From Bill Russell to LeBron James, every basketball legend has gotten his start in the NBA playoffs. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Hall of Famer without playoff credentials of some sort. But for every legendary performance throughout history, there’s a parallel choke job.
This season, that dynamic is no different. James Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Russell Westbrook are all examples of the latter. Harden’s failure is more specific to one game — Game 6 of the Rockets’ series against San Antonio — whereas Aldridge and Westbrook performed poorly throughout the playoffs. However, all three constitute choking.
Here, we’ll examine seven figures — players and coaches alike — who have collectively vomited on the floor this postseason. Harden, Aldridge and Westbrook all make the list, but let’s use this time to point out the difference between choking and being a perpetual choker.
Magic Johnson choked in the 1984 Finals, missing two free throws and turning it over in the final minutes of Game 4, earning the nickname “Tragic Johnson.” LeBron James choked in the 2011 Finals, being famously tentative throughout the series as the Heat fell to the Dallas Mavericks. However, the historical label of choker applies to neither. Both redeemed themselves a year later (and, in Johnson’s case, he had already won titles in 1980 and 1982).
On the other hand, Karl Malone, for example, was a perpetual choker. Malone didn’t just famously miss choke at the free throw line in Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals. He wasn’t himself during the entire series, or the ’98 Finals or during the playoffs in general. During every big moment, Malone had chronic deer in the headlights syndrome. There are only three people on this list who may earn that title when their careers end: Mike D’Antoni, Kyle Lowry and Dwight Howard. The rest shouldn’t be stuck with it, at least not yet.
Here are the seven biggest lemons, chokers and flops of the 2017 NBA playoffs.
Kyle Lowry, point guard, Toronto Raptors
Lowry missed two playoff games due to injury, but he struggled before getting hurt. This isn’t the first time either — wilting in April has become a yearly occurrence for Lowry. He scored just 15.1 points per 36 minutes and assisted only 5.6 on 46.2 percent shooting from the field and 34.2 percent from three. All of those are significantly worse than during the regular season, as Lowry played like a superstar for most of the year.
Injury or not, the Raptors needed him to create more offense. One of Lowry’s trademarks during the season was punishing defenders who went under the pick and roll by pulling up and hitting a three in their face. He shot 42 percent on pull-up threes in the regular season, a crazy-good number which reflected just how threatening Lowry became outside. As a point of comparison, Stephen Curry shot 41.7 percent on pull-up threes this season.
Lowry isn’t as good as Curry, but he’s a darn good three-point shooter. His ability to connect from downtown helps make Toronto’s offense run. In the postseason, Lowry shot a mere 27.6 percent on pull-up threes, giving opponents an easy solution in the pick and roll.
He was also downright terrible guarding Kyrie Irving in the second round. Toronto gave up a 125.9 defensive rating with Lowry on the floor in the two games he played against Cleveland. It was 25 percent higher than the 100.5 defensive rating they allowed with Lowry on the floor against the Milwaukee Bucks.
In the second round, the entire Raptors’ team seemed to have no self-belief whatsoever. Lowry was as much a part of that as anyone.
If the Raptors — or whatever non-Toronto team signs Lowry this summer — are to ever compete, “Playoff Lowry” needs to stop being a thing. We have to see the same superstar that shows up in the regular season, and that simply hasn’t been the case with Lowry. It’s not just this season, it’s last year, the year before and the year before that. The Raptors have won 48, 49, 56 and 51 games over the past four seasons. All they have to show for it are three playoff series wins. They’ve been swept twice — once in the first round against a Wizards’ team coached by Randy Wittman — and it would have been three times if the Cavs put their foot on the gas in the Conference Finals last season.
Lowry is perhaps a bigger part of that failure than anyone. He has consistently failed to perform in the postseason and that has to change.
Mike D’Antoni, head coach, Houston Rockets
D’Antoni might win Coach of the Year, and he’d be deserving of that honor if Gregg Popovich wasn’t worth voting for every year. He piloted the Rockets to a 55-win season when some thought they may not make the postseason. He also turned James Harden into a do-it-all MVP candidate, fixed the chemistry problems that addled Houston last season and created an offense that ranked second in the league, behind only the Golden State Warriors.
He was wonderful this season, he’s the Forrest Gump of the NBA and the postseason doesn’t erase that. However, that turd still stinks.
The Rockets seemingly had no answer for San Antonio’s adjustments in the second round. Part of that fell on Harden (more on him in a minute), but D’Antoni has to be accountable. The Spurs’ pick and roll defense was designed to force the Rockets into shooting the mid-range shots they despise. Sure, it’s inefficient, but D’Antoni should have told Harden to take what the Spurs gave him. A player of Harden’s caliber could have made the Spurs pay and forced the defense to find another solution.
