It’s been just under two weeks since the NBA Playoffs began and the action is already in full effect.
While some match-ups seem to be following experts’ predictions, others have taken the basketball world by surprise. A seemingly clear-cut path to the finals has been shaken up by the emergence of young stars and the dwindling of established ones.
Here’s and in-depth look at some of the first round’s biggest talking points, featuring sweeps, surprises, and let-downs in the Association.
THE BROW AND THE BROOM
Losing in the first round is never great for a budding “superstar,” in Damien Lillard. That said, getting swept in the first-round by a lower seed that lost a superstar to injury in January may be the beginning of the end for the Trailblazers.
New Orleans is the first team that is a six-seed or lower to sweep a higher ranked opponent in the first-round since the NBA switched to a best-of-seven series in 2003. This is the only 4-0 sweep in the first round this season. Think about that; NOLA did it, not Cleveland, Toronto, or Houston.
Portland ended the regular season with full intentions of making a playoff run before Anthony Davis swatted them back to reality. Davis averaged 33 points, 12 boards, and 1.3 blocks in the series.
The Blazers straight up couldn’t contain The Brow. Jusef Nurkic and Zach Collins each had their chance but failed. But it wasn’t just a one-man wrecking crew. Jrue Holiday capped of the series with a 41-point performance on 15-of-23 shooting and was the anchor that kept Lillard under control. Throw in the revamped Rajon Rondo, and you’ve got a perfect formula for a playoff upset.
The big question for the Blazers after their 10th consecutive playoff loss is simply, what now? For Damien Lillard, the time might be right for a change in scenery. The Blazers can still trade the 26-year-old for picks to start over, or perhaps bundle for another star. One thing is clear, something has to change to get Portland out of basketball purgatory.
PICK UP THE PACE
The intense series between Indiana and Cleveland brings back memories of the Pacers’ numerous run-ins with the LeBron-led Heat in the early 2010s. Though a number of key players are missing, the animosity and hi-jinks from Lance Stephenson are still quite present.
Indiana stole game one in convincing fashion and haven’t looked back since. Victor Oladipo is clearly the most talented player on the Pacers, but he doesn’t have to score 40 for the team to win. Take Game 4 for example. No player from Indiana scored more than 19 (Domantas Sabonis), yet seven players finished in double-digits. Not to mention Thaddeus Young’s career-high 16 rebounds.
In the same game, James led the Cavs with 32 points, followed by Kyle Korver with 18, and Jordan Clarkson and J.R. Smith with 12 each. Jeff Green scored just eight points in 24 minutes, while Keven Love was held to just five points in 29 minutes.
If I was a betting man, I would ignore the recent trends and pick Cleveland to win. Why? Because we’ve heard this story before. LeBron James has taken his team through much worse and made it to the finals seven times in a row.
He really doesn’t need an explanation, the numbers do the talking. The King is averaging 32.5 points, 11.75 boards, and eight assists in the series.
That brings us to team chemistry. Game 1 was the first game the post-trade deadline Cavs played together, and boy did it show. Since then, players like Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. are finding their niche. They’re playing more and more like a team as time passes, so I expect them to mesh at the right time and take the series. It might not be pretty, but count on Cleveland to put it all together.
It’s also worth mentioning that Oladipo has struggled as of late. In 41 minutes in Game 4, Oladipo managed 5-20 shooting from the floor, three of which were 3-pointers. Those numbers won’t cut it If Indy wants any chance of keeping Cleveland grounded. He may not have to lead the team to win, but if the three’s aren’t falling and the Cavs put it together, Indiana is going fishing sooner rather than later.
As for round two…we’ll cross that bridge at a later date.
If I wouldn’t said in October that a team with three all-star caliber players would be down 3-1 in a series against a team led by a rookie, people would’ve laughed in my face.
But here we are. The Utah Jazz are just one win away from just their second first-round playoff victory since 2009-2010.
The series has looked more like a cage fight than playoff basketball at times. Whether it be Ricky Rubio and Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Joe Ingles, or Steven Adams and Jae Crowder, there is certainly some animosity between the two teams.
One theme is present in each of these confrontations: frustration. Frustration in containing rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, who is averaging nearly 28 points in the series. Frustrations with poor shooting from Carmelo Anthony, who is having the worst shooting season of his career. Frustration with Rubio’s Game 3 triple-double and the media’s obsession with it.
Meanwhile, Utah is focused on one thing only: winning at all costs. After Sunday’s game, Mitchell told ESPN’s Royce Young, “We always say the strength of our team is the strength of our team. I said this morning we’re not really worried about one individual comment. I think if we get caught up in that, it takes us out of our own game, and our play showed tonight that we really just focused on each other and made the right plays when we needed to.”
OKC’s big three doesn’t look like normal. If the Thunder can’t focus on the now and figure out a new game plan, the season may end much sooner than previously anticipated.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith