Ten takeaways from the opening weekend of the NBA playoffs:
1. What If There Was No Scoreboard?
Imagine if points scored didn’t determine the winner of a basketball game. Instead, imagine the victor was chosen by a panel of judges that assigned points to each team for every action that occurred on the court — much like a gymnastics meet is decided. Measures like passes, screens, rotations, shot quality, and box outs would suddenly hold as much win-determining value as made shots. Sure, this …
… doesn’t have the same magic as this …
… but it’s an interesting way to think about the weekend’s opening event between the Cavaliers and Pacers.
The Cavaliers won. The score was 109–108. The Pacers had a chance to win it at the final horn. C.J. Miles missed. Did it ever seem like it was that close? I’m asking you. It didn’t feel that close to me; had Miles hit the shot, I’d still be writing this column. What score would you assign? I’m thinking 119–108. The Cavaliers made mistakes they don’t usually make. They shot only 14 of 27 from the free throw line, their third-worst performance of the season. In the fourth quarter, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving missed these three layups:
LeBron and Kyrie are premier at-rim finishers. They’re automatic on open-gym layups. Had they hit just two of those layups, and had the team shot its season average from the line, it would’ve led to an additional eight points. They’re not missing those freebies next time around.
Meanwhile, the Pacers played about as well offensively as they can hope to, considering they’re a team devoid of playoff-level talent outside of Paul George, who put the team on his back with 29 points. Lance Stephenson helped with 16 points, seven rebounds, and three assists, the team has an 8.5 net rating with Stephenson on the floor since he signed March 30, and, yes, the NBA is better with Born Ready. But Stephenson is a journeyman for good reason: He’s a wild decision-maker who giveth and taketh away.
Lance is a career 30.7 percent 3-point shooter, which is why LeBron is clogging the paint and taking driving lanes away from Paul George. Stephenson can’t make opponents pay from downtown. His wild, near-travel layup attempt worked out, but how soon before Stephenson goes back to being a better meme than basketball player? Has he already? His absurd confidence already stalled the offense at times. He hoisted a low-percentage heat-check pull-up 3 with less than two minutes to go, when he could’ve passed to George, who had Tristan Thompson on a switch.
On the final possession, Cleveland was able to double George partially because the Pacers lacked any other shooting threats, including Stephenson. George needs support, or else Cleveland will be able to keep doubling. The Pacers don’t have enough.
2. The Pacers Got Picked-and-Rolled
While Cleveland’s dismal defense may prevent the Cavs from winning back-to-back NBA championships, Indiana’s half-court defense will prevent it from making much first-round noise. In Game 1, the Cavs feasted on Indy’s 26th-ranked pick-and-roll defense. No team defended the pick-and-roll more frequently than the Pacers this season, since it was their most exploitable weakness. The Cavs had 100 offensive possessions in Game 1, per Synergy, and 32 came in the pick-and-roll, where they shot a blistering 15-of-26, and that doesn’t even include possessions in which the Pacers switched screens.
The Pacers tried blitzing James-Irving pick-and-rolls to apply pressure:
It didn’t work. If LeBron and Kyrie weren’t driving to the rim, they were creating side-to-side ball movement that eventually found an open shooter.
The Pacers tried “dropping” by having the screen defender sag back to protect the paint:
It didn’t work, and the Pacers saw lob dunks and open 3s for their trouble. They tried switching screens, which stuck a smaller Jeff Teague or a slower Myles Turner on a bigger, faster LeBron:
The Pacers have no antidote for the Cavaliers’ pick-and-roll attack. The Cavs struggle to defend, too, so Indiana’s best and perhaps only hope is to outshoot the Cavs.
The problem is the Pacers don’t shoot enough 3s. Of playoff teams, only the Bulls shot fewer 3s. No other team took more midrange shots than the Pacers. Even in Game 1, 44.4 percent of their shots came from midrange — identical to their season average. They’re not about to undergo a makeover in the middle of a playoff series.
