The biggest storylines coming into two massive Game 2s

NBA

The Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder, the two 1-seeds in the 2024 NBA playoffs, both have 1-0 leads in their respective first-round series, but that’s just about where the similarities end.

Boston handled its business against the Miami Heat from the jump in Game 1, winning in a 114-94 rout. Meanwhile the Thunder didn’t secure their Game 1 win against the New Orleans Pelicans until CJ McCollum‘s last-second 3-pointer bounced off the back rim.

The two 1-8 series resume Wednesday night, and our NBA insiders took a look at the biggest storylines for each team heading into Game 2.

MORE: Complete coverage of 2024 NBA playoffs


Celtics don’t want to let up

After Tuesday’s practice, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla fielded a question: When you looked at tape of Game 1, what, if anything, did you realize could be done better?

“Better is doing what we [already] do with higher intensity and higher physicality,” Mazzulla said.

It was a telling answer, and an honest one.

The Celtics were dominant in their series opener against No. 8 seed Miami, jumping out to a 14-point lead before the Heat even managed to score and ultimately winning by 20. After a performance like that, there really isn’t a change in strategy that’s necessary at the moment.

Mazzulla and the players instead spent time talking about the mentality that will be necessary to make sure they maintain this level after the breezy Game 1.

“If you don’t think you’re going to see a different version of Miami, you’re kidding yourself,” Mazzulla said.

The Heat stated the obvious during their practice, saying they’d seek to trim the vast 3-point deficit that took place in Game 1 — Boston tied a franchise playoff high with 22 made 3s. So the Celtics vowed to be ready to take advantage of whatever good looks came their way as a result, be it from the paint or the midrange portions of the floor.

Generally speaking, though, what Boston is gearing up for is a more intense Miami club.

“They’re going to be hungry [and] desperate,” Celtics shooting guard Jaylen Brown said. “They’re going to come out fast and aggressive, trying to turn us over. They’re going to try to crash the glass hard and be physical, knock us to the ground. They’re going to want to win the physicality battle.”

Brown and guard Payton Pritchard each said forward Caleb Martin‘s late-game, midair collision with forward Jayson Tatum — which caused a brief skirmish and double technical fouls — might have been a good thing.

The incident appeared to invigorate the Celtics at a time where they’d taken their foot off the pedal ever so slightly after building a 34-point advantage earlier in the contest. “I think we like that,” Pritchard said. “It was a joy to see that, and what it’s going to be like moving forward. We’re ready for that test and that physicality.” — Chris Herring


Heat lack firepower to meet championship aspirations

The hallway wall outside of the home locker room inside Kaseya Center is decorated with a colorful montage of some of the greatest moments in Heat franchise history. There are dozens of pictures from the three championship celebrations. There’s a wall-sized image of Dwyane Wade shooting a floater over Tim Duncan during the 2013 NBA Finals. There’s another image of Ray Allen shooting the corner 3-pointer that tied Game 6 of the 2013 Finals.

And, in the middle of it, the word “CHAMPIONS” is emblazoned on the wall, the three years the Heat reached the pinnacle of the NBA — 2006, 2012 and 2013 — written out below it.

It’s an ever-present reminder for those who walk through there — be it players, coaches, media, staffers or anyone else — that there has only been one mission statement for this franchise since the moment team president Pat Riley set foot in South Florida nearly 30 years ago.

And, despite the Heat’s recent track record, it’s also one that this group isn’t going to be able to reach.

In the weeks leading up to the playoffs, any coach, scout or executive asked about the Heat’s chances wasn’t ready to count them out, pointing to Miami advancing to three conference finals and two NBA Finals across the previous four years with most of this core — specifically, forward Jimmy Butler — in place.

But Butler isn’t on the court, as an MCL sprain suffered a week ago in Miami’s heartbreaking loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in the play-in tournament knocked him out of the series. Shooting guard Terry Rozier, the team’s top acquisition ahead of the trade deadline, is also out of the lineup with a neck issue and also seems unlikely to play.

Game 1 showed how big of a challenge it will be for Miami to make this series competitive against the team with the NBA’s best record. The Celtics simply have too much firepower for the Heat to keep up with, especially down two key contributors.

Soon, the series will be over, and the questions about this team’s future will resurface. With only one guaranteed year left on his contract, will Butler get an extension — and what will happen if he doesn’t? And, setting that aside, what can Miami do to boost an offense that ranked 21st in the NBA this season?

