Biggest Surprises and Disappointments 1 Week into NBA Playoffs
Congratulations to the NBA for its riveting start to the 2021 postseason. Games are competitive. Storylines abound. Stars are shining. There is a level of championship mystery not experienced in recent memory.
Like always, a snapshot of the NBA playoffs can be seen by zeroing in on the biggest surprises (happy face emoji!) and disappointments (sad face emoji!). As luck would have it, that's what we're here to do.
Every selection is relative. Players performing poorly will not automatically be thrust under the microscope. It is not surprising that Mikal Bridges has struggled in his first-ever postseason against the Los Angeles Lakers' length, or that Kemba Walker is having a rough go on offense after riding a roller coaster of injuries during the regular season.
This is instead a space for extremes—the good and the bad we didn't quite see coming.
Disappointment: Julius Randle
First-ever trips to the postseason should be measured against a learning curve. Julius Randle has disappointed when given that cushion.
Three games into the New York Knicks' first-round showdown with the Atlanta Hawks, he is averaging 14.7 points while shooting 32.4 percent on twos (11-of-34) and 30 percent on threes (6-of-20). He has also tallied just as many turnovers as assists (10).
Comparing this to his regular-season performance is difficult on the eyes. Randle averaged 24.1 points and 6.0 assists while burying 47.4 percent of his twos and 41.4 percent of his threes en route to winning the Most Improved Player award.
This wasn't someone making the jump from bad to good. Randle went from good to All-NBA material, a star who, for this season, warranted honorary mentions in the MVP discussion. He must be judged accordingly. The dismay is a compliment.
Skeptics of his rise even have to be floored. The nature of his shot profile—throngs of unassisted off-the-dribble jumpers—lends itself to high-variance. But we're witnessing a steep, wholesale plunge. He is not capitalizing on standstill or wide-open jumpers.
During New York's Game 3 loss, he shot 0-of-8 on twos. Atlanta has done a good job putting multiple bodies in front of him when he's on the move, but his decision-making in those situations is gunky. He is forcing shots, failing to throw his trademark jump assists and using contact to push himself away from the basket. Better play from the supporting cast would help open up his game, but New York isn't built to provide that relief. Randle is the vessel through which it unlocks everyone else's offense.
Perhaps a drop-off in his most difficult, self-created attempts is sustainable. The Knicks better hope not. If it is, they need him to impact the game in other, more ancillary ways. Knocking down his open looks and shoring up his decisions when he puts the ball on the deck would be a good place to start.
Surprise: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Tim Hardaway Jr. is coming off a fantastic regular season in which he averaged 16.6 points while downing 52.4 percent of his twos and 39.1 percent of his triples. The idea that he would come up big for the Dallas Mavericks during the playoffs is neither shocking nor novel.
Even by those elevated standards, though, Hardaway is obliterating expectations—and earning himself boatloads of money in the process.
Through two games against the as ever implosive Los Angeles Clippers, he's averaging 24.5 points while hitting 60 percent of his twos (6-of-10) and 64.7 percent of his threes (11-of-17). Small sample size and all, but that is incomprehensible incandescence.
Most of THJ's buckets are coming off assists, and 13 of his three-point attempts have been launched with a defender four or more feet away. So what? That's his primary role: knock down shots that Dallas' ball-handlers, most notably Luka Doncic, tee up for him.
Shooting 61.5 percent on open and wide-open treys is wild anyway. He is also 5-of-6 on triples after using between one and six dribbles. Shot-making of any kind is intensely valuable in the playoffs, and Hardaway has added a dose of playmaking. He's not pick-and-rolling the Clippers into oblivion, but he has found open teammates when being closed out and doubled.
Nearly everyone is wondering how the Mavericks will spend their cap space this summer. Hardaway is providing an answer. They need to renounce him to maximize their wiggle room, and his play, both during the regular season and now, pretty much ruled out such a scenario. Retaining him looks like the best use of their spending power.
Disappointment: Los Angeles Clippers
Imagine picking the Clippers to beat the Mavericks in five games... with a straight face. (Like me.) They never fail to disappoint with their level of disappointment; it is always on 11. Whenever you think they've turned a corner, they revert in some form.
Credit the Mavericks for making life difficult for the Clippers. Luka Doncic's vision and shot-making are cheat codes, and Dallas is getting quality performances from its supporting cast.
Still, the Clippers are doing their damnedest to Clippers this up.
Guarding Doncic is an impossible ask, but their defense against him has been inviting. From putting smaller players on him to leaving Ivica Zubac on an island, from inopportune, needless switches to half-hearted, ill-timed double-teams, they have given Doncic the runway to torch them, independent of his extraterrestrial skill set.
