Top Takeaway from Every NBA Team’s 2021 Playoff Debut

Top Takeaway from Every NBA Team’s 2021 Playoff Debut

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Playoff basketball returned to the NBA this weekend, and it arrived with the loudest, most welcomed of bangs.

    Intensely competitive games were peppered throughout the postseason’s opening eight-game slate. Even some of the matchups considered foregone conclusions remained close until the middle of the fourth quarter, if not longer.

    Conventional wisdom dictates we not read too much into what just took place. One-game samples aren’t necessarily emblematic of anything. Every series has a lot of basketball left to play.

    On the flip side: The entire playoffs are an itsy-bitsy sample, and we just watched these teams grind out an entire (truncated) season. That gives us a license to cull meaningful conclusions from a spate of Game 1s—which is just what we’ve done.

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Props to Atlanta Hawks head coach Nate McMillan for getting funky in the team’s 107-105 victory over the New York Knicks. He rolled out the all-offense-everything lineup of Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari and John Collins for seven minutes, making it his third-most used unit of the night.

    For context, the Hawks deployed this five-man arrangement eight times during the regular season spanning a grand total of 19 minutes. Put another way: This group logged roughly 27 percent of its minutes for the entire year (26) on Sunday.

    Atlanta might as well make this quintet a thing. It outscored New York by nine points—the equivalent of 56.3 points per 100 possessions—while shooting 8-of-16 from the floor.

    Granted, these results run contrary to regular-season returns, and it absolutely matters who the Knicks have in the game for these stretches. But they’re not a team that hunts mismatches in volume, and they stayed true to form for most of Game 1. Young was barely targeted on the defensive end. New York was content—overly so—to let him stay glued to stationary shooters.

    This fivesome could be too fragile on defense over the course of an entire series. But the entertainment factor is off the charters. Everyone can shoot threes. Four of the five are capable of manufacturing looks off the dribble. Collins will have room to rim run for days.

    At the very least, McMillan owes it to himself—and to you, and to me—to let the A.O.E. lineup loose again in Game 2…and every game thereafter…until it stops working.

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    No one should be surprised the Boston Celtics need Kemba Walker to be better than he was in their 104-93 Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

    Caption Obvious wouldn’t even swing at that low-hanging fruit. Boston doesn’t have Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum is getting the kitchen sink thrown at him. Kemba needs to resemble a max player, an actual star. Going 5-of-16 from the floor, which was actually 3-of-14 before he drained two straight threes during a less-than-meaningful fourth-quarter stretch, isn’t going to cut it.

    Less obvious, though, is whether Kemba can actually be much better on a consistent basis. His entire season leading up to now points toward the contrary. He closed the year on a mini-tear before missing the Celtics’ final three games, but this has mostly been a campaign in which he’s wandered through valleys more than peaks.

    Walker’s shooting splits seemingly seesaw by the day, and he’s no longer a secondary threat to put pressure on the basket and get to the charity stripe. Both the share of his shots coming at the rim and free-throw-attempt rate hit rock bottom during the regular season.

    Defenses must still guard against the idea of his off-the-bounce shot-making, but too often his off-the-bounce shot-making is just that: an idea. He hit just 38.9 percent of his pull-up two-pointers this season, tying the worst mark of his career from 2015-16. This was also the first time he buried under 35 percent of his off-the-dribble threes since 2015-16.

    Context is everything. Walker has battled injuries all year. A left knee issue delayed his season debut until the middle of January and prevented him from playing both ends of back-to-backs. He then missed time with a strained left oblique. That’s not his fault.

    It also doesn’t change reality. Walker is eminently huntable on defense. The Nets know it and went at him. He picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter. Walker will fight—and the Celtics worked their tails off in Game 1—but he’s not an asset, let alone a star, when his jumpers aren’t falling and he’s neither finishing at the rim nor generating freebies from the foul line.

    Not a soul should have entered this series expecting Boston to win. Brooklyn’s offense struggled for most of Game 1 with its stars feeling out each other and Robert Williams III swatting away everything in existence (albeit without typically forcing an exchange of possession), and it still managed to eke out a double-digit victory.

