The NBA Playoffs arrived with a bang this past weekend, as the eight Game 1s of the first round delivered better than anyone could have hoped for. There were upsets, overtimes, buzzer-beaters, kerfuffles, and just generally all the things we love about postseason basketball on full display.
For eight squads, the weekend was a success as they took a 1-0 lead in their series, which means eight others are going back to the drawing board to figure out how to make the necessary adjustments in Game 2 to even things up. Here, we’re going to look at one adjustment each team needs to make for Game 2 if they’re going to avoid the dreaded 0-2 deficit, starting with the two Game 2s that tip-off on Monday night.
Miami Heat: Get Jimmy Butler To The Rim
The Heat lost an overtime thriller to the Bucks in Game 1 and did so in large part due to the apparent passivity of their two top stars, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Adebayo needs to be more prepared to attack Brook Lopez’s drop coverage in Game 2, particularly being willing and capable of hitting shots outside the restricted area as the Bucks seem to be daring him to hit shots in the short midrange. However, my main focus is on Butler, who was a brutal 4-for-22 in Game 1, in large part because only five of his shot attempts came from near the rim.
There is never a game where Butler should have seven three-point attempts and five attempts from the paint, and his willingness to settle for jumpers was to the detriment of not only himself but the Miami offense as a whole. Miami needs to figure out how to get him downhill against Giannis Antetokounmpo and company, because they walled off the paint and made the Heat beat them from the outside. Miami damn near pulled that off, hitting 15 more threes than the Bucks, but it seems like a nervy proposition to expect that kind of disparity again. Getting better looks inside will also help Adebayo, as Butler probing into the paint is going to draw rotations and help defenders off of Bam and get him some looks at the rim as well. Some of this will require Erik Spoelstra to adjust their offensive scheme to the coverages Milwaukee showed, but some of it is just Butler asserting his will.
This is a player who thrives on playoff pressure and intensity, but in Game 1 seemed to struggle to meet Milwaukee’s energy on that end of the floor. The midrange shots from the right elbow and post are just part of Butler’s game, and some of those are likely to drop in Game 2. But taking some of those and some of the three-point attempts and getting himself to the paint (and to the foul line) are going to be crucial for Miami’s offense to be more consistent and less reliant on the ups and downs of relying so heavily on threes to fall.
Denver Nuggets: Figure Out How To Work Off The Ball When Jokic Is Single Covered
The Portland Trail Blazers made clear what their strategy is going to be against the presumptive MVP in Game 1, as they single covered him and were happy to give up the 34 points that comes with doing so. By letting Jokic feast and not orchestrate Denver’s offense, they made everyone else uncomfortable and kept the “others” on Denver out of rhythm. In Game 2, Denver has to be more prepared for that coverage and needs to figure out how to run more off-ball action around Jokic, as Chris Dempsey points out sagely here, to put the Blazers defense under far more pressure than they were in the opener.
Tonight, the #Nuggets must get more movement around Nikola Jokic. This is what it looked like a lot in Game 1, when Portland’s defense was not stressed to chase, rotate, communicate & adjust. I’d think we’ll see more middle screen/roll to facilitate more movement on each side. pic.twitter.com/XIzfU3kLjf
— Chris Dempsey (@chrisadempsey) May 24, 2021
There were too many times the offense was four guys watching Jokic go to work, and that led to just one assist for the best passing big man in league history. Aside from Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., Denver struggled offensively and a lot of that is because they are so Jokic-reliant to get good looks and easy baskets to create a rhythm. Jokic showed he can dominate those one-on-ones, but Portland is banking on him being great but not “win a game by himself” great, given their own offensive prowess. In Game 2, the Nuggets will need to do more in Jokic’s orbit to free themselves for space, because Portland isn’t going to allow him to create those shots for them.
Boston Celtics: Get Really Hot From Three
This can apply to anyone, but this feels like the only option for Boston to make this a series. I really wish I had more here, but of all the first round series, Boston feels the most doomed. The Nets were sleep-walking for the first half and still won by 11, as they clearly are using this series as a testing ground for lineups and all of the things most teams do in the regular season but they couldn’t due to injuries. As such, some of these games might be in doubt for a few quarters and the best way for Boston to suddenly turn those games where Brooklyn maybe gets a bit cute with the lineup shuffling is to get hot as a team from three.
