Lessons from a weekend of NBA playoffs
Blazers look like contenders
BY DAVID THORPE
One weekend into the playoffs:
The Blazers, Nets, and Sixers should be smiling.
Right now, Portland’s offense is such a powerful force that they look like a title team.
The Mavericks have a certain Luka swagger—and a game in hand.
LeBron James does not look to be 100 percent recovered from his ankle injury, and has now banged up his shoulder—and lost a game to a very good team.
The Clippers have yet to prove they know how to be elite.
The Jazz don’t know when they’ll next be able to rely on Donovan Mitchell to play at an All-Star level.
After hurting his shoulder, Chris Paul struggled to dribble the ball.
The Bucks are the same team, with the same flaws, as they have been the last two postseasons. That won’t win them a title. It’s a two-team race in the East.
Teams that used the secret sauce of winning one quarter by ten or more, while not losing a quarter similarly, are 7-0.
A tour of the playoffs opening weekend:
Bucks 109-Heat 107
I'm disappointed in how the Bucks are playing offense. Other than swapping in a few different players, nothing has changed system wise in years.
This is especially a problem given that somehow Giannis Antetokounmpo still can’t shoot.
Over the regular season’s last 15 games, the Bucks had the league’s worst perimeter defense. It was horrid on Saturday too. In one example, the Heat ran a simple pin down opposite a pinch post feed and backdoor, and got an open 3 in the corner for Trevor Ariza because Giannis was asleep. It’s akin to a great tennis player hitting a routine ball into the net.
Mavericks 133-Clippers 103
Luka Doncic’s teammates have the energy and confidence that come with having a superhero on your team. LeBron’s teammates used to have that.
All season, the Clippers have had the look of a team that was waiting to turn on the defensive intensity. (Tyronn Lue’s Cleveland teams waited ‘til it mattered to really crank it up; Kawhi is the king of load management.) Sometimes, though, the “on” switch can be hard to find. If this is their “intense” mode it won’t be good enough. Serge Ibaka’s absence isn’t enough of an excuse. Luka killed it early so Clippers elected to run Patrick Beverley at him as he drove. He made a simple pass, Dallas moved the ball well, and, for a play, the Clippers chased everything down perfectly. They ended with a steal! But it cost them so much energy. They showed they can't do that all game long.
At 41 percent in the regular season, the Clippers are close to the best 3-point shooting team of all time--but made only 28 percent in Game 1. Was that bad luck, or good defense? I rewatched all 29 of their misses and found the Mavericks played a big role. 14 of those misses were contested, only 11 were wide open.
Nets 104-Celtics 93
This beat-up Celtics roster (which began with a dangerous devil-may-care intensity) is not playoff worthy. We can’t learn much about the Nets from this series.
The Nets offense is incredibly simple, like the Rockets with James Harden and Chris Paul, but with one more superstar.
The Nets defense is incredibly simple, with defenders away from the play standing and watching the action. This is not how good defense works.
Blazers 123-Nuggets 109
The Nets had the most efficient offense in NBA regular season history, scoring 118 points per 100 possessions. Over the final few weeks of the season, the Blazers scored 122 per 100. In Game 1 against the Nuggets: 134. In the second half, the Blazers had the most cohesive offensive attack I’ve seen in my 14 years analyzing the NBA.
There’s so much to like about the Nuggets, but without Jamal Murray they are starting Austin Rivers and 29-year-old rookie Facundo Campazzo, with rookie Markus Howard off the bench. There is a huge talent disparity between the two teams’ backcourts right now.
The Blazers’ big-name stars were a nightmare to guard even before Anfernee Simons became one of the league’s best 3-point shooters. He hit four of five 3s in Game 1. It’s a surprise to me when he misses. My son just finished his freshman year at college, and is almost exactly two years younger than Simons, who is now a dunk champion-level explosive leaper, and an impeccable shooter. At 21, he can still get so much better.
76ers 125-Wizards 118
Identity carried the Lakers to the 2020 title. Through COVID, the bubble, and the Heat, they knew who they were: a destructive defense that pulverized teams inside on offense and defense. The Sixers and Wizards both know who they are. Both teams pound the paint. They had 42 paint points. Each. By halftime. This was a throwback game, as predicted. One team had Embiid and Ben Simmons, the other didn't.
Tobias Harris set a career playoff high with 37, a game after Jayson Tatum scored 50 on the Wizards in the play-in game. Quality wing defenders are hard to find, and the Wizards haven’t found any. Deni Avdija is likely to become that in a few years. Rui Hachimura has a chance, too, but isn't built to be a perimeter stopper.
The 76ers are very likely to win this series and others too. But Washington has something going on here. Scott Brooks entered the season on the hot seat, they’d be crazy to fire him now.
Hawks 107-Knicks 105
The Hawks had one main defensive focus going into game one--don’t let Julius Randle go crazy. He averaged 37 points in their three regular season meetings. In Game 1, Randle made just six of 23 shots and only shot two free throws. Did the Hawks figure something out? Based on the video, I would say no. They showed better awareness than before, but mostly Randle just shot poorly. He had plenty of good looks. Can he catch fire in Game 2? You bet.
Two seasons ago Alec Burks was stuck to the Kings’ bench. Now, thanks to a different system, roster, opportunity--and an evolving skillset--he was a monster for the Knicks. There are a lot more Alec Burks out there, but not a ton of teams that know how to get the most out of them.
We may not see Elfrid Payton again in a New York uniform. These two teams are as evenly matched as any matchup in any NBA playoff series. Same regular season record, almost exactly the same point differential. Payton went scoreless in eight minutes, no surprise. Coach Thibs likes his defensive tone. But no points and just one assist weigh down the Knicks’ offense.
Suns 99-Lakers 90
Remember last year when LeBron James tended to cruise early in games? He would manage the game and get other people involved, assuming he could go into attack mode and take over the game later if he had to. His early aggression against the Suns is a sign of respect.
Great defense is like a big snake: The longer you wrestle, the more it wraps you up. The Suns know that against the NBA’s best defense, it’s best to strike quickly.
The Lakers’ sending early doubles at Devin Booker is bolder than it might appear. The NBA’s best defense decided it’s worth risking some open shots from other Suns in the name of slowing him down. Also, Alex Caruso is one of the NBA’s very best perimeter defenders, but how best to deploy him against the Suns is still TBD.
Grizzlies 112-Jazz 109
The Jazz expected Donovan Mitchell to play, even after, according to team sources, he sat out of the last two practices for "precautionary measures." Without him, this team is good, but not “#1 seed” good. His surprise absence puts pressure on Bojan Bogdanovic, who has been a monster lately. He beats big men by slashing by them, and smaller guards by backing them down--which got him an NBA player of the week award in May. The Jazz desperately need his offense when Mitchell sits. In the second half he started to figure out how to play against the Grizzlies, which should give the Jazz hope if Mitchell is going to miss more games.
Royce O’Neale finished one of six. His offensive performance was woeful, but what’s sometimes hard to notice is that he wasn't much better on defense.
Dillon Brooks is a younger, more powerful version of Jordan Clarkson. Both assume they will never miss. Both lack offensive discipline--but their confidence and shot making talent can change games. In game one, Clarkson was bad. Brooks was fantastic--and that did a lot to decide this one.
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