Winners and losers from the first weekend of NBA playoff action
The opening weekend of the NBA playoffs is a dizzying stretch of eight must-watch games in just two days, stacked end-to-end so that the most committed fans can enjoy every adrenaline-fueled debut.
To those who made it through the weekend having watched every second — we applaud you. To those who left their couches at some point — we’re here to help. Here are some winners and losers from an eventful first weekend, each emblematic of the successes and challenges of their particular series.
Williams has been on a tear for the better part of two months now, but many of his performances came soaked in an air of unsustainability. That he had improved relative to the start of the season was certain: Williams seemed to be moving around the court more effectively, unencumbered if nothing else. But he had made leaps in his shooting percentages and scoring output without making many discernible changes to his game. That in itself can’t (and shouldn’t) take away from what Williams accomplished over that stretch. But it came as a concern that he was doing so much damage on the basis of hot shooting on both mid-range jumpers (of which he converted 45.7 percent in his final 28 games — 5.6 percent better than his season average) and three-pointers (41.3 percent over the final 28, good for a 3.5-percent bump).
But Game 1 of Brooklyn’s series against Chicago showcased Williams’ game at its peak (22 points, seven assists, three turnovers), with both production and process working in tandem to cement a decisive victory. He converted from the outside (2-of-3 from long range), but the bulk of Williams’ scoring came on a 7-of-8 performance from within the belly of the vaunted Bulls defense, according to Hoopdata, as slick ball handling and immediate physical advantage allowed him to get into the paint at his whim. That in itself should be rather reassuring for the Nets, but the big takeaway was Williams’ command. He worked over every defender placed in front of him and was active both before and after the catch:
Every dribble proved productive, as Williams neared the apex of his on-court economy. Facing a pair of ill-suited defenders (woe be Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson), Williams made them look silly. He has that consistent capability, though he selectively opts to dawdle through games by ignoring his advantages as a cutter and neglecting the simple utility provided in his size and speed. There was nary a glimpse of that vice on Saturday, with Williams fully engaged in a game against an opponent who deserved his full attention.
All wasn’t quite right with the Bulls in this series’ premiere, but Williams remained committed nonetheless to challenging a hobbled Joakim Noah and the undependable Carlos Boozer to rotate in time to contest his advances. Even when they were successful, Williams was ready, empowered by next-move anticipation and a clear understanding of the principles of the Bulls’ team defense. He created 37 points through baskets and assists in just 35 minutes as a result, to say nothing of how his off-ball movement and dribble penetration might have otherwise aided the efforts of the five other Nets who scored in double figures.
Chicago can’t be totally written off just yet, but with Noah ailing and Williams playing such perceptive basketball, this series has taken a rather sharp turn in Brooklyn’s favor.
Manu Ginobili and the Spurs
San Antonio’s playoff run began with the understanding that Ginobili wouldn’t quite be himself, with a hamstring injury depriving the playmaking guard of some of his gusto. That diminished expectation made Ginobili’s 18-point outing against the Lakers in Game 1 quite the pleasant surprise. Beyond his scoring total, Ginobili was the impetus for a few, distinct momentum-preserving rallies for the Spurs, who relied on balance in light of mortal performances by Tim Duncan (17 points on 15 shots, 10 rebounds) and Tony Parker (18 points on 21 shots, eight assists).
Ginobili was a safety valve for second-year point guard Cory Joseph when the defensive pressure mounted, a component of San Antonio’s best lineups and a centerpiece for a group of Spurs role players who were able to hold down the fort while Parker and Duncan sat. That’s no small feat, even against the weary Lakers, and it stands testament to the overall impact that Ginobili can have even in limited form.
Saturday night was a special one for Miller, whose beaming smile broke through his otherwise stoic demeanor as he relived a 28-point, five-assist line during his postgame interview. Miller did it all, capping his point-a-minute effort with a game-winning drive, completing the best postseason performance in the 37-year-old point guard’s career. His was an unlikely dominance, as the step-slow guard somehow made a profound imprint on a game between two fast-breaking teams.
Miller’s keen post game, a staple of his skill set, became critical because not much else was going right in Denver’s half-court offense. Ty Lawson and Wilson Chandler were inefficient, Andre Iguodala was somewhat reluctant and the remaining Nuggets scrapped for points as they could. But it was Miller who emerged as Denver’s improbable offensive centerpiece, working consistently from the low block and putting a slew of defenders to shame:
Bravo. One can only hope that the rest of the series continues in similar fashion.
Every top-seeded team protected its home court in Game 1, with Brooklyn (106-89 over Chicago), Oklahoma City (120-91 over Houston) and Miami (110-87 over Milwaukee) among the most demonstrative victors. There are still miles to go before these series are fully decided, but from a strict win-loss standpoint, the playoff openers went according to script.
