THE RESULTS WEREN'T SURPRISING—WHICH ISN'T SURPRISING—BUT SOME PERFORMANCES WERE. THE FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS FEATURED JAW-DROPPING EXHIBITIONS BY EMERGING STARS AND LEFT SEVERAL WOULD-BE CONTENDERS WITH HARSH OFF-SEASON CHOICES
IF ONE WORD summed up the first round of the playoffs, it was—once again—chalk. The only lower seed to win was Utah, No. 5 in the West, which knocked off the injury-depleted Clippers. That makes it two years in a row in which seven of the eight favorites won in the opening round, and you have to go back to 2014 to find a team higher than a 5 seed winning a series.
While the first round—once again—lacked intrigue, it was at least instructive. We asked three NBA writers to dissect the results.
WHICH STAR ANSWERED THE MOST QUESTIONS IN THE FIRST ROUND?
RN: Isaiah Thomas played through unimaginable grief, leading the Celtics past the Bulls while dealing with the death of his 22-year-old sister, Chyna. He remained Boston's most effective player, and in the process began to quell any doubts about his ability to lead a team in the playoffs. In the first playoff series victory of his career, Thomas was the unquestioned catalyst.
Even with Chicago swarming the 5'9" Thomas in the paint or guarding him with taller players such as 6'7" Jimmy Butler, the Celtics' dynamo found a way to come through. His three-point shooting waned toward the end of the series, but Thomas made up for it by knifing into the paint for layups and by drawing fouls. His stellar play continued into the second round when he put up 33 points in Game 1 against the Wizards despite having a front tooth knocked out by a stray elbow in the first quarter. Thomas will only be asked to do more as the postseason continues. For now, he's helping to erase the idea that small guards can't win in the playoffs.
BG: For a guy who was voted Finals MVP at age 22, Kawhi Leonard entered the postseason facing a surprising number of questions. Where did the Spurs' forward disappear to during a first-round loss to the Clippers in 2015? Why wasn't he able to answer the Thunder in last year's second round? Was he ready to be The Man in his first postseason without Tim Duncan?
Leonard offered convincing answers in San Antonio's series victory over Memphis, averaging 31.2 points per game and shooting 54.8%. Twice he set a new postseason scoring career high, topping out with a sparkling 43-point effort in Game 4. Late in Game 6, he twice collapsed the Grizzlies' defense to set up Tony Parker for a pair of jumpers that wrapped up the series. Afterward, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich declared Leonard "the best player in the league right now." That's no small praise from a man who is allergic to hype.
RM: Gordon Hayward will be one of this off-season's most coveted free agents. A max contract is inevitable. Anyone who wondered whether a Hayward-led team could be successful in the postseason—a fair question, considering this version of the Jazz had never even made it to the playoffs—got the answer. Against the Clippers he was shadowed by Luc Mbah a Moute all series while staring down a lane patrolled by DeAndre Jordan. He casually averaged 24 points, seven rebounds and three assists for the series while coming awfully close to a 50-40-90 showing on percentage. I think we're done here.
WHICH TEAM'S FIRST-ROUND EXIT WILL HAVE THE BIGGEST OFF-SEASON REPERCUSSIONS?
BG: The Cavaliers didn't just sweep the Pacers, they swept club president Larry Bird out of his job. The Legend spent the past two summers trying to cobble together a winner around All-Star forward Paul George, with limited success. Now GM Kevin Pritchard, who launched his career a decade ago by leading a draftcentric turnaround in Portland, must decide whether it's time to break out the dynamite.
Given George's unhappiness and the possibility that he bolts as a free agent next summer, Pritchard should trade him for picks and prospects now as the first step of an overhaul. From there Pritchard needs to weigh a hefty raise for starting point guard Jeff Teague when he hits free agency this summer and explore ways to shed the cap-clogging contracts of Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson. While it might lead to a step back in the standings, gathering assets to build a sustainable winner around promising center Myles Turner looks like the best of Pritchard's limited options.
RN: The Thunder had a remarkable season considering how ill-prepared the team was to deal with the departure of Kevin Durant. But OKC's loss to the Rockets exposed just how comically bare the roster is. No one except Doug McDermott can consistently hit threes, the team is incredibly young, and virtually every player can only do one thing well. It doesn't help that some of those guys—Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter—are getting paid handsomely.
The Russell Westbrook Show was a fun, if polarizing, experience, but asking Russ to carry the same load for another season would be a detriment to him and his teammates. For the health of Westbrook and the franchise, the Thunder simply need more reliable players. Preferably ones who can shoot.
