Playoff basketball is the NBA's reason for being. It's when players build their legends, various stakeholders cash in on revenue potential and fans record memories. It's why the NBA went to extremes to deliver the postseason, investing more than $150 million in a bubble.
The road there wasn't without its trials. Between the NBA suspending the 2019-20 season on March 11 and the resumption of play on July 30, several dozen players tested positive for COVID-19. Finding a site for the bubble wasn't easy, requiring an inordinate amount of logistical and medical considerations. Not everyone who wanted in was invited, and not everyone invited showed up.
But after an interminable hiatus, the NBA's postseason returned at a most unusual moment -- a Monday morning in August for those tuning in from Denver and Utah on Day 1. Despite the odd timing in the oddest of years, the Nuggets and Jazz delivered on the anticipation built up over a hoops-less spring and early summer. The seeding games were an appealing prelude, but the Rocky Mountains ruckus was a reminder that best-of-seven is best.
Donovan Mitchell's explosion for 57 points. A master class in the two-man game by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. An overtime thriller. Denver's 135-125 win served up that classic NBA cocktail: one part individual swagger, one part dramatic tension. It went down easy, as did the Boston Celtics' win over the short-handed but feisty Philadelphia 76ers. Ditto for Luka Doncic's record-setting maiden playoff voyage in a tight Dallas Mavericks loss to the LA Clippers.
Sometimes first-round basketball can seem like a formality, and there was some of that on Monday. The Toronto Raptors made quick work of the Brooklyn Nets, but an elite team is fun to observe in its dominance.
For those at home, the production value of the product made it almost indistinguishable from the original formula. Even an obvious cosmetic difference such as the animated digital fans viewing from home makes for a good bit, with cameos from franchise icons, mascots and the occasional house pet. Piped into the gym were the recognizable voices of the public-address announcers and in-game musical riffs used in the home arena. As a bonus, the broadcast caught intimate snippets of players jawing, something you can't get when the game is being played in front of a sold-out crowd.
At a certain point on Monday, the novelty of the bubble and the circumstances surrounding it receded. For almost 11 hours, the NBA was its familiar, best self: superstars young and old; spectacular displays of athleticism and guile; an event. It can still thrill those tuning in. On the first day of its delayed postseason, it did that. -- Kevin Arnovitz
The Jazz still have a chance ...
In Game 1, the Jazz compensated for the absence of starting point guard Mike Conley, who left the NBA campus over the weekend to return home for the birth of his son, by putting the ball in the hands of Donovan Mitchell. All Mitchell did was score 57 points, the third-highest total ever in a playoff game.
Mitchell did find the going a bit more difficult in overtime. Down the stretch, Utah was able to hunt Denver rookie Michael Porter Jr. in pick-and-rolls before Nuggets coach Michael Malone pulled Porter for good with 1:32 left in regulation. Even when stopper Torrey Craig fouled out, Malone went deep into his bench for PJ Dozier, a better defensive option.
Though Denver was able to pull away in the extra session, Malone's rotation revealed how much the Nuggets miss starting wings Will Barton and Gary Harris, whose return to the lineup remains uncertain -- exposing an opportunity for Utah. Without Barton and Harris, Denver is counting on Porter, who was unable to maintain his dominant play from the seeding games. In Game 1, Porter scored 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting in 31 minutes -- not the kind of offensive contributions he needs to offset his mistake-prone defense.
If Malone goes back to Dozier, I suspect the Jazz will be better prepared to help off the 33% career 3-point shooter, allowing them to possibly send a second defender at Jamal Murray -- who scored or assisted on all six Nuggets' field goals in overtime. Meanwhile, Utah also might do more to create favorable matchups against backup point guard Monte Morris when Denver plays the 6-foot-2 Morris alongside the 6-4 Murray in an undersized backcourt.
On the other side, Malone talked about giving Mitchell different looks. One possibility is trapping him more aggressively and forcing Rudy Gobert to make a play with the ball in his hands. Per Second Spectrum tracking, the Nuggets blitzed just three of Denver's 99 ball screens on Monday, as compared to doing so 10% of the time during the regular season and the seeding games -- the league's second-highest rate.
While the Jazz lost a golden opportunity to steal Game 1 of this series without Conley, I'd still feel good about their chances of making this a long, competitive series. No, Mitchell isn't liable to score 57 points again, but Utah can diversify its offense, particularly whenever Conley returns following a mandatory quarantine.
Denver is going to have a more difficult time maintaining Monday's 54% shooting from 3-point range. Weighted by attempts, the players who took 3s for the Nuggets on Monday made 36.5% across the regular season and playoffs. If they return to that level, the Jazz have a good shot to even up the series. -- Kevin Pelton
... but Utah's margin for error is shrinking
That margin was further reduced Sunday when Conley departed the bubble. For the Jazz to steal one of those games was going to require a near-perfect performance, even against a Nuggets team without starters Harris and Barton.
