NBA

Four takeaways from the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs

MIAMI, FL - MAY 29: Kendrick Nunn #25 of the Miami Heat plays defense on Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks during Round 1, Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on May 29, 2021 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)

After a shortened regular season, the NBA postseason is now underway. With the opening series in full swing, these are four takeaways from the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Brooklyn’s chemistry isn’t an issue

Feb 13, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) talks with forward Kevin Durant (7) during a free throw attempt by the Nets against the Golden State Warriors in the third quarter at the Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the playoffs, the star-studded Nets big-3 played just 8 games together. There were valid concerns with how the trio would mesh. 

But four games into their first playoff series against the lesser Boston Celtics, the Nets’ potential chemistry issues are no big deal at all. After a rusty start in game one, Brooklyn’s offense has taken off.

Their cohesion and firepower was on full display in a commanding game four win in Boston. Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving combined for an efficient 84 points, with Harden accumulating 18 assists as the primary playmaker.

Altogether, the Nets have posted an insane 128.8 offensive rating in the playoffs, best in the league.

Defense remains a question mark against future opponents, but one thing is certain: Brooklyn’s offense looks unstoppable. Their combination of star power and chemistry arguably makes them the best offensive unit in history. 

Trae Young is a Winning Player

May 23, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) passes during the second half in game one in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Seth Wenig/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Trae Young is undoubtedly one of the most controversial players in the entire NBA. 

On one hand, he’s a supremely gifted offensive engine. His advanced passing reads and limitless range resemble a Stephen Curry-Steve Nash hybrid. But on the other hand, he foul-baits plays horrible defense, and was commonly regarded as a ‘losing player.’

The critiques of Young’s game are valid. However, they shouldn’t distract from his strengths. And in this series against the New York Knicks, Young’s strengths are on full display.

He’s averaging 27.5 points and 10 on 59.3% true shooting through his first four career playoff games. In the process, he’s become Madison Square Garden’s newest villain. But these gaudy stats are nothing new for the 22-year old. In 2019-20, he became the fifth player ever to average 29 points and 9 assists in the same season.

Only this time, these stats are coming while the Hawks are winning, and Young’s doubters have gone silent. With the Hawks up 3-1, the narrative that his production doesn’t translate to wins can be put to rest.

Contrary to what some might think, Young didn’t magically go from being a losing player to being a winning player overnight. The truth is that he’s has been a winning player this entire time.

The Hawks weren’t bad because of Young. In fact, he was the one keeping them afloat. The Hawks were bad because the supporting cast around him was sub-par and nearly impossible for anyone to win with. And with a serviceable set of teammates in 2021, Young is finally able to prove that he’s capable of providing winning value. 

Hopefully, fans learn from this situation and realize that young stars shouldn’t be slandered for the deficiencies of their teammates. Because as Young has shown, these stars are more than capable of leading teams to wins as long as they have enough help around them.

Extreme 3-Point Reliance Still Comes at a Price

May 29, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots for three over Memphis Grizzlies forward Dillon Brooks (24) during the fourth quarter during game three in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Jazz made history this season by knocking down 16.7 threes per game, the best in NBA history. This heavy reliance on the 3-ball catapulted Utah to the 3rd best offense in the league. 

But in their first playoff game against the 8-seed Grizzlies, the Jazz went cold from beyond the arc. They hit just 12 of their 47 3-point attempts in a disappointing loss to the underdogs. 

It seems odd that such a great shooting team fell off a cliff from 3-point range. But the reality is that cold shooting nights like these are a natural occurrence for a team that relies so much on outside shots. 

3-point shooting involves lots of variability. While a team who shoots plenty of 3-pointers can produce tremendous offensive results when their shots fall, they’re vulnerable to immense offensive disappointment when those same shots go off the mark. This unpredictability puts a cap on how consistent an offense can be when it relies so much on 3-pointers. 

Perhaps the best example of this concept is the 2018 Houston Rockets, the team who lived and died by the 3-ball. After their high volume of 3-point attempts helped them win a franchise-best 65 games, the Rockets went ice-cold in their biggest game of the season, making just 7 of 44 3’s in a game seven loss. 

Just like the Jazz in game one, Houston’s collapse seemed inexplicable. After all, they were a team who had been so dominant from beyond the arc all season. But in hindsight, it makes sense. Any team at any level of basketball is bound to have their share of poor shooting nights.

Thus, teams need other alternative ways to manufacture offense if those go-to shots don’t fall. Whether it be attacking the basket, scoring from the mid range, or getting to the free throw line, any of these scoring methods offer reliable back-up plans when 3-pointers don’t fall.

Teams like the 2018 Rockets didn’t utilize those alternative scoring opportunities enough, and they paid the price. Only time will tell, but it’s possible that the 2021 Jazz eventually suffer the same fate as those Rockets for the same exact reason.

There’s something off with Anthony Davis

May 30, 2021; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) controls the ball against Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) during the first half in game four of the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2020 postseason, Anthony Davis had one of the best individual playoff runs of recent memory.

He posted a stat line of 27.7/9.7/3.5 per game on an efficient 66.5% true shooting. And somehow, his defense was even more exceptional than his offense.

Davis served as the primary anchor for a stingy Lakers defense. He did everything the Lakers asked of him, whether it be protecting the rim at a high level or shutting down the perimeter stars of the league. Heading into 2021, Davis’s strong playoff reputation warranted another big postseason performance from the Brow.

But in these playoffs, Davis looks like a shell of his past self. While his defense is still up to par, Davis’s offense has been underwhelming. Even in his impressive outings in games two and three, Davis looked less explosive than years past.

After establishing himself as an elite lob threat for most of his career, he rarely rises up to catch lobs or attack the offensive glass anymore. He’s not nearly as aggressive as an inside scorer either, and oddly shies away from overwhelming smaller mismatches with his superior size. Instead, he relies heavily on mid-range jumpers, which he’s also hitting at worse rates.

It’s not quite clear why Davis looks so different. The obvious theory is that the injuries have taken a physical toll on Davis, making him physically incapable of replicating his old self.

It might also be psychological. It often looks as if Davis is indecisive and too careful with his movements. He could just be playing conservatively in hopes of avoiding another injury.

But to make matters worse, all of these concerns with Davis came before he suffered another injury in game four to his groin. This new ailment compromises things even more for the Lakers and will sideline him for at least game five.

Davis’s biggest enemy has always been his health, and it’s coming back to bite him at the worst possible time. Whether or not he returns in the playoffs, there’s more than enough reason for concern regarding Davis’s future.

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