When Nene went down, D’Antoni’s adjustment was to do absolutely nothing. Instead of using Montrezl Harrell — a capable finisher in the pick and roll — for 10 minutes a game, the Rockets went with a seven-man rotation, playing Ryan Anderson at center for stretches. Those lineups did about as well as one could expect. With Anderson at center during the postseason, the Rockets had a 116 offensive rating but gave up 127.9 per 100 possessions. Those lineups saw 64 minutes total, most of them against San Antonio, which happily put Anderson in the pick and roll blender and scored practically at will.
At the end of Game 5, D’Antoni’s playcalling was disastrous. In a tie game with 16 seconds to go, D’Antoni’s ace in the hole was a Harden isolation, which not only failed but drew an offensive foul. Down two with 23 seconds to go in overtime, D’Antoni again isolated Harden and had him pass off to Eric Gordon for three. The only problem was that Harden never drove, or did anything else that might have drawn help. Gordon simply shot a contested three, which didn’t go down.
Houston could have gone up 3-2 in the series with a win, and on their two biggest possessions of the game, they barfed up contested shots — a culmination of D’Antoni’s errors throughout the series.
DeMar DeRozan, shooting guard, Toronto Raptors
DeRozan’s playing style isn’t a strong fit for the postseason, when opponents are more than willing to let him isolate and work on the block. But that doesn’t excuse his performance this year. It’s not just DeRozan’s scoring that came down in the playoffs — his PER dropped from 24.0 in the regular season to 16.9 in the playoffs, barely above average.
DeRozan takes inefficient shots, but during the regular season, he’s good enough to make it work. He gets to the rim, passes out of isolations when he needs to and hits ugly fadeaways at a high enough rate to avoid hurting the Raptors. In isolation, DeRozan scored 1.02 points per possession during the regular season — good enough for the 86th percentile. Now, 1.02 PPP isn’t particularly efficient, but it’s good enough when DeRozan does other things well. DeRozan’s numbers in isolation got even better during the playoffs where he scored a jaw-dropping 1.32 PPP.
So what went wrong?
Opposing teams don’t give DeRozan the same attention in the postseason as they did during the regular season. They want him to take those shots because they are inherently inefficient. Giving him the mid-range shots takes Toronto’s offense out of rhythm. DeRozan was also worn down on defense. He rebounded and assisted less in the playoffs, and though he was incredible out of isolations, DeRozan was just 1-of-15 from behind the arc during the entire postseason.
He’s not a great shooter by any definition. The first instinct of any defensive coach in the pick and roll against Toronto is help off DeRozan. He’s not a good shooter during the regular season — even when wide open — but he took this to a different level in the postseason.
This wasn’t an overt flop or complete disappearance, it was one on the margins. His PER didn’t take such a dip because of one thing, it was a lot of little things that added up. The sum was a second-round sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers.
James Harden, shooting guard, Houston Rockets
Harden bears a strong burden in Houston’s loss to San Antonio, mostly for his performance in Game 6. The Rockets’ season was on the line and Harden wasn’t just tentative, he was completely out of it, both mentally and physically. He went 2-of-11 from the field, 3-of-9 from three for just 10 points and seven assists. His first made shot from the field didn’t come until there was 6:19 left in the second quarter, and he turned it over six times.
All of this with Kawhi Leonard — San Antonio’s best defender — out of the lineup.
To put it bluntly, without window dressing or caveat, Harden choked. The Rockets were at home with the season on the line and Leonard out of the picture.
The Spurs more or less handed the opportunity to win by keeping Leonard out, hoping to save him for a potential Game 7. There was no Spur who should have had a prayer of defending James Harden. It should have been a relatively easy playoff win — a mere formality in advance of an epic Game 7.
Instead, Harden choked.
He didn’t attack, didn’t try on defense (he rarely tried throughout the playoffs after ratcheting up his defense to acceptable for most of the regular season), didn’t lead and didn’t care. Later that night, he was photographed at the club by TMZ — an acknowledgement that he felt Game 6 was a formality, just in a different way than the rest of us.
Dwight Howard, center, Atlanta Hawks
Last summer, the Atlanta Hawks signed Dwight Howard to a three-year, $70 million contract. In the first round of the postseason, Howard played just 26.2 minutes per game, averaging eight points and 10.7 assists. He was lethargic and lackadaisical on both ends of the court. Most tellingly, the Hawks allowed a 108.7 defensive rating with him on the floor compared to 102.8 without him.
Howard’s playoff performance, to put it lightly, was an unmitigated disaster. It was the culmination of a year in which he was underwhelming the replacement to Al Horford, the franchise icon whom the Hawks let go to sign him and who helped energize the Boston Celtics into the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference.
