Some like to say the NBA playoffs are predictable. Major upsets don’t happen that often and the best teams and players almost always end up playing at the end. That may be true, but as the first round wrapped up, I found myself plenty surprised. Here are a few things that I didn’t see coming.
Jrue Holiday thoroughly outshines Damian Lillard
In his 9th season, Jrue Holiday had a career year. He was more efficient than ever, with an effective field goal percentage of 54% (his career eFG% is 49%). He shouldered more of the Pelicans’ scoring load after DeMarcus Cousins went down in a heap with that Achilles injury. And he continues to be a fantastic defender.
Even knowing all of this, it was still surprising when he exploded in New Orleans’ first round sweep of Portland. Holiday dropped 33 points in Game 2 and 41 (!) in Game 4, while defending the Blazers’ dynamic perimeter duo Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. What’s amazing is how easy it looked for Holiday to get buckets on the Blazers. His offensive output may be unsustainable but Holiday is proving Anthony Davis doesn’t have to do it alone.
On the other end, Big Game Dame wasn’t so big this postseason. Wildly inefficient (41% eFG) and turnover heavy (15 TOs combined in Games 2 and 3), Lillard’s pick-and-rolls were blown up by Davis’ freakish athleticism. In the prime of his career against a beatable first round opponent, Lillard wasn’t able to score more than 20 in any of the four miserable games. Holiday and Lillard were born about a month apart. Although Lillard is the superstar, Holiday has three more years of NBA experience. It showed in that series.
Rookies rise to the occasion
This season’s crop of rookies continued to impress in the first round. Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons, and Jayson Tatum all look mature beyond their years. Mitchell led the way offensively for the Jazz, proving he wasn’t shook going up against Westbrook. With 28.5 points per game in the first round, the 13th pick in last summer’s draft has several teams kicking themselves for passing on him.
Similarly, Ben Simmons is playing like a 10-year vet. He seems so comfortable out there on both ends of the floor. In five games against the Heat, Simmons gave us a glimpse of how commanding his all-around game can be. The kid can do everything and he’s not even 22. Now the only question is if The Process will make the Finals ahead of schedule.
Finally, could Jayson Tatum have landed on a better team than Brad Stevens’ Celtics? The rookie wing is not asked to carry the offense, but can slot in nicely alongside other scorers. Stevens has proven he trusts the kid, giving him 33 minutes per game over the seven game series against the Bucks. Although Tatum wasn’t as efficient in the first round as he was during the season, he was still a vital offensive weapon for a team who is missing their go-to guy.
KAT disappoints in first playoff appearance
Most NBA watchers fully expected the Wolves to get trounced by the Rockets in four or five games. What we didn’t expect was for Karl-Anthony Towns to look so meh. Over five games, KAT averaged just 15 points on 49% eFG shooting.
This was Towns’ first taste of the playoffs and it was against the best team in the league, so we can’t come down too hard on him. Still, his playoff struggles were part of a stifling season for KAT. Besides improved 3-point shooting, his game took a step sideways this year. He dropped from 25 points per game to 21 (although Jimmy Butler’s arrival had something to do with that) and his defense remains noticeably subpar. Here’s to hoping KAT makes The Leap next year.
Joe Ingles drops bombs, mate
We have to add another certainty to life besides death and taxes: Joe Ingles from beyond the arc. The Australian was positively lethal from 3-point range while the Utah Jazz knocked out the OKC Thunder in six games. In the regular season, Ingles hit 44% on 5.7 attempts per game, which placed him among elite efficient shooters like Klay Thompson and Otto Porter Jr.
In the playoffs, Ingles has hit another gear. Averaging 14 points per game, he’s raised his attempts to 7.5 per game while splashing 47% of them. This is huge for the Jazz, because it opens things up for Donovan Mitchell’s slashes to the hoop. Utah is going to need Ingles to keep firing from deep if they are going to keep up with Houston’s 3-point machine.
Westbrook struggles to find playoff success again
It’s another disappointing first round exit for Westbrook. Russ was as polarizing as ever this year and that extended to the playoffs. In the first four games of their series versus the Jazz, he struggled mightily: 21 PPG, 37% FG, 21% 3FG, 5.3 TO. It was surprising to see such a massive talent stymied for four straight games like that.
In the last two games facing elimination, Russ went into Hero Ball Mode. He scored 45 points on 39 shots in Game 5 and 46 points on 43 shots in Game 6. No one else besides Paul George saw much of the ball. That doesn’t typically work in the postseason.
This is all very frustrating. Who doesn’t love watching Russ take a sledgehammer to his competition? The guy is maniacal on the court. At the same time, he’s not going to go very far playing this way. With OKC facing major offseason questions, we’ll have to see if Russ can figure it out next year with another new roster.