The madness started early in the NBA playoffs. Three underdogs—the Magic, Nets, and Spurs—took down their higher-seeded counterparts on Saturday, giving us one more Game 1 upset than all of last year’s Round 1 in the first day. But Boston rallied back from a first-half deficit to start Day 2, and the results stayed chalky from there. As we flip to Game 2s, here are six observations from the first eight games to keep in mind:
The Beard Has Left Utah Harebrained
Danny Chau: The Rockets aren’t a thorn in the Jazz’s side. They’re more like a virus, swimming in the bloodstream, endlessly reconfiguring itself to better drain the life out of a particularly susceptible victim. Utah happened into its kryptonite: Houston is a team that, at any point will have, at the very least, three ball handlers on the floor, all having been given a vote of confidence to force and attack mismatches at will.
The two-man game has long been the link between the two poles of the positional spectrum, where the guard and the big man coalesce to form a coherent union; ironically, the Utah is arguably the most iconic home of the traditional pick-and-roll in history. For the Rockets, however, their lethal offensive tango doesn’t have any restrictions; point guards will screen for their shooting guard, so long as it can produce a favorable switch in partners. Houston, with James Harden as its stylistic and systemic avatar, will take whatever it is you dish out and reroute it against you in the bluntest way possible. D’Antoni, long known for truncating his rotation, went 10 deep Sunday, and seven different players scored in double figures; even the reserves profited from the same basic game script.
Harden, specifically, has become the ultimate read-option quarterback, and, in Game 1, he appeared to be honing his processing speed for the matchup ahead. The Jazz opted to shade Harden right much of the game, a strategy effectively deployed by various elite teams during the regular season. But all year long, Harden has proved that making plays doesn’t require getting into the teeth of the defense. Not when you’re elusive enough to completely sidestep the defense. All the attention Harden commanded meant there were potential lobs and corner 3s galore, and though Rudy Gobert can occupy the space of two players when he’s couched down around the paint, he is still human—he can’t deny the corner and wall off a lob attempt. Harden had 10 assists on the night: six went for dunks, four went for 3-pointers. All in all, the Beard was responsible for 53 points in under 33 minutes.
Gobert is Utah’s defensive fulcrum and has improved by leaps and bounds defending in space compared with where he started from. But he may never be truly equipped to handle the balletic grenadiers that make up Houston’s primary (and secondary) line of attack.
Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse Fails His First Test
Chau: The regular season was Nurse’s laboratory for six months. The NBA’s most visually poindexterous head coach experimented with lineup permutation after lineup permutation—occasionally at the expense of easy wins—in a greater pursuit of knowledge. Kawhi Leonard’s “load management” mandate, which kept him out back-to-back games to keep his body fresh for the long haul, funneled into Nurse’s impulses: He needed to know what he could get out of his non-superstars. But so much of the narrative surrounding these Raptors broadcasts how this season would be different from the five prior; how Leonard would be unmoored. So, uh, what happened on Saturday against the Magic, Nick?
Leonard averaged 34 minutes per game in 60 regular-season games. He played 33 in Toronto’s 104-101 Game 1 loss, a sort of recurring nightmare that has seemingly embedded itself permanently within the team’s playoff DNA; the Raptors are now 2-14 all time in Game 1s. Given how effective Leonard was scoring in limited time (25 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 3-of-5 from 3), that lone minute disparity could have been the difference.
Since the deadline, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the team’s lack of size on the bench; the only perimeter player taller than 6-foot-4 is second-year forward OG Anunoby, who will likely miss most of the postseason recovering from an emergency appendectomy. Anunoby gave the Raptors a defensive wildcard—a player who would theoretically allow the Raptors to downsize without giving up a strength advantage in the frontcourt. Without him, as we saw in Game 1, the Raptors are forced to go full Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The second-most-used lineup on Saturday had Serge Ibaka and Siakam up front with a three-guard backcourt of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell, whose average listed height is a tick under 6-foot-2. Their lack of size and penetration ability played right into the outstretched arms of Orlando’s cadre of strong, long-limbed wings.
The Raptors shouldn’t be too worried about the state of the series. They still have the talent advantage, and have all the weapons to neutralize the Magic’s most dangerous players: D.J. Augustin may have gone off, but Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, and Terrence Ross combined to go 11-for-35 from the field. Toronto also has a very obvious solution on their hands: Be true to their word, and let Kawhi cook. But the Raptors are undoubtedly vulnerable; without the depth and versatility that they touted earlier in the season, they’ll be far more reliant on Leonard and Siakam’s individual brilliance to carry them. Nurse’s job is no longer about experimentation. It’s about ensuring that nature takes its course.
