NBA

Jrue Holiday plays a worthy sidekick to Anthony Davis and other takeaways from the first day of the NBA playoffs

Jay Asser 15/04/2018
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Jrue Holiday scored 21 points and played terrific defence in New Orleans' Game 1 win.

The first day of the NBA playoffs delivered some compelling action, even if only one game was competitive in the final moments.

The Golden State Warriors looked locked in as they began their title defence, while the Toronto Raptors got the monkey off their back by ending a nine-game losing streak in series openers and the New Orleans Pelicans stole one on the road.

Here are takeaways from Game 1 of three of the four series that took place on Saturday, beginning with the only upset on day one.

The Brow gets help

The Portland-New Orleans series was billed as match-up between two stars and MVP candidates, but Anthony Davis wasn’t the only Pelican to outshine Damian Lillard in the opener.

Davis did a lot of the heavy lifting by registering 35 points on 14-of-26 shooting – to go with 14 rebounds, four blocks and two steals – but Jrue Holiday was in many ways the difference-maker in the 97-95 win.

Often underrated because of how deep the point guard position is in the NBA, Holiday is one of the best two-way players in the league thanks to his defensive prowess, which was on fully display in the opener.

His 21 points were much-needed, but his biggest contribution came on the other end of the floor where he hounded both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who combined for 37 points on just 13-of-41 shooting after entering the series averaging 48.3.

Holiday’s defence was crucial down the stretch as he swiped the ball away from McCollum before swatting Pat Connaughton to preserve a 3-point lead in the final seconds.

If he can consistently be this kind of a sidekick to Davis in the playoffs, the Pelicans will make some noise.

Raptors’ reinforcements

One of Toronto’s most prominent advantages in the regular season was expected to be somewhat neutralised in the playoffs, but Game 1 showed the strength of their bench will continue to play a role.

Even with sixth man Fred VanVleet out to a shoulder injury, Toronto’s reserves were instrumental in the 114-106 victory over the Washington Wizards.

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan weren’t at their best and were mostly outplayed by John Wall and Bradley Beal, but the Raptors’ bench tilted the scales by outscoring Washington’s second unit by a 42-30 margin.

Delon Wright stepped into VanVleet’s role perfectly to score an efficient 18 points in 25 minutes, while C.J. Miles hit four 3-pointers to chip in 12.

The Wizards were fortunate to get 14 points from Mike Scott, but none of the other reserves did much of anything on offence to alleviate the burden on the starters.

There will probably come a time when Toronto coach Dwane Casey has to shorten the rotations, but the formula that led to so much success in the regular season is still working right now.

Wright

Warriors’ long arm of the law

With all the offensive talent and shooting Golden State possess, it can be easy to forget just how stifling they can be on the other end of the floor.

In their comfortable 113-92 win over San Antonio in Game 1, the Warriors reminded that when they want to, they can make life hell for opposing offences – especially ones with as little firepower as the Spurs currently have.

The by-product of Stephen Curry still being out with a knee injury is Golden State trotting out a starting lineup of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and JaVale McGee. The shortest player of the group is Iguodala at 6-foot-6, which meant San Antonio had to deal with long limb after long limb in their pursuit to get anywhere near the basket.

As expected, it was a mighty struggle for the Spurs as they had to work tirelessly just to produce a good shot. With Kawhi Leonard remaining mysteriously sidelined, the only fail-safe San Antonio have is to dump the ball into the mid-post for LaMarcus Aldridge and hope his jumper is falling.

Against the Warriors though, that might not even win you a game.

Durant

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Oklahoma City Thunder to sneak through while Houston Rockets pull off sweep in first-round predictions

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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Russell Westbrook enters the playoffs after averaging a triple-double for a second straight season.

Houston v Minnesota

This may be a year when we see no sweeps in the first round, but if any series is capable of ending in four games, it’s this one.

The Timberwolves have star power working in their favour with their trio of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but they don’t match-up well with what the Rockets like to do – namely pick-and-rolls and isolations after drawing mismatches.

Towns is going to be in a bind defending on-ball screens and if Minnesota send help defenders to corral the roll man, both James Harden and Chris Paul will pick them apart with pinpoint passes to shooters.

Rockets in 6

Boston v Milwaukee

Conventional wisdom in the playoffs suggest riding with the team that has the best player on the court, which in this series will clearly by Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The problem with that line of thinking in this match-up is the Celtics are definitely the better team, collectively speaking. They’re well-coached, scrappy and make you earn everything on the defensive end.

The Bucks are in many ways the opposite, with their ultra-aggressive defensive scheme often leading to easy looks for the opposition. If Boston can get a little bit of hot shooting, they should be just fine.

