The first round is almost at an end with game seven of the Los Angeles Clippers-Utah Jazz series going tomorrow afternoon.
I thought before looking forward to round two, it would be a good idea to review round one and look at what happened in each series and also check up on how accurate my predictions were. (You can read my playoff preview HERE and HERE).
So let’s get things started with the Eastern Conference.
Boston Celtics (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (8)
What I predicted: Boston in seven.
What happened: Boston in six.
Why the Celtics won: Character. This was a character series win from a character team first and foremost.
The Celtics best player, all-star and team leader, Isaiah Thomas lost his sister the night before game one. I can’t imagine the pain he was experiencing and I have no concept of how he was able to stay in this series, but he did.
Basketball players are human. That tragedy has to impact each and every member of the Boston Celtics organization. But somehow they fought through.
The Celtics overcame dropping the first two games of the series in Boston to win the next four on the way to their first series victory of Brad Stevens’ coaching tenure. After having to deal with storylines from the media about Boston being the worst one seed ever and Stevens having the worst playoff winning percentage, the Celtics were able to silence their critics in very convincing fashion.
They did it primarily by going small. After going in the hole 0-2, Brad Stevens made a key adjustment against the Bulls by going small. He inserted Gerald Green into the starting line-up over Amir Johnson and moving Jae Crowder to the 4 spot. The result was a line-up that tore through the Bulls outscoring them by 25.4 points per 100 possessions as soon the change was made.
The adjustment also allowed the Celtics to destroy the Bulls with the pick and roll. With a small line-up, Robin Lopez had to guard Al Horford which was exactly what Stevens wanted as he had Horford setting screens 30 feet out, which meant that Lopez had no chance of making the switch onto Isaiah Thomas and IT either drove in and scored or flipped it to the rolling Horford who was able to roll into a four-on-three situation with the Bulls rim protector out of position.
On a related note, “Al Horford is overrated” was another myth put to bed this series. Big Al averaged 15.3 points, 8.5 boards and 6.5 assists in a performance on par with his best in Atlanta.
Avery Bradley should also be praised for his defensive performance as he limited Jimmy Butler to just 37% shooting when they were matched up. He was also put up a playoff career high 24 points in game five and nearly equalled it with 23 in game six. Bradley is one of the most undervalued players in the NBA.
The Celtics also just had far more depth than the Bulls. Whether it was Gerald Green being able to come into the starting line-up and torch the Bulls for 18 points in game four or Marcus Smart getting into Jimmy Butler’s head with the “’bout that life” back-and-forth while making plays like this or Kelly Olynyk hitting big 3s and stretching or former Maine Red Claw Terry Rozier coming off the bench to do throw it down, the Celtics had a depth that the Bulls just couldn’t match and by the end of the series it was almost unthinkable that Chicago had ever been up 2-0 and some people were calling for the sweep.
Why the Bulls lost: The loss of Rajon Rondo was huge for Chicago. Rondo looked like the guy we hadn’t seen since he was last in the playoffs with the Celtics five years ago. He averaged 11.5 points, 10 assists, 8.5 boards and 3.5 steals and was an absolute force in the first two games of the series.
He was in the Celtics heads and totally took the usually overpowering Boston crowd out of the first two games of this series.
Then he broke his thumb and all of that came to an end.
Blaming the Bulls series loss on the Rondo injury, however, is far too simplistic of a narrative. This is the same Rondo who was wildly inconsistent all season, who almost single-handedly caused this team to implode by openly feuding with Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade on social media and who was still only shooting 42% and 50% from the free throw line.
While Rondo would have certainly helped the Bulls stay in this series longer, the Celtics switch to a smaller line-up still would have offered them the same advantages and there was no guarantee that the “trick-or-treat” nature of Rondo’s entire career would not have somehow found itself back to being decidedly in the “trick” position.
The Bulls just didn’t have the depth needed to beat the Celtics. I think I was stretching even giving thinking they would push this to seven games in my playoff preview article but I really did think that Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade had the ability to power the Bulls to wins and keep them in this series.
