NBA Report Card: The Playoffs Are Getting Nuts

So much for a sleepy first round. The NBA playoffs are off to a roaring start thanks to mind-blowing performances and a few unexpected epic clashes. It's time to hand out some grades.
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Another week of playoff basketball is in the books, and the tide has turned in several series across the league. The Jazz and Clips are tied at 2-2 and Rudy Gobert is back, while Blake Griffin is out through the rest of the playoffs. Rajon Rondo went down for the Bulls and the Celtics responded by tying the series with two wins in Chicago. Also, the Spurs–Grizzlies series was supposed to be a sweep, and then both teams went nuts and produced the best game of the playoffs Saturday night. 

With that said, it's time for a few more playoff grades. We begin in Chicago.

Isaiah Thomas 

Isaiah Thomas has been truly incredible. He's still mourning the loss of his sister and playing the biggest basketball games of his career under unimaginably difficult circumstances. Sunday night was the first time all series he's looked like himself on the court. This was the player who inspired "M-V-P" chants all year. He got wherever he wanted to go against the Bulls, and as things got close in the second half and the Bulls clawed back to take the lead, Isaiah was the one who broke the game open again. 

"Being here is what makes me sane," he said afterward. However fleeting that escape may be, it seemed genuine, and it was fun to watch. He was talking trash, and bouncing through the lane, and finishing over guys twice his size. In a game where Jimmy Butler briefly looked capable of bullying the Celtics into submission, it was Thomas who wound up bending everyone to his will. 

After Lineup Change, Isaiah Thomas Has Celtics In Control Against Bulls

Now it's tied 2-2. Isaiah will still have more to prove through the second half of this series. The emotional challenges won't end, and the Bulls probably won't roll over. But that's what made Sunday so nice. I loved watching him tear through the Bulls' defense in the first half, I loved watching him come back into the game with four fouls to turn a two-point Bulls lead into a 12–0 Celtics run in the third quarter, and I loved watching him get a technical for bullying Michael Carter-Williams. For at least one game, everything fell into place for Isaiah and it all looked easy again. Grade: A+


Russell Westbrook

Westbrook put together what was probably the most polarizing game of the year in Game 2—51 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds, 17-of-43 from the field—and came back looking like a much better player in Game in Oklahoma City. He played under control in both games in OKC, trusted his teammates, and outplayed James Harden in both games. 

For longtime Russ-watchers, this is familiar. Any time you're ready to write him off forever, it usually means he's about to fine tune his approach and win you back all over again. That's what we got Friday night in the Game 3, and it was almost enough to even the series on Sunday.

Westbrook wasn't perfect. He was 10-of-28 from the field in Game 4, he took a handful of flailing threes at the end that gave me Game 2 PTSD, and he didn't have quite enough to finish off a Rockets team that refused to die. 

Every time OKC had a lead, the Rockets were just a few threes away from taking control all over again. That's exhausting to play against, especially for a team that has none of the outside shooting it would take to keep pace. So Westbrook lost in the end, and now heads to Houston down 3-1. It's not looking promising, but that's also the charm of Westbrook's year, in general. None of this has ever looked promising. Let's see how far he can push it anyway. Grade: B+

The Rockets Bench

One more note about Rockets–Thunder... After every game, someone runs a plus/minus stat highlighting OKC's struggles with Westbrook off the floor, but I'm not sure how relevant those numbers are. OKC's bench is not great, but there are similar stories happening all over the league. Boston's been awful without Isaiah Thomas, for example. The Wizards fall apart without John Wall, and Jimmy Butler played 46 minutes for the Bulls on Sunday because that's the only way they had a chance of winning. All of it's familiar to anyone who's seen the Thunder. 

The difference in this series is a story about Houston, not OKC. While most teams shift down a gear with the second unit, the Rockets have the firepower to exploit any lull in the game. Some nights that means Lou Williams goes off, others it's Eric Gordon. I don't think anyone ever planned for 28 points from Nene on 12-of-12 shooting from the floor, but that came in Game 4, too. All of that has turned this series into an unfair fight. Grade: Daryl Morey will crush your dreams. 


Paul George 

It was a rough series for Paul George. There were times when he looked dominant individually, and his numbers were very good through the first three games—32.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists—but that wasn't the whole story. He gave away the last shot in Game 1—and then complained about it—and then found himself lecturing Lance Stephenson about body language after Game 2 (has he missed the past five years of Lance's career?). In Game 3, he watched his team give away a 26-point lead and couldn't do enough to stop it. In Game 4, he went 5-of-21 from the field and scored just 15 points. At the end, he turned the ball over on the final possession, and then miraculously got it back just in time for a game-tying three that didn't even hit the rim.

