From one perspective, the first weekend of the NBA playoffs was a chaotic mess. Most the 16 teams hadn't played in a week. Their opponents have used all of that time to game-plan against everything they've shown in the regular season. The pressure gets to some players and teams more than others. Team-wide strengths fade. Weaknesses are magnified. All eight opening round games were played within roughly a 36-hour period.
So you can be forgiven if you feel a bit overwhelmed with the weekend's slate. Fortunately, things will calm down during this week. Until Saturday, only two or three games will be played per night, and it will quickly become apparent which teams will retain that spirit of competition and which ones will be overcome by capitulation. But for now, let's cover one lesson from each of the eight games played over the weekend.
The best player on the court when the Lakers defeated the Grizzlies, 128-112, was Anthony Davis. The second-best player on the court -- despite fireworks from Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura -- was Jaren Jackson Jr. Aside from his customarily excellent defense, Jackson scored 31 points on 13-of-21 shooting Sunday afternoon.
This was, to an extent, a sacrifice that L.A. was willing to make. Both the Lakers and Grizzlies have a star defensive big man, and both of them preferred to use that player to guard the weakest opposing scorer. Why? So that they could focus their efforts on slowing down everyone else as a help-defender. Xavier Tillman is still a decent enough post defender, so he at least made Davis work for his points.
The same can't really be said for LeBron James and Hachimura. Jackson destroyed them for four quarters. Yet the Lakers chose not to even look for alternative countermeasures. Rather than play Wenyen Gabriel or Mo Bamba at center when Davis went to the bench, they decided to go small and have James and Hachimura share center duties. It went badly. They lost those 11 minutes by 12 points.
This was a close game before Ja Morant went down. Those 12 points could have cost the Lakers a victory. If Morant is back for Game 2, the Lakers might need to bite the bullet and let Davis defend Jackson himself. If they don't, they're going to see more gaudy stat lines out of Jackson.
Bucks vs. Heat: Milwaukee needs Giannis ... Duh!
The Bucks have a surprisingly strong history of winning games without their best player. Since Mike Budenholzer took over as coach, they are 32-33 in games Giannis Antetokounmpo has missed. Their 11-8 record without him this season actually gave them a better winning percentage than their first-round opponent, the Miami Heat, had across the entire regular season.
Milwaukee reached the 2021 NBA Finals despite Antetokounmpo missing the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals. This success has even been held against him in the MVP race. If the Nuggets fall apart the moment Nikola Jokic leaves the court, why are the Bucks essentially a .500 team without Antetokounmpo?
Well -- and this is shocking -- it turns out the Bucks probably need their two-time MVP if they plan to make any noise in this postseason. Miami won, 130-117, without Milwaukee's all-purpose defensive menace patrolling the floor, and this is an offense that only scored 105 and 109 in its play-in games. The Bucks should be fine when their best player comes back. But if he needs to miss some time, Milwaukee might be in some trouble.
It was an interesting night for Russell Westbrook's doubters. His mixed postseason history has always been held against him, and many of the things that have gone wrong for him in the past did go wrong on Sunday. He shot 3 of 19 from the field and 1 of 6 from 3-point range, frequently taking the kind of bad shots that irk fans of the game. More than that, his presence impacted his team's spacing. It's much easier to guard everyone else when you don't have to guard Westbrook.
Yet Westbrook undeniably had a positive impact on the Clippers' 115-110 win. He had more than one-third of his team's assists (eight of 23), and his offensive rebounding in the fourth quarter was essential as the Clippers closed out the game. His defense was where his impact was felt most, though. While Westbrook can be inattentive off of the ball, his physicality makes him dangerous in the right matchups. His block on (and deflection off) Devin Booker in the closing seconds sealed the win for the Clippers.
Westbrook's flaws were on display in this game. He overcame them by excelling in several other areas. If the Clippers are going to win with him, they are going to need that to be the case frequently. He's not always going to shoot 3 of 19, but if he defends and rebounds as hard as he did in Game 1, the Clippers have a real chance to maximize him this postseason.
Nuggets vs. Timberwolves: Denver is back
On March 3, the Denver Nuggets beat the Memphis Grizzlies and effectively clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. In the five weeks that followed, they did everything in their power to lose it. The Nuggets had little to play for over the last quarter of the season, and it showed. They went 8-10 down the stretch, possibly losing Nikola Jokic the MVP award and definitely losing some respect from prognosticators around the league. They dropped from Western Conference favorites to either No. 2 or No. 3, depending on the book, before the playoffs began.
Well, if Game 1 of the Minnesota series was any indication, the the Nuggets are taking things seriously again. They had the biggest margin of victory of the weekend in 29-point win over the Timberwolves Sunday, and the held Minnesota to just 80 points, the lowest total of the weekend. They were so incredible that Jokic didn't need to score a single point in the second half. This team still has flaws, but it didn't magically get worse in early March. The Nuggets are still the same team that outplayed the rest of the Western Conference for most of the season. They proved that on Sunday.
