The first few games of the 2023 NBA Playoffs are done and there’s a ton to digest while teams prepare for their games in the next city. Unanswered questions from the regular season have been answered, players got injured, and rotations have been revealed. We’ve seen enough of each team to re-evaluate them and how it will affect the broader playoff picture.
Below is what we have collectively learned about each competitive team, which I have defined as the top four teams from each conference plus the defending champions and the team with LeBron James.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s back injury isn’t a big deal against the Miami Heat. It may not be a big deal at all if Giannis can quickly return and be his usual self. But what if the injury lingers as back injuries tend to do? It was a hard fall, after all.
So far in the playoffs, they’ve allowed the Heat to score 130 points in Game 1 (with 11 minutes of Giannis) and then 122 points in Game 2 despite Tyler Herro, the Heat’s top perimeter scorer, sidelined with a broken hand. You’d think the Bucks could hold up better defensively with Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez on the court.
The point becomes more poignant once you learn that the Heat had the worst regular season offensive rating of any playoff team (112.3). If Giannis isn’t healthy, the Knicks or Cavs may very well end the Bucks season in the Eastern Conference Semis.
After an inspiring Finals run last year, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are not only better players themselves, they also have an improved supporting cast. The Celtics are arguably the deepest team in the playoffs. No other team has a more potent guard combination than Marcus Smart, Derrick White, and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.
White has been especially valuable given his immense two-way impact. He’s scored more than Brown while also building on his reputation as the best shot blocking guard since Dwyane Wade. He’s blocked five shots in two games – three underneath the basket on the crafty Trae Young.
Grant Williams averaged 27.3 minutes per game in the 2022 NBA Playoffs. He hasn’t even touched the floor so far in 2023 and appears to be more of a situational or matchup-based player for coach Joe Mazzulla. This illustrates the Celtics embarrassment of riches and it’s partially why they’re currently the championship favourites per FiveThirtyEight.
It’s been said all season how Harden has evolved his game to be more of a playmaker and how he doesn’t have to be a primary scorer in the playoffs anymore, but has Harden fully embraced that role to start the playoffs? The problem is that Doc Rivers can’t reasonably expect Harden to make seven threes every game like he did in Game 1. What’s more important is figuring out how to stay competitive when Harden can’t find his touch like in Game 2.
I realize the Sixers are up 3-0 against the Nets and blew them out in Game 1, but this was expected. Every team moving forward will be better than the Nets and will be more likely to punish the Sixers during their patented offensive lulls.
The conundrum is that Harden has been struggling getting to the basket too. This clean block by Day’Ron Sharpe doesn’t happen if Harden was two years younger. He’s been locked up by Seth Curry and Nicolas Claxton as well. He was one-of-seven from more than five feet away across the first two games. The more telling stat perhaps is that Harden has had just three free throw attempts in the series, all of which came in Game 3 before he was ejected.
With Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey around, the Sixers have no use for a diminished version of a score-first Harden. They’re more balanced with Harden embracing his role as a playmaker.
Part of Donovan Mitchell’s appeal for the Cavs was that he’s a known quantity in the playoffs. He’s a top eight per game scorer in NBA playoff history. It’s the perfect piece to add when Darius Garland, your other star guard, has zero experience. You just never know how a player will respond to playoff intensity.
After a disappointing Game 1, Garland seriously stepped up in Game 2 and showed that he can be a high-level performer in the playoffs when Mitchell is keyed in on.
The Cavs are likely too inexperienced to win it all this year with an eight-man rotation that’s had just 71 collective playoff games played entering the postseason (to put that into perspective, the Celtics had 533 collective playoff games played). Regardless, this is a great opportunity for the Cavs to get that number way up. And who knows? Maybe everything can break right for this talented group.
Bubble Murray is back. Jamal Murray averaged 26.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 6.6 assists in the Bubble on 62.6 percent true shooting. He’s started this playoff even hotter with averages of 32.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 6.5 assists on 65.5 percent true shooting. The crazy part is that Denver isn’t talked about much as contenders even though this level of production was always in the cards for Murray. They also have an MVP candidate named Nikola Jokic.
