Takeaways from the opening round of the conference semifinals
The conference semifinals are underway and we are left with eight teams competing for an NBA championship. Three-time champions Golden State are back, defending champions Milwaukee are ready to roll, the last-two-years defeated finalists Miami and Phoenix are looking for redemption, while Philadelphia, Memphis, Dallas and Boston are all looking to stake their claim to NBA history.
Game 1’s can often be the most misleading fixture of an NBA series. With that said! Let’s overreact to what we saw over the weekend of thrilling basketball action.
Last year’s finalists look like the two best teams in the league
The Phoenix Suns never looked like losing against Dallas with the Mavericks struggling to contain Deandre Ayton in the paint and off the dribble. If Dallas is going to go with small lineups, Phoenix are smart enough to abuse the scheme as Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber struggled to hold the skilled big.
“I think our defense lost us the game today,” Doncic said. “Our start on the defensive end was terrible, and we’ve got to change that. I know we can play better defense.”
Despite a jaw-dropping 45/12/8 stat line for Luka Doncic, Phoenix were comfortable enough defending him straight up. This limited Brunson and Dinwiddie - Dallas’ other two playmakers - and their ability to find space that they have been accustomed to when the focus usually shifts to Luka. Stat lines can be deceiving however. Doncic is clearly the best player on the Mavs but Devin Booker matched him when needed and any time Dallas got close he was on hand to re-establish the Suns’ lead. He deserves his due as perhaps the NBA’s least appreciated star.
Booker’s early return from hamstring issues in the first round of the playoffs is critical for the Suns championship claim. They’ve improved on last year and have more depth. Will it be enough for the Suns to go the distance?
Ah, the Milwaukee Bucks. This is why they are the champs. Milwaukee is going to be a different proposition for the Celtics than the Nets. They were physical, packed the paint, hounded the ball handlers up the court and all-in-all limited the Celtics to a terrible 10-31 from inside the paint. The Celtics were historically bad on offense.
Boston was caught like a deer in headlights.
Wes Matthews and Jrue Holiday matched up with the Celtics on the perimeter and the combo of Giannis, Portis and Lopez shut down the driving lanes for the Celtics stars to earn easy layups as they did in their first round matchup. Jrue Holiday played like the second best player on the court in Game 1, and Portis, Allen and Connaughton hit the open threes created by the intense focus on Antetokoumpo driving the ball into the paint. Milwaukee hasn't skipped a beat in Kris Middleton’s absence.
The Celtics didn’t have the same defensive issues as the Mavs did against Phoenix. They matched up pretty well on Giannis challenging his shots effectively enough. Building a wall against Antetokoumpo worked pretty well despite Giannis unleashing his playmaking-skill with 12 assists for the second playoff triple-double of his career. The impact he has on every game is huge and has been growing ever since winning the NBA championship last year.
The 2022 NBA championship goes through the Bucks and Giannis Antetokoumpo. Judging by the Suns and Bucks playoff performances we could see a repeat of last year’s final. A championship rivalry is forming.
Warriors vs Grizzlies is going to be a fun series
Game 1 was a tight game between the young Grizzlies and experienced Warriors. Golden State’s run & gun style may suit Memphis yet they failed to take advantage of Draymond Green’s ejection and made too many mistakes. The Grizzlies have made a habit of coming from behind in the playoffs, very nearly overcoming a double-digit fourth quarter deficit for the fourth time in 2022. These Warriors are not the inexperienced Minnesota Timberwolves however.
Golden State Warriors are skilled at making the opposition chase their offensive ball movement, which took the Grizzlies out of rebounding rhythm, stats they dominated over the course of the regular season but against the wily Warriors found themselves down 51-47 rebounds.
Positives on the series for the Grizzlies is Klay Thompson still looks a little bit slow in his return from injury; the 2019 playoffs were the last time Klay had to play at this level of competition. It’s only going to get tougher. Positives for the Warriors is the emergence of Jordan Poole as, perhaps, the third splash brother! Poole finished with 31 points and a team high nine assists against the Grizzlies, performing the role of catalyst for Golden State’s offense. As things stand his playmaking and scoring more than makes up for his deficiencies on defense, this will surely get tested against the Suns or Bucks in later rounds should they progress.
It was wonderful seeing Ja Morant on the big stage (where he belongs) making looping, wrap-around, gravity-defying layups that shouldn’t be possible. His hang-time is incredible. The Warriors did all they could to limit Morant in the paint, Gary Payton II was harassing him at all times yet sagging off a touch to allow Morant the opportunity to shoot jumpers that aren’t his usual game plan.
Memphis got a lot from Jaren Jackson Jr, the 22-year old forward who finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds. His 31 minutes recorded was an improvement after averaging 24.5 minutes during the Timberwolves series but it is going to be crucial that he stays on the court and out of foul trouble if the Grizzlies are going to have a chance at taking down the Warriors. Likewise Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks both need to shoot better after their combined 6-26 field goals in the series opener.
The 76ers look weak without Joel Embiid; Heat’s Herro posted his best playoff performance
Philadelphia lost Game 1 against the top-seeded Miami Heat despite a strong showing by Tobias Harris replacing Joel Embiid’s offensive production. Realistically, the 76ers are going to need a lot more from James Harden if they are to survive Embiid’s injury and make it to the conference finals. Harden has turned himself into more of a playmaker over the last couple of years, perhaps a feature of playing with two all-star scorers in Brooklyn, but he will need to turn back the clock and be the Rockets-style Harden. There were glimpses in Game 1, he drove to the basket a little more than usual but it was not easy, with excellent defenders like PJ Tucker and Butler patrolling the perimeter. Tobias Harris can’t perform like the best player on the 76ers, Philadelphia are going to need Harden to turn back the clock.
Embiid led the NBA in scoring and only Luka Doncic took a higher share of his team’s offensive possessions. Embiid also contested and blocked more shots than any other member of the 76ers; with him on the court Philadelphia performed like a top-five defense. Losing Embiid is not something you can replace like-for-like, when a player is that central to your team on both ends of the court there will have to be some give.
Miami crushed Philly on the glass, grabbing 15 of its missed shots and turning those extra possessions into 18 second-chance points. The 6th Man of the Year award winner Tyler Herro finished with 25 points on 9-17 shooting as well as 7 assists as Philly had no answer for his offensive firepower, his connection with Bam Adebayo was humming all night without Embiid to contest the paint. The 76ers targeted Herro on defense however it was not enough to keep him off the floor, the Heat ran counter schemes to protect against Philly isolating him on defense. Until the 76ers can make the cost/benefit analysis on Herro work in their favor it's going to be a tough series for Philly.
Joel Embiid can’t return soon enough.