    Life will only get harder for the Celtics from here. Just as Tatum (6-of-20) should have better nights, the Nets will have smoother performances. What happens this series, with Walker specifically, instead serves to inform the future: Never mind whether he can be the Celtics’ third-best player when they’re at full strength. Is he still capable of being their fourth? And continuously? And with two years left on his max deal, what can the Celtics do if he’s not?

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Had you told the Celtics that the Nets would shoot 8-of-34 from deep (23.5 percent) and 4-of-15 on twos inside the paint but outside the restricted area (26.7 percent) while scoring 104 points, they would sign up for it again and again, every time, without fail. That’s what Brooklyn gave them in Game 1.

    And the Celtics still lost.

    There are hairs to split with this Nets roster. Kevin Durant (32 points, 12 rebounds), James Harden (21 points, eight assists) and Kyrie Irving (29 points) have now played just nine games together. Their chemistry looks like it. They resort to doing their own thing. Lineups with fewer stars and more role players function with better synergy.

    At this moment, it’s hard to care. Among everyone in the league to finish 100 or more isos this season, the Nets have three of the top 10 players in points per possession: Durant (second), Irving (fifth) and Harden (ninth). They are uniquely built to talent their way out of every matchup, even when things bog down.

    Credit Boston’s defense for making life tougher on them. Just 28.5 percent of Brooklyn’s looks came at the hoop, where it shot at a below-average clip, largely thanks to the controlled chaos induced by Robert Williams III. The Nets started the fourth quarter missing 12 straight field-goal attempts.

    None of it mattered. Brooklyn got volcanic and pulled away because it’s constructed to get volcanic and pull away.

    Ancillary concerns feel immaterial knowing the Big Three hasn’t fully meshed yet. Can Nicolas Claxton hold up switching so much without getting into early foul trouble? How many minutes can you steal with Blake Griffin up front? Is the Durant-Jeff Green duo they closed with their default crunch-time 4-5 combo? Should Durant see so much time opposite Jayson Tatum? Can Green be this good defensively all series?

    The Nets are still learning about themselves, an aggregate unfamiliarity that could, in theory, cost them down the line. It may also not mean a damn thing. Even their unfinished product is terrifying.

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The urgency with which the Dallas Mavericks must operate this offseason has long been implied. What Luka Doncic delivered Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers was merely another reminder in an endless line of salient reminders: He is championship-ready now, and Dallas has an obligation to get him a co-star who matches his timeline.

    Take this as a shot at Kristaps Porzingis if you must. It’s not meant to be. To say he’s not the Mavs’ second star is neither incandescent nor an insult. It’s just a fact. He finished Game 1 on a high note—he rolled to the basket during a pivotal possession!—but he was a non-factor for, like, 3.5 quarters.

    This is more of an ode to Doncic, who diced up Los Angeles in a 113-103 win to the tune of 31 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and two blocks. It was his second 30-point triple-double in the playoffs, making him the only player to have two or more before his 23rd birthday.

    Perhaps Porzingis leaves more of a mark in tilts to come. He is a highly impactful player at his peak. He left a dent in the three games he played against the Clippers in the second round last year. Here’s the thing: Porzingis doesn’t profile as the most preferential sidekick to Doncic even at his apex.

    Dallas needs more of a conventional shot-creator alongside its generational talent, a primary ball-handler who can generate from-scratch looks for himself and teammates while at once playing off Doncic. The best version of Porzingis is never going to fit that bill.

    Jalen Brunson and Tim Hardaway Jr.—who both played well in Game 1—come closer functionally but are nowhere near the answer. The Mavericks have to get a second All-Star, not a collective facsimile of a second shot-creator.

    Whether Dallas has the means to acquire that player is a separate matter. It can get to more than $30 million in cap space this summer, but that requires renouncing the rights to Hardaway and Josh Richardson (player option). Chiseling out that much spending power also doesn’t guarantee anything during an offseason in which Kyle Lowry registers as the only gettable star free agent.

    Doncic’s inevitable max extension only complicates the Mavericks’ position. They won’t have cap space in 2022 unless they do some serious salary-purging. That leaves the trade market, and they aren’t flush with high-end trade chips.

    They can dangle Brunson and will have more future firsts to include after the 2021 draft, but that combination doesn’t meet headliner criteria. Their best bet is shopping Porzingis and hoping another team values him and draft equity enough to send out a superior player.

