The opening weekend of the NBA playoffs is something of a warmup. Teams are still feeling each other out. They’re identifying possible matchup and lineup advantages. The games lack the sense of urgency that typically comes in the postseason, and with the long layoff between the end of the regular season and beginning of the playoffs due to the play-in tournament, teams were rustier than ever in their openers.
But the excuses are gone now. On Monday, two first-round series advanced to Game 2. In the first, the Milwaukee Bucks proved that their Game 1 success against the Miami Heat was no fluke by flattening them, 132-98, and in the other, the Denver Nuggets earned a sorely-needed split on their homecourt before their series against the Trail Blazers relocates to Portland. At this stage, we have a far better idea of where both of those matchups are headed, so with both Game 2s now in the books, let’s look at some of Monday’s biggest winners and losers.
Milwaukee’s second-round loss to Miami raised a lot of questions about their roster and coaching decisions, but perhaps none greater than why Mike Budenholzer was so hesitant to allow Giannis Antetokounmpo to defend Jimmy Butler. Butler, after all, was destroying the Heat late in games, and Antetokounmpo, who was the Defensive Player of the Year, was surely up for the task. We now know for certain that he was because, in two games as Butler’s primary defender, Giannis has helped hold Butler to 8-of-32 shooting.
In that same series, Miami held Milwaukee’s role players to only 32.7 percent from behind the arc. That was in part due to their strong defense, but really, it was a defect in Milwaukee’s roster construction. The Bucks played an offense that involved taking a lot of 3-pointers, but they finished 17th in 3-point percentage. Miami dared them to shoot and they couldn’t make shots. They adopted that same strategy in Game 1. The Bucks shot 5-of-31 from behind the arc. Well, in Game 2, they made 10 3-pointers… in the first quarter. They finished with 22, which is much closer to their performance this season. The Bucks rose to fourth in 3-point percentage thanks to the wise additions of players like Jrue Holiday, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis.
Add it all up and you get a Bucks team that is not only making better decisions around Giannis but one that was built better for him too. Defenses can’t build walls to stop him if the Bucks shoot as well as they did Monday. They can’t rely on Budenholzer’s conservative scheme to bail them out on offense either if he’s willing to unleash Antetokounmpo against opposing stars. Monday was, in a sense, proof of concept. It was the culmination of the revamped, playoff-centric plan the Bucks have developed all season. It led to a blowout, and in all likelihood, there are more where that came from.
You could point to any number of Heat players as losers on Monday. Butler struggled. Bam Adebayo struggled. The only player on their roster to shoot better than 50 percent was Dewayne Dedmon, so that should give you a sense of how the rest of the roster looked. But Herro is worth highlighting considering how few opportunities he’s had to even turn things around.
Last postseason, he became one of the youngest players in playoff history to score 37 points in a game. In this series, thus far, he has played only 37 minutes, total. He’s shooting 3-of-15 from the field and largely only saw the floor in garbage time Monday. Kendrick Nunn has seemingly surpassed him in the pecking order considering he’s starting. The Heat wanted Victor Oladipo to play a key role this postseason as well before an injury ended his season.
It’s been a sharp decline for one of the bubble’s brightest young stars. It’s not as though Herro has fallen off of a cliff. His regular-season numbers have stagnated, and that’s the point. He was better in the bubble than his rookie year could have predicted, and now, he’s looking more like he did before that one hot stretch than he did within it. With that being the case, it’s worth wondering how fluky that stretch really was.
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Winner: Denver’s role players
The Blazers had a clear goal entering Game 1 against Denver: make Nikola Jokic a scorer. It worked. He dropped 38 points, but only one assist. With Jamal Murray and Will Barton out, the Blazers were betting that if Jokic couldn’t create shots for the rest of his roster, they just weren’t going to score. They won the game one that principle.
Jokic scored in bunches again in Game 2, but so did his teammates. Each of Denver’s four other starters scored between nine and 18 points, and Paul Millsap and Monte Morris contributed a combined 27 off the bench. Damian Lillard got only 67 points from his supporting cast. Jokic got 90.
Realistically, Denver isn’t going to win the championship with its injuries. Once Murray went down, their priorities changed. What the Nuggets are looking at now is who on their roster deserves to stick around when Murray returns and championships become feasible again. They couldn’t have been particularly encouraged by Game 1, but almost everyone stepped up for Game 2.
Loser: Damian Lillard
Those 67 points from Lillard’s teammates? That’s not a new phenomenon. Portland has squandered plenty of Lillard’s best games, including a 60-point explosion last season and a 50-point outing against Oklahoma City in 2019. The Blazers can live with allowing 128 points to Denver. As much effort as they put into fixing their defense last offseason, they ranked No. 29 for a reason. Playing three small guards alongside a center with limited mobility caps a defense’s ceiling.
But the Blazers can’t beat anybody if their role players aren’t scoring. Lillard can only do so much by himself. Remove CJ McCollum and Norman Powell from the picture, and the rest of the Blazers shot a ghastly 10-of-28 from the field. If the Blazers are going to win with this all-offense formula, they have to be able to score consistently and across the roster. Defenses are obviously going to pay attention to the guards, and if everyone else fails to step up, Portland’s playoff run is going to end very, very quickly.
Winner: Fans of parity
The Blazers-Nuggets series lacks championship stakes, but it’s still a fun showcase for two of the NBA’s best players. The presumptive MVP is going up against the No. 29 defense while one of the league’s best guards is destroying a team whose guards are all injured. The longer that series runs, the more chances we get for individual fireworks. Portland’s win was a win for our entertainment.
But Milwaukee’s win was a win for our competitive fulfillment. That series is not close right now, and it doesn’t need to be. The far more important development for the league is that the Bucks seem to be sorting through the issues that have knocked them out of the past two postseasons, and if that’s the case, they become a far more compelling opponent for the Brooklyn Nets, whose overwhelming talent threatens to overwhelm the rest of the league.
If the Nets are as good as their roster suggests they can be, they are going to win the championship, but the Bucks present the perfect possible foil. Their three stars are all high-end defenders, which makes them a strong matchup for Brooklyn’s three-headed monster. The Nets struggle to protect the rim. The Bucks have a star who specializes in attacking the rim. That series has a chance to be the best of the postseason, but it wouldn’t have been if Milwaukee hadn’t stopped getting in its own way. Now, the Eastern Conference appears to have generated at least one serious threat to the Nets, and that makes the playoffs much more interesting for all parties involved.
Loser: NBA officiating
Game 2 between the Nuggets and Blazers featured 58 free throws, four technical fouls and two flagrant fouls. Video reviews deprived the game of any sense of flow, and the players weren’t happy about any of it. This is how Nikola Jokic reacted to a call when his team was up by 18 points.
Jokic and Lillard combined for 57 points in the first half alone. This game should be remembered for its incredible duel between superstar scorers. Instead, it was marred by officials too concerned with reining in frustrated players. It says quite a bit when calls become so rampant that both sides are upset with the way that the game is being officiated.