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First Impressions From Every NBA Playoffs Opener

As brilliant as Brooklyn’s two stars are, Boston might have the best player in the series. Plus, thoughts on the Warriors’ new Death Lineup, whether 76ers-Raptors is over already, and more.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With Game 1 in the books for every first-round series, here are my opening weekend takeaways from each matchup in the NBA playoffs:

Celtics-Nets: Boston Might Have the Biggest Star

Jayson Tatum was the best player on the floor in the Celtics’ thrilling 115-114 win over the Nets on Sunday. Kyrie Irving might have dazzled with 39 points on 20 shots, but Tatum had 31 points on 18 shots with eight assists while playing stellar defense on Kevin Durant, who managed just 23 points on 24 shots. Tatum defended Durant for a team-high 37 plays, according to Second Spectrum. In the second half, he blocked one of his jumpers. And in the final 30 seconds, he heavily contested a stepback 3 by Durant that would have given the Nets a four-point lead. After making the stop, Tatum hit the buzzer-beating layup off a cut to the rim.

“I think that’s kind of a microcosm for our season,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said of the final play.

The Celtics had a chance to win Sunday’s game because of what happened prior to Tatum’s clutch stop against Durant on that final defensive possession. The Celtics had one of their best defensive sequences of the game, sending two defenders at Kyrie Irving with 10 seconds on the shot clock. Since Nic Claxton and Bruce Brown are non-shooters, the Celtics zoned inside to protect the paint and wanted to get the ball out of Irving’s hands. So Al Horford and Marcus Smart doubled Irving, corralling him away from the basket with Derrick White and Jaylen Brown helping inside against Claxton. Bruce Brown was left open outside. Horford and Smart crowded Irving to limit his passing angles before the ball found KD, and Tatum slid his feet then contested.

Durant and Irving were better on defense Sunday than they were on the final play, but they’d be much better suited if Ben Simmons is able to return this series and anchor the defense. Durant spent the majority of the game expending energy defending Tatum, while the undersized Bruce Brown was the best option to guard Jaylen Brown. Simmons would be able to defend Tatum, enabling Durant to slide over and guard Brown or even a weaker scorer so he could lurk in a better help position.

Then again, even if Simmons returns, there’s no guarantee he’ll be effective after such a long layoff. And as much as he’d help on defense, the Celtics already showed they’ll ignore nonfactors on offense in late-game situations. But Simmons could change the complexion of the series and help Brooklyn structure its defense.

In the end, it may not matter. The Celtics play together and are led by a star in Tatum who on any given night can be the best player on the floor. Even against Durant and Irving.

Grizzlies-Wolves: Memphis Shouldn’t Panic Yet

During the regular season, the Grizzlies ranked 20th in half-court scoring, according to Second Spectrum. When you removed their transition game, their overall offense was below average. In Minnesota’s Game 1 win, the Timberwolves limited transition opportunities and held the Grizz to a paltry 0.91 points per half-court chance.

For Memphis to come back and win this series, it’ll need to score better against Minnesota’s set defense. The Timberwolves defense has been clicking for weeks, owning an above-average defensive rating since early March. Their three best scorers—Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell—are bringing effort on the other end. Patrick Beverley is the team’s heartbeat. And Jarred Vanderbilt is incredible defending on the wing and crashing the boards. On Sunday, Jaden McDaniels was assigned to Desmond Bane in the fourth quarter and used his length to largely shut him down.

McDaniels, at just 21 years old, is already one of the NBA’s best wing defenders. Though Bane is on an All-Star trajectory himself, generating quality shots against a defender of McDaniels’s caliber is not an easy task for any scorer. This matchup will be a key factor in determining this series, and also serve as a barometer for Bane’s abilities to be a true shot-creating presence in a playoff situation.

The Timberwolves defend pick-and-rolls with an aggressive scheme, using blitzes or shows more often than any other playoff team, per Second Spectrum. But in Game 1, they were more conservative, playing drop coverage on 19 pick-and-rolls involving Morant. We’ll see whether they stick with that strategy, but no matter the scheme, nothing comes easy against the Wolves.

The Grizzlies shouldn’t necessarily fret down 0-1. But Minnesota is undoubtedly a difficult matchup for them. For weeks, my Grizzlies diehard cohost, Chris Vernon, has been warning me that the Timberwolves would be a tough draw for his team. One of the reasons: Towns is too quick and mobile for Steven Adams. It didn’t go well for Adams on Sunday, with Towns repeatedly waltzing his way to the basket:

Adams was too slow-footed to handle KAT, who on his best nights is one of the NBA’s most unstoppable offensive forces. But there is plenty of logic in sticking with this matchup. Jaren Jackson Jr. can roam off a weaker shooter like Vanderbilt to provide help in the paint, just like he did in Game 1 with seven blocks (but also five fouls in 24 minutes). Matching him up with an attacker like Towns could further compromise his ability to stay out of foul trouble, which has been a problem going back to his Michigan State days.

