The 2021 NBA playoffs are less than one week old, but we've already seen some epic superstar performances, upsets brewing and plenty of fans back in the stands.
Can Luka Doncic and the Mavericks send the LA Clippers home early? Are the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks headed for a Game 7 inside Madison Square Garden? Can the NBA-best Utah Jazz avoid an upset against Ja Morant and the young and hungry Memphis Grizzlies? After bouncing back from a Game 1 loss, are the Los Angeles Lakers hitting their stride against the Phoenix Suns?
Our NBA Insiders are breaking down their six biggest takeaways from the first six days of the postseason.
The East's elite aren't messing around ...
The Milwaukee Bucks, though, were questioned during the final weekend of the regular season for not making sure they would avoid the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. By beating Miami on the penultimate night of the regular season, Milwaukee assured last year's Eastern Conference champions -- who knocked the Bucks out of the bubble on their way to the NBA Finals -- would be their first-round opponent.
That move doesn't look so bad right now.
After a second straight evisceration of the Heat on Thursday night -- this time on the shores of Biscayne Bay -- Milwaukee has taken a commanding 3-0 lead, compiling what is arguably the most stunning result of the first round thus far (yes, including the collapse of the LA Clippers out West).
All of the things that people questioned about this team entering the season -- from its ability to hold up in a pressure situation to just how much of a difference would Jrue Holiday make to whether Mike Budenholzer would make the necessary adjustments to succeed in the playoffs -- have all been emphatically answered three games into what the Bucks hope is a very long postseason run.
Unlike the 76ers and Nets, both of whom have also taken care of business thus far against the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics, respectively, Milwaukee is facing an opponent that many thought could threaten its season. And rather than finding themselves in a fight, the Bucks have instead smashed the Heat to smithereens in both Game 2 and 3 after escaping from Game 1 with an overtime victory.
The Nets, Milwaukee's second-round opponent should both teams advance, will offer a far greater challenge. But if we have learned anything in this first round, it's that this year's Bucks are far different than those of the past two postseasons.
-- Tim Bontemps
... And neither is Luka Doncic
Late in the third quarter of Game 2, the Clippers desperately needed a defensive stop, so they tried pulling the ace out of their sleeve. Kawhi Leonard, the superstar who has earned a reputation as one of the premier stoppers in NBA history, matched up against Doncic.
The Mavericks responded by clearing out the right side of the court and letting their superstar go to work. Doncic backed down Leonard, pounding dribble after dribble until he got to the spot he wanted, then pivoted into a pretty one-legged fadeaway that surely made Staples Center spectator and Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki proud.
Welp, so much for that supposed solution. Head coach Tyronn Lue's Clippers tried pretty much everything to slow down the Mavs' superstar in the first two games of the series. They're still searching for something that works.
"They have some good defenders, like [Paul George] and Kawhi, two of the best perimeter defenders," said Doncic, who is averaging 35 points and nine assists per game while shooting 50.9% from the floor in the series. "You've just got to be aggressive. It's playoffs. You've got to be aggressive."
Aggressive is too tame to describe Doncic's approach in the series. He's been both ruthless and methodical, figuring out counters to every different look LA throws at him and frequently exploiting weaknesses in humiliating fashion.
Notice that Doncic didn't mention Patrick Beverley among the Clippers' good defenders. After bullying Beverley for an and-1 early in Game 1, Doncic barked, "You're too f---ing small!"
Doncic didn't mention Marcus Morris Sr., his nemesis in last season's bubble series, either. After swishing a step-back 3 over him and then driving for an and-1 layup during Game 2, Doncic wagged his finger and declared, "He can't guard me. Nah."
Doubling Doncic has often had disastrous results, too, due to his sound decision-making and Dallas shooting 50% from 3-point range in the series. Case in point: the dagger 3 hit by red-hot Tim Hardaway Jr. late in Game 2 that came off a touch pass from Dorian Finney-Smith, who flashed to the middle of the floor when the Clippers sent a second defender at Doncic 35 feet from the hoop.
If the Clippers don't find some answers quickly, they'll start a long summer soon.
-- Tim MacMahon
The Lakers look like the Lakers again ...
Injury absences had derailed the second half of their season, and in both the play-in game against the Golden State Warriors and Game 1 against the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers didn't look quite right. At their best, the Lakers dominate the paint at both ends of the court, pulverizing their opponents to score high-efficiency buckets around the rim while shutting down the lane to opposing traffic.
That was completely absent in Game 1, when the Suns actually outscored the Lakers in the paint by eight points in a nine-point victory. LeBron James and Anthony Davis managed only 31 points on 11-for-29 shooting, and Deandre Ayton had the same number of rebounds (16) as Davis and Andre Drummond combined.
Things started to change in Game 2, as Davis got much more aggressive as a scorer and the Lakers won a tight battle inside. The Lakers outscored the Suns 42-40 in the paint and grabbed 38 boards to the Suns' 31. The Lakers won a hard-fought game on the road by seven points, but there were still questions as to whether the Suns' loss might have been more attributable to Chris Paul's shoulder injury than the Lakers' strength.