    Forcing such a wholesale conversation after one game in the first round can seem stupid. It’s not. Maybe the Mavs beat the Clippers. Doncic is enough to give them a shot on his own. (Full disclosure: This idiot picked L.A. in five.) But there are limits to his transcendence. The Mavericks, as of now, are one co-star short of tethering themselves to the full-blown title clique. And for Luka’s sake, they need to get him soon—like, yesterday.

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Go ahead and single out the Denver Nuggets’ 30.6 percent three-point shooting (11-of-36) if that’s more your speed. That toes too far along the lines of “They’re injured.”

    The offense is going to be fine, because it was mostly fine in Game 1. They generated good looks from three. They should start to fall. If they don’t, it’s probably because they’re suddenly relying on minutes from rookie Markus Howard and Austin Rivers rather than Jamal Murray or Will Barton. To come away from Game 1 thinking “Wow, Denver would be better off with two of its five most important players” doesn’t fit the spirit of this exercise.

    Figuring out how to slow down the Portland Trail Blazers’ guards is more prescient. Damian Lillard (34 points, 13 assists), CJ McCollum (21 points, three assists) and even Anfernee Simons (14 points, 4-of-5 on threes) were altogether en fuego.

    Lillard and McCollum, in particular, kept going after the Nuggets’ Achilles heel. Attacking off screens meant Denver either dropped back, allowing them enough room to get off jumpers, or sent two bodies their way, in which case the possession became a matter of finding an open man, be it Simons on the outside or Jusuf Nurkic on the short roll.

    Navigating this minefield would be an issue for the Nuggets no matter what. Having Murray and P.J. Dozier would help but isn’t a panacea. Portland didn’t even get McCollum’s best game (8-of-20 from the floor), and Norman Powell (3-of-11) was muted.

    Things could get worse. Logic dictates the Blazers won’t shoot 47.5 percent from distance forever (19-of-40), but perpetual flame-throwing is very much their brand. And Nurkic will have runways to the basket or avenues to set up others if the Nuggets have their bigs coming up to pitch in with Dame and CJ.

    Denver is now saddled with making adjustments that may end up defining this series. Attaching Aaron Gordon to either guard more often feels like a given. Facundo Campazzo is up to try gritting it out against Dame. From there, the Nuggets might have to supplant some of the Howard and Rivers minutes with Shaq Harrison—which is, objectively, a weird place to be so late in the year.

    Failing that, they’ll have to go all-offense everything. But that’ll mainly consist of upping Nikola Jokic’s minutes. Not much else is up to them. They need Michael Porter Jr. to hit more of his threes (1-of-10), for Gordon to leave more of an offensive imprint overall and for the supporting cast in general to just make more shots.

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Defending Luka Doncic is most often a lose-lose proposition. If you don’t do it well, you lose, because he will torch you, as equal parts shooter, finisher and table-setter. On the other hand, if you defend him well, you…still probably lose, because he’s Luka freaking Doncic, someone who traffics almost exclusively in draining brain-bendingly difficult shots and setting fire to double-teams with his passing.

    Teams can live with the latter. They shouldn’t put themselves in position to grapple with the former.

    But the Clippers did exactly that Saturday. Their approach to pressuring him was both flawed and indecisive. Los Angeles threw guards at him much too often. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Patrick Beverley, who is usually better off defending bigger players, or Rajon Rondo. Doncic is 6’7″ and roughly 230 pounds. He needs a bigger wing thrown at him.

    The Clippers have plenty of those between Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr. and, yes, Nicolas Batum. When they don’t have George or Leonard on him, though, they need to be smarter and quicker about how they send double-teams, particularly if they’re going to switch on him. That second defender seemed forever late to the party in Game 1, giving Doncic far too much time to operate one-on-one or then drop dimes or fire up hockey assists with the rest of the Clippers scrambling.

    Once more, with extra-extra feeling: Los Angeles could be perfect in Game 2, and Luka might still hang a 30-point triple-double on their butts. That’s fine. It happens. It’s the expectation. Making life easier on him than it should be is not.

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Anthony Davis’ 2020-21 season continues to be maddeningly uneven. Perhaps that’s to be expected. He is coming off the shortest offseason in the history of professional sports, didn’t look like himself at the beginning of the year and has dealt with a litany of injuries since, including absences related to his right calf, adductor and Achilles.

