August 18, 2020, 12:07 am
The playoffs kicked off on Monday, with a thriller, a laugher that almost became a thriller, a tightly contested rivalry game and what could be the start of a new rivalry in the night cap. It’s still a bit weird to see the baseline camera angles that reveal no fans in the arena, but the NBA postseason is back and we already got some wildly entertaining contests.
The Jazz and Nuggets played the most entertaining game of the day, and it was the one that got the ball rolling on the postseason. This is one of the more debated series of the bracket, with both teams missing some key players. The Jazz probably have it worse, losing Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, with rookie Juwan Morgan rising into the starting lineup today. The Nuggets are missing their starting wings in Gary Harris and Will Barton, but they’ve been able to unleash Michael Porter Jr. and can plug in the battle-tested Torrey Craig.
Denver escaped with an OT victory in Game 1 thanks largely to the brilliance of Jamal Murray, who scored or assisted on 31 of the team’s final 37 points in a 10-point victory. The Blue Arrow went toe-to-toe with Donovan Mitchell, netting 36 points on 13-of-20 from the field with five boards, nine assists, a steal and six threes. He’s looked great since coming back from a hamstring injury. Nikola Jokic is always good for a big game, but he deserves a special shoutout for dropping 29 & 10 while shooting 11-for-21 against the defense of Rudy Gobert. Fantasy GMs got what they expected from the Nuggets, more or less, though there are two big things worth a mention.
Firstly, Jerami Grant outplayed Paul MIllsap, 40 minutes to 29 minutes. He also outdid the veteran in the box score with 19 points, a steal, a block and four triples compared to 10 points, three steals, a block and a 3-pointer for Millsap. Keep an eye on that split going forward. Both players are perfectly capable but it’s been expected that the Nuggets would really crank up Millsap’s postseason minutes after preserving him during the regular season.
Secondly, Porter struggled a bit in his first taste of playoff intensity. He remains a confident offensive player and was good for 13 points, eight rebounds, three triples and a block in 31 minutes, but the Jazz made it a point of emphasis to attack him on defense. MPJ was completely erased by any Rudy Gobert screen, and it’s an exploit that Utah will visit over and over again considering their missing players. If they have to spam a single action to generate points, they will. For as much as Porter has shown in the bubble, the playoffs are a ruthless business and it’s possible that he gives up more than he scores when it’s all said and done. He’s got to be better to avoid being targeted.
On the other side, the Jazz got a monumental game out of Donovan Mitchell, who cooked up 57 points. It was the third-highest scoring game in NBA playoff history, with Spida checking in behind just Michael Jordan and Elgin Baylor. He shot a crazy 19-for-33 from the field and hit all 13 free throws, adding nine boards, seven assists, a steal and six threes in a masterful performance. For a while it felt like the Jazz were leaning on a “Mitchell and hope” game plan and eventually they were outlasted by the Nuggets.
It has to be demoralizing for the Jazz to drop a game in which Mitchell scored 57, Jordan Clarkson scored 18 and Joe Ingles put up a vintage line with 19-5-6 and five threes. Unfortunately, two of their starters combined for six points in 57 minutes — Royce O’Neale battled foul trouble while rookie Juwan Morgan stepped in for Mike Conley (personal). Despite Morgan scoring just three points, he was a team-high plus-17. We’ll see if Quin Snyder goes back to that well in Game 2, as the Jazz ran a tight rotation in Game 1.
The Nets have been playing some inspired ball in the bubble, with a team-oriented attitude leading to increased ball-movement and a relentless drive pushing the Nets into competitive games with far more talented opponents. Unfortunately for them, the Raptors are probably the most no-nonsense group in the league. Toronto raced out to a 33-point lead and the game was all but over, though the Nets adjusted after halftime and shaved 25 points off the deficit at one point. Brooklyn stopped turning the ball over and started knocking down some shots but it was too little too late.
The Nets can take a couple positives away from Game 1, namely the play of Caris LeVert. While he shot just 5-for-14 and scored 15 points, Brooklyn has to be pleased with the way LeVert handled an aggressive and focused Raptors defense that sent body after body after body in his direction. Toronto was determined to make LeVert work for everything and he handled it maturely, distributing a career-high 15 assists. Secondly, the Nets continued to get some outstanding minutes out of Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who scorched the twine for 26 points and six 3-pointers on 9-of-13 from the field. Things should level out a bit going forward for the Nets — LeVert will score more, TLC will cool off and the rest of the supporting cast should shoot better — but they weathered an early storm and at least made a game of it. If nothing else, LeVert’s going to learn a ton from this experience.