One thing is for certain: The Heat will make no excuses as this series continues, and coach Erik Spoelstra will say he has enough to compete. But without Butler and Rozier, an already uphill climb has become an impossible one. — Tim Bontemps


Thunder’s deep rotation still in flux

As the top-seeded Thunder begin what they hope will be a long playoff run, the most interesting question is how Coach of the Year finalist Mark Daigneault’s rotation will shake out.

Daigneault used 11 players in Sunday’s Game 1 win, the most of any team in a competitive game. That largely mirrored Daigneault’s regular-season rotation, which has featured six different reserves after the addition of veteran forward Gordon Hayward at the trade deadline.

“Everybody that came in played their role,” guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said after Game 1. “They gave good minutes. All 11 guys did their part, and that’s the reason why we won tonight.”

Most notably, however, was the absence of starting guard Josh Giddey at the end of Oklahoma City’s 94-92 win. Giddey played just 20 minutes on a night where every other starter logged at least 32.

Giddey’s inconsistent outside shooting (34% on 3-pointers this season) has always loomed as a potential playoff liability for the Thunder. Despite starting all 80 games he’s played, Giddey saw his minutes per game drop from 31.1 in 2022-23 to 25.1 this season. That decline was magnified late in games, as Giddey played just 47% of what NBA Advanced Stats defines as clutch minutes (game within five points, last five minutes of regulation or overtime) — down from 69% a year ago.

Besides Giddey’s own limitations, the development of rookie guard Cason Wallace has given Daigneault an alternative down the stretch. The 20-year-old played the bulk of the last four minutes Sunday, trading off with the team’s best shooter, Isaiah Joe. Wallace matched up with Pelicans guard McCollum on the game’s final possession, forcing McCollum into an off-balance missed 3 at the buzzer.

As long as Oklahoma City is winning, Daigneault may not want to mess with the formula that led the Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference this season. Oklahoma City’s typical starting five featuring Giddey went 46-17 (.730) in the regular season — nine more wins than any other group of starters, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Down the road, however, replacing Giddey might be the Thunder’s natural adjustment when something goes wrong. — Kevin Pelton


Pelicans searching for more offense

New Orleans held the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference to 94 points in Game 1. As Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. pointed out Tuesday after practice, that should be enough for a team to get a victory. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, it wasn’t.

Thanks in large part to the defense guard Luguentz Dort played on forward Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans forward went 5-of-17 for just 12 points Sunday night, and the Pelicans offense never seemed to get going in the two-point loss.

Nance said the team has a few tricks up its sleeve to get the offense going, but it’s clear something will have to happen.

The Pelicans got 24 points off 18 offensive rebounds, going 9-of-17 off the second chances. But the team shot 28-of-79 (35.4%) on its initial shot attempts, a number that needs to improve. Oklahoma City also outscored the Pelicans 20-7 in fast-break points.

Both were points of emphasis in Tuesday’s practice, according to Pelicans coach Willie Green.

“We really looked at some of our keys, keeping them out of transition defensively and making sure we finish possessions,” Green said. “I thought the second half they made a better effort to go after the offensive glass… We had a really good practice today.”

In four games since returning from a bone bruise in his left knee, Ingram has averaged 15.0 points on 43.1% shooting. He was 0-of-8 when Dort was the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Green said the team has to play with more speed and force so that Dort can’t be as physical with Ingram as he was in Game 1. The Pelicans also need to get more screens set for Ingram, Green said, to try and free him up.

New Orleans will have to continue to improve its clutch offense to have a chance to steal a game before heading back home for Game 3. The Pelicans were 0-22 in the regular season entering the fourth quarter with a deficit, and their 29 games in the clutch were the fewest in the NBA this season.

In Game 1, the Pelicans were 1-of-7 with four turnovers in the final 3:09 and didn’t score a bucket between the 3:34 mark until McCollum hit a layup with 26.5 seconds left.

New Orleans will also have to adjust to how the game is being called. The Pelicans attempted nine free throws Sunday, the fewest they had attempted in any game this season. They also held the Thunder to just 13 attempts, tied for the fifth fewest for them in a game all season.

“Oh this is basketball,” Nance said. “Last game, it took me a half to figure out what are they going to call, what aren’t they going to call, what are they going to let go. And in the second half it was football. And I love it.” — Andrew Lopez

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