The Completed First Round Series
Toronto Raptors 4 - 0 Brooklyn Nets
The least eventful of the entire first round, with a Nets team without any of their best players had to face an extremely deep and well coached Raptors team. Regardless, two things are worth mentioning:
Fred Van Vleet becoming truly the main operator of the offense for the team a Lowry take more off a secondary creator and off-ball role. In Game 2, as the Nets built momentum in the second half behind LeVert's crazy makes from floater range, FVV lead the team to a 19-5 run to start the final quarter and finished the game with 24 point and 10 assists.
The other pressing thought is about the aforementioned Caris LeVert. The combo guard-wing scored 35 points in the elimination game and averaged nearly 10 assists throughout the series. With Irving and Dinwiddie ahead of him in the pecking order, a guard that thrives with the ball in his hands might not have the best environment. LeVert's extension also kicks in next year and it starts at over 16 million, almost 5 million more than Spencer Dinwiddie. It will be interesting to see if they keep him as a bench piece or if they try and flip him for a piece in a wing rotation that barely exists outside of Kevin Durant, and with that salary, a lot of options can fit.
Boston Celtics 4 - 0 Philadelphia 76ers
Without Ben Simmons, the job was obviously going to be much tougher. The hope was that a more open offense with 4 people that can to some extent space the floor might be the best way to capitalize on the mismatch Embiid represents against the Celtics. Soon we realised that the Celtics weren't in for any sort of trouble...
Embiid only had 7 post ups on game 1 as the Sixers lack of playmaking meant he wasn't able to get any good inside position but, in an indictment of the coaching, they just weren't searching for it that intensely. The Sixers had Embiid sag off Theis and then top locked all the perimeter players, forcing them to ISOs or cutting towards Joel Embiid at the rim. The Celtics reacted by playing less with motion and using screening actions with whoever was being guarded by Horford. Therefore, in game 2 and going forward, the Celtics just ran a ton of pick and roll and used the pull up ability of Tatum and Kemba to attack the drop coverage. Moving their actions from pindowns to these actions higher up on the floor opened everything up. Also, not having the ball in Theis' hands means Embiid can't just stay in the paint without a 3-second violation.
The way Shake Milton was was destroyed was almost sad… He got relentlessly targeted by Kemba Walker and if you have a better defender on him, he’ll just hint the switch to Horford or Harris using a double drag screen.
In game 3, the Sixers managed to say close through their offensive rebounding, winning the 2nd chance point battle 20 to 7. The Sixers would give them back in transition, where they lost fast break points 22-8 (They also lost it 17-1 on game 2 and 18-8 on game 1), as Boston’s intense scrambling lead to many fast breaks on an open court. Behind by 2 with less than 2 minutes to go, Boston was doubling Embiid, forcing him to try and pass out of the pressure, and this resulted in an incredible steal by Marcus Smart, shipping the ball mid air and starting the fast break before hitting the ground. In the following play, another double team resulted in Tatum blocking an Embiid that lost his equilibrium and another fast break. The final Boston possessions were simply Kemba going back to hunting Horford. A 10-0 run to close the game.
The one-sided nature of the series raises a lot of questions about the future of the 76ers. The team has no flexibility and future assets to speak of and they have botched building around Embiid and Simmons. While the fit of the two is questionable, their talent is enough that the problem was never going to be having them both on the squad. But the contracts to Tobias Harris (a complementary offensive piece being payed like a number one or two option) and Horford (in quick decline and a terrible fit to play with the starting unit) have left them with a tough choice: Is there any hope with improvement on the margins or do they have to choose between one of their stars in order to maximize the team around the other?... I'm sure they believe it's worth giving a shot to a new coach but anyone saying they have a solution for this offense is likely deluding themselves.
Miami Heat 4 - 0 Indiana Pacers
Indiana were out-coached by Spo and the Miami Heat, though the Pacers managed to look better as the series went along and were never really blown out in any given game.
Miami's switching defense (and the incredible that anchors it in Bam Adebayo) stifled any Pacers offense from tip off of game 1.
Oladipo really hurt the team for most of his minutes. He is still a contributor through his defense but he needs to be lowered in the offensive pecking order. For the first 3 games he shot 35.1% from the field and took over 12 shots per game. A lot of them were terrible, terrible shots. His shot selection was rookie-level bad. Hopefully this was merely a bumpy stretch in a road to recovery but the signs aren't promising.
When game 3 rolled around, Justin Holiday started over his brother and the starters looked were helped by a much better defensive player that allows the Pacers to switch more freely. Michael Borgdon scored 34 points and ha 14 assists. But Nate took 3 games to do so and the team never really committed to switching or to playing thee starter a lot of minute together wither way. But if the team’s going to have 31 fouls in a game and send Butler to the line 20 times, then this is pointless. Jimmy Butler had 17 free throws made... The Heat won by 9. He also had 4 offensive boards - Turner needs to go higher up because of Bam’s DHOs and (that allowed Butler to swoop in)[https://i.imgur.com/oHsDOez.mp4].