Beyond that, while the offense isn't the problem, the league's best three-point shooting team during the regular season has picked an odd time to go arctic cold from distance. The Clippers are drilling under 33 percent of their triples overall, led by a disastrous 3-of-15 clip from long range by Paul George. Take away Nicolas Batum's 5-of-10 start from deep, and L.A. is barely at 30 percent on threebies for the series.
Something might yet give. The Mavs can't shoot 2 trillion percent from downtown forever. Doncic might have an off-game. Tim Hardaway Jr. might be something less than thermonuclear. The Clippers' small-ball lineups—a staple by necessity given Serge Ibaka's back injury—might catch on. Kawhi Leonard may demand head coach Ty Lue to use him as the only defender on Doncic while still trying to drop 40-plus at the other end himself.
Until any of that happens, and unless the Clippers actually come back to beat the Mavericks, their level of concern should be at Defcon 1.
Heads will have to roll over the offseason if this team doesn't make it out of the first round. Fitting Leonard for another jersey (he has a player option this summer) is too extreme; playing for the Clippers was in large part about convenience and location. Even firing up Paul George trade scenarios feels inappropriate. Who are the Clippers getting for him that makes them better? Picks and prospects do nothing for a team saddled with contending for a title now.
The rest of the roster and the front office is a different story. Everything about the organization, aside from Kawhi and maaaybe PG, becomes fungible if it collapses again. Maybe this is karmic retribution for the Clippers tanking to face the Mavericks. Or maybe it's just evidence they're not as good as they look on paper. Either way, they are a letdown of gigantic proportions.
Surprise: Trae Young as the Postseason's Biggest Villain
Trae Young playing the part of villain is not inconceivable. His foul-baiting style grates, and anyone perceived as a defensive nonentity is often treated as an antagonist. That he represents the non-Luka Doncic side of the 2018 Luka Doncic trade only further positions him to assume the role of antihero.
But, like, this?
In his first-ever playoff tilt, Young shushed the Madison Square Garden crowd after hitting the Game 1-winner against the New York Knicks. He begged for the "F You" chants to return. And he has embraced full-scale villainy.
Maybe you saw this coming. Playing the Knicks, at MSG, is a recipe for notoriety. Their crowd is engaged. They show no quarter to opposing players who aren't on the verge of entering free agency. The circumstances were set up for Young to be someone fans loved to hate.
But again: This? He incited a premeditated, totally organized trolling of his hair. That is, objectively, impressive.
And even if you could have predicted this, Young's evolution into the postseason's biggest villain to date is shocking.
Superteams are more likely to draw national ire and attention, and the Brooklyn Nets exist. LeBron James plus Anthony Davis plus the Lakers flag equals Evil Big Market Exceptionalism. The Clippers are a living, breathing, never-ending meme.
Instead, there is Trae Young, on an upstart Hawks squad, navigating his inaugural playoffs, transforming into the Association's biggest, most talked-about heel.
Disappointment: Miami Heat
You didn't have to be a rocket scientist to see the Miami Heat's road to falling at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks this time around. They didn't have to guard Jrue Holiday last year, their primary Giannis Antetokounmpo defender left in free agency (Jae Crowder), and the offense was miles from stable for most of the regular season, with the exception of a strong closing kick.
What's actually transpired for the Heat verges on unimaginable. They trail the Bucks 3-0, the equivalent of a playoff death sentence. The expectation has gone from them probably making Milwaukee work for it to potentially, if not likely, getting swept.
The manner by which Miami has arrived here is partially predictable. Tyler Herro's struggles are nothing new for anyone who tuned in during the regular season. Goran Dragic has not been the same since he suffered that left ankle injury in the 2020 NBA Finals and dealt with various injuries this year. The Heat have been searching for answers at the 4 spot all season and don't have anyone who currently comes close to matching the defensive portability and (admittedly unsustainable) shot-making of Crowder.
Less predictable, and more unsettling, are the performances from their two superstars.
Jimmy Butler's increased three-point volume has not diversified the offense. He is shooting 30.6 percent from behind the rainbow and 30.8 percent inside the arc. His free-throw volume has been slashed, and he is shooting just 42.9 percent at the basket (6-of-14), down from 67.4 percent during the regular season.
Bam Adebayo looks even more out of sorts. His attack mode continues to come and go, and he has not generated the same number of quality opportunities. Just 27.5 percent of his looks are coming at the basket, a far cry from his 41.9 percent share in the regular season. He is 1-of-7 (16.7 percent) on twos outside the paint and 10-of-29 overall (34.5 percent) on twos outside the restricted area.
Miami is now free to start planning for next year. What that entails is complicated. The Heat have two tent-pole stars in Butler and Adebayo, plus a path to more than $20 million of cap space while carrying restricted-free-agent holds for Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson. But this isn't the summer to have spending power.
