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David Zalubowski/Associated Press
Congratulations to the eight teams that advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs!
Your reward is a tougher matchup that badly wants to end your season by exploiting your weaknesses.
The playoffs are cruel that way.
Here, we’ll highlight an issue that should be top of mind for every team still in the mix. In some cases, it’ll be a particular stat. In others, it’ll be a matchup-specific concern.
And because we all know injuries are always every team’s main worry, we won’t highlight them on their own. That’s too easy. Instead, in cases where a team is missing a key player, we’ll look a little deeper and isolate the vulnerability said absence exposes.
These last eight teams just fought their way through the first round, but none of them did it without revealing potential problems on which their second-round foes could capitalize.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
Sometimes, it takes a few games for a series’ potential pivot point to reveal itself, but the core issue facing the Boston Celtics was apparent from the opening moments of their 101-89 Game 1 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday.
The Celtics couldn’t get anything easy near the bucket, making just 10 two-point field goals. During the year, Boston’s season-low for made two-pointers was 15, a stark illustration of just how impenetrable Milwaukee’s Game 1 defense was. The Bucks, led by Brook Lopez’s hulking presence at the rim, walled off the lane like they were the ones scheming to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo’s wrecking-ball drives.
“I thought we guarded well enough, holding them to 101,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka told reporters afterward. “But to have 89 points and the lack of penetration and paint points is obviously alarming, so we have to figure that out.”
The Celtics ranked 17th in paint points per game during the year, averaging 46.5 per contest. Watching them struggle against Milwaukee’s length en route to just 20 points in the paint on Sunday, it was clear this series will depend on whether Boston can find ways to get something going at the rim.
It’s likely the Celtics will win a game or two from beyond the arc if the Bucks don’t change anything. Milwaukee allowed the Celtics to jack up 50 threes in Game 1. They made a solid 18 of them for a 36 percent knockdown rate. Surrender that many attempts, and every so often, the team shooting them will run hot enough to win.
Still, the Bucks established overwhelming dominance inside during Game 1—to the extent that Boston’s impressive defensive performance wasn’t nearly enough.
For the Celtics to retake control of the series, they have to score inside.
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Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press
That’s technically a question up there, but the Dallas Mavericks are surely concerned by the fact that the Phoenix Suns’ defense won’t be nearly as accommodating as the Utah Jazz’s.
Jalen Brunson leveled up against Utah’s defensive scheme—if it’s even fair to call “never stay in front of perimeter players” a scheme. The lefty guard’s dominance, particularly with Luka Doncic sidelined by a calf strain early in the series, was far from expected.
Per The Athletic’s Tim Cato: “Brunson had only scored 24 or more points three times in the regular season following the Porzingis trade, but he did that five times in the six-game first-round series.”
Maybe Brunson, who averaged 27.8 points against the Jazz, is making a leap before our eyes. Or maybe we should chalk up at least some of Brunson’s breakout to Utah’s lack of resistance on D.
The Suns won’t present the same runways to the lane, and Brunson may struggle to execute his array of fakes, duck-unders and step-throughs against a much longer, rangier set of defenders. Assuming Jae Crowder gets the lion’s share of time guarding Luka Doncic, Brunson might even have to contend with former Villanova teammate Mikal Bridges, arguably the best wing defender in the game.
If Brunson can come anywhere close to replicating his numbers from the first round, Dallas will give Phoenix a run. If he can’t crack the Suns defense in quite the same way, the Mavs may not be able to score enough to compete.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
The Golden State Warriors had the top two free-throw shooters in the league during the regular season. But now, a team led by Jordan Poole (92.5 percent) and Stephen Curry (92.3 percent) is bleeding points at the foul line.
So far, it hasn’t hurt Golden State. But if this inexplicable clank-fest continues, there will be repercussions.
Sunday’s Game 1 nearly provided some, as Klay Thompson (90.2 percent) bricked a pair of freebies with 6.7 seconds left in the fourth quarter that could have extended the Warriors’ lead from one point to three*.
