The Most Shocking Surprises of the NBA Playoffs so Far
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and despite the long layoff, they're as entertaining as ever. Many of the league's stars have elevated their play to meet the postseason's higher stakes, and the all-day, everyday nature of playing these games in a bubble makes it feel like perpetual Christmas.
Even more thrilling is how many twists and turns have been integral to each first-round series. Without a singular title front-runner, this was always going to be an especially interesting postseason, but the fact that certain lower-seeded teams are looking like prime upset candidates while some of the top-tier contenders have struggled to find their footing adds another level of intrigue.
Let's look at the eight most surprising events of the playoffs thus far, with "surprising" carrying both a positive and negative connotation.
Without Ben Simmons, the Philadelphia 76ers were supposed to lose their first-round series to the Boston Celtics, so the general result isn't surprising. But how it all went down is rather shocking.
Even though eight points or fewer decided three of the four games, Boston dominated this sweep from start to finish. Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker scored at will, Philly struggled to create offense and the entire team seemed to tune out coach Brett Brown. Even though the Celtics were a far more talented squad, it shouldn't have gotten this bad.
If the Orlando Magic could steal a win from the Milwaukee Bucks, then Philly should have won at least one game against the Celtics.
Despite what people on Twitter believe, every postseason outcome isn't a referendum on the team building process. However, this particular one might be.
After a long half-decade, The Process appears to be reaching a logical end point. After the team failed to get past the second round in three consecutive seasons, Brown's been fired, while Joel Embiid struck a somber, wistful tone at his Sunday press conference.
It would have been very easy to use Simmons' knee injury as an excuse to maintain the status quo, but general manager Elton Brand seems willing to make hard decisions at a time when the franchise requires some fresh energy.
The Sixers might be a major player on the trade market when the offseason begins.
Luka Doncic Is Already Cementing His Legend
Luka Doncic has a nearly universal approval rating. But if you thought he'd be doing this right now, you're either his family member or Mark Cuban.
Considering the Clippers' standout defensive personnel, it is surprising that Luka's production and efficiency are both improved from the regular season. However, such a development wasn't unthinkable. The genuinely magical aspects of his and the Mavericks' performance in this first round stem from two particular developments: the growth of Dallas' supporting cast, and Luka's improvement in clutch situations.
On paper, the Mavericks have a fairly unremarkable roster beyond Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, but they've punched above their weight all season and have continued to do so against the Clippers. Players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry and Trey Burke (who wasn't even on the roster until July 1) are becoming stars in their roles. Future folk-hero status for them and players of their ilk seems imminent once the Mavericks are full-throated title contenders.
But through all that, Doncic remains the main story. After struggling all season in late-game situations (we present a minus-5.9 clutch net rating and wretched 45.0 clutch true shooting percentage), he's beginning to earn his stripes, notably knocking down a game-winning step-back three on a sprained ankle to tie the series at two games apiece last Sunday.
The Clippers are still favorites to win this series, up 3-2, but thanks to Luka, it's been a tough road.
Wherefore Art Thou, Paul George?
Since his iconic duel with LeBron James in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Paul George has become a figure of postseason ignominy. Whether it's because of his generally subpar performances, the fact that he unironically called himself "Playoff P" once, or when he called Damian Lillard's series-ending three against Oklahoma City "a bad shot" last year, the Los Angeles Clippers star has continuously underachieved under the bright lights.
But he's had ample opportunity to dispel this widespread doubt of late, and a 35-point explosion in Game 5 notwithstanding, he hasn't done so consistently this postseason.
One under-the-radar narrative is that Kawhi Leonard is playing some of the best basketball of his career, ranking in the top five in postseason PER and box plus-minus. However, Kawhi has had to play so well in large part because George had gone AWOL before Tuesday.
Ben Golliver of The Washington Post encapsulated George's slump, tweeting: "George has shot 20-69 (29%) through four games vs. Mavericks, marking the lowest FG% of any player in the 2020 NBA Playoffs with at least 25 shot attempts."
Hopefully George's Game 5 performance is a sign of things to come and not an aberration in the grand scheme of his playoff performances this year, because if he's not performing at an All-NBA level, the Clippers won't journey much further into the playoffs, let alone raise the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Toronto Belongs in the Title Conversation
Nick Nurse's Coach of the Year award indicates a general level of respect for how the Toronto Raptors held steady following Leonard and Danny Green's departures. But there's a difference between treating the Raptors as a cute story and taking them seriously as candidates to defend their title, and since arriving in the bubble, the team has made a sound case to be considered the latter.
In the seeding games, Toronto's defense stood out. It led the league in defensive rating over those eight matchups and recorded wins over the Lakers, Heat, Bucks and Nuggets. The Raptors have carried that tenacity to the playoffs but now appear to be combining it with brilliant offensive efficiency, ranking second in postseason offensive rating, assist percentage and true shooting percentage.
Is it a little early to get worked up over Toronto when all it did was sweep a Brooklyn Nets team missing half its rotation players? Sure, you can argue that. But they put up a franchise-record 150 points in Game 4, a matchup that could have meant little to the Raptors purely because they were up 3-0 in the series—and could have meant even less after Kyle Lowry left the game early with a sprained ankle. They're as locked in as can be right now.
