- What did we learn from the opening week of the NBA playoffs? The Crossover breaks down seven big takeaways.
It's been one week since the NBA playoffs began. And you might be wondering: Who has stepped up? What are the biggest surprises? Which teams have been the most disappointing? It's a little early to draw many definitive conclusions, but after seven days of non-stop basketball, a few themes from this year's postseason have already become clear. Here are seven lessons from opening week of the playoffs.
1. Contending in the NBA is walking a tightrope, and the Blazers are about to fall. After going down 3-0 to New Orleans Thursday night, it goes without saying that this series is really bad news for Portland. This is a 49-win third seed on the brink of being swept out of the first round. It's a code red scenario. But the psychic impact of this series might extend beyond this season, and that's where the bad news gets particularly cruel.
There will be questions about seismic trades—C.J. McCollum?—Rumors about changes to management and the coaching staff, and lots and lots of angst. It's not entirely misplaced. The whole franchise could look different by this time next year.
The best argument for not blowing up an underachieving contender is the success of this year's Toronto Raptors. Just three years ago they were swept out of the first round against the Wizards, and last season they were swept by the Cavs. A year later they won 59 games and re-entered the playoffs as a one-seed. But consider the differences between Toronto and Portland and the depth of the Blazers issues becomes clearer.
Toronto was working with a friendly cap environment and had room to build out the supporting cast; Portland's roster is already incredibly expensive and the rest of the league is creeping toward financial nuclear winter. Next to Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan had several areas to improve back in 2014; next to Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum might not have that kind of upside. Masai Ujiri nailed the draft, and particularly the second; Neil Olshey hasn't fared as well lately, although Zach Collins looks promising. Toronto was in the East, where basic competence and a little bit of talent guarantees a spot in the top half of the playoffs; Portland is in the West, where the Warriors and Rockets will be throttling challengers for at least the next two years, while the Jazz, Thunder, Wolves, Pelicans, and possibly the Lakers will make the middle of the conference just as harrowing.
It's not to say the Blazers are doomed, but improving from here will be really difficult. The Pelicans were a nightmare matchup, and now the nightmare has been realized. And while there's always something to be said for keeping a good team in tact simply because winning 45-50 games is fun as hell, one thing that's crucial to that formula is hope. This year's Blazers had some of that hope, but then Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis showed up. As for hope after this year, it may get tricky.
2. The worst nicknames are the best nicknames. Some nicknames are iconic (Air Jordan), others are unfairly lost to history (Slim Reaper). Some are blatantly stolen from Kill Bill (Black Mamba). Others are fairly simple (KAT). And then are some that are unnecessary and mercifully ignored (Beastbrook?). But the best nicknames of all are the ones that are just painfully bad. I'm thinking of Dion Waiters nicknaming himself "KobeWade", Kevin Durant nicknaming himself "The Servant", and, of course, Playoff P.
"Y'all ain't met Playoff P yet, huh?" Paul George told OKC media before Game 1. "I'm used to it. I'm used to these matchups. [Playoff P] is a fun guy to watch. I just lock in and put myself into a different zone." After Game 1, in which George put up 36 points on 13 of 20 shooting, Carmelo Anthony couldn't help but crack up. "That's his name? That's the new name? I'm gonna let Russ answer that one. Playoff P..."
And of course, the discussion continued after Utah evened the series in Game 2.
I just hope everyone is clear on a few different fronts: first, "Playoff P" is the funniest development of the playoffs thus far, and it's great that OKC's players are leaning into it. Second, when Paul George plays well, the Thunder become the elite team everyone expected. When he struggles, the offense becomes dramatically less diverse and they become vulnerable against anyone. There are a dozen different subplots to follow in Utah-OKC, but in this series and beyond, I really think the performance of Paul George will be the barometer that determines everything for the Thunder. With due respect to "Me7o" and "Beastbrook", Playoff P is the author of his own fate this spring.
3. The difference for modern big men is foot-speed. Every year now, the NBA playoffs arrive and traditional big men are played off the floor all over the league. It shouldn't be surprising at this point—we've been having the same conversation for several years, and certainly since the rise of the Warriors—but it's always kind of amazing. The Blazers played 82 games with Jusuf Nurkic, and suddenly he just doesn't fit. Same for the Bucks and John Henson, and most notably, the Miami Heat and Hassan Whiteside.
So why can some big men stay on the floor while others become liabilities as soon as teams hit the playoffs and begin playing their most dangerous lineups? For example, Joel Embiid acquitted himself just fine on Thursday night against Miami, while Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams will be on the court regardless of who OKC or Utah play this spring.
The answer is foot speed. And agility. And mostly, the ability to play in space without being tortured and abused in the pick-and-roll. That's the difference between someone like Jusuf Nurkic and a player like Clint Capela. Or, in Miami's case, it's why nimble 6'10" rookie Bam Adebayo is arguably more valuable than 7'1" star Hassan Whiteside. Big men who can guard all over the floor are invaluable chess pieces (like Embiid), and those who can't are often a liability.
This is quickly becoming the rule for big men in the modern NBA. The future of the league won't require every big man to shoot threes, but if they can't survive in space, they won't be very useful when the games matter and teams play their most dangerous lineups.