The Bulls’ defense
The Bulls have a history of thorough preparation and execution. Coach Tom Thibodeau equips his players with the tools to contend regardless of their talent level. Stars have floated in and out of the lineup over the last few seasons, but because of that deeply woven fabric, Chicago’s defense has largely held strong. It’s suffered the departure of Omer Asik, the periodic absences of Joakim Noah, the strain of offense-first guards like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli and the defensive trade-offs that come in losing the team’s offensive engine in Derrick Rose. Yet the Bulls still ranked fifth in points allowed per possession this season and seemed capable of surviving Noah’s lingering injury to at least put forth a respectable defensive effort against the Nets in the first round.
That wasn’t the case at least for Saturday. Chicago played a deplorable defensive game in both effort and execution. Noah has a viable excuse as he’s essentially playing on crutches, but the rest of the Bulls’ defense appeared almost instantly deflated in Game 1 and went on to surrender uncharacteristic transition points and open pockets of space in the half court. That’s troubling for Chicago, to say the least. Where do the Bulls’ hopes lie if not in their defense?
When Chandler is healthy and even tangentially involved in New York’s offense, he’s a huge asset. Opponents tend to pay attention to athletic 7-footers streaking down the lane, and Chandler’s rolls often allow three-point shooters to slide into open space and cutters to find a lane to the rim.
But when Chandler isn’t involved — which was the case Saturday, when he went scoreless, didn’t attempt a shot and grabbed five rebounds in 20 minutes — he can be an offensive drag. That hard screener and quick roller becomes a non-shooter clogging up space on the weak side, waiting for a chance to attack the glass rather than actively participating in the offense. It’s difficult to know exactly why Chandler was such an irrelevant part of New York’s offense in its first game against Boston (injuries had limited him to just four games since mid-March), but it’s by no coincidence that some of the Knicks’ best stretches came with Kenyon Martin playing in Chandler’s stead.
There’s likely some stray, prescient Alanis Morissette lyric about being denied entry to the NBA postseason for eight straight years only to tear your hip flexor in your playoff debut. Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you.
Larry Drew and Al Horford
The only thing consistent about the Hawks’ rotation this season has been its curiosity, as Drew has flipped his lineups constantly in search of winning combinations. Some of that fiddling has arguably done the Hawks harm over the course of the season, but in assessing Sunday’s game against the Pacers, there can be little argument: Drew’s inexplicable decision to play Horford just 28 minutes hurt Atlanta’s efforts to keep competitive.
Horford is the Hawks’ most dependable all-around player, and though his presence on the floor on Sunday didn’t generally correlate to a winning margin, he was — and is — the key to the extension of this series. As it stands, Indiana is a rather decisive favorite, capable of locking up Atlanta’s offense while leveraging size to gain an offensive advantage. So why, then, would Drew take such an important two-way asset off the floor for such a substantial stretch?
The depressing answer: to play Ivan Johnson for 24 minutes and Johan Petro 12. Unimpeachable logic, that.
Since trading Rudy Gay, Memphis has reshaped its offense around cross-court movement, Marc Gasol’s high-post facilitation and Conley’s playmaking. None of those elements were quite in tune in the Grizzlies’ loss to the Clippers on Saturday, but Conley — who has struggled all season against Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe — seemed especially limited:
He shot a decent percentage from the field and generally did a good job of moving the offense along as necessary, but Conley will need to be a more prevalent shot-creating force to counter both L.A.’s explosive offense and the Grizzlies’ more general offensive limitations. Memphis managed just 99.5 points per 100 possessions with Conley on the floor — a mark more than six points below the Grizzlies’ mediocre season average and equivalent to the lowly regular-season offenses of the 76ers or Magic.
The Lakers’ offense
Defending the Spurs is no easy task, but the Lakers — oddly enough — manage to do so better than most. Size is part of that, as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol help to both mitigate the damage of Duncan and make things difficult for Parker on his drives to the rim.
L.A.’s defense continued that trend in its first playoff test, limiting one of the league’s most efficient offenses to a manageable 91 points. But the Lakers just don’t look like a team with enough supplementary scoring to scare any opponent, much less one as poised and balanced as the Spurs. No Laker was brilliant, but Howard, Gasol and Steve Nash combined for 52 points on just 43 shots. That’s decent production, and better than the 53 points on 49 shots from Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili. The difference between the two teams: San Antonio has such a wide variety of piecemeal scoring (the Spurs’ bench outscored the Lakers’ 40-10) that it was able to cobble together enough points to hold course.
The Lakers deserve their due for holding the Spurs to 37.6 percent shooting, but I suspect the narrative of Game 1 will prove a tired one by series’ end. Howard (whom the Spurs can contain and foul), Gasol (who isn’t one for excess) and Nash (who was limited even before taking on a regimen of between-game epidurals) just aren’t enough in their current form, and even the odd made contested jumper from Steve Blake won’t be enough to tip the balance in the Lakers’ favor.