The first game in all except one of the conference semifinals is officially in the books. In a second round in that many hyped to be one of the most all-around intense in history, we’ve seen two blow-outs and one nailbiter. No matter what happens or what reactions show themselves following the first game of a series, everyone comes to the exact same conclusion.
“It’s only one game.”
It’s true. There’s no need to come to any drastic conclusions after only one game has been played in a best-of-seven series. No matter what Paul Pierce says. But, just because each series is still young does not mean there aren’t some causes for concern.
Just like any playoff series, there’s still plenty for every team in its matchup to have to learn and adjust to. For now, let’s take a look at those who lose their first game and the primary question they need to ask themselves as they prepare for their next go-round.
How do they withstand a Kawhi Leonard explosion?
People can fault Philly all they want for how they defended Leonard. Stopping the Raptors obviously starts with stopping Kawhi. Honestly though, when you look at his numbers, there’s not much Philadelphia can do.
Kawhi is having the finest postseason performance of his entire career. In an admittingly small sample size, Leonard has simply dominated in basically every way possible. In six games, Leonard is averaging almost 31 points on 58/51/90 splits. Those who say the Kawhi of old is back would be wrong because the Kawhi of old never played this well even when he was making Finals appearances.
It’s not like he’s facing weak defenders along the perimeter either. Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Jimmy Butler are far from a sieve on that end. Yet, Leonard has eaten them all alive. Even with an All-NBA defender like Butler, Philly had no answers for him and they could very well still not have any when the series is done.
Stopping Kawhi at the present time seems out of the question. That does not mean all is lost. There are some guys that frankly can’t be stopped when they’re playing at their best, and Kawhi has certainly proven that he’s one of them. If you shut down the rest of his team, then you still have a chance.
Shutting down the rest of the team means removing the likes of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol among others. Those guys can be stopped – Lowry has an unflinching reputation for folding in the playoffs – but the Sixers need to find the right personnel to stop them.
How they’re going to do that is anyone’s guess. Siakam has done wonderfully in the playoffs – he outscored every starter on the Sixers – and Gasol has fit like a glove in Toronto. Philly may have more talent, but the Raptors have more guys who can do the little things.
The Sixers also need to exploit mismatches on the Raptors in order to keep up. Again, that’s a hard task because Toronto holds some edges in that department as well. Gasol did an excellent job on Joel Embiid and Kawhi continues to be Ben Simmons’ worst nightmare on the court. Times like these stress the importance of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
The silver lining for Philly is that after Brooklyn handled them pretty easily in Game 1 of the first round, the Sixers tore through the Nets like a wet sheet of paper. The Raptors are a much more difficult challenge, but Philly has proven that they can get up again when they get knocked down.
Who steps up if Giannis struggles?
This was an elephant in the room that the Bucks have justifiably avoided. Giannis has taken the reins as the best two-way player in the league – That label and Most Valuable Player are mutually exclusive – so him having an off-game seemed absurd. That was, until now.
The Celtics went scorched earth on the Bucks in Game 1 – winning 112-90 – with their surprising blowout win on the road centered around their defense on the Greek Freak. Giannis may have put up 22 points and even hit a few threes, but that came at 7-for-21 shooting from the field and 5-for-10 from the charity stripe.
It only gets worse. After such a dominant series against the Pistons, Giannis and co. got a nice serving of humble pie thanks to Al Horford’s per usual excellent defense.
The Bucks’ offensive rating when Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the court in Round 1: 120.2.
Bucks’ offensive rating when Giannis shared court with Al Horford in Game 1: 63.3.
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) April 28, 2019
Now that Boston has opened this series by collectively punching Milwaukee right in the teeth, the Bucks have to wonder who can fill in for when Antetokounmpo struggles to get his game going.
Khris Middleton and Nikola Mirotic were the only Bucks who scored in double figures and combined for 29 points. More should be expected from Middleton, who was both excellent in their previous playoff matchup and was an All-Star this season while Mirotic did just about what the Bucks asked of him.
The real disappointments were Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez, who were a combined 2-for-10 from the floor. There were already some concerns that Lopez was not a good matchup in this series against Al Horford and he did nothing to quell those fears. Bledsoe, on the other hand, seems to not have gotten past his playoff demons against the Celtics. It goes without saying that Milwaukee needs these two to play better if they are hoping to beat Boston.
Worst of all, the lack of support from the Bucks’ supporting cast in Game 1 fails to dispel the notion that the team lives and dies by the Greek Freak. It’s important to remember that Boston didn’t just steal a game from the Milwaukee. They spanked the deer on their home floor. During the regular season, Milwaukee rarely got blown out and rarely got beaten at home. Boston managed to do both.
To the Bucks’ credit, the odds of Giannis having a game that atrocious again is very low. You should expect him to come back with the vengeance in Game 2 just as much as you should expect the Celtics to be ready for him. The next game should be better than the first, but the Bucks can’t go to war with just Antetokounmpo.
It’s series like these that make you realize that Milwaukee really misses Malcolm Brogdon.
What rotation should they go with against the Warriors?
Let’s step back and take a moment to appreciate that from the looks of things, this series will be every bit like the one we had the privilege to witness last season. What we saw last May was one of the most exciting and intense playoff series in NBA history. To get that again would be amazing. Honestly, the Rockets-Warriors matchup could be the Godfather duology of playoff series.
Getting back to the series itself, Game 1 could haunt Houston when this series is over because they absolutely had every opportunity to steal one in Golden State. Even though the Warriors had the lead for the majority of the game, the Rockets kept themselves within distance.
The Rockets definitely have some legitimate gripes with how the game was officiated, but they should take pride in that Clint Capela played about as badly as he could have, Austin Rivers was out with an ankle injury/illness and James Harden didn’t have the most efficient game – but they were still in it until the closing seconds.
Besides, they’ve got other kinks to work out with their rotation. Rivers’ impending return will probably they will have to decide between Gerald Green – a plus/minus of -16 in seven minutes?! – and Iman Shumpert – who up to that point had been playing garbage time minutes – if they don’t cut out both of their minutes entirely.
The same goes for their frontcourt situation. Capela was awful but that not likely to be a problem going forward. PJ Tucker put up a goose egg yet managed to have a plus/minus of +9. The real question is who is going to get minutes off the bench.
The Rockets opted to play Nene as their backup five against the Warriors. Nene didn’t do a bad job scoring eight points and putting up a plus/minus of +7. At the same time, the Rockets relied on the 37-year-old, whose minutes had declined even further this season, in crucial minutes. They even had him on the floor during the Warriors final offensive possession in which Curry hit the dagger three to put them up for good. A bizarre decision by Mike D’Antoni.
Houston doesn’t boast the most depth in the frontcourt, but perhaps it’s worth considering giving Kenneth Faried some burn? The Warriors out-rebounded the Rockets 38-26. Faried isn’t the best option but he had the highest rebound average per-36 on the team besides Capela at 12.2 per game. Maybe he could give the second unit a bit of a jolt.
Since Houston plays Golden State just about better than anyone and was still within a hair of beating its rival, they don’t have as pressing of a concern as Philadelphia or Milwaukee. Still, the majority of the teams who win playoff series win Game 1. If any of these teams who lost are to defy the odds, they do have to make the appropriate adjustments.
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