RM: There are consequences that come with any playoff loss. For the Clippers, we could be talking cataclysm. With multiple stars becoming free agents, and the inevitable fallout for coach and team president Doc Rivers, it seems unlikely that the Clips will return next season in familiar form. How they lost to the Jazz in the first round (a hard-fought, seven-game series waged largely without the injured Blake Griffin) matters less than the fact that they did.
This is a team consistently plagued by circumstance. There have been injuries, meltdowns and organizational crises. None of that changes the fact that this version of the Clippers has been quite good, but at some point the individuals involved might look elsewhere. Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick—all in a position to choose their own teams next year—have a lot to think about.
WHICH FIRST-ROUND LOSER HAS THE BEST SHOT TO WIN A SERIES NEXT YEAR?
BG: Thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo, betting on Milwaukee's future is about as safe as it gets. The 22-year-old forward pierced the Raptors' defense on drive after drive. He blocked shots and jumped passing lines while playing tireless defense. Milwaukee's future is starting to take shape around its franchise player. The Bucks should be in contention for home-court advantage next season if they can stay healthy and add another shooter this summer.
RM: I'm torn. Milwaukee might have the best shot because it boasts the best player (hello, Giannis) in an unimpressive conference, but I do think the Bucks drew a perfect upset matchup with the Raptors this year. Their loss makes me wonder if the Bucks are as ready for a first-round win as they seem. Instead I'll give a nod to the Grizzlies.
Memphis has some soul-searching to do this summer with some of its key players—Zach Randolph and Tony Allen—hitting free agency, but at minimum we're looking at Marc Gasol and Mike Conley returning to a team that plays a style that meshes perfectly with their skills. I like that as a starting point. Memphis gave San Antonio all it could handle over six games. With a few modifications—including the potential return of chronically injured Chandler Parsons in some usable form—I can see the Grizz unseating one of this year's first-round winners.
RN: The Blazers are one year removed from a playoff series victory (albeit one that was aided by the Clippers' injuries). While Portland struggled for most of this season, the Blazers found something with the acquisition of Jusuf Nurki´c at the trade deadline. Nurki´c was a solid screen-setter and release valve on offense, and he provided toughness and rim protection on defense—something Portland always lacked with Mason Plumlee on the inside.
The Blazers were 14--5 in games Nurki´c started this season, and though that sample size is small, the returns are promising. A full season from Nurki´c should help push Portland closer to the middle of the conference. If the Clippers and Grizzlies take a step back, the Blazers could step up.
WHICH MIDSEASON PICKUPS HAD THE BIGGEST IMPACT?
BG: While the Cavaliers did just enough to get by in sweeping the overmatched Pacers, they had to be pleased with Kyle Korver and Deron Williams. The two veteran additions looked like strong fits in the series, logging quality minutes alongside Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert, as part of a shooter-heavy lineup built around LeBron James.
This group presents an elegant "pick your poison" dilemma for opponents: Stay home on the shooters and let James dunk at will, or collapse to protect the rim and concede open threes. Indiana never found a solution to the "LeBron + Bench" lineup, which posted a whopping 141.1 offensive rating by scoring 64 points in just 22 minutes together.
RN: The Raptors struggled for large portions of their matchup against the Bucks. Their most consistent player was arguably Serge Ibaka, who was acquired from the Magic in February and could be the key for Toronto in the later rounds. Ibaka's experience is as valuable to Toronto as his shotmaking and defense.
Dwane Casey's decision to start Norman Powell at small forward and go small was only made possible by Ibaka's ability to play center. With the other top teams in the East also preferring to play small for long stretches, Ibaka gives the Raptors a dimension they lacked during previous postseason runs.
RM: Lou Williams has already made good on exactly the kinds of things the Rockets hoped he would. Some doubt would have been fair. His brand of foul-baiting, for example, which had always turned into an awkward, flailing mess before this postseason, resulted in 36.2% shooting from the field over six combined previous playoff runs. This year, Williams shot 47.8% against the Thunder while creating a ton of his own shots. Houston doesn't really need a second star to generate offense alongside James Harden. But it needs a second star to stay afloat when the Beard is off the floor. Williams, Eric Gordon and Patrick Beverley have thus far been up to the challenge.
WHO WAS THE BIGGEST SURPRISE IN THE FIRST ROUND?
RM: What on earth got into Dennis Schröder? I've long been skeptical of his play, which has always seemed to rub his own teammates the wrong way. The numbers were there, but without any cohesive quality. The Hawks' point guard has always struck me as a point guard living on his own planet. My worldview may need some updating, considering that Schröder just went toe-to-toe with John Wall in a playoff series and very much held his own.
