It started with a snore and ended with a bang, but we learned a lot from the opening Saturday of the 2018 NBA playoffs. Toronto got its first-ever Game 1 win (a funny statement in and of itself), the Warriors are back, the Sixers are a juggernaut, and the Pelicans can hang.
Here’s what fans, and bettors, should focus on heading into the Game 2s for series that started Saturday.
WARRIORS-SPURS: Switch-flipping vs. the powerless
The Warriors are back. The Warriors were sandbagging. The Warriors flipped the switch.
Look, first, if you’re shocked that the two-time and defending NBA champions are capable of finally playing lockdown defense when they get to the playoffs, you were simply believing things to make yourself feel better about the field’s chances. Reminder: This team was bored and didn’t care about the regular season and still won 58 games.
Second, I need to be really clear about this: The biggest things that swung Saturday’s game had nothing to do with Golden State and everything to do with San Antonio. The Spurs have a flawed roster with very few offensive weapons, built around a dinosaur All-Star whom you can scheme for and challenge physically in a playoff series, and that same roster also played like hot garbage in Game 1.
San Antonio shot 15-for-39 on jump shots and 5-for-12 in the restricted area. By the way, that’s half the number of shots San Antonio averaged in the restricted area in the regular season.
LaMarcus Aldridge was the biggest goat. San Antonio had a horrendous 77.4 offensive rating with Aldridge on the floor, which if you’re facing the Warriors, even without Stephen Curry, is like trying to keep pace with the Millennium Falcon using a Prius.
Aldridge was punked; there’s no real way around it. The Warriors knew that San Antonio would try to feed him the ball constantly, and the Spurs helped them by not getting into sets quicker.
Here, Aldridge doesn’t get the ball until 11 seconds are left on the shot clock, and isn’t in the post until the eight-second mark, when he dribbles around, can’t do anything on JaVale McGee and then finally gives Danny Green a 911 shot that airballs.
The Spurs’ lack of weapons just killed them over and over again in this game. Here, the Warriors switch on a handoff, putting Klay Thompson on Aldridge. Patty Mills can’t get the ball over Thompson and, seeing that the Warriors are loading up on him, dishes it to a wide-open Dejounte Murray, who doesn’t take the 3-pointer, and instead dribbles into trouble. During the entire sequence, Aldridge has Klay Thompson on him. Nothing.
Meanwhile, the Warriors showed a double on Aldridge constantly, and it made him jittery. Here, Aldridge commits to the post, but instead of the drop-hook with Draymond Green looming, he goes to the far side, and then just, well, vomits on himself.
If JaVale McGee is going to dominate his matchup against the perennial All-Star and only real weapon for San Antonio, the Spurs are doomed.
The Spurs did not cover the Game 1 spread (+8), and the blowout caused the Game 2 spread to open at 9.5. It has already been bet up to Warriors -10. So should you overreact? There’s probably good reason to adjust expectations here. Golden State is fully engaged.
Now, San Antonio looked like it was outgunned in Game 1 against Houston last year as well. Some important differences: The Warriors have more options and versatility, even with their injuries, than that Houston team did. They have Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. And the Spurs are way more limited. The loss of Jonathon Simmons from last year’s team hurts, as does the limitations of all three of their point guards. Murray’s game isn’t developed enough, Mills is too small, and Tony Parker is too far away from his prime.
The question is: Who will make more shots for the Spurs in Game 2 to make this closer? Aldridge? Probably. Mills? Maybe. Pau Gasol? Manu Ginobili (who was the best Spur in Game 1)? There just aren’t a lot of options.
I’m against overreacting to a single game, but until San Antonio shows it can put together an offensive game plan against a fully engaged Warriors defense, bookmakers might not be able to post a line that’s high enough.
RAPTORS-WIZARDS: Curses are nothing against a bench mob
Toronto got its first Game 1 win in franchise history, and put a lot of demons to rest in the process.
Coach Dwane Casey was adamant going into the playoffs that the bench mob would still get its minutes, and he carried through with that. When the Raptors announced Fred VanVleet would miss Game 1, it seemed the best-laid plans would go awry for Toronto … again.
But the least-hyped member of Toronto’s bench, third point guard Delon Wright, delivered in a huge way. In reality, the Raptors were still in danger for much of the contest. They trailed at half, and trailed again in the fourth quarter. Then, starting at the 8:39 mark of the fourth, the Raptors peeled off a 14-1 run that put the game away. Wright was on the floor for its duration.
There were other heroes in that stretch; Kyle Lowry finally stepped up with a signature performance he’d always needed in the postseason. Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira came in and changed the game with his defense and playmaking; Washington did not appear to be ready for him. Serge Ibaka was huge the whole game, Toronto’s best player.
