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First Impressions of Every First-Round NBA Playoff Series

Can the Heat get more out of Bam on offense? Is it time to give Deandre Ayton his due? We’ve got one observation for all eight first games from the 2021 postseason’s opening-weekend bonanza.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What an opening weekend of the NBA playoffs. We saw upsets. We saw drama. We saw go-ahead shots in the closing moments. Fans were in the stands in every arena, and they were loud. We’re not in the bubble anymore. This felt like the playoffs. Here’s one thought or observation after Game 1 of every series:

Bam needs to get aggressive.

I wouldn’t blame Heat fans if they were annoyed by how passive Bam Adebayo was on offense in Game 1 against the Bucks. He didn’t look for his jumper. He didn’t attack the paint. He didn’t give the team what was needed to win. After the loss, Goran Dragic said, “I feel like he needs to be more aggressive.”

This has been a story all season. Despite Adebayo averaging a career-high 18.7 points, Heat fans (and players) were often left wanting more.

Adebayo’s facilitation of dribble handoff actions is integral to Miami’s success. It’s how he got most of his 5.4 assists per game. But Milwaukee had success containing Miami’s sets by having Brook Lopez drop into the paint and defenders trail the player running through the handoff.

The Heat’s sputtering half-court offense frequently could have used a boost by Bam. In Game 1, Lopez treated Adebayo as a non-scorer:

Milwaukee was baiting Adebayo into taking midrange jumpers, which he shot at 42.4 percent this season, according to Second Spectrum. That’s an inefficient shot, so naturally the Heat don’t want him to take a lot of them. Making those shots wouldn’t necessarily change what the Bucks are doing, but the threat of a shot could open more chances for Adebayo to attack off the dribble.

He can’t be making weak-sauce moves like this in Game 2:

He looks uncomfortable attacking the rim. But he doesn’t have the post skills to turn his back to the basket and put a move on Lopez either.

Perhaps more important than the development of Adebayo’s jump shot is his post game. In the same way it was vital for Nikola Jokic to take more shots, or for Joel Embiid to be a better post passer, Adebayo eventually needs to become a more impactful post scorer to realize his full potential, because it would make him more challenging to defend.

This season, when Adebayo received a post touch, he passed 54 percent of the time, according to Second Spectrum. Of the 30 players to log at least 150 post-ups, only Mason Plumlee and Draymond Green passed more often. When Adebayo did anything but pass, he scored only 0.91 points per chance, which ranked 24th of 30.

Adebayo should be held to a high standard; for the Heat to maximize their collective potential during the Jimmy Butler era, they’ll need their All-Star big man to be more of a scorer. As effective as Bam is as a passer, he could be even better if teams had reason to send help toward him on his post and elbow touches. During the season, Bam was double-teamed on only 13 percent of his post-ups, which ranked 22nd most often of those same 30 players. Bam probably won’t wake up one morning during the playoffs with savvy drop-steps and face-up bank shots, but the way that the Bucks are daring him to make a play off the dribble reveals just how critical this area is for him long term.

Trae Young gives a master class on the Spain pick-and-roll.

Young juked Frank Ntilikina to create space for his game-winning floater with 0.9 seconds left in Game 1 against the Knicks. But he made three passes just before that that gave Atlanta a late lead and made his closing heroics possible. For three straight plays, the Hawks ran a set called the Spain pick-and-roll. It’s like a normal pick-and-roll, with a screener setting a pick for the ball handler, except a third player comes in to set an additional pick for the screener. It looks like this:

Clint Capela screens for Young, then rolls to the rim while Bogdan Bogdanovic makes contact with Capela’s defender, Taj Gibson. Trae delivers the lob to Capela for two points. The next time the Hawks were down the floor, they ran the same play:

This time, De’Andre Hunter sets the back screen instead of Bogdanovic, who’s standing in the corner ready to receive a cross-court laser from Trae. Since everything was working, the Hawks ran it a third time.

As Young drives, he goes through his progressions like a quarterback would. The Knicks contain Capela’s roll to the rim, and RJ Barrett is in good position to close out on Bogdanovic for a 3. With two players pressuring Young, he goes behind the back with a bounce pass to Hunter popping for a wide-open 3 to give the Hawks a four-point lead.

Trae made each of these three possessions look easy, but that’s the mark of a great player. Few have the vision to locate these players, never mind the precision to deliver the ball on point. To stop Young, the Knicks have work to do. But no matter what gets thrown at him, Trae seems to have the answers.

