The NBA playoffs tipped off this weekend, and all eight Game 1s are in the books.
On Saturday, the Brooklyn Nets and their Big Three took down the Boston Celtics; Khris Middleton‘s overtime game-winner propelled the Milwaukee Bucks past the Miami Heat; and the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers each won in upsets to begin their series.
On Sunday, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers‘ rally fell short against the Phoenix Suns; the Philadelphia 76ers held off the Washington Wizards; and the Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks each scored Game 1 upsets on the road.
Which performance surprised us the most? Which series has us hoping for seven games? Our ESPN NBA experts debate the biggest storylines after a weekend full of thrilling Game 1 action.
1. What has been most surprising after the Game 1s?
Kevin Arnovitz: LeBron James spent very little time moving downhill during Sunday’s Game 1 defeat. James attempted only four field goals inside of 10 feet: One was blocked, one was a tip-in, one was a layup and one resulted in a trip to the foul line. James didn’t look hesitant so much as disinterested in pressuring Phoenix in the interior. The Lakers desperately need an offensive jolt, and there’s no better shot-creator on the planet to provide one — so long as he is willing to be aggressive.
Andrew Lopez: The Lakers scoring only 90 points, James having only 18 points and Anthony Davis scoring a playoff career low in points (13) and shooting percentage (31.3). Nothing the Lakers did seemed to work against the Suns’ sixth-ranked defense. The 90 points were the least they’ve had in a game with James and Davis this season and the third fewest in any game (playoffs, regular season or play-in) dating back to last season.
Tim MacMahon: Milwaukee managed to win Game 1 despite a massive mathematical disadvantage, as the Bucks made 15 fewer 3-pointers than the Heat. It’s the largest differential ever for a winning team in a playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Bucks’ interior defense helped make up the difference; Miami shot only 32.7% (16-of-49) on 2s, and NBA.com/stats credited Brook Lopez for contesting 17 of those shots.
Kevin Pelton: That there have been so many shooting mismatches. Of the first six games, only one team (Boston at 37%) shot an average percentage on 3-point attempts. Lakers-Suns Game 1 was the first in which one team didn’t shoot at least 8% better than the other. This is a make-or-miss league, but even by those standards, 3-point shooting played an outsized role in Game 1s.
Royce Young: The Lakers’ rather lifeless offensive performance. Not to discredit the Suns in any way; they were completely ready for the challenge of the champs, and Devin Booker appears built for the playoffs. But the Lakers never showed signs of being all that in it. Maybe it’s the hangover of the play-in, maybe it’s health, maybe it’s conditioning. But then again, the Lakers made a habit out of Game 1 flops in the bubble last year, and that worked out all right for them.
2. What’s one adjustment you’d like to see one team make after Game 1?
MacMahon: The Clippers tried almost everything to slow down Luka Doncic, except giving Kawhi Leonard the most important defensive assignment in the series. It’s time for the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year to prove he is still that type of stopper when the stakes are high. “I think you’ll get what you’re asking for come Tuesday,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said, citing Leonard’s offensive burden as a reason not to give him the full-time Luka assignment. I understand the logic of putting Leonard on Kristaps Porzingis and switching on screens, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was happy to have Porzingis just space the floor and let Doncic dictate which defender he picked on.
Arnovitz: The Bucks should run more two-man actions for Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo, something they went away from after the first quarter. Milwaukee generated some quality looks in Game 1 from the perimeter that they simply didn’t make, but they’re going to need a bit more offense beyond that to win the series. As a pick-and-roll combo, Middleton and Antetokounmpo were an efficient tandem for the Bucks all season. It’s an action that also puts both players in a position to work strengths: Middleton as a one- or two-dribble shooter who can get up any shot with just a modicum of space, and Antetokounmpo as a devastating finisher when he is in the vicinity of the hoop. Antetokounmpo was 0-for-14 outside the restricted area in Game 1, and this seems like an effective way to get him to spend more time inside it.
Lopez: How will Denver get players not named Nikola Jokic involved? The Blazers’ strategy of letting Jokic score and not allowing him to get his teammates involved worked, as Jokic finished with one assist. Granted, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Nuggets went 1-of-10 on Jokic’s passes. “They made me work for it on every possession. They kind of took other guys out. I couldn’t get other guys involved, maybe. Just because of the assists, I’m saying that,” Jokic said postgame. If the Nuggets want to reverse their Game 1 result, other shots are going to have to fall.
Young: The Nuggets have to find ways to unlock the magic of The Joker. The Blazers scheme was to let Nikola Jokic score as much as he wanted and limit his dynamic playmaking by playing straight up individual defense. The Nuggets need to create the space and opportunity for Jokic to tap into all the parts that are going to make him the MVP this season.
Pelton: I’d like to see the Wizards start Davis Bertans in place of either Rui Hachimura or Raul Neto. Washington’s offense desperately needs the threat Bertans’ shooting presents to open up the floor. The Wizards were plus-9 in Bertans’ 28 minutes on Sunday. It’s doubtful they’d remain that effective with Bertans overlapping more with Joel Embiid‘s playing time, but Bertans simply needs to play more than the 28 minutes he saw in Game 1. Starting is the easiest way to facilitate that.
