NBA playoffs: From impressive Kawhi Leonard to spluttering Clippers, takeaways from first round
At the end of the first round of the NBA playoffs, 16 teams were trimmed down to eight, the level of competition got tougher, and the ‘great’ stood out from the merely ‘good’.
The end of every round of the NBA playoffs is a bittersweet experience. For every moment of celebration and greatness, there is a sad goodbye. At the end of the first round, 16 teams were trimmed down to eight, the level of competition got tougher, and the ‘great’ stood out from the merely ‘good’.
The last few weeks seemed to have passed by in a flurry faster than John Wall on the break: before we move forward, here are the biggest takeaways from the first round.
Kawhi Leonard's ever-improving form
Memphis Grizzlies Coach David Fizdale jokingly wondered if Kawhi Leonard was human. “I think he bleeds antifreeze," Fizdale said, after another virtuoso performance by the silent superstar. Fizdale may be on to something here: Leonard began his career as an unknown 15th pick in the 2011 Draft, logging less than eight points per game in his first season. Since then, he has improved dramatically, winning a Finals MVP award, two Defensive Player of the Year honours, and is on his way to making his second-consecutive All-NBA First Team.
In the first round series versus the Grizzlies, Leonard played the best basketball of his life, quietly (as always) averaging 31.2 points per game while shooting nearly 55 percent from the floor in San Antonio’s 4-2 win. Spurs coach called him the best player in the league — I call him an app that silently downloads a new update every few months. How much better can he possibly get?
OKC's weaknesses exposed
Following Russell Westbrook’s vicious lead, the Thunder did pretty well in the regular season, especially considering they were a former MVP short when Kevin Durant announced his decision to head to the Golden State Warriors. The playoffs, as they tend to do, exposed OKC’s weaknesses. Beyond Westbrook, the team had little options to match the Houston Rockets for all 48 minutes of the game.
OKC lost a big lead in nearly every game of the 4-1 series loss, underlining their lack of offensive options. You know who they could have really used in this series? Durant. You know, just another All-Time great scorer. Not like the Warriors needed to rely on his services much in their first round series.
Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to impress
Milwaukee Bucks’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was fabulous all season and in the six-game loss to the Toronto Raptors in the first round. He averaged 24.8 points and 9.5 rebounds while dunking on every defender that dared appear in his presence. We are a year away from magazine covers depicting Antetokounmpo, with headlines that suggest his story from street-peddler to MVP.
Dennis Schröder the surprise of first round
Atlanta’s Dennis Schröder — who almost went toe-to-toe with Wall in the Atlanta Hawks’ loss — was the big revelation of the first round. The 23-year-old German guard turned out to be Atlanta’s driving force in the series and proved that the team have an exciting building-block for the future if they choose to part ways with Paul Millsap.
LA Clippers fizzle out again
The LA Clippers are forever cursed and every season of the Chris Paul–Blake Griffin era has felt like a cruel tease. Like clockwork, this team repeats history, impressing in the playoffs before flaming out early due to bad luck or bad execution or both. With Paul, Griffin, and JJ Redick all entering free agency, it seems like that the team is finally headed to an off-season of change.
LeBron James' playoffs records
Then there’s LeBron James, who did what he does best: destroy first-round opponents. With a 4-0 sweep of the Indiana Pacers, he won his 21st consecutive first round game, a record since the NBA expanded the playoffs to 16 teams in 1984. He averaged 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 9 assists in the four wins and shepherded his team to a record-breaking comeback victory in Game 3. LeBron against the first round is a man’s foot against an ant. There is only one possible outcome.
For most of the 69 games in the regular season, out of which he only started in 42, Rajon Rondo played some of the worst basketball of his career. He averaged his lowest scoring total since his rookie year and saw his assists numbers fall dramatically to 6.7 after leading the league in dimes last season. But when the Chicago Bulls, a conglomerate of pieces that didn’t fit, somehow stumbled into the eighth seed and the playoffs, the glow of the bright lines made Rondo shine even brighter.
For two glorious games, Rondo helped Chicago win two road games against the top-seeded Boston Celtics, pushing the floor on offense and dominating on the defensive end. Unfortunately, the ‘Rajonassaince' couldn’t last longer: a thumb injury relegated Rondo to the side-lines and the Bulls lost the next four games. Hopefully, wherever he starts the next season, the 31-year-old will have a lot more pizzazz left in his step.
Stephen Curry dazzles
Durant stole headlines when he signed with the Warriors, James Harden wowed the world as he mastered the point guard position, Westbrook made triple-doubles into stale news, and both Leonard and James thrust their names in the MVP conversation. And somewhere within this logjam of talents, the world seemingly forgot the back-to-back MVP himself: Stephen Curry.
After a few years of revelling in the hype, did Curry suddenly become the most underrated superstar in the league? He was once again magnificent all season and found his best form just in time for the playoffs. He was scintillatingly good in the first round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers and is looking like one of the most dangerous players in the world again.
Vince Carter shows he can still be a force
At 40, Vince Carter is the oldest active player in the NBA. For most of his career, he was known as perhaps the greatest dunker in league history. But even as late as 2017, he continued to be relevant in the NBA playoffs, playing a crucial role for the Grizzlies as they attempted to fight back against the Spurs in the first round. In the absence of Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons, Carter was a surprise starter in the playoffs and given the unenviable task of defending Leonard. The series is now over and Carter’s future is in doubt: but with a spring in his step, it seems like he still has a couple more years left in his tank.
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