Opening playoffs weekend rewind
The first Saturday and Sunday of the postseason was highlighted by dominating individual performances and upset victories by several road teams. Our 5-on-5 crew breaks down the opening weekend.
1. What was the most pleasant surprise of the opening weekend?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Road rookies. Playoff rookies, at least. Portland's Damian Lillard owning crunch time in Houston. Washington's John Wall and Bradley Beal didn't shoot well but had a combined 13:3 assist-to-turnover ratio during the victory in Chicago. Pero Antic held his own against Roy Hibbert to help the Hawks win in Indiana. Even Kemba Walker's 20 points in a loss at Miami looked good.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Parity and competitive balance are not a myth in the NBA. For the first time in a long time, it feels like every single first-round matchup could be an extremely competitive series, and there is no feeling of any one team being dominant. Even in the much-maligned East, Miami and Indiana's date for a conference finals matchup seems like anything but a sure thing at this point.
Curtis Harris, Hardwood Paroxysm: Nene returning to peak form after a left knee injury hobbled him for the last two months. The Brazilian big man was the hub of Washington's offense and, along with Marcin Gortat, overwhelmed Chicago's frontcourt.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Pretty much every game delivered some legit drama. Five road teams won Game 1 for the first time in the history of the 16-team playoff format introduced in 1983-84, and it could have been six if Dallas didn't close (and start) so meekly at San Antonio. OKC's win over Memphis, which featured the most lopsided final score of the first eight games, was a circus in itself thanks to the Grizzlies' third-quarter scramble. Good times.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: I enjoyed Golden State's crafty frontcourt. Thanks in part to a strategic suggestion from Hilton Armstrong (of all people), the Warriors used their bigs as safety valves when Stephen Curry got trapped on the pick-and-roll. The result was an interior passing clinic from a few guys we don't always associate with court vision.
2. What was the biggest disappointment of the opening weekend?
Adande: The Indiana Pacers. They had the home-court advantage they sought all season and the chance to put to rest all of the "what's wrong with the Pacers?" talk. Instead they turned that talk into a trending topic.
Elhassan: Besides the horrendous officiating across the board? Has to be the Pacers' lack of preparation for the Hawks' game plan. They had three days to prepare for this, yet their defensive schemes looked like they had no idea that Atlanta would actually play five out and bomb 3s from their power forward and center. Come on, Indiana!
Harris: Charlotte had only a small glimmer of hope to beat the Heat, but Al Jefferson's injured plantar fascia discarded that little chance for victory. It's an unfortunate turn for what has been the most positive season in the Bobcats' short history.
Stein: Injuries. As always. Al Jefferson needing multiple shots in his left foot to get through Game 1 not only doomed Charlotte's chances Sunday but also endangers any hope of a competitive series if the injury, as expected, limits the Bobcats' top scorer from here. Houston's playoff ceiling is likewise far lower if Patrick Beverley's re-injury proves as serious as it looked.
Strauss: The refs. Jumpy, trigger-happy reffing marred Warriors-Clippers and Blazers-Rockets. If the refs are so intent on calling fouls as a means of "controlling" playoff games, then perhaps players should be afforded an extra foul in the postseason. Paying customers don't want to see guys like Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala on the bench.
3. Who was the most valuable player of the playoffs' opening weekend?
Adande: So many choices, including the likely MVP of the regular season, Kevin Durant. I'll go with the one that's freshest in my mind: Damian Lillard in the Sunday nightcap, with 31 points -- none bigger than the five he scored after LaMarcus Aldridge (another weekend MVP candidate) fouled out. He took smart shots and aggressive shots. He took shots you wouldn't expect a playoff newcomer to take and make.
Elhassan: LaMarcus Aldridge. Hard not to pick the guy who went for 46 and 18 in a road victory.
Harris: It's not always smart to just rely on counting stats, but LaMarcus Aldridge did record the opening weekend's high in points (46) and rebounds (18). The All-Star forward was magnificent as he once again ate the Rockets alive and helped deliver a thrilling OT victory for Portland.
Stein: I suppose you're not going to let me split the vote between LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard despite the fact that they're the first duo with at least 45 points and 30 points, respectively, in a playoff game since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1992. So let's not overthink this and go with Aldridge, whose beastly 46 and 18 included 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Bonzi Wells Alert: Aldridge's 46 points established a new single-game playoff high for any Blazers player, eclipsing a 45-point game from Wells in 2003.
Strauss: LaMarcus Aldridge, who suddenly discovered that the shots count for more if he takes a few steps back. Aldridge showed off the range in his 46-point, 18-rebound performance, but he also flaunted his brutal post game. LMA kept flattening poor Terrence Jones on the block.
4. Which outcome of the playoffs' opening weekend was most telling?
Adande: Oklahoma City 100, Memphis 86. Of all the scenarios that unfolded, the OKC model of Durant and Russell Westbrook providing 50-plus points and the home crowd providing a huge boost to the Thunder seems the most likely to be repeated throughout the playoffs. Of all the championship contenders, the Thunder controlled their game for the longest period of time.
Elhassan: Washington over Chicago. Although I still have the Bulls winning the series, I wrote in my preview that Nene gives Joakim Noah serious problems because of his strength and mobility. The Bulls need to figure out a way to switch Noah off that assignment or else this series might swing more heavily in Washington's favor.
Harris: Taking the essence of March Madness, the Clippers and Warriors played ragged offense and largely let emotion overtake basketball sense. That combination made for a sloppy first half and an exciting, controversial finish. Expect more of the same as the series goes on.
Stein: The Game 1 loss to the Hawks and continuation of Indiana's unprecedented nosedive since the All-Star break is the obvious nominee. But Golden State finding a way to win on the Clippers' floor without defensive anchor Andrew Bogut in uniform -- and with neither Steph Curry nor Klay Thompson going off offensively -- is up there.
Strauss: It was too predictable when the veteran Brooklyn Nets silenced a frenzied crowd (and amped-up GM) with their steely performance. That loss had to be deflating for Toronto, considering how it probably had the best crowd of any team all weekend. It's difficult to see the Raptors recovering to win this series.
5. Who most needs to step it up going forward?
Adande: Paul George, who shot 6-for-18 and had that symbolic turnover at the end of the first half in Game 1. Not only are the Pacers at risk of an all-time team collapse, he could have the biggest individual drop-off in a season that we've seen. (At least Dirk Nowitzki got an MVP trophy as a consolation prize after his Mavs were bounced in 2007.) George jumped out of the gate as Eastern Conference player of the month in November but wasn't even in the MVP conversation come April. If we're going to seriously consider him among the league's best in the future, he'd better get serious right now.
Elhassan: Toronto. You can't have your general manager cuss out your competition and then lay two eggs at home!
Harris: His 11 points Sunday afternoon was Dirk Nowitzki's fewest in a playoff game since 2007, when the Warriors upset the top-seeded Mavericks. If Dallas wants to turn the same trick in 2014 against the Spurs, Dirk will need much better performances. Given his career postseason average of 26 PPG, though, I suspect the living legend will get it together.
Stein: The Indiana Pacers. Don't really need to elaborate, do I?
Strauss: James Harden, whose bad defense continued into the postseason. It's one thing to be bad on defense during the regular season and another to dog it in the playoffs. If it's a matter of effort, then it's curious as to why the effort remains poor in these critical games. If it's not a matter of effort, then I apologize to Harden because I have no idea how difficult it is to play competent NBA defense.