Day 2 of the NBA playoffs were all about the upsets — two eight seeds beat two No. 1 seeds. Welcome to the upside-down bubble. But which top seed is in real trouble? Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.
1) The Lakers are danger zone because Blazers, Lillard are that good
After a disappointing Game 1 loss — which followed right in line with a disappointing eight seeding games — the Lakers can rightly say, “we’re better shooters than this.” As a team the Lakers shot 5-of-32 from three (15.6%) in Game 1, and Lakers not named LeBron James shot 32.5%. That was not about Portland’s defense — which was third-worst in the bubble, and fourth-worst in the regular season before that — it was about the Lakers literally shooting hit-the-side-of-the-backboard badly.
The Lakers are in a real danger zone because Damian Lillard can do this every night.
Portland should scare Los Angeles. The Lakers are in trouble because they have little margin for error in this matchup. This is no typical 1-8 matchup for the Lakers, they don’t have the luxury of coasting through and get their legs under them. With Jusuf Nurkic back in the rotation and CJ McCollum moving better than a guy with a fractured back has a right to, this is the core of a Portland team that won 53 games last season and went to the conference finals. This team is outstanding, even if their defense is not.
Frank Vogel and the Lakers can’t play around. Vogel needs to sound like Apollo Creed’s trainer in “Rocky” — “they don’t know it’s a damn show, they think it’s a damn fight.”
The Lakers can’t play their way into form, Vogel and company need to make ruthless adjustments to get their best players more minutes. Maybe start Kyle Kuzma or Alex Caruso over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Less JaVale McGee (who started but played just 12 minutes) and more Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris.
Ultimately, however, that is tinkering on the fringes.
Anthony Davis has to shoot better than 8-of-24. He was drawing fouls and getting to the line (28 points on the night), but he has to dominate the Nurkic/Zach Collins/Hassan Whiteside front line of Portland.
Then there’s LeBron James. It’s hard to criticize a guy who just had a 23 point, 17 rebounds, 16 assists triple-double — making him the first player in NBA history with a 20+, 15+, 15+ playoff game — but with this roster, with these shooting woes, the Lakers need more scoring out of him. Portland has no wing players who can begin to guard him (Gary Trent Jr. tries, but he’s just undersized for the task). LeBron has to rack up points.
The Lakers were better than this before the break and there’s reason to believe they can get back to that level of play — a championship level. But LeBron may need to carry them until the rest of the team can catch up with him.
LeBron and Davis have to do this quickly because Portland is for real — and now their confidence is even higher. Portland believes it can win this thing.
2) New season, same old questions for Milwaukee
It is a new season, a new playoffs, but in Game 1 it was the same old questions — and a couple of new bubble-related ones — that haunted Milwaukee in its Game 1 to Orlando. It’s fair to question if the Magic can maintain this level of play, but the questions about the Bucks are real:
• How do they counter when the other team builds a wall and cuts Giannis Antetokounmpo off from getting to the rim? Orlando did just that in Game 1, following the blueprint Toronto laid out 15 months ago, and Milwaukee still did not have an answer. The Bucks were not dreadful from three as a team (33% for the game), but when teams wall off the Greek Freak, then Khris Middleton (4-of-12 shooting), Eric Bledsoe (5-of-11) and Brook Lopez (2-of-9) need to make them pay. Orlando paid no price in Game 1.
• The Bucks need to get their defense back. Milwaukee was clear and away the best defense in the NBA before the interruption to the season, but was 10th out of 22 teams at the Orlando restart. Milwaukee gave up 9.5 more points per 100 possessions in the bubble than they did in games before the All-Star break this season. Worse defense means fewer transition opportunities where this team shines.
• Mike Budenholzer has to change his rotations. Antetokounmpo played fewer than 35 minutes in Game 1. Why? He’s your MVP player in his prime, play the man 40 minutes in a close playoff game. The list goes on: Middleton 31 minutes. Bledsoe 28 minutes. There is no more conserving players for the playoffs — this is the playoffs. Ones after an unprecedented four-month break. It’s win or go home.
It’s too early to panic about the Bucks. While Nikola Vucevic absolutely can sustain this level of play, I’m not convinced the rest of the Magic can. What we know is a Steve Clifford coached team will play hard and smart, they will not role over.
Orlando will pose questions, it’s time for Milwaukee to show it can answer them.
3) Houston’s defense is better than you think
James Harden can drop 37 points and set up teammates any time he wants. We know that.
Houston quietly started playing pretty good defense during the restart in Orlando — it had the seventh-best defense of the 22 teams at the restart, with a 109.1 defensive rating.
That defense carried over to Game 1 against Oklahoma City, a game the Rockets won going away, 123-108. They did that without Russell Westbrook, still recovering from a quadriceps issue. OKC could not use Steven Adams and good ball movement to punish the small-ball Rockets.
If Houston’s defense is for real (and nine games in Orlando is not enough for me to call it real, it’s still a small sample size) watch out.