Boston was 11-for-30 from three in Game 1, which is a more than respectable number but considering they only scored 93 points, it’s clear they’re going to need more from the perimeter to have a chance at keeping up with the Nets. They did a pretty great job defensively against the vaunted Nets offense to allow just 104 points, but they’ve got to figure out how to balance their strongest defensive lineups with groups that can shoot it. They’re going to need one of those games where Marcus Smart suddenly can’t miss (it’s happened before) or for Kemba to turn back the clock and light it up to have a chance here, because Brooklyn’s main focus is on keeping Jayson Tatum from scoring 50 like he did in the play-in. They’re going to make anyone else beat them, and Boston has to simply get great shooting from a couple guys in order to free Tatum up with more space and to make the Nets sweat a bit.
L.A. Lakers: Play Anthony Davis At Center More/Get Marc Gasol Some Minutes
I’m not sure what mystical spell Andre Drummond has placed on the Lakers to make them give him as much opportunity as they are, but this isn’t the series for Drummond — whether there is a series for Drummond remains to be seen, but Phoenix is not it. The Suns have two elite pick-and-roll ball handlers who see Drummond as nothing more than food, and he even played pretty well in Game 1 and was still a net negative. What the Lakers need against the Suns is quickness and despite his protestations against it, we saw toward the end that they know the answer is playing Anthony Davis at the five. Davis was bad in Game 1, and it wasn’t solely because he was floating in no-man’s land while paired with Drummond and Montrezl Harrell — but that certainly wasn’t helping. Davis took the blame for the loss and says he has to be more assertive, and what better way to do that than playing the role you don’t really like but clearly benefits the team the most.
Deandre Ayton is not a fun guy to deal with if you’re Davis, as he’s taller and stronger, but the way he dominated Drummond and Harrell indicates throwing those options at him also isn’t the answer. Davis has the length to bother Ayton and can make him play in space defensively, which is still Ayton’s greatest weakness. Against Drummond and Harrell, Ayton is able to sit back more comfortably and know that all he’s playing is the lob in pick-and-roll, never concerned with the pop which allows him to know exactly where he’s retreating to every play. Forcing Ayton to make tougher decisions is important, and getting Davis working toward the basket is also needed as his jumper still isn’t falling. Davis can draw Ayton out further up the floor and, if he’s willing to be aggressive and accept some contact, he’ll be able to beat him to the hoop when facing up in the high post.
The other thing Lakers fans are begging for is more Marc Gasol minutes, as the Lakers have a player with championship experience just chilling on the bench. Gasol might not be capable of giving you 25 great minutes, but he could surely be a boost for 12-15, bringing his savvy and intelligence to both ends of the floor, which are very much needed.
L.A. Clippers: Throw Away The Game 1 Strategy Against Luka
Luka Doncic torched the Clippers in Game 1 as L.A. did just about everything wrong against the superstar point forward. They tried to annoy him with Patrick Beverley, which did not get the desired result: see Exhibit A below.
Luka to Beverley: "Too f#сking small" 👀 pic.twitter.com/98ZneQ4bQA
— Misha Konygin (@gdfactoryclips) May 23, 2021
They then allowed him to get a switch onto Ivica Zubac, which gave Luka the stepback three whenever he wanted, despite the best efforts of Zubac.
I don't know what Zubac did to Luka but Luka hit him *several* of these in the first half. And now the question again is how many of these can you live with? pic.twitter.com/tAhZFYAdit
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 23, 2021
They eventually started trapping and doubling him with Rajon Rondo as his primary defender, forgetting that Luka is a giant human being who can just look straight over Rondo and pick out his preferred pass to an open man.
Problem with doubling Luka, putting 2 on the ball vs. Luka is his height let's him see it. Sees the double coming, really good job by Finney-Smith of flashing to the middle, Morris takes him, Porzingis cuts for the dunk. pic.twitter.com/dqXL0u92RI
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 23, 2021
It was a masterclass from Doncic, but also just bad strategy from a Clippers team that seemed desperate not to put their best wing defenders on Doncic. That’s likely to change in Game 2, as Ty Lue said we’re going to “get what you’re asking for” with Kawhi on Luka more, but it’s not just about having a great one-on-one defender on Luka. The Clippers know Luka loves the pick-and-roll game and hunts out switches, and it’s going to be incumbent on the team as a whole to have a better plan for what to do with that. It might be forcing Kawhi and Paul George to fight through every screen to stay attached to Doncic or trapping and doubling with one of those two plus a big to cut off Doncic’s height advantage and make it harder for him to pick out passes from the double. What’s clear is you can’t throw Beverley and Rondo on him consistently, because in the word’s of Luka they are “too f*cking small.”
Washington Wizards: Get Good Russ To Show Up
The Wizards damn near pulled off the upset in Game 1 against the Sixers, but had one small issue: Russell Westbrook could not buy a basket. He was 7-for-17 from the field for 16 points, only getting to the free throw line twice on a night where Bradley Beal was sensational with 33. Washington has to get Herculean efforts from both of those guys to have a chance and Beal held up his end of the bargain, but Russ has to find the scoring form he showed the last month-plus of the regular season for them to make this a series.
Philly’s length makes it difficult to consistently get to the rim, but Westbrook has to find ways to get to the line and also to find his touch on the midrange pullup. He has been terrific at that little wing bank shot from 12-15 feet late in the season, but had a couple that didn’t even hit the rim in Game 1. The Wizards did a really good job of withstanding runs by Philly and taking advantage of the minutes when Joel Embiid was on the bench, but to be able to close out a game against a team as good as the Sixers, it really is as simple as needing both of your stars to be at their best.
New York Knicks: Figure Out The Trae Young Pick-And-Rolls
Tom Thibodeau has done a sensational coaching job this season, particularly in getting the Knicks to be a top flight defense in the NBA this season, but he has his work cut out for him in this series based on what we saw in Game 1. Over and over and over again, Young was able to get whatever he wanted out of the pick-and-roll game. Sometimes it was a double drag, a stack, or the Spain action they used to end the game, but the common thread was the Knicks not covering it well. They’ve got to figure out how to communicate these things better and also understand the Hawks personnel better, because there is one (1) player on the Hawks you don’t help off of and that is Bogdan Bogdanovic. Guess who the Knicks helped off of far too often?
There were moments where it looked like the plan was similar to the Blazers in that they were going to let Trae get his and try to limit how he helped the rest get involved, but plays like the one above weren’t disciplined enough in sticking with the others for that to have been successful. I expect most of Thibs’ conversation with his team over the next two days to be about pick-and-roll defense, and I will be fascinated to see what they change specifically because it wasn’t just a failure against one look but just about all of them.
Utah Jazz: Be More Aggressive With Ja Morant
The first adjustment for Utah is to play Donovan Mitchell, but that seems like it’s going to happen so we’ll shift to something else they need to do, which is to be more assertive when defending the Grizzlies backcourt. I think you live with some of the shot-making from Dillon Brooks, because there are nights that’s going to not be there, but with Morant, you can’t let him constantly get downhill in key moments. Morant had 10 in the fourth quarter, with almost all of them coming at the rim or in his beloved floater game. Utah’s defense is designed to funnel perimeter players into Rudy Gobert, but Morant is such a unique talent that I think their guards need to be more aggressive in trying to cut off his drives rather than their usual move of guiding a guard into the waiting arms of Gobert. Morant is too comfortable and confident in his floater for that to rattle him. Someone has to meet him further out, and because Gobert is so good in drop at sitting deep to make a player make a late decision so he can cover the lob and try to contest the floater/layup, the answer almost has to be Utah’s guards.
Grizz run a double P&R for Morant but watch JV slip the second screen and what that does to Gobert. He’s in a drop but his drop is to maintain with JV’s roll not contain the drive. Gives an arm stunt but that’s a lot of space for Ja to use. Something to watch. pic.twitter.com/Q8f30Ubcf3
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 24, 2021
One adjustment I think is an easy decision for this series is to go under screens with Morant as he’s just not a confident three-point shooter and if he’s taking those shots you’re happy longterm. After going under and being in better position to cut him off, Utah’s guards need to get to Morant’s body quicker so that he feels them further out and can’t get into his floater motion as easily. The Jazz go over screens a lot because their overall philosophy is to take away threes and funnel guards to Gobert who is as good as there is at contesting shots while also staying back far enough to rotate to a lob and break it up. The issue with someone like Morant is he’s not just trying to attack to get to the rim but loves the floaters that Gobert is begging opponents to take. For this matchup, given how three-averse the Grizzlies are, I think Utah can make the adjustment to go under get into Morant’s body higher up near the free throw line and try to make him pass out more often in late game situations.