Takeaways From Each NBA Playoff Series After Game 1

All eight first round series have completed one game after a full weekend slate of NBA Playoff basketball, and the challenge as always is to figure out what’s real and what’s a blip after Game 1.

That’s especially true on a weekend in which six of the eight games were decided by double digits. There were some dominant performances and a few games were over by the time halftime arrived. That makes parsing out what’s real and what’s not a bit tricky, but we’re going to go through each series and look at our biggest takeaway from Game 1 that we think will be the deciding factor in what happens in the next 3-6 games.

Cavs vs. Magic: Orlando’s guards have to provide an offensive boost

Both of these teams are built to play strong defense (when at their best) and they showed that on Saturday in the opener. However, we saw quickly where the biggest gap is between these two rosters, as the Cavs have a proven playoff performer in their backcourt in Donovan Mitchell and the Magic simply do not. Paolo Banchero was good and probably needs to be even better to win this series, and they’ll need more from Franz Wagner as well. However, the only way to really do that is if someone from the Magic’s guard rotation (or, ideally, a couple guys) can become offensive threats.

The Cavs are rightfully sinking back and protecting the paint first (and second) and daring Orlando to hit shots. In Game 1 the Magic could not oblige, with their backcourt really having a tough time. Jalen Suggs was 4-of-16 from the field and 1-of-7 from three, and he was the bright spot in the guard rotation. Gary Harris and Cole Anthony were a combined 0-of-13 shooting, including nine missed threes, and their most reliable three-point shooter on the night was Jonathan Isaac, hitting 2-of-4 from deep. That’s not gonna get it done, and while we knew Orlando struggled scoring in bunches coming in, Game 1 was particularly bleak.

Maybe it was just opening game jitters, but if Banchero and Wagner are going to have any chance of seeing less resistance in the paint, it’ll be dependent on the others (namely the guards) proving to be threats to hit shots to loosen up the Cavs defense.

Timberwolves vs. Suns: Devin Booker Has To Adjust To Minnesota’s Ball Pressure

The Timberwolves blasted the Suns in the biggest blowout of the weekend, and there are a lot of things for Phoenix to try and clean up. One is keeping Jusuf Nurkic on the floor and out of foul trouble, as they got smoked in non-Nurk lineups and could not keep the Wolves big men off the glass (Drew Eubanks, in particular, proved not to be the right answer off the bench). However, more intriguing to me is how Devin Booker bounces back from a rough opener.

Booker had 18 points and five assists on just 5-of-16 shooting and seemed to struggle with the physicality and ball pressure applied by the Timberwolves. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, in particular, came off the bench and hounded Booker for many of the 28 minutes he was on the floor. We know Booker is capable of big playoff performances, but him doing it consistently is going to be a must if Phoenix is going to take this series. Kevin Durant put on a masterclass, but got very little help from his co-stars.

The Suns swept the Wolves in the regular season thanks to great scoring nights that made the Wolves adjust their personnel. If Booker, Durant, and Bradley Beal cannot break the top-ranked Wolves defense from their preferred rotations and force adjustments, it’s not likely this series is going to go their way, especially if Grayson Allen is limited after rolling his ankle and not returning to Game 1. After a lot of chatter about how much Minnesota could keep Rudy Gobert on the floor against a Phoenix team that, in theory, is a nightmare to play drop against, Gobert played 37 minutes (the most of anyone on the Wolves) and was a +19. That can’t continue if the Suns are going to have a chance in this series and the only way to change that is for Booker to figure out how to join Durant in the shot-making parade.

76ers vs. Knicks: Philly Has To Figure Out The Non-Embiid Minutes

In a collection of words that seem to pop up whenever they make the playoffs, the Sixers got smoked (-21) in the 12 minutes Joel Embiid was not on the floor in Game 1. With the big fella clearly laboring, it’s hard to see him touching 40 minutes per game in this series and if they have to navigate 12 minutes per night without him, they’ve got to figure out how to come closer to drawing even. Some of that is on Paul Reed to figure out how to match the Knicks physicality on the glass, as New York once again dominated on the boards in a first round game — this is not an easy task, as both of the Knicks’ centers (Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson) are elite rebounders.

However, it’s also that the Sixers need someone other than their stars to contribute offensively, because we know the defense is going to take a hit with those bench units. Tobias Harris was a no-show in Game 1 — which has become an all too frequent sight for Sixers fans — and the only guy that really stepped up beyond Embiid and Tyrese Maxey was Kyle Lowry (18 points). Philly’s top two is certainly good enough to give them a chance in this series, but they simply need more from the “others.”

That was my biggest concern about Philly going into this series, as the Knicks have more guys I trust to give them contributions, even if they don’t have a true second star alongside Jalen Brunson right now. That’s why they could survive an off night from Brunson (22 points on 26 shots), and the Sixers couldn’t even take advantage of that poor showing while getting 62 points from their stars.

Nuggets vs. Lakers: Can The Lakers Put Together A Full 48 Minutes Every Single Night?

There is no more difficult task in the NBA right now than beating the Denver Nuggets in a playoff series. The reason is, you have to play 48 minutes of very good basketball just to beat them, and very few teams are capable of doing that four times in seven games. In Game 1, the Lakers came out aggressive, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis dominating on offense. By halftime, the Lakers advantage was just three despite all that effort. In the second half, it was just a few lulls that cost L.A. a chance at winning the game, but that was also the exact same script as last year’s Western Conference Finals sweep.

