The first weekend of the NBA playoffs had a bit of something for everyone. Yes, there was a snoozefest or two. But between eight basketball games, Tiger Woods winning the Masters and “Game of Thrones” coming back, maybe a nap was necessary anyway. (Even a couple of the blowouts featured some extracurriculars.) A few games came down to the final seconds, with three lower seeds stepping up and landing statement victories in their series openers. All in all, not a bad start.
Let’s take a deeper look at the six playoff series that we expect to be the most interesting going forward. (Sorry to the Clippers-Warriors and Pistons-Bucks.)
The young Nets looked sure of themselves. The Sixers looked confused.
There were, and maybe are, fair questions to be raised about the Brooklyn Nets. They have very little depth on the inside, which could spell trouble against a dominant big like Joel Embiid. And their offense can be too heavily reliant on All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell.
But at least Brooklyn knows what it is, which was more than you could say for the Sixers at times this weekend.
For starters, Embiid’s status was known only minutes before the game began Saturday because of his bothersome knee — an availability question that would have required a number of changes to the game plan had he not been able to go. But beyond that, there’s also the issue of cohesion, which the Nets have and the Sixers simply do not.
Before Saturday, Philly’s starting five — talented as it might be — had logged just 10 games together since acquiring Tobias Harris in a trade with the Clippers. And honestly, it looked that way for most of Game 1. Embiid, who missed five of the last seven regular-season games, started launching jumpers (which Brooklyn gladly gave him) after drawing a number of fouls on the Nets inside. Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick struggled badly on offense. Jimmy Butler opted to take matters into his own hands (Sixers coach Brett Brown called him “the adult in the room”) and scored a game-high 36 points. All this while Harris looked invisible and uninvolved, scoring just 4 points in 40 minutes of work.
Meanwhile, the Nets’ guards had no such questions about their place in the pecking order. Russell struggled early but kept shooting and caught fire in the third period. Spencer Dinwiddie had a very quick first step and repeatedly found his way into the lane — again doing some of his best work this season against Philadelphia. And Caris LeVert continues to look more and more like his old self after returning from his injury in February. Both Dinwiddie and LeVert were integral to a franchise-record 59-point effort from the bench, which the Sixers had no answer for.
Keep an eye on this series. The Sixers went all in with a pair of huge trades earlier this season. But that may be the reason that, as we’re midway through April, their opponent has a clearer sense of identity and the upper hand one game into their playoff matchup.
Utah’s defense of Harden won’t work — at least not like this
It was just one game, but very early on — before halftime, even — it seemed clear that Utah was going to have to rethink its defensive strategy for reigning MVP James Harden.
The Jazz used a scheme that gave the left-handed Harden an open driving path on the right. The idea here: to take away the dominant hand of perhaps the NBA’s best offensive player, but also to take away his stepback 3-point jumper, maybe his greatest offensive weapon.
It was a different story for the second-ranked Utah defense, though, which Houston diced to pieces. Why did it work for the Bucks and not the Jazz? One reason was that Milwaukee’s rim protector, Brook Lopez, generally had the discipline to stay tethered to the baseline so that Clint Capela wouldn’t get an easy lob, like he often did on Sunday night, when Jazz center Rudy Gobert stepped up too far.
But the other key to Milwaukee’s success was the athleticism and length of the Bucks’ primary and help defenders. Eric Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo are simply more imposing than Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell or Joe Ingles, giving Harden less confidence that he can either get back to his left hand at the rim or sneak a pass to a teammate standing in the corner.
Frankly, Utah wasn’t taking anything away early. By leaving Harden far too much space to navigate, the Jazz had no way of positioning their help defenders in the right spots, allowing The Beard to carve them up by finding both Capela for dunks and P.J. Tucker in the corner. (Tucker shoots almost 40 percent from there.)
Rubio told reporters after the game that the Jazz are committed to playing Harden the same way throughout the series. But regardless of how much they improve on that front, they’ll need to be far better — and faster — on offense to have a chance in this series.
Excluding a half-court attempt at the end of the third period, Utah scored on seven of its nine transition plays. Getting earlier looks would make life easier, especially for Mitchell, who shot 36 percent against Houston in last year’s series before shooting just 39 percent Sunday, with five turnovers and no assists. In Game 1, the Jazz logged a dismal 25 percent effective field-goal rate when they got inside the last 5 seconds of the clock.
Can the poor-shooting Thunder find their range?
The post-game excuse “We just missed shots” is usually annoying. It can be read as not giving credit to the opponent for earning a hard-fought victory, and it can also serve as a way to avoid addressing what adjustments might need to be made in the next contest.
But in Oklahoma City’s case, there would have been some truth to that claim. The Thunder missed 10 of their 13 wide-open attempts from the arc during their Game 1 loss in Portland.
