With each passing year of NBA basketball, the one constant is change. From the uniforms to the players to the franchises themselves, there’s not a lot that stays the same for long.
Every year, squads that struggled the season before jump into the playoff pool. Some make a splash, while others dive head-first into the shallow end. The latter applies to the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, and Miami Heat, three clubs who missed the playoffs in 2014-15, crashed the party in 2015-16, then missed out once again here in 2016-17. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks are taking a rare break from the pool – just the second time in the last 17 years. Mark Cuban will be restocking his cupboard with sunscreen in hopes of a Spring 2018 return.
This season, there were four teams that made the leap from the lottery to the playoffs. Only one of them entered their first-round series with home-court advantage, but each escaped the weekend with it in their back pockets.
How did this happen, and could it continue? Here are a few takeaways on each team’s Game 1 performance.
The Jazz did something they have done all year, namely, win a hard-fought contest without the services of one of their best players. Before he had the chance to break a sweat, Rudy Gobert went down with a knee injury, casting a shadow of doubt on his availability for the rest of the series. Derrick Favors and Jeff Withey provided enough rim protection to get by in Game 1, but will the Clippers be able to exploit Utah’s defense if he remains sidelined going forward?
One reason for optimism is that the Jazz did an incredible job of keeping both Blake Griffin and J.J. Redick in check. Griffin finished with 26 points (9-21 FG, 2-3 3Pt, 6-6 FT), seven rebounds, three assists, and one steal, but he committed six turnovers and finished a Plus-Minus -6 for the night. Joe Johnson had the most success in terms of stopping him, but it was a total team effort, with Boris Diaw and Gordon Hayward stepping up to the plate as well. Redick, on the other hand, is going up against a pair of shooting guards who have four inches on him in the height department (Joe Ingles and Rodney Hood), and the prolific sharpshooter managed just seven points (3-6 FG, 1-3 3Pt, 0-1 FT), two assists, and one rebound while coughing up the rock four times. Redick was a -10 in Game 1. If the size (6-8) and grit of Ingles and Hood prove too much for Redick, arguably L.A.’s most important ingredient on offense, the Jazz could be in business. Easier said than done, but so far so good.
On the other end, Utah moved the ball beautifully; seven players scored seven points or more. Of course, it’s Joe Johnson’s teardrop at the buzzer that everyone will remember, but everybody who saw the floor had a hand in the victory. With that being said, it won’t be easy to keep the Clippers from scoring 100 points on a regular basis (especially without Gobert), so the Jazz will need to build on their offensive effort and be even better in Game 2. I like the balanced lineups coach Quin Snyder is rolling out. Keeping Hood coming off the bench gives the second unit a second go-to option next to Johnson, and Utah’s bench, which outscored the Clippers 47-21, will be a key component for the rest of Round 1.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Game 1 performance was absolutely amazing, and he had no shortage of help from his friends. Khris Middleton did a good bit of everything (as usual), Tony Snell stayed confident, and rookies Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker were more than ready for the big stage. Even Greg Monroe, who looked lost during his first year with Milwaukee, has discovered and embraced his role as sixth man. Six players scored in double figures, and Milwaukee committed just five turnovers.
Defensively, the Bucks brought their A-game. Either that or the shots simply weren’t falling for Toronto. Only time will tell, but it seemed to be more the former than the latter. The length of Milwaukee was bothersome for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and their drives will continue being contested by the long limbs of the Bucks defenders. If Lowry doesn’t step up in a big way and help provide DeRozan some space in the mid-range (and at the rim) by knocking down treys, this series could have upset written all over it. The Bucks are not your normal sixth seed. They’re now 20-11 with Middleton in the lineup this season. #FeartheDeer
Washington was dominant in Sunday’s matinee, but the Hawks kept the score close enough that you can’t yet call this a walkover. John Wall put on a scintillating show, posting a playoff career high in scoring while dishing out assists galore. The lobs and lasers he throws are equally spectacular, and if I’m allowed one overreaction, I don’t think it’s wrong to call Washington a frontrunner to reach the Eastern Conference Finals (over Boston). Among these four playoff teams that missed out last year, the Wizards are certainly the most likely to advance that far. Just like Milwaukee and Utah, the Wiz did it with defense first and foremost. The Hawks finished with 18 assists to 19 turnovers and the Wizards mauled Paul Millsap. The key in this series will be tempo, as Washington will look to keep things moving fast while Atlanta will hope to slow it down. In Game 1, the best example of that was with Millsap, who was rushed (or crushed by contact) every time he touched the ball on offense. He’ll have to be ready for the double team and be prepared to pass much quicker. The Wizards aren’t going to let him or Dwight Howard go to work in the post.
I saved the hardest game to write (or talk) about for last. An important contest was played between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls on Sunday. However, this one was merely a reminder that there are much more important things than basketball – and that the NBA (at its best) is one big family. Isaiah Thomas played his heart out despite the passing of sister, Chyna, the day before. Still, the Celtics lost. The result seemed secondary though. Sports may be one of the best escapes in the face of tragedy, but there are some things we can’t and don’t just forget, not even for a few hours while a ball is bouncing. There’s nothing that anyone can say or do in a situation like this, but at least Isaiah and his family are surrounded by people who love and care about them.
Sunday’s Game 1 was a good one by most standards. Close, well-fought to the end, plenty of lead changes, and late-game drama. Bulls’ coach Fred Hoiberg gets an A+ for lineup creativity, and the bench was crucial in turning the tides for Chicago down the stretch. All four Chicago reserves (Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio, Paul Zipser, and Jerian Grant) posted a positive Plus-Minus, while Dwyane Wade was their lone starter to accomplish that. Chicago’s bench outscored Boston’s 35-22, which along with the rebounding advantage (53-36) proved to be the difference in Game 1. Boston will bounce back, but maybe the Bulls aren’t so bad.