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NBA playoffs: 5 takeaways from opening games, including Dame Time’s debut and Ant-Man’s leap

In Sports
April 23, 2024

Before we get to our five biggest takeaways from the NBA’s playoff blowout weekend, let us first power rank all eight Game 1 results from least to most surprising (in relation to our first-round series previews):

8. Boston Celtics 114, Miami Heat 94

7. Denver Nuggets 114, Los Angeles Lakers 103

6. New York Knicks 111, Philadelphia 76ers 104

5. Cleveland Cavaliers 97, Orlando Magic 83

4. Oklahoma City Thunder 94, New Orleans Pelicans 92

3. Milwaukee Bucks 109, Indiana Pacers 94

2. Minnesota Timberwolves 120, Phoenix Suns 95

1. Los Angeles Clippers 109, Dallas Mavericks 94

Now, about those takeaways …

James Harden: ‘Still can score with the best of ’em’

If I were the Clippers, who pummeled the Mavericks in the absence of an injured Kawhi Leonard (right knee inflammation), thanks in large part to 20 first-half points from James Harden, I would be very wary of the one-time MVP making any declarations along these lines: You know what, guys, it’s Harden time.

“I can score with the best of ’em,” he told reporters on Sunday, when he finished with 28 points. “Still can score with the best of ’em. My role for this team is just generating really good shots and making guys’ jobs easier. And then when my number to score is called, then you score the basketball. Obviously, Kawhi is out, so my playmaking and my volume is going to go up a little bit more and took advantage of it.”

Sound familiar? Harden has a habit of oversimplifying these outcomes, as if he can summon them at any time. If that were true, his would not be one of the spottiest playoff résumés of any superstar in history. This was the very same sentiment Harden shared in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, when, as a member of the Sixers, he scored 45 points in Joel Embiid‘s absence to steal Game 1 from the Celtics.

“What they expect me to do all throughout the course of the year was be a facilitator and get Joel the basketball and score when necessary,” Harden said at this time last year. “Joel wasn’t here tonight, and we knew that going into this series. Now, it’s like, All right, open the floor, James, you go be aggressive, and tonight I was aggressive. It’s not that I’m not capable of doing it. It’s just, this is my role for this team. Now, if you want me to do this tonight, I can do that as well. I don’t think a lot of players can do that.”

Harden scored another 42 points in a Game 5 victory against Boston, only to disappear in Games 6 and 7. He averaged 13.4 points on 25.4% shooting from the field for the rest of the series, including four losses.

If your team’s hopes hinge on a 34-year-old Harden’s ability to perform as if he is 28 again, odds are you are going to be disappointed more often than not. Even in his prime, Harden was unpredictable. Look no further than Sunday’s second half, when he missed five of his seven shots and finished a team-worst -16.

Then again, Dallas is depending on Kyrie Irving, whose last seven years have been even more capricious. It raised my eyebrows when, before the playoffs, he declared, “Somehow I was called a chaos agent for a little bit, and there was this narrative that I’m a locker-room cancer and all these things that ended up becoming [fodder for] these run-a-show media pundits,” as if there was not good reason for criticism. He stopped talking to teammates in Cleveland, quit on Boston and actively embraced chaos in Brooklyn.

Be wary what Harden and Irving say when the going is good, for when it is bad, you will be scratching your head when, say, the latter lays his team’s lack of effort in Game 1 on … the absence of Leonard? A lot can change from game to game in the NBA. You would think Harden and Irving would understand that by now. That they are still slipping into old habits should caution us in putting too much faith in either team.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 20: Anthony Edwards #5 of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns talk during the second half in game one of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Target Center on April 20, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

The leap is right in front of Anthony Edwards

Quietly, Kevin Durant has not been the best player in a playoff series since the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals, and even then you could argue Giannis Antetokounmpo was better. Jayson Tatum out-dueled Durant in a 2022 first-round sweep. Durant deferred to Phoenix teammate Devin Booker in last year’s Round 1 win against the Clippers, and Denver’s Nikola Jokić outperformed both Suns in the second round.

This is not to say Durant has been bad. He scored 31 points on 17 shots in Saturday’s Game 1 loss to Minnesota. It is just that the 35-year-old has been passing the torch to the next generation for three years now, and rising Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards is the latest young gun to take it from him.

Phoenix tried everyone on Edwards to no avail and turned to Durant late in Game 1, but the 22-year-old cooked his childhood idol, too, and let him know about it. Durant could do nothing but smile at the kid.

“I think everybody knows that’s my favorite player of all time,” Edwards told reporters after registering a 33-9-6 in the 25-point win, “so that was probably one of the best feelings ever in my whole life, for sure.”

Edwards turned his defense into offense, scored from every level, drew double teams and found open teammates for another 17 points. He played beyond his years in a way that makes you think: This guy can be the best player on a championship team. Much the same way we thought of a 23-year-old Durant, who went through an aging Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan on his road to the 2012 NBA Finals.

Maybe Edwards cannot get there this year, since we still expect some degree of inconsistency, but Game 1 was a hell of a start. In fact, Edwards is averaging 28.5 points on 60.9% true shooting in his first 12 playoff games. Nobody in the history of the NBA has averaged so many points so efficiently in so many playoff games before turning 23 years old. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came closest. Pretty good company.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - APRIL 21: Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts to a three point shot during the first half of game one of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at Fiserv Forum on April 21, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard scored 35 first-half points in his playoff debut in Milwaukee. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Dame Time came and went from half to half

The high-speed Pacers made the Bucks — and, by extension, 33-year-old point guard Damian Lillard — look old this season, winning four of their five meetings, including an in-season tournament semifinal, when Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton had the audacity to mock Lillard’s signature “Dame Time” celebration.

