- What did we learn from the opening round of the playoffs? Who was the podium MVP? We break down seven big-picture takeaways after the first two weeks of postseason basketball.
The first round of the NBA playoffs is over, but before we move forward, let's take a quick look back. What did we learn from the opening round? Who was the podium MVP? And is the off–season more interesting than the title race? Here are some lessons from the first two weeks of playoff basketball.
1. Seven games is more than enough time to make us all look stupid. We should've internalized this lesson forever after last year's Finals, but alas. All it took was a few nights and the first handful of playoffs games, and suddenly... a) there was an internet-wide referendum on the Celtics' failures at the trade deadline, b) the Raptors were cursed in the playoffs, c) John Wall and the Wizards were worlds better than Paul Millsap and the Hawks, and d) the Clippers would make quick work of the Jazz without Rudy Gobert. Some of those assessments held up better than others (shoutout to closeout John Wall).
More than anything, the first round was a reminder that the best thing about the playoffs is also the worst thing about the playoffs. Every game can leave fans feeling either invincible or inconsolable. The media's only slightly more measured. We all go crazy as a rule. Then adjustments are made, role players step up, superstars emerge, guys get hurt, and narratives change 180 degrees over the course of a series.
So in honor of everyone who was ready to trade Kyrie Irving after two games of last year's Finals, and everyone who was ready to picket outside Danny Ainge's house after two games against the Bulls, here's to embracing the playoff roller coaster. I can't wait for to do it for another month.
2. The NBA needs to fix those awful three-point fouls. For the love of God, put an end to these fouls—the ones where some superstar is coming around a screen, runs head-first into a hedging big man, hurls the ball at the rim, and throws out his arms and legs like he's getting hit by a bus. And then gets the call.
James Harden is the most notorious offender, but it's become a league-wide thing. Isaiah Thomas gets a few of these whistles every game, and Chris Paul gets them, too. Some of Russell Westbrook's worst moments against the Rockets came when he was attempting to draw three-point fouls after some incidental contact and would throw up an airball with legs flailing in every direction. Sometimes he'd draw the foul, other times not. It was always a bad look.
In general, all of these calls are a bad look for basketball. Then they're compounded because everyone has to sit through three shots, thinking about how stupid the call was. Please fix this, NBA.
3. Daryl Morey and Mike D'Antoni deserve more credit than James Harden. Rockets-Thunder never quite delivered. Westbrook wore down in most Thunder losses, and Harden struggled through the second half of the series even as his team fileted OKC's defense to advance. By the end, both MVP candidates left that series making their skeptics look smart.
Westbrook's style wasn't sustainable against a good team, and the Thunder looked worlds away from actually contending with him leading the way. And even as Harden struggled down the stretch—he said he was battling an ankle injury—the Houston offense remained as dominant as it had been all year. That shouldn't undermine how great Harden was this season, but in the Great MVP Showdown of 2017, it's telling that this series turned on depth and not the superstars.
It underscores what's actually been at play with the Rockets this year. Thanks to Daryl Morey, Houston has a team that can throw waves of weapons at a defense over the course of the game. Thanks to Mike D'Antoni, Houston has the perfect coach to optimize those weapons for 48 minutes. That was the difference against OKC. Anytime Westbrook wore down or went to the bench, the Rockets could blitz OKC and exploit them.
There were rumors over the summer that hiring D'Antoni wasn't necessarily Morey's choice. Whether that's true or not, it seems like they've both found the perfect counterpart for everything they want to do with a basketball team. Moreyball has never looked more dangerous, and D'Antoni's never had more weapons to play with as he embarks on his deepest playoff run since 2007.
4. The Clippers should have traded Blake. The 2011 Mavericks have always been a good, compelling argument for teams looking to keep their nucleus in tact and hope that a few breaks will go their way en route to a title run. Now file away the 2017 Clippers as history's best counterpoint to that Mavs story.
No one could have forseen Blake Griffin's injury, sure, but even if he'd been healthy the Clips were going nowhere against the Warriors. This season was always going to end with Lob City at the edge of a cliff. And it didn't have to be this way. Blake could have been dealt at last year's trade deadline. The Celtics likely would have been interested, and the Nuggets were reportedly interested as well.
So, let's say L.A. had added Jae Crowder and Avery Bradley for Blake. Or perhaps more realistic: Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Will Barton, and a pick. Either one of those hauls would have left L.A. with a roster that made more sense than what they had this year. CP3 would have been surrounded with shooters, DeAndre would have had more space down low... It would've been a version of this team that was unburdened by balky chemistry, and likewise free of the playoff nightmares that were clearly weighing them down by the end.
