The first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs was much more exciting than last year’s. Lower seeds pulled off upsets, multiple series went to 6+ games, and DID LEBRON LOSE? No, just like I said. It took a lot of injuries and mishaps for the playoffs to become as chaotic as they seem to be right now, but no matter how we got here, the NBA is undeniably fun. Let’s take a look at how the first round played out.
In the west:
1 Houston Rockets vs 8 Minnesota Timberwolves
The Rockets showed what they were made of in a 5-game bout against the Timberwolves, who, in their first playoff appearance since 2004, really didn’t display their talent. The Wolves have some serious talent on their roster in Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler – and should be able to throw down hard from time to time. Whether Minnesota’s front office is at fault for spending too much cap space on equally poor defensive guards in Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford, or Thibodeau is at fault for refusing to change his coaching style in a league of pace and space, or both (hint: it’s both), the Timberwolves have pieces that just aren’t meshing. The Rockets do not have this problem. GM Daryl Morey and Coach Mike D’Antoni are working in perfect synchronization to build a championship roster.
Chris Paul and James Harden are a fantastic duo; when one is having a rough game, the other can step up big. And it’s not often that Harden is having a rough day. Throughout the series, the MVP-to-be averaged 29 points and 7.4 assists along with 2.4 assists per game. CP3 put up 19 points and 6.6 assists per game in only 32.4 minutes per game. This is another reason why this year’s Rockets squad is different: Harden is not killing himself every game with minutes played. No one is, really. D’Antoni has been given more clearly defined starters and bench players, and removing Harden from the lineup does not cause the team to fall apart. As long as one of Houston’s All-NBA guards is in the game, they can keep it up. Clint Capela rounds out the Rockets’ big three. Capela could not be a more perfect counterpart for Harden and Paul. He’s a god on the pick and roll and a monster on the glass. Capela’s 14.2 (!) rebounds a game include almost five offensive boards.
Houston is a basketball machine. They nail three after three, completely demoralizing the opponent. In Game 4 (at Minnesota), it seemed like the Wolves were right there until the half, as the Rockets held a 50-49 edge. Houston then did what they do best; they banged out 50 points in the 3rd quarter and completely ended the competitiveness of the game. This is what Houston is going to do against the Jazz in the next round, and is the reason why they have a good chance to win the 2018 NBA Championship.
2 Golden State Warriors vs 7 San Antonio Spurs
Kawhi Leonard’s season-long absence has been a head-scratcher, but the Spurs had to deal with the problem for the playoffs nevertheless. As they managed to do all season, the Spurs exceeded expectations and stole one game on the back of LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge scored nearly twice as many points as any other Spur, mainly because the offense was simply not designed to run without Kawhi. Without superstars leading the pack, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay just aren’t the caliber of players that can hold up against the likes of the Warriors.
The Warriors managed to wallop San Antonio without former MVP Stephen Curry. Thankfully, they had their other former MVP in Kevin Durant to rack up 28.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists a game. Seems like a great way to win games; I wonder why other teams don’t follow suit. Durant, along with Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, are ostensibly the three best shooters in the history of the NBA. While the Rockets could very well pose a challenge to the reigning champs, there is no series that Golden State could enter where they are not the favorites. Another important card in Golden State’s Exodia deck is Draymond Green. Despite having a mediocre year in the regular season, Draymond seemingly returned to form with his 11/11/8 statline. If Dray can play the way he has in years past, the rest of the league can kiss the Larry O’Brien trophy goodbye.
The games might have played out differently if Gregg Popovich hadn’t had to exit the series early, but as he often says, life is bigger than basketball. Erin Popovich, Gregg’s wife of more than 40 years lost a long-fought battle with health issues on the 19th, may she rest in peace. The Spurs are one of the most tight-knit teams in the NBA, and the entire franchise is dealing with the loss.
3 Portland Trail Blazers vs 6 New Orleans Pelicans
The third-seeded Blazers were the only team to be swept in the first round this year. Despite the home court advantage, the New Orleans matchup simply was not in their favor. Portland’s big three of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic was completely outclassed by Jrue Holiday, Playoff Rajon Rondo and the monster that is Anthony Davis. Davis’s ability to switch onto guards and follow them from the perimeter to the interior is essentially Portland’s kryptonite.