Pulling Jackson away from the rim to defend Towns would also hurt the team’s ability to stop other drivers, such as Edwards, who seems to be figuring out that no one can really stop his football-player frame from getting to the basket.

Jackson may eventually need to defend KAT more if Adams has difficulties again. Perhaps Brandon Clarke could also receive a heightened role. This is not a knock on Adams; it might just not be the series for him. Players who were important during the season can be important down the line in the playoffs, even if they need to take a backseat now.

The Grizzlies were 20-5 without Morant during the regular season because they have a deep roster equipped to withstand absences. But in the playoffs, rotations often get trimmed to assure the starters are playing in the high 30s or even 40s in minutes. On Sunday, Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins bucked that trend and kept his rotation 10 deep, with no starter playing more than 36 minutes and only three playing more than 30.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that can contribute,” Jenkins said after the game. “When our bench is rolling, that’s a huge part.”

That’s been true all year long for Memphis. Jenkins pulled the right strings and the players excelled no matter their roles. But Towns played 43 minutes in Game 1. Edwards played 40. Chris Finch has already adapted. Jenkins can benefit from his options on the bench by giving different players a role best suited for each series, game, or moment. But his best players need to play more.


Heat-Hawks: Bam Might Be the Trae Stopper

Bam Adebayo wasn’t named a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year, but if sample size didn’t matter he would’ve been a no-brainer. I left him off my ballot because he played only 56 games, and I’d assume most voters did the same. But Game 1 against the Hawks was a reminder of why Adebayo is such a dominant force in every game that he plays:

Trae Young took just 12 shots in Game 1 and made only one of them. None of his attempts came against Adebayo, who frequently switched onto the All-Star guard but was rarely tested. The one time Young drove on him, Adebayo ripped the ball away. This season, Adebayo was the league’s most frequent switch defender in the pick-and-roll and he suffocated opponents on isolations, allowing a scant 0.81 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum. Atlanta needs to figure things out because Miami won’t stop switching. It’s what the Heat have done all season.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, their problems don’t end with Bam. There’s also P.J. Tucker, Jimmy Butler, and Kyle Lowry. The Heat can throw a lot of bodies at Trae, and if a weaker defender such as Max Strus or Duncan Robinson gets switched onto him, the Heat can shade help defenders his way.

Young ran 34 pick-and-rolls in Game 1 and the Heat responded by switching 21 times, according to Second Spectrum. During the regular season, the Hawks were least effective in Young pick-and-rolls when the defense switched, scoring only 0.9 points per chance.

Getting Young going against Miami’s switching defense is the no-duh key to the series for Atlanta. The problem is the Heat have a pretty no-duh answer themselves: Bam Adebayo.

Warriors-Nuggets: Jordan Poole Could Swing the Series

For five glorious minutes in Game 1, the Warriors used a lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and Jordan Poole. Consider it the new Death Lineup.

In that time, they outscored the Nuggets 20-6.

Poole scored 30 points on Saturday in a variety of ways, using actions to get open 3s off the catch like you’d usually see from Steph and Klay, but also by generating his own shot pulling up or driving to the rim.

Almost all of his points came when he was defended by Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Will Barton, or Nah’Shon Hyland. With all due respect to that quartet, they aren’t good enough defensively to stop Poole, who averaged 18.5 points in his third season and has progressed just like he did in each of his first two seasons. In his last 20 games, he averaged 25.4 points on 42.6 percent from 3, 5.5 assists, and only three turnovers, looking very much like a third Splash Brother.

With Curry still on a minutes restriction, Poole’s production was huge against Denver. As the Warriors’ MVP nears 100 percent, the matchup could grow into an even bigger nightmare, with the Nuggets’ defense being spread even thinner.

Maybe we’ll see Aaron Gordon on Poole for more possessions. In Game 1, Gordon defended Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins for the majority of his time, which is understandable since Green is an initiator with size while Wiggins often spots up from the corner, which means Gordon can stay in position to help at the rim. But he spent only a portion of less than 10 plays against Poole, usually following a switch. Moving forward, he may have to check Golden State’s hottest hand more often.

Suns-Pelicans: New Orleans Is One Star Short

The almost-37-year-old Chris Paul became the oldest player ever to record 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff game on Sunday. It came in vintage CP3 fashion with 17 points during a fourth-quarter stretch that ended the Pelicans’ hopes of a comeback. Paul was simply magnificent. So were Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. And Mikal Bridges showed why he’s a Defensive Player of the Year finalist.

The one starter without a flattering statline in Phoenix’s 110-99 win was Jae Crowder, who had three fouls, one point, one assist, and one rebound in 28 minutes. But Crowder was tremendous as a switch defender on and off the ball, while offering resistance as an interior help defender and navigating screens to bother Brandon Ingram all game.

