Day 1 of the 2020 NBA Playoffs, bubble edition, is in the books, and what was an otherwise thrilling day of hoops went out, as LeBron James said, on a 'bogus' note. In a tweet that spoke for just about everyone who watched Kristaps Porzingis get tossed from Dallas' series opener vs. the Clippers (a game it eventually lost), LeBron summed up one of the most disappointing events in an NBA playoff game I can recall.
Porzingis should not have been ejected. We'll get into this more below, but let's just be clear from the start: This was a ridiculous ruling, and it could have cost the Mavericks a Game 1 upset of the Clippers.
Earlier, the Utah Jazz squandered a 57-point performance from Donovan Mitchell (who, to be fair, had an eight-second hand in his own demise) by losing to the Nuggets in overtime; the 76ers' offense continues to be almost impossible to stomach; and the Nets ... well, the Nets won't be in the bubble for much longer. The Raptors made them look like a JV team on Monday.
With all that said, let's get to it. Here are three main takeaways from Monday's playoff openers.
1. The Mavericks got hosed
When Porzingis was ejected at the 9:10 mark of the third quarter, the Mavericks had a five-point lead (71-66). They were outscored by 13 the rest of the way. And there's your eight-point margin in a 118-110 Clippers victory. Now, nobody can sit here and say the Mavericks would've won the game had Porzingis stuck around. But Dallas deserved to find out.
After going down 18-2 right out of the gate, Dallas outscored the Clippers 48-18 to take a 14-point lead less than halfway through the second quarter. There's a reasonable alternate reality in which the Mavericks were simply the better team Monday night.
Porzingis received an iffy technical foul in the first half for momentarily showing a modicum of emotion after what replays confirmed to be a pretty suspect foul call, and then he got his second, and apparently ejection-worthy, tech for this:
For what it's worth, former official Steve Javie, working for ESPN, said on the broadcast that he believes the officials made the right call on Porzingis' second tech, saying he came into the situation not as a peacemaker but as an escalator. That is highly debatable.
At worst, the guy made a minor mistake. A misdemeanor. You don't throw the death penalty at him. I don't want to hear anything about the letter of the law or the officials had no choice. Bull ... you know what. They had a choice. An official always has discretion. Use it. The playoffs are emotional. Guys are going to react in the heat of the moment. You already gave the guy one weak tech. Don't double down on your own mistake and potentially strip a team of a playoff victory, or at least a fair chance at one.
For the record, the team that wins Game 1 of an NBA playoff series goes on to win the series over 76 percent of the time. Which is to say, the officials might've just decided this entire series with one jumpy call. Not right.
2. Doncic, Mitchell history wasted
Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic both made history on Monday night. And they both lost. Mitchell scored 57 points in Utah's 135-125 overtime loss to the Nuggets, the highest mark in Jazz playoff history and the third highest scoring output in NBA playoff history, trailing only Michael Jordan's 63 points at Boston in 1986 and Elgin Baylor's 61 points vs. Boston in 1962.
Meanwhile, Doncic -- who finished with 42 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, three steals and ... 11 turnovers -- became the first player in history to score 40 points in a playoff debut and just the fourth player under the age of 21 to put up 40 in a playoff game, joining LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Tracy McGrady.
Doncic's history was wasted, potentially, by the refs, which is a tragedy (those 11 turnovers didn't help, either). But Mitchell, as crazy as this sounds for a guy who scored 57 points, might've done himself in.
With 1:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, Utah had a four-point lead and possession. That's what they refer to as the driver's seat. But after Mitchell took the inbound pass, he proceeded to walk the ball up a little too casually, focusing on directing traffic rather than how long he was taking to get it across half court. And it cost him. Just before he crossed the time line, at the 1:46 mark, the whistle blew. Eight-second violation.
On the ensuing play, Jamal Murray did this:
That is a monster swing. From potentially taking a six- or seven-point lead with a minute and a half to play to only being up one. Denver eventually tied the game and sent it to overtime, where Utah fell apart, and that was that. Denver takes a 1-0 series lead.
"That's my fault as a leader and as a point guard at that time," Mitchell said of the violation, via ESPN. "That's terrible on my part. ... There's really no one else to put it on. I was just taking my time walking it up, and I've got to be more aware. I think that was a crucial part of the game. At the end of the day, I'm not going to put it all on that one play, but that was a crucial part."
