Two revelations occurred to me during Giannis Antetokounmpo’s star performance in Game 1 of Milwaukee-Toronto. First, the Grecian will likely be in the playoffs for the next 10-plus years, which will be as rewarding for us as it is for him. Second: In the Bucks’ upset win against Toronto — a team stacked with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka — Giannis was, by far, the best player on the court.
Two other teams outkicked their seeding coverage in the first game: the Bulls and Jazz. The three technical upsets all told different stories about what having the best player on the court means, and how much he ultimately matters in winning the series. With that considered, here’s an assessment (on a scale of one to five Dikembes) of whether Chicago, Utah, or Milwaukee can spite its seeding to push through to the next round.
Jimmy Butler opened Sunday’s contest shooting 3-for-10 from the field, but finished with 30 points and a win. It was reflective of Chicago’s rocky year — full of rumors, arguments made public, team meetings, and reruns of that sock-monkey commercial that undermine Butler’s rise to superstardom.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg began this season with a roster overbooked with attitude and ill-equipped at spacing, shooting, and … winning. The Bulls did little over the course of the season to change that perception. Dwyane Wade’s late-season injury looked like the final divine sign to just tank already, but Chicago did the opposite. In the final weeks of the regular season, the rotation almost started to make sense, players caught fire at the right time, and the team ended up squeezing its way into the postseason.
The Bulls’ yearlong inconsistency, and tendency to cut win streaks off with inexplicable losses, makes this Game 1 win seem more aberrative. But Butler’s performance — making a mess of Boston’s paint job, and driving into the lane with the kind of speed and force that could fill a certain GM with trade regret — was the type that led Chicago to what little regular-season success it can claim. When the Bulls can pair Jimmy’s play with another well-timed outburst (late in the season, Rondo’s uptick in shooting; in Game 1, Bobby “Paranormal Activity 7” Portis), it’s enough to compete.
In the opener, the Celtics’ weaknesses weren’t exposed so much as just magnified — all year, they’ve been a perimeter squad, suffering against strong rebounding matchups, and over-relying on shots falling. The Bulls finished the regular season as a top-three rebounding team, and will continue to take advantage of the Celtics where they’re weakest, on the glass, for the remainder of the series.
Chicago’s hopes rely on more than Butler. Though the Bulls can make up for poor aim with second-chance opportunities, counting on Wade, Rondo, or a rando sophomore to outshoot Boston’s lethal perimeter players is as risky as expecting a seasonlong mess to finally play consistently come postseason.
3.5 Dikembes: The matchup favors Chicago, but a best-of-seven series requires more ups than downs, a formula the Bulls have yet to produce with regularity, while Boston has.
Sunrise … the Clippers keep the team together for one more go; sunset … another potential premature playoff elimination on the horizon. Los Angeles couldn’t pull out a Game 1 victory against Utah, even after Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert went down with a hyperextended knee in the first minute of the contest. Already, Chris Paul has been confronted with his least favorite label: star player who can’t make the conference finals.
On the court, Paul, unlike Butler, doesn’t have to go it alone: He is flanked by Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and shooters like J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford. Los Angeles has the on-paper roster to make a deep run. But that’s never materialized before, and isn’t looking too promising this go-round. Gobert missing Game 2 (and likely more) gives the Clippers an invaluable handicap, but it’s not enough to convincingly eliminate the Jazz’s chances. And that says a lot.
Paul finished with 25 points in Game 1. He tied the game late; but perhaps more telling was Utah’s possession immediately after, with the Jazz passing on the chance to call a timeout and trusting the final shot to a man off the bench (granted, a man off the bench with a nickname bestowed upon him for pulling off isolation plays).
Los Angeles has way more postseason experience — the win was Gordon Hayward’s first in the postseason — but Utah still felt comfortable enough with its depth to make adjustments on the fly (a result of key players going down with injuries throughout the season). Joe Johnson’s team-high 21 points topped an average outing from Hayward (though he messed around and scored a double-double).
2.5 Dikembes: The Jazz will have to experiment with lineups until their centerpiece returns. Los Angeles is more likely to advance, but one of Doc Rivers’s guys will need to prove he’s the second-best player on the floor. If not, Paul’s cast will beat themselves, again, left with a house full of skunks.
Watching Antetokounmpo, whose 28 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals, and one block won Milwaukee its first playoff opener in 16 years, must have been like Jay Z hearing the “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” beat for the first time. During the regular season, Giannis led his team in blocks, points, rebounds, assists, and steals, and the postseason looks to be no different. The Greek Freak is making good on his once-in-a-generation promise as a player, and, as his swagger, ability, and maybe even height (?) continue to grow, so do the Bucks’ odds. With possible Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, and Greg Monroe rounding things out, this Milwaukee team is a real candidate to run away with the upset.
“It sounds like a yearly song we sing,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said of Game 1, the franchise’s 11th series-opening loss in history. The song Casey hears is needing more from DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the latter finishing with fewer opening-night points (four) than the league’s antisniper, OKC’s Andre Roberson, and Indiana’s Aaron Brooks, who, yes, is still in the league (and on a playoff team! Go Aaron!).
4.5 Dikembes: This series won’t be defined by how Toronto’s backcourt is stifled, but rather who is behind the stifling — a 7-foot wingspan of a man doing it all, initiating the ball-sharing and fast-break buckets needed to beat the Raptors.