The Dragic resurgence is a great story, he looks like he lost 3 years on his legs. Andre Iguodala proves he's still a 16 game player with 4 steals and a +15 in 26 minutes in game 4. In that elimination game Indiana had 3 bench points... There are more letters in the word "three" than point scored by Indiana's bench. Indiana was "forced" (Oladipo doesn't seem to need help for bad shot selection) into a ton of shots from floater range, ending up 5/19 between 4ft and the FT line in the CTG-tracked minutes. The Pacers had a 74.7 half court offensive rating in that same period.
Nate McMillan being fired brings the fans frustrations with the stagnation of the midranger-heavy offense to an end. As far as I'm aware people credit the defense to the defensive coordinator and not Nate himself so Indiana fans are looking forward to some revamped offense with sustained defensive strength. Hopefully, we can see Myles Turner developing into a true pick and pop machine. His post up game is limited, his foul rate is comically low and he gets virtually no assists so he needs to play to his strength as a floor spacer to force mistakes in defenderes trying to deal with his screens.
Milwaukee Bucks 4 - 1 Orlando Magic
So let's just get game 1 out of the way. The Bucks couldn't score on the Magic without Isaac AND Gordon. 103.9 points per 100 and they basically only shot at the rim or from three, going cold on both ends (19-33 and 13-40, respectively). The stagnant offense relies too much on Giannis getting to the rim for drive and kicks and most of the Bucks players are actually below average 3 point shooters. And credit to the Magic on transition defense. They ignored completely any possible offensive rebound (OREB% was on the 0th percentile for the season) to wall up Giannis and the Bucks had a 0.47 or 0.7 points per possession (depending on CTG or Synergy) in transition this game - almost all of that from live rebounds. Giannis is a willing passer but the rest of the team couldn't make them pay.
Vucevis had 35 points in 24 shots with no free throws, displaying how pick and pop bigs can break the Bucks' scheme. He just ignored the rim and made every shot the Bucks allowed him to take. 16 points in 8 picks and pops. According to Synergy, this season, Vuc is the leader in total pick and pop possessions and the second best player in efficiency.
He was so effective, Lopez was set a bit higher than usual a couple of times as he tried to put a bit more pressure on Vucevic and it became a party of cuts to the rim. The Bucks did change to a switching system at the end of the game but this created more opportunities from post ups from Vuc on smaller guys and Lopez still had too much help tendencies, leading to more open 3s. Despite the Magic never really having a good overall performance ageing Vucevic would have a strong series with 28 points per game with 50/40/90 splits.
In the halfcourt Orlando would often tag Giannis with any defender they could throw at him and would zone up on the perimeter players. They'd then recover to their matchups once the ball was back to the outside area. They also fronted on the post aggressively and then brought help on the back when the player was looking for an overhead pass to the paint
The supporting cast of the Bucks would have a better offensive display as the games went along, though there were some bumps: Middelton was MIA in the first couple of games shooting 5-20 and Bledsoe was a disaster in game 4 going -26 in 23 minutes in a game his team won in blow-out.
In the elimination game, the Magic actually had moments of really quality scramble defense once they swarmed Giannis in the paint. Despite this, the Bucks were able to get some more 1v1 matchups for Giannis by having the guards cut as he receives the ball inside. This would stop the guard defender from coming in to help or for the double. The Greek Freak had 16 points and 9 boards in 12 minutes and Milwaukee had a 17 point lead at halftime.
While in the grand scheme of things this was a squash job, I still think it fuelled the fire of how the Bucks offense might fall short in the biggest stage. Orland could never be a real threat (they won a single game and they shot 53.6% from the midrange to do it) but the blueprint is set and much better defenses are coming their way.
Los Angeles Lakers 4 - 1 Portland Trail Blazers
Game 1 was an offensive struggle, with both teams were below 100 points per possession. The Lakers made their way inside at will but simply were missing every shot at the rim - 55.8% was on the 16th percentile for the NBA season - and their halfcourt offense had a 77 ORTG. The LA team, according to a source from Seth Partnow, fell an unprecedented 46 points below expectation from shot location and difficulty. And any offense they got was with Lebron doing absolutely everything.
Lillard continued to bend defenses like no other player currently around and, as the 4th rolled on, CJ and Lillard were making heat checks left and right. The Anthony, Lillard, McCollum, Nurkic, and Trent lineup is incredible on offense (133.1 ORTG in the regular season with a +15.7 Net Rating) but to play it is to indeed bet on outscoring the opponents since this combination will be particularly vulnerable to the Lebron/AD pick and roll. The way Melo has been spotting up, in the seemingly endless open 3s the gravity of other players generates for him, has been encouraging and surprising.
