2024 NBA playoffs: What we've learned so far from Round 1

ByESPN Insiders ESPN logo
Monday, April 29, 2024

The 2024 NBA playoffs first-round series are into their second week and we've already seen a dominating sweep.

The Minnesota Timberwolves eliminated the Phoenix Suns in four games behind some big performances from All-Star guard Anthony Edwards. They now await the winner of the series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets. In that matchup, LeBron James and the Lakers are down three games to one against Nikola Jokic and the defending NBA Finals champion Nuggets. Meanwhile, the West's top seed Oklahoma City Thunder are in control in their series (3-0) against the Zion Williamson-less New Orleans Pelicans, while the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks are locked at two games apiece.

In the East, the top overall seed Boston Celtics are up 2-1 on the Miami Heat, who are playing without Jimmy Butler. The New York Knicks are on the verge of knocking out reigning MVP Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers (3-1) in a contentious series, while the Indiana Pacers are closing in on a depleted Milwaukee Bucks side (3-1) without Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But things remain tight between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic, who are tied 2-2.

Our NBA insiders break down what's caught their eye and what to look for as postseason presses forward.

What's been a surprise from the first round so far?

Kendra Andrews: How dominant the Timberwolves were over the Suns, considering Kevin Durant & Co. didn't lose to the Wolves in the regular season. The Wolves' first three wins in the series were by double digits, and they outscored the Suns by 51 points in the series when Phoenix's star trio of Bradley Beal, Devin Bookerand Durant were on the floor. The last time the Suns were swept in a best-of-seven series was in the 1989 Western Conference finals, the last season before the Timberwolves franchise came into existence.

Ohm Youngmisuk: It's been very surprising how much the Lakers have led the Nuggets in this series where L.A. is on the verge of being eliminated. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Lakers have led a total of 139 minutes compared to the Nuggets leading nearly 42 minutes in this series. The Lakers were able to capitalize on a lead on Saturday to avoid a second straight postseason sweep to the Nuggets. With the series shifting to Denver, the defending NBA Finals champs can close this series in five on Monday -- but it's been more challenging than expected.

Tim Bontemps: How quickly the Thunder's young guns have adjusted to life in the playoffs. They struggled in their Game 1 win against a Pelicans side without Williamson, and people began to wonder if it would be a long series. Instead, the Thunder followed up with two double-digit wins, including a dominating Game 3 performance in New Orleans to show they finished as the West's top seed -- and why the many people that saw them as a potential soft playoff opponent were off base.

Chris Herring: Itreally felt like the Clippers were going to let go of the rope after blowing a 31-point lead in Game 4 to the Mavericks. The Dallas crowd was fully into it, and the Mavs managed to gain a one-point edge with a beautiful Kyrie Irving bucket with just over two minutes left in the game. The Mavs' comeback felt inevitable for much of the second half. Yet, James Harden and Paul George, playing without injured teammate Kawhi Leonard, willed their team to a 116-111 victory in the closing moments. Now, instead of a 3-1 series hole, LA is back even, 2-2, as it heads back West for Game 5.

Andrew Lopez: After two tough losses against the Cavaliers, the Magic found their offense again when they returned home for Games 3 and 4. Orlando put up a paltry 83 and 86 points in Games 1 and 2 against the Cavaliers but was able to keep Cleveland averaging only 96.5 points with their defense. Orlando completely flipped the script with huge wins at home winning Games 3 and 4 by a combined 61 points. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that's the largest point differential in Games 3 and 4 after trailing 2-0 in NBA history. Whether the shooting travels back to Cleveland for Game 5 is the big question for Jamahl Mosley's Magic.

Which team in either the East or the West has the best chance to knock off the Nuggets?

Lopez: The team with the best chance is Boston but there are still other capable teams. As noted above, the Lakers have led for 139 minutes in the first-round series. Last year, the Timberwolves played the Nuggets close in four of five games -- winning one -- before Denver defeated the Suns in six and swept the Lakers to get to the Finals. And after watching what Oklahoma City has done in the first round, whoever Denver potentially meets in a conference finals (provided they get there, too) will be a formidable opponent.

