Often hailed as the two first-round series with the most upset potential, the Blazers-Clippers and Hornets-Heat matchups were awfully one-sided for the first two games.
In Miami, the Heat went on an offensive blitz, scoring at least 115 points in consecutive playoff games for the first time in franchise history en route to a 2–0 series lead. In Los Angeles, the Clippers rode the defensive brilliance of their starting five and timely perimeter shooting to a two-game series lead as the action shifted to Portland.
Both the Blazers and Hornets responded Saturday with Game 3 victories, holding home court and putting pressure back on their opponents. How did Portland and Charlotte overcome their earlier woes—and more importantly, have they found a winning formula?
In Portland, the Blazers were carried by the what-we-expected performances of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Game 3. Lillard scored 32, while McCollum poured in 27, which was enough to overcome the still-inconsistent shooting of Portland’s role players. (Moe Harkless was the only other double-digit scorer with 10.) The Blazers’ biggest adjustment probably came in their half-court offense, where they attempted to preempt the Clippers’ trapping defense with quicker passes and faster decision making. Los Angeles, oddly enough, also seemed less determined to blitz and trap pick-and-rolls as often as in Games 1 and 2, a strategy that ultimately helped Portland’s guards get going.
The Blazers also greatly improved their temerity on the offensive boards, with Harkless and Mason Plumlee combining for eight of the team’s 16 offensive rebounds. The gang mentality in going after missed shots helped offset Portland’s 16 turnovers, and chipped away at the dominance of L.A.’s bigs so far in the series. Envisioned as its own impossible-to-defend small-ball group, the Clippers’ lineup with Blake Griffin at center produced mixed returns, with the lack of DeAndre Jordan’s shot-blocking ability evident.
In Charlotte, Steve Clifford called on Frank Kaminsky and Al Jefferson to enter the starting lineup for Game 3. Jefferson had been finding much success in the post in Games 1 and 2, while Clifford hoped Kaminsky’s size would give the team a different feel in the absence of Nic Batum. After a fairly close first half, the Hornets exploded in the third quarter, at one point embarking on an 18–0 run fueled by defense and Kaminsky. The rookie from Wisconsin had struggled against Miami in the regular seasons and playoffs, but—due to Miami’s foul trouble—found himself matched up on Dwyane Wade in the third quarter, and he went to work. Kaminsky scored 13 points in the third, finding his way around or over Wade into the paint for some easy scores.
Facing some more double teams, Jefferson probably had his worst game of the series—he was a minus-1 in a 16-point win—but Charlotte got its best game from its supporting cast, with Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Jeremy Lin all scoring at least 12. Williams’s scoring was especially welcome after two disastrous games in Miami. Kemba Walker struggled from the field, but hit all eight of his free throws as he and the Hornets relentless attacked the paint. Defensively, Charlotte was stout, walling off the paint and forcing Miami to make its jump shots. Sagging off the Heat’s perimeter players worked—Miami shot only 34%, with marksmen like Joe Johnson and Josh Richardson failing to connect like they did at home.
Both Charlotte and Portland breathed life into their respective series on Sunday, and now the question becomes, can they still steal their series?
The proposition seems more dicey for the Blazers. PDX still needs more contributions from its supporting cast. Even with McCollum and Lillard going off on Saturday, the Blazers found themselves losing in the final minutes. Portland needs a third scorer—someone to catch fire from three, perhaps—to put more pressure on the Clippers’ defense. Los Angeles can do itself a favor by re-committing to its aggressive defensive strategy by trapping pick-and-rolls, forcing the ball out of the hands of Portland’s guards and putting the pressure on others to make plays.
NBA Championship Rings Through the Years
2017-18 Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their third title in four years. The team got reversible rings with 74 sapphries on one side of the ring. The 74 represents the total number of victories the team earned during the regular season and playoffs in bringing home the franchise's sixth championship.
2016-17 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals to win their second title in three years.
2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA Finals MVP LeBron James and the Cavs defeated the defending champion Warriors in seven games for these rings featuring the Cavaliers’ “C” wrapped around the Larry O’Brien trophy.
2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors took home these beauties after upending LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games for their first title in 40 years.
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs
The Heat aimed to three-peat, but the Spurs had other ideas. Kawhi Leonard had a couple of breakout performances on his way to series MVP, and San Antonio ran away from Miami in five games.
2012-13 Miami Heat
These rings would have never seen the light of day had Ray Allen not made one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history. Thanks to Allen, the Heat rallied and defeated the Spurs in overtime in Game 6, and then won two days later to repeat as champs.
2011-12 Miami Heat
LeBron James got his first ring as the Heat overwhelmed the Thunder in five games. James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
Dallas won three straight games to erase a 2-1 deficit and squash the newly formed Miami Big Three's title dreams. This was also the Mavericks' first NBA title in franchise history.
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics held a 3-2 lead in this series, but the Lakers took care of business at the Staples Center in Game 6 and 7 to repeat as champs. This was the fifth and final set of rings for Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant.
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers survived in a pair of overtime battles and then pulled away from the Magic in Game 5 to win their first NBA title since 2002's three-peat. Kobe Bryant won series MVP with averages of 32.4 points and 7.4 assists.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
Acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen during the off-season paid off quickly for Boston. In their first year, Garnett and Allen teamed up with Paul Pierce to defeat the Lakers in six games and bring the Celtics new jewelry for the first time since 1986.
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs
LeBron James' Cavaliers broke through to the finals, but they were no match for the Spurs, who completed the sweep for their third title in five years.
