With the first round now over, we’re getting closer to seeing who’s the real deal, and who still needs to reach another level. This was true yesterday, where the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies both showed how well-matched they are, and the Milwaukee Bucks reminded everyone that they’re still the defending champs as they wrecked the Boston Celtics even without Khris Middleton.
Today was no exception either, as the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns, the top two teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences, went on the court and sent a message to the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks.
Here’s my main takeaways from the two openers.
Big men are not an afterthought in the modern NBA
We’ve heard a lot about the death of the big man, and the Heat and Suns showed that this is simply not true. The only thing that’s died is the antiquated idea that big men must always play with their backs to the basket. With people like Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo all showing what a talented big guy can do to the league, I’m even willing to say that there could be a renaissance for the center position.
Bam Adebayo showed exactly how important a good big man still is these days. He helped the Heat to victory with 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting an efficient 8 of 10 from the field. He was a willing passer, hard defender, and also not scared to make his way into the paint.
Seeing Adebayo’s performance, which was backed up by 25 points and seven assists from Tyler Herro, shows how badly in trouble the Sixers are without Embiid. The Cameroonian center is recovering from a fractured orbital bone and a concussion, and there’s no indication that he might make it back in time to make a good contribution. Embiid has proved that he plays through pain, so this could be quite serious. I’ll still be bitching about it until the series ends, but I think Doc Rivers robbed us of a good matchup by keeping Embiid in Game 6 against the Raptors while they were already up 29 points with 3:58 to go.
DeAndre Ayton, the number one draft pick in a draft that also included Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Jaren Jackson Jr in its top five (let’s just forget about Marvin Bagley III), had his own dominant show against Dallas. He had his way with DeAndre Jordan, who is a stereotypical unskilled big. Ayton, who is steadily adding to his offensive repertoire, is going to be a key man in this series. The Mavericks may have been able to give Rudy Gobert trouble in the first round, but Ayton is a different beast that contributes far more on offense and doesn’t need to be spoon fed dunk attempts.
Ayton didn’t start really grabbing rebounds until the second half, and at one point had 15 points on 7 of 10 shooting without a rebound in the first half. He finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and a block while shooting 12 of 20 overall from the field. JaVale McGee, who backs Ayton up, was also on the right side of a Shaqtin’ a fool moment as he clowned Luka Doncic.
Roster depth and a ‘next man up’ mentality will decide both series
Doncic was undoubtedly the best performer in the two Game 1 matchups today, finishing with an excellent 45 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and a block while shooting 15 of 30 from the field. He helped the Mavericks come back to within single digits late in the game against Phoenix, and was, for the most part, unstoppable.
Doncic’s blend of size, skill, and basketball IQ is off the charts, but a single superstar is simply not enough to make it to the NBA Finals these days. The Slovenian outscored the rest of the Mavericks starting lineup. He was the only reason the Mavericks finished the game within a respectable 121-114 margin.
Contrast that with the Suns, who saw six players, including all starters, score in double figures. Their use of a balanced offense helped them overcome rough shooting from Devin Booker, who had 23 points, nine rebounds and eight assists while making 7 of 20 shots. Chris Paul had a relatively quiet night with 19 points, five rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block, while Miles Bridges and Jae Crowder combined for 24 point. If Doncic shot the same clip as Booker, this game would have been a blowout.
The Heat faced a similar situation in how Jimmy Butler shot 5 of 16 and finished the game with 15 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals. His relatively quiet performance was offset by PJ Tucker and Gabe Vincent both dropping 10 points along with the second half performance from Adebayo and Herro.
By contrast, the Sixers couldn’t get it going with James Harden playing quietly. The Beard finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and five assists and was outscored by Tyrese Maxey (19 points) and Tobias Harris (27 points). As harsh as it may sound, the Sixers are not winning a series with Harris as their leading scorer.
We’ll have to see how the Mavericks and Sixers adjust, but I’m not sure they have the overall depth to win four games against the top seeds. Anything can happen in the playoffs, but both the Heat and Suns will be that much more confident after taking 1-0 leads.