But the excuses are gone now. On Monday, two first-round series qualified for Game 2. In the first, the Milwaukee Bucks proved their success in Game 1 against the Miami Heat was no accident by flattening them, 132-98, and in the other, the Denver Nuggets won a badly needed division on their home turf before their series against the Trail Blazers moved to Portland. At this point we have a much better idea of where these two clashes are heading, so with both 2 games now in the books, let’s take a look at some of Monday’s biggest winners and losers.
Milwaukee’s second-round loss to Miami raised many questions about their lineup and coaching decisions, but perhaps no more than why Mike Budenholzer was so hesitant to allow Giannis Antetokounmpo to defend Jimmy Butler. Butler, after all, was destroying the Heat late in the game, and Antetokounmpo, who was defensive player of the year, was surely up to the task. We now know for sure that he was because, in two games as Butler’s main defender, Giannis helped keep Butler on the 8-of-32 shot.
In that same series, Miami held the Milwaukee actors just 32.7 percent behind the arc. This was in part due to their strong defense, but in reality it was a flaw in building Milwaukee’s roster. The Bucks played an offense that involved taking a lot of 3 points, but they finished 17th with a 3-point percentage. Miami challenged them to shoot and they couldn’t shoot. They adopted the same strategy in the first game. The Bucks shot 5 of 31 from behind the arc. Well, in Game 2, they scored 10 3 points… in the first quarter. They finished with 22 which is much closer to their performance this season. The Bucks reached fourth in a 3-point percentage thanks to the judicious additions of players like Jrue Holiday, Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis.
Add it all up and you’ve got a Bucks team that not only makes better decisions around Giannis, but was built better for him as well. The defenses can’t build walls to stop it if the Bucks shoot as well as Monday. They also can’t rely on Budenholzer’s conservative plan to bail them out in the event of an attack if he’s ready to unleash Antetokounmpo against opposing stars. Monday was, in a sense, a proof of concept. It was the culmination of the revamped, playoff-centric plan the Bucks have been developing all season. This led to a rash, and in all likelihood there are more where it came from.
You could name any number of Heat players as losers on Monday. Butler struggled. Bam Adebayo struggled. The only player in their roster to shoot better than 50% was Dewayne Dedmon, which should give you an idea of what the rest of the roster would look like. But Herro deserves to be highlighted given how few opportunities he has had to turn things around.
In the last playoffs, he became one of the youngest players in playoff history to score 37 points in one game. In this series, so far he has only played 37 minutes, in total. He shoots 3 of 15 from the field and mostly only saw the ground in the trash on Monday. Kendrick Nunn has apparently outperformed him in the pecking order given he’s starting out. The Heat wanted Victor Oladipo to play a key playoff role as well before injury ended his season.
It’s been a steep drop for one of the bubble’s brightest young stars. It’s not like Herro has fallen off a cliff. His regular season numbers have stagnated, and that’s the point. He was better in the bubble than his rookie year might have predicted, and now he looks more like what he was doing before that hot spell than inside. That being the case, it’s worth wondering just how fuzzy that stretch really was.
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Winner: The Denver Actors
The Blazers had a clear goal in Game 1 against Denver: to make Nikola Jokic a goalscorer. It worked. He lost 38 points, but only one assist. With Jamal Murray and Will Barton out, the Blazers were betting that if Jokic couldn’t create shots for the rest of his roster, they just weren’t going to score. They won the game on this principle.
Jokic scored in clusters again in Game 2, as did his teammates. Each of Denver’s other four starters scored between nine and 18 points, and Paul Millsap and Monte Morris contributed a combined 27 off the bench. Damian Lillard only got 67 points from his supporting cast. Jokic got 90.
In reality, Denver won’t win the championship with his injuries. Once Murray fell, their priorities shifted. What the Nuggets are looking for now is who on their roster deserves to stay when Murray returns and the Championships become achievable again. They couldn’t have been particularly encouraged by the first game, but almost everyone rallied for the second game.
Perdant: Damian Lillard
Those 67 points from Lillard’s teammates? It is not a new phenomenon. Portland has squandered many of Lillard’s best games, including a 60-point explosion last season and a 50-point outing against Oklahoma City in 2019. The Blazers can live by allowing Denver 128 points. As much effort as they put into repairing their defense last offseason, they placed 29th for a reason. Playing three small guards alongside a disabled center caps the ceiling of a defense.
But the Blazers can’t beat anyone if their actors don’t score. There is not much that Lillard can do on his own. Remove CJ McCollum and Norman Powell from the picture, and the rest of the Blazers shot an appalling 10 of 28 from the field. If the Blazers are to win with this all-offensive formula, they need to be able to score consistently and across the roster. The defenses are obviously going to pay attention to the guards, and if everyone fails to step up, Portland’s playoff series will end very, very quickly.
Winner: Parity fans
The Blazers-Nuggets series lacks championship stakes, but it’s still a fun showcase for two of the NBA’s best players. The alleged MVP faces off against the No.29 defense as one of the league’s best goalies destroys a team whose guards are all injured. The longer this streak, the more likely we are to get individual fireworks. Portland’s victory was a victory for our entertainment.
But Milwaukee’s victory was a victory for our competitive satisfaction. This series is not close at the moment, and it is not necessary. The much bigger development for the league is that the Bucks appear to be fixing the issues that knocked them out of the last two playoffs, and if so, they become a much more compelling opponent for the Brooklyn Nets, whose overwhelming the talent threatens to overwhelm the rest of the league.
If the Nets are as good as their roster suggests, they’re going to win the championship, but the Bucks present the perfect possible foil. Their three stars are all high end defenders, which makes them a strong match for the three-headed monster from Brooklyn. The Nets are struggling to protect the rim. The Bucks have a star who specializes in attacking the rim. This series has a chance to be the best of the playoffs, but it wouldn’t have been if Milwaukee hadn’t stopped getting in its way. Now the Eastern Conference appears to have generated at least one serious threat for the Nets, which makes the playoffs a lot more interesting for all parties involved.
Loser: NBA officiating
Game 2 between the Nuggets and Blazers featured 58 free throws, four technical fouls and two glaring fouls. Video reviews deprived the game of any sense of fluidity and gamers weren’t happy with all of that. This is how Nikola Jokic reacted to a call as his team gained 18 points.
Jokic and Lillard combined for 57 points in the first half alone. This game must be remembered for its incredible duel between the scorers of superstars. Instead, it was spoiled by officials too concerned with overpowering frustrated players. It says a lot when appeals get so rampant that both parties are upset with the way the game is being refereed.