The NBA Playoff Notebook: A Suns' Silver Lining; the Heat’s Fatal Flaw and More

Ayton's development is a bright spot for Phoenix's future and why Miami's back-to-back blowout losses to the Bucks raise eyebrows about where the franchise is headed.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

Thursday was an incredibly busy day in the Association both on and off the court, with three playoff games as well as continued conversation about fan behavior around the league. So let’s hop around a bit, starting with the Lakers' taking a 2–1 lead over a Suns team that may not be long for the postseason. …

At Least There’s Playoff Ayton

The Suns’ chances of pulling off an upset over the defending champion Lakers realistically went out the window once Chris Paul hurt his right shoulder in Game 1. Phoenix has put up a legitimate fight in the ensuing two games; the Lakers simply have too much top-end talent, depth and playoff experience. Paul played only 27 minutes in Game 3—the fewest of any Phoenix starter—and was absent for much of the fourth, even as his teammates made a spirited run late in the contest.

Paul’s injury is obviously incredibly disappointing. CP3 looked every bit as impactful during the regular season as he did during his Clippers' heyday, and ever since hurting his shoulder, he’s been a shell of himself in this series. Though he’s defied his age the last couple of years, I can’t imagine how frustrated Paul is, knowing he’ll be 37 by the middle of next postseason and still stuck in the torture chamber that is the Western Conference. While this year has turned sour overall for the Suns, there’s still one shining positive to take away from this series: the play of Deandre Ayton.

Phoenix’s big man had the misfortune of going No. 1 in the 2018 NBA draft, the same year Luka Dončić and Trae Young were selected only a few picks later. Ayton’s rookie campaign was a mess on both ends of the floor, and the start of last season was marred by a suspension (and calls for him to back up Aron Baynes when he returned.)

This season, while Ayton’s counting stats took a hit, his efficiency improved, and during the playoffs, he’s more than held his own despite facing a talented and versatile Lakers’ front line. Through three games, Ayton is averaging 21.7 points and 12.3 rebounds a night while shooting 82.9% from the field. Phoenix has a 106.6 defensive rating with Ayton on the floor, and while he’s not necessarily locking anyone up one-on-one, his presence and activity in the paint have been an issue for the Lakers—on both ends of the floor.

It seems like a low bar to clear for a No. 1 pick to simply be playable during the playoffs; however, Suns fans should be thrilled with how Ayton has responded so far to postseason action. If Ayton can be a guy who not only survives on the floor in an important series—but can also thrive when going up against guys like LeBron James and Anthony Davis—that’s a huge win for Phoenix moving forward. There were times earlier this year Ayton wasn’t always closing games, let alone how far he’s come since his rookie year. Even if he’s not driving success like Luka and Trae, that doesn’t mean Ayton isn’t making a significant impact on winning.

Barring Chris Paul flying to Wakanda and coming back with a Vibranium arm, the first round is almost certainly going to end in disappointment for the Suns. As the odds mount, I hope the fans at least take some solace in Ayton's starting to show he can belong when the stakes are highest.

The Heat Have a Big Summer Coming Up

The Bucks took a commanding 3–0 lead over the Heat on Thursday in a rematch of their 2020 East Semis matchup, which Miami won in five games en route to the Finals. Through three games this time, Milwaukee has thoroughly outclassed its opponent. The Bucks’ defense has been stifling, thanks in large part to Brook Lopez's scaring people out of the paint, Jrue Holiday’s relentless on-ball pressure and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s willingness to guard Jimmy Butler. Meanwhile, the Bucks are getting all the looks they want offensively, and are looking more dangerous than perhaps at any other point from the last three seasons.

As for the Heat, this series has exposed some serious issues in their roster construction. Forget the discussion about whether or not Miami was a bubble fluke, the real concern for Pat Riley is how to fix this team moving forward. I expected Milwaukee to win this series handily, but the Heat'slosing in back-to-back massive blowouts definitely raises eyebrows about where this franchise headed.