If Lowry isn't seriously hurt (the team will update his status later in the week, per TSN's Josh Lewenberg), the Raptors belong in the title conversation with Milwaukee and the two Los Angeles teams. Their forthcoming series against the similarly hot Celtics could be an all-time great one.
The Return of Cardiac Kemba
Between Kemba Walker's lingering knee injury and sketchy playoff history with Charlotte (no series wins and a 39.4 field-goal percentage), expectations weren't especially high for him entering the postseason. And while the Sixers' collapse may deserve some credit, the Boston Celtics star didn't just look like himself in the first round—he looked even better.
Though Walker only made 29.6 percent of his threes against Philly, it didn't matter much. He averaged 24.3 points per game over those four games and even broke out some of his UConn-era dribble combinations, much to the chagrin of Embiid and Raul Neto.
In hindsight, it's obvious that Walker's teams struggled so badly in previous postseason outings because he didn't have a competent supporting cast, something he, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all hinted at after Sunday's victory. UConn's 2011 championship run proved Walker has no problem delivering under the bright lights with a proper team around him, and for the first time in the NBA, he has that.
Given that the 30-year-old stands 6'0" and weighs just 184 pounds, concern about his ability to create shots against bigger and tougher defenders becomes increasingly valid the deeper Boston journeys into the playoffs. In fact, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet's dogged pursuits of Walker throughout the Eastern Conference Semifinals will be as good a test as any.
But we now know for sure that Walker can be a difference-maker in the postseason, and all further questions about him are ones usually asked about perennial All-Stars and franchise players.
Utah's Depth Concerns Haven't Mattered
When Juwan Morgan started the Utah Jazz's first postseason game this year, it was indicative of the team's lack of depth. And though Mike Conley has returned after his son's birth, players like Morgan and Georges Niang are still getting quality minutes.
Ordinarily, that might be a death blow in the playoffs, where even All-Star-caliber players are exposed, but Utah's top six players have been on another planet.
Donovan Mitchell has arguably been the best player in the playoffs, recording two 50-point games. Conley's in vintage form. Rudy Gobert, despite surprisingly underwhelming defense, has never been this productive or efficient a scorer, and he led the league in field-goal percentage in 2018-19. Royce O'Neale is shooting 53.3 percent from three. Jordan Clarkson, while still a ball-hog, is averaging 19.2 points per game on 48.6 percent shooting.
The possibility of a Jazz win over the Clippers or Mavericks has not been widely discussed, and while that's in part because that series is still up for grabs, Utah's top-heavy attack is also very easy to doubt against a team that defends well. Still, if the Jazz follow through and at least upset the third-seeded Nuggets, management can pat itself on the back.
A Star Is Born, Jamal Murray Edition
Before Game 5, this section would have focused on the Nuggets' recent lack of defensive focus. They'd given up at least 120 points in 10 bubble games and weren't consistent enough on offense to balance those shortcomings.
Tuesday may soon become an aberration, but Denver locked in on that end when its season was on the line, limiting the Jazz to 21 fourth-quarter points and forcing a Game 6. And besides, there's a much more fun surprise to discuss: Jamal Murray needs to be taken seriously as an elite guard.
Inconsistency has defined Murray's time in the NBA. He missed the first 17 shots of his career and has vacillated between brilliant postseason performances and utter irrelevance (4-of-18 in Game 7 of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals) in past seasons.
Well, Murray is either on an amazing hot streak or he's leveled up for good. The Canadian is averaging 30.8 points, 6.8 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game on 55.7/52.4/100.0 splits against the Jazz, including 50- and 42-point performances in the last two games. Where he was blame-worthy for the Nuggets' Game 7 loss to the Blazers last year, Murray is doing yeoman's work to absolve himself in this series.
If Utah wins another game and eliminates Denver, the front office may have make some hard decisions this offseason. But none of them should involve Murray. He's proving himself a worthy sidekick to Nikola Jokic.
The Games Have Been Highly Entertaining
When the NBA announced its plans to return this summer, fans were tentative for many reasons—chief among them being worries about the level of play. After being away from high-level basketball for three-plus months, it seemed that players might spend most of their time in the bubble merely shaking off rust, which would make for quite a dull product compared to what we're used to in 2020.
Thankfully, that's not been the case.
The seeding games were thrilling, which was a good sign, and the quality of play has risen to its usual levels as the playoffs have begun. It feels like there's an intensely competitive game or two every day, and even in the less contentious matchups, individual performances from players like Luka Doncic, Mitchell and Tatum have proved enormously compelling on their own.
The NBA has arguably never had more talent, and the sheer number of stars present in every postseason game makes them all must-watches.
Are we riding high from the combination of finally having new basketball to discuss and this euphoric experience of watching the best basketball players in the world from noon until midnight ET? Perhaps. But even if that's the case, it's OK. After all this time, basketball is fully back and better than ever, and it's been a pleasure to gleefully consume it all.
Here's to another two months of on-court excellence.