The first weekend of NBA action in the books, and it was compelling enough to where you shouldn’t want to jump the gun and fast forward to what is certain to be a tremendous conference semifinal round.
The Eastern Conference has been separated into a top-four and bottom-four since before the All-Star break, while the best in the West has been a top-three since December. Still, I’d advise you to pull back on the “May can’t get here soon enough” talk because we could see an upset or two recorded before the month is up.
Only three teams pulled upsets in the eight Game 1s in this first round, highlighted by the No. 8-seeded Bulls taking down the Celtics in Boston. Milwaukee, No. 6 in the East, blew out Toronto to go up 1-0 there, while Utah pulled off a last-second victory over the L.A. Clippers despite losing starting center Rudy Gobert 17 seconds in.
The Pacers had a chance to steal Game 1 in Cleveland but missed their opportunity. The Cavs smartly sent a double-team at Paul George to get the ball out of his hands and C.J. Miles didn’t pass it back to him, getting himself a clean look but failing to connect in a 109-108 loss. If Miles had knocked down the shot or if George had hit a wide open Lance Stephenson underneath the rim as soon as James came with the double, the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference would’ve all been upset. Favorites went just 3-5 against the spread in series openers, so don’t skip ahead just yet. There are some juicy chapters coming.
Although Gobert’s injury could’ve been worse and the Jazz were able to overcome his absence when Joe Johnson’s runner at the buzzer caromed in, it’s not likely he’ll be able to make it back in the series. The Clippers can adjust and see how they can take advantage of Utah missing its Defensive Player of the Year candidate at the time it needs him most.
Derrick Favors played well in extended minutes, but looked fatigued down the stretch and even admitted he has to get used to playing such a large role after being sidelined with knee issues for most of the season. Despite stealing homecourt advantage away, Utah should still be considered the underdog without Gobert.
The same can be said about the Raptors, since they reached last season’s Eastern Conference finals despite trailing 1-0 in each of their first two series. They thrived in Game 2 last season and have the defensive chops to figure out how they’re going to keep Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo from ending their season prematurely. The additions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker will pay dividends, so don’t write Toronto off just yet.
Boston may not be as fortunate in crawling out of an early deficit.
Isaiah Thomas tragically lost his sister in a car accident early Saturday morning and played through his emotional strife on Sunday evening, so that got the brunt of the media attention regarding the outcome. Thomas wasn’t sharp, but he’d rank way down on the list of reasons the Celtics lost. He hit big shots, got to the free-throw line and called his number the way he normally does. Although one ill-fated drive ended in his shot being rejected emphatically, that happened often during the regular season. It’s what you live with when your best player is fearless but happens to be much smaller than everyone else.
Where the Celtics failed to respond most came on the boards, where they were out-rebounded, 53-36. This forced them to have to work harder for longer on the defensive end, disrupting any rhythm they looked to sustain on offense. Thomas ended up with 33 points, five boards and six assists. He was fine. Al Horford, making his playoff debut in Boston, contributed eight assists in addition to 19 points and seven rebounds. He stepped up.
The reason why Boston lost, and head coach Brad Stevens needs to be extremely concerned going forward, is his team lacks the rim protection to keep the Bulls from attacking and setting up open looks. This appears to be a bad matchup for the top seed.
Chicago won despite shooting 8-for-25 from 3-point range. Nikola Mirotic, who keyed the team’s late-season push with his 3-point shooting and the space he created for Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo to work in, shot 1-for-9. He and rookie shooter Paul Zipser missed wide open looks that could’ve given the Bulls a huge lead entering the fourth quarter as opposed to requiring the late 8-0 run that ultimately won the game.
Bobby Portis made the difference with 19 points and eight rebounds, shooting 8-for-10 from the field and stepping outside to hit three 3-pointers, only the third time he’s done that in his two-year career. If he can remain effective and the Bulls get anything close to what they got late in the season from Mirotic, they’ll become the sixth No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 in NBA history.
Jimmy Butler, matched up against fellow Marquette product Jae Crowder, has enjoyed a breakout season despite his team finishing at just .500. He’s become the type of go-to scorer the Bulls have enjoyed in Michael Jordan and Derrick Rose, an elite finisher. With Dwyane Wade having returned to provide experience and Rondo also performing at a level we haven’t seen from him in years, the Celtics find themselves climbing a mountain much steeper than anticipated.
Ironically, the Bulls are the last No. 1 seed to fall against a No. 8 in a playoff series, succumbing in six games after losing Rose to a torn ACL in the series opener. Chicago may lose Game 2, so you could get a better series price if Boston evens things up, but you should hop on a potential upset here. Game 1 was no fluke.
The Bulls will beat the Celtics, which makes Washington a heavy favorite to reach an Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1979.