NBA Playoff Openers: Grading The Superheroes And Trolls
The opening weekend of the playoffs is in the books. It began with a last-second Cavs win in Cleveland, and it finished with James Harden and Patrick Beverly torching the Thunder late Sunday night. All of it was welcome change from the final six weeks of the regular season.
There were no more exhausted teams half-heartedly going through the motions, no more tanking, no more rest debates. Instead we had Marcin Gortat dropping the Polish Hammer on the Hawks on Easter Sunday, Patrick Beverley's troll genius upstaging two MVP candidates, and Giannis Antetokounmpo turning into a full-blown nightmare on a Saturday afternoon in Toronto. Basketball fans needed this. So… Who was most impressive? Who's got some work to do?
This is your NBA playoff opening weekend report card.
It was one game, I know. Toronto is still the favorite in the series, I know. But Giannis is the biggest story of the weekend because it doesn't matter what else happens in that series. I'll remember watching that Raptors Game 1 for years. He gave the entire NBA a preview of the next decade.
Even the wildest optimists wouldn't have expected what we saw from Antetokuonmpo this year. He led the Bucks in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. He'll almost certainly make an All-NBA team as a result, and he's still only 22 years old. If it's already clear he's a star, Saturday afternoon pushed the envelope even further. Giannis isn't just a great player. He's turning into the sort of a great player who's so good that he makes other great players look ordinary.
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) April 15, 2017
He was everywhere on defense, and he got wherever he wanted on offense. He finished with 28 points and eight rebounds and a double-digit win. He looked like someone who can carry a contender in the not-so-distant future.
So: one game, yes. But games like that are what make any of these games great. The regular season can make stars, but the playoffs make superstars. Giannis probably isn't there yet—unless he really does beat the Raptors in the next two weeks—but Saturday made it obvious, that's exactly where all this is headed. Grade: A+
Speaking of “the playoffs make superstars” … If the inexplicable, borderline–offensive Bulls playoff berth was its own testament to Butler's credentials as a top–10 player, Sunday night in Boston made it official. He took over the second half with 23 points, including 13 in the fourth as Chicago closed out the win. He was the best player on the floor Sunday night, and it wasn't close. He can guard Isaiah Thomas and bother him, he can shoot over the Celtics defense, and he can bully his way into the mid-post whenever the offense needs a bucket.
Butler wasn't the only reason Chicago shocked Boston—Playoff Portis is now a thing?—but he's the reason that upset might not be a fluke. He's turned into a problem that can never totally be solved, and the Celtics don't have anyone to match him. I'm still picking the Celtics to win, but after watching how average every non-Isaiah Celtic looked on offense while Butler tore up their defense, this series is officially interesting. Grade: A
(Note: Obviously, everything that happened in the Celtics-Bulls game is meaningless compared to what Isaiah Thomas is going through this week. The tragedy is unimaginable, and our thoughts and prayers are with Isaiah and his family. RIP Chyna Thomas.)
Sunday was everything that makes Draymond Green one of the best players in basketball. He had 19 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, five blocks, and three steals. This might be the highlight that best explains his career, complete with a wild fist pump while Oracle loses it mind:
Draymond Green blocks Noah Vonleh's dunk pic.twitter.com/jrd3XDui33
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 16, 2017
Draymond began his time in the spotlight as a wildly entertaining underdog who was unafraid to talk trash to the entire league. Then he went and got paid, got even louder, took cheap shots at Steven Adams, and called LeBron a “b—-.” So he became a villain. But after games like Sunday and highlights like that block, it's important to remember that neither “underdog” nor “villain” best describe what's happened in Golden State the past few years.
Draymond is a power forward with a guard's passing skills, possesses the speed to stay with anyone, and owns a 7'1 wingspan to protect the rim as well as anyone in the league. He's a wonderful villain, but first and foremost everyone should remember that he's an absolute freak of nature. Grade: The Warriors are not fair.
Lillard and McCollum were awesome Sunday and made Warriors-Blazers way more entertaining than it should have been. But: “You try to hold Klay and Steph down,” Lillard told Sam Amick afterward, “make them take tough shots, make the game harder for them. You’re in a close game, going back and forth, and then you’ve got Kevin Durant—a guy who has been an MVP in this league. That’s a hell of an option to have, especially in a game like tonight.” Grade: The Warriors are not fair.
I didn't watch a single second of Spurs-Grizzlies and you shouldn't, either. This isn't a complaint. Forty-eight hours of basketball is great, and games every night for the next two months will be just as fantastic. But people need breaks. Spurs-Grizzlies is an important break for everyone. Grade: A.
What did the Jazz and Clippers do to deserve this?
