ORLANDO, Fla. — Being a reporter at four playoff games in a single day is an idea bordering on incredible — or insane. As with most things in life, the truth lies in the middle, pulling a bit from both extremes.
The logistics alone would test the mind, body and probability. Imagine flying to four different cities in different time zones, risking traffic, arriving in time for tipoff, doing interviews and then actually writing something coherent before collapsing before midnight?
Well, this year, and perhaps only this year, the playoffs are confined to two arenas and one city, a compressed situation created by a pandemic. Say goodbye to airline miles and Ubers and hello to convenience and proximity. All 16 playoff teams are stuck on an island, and traveling back and forth to games involves just a 200-yard trot between buildings, made slightly treacherous only by the humidity.
Therefore, when the 2020 postseason began Monday with four games, the opportunity was too irresistible, historic and once-in-a-lifetime. The schedule: Jazz vs. Nuggets in the Rocky Mountain rivalry, followed by the defending Raptors against the Next Year Nets (when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving return), then the historical grudge matchup between the Sixers and Celtics, capped by the headliner, Clippers vs. Mavericks.
First tip at 1:45 pm, last buzzer at 11:45 pm. Exactly 10 hours of basketball bliss and meals missed.
What was there to see? Well: Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray throwing buckets in a shootout and forcing overtime for a thrilling opening act; the Raptors making a comfortable opening defense of their title; Boston taking advantage of the Ben Simmons-less Sixers; then a pair of questionable technicals and the ejection of Kristaps Porzingis costing Luka Doncic and the plucky Mavs against the Clippers. Here’s how it went down:
1:45 pm: And we’re off. Nikola Jokic wins the opening tip against Rudy Gobert. Theirs is a matchup of decorated big men who impact games. The real adjustment, though, is felt back in Denver and Salt Lake City, where it’s 11:45 a.m., unofficially the earliest local playoff start in NBA history.
2:14: Jordan Clarkson, replacing Mike Conley (paternity leave), falls on the floor, the Nuggets bench screams for a traveling call, he keeps his dribble, rises to feet and hits a 30-footer before the 24-second buzzer. An incredible shot that won’t even rank in the top 10 before this game’s over.
2:24: It’s nine minutes left in the second quarter and Mitchell has only two points. This could change.
2:29: Jazz coach Quin Snyder erupts after Clarkson gets a tech, telling the refs: “He got fouled twice on the 3. I haven’t heard him say (bleep) to a ref all year.” Then, after getting T’d up by Scott Foster, Snyder innocently asks: “What’d I say?”
3:47: Mitchell starts percolating. He hits a 3, then adds two free throws for his 40th point. Mitchell is running downhill to the rim with steam. Denver has no defense for this.
3:52: Mitchell’s performance is becoming epic. Another three, then a layup. His total points now match his uniform number (45) and it’s 109-105 Utah with two minutes left.
“What Donovan did tonight was not easy, especially against a team of that level,” Snyder would say later.
3:54: But then again … Mitchell commits an eight-second halfcourt violation while up four points with the ball. Murray seizes the opportunity and hits a 3-pointer. He proceeds to score 10 in the fourth quarter, ripping the game right out of Mitchell’s hands.
“I put a little of this on myself with the eight-second violation and they hit that 3 and that changed the entire game right there. That’s terrible on my part,” Mitchell would say.
3:58: Overtime means no chance to make the Raptors-Nets by tipoff. But, who cares? Jazz-Nuggets and Mitchell-Murray is too compelling. The defending champs can wait.
4:12: Murray hits another 3 and that’s a wrap. That’s 10 more points in OT for Murray. Mitchell’s 57 points are third-most in playoff history; only he and Jordan (63) scored at least 57 in a playoff loss.
4:20: Didn’t miss much at the start of the second game. Raptors are already up 10-2 on the Nets, who must play this series without Durant, Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Jason Kidd, Julius Erving, Derrick Coleman and Mike Gminski.
5:00: OG Anunoby hits a 3 to make it a 29-point lead. The Raptors will have 68 points with four minutes left before halftime. Never underestimate the start of a champion.
5:46: Welp, Joe Harris’ 3 makes it a 13-point game. Harris is an unrestricted free agent in two months and it’s questionable if the Nets can keep him because his shooting will be in demand.
