The first round of the NBA playoffs has officially kicked off with all 16 teams in contention having a game under their belts in the Florida bubble. As a result, injuries, trends and difficult matchups have popped up as potentially major concerns that teams will need to address quickly.
Our NBA experts weigh in on these issues and questions, answering if each postseason development is real or not.
Real or Not: The Bucks’ bubble struggles are cause for concern?
The Milwaukee Bucks delivered a clunker on Tuesday afternoon in Game 1 of their first-round series with the Orlando Magic.
The league’s top defense surrendered 122 points in 107 unofficial possessions to the Magic’s 23rd-ranked defense in the 122-110 loss. The Bucks didn’t shoot the ball particularly well (a true shooting percentage of 53.8 vs. their season mark of 58.3%). Orlando’s center, Nikola Vucevic, owned the left side of the floor, annihilating that vaunted defense inside and out.
Then there were general lapses uncharacteristic of the Bucks, and two consecutive Orlando possessions midway through the fourth quarter — as Milwaukee was mounting a run — that told the story.
First, Terrence Ross curled off a weakside perimeter screen on the left side and caught a pass on the move from D.J. Augustin. Without a dribble in open space, Ross attacked the rim untouched for an easy slam. Less than a minute later, Ross curled off a stagger screen on the right side caught a pass on the move from Augustin. Without a dribble in open space, Ross attacked the rim for an easy layup.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on an elite interior defense.
Is it time to panic?
The Bucks, like the Lakers, were one of the NBA’s elite teams who turned in an underwhelming performance during the seeding games, racking up a 3-5 record. Naysayers saw a team over the past two weeks that appeared out of rhythm, sloppier than normal and at times lethargic.
Historically, the games preceding the postseason have little to no correlation to a team’s playoff performance. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed three of those eight games, with other starters also playing sparingly.
Consolation for Milwaukee can be found on the opening day of last season’s postseason, when the Magic knocked off the eventual NBA champions in Toronto. Nervous observers conjured up the spirits of the Raptors’ past playoff failures as concerns swirled that their superstar didn’t have an ample supporting cast to fortify them for a deep playoff run. The Raptors would find their stride and win the next four games to advance.
With the loss on Tuesday, the Bucks become the 13th No. 1 seed to drop the opening game of a best-of-seven-game series. Nine of those 12 top seeds came back to win the series.
The probabilities favor the Bucks to overcome a 1-0 deficit over an Orlando team that finished the regular season 33-40. But Milwaukee has some custodial work to do. The Bucks boast a strong offense, but it can get gummy at times when it trades good shots generated by their patience for bad shots generated by impulse.
On those days, the Bucks simply can’t allow their defense to get decked the way it did in Game 1. They have the talent, intelligence and commitment to correct these snafus, but the deeper they advance in the bracket, the less forgiving the conditions will be. — Kevin Arnovitz
Real or Not: Luka was right, he was ‘terrible’ in Game 1
“Terrible” is probably a bit harsh as a description for a 42-point, nine-assist playoff debut, but it wasn’t just lip service from Luka Doncic after the Dallas Mavericks‘ loss Monday to the LA Clippers.
“I just want to win,” Doncic said.
Doncic embraces the high standards that come along with being a generational talent. Great players ultimately get judged by how much they win, which is why Doncic arrived in the NBA as a European legend after leading Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team to championships at that continent’s highest levels of competition.
No matter how spectacularly he played otherwise, 11-turnover performances rarely result in wins. Doncic knows that, so his historic playoff debut wasn’t good enough. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has offered multiple explanations — or excuses — for Doncic finishing a turnover shy of a postseason record.
Carlisle, perhaps hoping to get an early start on working the Game 2 refs, said that there were missed fouls on several of the turnovers. He mentioned that players with usage rates as high as Doncic’s naturally commit more turnovers. After reviewing the film, Carlisle added the next day that the Mavs’ poor spacing was a problem with some of the turnovers, especially early in the game.
It’s easy for Carlisle to publicly back Doncic, especially when the historically dominant 21-year-old accepts accountability for the one big blemish on an otherwise sensational box-score line. But Doncic was caught slipping as Marcus Morris Sr. hit a clutch 3. Doncic, who didn’t touch the ball on the Mavs’ previous two fruitless possessions, lollygagged back on defense with his palms in the air, muttering to himself in frustration. He glanced at the Dallas bench as the ball crossed half court, as Kawhi Leonard fired a crisp pass to the man Doncic was supposed to be defending on the wing. Morris swished the 3, pushing the Clippers’ lead to seven with a little less than two minutes remaining.
That was a terrible mental lapse. It can’t happen in crunch time of a playoff game. For Doncic to win in this league like he wants to, all the details matter, not just the ones that show up in the box score. — Tim MacMahon
Real or Not: Philly is now the favorite with Hayward hurting
Not — but the series is now well within the margin for error.
There was little doubt over the course of this season who was the better team between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. The Celtics were a tight-knit bunch with everyone fitting into well-defined roles. The Sixers … well, the Sixers were awfully reminiscent of last season’s Celtics: a talented group with ill-fitting pieces that never meshed the way they were expected to.