But in Game 3, the Lakers returned to the type of bully ball that characterized their championship run last season. They dominated the middle, outscoring the Suns 46-26 in the paint and smashing them 51-35 on the boards. They controlled the action comfortably, at both ends of the court, for the entire 48 minutes and seemed to squeeze the life out of their adversary. Just like they did to every postseason opponent in the playoff bubble.
The Lakers look like themselves again -- a scary thought for the rest of the playoff field.
-- André Snellings
... And Ja Morant looks like he's built for the playoffs
The evidence that Morant is at his best when the spotlight is brightest keeps adding up. After cementing himself as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft with a triple-double (17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds) in an upset win in the first round of the NCAA tournament with Murray State, Morant capped his Rookie of the Year campaign with his highest scoring output (35 points) in the Memphis Grizzlies' play-in loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
It's hard to believe now that Morant took a slight step backward in his second regular season, seeing his efficiency decline with added scoring responsibility (as Jaren Jackson Jr. missed the bulk of the regular season) and the lingering effects of an ankle sprain in December. The Warriors exploited Morant's poor outside shooting (30% on 3-pointers) during the regular-season finale, holding him to 16 points on 7-of-21 shooting (1-of-6 from 3) in a Memphis loss with the eighth seed in the play-in tournament on the line. The rematch five days later was a different story.
Morant scored 35 points on 14-of-29 shooting with five 3-pointers to propel the Grizzlies to the playoffs. That kicked off a torrid run that has seen him score 108 points over the past three games between the play-in finale and the first two games against the top-seeded Utah Jazz, smashing his previous high over any three-game stretch in his career (91 points).
Morant was at his most sensational in Wednesday's Game 2, where his 47 points were the most ever in a playoff game by a player age 21 or younger, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Morant riddled one of the league's top defenses, needing just 26 shots in large part because he got to the free throw line 20 times.
Whether Memphis can parlay a split in Salt Lake City into a stunning upset or not, Morant's performance has made it clear that bigger playoff stages are in store for him and the Grizzlies.
-- Kevin Pelton
Playoff basketball in The Garden is back ...
You can't begin to discuss the Knicks-Hawks series without mentioning guard play.
Trae Young, the 22-year-old slight-of-stature target of criticism, proved the moment was neither too big nor the lights too bright. He sealed Game 1 for Atlanta with a final-second game-winning floater. For New York, former MVP and 2021 Sixth Man of the Year finalist Derrick Rose has been leading the way over newly minted Most Improved Player Julius Randle. Rose has provided the steady hand for the Knicks, averaging 21.5 points over two games.
The Hawks' defense and length have befuddled the Knicks through the first two games. Randle has been hard-pressed to find a clean look in the paint against Atlanta's Danilo Gallinari and John Collins -- Clint Capela has been shading heavily to reinforce the primary defender. Randle's 4-of-13 performance from 3 hasn't done much to cause Atlanta to adjust either. But what has been impressive is New York's bench scoring -- 64 and 55 points in Games 1 and 2, respectively -- outscoring the starters in both outings.
Rose has been the bench catalyst, allowing Alec Burks, Immanuel Quickley, Taj Gibson and Obi Toppin to play with more freedom. Toppin, in particular, has had some great moments, as he matches up well against the Hawks and he shoots well enough from 3 to keep their defense honest. The Knicks are still waiting for their star to truly get going; Randle offered glimpses in the second half of Game 2 but has yet to put it together.
Young is obviously circled on the Knicks' scouting report -- he's averaging 31 points in the series -- but Bogdan Bogdanovic has challenged even the best teams' 3-point defense during the regular season. Bogdanovic's timely corner 3 in Game 1 was only second in magnitude to the actual game winner. And though Young makes up in playmaking ability for what he lacks in size, the Hawks boast good size and length 2 through 5.
If the Knicks' regular-season defense and Randle get back on track, I still like them to move on. But if Young keeps getting into the paint, and Bogdanovic and De'Andre Hunter are hitting from deep, it spells bad news bears for New York.
Either way, it's incredible to have playoff basketball back in The Garden.
-- Monica McNutt
... And so are the fans, for better or worse
The opening week of playoff games has brought back both the wonderful -- and regrettable -- reminder of the impact of fans.
The scenes of nearly full arenas, rocking with noise during momentum-shifting runs, has been a glorious sight. Playoff games are about the atmosphere. Whether it's quieting down a raucous crowd as a road team or cranking up the home fans, the NBA experience is enhanced by the buildings themselves. It's what so many of our long-lasting memories are built around.
The chants, the roars, the stunned silences -- the ambiance enhances the game. Watching Madison Square Garden come to life has been a cathartic experience, the community power of sports on display and the look, feel and sound making things feel somewhat normal again.
On the flip side, with fans back in the mix, it has also been an all-too-uncomfortable reminder of how fragile that relationship between players and fans can be. From Russell Westbrook having popcorn dumped on him to Trae Young getting spit on to Ja Morant's family being harassed, the NBA felt the force of unruly fan behavior, giving the triumphant return of basketball atmosphere a black eye.
The NBA has a fan code of conduct, and with teams putting out statements and condemning fans' actions, the league hopes this is a blip on the radar. Because the NBA went almost a full year with largely empty arenas and fake crowd noise, trying to recreate the rollicking atmospheres of intense playoff environments. But nothing replaces having real fans in the building.
-- Royce Young