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Ten Thoughts on the Playoff Opening-Weekend Bonanza

Game-changing defense, pick-and-roll mastery, superstar moments, and much, much more

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

All eight first-round series of the NBA playoffs had their first game this past weekend. Here’s my notebook from an awesome debut:

The Power of Point Guard Defense

I’ve watched this play about 100 times since it happened Saturday:

It’s as impressive as it is funny. John Wall is one of the league’s most ferocious scorers in transition at point guard, yet Kyle Lowry puffs his chest out and executes the rule of verticality to stop his drive. It looks like a body-bump celebration gone wrong. Lowry’s defense (and playmaking) helped change the second half for the Raptors in their series-opening 114-106 win over the Wizards.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about the value of guard defense; the league doesn’t allow for hand-checking, and the position is so stacked that, on a nightly basis, there’s little that can be done to stop a great guard from getting where he wants. I don’t subscribe to that theory, but even if it’s true, moments like Lowry’s block on Wall is a reminder that having good defensive point guards still matters. Only a great defensive player, like Lowry, would have the sense of time and space, as well as the athleticism and toughness, to make such a clutch play. You don’t get that from Isaiah Thomas or Dennis Smith Jr. But you do from players like Lowry and Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday.

Holiday, as well as Rajon Rondo, Ian Clark, and E’Twaun Moore, put the clamps on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum on Saturday by disrupting their rhythm and steering them into Anthony Davis, who ate up their shot attempts like he was Kirby. Holiday’s final minute of the 97-95 win was particularly extraordinary.

The Pelicans offense was disastrous down the stretch. They don’t have enough weapons aside from Davis and Holiday, and the Blazers made a run. They trailed by one with 50 seconds to go, but during a three-on-two fast break, Holiday somehow made a stop.

This is similar to Lowry’s play, except better because Portland had a man advantage and a chance to take the lead. Holiday’s court awareness and ability to make the play without fouling are why he should be first-team All-Defense. Davis powered New Orleans to the playoffs, but Holiday’s defensive contributions were also vital—and consistent. So it’s unsurprising that he made another clutch play just 30 seconds later. Lillard tried drawing contact on a drive, but Holiday avoided him, causing a careless miss. On the next play, Holiday got switched onto Meyers Leonard rolling down the lane, and Holiday knocked the ball loose on what could’ve been a layup to cut the lead to one.

Then, on the final play of the game, Holiday did this:

Don’t let anyone tell you that point guard defense doesn’t matter. The Pelicans stole Game 1 on the road. The Raptors won their first Game 1 since 2001. Both teams have their ace point guard defenders to thank.

A Great Start for “Playoff P”

No matter how streaky and frustrating the Thunder were this season, it was impossible to rule them out as legitimate contenders because of their sheer talent. Paul George, in particular, just had to be better than he was from the All-Star break until April 3, a stretch in which he averaged 19.1 points on a dismal 43.3 effective field goal percentage. “I gotta figure it out,” George said April 3. “Something mechanical in my shot. I’ve had struggles throughout the season and in my career shooting, but it’s all just been not making shots. I don’t know what it is. It feels funny—shooting the ball feels funny.”

Since those comments, George has shot 53.3 percent from 3 on 45 attempts, and the Thunder are rolling. On Sunday, in a 116-108 Game 1 victory over the Jazz, George dropped 36 points and went 8-for-11 from downtown. He was lights out from all over the court, played stout defense, and did his share of team rebounding.

Perhaps most importantly, George allowed the Thunder to thrive when Russell Westbrook went to the bench. Oklahoma City outscored Utah by 15.2 points per 100 possessions when George was on the floor without Westbrook. That’s a stark change from last season, when the Thunder got slaughtered by 51.2 points per 100 possessions in the 46 minutes Westbrook was on the bench in a five-game series loss to the Rockets.

Pick-and-Roll Mastery, Courtesy of Russell Westbrook

I’m a complicated guy, but I can enjoy simple things like sweet pick-and-rolls. Here’s my favorite play from Westbrook’s night against the Jazz:

He changes rhythm on his dribble drive like he’s record scratching to freeze Rudy Gobert before elevating to open a passing lane to Steven Adams, who miraculously finishes the play.

It was the first of two late-fourth-quarter plays in which Westbrook forced Gobert to leave his feet; both plays led to lobs for Adams. Oklahoma City didn’t hesitate to attack the restricted area, whether it was with Adams or Jerami Grant; Gobert needs to be better for Utah to have a chance in the series. The Thunder aren’t an easy matchup, and greater resistance from perimeter defenders would help his cause.

