The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a unique position as the betting favorite in their series against the Phoenix Suns while being the No. 7 seed. The Brooklyn Nets are the favorites to emerge from the East but face the challenge of their three stars — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — having played only eight games together in the regular season. Meanwhile, should the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz be concerned about their first-round matchups against the Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies who employ game-changing guards such as Bradley Beal and Ja Morant?
Our experts take a look at what to believe in for the opening round. From Michael Porter Jr. picking up the scoring load for a depleted Denver Nuggets roster to Jimmy Butler reawakening the offensive excellence that propelled the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals last season, we’re sorting out what’s real and what’s not in Round 1 of the NBA playoffs.
Real or not: The switch-flipping Lakers
The Lakers were flat-out awful in the first half of their win over the Warriors for the No. 7 seed Wednesday. In the second half they found their way, forcing 15 turnovers with their top-rated defense, sending a variety of looks at Stephen Curry and putting the clamps on the Warriors’ supporting cast.
A noticeable difference, yes. Maybe even a flipped switch, if you will. But the biggest issue for the Lakers in their quest to repeat as champions might be health, not effort.
The Lakers showed a ton of character and mental toughness in maintaining their top-rated defense while Anthony Davis and LeBron James were out with injuries. Think about that. Their defense was better while one of the best defenders in the league was out. That’s not a knock on Davis. It’s a compliment to guys like Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. Because without James and Davis, defense was the Lakers’ best way to win. It was the bedrock of last year’s championship team and will have to be again if the Lakers can play their way through the Western Conference from play-in game qualification.
That defense has been there all year. They didn’t need to flip any switches. But they still need to reincorporate James and Davis, and they absolutely need both to be healthy.
— Ramona Shelburne
Real or not: A long first-round series will benefit Brooklyn
Not real. While no team with their top three scorers having played fewer than 10 games together has gone on to win a championship, the Brooklyn Nets wouldn’t necessarily benefit from a longer series against the Boston Celtics in hopes of building chemistry among their stars.
Why? Because the Nets had a tendency in the regular season to struggle against teams below their level, including the Celtics. Kevin Durant has said they can’t afford to view Boston as an inferior team that will be an easy out. Instead, he said the group has to treat the Celtics with the respect of knowing “we can be beat if we don’t lock in.”
Looking at the Celtics as a team they can afford to stretch into a long series could be dangerous for the Nets — and they know it. “We understand that we haven’t played a lot of games together,” Durant added. “But we have been on the court together in practices, we have been around each other in the training facility, on the bus, on the plane. So if we can’t get on the floor, we’ve been trying to fill in the blanks with other stuff as far as watching film, communication, just talking out what we see amongst each other.”
— Malika Andrews
Real or not: The Utah Jazz will coast to the conference finals
Not. The play-in tournament certainly worked out well for the Jazz, eliminating Stephen Curry’s Warriors and putting LeBron James’ Lakers on the other end of the bracket. But easy paths don’t exist in the Western Conference.
The top-seeded, well-rested Jazz will be heavily favored in the first round against the young Memphis Grizzlies, but you can guarantee that Ja Morant won’t have any fear in the first playoff series of his career.
The Jazz would be foolish to mistake Memphis’ inexperience for a pass to the second round. The Grizzlies are a tough, scrappy team that will make Utah earn four wins.
Then the LA Clippers will likely await the Jazz, who will probably enter that series as the underdog despite having home-court advantage and the best record in the NBA.
That’s primarily because the Clippers have one key title ingredient that the Jazz don’t: a superstar who has participated in championship parades, two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
The Clippers have been considered legitimate title contenders since the second Paul George and Leonard decided to team up in L.A. The Jazz have crashed that party this season, but Las Vegas still gives Utah the third-best odds to come out of the West, no matter what the standings say.
— Tim MacMahon
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Real or not: This sizzling Heat offense
On March 14, the Miami Heat had the NBA’s sixth-worst offense. I don’t care how good your defense is — or about the strength of your vaunted culture — you are going nowhere in the postseason with an offense that bad.
Since that day — a stretch encompassing almost half the regular season — Miami ranks 10th in points per possession. From April 1 to the end — two dozen games — it ranked fifth. If that’s real, if the Heat are pulling this same “coalesce at the right moment” trick for the second straight season, they are absolutely a threat to send the Milwaukee Bucks spiraling into existentialism again.
