2018 NBA Playoffs: Biggest Surprises and Disappointments After 1st Week
If you knew everything that would come to pass during the first week of the NBA playoffs, please allow me to access your infallible crystal ball.
Even though we've all been watching 16 teams thoroughly studied throughout the 2017-18 season, unexpected developments are taking place. One underdog is running away with a series. LeBron James lost a first-round game for the first time since 2012. Stars have failed to show up on the biggest stage, while some relatively nondescript contributors have begun making names for themselves.
During the playoffs, surprises are inevitable. So too are disappointments.
That's just what makes this time of year so fun, so frustrating and so eminently unpredictable.
Surprise: The Non-Anthony Davis New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis was always going to dominate in the postseason. That much was a given. After spending the post-DeMarcus Cousins portion of the year thriving as a one-man wrecking ball who worked his way into MVP contention, the big man was poised to keep excelling in a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Davis has indeed dominated, serving as a major factor behind the New Orleans Pelicans' surge to a 3-0 series lead. But he hasn't been alone.
Jrue Holiday has easily won his individual matchup with Damian Lillard thus far, showing out as a two-way stud capable of containing his primary adversary while putting up efficient offensive numbers of his own. He's forcing Lillard not just into misses by tightly contesting looks or pressing him into Davis' domain, but also actively making him defer to his teammates rather than even attempt the closely guarded shots upon which he normally thrives.
Joining Holiday on the list of pleasant surprises is another member of the NOLA backcourt.
Rajon Rondo has yet again proved "Playoff Rondo" really is a thing by averaging 12.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 12.3 assists while shooting 50 percent both from the field and beyond the three-point arc. Rather than seeking out stats and turning down open shots for dime-dropping opportunities, he's making all the right decisions and helping the Pelicans post a 13.9 net rating while he's playing.
And yet, Nikola Mirotic might be the best news by the bayou.
Sans the beard that's served as a distinct part of his NBA identity, the power forward has gotten so hot that he sometimes seems fully engulfed in flames. Even looking past his beneficial defense and ability to swing the ball around the perimeter, he's been valuable solely for the 21 points per game coming on a slash line of 58.5/47.8/100.
With Davis, Rondo, Holiday and Mirotic on the floor, the Pelicans have outscored Rip City by a whopping 21.3 points per 100 possessions.
Disappointment: Damian Lillard
Isn't Damian Lillard supposed to thrive when the stakes are highest?
The point guard has claimed his spot among the Association's elite because he shows out at all times. He starts out hot for the Portland Trail Blazers, then keeps performing deep into the fourth quarters of close games—the inspiration behind the "Dame Time" wrist points for which he's increasingly become known.
But that Lillard is nowhere to be found during these playoffs. The buzzer-beater he once made to send the Blazers past the Houston Rockets in the 2014 postseason is but a distant memory.
Harrassed by Jrue Holiday every step of the way—with more than a little shading in his general direction from Anthony Davis—the All-Star floor general has looked like nothing more than an inefficient gunner. His per-game averages seem perfectly fine (18.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists), but he's turning the ball over five times per contest while shooting a cringeworthy 32.7 percent from the field and 32.0 percent from downtown.
Perhaps most telling, though, is the type of shots he's taking.
During the regular season, Lillard prided himself on his ability to fire away when closely guarded. The Portland offense was predicated on his ability to make tough buckets and open up easier opportunities for his teammates. In fact, 11.3 percent of his shots came with defense classified as "very tight" (nearest defender within two feet), and he connected on those looks at a 51.3 percent clip.
Throughout the first three games of the postseason, only 4.1 percent of his attempts have come with "very tight" defense, and he's 0-of-2 on those looks.
Lillard seems uncomfortable. He's playing like he's frustrated. And he's no longer even taking the tough shots he needs to make for an offense that's scoring a putrid 97.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
Surprise: No Rookie Nerves
Rookies aren't supposed to dominate during the NBA playoffs.
They've never played seasons that last this long. They're now subjected to even tighter defense played by a stronger stable of stoppers operating in compressed rotations. Whistles don't come as easily. The stakes are higher, which has to affect the minds of mere mortals.
But Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons—and, to a lesser degree, the defense of Jayson Tatum—haven't seemed remotely rattled on this stage.