    Missing 31 games midstream appeared to have its intended effect toward the end of the schedule. The last week-and-a-half or so of the season saw him turn into more of an offensive force and reboot his reign of terror at the defensive end.

    And then the playoffs began.

    Davis went 5-of-16 from the floor for 13 points and finished a team-worst minus-18 in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 99-90 Game 1 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Deandre Ayton didn’t just outplay him; he was in a different league. He grabbed more offensive rebounds (eight) than Davis had total boards (seven).

    Megastars have a way of bouncing back. Davis will have better outings so long as he’s healthy enough to play. But Game 1 was an extension of an increasingly worrying trend—a mounting list of moments in which Davis is someone less than his megastar self.

    If nothing else, his shot profile is officially cause for concern. A career-low 32.5 percent of his attempts came at the rim during the regular season. Pretty much all of his point-blank looks were exchanged for extra mid-range jumpers, which accounted for a 53 percent of his total shots—another career high and one of the seven-largest shares among everyone to log at least 1,000 minutes.

    This isn’t so damning when he’s downing jumpers like the second coming of Kevin Durant, circa the 2020 playoffs. But he attempted just four shots at the basket in Game 1, making only two, and went 3-of-10 on two-pointers outside the restricted area. His minutes without LeBron James on the floor were an unmitigated disaster.

    “There’s no way we’re winning a game, let alone a series, with me playing the way I played,” Davis said, per The Athletic’s Bill Oram. He’s right. The question is: Will the roller coaster ride that has become his season now level off? Or will the twists and turns and loop-de-loops persist?

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Scripting better postseason debuts for Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant isn’t possible. They combined for 57 points and six assists during the Memphis Grizzlies’ 112-109 Game 1 victory over the Utah Jazz, which they capped off with a roaringly loud fourth quarter.

    Morant went off for 16 points in the second half, including 10 during the final frame. Utah couldn’t keep him from getting to his spots in the lane. He looked like he was on a high-tension wire when going up for his floaters, suspended in mid-air for longer than the laws of gravity allow. 

    Brooks was a monster through the first three quarters, going for 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting, and his defense remains riotous. He knows only one gameplay mode: ultra-physical. Brooks’ body explodes side-to-side in space, and he exists to gobble up lazy passes. 

    His job will get harder whenever Donovan Mitchell rejoins the Jazz. Guarding against his off-the-bounce juice will extract extra energy. But Brooks has that in ample supply.

    Together, these two don’t amount to the glitziest backcourt. Brooks hasn’t retired his capacity to shoot the Grizzlies out of games, and Morant’s defensive zeal waxes and wanes. 

    Still, opposing teams are going to feel the games in which they play them. They will see the ceaseless blur that is Morant driving down the middle and knifing through traffic in their sleep. Anyone who tussles with Brooks will be left with a bump or bruise or general soreness as a souvenir. 

    This pairing just works. It is at once scrappy and flashy, a combination that guarantees nothing in the postseason but can go boom at anytime, against anyone. The Grizzlies are better for it. The Jazz, even at full strength, are not.

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Harping on the offensive performances from Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the Miami Heat’s 109-107 overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks is fair game. They combined to go 8-of-37 from the field, and Adebayo didn’t look especially interested in moving with intent on the more glamorous end. It is also fair to wonder whether Butler going from infrequent three-point shooter to 2-of-9 chucker helps Miami’s floor balance.

    And yet, this is Adebayo and Butler. They will be better. Butler will reach the rim more often, even against Milwaukee’s base defense, and actually drop in some of his middies (0-of-7 on two-pointers outside the paint). Adebayo’s jumper can come and go, but he went just 1-of-6 at the basket. He will be better, too.

    The Heat have more of a conundrum guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. This doesn’t appear to warrant much concern when he was so-so from the floor (10-of-27) and at the foul line (6-of-13), but tabbing Trevor Ariza as his primary defender didn’t pan out. He doesn’t have the same combination of mobility and girth that Jae Crowder gave Miami last year. Milwaukee averaged 1.43 points per possession whenever Ariza had a partial stint on him.

    Butler didn’t have much more success and isn’t a viable every-possession option. The Heat need him to run point on Jrue Holiday. Adebayo is much better suited for Giannis duty and showed as much in Game 1. Miami transferred the responsibility to him in crunch time, and it helped a great deal.

