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Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press
The ink is barely dry on the introduction to the 2020 NBA playoffs, but the chapters are already filling up with key takeaways.
Since the sample size is so small, it’s imperative to not forget what we knew about this field before the postseason tipped. A season-long trend approaching its apex is very much worth noting. Wondering whether Paul George suddenly forgot how to shoot is not.
In other words, if you’re looking to devour fiery hot takes with little substance, you came to the wrong place. But if you want sincere observations with potentially critical long-term ramifications, this is right where you need to be.
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A million different impossibilities went into Sunday’s miracle make by Luka Doncic, but maybe the best starting point is here: This is his second NBA season. Oh, and his first NBA playoff trip.
Sure, he was already a decorated professional before coming stateside as a teenager in 2018, but in NBA terms, he’s a newbie—and one of the most powerful forces in all of basketball.
He has seemingly been on an all-galaxy superstar trajectory from the moment his first NBA outing tipped, but he keeps finding ways to outdo himself. To start the series, he recorded the highest-scoring playoff debut in league history, tallying 42 points on only 21 shots. Turns out, he was just getting loose.
Sunday’s Game 4 took his magic to the next level. He wasn’t even a lock to play as a sprained ankle made him a game-time decision. While he was cleared to play, his co-star, Kristaps Porzingis, was not due to knee soreness. So, Doncic was left leading the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks by himself against the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, who just so happen to employ two of the sport’s most suffocating perimeter stoppers.
None of it mattered—not the ankle, not the 7’3″ void left by Porzingis, not the presences of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who have nine All-Defensive selections between them. Doncic was downright virtuosic over his 46 minutes, punctuating his 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist triple-double (a statistical anomaly in myriad ways) with a step-back, walk-off, game-winning triple.
“Look, we know this kid has got a flair for the dramatic,” Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon. “He’s a performer as well as a great player. He’s a guy that lives for these moments and is completely fearless.”
Doncic’s presence makes Dallas the biggest wild card in the field.
The Mavs are better than their seed suggests (sixth overall in net rating during the regular season), and they’re now tied 2-2 with perhaps the most popular championship pick in the league. Doncic is that kind of transformational force, and he might mess around and turn this into a legendary playoff run.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
The seeding games were fantastic on the fringes.
The race for No. 8 in the West was electric; if the play-in tournament isn’t here to stay, the NBA is doing it wrong. Save for the walking-dead Washington Wizards, it seemed every non-elite could engineer an upset. The liberal approach to rotations seemed to birth a new breakout baller by the day.
But it became too easy to forget that with no home-court advantage on the line, elites played without the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. Now that those clubs have legitimate stakes again, order is being restored.
Other than the Milwaukee Bucks’ and Los Angeles Lakers’ historic Game 1 losses, chaos has been removed from the equation. The hoops world heavyweights are flexing their muscles again, and the bubble breakouts are…well, not what they seemed just a few weeks back.
T.J. Warren is fine (19.7 points per game), but he’s no longer a walking bucket (31.0 in the seeding round). Gary Trent Jr. isn’t actually the new Human Torch (4.3 threes at a 50.7 percent clip then, 1.3 at 36.4 now). Michael Porter Jr. is still interesting (14.3 points in 25.8 minutes) but maybe not knocking down the door to stardom (31.3 points in 38.1 minutes over a three-game stretch).
The bubble opportunity might have helped shift some identities and create more opportunities for certain players going forward, but for anyone wondering how much momentum would carry over from the seeding round, it seems to be hardly any.
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Kim Klement/Associated Press
There are few certainties in 2020 free agency given the lack of clarity with the league’s financial outlook. Fred VanVleet getting paid is one of the exceptions.
This isn’t something we’re just learning now, of course. VanVleet has made one monstrous leap after another, peaking (for now) as one of only 10 players to average 17.0 points, 6.0 assists and 2.5 three-pointers this season.
He’s the top free agent at his position (by a healthy margin) and the best unrestricted free agent with a semi-realistic chance of changing teams. His appeal to win-now suitors is obvious after he played a prominent role in the Toronto Raptors’ run to the 2019 world title. But as a 26-year-old with only four NBA seasons under his belt, he has enough growth potential to attract rebuilders, too.
Saying all that, VanVleet might be adding millions to his future paychecks with his play this postseason. He has twice topped 20 points on better than 60 percent shooting. In another outing, he scored 24 points and tallied 10 assists with only two turnovers in 43 minutes.
He doesn’t seem like he should be making this kind of impact as a 6’1″ guard with limited athleticism. But he combines a genius-level basketball IQ with a motor that’s somehow always going full-throttle and the kind of fearlessness and unwavering confidence that allows an undrafted player to become a champion’s difference-maker in four years’ time.
“Whether it’s true or not, I feel I can get my shot off at any time,” VanVleet said, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann.
If VanVleet keeps this up (21.3 points and 7.8 assists per game, 52.7/55.9/80.0 shooting), he’ll challenge the notion that this free-agent class lacks star power and have every cash-filled armored truck in North America motoring his direction this offseason.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
Statistically speaking, Donovan Mitchell has been an anomaly since he landed in Salt Lake City as the 13th pick of the 2017 draft.
He debuted as the leading scorer of a 48-win conference semifinalist, and he has kept the scoreboard spinning ever since. During the seeding round, he became the third-fastest active player to reach 5,000 points (221 games), trailing only LeBron James (197) and Kevin Durant (205), per Elias Sports Bureau research (h/t ESPN).
But the fact that the Utah Jazz have needed so much scoring out of Mitchell (even amid erratic shooting and bouts of ball dominance) hasn’t always made it easy to evaluate his impact. Had he joined a different roster that had more offensive support, would he still be the same point-producing machine?
All signs point to a resounding “Yes!” so far. He blitzed the Denver Nuggets for 57 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in the opener, then followed with an absurdly efficient 30-point (10-of-14 shooting, 6-of-7 from range), eight-assist effort. He was quiet in Game 3 (20 points on 5-of-13 shooting), then deafening again in Game 4 (51 points, 7 assists), pushing his average to a playoff-best 39.5 points on 56.3/51.4/95.5 shooting.
He is improving exactly where he needed to. He has ramped up his three-point volume (8.8 attempts per game) and splashed better than half of his attempts. He is being aggressive without forcing the issue and involving his teammates when that’s the better option (23 assists against 12 turnovers). He snagged a permit to parade to the free-throw line (44 attempts) and converted nearly ever attempt (42 makes).
“The biggest thing for me is reading the situation,” Mitchell said, per Gordon Monson of the Salt Lake Tribune. “… My first few years, I kind of saw the rim, being a scorer. I’ve prided myself over quarantine in becoming a playmaker, finding ways to get the team involved.”
If Mitchell can sustain this production and obtain superstar status, the Jazz might have the missing ingredient for their championship recipe.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
At some point, the Philadelphia 76ers transitioned out of The Process and into the “This Is Fine” meme. There was a season’s worth of data saying this was nothing more than a mediocre team (12th in winning percentage, 10th in net efficiency), yet the Sixers sat nursing their coffee amid a raging inferno and declared “this is fine.”
Actually, their broken-record mantra detailed how they were “built for the playoffs,” a slogan that seems silly or sad after watching them getting swept out of the opening round. But the thinking was their size could be better utilized in a postseason series.
Philly attempted to zag away from the leaguewide zig toward smaller, faster, more perimeter-oriented play, and it left the club carrying antique muskets into battles decided with modern weaponry. Forget the logistical issues of the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons pairing; Philly’s support pieces didn’t come from the same puzzle.
Al Horford and Tobias Harris are cashing checks their games can’t cash. Harris nearly had more shots (60) than points (63). Horford totaled 28 points in 128 minutes. Collectively, they shot 2-of-19 from distance, which feels like justification for banishment from a lineup featuring a low-post tactician like Embiid.
Losing Simmons clearly exacerbated the Sixers’ issues, yet these problems plagued the team all season. They don’t have enough spacers. Or secondary shot-creators. Or competent guards. Someone—or, more likely, some people—will take the fall for this.
Head coach Brett Brown is “expected to be relieved of his duties” soon, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. General manager Elton Brand, the architect of this supporting cast, can’t feel great about his job security. The Sixers might want to shop everyone outside of their stars—even Embiid isn’t sure he’ll be back—but who wants to pay Horford $81 million for the next three seasons? Or give Harris $149 million for the next four?
It’s anyone’s guess how the breakup takes shape, but major change feels both necessary and imminent.
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Morry Gash/Associated Press
OK, so technically this series isn’t set yet, but if anyone wants to wager on the Orlando Magic or Indiana Pacers escaping this round, I’m taking all bets—and putting up my life savings.