4. The Celtics are working with an embarrassment of riches. Boston has been the object of league-wide envy for years now. That began with the Nets' picks. What's interesting this week, though, is how a pared-down version of the Celtics has only underscored just how bright the future is. All of the younger players are getting more opportunities, and they've all exceeded expectations.
Jayson Tatum was excellent in Game 1 of the Bucks series. Terry Rozier has been dominating Eric Bledsoe, and he's looked great in both games. Most notable of all, Jaylen Brown has been excellent in both playoff games thus far, providing an important reminder that Tatum's not the only affordable Boston wing with scary two-way upside who fits exactly where the league is going. (Between the two of them, they're making $11.8 million next year—that's less than half of what Otto Porter will be getting in DC.)
On their own, the players on this Celtics team won't be enough to do much after the first round. They may not even beat Milwaukee. But throw in Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving at the top of this roster and over-matched second and third options behind Horford will become extremely over-qualified fourth and fifth options. All of this has been clear for a while, so maybe it's not a lesson; more like a reminder for fans of anyone else to be incredibly jealous. Even in the down year where everything went wrong, there are silver linings everywhere, and this team will still probably make the second round of the playoffs. Because of course they will.
5. Kawhi Leonard is not good at text messaging. The Kawhi situation remains deeply strange, and while the rest of the league spends these playoffs speculating on the future and/or reading surprisingly helpful medical analysis on Reddit, the latest bit of news emerged from Ailene Voisin in Sacramento. "The Southern California native," Voisin writes, "has gone rogue, morphed from soft-spoken to silent. He occasionally texts with some of his teammates, but, according to Gasol, leaves others in the dark."
This is maybe the first Kawhi Leonard story all year that isn't at all surprising. If we were looking for the superstar in the NBA most likely to ignore friends' text messages for weeks at a time, Kawhi would easily be the in the top of that list. This is a man who celebrated an NBA title by leaving the Larry O'Brien trophy in his empty apartment and continuing to workout. Of course he's not texting back. While Leonard's absence from the Spurs bench is definitely notable and speaks to how bizarre things have gotten San Antonio, I think ghosting Pau Gasol is probably closer to standard protocol. And while we're here, because it's Friday, let's take this opportunity to make assumptions about the texting habits elsewhere in the league.
LeBron James will invite you to a group chat, it will be great for five months, then one day he'll stop responding and you'll never hear from him again. Steph Curry will text you back immediately with the perfect joke and perfect emoji, and it will be so charming that, actually, it's a little off-putting. James Harden will disappear all day before sending several messages between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Chris Paul will be punctual and helpful in all his messages, but in cases of emergency, he inexplicably breaks his phone and becomes unreachable. Kevin Durant will text you back immediately, but with a post-script that reads "Bet you didn't think NBA players would text you back. Wrong again. Lmao. It's just funny how some people think they know the game." Joel Embiid will text you from the middle of a playoff game, and it’s great, but you have no idea how he's not getting in trouble for this. And Russell Westbrook, like Kawhi, is definitely not texting you back.
6. Playoff Rondo is the best urban legend in basketball. Look at these quotes from the Pelicans, helpfully gathered by Sean Highkin at Bleacher Report.
* Anthony Davis: "He's up all night watching film. He's calling their plays out before they even have a chance to run it. He's just in a different mode."
* Alvin Gentry: "I've had the opportunity to coach Steph [Curry] and Chris Paul and Steve Nash and Grant Hill. So you're talking about extremely smart players, and he's right there with those guys. He has a way of giving confidence to the other guys. He makes them believe in themselves, even if they're struggling. He has a tendency to go to a guy and try to pick him up. Those are the kinds of things that, as coaches, you really can't do and only a guy like that can. ... My philosophy has always been, if I call a play and he calls a different play, his play will always succeed.
* Nikola Mirotic: "I had that [playoff] experience with him last year when we played in Boston. It's just completely different the way he approaches the game. You can see him now, talking to the guys and locking in."
In the coming weeks there will be other opportunities to discuss everything else that's working for the Pelicans. For now, I just want to say that watching Rajon Rondo become a savant in the second half of April is one of the best running traditions in the NBA.
Playoff Rondo is tougher and smarter than 95% of the league, and while some might ask why he doesn't do this all year, I appreciate his commitment to eternal weirdness instead. He is the best.
7. Victor Oladipo is a superstar. The NBA regular season is where new trends emerge and ascendant stars can generate buzz, but the playoffs are where those developments are codified into something real. The games become ten times more important, defense becomes more advanced, and the entire league is watching. And while Indiana fans may have known for months that Victor Oladipo was a full-blown All-NBA talent, it wasn't until these last two Cavs games that it became indisputable.
Oladipo is a nightmare. Everything that worked in the regular season now looks twice as dangerous in the playoffs. He's playing free safety on defense and sprinting into pull-up jumpers on offense, and everyone who watched the first four years of his career is currently having their minds blown. The Cavs are still the favorites in this series, but the Pacers have a real chance to win, mostly because they have a player who gives them a chance against anyone. That's a superstar. If there were any doubts about Oladipo last week, the NBA is convinced now.