There’s something about the negative reputation of the first round of the NBA Playoffs that’s bothersome. In an impatient sports world that just wants to get to the Finals, the path it takes to get there often gets overlooked.
With so many storylines surrounding this year’s opening slate of matchups, the association has so far delivered (and then some) with a highly competitive and highly entertaining start to the postseason.
As the remaining series close out this weekend heading into the conference semi-finals, there are plenty of moments to look back on.
Not that any team making the playoffs should be taken lightly, but surely many of us were stunned by the Chicago Bulls blindsiding the top-seeded Boston Celtics in the first two games at the Garden. How about your reaction to the Milwaukee Bucks stunning the Toronto Raptors up north to begin their series?
If that didn’t do it for you, then the Utah Jazz upsetting the Los Angeles Clippers after Rudy Gobert went down 13 seconds into Game 1 had to, right? The Atlanta Hawks have even held their own against the highly touted Washington Wizards.
Too frequently we collectively predict first-round winners without giving the opposition any fair chance or consideration. Nearly everyone is guilty of it, but people have to realize that these are the playoffs. Regardless of whether teams enter on a six-game winning streak or on a four-game skid, it’s a brand new ball game after the regular season.
Scrolling through social media, you’ll find jargon such as “[Team X] should have blown them out” or “They barely got past [Team Y]. You think they’re worthy of being a contender?”
Sorry, but that’s a horribly generic and shortsighted take. Even the greatest of teams have been tested before making their way to the NBA Finals. Some teams are simply better matchups than others, so it doesn’t make sense to definitively use this type of analysis as a barometer for what may happen in later rounds. That, and each team in the postseason is highly motivated to achieve the same goal, so every series is going to be a hard-fought struggle (at least to some extent).
The intensity and gamesmanship between players is a staple of the playoffs, year-in, and year-out. On the court is one thing, but the subtle jabs while speaking to the press take it to the next level.
Just look at how Markieff Morris caught the attention of Paul Millsap by calling him a crybaby after Game 3. That series could now potentially go seven games.
After a dust-up in Game 4, Jimmy Butler dubbed Marcus Smart a fake tough guy and the Celtics have now won three straight after falling down two games to none.
Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley went at it all series long and spoke their peace on the matter after the Houston Rockets eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It doesn’t just stop at the players. Following up another loss on the road with his Memphis Grizzlies behind two games, David Fizdale presented some damning evidence to the media regarding unfair officiating. The “take that for data” quote was such a hit as soon as he left the room that it became a t-shirt less than 12 hours later.
Not only was it a memorable moment for the league but, more importantly, it galvanized his players and gave the team new life. Sure, they came up short against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, but they gave every ounce of fight in them until the final whistle. Fiz is certainly a made man in that city.
Fizdale was one of two coaches to get fired up over the referees. After that same game where Butler fired off on Smart, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg complained about how unstoppable Isaiah Thomas is when he’s allowed to pick up his dribble. After dropping Game 5 in Boston, he was irked when a reporter referred back to it and stormed away from the media area.
It’ll be intriguing to see the next moments at the podium in round two with new matchups and fresh rivals.
Blast From The Past And Budding Superstars
Joe Johnson’s re-emergence in the playoffs has been such a joy to watch. At 35 years old, the man Quin Snyder refers to as “Joe Jesus” has not one, but two clutch go-ahead shots against the Clippers on their own home floor. Don’t look now, but the Jazz could close this thing out Friday night and he’s an enormous part of that.
Before going down with an unfortunate thumb injury, Rajon Rondo was carving up his former team as a floor general. Tony Parker took it upon himself to lock in offensively to help his team. When the Hawks have needed him most, Jose Calderon has given Mike Budenholzer some crucial minutes. Even Deron Williams found the fountain of youth and looked like his old spry self for the Cleveland Cavaliers in their sweep against the Indiana Pacers.
These guys are proving that they still have a ton left in the tank. The future, though, looks as bright as ever.
It goes without saying that Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a top five player in the NBA very, very soon. His sheer dominance in the Toronto series alone showed that. Dwane Casey made a lineup adjustment that “slowed down” the Greek Freak, but it only took a couple of games for him to get right back into the swing of things. P.J. Tucker said himself that he is nearly impossible to stop, and once Antetokounmpo develops that outside shot more, he’ll take an even further leap toward greatness.
There’s another star in the making down in Atlanta, though. As the Hawks go deeper into their youth movement, they’ve given the reigns to Dennis. He hasn’t disappointed one bit. In his first five games as a starter in the postseason, the 23-year-old is the fourth-youngest player in league history to average at least 24 points and seven assists per game on over 45 percent shooting from the field.
Derrick Rose, Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas are the only players to do this at an age younger than Schroder, but keep in mind that one of those three had started in a playoff series before. This is Schroder’s first series ever with that kind of responsibility. As for other point guard names that join him, Allen Iverson, Gary Payton and his rival John Wall have accomplished this feat.
It’s a small sample size, but the sky could be the limit for the up-and-coming Schroder.
Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal
The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.
It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.
Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.
There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.
Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.
That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.
At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.
One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.
NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind
Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.
When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.
“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.
Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.
That didn’t last long.
“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”
With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.
As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.
After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.
In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.
“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”
Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.
“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”
Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.
“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”
After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.
Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.
“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”
All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.
“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”
Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team
Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.
“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”
Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN