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Eleven Thoughts and Questions From the NBA Playoff Openers

What do the injuries to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ja Morant mean for the first round? With all eight series underway, we examine ailing stars, the Cavaliers’ glaring weakness, Old Man LeBron, and more.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA playoffs have finally arrived. In honor of the postseason tipping off, here are 11 thoughts from opening weekend, which, coming off the regular season we just had, was predictably unpredictable in ways both highly enjoyable and a little sad.

1. Injuries continue to be the worst.

Why can’t we have nice things? Paul George will reportedly miss the entire first round, robbing us of a potential classic clash between two teams that are good enough to win it all. Ja Morant’s nightmare season continued, after he used his injured right hand to break his fall, leaving his Game 2 status in doubt. Giannis Antetokounmpo left in the second quarter and did not return to Milwaukee’s disappointing home loss after landing on his back following a midair collision. Later on in that same game Tyler Herro fractured his hand diving for a loose ball. He’ll miss four to six weeks.

Right now we don’t know how long Giannis or Morant will be sidelined. What we do know is the Grizzlies and Bucks both lost on Sunday. It’s too soon for either team to panic, though. Memphis is thin up front but extremely well coached and knows how to win without its franchise point guard. Tyus Jones is awesome and Taylor Jenkins has some other options on his bench that weren’t utilized in Game 1. (John Konchar to the rescue!) If the Grizzlies can rebound, keep L.A. out of transition, and hope Superstar Rui Hachimura reverts back to Regular Rui Hachimura, they’ll have a chance.

Meanwhile, the Bucks have been in the playoffs without Antetokounmpo before. He missed two games during the 2021 Eastern Conference finals and Milwaukee won both by double digits. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday will obviously need to carry larger offensive roles, but the Bucks can also ask more of Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis. Both are capable of asserting themselves on the block against a small Heat front line that won’t be able to clone Bam Adebayo.

Overall, this stinks for obvious reasons. And, depending on how serious some of these injuries actually are, all expectations for the playoffs could flip upside down. Here’s to everyone else staying healthy forever.

2. The Cavaliers’ glaring weakness is worse than we thought.

When the Cavaliers traded for Donovan Mitchell last summer, I didn’t agree with anyone who thought the Cavaliers should be considered a contender. This doubt had less to do with Mitchell’s star power and more to do with two critical issues with Cleveland’s roster that would really matter in the playoffs:

1. Spacing. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone in the strongside corner get ignored, by both teams, like Evan Mobley was in Game 1:

2. Perimeter defense. Put another way, despite having one of the best starting backcourts (Mitchell, Darius Garland) and frontcourts (Mobley, Jarrett Allen) in the league, the Cavs didn’t have a reliable two-way wing who could bother an opponent’s top scorer on one end and then accentuate their best players on the other.

This hole widened in the last eight minutes of Game 1, when Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff decided to close with Cedi Osman guarding a volcanic Jalen Brunson. Osman played just three minutes in the first half, but with Isaac Okoro unable to keep New York’s defense honest (he finished 0-for-4 from behind the arc) and the Cavs down double digits, there might not have been a better option at his disposal.

All things considered, Osman didn’t do a terrible job. But even on the plays where he forced a miss, Cleveland couldn’t keep Josh Hart, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson off the boards, giving up 11 second-chance points in the fourth quarter. The Cavaliers really did not want to give up switches involving Mitchell or Garland, and Osman battled through screens to stay with New York’s leading scorer. But when push came to shove, he spit-roasted as the main course at Brunson’s BBQ:

Game 1 was a coin flip that went the Knicks’ way. The Cavaliers can definitely still win this series. It’s unlikely that Mobley will shoot 30 percent again, or forget to box out down the stretch. But the Cavs’ team-wide issues aren’t going anywhere, so long as their roster is constructed as it is.

3. Sacramento never took its foot off the gas.

It’s hard to analyze Game 1 between the Kings and Warriors analytically. It was basketball bliss. Unreal shotmaking, back-and-forth, up-and-down, in a purely jubilant environment that saw 16 years’ worth of passion pop off for two straight hours. But there are takeaways worth considering and questions worth asking, of course.

Even though we mostly know who the Warriors are and how they want to play, we don’t know who their five best players are in this matchup, which they now trail 0-1. Gary Payton II played only three minutes in the fourth quarter but was on the floor for the game’s final 90 seconds. His defense against De’Aaron Fox, who scored a game-high 38 points and had one of the most impressive playoff debuts in NBA history, could very well decide this series.

On the other side in Game 1, Malik Monk became Michael Jordan, Domantas Sabonis had one of his worst games of the season, Trey Lyles dominated, and Alex Len held his own! It’s not clear whether any of this is sustainable. But if the Warriors go small with GPII from here, it’ll be at the expense of Kevon Looney, a critical inside presence who can check Sabonis.

One question I have about Sacramento is related to its pace. The Kings had the best offense in the NBA this season and they played at an absolute blur in Game 1. Can they keep it up for an entire series, after turning 36.4 percent of their defensive rebounds into transition opportunities (Sacramento led the league at 35.1 percent during the regular season)?