Maybe the Warriors Should Have a Little Less Boogie
Justin Verrier: DeMarcus Cousins waited almost nine years to play in his first NBA postseason game. It ended midway through the fourth quarter with a literal bang:
The Golden State Warriors have tried for three months to fit Cousins’s brute force into their beautiful game, but outside of a few fleeting moments when they’ve leaned hard into Boogie Ball, it has functioned more like adding a euphonium to the Rolling Stones. Cousins ended Saturday’s 121-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers a minus-17, despite playing the bulk of his 21 minutes with the staters. He also had six turnovers and missed all but one of the four shots the Clippers were happy to give him above the foul line.
When Cousins subbed out for the last time, the Warriors could breathe again. After a careless turnover (an integral part of even the best Warriors teams), Steph Curry grabbed one of his 15 rebounds on the night, got the ball back from 28 feet out on the other end and drilled the 3. Kevin Durant stuffed Danilo Gallinari on the other end. Andre Iguodala checked in for Shaun Livingston to unleash the Hamptons 5, and Durant went full Giannis, rumbling down the lane for a dunk that, for all intents and purposes, ended the game. The Warriors gained only two points on their lead, but they played with a precision and confidence seen only in the best of times; Durant would get tossed soon thereafter for tussling with Patrick Beverley, but even that may have been his most endearing moment since winning his second Finals MVP.
In 13 minutes, the Warriors’ starting lineup was a minus-22.5 net rating; swap Cousins for a suddenly bouncy Iggy and it jolts to 46.7 in six minutes (see what happens when Draymond Green makes a damn shot?). Kevon Looney, Cousins’s primary backup, was also plus-30. Cousins’s bully tactics and skilled passing still have a place in these playoffs, especially against Houston, a team he’s brutalized in years past. But if opponents continue to size down, as the Clippers did in Game 1 to avoid Ivica Zubac’s baby-deer-on-ice minutes, it may be best to think of Cousins as this year’s JaVale McGee rather than the final infinity stone.
Wherefore Art Thou Like This, Ben Simmons?
Chau: Given what’s going on with the Sixers’ two most important players, it’s clear that the team, down 1-0 to the underdog Nets after an embarrassing 111-102 loss Saturday, is playing on no legs. Joel Embiid, gutting through a bout of knee tendinitis, is clearly not himself—that’s one leg down. Simmons’s issue is that he is immutably himself—that’s the other.
Though Simmons is a player who thrives in space, what has become clearer and clearer with each passing game is how flawed his spatial awareness actually is. Simmons operates at two speeds: full-throttle and stationary; it’s when he’s forced to transition from the former to the latter where things get wonky.
His elite vision and passing touch is obstructed by several complicating factors, and it’s no secret that his lack of shooting ability is chief among them. But at least shooting is something we know he can’t do. It’s another thing entirely when he squanders his own talent on a break by impeding the progress of his own teammate trying to fill the lane. Simmons’s impulse is always to get into open spaces as quickly as possible, which either means moving directly into the path of his teammates, or moving so quickly that by the time he delivers the pass, the window has already slammed shut.
With Tobias Harris filling the lane on a play early in the second quarter, it’s the former:
With Jimmy Butler on a point-blank fast break, it’s a little bit of both:
When he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, his tendency to linger down around the paint and baseline often just leave him as flotsam on any given possession. Here he is getting pinball-machined by Jarrett Allen, D’Angelo Russell, and his own teammate, Embiid:
Game 1 quickly became a referendum on the process after the Process. With Embiid banged up, the Sixers need star insurance in the near and distant future, but Simmons’s single-minded game has consistently turned him into a pumpkin in the postseason. Butler and Harris could very well be gone if things continue to sour. Simmons needs to find a way to make a difference in this series and beyond, or, at the very least, get out of the way.
Boston Has a Switch; Indiana Has an Outage
Verrier: Things have gotten so ugly for the Boston Celtics this season that even a routine finger roll on a breakaway from Jayson Tatum induces a wince. (Mercifully, it rolled in.) But while favorites fell left and right during Saturday’s Red Wedding of top seeds, the Celtics, a nuclear reactor of locker-room chemistry waiting to blow, turned an upset into an easy win on Sunday with one dominant quarter. The Indiana Pacers led by as many as 11 in the first half; then, they scored just eight points—eight!—in the third. Indy made two field goals the entire quarter, and one was a goaltend:
The Celtics’ defense got more physical fighting through screens coming out of halftime—even Kyrie Irving took off the white gloves for stretches—and forced a Pacers team that averaged the second-fewest 3-point attempts in the league following the loss of Victor Oladipo into mostly contested 3s and long 2s. Still, 1-for-14 from 3 over the second half from a team that usually makes them when they take them is some next-level comeuppance; Indy’s 29 points over the third and fourth were also the fourth-fewest in a half for any NBA team this season.
