Plenty of experts picked the Dallas Mavericks to lose in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2011. They were the No. 3 seed, but they weren't a superteam and the opponent was no joke. Coach Rick Carlisle told them that it would be more like a second-round or even conference finals matchup.
To beat the Blazers in the opener, they needed six 3s from Jason Kidd and a massive fourth-quarter run led by Dirk Nowitzki. To win the series, they needed to bounce back from the Game 4 collapse -- and the Brandon Roy explosion -- that had evened it.
In retrospect, everything that powered the Mavericks' title run was on display against Portland. Nowitzki and Jason Terry closed games with clutch buckets. Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood made LaMarcus Aldridge work for his points. Kidd set the table, Shawn Marion filled in the gaps and a barrage of Peja Stojakovic 3s changed a game. Collectively, they were smart, balanced and resilient.
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If they were playing championship-caliber basketball, though, it went largely unrecognized. Plenty of experts again picked Dallas to lose in the second round against the Los Angeles Lakers, in the conference finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder and in the Finals against the Miami Heat.
The lesson here is that, while every series is different, first-round performance can be instructive. The second round starts Saturday, so here are six big-picture takeaways from the last two weeks:
1. The Suns are a throwback
The Phoenix Suns and those Mavericks have similarities that go beyond the fact that both of them upset the Lakers and sent LeBron James home. They were both excellent on both ends in the regular season and won about 70 percent of their games, but nobody was picking them to win the title. I'm not saying that the Suns are about to shock the world the way that Dallas did, but it's worth appreciating what they did against Los Angeles.
Deandre Ayton started the series with 21 points and 16 rebounds, and Devin Booker ended it with 47 points in 46 minutes on 15-for-22 shooting on Thursday -- not bad for their first playoff series. Cameron Payne went off in a blowout victory in Game 5 and allowed them to survive Chris Paul's shoulder injury. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder were exactly who they've been all along.
Phoenix is not a revolutionary team in any way. It does not shoot a crazy amount of 3s or spend all 48 minutes playing 5-out and switching everything. The Suns orbit around a traditional point guard and a traditional shooting guard, rather than do-everything superstars who defy categorization. Their up-and-coming center is also something of a throwback, given that he's not a screen-setting, lob-catching, shot-blocking role player, nor is he a floor-spacing, playmaking unicorn. All season, though, they've been more than the sum of their parts -- an organized, balanced and deep team that executes as well as anybody in the halfcourt.
There are areas of concern in Phoenix's matchup with the Denver Nuggets. The two-man game of Nikola Jokic and Monte Morris will present more problems than anything the banged-up Lakers threw at the Suns, and they're going to need Ayton to deal with it while avoiding foul trouble. There is also the matter of Paul's shoulder.
It would be unwise, however, to dismiss their victory as merely a product of Anthony Davis' groin injury. Don't know whether or not the Suns would have beaten the Lakers in an alternate universe where Davis had stayed healthy, but I'm pretty sure they could have. They didn't panic when LeBron engineered a last-gasp run in the second half of Game 6, and whenever the offense bogged down, they managed to return to the identity they've spent the season cultivating.
2. An attempt to glean something from the Beantown Beatown
I watched every minute of the five games between the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, three of them from the media section at Barclays Center. I can tell you that a fan wore a Kris Humphries jersey to Game 1 and a fan wore a Matthew Dellavedova jersey to Game 5. I can tell you that the Nets played the most efficient playoff series ever recorded. I cannot, however, say with any degree of confidence that I learned anything about Brooklyn's chances against the Milwaukee Bucks.
On offense, the Nets hunted mismatches, created advantages in isolation and were straight-up terrifying when the ball was moving and they were getting out in transition. On defense, they were a mixed bag. Their switching was pretty effective in terms of baiting Boston into one-on-one play, but the communication and help defense were much better in some games than others. Despite emphasizing it in every media session -- and, presumably, every practice -- they were horrible on the glass.
The opener was promising because Brooklyn won with defense. The second game was striking because the Nets' offense appeared to reach a higher plane. The third game was disappointing because the Celtics got just about whatever they wanted. Brooklyn scored a zillion points in Game 4 and Boston hung around in Game 5 until Brooklyn went bonkers in the fourth quarter.
The trouble with extrapolating from any of that is the Nets are about to enter a different universe. Ninety-five percent of the questions they face are about their defense, and going from defending those Celtics to these Bucks will be a shock to the system. It was surely good to get reps against Jayson Tatum's isolations, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is a different type of physical force, with a scarier supporting cast. Milwaukee's spacing is far superior, too.
On the other hand, we just saw the Miami Heat fail to make the Bucks deviate from their base defense or force Brook Lopez off the floor. Brooklyn has the personnel to completely annihilate drop coverage, and if that happens, Milwaukee will need to respond better than it has in the past couple of years. My main takeaway from the Nets' first series is that the Bucks should approach this one as if it were facing the same talent deficit that Boston did: Dominate the boards, target weaker defenders, don't get stagnant, don't turn it over, always get back in transition and stay out of rotation as much as possible.
