After a long, grueling season and entertaining 2021 NBA Play-In Tournament, the NBA playoffs have arrived with a bang.
Usually, the first round of the postseason is a snoozefest, but thanks to some big-time shots, prime playoff performances and the glorious return of Knicks fans to Madison Square Garden, we've got some genuinely competitive series with fun storylines.
That might be too much for some to comprehend so we've made it easy by deciphering the biggest takeaway from every first-round series so far.
Miami Heat vs Milwaukee Bucks
Jrue Holiday is a True Difference Maker
To open up the playoffs, the Heat and Bucks proceeded to engage in a gritty, hard fought game that went into overtime thanks to a calm Jimmy Butler running bank shot. Both teams had difficulties shooting the ball, which meant it was time for the stars to shine bright.
The Bucks are simply a different team compared to last season’s squad that crumbled against the Heat, and the clear difference is the presence of Jrue Holiday, who the Bucks traded a small fortune for this offseason in the hopes that he could push Milwaukee over the top. And so far, so good.
It’s not unreasonable to say that without Holiday, the Bucks would not have won Saturday — he was that good. In 42 grueling minutes, Holiday scored 20 points, hauled in 11 rebounds and swiped three steals on 9-18 shooting, earning a game-high +10.
He was everywhere on both ends, especially on defense, where he was either stonewalling the guy in front of him or picking his pocket and taking it in for a fast break layup. He also stuffed Jimmy Butler’s last second chance in overtime.
It looks like the shot came after the buzzer in any case, but this was a spectacular block by Jrue Holiday on Jimmy Butler’s final attempt. It capped off a great defensive performance by Holiday. pic.twitter.com/QwsSBDemgP— Positive Residual (@presidual) May 22, 2021
Dallas Mavericks vs LA Clippers
The Clippers Need to Help More on Luka Doncic
It was legitimately shocking how casually the Clippers defended Luka Doncic throughout the course of Game 1.
Did the Clippers think Doncic was some run-of-the-mill point guard? While other superstars such as Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard have constantly been treated to double teams, Doncic was able to stroll into his trademark looks with ease. The Clippers conceded switches onto center Ivica Zubac with little to no resistance, and Doncic proceeded to cook him — highlighted by this step-back three, which should not have been that uncontested.
That’s one of the best players in the league in obvious isolation at the top of the key against your weakest perimeter defender. Send some help!
It looks like more assistance may be on the way, as Tyronn Lue hinted that Kawhi Leonard would pick up the Doncic assignment for Game 2. It would be nice if Leonard can envelop Dallas’ superstar, but Doncic ran the fourth most pick-and-rolls in the league among all ball-handlers. It doesn’t mean anything if Leonard is going to “guard” Doncic, but then concede a switch and watch Zubac get roasted again.
The Clippers need to send far more double teams Doncic’s way. This accomplishes two things. For one, it takes the ball out of Doncic’s hands, which is already an uncomfortable proposition for a Mavs team that lacks facilitators outside of Doncic and Jalen Brunson. And two, it forces the other Dallas players to consistently hit threes.
While the Mavericks caught fire in Game 1 by shooting a scorching 47% from deep, it’s a smart bet for the Clippers to force role players to beat them compared to an NBA superstar.
Boston Celtics vs Brooklyn Nets
Celtics Need to Fully Unleash Robert Williams
It would have been easy to focus on how incredibly easy it was for Brooklyn to overcome their clear lack of chemistry thanks to a collection of superstars, but that was expected. Chemistry is vital, but top-of-the-line talent is the great equalizer. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden played just eight games together all season, but they were still able to dominate.
While it's unlikely the Celtics can pull off the upset this series, Boston must give Robert "Time Lord" Williams a bigger role. While it's ironic that a guy nicknamed the Time Lord isn't getting more minutes, he had his fingerprints all over Game 1 in 23 minutes off the bench. Williams put up 11 points, nine rebounds and an insane nine blocks.
Boston has had center issues all season, and Williams is the perfect player to plug that hole. Just 23, Williams finally looks ready to dominate on defense. And he’s not just a stationary rim protector. Look at him put Harden in isolation hell.
No biggie, just Robert Williams doing his thing against James Harden in space. pic.twitter.com/AgUeqZyMBI— Martinelli's fan account (@NekiasNBA) May 23, 2021
The Celtics outscored the Nets by five points when Williams was on the floor and got outscored by 16 points when he rested. It's time to play the Time Lord more!
Portland Trail Blazers vs Denver Nuggets
The Blazers Executed an Incredible Defensive Game Plan Against Nikola Jokic
The Blazers entered their series against the Nuggets with a conundrum that has confounded most teams in the league: how to stop Nikola Jokic, who engineers the league’s best offense per 100 possessions when he’s on the court?