Schröder couldn't stop Wall—something for which he can't be faulted—but he got to the rim, shot responsibly and forced Washington into some defensive cross-matching in its efforts to contain him. Not bad for a 23-year-old in his first season as a starter.
BG: Norman Powell has been a cult hero throughout his two-year career in Toronto, a Las Vegas Summer League standout whose heady, complete game has consistently left Raptors fans wishing he would receive more playing time. With the Bucks' long wing defenders stifling the Raptors' star guards early in their first-round series, Powell finally got his chance to shine when Casey inserted him into the starting lineup for Game 4.
The downsizing move, which sent center Jonas Valanciunas to the bench, instantly paid dividends. Not only did DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry find more room to operate, but Powell couldn't miss. In the final three games of the series, all Toronto wins, Powell went 9 for 9 from beyond the arc. When the dust settled, the UCLA product was a team-best +44 for the series. Casey would be wise to continue trusting Powell in round 2.
RN: JaVale McGee was something of a fun curiosity during the regular season. He had plenty of great moments on the court, but it was unclear if the Warriors would still trust him come playoff time. As Golden State dealt with injuries in the first round, McGee was thrust into a more prominent role, and he absolutely thrived.
McGee averaged 9.8 points per game on 78.3% shooting against Portland in round 1, and he protected the paint with aplomb. That McGee can dominate games for short stretches is not completely surprising. That the Warriors began counting on McGee to springboard their bench is.
McGee is the best center on Golden State's roster, even if Zaza Pachulia is the starter. If the Warriors feel the need to remain big, McGee allows them to match up against more traditional lineups while maintaining their offensive explosiveness.
WHICH TEAM EXITS THE PLAYOFFS WITH THE GREATEST FEELING OF HOPELESSNESS?
BG: It can't get more demoralizing than it is for the Bulls. The United Center crowd chanted for coach Fred Hoiberg to be fired during a Game 6 loss to the Celtics. Butler faced questions about a possible trade immediately after he was eliminated. Dwyane Wade refused to commit to a return until he could speak with the front office about the franchise's direction. Rajon Rondo's backups proved so inept that Rondo's Game 2 fractured thumb somehow transformed him from an unreliable afterthought to an indispensable centerpiece. Cameron Payne, a second-year point guard acquired for multiple rotation players in a midseason trade with the Thunder, logged only four minutes against Boston.
But the despair starts at the top, where GM Gar Forman and VP John Paxson continue to get votes of confidence despite years of shaky decisions and cloudy plans. If ownership doesn't think there's a problem, why should anyone believe next season will be any better?
RM: I can't help but see the Pacers as the void where a superstar used to be. This really feels like the end of the Paul George era, with so many of George's frustrations in this series boiling over. His tact was not that of a star eager for another round of Monta Ellis and Lance Stephenson, particularly with Teague—one of his better teammates—in a position to explore his options in free agency.
RN: Atlanta has gone from conference finalists, to semifinalists, to quarterfinalists in Mike Budenholzer's last three years as coach, and it's unclear how this team will improve much. The best player, Paul Millsap, is on the wrong side of 30 and will be a free agent this off-season. There is young talent on the roster, but Schröder, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kent Bazemore all have questions. Oh, and Dwight Howard is already complaining about his role.
SO ARE WE DESTINED FOR ANOTHER CAVS-WARRIORS FINAL?
RN: The Warriors and Cavaliers will almost certainly face off in the finals again. And Golden State will win that series.
BG: Yes. The real surprise from the playoffs so far might be the gap between Golden State and Cleveland: The former looks like a well-oiled machine poised to glide to the title, while the latter has merely beaten, but not quite steamrolled, its competition.
RM: I don't see any reason to think otherwise. Cleveland's defense could sputter for the next month, and I'm not convinced it would really matter. Golden State will have to work a bit harder to get back, but every Warriors series is largely a matter of figuring out how they can beat you. Let's run it back.
THE RUSSELL WESTBROOK SHOW WAS A FUN, IF POLARIZING, EXPERIENCE, BUT ASKING RUSS TO CARRY THE SAME LOAD FOR ANOTHER SEASON WOULD BE A DETRIMENT TO HIM AND HIS TEAMMATES.
WHEN THE DUST SETTLED, POWELL WAS A TEAM-BEST +44 FOR THE SERIES. CASEY WOULD BE WISE TO CONTINUE TRUSTING THE UCLA PRODUCT IN ROUND 2.
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