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Winners and Losers of the 2014 NBA Playoffs So Far

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2014

Winners and Losers of the 2014 NBA Playoffs So Far

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    GREG WAHL-STEPHENS/Associated Press

    The first round of the 2014 NBA playoffs was nothing short of historic.

    Through the first two weeks of the postseason, fans were treated to eight overtime contests, including four straight in the Oklahoma City Thunder-Memphis Grizzlies series. No series in NBA playoff history had ever featured four straight overtime games, per ESPN Stats & Info, and the eight OT contests in Round 1 also set a new league record. (The most in a full postseason is 10.)

    Before Saturday, the NBA had never hosted three Game 7s on the same day. No postseason in league history has ever featured more than five Game 7s, per Basketball Reference, and yet, after this past weekend, we're already at five.

    There are still three rounds remaining. 

    If you enjoy crunch time, buzzer-beaters and Game 7s, then these playoffs have been a dream come true. And if you don't…well, you should probably have a doctor check your pulse. You must actually be dead.

    Let's sort through the winners and losers of the best opening round in NBA postseason history.

Winner: Adam Silver

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    There's no disputing it: NBA commissioner Adam Silver was the runaway winner from the first two weeks of the 2014 playoffs.

    When TMZ posted audiotapes featuring Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks, the league had to act quickly. Three days after announcing an investigation into the tapes, Silver did just that.

    On Tuesday, April 29, the commissioner announced that, effectively immediately, he was banning Sterling for life from having any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA. He would not be permitted to make an appearance at any Clippers facility or attend games or practices, and he no longer had any say over personnel or business decisions.

    Silver also fined him $2.5 million, the maximum amount allowed under the league's constitution, and urged Sterling's fellow owners to vote to force him to sell the franchise.

    In short, the new commissioner did everything but drop the mic as he walked away from the podium.

    Glowing reviews of Silver began pouring in before he even wrapped up the press conference. Bleacher Report's Howard Beck called the decision "a defining moment" for the commissioner. CBS Sports' Ken Berger said Silver was "just about perfect," while Grantland's Zach Lowe said it "was an emphatic statement that the NBA is a progressive league that will not tolerate intolerance, bigotry, or repression."

    The Sterling fiasco drew national attention away from a vastly entertaining start to the postseason, but Silver defused the bomb as though his name were Jack Bauer. It was nothing short of a masterful performance from the new commissioner, who made everyone—players, coaches, front-office executives and fans alike—understand that he's fully capable of running this league with aplomb.

Loser: Donald T. Sterling

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Since Adam Silver is the biggest winner of the playoffs thus far, Donald Sterling is unquestionably the biggest loser.

    What's worse: Losing a first-round playoff series or likely being forced to sell an NBA franchise that's on the rise after three decades of egregious mismanagement?

    Four days after TMZ posted audiotapes of Sterling making racist comments to his then-girlfriend, V. Stiviano, Silver banned him for life from having any affiliation with the Clippers or the NBA.

    The commissioner also called upon Sterling's fellow owners to vote against his continued ownership of the team and told reporters during his press conference, "I fully expect to get the support I need from the other NBA owners to remove him."

    A day after Silver's announcement, Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive went on ESPN Radio's Mike & Mike and said he "would be surprised if this was not a unanimous vote," per ESPN.com. A source echoed those sentiments to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, suggesting "that the vote is expected to be 29-0 against Sterling."

    The league's Advisory/Finance Committee held a conference call on May 1 and unanimously agreed to move forward "as expeditiously as possible" in regard to terminating Sterling's ownership of the Clippers, per a statement from Mike Bass, the league's executive vice president of communications. The committee will reconvene this week to discuss the next steps in the process.

    Sterling stands to potentially earn more than $1 billion from the sale of the franchise, but as Vox's Matthew Yglesias noted, forcing him to sell the franchise before he dies could cost his heirs upward of $200 million in capital gains tax. Effectively, it's a lose-lose all around for the soon-to-be-deposed owner.

Winner: The Return of 'Playoff Teague'

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Three years after the debut of "Playoff Teague," he made a triumphant return during the first round of the 2014 playoffs.

    Back in 2010-11, Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague was largely nondescript, averaging only 5.2 points and 2.0 assists per game during the regular season. Once the playoffs began, however, Playoff Teague rose like a phoenix from the ashes, averaging 11.8 points and 3.5 assists per contest as Atlanta beat Orlando, 4-2, before losing to Chicago in six games during the conference semifinals.

    The legend of Playoff Teague took a dive last postseason, as he shot only 33.3 percent in a first-round knockout at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, but the speedy point guard exacted his revenge this time around. He averaged an eye-popping 19.3 points and 5.0 dimes per game, bolstering Atlanta to a 3-2 series lead over the top-seeded Pacers.

    Teague couldn't rally his troops to a series victory, unfortunately. Despite his playoff career-high 29 points in Game 6, the Hawks fell at home to the Pacers, 95-88, and he saved his worst performance for Game 7, scoring 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting with only three assists and five turnovers.

    As Bleacher Report's Joe Flynn noted, Teague's regular-season per-game statistics aren't that far off from his postseason averages over the past four years. That won't stop the legend of Playoff Teague from living on, however.

Loser: Roy Hibbert

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Did someone finally call Roy Hibbert and let him know the playoffs started two weeks ago?

    Heading into Game 7, the Indiana Pacers' 7'2" center was in real danger of being placed on a milk carton. He had gone completely missing in action during Indiana's first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, notching a total of 24 points (on 30.3 percent shooting!) and 19 rebounds through the first six games.

    As SB Nation's Tom Ziller noted, 12 players have accrued those statistical totals in a single playoff game since 2000, including the walking corpse known as Carlos Boozer. Shaquille O'Neal did it 14 times, followed by Tim Duncan (eight), Dwight Howard (five) and Dirk Nowitzki (five).

    Hibbert hit rock bottom in Games 5 and 6, where he registered a combined zero points and two rebounds in 24 total minutes. His post-All-Star break swoon—he averaged 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds over the final two months of the season—had sunk to a new low with the Pacers barely clinging to their playoff lives.

    In fairness to Hibbert, the Hawks represented a nightmare matchup for both him and the Pacers. The three-point shooting ability of rookie center Pero Antic is kryptonite for the big man, as it forces him to guard away from the basket, defeating his best weapon defensively.

    He finally came alive in Game 7, though, notching 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in 31 minutes during Indiana's series-clinching 92-80 win.

    The sudden resurgence wasn't enough to spare Hibbert from being a "loser" of Round 1—being the butt of "banned for life" jokes isn't easy to forget—but it could prove critical to Indiana's chances of advancing past Washington and into the Eastern Conference Finals.

Winner: Dwyane Wade

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    The Miami Heat aren't going to win the 2014 NBA title without Dwyane Wade at his best.

    Through one round, the early returns appear positive for Miami.

    D-Wade missed 28 games during the regular season as part of a maintenance program to keep him fresh for the playoffs. When he did play, he averaged a respectable 19.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals in a career-low 32.9 minutes per game, but the frequent days off were cause for concern heading into the postseason.

    After Miami's four-game sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats, Heat fans must be feeling somewhat reassured about the way the squad managed Wade this season. His series stats don't jump off the screen—17.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.3 steals in 33.0 minutes per game—but he managed to avoid any setbacks and earned nearly a week of rest by helping complete the sweep.

    "I like the progression I made in this series," Wade said after Game 4, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. He only felt fatigue a few times throughout the series, Skolnick reported, and emerged "feeling better than he did when it started."

    Knocking off a Bobcats team with a battered Al Jefferson clearly isn't cause for a parade in South Beach, but Miami took care of business early and avoided any major complications. That's all that Wade and the Heat could ask for through Round 1.

Loser: The Charlotte Bobcats' Postseason Record

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Thanks to Miami, the Charlotte Bobcats will never win a single playoff game.

    The squad is switching back to the Charlotte Hornets this summer, the same name Charlotte's original franchise used from 1988-99 through 2001-02. That means the Bobcats, who began playing in the 2004-05 season, will go into the history books as having never won a playoff game in their 10 years of existence.

    It took six seasons for the Bobcats to first make the playoffs, but Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic promptly swept them out of the 2010 postseason. Two years later, during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Bobcats hit rock bottom, finishing 7-59, the worst win percentage in NBA history.

    Charlotte made a big splash this past offseason by signing Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million deal in free agency, and he immediately helped restore the team to respectability. The Bobcats finished 43-39 this season, their second-best record in franchise history (behind the 44-38 Bobcats in 2009-10), and went from having the league's worst defense in 2012-13 to a top-five defense this year.

    Jefferson suffered a strained plantar fascia in Game 1, unfortunately, which limited him as the series against Miami progressed. Despite not winning a game in this year's playoffs, the future is bright for Charlotte basketball.

    Just not for the Bobcats' franchise playoff record.

Winner: Lillard Time

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    If you were on Twitter at 1 a.m. ET on Friday night, your feed probably looked something like this:

    "DAME!!!!"

    "HOLY F**K!!!!"

    "#DAMEOFTHRONES"

    "FL;DAJFDLSAJFSAJ LILLARDDDDDDD"

    That's what you get when a second-year point guard out of Weber State drains a series-clinching buzzer-beating three-point shot to end the Houston Rockets' season.

    As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote, that shot cemented Lillard's reputation as a cold-blooded killer. For a 23-year-old out of a mid-major college to drain that shot in his first-ever postseason series defies belief.

    Before Lillard crushed all of Houston, it had been 17 years since a buzzer-beater won a playoff series, per NBA.com's Brian Martin. And yet, based on what we've seen from him over his young career, it somehow wasn't all that surprising.

    During the regular season, with his team tied or trailing by no more than five points in the final minute, Lillard was tied with Stephen Curry for third in the league in points scored. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his Game 6 dagger was the fourth game-winning shot of his two-year career.

    CBS Sports' Zach Harper expounded upon the "Lillard Time" phenomenon back in January, and before Game 6, Grantland's Andrew Sharp wrote that Lillard "has a special knack for just breaking people's hearts."

    That turned out to be freakishly prophetic.

Loser: James Harden

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Before the start of the season, Kevin Durant said James Harden should replace Dwyane Wade as the NBA's best shooting guard. Wade took offense to the comment, posting a picture on Instagram that said: "Note to self: Make him respect your place in history…again."

    Offensively, it's a no-contest. Harden, who finished fifth in the league in scoring each of the past two seasons, holds the clear advantage over Wade in that regard. He's also a far better three-point shooter than the Miami Heat star, with a career percentage of .369 (compared to Wade's .289).

    However, as we saw during the first round of the playoffs, there's one thing holding Harden back from ascending to the top of the 2-guard mountain: defense. Or, as Harden calls it, "those plays when I stand idly and watch as dudes blow by me."

    A YouTube user created an 11-minute video of Harden's embarrassing defensive efforts from this season alone. Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver captured this moment from Game 5, a win-or-go-home game for Houston, where the Bearded One allowed Nicolas Batum to waltz right past him for the easy layup without so much as turning his head toward him.

    Of all the players this postseason who averaged at least 30 minutes per game, Harden had the eighth-worst defensive rating, with opponents averaging 112.5 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court.

    His defensive shortcomings could have adversely affected him on the other side of the ball, as he averaged 26.8 points on 22.2 shot attempts per game, shooting only 37.6 percent from the floor and 29.6 percent from three-point range.