The former is putting up points at a historic rate while his Utah Jazz have split their first two games with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He's averaging 27.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 44.7 percent from the field. He's looked comfortable operating as an unquestioned No. 1 option, fought through a foot contusion and made in-game adjustments that leave him even more dangerous down the stretch run.
Oh, and he's setting records, as Royce Young detailed for ESPN.com:
"Any time you're doing something better than Michael Jordan, especially in the playoffs, you're really doing something. And with 55 points in his first two playoff games, including 28 in a 102-95 Game 2 win over the Thunder on Wednesday, Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell topped Jordan's record for most points by a guard in his initial two postseason contests."
We're not going to say whether he's been better or worse, because these two have been measured against each other enough, and the world needs to break the habit of propping one up by denigrating the other. Appreciate both of them. They've each been incredible assets to their respective teams. Stop thinking that a compliment to one is an inherent insult aimed at the other.
Averaging 20.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 9.7 assists and 2.0 steals for the Philadelphia 76ers while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, Simmons has easily looked like the best player on the floor in his first-round clash with the Miami Heat. When he's not controlling a contest with his passing, he's taking over as a basket-attacking scorer or plaguing passing lanes with impunity.
If you needed any more evidence this rookie class is special, the playoffs have provided plenty.
Disappointment: Timberwolves' Shot Distribution
- Derrick Rose, 29.3 (up 4.3)
- Jeff Teague, 27.8 (up 7.2)
- Andrew Wiggins, 26.4 (up 3.0)
- Nemanja Bjelica, 25.8 (up 11.5)
- Gorgui Dieng, 19.5 (up 3.2)
- Jamal Crawford, 19.0 (down 4.7)
- Jimmy Butler, 17.2 (down 7.7)
- Karl-Anthony Towns, 16.1 (down 6.8)
- Taj Gibson, 12.6 (down 2.1)
- Tyus Jones, 7.6 (down 5.1)
Take a gander at the usage rates of every member of the Minnesota Timberwolves during their first two games against the Houston Rockets, with the changes from the regular season added parenthetically:
That's almost too frustrating for words.
An 0-2 deficit should not be blamed solely on Derrick Rose, but it doesn't help that he's veering away from set plays in favor of ill-advised assaults on the rim. Suddenly, head coach Tom Thibodeau has decided he no longer wants to hand his starters exorbitant minutes, and he's not even setting up his two best players (Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns) in situations that allow them to thrive. Those two featuring in the bottom half of the above rankings is entirely unacceptable.
"I mean, it's a small thing, but when Gorgui Dieng is taking several contested mid-rangers early/in middle of the shot clock, you might be losing a battle against math," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe tweeted in an accurate summation of one of the many problems.
Look, no one expected the Wolves to beat the juggernaut known as the Houston Rockets. But they could be a bit more competitive in this series if they weren't so intent on turning their two best scorers into afterthoughts—a development, to be fair, aided by passivity and frustration from the stars.
Surprise: Terry Rozier
"I don't even know who the f--k that is," Milwaukee Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe said about Terry Rozier, per Celtics on NBA Sports Boston, after the young Boston Celtics floor general had finished putting together his second straight masterpiece.
In Game 1, Rozier went for 23 points, four rebounds and three assists while shooting 7-of-18 from the field and 4-of-9 from downtown, including the step-back jumper that almost won the affair as Bledsoe scrambled for his footing. Only a miracle from Khris Middleton that sent the contest to overtime prevented that shot from serving as the actual game-winner.
Two nights later, the man filling in for an injured Kyrie Irving exploded for 23 points, three rebounds and eight assists, this time going 8-of-14 from the field and 3-of-5 from beyond the arc. All the while, he's continued to play exemplary defense against Bledsoe and any other guards the Bucks throw in his general direction while refusing to turn the ball over even once.
"We've talked about his competitiveness, his athleticism and his work ethic being at the highest level. That usually lends to good players improving quickly," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told the Associated Press about his breakout backcourt stud, per the Boston Herald.
Rozier playing quality basketball isn't surprising in and of itself.
The 24-year-old has been an intriguing prospect for quite some time, and he's performed well throughout the 2017-18 campaign—albeit in a significantly smaller role. But even the Celtics couldn't have expected him to become this deadly, this quickly against a typically tough defender in Bledsoe and a host of rangy athletes populating the Bucks' schemes.