3. It’s Déjà Vu for Toronto
“It’s super frustrating. It’s crazy,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said after the Raptors lost at home 97–83 to the Bucks. “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” This is the fourth consecutive year that the Raptors lost their opening playoff game. The déjà vu goes deeper. Lowry struggled again, scoring just four points on 11 shots. He’s played 32 playoff games with the Raptors and finished with an effective field goal percentage below 40 in 17 of those contests. That number can be excused for being drawn from a small sample, but the playoffs are a small sample. When do we start asking if Lowry’s regular-season game translates to the playoffs? Game no. 43 … 52 … 69?
Lowry’s partner in crime has the playoff blues, too. Consider that of the 261 players who have attempted at least 500 shots in the playoffs since the NBA adopted the 3-point line in 1979, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have two of the 17 worst effective field goal percentages. Per Basketball-Reference, they’re surrounded by a company of players like Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Jerry Stackhouse — great players who typically experienced early playoff exits. DeRozan’s playoff-career effective field goal percentage of 40.2 ranks third worst under the prior criteria, and if true shooting percentage is your efficiency measure of choice, he still ranks bottom-11 at 48.2 percent.
DeRozan and Lowry are remarkable players, so their playoff struggles are kind of hard to understand. DeRozan is a classic volume scorer who doesn’t space the floor, clogging the paint and thus negatively impacting the rest of the team. But how many of those proclivities come from the team’s style of play? Most offenses are emphasizing ball movement over isolations, but the Raptors are playing prehistoric stuff. They assisted on only 47.2 percent of their made field goals this season, which is the lowest mark of any team in the past 27 years, per NBA.com. The Raptors are 29–13 with a 111.9 offensive rating in games they assist on more than 47.2 percent of their makes. They’re 22–18 with a 107.5 offensive rating when they assist on fewer than their average. “We gotta figure out how to get a better rhythm. Once the ball gets in the half court, we have to get better movement,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said after the game, before later adding, “I don’t know if we have to be a high-assist team.”
Even if they wanted to be, the Raptors can’t just flip a switch and become the Spurs in the middle of April. What happened in Game 1 isn’t a good sign. Milwaukee’s length enveloped Toronto’s stagnant half-court offense, and Lowry struggled to find offensive creases. A drastic shift toward a more modern style might be necessary. I wrote last month that the Raptors should consider rebuilding if they experience another playoff tragedy. We’re just one game in, but my blow-it-up belief is only growing stronger.
4. Kawhi Leonard Is As Good As a Spurs Player Can Be
When the Grizzlies got off to a hot start against the Spurs in Game 1, leading 28–15, the Spurs looked old. I texted The Ringer NBA Show’s host and Grizzlies maven Chris Vernon about San Antonio playing like trash. By the time I pressed send, the game flipped. The Spurs mauled Memphis, outscoring the Grindfather-less Grizz 96–54 to close the game. That’s the way it was supposed to be. Even on the surface, this isn’t a good matchup for the Grizz, and it’s especially bad for them without Tony Allen. The Spurs had the best defensive rating this season, and they’re going against a Memphis offense with the third-worst effective field goal percentage and 12th-worst offensive rating. The Grizz maybe could’ve hung around if they got stops, but now their only potential Kawhi Leonard stopper is out.
You already know how great Kawhi is. Just keep these stats in mind as the Spurs close out this series: Leonard is only the second Spurs player in the Gregg Popovich era to finish with a usage rate above 30 (Tony Parker is the other, who did it in 2008–09); only Tim Duncan averaged more shots per game (2001–02); and no one has averaged more than Kawhi’s 25.5 points per game.
Leonard is being leaned on the maximum amount allowed by Popovich’s equal-opportunity system. It won’t be enough for an MVP Award (this season), but it sure is special watching Kawhi carry the franchise.
