I’ve always been a fan of the observation-style bullet point columns that some of the best writers out there do. My former colleague at The Athletic Darnell Mayberry had his postgame Nuggets after Bulls games, Zach Lowe has his famous 10 things. I’m going to break out my notebook for the playoffs.
With the first round in the books, we have four series to watch. I’m covering all of the Game 1s in this first edition.
Bucks 109, Celtics 89
Al Horford on Giannis Antetokounmpo
The question that every team faces when they play the Bucks is how they are going to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo. How about putting a center on him who’s turning 36 next week?
The idea of putting old man Al Horford on the Greek Freak might seem destined to eventually fail, but it has worked in the past and did so again in Game 1. Giannis’ attempts to back down the brick wall that is Horford made him look like the legendary Karl-Anthony Towns on Boogie Cousins picture.
Horford on Giannis matchup data from NBA Stats:
2/10 shooting, 2/2 FTs, 6 points pic.twitter.com/jnXw13YpRZ
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) May 2, 2022
Is there a corollary to the “too small” taunt that has infiltrated the NBA? Should Al Horford, the OG of on-court trolling, start the “too big” move to control the outbreak? I’m here for it.
The Headbands vs. the Jays
The Celtics held the Bucks to a stellar 100.0 offensive rating. That would have been enough to win normally, except the Bucks held the Celtics to an even better 89.0 offensive rating.
The Bucks were able to out-defend the Celtics because of their headband crew of Jrue Holiday and Wes Matthews. That duo does not get nearly enough credit for how dominant they are on-ball, and they were the key to destroying the Bulls’ combination of DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine in the first round. They did the same to Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who combined for a miserable 10-of-31 shooting performance
Holiday should have gotten a lot more buzz for Defensive Player of the Year. He was a better defender than Marcus Smart. He’s incredibly toolsy, ferocious and follows game plans to a T. Both Holiday and Matthews were shading the Jays to the left to a ridiculous degree, and that plan worked beautifully.
Find somebody in your life that follows a plan like Jrue Holiday. pic.twitter.com/nmQynI0cuQ
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) May 2, 2022
The Bucks defense was extremely mediocre during the regular season, and got worse as time went by. The old adage is that you can’t flip a switch when the playoffs start. It looks like the defending champions are proving that wrong.
Mike Budenholzer playing chess
Budenholzer gets a ton of grief from NBA Twitter for not being good at adjustments. Part of that is true. But he is undeniably an offensive genius who has changed the way that every team in the NBA plays. And he had a whopper of an adjustment in the first quarter, combatting that lack of adjustments narrative.
How does an NBA player get this open on an out-of-bound play?
Budenholzer set up a similar play earlier in the quarter, then loudly announced that he was running it again. With the Celtics thinking that they knew what was coming, the Bucks actually ran a counter and got a wide-open layup underneath the basket. The Twitter account Bowser2Bowser had a great breakdown of what occurred.
Cool chess match:
Bud calls “Milwaukee 4.” Smart/Udoka describe the play perfectly and switch everything to muck it up
Bud calls “Milwaukee 4” again. This time, Wesley Matthews slips for a layup instead of curling around
Be wary when a coach calls a play a little too loudly pic.twitter.com/6FLO3iR78t
— Bowser2Bowser (@bowser2bowser) May 1, 2022
This is genius-level coaching.
Warriors 117, Grizzlies 116
The rebounding war
The Grizzlies were the best offensive rebounding team in the league, averaging 14.1 per game. They’re led by Steven Adams and pogo stick Brandon Clarke, who almost single-handedly won Game 5 in the first round against the Wolves with seven offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter.
Clarke had another three in Game 1, and the Grizzlies had 16 as a team. But the Warriors, a mediocre rebounding team that was playing small for much of the game, somehow matched the Grizzlies on the offensive glass with 16 of their own.
The Grizzlies aren’t going to win this series if they can’t create a huge offensive rebounding edge. Whoever wins this matchup will also give the Suns fits. They were pushed to six games against the Pelicans because they couldn’t keep Jonas Valanciunas and company off the glass.
Kyle Anderson’s defense
Anderson is one of those role players who you tend to fall in love with. He’s flawed offensively, doesn’t have much of a shot, and drives to the rim with the speed of an octogenarian. But somehow he makes it work, acting as a sort of change-up to the fastballs on the rest of the Grizzlies roster.
Anderson brings more value as an underrated defender. How many guys can guard Karl-Anthony Towns and Steph Curry? Anderson did that in his past two playoff games.
Anderson is a free agent this summer. He’d make a very nice bench addition on any team.
Forcing Draymond Green to shoot
There aren’t a lot of good ways to stop the Warriors’ offense. One of the best might be to force Green to shoot in the short roll. The Nuggets experimented with this strategy, with pretty good results. They would send two defenders to the Warriors’ guards, leaving Green open. He’s a great passer in those 4-on-3 situations, but when teams play the pass and force him to shoot, he tends to go for an awkward floater with poor touch.
The Grizzlies baited Green into that awkward floater too. Expect to see more of it.
