As expected, the first round of the NBA Playoffs is must-see TV, especially as this postseason features a bevy of rising and established stars performing on the brightest stage. Without clear front-runners and lacking (thankfully) an overwhelming dynasty, the field is relatively equal for all challengers.
Past champions like the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers, and Milwaukee Bucks face off against former poverty teams turned good New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Sacramento Kings. With the first two games completed for every series, we’ve pinpointed three trending in opposite directions. So let’s jump into it.
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Teams in crisis mode
In a calendar year, the young Memphis Grizzlies core went from likable underdogs to one of the most hated teams outside their market. There are varying reasons: Ja Morant’s gun controversy, what some see as Dillion Brooks’s dirty play, and the young team’s dancing and showboating on and off the court.
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But none of those factors have anything to do with the Grizzlies leaving Memphis and heading to Los Angeles with the series tied 1-1. The veteran Lakers, led by championship duo LeBron James and Anthony Davis, stole Game 1, 108 -102, behind James’ 21 points and 11 rebounds. But it was the Lakers’ role players who stood out, specifically Rui Hachimura (29 points) and Austin Reaves (23 points).
The Lakers, who rebuilt their supporting cast at the trade deadline, are deeper and more experienced than the young Grizzlies, playing without two critical defensive players in starting center Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke. Recently anointed Defensive Player of the Year, Jaren Jackson Jr., has been tasked with guarding the Lakers’ many slashers and massive frontcourt of Davis and James. Now Memphis has to go to L.A. and may be without Morant, who is out with a reaggravated hand injury. Even though the Grizzlies were 10-8 without Morant during the regular season, they stand little chance if Morant is out for an extended period in this series.
Los Angeles Clippers
It happened again. Just when the Clippers looked capable of making up for Paul George’s absence due to injury, Kawhi Leonard goes out again. According to reports, Leonard aggravated his knee in Game 1, played through it in Game 2 before missing Game 3. His status was listed as day-to-day ahead of Game 4 on Saturday.
It’s been reported his injury isn’t related to his previous ACL tear. The Phoenix Suns left their home court with a 1-1 split, dropping Game 1 to the Clippers. But with Leonard’s status in doubt and Chris Paul reclaiming his former playoff power, the Suns are in control. This was proven in the Suns winning Game 3, giving them a 2-1 lead.
The Clips are one of the deepest rosters in the league, if not the deepest. But there is no replacing a two-time Finals MVP like Leonard, especially when the Suns have their own two-time Finals MVP in Kevin Durant. In Game 3, Norman Powell (42 points) and Russell Westbrook (30 points) tried their best to make up for Leonard’s loss, but neither are the closers Leonard is in crunch time.
No one except Heat players and coaches think they have a chance in hell against the Milwaukee Bucks, who have perhaps the NBA’s most complete roster and tons of playoff experience.
The Heat are one of the most offensive-challenged teams in the league. Oddly enough, they have scored at least 120 in each of the first two games including in their 130-117 Game 1 win. But that was because MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo left Game 1 with a back injury (he also missed Game 2). Antetokounmpo is expected to return for Game 3.
The silver lining for the Bucks has been their No. 2 option, Kris Middleton, regaining his form. He’s scored a combined 49 through the first two games. Middleton averaged below his career average during the regular season but is now looking like his old self. If Middleton stays sharp, then Heat’s offensive output won’t be able to keep up for five more games, especially with Tyler Herro out indefinitely with a broken hand.
Teams taking control
The die-hard Sacramento King fanbase chanted “Light the beam” after consecutive wins to start their series against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. It’s been an impressive feat, following up on their third-place Western Conference finish during the regular season behind the league’s best offense.
Few thought the Kings could challenge the championship mettle of the Warriors in the first round. But the Kings left home up 2-0, with a fully healthy roster. While they did drop Game 3, they don’t need to win a game on the road to clinch the series.
De’Aaron Fox has been every bit of the crunch time star that earned him the inaugural Clutch Player of the Year this week. For being the defending champions, the Warriors finished the regular season with the third-worst road record in the league. Playing in front of the rabid and playoff starved fans in Sacramento didn’t make it any easier. Even if the Warriors tie the series back home by winning Game 4, they still face the tough task of winning on the road in one of the toughest arenas to play on the road.
In no other first-round series does home-court advantage have bigger implications than Kings-Warriors.
This one is the easiest to pick. The Bucks are expecting to have their two-time MVP, Finals MVP to return for either Game 3 or 4. The Heat are without their second-best scorer Tyler Herro, out with a broken hand, but they still have Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
Luckily for the Bucks, Kris Middleton has been carrying the load. He’s averaging 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field. During the regular season, Middleton was, well, middling. But he’s stepped up huge in place of Giannis. The Bucks will need every bit of his All-Star form to battle with the hard-nosed Heat squad, who consistently punch above their weight class. The Heat are expertly coached by Erik Spoelstra, who won two championship rings with the “Heatles” in the early 2010s.
This series went from a likely gentleman’s sweep to a bare-knuckle brawl once Giannis was injured. The Bucks beat the Heat even without Giannis in Game 2 by 16, showing why they are the most efficiently built team in the playoffs. Beyond Middleton, the Bucks are balanced by the elite two-way play of Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, who combined for 49 points and 13 assists. With no Herro, the Heat can’t keep up with the Bucks’ depth and balanced scoring.
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s difficult to imagine the Lakers able to predict they would be in control of any first-round series before the trade deadline. Russell Westbrook was a black hole on offense, defense, and in the locker room. But General Manager Rob Pelinka saved the season through a series of shrewd trades, dumping Westbrook while adding balance to the roster. LeBron James has returned to his dominant self since returning from injury. Davis looks to be as motivated as he is healthy. This might be the best roster ever assembled around James and Davis.
The injury-plagued Memphis Grizzlies are trying to reintegrate Morant back into the flow of the offense. This came to a screeching halt when Morant went down with a hand injury in Game 1. The dejected Grizzlies lost Game 1 but secured a split before heading on the road.
It will be difficult for the Grizzlies to replace Morant’s scoring output. It took a monster game from reserve Xavier Tillman (22 points, 13 rebounds) to squeeze out a win. Flash in the pan role player games can’t be depended on for a seven-game series.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo