On Saturday night—”super sports Saturday,” as the media dubbed it—the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs came to a close with an incredible finish to an incredible Spurs-Clippers series. While the action overall hasn’t all been as exciting as that game—and nowhere close to as exciting as last season’s first round—there are still many talking points to chew on as we enter the second round.
Here are 10 takeaways from round one.
Atlanta needs to rediscover its mojo
The Atlanta Hawks had an incredible regular season, possibly the best in franchise history. But winning 60 games and cruising to the one-seed means nothing come playoff time. So far the Hawks have played way below their regular-season best. Their offence has dried up at times and the defence, so solid between November and April, has looked fragile. The team made hard work of beating the mediocre Brooklyn Nets in six games, and yesterday dropped Game 1 of their second-round series to the streaking Washington Wizards.
Shots that would go in during the regular season just aren’t falling—Atlanta’s process on offence is largely unchanged—but key players have struggled so far in the postseason. Jeff Teague has looked banged up, while the likes of Dennis Schroeder and Mike Scott—key rotations players—have struggled. The Hawks need to step it up, and soon, if they’re to get past the Wizards.
The Wizards are a sneaky contender
Those Washington Wizards are starting to look like a credible threat. They swept the Raptors in round one and put on an amazing second-half effort to win Game 1 on the road against Atlanta. In contrast to the Hawks, the Wizards had an average regular season, considering the high expectations coming in, but just like last season they look like a different animal in the playoffs.
Offensively the flow has been so much better for Washington, with the team cutting out a lot of the mid-range shots which hampered them in the regular season—the Marcin Gortat-John Wall pick-n-roll has been one of their go-to sets and it has been practically unplayable. Defensively they’ve sealed up the paint beautifully.
The Wizards are getting great production from their young backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal, plus some surprisingly good minutes from Otto Porter. And then there’s Paul Pierce. The future Hall-of-Famer has hit big shots at key times for the Wizards so far and he shows little sign of slowing down.
Golden State is the real deal
The Golden State Warriors have begun the post-season 5-0—so much for playoff jitters. The Warriors won 67 games during the regular season, but their critics—of which there are suddenly fewer—wanted to see them execute on the biggest stage. After a few initial scares against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Warriors have picked up where they left off in the regular season, destroying teams with their pace-and-space offence and suffocating their opposition with their top-ranked defence.
Yesterday afternoon the Warriors bulldozed the Grizzlies by 15 points in the opening game of the series and it’s becoming harder to see which team is going to be able to live with Steve Kerr’s group. They have shooting all over the floor and have the ability to take the ball into the paint if, on the rare occasion, their outside shots aren’t falling.
Memphis needs to dig deep without Mike Conley
The task of stopping the Golden State juggernaut currently falls to the Memphis Grizzlies and, as mentioned above, they didn’t do a very good job of it in Game 1. Memphis breezed past the banged up Trail Blazers, but they look overmatched so far against Golden State. Part of the problem is that the team is without point guard Mike Conley, possibly their most important offensive player. While the Grizzlies like to get the ball inside and work from the low post with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Conley’s vital role is either getting the ball to his big men and knocking down shots, or penetrating when said brutes draw double-teams.
Conley sustained multiple facial fractures after being hit with a C.J. McCollum elbow in Game 3 of the Grizzlies first-round series and the team is hopeful that he will return sometime soon. Memphis desperately needs him for Game 2, however, as back-up guards Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes don’t have the same outside shooting ability as Conley and are not equipped to take on the monumental challenge of guarding Steph Curry.
The whole is greater than its parts in Houston
The Houston Rockets open up their second-round series tonight against the Los Angeles Clippers and the team is certainly feeling good about itself. The Rockets cruised to a 4-1 series win over Texas rivals the Dallas Mavericks, a result that illustrates just how important good chemistry is on a basketball court. Aside from James Harden the Rockets don’t have a genuine superstar (unless you consider the 2015 incarnation of Dwight Howard fitting of that label), but what they do have is a bunch of solid, hard-working players who seem to enjoy playing with one another. Guys like Jason Terry, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith may not be world-beaters at this stage of their careers, but they all fill a specific role on Kevin McHale’s team and they carry out those roles extremely well.