But Wright was the one who punished Washington on both ends in subtle ways.
The difference in playoff games is often who is locked in, and who is distracted or lost. Wright was the former. He reads the pass here, helps down, deflects the ball and wrangles it for the steal to deny an open corner 3.
It’s a pretty big ask for a player of Wright’s experience to guard John Wall in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, but here he is pushing Wall into help defense from Nogueira, staying in front of him.
Wright canned several open 3s in this stretch, and honestly, the Wizards started losing track of guys constantly. Here, it’s not clear if Wall calls out a switch and Mike Scott just gets distracted or if there’s confusion.
The Raptors got great contributions from everyone, but Wright made a huge difference, especially because a lot of his damage came against the Wizards’ starters. The Raptors’ starters outplayed Washington’s starters, and Casey layered in bench units that did the same.
Should you overreact? The line for Game 2 opened at Raptors -8 and is now at -7. That’s slightly down from where Game 1 closed (-7.5 at most books). Now, Toronto’s finish to this game was impressive, but it didn’t control throughout. The Wizards led at half, and led in the fourth, 96-95, before the closing run.
It took John Wall shooting 6-for-20, including a ton of misses at the rim, and a series of downright catastrophic mistakes from Kelly Oubre Jr. to open the door for Toronto to take control. The Wizards lost Game 1, but they will absolutely feel like they can beat this team.
That said, the Raptors have been the better team all year, and just got past their biggest emotional hurdle. Toronto got a bad first half from Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and VanVleet was out. The Raptors got beat in points in the paint and second-chance points, had more turnovers and won.
It certainly feels like Game 1 might have been Washington’s best shot, and it fell woefully short.
HEAT-SIXERS: The Process runs wild
This one … I’m a little curious about. The Sixers made 18 3-pointers Saturday night, tying a high from the regular season. They also shot 12 percentage points better from deep than their season high. Marco Belinelli set a personal playoff high with 25 points. Ersan Ilyasova had 17, the second-highest playoff scoring performance of his career. J.J. Redick’s 28 was the second-highest playoff scoring performance of his career.
So a lot of crazy stuff happened. Much like with the Toronto game, the Heat actually played great in the first half and led at the break. But Philly ripped off a 23-3 run in the early moments of the third, and that was it. The Sixers also threw in a 14-1 and a 16-7 run in the fourth quarter for good measure.
The Heat’s game plan wasn’t terrible, but they struggled with execution. Miami learned a lot about who it can’t play in this series going forward. Well, maybe.
Hassan Whiteside posted a -56.7 net rating in Game 1 in only 12 minutes. He was quite literally unplayable. But a lot of that was how the rest of his team operated around him. Goran Dragic was a complete disaster, especially when paired with Whiteside. The Heat played much better with Kelly Olynyk on the floor.
With the Sixers now favored by 7 for Game 2, and with Joel Embiid possibly back, there’s just no way of telling how this will shake out. Dragic might not be awful and the Sixers’ veterans might not have literally the best shooting night of their careers, but if Embiid’s back, will it make a difference?
Game 2 should tell us more about whether Game 1 was just an outlier extension of the Sixers’ now-17-game win streak, or a sign that they really have ascended to a higher plane of basketball execution.
BLAZERS-PELICANS: A villainous trap
The biggest difference between the NBA regular season and the playoffs is how much attention guys pay to the scouting report. In the regular season, you know, “Oh, well, we’d rather that guy shoot,” but you’re still basically going through the same sequences with every team.
In the playoffs, there are direct commandments about the game plan, and whom you allow to take shots winds up being a huge determining factor. The Pelicans’ defensive game plan and execution were sublime Saturday night, from the seemingly hundreds of plays Jrue Holiday made to the blocks from Anthony Davis.
But the best thing New Orleans did was make Portland one-dimensional. The Pelicans loaded up as much as possible on C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, both of whom struggled from the field. And beyond that, they contested in some spots, and in others, they encouraged the shots they wanted. Watch how Nikola Mirotic reacts to Evan Turner, a 32% 3-point shooter, finding a corner 3:
Same deal here with Rajon Rondo, who might as well have yelled out “take your time!” to Turner.
When you’re taking away the shots your opponent wants, and creating the ones you’re willing to live with, that’s how you successfully execute a game plan.
Should you overreact? The Blazers opened as 6-point favorites for Game 2. It’s pretty likely that the Pelicans walk out with the “we just wanted a split” approach, and that Portland rolls in Game 2. The Pelicans know they’re in a good spot, and the Blazers will be desperate. Despite so many things going wrong for Portland, it had the ball down one in the final minute. This series is likely to be close, but you have to expect a course correction going into Game 2.