A lot has happened in the past week of NBA basketball — the play-in games came and went, and the first weekend of playoff games is in the books. As a result, I have plenty to talk about.
Takeaways from the Play-in Tournament
Despite its flaws, the Play-In Tournament is here to stay.
Last Tuesday’s Clippers-Wolves game was the most viewed TNT game since opening night of this season. And in its three years of existence, the play-in tournament has featured names like Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Paul George and Stephen Curry. But it’s also given teams on the playoff bubble a chance to move their chips to the center of the table, get creative at the trade deadline, and dream big — some successful (2021-22 Pelicans), and some not (2021-22 Kings).
The best part is that it gives those teams who sneak in from the No. 9 or 10 spot a taste of success that could jumpstart their ascension in the following years. It happened with the Grizzlies a year ago and would be unsurprising if the Pels followed suit.
The growing value of youth in the postseason
There’s this cool, and probably typical, blend of veteran and young talent dispersed throughout these playoff rosters, and I can’t help but put myself on blast for spending this season undervaluing youth when it came to teams ready to win now. Outside of Ja Morant, I basically counted out every first, second, or third-year player (my definition of young) being able to either lead their teams to the playoffs or make much noise if they did happen to get there. And for the most part, I was right — LaMelo Ball and the Hornets aren’t quite ready, and Darius Garland and the Cavsalbeit banged up, gave away a 14-point lead in a win-or-go-home situation.
But my stance has subtly changed. In reality, numerous younger guys are making meaningful impacts on playoff basketball right now. The one (outside of Morant) who’s actually leading his team is Anthony Edwards. But look at the various role players that are making a difference — the defenders (Herbert Jones, Jaden McDanielsetc.), the secondary scorers (Tyrese Maxey, Jordan Poole come to mind), and the floor-spacers (Desmond Bane, Troy Murphy III, etc). The list grows longer as you dive into the 16 rosters.
Of course, the natural rebuttal to this is to highlight many successful teams that fill out their rosters with veteran players via free agency and trades. Veteran-led teams have achieved the ultimate goal over the past few seasons (bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Warriors). Still, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there is no singular right way for a team to raise its floor or ceiling — younger players can plug some holes.
NBA champion odds
How important is depth in the playoffs?
The value of depth has always been a topic of conversation come postseason. Is it valuable? Sure, teams that constantly battle injuries to key players could benefit from having guys 9-11 on the bench be worthy of regular minutes. And having a quality 10-man rotation during the regular season allows for players’ bodies to hold up adequately over the long 82-game regular season. But I tend to lean towards depth not being as necessary when the postseason rolls around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have your 10th man come in on a random night and give you a few game-changing threes while the rest of the team is ice-cold, but those moments should be few and far between. Instead, coaches should have a shorter rotation that emphasizes getting the most out of their high-end talent. Otherwise, there’s the risk of leaving bullets in the chamber, which could make all the difference in playoff games.
We saw such underutilization of high-end players hurt the Bucks in previous years when coach Mike Budenholzer kept limiting Khris Middleton’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s minutes. Fast-forward to this postseason, and you could see similar issues residing elsewhere. Memphis had five guys off the bench play double-digit minutes on Saturday (Jaren Jackson Jr. battled foul trouble, so Brandon Clarke getting 27 minutes off the bench is justifiable). However, Ja playing 35 minutes and Desmond Bane 33 is not. It’s early, though, so there’s time to sort those things out. Still, you hate to see it cost teams games.
Conversely, look at the Nets-Celtics series — Kessler Edwards played four minutes for Brooklyn, and if you dismiss that, only eight other guys really played, which maximized the best players (Durant 41 minutes and Irving 42). Same for Boston — Payton Pritchard logged eight minutes, but it was essentially just seven dudes out there for the Celtics in Game 1. I understand that this way of allocating minutes might be draining for the players, but that’s where the playoff schedule could make a difference. From the multiple days off between games to the travel not being as frequent, players should theoretically be able to recharge well enough to handle greater workloads.
What I’m watching for in Bulls-Bucks
Call me crazy, but I’m pretty interested in watching the rest of this Bulls-Bucks series. I don’t think the Bulls will win or even take the series past five games, but there are things from Game 1 that I’m going to be monitoring moving forward, especially on Chicago’s side.
Zach LaVine played like someone who was in his first-ever playoff game, so I’m curious to see how deep into the series it takes for him to make adjustments and have better production.
I’m also curious if Nikola Vucevic can be the stretch big this series calls for. He’ll have every opportunity to do so, considering how easily and frequently he walked into trail threes and how Milwaukee’s pick-and-roll coverage gifted him numerous pick-and-pop threes. But he’s got to make them — going 2-for-10 from deep won’t cut it. Vucevic’s Game 1 performance was just a continuation of his poor 3-point-shooting in the regular season (31.4 percent), his worst since 2017-2018. His shooting seems like the most straightforward way for the Bulls’ offense to get rolling, which tells you all you need to know about DeMar DeRozan’s playoff struggles.
Speaking of DeMar, it’s been one game, but it’s also years worth of evidence that suggests his Game 1 shooting woes aren’t an abnormality. He essentially had his same shot diet on Sunday that he did during his career-best 2021-22 regular season. So, like Vucevic, could it be as simple as DeMar just making shots? We’ll see. Open, catch-and-shoot threes are one thing, but contested mid-range jumpers are another. Either way, Chicago may not stand by a chance if those two guys don’t put the ball in the basket.
(Photo of DeMar DeRozan: Stacy Revere/Getty Images; The Athletic may receive an affiliate commission if you open an account with BetMGM through links contained in this article.)