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Sunday, April 17, 2022

Utah, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and Golden State Win on First Day of 2022 NBA Playoffs

It is obvious that the most important playoff games are games in which at least one team faces elimination, but game one is more significant than many casual fans may realize, because game one winners prevail in an NBA playoff series with the seven game format nearly 80% of the time; I first researched this topic for NBCSports.com in 2007, and that percentage has held steady over the years, with the most recent number, per the NBA's 2022 Playoff Guide, being 75.6%. The reason for this is that, barring injuries or other major changes during the series, the matchup advantages that are decisive in the first game tend to be decisive the rest of the way.

Here are thoughts and observations about each game from the first quadrupleheader of the 2022 NBA playoffs.

Utah 99, Dallas 93

As Jeff Van Gundy quipped, "Dallas has home court advantage but Utah has 'health court' advantage"; the left calf injury that Dallas' All-Star guard Luka Doncic sustained in the final game of the regular season forced him to miss game one of this series, and his status for game two is undetermined.

Dallas led 23-20 at the end of the first quarter. The Jazz shot 0-5 from three point range, while Jalen Brunson paced the Mavericks with eight points on 4-9 field goal shooting, and five rebounds.

In the second quarter, the Jazz finally made a three point shot, and they led 45-43 at halftime. Bojan Bogdanovic paced the Jazz with 20 first half points on 8-11 field goal shooting, but Donovan Mitchell scored just two points on 1-9 field goal shooting. Rudy Gobert only scored five points, but he was a force in the paint with 10 rebounds, one blocked shot, and several shots altered. Brunson topped the Mavericks with 12 points, but he shot just 1-6 in the second quarter to finish 5-15 in the first half.

Mitchell erupted for 19 third quarter points on 7-13 field goal shooting as the Jazz took over, and the Jazz led 73-65 entering the fourth quarter.

The Jazz never relinquished their lead in the second half, but their fans undoubtedly became concerned when Maxi Kleber's three pointer pulled the Mavericks to within one point, 92-91, with 2:12 remaining in the game; the Jazz' tendency to squander leads is well-known. This time, though, the Jazz remained steady, got enough defensive stops down the stretch, and closed out the game with Donovan Mitchell making four straight free throws to finish the scoring.

Mitchell scored a game-high 32 points, but he shot just 10-29 from the field. He added six rebounds and six assists, but the star of the game was Bogdanovic, who scored 26 points on 11-20 field goal shooting while contributing five rebounds and four assists. Statistics can often paint a misleading picture, so there is no substitute for watching games with an informed eye: the Jazz' offense worked best when Bogdanovic initiated play in the post or on the wing, because he then either scored over a smaller defender or else drew a double team that opened up opportunities for his teammates. Yes, Bogdanovic "only" had four assists, but his intelligent passing out of the double team created high percentage shots even on plays during which he neither scored nor assisted.

Gobert scored five points and did not make a field goal, but he dominated with a game-high 17 rebounds, a game-high three blocked shots, numerous altered shots, and solid screen-setting. The Jazz would not have won without his contributions.

Brunson led Dallas in both scoring (24 points) and rebounds (seven), but he shot just 9-24 from the field. The Mavericks shot 29-76 (.382) from the field overall, but kept the score close by drawing enough fouls to attempt 34 free throws; Spencer Dinwiddie led the charity stripe parade with 16 free throw attempts, making 10, and he scored 22 points despite shooting just 6-15 from the field. Dinwiddie also had a game-high eight assists.

The Jazz now not only own "health court advantage" but they also have taken home court advantage as well.

Minnesota 130, Memphis 117

Minnesota jumped out to a 9-2 lead, extended that margin to 30-17, and remained on top, 41-33, at the end of the first quarter with Anthony Edwards (13 points on 5-7 field goal shooting) and Karl-Anthony Towns (12 points on 5-8 field goal shooting) setting the pace. Ja Morant (15 points on 5-5 field goal shooting) kept the Grizzlies within striking distance.

The Timberwolves' main problem is that they squander too many possessions with turnovers or low percentage shots; after Minnesota wasted several second quarter possessions, Memphis led 49-47 at the 6:52 mark. Minnesota built an eight point lead, but then Memphis trimmed the margin to three, 65-62, by halftime. Morant scored 19 first half points on 6-10 field goal shooting, and he also had five assists. Edwards had 19 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, and Towns had 15 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, but the Timberwolves committed 13 turnovers while the Grizzlies only had six turnovers. Lost possessions early in the game matter just as much as the "clutch" or "late and close" possessions that "stat gurus" emphasize--but if a team shoots a high enough percentage on the "non-squandered" possessions then the turnovers can be overcome, and that proved to be the story in this game as the Timberwolves shot .500 from the field overall, including .390 from three point range. The Timberwolves also took much better care of the ball in the second half, committing just four turnovers.

By the end of the third quarter, Edwards already had 31 points on 11-19 field goal shooting to become the fourth youngest player to score 30 points in his NBA playoff debut.

The Grizzlies only trailed by five (97-92) entering the fourth quarter, but they gave up 33 points in the final stanza and never managed to get closer than three points the rest of the way. The Timberwolves outscored the Grizzlies 13-6 in the final 2:25. The Timberwolves set franchise playoff records for first quarter points and points in a game.

Edwards finished with 36 points on 12-23 field goal shooting, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970), Gary Brokaw (1976), Julius Erving (1977), and Derrick Rose (2009) for fourth most points scored in a player's first playoff game. The top three spots on the list are held by Luka Doncic (42 points in 2020), John Williamson (38 points in 1979) and George Mikan (37 points in 1949). Edwards, Magic Johnson, Derrick Rose, and Tyler Herro are the only players in NBA playoff history who have scored at least 35 points in a game before turning 21. Edwards and Morant are the first opposing players younger than 22 to each score at least 30 points in a playoff game.