But the Blazers never really were able at any point of the series to score enough to be a real threat. In game 2, the starters were 4-20 on threes. The Lakers finally made their shots at the rim, particularly Anthony Davis with a 31-point display, shooting 62% from the field. He devoured Whiteside in putbacks in the 1st quarter, as well as Javale McGee finally showing up in the bubble to the tune of 5 offensive boards.
In game 3, the 40+ minutes and the weeks of must-win situations started to weight on Dame, CJ and Nurkic and they would look extremely tired the rest of the series. This game was important because the Lakers were actually +6 in the minutes without Lebron and it's hard to see the Lakers lose in such a situation. This was fuelled by the Caruso and AD pick and pop, the first finishing with 7 assists. Lebron and AD were both collecting all sorts of points at the line because of physically imposing themselves on a tired Portland team. Lebron was 38/12/8 with 17 FTA and AD was 29/11/8 with 3 blocks and 14 FTA. James finally was attacking the rim like his old self.
It was also the first game where Portland started with both Nurkic and Whiteside in the starting unit. I understand they had better numbers with both of them but it just makes the Portland rotation screwed up, takes their best option on Lebron away from the floor and worsens Lillard’s space. They might want to match up 2 bigs against the Lakers 2 bigs, so they don’t have to do it when the Lakers have Kuzma out there (and they don’t have enough options not to play the two centres some minutes) but I believe it was a decision that did not improve their defense - Whiteside has been a clear negative the entire stint in Orlando - and significantly lowered their defensive ceiling in their most important minutes.
The dominant performances from the two Lakers stars would continue for the final couple of games. In game 4, Anthony Davis looked like a defense onto himself. He was deflecting balls in passing lanes and blocking drives by the Blazers guards, although it’s noticeable the lack of burst they seemed to have. The Lakers led 15-0 and 24-8, scoring a 43 points on their first 24 possessions and were still averaging more than 1.5 points per possession at the end of the third quarter.
Despite the great shooting night for Lebron (4-5 from deep, including a Lillard-range 3), the most encouraging part is 10-18 3pt shooting from the main role players: Green, KCP and Kuzma. The Lakers absolutely need them to beat high-end opposition.
With Lillard out due to a knee sprain for the elimination game, it was never a proper contest. Davis had 43 points in 36 minutes and Lebron had a 36/10/10 in 33 minutes. The Lakers had an incredible midrange shooting night (10-18) and protected the rim in their trademark fashion.
This final game saw once again the issues of the bench unit as Caruso's playmaking is still not good enough or him to run minutes without Lebron and the duo of Howard and Morris both had a -11. In a better day for Kuzma this might not be such an issue but they have no one who can take those shots in that scenario. Regardless, the performances that Lebron and AD put on for the last 3 games were nothing short of dominant and those minutes might be enough to carry the Lakers much deeper into the post-season.
Los Angeles Clippers 4 - 2 Dallas Mavericks
Game 1 was a sloppy affair and, despite the win, the Clippers didn't look good on offense except a hotter than usual Marcus Morris and Lou Williams off the bench. But they start strong in the first quarter in how they bothered and smothered Doncic, who ended with 11 turnovers despite a 42/7/9 performance. Beverly heading to the bench and Curry coming in on the other side settled the Mavericks a bit, alongside Luka going out to reset mentally. He then got it together and had a chance to do that reset against a worse lineup. However, Dallas fell away from the game with the ejection from Porzingis, after a second technical foul following a provocation by Marcus Morris.
On game 2, Dallas evened the series as KP continued to be incredibly efficient and a deadeye shooter. He improved so much his numbers since he moved to play the 5 and not like a stretch 4. His spacing created all types of space for the likes of Burke to drive to the rim without any big in the way. Plus, he did a great job as a rim protector - the Lillard-type player that can really destroy him in Pick and roll doesn't exist for the Clippers. The closest thing would be Lou Williams because of his speed but Porzingis was never really ever forced to deal with Lou in space. If Zubac was on KP, Luka ran pick and pop with him on the spot with no hesitation, to great effect.
Luka had a fantastic 1st half with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists. He would cool off in the second half but the bench unit with Burke and Curry would expand the lead to its final form. Dallas spent the final stretch of the game just relentlessly attacking Lou Williams, who the Clippers needed desperately for scoring.
On game 3, Kawhi was his best self. A force on both ends, he went full “Claw” mode and the Mavericks fell behind by double digits and Leonard being the primary creator most possessions. He ended up with 36 points, 9 boards and 8 assists. This was an offensive outing overall with both teams shot around 60% EFG. But the difference in halfcourt offense was the decisive factor, as Dallas struggled with a lack of Doncic minutes - he went out with an ankle injury - and the Clippers soared to an incredible 123.9 ORTG. Starting Shamet was an improvement over Reggie on both ends - he walked into a bunch of 3s in an 18 point game. But the moment Lou and Harrell hit the court, Luka is one again set free.
