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Five Lessons from the First Round of the NBA Playoffs

by Josh Mullenix | @TheJMULL_

We’re roughly one round into the NBA Playoffs. There have been an obscene amount of 50-point games, a three-day strike and an unfortunate lack of competitive games. Between Monday, Aug. 24 and Sunday, Aug. 30, there was just one game decided by fewer than nine points. 

This is a playoffs unlike any other so, of course, we were all going to learn a thing or two about playoff basketball in the bubble. What impact was neutral site games going to have? Was stepping up going to be easier than normal without the pressure of 20,000 screaming fans? Without further ado, here’s what we’ve learned after the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Momentum isn’t going to help you win a series, because it doesn’t really exist.

What is momentum? It’s got a dictionary definition, but it’s not exactly defined literally in the context of the NBA Playoffs. There’s no actual object gaining speed like a ball rolling down a hill. In the bubble, the metaphorical hill doesn’t exist without the presence of home courts. Any team who doesn’t have home court advantage is trying to do something very simple in the first two games of a series: steal one. If you steal one, you get to go home tied 1-1 at the worst and have a chance to go 3-1 up on the higher seeded team. 

The Mavericks, Blazers and Magic all won one of the first two games of their series. Only the Mavericks made it past game five. Portland and Orlando, instead of having a chance to gain a significant advantage on the one seed, still had to simply beat the best team in each conference three more times on the same court. Clearly, it didn’t go well. Portland and Orlando never seriously threatened to win another game and Dallas lost their last two games by a combined 57 points. The better team is going to win every series in this playoffs. It’s just too hard for the inferior team to win four games on a neutral court.

The top of the Eastern Conference is really good, but it’s the depth in the West that maintains its status as the better conference.

The top of the Eastern Conference is legit. Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston and Miami as a group are better than the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets and Rockets, in my opinion. However, it’s the depth of the West that makes the conference so interesting. Seeds five through eight in the east won exactly one game in the first round. The two, three and four seeds swept their series and it took the Bucks five games to dispatch Orlando as previously mentioned.

On the other hand, seeds five through eight in the West have won eight first round games and the Jazz still have a chance to advance and the Oklahoma City versus Houston series is not over either. If things go right, we could be talking about 10 wins from the lower seeded team in the West even though all four top seeds might advance. Every year in the West, it seems like there are more than 10 teams good enough to go to the playoffs resulting in a much deeper conference. All you need to know is that just one injury kept a team like Portland on the outside looking in until the Final day and that team has the talent of a top six team in the West. 

The Mavericks have arrived.

The Mavericks aren’t contenders yet, but man they are closer than their age, lack of experience and the fact that they are the seven seed might suggest. They took arguably the best team in the sport to six games and did it without their second-best player for the majority of the series and a not-100-percent Luka Doncic. Their offense is so good that sometimes even the best teams in the NBA just have to out score them, even when they have the two best perimeter defenders on the planet on the roster. Not even Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were able to stop them.

It, of course, starts with Luka. He’s not a good young player, he’s not a great young player, he’s a young player that is already one of the five best players in the league and one perennial all-star. In a series in which he went up against possibly the worst possible matchup for him, he averaged 31 points, 8.7 assists and 9.8 rebounds including a 43, 13 and 17 performance that left you staring in amazement at what the 21-year-old is capable of. 

The Mavs weren’t healthy, but that allowed players like Trey Burke to step into the spotlight and remind people that he was a lottery pick for a reason and can definitely score at the NBA level — he averaged 12.3 points against the Clippers with the extended playing time. It might be a couple years before the Mavs are seriously considered as one of the favorites to win a title, but Luka is coming and he, along with the rest of Dallas, is coming fast. 

Jamal Murray is a bad man.

And it still might not be enough. The Nuggets defense is laughably bad even against a team like the Jazz who are missing huge pieces of their offensive attack. But even if the Nuggets don’t win Game 7 to finish off the comeback, the statement above is still very true. In Denver’s three wins in this series, Murray is averaging 39.3 points on 67% shooting including 19 three pointers in those three games. He scored 50 again on Aug. 30 to force a Game 7 in another game in which he went toe-to-toe with Donovan Mitchell (who is also a bad man).

There are still concerns about his ability to impact games when he isn’t shooting the ball well (see his 14 and 12-point performances in games two and three of this series), but Murray has emerged as a superstar and one who is up for the challenge in the playoffs. Coming into the postseason, I needed more from Murray to feel good about the Nuggets. He was far too inconsistent in 2019 and when your best player is a center — albeit a very versatile one — your ceiling is only so high. Ask the 76ers about that one. But if Murray really is a consistent 30-point scorer in the playoffs, then Denver is just an upgrade on defense from being really scary in the playoffs. The Nuggets won’t compete this year, but Jamal Murray is quickly becoming one of the superstars in this league, and he’s doing it with his team’s back against the well.

These Playoffs (and the bubble) still count toward the “your time is ticking” clock.

This was more of a personal wondering than anything, but I was interested to see how failure, in particular, was going to be gauged in this specific playoffs. In other words, how were coaches going to be judged by their front offices for their performances in the bubble. Would they be given a little bit longer of a leash? Maybe cut a little more slack? The answer so far is no and it doesn’t seem to matter that players are hurt either.

Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry was fired right after the Pelicans’ season ended marking the end of his five-year stop in New Orleans. He didn’t really have Zion Williamson for the eight seeding games and there’s an argument that he didn’t really get a chance to coach a healthy version of this team at all this season. But he’s gone, and so is Pacers coach Nate McMillan.

McMillan hasn’t had his truly healthy superstar in Victor Oladipo since 2018 and he did more with less than almost anyone in the NBA this season. Indiana still secured the five seed even without Oladipo for the majority of the season. Then, his second best player Domantas Sabonis gets injured so he’s in the playoffs yet again without a full roster. In four years in Indiana, he went 183-136 but won just three of 19 playoff games and yet another sweep meant he was relieved of his duties, even if it wasn’t his fault. 

Brett Brown was missing his All-NBA talent in Ben Simmons and once again was at the mercy of Elton Brand’s inability to make intelligent decisions as the general manager in Philly. But Brown is also looking for a job along with Gentry and McMillan. In short, coaches are still taking the fall for things they don’t have much control over, even in the bubble.

Photo by: Amin Eshaiker / Wikimedia Commons

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