBA experts break down what lies ahead in each second-round matchup.

A constant refrain heard from Phoenix Suns players following their Game 1 victory over the Dallas Mavericks was how they took their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter — allowing the Mavs to cut the Suns’ 21-point cushion all the way down to five in the final minute — and how they needed to correct that as the series continued.

Boy, did they ever in the fourth quarter of their 129-109 Game 2 win to go up 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinals. The Suns unleashed a dominant offensive attack in the fourth on Wednesday, outscoring the Mavericks 40-26 and shooting 16-for-19 (84.2%) from the field, which is the second-best offensive showing by any team in a fourth quarter in the playoffs in the past 25 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only team to perform better? The San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals — a team remembered for putting on one of the greatest clinics in history en route to the fifth title of Tim Duncan’s brilliant career.

Chris Paul is still searching for ring No. 1 and is doing everything in his power to get it. He shot 6-for-7 in the fourth quarter of Game 2, scoring 14 of his 28 points in the final frame. It was the fourth time this postseason he has scored 10 points or more in the fourth, which is tops in the NBA.

“It’s fun. I love it,” Paul said of the fourth-quarter stage. “The end of games, that’s exciting for the fans. And as players, I think you just always got to lean on the work. The work. It all goes back to the work.”

— Dave McMenamin

Heat 2, 76ers 0: Why Herro is the sixth man Miami deserves

Butler has always pointed out that, on top of the ability the 22-year-old possesses, he appreciates how hard Herro works every day.

So to Butler, who has clashed with younger teammates in the past for what he perceived as a lack of consistent effort, it came as no surprise that Herro not only earned the Sixth Man of the Year award, but also dropped another 18 points in Wednesday’s win over the Sixers.

“It’s about time that he gets the recognition that he deserves,” Butler said after Game 2, “and he’s gonna be a big reason why we end up winning it this year.”

Having Herro play at this level only reinforces an already-confident group. His ability to stretch the floor for Butler and Adebayo to operate gives the Heat the type of weapon they’re going to need to finish off this series, especially with the threat of Joel Embiid returning for Game 3 or 4.

With the way Herro and veteran Victor Oladipo, who added 19 points in Game 2, are playing off the bench, there’s a reason the Heat feel so good as they head to Philadelphia.

“[Herro] is one of the young stars in this league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before Game 2. “He’s been able to quiet all the noise and just sacrifice and do what we felt was best for the group. It really translated to success and winning. That’s what it’s about. That’s what Tyler is about.”

If Herro keeps making the plays he has so far in this series, he’s going to create something else for himself besides another award — he’s going to get a mega extension this summer that will set him up for a long future in Miami.

— Nick Friedell

The Warriors and Grizzlies knew Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinals matchup was going to be physical.

Physicality quickly became what Warriors head coach Steve Kerr called “dirty” when Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks was ejected for a flagrant 2 foul on Warriors guard Gary Payton II that resulted in Payton fracturing his left elbow.

Sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Wednesday that Payton will miss at least a month, a timeline that would make him available to return only if the Warriors reach the NBA Finals.

Payton had been the obvious choice to guard Morant — it even got him a starting job in Games 1 and 2 before his injury. Payton plays like a big in a small guard’s body, allowing him to stick with Morant on nearly every step.

Losing Payton is a major blow for Golden State. Morant had gone 3-for-8 (38%) with Payton as the primary defender in the series, according to ESPN Stats & Information (Morant is 23-for-50 against all other Warriors defenders, including 3-for-4 in transition.)

How will the Warriors defend Morant now?

Through the first two games, the Warriors, who lack the kind of skilled defender to match Morant in the paint or in the air, have dared the electric guard to beat them as a perimeter shooter.

On Tuesday, Morant shot 5-for-12 from beyond the arc as part of his 47-point night.

And after Payton left the game, Morant showed how vulnerable Golden State could be when he got downhill, too.

The Warriors switched Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole onto Morant for the majority of the game after Payton went down. But it wasn’t nearly as effective.

Golden State is hoping Andre Iguodala, who missed the first two games of the series with a neck injury, can return Saturday to help take on some of the defensive assignment. Even though he lacks the quickness he once had, Iguodala’s defensive IQ is still in its prime.

The Warriors have options but no clear answer for Morant in this series.

— Kendra Andrews

Celtics 1, Bucks 1: Why this could be Giannis’ toughest test yet

The Celtics have given Giannis Antetokounmpo very few easy baskets through the first two games of this series.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds and 9.5 assists after the first two games, but he’s had someone in his face the whole way. He’s shooting 38.5% from the field, 1-for-6 (16.7%) on 3-pointers and 55% at the free throw line while committing 5.5 turnovers per game. It’s as well as he has been defended by any team all season.

“You’ve got to give their defenders credit,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said after Game 2. “But Giannis, he always figures things out.”

Whether Antetokounmpo can figure out the Celtics’ smothering defense will be the key to the rest of the series.

The strategy to defend Antetokounmpo has been the same for years: get physical, create a wall around the perimeter, force him to shoot jump shots and send help when he gets around the basket.

The Celtics just might have the personnel to pull it off.

They’ve rotated Al Horford, Robert Williams III and Grant Williams as the primary defenders against Antetokounmpo, each doing enough to disrupt his rhythm.

Antetokounmpo did not go into detail following Game 2 about the way the Celtics had frustrated him, but the Bucks have three days before Game 3 to find a way to make things easier for their best player.

No team has been able to successfully slow down Antetokounmpo for long since the start of last season’s playoffs, when the Bucks claimed their first championship in 50 years. Milwaukee fell down 0-2 in two different series during their title run — against the Brooklyn Nets in the second round and against the Suns in the Finals — before rallying to win each because Antetokounmpo grew more dominant as those series unfolded.

The Bucks do not find themselves in nearly as big of a hole this year. They were able to steal home court advantage in Game 1 despite a poor shooting performance from Antetokounmpo because of his playmaking ability. However, the Bucks are almost certain to require more from Antetokounmpo offensively to win this series.

That will require solving one of his toughest challenges. The Celtics were No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency and neutralized Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Nets in the first round.

If the Bucks find a way to advance in this series despite missing Khris Middleton and make another run toward a championship, Antetokounmpo’s accomplishments could put him in rarified company.

So far, the Celtics have had something to say about that.

— Jamal Collier

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