    In the B/R NBA 200, Harden finished one point ahead of Wade based on his contributions this season but ranked a whopping nine points (out of 40) behind him in the "defense" category. Based on their respective performances this postseason, Wade has reclaimed the 2-guard throne from Harden, largely due to the latter's abject apathy on D.

Winner: Dinosaurs

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Dinosaurs dominated the storylines during the first-round series between the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors.

    Before the series even started, the Toronto Sun plastered an image of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett on its front page alongside the headline "Raptors vs. Dinosaurs." An accompanying caption read, "Garnett and Pierce are so old the Raptor had to ask his dad about them."

    After Pierce scored nine late points to put the Raptors away in Game 1, he fired back at the Sun. When asked if he'd ever played without a shot clock—the clocks malfunctioned during the third quarter of Game 1—Pierce coolly replied, "I don't remember. Because I'm a dinosaur."

    The dinosaurs on the other side of the court—namely, the Raptors—weren't ready to concede defeat to their elders, however. The two split the first six games of the series, largely due to the heroics of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, before heading back to Toronto for Game 7.

    Naturally, Brooklyn's two dinosaurs helped decide the outcome of the game. As the Nets clung to a one-point lead with eight seconds remaining, Toronto swingman Terrence Ross intercepted an inbounds pass intended for Pierce, setting up the Raptors for one final shot.

    Greivis Vasquez inbounded the ball to Lowry, who attempted to drive to the rim but met resistance from KG along the way. He somehow squirted past Garnett and Deron Williams and threw up a would-be game-winning floater attempt, but Pierce swatted the shot away to knot the series win for Brooklyn.

    The Raptors proved that they belonged among the East's elite, pushing a $180 million roster within one shot of elimination, while Pierce and Garnett proved exactly why Mikhail Prokhorov racked up such a massive luxury-tax bill this season. That counts as a win for dinosaurs all around.

Loser: Terrence Ross

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Nothing came easy for Toronto swingman Terrence Ross against the Brooklyn Nets.

    Heading into Game 7, Ross had knocked down a total of nine shots (out of 35 attempts) and was averaging four points and two rebounds per contest. He shot 25.7 percent from the floor and 19.0 percent from three-point range over the first six games of the series, looking wholly overmatched against the experienced Nets.

    William Lou of Raptors Republic didn't pull punches when describing Ross' lackluster postseason performance through Game 6:

    [H]is problems are not merely skin-deep. This isn’t a case of shots not falling, or better offense overwhelming his abhorrent defense. If anything, the numbers portray Ross in a fairer light than his performance merits – Ross has been terrible on both ends of the floor. He’s not finding ways to get himself open for threes, he’s not leaking in transition, and his defensive positioning is random, at best. The most obvious sign? His smooth butterfly shooting stroke, the one that launched his career in pro basketball, looks warped and altered, as if it were designed to thread a basketball through the eye of a needle. His shot looks as ugly as that last analogy.

    And yet, in the waning seconds of Game 7, Ross damn near became the hero of the series. First, with Brooklyn clinging to a three-point lead, he drove to the hoop and converted a driving layup with only eight seconds remaining. He then stole an inbounds pass intended for Paul Pierce and flung the ball off Pierce's body as he fell out of bounds.

    Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry's would-be game-winning shot attempt, however, and Brooklyn escaped Toronto with the Game 7 victory, 104-103. Though it was Ross' best game of the series—he finished with 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting—one can only imagine the Raptors closing out the Nets earlier had their starting swingman not struggled so mightily earlier in the series.

Winner: Mike Conley

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The annual postseason resurgence of Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is, much like the Masters, becoming a tradition unlike any other.

    Every year, because Conley plays in Memphis, the general NBA public tends to forget about him when discussing the league's best point guards. (A year-and-a-half ago, I was guilty of such an oversight.) Because his per-game stats don't jump off the screen—he averaged 17.2 points, 6.0 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals this season—many assume him to be nothing more than a league-average floor general.