Youngmisuk: Let's keep the focus on the Thunder. While they don't have the playoff experience that the Nuggets do, OKC is loaded with defenders who can challenge Nuggets guard Jamal Murray. They also have an MVP candidate in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who can score when needed, and have an athletic big man in Chet Holmgren who can keep Jokic busy on the defensive end.

Andrews: In the East it would be the Celtics, which would set up an epic series between the two teams that are favored to win the NBA Finals. If it does get to that, the Celtics would have a very fair shot at beating them to secure the title. When you look at both teams, they have the same level of continuity and a consistent level of regular-season success. There are teams in the West who would definitely give the Nuggets a tough series but expect their biggest challenge to be from Boston.

Bontemps: While the Knicks have been incredible this season and will likely reach the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics are the prohibitive favorites to advance to the NBA Finals for a reason. They've been head-and-shoulders above the competition all season long. We saw Denver win a pair of very close games against the Celtics in the regular season by making more plays down the stretch. But Boston has all of the tools to beat the champs -- if that series comes to pass.

Herring: Talent and scheme-wise, it's clearly Boston. That said, I'm very curious how the Celtics will navigate the game-to-game adversity leading up to a possible Finals matchup. After their Game 3 win over the Heat last week, Jayson Tatum raised the question: Is this team capable of being the harder-playing side that punches first, rather than merely reacting? The Celtics will have to answer that against teams more challenging than a shorthanded Miami group missing Butler -- especially if they reach the conference finals and draw New York. But, if they can answer Tatum's question affirmatively, the Celtics will be a worthy challenger to Denver.

Which player has stood out the most so far this postseason?

Bontemps: There's no better match of player, coach and city than Jalen Brunson, Tom Thibodeau and New York. Even after missing a ton of shots through the first two games of the series against the 76ers (16-of-55 for 29% from the field), Brunson's approach never changed. He responded with an impressive Game 3 and scored 47 points in an incandescent Game 4 showing -- putting the Knicks on the verge of back-to-back years with playoff series wins for the first time since 2000.

Youngmisuk:Kawhi Leonard due to his knee injury, which has been the story of the first round between the Clippers and Mavs. The Clippers ruled Leonard out for Game 4 and his return in the postseason is uncertain. In Game 3 he gutted out 25 minutes and finished with nine points and nine rebounds but didn't look anywhere near the level of two-time Finals MVP. Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said Leonard will not return until he can move the way he did during Game 2, when he logged 35 minutes. There are two days off between Games 4 and 5 but after that, only a day off in between the remaining games in this best-of-seven series.

Andrews: Anthony Edwards. The Timberwolves' All-Star guard shined against the player he deemed his personal GOAT in Durant. Edwards joined Kobe Bryant as the only players at age 22 or younger to average 30 points in a best-of-seven series sweep in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Edwards also became the fourth player under that age to average 30 points in consecutive playoff series, joining Luka Doncic, Tracy McGrady and Bryant. Over the past season, we've seen Edwards evolve into a budding star, and this playoff series put an exclamation point on that.

Herring: I won't pretend that he's been the most impressive player of these playoffs, but I still think it's worth highlighting what Myles Turner has done for Indiana through the first four games against Milwaukee. He's averaged almost 27 points, eight boards and two blocks in the Pacers' three victories -- ones that saw good (but somewhat uneven) scoring outputs from Pascal Siakam and Tyrese Haliburton. Indiana will almost certainly need that sort of big-time production from Turner to be a factor in the next round if it closes out the shorthanded Bucks.

Lopez: Luguentz Dort has been an absolute force on the defensive end for the Thunder through three games. His defense on Brandon Ingram has completely disrupted the flow of the offense for New Orleans, which scored 89.7 points per game in this series. Ingram went 4-of-9 with Dort as the primary defender against him in Game 3 -- only one more field goal than what he had in Games 1 and 2 combined (3-of-13) against Dort. It allowed the Thunder to dictate play and knock the Williamson-less Pelicans out of rhythm.

What is a mid-series adjustment that will prove crucial for a team?

