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Winners and Losers: NBA Playoffs Opening Day

Well, that was unexpected. Three of the first four games of the 2019 postseason saw the underdog take a series lead. The Nets, Magic, and Spurs all stole Game 1 from their higher-seeded counterparts. The Warriors, on the other hand, remain inevitable.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA playoffs are finally here. Our team runs down all of the winners and losers from Saturday’s Game 1s.

Spurs 101, Nuggets 96

Winner: Derrick White, Who Is Joining Good Company

Haley O’Shaughnessy: The old adage about cats having nine lives has nothing on Paul Millsap, who, despite a long career frequently spent on the receiving end of posterizations, always lives to play another day. On Saturday, life no. 1,892,498 was claimed by Derrick White.

The lower the profile of the man (or woman, or child—I don’t know, I don’t watch Millsap’s pickup games) dunking, the more embarrassing it is to be dunked on. LeBron James has posterized Millsap before, brutally so—but that’s kind of an honor! Wouldn’t you want to be on the receiving end of what a professional at the top of their field—a chef, a masseuse, etc.—does best? That said, it’s also more embarrassing when the dunker is younger than the dunkee. Take Joel Embiid, 25, who made Millsap consider witness protection, or, Karl-Anthony Towns, 23, who has also obliterated the disgraced man of the hour.

White isn’t a former top-three draft pick. He’s 24, and while beloved in San Antonio, has a ways to go before becoming a household name. On Saturday, though, White joined an (un)exclusive club full of some of the league’s best and brightest.

Losers: The Nuggets’ Biggest Stars

O’Shaughnessy: I like Jamal Murray. I like Nikola Jokic. I like the fact that two young players took Denver, a team that last made the playoffs in 2013, to the second spot in the West and back to the postseason. However. Watching the two of them in the final three minutes of regulation (and for many moments scattered in between!) looked like the opposite of acting like you’ve been there before. Murray and Jokic had not, so they could not. And they did not!

Murray, bless his heart, went 1-for-5 in the final three minutes, and finished with the ultimate Kobe tribute, going 8-for-24 from the field. His final shot, an 18-foot pull-up with 9.4 seconds remaining in the game, clanked. His final possession, however, came with 2.1 seconds to go, as he brought the ball up the court down three, hoping for a game-tying buzzer-beater, only to have the ball stolen by White.

Jokic did some good in the final three minutes, grabbing the offensive rebound that led to an assist on the one shot Murray did make. That was followed by a turnover, a necessary foul on Aldridge, and nothing else. The nothingness is the problem. Jokic, Denver’s leading scorer, was able to affect change in the game by rebounding and assisting—he ended with 14 of each—but couldn’t get shots to fall, and on many possessions, couldn’t get the ball, period. He finished with 10 points on nine shots.

Give San Antonio’s defense credit for rendering Denver’s best offensive weapons unusable, but the shooting was an issue long before the Nuggets drew the Spurs in Round 1. The team had been terrible from 3 for the final 10 games of the season, shooting 30.9 percent from behind the arc, presaging their disastrous 6-for-28 performance from deep on Saturday. Their monthlong shooting woes prompted Jokic earlier in April to say, “I think the main problem is we are not making shots and then everything else comes with that.” It’s reductive, but he’s right. Everything else, playoff advancement included, comes with that.

Warriors 121, Clippers 104

Loser: Anyone Expecting the Upset Trend to Continue With Golden State

O’Shaughnessy: Look, you’re not beating the Warriors. Not even when fate seemed to favor most of the underdogs on Saturday’s opening-day slate. Not even if your team’s bench outscores theirs, 65-22. Not even if Kevin Durant gets ejected. Not even if there’s a fire!

Even when the Warriors lose, they don’t lose because of you. The Warriors lose because of themselves. Take Saturday, for instance: Golden State’s passing seemed almost trial and error, sloppiness speckled with brilliant moments. As a team, they finished with 31 assists (more than their regular-season average), and 21 turnovers (way higher than their regular-season average). Steph Curry took control of the game, going 8-for-12 from 3, passing Ray Allen for most 3s made in the playoffs, but there were plenty of passes thrown directly out of bounds, completely unforced. It’s almost like they aren’t even playing the Clippers, but rather trying to get their own wrinkles out.

Of course, a team with Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, and [recites entire Clippers roster] won’t just accept being the Warriors’ practice squad. Maybe that’s why it felt like a win for L.A. and Beverley when the latter was shoved down by Durant, leading to ejections for both players.

Beverley had been an irritant to Durant all game. KD pushing him near the end of the game was proof that the league’s favorite pest finally got under the skin of the best player in the series. The ejections were meaningless; the game was all but decided, and no one was suspended. But it was one counter that actually worked for L.A. (if only to create tension going forward) against an uncounterable team.

Winners: Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, Showing Out on National Television

O’Shaughnessy: L.A. beat the odds to get to the playoffs, while Golden State set them. So it’s not surprising that, on a team of role players, the best showing for the Clippers on Saturday came from the bench. Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams combined for 51 points in Game 1 against the Warriors.

The pick-and-roll duo’s success has been in the making for years. Harrell and Williams were part of the same package that Houston sent to L.A. for Chris Paul in 2017; after the rest of Lob City was traded away, Harrell saw more opportunities on the floor. Their working relationship is just the latest version of an offensive model the franchise has been refining for years since the Chris Paul and Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan combo during the Lob City era. Williams’s ability to pull up from anywhere makes him a multidimensional threat out of the pick-and-roll, while Harrell’s power finishing—the kind that makes you wonder just how much weight exactly a rim can hold—makes him the ideal roll man. A season of this turned Williams and Harrell into the highest-scoring bench duo in NBA history. They aren’t Lob City, but they aren’t the suburbs, either.