After playing 39 minutes in Game 2, any concerns regarding his knee can be put to bed. When asked by TNT after the game about how his knee was feeling, he simply responded, “It feels good.” There’s no reason to think he can’t keep this elite production up, and that means the Nuggets have a legitimate shot at winning the chip.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is Memphis’s most important player for these playoffs. The losses of Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke mean the Grizzlies will be constantly undersized because Xavier Tillman is just 6’8” and won’t be blocking shots at the rim. Meanwhile, Ja Morant reportedly couldn’t dribble, shoot, or even grip a basketball before Game 2. The Grizzlies have consistently shown they can win without him as well.
It’s hard to imagine the team result being nearly as good with Ja Morant in and Jackson Jr. out. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year leads the team in scoring and blocks. He’s also second in assists and rebounds. Credit him again for limiting Anthony Davis to just 13 points on 14 shots in Game 2. Critically, he’s had three fouls in each of the first two games.
He’s developed so nicely since the Adams injury, it’s a legitimate wonder if he’s surpassed Morant in importance not just for this series, but for the franchise over the next five years as well. That said, how far can a team go with Jackson Jr. as their best player? The Lakers could give them a run for their money.
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s hard to tell if Anthony Davis is healthy. In Game 1, he was basically an iron wall with seven blocks and three steals to show for it. But he also had a brief injury scare fighting for an offensive rebound at the end of the second half. He was shown on TV saying, “I can’t move my arm.” He returned in the second half and continued to dominate.
However, AD looked like a diminished version of himself in Game 2 and was brutalized by the Grizzlies. He couldn’t score over Jackson Jr. or Tillman. He couldn’t stop either player from scoring either. He was blocked by John Konchar twice and then again by the rookie David Roddy.
His health for Game 3 will be enlightening for the rest of the series. It may very well be a barometer for the Lakers chance of success.
Mike Brown successfully implementing the Warriors offensive system in Sacramento is one of the stories of the season, but what’s been more intriguing in the playoffs so far is their defence. What was a bottom seven defence in the regular season and the worst rated defence of any playoff team has mostly held up against the most innovative offence in basketball.
They’ve done well to stay connected to Steph Curry and their other perimeter talent. De’Aaron Fox is one of the few guards capable of chasing Curry all around the court. Davion Mitchell has had some special moments on the defensive end as well.
Of course, they’re still not perfect. Their Game 3 loss can be chalked up to their inability to secure defensive rebounds. Still, the Warriors went just 16-of-50 from beyond the arc in that loss. Dropping that game was a wasted opportunity but their defence should keep them competitive against the defending champions.
Golden State Warriors
When they show you who they are, believe them. The Warriors have struggled on the road all year. Their bench disappears. Jordan Poole’s upside as a future star is in question (and his upcoming four-year, $128M contract looks worse and worse). Draymond Green’s days as a DPOY calibre player are gone and he’s no closer to getting the hang of emotional regulation. And as it turns out, there isn’t a magic switch that the Warriors can just flick on in the playoffs.
If you include the regular season they are now 11-32 on the road, and they have to win at least one in Sacramento to advance to the next round. They have a few things going for them like the surprising performances of Kevon Looney and their overall playoff experience, so it’s tough to completely count them out. Still, a lower seed team will need to win at least a few road games to earn an NBA championship.
This could be a huge overreaction. Devin Booker reminds me of Kobe Bryant. Kobe was the better athlete and had a clutch gene that Booker may perhaps be missing, but there’s a resemblance in the way they take over games. Everything from the way Booker can create separation, shoot in traffic from anywhere on the floor, and still have enough in the tank to defend with intensity is reminiscent of his late idol. This corner three from Game 3 has Kobe vibes all over it and is one of the smoothest shots I’ve ever seen.
Booker leads all players in the playoffs with 36.3 points per game. He also has the most field goals on a league-high 60 FG%. He has 13 combined steals and blocks in three games which is a top-two mark only exceeded by Anthony Davis (15 stocks). Remember, he’s just 26 years old.
Between him and Kevin Durant, it’s hard to imagine the Suns getting outscored by any other starting unit in the West. It’s their bench that’s a huge question mark.