    Is that sustainable for the entire game? Series? Debatable. Adebayo cannot muck up as many plays as the helper if he’s laser-focused on Giannis. But stabilizing the defense against the two-time MVP has to be a top priority. The Heat no longer have an alternative answer they can use with a semblance of confidence, and while they nearly clawed away with the victory in Game 1, the Bucks aren’t going to lay as many bricks from beyond the arc or at the free-throw line forever.

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    This isn’t a novel lesson learned; more like an affirmation. The working theory was the Bucks conceded some of their regular-season dominance in the name of self-discovery and playoff-proofing themselves.

    If Saturday is any indication, the Bucks made the right call.

    It wasn’t necessarily a noteworthy victory because of what they did but what they failed to do: convert their threes. They went 5-of-31 from beyond the arc (16.1 percent), making it their worst outside shooting performance during the regular season or playoffs in more than three years. The last time they attempted at least 20 threes and drilled them at a sub-17-percent clip: May 14, 2018—ironically against the Heat.

    Miami, meanwhile, went 20-of-50 (40 percent) from behind the rainbow. That 45-point advantage on triples is the largest ever in a playoff loss, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

    Emphasis on loss here, because that means the Bucks won…despite making 15 fewer treys. And despite going 20-of-33 (60.4 percent) at the foul line. And despite Giannis Antetokounmpo shooting 10-of-24 (41.7 percent) on twos. And despite Giannis and Jrue Holiday combining for more turnovers (10) than assists (eight).

    In the face of all that, the Bucks picked up a W. Sure, it could just as easily have been an L. The Heat controlled a lot of the game even with less-than-mesmerizing performances from their two stars. A loss could have screwed with the Bucks’ psyche, dredging up demons from last year.

    That’s not a problem now. Because the Bucks won, and they won ugly. They are going to have better nights from long range. It is more important, though, that they’ve seemingly figured out how to win under variant circumstances. They have Giannis moving off the ball. They have Holiday bullying people in the post, so much so he’s drawing doubles. And they suddenly have potential closers galore, in Giannis and in Holiday and in Saturday’s hero, Khris Middleton.

    This series is far from over. One game is one game is one game. This, however, is for certain: These Bucks are not last year’s Bucks.

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Julius Randle needs to be better than 6-of-23 from the floor amid questionable decision-making for the Knicks to win this series. That’s a given. His Game 1 clunker is also anomalous relative to his play this season. It hasn’t reached the point of being a takeaway or cautionary tale. For now, it’s a blip.

    Trae Young is New York’s bigger problem. The Hawks set a seemingly infinite stream of double-drag screens for him on Sunday, particularly during the stretch run, and the Knicks had little answer. They didn’t try hard enough or consistently enough to take away his right hand, and their double-teams were neither especially aggressive or well-timed. He lived in the lane all night, exposing New York with lobs and kicks to shooters and floaters.

    Select Knicks fans will cite a questionable whistle. That isn’t a viable excuse. They need to put more pressure on him or at least try coaxing him wide. Fighting over screens didn’t help matters. It’s worth experimenting with Frank Ntilkina for more than 23 seconds in the first half and nine seconds in the second half. (You can fault him only so much for his gaffe on the final possession when he’s that cold.) He might be able to better blitz Young.

    Anything the Knicks do could wind up futile. Young is a cheat code and can find nylon on circus jumpers if friendly driving lanes aren’t available to him. New York still has to put up more of a fight.

    That goes for the offensive end, too. The Knicks didn’t target Young nearly enough. He shouldn’t be allowed to stay home on stationary shooters. They should get those players moving and pull Young into actions. That Atlanta was allowed to stash him on RJ Barrett at one point in crunch time is a functional sin. New York can’t afford to let it happen again.

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Early foul trouble looked like it might wreck Joel Embiid’s performance—and the Philadelphia 76ers’ chances of beating the Washington Wizards—in Game 1. He picked up three personals in just 10 minutes of action during the first half, and Philly was outscored by 10 points with him on the bench.

    Any lingering anxiety was mollified in the second half. Embiid picked up just one more foul through 19-plus minutes, during which time he tallied 21 points and three assists while shooting 6-of-10 from the field and 9-of-10 at the charity stripe. It was a stretch that fell shy of total annihilation but still reinforced what makes his default displays so gosh darn dominant: He is unguardable.

