The first day of the 2018 NBA playoffs gave us two blowouts, a bunch of statements, and an incredible battle to end the night.
The Golden State Warriors demolished the San Antonio Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers manhandled the Miami Heat in their second half. The Toronto Raptors avoided embarrassment hosting the Washington Wizards. Of course, we had an insane finish with the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday capped off the night with huge play after huge play to take Game 1 on the road.
Let’s take a look at all of the big moments from Saturday:
Big Question Answered: Will Toronto show up right away?
The Toronto Raptors did show up right away. Or maybe it’s safe to say they showed up by the start of the second half in Game 1 against the Washington Wizards.
DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry spent a good chunk of the first half focusing on distributing the ball and getting their teammates involved. They combined to make just two first-half shots and everybody started wondering out loud just how much of a choke job Game 1 could be again. The Raptors weren’t wetting the bed, by any means, because plenty of role players had really positive first-half performances. We just waited for the Raptors’ stars to come out of the gates firing.
In the second half, they did that.
DeRozan opened with a flurry of scoring before Lowry knocked down a big transition 3-pointer. Every time the Wizards responded with big shots to take the lead, the Raptors showed poise in punching them right back. Markieff Morris, John Wall, and Bradley Beal carried the Wizards in the second half by scoring and distributing. The Raptors showed that the changes they created during the regular season might just stick in a playoff environment. DeRozan looked fearless instead of frozen. Lowry looked like he had his legs under him. Serge Ibaka looked like Dirk Nowitzki on the perimeter.
The vaunted bench for the Raptors kept making plays. CJ Miles knocked down some ridiculous 3-point attempts. Pascal Siakam scored seven of his nine points in the second half. And Delon Wright looked like the Raptors never needed to know who the injured Fred VanVleet was, as he dropped 11 of his 18 points after halftime. Toronto’s biggest surge happened when Dwane Casey broke the glass in case of emergency and played Lucas Nogueira out of the blue. You can’t take a ton out of single game plus/minus on most nights, but Nogueira’s plus-eight in nine minutes looked every bit as legitimate.
Toronto won their first Game 1 at home in franchise history. It was just their second Game 1 win in a playoff series, with the other happening in 2001. All of a sudden, the Raptors don’t look like the dismissed Raptors of old.
They still have to come out in Game 2 and show the Wizards they’re the 1-seed for a reason. But this was a great start to dispelling all of the stigmas attached to Toronto basketball over the years.
Big Problem Created: How can the Spurs defend KD?
With no Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs look even more overmatched than you might imagine in trying to cover Kevin Durant.
Gregg Popovich went with a small lineup to start out Game 1, hoping a swarming ability with quickness would find some defensive sparks against the Warriors. That strategy failed miserably. San Antonio flanked LaMarcus Aldridge with Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, Danny Green, and Kyle Anderson to begin the game. That meant the Warriors kept finding situations in which a small guard was begging for mercy against the 6-foot-11 Durant.
The results looked a lot like this throughout the first quarter.
By the end of the game, Durant finished with an easy 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and seven assists. Popovich met post game questions with snark and sarcastic future strategies like having Danny Green grow 4-5 inches to match Durant’s height and length. The reality is the Spurs may just have to play Rudy Gay, Kyle Anderson, and Green on the floor at all times when Durant is out there. They need whatever length they have to cover these switches the Warriors keep forcing.
At the same time, they have to keep enough speed on the court to chase Klay Thompson around. Leaving Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green mildly open for shots will have to be the concession. Whatever they do though, they can’t afford to have Mills or Murray or Bryn Forbes stuck on KD, waiting for a life raft to come save them.
Or Kawhi could magically reappear.
Big Laugh For Everyone: Robert Covington’s travel
A lot of times, I’ll see or retweet a highlight on Twitter. Invariably, someone will chime in that the play was a travel violation that went uncalled. These tweeters with this response are almost always wrong. The gather step, the pro hop, the Euro step, and many other perfectly legal footstep procedures are often ignored or misunderstood by casual basketball fans. That leads to a lot of fans not understanding the rules for what should be called a travel. This confusion has led to plenty of highlights getting dismissed instead of celebrated.
With all that said, not all perceived travels are incorrect assumptions. One of the most egregious travels in NBA history happened in the first quarter. On a hectic fast break toward the end of the quarter, Robert Covington received a pass on the right wing and had a defender closing on him. Instead of a side-step dribble to free himself up for the 3-point shot, Covington just did the side-step. No dribble. Just the side-step. And the crazy thing is it wasn’t called for a travel.