In one sense, this series was a reality check about where the Pacers are relative to the rest of the East. But in another, it was a reality check about George's limits as a superstar. He is supremely talented and capable of going toe to toe with anyone—including LeBron—but his skillset becomes a more awkward fit when he's asked (or insists) to close games and carry an offense by himself.

As George heads into the off–season, he'll be at the center of endless trade rumors. So here are two trade takes: 1) For teams that have a great creator who can look to George as a secondary scorer working off the ball, he's worth whatever it takes to get him. But 2) if the goal is to to build an offense around him, the results may not be that much better than what we saw with these Pacers. Grade: C+

Kawhi Leonard and Mike Conley

Grizzlies-Spurs on a Saturday night was so much better than it sounds. This game went from sloppy and full of ugly jumpers—a Grizzlies specialty—to full-on Grit and Grind with Kawhi hallucinations. It was everything great about the NBA playoffs. Just watch:


Kawhi has turned into The Terminator on offense, and I'm so glad the playoffs have helped alert the entire country to this development. Meanwhile, Mike Conley's floaters continue to be the most gorgeous weapon of death the NBA has to offer. Let's hope this goes seven. Grade: A+

Kawhi Leonard's Incredible Fourth Quarter Can't Save San Antonio

Bulls Decisions

While Tony Snell is giving the Bucks some genuinely useful minutes against the Raptors, Michael Carter-Williams is borderline unplayable in Chicago. That's one Bulls decision that has not aged well through the first week of the playoffs. As for Game 4, I have no idea why Fred Hoiberg never put Robin Lopez back in the game in the second half Sunday night. Also, with Rondo out and the backcourt cycling through every option imaginable, does Hoiberg realize that Denzel Valentine is on his roster and is eligible to play? Or if not Valentine, why can't we just make Dwyane Wade play point guard and be done with it? 

Trying to understand this team will give you a migraine. But then, every time it looks like the Three Alphas experiment is about to go up in flames... that's when they come back and make all the critics look stupid. So stay tuned. Maybe. Grade: D+


Jimmy Butler

Butler did everything Sunday night—46 minutes, 33 points, 9 assists, picked a fight with Marcus Smart—and while it wasn't enough to win, it was enough to push the Celtics further than anyone would've expected after the first half. Jimmy Butler is one Chicago decision that remains awesome, and he's the one reason it's probably too early to count out the Bulls. Grade: B+

Joe Johnson

Almost everyone on the Jazz deserves credit for stealing Game 4 in the fourth quarter Sunday night. Joe Ingles was crucial all game and hit a big shot to help punctuate the run, Rodney Hood chipped in with clutch shots down the stretch—see also: Rodney Hood shimmy—and Rudy Gobert returned from injury and had 15 points and 13 rebounds in a game that nobody expected him to play. It was a team effort, which is typical for all Jazz triumphs. But nobody was more enjoyable than Joe Johnson calmly shifting into takeover mode to wreck the Clippers' weekend. 

I think part of the appeal of Iso Joe in these playoffs is that everything he does well is so antithetical to every thing the Jazz have represented over the past few years. This is a team that grinds on defense and relies on ball movement to survive on offense. Except in the fourth quarter, at which point they happily clear out and let Joe Johnson shuffle into some overwhelmed defender on the way to making an 8-foot jumper he's been hitting for the past decade. 

He's old, he's deliberate, and he's got certain skills that will just never disappear. Iso Joe is a beautiful thing. Grade: Get on the Iso Joe bandwagon, which is actually this "Supertruck" he bought 10 years ago. 

Crafty Old People Everywhere

It wasn't just Joe Johnson; Gerald Green was on an NBA press conference podium Sunday night! Grade: The playoffs are going well.


Cavs Defense

On the one hand, the Cavs got stops whenever they needed them against the Pacers. On the other hand, the Pacers are a terrible basketball team, and it's gotta be at least a little bit concerning that Cleveland went to the wire with Paul George, Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, and Myles Turner in every game they played. Right? Maybe?

The safest, most responsible conclusion: The Pacers series taught us nothing about the Cavss' vulnerabilities. Indiana was too mediocre to ever truly threaten the Cavs, and Cleveland knew it. If the Cavs were sleepwalking, it was totally understandable in this case. And if that attitude's going to catch up to them, we won't know for sure until we see them play a much better team than Indiana. Grade: TBD. 

The Cavs' Defense Still A Concern With Raptors, Bucks Looming

LeBron James

LeBron delivered a fatal blow to the Pacers with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in Game 3. On Sunday he added 33 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks and 4 steals. He took over these Pacers games whenever the Cavs needed it, and it was beautiful to watch, and it was a reminder that we are watching one of the two or three greatest players ever. He's never been more confident, and he's still got enough left to take over the game whenever he decides it's time. 

After watching this Pacers series, I still don't know whether the Cavs will actually be able to "flip the switch", but LeBron definitely can. Grade: A