Joel Embiid has been torturing his opponents as a scorer all season. He not only won the scoring title at 33.1 points per game, but he became the first seven-footer to win two consecutive scoring titles since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar more than 40 years ago. In a perfect world, a defense would do everything in its power to stop him from scoring. Well, Saturday was a good example of why defenses can't really do that against Embiid.
The Nets doubled Embiid frequently in their 121-101 loss to Philadelphia. So the 76ers shrug, moved the ball around and ultimately made 21 of their 43 3-point shots. This is a Daryl Morey team, after all. If you give them open looks, they're going to take and make them. The other troubling thing here is that doubling Embiid barely even slowed him down. He finished the game with 26 points. There's not a good answer to Philadelphia's dominant offense. If Brooklyn stays at home on shooters, Embiid might just score 46 points in response. But we saw exactly why doubling him is so dangerous. The 76ers aren't a one-man band.
Trae Young's first-round loss to the Miami Heat last season was embarrassing, but almost understandable in context. True, he averaged just 15.4 points on under 32% shooting, but he was playing against a No. 1 seed, had no co-star, and many of his best teammates were either out or limited by nagging injuries. None of that was the case on Saturday in Atlanta's 112-99 loss. The Hawks spent three first-round picks on Dejounte Murray. They are largely healthy. Boston is obviously a NBA Finals contender, but the Hawks at least got three days off after last week's play-in win.
So how did Young respond? He scored 16 points on five-of-18 shooting against Boston's No. 2 defense. In the process, he made a bit of history -- if you include previous seasons, he has now shot 8 of 49 from 3-point range in his past seven playoff games. That is the worst seven-game 3-point shooting stretch Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard are so good from deep that they can punish even the best postseason defenses. Young, it seems, is not. Without his 3's falling, the rest of his offense has suffered tremendously, and the Hawks find themselves on life support after only Game 1.. Scoring in the playoffs tends to be significantly harder for small guards. Most of them make up for the whistles they no longer get near the basket by increasing their 3-point volume.
New York came away with a 101-97 victory in Cleveland despite getting only nine first-half minutes out of Jalen Brunson due to foul trouble. Depth is often overlooked in the postseason, but it is critical for the Knicks. Playing without Brunson would be a death sentence to most teams. Having Sixth Man of the Year finalist Immanuel Quickley available to sub in for softens that blow significantly. The Knicks have nine players that they trust.
Reserves Quickley, Isaiah Hartenstein, Obi Toppin and Josh Hart don't just survive their minutes. The actively complement New York's starting lineup and give them flexibility to attack whatever matchups they want. Hart, Quickley and Hartenstein even frequently close games when needed. Every member of New York's rotation fills a specific niche.
Cleveland? Yeah ... not so much. They have four core players: Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Those players combined to score 77 of their 97 points and take 64 of their 83 field goals. Cedi Osman was the only reserve that appeared remotely playable. Dean Wade (minus-14 in seven minutes), Caris LeVert (minus-14 in 18 minutes) and Ricky Rubio (minus-9 in six minutes) all had terrible point-differentials and proved largely unplayable. Isaac Okoro was completely ignored as a shooter. Cedi Osman couldn't stay in front of Brunson.
You can survive with seven players in the postseason. Perhaps even six. But fundamentally, a basketball team has five players on the floor at all times. If you only trust four of them, you're in serious trouble against a team as deep as the Knicks.
Despite their small-ball identity, the Warriors actually have a strong playoff history against star centers. They beat Nikola Jokic handily a season ago. They've never lost to Anthony Davis. In fact, the starting centers on the two teams to beat them since Steve Kerr took over as coach were Tristan Thompson and Marc Gasol. Those aren't exactly big-time scorers. Draymond Green can handle star centers despite his size.
But quick guards? Those are more of a problem. De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk combined for 70 points in the Kings' 126-123 win. It's a tiny sample, but the Kings posted a strong 121.7 offensive rating in the 20 minutes Gary Payton II played. The Warriors traded for Payton for matchups like this. Stephen Curry is a good team defender, but he has never been tasked with difficult one-on-one assignments. Klay Thompson was once among the best defensive guards in the NBA. He's not quick enough laterally to stick with Fox or Monk anymore.
The Warriors held Domantas Sabonis to 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting on Saturday. He'll likely improve, but the idea that they can limit Sacramento's All-Star is fairly reasonable. Right now, it looks like the Warriors have no answer whatsoever for Sacramento's guards. If the Warriors are going to win this thing, it's going to have to come by way of shootouts.