The 2022 NBA playoffs have finally arrived! After an unprecedented regular season, featuring some of the closes races in recent memory, Saturday marked the beginning of what each of these 16 teams hope will be a two-month march to the NBA championship. And with a trio of incredible playoff debuts, what a beginning it was.
In the Western Conference, the No. 3-seeded Golden State Warriors were paced by 22-year-old Jordan Poole, who led the Warriors to a 16-point victory over Nikola Jokic and the No. 6-seeded Denver Nuggets. And the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, who defeated the LA Clippers in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 play-in game, dominated Ja Morant and the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies behind an epic 36-point playoff debut from 2020 No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards.
Earlier in the afternoon, Donovan Mitchell and the No. 5-seeded Utah Jazz took on the No. 4-seeded Dallas Mavericks, who are without franchise superstar Luka Doncic, ruled out of Game 1 on Saturday morning because of a strained left calf. There is significant concern as to Doncic’s availability for Game 2 as well, sources told ESPN.
Over in the East, the fourth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers crushed the fifth-seeded Toronto Raptors behind an explosive performance from second-year guard Tyrese Maxey, who poured in a game-high 38 points on 21 shots in the Sixers’ 20-point Game 1 victory.
Our NBA experts watched it all. Here are the most important takeaways from each of the four games on Day 1 of playoff action.
No. 6 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 3 Golden State Warriors
Game 1: Warriors 123, Nuggets 107: Poole’s offensive firepower continues to be valuable insurance for Warriors’ title chase
For the past three years, Jordan Poole has been asking his veteran teammates about the playoffs. So when he took the court Saturday in his first career playoff game, he was as ready as he could have been. And he played like it.
Poole scored a game-high 30 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-7 from 3, a performance that saw Poole pass Stephen Curry for most 3s made in a playoff debut (Curry hit four in 2013). It was the second-most points in a playoff debut in Warriors history, trailing just Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 35.
Jordan Poole goes for 30 points in his playoff debut, leading the Warriors to a dominant Game 1 win.
Although Curry was back in the lineup for the first time since March 16, Poole, who averaged 18.5 points and 4 assists per game this season, remained in the starting lineup. There’s no decision when, or if, Poole will head back to the bench, with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr saying, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
Poole’s playoff debut continues his campaign for Sixth Man of the Year, one that has only accelerated over the past month. From March until the end of the regular season, Poole shot 41.9% from 3 on 85 makes — no other player made more than 74 — and poured in 24.7 points per game, on 47% shooting and 5.4 assists.
This eruption isn’t new for him, Kerr insists. He believes it goes all the way back to the final play-in game last season, when Poole scored 19 points off the bench in a season-ending loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. For the Warriors to get back to title contention, they’ll need Poole to continue to ascend — and fast. — Kendra Andrews
No. 5 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers
Game 1: 76ers 131, Raptors 111: Tyrese Maxey might be the key to the Sixers reaching the Eastern Conference finals
In the days leading up to the start of the first-round series between the 76ers and Raptors, all of the focus was on how James Harden would perform in his first postseason with his new team.
Game 1, however, saw a different guard emerge as the star of the game: second-year breakout star Tyrese Maxey, who finished with 38 points on 14-for-21 shooting.
And, after his latest impressive performance in a season full of them, his play offers up an interesting question: Is it Maxey, and not Harden, who is Philadelphia’s second-best player after Joel Embiid?
Anyone watching this game would have a hard time arguing otherwise. Harden played well, finishing with 22 points, five rebounds and 14 assists in 40 minutes. But he went just 2-for-10 on 2-point shots, and when he isn’t fouled at the rim, continues to look short on offensive firepower.
James Harden bounces a sweet pass to Tyrese Maxey through traffic for a fast-break finish.
Maxey, however, has no such problem. The 6-foot-2 guard, already one of the NBA’s fastest players, has gone from settling for one floater after another as a rookie to exploding to the rim over defenders time and again. One reason for that? An influx of space: After shooting just 30% from 3 last season on just 1.7 attempts per game, he has more than doubled his perimeter production, shooting 42.7% on more than four attempts per game.