5:58: Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot chops the lead to eight. Nets play hard for Jacque Vaughn, who may get that interim tag removed to coach Durant and Irving next year. The Nets once trailed by 33. To quote a certain Raptors’ celebrity fan, the Nets started this game from the bottom, now they’re here.
6:01: Jarrett Allen of all people hits a desperation 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer, his first of the season. This team refuses to concede.
6:12: Fred VanVleet, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, hits a 3-pointer and the Toronto lead is back to 15. He’ll finish with 30. If there’s any money to shell out this fall — who knows where the salary cap number will be — he’s getting him some.
“Having won a title, it kind of puts you at peace, and now it’s time to kick it into another gear,” he said.
6:15: Anunoby grabs an offensive rebound, follows with a spin move, a dunk and 3-point play. It’s 114-96. The Raptors keep finding talent. And now it’s time to find another playoff game to watch. The night’s halfway over.
6:30: Celtics players pause during warmups vs. Philly to watch good luck greetings from family members on the video screens. Brad Wanamaker’s adorable daughter steals the show by telling her dad: “Even if you don’t win, that’s fine because you put your effort into it, that’s all that matters.”
6:43: Only organ music plays when the Celtics have the ball, per request by the team, keeping with tradition at the TD Garden.
6:46: Kemba Walker attacks the basket for two. His knee has been in question since last winter but he looks frisky.
6:55: Joel Embiid already has 11 points midway through the first quarter. With Simmons out, leaving the Sixers at a considerable disadvantage, Embiid must be forceful.
7:22: Jayson Tatum heating up. He was a top-five player when the season went on hiatus in March. He’s back in midseason form and will finish with a playoff career-high 32 points.
7:50: Al Horford and Tobias Harris combine for 10 points at halftime. They also combined for $289 million when they signed free-agent contracts last summer.
8:02: Embiid has an animated discussion with coach Brett Brown during a late third-quarter timeout. He has only 12 points since getting those 11 in the first quarter.
8:23: Embiid returns and hits a 3-pointer to open the fourth. All’s well, then. Six up for Sixers.
8:38: Horford gets a flagrant foul on Jaylen Brown, his former Celtics teammate. No harm, but the real injury is Horford has just six points and a mild impact with seven minutes left and the Sixers now down six.
8:48: Gordon Hayward crashes out of bounds and gets up limping. He heads straight to the locker room with three minutes left with an ankle sprain. There’d be a hush in the crowd if there was a crowd.
8:55: Marcus Smart misses again, he’s now 0-for-5. The good news: Brown gets 15 of his 29 points in the fourth to shut the door on Philly. On to the headliner game, but first, here’s Tatum on Brown: “I can’t stress enough how special and important JB is.”
9:14: Montrezl Harrell is wearing a T-shirt in pregame warmups with a picture of his grandmother who recently passed. He missed all of the seeded games to attend her funeral and serve quarantine, which means he hasn’t played basketball since March. Also, the Clippers will finally play a game with their full complement of players, almost a calendar year since training camp began.
10:05: Porzingis delivers an apparent clean block of George, then hears a whistle, then after throwing an air punch hears another when he gets a technical for complaining. This could come back to haunt him.
10:35: After Marcus Morris has words with Doncic, Porzingis rushes to protect his teammate and does nothing malicious, but he and Morris draw double techs. It’s the second for Porzingis, who’s auto ejected with the Mavs up five in the third. Later, Porzingis blamed himself, said the Clippers tend to provoke, but “not their main guys, just their other guys.” At least Morris, one of those other guys, was contrite: “I didn’t think it was enough to get technical fouls. I wish Porzingis played. It’s the playoffs, man.”
11:22: George and Kawhi Leonard are tag-teaming the Mavs in the fourth, as expected, to retake the lead for good. Doncic’s tag-team partner is in the locker room.
11:42: Doncic is relentless anyway. He drops his 42nd point on a driving layup, the first player to get 40-plus in a playoff debut, but he feels a little like Mitchell right now. Therefore, this night of basketball will end how it started.
11:45: The buzzer sounds, the music plays, the four-game experiment is finally over.
So that’s a first full day of playoff basketball, which was four months in the making. The NBA postseason, after a delay, is off to a compelling launch in the most unlikely of places.
Anyone adventurous enough to catch all four games on a single day might feel compelled to throw an air punch in celebration. But maybe it’s better to take a tip from Kristaps Porzingis and just walk away.
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