Deandre Ayton arrived a long time ago.

So much for a lack of experience. In his playoff debut, Devin Booker put 34 points on the top defense in the NBA. Defenders were draped over him at times and he still got buckets. It looked like a game from the 2000s. He pulled up multiple times with Anthony Davis’s arms stretching to contest his shots. It was vintage, and it was beautiful. The Suns won a game behind his efforts, as well as those from a bunch of other playoff virgins like Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, and Ayton.

In his third season, Ayton has emerged as a high-impact two-way center, and this was the best game of his career. He had 21 points and 16 rebounds while playing excellent defense to help the Suns hold the Lakers to only 90 points. Ayton would say he was Dominayton Davis all game long. He held him to 2-for-9 shooting and just four points in their matchups. He outhustled and outmusculed him in the paint. ESPN also found a hilariously cherry-picked stat that manages to highlight how superb the performance was:

I love it. Not only is it fun, it draws attention to the rarity of the numbers posted. This is what Ayton offers the Suns, and it’s time to recognize him as the talented center that he is. He has improved upon past weaknesses—effort, defensive awareness, consistency. He isn’t perfect. No third-year center is. But Ayton has been having games like this all season.

I interviewed Ayton for a feature about the Suns earlier this season. During one part of our conversation that didn’t make the story, he said, “the basketball gods blessed me.” I asked him what he meant by that. “The body I have. The opportunity I’m in. The situation I’m in,” Ayton responded. “To have that pressure on me to be the anchor of the defense, I love it. The reality is, it’s a pleasure. I wake up every day knowing that I have my team on my back.” Game 1 proved Ayton walks the talk.

How do you solve a problem like Luka?

There is no perfect defense for Luka Doncic. In Game 1, the Clippers threw a lot at him. Early in the game, the Mavericks frequently targeted Ivica Zubac in the pick-and-roll, and the Clippers responded by switching the screen. Doncic roasted Zubac, but it’s hard to blame Zubac because Luka does that against everyone. The Clippers willingly switched anyone onto him. Luka told Patrick Beverley he’s too small after backing him down for a bucket. He created space with ease against Marcus Morris. He punked everyone because that’s what Luka does.

Late in the game, the Clippers started blitzing in the pick-and-roll and even trapped him at times before a screen was set. But they were playing small in the closing minutes with Zubac off the floor. And when Luka was pressured, he found an open man. Doncic and his teammates dissected the defense. Dunks. Open 3s. They got what they needed.

All that raises the question: What now for the Clippers? Well, for one, Dallas might not shoot the lights out again. The Mavericks made 47.2 percent of their 3s. And taking the ball from Doncic does sometimes remove him from the play. He isn’t a big mover off the ball. And the Mavericks aren’t the ’16 Warriors, whipping the ball around the floor. There were turnovers, and some sloppy possessions finished with clutch shots. The Clippers should try pressuring Doncic some more, perhaps with Zubac in the game to offer some rim protection.

No defense can pressure and trap all game. It’s exhausting. Players have to rotate off the floor and be locked in mentally. Sometimes the Clippers will have to stay in a base defense and live with Doncic running a pick-and-roll. Blitzing Doncic, rather than just switching the screen, could be effective. In Game 1, the Mavericks shot 1-for-8 with two turnovers when Doncic was pressured with a blitz or a show in the pick-and-roll, according to Second Spectrum.

The problem for the Clippers was that the Mavericks grabbed the offensive board on three of their seven missed shots on those plays. Zubac was off the floor for all of them. The Clippers need size. But the Mavericks will attack size, so it’s a delicate balance for the Clippers with the lineups they put on the floor and the way they defend Luka. There are no easy answers, but after a Game 1 loss, there are still more for the Clippers to give a try.

Memphis is on its grind.

One play that sums up an upset by the Grizzlies over the Jazz in Game 1:

Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen are all hustle on this missed layup by Royce O’Neale. Allen got clipped as O’Neale ran up the floor, then fell. But Brooks hustled over to bother O’Neale. Meanwhile, Allen was popping up off the ground and accelerating back into the play to disturb a follow-up opportunity.

The Grizzlies are full of heart, brains, and toughness: from rookies like Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman to veterans like Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson to the face of the franchise, Ja Morant. This will not be their only trip to the playoffs. Mike Conley must recognize the team he’s facing. Grit and Grind is back.

Get back on defense, Russ.

