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.
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