Jrue Holiday had himself a hell of an outing against the Blazers. While Portland’s frontcourt isn’t exactly known for its defensive prowess, Holiday still blew away expectations with his 27.8 points, 6.5 assists and 4 rebounds per game on 56.8 FG%. Nikola Mirotic, who the Pels picked up at the trade deadline this season, may have found a home in New Orleans. The forward was the third leading scorer in the effort against the Blazers with a solid 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game in the sweep. Rajon Rondo showed up big this series, similar to his playoff stint last year with the Bulls. The former All-NBA guard picked apart defenses and acted as an incredible floor general for the team. Rondo played his role next to Holiday and Davis perfectly, scoring only 11.3 points per game, but racking up an insane 13.3 assists. If DeMarcus Cousins ends up staying with the team, New Orleans might have a great squad going forward. Whether they can compete with the Warriors in the second round, however, is a completely different story. Anthony Davis might be a top-three player in the NBA, but Golden State is chilling with of the top five.
Portland’s front office is kicking themselves right now for making a big reach on Evan Turner, whose contributions of only 9.3 points and 4 rebounds in over 28 minutes per game in the series hardly justify his $18 million per year through 2020. Al-Farouq Aminu was a significantly more cost-efficient addition to the team, as the forward added 17.3 points and 9 rebounds at 51.9% shooting from the field. Also, Zach Collins is awesome. While he didn’t have a phenomenal series in the face of Anthony Davis, putting up 7 points and 3 assists in only 17.4 minutes per game, the rookie had a very promising season and should definitely be part of the Portland game plan from here on out.
4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs 5 Utah Jazz
The Jazz clinched the series in six against the temperamental Thunder. Utah has exactly the kind of team to frustrate OKC; they are solid on defense, make their threes when they need to, and don’t give up. Russell Westbrook and Paul George are the antitheses of the Jazz – they get super hot but also super cold, forget how to play defense on a regular basis, and don’t keep their composure in big moments. George, in particular, was clearly frustrated by Joe Ingles – the Jazz’s 3pt specialist that manages to get under big-name players’ skin by playing pesky, hounding defense. Carmelo Anthony proved himself this series – proved that he is completely washed up. The 26 million dollar man put up 11.8 points in over 32 minutes per game to go along with abysmal defense. The series would have been completely different had Andre Roberson been healthy. The defensive specialist likely would have put the breaks on Donovan Mitchell’s incredible scoring outbursts in almost every second half.
Mitchell is proving why he was a worthy contender for Rookie of the Year against the 76ers’ equally unbelievable forward Ben Simmons. Mitchell put up a huge 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game in his first ever playoff series. The rook has been strutting his stuff all season, but for Mitchell to come out and put up better numbers than he did in the regular season shows why Utah is no longer fretting over the loss of Gordon Hayward.
Unfortunately for Utah, their loss in the 82nd game of the season earned 5th seed instead of the 3rd, so they advance to play Houston in the second round. The Rockets match up against the Jazz better than any other team in the league; Houston’s fast pace, killer 3-pt shooting and athletic center in Capela effectively neutralize Utah’s biggest strength in their iron defense backed up by Rudy Gobert, as shown by Houston sweeping their regular season series against Utah this year. Expect Houston to make quick work in the second round.
One bright spot for the Thunder was Steven Adams, who could not be stopped on the offensive boards. Rudy Gobert is one of the best defensive big men in the league, and Adams put him in a corner like no other. Adams has an incredible ability to convert tip-ins that keeps OKC’s wild offense running smoothly. His basketball IQ and enormous physique help him to be a force in the post defense, challenging other big men at the rim with ease.
I’m not sure what OKC will do in the offseason. Paul George is almost certainly leaving, having been courted to a championship contender. Melo, on the other hand, will almost definitely exercise his nearly 28 million dollar option. OKC traded some viable young players in Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to get George, which may have been a bad basketball move but nudged Westbrook into signing his extension through the 2022 season.
In the East:
1 Toronto Raptors vs 8 Washington Wizards
The Raptors finally managed to wrangle a win from the Wizards in a fun 6-game series. Toronto has the deepest team in the NBA. In this series, the Raps had nine players average more than 16 minutes a game, before adding in last year’s breakout bench player in Norman Powell and this year’s breakout guard, Fred VanVleet. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry haven’t missed a beat in the transition from the regular season, and even if they do in the future, the Raptors’ bench should be able to make up for it. This advantage will work wonders against an extremely frail Cleveland team. The Raptors’ time to win games will be in the six minutes that LeBron rests, and in those six minutes, having a bench mob like Toronto’s is absolutely key.
Center Jonas Valanciunas is finally getting some real looks in the playoffs. After multiple years of being nearly sidelined during important plays, the coaching staff is finally warming up to him. Jonas shot 43.6% from three in the series and will be a huge threat to any team that the Raps find themselves up against.
John Wall had a monster series after missing half of the regular season this year, averaging 26 points, 11.5 assists and 5.7 rebound per game against the Raps. Fortunately for the Wizards, their front office managed to lock up Wall through 2022, but at that point, he will be making almost $44 million a year. If that move pans out, it will be one of the very few good moves that the Wizards’ FO has made.
It’s time for Washington to get some actual frontcourt players. Kelly Oubre proved me wrong, shooting 37.5% from the field and 21.1% from three in the series. Marcin Gortat has long overstayed his welcome, as his contribution of 8.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game this series was not enough. Ian Mahinmi is tied up for $16 million a year through 2020, and I’d contest that his five points a game have not made up for that enormous cap sink. Beal and Wall are solid; they have been playing great basketball, especially in the postseason, for years. But without a third star in the rotation, Washington is doomed to these types of first-round exits for a long time coming.
2 Boston Celtics vs 7 Milwaukee Bucks
The Celtics battled the Bucks in a tight 7-game series. Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving ended their seasons early, not playing at all in the series, and Marcus Smart only played three games. Of course, with Brad Stevens as the best coach in the league, Boston pulled out the win. They leaned hard on 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum and 21-year-old sophomore Jaylen Brown, and those two continue to show up when it counts. It’ll be interesting to see the ceiling of this Boston squad when Kyrie, Hayward, and Smart are all at full health. Getting the 2nd seed and surviving the first round with a banged-up roster was quite the feat.
Milwaukee’s downfall this series, and possibly for the future of their franchise, was their inability to surround Giannis Antetokounmpo with competent players and coaching. Barring Khris Middleton, the Bucks have zero reliable players to back up the Greek Freak. Middleton came up big in the series, hitting an insane game-tying buzzer beater to go along with his 31-point Game 1 performance. Giannis and Middleton combined for almost 50% of the team’s scoring, 38% of their rebounds, and 42% of their assists. That’s a serious two-man squad. Eric Bledsoe nearly embarrassed himself by making some snarky comments to go along with abysmal play early on but scored 23 points in game 7. Either way, Bledsoe’s value has certainly dropped due to his time on the big stage; Milwaukee needs to find a point guard more complementary to Giannis’ playstyle or a coach that can replace Jason Kidd, who was fired in January. Otherwise, their star is leaving.
3 Philadelphia 76ers vs 6 Miami Heat
The Process is working. With Whiteside not playing up to par, the Sixers thrashed the Heat in a physical 5-game series. Rookie guard Ben Simmons does not look like a rookie in the slightest. The likely ROTY averaged 18.2 points, 9 assists and 10.6 rebounds in the series. He’s basically LeBron without a jump shot – which I’m not sure he needs. Nevermind his veteran leadership, JJ Redick is the perfect complement for Simmons. He runs around off-ball and waits for his looks, and ended up leading the Sixers in scoring at 20 points per game in the series. While Philadelphia’s shooting wasn’t stunning overall, it’s highly unlikely that their spacers in Robert Covington and Dario Saric will take long to get the engines going. In Philly’s next series against the Celtics, the offensive presence of Joel Embiid will greatly outweigh any woes that the Sixers had against the Heat. Furthermore, their insane frontcourt defense will again give them a huge advantage against another guard-dependent team in Boston.