Butler certainly did everything he could, averaging 22.7 points, 7.3 boards, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals, but he was really the only one able to stay in this series to the end. It was sad watching Butler put up 23 points, 7 boards and 3 steals in a game six where the Bulls got blown out 105-83 and only Robin Lopez joined him in double figures with 10 points.
D-Wade just ran out of gas. He contributed just 2 points in the final game on 1-10 shooting. A sad drop off after looking rejuvenated in a 26 point game five performance.
The Bulls just didn’t have enough pieces. When you’re leaning on a guy like Paul Zipser for secondary scoring (who was great by the way), it’s not going to bode well for you in a playoff series.
Once the Celtics found a way to neutralize Robin Lopez and establish an offensive tempo, the Bulls really didn’t stand a chance. When the best Fred Hoiberg can offer up as a response is to accuse Isaiah Thomas of carrying the ball, that’s very telling.
What’s next: The Celtics are going to face off against an excellent Washington Wizards team in a series that kicks off Sunday afternoon at 1:00 pm.
The Bulls face an uncertain future. Do they bring back Rondo? Do they trade Jimmy Butler (as was heavily rumoured at the deadline)? Do they part ways with Hoiberg? This is not a team built for a long run. They backed into the playoffs over a surging Miami Heat team that everybody wanted in largely because a tanking Brooklyn Nets team laid down for them in the last game of the season. If the Bulls want to return to relevancy, it’s probably time to blow it up.
Favourite storyline: Isaiah Thomas’ heroics in this series are hard to beat. To overcome a personal tragedy and turn in such a high level performance (23 points, 5.7 assists, 4 boards and a steal for the series) is truly inspiring. IT was the last pick in the 2012 draft. He’s 5’9” and has been given little respect until arriving to Boston. His performance throughout this season and now in the playoffs facing this level of adversity is something that transcends basketball. His tears in game one will stay etched in my mind forever and the fact that he is heading to his sister’s funeral after closing out this series is a sobering reminder of real life outside of basketball.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (7)
What I predicted: Cleveland in five
What happened: Cleveland in four.
Why the Cavs won: When I said that the Cavs late season struggles wouldn’t likely wouldn’t impact them in this series, I kind of undersold it. This series really resembled the Cavaliers first round sweep of the Detroit Pistons last season where the margins were close but the Cavs took control at key times at completed the sweep. With the only scare coming in game three when Cleveland came back from 26 down (!) to take the commanding 3-0 series lead.
LeBron James once again proved he is the King. In that historic game 3 comeback James scored 28 second half points to obliterate the Pacers lead in the biggest comeback in playoff history. He did it with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the bench for the entire fourth quarter and finished the game with an astounding 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in yet another of his many legacy defining performances.
The King was dailed in all series and is averaging an incredible 32.8 points per game, 9.0 assists, 9.8 boards, 2.0 blocks and leading the postseason with 3.0 steals. That’s a man getting it done on both sides of the floor with a 5.4 defensive box plus/minus good enough for second in the postseason.
The Cavs supporting cast also chipped in where they needed to with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love carrying their load with secondary scoring, and have almost mirrored their offensive contributions from the previous postseason and the vets off the bench really have contributed in major supporting roles. In game two, James, Love and Irving combined for 89(!) points – a playoffs record.
Deron Williams in particular looked great especially the epic comeback in game three, playing the fourth quarter with LeBron and looking like the clock turned back doing it. Williams also averaged 8.3 points, made 10 of 13 fields goals, went 7 for 9 from three and did not commit a single turnover in 63 minutes of playing time over the series.
I really thought that Tristan Thompson would have to be better down low and he was grabbing 11 board per game including 6.3 offensive rebounds. The battle on the glass was key to the Cavs victory and Thompson continues to get it done when he needs to.
