The opening weekend of the NBA playoffs is always one of the most exciting times on the league calendar, and the 2022 postseason got underway Saturday in typical fashion.
The four series openers began with a pair of lower-seeded teams stealing home-court advantage with Game 1 upsets, as the Jazz topped the Mavericks in Dallas and the Timberwolves stunned the Grizzlies in Memphis.
Then a couple championship hopefuls got breakout performances from young guards as Tyrese Maxey scored 38 points to lead the Sixers past the Raptors and Jordan Poole had 30 points to lift the Warriors over the Nuggets.
Home teams held serve Sunday, but there was plenty of drama – especially in Boston, where the Celtics defeated the Nets on a buzzer-beater.
SATURDAY RECAP: Warriors and Sixers roll, Jazz and Wolves steal home-court
FEEL THE HEAT: Nine stars facing the most pressure in the NBA playoffs
Check out USA TODAY Sports’ analysis from all of Sunday’s action:
The Suns held off the surging Pelicans, taking Game 1 at home 110-99 on Sunday. The Pelicans cut the Suns’ lead to seven points heading into the fourth quarter before Chris Paul took over, scoring 19 of his 30 points in the frame. Devin Booker scored 25 and Deandre Ayton added 21 points.
Things took a scary turn when Ayton took a shoulder from Herb Jones to the jaw late in the fourth quarter. The contact was ruled incidental and Ayton remained in for the remainder of the game, but he appeared visibly shaken up. Afterwards, he said his head was feeling “fine.”
Suns coach Monty Williams said it was a “physical and emotional game,” but said he didn’t think the contact on Ayton was a cheap shot: “I’m not quite sure it was a malicious shot. I got to look at the film to make sure, but I didn’t see that.”
– Cydney Henderson
The No. 1 Phoenix Suns lead the No. 8 New Orleans Pelicans 51-32 at halftime. The fully-rested Suns blitzed the Pelicans on both sides of the ball, leading by as many as 22 points in the first half. Devin Booker scored 12 points, DeAndre Ayton added 13 and Cam Johnson, a Sixth Man of the Year finalist, had 10 off the bench.
The Pelicans are fresh off a play-in tournament win Friday that earned them the No. 8 seed, but none of the momentum appeared to follow them to Phoenix. New Orleans shot 22.4% from the field in the first half, going 11-49 and 4-15 from three. Brandon Ingram had 12 points and C.J. McCollum was held to 8 points.
– Cydney Henderson
Everything looked ready as the Milwaukee Bucks began their quest for back-to-back NBA titles.
Fiserv Forum had a different energy before Game 1 on Sunday against the Chicago Bulls. There were white “Built for This” towels draped over every seat and a palpable playoff buzz in the arena that felt edgier than the 41 regular-season games.
The Bucks also started like they were keyed up on adrenaline. But all that energy soon dissipated and Milwaukee had to fight for a 93-86 victory in a slugfest despite 27 points and 16 rebounds for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee’s lead in the first quarter ballooned to 32-16 when Bobby Portis drained a 3-pointer.
The opening adrenaline soon wore off and Milwaukee’s shots started clanging off the rim after going 14 for 26 (53.6%) in the first quarter.
The Bulls trimmed the lead down to 44-39 when Zach LaVine hit a 3-pointer and then two free throws.
The Bucks took a 51-43 lead into the locker room after Antetokounmpo made 1 of 2 from the charity stripe with 0.1 of a second remaining in the second quarter.
The Bucks kept trying to hold off the Bulls. Chicago got to within 53-49 early in the third quarter before Khris Middleton drained a 3-pointer. A triple from LaVine made it 57-54, but Milwaukee’s Wes Matthews answered with his own three.
Chicago finally tied the game at 64-64 when Nikola Vucevic nailed a 3-pointer at the 4:40 mark of the third quarter. The Bulls stretched that run to 13-0 to take a 69-64 lead on a floater by Coby White. That ignited the Bulls fans who infiltrated Fiserv.
The Bucks fought back by scoring the final six points of the third quarter to take a 74-71 advantage. Portis drained a 3-pointer from the left corner and Antetokounmpo converted a three-point play after an acrobatic layup.
LaVine picked up his fifth foul 1:22 into the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo got whistled for No. 5 a few minutes later on an offensive foul.
The teams lapsed into a three-minute scoring drought until Jrue Holiday dropped in a layup for a 77-74 lead with 7:07 remaining.
Vucevic gave Chicago the lead again at 78-77 a few minutes later and Antetokounmpo checked back in. Holiday countered with his first 3-pointer after missing his first three attempts.
