The Clippers, the Bucks, the Yankees and much more in Five Things From the Week.
1. The Clippers still haven’t proven they are championship material
The Los Angeles Clippers got blitzed by the Dallas Mavericks out of the gate in the playoffs and were lucky not to be down 0-2. They won three of the next four games to take the series in six. Los Angeles then took three of four from the Nuggets, going 9-for-32 from three in the lone defeat. LeBron James and the Lakers jumped out to a 3-1 lead on the Houston Rockets. The showdown that everyone has been waiting for all season between the Clippers and Lakers was on the verge of happening.
The L.A. teams led by a combined 23 points at halftime in their respective Game 5s. By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers’ lead was up to 24 and the Clippers’ was down to seven. Doc Rivers’ team got outscored by 13 in the fourth quarter and lost by six. Meanwhile, the Lakers pulled their starters midway through the last period with the game out of reach. The Clippers then lost the second half of Game 6 by 29 and sit one loss away from elimination. While the Lakers have their flaws, no team led by James falls apart like this against teams they should beat. If the Clippers can’t find it within themselves to regroup and finish off the Nuggets, they don’t deserve to be in the same conversation as their fellow Staples Center occupants.
2. It is not time for the Bucks to freak out
There is very little evidence to suggest the Milwaukee Bucks’ series with the Miami Heat would have ended any differently had Giannis Antetokounmpo been healthy enough to play in Game 5. Maybe the Bucks get another victory or two, but the end result was going to be the same. That reality points to Milwaukee’s inability to perform in the postseason as a No. 1 seed the past two years. It is an indictment of head coach Mike Budenholzer and his failure to make adjustments. Playoff failure is quickly becoming part of Antetokounmpo’s legacy as he sits one year away from free agency. All of that is true. And there is no need to panic.
First, the Bucks will be very good next season and there is a real chance Antetokounmpo signs an extension, whether it’s this offseason or next. Trading a top-three player (at minimum) in the league in a small market who isn’t looking for a way out is never a good idea. If he leaves in free agency at the end of his contract, so be it. Second, no team was hurt more by the bizarre nature of this postseason than the Bucks, who were slated to have home court advantage throughout the playoffs. With some better luck and/or a move or two — a coaching change, a potential trade for Chris Paul, etc. — the Bucks have every opportunity to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2020-21.
3. Naomi Osaka stole the show at the US Open
With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal opting out and Novak Djokovic getting disqualified, the women’s side of the US Open quickly became the center of attention. The spotlight fell on 22-year-old Naomi Osaka, who claimed the second US Open and third Grand Slam title of her young career. She did so by dropping the first set and winning the final two, something that hadn’t happened at Flushing Meadows since 1994. But Osaka was the talk of the tournament well before she knocked off Victoria Azarenka in the final.
At every match, Osaka wore a mask with the name of a different victim of police brutality. She is soft-spoken but embracing the opportunity to make a statement through her actions. Osaka’s victory cemented her as the face of tennis both on and off the court, at least for now. The sports world made sure of that, as LeBron James and Lindsey Vonn were among those to congratulate Osaka on social media. She is a household name and the significance of what she did — as well as the way she did it — did not go unrecognized. It would be shocking if there weren’t plenty more moments like this one in the years to come.
4. Deshaun Watson is a quarterback without leverage
Deshaun Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times in 2018 and another 44 times in 2019. The Chiefs sacked him four times in their season-opening win, putting Watson on pace for 64 this season. He has still led the Texans to double-digit wins and made the Pro Bowl the last two years. His performance has remained consistent even as the talent level of Houston’s roster continues to decrease. In short, Watson is worth every one of the $160 million the Texans are paying him.
Imagine for a moment if Watson had decided to play out the final year of his contract instead of signing an extension. Houston franchise tags him once and he hits the open market after the 2021 season at age 26. Potential openings at that point include New Orleans, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Green Bay, some of the best rosters and organizations in the NFL. He puts pressure on Bill O’Brien to make the Texans a serious Super Bowl contender. Otherwise, he says thanks and finds a new home. Of course, Watson has every right to get his money as soon as possible and secure his long-term future. This isn’t a criticism of Watson in any way, just an observation. His showdown with Patrick Mahomes demonstrated the vastly different situations they find themselves in with their recent extensions.
5. The New York Yankees have restored order to the American League playoff race
The thought of the New York Yankees missing out on the postseason was practically unthinkable a week ago. Even 10 losses in 14 games between Aug. 18 and Sept. 3 did little more than give the Tampa Bay Rays control of the AL East. The injuries continued to pile up but there was no real need for concern. Then came five straight defeats to divisional foes in the Orioles and Blue Jays. Just like that, the shorthanded Yankees were on the verge of being in serious trouble.
The Bronx Bombers responded by outscoring the Orioles 21-3 and sweeping a four-game series from Sept. 11 to Sept. 13. As a result, New York enters the final 13 games of its season with a 5.5-game advantage over Baltimore for the second Wild Card spot. It seems likely Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will be back before the end of the regular season. While things certainly haven’t gone as planned for the Yankees, they appear to have survived the total decimation of their roster. All you have to do is get to the playoffs, especially in a season as strange as this one.
The Big 12’s decision to play a nonconference game before starting conference play backfired spectacularly. Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas all lost at home to opponents from the Sun Belt. Texas Tech nearly lost to Houston Baptist. At least Oklahoma and Texas took care of business.
Photo by Carine06 /Flickr