Miami (read: coach Eric Spoelstra) did a whole lot with very little this season. Their top scorers in the Philadelphia series were as follows: Goran Dragic led the team in scoring at 18.6 points, closely followed by 36-year-old Dwyane Wade, who was trailed by Kelly Olynyk. Those are not the names you want to see at the top of your roster. The departure of LeBron hasn’t ruined the franchise in the way that it did, and probably will do again, to Cleveland. But the absence of Chris Bosh, the lack of development from Justise Winslow, and overall lack of roster moves by the front office has trapped the coaching staff with the subpar postseason team we are seeing now.
4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs 5 Indiana Pacers
The Cavs. Oh, the Cavs. It is remarkable that Cleveland’s franchise hasn’t yet been renamed the “Cleveland LeBrons.” LeBron (the Cavaliers) beat the Pacers in a hard-fought 7-game series. The Pacers played great, Victor Oladipo led the team by capping his likely MIP season with 22.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6 assists a game in the series. Outside of Oladipo, the Pacers have an incredible scoring distribution among their players; six other players averaged double digits in scoring. Indiana beating expectations by such a huge margin this year can be attributed to Oladipo’s breakout season and coach Nate McMillan using his pieces to the best potential he could get out of them.
As for Cleveland, there is no question as to why the Cavs had the slightest shot at winning this series. Outside of LBJ, no player on the Cavaliers dropped 20 or more points in any of the seven games of the series. The King averaged 34.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1 block in each game. This performance might be his most impressive series to date, but it’s hard to say whether this dominance is indicative of the most unbelievable postseason we’ve ever witnessed, or if James is going to become exhausted – in which case Cleveland will collapse. LeBron led the league in minutes played this year, averaging more than any other player at 36.9 minutes per game and playing all 82 games of the regular season. After that, James clocked in at second in minutes per game in the first round at 41.1 MPG, but played all seven games. If LeBron is human, he will not be able to keep this up, and no one should blame him for it.
If the Cavs want to make it out of the East, LeBron’s supporting cast has to figure it out. Korver has to hit his shots like he did in Game 4, where he went 4/9 from three. Tristan Thompson, outside of his important 15/10 performance in Game 7, has been an embarrassment to his 82 million dollar contract. Thompson only appeared in four out of seven games, where he averaged 4.5 points and four rebounds a game. The Kardashian curse is real.
The Cavs’ midseason stimulus package of George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance has been largely underwhelming. Hill leads that group in playing time at 20.3 minutes per game. And Kevin Love, who averaged 26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in his last season in Minnesota, put up 11.4 points per game in the Pacers series. Love’s failure to bring even half of the scoring that he managed in his prior stint is the biggest reason why I believe LBJ will be leaving this offseason.
One final takeaway is the importance of role players that have found a home, such as Lance Stephenson. In 2014, Lance led the entire NBA in triple-doubles and was a key part in bringing that top-seeded Pacers team to the ECF, and pushing the LeBron-led Heat to six games. Indiana then let Stephenson go, and he bounced to four different teams in the next three years. Somehow he found himself back in Indiana and played a big role in this underdog Pacers season.
Some other examples of chemistry-building role-fillers are Richard Jefferson on the Cavaliers, Trevor Booker on the Jazz, and Enes Kanter on the Thunder. I have a hard time believing that Richard Jefferson is less valuable to the Cavaliers’ locker room than Kendrick Perkins. RJ’s goofy personality and propensity to hype up the team during important games are sorely needed on a team as desperate as Cleveland’s. Lance does the same thing for the Pacers; their biggest threat in the past five years has been Lebron teams, and no one messes with LBJ better than Lance. Even Enes Kanter, despite his erratic play, would have been an enormous help for OKC as the former Thunder loves the team so much that he flies out to their playoff games.
There is obviously a lot more to a GM’s job than keeping players who want to be on the team, but I would contend that if these teams had stuck with the guys that proved how much they cared about the franchise they were with, they’d all be in better places.