Biggest takeaways from the first weekend of the 2024 NBA playoffs

ByNBA Insiders ESPN logo
Monday, April 22, 2024

The NBA playoffs tipped off this weekend, as the Denver Nuggets look to become the first repeat champions since the 2017 and 2018 Golden State Warriors. They picked up right where they left off in the Western Conference a season ago, winning their fifth consecutive playoff game by downing the Los Angeles Lakers. The East also features a rematch of last season's conference finalists, but this time it was the Boston Celtics dominating Game 1 against the Miami Heat, after falling 3-0 last season.

Our NBA experts were at all eight Game 1s on Saturday and Sunday -- all of which were won by the home team, the first time that has happened since 2013 -- and shared their first impressions of every series, with a glance at what we might expect as these teams head into Game 2 and beyond.

MORE: Complete coverage of 2024 NBA playoffs

To have a shot, Magic need to find their shot

The Orlando Magic dropped Game 1 of their series against the Cleveland Cavaliers for one clear reason: poor shooting.

The Magic shot just 32.6% from the floor, 21.6% from 3, and 63.3% from the free throw line. They scored just 15 points in the second quarter and 17 points in the third.

Orlando did enter the playoffs with statistically the worst offense of any team in the postseason (112.9 points per 100 possessions, 22nd overall in the regular season). The Magic know that has to change for them to advance.

"When you go 19-of-30 on free throws and 8-for-37 on 3-pointers, it's hard to make up ground," Magic coach Jamahl Mosley said after the game. "We hang our hat on defense, and holding a team to 97 points is a good job. The question is how do we clean up some of the things on offense for the next game?"

The starting backcourt of Jalen Suggs and Gary Harris combined to shoot 4-of-22 from the field and 1-of-12 on 3s. Meanwhile, backup guards Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz went 0-of-7 and 0-of-4, respectively.

Despite getting a combined 17 points from that quartet, Orlando isn't panicking.

"We shot [32%] from the field, 21 from 3 and 60 from the line, and it still wasn't ever over until the last two minutes," said Paolo Banchero, who scored a team-high 24 points, but was just 2-for-7 from 3 and 4-for-8 from the free throw line.

"Obviously, we need to hit shots to win this series," Franz Wagner said. "But I'm confident we'll make them next game."

-- Kendra Andrews

Timberwolves' defense is more than just Gobert

Anchored by Rudy Gobert, the Minnesota Timberwolves' interior defense is obviously acclaimed. The center controls the paint and is on track to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors for the fourth time. But in a 120-95 demolition of the Phoenix Suns in Saturday's first-round series opener, Minnesota's perimeter defense proved especially disruptive.

Suns star Devin Booker scored 18 points on 16 shots and finished 1-for-7 when Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels was the primary defender. McDaniels seemed to be everywhere -- challenging shots, disrupting passing lanes, cutting through screens intended to free up Suns guards for open looks.

"Jaden just fights through everything," Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said.

Added Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards: "Jaden, to me, it's him and Rudy for Defensive Player of the Year."

Nickeil Alexander-Walker was another disrupter, recording four steals off the bench for Minnesota. Forward Naz Reid was especially active (plus-22 off the bench). And it wasn't only Booker who struggled.

Suns sharpshooterGrayson Allen finished with just four points on 0-for-3 shooting from 3-point range. Suns guard Bradley Beal scored 15 points but attempted only 10 shots. The overall physicality that the Timberwolves displayed was evident, and the Suns' dynamic backcourt seemed bothered by it. It will be an interesting aspect to watch moving forward.

-- Baxter Holmes

Embiid returns, but Sixers can't rebound

When Joel Embiid threw the ball off the backboard, caught it in his right hand and smashed it through the hoop late in the second quarter of Saturday's series opener against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, it was a reminder of how absurdly talented he is. When Embiid crumpled to the ground in a heap moments later, grabbing at his troublesome left knee, it was a reminder of how precarious Philadelphia's hopes of a long playoff run are.

Yes, the league's reigning MVP was able to return to the game, just as he did a week ago after a similar moment against the Orlando Magic. But Philadelphia will last in these playoffs only as long as Embiid is on the court. Just look at Game 1, when Philadelphia outscored New York by 14 when Embiid was on the court and was outscored by 21 in the 11 minutes Embiid was on the bench -- a recurring problem from prior Sixers playoff runs.

