10 Things I Learned From Opening Weekend of the NBA Playoffs
One of my favorite weekends of the whole year is the beginning of the NBA Playoffs. Each series gets its own moment in the spotlight, as all eight game ones go back-to-back-to-back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday. The marathon of playoff games is like Christmas for NBA diehards and there’s a lot to takeaway from the extended viewing.
It’s a time when we confirm our predictions, make new realizations, and altogether overreact to every little thing that happened. There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played in each series and despite what we might think we saw during the first weekend, teams will make adjustments and we’re bound to think something else in a few days.
Even so, I can certainly say I learned a lot this weekend. Here are 10 such things.
1. Home court means nothing, apparently.
Five of the eight road teams pulled out the “upset” victory this weekend, stealing home court advantage away from their adversaries (including three of four on Saturday). We spend so much time placing importance on locking up the right to be the home team in a series and the reality is that the advantage can disappear so quickly, no matter how hard you work for it.
The Pacers have been talking about how much they want that 1 seed since the very beginning of the season and now they don’t even have home court anymore in the first round against the 8-seeded Hawks (more on that in a minute). Sure, the point is to have it for an eventual matchup with the Heat, but who still believes that will happen?
According to NBA Guru's Twitter account, road teams have a record of 5-19 in Game 1 in the first round from 2011-13 and put up a 5-3 record in 2014. On top of that, he/she/it goes on to mention that lower-seeded teams that won Game 1 on the road have gone on to win the series 11 out of 26 times (42.3%) dating back to 2001. An interesting stat, but not one that dooms the teams that lost home court, if they can make the proper adjustments.
2. Paul Pierce is a carnivorous dinosaur.
There’s plenty of controversy surrounding the series between the Raptors and the Nets, in what is becoming an all-out international incident. A Toronto tabloid labeled the series as being the “Raptors vs. Dinosaurs”, referring to how old the Nets’ roster is compared to the Raptors’. Then Raptors GM Masai Ujiri addressed a crowd of thousands of people standing outside the Air Canada Centre in Toronto before their first playoff game in six years and finished his speech by saying something super offensive about Brooklyn (we’re a family site, google it).
Paul Pierce got the last laugh in all of it though, as he torched the Raptors in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter, scoring 9 of his 15 points in the frame, proving that perhaps playoff experience does count for something. NBA analysts were going a bit overboard with statistics regarding just how many playoff games and minutes the Nets had over the Raptors, but it certainly seemed to prevail with Pierce playing the role of savior and first-timers like DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Terrence Ross being mostly ineffective (although Jonas Valanciunas looked up to the task).
3. The Clippers vs. Warriors series is going to be all kinds of entertaining.
The series that many people were projecting to be the most entertaining certainly didn’t disappoint. The Warriors squeaked out a 109-105 road victory, despite a relatively quiet game from Stephen Curry (14 points on 6 of 16 shooting and 7 turnovers). They got solid contributions from David Lee (20 points, 13 rebounds) and Klay Thompson (22 points), but were lifted by Jermaine O’Neal scoring 12 of his 13 in the second half and Draymond Green, who was a +17 in 22 minutes of work. Most interestingly, they got an impressive 48-42 rebounding edge, despite missing their best rebounder in Andrew Bogut.
The Clippers were in fine form as well, but the Warriors simply proved to be too much for them. Chris Paul was playing the role of assassin down the stretch, getting big and timely buckets, even if it ended up not being enough. He finished with an impressive 28 points to go with 7 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals, and a 5 of 9 mark from downtown. J.J. Redick also had an impressive showing, posting a playoff career-high 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting from the field and 4 of 5 from deep. I've also gotten this far without mentioning one of the most fun players to watch in the game, Blake Griffin.
Bring on Game 2 on Monday night!
4. Indiana might be as bad as we’re all starting to think they are.
Indiana had a pretty epic collapse down the stretch, going 10-13 over their final 23 with the league’s worst offensive rating (98.4) over that span. Yes, worse than the Philadelphia 76ers, the Milwaukee Bucks, and, well, everyone. A team that was once considered a title favorite as recently as a couple months ago might now be considered a favorite for a first-round upset.
On paper, the 56-26 Indiana Pacers should have a pretty easy time with the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks, but those records aren’t representative of the most recent iterations of these teams. The Hawks went 7-3 to finish the season, including a 107-88 evisceration of these Pacers on their home floor at the beginning of April. Their 101-93 road victory on Saturday might not even be considered a surprise at this point.
The Pacers are playing with awful body language and are making a habit of throwing each other under the bus. They can still pull this out, of course, but this next game will qualify as must-win (a phrase you will hear far too often over the next two months).
5. OKC looks championship-ready.
As the only home team to pick up a win on the opening day of the playoffs on Saturday, OKC looked every bit the part of a potential champion. They dictated the tempo versus the Grizzlies (the team that sent them packing last season), never trailing in the game and leading by as much as 25 at one point.
Superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 56 points, and the Thunder outrebounded the Grizz 51-41, while also holding them to .363 shooting from the field and .182 from deep. The OKC crowd also looked championship-ready as the raucous atmosphere seemed to rattle Memphis, as they went 18 for 31 from the charity stripe.
The only teams to win on their home floor this weekend were OKC, San Antonio, and Miami. Those are the only three teams to make the NBA Finals the last two seasons and are early favorites again this year. It’ll be interesting to look back on this weekend if two of the three make it the distance again.
6. Tim Duncan has robot knees and doesn’t age like you or me.
Tim Duncan has had two scary-looking knee incidents over the past 10 days, having his knee buckle underneath him in what looked like a career-ending injury on April 10th versus these same Mavericks and then banging knees with Monta Ellis in Game 1 on Sunday. The collective basketball world held their breath each time, only to have Timmy come back and dominate like he’s 27 instead of 37. His 27 points on 12 of 20 shooting in almost 38 minutes of action should be enough to tell us that he’s rested, ready to go for another Finals run, and is basically impervious to knee injuries. Awesome.
7. Injuries during the playoffs are the worst.
Speaking of injuries, they’re all kinds of awful in general, but especially in the playoffs. It wasn’t as bad as when Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert both tore ACLs on the opening day of the 2012 playoffs, but Sunday was still a sad day.
Al Jefferson had an absolute monster of a season and stayed relatively healthy after early-season ankle problems. All that came crashing down in the second quarter of action on Sunday against the Heat, when he suffered a foot injury that had him leaving the arena in a walking boot. The Bobcats weren’t very likely to beat the Heat anyway (our algorithms currently have them at 15.55% to come back and take the series) and Big Al will play through the injury, but we’re still being robbed of what could’ve been a more competitive series, as the Heat have basically no answer for the big guy when he’s at 100%.
Meanwhile, Houston might have seen their title hopes take a major hit on Sunday night, when defensive stalwart and all-around pesky point guard Patrick Beverley suffered another injury to his right knee. The same knee that he had a torn meniscus in less than a month ago is now believed to be sprained and will need an MRI today. The general consensus is that the results will not be very promising.
Bummer. Stay healthy, everyone.
8. Nene and Andre Miller are major x-factors for the Wizards.
The Chicago Bulls have fought tooth and nail to stay relevant without Derrick Rose this season and they’ve been playing so well lately that teams like the Nets and Heat allegedly tanked games down the stretch to avoid facing them in a playoff series. For as frightening as the Bulls might be, the Wizards might have their number.
The Wiz took the season series 2-1 and jumped out to a 1-0 lead in their first-round matchup when they won 102-93 on Sunday evening. The young and inexperienced Washington squad had the potential to fall victim to their overall lack of playoff reps, but they were propelled by seasoned vets Nene and Andre Miller.
Nene looked to be a bit too much for Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, as he posted 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block. Meanwhile, Professor Miller came in and scored 8 of his 10 points in the fourth quarter and sealed the deal.
Adjustments are certainly coming from Tom Thibodeau, but it’s worth noting that our algorithms have swung to give the Wiz the edge in this series in 6 games.
9. LaMarcus Aldridge is ridiculously talented and Damian Lillard is ready for the big stage.
LaMarcus Aldridge posted the line of the weekend on Sunday night, going absolutely nova for 46 points, 18 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots, while shooting 17 of 31 from the field, 2 of 2 from deep (he only hit 3 three-pointers all season), and 10 of 13 from the line. The Blazers won a thrilling overtime game against the Rockets by a score of 122-120. The Rockets will need to adjust if they have any hope of containing LMA in this series.
Perhaps buried in all the LMA love, Damian Lillard posted the best game of any player playing in his first playoff game this year. While others in his situation struggled under the weight of the moment, Lillard shook off some early-game jitters and put up 31 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and only 1 turnover, while shooting 9 of 19 from the field, 3 of 7 from long range, and 10 of 12 from the charity stripe. He also knocked down some huge shots down the stretch and propelled his team to victory when LMA fouled out.
10. I’m emotionally invested in the NBA family.
NBA sideline report Craig Sager, most known for his flamboyant attire and entertaining back-and-forths with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, will miss covering the NBA playoffs this season as he undergoes treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.
TNT did right by their man when they presented two supremely fitting and ultimately touching tributes to Sager. First, the TNT crew of Chuck, Kenny, Ernie, and Shaq showed up in Craig Sager suits and then Sager’s son, Craig Sager Jr., took over the regular and unenviable job of interviewing Popovich before the fourth quarter of the Spurs-Mavs game. It was originally supposed to be a taped segment, but Pop insisted that Sager’s son do it live, just like his dad did. Then, in the middle of a hard-fought and serious game, Pop turned to the camera and spoke directly to his long time friend and colleague from the bottom of his heart.
And my living room got mighty dusty. Get well soon, Sager.