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NBA playoffs: Eight lessons from first round include LeBron James’ basketball mortality, Nets’ scary ceiling

We started with 16 teams, and we’re down to nine. After the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks wrap up their series on Sunday, we’ll officially be in the second round of the NBA playoffs with just a month left until the Finals. One thing we know is that we’ll have some new blood vying for the title, with five teams in pursuit of their first championship and no team having won since 2011.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s always beneficial to look back and see what we’ve learned. The first round had some surprising results and a host of players who put on dazzling performances, so we looked back at eight lessons we learned from the opening set of series.

1. LeBron is human, even in the playoffs

This is not to say that LeBron James isn’t still arguably the best basketball player on the planet, but this postseason was a stark reminder that, at 36 years old, something like a lingering ankle injury might take more of a toll than it used to. James was reportedly hovering around 85 percent health for the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns, and it showed in his numbers. He averaged 23.3 points per game, well below his career average of 28.7 and the 29.8 he put up last postseason in the bubble.

More alarming was his inability to bully his opponents in the lane and finish at the rim. During last year’s championship playoff run, James shot 67.9 percent on drives, according to NBA.com. He averaged more drives per game this postseason, but converted on just 48.6 percent of them. According to Synergy Sports Technology, James averaged 1.038 points per possession around the rim in the series against the Suns, good for the 29th percentile. Last postseason, he was in the 99th percentile with 1.573 points per possession around the basket.

With Anthony Davis’ injury, the Lakers needed multiple superhuman performances from James to avoid elimination — something we’d seen so many times in the past — but this year he was simply human, and it wasn’t good enough.

2. Brooklyn’s Big Three is terrifying

After shaking off the playoff rust in Game 1, the Nets averaged 128.5 points over the last four games of their first-round playoff win over the Boston Celtics. Any worries of a lack of chemistry between Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving were quickly put to bed, highlighted by a fear-inducing Game 4 in which the Big Three combined for 104 of the team’s 141 points on 59/55/96 shooting splits, along with 25 of the team’s 29 assists. In the first half, Durant, Harden and Irving nearly outscored the entire Celtics team by themselves.

Things will get much tougher against the Milwaukee Bucks, but with all three of those players capable of going off at any given time, there’s probably going to be at least one game per series in which they’re simply unstoppable. Speaking of the Bucks …

3. These aren’t the Milwaukee Bucks of the past

Folks around Milwaukee were probably a little concerned after it took Khris Middleton’s game-winner for the Bucks to escape with a Game 1 win over the Miami Heat, but that was where the worries ended. The Bucks absolutely throttled the same team that eliminated them last postseason, exorcising their playoff demons … for now, at least. Their switching defense looked good, for the most part, and Jrue Holiday showed why he is such a massive upgrade over Eric Bledsoe, justifying the haul of picks that Milwaukee forked over to New Orleans in order to get him. They destroyed Miami despite Giannis Antetokounmpo having a (relatively) poor series in terms of scoring, averaging 23.5 points on 45 percent shooting compared to 28.1 on 57 percent field goals in the regular season.

Many believe that the winner of the Nets-Bucks series will go on to win the NBA title, and it should be non-stop entertainment.

4. Luka is even better than we thought

There have been very few, if any, players this postseason who have looked more consistently unstoppable than Luka Doncic. In just his second NBA playoff series, Doncic is averaging 34 points per game (second only to Damian Lillard this postseason) to go along with 9.7 assists and eight rebounds per game. He’s made 40 percent of his 10.8 3-point attempts per game heading into Sunday’s decisive Game 7, staying incredibly efficient despite his monster usage rate of 39.2 — by far the highest of anyone in the playoffs.

When Doncic has been on the bench during this series against the Clippers, the Mavericks’ offensive rating has dropped from 117.5 to 86 — a difference of 31.5 points per 100 possessions. Luka already had perhaps the highest individual ceiling of any young player in the NBA, and this postseason has taught us that he might be even closer to reaching that ceiling than we thought.

5. The Jazz are for real

After a Game 1 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies without Donovan Mitchell, the Utah Jazz won four straight games while scoring 126.4 points per 100 possessions, second only to the Brooklyn Nets this postseason. Fears of Utah’s reliance on the 3-point shot were exacerbated when it went ice-cold in the Game 1 loss, but things quickly turned around, thanks in large part to Mitchell, who averaged 28.5 points and 5.8 assists in just under 30 minutes per game on 45/40/90 shooting splits.

Let’s not forget that this was a hot, confident Grizzlies team that the Jazz put away relatively easily. When we talk about which remaining teams should be considered title favorites, Utah is right up there given its first-round performance.

6. The Knicks are back

The energy. The environment. The cheering (minus the spitting). Despite a 4-1 opening-round loss to the Hawks, it’s safe to say that the Knicks are officially back. They ran into a buzz saw in Trae Young and a red-hot Atlanta team, and Julius Randle had about the worst five-game stretch of his life, but there’s plenty for Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks organization to build on heading into next season. Given the age of their roster and their cap flexibility, the Knicks could quickly become a regular part of the postseason.

7. Young NBA stars are ready for the spotlight

A young player’s first taste of playoff basketball is supposed to be a learning experience. Traditionally, they get to see how the intensity, preparation and officiating change in the postseason while taking their lumps and hopefully coming back better for it the following year. There was no such acclimation process for some of the league’s best young stars in the first round of this postseason, and here are the numbers to prove it.

Ja Morant, Grizzlies

21

30.2

8.2

4.8

48.7

32.3

Deandre Ayton, Suns

22

15.8

0.7

10.7

79.6

N/A

Trae Young, Hawks

22

29.2

9.8

2.8

44.1

34.1

Devin Booker, Suns

24

29.7

5.0

6.2

48.8

42.9

Dillon Brooks, Grizzlies

25

25.8

2.2

4.2

51.5

40.0

That’s not even mentioning other below-25 players like Rui Hachimura, Daniel Gafford and John Collins who all had excellent playoff debuts in more limited roles. We get to see Booker, Young, Ayton ad Collins in the next round, so it will be fun to watch how their trajectory progresses.

8. NBA centers are far from dead

For all this talk about the demise of the NBA center, we saw some incredible big men on display in the first round. Nikola Jokic led a severely short-handed Denver team to a 4-2 series win over the Trail Blazers, averaging 33 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game on absurd 53/43/92 shooting splits. Prior to suffering a knee injury in Game 4, Joel Embiid averaged 29.3 points and seven rebounds in just 28 minutes per game in three 76ers wins, shooting 67 percent from the field and 55 percent from 3-point range. The Sixers had a net rating of plus-34.7 (!) with Embiid on the court against Washington, compared to a 0.0 net rating with him off the floor.

We already highlighted Deandre Ayton’s brilliant playoff debut for the Suns, and Clint Capela was an underrated reason for the Atlanta Hawks’ first-round win over the Knicks. Even 7-foot-4 fan favorite Boban Marjanovic helped swing the series back in the Dallas Mavericks’ favor when he was inserted into the starting lineup prior to their Game 5 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.

All this to say — though it may look a bit different than the past — the center position is alive and well in the NBA, and the first round proved it.




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