5. The Jazz Are Resilient AF, Just Like Their Coach
George Hill and Derrick Favors missed significant time this season, due to injury. Gordon Hayward, Boris Diaw, and Rodney Hood were out for spells, as well. Yet, somehow, the Jazz managed to win 51 games and had the fifth-best net rating, largely because of their defense, anchored by Rudy Gobert. In the 40 games the Jazz played with Hayward, Hill, and Gobert, they were 28–12, or the equivalent of a 57-win team. A healthy Jazz team would push the Spurs for the second-best record in the NBA.
They were finally healthy entering the playoffs, but I guess Utah doesn’t roll like that. On the first possession of their first playoff appearance since 2012, the Stifle Tower banged his knee, limped off the court, and was out for the game with a hyperextended knee. It’s only fitting the Jazz went on to win, on the road, against a red-hot Clippers team, with their enforcer out.
This Jazz team is so resilient. They take after their coach, Quin Snyder, whose first head gig was at Missouri. That program was on the rise, making it to four straight NCAA tournaments, until it was rocked by a recruiting violations scandal. The punishment derailed the program and eventually led to Snyder’s resignation.
Since then, Snyder has worked in the Spurs organization, coaching their D-League team in Austin, and made stops in Philly, on Doug Collins’s bench, and in L.A. with the Lakers. He joined CSKA Moscow in 2012, studying under legendary coach Ettore Messina. Snyder has learned tricks of the trade all over the basketball world. “All I know is there are challenges you have throughout your life,” Snyder said in 2014. “There’s no question that I’m a better coach today than I would be if I hadn’t gone through various steps in a coaching career.”
This Jazz team is better due to the challenges it faced, too. They’ve learned how to become adaptable. They can take on different shapes, just like their coach.
6. Crunch Time Is When Coaches Prove Themselves
Sometimes the best decision a coach can make is to do nothing. Snyder knows that. On the final possession of Saturday’s game, when most coaches are probably calling a timeout, Snyder elected not to.
The numbers behind the decision are simple. Per Synergy Sports: The Clippers allow 1.14 points per possession in transition this season, compared with only 0.89 after timeouts. The Jazz score 1.2 points per possession in transition, compared with only 0.95 in the half court. It wasn’t a true transition opportunity, but it was early offense, considering there were switches all over the court. Joe Johnson’s defender on the play, Jamal Crawford, ranks in the 24th percentile of points per possession allowed on defense. If the Jazz call a timeout, Doc Rivers is almost certainly taking Crawford out of the game and putting in an all-defense lineup. Snyder made the right decision, even if Johnson had clanked the ball off the backboard like Michael Scott.
Snyder was humble when asked about the decision after the game: “There’s a lot of ways to cut that. There’s nothing we did that was creative or smart. What we did was have a player who made a play, and that’s usually what it comes down to.” How Popovichian of him. I think I’ll defer to the smiles of the players on the bench for how even they knew what was about to unfold:
Juxtapose this moment against the final possession of the Cavaliers-Pacers game. With the Pacers trailing by one with only about 20 seconds remaining, Nate McMillan pulled a Reverse Snyder:
Paul George ripped down a rebound and was on the verge of racing up the floor with three Cavaliers defenders trailing behind the play. Maybe he sprints up past half court and there’s no play to be made, or maybe the Cavaliers fail to get back and he dunks the ball.
The latter isn’t a far-fetched scenario. The Cavaliers had the 30th-ranked transition defense, per Synergy. Their half-court and after-timeout defenses are significantly better. There are good reasons and bad reasons to call a timeout to draw up a play. Both coaches had all the reason in the world to let the possession play itself out based on the situation at hand. Only one of them made the right choice, and he coaches for the team with a real shot of winning its series.