Why the Pacers lost: Paul George was amazing with 28.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists and looked like a superstar. Sadly despite his heroics, including a 36-15-9 line in the Pacers game three collapse. Despite his heroics, the Pacers couldn’t get it done. That has to be frustrating for a superstar.
Ultimately, despite solid supporting performances from Lance Stephenson and Jeff Teague throughout the series, it wasn’t enough and the Pacers bowed out in four.
I really thought the Pacers could slow the Cavs in transition enough to steal and win, and even when they did in game three, it wasn’t enough as Cleveland went on an historic second half come back and the Pacers blew their best shot at taking one.
Indiana also was close in game one, but CJ Miles opted to take the last shot instead of superstar Paul George, and that didn’t turn out too well.
Pacers fans can, however, take solace in Myles Turner putting Tristan Thompson on a poster.
But there isn’t much else to take away from this series as this line-up really gave the best performance it was capable of and didn’t win a game.
What’s next? The Cavs are going to face the Toronto Raptors in a series that kicks off on Monday night.
For the Pacers the water is much murkier. Larry Bird has stepped down and team president, Paul George’s future is extremely unclear and Jeff Teague and CJ Miles are headed into free agency. All signs point to a rebuild and after this series, there is little reason why Indiana shouldn’t go in that direction.
Favourite storyline: LeBron. The King gave us one of his all time best performances in game three and was a force throughout the series. He hasn’t lost a first round game since 2012 as a member of the Miami Heat and is 21-0 in round one since. LeBron also hit another milestone in this series by passing Kobe Bryant for third all-time in playoff scoring. We are all witnesses.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
What I predicted: Milwaukee in six.
What happened: Toronto in six.
Why the Raptors won: This is the only series that I picked wrong so far (the Jazz and Clippers are going to a game seven on Sunday). I caught so much shit from Raptors fans for picking the Bucks to beat them. I guess I should have expected that living in Toronto.
But I really had no faith in this team. Kyle Lowry entered this series the worst playoff shooting percentage for a starter in the shot clock era. DeMar DeRozan entered this series with the fourth worst. If the Golden State Warriors had the Splash Brothers, certainly these two were the Trash Brothers when it came to playoff basketball.
Their track record didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The Raptors needed 7 games to beat the Pacers and Heat last season in eye-bleedingly awful series in terms of enjoyment before falling to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals. They had been swept by the Washington Wizards the season before that.
There was little reason to believe in them against a Bucks team that had been one of the hottest teams in the NBA in the Bucks who had gone 17-9 post-All-star break including 14-4 in the month of March.
When the Bucks went up 2-1 in the series after a game 3 that saw them torch the Raptors 104-77 in a game where DeMar DeRozan didn’t register a single field goal (going 0-8) in the single worst playoff performance I have ever seen by an all-star, I had every reason to believe that the Raptors were going to be eliminated.
The team deserves credit for making the adjustments needed to overcome that. Like the Celtics response to the Bulls, the Raptors went small and took the outmatched Jonas Valanciunas out of the starting line-up and inserted Norman Powell who was incredible. His defense on Khris Middleton was key to the Raptors victory as was his scoring – especially his three point shooting which was an mind-blowing 90.9% for the series. Powell simply couldn’t miss. His signature performance came in game five with 25 points in the Raptors 118-93 victory.
Serge Ibaka was the best player for the Raptors this series without a doubt. His 97.6 defensive rating is the best in the entire playoffs and once he shifted to centre, he absolutely owned the pain for the Raptors. He bullied Thon Maker at times and made life incredibly hard for any of the Bucks trying to drive into the paint with one notable Greek exception. Ibaka gave the exact type of performance that the Raptors acquired him for.
Of course, DeMar DeRozan was able to show something that I had yet to see from him at any other point in his playoffs career: perseverance. The Raptors star player rebounded from the absolute worst performance of his career in game three to score 33 points in game four, 18 in game five and 32 in the series winning game six for the Raptors. Yes some of those points came off the signature DeRozan cheap foul calls, but credit where credit is due.