Right now, Miami has a serious issue with two-way players on its roster. The Bucks have been relentlessly hunting Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Goran Dragić in a way they didn’t last year, and it’s put a spotlight on the deficiencies of that group. In the bubble, Dragić was playing like an All-Star offensively. This season, he looked a step slow. And that’s made a massive difference as Miami can’t find combinations that can survive on both ends of the floor—especially as Robinson, Herro and Nunn struggle with their shot.

The Heat should still have faith in Butler, who has proven he can make things work on a high level when the pieces around him are in sync. Bam Adebayo will be only 24 by next season, and he will continue to improve—and he should be motivated after his own disappointing series. But Miami needs to take a hard look nearly everywhere else. Dragić, Andre Iguodala and Trevor Ariza are old. Nunn, Herro and Robinson all may have moments individually, but playing two of them together in a playoff series creates matchup problems defensively. Even a lesser-than-All-Star version of Victor Oladipo would have helped the Heat significantly in this round, just to have someone who can dribble and stop penetration on the other end of the floor.

Whether or not Miami’s run in Orlando was an aberration is irrelevant. That Finals trip happened. And so did this drubbing at the hands of the Bucks. Ultimately, Butler turns 32 this year and the Heat can’t afford to waste what is left of his prime. Whatever success the current group had in the past can’t scare the front office off from an overhaul.

Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers (25) reacts after a three-point basket during the second half of game three in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs

Austin Rivers

The oft-ridiculed Austin Rivers scored 21 points in 37 minutes—including five threes!—for the Nuggets on Thursday, as Denver took a 2–1 lead over Portland. Rivers joined the team late this year after Jamal Murray tore his ACL, and he’s been thrust into an unlikely starting spot during the playoffs. Thursday’s Game 3 was not the first time Rivers has swung a playoff game; he’s now had his share of big moments in the postseason. I just really wanted to share this sound from his postgame press conference, in which Rivers exhibited an honesty about his journey to Thursday’s moment that was genuinely moving.

Kyrie Irving Said Nothing Controversial

Whether or not you personally believe he’s the right messenger considering his aloof public persona, Kyrie Irving expressed nothing remotely controversial when he said he hoped Boston fans don’t use any racial taunts when he returns to the city Friday as a member of the Nets. Danny Ainge basically shoved aside Irving’s comments with an ignorant quote Thursday, saying he never heard any complaints of racism from his teammates in Boston, or Kyrie himself when he was a Celtic. Ainge said this despite Marcus Smart's penning an essay only last year, which was in part about a Celtics fan calling him a n----- outside their home arena, not to mention Bill Russell’s long-documented complicated relationship with the city. (Maybe Ainge should ask himself why his Black teammates or players never opened up to him?)

I’m not writing this to pick on Boston. As we’ve seen with the recent fan incidents in Utah, Philadelphia and New York, no city is exempt from bad fan behavior. In general it’s hard to separate the attitudes fans can have against NBA players—who are predominantly Black—from the systemic racism ingrained in this country. There are many examples of fans' being a little too comfortable in their disdain for athletes, most of which simply aren’t as visible as someone dumping popcorn on Russell Westbrook.

Irving doesn’t need to provide a personal experience with racism in Boston to know it could be an issue on Friday, and it’s insulting to ask him to do so. I’m willing to bet between the high-profile games Irving has played in Boston as an opponent, the experiences of his own teammates such as Smart, and conversations with players around the league, Irving is well aware of the kind of taunts that happen in that city. And for people—whether it's Ainge or media members—to suggest Irving may have an ulterior motive feels more like a convenient way to sidestep the issue than address it head-on.

Whether or not Boston is uniquely racist within a whole country grappling with systemic racism is beside the point. And of course athletes who’ve played for and against the city’s teams are going to have varying experiences. At the end of the day, even if he’s rubbed people the wrong way before, Irving was more than within his rights to verbalize his concerns. If Boston fans are worried about how things may be construed Friday, all they have to do is boo Kyrie to their heart’s content—and nothing more.

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