The NBA playoffs are finally here. Our team runs down all of the winners and losers from Sunday’s Game 1s.
Rockets 122, Jazz 90
Winner: The Full James Harden Experience
Paolo Uggetti: In baseball, when a pitcher is dominating the opposing batters with a full repertoire of pitches, we call that “shoving.” I propose we make “shoving” a cross-disciplinary term, because it might be the most fitting way to describe Harden’s Game 1 against the Utah Jazz. And like helpless batters in the box, the Jazz kept swinging and missing for most of the night.
Utah’s chances of beating the Rockets, either this season or last, have depended on the answer to a simple question: How do you stop a player seemingly built to destroy you? In Game 1, the Jazz tried to force Harden to go right every chance they could. It worked when the Bucks did it in the regular season, pushing Harden into tough shots and turnovers. But where the Bucks’ strategy forced Harden into chaos, the Jazz merely just gave him a different avenue to exploit, leaving passing lanes open when Rudy Gobert would help too soon, and bungling their rotations on outside threats. For all the deserved DPOY talk that’s been centered on Gobert, this is a nightmare matchup for him, and both Harden and Chris Paul (who added seven assists of his own) took full advantage.
The Jazz tried to adjust slightly in the second half, but Harden found counters of his own, scored 12 points, which was more than enough, and found hot shooters all over the floor. He finished with 29 points, eight rebounds, and 10 assists in 33 minutes; seven Rockets ended up in double figures. During last season’s Rockets-Jazz series, Harden’s scoring corroded as the series went along. If Game 1 of this year’s matchup is any indication, Harden is far better prepared and more willing to dissect Utah’s defense with a scalpel—he knows how much the Jazz have to build their game plan around him, and he knows how easy it can be to dismantle their defenses by getting everyone else involved.
Loser: The Jazz Offense
Uggetti: Picture this: the shot clock is running down in the third quarter, the ball is in Donovan Mitchell’s hands, and he’s out behind the 3-point line. It’s not what you think—not an isolation play designed for him, nor is it a wide-open opportunity off a clean pass. Mitchell is trapped near two defenders and has no choice but to chuck up a 30-footer; it clangs off the clock on top of the backboard. That was the Jazz offense in a nutshell.
Utah allowed Harden to control the game like it was a yo-yo in his hands; that was its first mistake. The second was simply not producing enough offense to keep up. Utah scored only 44 in the first half and shot 26 percent from deep on the game. Ricky Rubio, who was supposed to be the X factor the Jazz didn’t have last year in this series, had 15 points, but Mitchell struggled, putting up 19 points on 18 shots (and no assists). Gobert was the Jazz’s most consistent offensive option, dropping 22 points, but that basically played right into Mike D’Antoni’s hands.
It is only one game, but Utah’s limitations were made crystal clear. Unless it gets a supernatural performance from Mitchell or, say, Joe Ingles (who had a paltry three points), the mathematical advantage Houston has will make every game a Sisyphean task. Every time the Jazz near a lead or gain an advantage, a barrage of 3s could always push them back down the mountain. On Sunday, Houston took 14 more 3s and made more than twice as many as the Jazz. That’s why it didn’t matter that Harden got to the line only three times, and the Rockets shot a total of only 12 free throws to Utah’s 27. Giving up the 3 at such a rate is poison, but couple that with allowing 62 points in the paint and 24 points off 19 turnovers, and it’s a death sentence for the underdog in this series. Be better tomorrow, Utah, or else this series might wrap up quickly thanks to simple arithmetic.
Bucks 121, Pistons 86
Loser: Thon Maker’s Revenge
Uggetti: Amid the midseason chaos wrought by the Anthony Davis nightmare and the Kevin Durant free-agency angst, another unhappy player wanted out of his situation. Thon Maker didn’t like his diminishing minutes in Milwaukee (11.7 a game over 35 games this season), and asked for a trade. The Bucks obliged and sent him to Detroit. Flash forward two months, and look at who Maker has to face: the Milwaukee Bucks. Worse, in Game 1 of the Pistons’ first-round matchup, Maker started in place of Blake Griffin (knee soreness) and had to guard MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Prayers, blessings, good luck—none of that was going to save Maker from the rolling boulder. Within the first three defensive possessions, Giannis had baited Maker into two fouls. By the second quarter, Maker made the shrewd business decision to simply get out of the way:
Maker resorted to good old-fashioned physicality later in the quarter, hitting Giannis in the face on a drive to the rim. The result? Two more points for Giannis and a serenade by the Bucks crowd: “We don’t miss you!” Pour one out for Thon—his chances at any kind of revenge were swiftly squashed, and the Pistons’ Game 1 loss was in the books before the first quarter even finished.