Over the past few years, Howard has simply disappeared at times and 2017 was no different. There was only one game in the entire first round where Howard had over 10 shots from the field. In Games 5 and 6 against the Washington Wizards, he had seven shots total and was a net minus-18.
The Hawks lost their bet big that Howard could still be a difference-maker at age 31. They acquiesced to his demands for more post-ups (on which he scored .84 points per possession during the regular season) in hopes that they could be a commanding defensive presence and help Atlanta out on the boards.
The Hawks were a great defensive team during the regular season, but Howard didn’t play as large a role in that as Paul Millsap or Taurean Prince. As for rebounding, Howard did help make a difference, but at a big expense. Atlanta dropped from 18th in offensive rating last year to 27th this year, something that didn’t change in the playoffs. Atlanta was 12th among 16 playoff teams in offensive rating.
Howard wasn’t just out of his element in the postseason, he was downright mopey at times. Morale has never been his strong suit, but if we kept track of the number of times a player put his hands on his hips on stared downward, Howard would have lapped the field in Round 1. The Hawks gave him star money, turning away the face of their franchise to do so. Howard repaid them with an apathetic playoff performance — a now annual tradition.
LaMarcus Aldridge, power forward, San Antonio Spurs
Between Game 6 against the Houston Rockets and the first half of Game 1 against the Golden State Warriors, Aldridge came close to shedding the label of choker.
He had 34 points and 12 rebounds against Houston, helping put the Rockets away with Kawhi Leonard out after struggling for most of the series. In the first half against the Warriors, he came out strong, going 7-of-11 from the field and scoring 17. The Spurs were aggressive in posting him up, and the strategy seemed to work.
Then came the second half. Aldridge suddenly couldn’t make a shot when San Antonio needed him most, and it happened with Kawhi Leonard out again. He went 2-of-9 in the fourth quarter and was responsible for two key defensive breakdowns in the last few minutes of the game.
The first was on a Shaun Livingston offensive rebound with just under two minutes to go — the Warriors’ second offensive rebound on one possession. Aldridge completely failed to box out, making things easy for the smaller player. Livingston kicked it out to Stephen Curry for the game-tying three. A minute later, Aldridge let Curry go on a backdoor cut, resulting in an easy layup on a give-and-go with Kevin Durant, putting the Warriors up by five points.
Those two mistakes made up the difference — and more — in a game the Warriors won by just two points.
Aldridge has been underwhelming, to say the least, during this postseason. He’s averaging 18 points and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes on 47.3 percent shooting from the field with poor defense to boot. The Spurs are giving up nearly four more points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the floor than off, despite the bulk of his minutes being shared with Leonard.
Remember, Aldridge was supposed to be a superstar for the Spurs. They signed him to usher in a new, post-Tim Duncan era where he and Leonard would be leading the Spurs to championships. Leonard has fulfilled his end of the bargain, but Aldridge simply hasn’t played at that level.
With Leonard’s status now in limbo for the rest of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs will struggle to compete with the Warriors unless that changes.
Russell Westbrook, point guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
In the five first-round games Westbrook played, he averaged a triple-double and was the only real source of offense for the Oklahoma City Thunder. In light of that, it feels odd to say he performed poorly, but the facts are the facts.
Westbrook didn’t carry the Thunder’s offense, he hijacked it. He shot 38.8 percent from the field and 26.5 percent from three on nearly 10 three-pointers and over 30 shots per game.
Westbrook had a 47-percent usage rate in the first round, an all-time record in the postseason. The next-highest was Michael Jordan in 1985-86, who had a 39.2 percent usage rate as the Chicago Bulls were swept in three games at the hands of the Boston Celtics. But Westbrook’s performance didn’t compare to Jordan’s famous 63 points in Chicago’s double-overtime loss in Game 2 of that series. Jordan shot over 50 percent from the field in that game and the series.
Westbrook didn’t break 40.
Getting his teammates involved would have made a difference. The Thunder didn’t do enough to exploit James Harden on defense, letting him hide on Andre Roberson in the corner with minimal resistance. When Roberson did make a backdoor cut or get involved in the play, Harden got caught sleeping multiple times.
Victor Oladipo struggled badly, in part because Westbrook did little in terms of helping him. The Thunder rarely ran plays for Oladipo, and Westbrook never did enough to get him going. Part of being a superstar (especially in the postseason) is making your teammates better.
Westbrook simply didn’t do that.
Moreover, Westbrook also wilted in crunch-time, perhaps tired from the rest of the game. In 13 minutes of clutch situations, as defined by NBA.com, Westbrook was 4-of-14 from the field with just one assist. His usage rate rocketed up to 65.7 percent and his net rating was minus-37.8.
The counting numbers were there, but Westbrook’s inefficiency was a large part of why the Thunder crashed out in five games.