As for the defending champs, they bucked a cursed Game 1 history despite a lull in the middle of the game. It never really felt like the Raptors were in danger of losing this one and when the Nets got back to shouting distance, they were able to lock back in and shut the door with authority. They were led to victory behind a huge performance from Fred VanVleet, who put up 30 points, 11 assists, two steals, a block and eight 3-pointers on 11-for-15 from the field. He might be the best player available in unrestricted free agency this offseason…
Kyle Lowry actually scored in the first game of the playoffs this year, coming out hot and finishing with 16-7-6 despite an ugly 3-for-14 shooting line. Marc Gasol, whose passivity was a major talking point last year, turned 21 minutes into 14 points. Serge Ibaka came off the pine for 22 points on 8-of-14 from the field, chipping in seven rebounds, two threes and a block. OG Anunoby, who missed all of last postseason, turned on the jets in the fourth quarter while finishing with 12 points, three triples, a steal and two blocks. Seven guys hit double digits in this one, and Nick Nurse would probably love to keep it balanced before the games really ramp up.
That said, Pascal Siakam hasn’t looked quite like himself in the bubble and that continued today. He shot 4-of-13 from the field on his way to 18 points, 11 rebounds and a 3-pointer, saving his day at the charity stripe. The Raptors aren’t arrogant enough to take the Nets lightly but one wonders if they’ll tilt the scales to try and get Siakam going a bit.
We got the full spectrum of Sixers talk in their Game 1 loss. In the first half, with Philly running things through Joel Embiid on the block, we started hearing that maybe the Sixers are better off without Ben Simmons. While he and Embiid have games that often look incompatible (especially when you add Al Horford to the mix), the fourth quarter showed how essential Simmons is to the team. The ball stopped finding its way to Embiid, and the Sixers were trotting out a closing lineup without any player who would be best classified as a passer, ball-handler or playmaker. The Celtics were able to lock in and put Philly in the mud, and the Sixers didn’t have any answers.
Shake Milton and Josh Richardson each knocked in three 3-pointers, while Alec Burks scored 18 points on 15 shots, and the Sixers are going to need their secondary guys to step up more moving forward. Al Horford had 6-7-6, with a big putback and uncharacteristic primal yell obscuring the fact that he was unable to make much of an impact. Tobias Harris was stifled with 15 points on 6-of-15 shooting, though he was able to pick up the slack elsewhere with eight boards and eight dimes.
One pregame wrinkle that didn’t come to pass was Matisse Thybulle moving into the starting lineup, though he was outstanding in 33 minutes off the bench with five points, four rebounds, two steals, a block and a triple. Starting or not, he’s going to be getting minutes as the primary defender for Jayson Tatum.
Joel Embiid had 26 & 16 on 8-of-15 from the field but also committed five turnovers and really labored in the second half. The Celtics have had issues defending bigs all year long and The Process needs to eat every night for the Sixers to stand a chance. The numbers were there but he looked lethargic down the stretch, with the usual handful of mental mistakes thrown in for good measure. Embiid needs to be the best player on the floor if Philly wants to advance. It’s a matchup he can and should dominate, but the “can” has always paled in comparison to the “will” part of the equation with Embiid.
Boston fought back after surrendering the lead late in the third quarter and took home a critical Game 1 victory on the backs of Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who scored 32 and 29 points, respectively. Tatum went 10-of-21 from the field and corralled 13 rebounds, while he also hit 10-of-11 from the line on a day where it was reported that Tatum was upset by the lack of a “superstar whistle” throughout the seeding games. Funny how life works out.
Brown was terrific in his own right, but more importantly he played through a quad injury. He limped off the court but returned quickly and filled up the box score with six rebounds four assists, three steals and five 3-pointers. Gordon Hayward was not as lucky, leaving the arena on crutches after rolling his ankle late in the fourth quarter. Next man up for the Celtics with Hayward looking doubtful for Game 2 — keep an eye on Grant Williams, though Marcus Smart could move into a smaller starting five.