Uggetti: If it weren’t for the playoff branding on the stanchions of Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, you’d think this was a random blowout in mid-January. Giannis ended up playing a total of only 23 minutes, which is 10 fewer than his season average. He finished with 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting and 17 rebounds. It seemed like he barely broke a sweat, and when he decided to really go for it, he ended up doing things like this:
In case you’re not an experienced lip reader, that’s Giannis saying, “I’m fucking unstoppable.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am certainly not going to be the one to argue with him. Detroit didn’t seem to have a chance. The Pistons were down by 30 a minute into the third quarter and as many as 43 in the game.
The Greek Freak is playing like he knows he’s the best player in the league before the MVP votes are even counted. That’s nightmare fuel for the Pistons, and the rest of the East.
Trail Blazers 104, Thunder 99
Winner: The Blazers Definitely, No Matter What, Won’t Be Swept This Year!
Haley O’Shaughnessy: I am enjoying Enes Kanter as a playoff hero. Talk about a guy who is ride or die, even when it means going against LeBron James and standing up for a brand-new team. Kanter deserves some fan adoration. Damian Lillard, though, has to be Portland’s hero.
Dame Time is great until the clock runs slow. The Blazers have made first-round exits in the past two postseasons, both sweeps: one to the formidable Warriors, one to the Pelicans, an opponent they should’ve been able to contest. Over both, Lillard disappeared, averaging 23.1 points, 39.8 percent from the field, and 29 percent from behind the arc. The first to be praised, the first to be blamed.
On Sunday, the praiseworthy Lillard showed up: 30 points, four assists, four rebounds, three steals (and, OK, six turnovers). His 14 points in the fourth ensured a Portland victory, despite a late OKC push. A Lillard 30-footer with 2:23 remaining took a one-point game and pushed it to an eventually insurmountable two-possession gap. Most importantly, no matter what happens the rest of the series, thank Lillard for the guarantee that this year, Portland won’t get swept.
Loser: OKC, When Shooting Their Shot Isn’t Enough
O’Shaughnessy: You’re building a franchise. Say you have two stars already. Now, which surrounding cast would you rather have: those around Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum or those around Paul George and Russell Westbrook? It’s no question after OKC and Portland’s opening playoff game. The Blazers’ bench may have been outscored 21 to 18, but they were nearly perfect from 3, while the Thunder reserves went 0-for-9 from deep. Enes Kanter isn’t the player Steven Adams is—obviously, the Thunder kept one and let one go—and yet he had a revenge game, scoring 20 points to go along with 18 rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and a steal—two blocks and 11 defensive rebounds against the coach who previously assessed Kanter’s defense as unplayable. Lillard and McCollum totaled more points (54) than Westbrook and George (50) but had less pressure on their shoulders. No Thunder player outside of George and Terrance Ferguson managed a make from beyond the perimeter; Oklahoma City shot 15.2 percent from 3.
The Thunder went shot for shot with the Blazers at the beginning of the game—shot for shot, not make for make. By Portland’s sixth 3 (which came in the first quarter), OKC was 0-for-6; by Portland’s eighth, OKC was 0-for-8. It took nine tries for one to sink.
To some degree, that is, as previously mentioned, a role-player problem. But it becomes a superstar problem when George, the team’s only reliable deep shooter, isn’t making his shots. Maybe the shoulder injury that kept him out for three games in February and March has not fully healed—he dipped to a 34.8 percent rate from 3 post-injury as opposed to 39.8 percent pre-injury. It could be the reason that George had a Westbrookian 3-point performance on Sunday (4-for-15); thank the basketball gods that the man can get to the charity stripe and make his free throws.
Shooting has been the Thunder’s woe all season. Westbrook can take it inside, but he’ll never be reliable from deep. Neither will the rest of the roster, outside of George. If PG is having an off-night, Oklahoma City better hope its opponent is, too. It seems relevant to add that the Blazers are the ninth-best 3-point shooting team in the league and hit 44 percent Sunday.
