By Rahul Lal
The NBA Playoffs finished up the first round on Sunday, with the Utah Jazz holding off the Los Angeles Clippers to advance. It gave us plenty of memorable moments, including a battle of MVP candidates, gritty performances from the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors and a sign of things to come from the Milwaukee Bucks. In one round (and one second-round game that saw the Boston Celtics hold off the Washington Wizards at home) we’ve learned plenty about the advancing teams. Here’s what we know going forward.
(1) Boston Celtics – When Al Horford Plays Well, The Celtics Play Well
It’s no secret that the Boston Celtics are all heart; this team plays some of its best basketball when their backs are up against the wall. They play their best basketball when big man Al Horford is on his game. Horford is a triple-double threat most nights and showed it against Chicago’s low-post defenders. The Celtics wound up winning four games in a row to close out the series and are back to looking like a top overall seed. Against the Wizards, Horford has to open the game up from the high post, which will free up Boston’s other weapons for uncontested jumpers. Oh yeah, that Isaiah Thomas guy is really good also.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers – Postseason LeBron Is Still The Scariest Player In The Game
LeBron James is now 32 years-old and seems to be aging like fine wine. Despite averaging just under 44 minutes a game in round one, the king found ways to win yet another series and look dominant as ever against Paul George, a great perimeter defender. In the first round, he averaged 32.8 points, nine assists, just under 10 rebounds with three steals and two blocks per game. Even with a subpar series from Kevin Love, the Cavs looked just as much of a one seed as they did last season. They should get past the Raptors without much extra effort.
(3) Toronto Raptors – Consistency And P.J. Tucker Are Their X-Factors
The Raptors are a good team — there’s no questioning this. To pose a real threat to the Cavaliers, the Raptors’ stars must play well every game. Outside of one dismal game, DeMar DeRozan played like the star he is, even against Milwaukee’s length. The problem was Kyle Lowry’s inconsistency; he only scored 20 points once and topped five assists only once as well. In fact, Lowry’s 5:2 turnover ratio really hurt the team and needs to improve against the Cavaliers, who will not be as forgiving as the young Bucks. While Ibaka may be their best midseason acquisition, P.J. Tucker has to be deployed against LeBron just as he was against the Greek Freak Giannis Antetokounmpo. Tucker’s toughness will be critical in limiting the Cavs’ offense.
(4) Washington Wizards – Washington Still Doesn’t Have A Bench
The good news is the Wizards’ starters looked great and played with the firepower it takes to upset some teams in the playoffs. The bad news is their bench only averaged 24 points per game against the Hawks, while the team averaged over 106 points a game. In fact, Washington had two double-digit scorers off the bench in only one game all series. Teams must have bench depth to be dangerous late in the postseason. Despite the starers playing so well, they have to sit occasionally. The Wizards’ second unit can’t hold a lead and can barely hold their own. They could be the team’s downfall.
(1) Golden State Warriors – The Warriors Still Aren’t Fully Healthy
Given that we only saw four Warriors games in the first round, there isn’t much to analyze. The only real knocks against them are that Kevin Durant is clearly still struggling with injury and head coach Steve Kerr might miss the whole postseason after back surgery. Even with the injuries, the Warriors cruised to four easy victories and showed that their bench, with Patrick McCaw, Ian Clark, JaVale McGee and the always-consistent Iggy, is better than we thought. It’s tough to imagine any team beating this team four times in seven games unless health becomes an even bigger issue.
(2) San Antonio Spurs – Kawhi Leonard Is The Best Two-Way Player In the NBA
The evolution of Kawhi Leonard is truly impressive. And the 2014 NBA Finals MVP is still at it, improving with every game. After his incredible 16 straight points in game three, Leonard proved why his offensive game has now reached the level of his Defensive Player of the Year-caliber play. Both David Fizdale and Gregg Popovich praised his dominance at both ends of the court, and the Spurs actually looked like a legit Finals contender. As long as Tony Parker isn’t a huge liability on defense and LaMarcus Aldridge lives up to his second-star billing, the Spurs should dictate the pace of play against the Rockets. They can take the series in six while limiting Houston’s perimeter play.
(3) Houston Rockets – Mike D’Antoni Has Multiple Ways To Win Games
All season long, the Rockets outran and outpaced every team they played with their uptempo offense and three-point barrage. The first round matched up James Harden against Russell Westbrook, but that proved only to be part of the story. The Rockets’ bench unit, consisting of Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Nene Hilario, averaged a combined 46 points per game while collectively shooting over 48 percent from the field. While sometimes Harden played the hero, sometimes Lou did too. And we saw some of Nene’s best basketball in years. This team can shoot the ball and get into the paint; they have five or six every-night threats with the ball.
(5) Utah Jazz – The Jazz’s Defense Is Really, Really Good
Even with the resurgence of Iso Joe, the Jazz didn’t upset the Clippers because of their offensive play. We already knew the Jazz were good on defense, but we had no idea they could stay afloat even without Rudy Gobert down low. The Jazz only let the Clippers top 100 points once in seven games. The team that led the league in points allowed per game during the regular season held the Clippers to just 97 points per game. This is wildly impressive (even with Blake Griffen getting hurt), given that the Clippers averaged 108.7 points per game this season. The Jazz will get their chance to prove their defense against the league’s toughest offensive threat in Golden State.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.