For the first 46 minutes of Monday's Game 1, it looked like the Jazz might be able to pull that off. Mitchell was hitting one absurd shot after another. Gobert was holding his own against Nikola Jokic, a matchup Gobert has struggled with this season. Joe Ingles was making one savvy play after another. Juwan Morgan, a rookie starting in place of Conley, was plus-17 in 25 minutes despite making only one of his five shots from the field.
It was all going Utah's way, until that thin margin for error caught up to the Jazz.
Mitchell casually walked the ball up the court with just under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, with Utah clinging to a four-point lead, unaware that two critical seconds had ticked off the shot clock while the rebound was knocked around. He was whistled for an 8-second violation.
Murray responded by instantly hitting a 3-pointer, setting off a blistering close to the game. The Nuggets eventually put it away in overtime.
"I think that was a crucial part of the game," Mitchell said of his mental lapse. "At the end of the day, I'm not going to put it all on that one play, but that was a crucial part."
It also was crucial for this series. Winning one of these two games without Conley would have given the Jazz a psychological advantage.
Instead, it's a huge disappointment, one that could prove to be the difference. -- Tim Bontemps
Fred VanVleet is going to get paid ...
The NBA's free-agency period, whenever it begins, will likely be cold for most players. But a select few might be so desirable that they buck the expected frugality.
None might be more intriguing than Toronto Raptors spark plug Fred VanVleet, whose 30-point, 11-assist performance -- highlighted by a team playoff record eight 3-pointers -- on Monday was another reminder of why he is so valuable. A combo guard with his feel for the game and his coolness under pressure is worth gold in postseason play.
It didn't happen overnight. In his first 28 playoff games, VanVleet averaged just 4.1 points and shot just 24% from 3-point range. But his explosion in last season's Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals -- which coincided with the birth of his son, Fred Jr. -- has seen him turn into a significant playoff contributor.
Including Monday's outing, VanVleet has averaged 16.2 points and 57% shooting on 3s over his past 10 playoff games.
Watching him probe the Nets' defense was a graduate-level course in game management. Even though he made his first six shots, he was more focused on setting up teammates, dishing out eight assists in the first half as the Raptors built a huge lead.
Then late, when the game tightened, he crushed the Nets, who started going under screens because they were afraid of his drive-and-kick.
"I just tried to take a methodical approach," VanVleet said. "I didn't get that many looks [early], the passes were there. I was able to shake free for a couple 3s, and once those started to go in, I knew it was going to be a big night."
Considering he is the secondary ball handler after Kyle Lowry, this is a devastating one-two punch for the Raptors, which is why Toronto is expected to be aggressive when VanVleet hits unrestricted free agency. VanVleet is a core piece of the team's future with Lowry on the back nine of his career.
League executives believe the four-year, $85 million deal Malcolm Brogdon got from the Indiana Pacers last summer will set the market for VanVleet. Though it took a big offer in a healthier NBA economy to pry Brogdon away from the Milwaukee Bucks, who had matching rights, VanVleet is expected to have suitors.
The Detroit Pistons and Dwane Casey, who used to coach VanVleet in Toronto, opened a swath of cap space when trading Andre Drummond earlier this year. The New York Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks, two teams with cap space that could use a combo guard who can play on or off the ball, also are possible options.
With Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol also headed to free agency, the Raptors are going to have some decisions to make. Ibaka and Gasol are candidates to come back on one-year deals, such as the one Lowry has already signed with Toronto.
There should be enough room for VanVleet. If he keeps up the strong playoff showings, the interest will undoubtedly continue to rise. -- Brian Windhorst
... but Kyle Lowry is the key to the Raptors' repeat hopes
On a night when VanVleet became the first Raptors player to go for 30 and 10 in the playoffs and reigning NBA Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam also turned in a double-double, Lowry seemed to struggle with a 3-for-14 shooting performance from the field. And yet, the Raptors were outscored when Lowry was on the bench, the only Toronto player for whom that was the case. In fact, his plus-minus of +26 was the best mark of any player on any team in action on Monday.
It wasn't a coincidence. Lowry has quietly been one of the most impactful players in the league this season. He led the Raptors in real plus-minus with a +5.21 mark that ranked sixth in the NBA, just ahead of former teammate Kawhi Leonard (+5.10). While Leonard rightfully gets a huge amount of credit for the Raptors' championship last season, it was Lowry who led the team in RPM with the fifth-best rating in the NBA, trailing only MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
If the Raptors have any hope of defending their championship, Lowry is the key.
As the floor general, Lowry is tasked with creating offense for a defensive-minded team. According to Second Spectrum, Lowry produces 1.12 points per direct drive, ranking just behind James for 10th in the NBA among players with at least 200 drives. The Raptors shoot the sixth-most 3-pointers in the NBA, and Lowry's ability to get into the paint, imbalance the defense and set up open looks is vital.
