The long, arduous NBA season has come to a close and although it was one of the more exciting 82 game stretches we have ever seen, there is nothing better than playoff basketball. Playoff basketball is as good as it gets in sports, seven games of chess in each series, where one slip-up could cost you your entire post-season life. After four rounds, you almost always end up with the most worthy champion possible, very rarely do you ever end up with a 'lucky' team winning the title.
The playoffs tipped off today and as each game passes, we will learn everything we need to know about each team, so what did we learn today? Let's find out:
#PlayoffCasey Might Be A Thing
For the past 20 years (their entire existence, but don't mind me), the Raptors have had nightmares of the NBA playoffs. Of the eight first round series they've competed in, they have just one series victory to show for their apperances. However, the most disappointing of those seven losses, have probably been the last two, especially considering they were favored, with homecourt advantage in both cases.
A lot of this blame wasn't placed on the roster, but the coach, Dwayne Casey. I mean for Drake's sake, they got swept by Randy Wittman's Wizards last year! But this season was meant to be different. With a revitalized bench and both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry making the all-star team, the Raps seccured second place in the East and for much of the season, were threatning to steal Cleveland's thunder and leapfrog them into first. Dwayne Casey finally looked like a competent head coach, he managed to fully utilize his entire roster, get some more creativity into the offense and instill some defensive pride.
But just after a regular season in which we thought Casey had turned the corner in his coaching career and may even be a sneaky coach of the year candidate, the demons have returned to the Air Canada Centre, from years past.
To be blunt, Casey stunk the joint up tonight and it wasn't complicated stuff he screwed up. It wasn't stuff like, he messsed up his play-calling or his sets weren't imaginative enough, it was things like lineup management and matchups.
The latter struggle was especially prevalent in this game, as Casey just didn't know who the hell to mark anyone with. For some reason, right from the opening tip, Casey made the decision to have DeMar DeRozan guard Indiana's superstar, Paul George. For those of you that don't watch the Pacers regularly, Paul George is the only source of consistent offense the Pacers have. Outside of him, they have a bunch of hit-or-miss guys, like Ty Lawson, C.J. Miles and Monta Ellis. Stopping George is the only thing you have to do to stop this Pacers' offense from generating points.
Unfortunately, Casey chose completely the wrong guy. DeRozan is a good defender, but he is 2-3 inches shorter than George and often isn't commited enough. George ended up with 33 points on the day, with 27 alone, coming in the second half. Casey's decision proved costly, as George blew by, shot over and flat out torched DeRozan's sub-par defensive efforts.
The DeRozan on George move also proved costly on the other end, as DeRozan seemed to be drained from his time chasing PG13 around on defense and wasn't the same, relentless, rim-rattling force we've seen him be throughout the regular season, going just 5 for 19 from the field.
Despite being down for most of the game, Casey stuck with his main rotation and never tried anything new. He barely went small, he didn't throw anyone but DeRozan at George when he was on the floor and barely used his best lineups, such as the Kyle Lowry/Cory Joseph/Terrence Ross/Patrick Patterson/Bismack Biyombo group, which in the regular season was their second most used lineup and had the best net rating of any of their top 10 most used lineups, at +18.5. This squad logged just 2 minutes total throughout the course of a game.
It was a disappointing start for Casey, he has a far superior roster and half of the remaining games on his court, so if there is any time to prove that you are an elite coach, it's now.
Star Power Is King
In the playoffs, all of the ball movement and nifty plays you see tend to go out the window for the most part, as games generally boil down to simple isolations, one-on-one basketball and which superstar can outgun who. We've seen it play out throughout NBA history, the team with the best player usually wins the series, it's just a thing. No matter how good your collective team is, if you don't have a superstar who can pull through and get you an isolation bucket, you might be toast.
Today's action showed the same correlation.