That kickstarted an 8-0 run that included a three-point play from Lopez and a midrange jumper from Holiday that made it 85-78 at the 3:58 mark.
The Bulls didn’t make it easy, getting to within 87-84 on a jumper from DeMar DeRozan. Then Alex Caruso was left alone under the basket for a layup.
Lopez used his size advantage again, dropping in a close jumper while getting fouled. He missed the free throw and the Bucks led, 89-86, with just over a minute remaining.
Vucevic missed a shot at close range, but then forced a turnover by the Bucks. LaVine missed a long 3-pointer with 29 seconds left and Holiday nailed two free throws to seal the victory.
Lopez added 18 points and Holiday 16 for the Bucks.
Vucevic led the Bulls with 24 points and 17 rebounds.
— Ben Steele, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
No surprise, but Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Denver’s Nikola Jokic are the three finalists for MVP. There was some irritation on Twitter that Golden State’s Jordan Poole wasn’t a finalist for Most Improved Player – Cleveland’s Darius Garland, Memphis’ Ja Morant and San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray got the nod as finalists in that category.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had 17 points and 11 rebounds in the first half against Chicago, and while it looked like the Bucks might blow out the Bulls in the first half, the Bulls kept it close despite shooting 31.7% from the field.
Milwaukee owned a 51-43 halftime lead.
Three Bulls were in double figures: 12 points for DeMar DeRozan, 11 points for Zach LaVine and 10 for Nik Vucevic.
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving appeared to give Boston Celtics fans the “double bird” before a jump ball in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series.
There is no love lost between Celtics fans and Irving, who left the Celtics to join the Nets in 2019. Irving once burned sage at Boston’s arena to “cleanse the energy,” he told reporters.
If the league confirms Irving’s action, he will be fined. The going rate for delivering an obscene gesture to fans is $15,000. The NBA fined Washington forward Kyle Kuzma $15,000 for giving a fan the middle finger during a game earlier this season. Two seasons ago, the league fined Philadelphia center Joel Embiid for flipping off Atlanta’s Kevin Huerter and using profanity during an interview.
Considering Irving’s on-court obscene gesture and language used in the postgame press conference, he could be looking at a fine of $25,000 or more. He was fined $25,000 earlier this season for directing obscene language at fans during a game in Cleveland, where Irving once played for the Cavaliers.
The Celtics won Game 1 115-114 despite 39 points from Irving.
“When people start yelling (expletive) and (expletive) and (expletive) you and all this stuff, there’s (only) so much you can take as a competitor,” Irving said postgame. “We’re the ones expected to be docile and be humble and take a humble approach. Nah, (expletive) that, it’s the playoffs. This is what it is. I know what to expect in here and it’s the same energy I’m giving back to them.”
— Jeff Zillgitt
Jayson Tatum saved the day for the Boston Celtics. His driving layup as time expired gave the Celtics a 115-114 victory. You could say the Celtics were lucky to get Game 1. The Celtics scrambled on their final possession – and Marcus Smart delivered a pass to Tatum just in time.
There’s a reason why the Brooklyn Nets are considered a dangerous No. 7 seed. They have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Even with Durant struggling in Game 1 against Boston, the Nets almost pulled off the upset thanks to Irving, who had 39 points, six assists, five rebounds, four steals and a block. And he did it front of Boston crowd that despises him for leaving the Celtics.
Without Celtics center Robert Williams (left knee injury), veteran big Al Horford came through with 20 points and 15 rebounds.
How did the Celtics pull this off? Tatum (31 points), Jaylen Brown (23 points), Smart (20 points) and Horford delivered enough offensively – a combined 94 points.
No matter how many games this series goes, it will be a fun one. Let’s hope it goes seven.
— Jeff Zillgitt
Brooklyn star Kevin Durant had just seven points on 2-for-10 shooting in the first half against Boston, but Kyrie Irving and Goran Dragic off the bench helped the Nets go into halftime tied with Boston at 61-all. Irving had 15 points and Dragic 11 in the opening half. Boston star Jayson Tatum had 15 points and seven assists, and Al Horford contributed 14 points. Marcus Smart had a nice all-around half with seven points, three rebounds, three assists and a steal. Brooklyn should feel good about the first-half result – on the road, tied and with Durant not making shots. The Nets just posted 61 points against the league’s best defense without much from Durant. There were 17 lead changes and eight ties in the first 24 minutes
Bruce Brown was asked last week about the key to slowing down a Celtics team that earned the No. 2 seed behind the play of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Because center Robert Williams III, who had surgery at the end of March to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, is likely to miss the first-round series, Brown said he thought it would be best to focus on neutralizing Boston’s front court.