Start with Utah: This is a team that hasn't been healthy all year long, and desperately needed a chance to see just how good this nucleus could be in the playoffs. George Hill is a free agent this summer, Derrick Favors is eligible for an extension, Rodney Hood will soon be too, and all of this comes while their franchise player, Gordon Hayward, enters free agency, himself, and has to decide whether he can contend for a title with the roster he has in Utah. Now Rudy Gobert is hurt, and it's almost impossible to imagine the Jazz pulling off an upset in this series, let alone getting an accurate gauge of where they sit next to the rest of the West.
As for the Clippers: Saturday night was every Clippers nightmare baked into one thud of a performance. It was a giant, nationally–televised warning sign to everyone who was wondering if maybe they should talk themselves into this team one, last time. You had Blake disappearing down the stretch (again). You had DeAndre Jordan, non-factor (again). Jamal Crawford getting beat on defense in the fourth quarter (again). Chris Paul going crazy and almost winning it by himself, only to fall short and look homicidal in defeat (again).
Watch a game like that, and you begin to think: It would probably make sense for Chris Paul to go somewhere else this summer, but he can't leave the $200 million on the table. It would probably make sense for Blake to leave, too, but would he ever be happier than he is in LA? With no Gobert, maybe they'll bounce back and look dominant enough in this Jazz series to stay together this summer, and we'll be having the same Clippers conversations until the end of time. And maybe the Jazz will never be healthy enough to see how good they could be, parting ways before they ever really arrive. Grade: D (for dark).
There were other Wizards who helped bury the Hawks—Markieff Morris and Bradley Beal both delivered at various points—but with Wall playing as well as he did, they may not have needed anyone else. He finished with 30 and 14 and played the entire game at 150 miles per hour, which is to say, it was basically a normal John Wall game.
That said, it should be noted that the Hawks answered some early Wizards energy by taking control of the first half, and they had the lead at halftime. It was the third quarter where Wall exploded with 15 points, and a three-point deficit became an 10-point lead by the time he left.
The Hawks didn't have an answer. He got to the rim at will, and when he wasn't scoring, he was finding wide-open three-point shooters. There was even a Jordan shrug thrown into the mix, because it was just that kind of day. If the first half was a reminder that the Wizards have stretches where they look awfully pedestrian, the second half was a reminder that they have cheat code in Wall that can turn entire teams inside out.
After the game, cameras caught Wall talking to teammates who'd never been to the playoffs before. “Y'all see what it's like, though,” he said. “It's fun.” It's true: playing playoff games next to John Wall looks like it would be a lot of fun. Grade: A
Best technical of the weekend goes to…
SEE YOU AT THE CROSSROADS 🔨 pic.twitter.com/QRPApvQSz6
— NBC Sports Wizards (@NBCSWizards) April 16, 2017
Worst quote of the weekend goes to…
Hawks' Paul Millsap on the Wizards: "The difference in the game was we were playing basketball & they were playing MMA."
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) April 16, 2017
Let's all do our best to reserve disdain for the Raptors until after they have a chance to bounce back in Game 2, but come on. PJ Tucker is right. Please get your s**t together, Toronto. Grade: D.
There will come a time in the playoffs, probably in the next 48 hours or so, when the spotlight will shift to the superstars full time. The playoffs put every superstar through ruthless, reputation-shaping, often-unfair tests, and it all happens in high definition with the whole basketball world scrutinizing every success or failure. It's wonderful. But you know what was wonderful about this first weekend?
This first weekend belong to the trolls. Not Steph or KD, but Draymond. Or Rondo and that miserable Bulls team—the only thing more obnoxious than their losing would be actually winning, so of course that's what they did. Wall was great in DC, sure. But Gortat and Markieff Morris were the ones punking Paul Millsap for the entire second half. In the end, this was a weekend that belonged to Lance Stephenson, drunkenly power dribbling through the Cavs on Saturday afternoon …
… and by the fourth quarter, he honest-to-god swung the game from a forgettable double-digit loss to a last-second thriller. I still have no idea how that really happened, but I swear, Lance changed everything, and it set the tone for the weekend. Grade: B+.
And then, Sunday night:
Steven Adams tried to screen Patrick Beverley into a coma, but cheap shots only energize him. For Beverley, the game doesn't really start until someone gets frustrated and throws a stray elbow at the side of his head.
He had 21 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists against OKC, and he spent the entire game shadowing Russell Westbrook in the most intrusive, obnoxious way possible. It worked. Westbrook went 6-of-23 from the floor with nine turnovers. It completely ruined the MVP showdown we'd all been waiting for. The game got out of hand by the third quarter, which is exactly when Beverley bounced back from the Adams screen to bury two threes that officially turned it into a blowout. It was awful. It was masterful.
— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) April 17, 2017
Long live the playoffs for giving us performances like Giannis on Saturday. But also, long live the playoffs for giving us superheroes like Patrick Beverley on Sunday night. Grade: A+