Kyle Kuzma, Defensive Stopper, and Other Stranger-Than-Fiction NBA Playoff Stories

After two games in the first round playoff series, It’s time to overreact to the overreactions

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There’s nothing funnier than watching the talking heads of basketball look like complete idiots in the very next game after they make some stupid hot take. Now it’s my turn.

No, I mean it’s my turn to point out the idiots.

My over reactions are an attempt to balance the hot takes and find some hidden truths. Here’s what I’ve seen so far.

#1. Kyle Kuzma may not be the best defender in basketball, but his defense, rather than his offense, could power the Lakers into the NBA Finals.

According to NBA.com defensive statistics, Kyle Kuzma has a defensive rating of 74.1. This is the best rating for anyone who plays at least 25 minutes, and it’s 17.7 points better than the #2 player, DPOY candidate Anthony Davis.

Does that mean Kuzma has become the best defensive player? Of course not. What it does mean is that the Lakers’ greatest weakness against the Clippers — their inability to stop Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — has been repaired since the bubble season started.

Here’s a video that shows Kuzma’s defense against Leonard and George in the first game of the restart.

When teams used to hunt Kuzma through switches or in isolation, they were almost guaranteed a basket or a trip to the free throw line.

Since the bubble started, Kuzma has been practicing the role of defensive stopper by taking on opponents’ best scorers. It wasn’t always pretty, as he got burned in key situations by Pascal Siakam and TJ Warren, but the intent was clear — the Lakers needed to find out if he could be a dependable defender in playoff crunch time.

And the work paid off. Here’s what he did to James Harden.

Even though the Lakers treated the bubble as a series of exhibition games, once the Lakers clinched the #1 seed in the West, Kuzma was their top rated wing defender (based on playing at least 25 minutes) at 109.7.

While that number is awful, it’s good compared to the overall team rating of 111.2.

In the playoffs, the Lakers have the #1 defense with a 94.5 rating. In the two games against Portland, the best offense in the bubble with their gaudy 127.7 offensive rating, the Trailblazers have scored at total of 188 points, for a 94.5 rating.

Despite their historically bad shooting in the first game (check out this advanced statistic below), the Lakers were in position to win Game 1 by holding Portland to 64 points over the last three quarters.

In game 2, they held Portland to 57 points over the first three quarters en route to building a 30-point lead.

Kuzma’s defensive role saw him guard everyone from CJ McConnell to Josef Nurkic, and he got stops.

When Kuzma was a rookie, Coach Luke Walton envisioned him as a backup center and it was a disaster. Against Portland, he’s playing as a shooting guard, able to guard four positions.

#2. We underestimated Luka Doncic, even though he’s going to get MVP votes.

A lot of analysts have called the restart a new season because the six months off has allowed young players to analyze their performance and work on their weaknesses during the pandemic shut down since March.

Like Kuzma and a lot of other young players, Luka Doncic looks like he has come from the off-season as a new player. The jump he made at the start of his second season last October was incredible, but he could still be confused at times. In the bubble, he looks like one of those third-year players who knows exactly what he wants to do at all times.

Coming into the series with the Clippers, analysts wondered how he would do against the Leonard-George defensive duo.

Can we say he’s made the jump after two games?

Doncic scored 70 points in the first two playoff games of his career, the second greatest debut in NBA history. For context, Kareem Abdul Jabbar scored 69.

I’m never going to sell this kid short again.

Dallas had the best offense in the league during the season, but it dropped to 17th in the fourth quarter, and the Mavs had one of the worst records in the NBA in close games.

When I watched the Mavs beat Milwaukee in the bubble, I thought they might have turned the corner when it comes to winning close games.

In Game 1 of the playoffs, the Mavs got knocked to the floor in the first 3:30 to trail 18–2 and then went on a 48–18 run. The Clippers big weakness is they don’t have a great defensive presence at center to deal with a mobile big who can score from anywhere on the floor, and Kristaps Porzingis was a big part of the reason Dallas was leading in the 3rd quarter when he got ejected.

All the Clippers had to do was shut down Doncic for the last 21 minutes of the game with Leonard and George. He had 21 points, 3 assists and 2 rebounds to end up with a line of 42/7/9, while shooting over 60% and taking 15 free throws.

In Game 2, Doncic got in foul trouble and was limited to 28 minutes, but still put up 28/8/7 on only 17 shots, with only 1 turnover. The big news was how the rest of the team played as they won by double digits against a team almost at full strength.

Porzingis and Marjanovic dominated in the post, combining for 36 points and 16 rebounds, so that structural weakness in the Clippers is not going away.

Is the Patrick Beverly more important to the team’s defense than either Leonard or George? Without him, the Clippers gave up 118 points.