However, that doesn't mean the Sixers were perfect when Embiid was out there. Coming into the series, a key battleground was going to be New York's offensive rebounding. The Knicks are the NBA's best offensive rebounding team; the 76ers were a bottom-10 defensive rebounding team. And while that is partly because of Embiid's injuries, he also hasn't aggressively attacked the glass since he has returned. Meanwhile, Mitchell Robinson and the Knicks relentlessly hit the offensive boards.

In Game 1, that resulted in 23 offensive rebounds for the Knicks, seven from Robinson alone. Those boards helped create an extra 10 shots for the Knicks in a game they won by seven points. As the series moves forward, both variables -- Embiid's availability and New York's success on the offensive glass -- will likely tell the tale of how this slugfest will play out.

-- Tim Bontemps

Lakers showed they need to be better at the little things

Midway through the second quarter on Saturday, a Game 1 upset seemed ripe for the picking for the visiting Lakers, who controlled the action from the tip and led by eight after the first quarter. Los Angeles extended its lead to 12 with back-to-back layups by Anthony Davis and LeBron James, leading 49-37 with 6:05 left in the second quarter.

The Nuggets called timeout and used a 14-2 run to tie the game with 2:53 to go until halftime. With less than three minutes to go in the third quarter, the Nuggets were the team up by double digits.

The Lakers had four days of preparation after the play-in tournament to get ready for the team that knocked them out of the Western Conference finals a year ago. Players and coaches alike paid lip service to Denver's ability to break the game open at a moment's notice and the need to limit self-inflicted wounds.

Then it was as if everything they'd talked about preventing was playing out right in front of them. The Nuggets beat the Lakers when they didn't box out, scoring 18 points off second-chance opportunities. And they beat the Lakers when they didn't take care of the ball, scoring 14 points off their turnovers.

The win put the Nuggets up 1-0 in the series and extended their record to 9-0 in their past nine games against L.A.

However, LeBron James, who is pursuing ring No. 5 in his 21st season, refused to categorize Saturday's loss as anything more than one loss.

"I don't ever get into a 'Here we go again' mindset," James said after finishing with nearly as many turnovers (four) as shot attempts (six) in the second half. "It's one game. They protected their home court. We have another opportunity on Monday to come back and be better. We know how challenging it's going to be. We know how difficult this opponent is and how great they are."

It was an acknowledgement of the opponent, but not an acceptance of an inevitability.

"I don't get into the doubt mindset," James said. "That's not me. I'm the wrong guy to ask."

-- Dave McMenamin

The Celtics' 3s might be too much for Miami

During the quarter in which they essentially put the game away Sunday, the Celtics turned up the volume on the thing that already stands out as perhaps their most amplified trait: their bombs-away offense.

Boston, which took a league-high 47% of its shots from distance during the regular season, launched almost 62% of its shot attempts from the arc in the third quarter against Miami on Sunday. And, as those tries repeatedly found the bottom of the net, it became clearer that the Heat might have a math problem -- 3 > 2 -- it isn't capable of solving.

Erik Spoelstra's team sometimes struggles to create offense at full strength, let alone when key playmakers like Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier are out due to injury. Without them, the task of getting outside looks, in rhythm, becomes even more challenging. For the season, 39% of Miami's shots came from 3, right around league average. They took 46% of their shots from beyond the arc in Game 1, but made only 32% of those.

On the other end, Miami often found its top-five defense stretched too thin to recover after bringing over a second defender to limit Jayson Tatum. The Celtics superstar, in turn, sprayed the ball around and tallied 10 assists to notch the first triple-double of his playoff career. With each swing pass Tatum made, he sent Heat players scrambling along the arc in an effort to keep up.

The result was 22 3s -- tying a Celtics playoff franchise record -- on 49 tries.

"I thought Jayson's poise and ability to make plays came because of our spacing, and because of Sam [Hauser] and Payton [Pritchard's] shot-making," Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. "Because of that, we were able to handle [Miami's] zone a little bit differently. We were forced into some 2-on-1s, but we made the right play. It just shows how every player has an impact on the next guy."

-- Chris Herring

History might not repeat itself with big Ivica Zubac

The biggest adjustment LA Clippers coach Ty Lue made in the playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks a few years ago was benching big man Ivica Zubac.