An uncertain off-season looms over Dallas and Portland
While the Rockets looked like a team who enjoy each other’s company, the Dallas Mavericks—the opponents Houston ousted in round one—certainly do not. Rajon Rondo, who the team traded for midway through the season, played no further part in proceedings after Game 2. Rondo and coach Rick Carlisle, to put it nicely, did not see eye-to-eye. Elsewhere, the body language from Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki looked far from cheery. This summer the Mavericks have a boatload of cap room and the roster that suits up come October could be very different from the one that finished the season last week.
The same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers, who fell in five to the Grizzlies and were barely able to dress a healthy team entering the series. Wes Matthews missed the entire series with injury, while Arron Afflalo, Nic Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge battled various issues throughout. Aldridge, the team’s star, has yet to make a commitment to the Blazers going forward (he’s a free agent this summer), and while the team will be desperate to retain him, the Portland’s power forward since 2006 may feel like now is the time to test the market.
The Bulls remain a frustrating enigma
Throughout the regular season the Bulls frequently veered from the sublime to the downright ridiculous—one week they were beating the Warriors on the road (one of only two teams to do that this season), and the next they were losing to the lowly Lakers. On their best day they look like a championship contender. On their worst, a talented, but flawed group who have checked out on their coach.
These contradictions remain in the postseason. One moment, the Bulls looked like the best team in the league when they were pounding their first-round opponents, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the next they were turning the ball over for fun and letting Jason Kidd’s team back into the series. In Game 6 the Bulls finally had enough and demolished the young Bucks by 53 points, but the feeling still remains that the Bulls are not a team you want to trust in the postseason.
The Bucks have a promising future
Game 6 against the Bulls aside, the Milwaukee Bucks gave a very good account of themselves in round one and can be considered a team with a very bright future. They were well in contention for the first five games of the series, frustrating the Bulls on defence with their length and athleticism. Coach Jason Kidd did an excellent job of keeping his young team focused after they dropped the first three games of the series; he also underscored his coaching acumen drawing up an excellent out-of-bounds play that won them Game 4. The team just needs to improve on offence going forward—they struggle to score in the half-court—and hopefully the return of Jabari Parker next season can go some way to addressing that issue.
Cleveland could be in trouble without Kevin Love
The Cleveland Cavaliers barely broke a sweat dispatching the Boston Celtics in round one, but they face some major hurdles heading into round two against the Chicago Bulls, a series that opens tonight. Kevin Love, who had an excellent series against the Celtics, dislocated his shoulder after a tussle with Kelly Olynyk, while J.R. Smith will miss the opening two games of the series, suspended for flattening Jae Crowder.
Smith’s absence at the two-guard will hurt the Cavaliers—he’s a much better distance shooter than his soon-to-be replacement Iman Shumpert—but it’s Love’s playoffs-spanning absence that will hurt the Cavaliers the most. Love, for all the groans about his role in the offence, spaces the floor for Cleveland, pulling his opposite number away from the paint and opening up driving lanes for the likes of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. LeBron could do a similar job against Chicago playing at the four-spot, but defensively he might get tired of banging down low with the likes of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson. It’s a tough ask.
The Clippers are a resilient bunch
Throughout most of their history, the Clippers have been a laughingstock—an inept franchise from top to bottom, overshadowed by their more glamorous Los Angeles neighbours, the Lakers. But in recent years the team has gone some way to bucking that trend and on Saturday night, in a nail-biting Game 7 against the defending champion Spurs, they finally earned the respect of NBA fans across the world.
The Clippers had forced Game 7 by beating the Spurs in Game 6 on the road—an impressive achievement in itself—and in the deciding Game, an incredibly exciting back-and-forth affair, they got the better of the wily, veteran Spurs. With the game tied at 109 apiece, Chris Paul, who’s had an incredible playoffs thus far, hit a runner over the outstretched hand of Tim Duncan to seal the victory. The Clippers begin their second-round series tonight against the Houston Rockets on the road.
Final score: 125-94
No team in NBA history has ever come back from 3-0
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