The Returns & The Arrival & The Departure
The Clippers, for just the 12th time all season, had their full roster available. It couldn’t come at a better time, obviously, even if Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley were both a bit limited. The big guns did their thing with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard combining for 56 points on 21-of-43 from the field, though their output is never, ever in question. Instead, the Clippers should take solace in their supporting cast after picking up this win. Harrell made his first appearance in the bubble and looked a bit rusty with six points in 15 minutes. Landry Shamet returned from a left foot sprain but was mostly invisible, going scoreless and finishing minus-19 in just eight minutes — this one was a game of runs for sure, with the Clippers going up 18-2 and then losing that lead before halftime. Beverley started and put up eight points, five boards, two steals and two threes in 20 minutes, though he got absolutely torched on defense despite doing his best to annoy the Mavs. These three aren’t back in game shape yet but they’re there, which is a huge lift to a team without much depth behind its name-brand talent.
Beyond the returns, the Clippers got their best game yet out of Marcus Morris, who scored 19 points with four steals and three triples in 32 minutes in a solid two-way performance. Although, his biggest role in this game may have been getting under the skin of Luka Doncic…
… since that’s what got Kristaps Porzingis tossed from the game. KP leapt to the defense of Doncic after a short shoving match and was hit with his second technical of the game. Both were shockingly weak calls and the Mavs should be livid. The Clippers went on a 16-5 run right after Porzingis was tossed, which may or may not have decided the game. The Latvian’s playoff debut was over after just 20 minutes, in which he scored 14 points with six boards, a block and a 3-pointer. Mark Jackson made a rare salient point on the broadcast; if Porzingis protests to calls more vociferously during the regular season, he’s not ejected on the back of techs for a bare-minimum altercation and an air-punch after a tough call. There’s a few players in the league who get away with a lot more before the refs even look their way.
That wasn’t written with anyone specific in mind, but the fact that you just thought of at least three names illustrates the point.
As for more positive playoff debuts, Luka Doncic made more NBA history, with his 42 points the most ever in a player’s first playoff game. The Clippers have some elite individual defenders but Doncic still ate LA for lunch, and only fatigue (and an apparent left leg injury he suffered in the first quarter) could slow him down. The phenom ended the night with 42 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, three steals and two threes while hitting 13-of-21 from the field and 14-of-15 at the free throw line. Doncic did commit 11 turnovers, but that’s a small price to pay. If you told anyone that the Mavs would have a chance to win the game in the final three minutes despite just 20 minutes from Porzingis, they’d take that outcome at the expense of all the turnovers in the world.
Gordon Hayward rolled his ankle and left the arena on crutches, so that’s not great. Jaylen Brown picked up a quad injury but was able to play through it, and do it effectively at that.
Pat Beverley (left calf), Montrezl Harrell (personal) and Landry Shamet (left foot) were all able to suit up for Game 1.
Luka Doncic appeared to suffer a left leg injury after slipping on a wet spot in the first quarter but was able to return to the game after a short departure, thankfully.
Norman Powell got kicked in the Norm Jr.’s in the first quarter but was all fine after a TV timeout.
For Tuesday, TJ Warren (plantar fasciitis) is listed as questionable but fully expected to suit up. On the other side of that matchup, Derrick Jones Jr. (neck strain) is also questionable, but the big news there is that Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic aren’t on the report at all.
Aaron Gordon (left hamstring strain) is a game-time decision, and if he can’t go it might get ugly for the Magic. Michael Carter-Williams (left foot tendon strain) is doubtful and there hasn’t been much optimism emanating from Orlando… or at least the Magic’s camp in Orlando… that he’ll be ready in a hurry. The Bucks are healthy save for Ersan Ilyasova (right elbow), not that it matters.
Russell Westbrook (quad strain) is out while Danuel House (toe) is not.
Lu Dort (knee sprain) won’t play on Tuesday and possibly beyond, which means life gets a little bit easier for James Harden. Not like he needs the help.
Zach Collins (left ankle) will miss Game 1 against the Lakers as Portland tries to continue its hot run, with Wenyen Gabriel already announced as the starter in his place. The Lakers have wasted everyone’s time by listing LeBron James and Anthony Davis (don’t even bother looking up the injuries) as probable. Rajon Rondo, on the other hand, returned to practice on Monday but is doubtful to play on Tuesday as he works his way back from a left thumb fracture.