If they don't bag Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard—both of whom may require the Heat to chisel out more cap space—they'll be left with virtually no splashy avenues. They could use team options on Dragic and Andre Iguodala as salary ballast for a trade headlined by Herro, but a down sophomore campaign from the latter likely caps his outbound value.
It's hard to envision a more bitter ending for the Heat. They entered last offseason as darling contenders, real and actual Finals finalists, with a world of flexibility coming their way in 2021. They are now heading into this summer with a roster overrun by one-way players beyond their stars, and wiggle room they can't use as intended.
Surprise: Milwaukee Bucks
Welcome to the other, more impressive end of the Milwaukee-Miami series.
Many had no problem asserting the Bucks were better suited for this postseason than the past two. Jrue Holiday is a monster upgrade, at both ends, over Eric Bledsoe, and they deployed Giannis Antetokounmpo in different capacities on offense—on the ball, off the ball, as the screener, etc.
Few, however, predicted the Bucks would annihilate the Heat. And make no mistake, that's what this has become: a complete and utter annihilation.
Milwaukee's Game 1 victory was ugly and, really, the most meaningful harbinger of its shift. Giannis and Holiday combined for more turnovers (10) than assists (eight). Giannis shot 10-of-24 on twos. The Bucks as a team converted under 17 percent of their three-point attempts.
They still won.
Everything that's happened since is a reinforcement of what they can look like at their near-peak. Emphasis on near, because Giannis has room to dominate on a fuller scale.
Between the every-level shot-making of Holiday and Khris Middleton, the microwave scoring of Bryn Forbes and end-to-end explosion of Antetokounmpo, the Bucks offense looks and feels unguardable—even when accounting for Brook Lopez's shaky outside shooting (doing well inside!) and Donte DiVincenzo's ankle injury. Milwaukee isn't just hunting mismatches; it's creating them.
The Bucks are just as scary on defense. They remain experts at dissuading looks at the rim and have the personnel to keep doing so. Letting Lopez hang back even when the opposing big is up top poses no issue when Giannis, Holiday and Middleton all exist. For his part, Holiday has been the team's best player wire-to-wire. He is a league-best plus-88 in his playoff minutes.
Tougher matchups await in Round 2 (Nets, probably) and, if necessary, the Eastern Conference Finals (the Philadelphia 76ers, potentially). The Bucks still have plenty left to prove. But this Heat series serves as a referendum—proof that these Bucks aren't last year's Bucks, and that they're more terrifying for it.
Disappointment: Toxic Fandom
The past few days have been the complete opposite of a banner moment for NBA fandom.
A Philadelphia 76ers fan threw popcorn on Russell Westbrook as he was leaving Game 2 with an ankle injury. A New York Knicks fan spit on Trae Young at Madison Square Garden during Atlanta's Game 2 loss. Ja Morant's family was subjected to a slew of lewd and racist comments while attending Game 2 of the Utah Jazz-Memphis Grizzlies series at Vivint Arena.
This is all despicable, sickening and, sadly, all too typical. These are not isolated incidents. Nor are they the byproduct of people forgetting how to act after spending the last year-and-change away from entertainment venues. This is a fundamental failure by select fans to act with the smallest, most basic semblance of civility.
In the case of what was said to the Morants, it is also a reminder of the racist and misogynistic subculture that permeates not just NBA fandom, not just pro sports, not even just entertainment in general, but the entire country.
Now is not the time, nor is there ever a time, to use the "few bad apples" trope as a shield. Good on the fans in Philly, New York and Utah for singling out those propagating bigotry and assault under the cover of heckling. This isn't about those who aren't part of the problem. It's about acknowledging there is a problem.
Teams need to do a better job understanding what their players are up against, as well. In response to Kyrie Irving saying he hoped not to hear any racist or belligerent remarks at TD Garden, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge said: "I never heard any of that, from any player that I've ever played with in my 26 years in Boston. I never heard that before from Kyrie and I talked to him quite a bit."
Ignorance is privilege, and privilege is ignorance. Ainge's sentiments were contradicted, fairly quickly, by both Marcus Smart and Tristan Thompson—two people who, last I checked, have played for the Celtics at some point over the past 26 years.
The realist in us all can't pretend to have a magic fix. Nothing will cure this issue in full. But it is an issue. There is a line between good-natured taunting and rivalries and physical or verbal abuse and entrenched racism, and no amount of money made by professional athletes or entertainers justifies crossing it.
Recognizing as much is our bare-minimum responsibility. Banning fans indefinitely—which Wells Fargo Center, the Jazz and the Knicks all did—isn't enough. The use of "indefinitely" implies the opportunity for redemption, the chance to make up for mistakes. These were choices, made by adults, acting deliberately. Permanent bans should be the standard, to start. The rest is on us, all of us, to strive for better and not only address toxic fandom when it's a prominent headline.