    Then, once the playoffs begin and he takes his place on the national stage, we're reminded that he's far more than average. The Ohio State product ends up holding his own against superstars like Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook, making Memphis a far more difficult knockout than expected.

    Conley strained his right hamstring during Memphis' Game 6 loss to OKC, which sent him back to the locker room early. Two days later, he gutted it out on the bum hammy to notch 20 points, nine assists, five rebounds and four steals in Game 7.

    "You're not supposed to play through it, they say," Conley told reporters before Game 7. "I've got deaf ears right now. I'm going to get treatment on it and be as good as I can be."

    The Grizzlies couldn't pull off the monumental upset, but that can't be pinned on Conley. He outplayed Westbrook through the first five games before suffering the hamstring strain, helping bolster Memphis to a 3-2 series lead.

Loser: Zach Randolph

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    During the Memphis Grizzlies' most important game of the season, forward Zach Randolph was reduced to nothing more than a spectator.

    During the fourth quarter of Game 6, Z-Bo threw a punch at Oklahoma City Thunder forward Steven Adams, earning him a one-game suspension. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal noted, Randolph's absence all but killed Memphis' chances of pulling off the upset in Game 7.

    Then again, it's not as though Randolph was lighting it up before his suspension. Though his per-game averages of 18.2 points and 8.7 rebounds don't raise any red flags, his 40.4 percent shooting from the floor certainly does.

    Z-Bo largely had Thunder center Kendrick Perkins to thank for his subpar performances, as Anthony Slater of NewsOK.com noted:

    The Thunder big man — often lauded for his acute understanding of defensive positioning — has continually pushed the bruising Randolph off his preferred spots. It has forced him into low-percentage mid-range jumpers and a variety of tough, off-balance baseline floaters over a strong contest.

    Between his struggles against Perk and his untimely suspension, Randolph certainly didn't make his impact felt during the 2014 postseason. The odds of him declining his 2014-15 player option took a massive hit during the first round of the playoffs.

Winner: Randy Wittman

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Never in a million years did I imagine Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman outfoxing Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in a seven-game playoff series. If this tweet from ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh is any indication, I'm not the only one.

    And yet, that's exactly what happened during the Bulls-Wizards opening-round series.

    Wittman recognized that his team had three key advantages over Chicago and exploited them repeatedly: 1) on defense, Carlos Boozer can't stop a fly, much less Nene or Marcin Gortat; 2) John Wall could eviscerate Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin on both ends of the court; and 3) if the Wizards packed the paint, Chicago would seriously struggle to score.

    Even after Nene got suspended for Game 4 (due to an ill-timed headbutt), seemingly opening the door for Chicago to even the series at two games apiece, Wittman found a way to turn a negative into a positive. He plugged the hole in his starting lineup with Trevor Booker and then turned the offense over to Wall, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza.

    Ariza responded with a playoff career-high 30 points, and the Wizards rocketed out to a 14-0 lead four minutes into the game. The Bulls failed to take advantage of Washington's short-term weakness down low, and Wittman and the Wizards capitalized, increasing their lead to 20 points by the end of the third quarter.

    As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, "Wittman and his staff designed some nifty stuff to get tastier things out of the pick-and-rolll than the midrange shots Chicago wants to force. Nene's presence increases Wittman's niftiness quotient, since the big fella can do just about everything well on offense — pass, shoot, cut, and screen."

    Credit where credit's due: The Wizards coach played Chicago like a fiddle. If he can do the same to a struggling Indiana Pacers team in Round 2, Washington will appear in its first conference finals since 1978-79.

Loser: Tom Thibodeau

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Though Tom Thibodeau deserves no shortage of credit for guiding this year's Chicago Bulls to 48 wins, the 2014 playoffs were not his finest moment.

    After giving up only 97.8 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, the second-best mark in the league, Chicago had no answer for the upstart Washington Wizards in the postseason.