Ja Morant couldn’t convert a layup on Memphis’ final possession to win the game, but that the Warriors had to be equally concerned with two and three-point baskets in that do-or-die situation added some extra stress.
The Warriors were just 13-of-20 from the foul line overall.
In six playoff games, Curry has missed 11 free throws. He missed just 23 in 64 contests during the year.
Though it’s reasonable to assume he’ll get things sorted out, Thompson may be a little hesitant after those two high-leverage mistakes. And that’s to say nothing of Andrew Wiggins, who shot a career-worst 63.4 percent from the free-throw line for the year and slipped to a ghastly 56.3 percent after the All-Star break.
Do not be surprised if the Warriors have to consider taking him, their best wing defender, off the floor in crunch time. His struggles have been that bad.
The postseason does not forgive squandered opportunities—as we’ll discuss shortly—when we get to the Grizzlies. If the Warriors continue converting their playoff free throws at their current 69.5 percent clip, second-lowest among teams still standing, they will pay for it.
*In fairness, Thompson’s dagger three gave the Warriors that lead in the first place.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
No nuanced strategic issue or obscure statistical harbingers necessary for this one.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ biggest concern is simple: They lost Game 1 at home to a Golden State Warriors team that didn’t have Draymond Green, its defensive lynchpin and primary facilitator, for the entire second half.
That was a game the Grizzlies had to win. That they should have won. And they didn’t.
Not only was Green’s controversial first-half ejection a massive advantage, but the Grizzlies also took and made more threes than Golden State, hauled in their customary bushel of offensive boards (16) and won the turnover battle. The Warriors still escaped with a 117-116 victory anyway, seizing home-court advantage in the process.
Memphis can point to a handful of areas that should improve as the series progresses. Desmond Bane was just 3-of-10 from the field, and Ja Morant needed 31 shots to get his 34 points. Both should be more efficient going forward.
On the other hand, Jaren Jackson Jr. is unlikely to match his playoff career-high 33 points and six made threes. Before Sunday, he’d only ever scored 21 points in a postseason game.
Green’s return will tighten up defensive rotations and make it much harder for Jackson to spring free in pick-and-pop situations. More broadly, Memphis should now expect to see an even more amped-up and defiant version of Green—if his post-ejection exit and smirking one-man handshake line are any indication.
The Warriors didn’t necessarily steal Game 1, but it feels fair to say the Grizzlies let one get away. Squandered opportunities have a way of coming back to bite teams in the small sample of the playoffs, and now Memphis has to play from behind against a team that knows how to turn the postseason screws on an inexperienced opponent.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
You’ve got to look hard for signs of trouble in the Miami Heat’s five-game disassembly of the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Despite Jimmy Butler missing one game and Kyle Lowry missing two, the Heat ran up a plus-15.1 net rating in the series by dominating both ends.
They did so despite not getting to the foul line often, an issue compounded by the Heat putting the Hawks on the stripe a ton. Among teams that participated in the first round, Miami’s free-throw rate ranked 14th with just 20.1 makes per 100 possessions. Atlanta posted a free-throw rate of 22.3, banking a little over two points per 100 possessions in the exchange.
The Heat will improve their own foul-drawing, but putting opponents on the line too often was a problem all season. Miami allowed an opponent free-throw rate of 20.9, fourth-worst in the league during the year.
Physicality is always important, even more so in the playoffs. However, Miami’s penchant for committing shooting fouls could be especially problematic against a Sixers team that got a larger share of its offense at the foul line than any other team this year.
Nothing would please the Sixers more than a couple of slowed-down, foul-ridden games until Joel Embiid returns later in the series. The likeliest way for Philadelphia to pull off an improbable split in Games 1 and 2 involves a Harden-led parade to the free-throw line.
If the Heat are disciplined and force Harden to finish at close range—something he’s struggled with all season—this will be a short series no matter what happens with Embiid. But Miami hasn’t been great at defending without fouling all year, and the Sixers are the wrong team to face with that problem.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
It will be difficult for the Milwaukee Bucks to lose if supporting cast members Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton and Jevon Carter make half of their threes, which they did in a 101-89 Game 1 win over the Boston Celtics, combining for a stellar 6-of-12 performance.