Towns added 29 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, while Malik Beasley poured in 23 points in 30 minutes off of the bench.

Morant led the Grizzlies with 32 points on 8-18 field goal shooting plus a team-high eight assists. Four other Grizzlies scored in double figures--including Dillon Brooks with 24 points on 7-14 field goal shooting--but it is difficult to win a playoff game when you give up 130 points on .500 field goal shooting. The favored Grizzlies must tighten up their defense for game two in order to salvage a split before trying to get at least a split in games three and four in Minnesota.

Philadelphia 131, Toronto 111

The key storylines in this game emerged early in the first quarter, and remained constant throughout the game. Fred VanVleet committed two fouls in the first 58 seconds, and he later fouled out after playing 36 minutes, foreshadowing Toronto's inability to defend without fouling. Joel Embiid's aggressiveness set the tone in the paint, drawing double teams that stretched Toronto's perimeter defense to the breaking point. Even though Embiid finished with just 19 points while only shooting 5-15 from the field, he ripped down a game-high 15 rebounds and he controlled the paint despite often having multiple Raptors draped all over him. Tyrese Maxey scored a quick 10 points on 4-5 field goal shooting early in the game, but even at that point no one could have imagined that he would end up with a game-high/playoff career-high 38 points on 14-21 field goal shooting. The 76ers led 35-27 at the end of the first quarter, and never looked back the rest of the way.

Prior to the series, I expected James Harden to shoot poorly and I expected Embiid to not be dominant enough to tilt the series in Philadelphia's favor. During the pregame show, Jalen Rose quipped that Harden's recent field goal percentages look like concert tour dates, and that was true in this game as well, with Harden scheduling a June 17 appearance (i.e., he shot 6-17 from the field). However, Harden accumulated 14 assists while committing just one turnover, so the 76ers could survive him being their third leading scorer (22 points) with inefficient shooting. This performance reinforces the point that I have made for the past 10 years or so: if Harden is ever going to play for a championship team, he will be the second or third scoring option, not the first option monopolizing the ball with his dribbling while the rest of the team stands around. Tobias Harris was the second scoring option in this game, producing 26 points on 9-14 field goal shooting.
This game had a strange flow, with both teams playing out of character--Philadelphia in a positive way, and Toronto in a negative way. For example, Philadelphia did not commit a single turnover in the first half, and had just three turnovers for the entire game. Meanwhile, the Raptors alternated between fouling at an incredible rate--in addition to VanVleet's two quick fouls, reserve Chris Boucher later picked up three fouls in a four minute first quarter span--and parting like the Red Sea while Philadelphia players drove coast to coast for uncontested layups. ESPN game analyst Hubie Brown, the ultimate basketball purist, could not conceal his frustration with Toronto's abysmal transition defense. 
Philadelphia led 69-51 at halftime even with Harden planning a March 10 concert date (i.e., 3-10 field goal shooting). The second half began much like the first half, with Toronto committing three fouls in the first two minutes.

Then, Toronto's comeback attempt short-circuited in the wake of Maxey's lights out third quarter shooting, as he dropped in 21 points in the stanza. Around the 4:45 mark of the third quarter, Harden made a spectacular two hand, half court length bounce pass through traffic to Maxey for a fastbreak layup.

Maxey had 35 points through three quarters, becoming the youngest 76er to score at least 30 points in a playoff game.

Pascal Siakam led Toronto with 24 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, but offense was not the main problem; before game two, the Raptors must remember how to play aggressive defense without fouling. Another major concern is the fourth quarter ankle injury suffered by sensational rookie Scottie Barnes, who had to be helped off of the court and did not return to action. 
The Raptors accomplished one defensive task by holding Embiid and Harden to 11-32 combined field goal shooting, but that achievement meant nothing because it came at the expense of Maxey and Harris combining to shoot 23-35 from the field. 

I still don't have confidence in Philadelphia's ability to beat a good playoff team, but this game gives one pause about how good of a playoff team the Raptors are; on the other hand, if the Raptors play with more defensive energy and intelligence in game two, they could obtain a split and head to Toronto in prime position to take a 3-1 lead back to Philadelphia.

Golden State 123, Denver 107

The quadrupleheader's nightcap proved to be anticlimactic, as the Nuggets sans Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. just do not have enough firepower to deal with the nearly full strength Warriors. Stephen Curry returned to action after missing a month because of a sprained left foot, and he scored 16 points on 5-13 field goal shooting during 22 minutes off of the bench (he is operating under a minutes restriction, and Coach Steve Kerr decided to not put him back in the starting lineup). Klay Thompson scored 19 points in his first playoff game since blowing out his ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals, but the biggest story for the Warriors was the team-high 30 points scored by Jordan Poole. Poole shot 9-13 from the field overall, including 5-7 from three point range.

The Warriors not only won the three point shooting battle (16-35, compared to 11-35 for the Nuggets), but they outrebounded the Nuggets 41-35. Reigning regular season MVP Nikola Jokic did everything that he could for the Nuggets, amassing 25 points on 12-25 field goal shooting while grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds and dishing for a team-high six assists, but the Nuggets just could not keep pace with the deeper Warriors.

The Nuggets led 27-26 after the first quarter, but were then outscored 64-43 in the next two quarters, and in the final 12 minutes they never seriously threatened to get back in the game. The Warriors figure to only get better as Curry becomes healthier and Thompson's comeback continues to progress, so the outlook for the Nuggets is not good.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 AM



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