But there was equally little doubt about the fact that the Sixers were an awful matchup for this Boston team. Through the four meetings between the two teams, Philly’s size clearly won out in three of the games, and Ben Simmons guarded Jayson Tatum as well as anyone in the NBA did this season.
But then Simmons left the bubble for knee surgery — and, all of a sudden, it looked as though Boston had the significant upper hand in this matchup once again. Game 1, however, showed that — even with Hayward — the gap between these teams wasn’t all that great.
There’s no doubt the Sixers have their flaws. But even without Simmons and while committing 18 turnovers, Philadelphia still led after three quarters, and had its chances late in the game. And Philadelphia clearly has the best player — and biggest advantage — in this series with Joel Embiid attacking Boston’s interior defense.
Now, without Hayward, Boston’s already thin depth will be that much further tested. The Celtics were always going to play their five elite perimeter players — Hayward, Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — heavy minutes. All of them logged at least 32 in Game 1; only one other Celtic, center Daniel Theis, played more than 13.
Trying to replace Hayward with options like backup point guard Brad Wanamaker, Semi Ojeleye and rookies Grant Williams and Romeo Langford is bound to give Celtics coach Brad Stevens indigestion. At a minimum, it’s going to mean that, for Boston to win this series, Tatum and Brown are going to have to repeat their virtuoso performances from Game 1 throughout it.
Is that possible? Sure. But that extra margin for error that Boston had with Hayward is now gone without him. Boston remains the favorite, thanks in part to coming away with Game 1 on Monday. But the Sixers have every reason to believe they can win this thing. — Tim Bontemps
Real or Not: The Rockets don’t need to rush Russell Westbrook back to get past OKC
He wasn’t playing, but Russell Westbrook might still have been the loudest person in the arena on Tuesday night. Every Rockets stop, every Rockets and-1, every Rockets deep 3, Westbrook tugged his gray mask down just a bit and let his teammates hear his praise as Houston carved up the Thunder in Game 1 123-108.
Westbrook’s strained right quadriceps kept him out for the opener, and his status is unclear for the rest of the series. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said before the game Westbrook is “healing” and didn’t want to rule anything out in terms of a return. But the way the Rockets blitzed and confused the Thunder in Game 1 leads to wondering: Maybe Russ can take his time.
The Rockets’ pocket ball experiment seemed to work in large part with Westbrook fueling it — his pace, his aggression, the space it created for him, his size in switching, his rebounding prowess — but in the opening game, they did all those things with Eric Gordon playing the role of Westbrook.
“We keep talking about it, Eric Gordon is like a wild card for them,” Thunder guard Chris Paul said. “Because Gordie is so tough. His ability to shoot deep, his ability to drive. We’ve gotta figure out what we’re going to try to take away.”
Gordon fueled an impressive complementary effort around James Harden (37 points, 11 rebounds), scoring 21 points and shifting momentum early with a flurry of deep 3-point barrages and barrelling and-1 attacks on the rim. Jeff Green jumped in with 22 points and Ben McLemore added 14. The Rockets had that 2018-19 feel to them: Harden dominating the ball as the secondary pieces filled in the gaps.
“We’re not sure when Russ is going to be back, so it’s an opportunity for guys to step up and play big minutes and contribute to big-time games,” Harden said. “Obviously, Eric and Jeff played really well tonight. P.J. [Tucker] played well on both ends. It was just a total team effort. We’re going to need that consistently from each individual.”
From the beginning, the matchup was an awkward one for the Thunder. They play a distinct style in their own right, albeit a far more traditional one. But the Thunder struggled to find any rhythm against Houston’s switching style, with the ball stopping and one-on-one isolations replacing OKC’s typically very democratic, balanced offense.
“We’re gonna figure out. It’s a different team. You play a certain way the whole season and then you have a team that switches everything,” Paul said. “It’s Game 1, we’ve gotta figure it out. Most nights it’s show, or it’s a drop, or whatnot. That’s why they are who they are, they play totally different than any other team in the league.”
The Thunder will make their adjustments and are confident they’ll solve some of the issues that plagued them in Game 1. They had the look of a team caught off guard by Houston’s style, as if they needed to experience it rather than just see it on film. Paul called it a “feel-out game” and the Rockets are already anticipating a drastically different approach in Game 2.
“We just are a completely different team, and that’s the first time they’ve seen us [since the trade to commit to small ball],” D’Antoni said. “They’ll make their adjustments. I don’t expect it to be easy by any means. They’ve got some great players [and] a good coach, so we’ll have to be ready.”
Westbrook has never dealt with a muscle injury in his career. He routinely plays through impact injuries like fractured fingers, torn ligaments, dented faces — that sort of stuff. But as a player who relies so much on first step explosiveness, the Rockets might need to exercise patience, especially if they start thinking further down the road. Getting Game 1 in the manner in which they did certainly eases that stress of wanting Westbrook back. — Royce Young