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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Day One of the 2020 NBA Playoffs

Historically, game one winners prevail in an NBA playoff series with the seven game format nearly 80% of the time; if a clearly superior team has a subpar performance and loses game one, game one could end up being a forgotten footnote to the series--for example, consider Chicago's game one loss before winning the 1991 NBA Finals versus the L.A. Lakers--but there is no doubt that winning game one is important. However, until this most unusual season that statistic pertained to series in which the team with home court advantage could rely on playing game seven at home. It will be interesting to see how often the game one winners prevail during playoff series in the 2020 playoffs when all of the games are played on a neutral court.

Here are recaps for each game from the first quadrupleheader of the 2020 NBA playoffs.

Denver 135, Utah 125 (OT)

I predicted that this series would be competitive, and game one lived up that billing. The Nuggets led 31-25 after the first quarter as Nikola Jokic scored 10 points on 4-7 field goal shooting. The Nuggets pushed the margin to 12 during the second quarter, and they were up 59-52 at halftime. The Jazz were without the services of not only the injured Bojan Bogdanovic (the team's second leading scorer this season), but also Mike Conley, who left the NBA's restart campus for the birth of his child. Donovan Mitchell's scoring not only helped the Jazz to stay competitive, but lifted the Jazz to a 73-70 lead late in the third quarter. The Jazz were up 83-78 at the end of the third quarter, paced by Mitchell's 29 points on 11-21 field goal shooting. Utah enjoyed a 38-30 rebounding advantage at that point.

Denver retook the lead, 94-93, on a Jerami Grant layup at the 6:41 mark of the fourth quarter, and the game was a nip and tuck struggle down the stretch. Mitchell hit two free throws to tie the score at 115 with 22.1 seconds remaining, and then Jokic missed a layup as time expired in regulation.

Mitchell was the best player in regulation, but Jamal Murray owned the overtime, pouring in 10 points to finish with 36 points and lead Denver to victory. Murray shot 13-20 from the field, and he had a game-high +16 plus/minus number. Jokic added 29 points and 10 rebounds.

Mitchell finished with 57 points, breaking Karl Malone's franchise record for single-game playoff scoring. Mitchell scored six points in overtime. Mitchell is the youngest player to score at least 50 points in an NBA playoff game since Michael Jordan set the all-time single playoff scoring record with 63 points versus Boston in 1986. Elgin Baylor (61 points) is the only player other than Jordan who has scored more than 57 points in an NBA playoff game. Mitchell also led the Jazz in assists (seven) and tied for the team lead in rebounds (nine). The Jazz outrebounded the Nuggets 52-41, but the Nuggets made better use of their possessions, posting a .516 team field goal percentage, including a blistering .537 (22-41) from three point range.

Toronto 134, Brooklyn 110

The Raptors never trailed. They opened their title defense by showcasing hot three point shooting (5-11, .455) and suffocating defense, taking a 37-20 lead by the end of the first quarter. The Nets shot .381 from the field (8-22) in the opening stanza. The Raptors extended their led to 33 points in the second quarter, and they were up 73-51 at halftime. As the cliche goes, in the NBA (almost) every team makes a run; the scrappy Nets cut the margin to eight points in the third quarter before the Raptors regained their footing and pulled away.

Fred VanVleet led Toronto in scoring (30 points) and assists (11). All five Toronto starters scored in double figures. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot paced the Nets with 26 points. Caris Levert scored 15 points and had a career-high 15 assists for the Nets.

The Raptors set single-game franchise playoff records for points scored and three point field goals made (22). This series will be an uphill struggle for Brooklyn, but it is important to remember that momentum does not necessarily carry over from one game to the next. As Danny Ainge once noted, this is not the Tour de France; game two starts out 0-0 and not with the Raptors up by 24 points.

Boston 109, Philadelphia 101

Joel Embiid scored 11 points on 5-5 field goal shooting in the first quarter--but Embiid shot just 3-10 from the field in the final three quarters, and he finished with possibly the most meaningless 26 point, 16 rebound performance you could imagine: he put up individual numbers that had no impact on team success, and he did not impose his will on the game despite being the most talented player on the court. Jaylen Brown countered for the Celtics with 10 points on 3-5 field goal shooting in the first quarter. The 76ers led 26-25 after the first 12 minutes.

The 76ers shot .556 from the field in the first half but trailed 55-49 at halftime after committing 13 turnovers compared to the Celtics' four turnovers. Embiid scored just two points in the second quarter, while Boston's Jayson Tatum led both teams with 21 first half points.

The 76ers had a strong third quarter, outscoring the Celtics 30-20, but the Celtics finished the 76ers off by outscoring them 34-22 in the fourth quarter. Tatum scored a game-high 32 points and he grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds. Brown added 29 points.

Turnovers killed the 76ers: they committed 18--Embiid had a team-high five--and they forced just seven. The Celtics outrebounded the 76ers 50-43, so the extra possessions from turnovers and rebounds more than compensated for their .422 field goal shooting. The 76ers need to take better care of the ball, and they need for Embiid to assert his dominance throughout the game and not just for short spurts.