Playoff games are supposed to be about half-court execution, patience, and order. The Kings, instead, turned Game 1 into a furious rally. It was one of the most enjoyable and thrilling battles I’ve watched all season.

4. Brooklyn’s defensive gamble almost paid off.

The biggest story from Sixers-Nets was all the 3-point shots Philadelphia made as Brooklyn consistently double-teamed Joel Embiid. Almost every time he touched the ball, the Nets sent a second man over to swarm. A few times Embiid tried to attack before the help could arrive, shot over the top, or misread a coverage. But more often than not, the season’s potential MVP winner responded with quick passes that punished Brooklyn’s aggression. It led to a franchise playoff-high 21 made 3s and a 3.56-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (fourth best in any game for Philly this season).

By the second half, Embiid was in total control. He patiently waited for help to come, then picked Brooklyn apart. (Philadelphia’s All-Star center finished with only three assists but if you watched the game—reason no. 472 box scores should not be trusted—you saw the Embiid-led Sixers beat the Nets time and time again off his passes.)

But considering why Brooklyn lost Game 1 (way too many turnovers, 21 second-chance points allowed) and how relatively limited Embiid was (he made only seven baskets), it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Jacque Vaughn decides to roll out the exact same approach in Game 2.

“Obviously you saw a game plan of not letting Joel get off early. He had seven shot attempts at halftime,” Vaughn said after the game. “So strategy, check, good.”

The double-teams came like clockwork, regardless of where Embiid stood on the floor. He could be at the nail, on the block, or damn near behind the 3-point line. The Nets didn’t care. They came early. They waited for him to put it on the floor. They switched up their timing and their angle, often switching an initial ball screen only to double back with immediate pressure. It wasn’t perfect, but the overall results were something they can live with. (The Sixers’ shot quality in Game 1 was 51.32, which only ranks in the 43rd percentile for them this season, per Second Spectrum.)

Vaughn should feel OK, too, about the shots his scheme gave up. Plays like this, with James Harden having to create space and sink a contested stepback 3 late in the shot clock after an otherwise sound series of defensive rotations. “That’s just part of basketball,” Vaughn said after the game. “You pat him on the back and say ‘good shot.’”

According to Second Spectrum, Harden and Embiid hooked up for only nine pick-and-rolls in Game 1. That’s their lowest total this season. This is what Brooklyn wants. If it can execute as well in Game 2 (and realize the defensive possession isn’t over once a shot goes up), it just may tie this series.

5. James Harden was good. Can he be great?

For someone whose health was a question mark entering the postseason’s opening weekend, Harden looked fine in Game 1. He finished with 23 points and 13 assists, got downhill against favorable matchups, and was plenty comfortable creating space for himself on the perimeter. His stepback was in vintage form, one chef’s kiss after another. (Harden finished 7-for-13 behind the arc.)

But after watching the entire performance unfold, there’s still some cause for concern. Item no. 1 is pretty much every shot Harden took inside the arc, be it in transition or off a blowby in the half court. He drew zero shooting fouls and finished 1-for-8 in the paint. None of it was pretty.

Afterward, he said he felt good, pointing out that he played 13 straight minutes—from the end of the first quarter up until halftime—without any physical issue. That’s good. Less so was his defense. If there’s one adjustment Brooklyn needs to make in Game 2, it’s to force Harden to guard Mikal Bridges way more than he did in Game 1:

The Nets put Harden in ball screens a decent amount, but most came with Spencer Dinwiddie initiating the action. They weren’t nearly as purposeful or organized as they could be. Sometimes they tried to get the matchup they wanted, but then let Philadelphia switch out of it:

Harden was good in Game 1, but that type of performance won’t cut it against more disciplined teams that are intent on poking at his defensive weaknesses, demanding he score over size around the basket. When those tough pull-up 3s aren’t falling, how else can he be a star?

6. How will Mikal Bridges adjust?

Bridges looked like a star in the first two quarters, flying off dribble handoffs and rising off ball screens against Philly’s drop coverage. He scored 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting in the first half. But Doc Rivers made an obvious and important adjustment in the third quarter, bumping Embiid up higher on those actions to meet Bridges closer to the point of attack and force a pass:

Bridges made [squints] two shots in the second half and had zero assists. Should Embiid stay high in Game 2—not something he’s done too often because it’s tiring and takes him out of the paint—Brooklyn’s go-to scorer has to keep the Sixers in rotation by getting off the ball a beat quicker.

This is what the playoffs are all about. Everyone who’s watched the past two months of Nets basketball knows Bridges can mutilate a defense off the dribble from 15 feet. When that gets taken away, though, can he respond by anticipating help and zipping passes to the weakside corner? Will he look for Nic Claxton earlier on a roll and trust his teammates to take advantage of a four-on-three edge?

Bridges is awesome. The strides he’s made in a Nets jersey are more than anyone could’ve expected. But he’s never had to play as a lead option in the playoffs. This is new to him; the shape of his learning curve will go a long toward deciding whether Brooklyn can generate enough good looks to be competitive in this series.