Jokic is a virtually unstoppable offensive player. And looking at Jokic’s 34 points and 16 rebounds, it appears that he roasted the Blazers in Game 1. While that may be true, he did it at the expense of creating open shots for his teammates, which is the true key behind Denver’s offensive machine. The Nuggets don't have an intimidating supporting cast around Jokic and Michael Porter Jr., but the Joker puts his teammates in such favorable positions that it makes them better players.
Sure, Jokic’s teammates missed a lot of shots he created for them, but look at how the Blazers defend him here.
Portland doesn’t send a hard double team at Jokic, which would have the domino effect of Denver’s trademark ping-pong passing until an open three is created. Instead, they played smart, disciplined help defense.
Washington Wizards vs Philadelphia 76ers
The Wizards have gotten by this season with the rare three-man platoon at the center position with Alex Len, Daniel Gafford and Robin Lopez. It’s a solid counter to 76ers superstar Joel Embiid, who usually vaporizes anybody who dares to challenge him. Having a combined 18 fouls to throw at Embiid is valuable, and all three Wiz bigs have the bodies to at least compete with him.
Having multiple options is nice, but Gafford has been — and still is — clearly the best option for Washington. At 22, he’s shown incredible defensive instincts and is a blocking machine. He’s also a great rebounder, posting the best offensive and defensive rebounding percentages among the three bigs.
In Game 1 against Philly, Gafford put up 12 points, six rebounds and a block on perfect 6-of-6 shooting in just 20 minutes. The Wizards were a +14 with Gafford on the court and a combined -21 with either Lopez or Len on the floor. That’s a stunning 35-point difference.
Here’s the issue, though: the reason Gafford played 20 minutes is because he finished with five fouls. The best ability is availability, and Gafford needs to learn how to harness his impressive skillset while not racking up fouls at absurdly high rates.
Out of Embiid’s five turnovers, most of them were egregious offensive fouls or a bad pass, but his one turnover off the dribble was when Gafford pressed up on him and he dribbled it off his foot.
Embiid is going to dominate because he’s one of the best players in the league, but Gafford is Washington’s best shot at neutralizing him.
Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker is Ready For Primetime
If you watched Devin Booker over the past few seasons, it was apparent he’s a star. Now, casual playoff fans are finally being treated to Booker's excellence. He exploded for 34 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in his playoff debut against the Lakers. Booker rested just three minutes, didn’t force his shots and played great defense in order to defeat the Lakers in a hard-fought Game 1 victory.
A big narrative surrounding these Suns all year was whether their young core around Chris Paul could step up on the big stage. One game in, they’ve passed the test. Nobody on the Lakers had a prayer of stopping Booker. Even defensive ace Alex Caruso was being given buckets.
Booker’s offensive bag of tricks is so deep, and he was under control all game long. Mikal Bridges and DeAndre Ayton also submitted fantastic performances against LeBron James and Anthony Davis, proving they’re ready for the bright lights as well.
It’s a long series, and Paul is now battling a shoulder contusion that severely hampered him down the stretch, but if the Suns’ young guns keep playing like this, the Lakers' title defense could be in trouble.
Atlanta Hawks vs New York Knicks
Trae Young is Already an Incredible Playoff Villain
Madison Square Garden was absolutely booming Sunday, but Trae Young silenced the entire arena with a deadly game-winning floater.
In his first-ever taste of the playoffs, Young was electric, going for 32 points, seven rebounds and 10 assists. Notably, Young only made one three-pointer all game on a measly three attempts. Instead, as showcased in the above video, he elected to sauce up the Knicks by knifing into the paint and wreaking havoc through his patented soft floaters.
Young leveraged his shooting range in order to drive into the teeth of the defense and set up his teammates for easy lobs, layups and open jumpers. That’s winning basketball, and if the Knicks overcorrect, Young can increase his three-point attempts.
For a 22-year-old undersized point guard in his first playoff game against a Tom Thibodeau-coached defense, Young was exceptional and so poised. He didn’t rush anything, and the Knicks had no answer. In a desperate attempt to stop Young, Thibs elected to bring in Frank Ntilikina, who ended the game with just 32 seconds played.
As expected, it ended poorly. The fans predictably booed Young, who relished the villain role he’s growing into. Between Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley, New York is going to have a hard time stopping Young. Ntilikina is their best chance, but he needs more than 32 seconds to prove he can do the job.
Memphis Grizzlies vs Utah Jazz
The Jazz Need Donovan Mitchell
Jazz star Donovan Mitchell injured his ankle over a month ago in what was described as a low ankle sprain, which made it so surprising to see Utah's star guard miss Game 1.
Mitchell seemed surprised... and angry, too.
Donovan Mitchell was furious at Jazz decision to hold him out of Sunday's playoff game, deepening frustrations about his recovery from sprained ankle, sources tell @espn_macmahon & me: https://t.co/2LE9fFzJmW— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) May 24, 2021
That's why it's so important for the dynamic guard to return to action.
And — guess what? — he is! Mitchell is expected to suit up for Game 2. But we'll see how ready the high-octane scorer will be after missing more than a month.
Photo: Getty Images