Loser: My Brain
O’Shaughnessy: Steven. Steve. Friend. Mate. My guy. WHAT in the fresh Kiwi hell is this?
Steven Adams was ready to risk it all pic.twitter.com/EBXbLVncdy— NBA RETWEET (@RTNBA) April 14, 2019
Look, it takes vulnerability to go up for a dunk. I know. You could be viciously blocked and have a bunch of memes made about your life, as the internet says it, being over. You could get RIPs in your Twitter mentions. Or “retire bitch.” Maybe, if your mom’s brutal enough and the block is bad enough, you’ll get it via a text from the woman who created you. I don’t know. I don’t care. WHAT in the absolute, Aquaman-underwater hell is this?
Steven Adams a voulu assassine son pote pic.twitter.com/4PslzrjCCj— First Team (@FirstTeam101) April 14, 2019
This dunk attempt didn’t even reset the shot clock. It looked like Adams blocked himself! He was defended by his former teammate and friend, Enes “Can’t Play” Kanter, who was nicknamed “Can’t Play” Kanter after a Thunder possession in which then-coach Billy Donovan told his assistant coach he Can’t Play Kanter BECAUSE ENES KANTER CAN’T PLAY DEFENSE (though it was viable in this game).
Adams had a great game—17 points and nine boards. But that dunk is what will be burned in my memory like there’s grill marks on my freakin’ brain. You put grill marks on my freakin’ brain, Steven Adams.
Celtics 84, Pacers 74
Loser: The Pacers First Unit
O’Shaughnessy: There’s a world in which the Pacers beat the Celtics in this series. No, I’m not kidding, and no, I’m not an aspiring screenwriter setting the stage for one of those sports movies when the underdog team mysteriously triumphs after a workout montage. (Though those Hoosiers can relate.) Indiana’s current predicament is similar to Boston’s last year at this time, when the C’s advanced past the Bucks in the first round: a team of role players uniting after the loss of its best player. Boston’s struggle to reintegrate its stars, even over the course of 82 games, should give Indiana some hope, too.
But for the Pacers to actually pull this off, every member of their pack has to be at their best. No one Pacer can compete with Kyrie Irving, or even with Good, Rookie-Year Jayson Tatum. Luckily for the Pacers, those guys have only showed up for stretches this season. Unluckily for the Pacers, I wouldn’t rate a 29-point half—which is exactly what Indiana scored in the back end of Sunday’s loss—as a peak performance. Nor would I describe, even on my kindest of days, scoring as many field goals (two) total as Marcus Morris did alone in the third quarter as anything but a low. The second half was a disaster: No starter hit a field goal in the second half until Bojan Bogdanovic made a layup with 6:53 left in the fourth.
Indiana’s eight third-quarter points—a product of 2-for-19 shooting overall and 0-for-8 from deep—is the fewest in a playoff quarter since 2016. The Pacers turned the ball over five times in the third frame, the same number of times that they gave it up in the entire first half.
Third quarters have been an issue for Nate McMillan for some time now: In March, Indiana’s net rating was the second-worst in the league at -17.2 (and -37.2 on the road). Those figures mirror what went wrong on Sunday: shoddy shooting and turnovers galore. If Indiana can’t figure out a way to hold it down after halftime, its feel-good run will end here.
Winner: The Return of National TV Kyrie
O’Shaughnessy: Long live National TV Kyrie Irving, the most bearable of all Kyrie Irvings. (Kidding—who doesn’t enjoy a good conspiracy theory?) Irving was his All-Star, Cavaliers self on Sunday: 20 points on 6-for-17 shooting, perfect from the line, seven assists, five rebounds, and two steals.
Boston ended the first half with its lowest total since November 11 and down 45-38. Irving, who notched eight points in the third to match all Pacers, was also one of the only visually bearable parts in an otherwise ugly game:
Tatum went 3-for-3 from behind the arc and finished with 15 points, and Marcus Morris had one of his hero games, equaling Irving’s 20 points. But Boston shot 32.5 percent from the field, Indiana shot 41.3 percent, and the final point total made for the lowest-scoring game in the entire NBA this season. Here’s to hoping—for the sake of our eyes—Natty TV Irving continues to cook in Game 2.