The NBA’s first-round series are slowly coming to a close. Two Western Conference matchups are still going, but the other six series all wrapped up in five games or fewer.
Some of the quick series weren’t surprising, like the Milwaukee Bucks sweeping the Detroit Pistons and the Toronto Raptors beating the Orlando Magic in five games. However, I think most people assumed the Oklahoma City Thunder would fare better against the Portland Trail Blazers and that the Utah Jazz would put up more of a fight against the Houston Rockets.
A lot of players in each series either stepped up to the challenge of the playoffs or shrunk under the pressure. Let’s highlight a few guys who found themselves clearly falling into one of those categories.
NBA Playoffs Week 2 Risers
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Trail Blazers beat Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in Western Conference First Round)
If you had your doubts about Lillard’s playoff history heading into the past few weeks, you weren’t alone. Portland’s All-Star point guard had consistently come up short in the postseason in his previous five playoff runs, three of which ended in the first round.
This year, both Lillard’s offense and defense reached a whole new level. He averaged 33 points per game against the Thunder on a fabulous 62.4 true-shooting percentage while doing a great job on his counterpart, OKC All-Star Russell Westbrook. Westbrook averaged 22.8 points per game but had just a 46.6 true-shooting percentage.
Of course, the highlight of Lillard’s series was the decisive Game 5. He dropped 50 points on the Thunder in the contest, including a game-winning 38-footer at the buzzer to send the Thunder into their offseason.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors (Raptors beat Orlando Magic 4-1 in Eastern Conference First Round)
Siakam should absolutely win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award this year. He entered the season with the reputation as an energy forward with solid defense who could occasionally put in a few buckets here and there.
This season, and especially in the playoffs, he has been much more than that. He has become a consistent scorer at the rim and occasionally at the three-point line who can pass the ball well. In the Raptors’ three games this week, he averaged 23.3 points and 3.3 assists per game on a shooting slash of 56/53.3/85.7. Those numbers don’t even touch on his strong rebounding and defense. He was fantastic in every game.
He will have a challenging matchup starting on Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers. In a series with so many All-Star-caliber players who can play both ends of the floor, it will be fun to see how Siakam measures up. He may not be as heralded as guys like the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry or the 76ers’ Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons or Jimmy Butler, but he is nearly as good as some of those players.
Torrey Craig, Denver Nuggets (Nuggets tied 3-3 with San Antonio Spurs in Western Conference First Round)
Craig didn’t play much of a role in the first two games of this series, but he has been much better since then. The 28-year-old wing played well in limited minutes in Game 3 and then earned himself a starting role for Games 4, 5 and 6.
Overall, the Nuggets have outscored the Spurs by 26 points with Craig on the floor in the past four games. Denver is just a minus-24 when he is on the bench in that span, and it’s clear to see why that’s the case. Craig has done a fantastic job hounding the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan on defense and crashing the boards (7.5 rebounds per game since Game 3). His outside shot (8-of-12 from three-point range in his last four games) is also falling.
Denver may or may not close the Spurs out in the decisive Game 7, but Nuggets head coach Mike Malone definitely made the right move by inserting Craig into the starting lineup. It just makes the squad so much more formidable on defense.
NBA Playoffs Week 2 Fallers
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets (Nets lost 4-1 to Philadelphia 76ers in Eastern Conference First Round)
Russell may have been an All-Star this season and he certainly had the best season of his career this year. However, his lackluster performance against the 76ers in the playoffs is concerning.
D’Lo averaged a solid 19.4 points per game in the series, but he also took 20.6 field-goal attempts to reach that number. His assists were at just 3.6 per game, compared to 2.8 turnovers per contest. Sure, it was the 23-year-old’s first playoff series, but he is also in his fourth year now. You would have liked to see much better impact from an All-Star player.
The Nets will have a real decision to make this summer in the event another team offers Russell, a restricted free agent, a max contract. Russell is a dangerous outside scorer, but he also doesn’t score at the rim or get to the free-throw line, and his defense is below-average.
Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder (Thunder lost 4-1 to Portland Trail Blazers in Western Conference First Round)
No one could have seen the Thunder losing so decisively to the Blazers in the first round. The big narrative around this series is that Portland’s Damian Lillard dominated OKC’s Russell Westbrook in the matchup of All-Star point guards.
That’s certainly true but another factor went under the radar. Adams had a very good matchup in front of him because of Jusuf Nurkic’s season-ending injury. He had to go against Enes Kanter, a former teammate who is known for his terrible defense. Somehow, though, Adams was outplayed by Kanter, who ended the series playing through a separated shoulder.
Adams is seen as a high-level starting center, while Kanter’s reputation is that of a player who can contribute in small doses because of his post scoring and rebounding but won’t do anything else positive. In this series, though, both guys ended up playing about the same amount of minutes.
The Thunder center was only able to muster 11.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and was repeatedly victimized on the perimeter by Portland’s scoring guards. You have to wonder if OKC is thinking about putting Adams on the trade block with him earning more than $53 million over the next two seasons.
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets (Nets lost 4-1 to Philadelphia 76ers in Eastern Conference First Round)
D’Angelo Russell wasn’t the only reason the Nets lost four straight games after winning Game 1 against the 76ers. Harris is also partially responsible, as the sharpshooting forward shot complete blanks from three-point land after Game 1. Harris went just 1-of-17 from downtown in Games 2 through 5. He also totaled three assists and seven turnovers in those four games.
Do these four games mean much for Harris’ future? Maybe, maybe not. The ice-cold shooting at the worse time could have just been dumb luck. The fewest threes he made in a four-game span all season was four, and he entered Game 2 making 35 of his last 61 three-point attempts.
If anything, this stretch of cold shooting needs to motivate Harris to diversify his game. Harris showed that he is not very useful if his shot isn’t falling. He also struggled to stay with J.J. Redick on defense and didn’t do much in the way of playmaking, getting to the rim or rebounding.