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The 2-7 Series Are The Playoff's Best
Boston-Brooklyn and Minnesota-Memphis are riveting matchups
This is likely the first time in NBA history that the two most exciting series are coming from what traditionally have been blowouts.
Incredibly, since the NBA changed from best-of-five to best-of-seven series in 2003, only one seven-seed has beaten a two-seed in the first round: the Spurs over the Mavericks in 2010, an intensely competitive year in which the Spurs finished the regular season just five games back from the Mavs (in other words, it wasn’t a typical 2-7 matchup).
By contrast, the eight-seed has defeated the one-seed three times in that time frame.
Despite that history, the two 2-7 series this year are the most exciting of the first round. #2 Boston beat #7 Brooklyn with a thrilling Jayson Tatum buzzer-beating layup on Sunday to take a 1-0 lead, while #7 Minnesota shocked the #2 Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 behind Anthony Edwards’ explosiveness and Karl Anthony-Towns’ strength.
What happened this weekend, and what can the teams do differently in Game 2?
Brooklyn is likely the most hyped seven-seed in NBA history (with only last year’s Lakers and the aforementioned 2010 Spurs in the running), and they showed why in Game 1 - but it (just barely) wasn’t enough.
The combination of Kyrie Irving (39 points in Game 1) and Kevin Durant gives Brooklyn two of the greatest pure scorers in the game today. Boston brings the league’s best defense, but they lost defensive stalwart Robert Williams to an injury right before the playoffs (Brooklyn’s Ben Simmons and Williams may both return towards the end of the series, but those injury outlooks are murky at best).
Boston and Brooklyn traded body blows all game long. Boston held Durant to 23 points on 24 shots, and it was worse than it sounds. He was constantly being knocked over, losing the ball, and getting blocked, and the Celtics completely neutralized him as a playmaker (just three assists). Almost everyone in the Celtics rotation can at least put forth a credible effort on Durant, and numerous Celtics took turns on him to make sure he never felt comfortable attacking one specific matchup.
However, Tatum was the primary defender and did an incredible job contesting every shot and not giving Durant an ounce of freedom. It’s a dirty secret that KD doesn’t bother getting to the rim anymore (a career-low 14% of his shots are at the basket; when you hit 56% on long twos, maybe you don’t need to attack), and Tatum took advantage of that by constantly invading Durant’s personal space.
Irving was another story. The Nets seemed determined to have him attack anyone other than Defensive Player of the Year winner Marcus Smart, and he tore up everyone else put in his path. Boston has long and strong defenders, but only Smart and Derrick White are quick enough to match Kyrie. But when he’s got it going like he did yesterday, there’s nothing anyone can do:
Defenses can only impact players like Kyrie and Durant so much; at some point, they’re going to get to their spots, and you just have to pray they miss.
Boston focused heavily on Durant in their gameplan, but they seemed content to let Kyrie eat. Their traditionally switch-heavy strategy may need some tweaking in Game 2. I wouldn’t be surprised if Smart chased Kyrie over screens a little more aggressively instead of always conceding the switch to a slower defender.
Brooklyn, despite the loss, had several encouraging takeaways. Although Boston’s defense was excellent, Durant still missed shots he often makes. In particular, he missed at least two open transition threes, which are usually layups for him. I’d like to see Brooklyn run a few more actual plays to have Durant catch the ball on the move, giving him a little more space to get off his trebuchet jumper.
Goran Dragic had maybe his best game in a Brooklyn Nets uniform, and he was aggressive in attacking the rim. They’ll need more of that from him to take some of the playmaking pressure off Durant and Kyrie.
Center Nic Claxton looked decent switching out onto Boston’s perimeter guys and was active around the glass. His play could be critical going forward, as Brooklyn also prefers a switch-heavy defense, and center Andre Drummond is too slow to guard Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Defensively, the Nets played about as good as they can realistically expect to. Brooklyn is small at every position besides Durant and Drummond (and he’s in a timeshare with other big men), making for a tough matchup against Boston’s elite athletes. The Nets only have two or three credible defenders and have relied upon outscoring opponents all season. Durant is the only one on the entire roster who can guard Tatum.
Going forward, Boston has to heave a sigh of relief. Losing the first game (particularly when public enemy #1, Kyrie, was having a huge game and flipping off fans left and right) would have been a disaster for local morale and the team’s chances of winning the series.
Perpetually underrated Boston big man Al Horford played incredibly, looking for his shot on offense and playing fantastic defense on the other end while controlling the boards against the undersized Nets.