You can see in the replay from behind the play that Covington almost mimics like he’s going to put the ball on the floor but instead just moves to the side instead. Luckily, it didn’t determine the outcome of the game. Philadelphia destroyed Miami in the second half and we didn’t have to worry about a one-possession game harkening back to this moment.
Big Test Passed: Sixers process their first game
The execution of the Heat under Erik Spoelstra pose a great test for the young Sixers in this first-round series. A lot of Philadelphia’s strength with their young, athletic, exuberant core means they can be susceptible to feeling the pressure of a playoff environment right away. But in the first game against Miami, the Sixers weathered adjustments and rotations in the first half before completely blitzing the Heat in the second half. They put up a ridiculous 74 points in the second half, draining 18 3-pointers on the entire night.
Ben Simmons shook off some jitters or just missed opportunities early on to finish with 17 points, 14 assists, and nine rebounds. When the Heat tried to switch things up with a versatile lineup featuring either Kelly Olynyk or rookie Bam Adebayo for the interior, Dario Saric torched the Heat’s frontcourt decisions. Markelle Fultz and Amir Johnson’s activity all over the floor kept beating the Heat players to 50-50 balls, and at one point Miami simply didn’t have an answer for Ersan Ilyasova. Couple all that with the incredible shooting of JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli leading the way and the Heat just didn’t know how to slow anybody down.
Philadelphia’s dominant second half showed the “easy” win streak with poor opponents heading into the postseason wasn’t just a fluke. Maybe it was inflated by subpar competition. At the same time, the Sixers used it as fuel to realize their potential. Philadelphia used that confidence to take the early punches from Miami before peppering them with shots they couldn’t stop. All of this happened without Joel Embiid for Game 1 too — giving Sixers fans even more optimism for what the postseason might bring.
The Heat will probably adjust and make the Sixers have to figure out some more machinations in the rest of this series. But it’s no longer just the future looking bright. The present shines brilliantly, as well.
Big Useful Strategy: Make Evan Turner/Jusuf Nurkic beat you
Eventually, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum got things going in the second half. New Orleans used every opportunity to hound McCollum and Lillard whenever they had the ball. They blitzed them in pick-and-roll coverage. The Pelicans kept forcing them into bad, off-balanced shots or made them give up the ball entirely. McCollum and Lillard combined for three points on 1-of-15 from the floor in the first half. Their strategy to make anybody but the dynamic Blazers backcourt beat them was working perfectly.
Instead, the Blazers had to hope Evan Turner didn’t miss jumpers in a way that made him look like he was trying to throw a frisbee through a mail slot. Or they hoped that Jusuf Nurkic could catch a pass or corral a dropped pass, and somehow find the ball on its way into the hoop. New Orleans used this defensive strategy, the brilliance of Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis being the Terminator, and some hot shooting from a beardless Nikola Mirotic to survive the inevitable onslaught from the Blazers’ backcourt.
Lillard and McCollum finally found a rhythm later in the game. They combined for 34 points on 26 shots in the second half. Portland nearly pulled off the comeback, but Lillard hunted a foul on a key drive late in the fourth instead of just taking a normal shot. The Pelicans won the free throw game at the end and Holiday came up with a huge block on Pat Connaughton to help seal the victory. Davis finished with 34 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks. He combined with Mirotic and Holiday for 10 blocks.
Now Davis has his first playoff win and the Pelicans have control of the series.
Big Matchup Victory: McGee running all over Aldridge
Steve Kerr sneakily started Andre Iguodala at point guard and JaVale McGee at center for Game 1 to throw some new things Gregg Popovich’s way. This starting lineup hadn’t played a single minute together in the regular season. But Kerr felt pretty comfortable matching up McGee against a likely All-NBA selection in LaMarcus Aldridge. The results of the lineup were stunning in 16 minutes of action.
That lineup outscored the Spurs by 63.9 points per 100 possessions in those 16 minutes. Aldridge flat-out couldn’t contend with the activity of McGee. It was focused activity we rarely see for sustained minutes with McGee. When Aldridge just caught-and-shot the ball without hesitation, he took advantage of the matchup against McGee. But any time the Warriors allowed themselves to recover and keep opportunities for Aldridge slower than normal, McGee found a way to make a positive difference.
We even saw McGee do some things offensively moving toward the basket and getting out in transition against the much slower Spurs frontcourt.
I’m not sure how much this will work in the future. This could have just been a one-time adjustment that the Spurs couldn’t figure out how to crack before things got out of hand. But McGee outplayed Aldridge early on in a playoff game. That’s remarkable.
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