Solving that riddle will require the Lakers to get more from their role guys. D’Angelo Russell was, again, quite bad shooting the ball (6-of-20, 1-of-9 from three). The problem is, while Darvin Ham certainly could look to keep him on a shorter leash going forward, there’s not exactly a great replacement. Gabe Vincent and Spencer Dinwiddie didn’t even attempt shots in 20 combined minutes and had a grand total of two assists between them. They were basically NPCs on the offensive end, and that’s not going to work if the Lakers are to keep up.

Denver’s stars attract attention and rightfully so. Nikola Jokic was spectacular per usual, and even a so-so night for Jamal Murray produced 22 points and 10 assists. However, the thing that makes the Nuggets stand out is how they can constantly rely on the other three starters for contributions. All five hit double figures scoring in Game 1. Aaron Gordon did a bit of everything (12 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists), and does so most every night. Michael Porter Jr. looks like he still remembers how to shoot, which is an improvement over last year’s playoff run, and alongside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they provide ample floor spacing for their stars to operate between.

The Lakers just don’t have that same kind of consistency around LeBron and AD. Making matters worse, they lost a Game 1 in which Denver was good but not great. At some point in this series, the Nuggets are going to be great and the Lakers probably lose that game even if they are, too. That means they’ll need at least five complete games out of the next six to win this series, and that is a tall order I’m not sure they’re ready to fill.

Celtics vs. Heat: Miami’s Going To Need To Do That Thing Where Everyone On Their Team Can’t Miss

The Celtics bludgeoned the Heat in Game 1 and while there was some fourth quarter shenanigans that forced Boston’s starters back in to squash a Miami run, this one went pretty much according to script. There’s not much for Miami to do in this series without Jimmy Butler, other than hope the entire team can get red-hot from three. That’s happened before, but it occurred while Butler attracted attention and forced teams to help off shooters. This time, they’ll need to get hot on contested threes if they’re going to make things interesting, because they’re just outmatched otherwise.

Clippers vs. Mavericks: The Mavs Have To Figure Out Their Frontcourt Rotation

Game 1 was a bit funky because the Clippers were so dominant in the first half and then coasted to the win. I think there are things for the Mavs to takeaway from how they got it going offensively in the second half, as Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving both seemed to figure out how to get to their spots and get into a rhythm against the Clippers. That’s important going forward, for sure, but the real question for me is if Dallas’ bigs can answer the bell going forward.

Ivica Zubac dominated with 20 points and 15 rebounds (all of which came in the first three quarters), and the Mavs seemed to be throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck in the second half. After Daniel Gafford didn’t work out early, they tried rookie big man Dereck Lively II, but he didn’t fare much better. Ultimately, Jason Kidd rode with small-ball with Maxi Kleber and PJ Washington, but after hitting a couple early threes, Washington went cold and Kleber was way off on his attempts from deep. I have confidence that Kyrie and Luka will be better for a full 48 going forward, but if Dallas is going to win this series, they’re going to have to find a frontcourt rotation they’re comfortable relying on (and one that provides balance on both ends).

Bucks vs. Pacers: Will Tyrese Haliburton Meet The Challenge?

Damian Lillard’s 35-point first half was the story of Game 1, but the most jarring stat line belonged to Tyrese Haliburton, who had a triple-single (as Charles Barkley would call it) with 9 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds on 4-of-7 shooting. After struggling when he rushed back from injury around the All-Star break, Haliburton had seemingly regained his shooting form in the final weeks of the season. However, he was oddly passive in Game 1 and cannot have another game with just seven field goal attempts.

The Bucks turned up their defensive intensity and ball pressure in the opener, but given their limitations at the guard spot defensively, there’s no world where they should be able to force Haliburton into a performance like that. It’d be one thing if he tried to be a facilitator amid an off shooting night, but he has to have his fingerprints on the game more to at minimum provide Pascal Siakam with support. I can understand that Siakam is the mismatch with Giannis Antetokounmpo out, but Haliburton can’t be pushed to the periphery to this degree again.

Thunder vs. Pelicans: Can Brandon Ingram Fight His Worst Instincts?

There was a sequence in the fourth quarter of the highly entertaining opener to Pels-Thunder that I felt was a great illustration of the frustrating nature of the Brandon Ingram experience. Down three with five minutes to play, Ingram slotted a beautiful pocket pass to Larry Nance Jr. on the roll for a dunk to keep a run going.

It was gorgeous, unselfish basketball. The kind of thing you need from your stars to win games in the playoffs. Less than a minute later, however, Ingram spent 12 seconds dribbling to nowhere against Lu Dort and tossed up a horrible leaning jumper that wasn’t even close.

On the night, Ingram scored 12 points and was 5-of-17 shooting from the field. This was not a heat check situation for a guy that was rolling, but a player struggling with Dort’s defense all night dribbling the air out of the ball and taking a bad shot on a key possession. He wasn’t alone in doing this for the Pelicans, as the game ended with CJ McCollum trying to iso Cason Wallace and getting the ball poked away, forcing him into a running three at the buzzer.

The Pelicans can absolutely hang in this series defensively, and watching these two teams slug it out could be a treat. But if we’re going to get to see that for more than five games, the Pelicans stars, headlined by Ingram, have got to stop trying to break down OKC’s tremendous defenders in isolation on the dribble. When New Orleans moved the ball, good things happened. They have some spacing with Trey Murphy III and Herbert Jones (who had an off night but has to keep shooting) and they have some play finishers with Nance Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas (who crushed on the glass inside with 20 boards).

Ingram, in particular, has to trust those guys and the fact that the more they’re involved, the more space there will be for him to operate. If he does, we could be in for a very fun opening round series.