This would be, unfortunately, the last time Porzingis would play in this series, saying goodbye with a 34 point performance and 5 out of 9 from deep.
Game 4 is an unforgettable game and the best thing we have seen happen in Orlando. The lack of Porzingis forced Kleber to play the 5 instead of being the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard. Lou Williams was keeping the Clippers lead intact for most of the game having his way with the Dallas bench players, with the unit with Justin Jackson and JJ Barea was a particular dumpster fire. When Luka sat the Mavericks had no chance. They were -9 in the 8 minutes he rested out of 53. They need to never allow minutes without Luka AND Curry if they aren’t playing KP. Doncic returning and spamming the high pick and roll turned the game around, helped by an awesome Trey Burke performance - he’d end with 25 points in 10 for 14 shooting.
Kawhi in the 4th and OT was scary on both ends, again. In OT, tied game with less than a minute remaining, he did switch too easily with Reggie and that would be a sign of what was to come...
The Luka winning shot was a terrific play. Reggie Jackson started the play guarding THJ and with him run up and set the screen for Luka, the Clippers could potentially trap him on the catch or avoid the switch altogether. So as soon as the inbounder received the ball, Maxi (their only big) who had Morris on him, immediately screen for THJ, forcing the Clips to switch (Jackson was now on Maxi). While this is happening, Luka fakes like he's about to screen for Seth. Once Seth clears to the strong side corner and opens up spacing, Mavs had Maxi immediately screen for Luka at the top of the arc - and as soon as Luka clears, Maxi starts rolling towards the hoop (basically hugging Kawhi to him) and forced Reggie to switch onto Luka. With the inbound cutting to the rim to take his defender away, the only defender closest to the help side is in the corner, PG13, and he's guarding Seth so there's no way he's leaving him. Luka is now free to go one on one and get his patented step-back. Luka finished with a 43/17/13 triple-double.
One thing that was noticeable from game 1 in the series was how Zubac's rim protection was the only thing that really seemed to bother Doncic's finishing. Harrell was a -11 in game 4 and he never looked like himself in terms of his speed and burst in any of the games. Green would prove to be a much better choice coming off the bench, including a +20 in game 6.
Unfortunately for the Mavericks, this was a the last hurrah before a definite end.
Now, at this point in the series, Paul George had been absolutely dreadful. "Pandemic P" averaged 11.3 points shooting 21.3% and 16% from 3 in 8.3 attempts per game in games 2 though 4. But then game 5 finally saw him explode to 35 points in 12-18 shooting. They also saw some contributions from Harrell at last, and the Mavericks bench gems, lead by Curry, were completely nullified.
This was bonafide beating, where the Clippers scored over 150 points, shooting 63% from the field AND from 3. They finally played Zubac matching more against Luka minutes. He also trapped the ball handler in screening action, looking to push Luka back, which furthered created issues to the Europe prodigy. Zubac is mobile enough to perform this role and then retreat to his position.
And finally, on game 6, the Clippers claimed the series as Luka had a 38/9/9 effort and no one of his supporting cast showed up. Tim Hardaway was 2-11 from 3 and Burke was 2-10 from the field. The Dallas Mavericks without KP had devolved into a 5-out offense where Luka has to perform miracle upon miracle to win. Kawhi had 33/14/7. He just seems unstoppable. They had no solution for him the entire series and I'm not sure if they could ever find one. Zubac was an eye-popping +33 in a game they won by 14.
Marcus Morris was ejected after 10 minutes and frankly speaking, his behaviour this entire series has been embarrassing. He had been the primary defender of Luka since game 1 so this meant the Clippers were actually forced to play Paul George and Kawhi on him the entire time. And the game 5 explosion seems to have been an ephemeral event since Paul George was 4-12 with 5 turnovers. Dallas would usually win games where George fell short but the previously mentioned lack of scoring from anyone other than Doncic couldn't make the LA pay and force a game 7.
This series, if nothing else, felt like the arrival of a new superstar at the highest level fo the NBA. Luka became the first player ever to get a 43/17/13 game in the playoffs, on nearly 60% shooting, with no KP, down 21 at a point, made the game winner. Luka Doncic is a fresh 21 years old, and it’s his first playoff series. And he did it with a one bad ankle. Whatever is future is, I want to see it all.
The Clippers were tested in ways they aren't likely to be at any point in the next series but they made it through despite many pieces performing below expectations and a lack of Patrick Beverly thought most of it. And, most importantly, Kawhi Leonard looks like the best player in the world as far as two=way ability night in and night out. There is no solution for the reigning Finals MVP.