Dillon Brooks is the NBA’s Leeroy Jenkins
For those not well-versed in 2005 internet culture, Leeroy Jenkins went viral for ruining a well-planned “World of Warcraft” raid by charging in single-handedly while triumphantly screaming out “Leeeeeeroy Jenkins!”
Dillon Brooks is the NBA version. He has the ability to get extremely hot. But he also has some puzzling stretches when he needs to tell that internal monologue to chill out.
Brooks is a very good player when he’s attacking off advantages created by Morant. But his hero ball has to stop if the Grizzlies are going to win this series.
Heat 106, Sixers 92
The DeAndre Jordan problem
Doc Rivers’ decision to start DeAndre Jordan in place of the injured Joel Embiid should come as a surprise to no one. Rivers was challenged about his decision to play Jordan so much in the regular season. He responded condescendingly when asked about it before the playoffs.
Jordan did have some solid moments in parts of the game. But the Sixers’ start was an abject disaster. They fell behind by nine points before Rivers subbed Jordan out with 7:48 left in the quarter.
The Sixers actually found a pretty good lineup to get back into the game, playing Georges Niang at center. That group closed the half on a 10-2 run, giving the Sixers an unexpected one-point lead at halftime.
Then, somewhat inexplicably, Rivers went back to Jordan to open the second half. He continued to play big with Paul Reed and Paul Millsap. By the time Rivers went back to his small-ball lineup with 6:48 left in the game, the Sixers were already down 19. And with 4:36 in the game down 21, Rivers waved the white flag, subbing out Tobias Harris and Reed for Charles Bassey and Furkan Korkmaz.
It was shocking that Rivers went back to his traditional big lineup to start the second half. Surely, he will adjust for Game 2.
Doc Rivers: “We like DJ. We’re gonna keep starting him whether you like it or not.” #Sixers
— Ky Carlin (@Ky_Carlin) May 3, 2022
Well, maybe not.
But seriously, give the small-ball lineup a chance
That Rivers didn’t give his small-ball lineup more of a look in the second half is truly perplexing. Niang didn’t make a single shot, but was still a plus-6 to Jordan’s minus-22. He spaced the floor out for Tyrese Maxey to wreak havoc going downhill.
The Heat were also putting a ton of ball pressure on James Harden, making it difficult for him to do anything. The only chance that the Sixers have to steal a game without Embiid is to put as much spacing around Harden and Maxey as possible.
Attacking Tyler Herro
One of the only areas of success that the Sixers had offensively was when they attacked Tyler Herro on defense. That’s been a recurring theme throughout the regular season. Herro was tremendous on offense in this game, but his defense is an issue for the Heat.
The Heat were able to protect Herro better later in the game by applying so much ball pressure to the Sixers, making it difficult to get into their offense. But it’s going to be a theme for them as they progress deeper into the playoffs.
Suns 121, Mavericks 114
The battle of Spain pick-and-rolls
Both of these teams love to run NBA Twitter’s favorite set play, the Spain (also known as Stack) pick-and-roll. It involves a ball screen followed by a guard setting a back screen on the big man defending the play.
Mavs and Suns both ran Spain pick-and-roll on their opening plays.
Mavs looked like they got confused on if Bullock and Finney-Smith were going to switch, left Paul wide open for an automatic elbow jumper.
Suns guarded it perfectly, Paul and Bridges switched, Ayton dropped. pic.twitter.com/xC9gYKPTmQ
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) May 3, 2022
Watch for Luka Doncic to tap his fists together, and you’ll see it coming soon thereafter.
No team runs more variations of the Spain pick-and-roll than the Suns, or runs it better. That presents serious challenges for the Mavericks, because the Suns have seen it so much in practices that they also defend it better than anyone else. The Mavericks were stymied on many of their Spain attempts because of the perfect execution by the Suns.
Ban the rip-through
This series has a chance to become a rip-through fest, which would ruin the matchup between two great teams. Ban it. It’s terrible to watch!
Doncic was the obvious story of this game from the Mavericks’ perspective. He had 45 points on 30 shots, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Those numbers are great, and the Mavericks’ offense was pretty good throughout the game. But the team’s offense was fairly unimaginative overall. It was mostly high pick-and-rolls, late clock isolations for Doncic, or the occasional Spain or stagger pick-and-roll. The Mavericks depend on Doncic to be brilliant every game for this type of strategy to work. So far, he’s delivered on offense.
The Mavericks lost this game because they weren’t able to guard the Suns at all. The Suns almost joined the 50/40/90 club as a team, shooting 51/39/100.
Luka Doncic: “Our defense lost us the game today. I think our start on the defensive end was terrible, and we’ve got to change that. I know we can play way better defense, and I know we will.”
— Callie Caplan (@CallieCaplan) May 3, 2022
Doncic’s defense has to improve for the Mavericks to have a chance. His massive offensive load might be tiring him out on the other end. He had trouble staying in front of Devin Booker, and his closeouts to 3-pointers were pickup-level bad, daring them to shoot with fake lunges rather than running out hard at them.
The Mavericks didn’t look ready to defend from the jump, when they let Paul walk into an uncontested elbow jumper off their signature Spain pick-and-roll. The focus and effort simply has to be better.