“We can’t let Tatum get 50,” Brown said. “We got to be physical with them. Now they don’t have Robert Williams, so they have less of a presence in the paint, and we could attack Al Horford and (Daniel) Theis. So them not having Robert Williams is huge.”
When told of his teammate’s comments just minutes earlier, Kevin Durant was noticeably irked by them.
“We respect our opponents,” Durant said. “We don’t need to talk about what we’re going to do to them. I just don’t like that, but that’s how Bruce is. He comes in and keeps the same energy throughout the whole season. But we don’t need to say (expletive) like that. Let’s just go out there and hoop.”
The Celtics scoreboard operator did their part to stoke the Celtics’ ire, putting Brown’s message on the Jumbotron.
When Duncan Robinson goes 8-for-9 on 3s and P.J. Tucker makes 4-for-4, the Miami Heat are tough to beat. And that was the case in Miami’s 115-91 win against the Atlanta Hawks.
The 3-ball is an important as ever. Miami made 18-for-38 (47.4%), and Atlanta was just 10-for-36 (27.8%) – a 24-point difference just on 3s.
Good news for the Hawks: Trae Young probably won’t struggle like that again from the field. He was 1-for-12, including 0-for-7 on 3s. The last time he made just one field goal in a game was Jan. 15, 2021 against Utah.
Miami’s defense, ranked No. 4 in the regular season, forced 18 turnovers, had 12 steals and limited the Hawks to 38.7% shooting from the field.
In his first game since March 11, John Collins (foot and finger injuries) showed he can contribute. He had 10 points and four rebounds in 21 minutes.
The Heat are deep: Off the bench, Robinson led all scorers with 27 points, and nine Heat players scored at least six points. Jimmy Butler had 21 points, six rebounds and four assists, and Kyle Lowry had 10 points, nine assists, four rebounds and two steals.
When Kyrie Irving is introduced before the Nets face the Celtics in Boston, his cold reception wasn’t much of a mystery.
Irving, who left Boston in free agency after saying he wanted to re-sign, has not been a fan favorite there. In a return to Boston last year, Irving stepped on the Celtics’ logo mid-court. And his most recent comments hasn’t smoothed things over.
Irving hopes everyone has moved on from that, asking fans to remember the good times they had.
“I hope we could move past my Boston era and reflect on some of the highlights I left at TD Garden that they can replay,” he told reporters this weekend. “Move forward. Just a new paradigm, baby.”
Coming off a 131-111 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said on Sunday that rookie of the year candidate Scottie Barnes (sprained left ankle), Thaddeus Young (sprained left thumb) and Gary Trent Jr. (non-COVID illness) are likely doubtful for Game 2 on Monday. “It doesn’t look good for any of those guys,” Nurse told reporters.
Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, who hasn’t played since March 11 with foot and finger injuries, is expected to play in against Miami Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round Eastern Conference series. Hawks coach Nate McMillan called Collins a game-time decision. Atlanta center Clint Capela, who injured his knee in a play-in game, is out indefinitely but could return later in the series.
The Brooklyn Nets have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two of the most gifted offensive players in the league. So it’s understandable one would think the Nets have a chance against the Boston Celtics in their Eastern Conference first-round series. But if you’ve been paying attention, you know the Celtics have been the best team in the East for the past three-plus months and the best defensive team in the NBA for the entire season. The Celtics are too good on both sides of the ball with All-NBA players (Jayson Tatum), All-Defensive players (Marcus Smart) and one of the game’s most underappreciated players (Jaylen Brown). The Celtics are just a better all-around team. Pick: Celtics 113, Nets 103.
— Jeff Zillgitt
The New Orleans Pelicans are easily the most feel-good team in the NBA playoffs. They got out to a horrendous 1-12 start for first-year coach Willie Green. And would-be franchise savior Zion Williamson hasn’t played a game this season because of a foot injury. Their second-best player, Brandon Ingram, was limited to 55 games because of injuries.
But the Pelicans grabbed the final playoff spot in the Western Conference when they beat the L.A. Clippers 105-101 in the play-in game on Friday. Their reward: a meeting with the Suns, the team with the league’s best record.
For a long while, it looked like Friday would be the end of the road for the Pelicans. They were down 84-74 to start the fourth quarter. But Ingram led them back with some big baskets in the final quarter following an inspirational speech by Green, who told them they had been through too much to let something like a 10-point deficit get in their way.