Reasons For Optimism
A glass-half-full view for all four teams
Programming note: Basketball Poetry is a day early this week. We’ll resume normal programming Tuesday of next week. Enjoy the weekend!
No series is decided after one game. The Celtics and Heat played a close one throughout, and Boston surely expects to steal one in Miami with the probable return of starting point guard and Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart. Meanwhile, Dallas won’t be fazed by their blowout loss in Game 1 - they also lost Game 1 of the previous two series.
Miami and Golden State, of course, have no complaints with how the series has gone so far.
Let’s dive into a reason why each team can still feel good about their chances in the conference finals.
Mavericks: The offensive process worked well
Let’s not sugarcoat it: losing by 25 points never feels pleasant. But this was an anomalous performance from the entire offensive unit.
Dallas only scored 87 points, their second-lowest output in 14 playoff games, but much of the game was just them missing great looks. Luka consistently got into the paint in the first half, drew help defense, and then lasered passes to wide-open shooters (who promptly clanked the ball):
People are falling all over themselves to praise Andrew Wiggins today, and he was fine. The Warriors’ defense was fine! But it wasn’t airtight by any means, and I don’t feel like they “solved” Luka or Dallas. The Mavs ended the game scoring a measly 78.8 points per 100 possessions in halfcourt offense, in the 10th percentile for all playoff games, but so much of that was driven by poor shooting.
The Mavs have shot 38.2% from three in the playoffs but only hit 22.9% yesterday. They’ll bounce back like they always do. It was just Game 5 of the last playoff series when Phoenix whooped them by 30 points to take a 3-2 series lead. Dallas shot 25% from three in that game. The Mavs then came back to win Games 6 and 7 in dominant fashion, shooting 41% and 49% from deep.
To further emphasize — 44 of Dallas’ 48 attempts in Game 1 were classified as “wide open” or “open.” Golden State can’t be happy about that number because they know that Dallas won’t miss three-quarters of their open triples again.
Warriors: The paint is open for business
The Warriors didn’t shoot particularly well from deep in Game 1, either, but they made up for it by making hay in the lane.
45% of their total shots came at the rim or in floater range, which is on the low side. But they faced so little resistance there that they converted practically every shot they took, hitting 89% and 67%, respectively — both incredibly accurate marks.
Nobody shoots that well consistently, but Dallas has eschewed traditional rim protectors in these playoffs. Maxi Kleber is a solid shot-blocker when he’s moving, but he’s not someone who will deter many shots when he’s just sitting by the basket. Dwight Powell, similarly, is a mediocre-at-best rim protector for a center.
Golden State’s bevy of shooters also drew help defense out of the paint. Klay Thompson has an easy layup here on a slick pass from Kevon Looney, and nobody is around to even bother him except tiny Jalen Brunson, who correctly realizes he has no hope:
Dallas had a fantastic regular-season defense, but they aren’t filled with the same kind of physical, speedy defenders that Memphis could deploy so effectively. The Mavericks will undoubtedly switch up their scheme at least a little to better protect the hoop, but Golden State should continue to see easy opportunities at the rim all series long.
Celtics: Robert Williams is a gamechanger
Boston’s defensive stalwart Robert Williams returned to the playoffs with a vengeance.
The versatile big man played 28 minutes in the game, in which time Boston outscored Miami by 5. The Heat whipped the Celtics by 16 in the 20 minutes Williams rested.
Williams can terrorize the rim as a help defender without being a liability on the perimeter against Miami’s relatively few ballhandlers. He spent much of the game guarding a weirdly passive Bam Adebayo, which allowed him to roam in the paint and spike balls off the backboard like they insulted his mother:
On the other end, Williams outhustled and outmuscled a Heat team that prides itself on grit. Here he is shoving Bam out of the way for a tough offensive rebound and putback:
Williams is an excellent screener and canny passer. Although he’s the only Celtic rotation player without a semblance of a perimeter jumper, he provides a unique pick-and-roll threat that’s further weaponized by canny passing and superb timing. His major flaw as a player has largely been his inability to stop fouling people, but he only racked up a modest three offenses in this match.
Big Bob finished the game with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks that frankly undersold his impact. He brought energy and physicality to a Celtics team that desperately needed both, and they looked and played like a more confident team when he was in the game to clean up their mistakes and misses on both ends of the court.
Williams exited the game in the fourth quarter due to cramps while the Celtics were attempting a comeback. It stalled out after his exit. With Marcus Smart coming back for Game 2 and Williams looking fully healthy, the Celtics have to feel good about their chances of stealing Game 2.
Heat: Vincent can fill Lowry’s shoes
Kyle Lowry’s shoddy hammy opened up what many perceived to be a weak point in Miami’s roster, but backup point guard Gave Vincent proved his mettle yet again.
The Heat’s role players have been up and down throughout this playoff run. Jimmy Butler was exquisite, but the Heat needed someone else to step up in Game 1. Thankfully for Miami, Gabe Vincent had his highest-scoring game of the playoffs and showed the kind of off-the-dribble verve that a Heat team lacking shot creators desperately needs.
Vincent ended the game with 17 points on 5/10 shooting, 3/7 from three, but his fingerprints were all over this game — and the ball, as he finished the game with three Fred VanVleet-esque “blocks” like this one (none of which happened above waist-height):
Vincent’s ability to consistently penetrate into the paint was a key source of Miami offense:
Vincent was more aggressive with the ball in his hands than I’ve seen him in these playoffs. With Lowry out, the Heat only have two real on-ball creators in Butler and Herro. If Vincent can continue to provide effective secondary playmaking, it completely alters how the Celtics have to defend: maybe the returning Marcus Smart will need to dedicate more time to Vincent than Herro or Butler, or maybe defenders will have to stick a half-step closer to Gabe, opening up rolling lanes for Bam Adebayo.
Vincent even air-balled a difficult pull-up three early in the shot clock for Miami in the third quarter. It was a bad shot in a vacuum, but it was also an encouraging sign of confidence for the young point guard. He’ll need to carry that over and continue his excellent fill-in play for the Heat to pull out this series.