Snake Pick-and-Roll Mastery, Courtesy of James Harden

Harden was the MVP and more in Houston’s thrilling 104-101 win over the Timberwolves on Sunday; he scored 44 points on 26 shots and hit countless big buckets down the stretch. Harden, as he’s been all season, was also masterful in the pick-and-roll—particularly when he “snaked.”

To snake a pick-and-roll means to pivot to the opposite side of the floor, which puts more pressure on both the big man and screen defender. Here, Harden snakes to the middle of the floor and hesitates, but Karl-Anthony Towns stays home, knowing Harden won’t attempt a midrange jumper that early in the clock. But Harden attacks anyway, which causes Jimmy Butler to double. Instead of throwing a lob like Westbrook did to Adams, Harden wraps the ball around both defenders to Clint Capela, who handles the rotation by Jeff Teague and finishes strong.

Towns and the Wolves had issues with this coverage the entire game. In the third quarter, Harden snaked a pick-and-roll and made a ludicrous kick-out pass for a P.J. Tucker corner 3.

Then, in the fourth quarter, Harden got buckets by snaking to the middle, keeping Butler on his back, then attacking.

The Wolves won’t have much hope in the series if Harden keeps slicing and dicing them apart in the pick-and-roll, but there aren’t many solutions. Harden is unstoppable.

Clint Capela Has Arrived

Capela has come such a long way for the Rockets. It was only four years ago that he struggled in the Hoop Summit game against a USA roster that featured Jahlil Okafor, Cliff Alexander, and Myles Turner. But Capela’s athleticism was intriguing, and the Rockets plucked him with the 25th overall pick. Now, some team is about to drop the bags to sign the upcoming restricted free agent because of sequences like this:

The Swiss center is only 23 and has made rapid progress in each season of his career. The best is yet to come for Capela, who finished with 24 points against the Wolves. But he already looked like the best big man on the floor Sunday.

Giannis at the 5 Gets a Test Run

Giannis Antetokounmpo had played only 288 of his 5,184 possessions this season at center, per Cleaning the Glass, which is understandable considering the toll it’d take on his body over a full season. It seemed likely that we’d see more of it in the playoffs, but Bucks coach Joe Prunty waited until there was 3:11 left in the fourth quarter of the Bucks’ 113-107 overtime loss to the Celtics to turn to Giannis at the 5.

That move worked, at least for a while. The Bucks scored 19 points on nine possessions before the end of regulation. Their newfound spacing opened driving lanes for Giannis and Eric Bledsoe to get to the bucket with ease for layups or kickout passes to open shooters.

The Bucks can’t use Giannis at the 5 all game. They’re vulnerable on the offensive boards, and the Celtics can wear him down by posting up Al Horford. But they need to pick their spots to use it more. It sure beats the alternative: 45 minutes of no spacing for their best player.

The Pacers Make the Most of their Spotlight

The Pacers played only one nationally televised game all season long, so if this was your first time watching them, you might’ve been stunned when they opened up a 23-point lead early in the third quarter and never looked back. But know this: It wasn’t the first time this season that Indiana was tougher and showed more hustle than an opponent straight from the opening tip, and it probably won’t be the last.

The Cavaliers are still favorites in the series because they have LeBron James. But the Pacers have Victor Oladipo, who scored 32 points on 19 shots and logged six rebounds, four assists, and four steals in their 98-80 win Sunday. Oladipo has been filling the box score all season, which is why he should be a unanimous All-NBA selection.

The concern for Cleveland is that it doesn’t appear to have anyone to contain him. Oladipo got to the rim at will, and he doesn’t have trouble generating open looks, even against tough defenders, never mind the likes of J.R. Smith and Rodney Hood. Oladipo pulled up in transition, ran off screens, and got where he wanted in the pick-and-roll.

Cleveland has one player on its roster capable of playing elite defense: LeBron James. The problem is that the team is already relying on him to do everything else. The Cavaliers are down only 1-0, but there was reason to worry about their Finals hopes way back in October; the concern hasn’t faded, despite their busy trade deadline.

The Trouble With Hassan Whiteside

Whiteside considers himself “one of the best centers in the league,” but great centers don’t fail to rotate to dribble penetration five minutes into the game:

Great centers don’t get caught ball-watching and allow open cutters:

Great centers don’t fail to communicate defensive assignments:

Whiteside looked checked out from the opening tip, and the Sixers, who won 130-103 on Saturday, ran him off the court by putting Ersan Ilyasova at center to start the second half. Whiteside ended up playing only 12 minutes in the game. It’s easy to say that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra should bench Whiteside and start Kelly Olynyk (or even rookie Bam Adebayo), but he needs the 7-footer to make an impact to win the series. It was only two years ago that Whiteside led the NBA in blocks and earned an All-Defense second-team spot. There are still glimmers of that level of play, but they’re a rarity.

