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Austin Reaves supplants LeBron James in Lakers' two-man game, and other X-factors from the first round of the playoffs

Whew. That sure was a hell of a lot of basketball, huh?

After a frenetic opening weekend of the 2023 NBA playoffs, here are three things that stood out to me as particularly noteworthy, starting with the newest member of The “I’m Him” Club:

The Reaves/AD two-man game brings the Lakers home

If I’d told you Sunday morning the Los Angeles Lakers would rely on a steady diet of pulverizing pick-and-roll play to pull away from the Memphis Grizzlies late in Game 1, you probably wouldn’t have been too shocked. After all, who the hell has the bodies to stop the LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-roll, right?

Well, surprise: The guy handling the rock in the closing stages of the road win wasn’t the dude who’s the leading scorer in NBA history, and with the fourth-most assists in NBA history, and more playoff experience than the entire Memphis roster. It was the one who was playing his first career playoff game, the one people call “Hillbilly Kobe” — and the one who looked a lot like his nickname-sake as he rudely closed the door on his hosts:

After the Grizzlies opened the fourth quarter with an 11-2 run to take a 3-point lead, the Lakers spaced the floor with three shooters, put the ball in Austin Reaves’ hands, and let him go to work. Time and again, he called up Davis to set a high ball screen, inviting Jaren Jackson Jr. into the action, confident that in a game of cat-and-mouse with the Defensive Player of the Year finalist, he’d have the upper hand. And time and again, he was proven right: baiting Tyus Jones into a shooting foul or keeping him on his hip as he probed; stopping and popping in the space Jackson conceded as he backpedaled and slithered through the crevices he found when JJJ stepped up higher; pulling without a second thought when Desmond Bane dared to go under AD’s screen 28 feet out.

The Lakers dialed up the Reaves-AD two-man game nine times in the final nine minutes of Game 1, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking, and scored 16 points on those possessions. That combination fueled a 30-13 closing kick, sending L.A. on to a 128-112 road win Sunday that wrested home-court advantage away from the second-seeded Grizzlies … and stunned a lot of onlookers in the process by putting the game away with arguably the greatest player of all time mostly just chilling in the corner, watching like the rest of us.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Austin Reaves handles the ball against Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Sunday, April 16, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

We probably shouldn’t have been so surprised, though. Here’s some context you might not have been aware of:

  • Out of 191 duos to run at least 200 pick-and-rolls together during the regular season, Reaves/AD finished seventh in points per chance, with the Lakers scoring an excellent 1.17 points per play on possessions where Davis set a screen for Reaves;

  • Reaves shot 51% from midrange this season, which slots into the 93rd percentile among wing players, according to Cleaning the Glass;

  • He shot 47.2% on pull-up jumpers — the eighth-highest mark in the NBA among players to take at least 100 such shots, snuggled right between Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan on that list;

  • Among players to finish at least 100 possessions as the ballhandler in the pick-and-roll, only seven produced more points per possession than Reaves: Kevin Durant, Leonard, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard;

  • The Lakers scored 1.19 points per possession this season when Reaves shot, or passed to a teammate who shot, against drop coverage. Among players who faced at least 150 possessions of drop, only KD and Luka Dončić were more productive.

All of which is to say: This isn’t, like, a fluke. Reaves is a legit 6-foot-5 playmaker with great feel in the pick-and-roll, the body control to decelerate quickly to create space, and a killer pull-up jumper. That’s the recipe for an extremely dangerous weapon against drop coverage — and if the Grizzlies didn’t know that before Sunday, they sure as hell do now.

Miami gets the drop on the Bucks

By now, five seasons into the Mike Budenholzer era, we’re all pretty familiar with the Milwaukee Bucks’ preferred defensive coverage. Their centers are going to drop deep into the paint, prioritizing protecting the rim above all else. They’re going to trust their point-of-attack defenders to get over ball screens on the perimeter, contest tightly enough from the trailing position to take away pull-up 3s, and force ballhandlers to either make contested/lower-value midrange jumpers, high-arcing floaters or tight-quarters layups over outstretched arms — primarily those of Brook Lopez, who led the NBA in blocked shots this season.

No team allowed fewer points per chance in drop coverage than Milwaukee during the regular season. And as I mentioned in our series preview, the last time these two teams squared off in the postseason, Miami — and especially Bam Adebayo — had a really tough time attacking it: The Heat scored a microscopic 0.791 points per chance against Milwaukee’s drop back in 2021, a huge reason why the Bucks cruised to a four-game first-round sweep.