    The Bulls conceded 104.8 points per 100 possessions to Washington, which ranked eighth among the 16 playoff teams, as John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Nene Hilario took turns having their way with the vaunted Chicago defense.

    Thibs can't escape blame for Chicago's quick postseason demise. He stubbornly stuck with Kirk Hinrich and Carlos Boozer as starters despite their series-long struggles against Washington, leaving Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin confined to the bench at the start of each game.

    Though the Wizards routinely shredded his starters in the first quarter—they outscored Chicago by a margin of 33 points in the opening 12 minutes over the five-game series (136 to 103)—Thibodeau refused to budge.

    Had the Bulls been able to muster any reliable offense whatsoever, it might not have mattered. However, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted, "Thibodeau is to offense what Mike D'Antoni is to defense, and vice versa."

    Chicago averaged only 100.4 points per 100 possessions against Washington, the third-worst mark of any playoff team. Gibson and Augustin were two of the Bulls' most reliable offensive threats against the Wizards, but Thibodeau refused to acknowledge that reality and adjust his rotation accordingly.

Winner: Clutch Time

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    Clutch time—defined as teams being ahead or behind by five points or fewer in the final five minutes of a game—made frequent appearances during the first round of the playoffs.

    All six of the Houston-Portland games featured clutch time, as did six of the seven games in the Brooklyn-Toronto series. The Memphis-Oklahoma City matchup led the way in terms of overall clutch time (largely thanks to its four overtimes), with 37 minutes in total.

    Through 36 games, exactly half were decided by five points or fewer and/or in overtime, per NBA.com/Stats. And per ESPN Stats & Info, 19 of those 36 games were decided by two possessions or fewer.

    The only series that didn't feature at least two games of clutch time was Miami's sweep of Charlotte. Aside from the Miami-Charlotte matchup and the Indiana-Atlanta pairing, all six of the other first-round series had four or more games enter clutch time at some point.

    Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant led the way in terms of clutch-time superstars, averaging eight points per game in clutch situations. Portland point guard Damian Lillard delivered the most clutch shot of the first round, however, with his series-ending three-point dagger against Houston in Game 6.

    Though three of the five Game 7s ended up being blowouts, NBA fans experienced no shortage of drama through the first round of the playoffs. Chalk that up as a major win for clutch-time performers.

Loser: East Coast NBA Fans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    If you're an NBA fan on the East Coast, the league owes you an apology.

    Two of the best first-round series, Portland-Houston and Los Angeles-Golden State, rarely wrapped up before 1 a.m. Eastern. And given the late-game highlights that both series generated, you seriously missed out if you weren't watching every single night.

    Damian Lillard crushed the soul of the Houston Rockets just before 1:30 a.m. ET on Saturday, May 3. Approximately 24 hours later, Blake Griffin all but iced the Los Angeles Clippers' Game 7 win over Golden State with an incredible, ninja-esque drive to the basket (complete with backward somersault).

    As Bobby Big Wheel tweeted, "Damian Lillard is going to have a career full of people on the East Coast waking up to dope s--- he did." The same goes for Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Stephen Curry, as it turns out.

    Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch marvelously summed up the East Coast perspective of this postseason: "The NBA playoffs will not let me sleep. Ever."

    Here's hoping you have forgiving bosses, East Coasters.

Winner: The NBA's Middle Class

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Superstars receive the lion's share of the credit for their teams' success, but the first round of the 2014 playoffs emphasized the importance of building a strong supporting cast, too.

    As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, the NBA's "middle class"—veterans earning between $5 million and $10 million annually—have become "the least desirable players in the sport." But many of those "pretty good" veterans made a name for themselves in these playoffs—some going as far as to single-handedly power their team to a victory.

    Without Mike Dunleavy Jr.'s 35 points in Game 3, the Chicago Bulls likely would not have won a single game against the Washington Wizards. On the other side of the court, Trevor Ariza eviscerated poor Chicago, averaging 15.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game while shooting 49.1 percent from the field and a ridiculous 46.4 percent from three-point range (on 5.6 attempts per game!).