Russell Westbrook has played some of the best basketball of his life in recent months to lead the Wizards to a play-in tournament victory and a postseason berth. But for Washington to have any chance of upsetting the Sixers, Westbrook needs to give much more on defense.

In the clip above, Westbrook lost track of Danny Green, who ran by him to get open for a layup. Washington center Daniel Gafford also should have been more attentive to what was happening behind him, but it’s Westbrook’s responsibility to call that out. Gafford sprinted back and already had to worry about Embiid spotting up from 3 while building a wall to protect against a drive by Ben Simmons.

On the next play, this happened:

Westbrook took a gamble by swiping at Simmons, which put the defense in a four-on-five situation, leading to an open 3 for Green. Bradley Beal gave Green too much space on the jump shot, but running him off the line would have led to a drive toward the basket while Westbrook was just crossing the half-court line. There was no winning for the defense.

There are calculated risks that make sense to try, but the upside of attempting this steal was minimal. Embiid and Tobias Harris were still underneath the basket for Philadelphia, allowing the Wizards plenty of time to set their defense.

Westbrook’s defense on Sunday would have been more forgivable if he was on offensively, but that wasn’t the case. He had 16 points on 17 shots with 14 assists and six turnovers. He’s now shooting 39.4 percent over his past 25 playoff games going back to 2016-17. Westbrook’s highs are exhilarating. Triple-doubles. Ferocious slams. Clutch shots. Emotion. The lows are a lot like Sunday, with sloppy turnovers, forced jumpers, and aloof defense.

Jayson Tatum keeps improving.

Robert Williams wowed viewers with nine blocks on Saturday, but Tatum’s five assists are arguably more important in the grand scheme of things for the Celtics. Tatum made the type of passes that illustrate his steady playmaking improvement throughout his career.

This season, Tatum drove to the basket 793 times and made an interior pass on only 51 of those instances, or 6 percent of the time, according to Second Spectrum. But he found Williams twice in Game 1:

In the clip above, Tatum waits until Kevin Durant commits to him to lay the ball to Williams. Tatum entered the NBA with a reputation for having tunnel vision, but it didn’t take him long to remove his blinders and become reliable at making drive-and-kick passes to perimeter shooters. Now, he can weaponize his scoring by waiting for the defense to collapse on him and make dump-off passes to his bigs or cutting teammates.

This time, he effectively dribbles himself into a double-team, and that frees Williams for a lob. Both passes were perfectly placed, making it easy for his big to finish the play. These types of looks are becoming increasingly common from Tatum, and the Celtics will need even more of it in the future.

The Celtics won’t defeat the Nets in the first round. But even if Boston gets swept to end this nightmare season, the fact Tatum got even better should leave plenty of room for optimism. Kemba Walker was supposed to be a primary shot creator for Boston but his decline from his prime years in Charlotte has amplified the importance of Tatum’s playmaking. The Celtics need Tatum to be someone who makes his teammates better, and that’s exactly what he’s becoming.

Where will the (likely) MVP find some help?

Nikola Jokic logged 10 post-ups to open the series against the Trail Blazers, and he made only one pass out of the post. The Blazers didn’t double him once. It’s the 30th time in 73 games Jokic has played this season that he logged at least 10 post-ups. But it’s only the third time he’s logged just one or zero passes out of the post.

The Blazers committed to making Jokic be a scorer. And they succeeded by utilizing single coverage and staying home on shooters.

The Blazers have struggled to defend all season, but they’re now supporting their high-powered offense with a strong game plan and the right type of personnel to give Denver problems. Portland has sturdy bigs in Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter who can battle with Jokic. With Jamal Murray out for the season and Will Barton out indefinitely, the Nuggets don’t have the guards to consistently target Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

The Nuggets should shoot better in Game 2. They were 30.6 percent from 3 in the game, including 1-for-9 off passes made by Jokic. But they still need to find a secondary source of consistent scoring.

Michael Porter Jr. might be the answer. He scored 25 points despite shooting an uncharacteristic 1-for-10 from 3. He was a perfect 11-for-11 from inside the arc. This season, he’s already proved to be an impactful player running through Jokic’s dribble handoffs, cutting to the rim, and relocating off the ball to get open for 3s. He did plenty of that. But Porter has flashed elite on-ball scoring potential, as detailed in the video below.

In Game 1, Porter was primarily defended by Norman Powell, whom he shot over and drove by. Denver should see what happens if he’s tasked with creating for himself more often. Porter is one of the biggest X factors of the NBA playoffs.