    So much attention is paid to his improved outside shooting, or his turnovers, or his defensive erasure. Less shine is given to the variables of his offense. This is a seven-foot, 280-pound behemoth cooking opponents off the dribble, implementing not only a mix of fades but face-ups and fakes into pull-up and fallaway jumpers.

    This expansion of his floor game is paying gargantuan dividends for the Sixers offense. Calls for them to add a more conventional from-scratch scorer, in the vein of a guard or wing, don’t ring as loudly when Embiid drilled 46 percent of his pull-up twos and 42.4 percent of his off-the-dribble threes (14-of-33).

    He is that weapon now, both the unstoppable raw force and the cold, calculating defensive manipulator. Philly’s half-court offense ranks in the 89th percentile of efficiency this season with him on the court.

    Sending double-teams his way is fast becoming only a means to a different type of unwinnable end. The Wizards went at him, somewhat sloppily, and he did a good job of getting the ball to better spots in the second half. They couldn’t figure out how to approach the dribble hand-off action in which he took part.

    The relative completeness of Embiid’s game, and its monumental impact on the Sixers, can no longer be overstated. Their offense is legitimized because of him—just like their title case.

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Eleventh-hour attempts to slot Chris Paul into the MVP discussion always felt off. First and foremost, they implied someone had a reasonable shot at beating Nikola Jokic. Mostly, though, they suggested that Paul was Phoenix’s most valuable player.

    This isn’t an anti-CP3 stance. There is a debate between he and Devin Booker. But rewarding him more than anyone for the Suns’ entrance into title contention is an inaccurate conflation. Phoenix showed signs of turning a corner in the Disney bubble and made other impactful moves since his arrival (Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig, re-signing Dario Saric, etc.). A more seasoned Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and, yes, Deandre Ayton would go a long way independent of Paul. Without him, this is still the best supporting cast with which Booker has ever played.

    Take Paul off the Suns, and they aren’t title hopefuls. Remove Booker instead, and they aren’t in the championship discussion, either. Their partnership is symbiotic. They don’t need other to maximize Phoenix’s title window; they need each other so that title window is open at all.

    Yet, on a national scale, this is often still portrayed as an inequitable pairing. Booker dispelled said notion, again, for the umpteenth time in Phoenix’s 99-90 Game 1 victory over the Lakers. In his first-ever playoff game, he dropped 34 points and eight assists on 13-of-26 shooting from the floor, a postseason debut made all the more significant because it came without a full-strength CP3.

    Though Paul played through a right shoulder contusion he suffered early in the game, it undeniably hobbled him. He dribbled the ball up the floor with his left hand, and his jumpers looked like two-handed push shots. He deserves credit for gutting it out. Booker deserves credit for seizing control.

    Nothing the Lakers did could faze him. He made Alex Caruso, an All-Defense candidate, look irrelevant for possessions at a time. A couple of his six turnovers came off Los Angeles’ pressure, but a handful were unforced errors. His decision-making generally shined when double-teamed or enveloped in traffic—like it has all season. And the threat of his passing must be upgraded. He threw a ridiculously difficult, perfectly timed and placed lob to Ayton in the third quarter and managed to somehow get this ball to Bridges in the corner.

    Pitting two teammates against each other is a bit icky. But this discussion isn’t about creating separation between Booker and Paul as much as it’s about giving the former his proper due. This shouldn’t come as a revelation, either. Booker is one of eight players to average more than 25 points and five assists with a true shooting percentage above 58 over the past four years, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Damian Lillard.

    This season specifically, he underpinned his mettle by spearheading decidedly net-positive lineups without Paul and drawing doubles on a higher rate of his possessions. Now, at his first opportunity, he’s taking over playoff games against a reigning champion and top-two defense. So no, this isn’t a rush to coronate. It’s a nod toward what actually is.

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    Nikola Jokic finished Game 1 with 34 points on 14-of-27 shooting, including a 3-of-7 clip from three. His looks weren’t falling as frequently when the Blazers started pulling away in the fourth quarter, but he was 9-of-16 from the floor in the first half and mostly had his way with former teammate Jusuf Nurkic.

    Portland will take it.

