This first appeared in the April 16 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
With the first set of playoff games out of the way, it’s time to take stock of all eight first-round matchups, and where they stand after the opening weekend.
Here’s a look at the biggest takeaway from the first game of all eight series, and what needs to change for the losing team to make them competitive as they progress:
1. Spurs don’t have enough
There was a lot of hand-wringing about Golden State’s form coming into the playoffs, having lost 10 of its past 17 games and dealing with a series of key injuries — most notably to Stephen Curry. But the Warriors-Spurs series was going to be competitive only if Golden State failed to show up.
Right from the beginning of Game 1 — when Andre Iguodala was put into the starting lineup — it was clear Golden State was motivated to change the tenor of its defense, which has lagged during the team’s recent slump (Warriors Coach Steve Kerr confirmed after the game that that was the reason behind starting Iguodala over former DeMatha star Quinn Cook). And it was immediately apparent San Antonio had no chance of scoring consistently against a motivated Warriors team.
Kawhi Leonard is not coming back to save the Spurs. He might never return to the franchise at all. And, even if he did, it wouldn’t be enough to make this series an interesting one.
2. Wizards have to stay out of their own way
Washington was up three in the fourth quarter and looking good when Mike Scott committed a flagrant foul on Kyle Lowry. That kicked off a quick 7-0 run that put Toronto ahead for good and was compounded by a casual Kelly Oubre Jr. pass that was stolen and turned into a three-pointer for C.J. Miles a few minutes later.
These are the kinds of maddeningly inconsistent mental moments the Wizards have had all season — the reason they are the eighth seed, instead of the fifth or sixth as they should have been. They also are the reason they are behind 1-0 in this series.
Teams that win the first two games at home go on to win the series better than 90 percent of the time — so the adage that “the series doesn’t start til the home team loses” isn’t accurate. But if Washington wants a real chance at pulling off an upset, the dumb plays and mental breaks need to stop, starting in Game 2.
3. Heat need to stay away from Whiteside unless Embiid is playing
Joel Embiid won’t be back for Game 2 on Monday night, as he’ll continue to sit with his facial fracture. And, until — or if — Embiid returns, Hassan Whiteside’s role needs to be minimized for the Heat to make this a long series.
Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown made a savvy halftime adjustment in Game 1, starting Ersan Ilyasova to bring Whiteside out of the paint. It worked, and the Sixers ran away in the second half under a hailstorm of threes. Whiteside, meanwhile, didn’t want to come out to try to stop any of Philadelphia’s shooters, and they gleefully took advantage.
Few coaches are better tactically than Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, and he’ll undoubtedly have a few tricks up his sleeve in Game 3. Philadelphia likely won’t hit 64 percent of its threes, either. But one thing Spoelstra should do is keep Whiteside next to him unless Embiid is out there. Whiteside might not like it, but it’s Miami’s best chance.
4. Blazers need more from Lillard/McCollum
Yes, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum got going as Portland’s game against New Orleans wore on Saturday night. But even with a good second half, a combined 13-for-41 showing from the Trail Blazers’ star backcourt simply isn’t going to be good enough to win in this — or any — playoff series.
Some of those struggles should be credited to an unbelievable defensive performance from Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday, who proved why he’s gotten a lot of love over the past couple weeks for all-defensive team honors. But that can’t matter if Portland is going to win a playoff series.
Few players have consistently delivered in big moments as Lillard has, so the expectation is that he’s going to be better as the series moves along. If Portland is going to advance, though, he has to be.
5. Bledsoe has to be better
To put it bluntly, Eric Bledsoe was awful Sunday. Nine points on 4-for-12 shooting to go with four assists, five turnovers and six fouls? Not cutting it. And that doesn’t even include Bledsoe getting completely crossed up on Terry Rozier’s go-ahead bucket at the end of regulation.
Milwaukee has a lot of reasons to feel optimistic after Game 1. The Bucks committed 20 turnovers, gave up 11 offensive rebounds got an awful performance from Bledsoe and still lost in overtime. They can fix the first two things just by being smarter and stronger with the ball. The third, though, is even simpler: Bledsoe just needs to be better.
If he is, this remains a toss-up series. If he’s not? It could be over quickly.
6. Play Cedi Osman and Larry Nance, sit Jeff Green
This one could be as simple as “regression to the mean.” Indiana was 25th in the NBA in three-pointers made per game this season, and Cleveland was third. So, no, there likely won’t be another game in this series that sees the Pacers make more threes (11 for 27) than the Cavaliers (8-for-34).
But that wasn’t the only issue with Cleveland’s lifeless showing Sunday. Jeff Green, named the starting power forward for the playoffs, was a no-show, missing all seven shots and going scoreless in 26 minutes. Cedi Osman, meanwhile, was anchored to the bench.
For a Cleveland team that doesn’t play with enough energy and effort, Osman provides both — and should be playing over Green. Meanwhile, Nance gave the Cavaliers a boost when he came in and should move into the starting lineup in place of Green.
Given how in flux Cleveland’s rotations have been all season, the guess here is that there will be plenty of changes in Game 2 (not including a potential George Hill injury). They should start with less of Green, and more Nance and Osman.
7. Do a better job handling Oklahoma City’s physicality
A look at the box score would probably lead one to say that the biggest issue facing the Utah Jazz after losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder is trying to contain Paul George. And it’s true that George (36 points on 13-for-20 shooting, including 8 for 11 from three) was the difference in Sunday’s game.
But just as important was that Oklahoma City controlled the pace and physicality of the game from the start. After Utah jumped out to an early 12-point lead with a 16-2 run, the Thunder immediately stormed back into the game and didn’t look back, and they imposed their will on the Jazz in doing so.
This is the way Oklahoma City likes to play — taking advantage of its length and athleticism to overwhelm opponents. Utah needs to execute better in Game 2, and also needs to keep the Thunder from dictating how it plays.
8. Get Karl-Anthony Towns involved
Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most gifted offensive big men in the history of basketball. So how did he only have nine shots in Minnesota’s 104-101 loss to Houston on Sunday?
As it always is, part of this is on Towns and part of it is on the Timberwolves. Regardless, it needs to change in Game 2 if Minnesota wants to make this a long series. Having Derrick Rose take the most shots on the team — and five more than Towns — simply isn’t going to work in any situation.
The shame of it is Minnesota had Game 1 there for the taking. But bad closes to the first and third quarters (two 6-0 Rockets runs in the final minute) and a couple of key breakdowns was enough to swing the game in Houston’s favor (not to mention some incredible play from James Harden). But that doesn’t change the fact Towns needs to be more involved for Minnesota to have a real shot.
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