Boston might need some rotation tweaks to maximize their performance. Why is Payton Pritchard, who doesn’t contribute offensively and is an absolute defensive liability, playing over Aaron Nesmith again? At least Nesmith has some athleticism that might let him survive for eight minutes a game defensively.
Tatum was the best player on the court, but Jaylen Brown took over the game down the stretch for several minutes, aggressively driving the smaller Bruce Brown to the hoop. Marcus Smart was 4-9 from three, and the Nets have to hope he’ll cool off as the series continues.
Boston shouldn’t need to tweak too much offensively. The C’s game plan was strong, and they generated a lot of looks around the basket. The shots just didn’t always go in. Better finishing at the rim could make Game 2 a lot easier.
One thing to watch: the Celtics played their starters (except the woeful Daniel Theis) for an insane number of minutes. Tatum is young and incredibly conditioned, but 45 minutes of carrying the offense on one end and guarding Durant on the other could take its toll as the series goes on. KD and Irving both played high minutes, as well, but they’ve been consistently doing that for months and might not be as affected.
Both teams are very thin, so there aren’t many major personnel tweaks to make. It will come down to whether the Celtics’ strong starting five can outplay Durant and Irving. The first game was a coin flip; good thing the Celtics’ mascot is Lucky.
A nightmare start for the Grizzlies in Game 1.
As a young team that surprisingly earned the two-seed this season, Memphis is dealing with the burden of expectations for the first time. Playoff basketball is a different beast; the Grizzlies were punched in the mouth and didn’t respond in kind.
You can’t talk about this game without starting with Anthony Edwards. He scored 36 on a beautiful array of sidestep threes and drives to the paint. The man has found a different gear scoring the ball in the second half of this season, but his work on the defensive side has really impressed me. Ja Morant is one of the most athletic guys in the league, and he had real problems getting by Edwards cleanly and sometimes even getting the ball at all:
Beverley was far less effective against Ja Morant. Coach Chris Finch closed the game with Beverley guarding Dillon Brooks and Edwards guarding Ja. One of the big questions I have for game 2 is whether Finch starts with that matchup or saves it until the end to conserve Ant’s energy.
Regardless, the Wolves need to figure out something on Ja. He had an endless number of drives where he split the pick-and-roll defenders:
Perhaps conceding the three and dropping the second defender to wall off the paint could help (then again, if it’s KAT, Ja is likely to run right by him anyway). The Wolves did play a drop defense more than usual, but it wasn’t enough, and Ja punished them every time they brought the second defender high.
Ja Morant is not a good three-point shooter; if he gets hot, so be it, but the Wolves can’t let him live in the paint. He had 32 points in the game, but he did most of his damage in the first half before Edwards took him on.
Karl Anthony-Towns was a beast for the Wolves. He’s far too fast for Steven Adams, who is in a nightmare matchup and should see severely reduced minutes. KAT might be too strong for Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies’ other likely options, but KAT tends to force the issue and commit offensive fouls if he thinks he has a size mismatch. So that oddly might work in Memphis’ favor.
Memphis also needs human flyswatter Jaren Jackson Jr. to play better on both ends. He took some wild three-pointers (a shot he hasn’t hit consistently in years, unfortunately) and jumped at everything, resulting in some big blocks but also some bad fouls. JJJ is at his best as a free safety, so the Grizzlies will likely keep him away from KAT, but he has to show better discipline. The Grizzlies aren’t likely to win if Jackson Jr. only plays 24 minutes.
Dillon Brooks is Memphis’s best perimeter defender and needs to play on Anthony Edwards. The Wolves’ third offensive star, D’Angelo Russell, absolutely torched Memphis during the regular season, and coach Taylor Jenkins seemed determined not to allow that to happen again. Brooks shut Russell down, but Anthony’s explosion led to 130 Minnesota points. Memphis is solving the wrong equation.
Unlike the Brooklyn-Boston game, both these teams have relatively deep benches, particularly Memphis. The Wolves likely don’t feel the need to make many rotation changes, having already substituted some of Jarred Vanderbilt for young defensive ace Jaden McDaniels (who had a superb game on both sides of the ball).
For Memphis, Xavier Tillman didn’t see a second on the court, but the Grizzlies could use him as a robust and quick center to try and defend KAT. John Konchar is one of the Grizzlies’ many talented wings, and he could steal some of an ineffective De’Anthony Melton’s run.
With the rest of the first-round series (outside of Dallas-Utah) looking like they might be lacking in drama, I’m relying upon these four teams to show me a good time in the first round. Playing against the same opponent seven consecutive times brings out interesting tactical changes in a way the regular season never could, and watching these two chess matches unfold in real-time will be fascinating.