    This is, by all appearances, a type of game the Blazers want from Jokic. They didn’t send a bunch of double-teams his way—not even when he was matched up with Enes Kanter. They were more inclined to try tracking the Nuggets’ off-ball movement and forcing Jokic’s teammates to beat them.

    Their strategy worked. Jokic finished with just one assist, a playoff career-low, but it was not for a lack of trying. His teammates shot only 1-of-10 off his passes, according to ESPN Stats & Info (via ESPN’s Royce Young).

    Continuing along this route wouldn’t fly over a longer term with Jamal Murray in the fold. He’s not, though. And the Nuggets desperately want for shot-makers and shot-creators without him—particularly on nights when Michael Porter Jr. is missing nine of his 10 three-point attempts.

    The Blazers, it seems, are going to do their damnedest to capitalize on that deficiency. Maybe it won’t fly every game. Or maybe Will Barton returns to shore up the supporting cast.

    Or maybe, just maybe, the Blazers will surrender a few huge lines to Jokic, in part by design, without ever getting pushed to the brink by whoever’s left around him.

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Utah’s Game 1 loss can be boiled down to any number of things: Donovan Mitchell remaining out with a sprained right ankle, the team shooting 4-of-21 from distance in the first half to go along with 10 turnovers, Rudy Gobert fouling out the fourth quarter, etc.

    Somewhere on that list needs to be a spot for Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles, and their inconsequential play in the first half. They combined to go 2-of-6 from the field for six points over the first 24 minutes, a fairly substantial setback on a night when Mitchell was out of the rotation. 

    Bogdanovic inevitably caught fire in the second half, scoring all 29 of his points, including 20 during the Jazz’s fourth-quarter push. Ingles never actually got off the ground. He attempted eight shots all game, which is right around his season average but not indicative of the circumstances. 

    Without Mitchell, there should have been more of a commitment to getting Ingles the ball. He instead seemed to fade into the backdrop between Mike Conley’s playmaking (11 assists) and Jordan Clarkson’s launch party (5-of-16; 0-of-8 from three).

    The Jazz have to take a more proactive approach at keeping them involved—infinitely so if Mitchell could potentially miss more time. Lower volume has always been ingrained into Ingles’ game, but he can take on more ball-handling responsibilities. And as a virtuoso shot-maker comfortable putting the ball on the deck, Bogdanovic shouldn’t need a full half before he starts getting his looks off.

16 of 16

    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    In between the the first and second quarter, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks told TNT’s Stephanie Ready his team needed to play “faster than fast.” He was spot-on.

    Washington is at its best this season when speed-balling down the floor and attacking before opposing defenses get set. Only the Bucks entered the playoffs with a shorter average possession time, per Impredictable, and they are also the lone team to devote more of their offense to transition opportunities. The Wizards are not the most efficient group in these fast-break situations, but it beats the alternative of trying to breakdown defenses in the half-court, where their spacing is iffy and they don’t launch nearly enough threes.

    Game 1 drove Brooks’ point home—and then some. The Wizards ran up their lead in the first half when Joel Embiid was on the bench with foul trouble and they were able to run roughshod over Philly’s reserve-heavy unit.

    That rollicking pace didn’t hold in the second half. Seeing more of Embiid had a little something to do with it. He not only gave the Sixers time to get back by making shots and drawing fouls, but he made the Wizards pay for the doubles they through him, sometimes before the second defender even reached him.

    Embiid is a problem Washington—and pretty much the entire NBA—can’t solve. It won’t enjoy limitless transition opportunities when struggling to defend him and Philly’s dribble-handoff actions at large. But the Wizards can, and have to, do more after grabbing rebounds and even inbounding the ball.

    The Sixers will give them chances. They ranked 23rd in the share of their opponents plays that ended on the break during the regular season. And while they’re also equipped to bust up those possessions, the Wizards don’t have a prayer if they’re trying to win with a more methodical offense. They don’t take enough threes, Westbrook won’t get to the rim as readily, and Robin Lopez’s sweeping hooks can get them only so far.

    Philly’s size and length was immensely disruptive when things slowed down in the second half, most notably during the fourth quarter, when Washington had a case of the givebacks. “Faster than fast” isn’t just a catchy slogan. It is the Wizards’ best hope at turning this one-versus-eight matchup into an actual series.

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal.

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