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The first four games of the 2020 NBA Playoffs gave us a bit of everything — epic scoring performances, a blowout, an overtime squeaker, controversial calls and the heat of a physical skirmish. Those will be the headlines but here are the most important takeaways from the first four games.
Donovan Mitchell’s dribble penetration is a problem for Denver
Mitchell’s 57 points somehow ended up getting overshadowed — 36 points and the win for Jamal Murray, 42 points in his playoff debut for Luka Doncic kind of stole the thunder. The fact that Denver survived an outlier performance from Mitchell should leave them optimistic about their advantage when he regresses to some sort of personal mean but he did expose an enormous problem — they can’t control penetration.
Torrey Craig was Denver’s primary Mitchell defender during the regular season but he was torched repeatedly in Game 1 and foul trouble forced Mike Malone to try and get creative with both matchups and strategies. Drop coverage didn’t work and Jamal Murray and Jerami Grant couldn’t keep Mitchell in front of them either. As a backline defender, Nikola Jokic leaves plenty to be desired.
The end result is that Mitchell finished Game 1 with 25 drives, after averaging about 15.6 per game in the regular season. On those 25 drives, he scored … wait for it … 33 points. He was 12-of-14 shooting off drives, drew five fouls and added another 9 points at the free-throw line. And he added 3 assists!
Craig ultimately fouled out but he didn’t pick up his first three fouls until a three minute stretch deep in the second quarter. His third foul gave Mitchell two free throws, netting him his 16th and 17th points. Over the next 33 minutes, Mitchell scored 40 points.
With Gary Harris and Will Barton both struggling through nagging injuries, Denver just doesn’t have a lot of alternatives to throw at Mitchell. The drop coverage probably isn’t going to work, it just gives Mitchell time to build up speed and pick his angle to finish over or around Jokic. They need some of that wing depth to get on the floor and they need Craig to be able to defend without fouling. Or, they could just let Mitchell keep attacking the basket and hope he tires himself out?
The Nets are hopelessly overmatched by the Raptors
I suppose this kind of goes without saying but the Raptors two offensive engines — Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam — combined to shoot 7-of-27 in Game 1. They won by 24.
Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen are fun and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot looking like an actual rotation player is a feel-good storyline. But they just don’t have a mechanism to reliably break Toronto’s elite defense.
The 76ers can’t play Joel Embiid and Al Horford together against Boston
Obviously, Ben Simmons’ injury has necessitated some last-minute adjustments to Philadelphia’s rotation but they just can’t survive with Embiid and Horford together. During the regular season, the 76ers were outscored when the two were on the floor together, the only two-man pairing for the team that was on the floor for at least 600 minutes with a negative point differential. During the regular season against Boston, they only tried it for 17 minutes across two games, getting outscored 34-26.
In Game 1, Philadelphia turned to that combination for 21 minutes and was outscored 56-40, minus-42.4 points per 100 possessions.
Boston doesn’t respect Horford as a floor-spacing threat anymore and is more than comfortable helping off of him. At the other end, playing them together means Horford has to defend a wing against Boston’s small-ball lineups. According to the NBA’s defensive matchup statistics, he spent more than half of his possessions matched up with either Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward. Brown, in particular, was relentless attacking Horford, running him through multiple screens off the ball, and attacking off the dribble when the ball was in his hands.
Philadelphia is looking for depth and trying to get as much talent as they can on the floor at once. This pairing might be a useful tool in a hypothetical later series but it’s going to be a huge issue if they keep trying it against Boston.
The Clippers have a plan for Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic’s 42-point explosion may make it seem like he had his way with the Clippers elite wing defenders. But Los Angeles is probably happy to take a scoring outburst like that if it means he’s doing it all himself. In addition to Doncic’s 42 points, he had 11 turnovers (to just 9 assists) and the rest of the Mavericks’ starters combined to go 7-of-25 from beyond the arc.
Maybe if some of those shots go down or Porzingis doesn’t get ejected in a somewhat absurd scenario, the final result is different. But the Doncic had the ball in his hands for 11.9 minutes of game time in Game 1. For reference, that’s about 3 minutes longer than his regular-season average and a mark that would have lead the league by an enormous margin. Doncic also had 37 drives, about 16 more than he averaged during the regular season.
The Clippers know they’re good enough to win, even when Doncic has a special game, as long as they limit everyone else. And by encouraging him to lean into his normal offensive primacy to absurd degrees, they’re increasing the odds of him wearing down over the course of the series and making those special games less likely.
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Part two of Over and Back’s look at the weirdest NBA seasons ever takes us to some more historical years including the formation of the NBA, odd playoff structures and mergers with other leagues.