    The Memphis Grizzlies-Oklahoma City Thunder series featured no shortage of heroic performances from middle-class players as well. Memphis swingman Tony Allen ($4.5 million) got into the head of the league's soon-to-be-crowned Most Valuable Player, Kevin Durant, while Thunder center Kendrick Perkins ($8.5 million) limited the effectiveness of Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph.

    And let's not forget Portland's Wesley Matthews ($5.7 million), whose eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store every time he saw James Harden guarding him. Matthews' shooting ability—he drilled 39.3 percent of his 6.2 three-point attempts per game during the regular season—opened space for Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to operate, as Houston couldn't leave him alone on the wing.

    Young players on their rookie contracts, such as Oklahoma City guard Reggie Jackson and Golden State forward Draymond Green, proved their value throughout the first round as well. But seeing how many "pretty good" veterans delivered under the bright lights of the postseason, teams could be slightly less reluctant to pull the trigger on such guys in free agency.

Loser, Then Winner: Kevin Durant

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Finally, we arrive at Kevin Durant, who received the LeBron James treatment for the first time in his career during the opening round of the 2014 playoffs. 

    After four straight subpar games against Memphis, The Oklahoman put the soon-to-be-crowned 2014 Most Valuable Player on blast. A Berry Tramel column ran with the headline "Mr. Unreliable," for which the paper later issued a formal apology.

    In the column, Tramel wrote that the "mighty Memphis defense, led by [Tony] Allen, has knocked Durant from his moorings." Through five games, that wasn't an inaccurate assertion.

    As CBS Sports' Matt Moore tweeted, Durant shot 46.7 percent from the floor with Allen on the bench during Games 1 through 5 but only 36.3 percent with Allen on the court. Seeing KD throw up brick after brick was disconcerting, to say the least, considering he shot 50.3 percent overall during the regular season. Worse yet, his aggressiveness left much to be desired, especially in the waning minutes of Game 5.

    "Sometimes you've got to be a decoy out there, and I'm fine with that," Durant told reporters after OKC's Game 5 overtime loss. "Once the ball comes my way, I have to be ready and be aggressive when I touch it. If I want the ball, I've got to go rebound it and create something."

    Heading into Game 6, it appeared as though Durant's MVP coronation would be a morose affair—shades of Dirk Nowitzki's ceremony in 2007. Per Basketball Reference, KD had shot under 50 percent from the field in all seven of his career playoff games in Memphis, where Game 6 was held.

    Durant didn't quite crack 50 percent in OKC's first win-or-go-home game, but 36 points on 23 shots did the trick anyway. Despite going 0-of-6 from three-point range, the Slim Reaper took a personal series-high 15 free-throw attempts that night, drilling all but one.

    "For the first time all series, Durant was in that effortless, easy-chair scoring mode where it looks like he can't help but put points up," Royce Young of Daily Thunder wrote. "Whether it was the headline, the chatter, or the desperation of the circumstance, the Thunder needed a game from their MVP, and he provided."

    After breaking out of his slump in Game 6, KD came home to the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena and eviscerated Memphis in the series-deciding Game 7. He coolly poured in 33 points on only 18 shots, drilling all five of his three-point attempts, and added eight rebounds, two assists and a block for good measure.

    After Game 7, Durant told reporters the secret to his late-series success:

    I got out of my own way. I was thinking too much, I was worried about what you guys were saying, I was worried about how many shots I was going to shoot throughout the game. I was thinking too much. The game of basketball is played on instincts. And I realized I started playing this game to have fun and I didn’t want to take the pure fun out of the game. 

    Durant getting out of his own way saved the Thunder's season. The Oklahoman should get its next motivation-inducing headline ready just in case the Clippers burst out to an early lead in the conference semifinals.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/stats and are current through Sunday, May 4. All contract info via Spotrac.com.

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