2005-06 Miami Heat
In their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, the Heat became the third team in league history to win a championship after trailing 0-2. Dwayne Wade averaged 39.3 points in the next four games as Miami won the series in six.
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs
This series was almost as close as possible. The Spurs and the Pistons entered the fourth quarter of Game 7 tied, and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio in the fourth quarter to its third title under coach Greg Popovich.
2003-04 Detroit Pistons
Larry Brown had an NCAA title ring, and a 4-1 victory over the Lakers gave the coach his first NBA championship ring. Brown remains the only coach to win an NCAA and NBA title.
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
In one of the great all-time playoff performances, Tim Duncan fell barely shy of a quadruple double with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks in the series-clinching Game 6.
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers
The Nets did not put up much resistance as the Lakers completed a 4-0 sweep for their third straight title, giving coach Phil Jackson his ninth NBA title in 12 seasons.
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers
Allen Iverson carried the 76ers to a Eastern Conference title and Game 1 victory against the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were too much for The Answer. Los Angeles won the next four games, including three straight in Philadelphia, to win its second straight championship.
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers
In his return to coaching, Phil Jackson guided the Lakers to a 4-2 series victory against the Pacers, coached by Larry Bird. Shaquille O'Neal averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, earning his first of three straight Finals MVPs.
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs
In a battle of dominant frontcourts, David Robinson and Tim Duncan bested Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson as the Spurs defeated the Knicks in five games for their first NBA title.
1997-98 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan's jump shot with 5.6 seconds remaining in Game 6 gave the Bulls their second three-peat of the decade. Since then, Chicago has no NBA Finals appearances and only one conference finals appearance.
1996-97 Chicago Bulls
In a series featuring six Hall of Fame players, the Bulls defeated the Jazz in six games as Michael Jordan fought through food poisoning to lead Chicago to wins in Game 5 and Game 6.
1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Dennis Rodman tied an NBA Finals record in Game 2 with 11 offensive rebounds against Seattle and then did it again in Game 6, the series clincher, but Michael Jordan was once again the no-brainer series MVP, averaging 27.3 points 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
1994-95 Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon taught young Shaquille O'Neal a few lessons in this series as the Rockets swept the Magic for their second consecutive NBA title. The Rockets were the first No. 6 seed to win a Finals series.
1993-94 Houston Rockets
The Rockets ended a five-season title drought for the Western Conference as Hakeem Olajuwon charged victories in Game 6 and Game 7 in Houston.
1992-93 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls became the first team to three-peat since Bill Russell's Celtics in the 1960s. Chicago defeated Phoenix in six games, leaving Charles Barkley without a ring.
1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan shrugged his way to a NBA Finals record six first-half three-pointers in Game of 1 of this series, and the Bulls went on to win in six games.
1990-91 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls recorded their first-ever NBA title as Michael Jordan led the way averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks to defeat the Showtime Lakers in five games.
1989-90 Detroit PIstons
For the first time since 1979, the NBA Finals did not include at least one of the Celtics or the Lakers. The Bad Boy Pistons faced Clyde Drexler and the Trail Blazers, winning in five games for their second straight championship.
1988-89 Detroit PIstons
The Lakers led entering the fourth quarter three times during this series but could never hold on as the Pistons swept them in four games.
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers
This time, the Lakers got the best of the Pistons in a thrilling seven games series where the final two games were decided by a combined four points.
1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
In a high-scoring series, the Lakers and the Celtics each broke the century in the first five games. Then Los Angeles held Boston to 93 points to win the series in Game 6.
1985-86 Boston Celtics
The Celtics captured their second title in three years, defeating the Rockets in six games. Larry Bird fell just shy of averaging a triple with 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers
In a series that featured nine Hall of Fame players, the Lakers got revenge from one year earlier with a 4-2 victory against the Celtics.
1983-84 Boston Celtics
The Celtics came out on top in the first of three 1980s finals meetings with the Lakers. Larry Bird averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds, getting the best of Magic Johnson, who's Michigan State team got defeated Bird's Indiana State squad in the 1979 NCAA championship.
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
In a rematch of the 1982 finals, Moses Malone tore up the Lakers front line for 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game as Philadelphia swept Los Angeles.
Some of Portland’s success from Game 3 can’t be easily re-created, namely J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin both having a terrible shooting night at the same time. Chris Kaman was somehow a plus-five in nine minutes for the Blazers on Saturday, but Terry Stotts seems like he’s playing with fire every time he relies on Kaman to counter L.A.’s bigs.
The Hornets’ case to win is on much more solid footing. These teams were more or less even during the regular season, and with or without Batum, the Hornets showed they have enough to give Miami trouble. Charlotte’s offense was still playing well during its losses in Games 1 and 2, and the defense finally caught up in Game 3. Walker’s kamikaze drives to the rim creates problems for Goran Dragic, putting Miami’s point guard in constant risk of foul trouble. In general, the Heat failed to stop paint penetration, allowing 52 points (while scoring only 28 themselves) in the lane. The Hornets are shooting many less threes in this series than they did during the regular season, but their offensive efficiency has remained high.
This is a matchup that could ultimately come down to the temperament of its role players. Charlotte finally got big games from Williams and Lin, and blew the doors off Miami. The Heat got sub-par games from Richardson and Justise Winslow, a risk playoff teams run when relying so heavily on rookies. (To be fair, the 34-year-old Johnson struggled as well.) Both Steve Clifford and Erik Spoelstra have made bold (and successful!) adjustments so far during this series, which means the games could continue to take different forms as the series intensifies.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Portland didn’t win another game. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if Miami and Charlotte went the distance.
Both Game 4's are on Monday.