L.A. Clippers 118, Dallas 110

The Clippers punched the Mavericks in the mouth--metaphorically--by taking an 18-2 lead less than four minutes into the game, but Dallas settled down, tied the score at 22 on a Seth Curry three pointer, and led 38-34 by the end of the first quarter. Luka Doncic scored 11 points and had three assists in the first quarter, but he also had five turnovers. Kawhi Leonard led the Clippers with nine points on 3-5 field goal shooting. Leonard had a +2 plus/minus number even though his team trailed by four.

The Mavericks extended their lead to 50-36 at the 7:30 mark of the second quarter, but then the Clippers clamped down defensively and went on a quick 9-0 run. The teams essentially traded baskets the rest of the way, and Dallas led 69-66 at halftime. Doncic finished the first half with 19 points, six assists, five rebounds, and seven turnovers. Every Dallas starter had a plus/minus number of 0 or worse, while every Dallas reserve had a positive plus/minus number. The Mavericks shot .568 from the field, including .571 (12-21) from three point range. Leonard led L.A. with 15 first half points. Every L.A. starter had a positive plus/minus number, and every L.A. reserve had a negative plus/minus number.

Dallas led 71-66 at the 9:10 mark of the third quarter when Kristaps Porzingis and Marcus Morris were called for a double technical foul. Porzingis had received a technical foul in the first half for an air punch after he disagreed with a personal foul called against him, so the second technical foul brought with it an automatic ejection. The ESPN announcing crew of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy criticized the officials for calling two soft technical fouls against Porzingis, but Steve Javie--a retired official who now is an ESPN commentator focusing on officiating issues--correctly pointed out that the NBA decorum rules stipulate an automatic technical foul for air punches in reaction to foul calls, and that NBA rules also stipulate that a player who escalates an altercation should receive a technical foul. Javie also noted that all NBA players know these rules, and thus have an obligation to avoid engaging in conduct that automatically results in a technical foul. Mark Jackson asserted that officials are not consistent in terms of handing out technical fouls in such situations, and Javie replied that officials are graded by the league on being consistent.

While I understand the point that Breen, Jackson, and Van Gundy made--and I share their disappointment about Porzingis' ejection--ultimately I side with Javie: the players know the rules, and the onus is on the players to not place themselves in potentially compromising situations. This is no different than the Amare Stoudemire and Boris Dias suspensions that Phoenix Suns fans are still whining about 13 years later. As Shaquille O'Neal correctly noted at that time about those suspensions, every NBA players knows "If you cross the line, you lose your behind." Here, every NBA player knows that if you show up an official with an air punch after a foul call then you get a technical foul, and every NBA player knows that if you are the third person into a two person confrontation then you get a technical foul. Every NBA player also knows that if you already have one technical foul then you have to avoid doing anything that might result in a second technical foul that leads to an automatic ejection.

Porzingis' ejection is unfortunate, but he has to be responsible for his own behavior, and his behavior cost his team big time. The Clippers outscored the Mavericks 21-11 to finish the third quarter with an 87-82 lead. The Mavericks battled the rest of the way, and even tied the score a couple times, but the Clippers never lost the lead. Leonard scored eight points in the final 6:31 of the fourth quarter, and he finished with a team-high 29 points in addition to leading the Clippers in rebounds (12) and assists (six). Embiid scored almost as many points as Leonard, and Embiid grabbed four more rebounds--but would any coach in his right mind take Embiid over Leonard? I have declared this throughout my writing career, and I will declare it again: you cannot accurately determine a player's value by numbers alone, whether you are using "basic" numbers, "advanced" numbers, or any other kind of numbers--and it is foolish for anyone to assert that, based on some proprietary number juggling, it is possible to precisely determine in order who the best players are. What Leonard does is a master class in winning basketball; he rarely allows the defense to rush him or induce him to take a shot that he does not want to take. Leonard consistently makes smart, timely plays, and he maintains control over his emotions.

Paul George added 27 points for the Clippers. He is well-suited for the second option role. If he had been the Clippers' best player instead of Leonard and some lesser player had been the second option, then the Clippers would have lost.

Doncic set an NBA record for most points scored by a player in his first playoff game: 42 points on 13-21 field goal shooting. He had 11 turnovers, nine assists, and seven rebounds. He is young and raw, but he is also savvy, strong, and incredibly talented. Doncic is not nearly as good defensively as Leonard, and he does not yet have Leonard's ability to control the tempo of the game, but Doncic is similar to Leonard specifically in terms of being able to use his size to create high percentage scoring opportunities for himself. Doncic is a more creative passer than Leonard, but also a sloppier ball handler/passer, as the turnover numbers demonstrate. It is scary to think about how good Doncic can become if he minimizes his few weaknesses and continues to improve his already impressive strengths.

The Mavericks shot 3-22 (.136) from three point range in the second half, a drastic decline from their hot first half shooting; the Clippers' defense improved in the second half, but the Mavericks also hurt themselves with questionable shot selection. It is easy to picture Dallas winning a couple games in this series--which is what I predicted--but if the Mavericks keep losing their composure and if they play sloppily at key times as they did in game one then it is also easy to picture them having a lead in each game and yet getting swept after falling apart down the stretch. One trend to watch--which may be significant not just in this series but also throughout the playoffs--is that the Clippers thrived when their starters were on the court but struggled when their reserves played; depth is supposed to be one of the Clippers' strengths, so is this a one game aberration or a trend?

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM



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