The No. 1 seeds in both conferences each lost their first game of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2003, back when LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were still NBA draft prospects and not grizzled veterans.
One half of that dynamic duo is going home early this postseason. Will it be LeBron and the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers? And could the Milwaukee Bucks be headed toward an equally shocking first-round exit?
We asked our experts — who would NEVER overreact to a single game — to play a little NBA postseason fact or fiction heading into Thursday’s quadrupleheader on ESPN (starting at 1 p.m. ET).
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Paul Pierce doesn’t want to hear any talk about LeBron James being the greatest of all time if the Lakers can’t get out of the first round.
1. Fact or fiction: The Lakers are in trouble.
Nick Friedell: Fact. The Lakers’ offense can’t find any rhythm and Damian Lillard is absolutely on fire. Even if the Lakers can get by the Portland Trail Blazers, they haven’t looked at all like a title contender since getting into the bubble. They look like a team that has a top-heavy roster and is too reliant on James and Anthony Davis to carry them for long stretches. If the standard is a championship, I don’t know how Lakers fans could be confident right now.
Kevin Pelton: More fiction than fact. It’s certainly not good that their offensive malaise from the seeding games carried over to Game 1 of the playoffs, but as Jared Dubin noted on Twitter, the Lakers are still getting the same quality shots as the regular season — they’re just not going in. At some point, I think that’s likely to change.
Andre Snellings: Fact. I picked the Trail Blazers to defeat the Lakers before the series began, and Game 1 epitomized why. James and Davis are all-world players, but it isn’t clear that the Lakers have enough scoring in their supporting cast to keep up. The Lakers’ biggest advantage against most teams, besides their powerful leaders, is size. But with Jusuf Nurkic healthy and playing at a high level, the Blazers can compete in the paint while allowing Lillard and CJ McCollum to dominate the perimeter. This is just a difficult matchup.
Eric Woodyard: Fiction. I get it. The Lakers looked extremely mediocre in Game 1, but sometimes it takes a wake-up call to truly poke the bear. That’ll be the case with LeBron & Co. moving forward. I thought LeBron could’ve been more aggressive offensively down the stretch instead of facilitating so much, but he’ll turn it around. The Lakers have depth issues and the Blazers are no fluke, but I can’t see L.A. going down in this series.
Royce Young: Fact. There are real causes for concern about the way the Lakers have played in the bubble. Their shooting deficiencies aren’t something new, but they have become more pronounced. They might not fall at the hands of the Blazers, but the Lakers aren’t the title favorite anymore. And with Lillard breathing down their necks, they don’t have a lot of time to figure it out.
Stephen A. Smith is worried about the Bucks going forward with Khris Middleton’s struggles and a lack of scoring depth after Giannis Antetokounmpo.
2. Fact or fiction: The Bucks are in trouble.
Pelton: Fiction. I’m less concerned about Milwaukee’s opening loss, which does less to reinforce existing concerns about the Bucks. They struggled during seeding games, but that was mostly about sitting key players with nothing on the line.
Snellings: Fiction. The Bucks have to find their level after essentially coasting through the play-in games. Unlike the Lakers, though, they should be able to handle their opponent without much difficulty, giving them more time and cushion to find themselves before the situation gets critical. Once they rediscover their team chemistry, they are still overwhelming favorites to advance.
Woodyard: Fiction. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t concerns, but I’m not ready to say the Bucks are in trouble just yet. Game 1 cemented some of the recent issues with the Bucks: lack of focus at times, inability to defend the 3 when teams get hot and kicking into another gear. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Giannis Antetokounmpo from being around him, though, is that he doesn’t take losing lightly. He can will his team to victory, if necessary.
Young: Fiction. The Bucks’ issues scream malaise and motivation more than their Western counterparts’. The Orlando Magic were able to sneak up on them, but like a lot of Eastern favorites in recent memory, that seems to happen sometimes. The Bucks haven’t shown the same cutting edge in the bubble they had before the season was shut down in March, but their issues are much more solvable.
Friedell: Fact. The Bucks should eventually be able to power through an undermanned Magic squad that played great in Game 1, but they haven’t looked right since entering the bubble. Who is going to consistently help Antetokounmpo when teams load up on him? What is he going to do when teams sag off him and force him to shoot? The Heat’s long and athletic roster would love the chance to slow down the Bucks. And if Milwaukee gets past Miami, it would still have to beat the winner of the Toronto/Boston series before getting to the Finals. Good luck.
Stephen A. Smith considers Damian Lillard the best player on the planet right now and worries about the Lakers’ chance to advance out of the first round.
3. Fact or fiction: Damian Lillard is the best player in the NBA at the moment.
Woodyard: Fact. Dame Time is in full effect inside the bubble. He’s not here to play any games, and the NBA is on full notice. He is in his bag! From draining deep treys to representing his hometown Oakland with a dance to Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle” after nailing a clutch 3, what he’s doing right now is truly legendary. There’s no denying that he’s the hottest man in the league — though I still consider LeBron the best overall talent.
Snellings: Faction. Giannis, LeBron and James Harden are the three highest-impact players in the game as measured by real plus-minus, but the Blazers don’t need Lillard to carry as large a load as that trio. The Blazers specifically need Lillard to do exactly what he is best at: create offense in robust ways that the opponent can’t defend. He is one of the best in the league at that, which makes Portland incredibly dangerous.
Young: Fiction. “At the moment” leaves some room for interpretation, and despite Lillard being maybe the most dominant, or most enthralling, or most compelling, or most exciting, or most valuable, it doesn’t necessarily make him the best outright. Because what Dame is doing isn’t really all that new. If he wasn’t your best player in the NBA back in January when he was pretty much doing this, then he isn’t now.
Friedell: Fact. There isn’t anybody I’d rather have on my team in this moment. He has carried the Blazers and given the group the confidence it needs to both get in the playoffs and topple the Lakers. It would be very interesting to watch a healthy Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in the bubble, but without them on the floor Lillard is the King of the Bubble.
Pelton: Fiction. Nobody has provided more value in the bubble than Lillard, deservedly named Player of the Seeding Games, but that’s not the same thing as being the best player in the NBA.
Former Knicks and Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale explains why Thunder-Rockets is the series he’s most intrigued by.
4. Miami or Houston: Which team is on a better NBA Finals path?
Woodyard: Miami. Neither path will be easy, since both teams could play the No. 1 seed in the next round, but the Heat have had regular-season success against the Bucks. That has to give them confidence that they can win on any given night. So I’ll rephrase the question above and say their path is more realistic.
Young: Houston has an open door. No matter what, the Heat are going to see Giannis and the Bucks standing in the way, but the Rockets can start daydreaming about avoiding LeBron and the Lakers. And what boosts the Rockets even more is they’re waiting on a return of one of the 10 or 15 best players in the world, too.
Friedell: Miami. I’d be surprised if either one of these teams makes it to this year’s Finals, but Miami doesn’t have a powerful LA Clippers team in its way. I believe the Clippers and Toronto Raptors will eventually meet for the bubble title — I’ve thought all year that the Clippers were just a cut above everybody else — but Jimmy Butler is motivated, that Heat group is healthy, and they wouldn’t have to see the Clippers until the Finals.
Pelton: Houston. Playing without Russell Westbrook, the Rockets got precisely the kind of game they’re going to need 12 times to get there: dominant performance from Harden and strong contributions from their role players.
Snellings: The Rockets are on a better NBA Finals path because they have the puncher’s power to win the whole thing. Their primary strength is, of course, the Harden-led Mike D’Antoni system where they maximize the highest efficiency shots in a way that teams really can’t fully defend. However, when Westbrook returns, he’ll give them a different look with his downhill style that takes advantage of all the space created by the shooters. At their best, they can defeat any team.
Charles Barkley joins “Greeny” and proclaims that the Blazers will shock the Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
5. What’s your bold prediction for Thursday’s games?
Friedell: Harden is going to put up a 50 burger. He’ll probably put up several in the bubble playoffs, but without Westbrook, he knows he has to do more offensively and will rise to the challenge.
Snellings: I predict that three of the four series will be 2-0 after Thursday, with at least one of the top seeds losing again.
Young: Milwaukee covers, and then some. Right now the Bucks are a 13-point favorite. The Magic have their attention now — or at least should — and if the Bucks are truly a title contender, this is where they make their statement and win by 20.
Pelton: Rajon Rondo returns for the Lakers and hands out double-digit assists.
Woodyard: The Pacers might be the underdogs, but you can’t count them out just yet. I’m expecting a big bounce-back game from T.J. Warren, with at least 35 points. Tuesday was his first playoff experience and now he knows what to expect.