Watching what the Mavs done to the Clippers so far, is it possible we might see one of the greatest playoff upsets in recent memory?

I won’t go that far, but I think what Doncic is doing to the Clippers elite defenders could be a warning shot fired over the bow of every MVP caliber player for the next 10 years.

This kid is only 21, and he’s already supplant grizzled old veterans like Jayson Tatum (age 22) as the brightest young star in the NBA.

#3. I don’t trust Milwaukee to reach the finals.

While the Bucks were the best team in the regular season, they looked bad in the bubble, just like the Lakers did. The difference is the Lakers problem was a shooting slump, while the Buck have systemic issues.

In the case of the Lakers, bad 3-point shooting is a weakness. For the season, they were in the bottom 10, averaging 34.6% (ironically just ahead of those mad bombers from Houston). In the bubble, they shot 30.3%. In game 1 against Portland, they shot 15.6% (5 for 32), but still led by 6 in the fourth quarter.

But it’s a weakness they can cover up. Last March, they shot just 18.8% (6 for 32), and still smoked Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s weaknesses are systemic. On offense, Giannis can’t hurt teams enough from the outside at this point in his career, so teams pack the paint at the end of games and his outside shooters (35.4% on 3-pointers) aren’t that much better than the Lakers.

On defense, the Bucks have a great defense that packs the paint, but they give up more three point shots than any team in the league. If a team decides to shoot over 40 three-pointers each game and gets hot, the Bucks can’t adjust.

It’s just outside of their coach’s skill set, so he gets this confused, frustrated look on his face as he falls victim to a team that gets hot, like Toronto did last year.

And we saw it again this year as Orlando pulled off a huge upset as their center Nikola Vucevic spread the Bucks’ defense by hitting 5 of the team’s 16 three-pointers.

Milwaukee is not going to lose in the first round, but the problem is that they may have to play the best three-point shooting team in the NBA (Miami) in the second round to set up Conference Finals rematch against the #5 shooting team in the league (Toronto).

#4. Sometimes a team wins because of the deals they don’t make.

As I watched the Lakers destroy Portland in game 2, their inability to guard LeBron and AD made me think about the terrible trade they made in July 2019, trading Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless to Miami for Hassan Whiteside.

Whiteside is a terrible, lazy player on a bad contract who couldn’t succeed under one of the best coaches in the NBA. Harkless was a really good wing defender, while Leonard was a stretch big who could shoot from deep, but who became unnecessary as Zach Collins improved and became a key rotation player in his third year. They also allowed their best wing defender, Al-Farouq Aminu to leave in free agency, because his offensive skills were viewed as a liability.

This was the team that reached the Western Conference Finals last year, but they gutted it, hoping that Whiteside could play center until the injured Nurkic could come back by the end of the year.

Without their best wing defenders, the Trailblazers ended up signing the corpse of Carmelo Anthony, who has played surprisingly well, but still leaves so much to be desired in almost every aspect of the game.

Portland went from being a 49-win team last year to being sub-.500 this year, and only Damian Lillard’s incredible bubble run kept them afloat in close games.

But think if Portland had sent their management into quarantine starting last July. Or better yet, a medically induced coma. Nurkic was coming back and Portland would have a wealth of big wings to throw at LeBron, while their guards could terrorize the Lakers.

Instead of getting steamrolled in this series, Portland would have had a legitimate shot at a title in this wide-open season.

On the other hand, Toronto did absolutely nothing after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to free agency, and they look like the best team in the East.

The Raptors have what could be the best coach in the NBA right now. Nick Nurse’s lineups, substitutions and in-game adjustments help this unified group of versatile players perform well in almost every game.

Whether they have an extra gear to win in the playoffs is another question, but so far, they may have the best chance of beating the Lakers, should the teams meet in the Finals.

#5. Jayson Tatum should be the MVP, and the Boston Celtics are going to go 16–0 en route to their 18th championship.

I’m not saying this because they are beating up on the hapless Philadelphia 76ers. That much was guaranteed after not firing Brett Brown last year because:

  • They still can’t figure out how to play Embiid and Simmons together
  • With Simmons hurt, they can’t figure out how to get Embiid the ball in the post so he can dominate his smaller, less skilled opponents
  • Embiid, Thybulle, Richardson, and Simmons are all elite defenders, but the 76ers are a dumpster fire on defense all year
  • Philadelphia has the road record of a lottery team

No, the only reason I wrote this headline is to cause nightmares for Bill Simmons, noted Boston homer, master Laker-baiter and ardent believer in the reverse jinx.

In his most recent podcast about the playoffs, he spoke gleefully about the “clumsy” Lakers, their role players who could never make the Celtics roster, and the idiotic idea of thinking Portland could win the second game.

It sounded like he wanted to bet on the game.

I hope he wagered his house.

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Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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