7. The Hawks Need New John Wall Countermeasures
The laws of physics that apply to feeble humans don’t pertain to John Wall — at least they didn’t during Game 1 against the Hawks. He scored an easy-looking 32 points on 12-of-24 shooting with 14 assists and only three turnovers — the kind of platonic John Wall performance that shows how far he’s come as a young player. He used to be held back by his jumper. Now, he uses it to make opposing teams pay:
Defenses always used to stop short on closeouts on Wall, just like Dennis Schröder did on the play above, because he would either miss a high rate of open shots or force a drive into traffic — just like in that sloppy Lance Stephenson play we discussed earlier. Wall still isn’t a true knockdown shooter off the catch, but he’s improved his shot to at least a reliable-enough level that defenses can’t sag off him, either off the catch or the dribble. With defenders pressuring more on the ball, Wall can do more as an attacker.
Hawks guard Kent Bazemore turns his head for just a millisecond, and Wall slingshots toward the rim, hanging in the air to score around paint enforcer Dwight Howard. The Wizards aren’t a perfect team. Their sloppy turnovers helped keep Atlanta in the game, and they somehow scored only seven more points, winning 114–107, despite taking 22 more shots. This series is anything but over. But for the Hawks to have a shot to win, they’ll need to find a new way of stopping Wall, because the old tricks don’t work anymore.
8. Remember C.J. McCollum Come NBA Draft Day
The Blazers are hopeless without Jusuf Nurkic. His replacement, Noah Vonleh, is like a pillow feather setting screens and rolling to the rim. The Damian Lillard–C.J. McCollum combo kept the team in the game until the Warriors broke away in the fourth quarter, eventually winning by a score of 121–109. We have plenty of time to talk about what losing this series would mean to Portland’s future, but let’s spend a quick minute talking about something else: Malik Monk.
C.J. McCollum was an overlooked high school recruit who went to a mid-major. He spent four years at Lehigh. He was the 10th pick in the 2013 NBA draft, with Anthony Bennett, Alex Len, Ben McLemore, and Trey Burke all taken before him. McCollum was considered an undersized pure scorer, projected as a bench buckets microwave. That evaluation was sound, realistic, and measured. But considering the player McCollum has become — legitimately one of the best scorers in basketball — I can’t help but think of the top 2017 draft prospect, Kentucky guard Malik Monk. Monk has a totally different story: He’s an elite recruit and a tremendous athlete, and he went to perhaps the biggest school in Kentucky.
But his evaluation is similar to McCollum: undersized, at 6-foot-3, with short arms; not a true point guard; ineffective defender. Even as a top pick, Monk likely projects as a spark plug bench scorer. But, damn, sometimes those spark plugs catch fire. Monk has a special ability to create space off the dribble and sink shots from anywhere with defenders draped over him. Watching McCollum, I wonder if we might be underrating Monk.
Please do me a favor: Watch some Monk clips on YouTube over the next few days, then keep him in mind as you’re watching McCollum in Game 2. They’re not carbon copies, but their scoring styles are very similar.
9. Revenge of the Rebound
Entering Sunday, playoff teams were 25–4 this century in games where they rebounded over 45 percent of their missed shots, per Basketball-Reference. In other words, you’re probably winning the game if your team vacuums the offensive glass. The Bulls did this Sunday in their 106–102 win, with a 45.5 offensive rebounding percentage leading to 23 second-chance points. Crashing the boards has been a winning formula all season for the Bulls: They were 8–2 when they rebounded over 35 percent of their misses, and 9–3 when they scored over 20 second-chance points.
“We didn’t rebound at all,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “We gotta do a better job on the glass out of the gate. It’s all we talked about the past few days.” Whatever they talked about didn’t work. Boston’s issues are personnel-related; at one point during the season, 6-foot-2 Avery Bradley was the team’s leading rebounder. Now it’s Al Horford, who grabs 6.8 per game. Horford’s body was sculpted by the basketball gods, but he rebounds like a guard, with an 18.6 defensive rebounding percentage.
