NBA Playoffs: How the Game 1s Were Won (or Lost)

The NBA postseason kicked off with 10 straight hours of hoops on Monday. The Crossover’s Rohan Nadkarni breaks down one key aspect of each game.
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Postseason basketball is now underway in earnest after four Game 1s on Monday. The Nuggets, Raptors, Celtics, and Clippers all jumped out to 1–0 leads over the Jazz, Nets, Sixers, and Mavericks, respectively. It was a fun (and exhausting) day of hoops, with most games coming down to the final few minutes. Even the undermanned Nets briefly put up a spirited comeback in a 24-point loss. Let’s take a look at one key ingredient from each of the first four contests—and what those could mean moving forward.

The Jamal Murray–Nikola Jokic Two-Man Game

Toward the end of the fourth quarter and practically every possession in overtime, the Nuggets used really only one action to eventually topple the Jazz: the Murray-Jokic pick and pop (or roll!) Murray scored or assisted on 31 of Denver’s final 37 points, and Utah had no answer for the two-man game between Denver’s two stars. Jokic and Murray combined to score 65 points—while shooting 10-of-19 from three—which was just enough to overcome 57 points from Donovan Mitchell.

If Murray gets going again in Game 2, the Jazz need a better strategy containing him when Jokic is the screener. On Monday, Rudy Gobert dropped in his coverage, backpedaling toward the paint where he’s comfortable, while Murray’s defender—which was most often Joe Ingles—went around the top of the screen. Utah simply gave up too much offense this way. Murray was breaking down the defense with ease, finding pockets of space for his pull-up jumper, or kicking passes back out to Jokic, who had open shots of his own, or could further puncture the defense with drives to the rim. Ingles was dying on screens, and Gobert wasn’t doing enough to challenge Murray outside of the paint. Meanwhile, Jokic had clean looks practically whenever he wanted them, including a huge three to give the Nugs a nine-point lead with one minute and 53 seconds left in overtime.

Utah is a sound defensive team, and Quin Snyder doesn’t need to abandon his principles based on one game. But it was surprising to watch the Jazz let Denver run the same play over and over and over and over and over and—you get the point—without making any adjustment whatsoever. Murray isn’t going to catch fire every night. Nor will the Nuggets shoot nearly 54% from three the whole series. But Utah could have stolen Game 1, and it wasted a fantastic performance from Mitchell because it couldn’t come up with an answer on the fly for Denver’s bread and butter.

Toronto and the Point of Attack

The Raptors survived a small Nets resurgence in the second half in what was otherwise a fairly typical first-round drubbing. Brooklyn guard Caris LeVert, who was most recently seen trying to singlehandedly eliminate the Blazers from the playoffs, finished with only 15 points on 5-of-14 shooting after averaging 25 a night during the seeding games. Much of the credit should go to Toronto’s perimeter defenders, which did a masterful job early in forcing LeVert and everybody else into tough looks.

NBA defenses are often too comfortable getting into scramble mode. Some teams (cough, Houston, cough) treat switches like a fait accompli, sometimes switching even before there’s been an action to necessitate it. The Raptors do not give up on screens. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet especially are gifted at fighting over picks while managing to stay in front of their man. Those efforts made a big difference against a team like the Nets, who—without a guy like Kyrie Irving—are lacking players who can consistently take advantage of aggressive defenses. LeVert is a very good player, but when he’s drawing the entire focus of a committed defense, Brooklyn doesn’t have enough as presently constructed to really counter. The Raptors are good enough to seemingly defend every inch of the half court, picking up players from well before the arc and still staying in front. Lowry and VanVleet were hounding ballhandlers Monday, and it took Brooklyn out of its rhythm long enough for the offense to build a lead.

And even if any Nets players were able to break through the initial wall, rangy players like Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam have perfected the art of helping. Toronto’s defense was on a string for most of Monday, building a big enough cushion that rendered the Nets’ comeback fruitless. Obviously, it helps to shoot 50% from three as a team, or for VanVleet to drop 30 points on 73% shooting with 10 assists for good measure. But you don’t have to be a hipster or contrarian to truly enjoy the Raptors’ brilliance on the defensive end.

The Sixers’ Half-Court Offense Wasn’t Good Enough

Joel Embiid’s 26-point performance against the Celtics was largely a disappointment in Philly’s Game 1 loss, and the blame resides with pretty much everyone. Embiid simply did not get the ball often enough on the block. With Ben Simmons out, Embiid took only 15 shots, which is lower than his season average, and four of them came from behind the arc.

I wanted to see Embiid shoot 15 times out of the post alone in this series. And he doesn’t need to be taking any threes. But the Sixers’ offense wasn’t prioritizing those looks on Monday, and it let the Celtics off the hook. Embiid got a couple of good opportunities from the block early in the game, but in the fourth quarter, his only made field goal was a long two less than 20 seconds into the period. He got one somewhat rushed post look later in the frame, but hardly any other meaningful action from the post.

It’s difficult to feed a big man down the stretch of a close game. And Boston’s defense deserves credit for not letting Embiid simply get whatever position he wanted in the key. But this was a failure from everyone involved with the Sixers. Embiid needed to make a stronger effort to plant himself on the squares and fight for deep position. Brett Brown needed to stop putting Embiid in pick-and-rolls when nobody on Boston’s roster can check his big man down low. And every single player on the Sixers should have to practice making 100 entry passes before Game 2.

Philly’s offense was maddening to watch. Embiid would set screens and float around the elbow. Perimeter players would look to drive instead of making confident passes to the block. Tobias Harris and Al Horford were seemingly asked to post as much as Embiid. It made no sense whatsoever. Embiid finished with 15 field goal attempts—the same number as Harris and Alec Burks, and fewer than Josh Richardson. Even accounting for free throws, that shouldn’t happen.

The Celtics are a very good team. They aren’t powerless here. They earned their Game 1 win, and both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown played very well. But Philly does have a path to success in this series, and it seemingly went out of its way to avoid that path in Game 1. If Embiid isn’t being fed on the block with no Simmons against a team with a frontcourt not made for this matchup, then when exactly is it going to happen?

The Marcus Morris Pickup Paid Off

It happened so long ago now, but there was a fight for the services of Marcus Morris among contenders around the trade deadline. The Clippers upstaged their in-city rival by acquiring the forward from the Knicks in February, and Morris made the front office look like geniuses in Game 1. Starting at the four, Morris was a team-best plus-25 against the Mavs, scoring 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 3-of-6 from outside. Morris gives the Clippers, already rich with depth, so much flexibility. He anchored a small lineup down the stretch that helped put the game away for L.A. He can also step out on the perimeter and defend like a wing, highly necessary for an attack like Dallas’s. He’s a chameleon, which helps against teams that don’t play a traditional and/or rim-running big. On Monday, Morris provided some decent minutes on Luka Doncic, even though the second-year star still went off for 42 points on 13-of-21 shooting.

The Mavs certainly would have had a better shot if Kristaps Porzingis weren't ejected early in the second half after picking up his second cheap technical of the evening (a scuffle, by the way, initiated by Morris). Former ref Steve Javie went on the broadcast to spin the calls as correct by letter of the law, but both technicals on Porzingis were too harsh. This really could have been a great game, and referees typically apply better discretion in these situations. We can talk about Morris’s effort or the Clippers overwhelming talents. But it’s frustrating to watch a game and know you’re not getting a truly honest look at the matchup because someone was ejected because of some unworthy techs.