But when Milwaukee doesn’t get a 50-percent hit rate from its role players beyond the arc, it will struggle to generate enough points to survive against the Celtics’ league-best defense.
That’s the under-discussed aspect of Milwaukee’s Game 1 performance. It defended as well as could possibly be expected but managed to produce just 101 points on 41.1 percent shooting from the field.
With Khris Middleton potentially out for the entire second-round series, per Shams Charania of the Athletic and Stadium, the Bucks may need uncharacteristically hot shooting from their reserves to keep pace with a Boston offense that will surely improve after getting stymied in Game 1.
The Celtics turned Giannis Antetokounmpo into a passer on Sunday, and the two-time MVP was up to the challenge of facilitating. Despite going just 9-of-25 from the field, Giannis still had a maximum impact with 12 assists, the second-highest single-game total in his playoff career.
Game 1 was decided by a dozen points. If the Allen-Connaughton-Carter triumvirate had only converted, say, three of their combined 12 long-range shots instead of six, we’re talking about a one-possession affair.
Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be forced to distribute again in Game 2 and beyond (allowing him to get a rhythm as a downhill scorer is courting disaster), and his teammates will have to either sustain their hot shooting or become drive-and-kick threats themselves.
Middleton’s absence hasn’t hurt the Bucks yet, but there will be games in this series (and potentially afterward) in which scoring without him becomes an issue.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Joel Embiid’s orbital fracture and concussion will keep him out of action through at least Game 2 of the Philadelphia 76ers’ seven-game tilt with the Miami Heat. As you’d expect with an MVP finalist, the big man’s injury will be the single largest variable in this second-round matchup.
Embiid’s absence will touch every corner of this series, but nowhere will it be more pronounced than on defense.
During the regular season, the Sixers posted a 107.8 defensive rating with Embiid on the floor and a 110.8 with him on the bench. That split grew into a chasm in the first round, with Philadelphia allowing just 106.5 points per 100 possessions with Embiid in the game and 117.2 with him riding the pine.
The Heat have injury issues of their own, but their offense will tie the Sixers’ backup bigs in knots as long as Bam Adebayo is involved as a facilitating hub. Miami keeps the ball hopping and bodies moving like few teams can. The Heat ranked in the top 10 in both passes made and assists per game during the year, and they’re currently fourth among playoff teams with 289.8 passes per game through the first round.
Expect that approach to make life difficult for the immobile DeAndre Jordan and the inexperienced Paul Reed. If the Sixers go small against Miami, Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and P.J. Tucker will play bully ball in the lane and feast on the offensive glass.
James Harden and a bunch of shooters around him could keep the Sixers afloat on offense for a game or two, but there’s no way for the team to survive defensively without Embiid anchoring the middle.
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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Chris Paul’s perfect 14-of-14 performance in closing out the New Orleans Pelicans will be the first thing people remember about the Suns’ first-round win. It’d be a mistake to assume that Paul, who’ll turn 37 during his team’s second-round meeting with the Dallas Mavericks, will make a habit of such heroism.
That’s not to diminish CP3’s brilliant recent play or his equally stellar career. It’s just an acknowledgment that, big picture, it’s very difficult to imagine Paul sustaining that kind of performance.
Dallas should target him relentlessly, forcing him into matchups with Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson. Paul will scrap and use his unequaled savvy to compete, but he’ll have to work much harder against the Mavs.
The Pelicans offered Phoenix more places to hide the aging point guard on defense, which helped limit fatigue and may have allowed for such a bravura series-closing performance. Remember, though: Even with fewer defensive responsibilities, Paul still looked a step slow when he scored just four points in Game 4 against the Pels, a 15-point loss.
Fatigue is cumulative. Nicks and bruises mount. And Paul has a long history of playoff runs cut short by an injury.
Even if he avoids some of the hard-luck maladies that have sidelined him in the past, we should expect Paul to wear down a bit. A deep run to last year’s Finals, the regular ravages of age and a much tougher set of defensive assignments against Dallas could add up to slow down CP3.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through May 1. Salary info via Spotrac.