Boston was hardly scorching the nets, either. “Did we score 90 points?” Irving asked the assembled press afterward. Nope, sure didn’t. But winning this 84-74 mudwrestling match still bears some encouraging signs for the Celtics. There’s a lot of eye-of-the-beholder material in Game 1s, especially in one decided by such an extreme event like the Pacers’s shooting amnesia. You can say that Indy won’t shoot that poorly again. You can say that a Celtics defense that ranked among the league’s elite in the early season returned, or that all Brad Stevens needs is 15 minutes with a whiteboard to expose an opponent’s biggest flaw. Honestly, I’m not sure any of it is totally correct. But you can say that the more talented found a way, and that’s saying a lot given the baggage Boston carried into the postseason.
Whether or not the Celtics can flip a switch like last year looms large in these playoffs. It seems less likely that’ll happen after the loss of Marcus Smart (torn oblique) for four to six weeks (Irving mentioned his absence to the press, too), but with the Raptors and Sixers in even worse shape coming out of the weekend, it also doesn’t seem impossible.
Things I’d Rather Watch Than the Rest of the Bucks-Pistons Series
- An inconsistent Spanish dub of Criss Angel Mindfreak, where the language, for whatever reason, shifts from Spanish to English and back every five minutes.
- All 12 Raptors playoff losses since 2016 that came at the hands of LeBron James, in reverse chronological order.
- The BBC’s live feed of the UK House of Commons (which is actually delightful), on mute.
- The DVR I have of this 81-70 overtime thriller between the Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers in 2015.
- Ugh, Game of Thrones.
The Second West Finals Participant May Be Decided by … Enes Kanter?
Verrier: For all the hullabaloo over the buyout market, late-season signings rarely have an effect on the title race. A Boris Diaw or a Marco Belinelli comes along every now and then, but there are far more Wayne Ellingtons and Deron Williamses on the spring transaction logs. (After all, teams usually don’t pay good players to stay away.) Yet, here we are, finally on the big stage, and Knicks castoff Enes Kanter may hold the keys to a Western Conference finals berth.
All the rest days and last-game shenanigans in the West have left us in a situation where the conference’s two best teams, the Warriors and Rockets, would collide in the second round instead of the third. On the other side of the bracket are four teams that, in most years, would be yadda-yadda fodder yet now have a clear runway to the conference finals: the Nuggets and Spurs, and the Trail Blazers and Thunder. All have fatal flaws, and all of those flaws were put under the microscope this weekend. We fretted over the Nuggets’ lack of postseason experience and lack of a go-to scorer in crunch time coming into the playoffs, and that’s exactly what felled them against San Antonio in Game 1. The Spurs, on the other hand, looked sharp in Denver, and got boosts from That Guys-in-training Derrick White (16 points) and Bryn Forbes (3-for-4 from 3); still, shooting nearly half as many 3s as your opponent is a math problem they won’t be able to solve on nights when they don’t shoot 50 percent from behind the line. Meanwhile, Paul George is starting to look more like Andre Roberson than MV-P (4-for-15 from 3) because of his shoulder injury.
Which brings us to Kanter. The very online center was waived by the worst team in basketball two months ago and quickly scooped up by Portland for frontcourt depth. Jusuf Nurkic’s leg gave out about a month later, and Kanter was elevated to the starting unit—a dicey proposition for any playoff team, let alone one finally ready to hope again after last year’s first-round shellacking. But the Blazers were 6-2 with Kanter as a starter to close the regular season, and in the Blazers’ 104-99 win over the Thunder, the big lug scored 20, pulled down 18 rebounds (seven on the offensive glass), and even played passable defense. “He gives great effort,” Terry Stotts told reporters postgame about Kanter’s D. (I promise that’s a compliment.)
The question now is whether Kanter can keep it up. The Blazers, believe it or not, have been the fifth-best team in basketball since the start of 2019, with ratings and a record similar to the suddenly indomitable Rockets. But their center rotation is a horror show—sophomore Zach Collins is so shaky that Meyers Leonard rose from the dead for five minutes Sunday. But if Kanter can continue to provide 30ish credible minutes, Portland could coast past OKC. (I want to see what happens if the Thunder try to go small with Jerami Grant at the 5; then again, that opens up George to more pounding and forces OKC to pretend it has more than two credible wings.) And while a date with Denver may not be as easy (the Blazers were 1-3 against them during the regular season), it’s hard to envision the Spurs keeping up in a track meet with the league’s third-best offense. After all that hand-wringing, Portland may have the inside edge to be the Warriors’ (or Rockets’?!) final in-conference feeding, and it’s all because of this guy.