Of course, Raptors fans took great joy in roasting me for daring to pick against their team. I received many videos of Bambi’s mother being killed, accusations of not having “empathy toward my fellow Canadians” (whatever the fuck that means), proclamations of DeRozan being “better than prime Kobe” (prime Kobe never had an 0-8 playoff game), and my personal favourite from someone who should know better telling me they “watched the highlights of game six” (not the game mind you and the highlights on either TSN or Sportsnet whose parent companies own MLSE which owns the Raptors) and that “DeRozan’s dunk on Maker makes me think they will beat Cleveland”. Keep in mind that DeRozan wasn’t even the best player on his team and no Raptor was the best player in this series.
But that’s the Raptors fanbase. That’s Toronto sports fans in general and the Raptors shitty fans and ugly play makes it really hard to believe in this team.
Before this series I wrote “A lot of analysts aren’t seeing the upset potential here, but the Raptors have had tendencies to go through defensive lapses and blow big leads throughout the season, even after the additions of Ibaka and Tucker. Such a lull against the Bucks would prove fatal” which was something I thought about as the Raptors were blowing a 25 point lead in game six. A lot.
Ultimately, they held on to win, but only the Raptors could win a six game series against a team that they were heavily favoured to beat in the most Raptors way possible. The Bucks blew out the Raptors twice (game one and three), the Raptors blew out the bucks once (game five) and won pretty convincingly in game four, games two and six could have went either way and if some of those Milwaukee shots had fallen, we’d be having a different conversation right now.
Try explaining that to a Raptors fan.
There’s a reason why the Cavs were drinking wine and yukking it up while watching the Raptors blow a 25 point lead in a close-out game.
I don’t regret picking that upset at all. If anything I was probably a year early.
Why the Bucks lost: Experience.
That’s really all that stood in between of a Bucks win and a Buck loss.
Milwaukee had by far the best player in this in Giannis Antetokounmpo. He picked up right were he left off with his record breaking regular season by averaging 24.8 points (highest in the series), 9.5 rebounds (highest in the series), 4.0 assists, 2.2 steals (highest in the series) and 1.7 blocks. He had the second highest defensive rating in the playoffs at 98.5 and the highest defensive win share despite the Bucks winning just two games.
Giannis is a 22 year old generational talent who played with a poise well beyond his years.
When the Bucks were down 25 in game six, he lead the comeback. He played almost the entire game (46:39) and lead all scorers with 34 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. He put the team on his back to the point where he was so exhausted by the end of the game he could barely lift his arms to shoot his free throws. If just a couple more had dropped, we’re having a completely different conversation right now.
I had a Raptors fan tell me that “it’s not Giannis’ time yet”. I have no idea what series they were watching, he tore the defense that is supposedly built to stop LeBron James to pieces. One of the best moments of the series was during game one when PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka – the Raptors two best defenders – double teamed Giannis and all they could come up with was a goaltending call and a foul.
It was one of the best individual performances in a playoff series by a player whose team was on the losing end that I’ve seen since LeBron’s all-time great one against the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals.
Thon Maker also exceeded any expectations, leading the team in blocks (1.8) and creating several match-up up problems for the Raptors, particularly Jonas Valanciunas who looked lost when Maker would draw him out. The 20 year old rookie also gained valuable experience in his battles with Serge Ibaka, which will ultimately prove invaluable to his development. I was really encouraged by what I saw from Maker and there is no limit on what he can become.
Rookie of the year candidate Malcolm Brogdon also received some important playoff experience as he lead all rookies in the NBA playoffs with 30.5 minutes per game and showed a lot of poise doing it including a 19 point break out in game five. Brogdon spent a lot of time matched up with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and did an admirable job on both at times in the series.
Khris Middleton spent half the series battling an illness as much as he was Norman Powell and that really impacted the Bucks chances. Middleton has been the team’s second option since coming back from injury in the second half of the season, he was still the second leading scorer for the Bucks throughout the series and lead all players in the series in assists, but his shooting was hampered by his illness and Powell’s defense and his sub-40% performance really represented a missed opportunity for Milwaukee.