It really is a shame. Mitchell was so brilliant in this game. He generated 75 points via points and assists. Only four other players have ever generated that much offense in a playoff game: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Allen Iverson and Russell Westbrook. And the Jazz still lost. Without Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley, Mitchell's offensive burden is remarkably heavy on a Jazz team that -- unless you're going to count Jordan Clarkson -- doesn't really have one other player who can create consistent offense. Mitchell has to do it all. He tried on Monday. He had 57 points. But the number he'll be thinking about for a long time is eight.
3. Philly's offense is a mess
The Sixers lost on Monday night to the Celtics, 109-101. I still have no idea how it was that close, let alone how Philly actually had every chance to win this game before Boston pulled away late. In short, the Sixers' half-court offense is failure of both design (and by this I mostly mean roster construction) and execution. Watching these guys try to create any kind of space, let alone a decent look at the basket, in a half-court setting is honestly painful.
Nobody can beat their guy off the dribble, meaning the defense never has to collapse, meaning there are never any open kick-outs to shooters (not that the Sixers have many of those, either, after trading away Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Landry Shamet while letting J.J. Redick -- not to mention Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli -- walk in free agency so they could sign Al Horford).
With hardly any spacing (even with Ben Simmons out), there is no schematic creativity to free guys up. At the end of what was a close game against Boston, the Sixers, either by design or courtesy of unbelievably terrible awareness and execution, went multiple possessions without even giving Joel Embiid a single touch in the post while Josh Richardson, Alec Burks and Tobias Harris called for pick-and-rolls when they weren't settling for pull-up 3-pointers.
This is Joel Embiid. Give him the ball!
Embiid wasn't great in this game. His recognition of double teams was a mess, and he turned the ball over way too much when Boston's perimeter defender dug down on him. After the game, Brett Brown was asked whether he had any interest in a lineup with four shooters around Embiid to create some more spacing and make it, theoretically, harder for Boston to double down on him.
"Zero," Brown said of his interest in deploying a four-shooter lineup. "This is — and it doesn't make me right — but this is my experience: I lived with Tim Duncan for five NBA Finals, four of which we won, in 12 years with Pop. And I'm very privileged to have experienced the world of the post player as it relates to spacing and schemes and how people came at him. And one thing that resonates the most is four on the perimeter is the easiest environment for defenses to double-team a post player and have the ability to put out fires as a result. It's too crowded. And so to occupy a low zone and space the court out interests me the most for the reasons that I just said."
It was Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer who asked the question, and O'Connor followed up with this: "Are you saying you're trying to make it an easier outlet for Embiid in the event of a double?"
Brow continued: "Really — and Kevin it's a good question and I love talking about it because it really is an offense all by itself. And it's in my opinion mostly driven out of the experience [with Duncan], as I just shared with you, that if you don't occupy the dunker, it's my opinion that when Marcus Smart or Tatum or Jaylen Brown goes down to double-team Joel — which they do often — if you pass out of that, their athletes can put out fires with 3-on-4 way easier than 2-on-3. And I think that you're in an offensive rebounding position also if you can occupy that dunker's spot. I think that the great dunkers, if you look over the years, they pretty much rendered the sport into a 4-on-4 game because they were just lethal, like, offensive rebounders down there, and playing sort of peek-a-boo in a big-big relationship. And so that's probably too much of a clinic, but that's what I think."
So here's the long and short of that answer: The dunker's spot is along the baseline. It would be on the opposite side of the paint if Embiid were posting up, and that dunker (which would likely be Ben Simmons if he were healthy) occupies a defender. So now if two guys go to Embiid, and one is on the dunker, that only leaves two perimeter defenders to scramble to three Philly shooters, rather than three defenders to scramble to cover four shooters.
It's true, two guys trying to rotate to cover the whole perimeter is harder than three guys. What Brown is saying makes sense. But with the way Embiid handled doubles on Monday, Brown's theory didn't play out in practice. And it's not like when Simmons is in the lineup and roaming around down low the Sixers' spacing is especially optimal.
Perhaps having another shooter would discourage the double-team in the first place. Of course, that would require employing actual good, threatening shooters, which Sixers GM Elton Brand apparently doesn't believe in. So here we are. Embiid getting double, and when he's not turning it over, he's kicking it out to non-shooters who also aren't good enough to consistently create offense off the dribble.
Like I said, it's a failure on all levels. And somehow, the Sixers still had a chance to win the game.