Playoff basketball is structured to ignite the best basketball out of every player and every team fortunate enough to get invited to the big dance. With the game being played out on the biggest stage for the masses, individual storylines receive a substantial amount of attention and analysis.
While the unfortunate storyline of Donald Sterling’s racist comments shifted the focus off of basketball early in the first round, we want to make this list solely about the on-the-court performances of these talented players and teams. Regrettably, NBA fans will be hearing about Sterling for a while longer, as we prepare for the likely time-consuming litigation process between Sterling and the NBA.
Therefore, let’s keep the spotlight on pure basketball. So what are the top five storylines from the 2014 NBA Playoffs thus far? Let’s take a look.
*** *** ***
5. A League Of Extraordinary Duos
A common trend amongst the teams remaining in the playoffs is that most of the squads are lead by dynamic duos. Newly named MVP Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook lead the Oklahoma City Thunder. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin lead the Los Angeles Clippers. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge lead the Portland Trail Blazers. John Wall and Bradley Beal lead the Washington Wizards. Finally, LeBron James and either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh lead the Miami Heat. These talented duos set the tone for their team to feed off of in any given game. Throughout the season and at crucial times in these playoffs, the aforementioned duos made their presence known with dazzling displays of their two-man games and lifted their teammates in the process.
Of course, duos do not win championships; teams do. Playoff basketball can make or break a player, but when a team is mentally strong, the pressure can be tackled and a group united can rise as one. So the question is: can the dynamic duo-lead teams in the postseason beat the more balanced teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs? Or will these teams have too many points of attack for the duos to overcome?
4. Bradley Beal Rising
The Washington Wizards’ mantra in the 2014 NBA Playoffs is “D.C. Rising.” Bradley Beal’s impressive performance in the first round and the second round thus far is turning out to be the driving force to the Wizards sustaining that mantra. In the first round, the NBA sophomore posted one of the most efficient series among any player in the postseason. Against the Chicago Bulls, Beal averaged 19.8 points, 4.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds on 44 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc in 41 minutes of action.
In the first two games of Washington’s second-round series against the Indiana Pacers, Beal’s growth has become more prominent and his numbers reflect that point. He is averaging 21.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 3.5 steals on 45.5 percent shooting from the field and three-point line. However, his impact is not solely felt on the offensive end, as he is also applying solid defensive pressure on Lance Stephenson. Not only is Stephenson struggling to shoot the ball (28.0 percent), but Beal is disrupting the tone for Indiana that is often set by Stephenson as well.
Beal has thus far made that necessary leap needed for the Wizards to succeed in the playoffs. For a 20-year-old currently experiencing playing in May for the first time in his career, he is certainly playing with veteran-like composure, which was exemplified when he drained a clutch three-pointer to tighten up Game 2 in the final 30 seconds. Beal has arguably been the best 2-guard in the playoffs so far, which is a surprise to many. It will be interesting to see if his growth continues as the postseason progresses and as his career lengthens. The Wizards are counting on it.
3. A First Round For The Ages
I think it’s safe to say that every NBA fan expected a competitive showing for the Western playoff teams this postseason. The West is stacked this year, and a credible argument could have been made for any team to prevail in the West. Heck, even the team who missed the playoffs this season, the Phoenix Suns, had a 48-34 record. However, no one predicted what a thrilling and entertaining battle the first round would turn out to be.
Five of the eight first-round series went to a Game 7, making for one incredible weekend. By the way, the record for the amount of Game 7s in an entire postseason is eight. The Rockets/Blazers series was 0.9 seconds away from a Game 7, but Damian Lillard had other plans (as told below). There were eight (!) overtime games in the first round, including four-straight overtime matchups between OKC and Memphis. There were remarkable buzzer-beaters, a series-winning walk-off, and a series-saving block over a record 50 first-round games.
Competitive, entertaining, and unpredictable games lead to more eyes viewing this spectacle we call playoff basketball. Not surprisingly, it is gold for television and media coverage. According to Awful Announcing:
NBA TV’s coverage of the NBA Playoffs rose a massive 237% from this year to last. The network’s seven playoff games averaged 720,000 viewers. Additionally, NBA TV had its two most watched games of all-time: Pacers/Hawks Game 6 scored 1,071,000 viewers besting the previous high set by OKC-Memphis Game 5 days earlier at 939,000 viewers.
The network’s viewership is up 19% and its U.S. HH rating has increased 13% when compared with last year’s opening round averages.
Hopefully, the first round magic rubs off on the second round (the first games of the second round will be given a pass) and basketball fans can continue that epic first round high through June. In the meantime, let’s revisit the best plays of the historical first round, shall we?
2. The Silent Assassin Stuns The Rockets
The setting was set for a classic moment of playoff basketball to play out on an early May night at the Moda Center (it will always be the Rose Garden to me). The Houston Rockets were fighting to force a Game 7, while the Portland Trail Blazers were playing to end the Rockets’ season and move on to the next round. The Rockets were up by two points with 0.9 seconds left, expecting that they had already booked a Game 7 back in Texas. However, 0.9 seconds was all the time needed for Damian Lillard to shock the Rockets and send Rip City into a state of pure exhilaration.
After Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley inexplicably switched on defense, Dame simply outran Parsons around a double-staggered screen on the weak side. Nicolas Batum inbounded the pass to Lillard, who seemed to set his feet before catching the pass, and he threw up a wide-open triple to beat the buzzer. Dame’s miracle three was the first buzzer-beating shot to end a playoff series since John Stockton ended Houston’s season back in 1997.
For those who had not been aware of Lillard’s clutch genes in the regular season, his brilliant buzzer-beating series-winner put Dame on the map. The NBA sophomore is not shy of having the ball in his hands in crunch time. His teammate, Earl Watson, even dubbed him as the “Silent Assassin” after Dame nailed back-to-back buzzer-beaters to beat Detroit and Cleveland last December. With the weight of Portland on his shoulders, Damian Lillard delivered in the biggest way on the biggest stage. His three to end the series will live on forever. It’s been a few minutes, so go watch his series-winner for the 100th time. We won’t blame you.
1. The Curious Case Of Roy Hibbert
The Pacers are in the midst of potentially experiencing one of the worst downfalls in recent memory in the NBA. Call it the curse of Andrew Bynum or the dissolution of team chemistry caused by rumored off-court issues; the state of the Pacers on a day-to-day basis is perplexing, to say the least.
At the center of this unusual matter is 7-2 Roy Hibbert. Before Game 2 of the second round on Wednesday night, he had a combined total of 37 points and 24 rebounds in EIGHT playoff games. In two of those matches–including the second round opener against Washington on Monday–he recorded a dumb-founding zero points and zero rebounds. For a player with a stature like Hibbert, grabbing three boards a game is mind-boggling and will turn into an intriguing case study one day.
After removing Andrew Bynum from the equation–which might have been a distraction–and with criticism surrounding Hibbert at the highest level, he broke out in Game 2 on Wednesday with a 28-point, 9-rebound game. He also added two blocks, altered several attempts, and defended the paint well. Indy consistently fed Hibbert the ball on offense, strengthening his confidence with every touch. His increased confidence directly led to better defense and to an eventual win.
While Hibbert’s performance was a big step, we should wait to see how he follows up in Game 3 before we say that he’s back. Indy’s offense is not built to go through Hibbert, so don’t expect another 28-point performance. Will he respond with another strong defensive game–which is where his impact is most felt–or will Game 2 end up being a fluke? It’s surely been puzzling.
What do you think?
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @gobibs.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.