In Sunday’s Game 1, the Heat were ready for a steady diet of Lopez (and occasionally Bobby Portis) dropping deep on both high pick-and-rolls and side pick-and-rolls … and this time, those answers were routinely correct:

Jimmy Butler, his level of lock-in this time around evidently stupider like a fox, had his hand firmly on the dial, alternating between patient probing for short jumpers, decisive midrange pull-ups and opportunistic slot cuts off the weak side to consistently find pay dirt. Kevin Love turned in his best performance as a member of the Heat, partnering with Butler in the pick-and-pop to take advantage of the space a stretch-5 has against a dropping center, drilling four triples on his way to 18 points in 23 minutes off the bench.

Gabe Vincent and Max Strus were shot-ready, firing off the catch when the closeout wasn’t quite there. And after a tentative start, Adebayo found his rhythm in the second half, coming off screens into waiting pocket passes that allowed him to flow into rhythm midrange jumpers.

The Heat knew where the spaces would be, and they exploited them ruthlessly: 27 points on 20 possessions (1.35 points per, a league-best-caliber rate) with Lopez in either the drop or icing a side pick-and-roll, consistently finding ways to create good looks against what the Bucks like to do best.

How effectively they’ll be able to continue doing that moving forward, we’ll see. With its role players shooting the lights out, Miami way outshot its expected effective field-goal percentage in Game 1, which you wouldn’t expect to continue throughout the series; losing Tyler Herro to a broken hand deals a major blow to a Heat team that didn’t have a ton of bankable shot creation and shot-making to begin with. Some regression there, combined with an uptick in form from the Bucks’ shooters — their 11-of-45 mark from 3-point range, with Lopez, Portis, Jae Crowder and Jevon Carter missing all 14 of their hoists, made for “the most 3-point misses in a playoff game in franchise history,” according to Justin Kubatko of Statitudes — could level things out moving forward. (One silver lining in the Game 1 loss: Khris Middleton looking like himself after missing time to rehab his ailing knee, scoring 33 points in 33 minutes.)

Even if it doesn’t, though, the Heat being able to hit the Bucks' defensive fastball marked a stark change from the last time we saw these two teams lock up, and it helped get them a lead and home-court advantage. That’s huge, especially with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status up in the air, and with Butler — 35 points on 15-for-27 shooting, 11 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 steals — once again looking capable of being the best player on the floor in a postseason setting.

Knicks’ best chance remains the second chance

I mentioned this in the series preview, too. New York ranked second in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate during the regular season, while Cleveland had been bottom-five in defensive rebounding since Jan. 1 and a dismal 29th since the trade deadline; which team could control the glass when the Knicks had the ball would likely go a long way toward determining which team won on a given night.

So, about that:

The Knicks rebounded an obscene 42.3% of their misses on Saturday, with Mitchell Robinson, a returning Julius Randle, and ace reserves Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein all coming up with multiple caroms. New York scored 23 second-chance points — 11 more than the Cavaliers, mitigating Cleveland’s 6-point edge in 3-point shooting. And with the game in the balance in the final minute, the Knicks kept the Cavs from finishing two critical possessions with defensive rebounds, extending a pair of plays — a Hartenstein board of a Hart miss that led to a driving banker by Jalen Brunson with 35.4 seconds to go, and Randle skying in to collect a Brunson miss with 6.9 ticks left, forcing Cleveland to foul and send Quentin Grimes to the free-throw line — that led to the four points that produced the margin of victory in a 101-97 road win.

This is how a team that finished the regular season 20th in both effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage also finished second in non-garbage-time offensive efficiency. The Knicks routinely win the possession game: committing fewer turnovers than their opponent, getting to the free-throw line more often and, perhaps most importantly, dominating the offensive glass. Because they did that, the Knicks beat the best defense in the NBA on the road in a game where their All-Star power forward, coming off a two-week layoff with an ankle sprain, shot 7-for-20 … and starting small forward RJ Barrett went 2-for-12 … and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Immanuel Quickley didn’t make a shot.

Being able to grind out a win on the road under those circumstances has to make the Knicks feel pretty good about their chances in what promises to be a nip-and-tuck series. The vibes on the other side, you’d imagine, feel a bit less immaculate.