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Every NBA playoff series has now had a Game 1 and things mostly went according to script — five of the eight were decided by double-digits and we only saw two wins by lower seeds. However, the ways in which those wins were delivered were often fascinating and this weekend’s heroes could be showing us a lot about how the next few rounds will go. Here’s what I found most striking in the Game 1s.
Can anyone stop the Phoenix Suns’ pick-and-roll?
A few weeks before the end of the season, Mat Issa did a deep dive on the Phoenix Suns pick-and-roll attack. The focus was on its insane efficiency but also its adaptability in the face of almost any defensive counter. Adaptation wasn’t necessarily called for in Game 1 against the Pelicans but the Suns completely tore New Orleans apart with precision and relentless efficiency.
The Suns took Game 1, highlighted by Chris Paul’s 30 points and 10 assists. A great deal of that damage came in the pick-and-roll where the Suns scored 42 points on 33 possessions (127.3 points per 100 possessions) that were finished by either the screener or the ball-handler. This doesn’t include plays where a pick-and-roll led to a kick out or led to passes that set up some other offensive endpoint and, so it may even be underselling how much of an engine it was for offensive efficiency.
Paul was obviously the orchestrator and it’s hard to think of a game that more perfectly encapsulates what he can do at his best. He was 7-of-10 on pull-up jumpers, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. He was typically crafty at the rim, shooting 6-of-8 on shots off his 16 drives. And, of course, he was masterful in pulling the defense to create seams of open space for his teammates.
Deandre Ayton posted 13 points on nine possessions finished as the screener in the pick-and-roll. Of his 15 shot attempts in the game, 12 were either shots at the rim or open jumpers with no defender within four feet of him.
Paul and the Suns’ pick-and-roll might not work quite this well in every single game but I’m not sure any team in the postseason has a more reliable mechanism for creating high-value scoring opportunities.
Tyrese Maxey may be the perfect third wheel
Maxey was another Game 1 star, putting up 38 points on just 21 shots as the Philadelphia 76ers made a statement with a 131-111 win over the Toronto Raptors. Since James Harden has arrived, Maxey has been relieved of a lot of primary initiator responsibilities and having him attack against a defense that has already been moved by the gravity of Harden and Joel Embiid puts him in a perfect position to succeed.
He was relentless in Game 1, driving against off-balance defenders trying to rotate back to him and he finished with 15 points and an assist on his 10 drives.
Maxey also hit 5-of-6 on catch-and-shoot 3s and, right now, he looks like a perfect (and perfectly balanced) triple-threat complement for the 76ers to be swinging the ball to when the defense closes down on Embiid and Harden. But a focus on Maxey’s offense also ignores just how much he did on defense as well.
Pairing him with Harden means Maxey is often tasked with defending the opponent’s point guard or quickest creator. In Game 1, he spent 39.9 possessions (about 55 percent of his defensive total) as the primary defender on Fred VanVleet, who attempted just three shots while guarded by Maxey. Only a handful of players covered more ground than him on defense in all the postseason Game 1s and no defender who traveled at least one mile on defense had a faster average speed on defense. He didn’t finish with a steal or a block but his aggressive shadowing of VanVleet helped limit one of the Raptors’ offensive engines and was an extremely important variable, even if it was less striking than his scoring.
What happened to the Utah Jazz’s passing?
The Utah Jazz eked out a six-point win over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 but only managed 99 points and their offense looked wildly out-of-sorts. They finished the game having made just 247 passes after averaging 266.0 during the regular season. That was one of the lower numbers in the league anyway but the bottom really seemed to fall out against the Mavericks.
Utah recorded just 21 potential assists in Game 1 which is somewhat remarkable considering the lowest regular-season average for any team was the Knicks at 41.2. The Jazz were one of the slower-paced teams in the regular season, with an average offensive possession length of 14.8 seconds, 23rd in the league. In Game 1, their average offensive possession was nearly a full second longer (15.7 seconds) and, as you would expect, their average touch time and average dribbles per touch were a lot higher.
Donovan Mitchell seemed like one of the primary culprits, attempting 11 shots in Game 1 that came after seven or more dribbles. During the regular season, he averaged just 6.5 such shots per game.
This could be a product of a tough Mavericks defense disrupting their normal rhythms but they’ll need to get back to dictating with their own offense if they want to really take control of the series, especially with the return of Luka Doncic looming.
Other NBA stories:
Are there any lessons besides “get healthy” for the Clippers to take from their Play-In Tournament flame out?
Even without Luka Doncic, the Mavs gave the Jazz everything they could handle. A few small tweaks and they might be able to steal a game before he returns to the lineup.
Losing Scottie Barnes is a major blow to the Raptors as they try to upset the Philadelphia 76ers. But they have some players capable of stepping up and doing more.
If you’re looking for more details and observations from every Game 1, Kevin O’Connor has you covered.