Ingram scored just 18 points on 6-for-17 shooting. Crowder defended him for a team-high 31 plays, according to Second Spectrum.

Defense is, of course, a group endeavor. Phoenix’s best defender, Bridges, spent nearly his entire game sticking to CJ McCollum and using his long arms to affect his every shot, while also providing secondary rim protection.

With Zion Williamson still sidelined, the Pelicans lack a third go-to option who could help create advantageous situations. Ayton was the primary defender against Zion last season, which pulled him away from the paint. Now that the Pelicans have McCollum, Ingram, and a better supporting cast, it would hurt the Suns to not have Ayton patrolling the paint.

The Pelicans are the heavy underdogs in this series, so Game 1’s result was no surprise. What matters most for them is the experience they’re gaining. The Suns are likely just getting started.


Raptors-Sixers: Is It Over Already?

James Harden shot 6-for-17 in Game 1, continuing a worrisome trend in which he’s not scoring efficiently. Harden is moving like he has no burst, limiting his ability to get to the basket to score or draw fouls. But watching him rack up 14 assists and only one turnover was a reminder that the Sixers need him for his playmaking as much as for his scoring.

The benefit of having Ben Simmons was his ability to make his teammates better with his passing. Every Sixers fan has heard the stat about Simmons assisting on more 3s than anyone else in the NBA. But his lack of a perimeter game was debilitating in the half court. Harden, on the other hand, threatens the defense every minute of the game—even without his prime bucket-getting—because of his ability to generate shots for his teammates, like Tyrese Maxey:

Maxey scored a game-high 38 points in Game 1 and received the ball on a pass from Harden for six of his 14 field goals. Each exchange captured their compatibility, with Harden serving as a methodical creator and Maxey as a decisive finisher, wasting no time attacking off the catch and scoring around the basket.

Harden will need to rediscover his elite scoring for the Sixers to get by the favorites in the East. But for now, Philly can likely handle the Raptors without that version of him.

Toronto’s chances of winning the series got knocked down even further with three key rotation players (Scottie Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., and Thad Young) doubtful for Monday’s Game 2. Raptors teams coached by Nick Nurse have historically bounced back well from losses in the postseason, but two starters and one veteran bench piece is a lot to lose for anyone, much less an underdog.

Bucks-Bulls: Chicago Misses Lonzo

Role players were on my mind when watching Bucks-Bulls. On Milwaukee’s side, there was Brook Lopez, who returned from a back injury in mid-March and has looked just like his usual self. Lopez is an imposing interior player who can also space the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo to attack. It’s not as if Lopez is the most important player on the Bucks, but no one else provides what Milwaukee’s linchpin brings to the table.

On the other side, Lonzo Ball’s absence was clear, as Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, and Zach LaVine combined to shoot 21-for-71 in their Game 1 loss. With Lopez and Giannis protecting the basket, the trio turned into midrange chuckers instead of playmakers. There was a lot of hero ball and not a lot of movement.

Ball was Chicago’s connector, someone who could initiate offensive sets to create easier scoring chances for DeRozan and LaVine so that they wouldn’t have to handle everything. Too many times they failed to set up the offense the way that Lonzo had done all season, before he tore the meniscus in his left knee on January 14. It’s been a long time since then. The Bulls have Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams back in the lineup, but they’re missing Ball’s passing and his wing defense.

The Bulls weren’t able to return to full health before the playoffs like the Bucks were with Lopez, and I expect Milwaukee to trounce Chicago.

Mavericks-Jazz: Luka or Bust for Dallas?

ESPN is reporting that Luka Doncic is unlikely to play in Game 2, which means Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie will need to step up more than they did in a Game 1 loss to the Jazz. Without Doncic, they combined for 46 points on 15-for-39 shooting with only a single 3-pointer.

Rudy Gobert put a lid on the basket, but Utah’s drop coverage scheme leaves the team susceptible to pull-up jumpers. Unfortunately for Dallas, Brunson has made only 31.3 percent of pull-up 3s this season and Dinwiddie has made just 31.5 percent. Without Doncic, who makes 35.7 percent of dribble-jumper 3s on a far higher volume, the Mavs aren’t equipped with the type of offensive initiators who typically cause problems for the Jazz.

Jason Kidd was desperately searching for a lineup that could spark any offense in Game 1. He used different combinations of Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, and Davis Bertans. None of them worked. Powell scored only four points. Kleber was 2-of-7. Bertans made only one 3. And yet, the Mavericks lost by only six. Their defense remains stout. They just can’t score.

This series is far from over. If Dallas shot better from 3 and from the line, Game 1 could have swung the other way. The Jazz have one all-time great defender in Gobert, and not much else in terms of quality stoppers other than Royce O’Neale. They can be exposed, especially when Donovan Mitchell is shooting only 10-for-29 from the field. But it’s hard to envision the Mavs winning this series without Luka returning by Game 3.