Saturday, Maxey went 5-for-8 from deep — even with Toronto flooding defenders to him. And while there were initial concerns about how he’d fare with Harden, the arrival of the 10-time All-Star has instead unleashed Maxey as a devastating slasher and scorer — one the Raptors had no answers for in Game 1.
The rest of the postseason won’t be this easy for the 76ers. They won’t always have three turnovers in 48 minutes. They won’t always hit 50% of their 3s.
But they will have Maxey’s speed and energy. And if he keeps playing like this, it could be him — and not Harden — who is the key to the 76ers finally reaching the Eastern Conference finals, and beyond, for the first time in over two decades. — Tim Bontemps
No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies
Game 1: Wolves 130, Grizzlies 117: Memphis won’t be able to grind Minnesota’s top-ranked offense into submission
The Minnesota Timberwolves lit it up in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies — and we shouldn’t have expected anything less. The Wolves were the NBA’s most efficient offense after New Year’s. In Game 1, it was an attack that even the Grizzlies — the league’s third-ranked defense since New Year’s — couldn’t contain.
Minnesota’s 130-117 win was a showcase in the depth of creativity of that offense. Anthony Edwards‘s first step propelled him into the heart of the Memphis defense, but he finished with ease. He’s a slasher who will keep the Grizzlies up at night for the next couple of weeks. In Game 1, he also exacted plenty of damage from the outside — four 3-pointers. This is a player filling out his game on a big stage.
Whatever plagued Karl-Anthony Towns as he struggled in the Wolves’ play-in win on Tuesday was extinguished early on Saturday. He drained shots from deep, attacked from the perimeter, beat the Grizzlies’ help defense and operated with his feathery touch around the basket. When encountering bodies at the nail, he whipped the ball back out to shooters for good looks from beyond the arc.
Karl-Anthony Towns’ dad and Ja Morant’s dad have some fun on the sidelines with a minute remaining.
The Wolves shared the ball, got quality looks on reversals and skip passes, and crashed the offensive glass. They kept their cool, picked their spots and hit big shots late.
The Grizzlies can take solace in the fact that they missed more than a dozen shot attempts in the immediate basket area in Game 1, something they’re unlikely to do again. But to win the series, they’ll need to figure out how to slow the Wolves’ locomotive, because any notion that the Grizzlies can use their physicality and rim protection to grind Minnesota into submission appears overly optimistic. — Kevin Arnovitz
No. 5 Utah Jazz vs. No. 4 Dallas Mavericks
Game 1: Jazz 99, Mavericks 93: “We just didn’t have enough offensive power down the stretch.”
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Mavericks’ offense sputtered while injured superstar Luka Doncic wore a hoodie and watched from the bench.
The Mavs’ chances of advancing past the first round for the first time since their 2011 title run take a major hit if Doncic is munching popcorn during games. Dallas’ hopes for playoff success hinge primarily on its perennial MVP candidate putting on a show, which isn’t likely to happen Monday night for Game 2, as much as Doncic and the Mavs’ medical staff try to expedite the healing of his left calf strain. Dallas coach Jason Kidd calls Doncic “day to day,” but the Mavs would be ecstatic if he’s ready to return by the time the series shifts to Salt Lake City.
Royce O’Neale tells the Dallas crowd to quiet down after splashing a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs proved Saturday in their 99-93 Game 1 loss that they can make the Jazz play in the mud, almost pulling off a double-digit comeback against a team particularly prone to giving them up. Utah’s offense was ugly. Dallas prevented the NBA’s top-ranked offense from getting clean 3-point looks and lobs to All-Star big man Rudy Gobert — quite an accomplishment to deny both weapons and make All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell (32 points on 10-of-29 shooting) work so hard to score.
The Mavs’ problem, predictably, was their offense was even uglier. Doncic led the NBA in usage rate for the second consecutive season for good reason. He’s as good as anyone in the league at solving defenses, a threat to score at all three levels and elite at setting up his teammates for dunks and 3s. And he’s surrounded by role players who excel playing off him — but aren’t suited to consistently create offense, especially with Gobert shutting down the paint.
“They didn’t score 100 points,” Kidd said. “When you do that in today’s basketball, it tends to give you a chance to win. We just didn’t have enough offensive power down the stretch.”
It’s hard enough to win in the NBA playoffs with a lone star when he’s healthy. — Tim MacMahon