5 takeaways from the first week of the playoffs
One week into the 2022 NBA playoffs and certain key talking points have stood out. Below are five musings on what promises to be an exciting month of professional basketball.
On back-to-back nights this past week, two of the favorites for the title and 2021 NBA finalists, the Suns and Bucks saw key players sustain injuries that have changed the outlook for the rest of the playoffs. On Tuesday, it was Phoenix guard Devin Booker who suffered a Grade I hamstring strain in the midst of a shot-making masterclass scoring 31 points in 25 minutes. On Wednesday, Milwaukee forward Khris Middleton hobbled off with an MCL sprain that will see the Bucks star miss the rest of the opening round.
The injuries sustained by Booker and Middleton highlight the adjustments that teams are going to need to manage for the rest of the playoffs. For the Bucks replacing Middleton’s production will be a must as it's unlikely we will see him in uniform again this season. The Suns may have to hold off the Pelicans in the first round without their best player.
Every postseason injuries will play a significant role for a team’s chance to progress. The Suns and Bucks have hurdles to overcome, but they aren’t alone.
The Philadelphia 76ers confirmed this week that star center Joel Embiid will face offseason surgery after an MRI revealed torn ligament damage in his thumb; Embiid has committed to play through it. Their first round opponents the Toronto Raptors have lost at different points: Scottie Barnes and Fred VanFleet to niggling injuries that saw them down 3-0. This series, now at 3-2, has the look of a seven-game dogfight and health will play a prominent role.
The Mavericks have been in a holding pattern during their series against the Utah Jazz as they waited for the return of their star, Luka Doncic. What they really needed was someone to step-up in his absence and what occurred was the emergence of a new star-guard in Jalen Brunson, a player they selected in the same 2018 draft as Luka. Now Doncic is back and the Mavericks look ready to advance to the conference semifinals against a potential Booker-less Suns or a young and hungry Pelicans team.
On the other side of the coin is Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III, who hadn’t played since having meniscus surgery on his knee March 30, returning for Game 3 & 4 against the Nets as he builds his health and fitness back. Williams has been a vital part of the NBA’s best defense and hottest team over the last few months of the season and his return adds (another) dangerous defender to a Celtics team that is finding its identity.
The Celtics defense
To highlight a point: over the first three games of the Celtics vs Nets series Jayson Tatum has defended Kevin Durant on 121 possessions, limiting Durant to 10 points on 2-15 field-goals and only six points in the paint. The physicality of the Celtics defense and their ability to switch all five defenders on anyone has caused Brooklyn and in particular their best player all manner of problems.
The Celtics have formed an identity. The best statistical defense in the league has been too young and too athletic for Kyrie and Durant during this moment in history. DPOY Marcus Smart has figured out his role, Jaylen Brown understands he needs to be the number 2 and Jayson Tatum has figured out he needs to be more than a 30-point scorer on this team.
The Celtics have formed an identity at just the right time. Should Milwaukee navigate their first round matchup (they are 3-1 up at the time of writing) against the Bulls, a Celtics vs Bucks matchup is a championship matchup. The Middelton injury could play up significantly, can the Celtics stingy defense stop Giannis i.e. the most dominant player in the NBA? A mouthwatering series is potentially on the cards.
The Warriors are championship ready, at least offensively
This isn’t the 2015 GSW defensive team… but their offense is starting to feel close. Despite losing Game 4 in Denver, the Warriors head back to the Bay with the opportunity to close out the series in front of their own fans. Early and frequent fouls changed the trajectory of Game 4, Klay Thompson’s two early fouls threw the Warriors’ rotation out of sync and Draymond Green fouling out killed the Warriors late. This has been a consistent problem for the Warriors having committed 21 fouls per game this season, fourth-most in the NBA.
Issues with fouls and turnovers notwithstanding, a healthy Klay, Steph and Draymond combined with the emergence of Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins has thrust the former champions into the championship conversation. With injuries threatening to impact some of their Western rivals the Warriors are primed to take advantage. Their shooters are scoring and Steph Curry is back to his career averages behind the arc this postseason.
The officiating has been pretty heavy-handed
John Hollinger writing for The Athletic has pointed out a stat that has been noticeable watching the first week of the playoffs. The playoffs have been a whistle-fest.
Over 20 playoff games all teams have averaged 24 foul calls per 100 possessions and 25.8 free-throw attempts per 100. Both of these marks would rank higher than any team in the regular season. Is it normal for these numbers to rise in the playoffs? Yes. Usually the increase in intensity and physicality tend to reflect an increase in refereeing. However this year there has been a 21% increase in free-throws from the regular season to the playoffs. The average is about 8.7%.
Let’s hope an adjustment occurs for the benefit of our viewing, and the NBA playoffs become the free-flowing spectacle it should be.
The play-in solved the tanking issue
One of the key reasons behind the NBA adding the play-in tournament (outside of more competitive and exciting playoff games) was to guard against teams tanking, strategically losing to gain a lottery pick.
The New Orleans Pelicans are a fantastic example of a team taking advantage of increased playoff places. The positive trade they made adding CJ McCollum and Larry Nance jr in February, not necessarily popular at the time, has created something special in New Orleans. Rather than tearing things down after the Zion injury-debacle this year they decided to try and find compatible pieces for the talent that was available to play for the Pelicans.
Don’t look now but they have something brewing against the top-seeded Phoenix Suns. Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum have some special chemistry in the backcourt, Jonas Valanciunas has found the right situation for him and the two rookies Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado have seamlessly fitted in. The Pelicans are competitive and will be even more so should Zion make an appearance during the playoffs.