In the Dallas/Oklahoma City game, the Mavs, even with the coaching wizadry of Rick Carlisle struggled from the get-go. Westbrook and Durant scorched them early and the Mavericks never recovered, it was as simple as that. I love Dirk Nowitzki, but he doesn't have the legs to go toe-to-toe with these young bucks anymore and on the other end, Dallas' defense was nowhere near good enough to stop the high scoring duo.
In the Hawks/Celtics game, neither team has a superstar, but practically every time the two teams step on the floor, the Hawks have two of the best three players in Al Horford and Paul Millsap. You could even make the argument that when Jeff Teague is going like he was today, they have three of the best four guys. Late in the fourth, even after the Celtics took the lead with around 5 minutes left, the consistent scoring of Horford got the Hawks across the finish line, even after they stumbled.
And of course, as I already mentioned, Paul George shredded the Raptors with 33 points and led the Pacers to victory because he outplayed everyone else on the floor. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were nowhere near matching George's performance and consequently, the Pacers strolled home.
There are of course exceptions, Dallas won the title in 2011 against the Heat's big three and the Spurs achieved the same feat in 2014, but you will find most of the time that the rule is: the team with the best player wins.
Avery Bradley's Injury Is Bad News
As a Celtics fan, I had to throw this in here, to me it's the biggest story of day one's games.
Avery Bradley, for all the plaudits I give to Jae Crowder, Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, is probably our best player. He delivers a constant and consistent flow of buckets on offense and never fails to disappoint with his lockdown, gutsy defense. Marcus Smart will be able to fill in for what he does on defense and R.J. Hunter will be able to do what he does offensively, but neither can do both simultaneously as Bradley does.
Bradley's two way presence gave the Celtics such an advantage on the wing vs the Hawks, which was our biggest area of strength and an area where we could exploit the Hawks' comparatively weak combo of Kyle Korver and Kent Bazemore (or should I say AMAZEmore, he was awesome in game 1). The Celtics will now have to matchup better in other areas to make up for their loss on the wing, specifically in the frontcourt where they were dominated in the 404.
AB said he would attempt to come back for game 2 and I don't doubt him, he's a trooper. But if he even misses one game, which is what it's looking like at this point, it will be a massive hinderance to the Cs' shot at this series. Every single game will matter in this series and losing arguably the Celtics' best player for one of them, will be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
Houston Doesn't Care
We all knew this would happen.
As much as we tried to make out that Houston might be able to make this series could be interesting given the amount of talent Houston has to work with, it isn't.
Straight after the opening tip, it seemed as if the Rockets already had given up. They looked demoralized the whole game and looked like a team that just did not want to be there. Almost as if they ended up there by accident.
There was no experimentation on J.B. Bickerstaff's part, no double big combos to try and exploit the Dubs' small ball group, Harden was plugged into his same position all night and absolutely zero fluidity, at least until Donatas Motiejunas went into 'I'm entering free agency and really want an eight figure contract' mode.
Just for fun, let's dive into these:
Celtics/Hawks Series Is Going To Be Fun
The epic encounter between the Hawks and Celtics was the highlight of day one.
After the first half, you would've expected the Hawks to win by 30. The Celts were attempting to construct some sort of oddly shaped house out of bricks and the Hawks had everything fall their way, leading to a 17 point lead at the half.
But then Brad Stevens took out Mike Budenholzer's last pawn in their on going game of chess and unleashed terror on the Phillips Arena crowd. He ditched their starting big man combo of Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson and went small, using only one of that pair at all times, with Jae Crowder at the four and Evan Turner playing the three. That frontcourt paved the way for a massive Celtics comeback that looked like it was going to come off until Avery Bradley's hamstring blew up.
Budenholzer then got his guys to play some great defense to close out the game and force a couple of key turnovers to close out a tense game.
Everything we saw in this game was so fun, it was a basketball nerd-fest to the max. If you appreciate great coaching and quality team basketball, you'll love this series. Budenholzer and Stevens squaring off is unfair on the rest of the league, both are incredible and the adjustments and points they take away from this game will be amazingly interesting.