3. The team that most needs to win Game 2 is …
Pelton: The Nuggets. Granted, the Nuggets showed a penchant for comebacks last year in the bubble. They also might get healthier over the course of the series if Will Barton and/or P.J. Dozier can return from injuries. Still, this matchup looked like a tossup before the Blazers won Game 1. If Portland takes a 2-0 lead back home, Denver is in trouble.
Arnovitz: The Nuggets. The Trail Blazers have historically been a strong home-court squad, and they’d be a tough out if they return to the Moda Center up 2-0, and their perimeter creators are running on all cylinders.
Lopez: The Miami Heat. If the Heat could steal home-court advantage from Milwaukee by taking Game 2 on Monday, the pressure on Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co. would grow to not only finish Miami off but to even make it out of the first round — especially after all the moves the Bucks have made for a deep run this season.
MacMahon: The Clippers don’t exactly have a track record of responding well to adversity. So, yeah, they better avoid leaving Staples Center in an 2-0 hole against Dallas. The Clippers arguably had the most pressure on them entering the playoffs after the way they imploded in the bubble against the Nuggets. The Clippers would have a monster on their backs if their playoff losing streak reaches five games.
Young: The Clippers. Going down 1-0 in the series brought back the same feelings and thoughts around the Clippers’ bubble collapse last summer, but going down 2-0 would crank that to infinity. The Clippers are trying to recenter and not get tangled in the chatter, but losing both games on their home floor would send a shockwave through the entire organization.
4. Let’s have some fun: Who is the playoff MVP after one game?
Pelton: Luka Doncic. The Clippers tried a variety of defenders on Doncic in Game 1, but none could stop him. Doncic scored (31) or assisted (11) on 58 of the Mavericks’ 113 points, doing so efficiently thanks to 5-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc. He also added 10 rebounds for his third career triple-double in seven playoff games, all of them against the Clippers.
Young: Luka Doncic. He showed it against the Clippers in the bubble last year, but Doncic has a game that seems engineered in a lab specifically for playoff basketball. His shot-making ability, knack for sensing momentum-shifting moments and feel for the balance between calling his own number and involving teammates makes him the kind of player you fear going into any game. And he showed all of it in Game 1.
MacMahon: Luka Doncic (31-point triple-double) and Trae Young (32 points, 10 assists, game winner) made strong cases, but I’m going to go with the guy taken at the top of their 2018 draft class. Suns center Deandre Ayton played up to his No. 1 overall pedigree in his playoff debut, absolutely dominating the Lakers. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, Ayton (21 points, 10-of-11 shooting, 16 rebounds) joined Bill Russell as the only players in postseason history to shoot at least 90% from the floor in a 20-point, 15-rebound game. Ayton also anchored a Phoenix defense that held the Lakers to 90 points.
Arnovitz: Trae Young. Khris Middleton hit the most consequential shot, while Luka Doncic and Devin Booker had the gaudiest lines. But Young, in his playoff debut, went into the most intimidating venue in the NBA and etched his imprint on this series. Madison Square Garden has always honored the game’s most charismatic players, and in Game 1, its spectators watched a pick-and-roll virtuoso who dictated the terms of every offensive possession late in a back-and-forth nail-biter.
Lopez: Rayford Trae Young. The Hawks point guard had a spectacular playoff debut in Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening with 32 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and, most importantly, the game-winning floater with 0.9 to play to give the Hawks the Game 1 win. Young scored or assisted on 21 points in the fourth quarter, and he joined Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and LeBron James as the only players to have 30 points and 10 assists in their first playoff game. Young also was the first player with 30 points and 10 assists in a playoff game at MSG since Michael Jordan did it in Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference finals.
5. Which first-round series do want to see go seven games?
Pelton: I’m on the record as saying I’d like Blazers-Nuggets to be a best-of-17, so I suppose I have to pick that, right? I think Portland is favored right now, but if the series goes seven, the home-court advantage would surely flip it back to Denver — despite what we saw two years ago, when CJ McCollum‘s 37 points led the Blazers to a Game 7 road win and a trip to the Western Conference finals.
MacMahon: Suns-Lakers. Don’t you want to see the defending champions pushed to the brink? Or whether the bromance between Chris Paul and LeBron James can survive a seven-game series? I’ll stick with the Lakers as my pick to win — due to my solid philosophy of never betting against James in the playoffs — but the young Suns made it clear that they aren’t intimidated one iota due to their lack of postseason experience.
Lopez: Knicks-Hawks. A matchup featuring Chris Paul and LeBron James in a winner-take-all Game 7 might be the most fun from a storyline level, but I’m going to give the nod to New York and Atlanta. These are two teams few thought would be contending for home court in the first round, and both are out to prove they belong; it would lead to a fun, seven-game series culminating at Madison Square Garden.
Arnovitz: Clippers-Mavericks. The most Luka Doncic is the best Luka Doncic. Throw in a helping of Clippers pathos and that’s two weeks of solid basketball entertainment.
Young: Bucks-Heat. Just thinking about the intensity of a Game 7 between these teams is something that should get your playoff juices flowing. Game 1 was a brawl, with a classic Eastern Conference feel and the kind of tension that makes postseason basketball great. Adding that into a winner-take-all Game 7 with Jimmy, Bam and Spo against Giannis, Khris and Bud would build some serious drama. Hard to go against the Heat in a bar fight kind of setting, but it could be the kind of game Antetokounmpo needs to restore some legacy equity.