They say there’s nothing like your first time and from a basketball standpoint, the first NBA playoff game is both a milestone and a test of mettle.
The higher stakes and the relatively slower pace can take younger and relatively inexperienced players off their game and how they respond to the heightened pressure reflects where they currently are and whether they can stand toe-to-toe with the league’s marquee players.
More than a handful of players made their postseason debuts over the weekend and there were those that did not shy away from the spotlight and the contact that came with being among the targets of opposing defenses.
Here are the five who stood out.
Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks) – 32 points, seven rebounds, and 10 assists
Trae Young needed just one game to get acclimated to the postseason, and it was a sight to see. Playing in Madison Square Garden amidst a raucous sellout crowd, Ice Trae held his own against the vaunted New York Knicks defense.
He orchestrated the offense to a T on a bevy of drives that ended in nifty layups or passes that led to one of his 10 assists (on just two turnovers). Even when New York rallied from an 11-point deficit and took the lead later on, Young found a way to respond and prevent the Knicks from feeding off the energy of the fans.
Trae’s crowd-silencing floater with 0.9 seconds left sealed a 107-105 victory and broke the collective hearts of the Knicks faithful that had been jawing at him from the jump.
A 32-point, 10-assist game would normally be chalked up as a typical day in the office for Young in the regular season, but the first of his (likely) many signature postseason performances has already put him in elite company.
Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns) – 34 points, three 3-pointers, seven rebounds, and eight assists
Devin Booker channeled his inner Kobe both in his play and with his sneakers while leading the Phoenix Suns to their first playoff win since May 25, 2010.
The two-time all star had no problems scoring from different areas on the court and looked comfortable in taking down the Los Angeles Lakers. Even when Chris Paul was limited with a right shoulder contusion, Booker gladly took on more of the playmaking duties and closed out the win in convincing fashion.
He’ll have to take care of the ball moving forward, especially considering that the defending champions will likely tweak their game plan with respect to the six turnovers he committed, his increased role with a limited Paul, and the other things they saw in Game 1.
Deandre Ayton (Phoenix Suns) – 21 points, 10/11 FGs, and 16 rebounds
That Deandre Ayton missed only one shot against the frontline of Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond is an achievement in itself. However, the Bahamian center also finished with 16 rebounds (eight of which came on the offensive end) and likely felt little resistance from both Davis and Drummond (who combined for 13 rebounds) despite their advantage against him in terms of experience.
The 22-year old was on the receiving end of multiple lobs and misses from the likes of Booker, Paul, and the rest of the Suns and his energy on the defensive end largely contributed to Davis’ 5/16 Game 1 shooting performance.
The Lakers’ defense will likely continue to be focused on Booker and Paul (despite his injury) and rightly so. As the “third option” on the team, he will have to maximize the openings that present themselves in order for the Phoenix Suns to advance to the next round.
Dillon Brooks (Memphis Grizzlies) – 31 points, seven rebounds, two steals, and two blocks
Shaq said it best in TNT’s Inside the NBA pregame show when he thought the Memphis Grizzlies would come into Game 1 playing loose with nothing to lose.
Dillon Brooks’ frenetic energy was evident from the jump as he led the Grizzlies in their upset of the Utah Jazz. Ja Morant was rightly the focus of the Jazz’s defensive coverage after his virtuoso play-in performance against the Golden State Warriors, and this likely set the stage for a big night for Brooks.
His drives to the basket and his physicality on both ends of the floor stymied the Jazz and helped rally the rest of his squad in fending off the overall top seed in the playoffs. Mike Conley got into foul trouble in part thanks to Brooks and the Canadian also took advantage of Rudy Gobert’s own foul trouble by scoring on a basket that put Memphis up 112-109 with 4.3 seconds left.
Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies) – 26 points, four rebounds, and four assists
Brooks set the table for much of the first half and in parts of the second half, while Morant laid down the finishing touches on one of Memphis’ best performances of the season.
The 2019-2020 Rookie of the Year missed his first two shots in the first quarter, but proceeded to go 10/18 the rest of the way once he made his first postseason basket. He answered Utah’s furious fourth quarter comeback with a flurry of floaters and drives to the rim that also created opportunities for teammates. The defensive coverages against Morant didn’t matter as he scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and found his way to the rim regardless of who was on him.
Morant will likely be a thorn on the Jazz’s side for the rest of the series as his crafty game is not easy to contain. He may have finished the game with only four assists, but the evolving defensive coverages could open things up for him to generate opportunities for his other teammates.
First impressions last, but they can change with time. This season’s playoff debutants mostly had solid first outings, but they will likely encounter both highs and lows later on down the road.
It’s safe to say that the future of the league will be in good hands as these young guns have shown that they belong in the biggest and brightest stage.