It didn't happen. Now the Clippers could lose Blake, Paul, and Redick in one summer. Worse, they could keep all three and enter next season with $200 million payroll and not a prayer at the title. Or they keep Paul, but don't have the cap space to build around him. It's not a good situation, and it's a reminder that not making a move at all can sometimes hurt just as much as making the wrong move. Blowing it up is better than watching it all crumble.
5. The podium is the playoff MVP. Here are some unofficial podium rankings from the first two weeks:
• Paul George throws CJ Miles under the bus for missing a game-winner.
• Paul George lectures Lance Stephenson about body language.
• Fred Hoiberg, after Game 4, accuses Isaiah Thomas of carrying the ball on every possession.
• Rajon Rondo explains ACL injuries.
• Dennis Schroeder and Paul Millsap respond to "crybaby" accusations.
• John Wall and Bradley Beal use Migos lyrics to recount their trash talk with Quavo and Julius Jones.
• Fred Hoiberg walks off after being asked whether Isaiah carried the ball in Game 5.
• Westbrook explains how teams work.
• Westbrook does not care about the line.
• Patrick Beverley does care about the line.
• David Fizdale goes electric:
• Giannis reads Raptors stats:
Has the podium been better than the actual basketball? Maybe? Speaking of which...
6. The off–season is more interesting than these playoffs. Think about the more interesting stories thus far: Should the Celtics have traded for Jimmy Butler? Where will Paul George go? How will the Bucks build around Giannis? Who can OKC get to play with Russ? Is this the end of the Clippers? Not much of the intrigue has happened on the court.
Rockets-Thunder was full of fouls and never had any flow to it. Beyond John Wall's brilliance, Hawks-Wizards was generally pretty ugly. Spurs-Grizzlies gave us one delirious Saturday night, and five mostly-forgettable games. The Cavs and Warriors both swept. Even Game 7 of Clips-Jazz was a dud. The games haven't delivered, which is fine. Maybe we're due for a letdown after getting the greatest Finals comeback in NBA history.
The other problem might be the Warriors. They are so good that it's hard to get too invested in any of this. The potential for a Cavs loss, for instance, would be a lot more interesting if Cleveland looked like a realistic threat to the Warriors in a Finals matchup. I'm not sure they do. The same is true for Rockets-Spurs. How excited can you get to see which team has the chance to be gentleman's swept by Golden State?
There are two potential responses to this development. The first is that yes, the off–season can sometimes look more exciting than the playoffs, but that's more a credit to the off–season than a criticism of the playoffs. If both events promote the NBA and generate interest, maybe it doesn't hurt the league if July is a bigger attraction than June. (It's an interesting debate, especially once you start considering networks and ratings, and examining how and where this sport creates value for both owners and partners.)
The simplest response: this year's NBA landscape is an exception, not the rule. The cap spike created a monster but it won't be like this forever. Golden State's roster will get too expensive in the next few years, at which point competitive balance should begin to look like less of a punchline. For now, fans can weather the storm with a half-dozen subplots that remain interesting regardless of the title race. And as for the title race...
7. The Warriors are winning the title. It's not earth-shattering news that the Warriors are going to win it all this year, but it bears repeating after the first round. Sometimes the easiest answer is also the correct answer.
More importantly, please watch Draymond Green stomping through this hallway in Portland:
The next month of basketball will give us plenty of opportunities for longer conversations about the Warriors, not to mention Draymond. For now, let's just say that this Warriors title march can either be boring or beautiful. If you're looking for drama, it will be the former. Golden State is too good to make any of the actual basketball all that interesting. What can make the Warriors thrilling, though, is the context.
This team has spent the past year listening to the world mock them for blowing a title, and only now are we getting a chance to watch them respond. The regular season meant nothing in that regard. They never had to focus until KD went down, and even then, they could only gain so much by unleashing hell on whoever they played.
It's the playoffs where we are seeing them hit an entirely new level of ruthless. They are turned up right now. Sometimes that means coming back on the road with a 19-1 third quarter run to stun Portland, and other times it's coming out in Game 4 with a 45-point first quarter to demoralize the Blazers all over again. Either way, "go after the motherf---ing heart" is a perfect way to explain what we're seeing from the Warriors. As a basketball story, it's fairly predictable. As a story of revenge, it is spectacular—and it's just getting started.