He's almost matching Jaylen Brown for the team's scoring lead. He's pacing the injury-depleted squad in assists while helping spark Beantown's 2-0 series advantage. No one on the roster has a higher offensive box plus/minus.
Rozier has simply been a revelation.
Disappointment: Eric Bledsoe
On the flip side, we have Eric Bledsoe—or Drew Bledsoe, as Rozier accidentally(?) called him in a podium appearance after Game 1.
Not only has the Milwaukee floor general failed to contain his counterpart throughout the opening stanza of this Eastern Conference battle, but he's struggled to generate any offense of his own. Through two contests, he's averaging only 10.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists while slashing 36.0/33.3/50.0 and failing to give Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton the help they so desperately need.
At least he's not alone?
Aside from the two aforementioned stars, the entire Milwaukee rotation has struggled (more on that shortly). Let's turn to Bleacher Report's Dan Favale for a quick synopsis:
"After them [Antetokounmpo and Middleton], the Bucks have almost nothing worth writing home about.
"Eric Bledsoe has verged on unplayable. He should spend less time pretending not to know Terry Rozier and a lot more time remembering how to shoot. Jabari Parker is unplayable. Jason Terry is playing too much. Shabazz Muhammad is, apparently, about to become a thing. Tony Snell looks lost."
While the whole rotation—and the coaching staff, for that matter—has been thoroughly disappointing and we'll be focusing on another player later in this article, Bledsoe's play has been the biggest letdown. He was supposed to be another star-caliber presence for the Bucks, capable of forming a legitimate troika that could take advantage of Boston's injury woes.
Instead, he's been one of the worst players in the postseason field from a statistical standpoint. According to NBA Math's TPA, he sits at No. 188 of the 191 men who have logged run, beating out only Damian Lillard, Bam Adebayo and Ed Davis.
Surprise: Dwyane Wade Throwback Outing
Forget about the first and third games of the series between the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers. The opening contest was a beatdown orchestrated by the unstoppable Philly offense, while the latter was a '90s-style throwback filled with intensity, vitriol and physicality.
But in Game 2, the stage belonged to Dwyane Wade.
"There was a rhythm and a calmness to his game like he didn't feel too much." Sixers head coach Brett Brown said that night, per NBA.com's John Schuhmann. "And there was a real confidence the way he played to make those shots. That is classic Dwyane Wade."
Throughout the first half of the Heat's eventual victory, Wade turned the clocks all the way back, putting on a show with his shot-making skills and attacks on the basket. The vaunted pump fake was there. The ability to knock down tough jumpers was present. The cuts and crafty defensive plays that have helped define his Hall of Fame career were all on full display.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, ringing in Miami's 113-103 win, Wade had exploded for 28 points, seven boards, three assists and two steals while shooting 11-of-16 from the field. Not too shabby for a 36-year-old playing 26 minutes off the pine.
Throughout his illustrious career, this was the most the shooting guard had ever scored as a reserve, toppling his 27-point efforts against—you guessed it—the Sixers in a late-February contest earlier this year. Perhaps even more impressively, it was the fourth-most points a reserve at least 35 years of age has scored in a playoff game since 1964, trailing only Jamal Crawford (32), Eddie Johnson (31) and Kevin McHale (30).
Maybe this is less surprising because we've come to expect unrelenting excellence from Wade over the last decade-plus. But this was still a remarkable aberration that provided a nice throwback feel, if only for a single night.
"I'm enjoying just every minute of this," Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra said, per Schuhmann. "We've been through every stage of our pro careers together. I don't know how long this will last. That's why I want to enjoy it now. I want to make the most of these moments."
Disappointment: Jabari Parker
Jabari Parker was supposed to excel during his first postseason appearance. He'd been a solid per-minute scorer for the Milwaukee Bucks upon returning from his second ACL tear, and his point-producing game should've given these deer a creative and versatile option to deploy against head coach Brad Stevens.
But that narrative has flipped 180 degrees against the Boston Celtics, as Paolo Uggetti detailed for The Ringer after the forward's Game 2 disappearing act:
"Parker thus far just hasn't been good enough to justify being on the court during the series. He's made only one field goal in two playoff games, and even though his regular-season counting numbers weren't disastrous, the team had a minus-3.5 net rating when Parker was on the floor and a positive net rating when he was off it. Judgment of his performance is not improved by the eye test either. Parker struggles to move laterally. His shot is often flat, and he can't get to the rim with the same ease he had before his most recent ACL injury. Though he is shooting 38 percent from 3 in the regular season, he's taken only one 3 in the postseason. He's clearly not yet comfortable spacing the floor. That often leads to his attempting to make cuts that aren't there, which in turn crowds the paint, keeping Giannis [Antetokounmpo] from getting to the rim himself."
