2011 NBA Playoffs: Biggest First-Round Surprises
We’re a little more than a week into the NBA playoffs and, as expected, they’ve failed to disappoint, with great matchups across the board. The Western Conference matchups are about as even as most expected while the East has been just as entertaining to watch.
Unexpected players have stepped up while some are still waiting to make their marks. The better teams may be winning, but they're winning by surviving. And to nobody's surprise, the New York Knicks are the first team fishing for the summer.
Here’s my pick of the biggest surprises of the first round entering Monday’s games, starting with the No. 8 seeds playing well above expectations.
No. 1 Seeds Struggling
Indiana is giving the Bulls more than they expected—raise your hands if you thought Chicago would be leading the series by now. Keep them up if you thought they’d win by the dominant average of...five points. A lot of hands just went down.
Give all the credit to Indiana for pushing the Bulls to the limit, defending the perimeter and forcing them to rely even more heavily on Derrick Rose to earn victories. Instead of going out quietly, they’ve made the Bulls look a bit vulnerable despite having the best record in the league.
As bad as the Bulls are looking, the Spurs may be in deeper trouble that no one saw coming. Memphis has made the Spurs look old and inexperienced. Who expected Tony Parker to be outplayed by Mike Conley or Marc Gasol being the best baller in his family?
It’s even more surprising that the Spurs haven’t resembled the best team in the West and are in danger of becoming the fourth No. 1 seed to lose in the first round. Give Memphis all the credit for playing inspired and going from winning their first ever playoff game to one of the greatest playoff upsets in NBA history.
Brandon Roy Reviving His Career (and Portland's Season)
After Game 2, Roy was written off as a former star who could barely see any action due to his surgically repaired knees. He was highly vocal about the lack of playing time, and it seemed like Portland was moving on with him as a role player, not as the focus, after only scoring two points in the first two games.
Two games later, Roy has become the hero again. He scored 16 points off the bench in a Game 3 victory. He had an 18-point fourth quarter in Game 4 to spark the greatest comeback in franchise history, including perhaps the most timely four-point play since Larry Johnson’s 1999 shot against the Pacers.
Safe to say that the folks who wrote him off are eating their words, as B-Roy has added one more chapter to his Portland legend in saving the Blazers’ season and scaring the Mavericks into another potential first-round disappointment.
Pau Gasol's Disappearing Act
There’s a milk carton floating around Los Angeles with Pau Gasol’s face on the side asking: “Where is the All-Star who should be overpowering the David West-less frontcourt of New Orleans?”
In the Lakers’ first two games, Gasol had 16 points and 11 rebounds combined. In Game 4, he had a paltry four rebounds, just three fewer than Chris Paul had in the second half. That’s not just inexcusable—that’s offensive for one of the league’s best big men.
Gasol has dealt with the tag of being soft his entire career, but he isn’t doing anything so far to shed that label this postseason. He reappeared in the second half of Game 3, but if the Lakers are to achieve their three-peat, let alone survive, Pau has to come back for good every game.
Oklahoma City's Dismantling of Denver
The Oklahoma City/Denver series was supposed to be the most entertaining so far. While it’s had its moments, Oklahoma City is doing more to show folks why it was everyone’s sleeper pick in the West.
If Game 1 was about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook being unguardable (72 combined points), Game 2’s 17-point win was about showing off the balance and defense most expected after the arrival of Kendrick Perkins. The Thunder had a 26-point lead in the second quarter and saw contributions from Perkins (11 rebounds) Serge Ibaka (12 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks) and James Harden (18 points of the bench).
For good measure, Game 3 saw them pull away and hold off Denver. Three wins, three different styles, three reasons to forget Denver came into the postseason playing incredibly after the Carmelo Anthony trade. The rest of the West teams should be shaking in their collective boots.
Dwight Howard Elevating His Game Further
Just when we thought Dwight Howard couldn’t improve any more this year, check his averages against Atlanta: a playoff-leading 32.3 points, 17.5 rebounds, 66.7-percent shooting from the field.
It’s success that’s been in vain as no one besides Jameer Nelson has been much help as the Magic trail the series 3-1, but no player has put up more impressive numbers than Howard. It is another sign that the prize of the 2012 free-agent class has taken his game to an even higher level.
The only downside is that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year has averaged close to five fouls and just over six turnovers per game. It's just a reminder that one man can't overcome a better team without better help.
Atlanta's Postseason Rebirth
Perhaps no team entered the postseason on a worse note than Atlanta after a seven-game losing streak. Even though they matched up well with Orlando, few could’ve expected them to be up 3-1 at this point.
They’ve beaten the Magic by daring them to shoot and turning missed shots into fastbreak opportunities. Joe Johnson has rediscovered the form that made him an All-Star instead of an overpaid, overrated star. And no sixth man has been more valuable this postseason than Jamal Crawford after his Game 3 heroics and a 25-point, six-assist effort in Game 4.
Two weeks ago, they were a dead team walking, but now the Hawks have rediscovered they are a young, athletic team resembling the 2008 bunch that took the Boston Celtics to seven games. It might be the most surprising team performance of the young postseason.