The Whiteboard: What to watch for in each Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images /

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The Washington Wizards really only needed three quarters to eliminate the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night, locking in a first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Wizards used the third quarter to push a 13-point lead to 26 and the garbage time Olympics began.

The Warriors will take on the Grizzlies tonight to decide the final playoff spot but four first-round series will begin on Saturday. Here’s one thing to watch for each of that quartet of Game 1s.

Game 1: Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 2:00 p.m. ET

The Heat upset the Bucks in last year’s playoff with a defensive scheme that excelled at walling off the paint from Giannis Antetokounmpo, forcing him to shoot over the defense or pass out and let his teammates try to beat them. He shot far less often than he did in the regular season and wasn’t able to successfully collapse the defense for his teammates, who struggled mightily.

Which is one of the reasons the Bucks went out and got Jrue Holiday and some more shooting off their bench. This Bucks’ team is a far more prolific and accurate 3-point shooting team than either of their two previous iterations and they’re structured to put less offensive responsibility on Giannis’ shoulders. We saw it a bit during the regular season where the Bucks took two of three games from Miami and Holiday was terrific — 19.0 points and 7.3 assists per game on a 58.3 true shooting percentage.

In Game 1, we should get a good look at both how the Heat plan to scheme defensively around Giannis and this deeper Bucks’ offense and how Milwaukee responds.

Game 1: Dallas Mavericks vs. Los Angeles Clippers, 4:30 p.m. ET

The Mavericks were able to take two games off the Clippers in the first round last year, thanks in large part to the heroics of Luka Doncic. Against two of the best perimeter defenders in the league, Doncic averaged 31.0 points and 8.7 assists per game, shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

However, the Clippers actually used Marcus Morris on Doncic far more than either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, presumably to let them save energy for the offensive end of the floor. During the regular season, George and Nicolas Batum were Doncic’s primary defenders and neither fared particularly well.

In Game 1, we should get a sense of how the Clippers plan to defend Doncic. How much do they try and protect Leonard and George? Is there a point where Doncic’s offensive production could force the Clippers to change plans, or will they be content to focus on shutting down the rest of the Mavericks?

Game 1: Boston Celtics vs. Brooklyn Nets, 8:00 p.m. ET

The Nets should have James Harden back in the lineup and this series will be another opportunity to see how the Harden-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant dynamic unfurls itself. It feels like forever since the Nets traded for Harden but because of injuries that trio has played just 202 minutes together all season.

Irving always seems to gear up for Boston and if he’s defended primarily by Kemba Walker it seems likely he’ll be in attack mode right from the jump. Without Jaylen Brown the Celtics really only have two strong perimeter defenders in Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum and, to some degree, they’ll have to pick their poison with which Nets’ scorer is defended by Evan Fournier.

Harden, Irving and Durant seem to have found some equilibrium but if everyone stays healthy there’s a chance that they could play nearly as many minutes together just in this series as they have all season long. How is that balance affected by a continuous run of overlapping minutes? By the repetition of seeing the same team every night? By the specific defensive matchups the Celtics present?

Game 1: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets, 8:00 p.m. ET

Who wins the battle of small ball vs. bully ball? Since trading for Norman Powell at the deadline, the Blazers have played small with him next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for a total of 527 minutes, or roughly 40 percent of their available game time. And it’s been a very successful grouping — they’ve outscored opponents by an average of 14.4 points per 100 possessions with those three on the floor.

The Nuggets meanwhile, went the other direction with the injury of Jamal Murray and the deadline acquisition of Aaron Gordon pushing them towards bigger lineups. Since the trade deadline, they’ve played Gordon with Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic for 558 minutes, roughly 42 percent of their available game time. And like the Blazers’ small ball unit, it’s worked — outscoring opponents by an average of 11.1 points per 100 possessions with that trio.

Those tendencies create a bizarre inflection point at the small forward position, where Powell will likely have to spend a lot of time matched up with either Gordon or Porter Jr., players to whom he would be giving up significant size and strength. He’ll have a quickness advantage on offense that can be leveraged buy Gordon can bully him inside and Porter Jr. can simply shoot over the top of him. Whichever team can maximize the advantage at this spot will be in a great position to take the series.

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