Disastrous. Calamitous. Catastrophic. Insert the synonym of your choosing.
The situation has also grown rather complicated by Parker's frustration with his lack of playing time, driving more notable teammates to address his concerns with on-the-record quotes. Antetokounmpo, per ESPN.com's Nick Friedell, is the most prominent example:
"A lot of people are frustrated with a lot of things. But as I said, this is the playoffs. We don't have time—our margin of error is not that big. We don't have time for that. We got to show up as a team and get this W. I'm frustrated. I'm supposed to shoot the ball more. But I care about winning; once we're all on the same page, I think everything's going to be a lot easier for everybody to play."
The subtext isn't hard to read, particularly given all the other quips from Parker, interim head coach Joe Prunty and Antetokounmpo throughout Friedell's article. But one development is even clearer: This Duke product, who has been unable to provide virtually any positive contributions during his 12.5 minutes per game on the floor, doesn't seem long for Brewtown with restricted free agency looming.
Surprise: Stephen Curry-Less Golden State Warriors
Even with Stephen Curry watching the entire series from the sidelines, the Golden State Warriors weren't supposed to take care of business quite this easily. Though they still had access to a trio of All-Stars in Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, they'd been far more mediocre without their superstar point guard running the show.
Seriously. The numbers don't lie.
Throughout the regular season, the Dubs outstripped their foes by 14.7 points per 100 possessions when Curry played. As soon as he moved to the bench, that net rating plummeted to 2.9—a mark that fell further to 1.9 when the remaining three All-Stars were on the floor without him, per PBPStats.com.
Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs registered a 3.1 net rating during the first 82 games of the year.
This wasn't supposed to be a blowout. Even though the Spurs were operating at a talent deficit—the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge notwithstanding—they were so meticulously coached and prepared that they were at least supposed to give the Dubs a bit of a challenge. And that just hasn't been the case.
Game 1 was a blowout, with the Warriors eventually emerging on top by a 21-point margin that somehow made the contest seem closer than it was in reality. The Spurs had a six-point advantage at halftime in Game 2, but then Durant dominated the third quarter and Thompson went nuclear in the fourth to win 116-101. Game 3 was close at times before the Warriors pulled away late, but it never felt like the 110-97 outcome was in doubt for the defending champions.
Maybe San Antonio will win Game 4 at home and stay alive for one more outing. Maybe they'll get swept.
Either way, we have to be surprised at just how dominant these Warriors have looked without their best player.
Disappointment: Kevin Love
This isn't about the partially torn ligament in his thumb. After all, that injury—suffered when his left thumb was bent back in an unnatural direction after an unfortunate collision with an orange sphere—shouldn't require him to miss any time going forward.
Kevin Love just hasn't been able to make an impact for the Cleveland Cavaliers when he's on the floor.
He's looked overmatched defensively, failing to slow down the Indiana Pacers frontcourt as Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner both refuse to miss shots in virtually any situation. The Hoosier State center is scoring 17 points per game while shooting 61.9 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from downtown in his first two appearances, and no member of the Cavaliers has been able to match up with him on the inside or the outside. For that matter, Love isn't deterring Victor Oladipo from attacking the hoop, either.
Love's offense has been just as worrisome.
Though he's doing his part from the perimeter by knocking down his triples at a 41.7 percent clip, he's been unable to finish on the inside. Shooting 25 percent on his two-point tries is unacceptable, serving as a major reason LeBron James has been coerced into doing so much of the heavy lifting.
He needs to get aggressive. Quickly.
The Pacers have decided to let James thrive in one-on-one situations, electing to shut down all his running mates and force him to beat them all on his lonesome. He's done so once in two tries, but Love starting to showcase the actual extent of his abilities would make a big difference in this first-round series.
Though small-sample-size warnings are in effect here, it's rather troubling the Cavaliers have posted a minus-43.8 net rating, per PBPStats.com, in eight minutes with Love and no James.