Yet while a lot of teams could use a stat like that to express confidence in simply performing better the next time, it’s worth noting that Oklahoma City … isn’t exactly a team of marksmen. When the Thunder shoot poorly, it’s hard to know whether that’s a sign that things will get better for them or if it’s just Oklahoma City struggling with what it’s seemingly always struggled with.
Making matters worse, Paul George — their best shooter and co-star alongside Russell Westbrook — is playing with a troublesome left shoulder, meaning his shot could be affected for the remainder of the playoffs.
If there was a bright side offensively, it was that the Thunder eventually found daylight by attacking Portland’s Enes Kanter with a steady diet of pick and rolls — something they can likely go back to in Game 2. But OKC would also be wise to occasionally locate Kanter as he’s going for offensive boards. He killed his former team for 20 points and 18 rebounds, which more than made up for his defensive struggles in the narrow victory.
Were the Nuggets simply nervous?
Similar to Oklahoma City are the Denver Nuggets, who many — our FiveThirtyEight projection model included — remain skeptical of. A lot of that is rooted in Denver’s inexperience: This is the team’s first trip to the playoffs with this core, which is suddenly facing high expectations as the No. 2 seed in the West.
Saturday’s loss, like OKC’s on Sunday, saw Denver miss several open looks when the Nuggets were in striking distance of the Spurs. The teams were neck-and-neck down the stretch, yet Denver somehow missed all eight of its attempts in the second half when taking a shot that would have either tied the game or given the Nuggets the lead. And Jamal Murray, the team’s 22-year-old starting point guard, had an incredibly rough final minute or so in the Game 1 loss.
All of that could have been mere coincidence or simply the result of missing shots the team normally makes. But because of noise about the team’s inexperience — especially as Denver is playing perennial playoff club San Antonio — it’s only natural that the questions about nerves will be there.
Whatever the case may be, one thing clearly needs to change going forward: Denver star Nikola Jokic cannot finish playoff games with just nine shot attempts. Yes, he managed a triple-double anyway. But when the team’s jumpshots simply aren’t falling, he’s too efficient a scorer not to take matters into his own hands.
The Pacers need offensive counters — but even that may not be enough
Outside of the Pistons and Clippers, I feel most pessimistic about the Pacers after Game 1 of their series with Boston. I went in thinking it would be really tough for them to find enough scoring to win a series, and Saturday’s 74-point showing gave me even more doubts.
My real concern now, after watching leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic struggle against the Celtics again — when he did this all regular season, too — is the lack of counters the Pacers seem to have in their arsenal once Boston has snuffed out the initial action.
Indiana got next to nothing out of its handoffs to Bogdanovic, which produced just 0.14 points per time they utilized the play, according to Second Spectrum. Jaylen Brown was generally quick enough to recover and get by the screener, and in the instances when he wasn’t, Al Horford was swarming Bogdanovic, often forcing him to give up the ball to a teammate who wasn’t necessarily in a great position to score, either.
Similarly, the team — which scored just 8 points in the third quarter — found itself at a disadvantage when it sought to make hay with Wes Matthews post-ups, something we knew would likely be a losing strategy from what we’d seen prior to Saturday (particularly if there’s no secondary action that comes of it). Statistically, Matthews has been one of the NBA’s five least efficient post-up options since he joined the team in February.1
The Celtics deserve credit for playing as well as they did at that end of the floor, particularly without defensive stud Marcus Smart. But if the Pacers can’t develop better second and third options on these plays when they try them, it could be an ugly series for Indiana, which has been putting too much pressure on its defense for a while now.
Lowry struggled again, but Orlando’s win was anything but magic
The most surprising win of the weekend to many was the Magic’s road triumph over Toronto, which Orlando sealed with a game-winning triple from D.J. Augustin.
In that sequence — before which coach Steve Clifford elected not to call timeout — Augustin called for a screen and roll, knowing he’d get Marc Gasol on a switch. Though Augustin had hit 3 of 4 from the arc for 22 points, Gasol didn’t come out far enough. The shot left the Toronto crowd stunned, which takes a lot at this point, given what they’ve been through for years now.
Aside from nailing that play, the Magic did a ton of things right to put themselves in good position beforehand. They bottled up Pascal Siakam in the first half, and while Kawhi Leonard2 was efficient, Aaron Gordon played pretty solid defense on him, making him work for contested shots. Orlando was nearly perfect from the line and drilled almost half of its triples on the day. This was a young Magic club that had the same 15-8 second-half record that Toronto did, while ranking inside the Top 10 on both sides of the floor over that span of time. If you hadn’t watched Orlando play, you might not have seen this coming — but it wasn’t a fluke.
And neither was Kyle Lowry’s scoreless, 0-for-7 showing. Aside from the fact that Lowry had several low-scoring games this season — including a four-game streak of single-digit performances — Lowry has also struggled in the first games of playoff series. He’s scored just 33 points combined in playoff-opening Game 1s the past five years.
There’s not necessarily anything for the Raptors to panic about yet. They’ve seen this before, even if they had hoped they were past having to witness the early round struggles cropping up again.
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