Whiteside said in March after being benched in the fourth quarter that “a lot of teams could use a center.” But could a lot of teams use a lazy defender who tanks his offense with poor passing, half-hearted screening, and an inability to space the floor; has missed time with knee injuries over the past two seasons; and is owed $52.5 million over the next two seasons? The truth is the Heat will be fortunate if any other team wants Whiteside.

The Kawhisis Continues

While the Spurs were getting smacked 113-92 by the Warriors on Saturday, Kawhi Leonard was in New York rehabilitating a right quadriceps injury that has kept him sidelined for all but nine games this season. You’d like to see him on the Spurs bench, but it’s OK; not all players rehabbing from injury are with their teams. ESPN’s Michael C. Wright reported in March that San Antonio is still expected to offer Leonard the veteran designated player extension (worth more than $200 million over five years), and the San Antonio Express News’ Jabari Young added this weekend that Leonard’s decision to rehab in New York was “in collaboration with Spurs officials,” and that he’s being monitored by two team officials.

And yet, when asked Sunday morning whether he expects Leonard to return to action, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was vague. “You’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question,” he said. “So far, they say that he’s not ready to go. So we can’t do anything until that happens. Then, we would have to decide what’s going on from there. But that’s the first thing that has to happen.”

Popovich has taken every single chance he can to refer to Leonard and his inner circle as “Kawhi and his group,” which only fuels the flames and turns public opinion against Leonard. It’s an odd choice, since Leonard said March 7 that he speaks to Popovich every day. “He knew what I was doing the whole entire time, as well as the front office,” Leonard said. “So, it wasn’t just me going out and saying, ‘I’m going to go and do this.’”

The trade rumors won’t stop any time soon. USA Today’s Sam Amick reported Saturday that the Clippers are one of the teams expected to make an offer for Leonard, a native Californian. There’ve been rumblings in league circles for months that Leonard has eyes for Los Angeles, and that noise has only been magnified after public comments by current and former NBA players like McCollum and Nate Robinson. I’d take those rumors with a grain of salt, but it’s conceivable that Leonard—who is also reportedly looking for a big-money shoe deal—would have interest in the biggest market in basketball, which also happens to be in his home state.

Aside from the Clippers and Lakers, Dwyane Wade and Jalen Rose both said the Celtics could target Leonard. All of these teams make sense. But why not the Sixers? They are overflowing with assets and would benefit from consolidating them in some form over the next few seasons before they collectively become too expensive. If Leonard were willing to re-sign and he appeared healthy, I’d pursue him. Philly could theoretically re-sign J.J. Redick for the mid-level exception, still retain cap space to sign a max free agent in 2018 or 2019, and trade for Leonard with a package of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and a plethora of assets headlined by the 2018 Lakers first-round pick and draft-and-stashes (such as Anzejs Pasecniks and Jonah Bolden). A roster with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Leonard, and another max free agent sounds like a fantasy team; the fact that it seems relatively plausible speaks to the Sixers’ current position in the NBA landscape and financial and roster flexibility.

Brett Brown’s Hard Work Is Paying Off

No matter what the Sixers do, they have one of the brightest futures in the NBA. Simmons is already one of the league’s 20 best players, and Embiid has largely stayed on the court and become a top big man. Saric is turning into one of the NBA’s best glue guys, with the potential to be so much more. Fultz’s game has already translated, aside from the shot. It’s an exciting time for Sixers fans.

“This group has something special in it. We’re moving along and we’re trending in tremendous ways,” Sixers coach Brown said after his team smashed the Heat. “I look at the future of our organization with healthy Joel Embiid and improving Markelle Fultz and draft picks and cap space, like this is what I feel the most responsible for and excited for. And so, to navigate that path, that’s a long lens. This little thing we’ve gone through—and it is big but it’s small in relation to what I just said—sure, I am excited and I’m excited for our fans and our young team, but there’s a lot more coming.”

The Sixers are in good hands with Brown. One of the misconceptions about the Process was that they were outright tanking with no focus on player development. But that’s not the case. Philadelphia doesn’t play any differently now than it did during its losing seasons.

Brown laid the groundwork for the team’s present success by installing a 3-point-shooting team that emphasized a fast pace and ball movement. Philly has ranked 20 or lower in deep-midrange shot frequency since Brown was hired as head coach in 2013-14, per Cleaning the Glass, while routinely ranking near the top of the NBA in 3-pointers per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats. They’ve also ranked in the top seven in pace in each of Brown’s five seasons. The only thing that’s changed is the talent level. Sam Hinkie won every trade he made to add the talent, and Bryan Colangelo has added more complementary pieces like Redick and Marco Belinelli, but Brown also deserves a great deal of credit for laying the groundwork with a beautiful system.