Matchups heat up in first round of NBA playoffs



Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan shoots past Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday during the second half of Game 1 of their first round NBA playoff basketball game April 17 in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

By Michael Stoll, Sports Reporter

It’s been a wild first few days of NBA Playoff basketball. With so many matchups to keep track of, you can quickly miss out on important details and narratives hidden within all the games.

Thankfully, I’m here to keep you up to speed with what is going on as every team chases the banner.

No. 1 Heat vs No. 8 Hawks (1-0)

The Miami Heat opened their postseason in extremely dominant fashion, quickly disposing of the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1, 115-91. The highly-talked-about team defense of Miami had guard Trae Young in a prison, holding him to a career-low 8 points in a playoff game. And for the Heat, it was a scorching hot night from deep, as guard Duncan Robinson and forward P.J. Tucker combined for 12 threes, outshooting the Hawks team combined.

The Heat just showed how much depth they have, and how locked-in they can turn their defense on against opposing stars. They should look to make this series quick and rest up for the next round. For the Hawks, they’ve got to start with finding a way to get Young more comfortable with playing around Miami’s defense. That could be a tough task to ask for, as their frontcourt depth is thin due to injuries. But if Young gets better screens, and more off-ball movement from his shooters, they could make this series more uncomfortable for Miami.

No. 2 Celtics vs No. 7 Nets (1-0)

This series is the must-watch of the first round, proven by their first matchup being the highest-rated first-round game since 2016, according to the NBA. Game 1 saw forward Jayson Tatum make an amazing game-winning layup at the buzzer off a last second pass from newly declared Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart to win 115-114. The entire game had the intensity of, like, a Game 5 of a conference finals series.

Boston’s going to stay physical and lean heavily on their team-oriented defense and offense to try to take care of the star-studded Nets. Forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continue to be afraid of no one and are looking to arrive on the big stage.

Brooklyn is going to need more from forward Kevin Durant, as he struggled a bit in the first meeting. They’re also going to have to figure out who their five guys are going to be in crunch time, as they played a lot of players in the fourth quarter. But still, they didn’t play their best game and somehow led by three with 45 seconds left before blowing the win. Expect this series to stay extremely tight and go six or seven games.

No. 3 Bucks vs No. 6 Bulls (1-0)

Chicago had to be kicking themselves after they missed an opportunity to steal Game 1 on the road against the heavily-favored Milwaukee Bucks with a final score of 93-86. No one particularly played great in this first contest, as both teams struggled to put the ball in the hoop.

For the Bulls, they have to be feeling okay despite the loss however, as their three best players (guards Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, and center Nikola Vucevic) combined to shoot just 21-71. Their defense showed up, played big and played physical. They just fell on the wrong side of this make-or-miss league.

Milwaukee also has to be feeling OK, because they stuck out a win despite playing their worst basketball in quite a while. All they have to do is clean up their 21 turnovers, and continue to pound the ball inside with forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and center Brook Lopez, and they should stay in the driver’s seat this series.

No. 4 76ers vs No. 5 Raptors (2-0)

Philadelphia has come out and shocked many with their immediate dominance in this series.

They did their job this weekend and defended their homecourt. Guard Tyrese Maxey has emerged as arguably their best player after center Joel Embiid and seems comfortable against Toronto’s perimeter defense. The Raptors unfortunately took big hits with their depth with small injuries and illnesses to four players in Game 1, including rookie forward Scottie Barnes, who does a lot for their offense and their perimeter defense. To get back into this series, Toronto absolutely must win Game 3 at home. Role players usually play better at home, and no series starts until a game is stolen on the road, so Toronto isn’t dead yet. They must lean into their terrific home crowd and get their offense going quicker in the game while avoiding fouling Embiid so much and slowing down the game.

No. 1 Suns vs No. 8 Pelicans (1-0)

New Orleans caught a lucky break and snuck into the postseason after L.A. Clippers forward Paul George couldn’t play their play-in game due to COVID-19 protocols. That, unluckily, matched them up with the championship-favorited Phoenix Suns. And Game 1 quickly gave “happy to be here” vibes as Phoenix jumped out to a 23-point lead at one point.

But the Pelicans hung in there and made Phoenix guard Chris Paul show out in the 4th quarter as they cut the lead all the way to 8 by the end of the third. Paul ended the game with 30 points and 10 assists, including scoring 18 in the last frame. Phoenix went on to win 110-99.

Phoenix should look to out-talent New Orleans and rest up for the next series. They don’t have to change anything. Just continue their brand of basketball. New Orleans might not have to change much either, though. They just need better showings from forward Brandon Ingram and their bench, and I think they can suddenly make this series competitive and interesting.

No. 2 Grizzlies vs No. 7 Timberwolves (0-1)

This series immediately became one of the best first round matchups once Minnesota came out Game 1 and stole homecourt from the favored Grizzlies, 130-117. Minnesota guard Anthony

Edwards looks like he’s arrived, as he continues to make a ton of noise and dominate his matchups. And center Karl-Anthony Towns shook off his rough play-in performance and dominated his matchup as well.

Expect this series to stay must-watch, and go the distance as these two are evenly matched. Add in the reoccurring wild Minnesota-protestors who keep chaining themselves to the hoop or gluing themselves to the floor, and you’ve got an interesting series. Memphis is going to have to figure out how to better contain Edwards if they want a chance to win, and also get a bit more juice from their bigs to match Towns’ production.

No. 3 Warriors vs No. 6 Nuggets (2-0)

As predicted previously, Golden State remains incredibly dangerous as they get more time under their belt with their championship-core big three of guards Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and forward Draymond Green. They handily defended homecourt and took care of the Denver Nuggets to sit at a 2-0 lead. Neither game has been particularly close, as Denver, aside from former MVP center Nikola Jokic, look completely outmatched.

Denver is just going to need a lot. From everyone else. They’re struggling to score despite Jokic setting up his teammates nicely, and on defense, they can’t keep up with the zippy shooting and driving of the Warriors.

The Warriors found a diamond in the rough with guard Jordan Poole on top of their big three, and when he plays with their normal starters and they go small, they are tapping into that Death-lineup potential they had back during their dynasty in the second half of the 2010s. These remaining games are must-watch, because Poole is the real deal, and the Warrior’s old dominant play is creeping back.

No. 4 Mavericks vs No. 5 Jazz (1-1)

Dallas has got to be feeling good about splitting the first two games with Utah, despite missing

All-Star guard Luka Doncic in both. If they can stay competitive and prolong this series just a bit more, they could get their star back in time to advance further in the playoffs. Their key is to stay hot from deep and weather the course.

For Utah, frustrations are continuing to rumble from the team. Guard Donovan Mitchell took the advice of many and tried to incorporate center Rudy Gobert more in the offense, even after winning Game 1. That led to a stinker of a Game 2 from Gobert, and ultimately a loss to a depleted Dallas team. The only way Utah doesn’t drop another game is if they clamp up on their perimeter defense and avoid allowing Dallas to hunt down Gobert on mismatches. Expect this series to continue to be tight each game and go longer than most other series. And expect the outcome to have major implications for both teams’ offseason moves.