Bulls center Robin Lopez said after the game he was aware the offensive boards might be an advantage, and the Bulls keyed into “gang rebounding.” Lopez constantly put pressure on the rim, which forced the Celtics to gang rebound themselves, limiting transition opportunities.
Boston’s Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller rebound like Gary Coleman clones. CLNS Radio’s Jared Weiss joked to me they’re the shortest 7-footers in the league. This is why:
“Your initial contact on blockouts has to be hard. You can’t just turn and look, you’ll get pushed under,” Stevens said after the game, as if Lopez using a spin move on Olynyk was flashing before his eyes. “They’ll get the ball, they’re bigger than we are.” If the Bulls continue to dominate the offensive boards like they did on Sunday, they could pull off a 1–8 upset.
10. Isaiah Thomas Needs Help
Isaiah Thomas’s 22-year-old sister Chyna was killed in a one-car accident in Washington early Saturday morning. It was questionable whether he’d even play Sunday, but he suited up and put on an inspiring performance. With his shoes reading “CHYNA” and “I LOVE YOU,” Thomas scored 33 points on 18 shots, firing deep 3s and making highlight passes.
“The perspective of it all hits you in a hard way,” coach Brad Stevens said after the game. “I’m not only proud of our effort but the way they supported him.” The Celtics have some positives to pull from the game. Al Horford scored 19 and was open for a number of open looks that he might be able to exploit in Game 2. Avery Bradley played All-NBA-caliber defense, but the Bulls just hit tough shots over him.
It’s unclear what Thomas’s next move will be and if he will play Game 2. According to Stevens, “Whatever he needs to do, he needs to do, and we’ll help in any way. If he needs to and wants to stay here, then we’ll be here surrounding him. And if he wants to go to Seattle, then he should go to Seattle. It’s his call, and should be.”
The Celtics need Thomas — and more. They lack a secondary shot creator at the guard or wing position who can make plays without a screen. Marcus Smart excels in the pick-and-roll and Horford can make plays from the high post, but neither guy is a pure playmaker. Boston doesn’t have a lot of high-variance players on their team, other than Thomas.
But the Bulls do. Jimmy Butler, obviously, is a stud. Dwyane Wade scored only 11 points on 12 shots but is capable of going off. Maybe he needed to shake off the cobwebs for one game before he explodes like he did in last year’s playoffs. Even Rajon Rondo still has his moments:
This pick-and-roll could be a problem for the Celtics. If they switch, it puts Thomas on Butler. If they don’t, well, Rondo still can turbo to the rim. Isaiah Thomas is Boston’s superstar. Even under difficult circumstances he can shine, but the Celtics will need more from their other players.
Bonus: Nothing on Earth Can Stop Giannis
When people ask me if I think life exists on other planets, I tell them that I do — there are infinite solar systems in the universe, so there has to be some form of life elsewhere. There may also be a UFO on our planet: The government says his name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 22-year-old male from Greece, who stands at 6-foot-11. But I’m not convinced that’s the whole truth when I see photos like this:
That’s a man dunking the ball while his foot is still touching the ground. He also skied over defenders to dunk with his left hand. Did you know he also did a somersault midair and dunked the ball? Check the replay. Just kidding. But would you be that surprised if it were true? Giannis does things we really haven’t seen basketball players do before.
Nobody could score on Antetokounmpo on Saturday, because he’s too quick laterally and his limbs are able to stretch like Gumby’s. Nobody could stay in front of him on offense, because he takes cheetah strides and keeps the ball on a string. I would imagine the hardest thing for an alien would be to learn how to shoot a basketball, so he still isn’t as great as he’ll someday be.
Here’s my theory: Antetokounmpo is an alien, captured by the United States government and sent to Greece to learn the sport of basketball from a very young age. He would return to the States many years later, and in the playoffs devastate the entire country of Canada by beating the best team in Raptors history. Giannis is out there.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly suggested Saturday’s Game 1 was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first playoff game; he has played in the playoffs before.