Andrews: The Cavaliers need to get All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell more involved as they haven't scored more than 100 points in any of their games against the Magic. In Game 3, Mitchell had just 13 points; in Game 4, he finished with 18 after going scoreless in the second half. The Cavs will need to set more screens to free him up from Orlando guard Jalen Suggs, who held Mitchell to 1-of-6 with three turnovers in Game 4 when serving as the primary defender.

Bontemps: Across the board, it's clearly the health of some big stars. Can, or will, Leonard return for the Clippers? Can, or will, Antetokounmpo and Lillard come back for the Bucks? There are plenty of other tactical things to look at across the playoffs, but there are none that are more crucial, or consequential, for any teams moving forward than questions around star injuries.

Herring: Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein landing a fifth foul in the third period Sunday initially seemed like a positive thing for Embiid and the Sixers. Then Thibodeau slotted stopper extraordinaire OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa onto the reigning MVP. Embiid, already a bit gassed, was essentially rendered powerless. The solid defensive efforts from New York forced Embiid into 0-for-5 shooting and seven turnovers in the fourth quarter. As a result of that adjustment, the Knicks may win the series in five.

Lopez: On Sunday afternoon, Pelicans coach Willie Green suggested the team could add more shooting to their lineups against OKC while also continuing to go with small lineups or switching up defenses. Starting center Jonas Valanciunasplayed only 12 minutes in Game 4. Dyson Daniels got run behind Larry Nance Jr.as a backup five essentially in the second half. Could this also mean minutes are coming for rookie shooter Jordan Hawkins? Also, simply making open shots might help. The Pelicans were 20-of-40 on open looks in Game 3 and just 7-of-22 on open 3-pointers. Overall, they are 18-of-55 on open 3s this series, so more shooting off the bench could help tremendously.

Youngmisuk: The Mavericks must find life inside the paint again, especially above the rim. Dallas had eight alley-oop dunks in Game 3, the most by any team in a playoff game in the past 20 years. The Mavs owned the paint in Game 3 -- scoring 52 points down low -- and it changed the complexion of the game. The Clippers held the Mavs to 42 points in the paint in their Game 4 win, but they must limit easy baskets to role players while trying to slow down Doncic and Irving.

The Suns are out. The Lakers and Bucks face early exits. Who has the toughest task this offseason?

Herring: The Suns. Durant -- who cost them Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and four unprotected first-round picks in last year's trade with the Brooklyn Nets -- will be 36 to start next season. And Beal, who played just 53 games this season, cost Phoenix four pick swaps and six second-round picks. The Lakers and Bucks aren't in the greatest place, either. But both have at least won a title in recent years. What exactly about the Suns -- between their frequent injuries and their nonexistent assets -- inspires confidence going forward?

Youngmisuk: The Suns. While they have three stars in Booker, Durant and Beal, trying to add more pieces around them will be incredibly challenging given the Suns enter the offseason with $209 million in salary, the biggest payroll of any NBA team. Suns owner Mat Ishbia is incredibly competitive, wants to win now and is not shy about making blockbuster moves. But given the projected $141 million salary cap for next season -- and those three stars earning $150 million next season, according to ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks-- there might not be much the team can do moving forward.

Andrews:The margin between who faces a tougher offseason is small, but tilts toward Phoenix considering their payroll concerns, limited ability to make moves, and coach Frank Vogel was answering questions about his job security. The Suns' big three only played in half of the regular-season games together, though went 26-15 when they did. Now, after being swept by the Wolves in Round 1, where do they go from here?

Lopez: Not to pile on, but the Suns just have very limited ways of moving forward. Phoenix understood the challenges of building the team with the way the Durant and Beal deals were structured. The Lakers have a much easier path to getting something fixed and Milwaukee might've made a deeper run had Lillard and Antetokounmpo not suffered injuries when they did. With Phoenix though, it's a tough road to get this fixed before next season without trying to move one of their big three.

Bontemps: None of these teams have any real flexibility to make changes -- all of them are tied. The Suns and Bucks have even less flexibility, because they will be well past the second luxury tax apron of $189.6 million, have limited draft capital, an aging roster and few tools to meaningfully upgrade their teams around their respective stars. So while all three teams will try to think of fixes for their rosters, none of them can make significant changes unless some of those stars are part of them.

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