7. Derrick White’s confidence knows no bounds.

Derrick White was a fully realized revelation for the Celtics this season. He provided excellent defense, efficient shotmaking, and one of the best plus/minus marks in the league. He didn’t miss any games and started 70 of them, competing every night as one of the three or four best players on a title contender.

In Game 1, the Hawks thought it was a good idea to put Trae Young on him. White responded by channeling the spirit of a young Dion Waiters, scoring 16 points on seven shots in the first half. Two of his attempts were particularly telling: pull-up 3s against nonexistent resistance.

Young’s effort is inexcusable on both plays. But last year White might not even have been in a situation to make Atlanta pay. And if he had been, there would’ve been a decent chance he wouldn’t have attacked like he did. Right now, though, opponents should have him high on their scouting report.

There was one possession late in the second quarter when White either broke off a set designed to get Jayson Tatum the ball, or took advantage of a play called for him to attack Young while Tatum served as a decoy. Either way, it showed how far White has come and how dangerous he currently is. It’s unclear who Young should/can/will guard in this series—the Celtics do not employ Reggie Bullock—but White isn’t the guy.

In the second half, Quin Snyder moved one of his best defenders, Dejounte Murray, onto White—pitting two former Spurs against one another. It helped tamper some of White’s aggression, but the faucet couldn’t be completely turned off. NBA players are extremely confident people, but White’s self-belief wavered last year. Now, it’s brimming.

8. Rob Williams looks like Rob Williams again.

There is no more important X factor in these playoffs. When Williams is healthy, the Celtics reach a level pretty much no other team can. Throughout Boston’s Game 1 shellacking of the Hawks, Williams was, indeed, healthy, finishing with 12 points (on 6-for-6 shooting), eight boards, and one block on Jalen Johnson that should send a chill down the spine of every other team in the Eastern Conference:

A few minutes later, Williams flashed his range and twitchy athleticism in a different way:

This came at the end of the half in a specific situation, but the fact that Williams is able to move this well, even for just 20 seconds, is a good sign for the Celtics. He denies Trae Young in the backcourt, then brackets him for 50 feet before he flies into the paint like a bat out of hell to take away Saddiq Bey’s drive.

He flushed a few lobs, kept a couple of possessions alive by playing volleyball on the offensive glass, and, for almost 22 minutes, generally put the game on a tilt.

9. Austin Reaves might be playing too well.

Austin Powers! Are we looking at Jalen Brunson 2.0? As a restricted free agent this summer who’s eligible for the Arenas provision, if Reaves has a few more performances like he did in Game 1—with 14 fourth-quarter points and no missed shots—he may play himself into a contract that’s too rich for the Buss family’s blood.

10. The Lakers can’t make a run with this LeBron.

For probably the first time in his life, LeBron might not have been the first, second, or third best player on his own team (hello, Rui Hachimura) in Game 1. Despite a couple of chasedown blocks, some clutch rebounds, and one thunderous dunk midway through the first quarter, James very much looked like a 38-year-old who needs foot surgery.

He attempted just four free throws and drove the ball only five times, which tied his third-lowest mark this season, per Second Spectrum. One resulted in a nifty reverse layup along the baseline. Three came without any explosion or lift:

Throughout the game, LeBron settled for 3s (half of his attempts came from behind the arc) and—continuing a theme from the Lakers’ play-in rock fight vs. Minnesota—committed several careless turnovers. He allowed blowbys and was repeatedly beasted in the post by Jaren Jackson Jr. (who scored a game-high 31 points). In crunch time, the ball wasn’t in LeBron’s hands. (He took one shot in the fourth quarter.) He targeted Ja Morant in a pick-and-roll only one time, and settled for a pull-up 3 that clanged off the rim. James spent relatively long stretches disengaged, swinging the ball to teammates, displaying very little urgency.

Despite it all, the Lakers won this game semi-comfortably. But for them to actually make a title run—something I do not think they are anywhere close to doing!—and maybe even just win this series (pending Morant’s health) LeBron needs to be a top-10 player. It’s not impossible for him to look like that for the next several weeks, but against Dillon Brooks and a physical Grizzlies defense, it actually feels unlikely.

11. Don’t bet against Kawhi Leonard.

I picked the Clippers to beat the Suns in the first round because they have Kawhi Leonard. And, with all due respect to Kevin Durant, who is an all-time iconic basketball force and the most inevitable bucket I’ve ever seen … he isn’t Kawhi Leonard. While guarding KD for a good chunk of his 42 minutes, the two-time Finals MVP scored an efficient 38 points without ever making a single basket inside the restricted area. The Suns double- and triple-teamed him in crunch time. It didn’t matter. Leonard was robotic, efficient, and cutthroat. He hit boring jumpers, contested fallaways, and awkward leaners that could guarantee a letter in H-O-R-S-E.

According to Second Spectrum, all of Leonard’s 24 field goal attempts were contested and 16 were not assisted by a teammate; his shot quality was 39.8 percent and his effective field goal percentage was [stifles laughter] 60.4. He spent more time as Durant’s primary defender than any other Clipper, too, while Russell Westbrook shot 3-for-19 and, um, Paul George didn’t play. Decent performance, all around.