3. Here's a weird thing!
Look at Tristan Thompson here:
Would you call that a screen? It's like a backscreen, but he's facing away from the man he's "screening." Thompson did this a bunch of times against Brooklyn, as did Grant Williams, and, well, it just looks weird, doesn't it? Why would anyone do this?
The answer, I believe, can be found in this quote from former Celtics coach Brad Stevens before Game 2: "When you're playing against switching, you have to cut before the contact. You have to keep the ball moving side to side. You have to quickly get it to the other side of the floor and drive it, shoot it or move it with quicker decisions. The more that we hold it and isolate, it's going to be very difficult."
The first sentence there is the key. The Golden State Warriors slipped screens better than anyone else for years, and the principle there is simple: If the "screener" never actually sets the screen, he can roll before defenders can switch and create the same kind of advantage you'd get from a conventional pick-and-roll against a conventional pick-and-roll defense. In this case, Thompson is essentially slipping, but, by dispensing with the pretense that he's going to set a normal screen, he can start his roll faster. He doesn't even have to pivot!
I bring this up because switching is going to be one of the central storylines in the Bucks-Nets series. How often will both teams switch themselves into clear mismatches? When they do, how effectively will they scram out of them or send help? How often will Milwaukee go small? How often will Brooklyn go big? I don't know if we'll see anyone do exactly what Thompson did, but the intention behind it is relevant -- teams switch because they want to encourage static isolations, and teams counter that by continuing to run actions, move the ball and create confusion.
4. Barometers and swing players
The typical "X factor" is a role player who has the ability to punish an opposing team's game plan or get hot and change a game. Maybe that's Bryn Forbes making 3s, maybe it's Tyrese Maxey hitting runners, maybe it's a few minutes of lockdown defense from Shaq Harrison. There is a distinction to be made, though, between players who are barometers for their team's success and players who can swing a game -- and, by extension a series -- by themselves.
There isn't a clear dividing line here, but the Denver Nuggets are full of swing players. No one should have been surprised when Austin Rivers torched Portland for 21 points in Game 3 because we've seen it many times before. It is not a coincidence that both of the games in which Monte Morris aggressively looked to score were Denver wins. Markus Howard didn't see the floor in either overtime in Game 5, but the Nuggets might've lost in regulation if he hadn't made three 3s in his 16 minutes. It was fitting that Aaron Gordon hit the dagger 3 in Game 6, given that a) the Blazers were ignoring him behind the 3-point line all series, and b) he has had to be a bit more like Orlando Aaron Gordon lately because of Denver's injuries.
Reggie Jackson is a classic swing player, as evidenced by his 25-point outburst in Game 6 against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday. When most of his shots are spot-up 3s, though, he can also be seen as a barometer for the Clippers' offense, like Joe Harris for the Nets, Royce O'Neale for the Jazz and Bridges for the Suns. If these guys are getting open looks, you know the offense is humming like it's supposed to.
5. The floater game
If you already miss the lovable Memphis Grizzlies, a.k.a. Team Floater, know that their spirit will live on every time a ball-handler lofts the ball over a big man's fingertips. This will continue to be something to watch in every game that Utah plays, and it's one of the reasons everybody's so interested in how Milwaukee defends Brooklyn. The San Antonio Spurs used to dare James Harden to beat them with floaters, and former Buck Eric Bledsoe used to "guard" him by giving him a driving lane in order to take away his stepback 3, with Lopez waiting for him in the paint.
Harden has improved his floater, though, so these don't seem like viable strategies anymore. In the second round, what I'm more curious about is how often Trae Young goes to his increasingly devastating floater game against the Philadelphia 76ers. He shot 20 for 39 on "short midrange" shots in the New York Knicks series, per Cleaning The Glass, and those shots are typically available against Joel Embiid and Dwight Howard. If he can make them at the same clip, then the Sixers might have to trap him more than they want to. Trapping is not ideal if Embiid is meaningfully less mobile than usual.
6. When depth matters
I can't help but keep thinking about the buyout market. I still believe that, in the aggregate, we spend way too much time talking about whether or not it's a problem for the league and how certain buyout guys will affect their new teams. As soon as the Lakers' season was on the line, Andre Drummond got a DNP-CD!
Injuries, though, make this conversation more complicated. Rivers has been a godsend for the shorthanded Nuggets, and, now that Donte DiVincenzo is out for the playoffs, Milwaukee might rue its signing of Jeff Teague instead of Rivers. Blake Griffin seems much more essential to the Nets with Jeff Green is sidelined, and if Nicolas Claxton has trouble handling the Bucks' physicality, they'll surely wish they still had the option of throwing LaMarcus Aldridge out there.
Midseason acquisitions can create unnecessary problems. It is not easy for a coach to manage a playoff rotation when 11 guys reasonably expect to play, particularly if three of them happen to be centers. But the flip side is that, when a player gets hurt or things aren't going your way, depth allows a team to adjust. I wonder, for example, if a player like Khem Birch might have changed Portland's fortunes.