I’m inclined to believe it’s at least real-ish — that the Heat are a good offense, though not a great one. They have scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Duncan Robinson on the floor, equivalent to the Boston Celtics’ 10th-ranked offense. After uneven seasons, both Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro seem to be cresting; Dragic hit 44-of-108 (41%) on 3s in April and May, and Herro averaged 16.7 points on 54% shooting over his final six regular-season games after returning from injury.
Miami got peak versions of both in its run to the Finals in the bubble; the Dragic-Adebayo pick-and-roll was one of the Heat’s most consistent weapons, and Herro helped swing several games with his scoring.
Going from Jae Crowder to Trevor Ariza is a downgrade — Crowder scorched Milwaukee last season — but Ariza has hit 35% from deep on decent volume in Miami. Kendrick Nunn had an under-the-radar, solid season. Dewayne Dedmon stabilized the bench.
The Heat are rock-solid on defense, and as well coached as any team. They don’t need to be elite on offense to push Milwaukee. They just need to be good. They are underdogs — they should be — but they have a real chance at an upset.
— Zach Lowe
Before Jamal Murray‘s untimely ACL tear on April 12, the Denver Nuggets seemed to have found a strong offensive hierarchy with MVP favorite Nikola Jokic as their first option on offense, Murray as No. 2 and Michael Porter Jr. as their third option.
Murray’s absence, compounded by the subsequent loss of fourth-leading scorer Will Barton to a hamstring strain, created an opportunity for Porter. He has taken full advantage, averaging 23.5 points per game since Murray went down — more than the 21.2 PPG Murray was scoring.
But Porter’s efficiency is more impressive yet. Despite increasing his usage rate from 21% of the Nuggets’ plays to 23.5%, Porter has made 63% of his 2-point attempts and 49% of his 3s over the past month-plus. Only his free throw shooting (85%) has prevented Porter from being in the 50-40-90 club over that span.
Based on his skilled shooting at 6-foot-10 with a lanky frame, Porter has long been compared to 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant. Their scoring stats since April 12 are strikingly similar.
Almost certainly Porter can’t stay this hot. Even Durant had never surpassed 42% 3-point shooting in a season before hitting 45% playing just 35 games this year. However, nobody who watched Porter as a top-rated prep sensation is surprised by what he’s doing. Porter’s talent was obvious before back surgery marred his lone season at Missouri and caused him to tumble to 14th in the 2018 draft.
Denver had the guts to wait out a second back surgery that cost Porter the entire 2018-19 season. Now he’s a key reason the Nuggets might be able to win a playoff series or two without Murray.
— Kevin Pelton
Real or not: Joel Embiid as the single biggest mismatch in Round 1
Sort of. Embiid is a mismatch against virtually any center, with exceptions for Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert, two of the few who can go toe-to-toe with him. No disrespect to Washington’s troika of pivots — Alex Len, Robin Lopez and Daniel Gafford — but none of them can do anything against Embiid, who was arguably the NBA’s most dominant and best two-way player this season. He should lead Philadelphia to a comfortable first-round victory.
So, why is the answer sort of? Because there are a few other matchups across the league that could prove equally decisive in determining how the series plays out. Ironically, one involves Jokic’s Denver Nuggets and how they’ll attempt to stop the Portland Trail Blazers‘ dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Denver’s backcourt entering this series is the equivalent of bringing a fork to a gunfight. The Nuggets are without Jamal Murray, after he tore his ACL earlier this season. Beyond that, Denver will also be without starting shooting guard Will Barton (hamstring strain) and reserve guard PJ Dozier (adductor strain) for Game 1, and likely beyond it. Austin Rivers, whom they signed recently to fill in as depth, could also be out as he’s questionable for Saturday’s game with a non-COVID-19 illness.
No team might be better suited to take advantage of Denver’s ills than Portland, which has a pair of bona fide clutch stars in Lillard and McCollum — both of whom have had huge postseason moments, including against the Nuggets in an epic Western Conference semifinal that went seven games in 2019. The talent gap at guard could allow this matchup to go the distance again this year — and could allow the Trail Blazers to get the same outcome.
— Tim Bontemps
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