Similarly, Lowry is excellent in the pick-and-roll. Per Second Spectrum, Lowry produces a team-high 1.097 points per direct pick as the ball handler. He is able to get the entire team involved, generating high-efficiency shots for either himself, the pick setter or open teammates.
The Raptors shouldn't have much trouble getting past the Nets, but Toronto has much more difficult opponents on the horizon. Lowry's ability to run the show and create good looks for his teammates is paramount. If the Raptors climb back to the top of the NBA heap, it'll likely be Lowry who leads them to the summit. -- Andre' Snellings
Marcus Morris could be the difference for the Clippers ...
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard combined to score 56 points in the Clippers' win over the Mavericks on Monday night. But I keep coming back to the guy the Clippers battled to get at the trade deadline: Marcus Morris.
I remember driving into our studios the morning of Feb. 6, pulling over each time a call came in as the Clippers and Lakers both negotiated with the Knicks, literally until the final minutes before the noon Pacific Time deadline, to try to land Morris. Let's just say I pulled over so many times that I almost missed my call time.
Both Los Angeles teams wanted Morris badly -- not just for his defensive ability, toughness and outside shooting, but to also keep him away from the other title contender. It gave the Knicks tremendous leverage, and New York was determined to pit them against each other for as long as it could.
Morris showed why he was so desired at the deadline in Monday night's win, scoring 19 points, leading a defensive turnaround in the second half and provoking a conflict with Luka Doncic that ultimately led to Kristaps Porzingis' ejection. The Clippers outscored Dallas by 13 after the ejection, going from five points down to an eight-point victory.
In addition to getting Porzingis ejected, Morris made life difficult -- at least as much as anyone could -- for Doncic. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Morris forced the Mavs point guard into four turnovers and held him to 3-of-6 shooting, contesting five of those six shots. Doncic shot 9-for-14 against all other Clippers defenders en route to 42 points.
That was just part of how Morris turned the Clippers' defense around. The Clippers gave up 28 fewer points in the second half than they did in the first by contesting at a far higher rate (75% versus 68%). Dallas scored 38 points in the first quarter, then scored just 41 for the entire second half.
Morris finished the game having played 32 minutes. The Clippers outscored the Mavericks by 25 points in those minutes. -- Ramona Shelburne
... but Luka was still spectacular for the Mavs
Doncic's first few minutes of NBA playoff action were pretty close to a complete disaster. He coughed up four turnovers before the Mavericks got on the scoreboard. One possession after they did, Doncic turned it over again in particularly frightening fashion, slipping on the court and grabbing his left ankle in pain.
Doncic had to deal with Patrick Beverley in his face from the opening tip. And it wasn't exactly a relief when George or Leonard switched onto him.
Yet Doncic recovered from his ugly start with a historic performance, finishing with 42 points in the Mavericks' 118-110 loss in Monday's Game 1, the most in NBA history by a player making his playoff debut.
"Luka was just being Luka out there," Porzingis said. "Made history again, but I know for him, it really doesn't matter much if we don't get the win."
At the ripe age of 21, making history already seems routine for Doncic. Dallas' Slovenian superstar has all kinds of statistical accomplishments that put him in either ridiculously exclusive company or unprecedented territory.
But Doncic described his performance in his playoff debut as "terrible" because of his 11 turnovers, one shy of an NBA playoff record that Houston's James Harden would prefer not to hold.
"For me, every game, guys are going to be physical with me," Doncic said. "I should never have like 11 turnovers. That is 11 more possessions, imagine that. I think a lot of this game; I got to do way better than that."
That's the standard Doncic has to hold himself to if the inexperienced Mavs are to have any hope of pulling off a monumental upset in this series. He can't be satisfied with scoring 42 points on 13-of-21 shooting and dishing out nine assists. He needs to be near flawless.
Despite Doncic's 11 turnovers, his coach wasn't complaining -- at least not about Doncic's performance.
"I would be willing to bet that some of those were fouls that were not called, which happens in an NBA playoff game," Rick Carlisle said.
There is optimism in Dallas that the Mavs might have at least a dozen-year window as contenders, and a lot of the reasons for that were on display Monday. Doncic is a confident competitor who doesn't get rattled easily. His résumé includes championships and MVPs earned with Real Madrid and the Slovenian national team at the highest levels in Europe. And he is such a rare talent that nobody blinks when he is compared to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Of course, the Mavs have to give Doncic some help, both to make this series competitive and at some point seriously contend for titles. Carlisle focused on the former after Game 1, saying his staff needs to "try to find ways to take a little bit off of his plate in terms of the number of touches and the number of times he has to go into a crowd of guys and get knocked to the floor."
Still, Carlisle had to be encouraged after watching Doncic dust himself off and dominate against an elite defensive team, even in defeat. And maybe the Mavs' coach can help his young star by working the officials through the media.
"I thought his performance was spectacular," Carlisle said, "when you factor in everything and how often he's getting hit and held and everything else." -- Tim MacMahon