The Clippers certainly have the better bench in this series, but their starters are too outmatched for it to matter much. Harrell and Williams outscored L.A.’s entire first unit by double digits. That’s unimaginable for the Warriors; of all reserves, only Andre Iguodala played more than 17 minutes. The Warriors know their playoff rotation; the Clippers are just trying to see what they have in their deep collection of players, period. But the one thing they can depend on is Williams and Harrell’s production. That has to count for something.

Magic 104, Raptors 101

Winners: D.J. Augustin and Limbs

Paolo Uggetti: Welcome the 2019 NBA playoffs, where things are getting weird. In the second game of the day, the 7-seed Orlando Magic beat the 2-seed Toronto Raptors on a cold-blooded, game-winning 3-pointer by the 31-year-old Augustin with 3.4 seconds left.

Augustin explained how the play went down in his walkoff interview with ESPN: He saw that Marc Gasol was giving him too much space after a defensive switch, so he pulled up and swished it. It was only Augustin’s second field goal of the second half after the point guard fueled the Magic’s impressive first half with 19 points. He finished with 25 on the night, one of seven Magic players in double-digits.

One of those other six was Michael Carter-Williams, who was originally signed with a 10-day contract about a month ago before being brought aboard for the rest of the season. The Magic’s backcourt may have been one of the worst in the league during the regular season, and adding MCW, a Houston Rockets castoff, as insurance wasn’t exactly inspiring. But Augustin and MCW combined for 35 points and aided what’s been a suffocating defense for Orlando since the All-Star break (fifth in the NBA during that span). With Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s lone All-Star, struggling (3-for-14), the two journeyman guards filled the void.

Orlando’s grand vision for length up and down its roster has largely only worked in theory, but first-year coach Steve Clifford is beginning to give form to the front office’s big idea. With recent lottery picks Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon at the forefront, the Magic flustered the Raptors’ fifth-ranked offense most of the game. At least for one game, the Magic were the ones with the length and depth advantages.

Loser: Playoff Kyle Lowry

Uggetti: The ghosts of disappointing Raptors teams past are still hanging on to Lowry’s threads. The Raptors point guard was a black hole in Game 1, chucking up seven shots and not making a single one of them. Lowry did have seven rebounds and eight assists, but in a game lost by three points, just one of Lowry’s shots finding the bottom of the net could have made a difference.

With the loss, the Raptors are now 2-14 in Game 1s; Lowry himself has never scored more than 11 points in a Game 1 over the past five years. Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam did their part with 25 and 24 points, respectively (though Leonard air-balled what could have been a game-tying 3), which only highlights Lowry’s bleak performance even more. Toronto prides itself on its balance and depth; heck, with Marc Gasol now in the fold, Lowry can get away with being the fourth-best player on the floor. But his complementary scoring is still important to what the Raptors do. Being an absolute zero doesn’t cut it. The Magic may not have many All-Stars or playoff veterans, but they are not playing around.

Nets 111, Sixers 102

Winner: The Nets’ Process

Uggetti: If the regular season was a first step in the Nets’ return to relevance, then Game 1 was a giant leap. Brooklyn, the East’s 6-seed, used all of its best moves like a boxer in a prize fight, and all of those moves seemed to land at the right time and in the perfect spots. When D’Angelo Russell struggled to get going in the first half, Joe Harris hit three 3s, and Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie carved Philly’s defense up like a hungry family on Thanksgiving. Dinwiddie and LeVert combined for 41 points, and the Nets bench finished with a whopping 59 points to the Sixers’ 26.

That unit held the fort long enough for Russell to get comfortable and find his stroke. The Nets guard scored 19 in the second half and jawed plenty with the testy Sixers crowd. Brooklyn doesn’t have anywhere close to the same amount of talent as the Sixers (Russell was its sole All-Star and he was an injury replacement), but it does have a system in place that elevates role players like Harris and Ed Davis, the latter of whom provided valuable minutes at center (12 points and 16 rebounds) when Jarrett Allen got into early foul trouble. More importantly, the Nets as a whole played like they had nothing to lose.

We knew the Sixers’ Achilles’ heel was their inability to stop shot-creating guards, and the Nets went right to Dinwiddie, LeVert, and Russell to go at that weakness. The Sixers may ultimately overwhelm the Nets with talent, but Brooklyn took back home court and sketched out the blueprint for a first-round series upset.

Loser: Ben Simmons and the Sixers Offense

Uggetti: Ben Simmons had the ball in his hands on a fast break with four minutes left in the game and a chance to cut the lead to single digits. Except Simmons balked at hitting a teammate, stopped, and got stuck. He ended up handing the ball off to a Nets player. It was Simmons’s third turnover of the game, and a perfect summation for Simmons’s awful Game 1. By the end, he had just nine points on 4-for-9 shooting and was a minus-21.

But the boos from the Philly crowd weren’t reserved for only Simmons. After a fast start, Joel Embiid didn’t look 100 percent the rest of the game; he finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds, but whether it was his troublesome left knee or the Nets defense, he shot just 5-for-15 from the floor, including 0-for-5 from 3. Tobias Harris and JJ Redick were both 2-for-7 from the floor, and Amir Johnson was escorted to the locker room after being caught checking his cell phone on the bench. (Embiid told reporters that Johnson was checking on his “extremely sick” daughter.)

Jimmy Butler used brute force to get to the rim and fish points out of bad offensive possessions. Butler finished with 36 points, nine rebounds, and really every one of Philly’s most important shots—which is a good sign for his bank account this summer, but his performance was not good enough to mitigate all the other Sixers’ mistakes. Philly made only three of their 24 3-point attempts on the game; Nets guard Joe Harris had three in the first quarter.