Celtics in 6

Oklahoma City v Utah

It would be a bit of a surprise if this series doesn’t go at least six games with how evenly-matched these teams are.

Oklahoma City went 3-1 in the head-to-head meetings during the regular season, but all of those games occurred before Christmas, with two of the Thunder’s victories coming when Rudy Gobert didn’t play. Gobert obviously changes the equation and will likely force Oklahoma City’s stars to settle for more mid-range jumpers.

On the other end, the Jazz have lived and died by rookie Donovan Mitchell, but in a playoff setting, he’s going to need more help.

Home court could sway this.

Thunder in 7

Cleveland v Indiana

This Cavaliers team might not be capable of flipping the switch, considering it’s largely a different squad the ones of past seasons. But they still have LeBron James and playoff LeBron is an absolute force to be reckoned with.

However, it looks like his five-year streak of not dropping a game in the first round is about to end because this Pacers team is very, very solid. Victor Oladipo transformed into a legitimate All-Star and All-NBA candidate, while big man Myles Turner is always an X-factor.

LeBron will advance as expected, but it won’t be as easy as he’s become accustomed to.

Cavaliers in 6

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LeBron James' iron grip on Eastern Conference and other talking points for the first round of the NBA playoffs

Jay Asser 14/04/2018
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LeBron James hasn't lost a game in the first round of the playoffs since 2012.

The NBA’s second season is under way and set to provide us with plenty to talk about over the next two months.

From the Golden State Warriors’ quest to repeat and stamp their claim as a dynasty, to James Harden and Chris Paul attempting to change the narrative on their postseason failures and lead the Houston Rockets, to LeBron James’ potential final stand with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the playoffs are chock-full of storylines.

Here are the main talking points from the four series that get started on Sunday.

Another formality for LeBron?

As much as his own team changes, as well as the situations around him in the rest of the East, LeBron remains LeBron – which is to say he has a lot of history on his side.

James has reached seven straight Finals – a staggering number – and during that span, the East has served as little more than fodder for him.

So while the Indiana Pacers, Cleveland’s first-round opponents, enter the match-up with a better point differential and net rating, consider this: LeBron hasn’t lost a first-round series in his career. In fact, he hasn’t even dropped a single game since 2012.

These Cavaliers, however, are probably the weakest team James has played on since his first go-around with the franchise and even though the Pacers don’t figure to dethrone him, Cleveland will have their hands full in potential clashes with Toronto and/or Philadelphia later on.

Not having Kyrie Irving around anymore to help shoulder the load can’t be understated. LeBron just wrapped up his first regular season in which he played all 82 games, doing it at the age of 33, and even though he’s a physical marvel, the mileage may be exacerbated if he has to do literally everything in these playoffs.

It’s never been wise to bet against him, but this will be James’ biggest challenge in some time.

Breaking barriers

James Harden will likely win the MVP this season and Chris Paul is a Hall of Fame point guard. And yet for many, both of the Houston Rockets’ stars will be judged on what they accomplish in the playoffs, where past shortcomings have somewhat damaged their reputations.

Paul has somehow never reached the conference finals, while Harden has had his own postseason meltdowns, including last year’s disastrous finish in Game 6 of the second round against San Antonio.

If they’re going to change the narrative that they’re not primetime playoff performers, this will have to be the year. They won’t be overly criticised for falling victim to Golden State down the road, but Houston have to at least reach the conference finals and put up a fight after the dominant campaign they’ve put together.

Before that, they’ll have to take care of business against Minnesota in the first round and whoever they see in round two, but the Rockets have no excuses for falling short of expectations.

Rockets

George’s future

LeBron James isn’t the only star whose future could be decided by what happens in these playoffs, as the Oklahoma City Thunder are under a lot of pressure to win to retain Paul George.

It’s impossible to say how well the Thunder need to do for George to re-sign this summer, but losing in the first round to the Utah Jazz certainly won’t help. And unfortunately for Oklahoma City, they appear to be under the most threat of any higher seed of being upset early on, with their opening match-up arguably the closest of all the series.

The Thunder’s ceiling is undoubtedly high as they showed at times this season that they can beat the league’s elite. However, they also had Jekyll and Hyde moments when they played well below their talent level, making it hard to discern just which team will show up on any given night.

George

How far can Boston go?

For probably every other team, losing your two stars to injury would be a death knell. The Celtics, however, have somehow managed to remain competitive even as body after body has hit the floor.

It speaks to their coaching, depth and ability to constantly defy expectations that they’re still favoured in the first round against Milwaukee, who will have the best player on the floor in Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it seems inevitable that the magic will run out at some point.

Boston have nothing to lose this season and they’ll certainly play like it, making them a dangerous underdog, regardless of the talent missing.

Stevens

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