Still the team was able to hang in there throughout the series due to their young core, as well as a stellar performance from Greg Monroe in his sixth man role, but it wasn’t enough.
The team missed Jabari Parker (who you can read about HERE) and ultimately didn’t have the depth it needed to win the series despite great performances from Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova in the deciding game.
What’s next? The Raptors take their unconvincing win that saw them blow a 25 point lead into a series with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
As for the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker have stated their intent to work with Kevin Garnett this off-season. Jabari Parker will be back. And the Bucks have a lot of room and a young core to court another piece in free agency.
If the looks of disappointment on their young players’ faces were indicative of how hard they will work this summer, this is the last time that this Bucks core will ever lose a series to at team like the Toronto Raptors.
Favourite storyline: I want to say Giannis but I should probably pick something from the winning team. So I will say Dwane Casey making that adjustment and inserted Norman Powell into the starting line-up.
Washington Wizards (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)
What I predicted: Washington in seven.
What happened: Washington in six.
Why the Wizards won: The Wizards won largely on the backs of John Wall and Bradley Beal who have established themselves as the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference with a stunning display in this series.
John Wall averaged 29.5 points, 10.3 assists, 4 boards and 1.4 steals. He capped off the series with a brilliant 42 point performance in game six. Wall’s blinding speed and playmaking ability was simply too much for the Hawks to handle and he was the dominant force in this series.
His partner in crime Bradley Beal was just as spectacular averaging 25.8 points and a team high 2.3 blocks for the series. Beal was lethal when he needed to be daggering the Hawks off the catch and shoot and also creating his own shots and tearing up Atlanta with his jumper in key moments.
In the deciding game, Beal and Wall combined for 73 points on 64.2% shooting. Atlanta’s inability to stop them is the largest reason why Washington triumphed.
Markief Morris was both the best and worst versions of himself at different times in the series but ultimately emerged from a war of words with Paul Millsap regarding his “MMA-like play” and some foul trouble at times in the series, Morris triumphed with a 17 point performance in the deciding game and was the presence that the Wizards needed him to be on both sides of the floor.
Otto Porter kept his career year going with a strong postseason and Bojan Bodganovic, Kelly Oubre Jr, and Brandon Jennings gave the Wizards the second unit scoring that they needed to beat the Hawks.
Why the Hawks lost: Ultimately, it was the team’s inability to shut down Wall and Beal that cost them.
Atlanta won the the big battle down low and Paul Millsap was excellent He averaged 24.3 points and 9.3 boards and combined with Dwight Howard at times to absolutely own the glass. The problem was that the Hawks couldn’t keep Howard and Millsap on the floor together much as the mobile Wizards line-up created too many match-up problems which ultimately negated the rebound advantage.
Dennis Schroder had his coming out party this series as well with an amazing performance that saw him average 24.7 points and 7.7 assists on 45.5% shooting including 42.5% from three point range. The guard play in this series was outstanding on both sides and Schroder really established himself matched up with Wall and Beal. Ultimately, he lacked a partner in the back court to really help him shine and the Hawks couldn’t keep up as a result.
Beyond excellent secondary scoring from rookie Taurean Prince – who was an absolute revelation in this series, Tim Hardaway Jr and Kent Bazemore, the Hawks really didn’t have the depth to push the Wizards.
Ersan Ilyasova didn’t do much off the bench and although Jose Calderon had an excellent game four, he really didn’t get the minutes on a regular basis to get anything going for the Hawks.
What’s next? The Wizards go on to face the number one seed Boston Celtics.
The Hawks have some serious questions to ask and maybe some big holes to fill with Paul Millsap’s impending free agency.
Favourite storyline: In game six, John Wall was trading barbs with the Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones and rapper Gucci Mane who were seated courtside. Wall later revealed that he told them he would score at least 35 and eliminate the Hawks in their own building. He did just that before waving goodbye to Atlanta.