“When you are having your moment, it’s important to be careful, to be humble in your moments,” warned Lillard, “because you just never know how the tables are going to turn or when they are going to turn.”

Man, did he turn them on Sunday. Lillard scored 16 of Milwaukee’s first 20 points and totaled 35 in the first half, staking the Bucks to a 27-point lead at the break. Game over. His side-stepping 3-pointer to beat the first-quarter buzzer was all the reminder we needed that this guy was built for these moments.

Maybe he can shake the rust from an underwhelming regular season, both for him and his team, to carry Milwaukee far enough for Antetokounmpo (strained left calf) to get healthy. Maybe together they can discover the chemistry they have been searching for all year — in time to meet their lofty expectations.

Then, you watch Sunday’s second half, when Lillard went scoreless to finish the game a team-worst -6, and you cannot help but wonder which extreme is more replicable. Did the Pacers discover something? They found two solutions: 1) abandoning drop coverage and asking Myles Turner to blitz the pick-and-roll instead or 2) ensuring a more mobile defender was there to meet Lillard on the other end of a screen.

Either way, Indiana eventually prevented Lillard from generating a full head of steam or the threat of it. How much the Pacers can force the ball out of Lillard’s hands and make Milwaukee’s others beat them will determine whether they are a serious challenger or a stepping stone to Antetokounmpo’s return.

Credit the Pelicans for matching the Thunder punch for punch in Game 1, at least until the final minutes, when they could have used someone to generate reliable scoring opportunities. That is exactly what Zion Williamson was doing when his left hamstring came up lame in New Orleans‘ play-in loss to the Lakers.

In that game, the Pelicans reinserted Williamson with 7:38 remaining, trailing 91-80. On five of the next eight possessions, Williamson beat LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis to the rim for 10 points. The attention paid to Williamson freed Trey Murphy, Jose Alvarado and Larry Nance Jr. for clean 3-point looks on the other three possessions. Williamson was the one-man shot creation hub New Orleans needed.

In a one-score game on Sunday, the Pelicans managed one bucket on their final 11 possessions — a tough CJ McCollum baseline fadeaway. They turned the ball over four times, missed four 3-pointers and blew a pair of bunnies. Williamson is shooting 60% from inside the arc for his entire career, which means any one of those chances in his hands, let alone all of them, could have stolen Game 1 from Oklahoma City.

New Orleans is built to support Williamson. As complementary as McCollum, Murphy, Alvarado, Nance, Herb Jones, Jonas Valančiūnas and most everyone on the roster are, no one but Williamson is capable of being the No. 1 option on a contender. That includes Brandon Ingram, who has all the tools necessary. Only Williamson on occasion has demonstrated that he can meet opposing superstars on their level.

Except, Williamson is rarely there. His next playoff game will mark his first, and we are nearing the end of his fifth season. The entirety of his NBA existence is an exercise in imagination, and games like Sunday allow us to imagine a world where peak Williamson transforms New Orleans into a legitimate contender. Without him, though, as hard as they fought in Game 1, the Pelicans will lose this series to the Thunder.

Get well soon, Zion. The future of basketball in New Orleans needs you.

Orlando Magic's Paolo Banchero drives against Cleveland Cavaliers' Evan Mobley (4) during the first half in Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Saturday, April 20, 2024, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

Despite a Game 1 loss, there’s a lot to like about the future in Orlando. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

Orlando’s offense

Much has been made of Orlando’s anemic offense in its Game 1 loss to Cleveland, and it was bad (62.7 points per 100 halfcourt possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass), but a second look at the film was a little more encouraging than you may have remembered (if you even bothered to watch the first time).

The Magic generated 34 field-goal attempts inside of 8 feet and made just 16 of them (47.1%). They shot 60.7% on those same attempts during the regular season. Part of that was Cleveland’s size inside. Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen alter a lot of shots. Most of it, though, was the inability of Orlando’s guards to navigate the paint. Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz combined to shoot 3-for-11 from inside 8 feet. They had no concept of when to unleash a floater, take the extra dribble or kick out to shooters.

Of course, the shooting options are not all that great. Suggs is the only high-volume shooting threat in Orlando’s starting lineup, and even he is new to that success. Gary Harris has a history of leveling down in the playoffs. Neither Paolo Banchero nor Franz Wagner has developed a reliable outside shot … yet.

Again, the Magic generated 35 open or wide-open looks from 3-point range, according to the NBA’s tracking data, and made just eight of them (22.9%). They shot 36.1% on those looks during the regular season — not great, but enough to challenge an opponent they limited to 97 points in the playoff opener. Suggs, Harris, Anthony and Joe Ingles combined to shoot 1-for-17 from distance in Game 1. Hard to do.

This is why we should not to be hard on Banchero, who is 21 years old and put up a 24-7-5 in his playoff debut. The league’s tracking data revealed that his Magic teammates left nine more assists on the table. His stock is worth investing in, since Orlando can create a ton of cap space to chase shooters come July.

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