The Magic were always destined to be first-round fodder for the Milwaukee Bucks. Nikola Vucevic deserves the biggest of hat tips for even getting his team one win. While the full-strength Pacers could’ve perhaps pushed the Miami Heat, that series lost its luster once Domantas Sabonis left the bubble and the All-Star version of Victor Oladipo never arrived.
So, yes, I’m giving us all a time machine to fast-forward through the remainder of these first-round tussles and skip ahead to the clash that actually matters: Milwaukee vs. Miami is a thornier matchup for the Deer than Bucks backers might care to admit.
Milwaukee knows firsthand how challenging Miami can be after losing the regular-season series 2-1 to South Beach’s finest. If there is a such a thing as a good defensive option to throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Heat might have three of basketball’s best in Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Andre Iguodala. Having the others (plus Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr.) to also pester Khris Middleton is where things can get problematic for the Bucks.
When the Heat claimed a 105-89 win over the Bucks in early March—holding Milwaukee to its season low in points and Antetokounmpo to his worst game score of the campaign—the top seed sensed this might be one of the biggest obstacles on its path out of the East.
“Miami is a great team,” Antetokounmpo said, per ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe. “… If we see them in the playoffs … we gotta be ready.”
Miami must prove it can score consistently enough to engineer the upset. Saying that, the Heat have the shooters to exploit the Bucks defense (no one surrendered more threes this season), and Milwaukee has its own question marks with its supporting cast, primarily Khris Middleton (11.0 points on 32.4 percent shooting through three games) and Eric Bledsoe (below-average player efficiency ratings the past two postseasons).
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
No forward projections are needed for this side of the bracket as the second-seeded Boston Celtics and third-seeded Toronto Raptors both completed their first-round sweeps Sunday.
While each might have been propped up a bit by its matchup, these have still been the best two teams in the playoffs by a healthy margin.
Toronto pairs the postseason’s second-best offense with its second-best defense. The Celtics sit third in the former and fourth in the latter. No other teams have top-six rankings on both ends of the court.
Boston’s four-headed monster on offense has been whittled to three with Gordon Hayward battling a Grade 3 ankle sprain, so the healthy trio has simply upped its productivity. Jayson Tatum continues his march to superstardom. Jaylen Brown is reminding everyone he deserved an All-Star nod in February. Kemba Walker is soaking up the spotlight that was never available to him in Charlotte.
“I’m a winner,” Walker said after Game 3, per ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “I want to play at the highest level, and I’m able to do that now.”
Speaking of basketball’s highest level, that remains cruising altitude for the defending champion Raptors, even after the offseason departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Head coach Nick Nurse thinks so far outside the box that while other skippers are playing checkers, he’s playing piano. Kyle Lowry is a two-way leader. OG Anunoby belongs in every debate about the Association’s best stopper. Fred VanVleet is getting whatever he wants. Pascal Siakam is finding his form. Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Chris Boucher give Toronto a center for any situation.
If it’s possible for the second round to produce the best series of the playoffs, this looks like the one.
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Ashley Landis/Associated Press
The seeding round was tough for the Lakers. Their shooters couldn’t throw one in the World Showcase Lagoon, and their offense became barely functional. They seemed bored of the bubble almost immediately, and they shuffled through a lot of moving parts with no Avery Bradley (opted out of restart) or Rajon Rondo (fractured thumb).
When L.A. encountered some of these same issues in its series-opening 100-93 loss to Portland, it was fair to wonder if the Purple and Gold could snap out of its funk before it was too late.
Well, wonder no longer. The Lakers have not only righted the ship with back-to-back victories, but they have also engineered those wins exactly how they needed. The first was keyed by Anthony Davis going supernova (31 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block). The second saw LeBron James snag the spotlight (38 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists), though Davis didn’t let it go quietly (29 points, 11 boards and eight dimes).
“He was in attack mode,” Davis said, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “We need him like that all the time.”
Davis is right. An aggressive LeBron is a must for these Lakers, as the supporting cast still can’t find its shots (maybe it forgot to pack them?), and the offense isn’t exactly humming (11th in efficiency). But if the Lakers get the great versions of James and Davis, the complementary concerns could go out the window.
There might be other absurdly skilled twosomes, but there isn’t a superstar pairing quite like this. James is a 6’9″, 250-pound locomotive, but he still quarterbacks his club like Tom Brady. Davis is a 6’10” center who was a point guard in his past life, and he retained all of his perimeter skills while developing an unstoppable two-way arsenal on the interior.
The Lakers won’t have the widest margin for error if they can’t get their role players going, but if James and Davis are clicking in lockstep, they may not need it.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Stathead unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.