Zubac had been mercilessly hunted by Luka Doncic as the Mavs jumped out to a 2-0 series edge and a large lead in Game 3. The series, eventually won by the Clippers in seven games, shifted when Lue opted to play small-ball on a regular basis.

But Zubac made his presence felt in LA's series-opening 109-97 victory Sunday afternoon. He was the one doing the hunting, bullying the Mavs in the paint for a playoff career-high 20 points and 15 rebounds. The tone was set early in the first quarter when Zubac muscled Mavs center Daniel Gafford on post-ups for a couple of buckets on consecutive possessions.

"I'm going to try to punish them in the post," Zubac said. "I'm going to try to be big on the boards, protect the rim, doing my job, big, physical and everything else."

Gafford had made a major impact since joining the Mavs in a trade deadline deal, serving as a phenomenal finisher, rim-protector and source of relentless energy. None of that was evident in Game 1, when Gafford was a nonfactor after Zubac's aggression helped get him in early foul trouble.

"He threw the first punch tonight and there was no adjustment that was made," said Gafford, who had three points and zero rebounds in 14 minutes. "At the end of the day, I got to be better when it comes to guarding him in the post, guarding him transition, in any area, in all honesty. I've got to be better."

-- Tim MacMahon

Lillard's performance eases the pressure on Bucks, Giannis

This is what the Milwaukee Bucks envisioned when they made the trade for Damian Lillard.

Lillard's 35-point outburst, all coming in the first half of Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, helped Milwaukee put the game away by halftime and take a 1-0 series lead without Giannis Antetokounmpo. It was the kind of win, as Doc Rivers said Sunday that "helps everybody breathe."

"When you have one superstar out, you're just getting a much bigger dose of the other superstar," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said Sunday. "It's not that big a bargain."

The Bucks saw how life in the playoffs without their two-time MVP played out last season. Antetokounmpo injured his back in Game 1 against the Miami Heat in the 2023 playoffs and Milwaukee went down 1-0. Antetokounmpo missed two games, and the Bucks eventually lost in five games as the No. 1 seed.

"It was important [to win Sunday]," Bobby Portis said. "Last year, we dropped the first one at home and then it just felt like the pressure was really on."

In the first game of the postseason, the move to acquire Lillard last summer played out to perfection. With him on the floor, the Bucks have another superstar still capable of carrying a team and giving them some breathing room until Antetokounmpo gets back healthy.

"Anytime you come out and you're able to get that first one off the board, you gain a little bit of confidence from it," Lillard said.

-- Jamal Collier

Pelicans-Thunder won't be a typical 1-8 series

The Pelicans entered Game 1 with the best road record in the NBA at 28-14. They went 10-1 in their final 11 games away from New Orleans -- the only loss was at Orlando when Brandon Ingram suffered an injury and left the game. Of course, Oklahoma City went 33-8 at home this season, which was tied for the best home record in the West.

It was apparent early on it would be a tough environment for New Orleans to get settled in. The Thunder let fans in early and had half-off concessions for the 18,203 in attendance to be ready for the 8:40 local tip-off.

But the top-seeded Thunder hadn't been in the playoffs in the last three seasons, and their inexperience showed up in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City had six turnovers in the final 12 minutes including three from MVP finalist Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The saving grace for the Thunder was that New Orleans also played sloppy basketball down the stretch with seven turnovers. The teams combined for 14 turnovers together through the first three quarters before the 13 in the fourth.

Both teams struggled from the field -- Oklahoma City shot 43.5% overall and 10 of 32 from 3 while the Pelicans shot 38.5% overall and were 11-of-39 from 3. The game featured 20 lead changes -- one more than the 19 combined lead changes in the first seven playoff games of the weekend. But the Pelicans needed one more lead change.

With Zion Williamson out, New Orleans will need stronger performances from McCollum and Ingram moving forward. Ingram had 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting. McCollum finished with 20 points but was 9 of 22 overall. Still, the Pelicans found something with Jonas Valanciunas' rebounding. He had 20 boards including nine on the offensive end. The Pelicans controlled the boards (52-44) and the second-chance points (24-11).

But for New Orleans to stay in the series and do more than just make games competitive, the offense will have to wake up. McCollum's basket with 26.5 seconds left accounted for New Orleans' only points in the final 3:33 of the game. The Pelicans went just 1-7 with three turnovers over the final 3:09 of the game.

-- Andrew Lopez

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