Last season’s Bubble Playoffs spoiled NBA fans. It seemed like every night at least one game went down to the wire, and some nights had multiple buzzer-beaters. This year? Not so much.
Through Sunday, thirty games had been played. Of those games, only three were decided by less than 5 points, and those three games all occurred last weekend. This meant that the NBA had seven days of games (Monday through Sunday) with zero, nada, no games with a close finish. Barely a third of the games had been decided by single digits, and most of those were opening weekend or Monday night.
In contrast, six of the first thirty games were decided by more than 20 or more points. By any definition you want to apply, those games were blow-outs. Not exactly must-watch television.
The playoffs also have had some of its top players simply not play well. As one example, Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat. Last year’s playoffs were Butler’s coming out party. Many of my basketball savvy friends told me that Butler either already was or had become one of their favorite players. One of the best moments of last year’s Finals occurred near the end of Game Five (won by the Heat to force a Game Six) when Butler was fouled and leaned against a railing, totally spent with sweat flowing out of him — and then stepped up and made two free throws on sheer will and mental toughness.
This year, Butler’s Heat were just swept by the Milwaukee Bucks, and he could not recapture his Bubble magic. Instead, he shot only 30% from the floor and averaged fewer points than Spurs cast-off Bryn Forbes. (To his credit, Forbes made four three-pointers per game at 48.5%.)
Julius Randle of the Knicks is another top player who has stumbled thus far. Randle was deservedly named Most Improved Player of the Year for his regular season, but his playoff performance may qualify him for a Most Disappointing Performance award. His Knicks are down 3-1 to the Atlanta Hawks, partially because Randle is shooting only 27% from the floor and 33% from three, both well below his regular season numbers.
Injuries have also haunted the start of the playoffs. Denver Nuggets star guard Jamal Murray went down for the season just before the playoffs with a knee injury. The Boston Celtics also lost All-Star wing Jaylen Brown at the end of the regular season. The Bucks lost its do-everything starting guard Donte DiVencenzo for the season to a non-contact torn ligament in his ankle, putting a damper on their sweep of the Heat.
Injuries have also affected the 7-seed Lakers vs. 2-seed Suns series. This may have been the first 7 vs 2 playoff series in history in which the 7 was favored. Chris Paul suffered his annual playoff injury, this time an injury to his shoulder. CP3 should ask Jake from State Farm for playoff injury insurance.
The Suns’ opponent may be down two starters going forward. After losing “shooting guard” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a knee contusion, oft-injured star Anthony Davis suffered an injured groin in the Lakers’ loss Sunday — after hyper-extending his knee in Game Three. The knee injury clearly affected him in the first half of Game Four and may have contributed to the groin injury just before halftime. Both of those injuries are often very slow to heal. If that proves true for AD, the top-heavy defending champs will not repeat, ruining the Lakers chance this season to pass the Celtics for most crowns.
Not everything has been doom and gloom, as we have seen some outstanding performances. The Bucks’ sweep of the Heat was quite impressive, especially because the Bucks returned the favor from last year’s Heat sweep of the Bucks. The 76ers and Danny Green did what 1-seeds should do with 8-seeds — sweep them and move on. The Portland Trail Blazers are battling the Nuggets to a draw thus far, and the Memphis Grizzlies are putting a scare into the Utah Jazz. (Ex-Spur Kyle Anderson is averaging over a steal per quarter.)
And there have been some great individual performances. The top five scorers (Luka, Kawhi, Ja Morant, KD and Jokic) are all averaging over 30 points per game while shooing over 50% from the floor. Three of them (Luka, Kawhi, and Joker) are also shooting over 40% from three (stats before Sunday night’s Clipper-May game). And Joel Embid despite being “only” the eighth best scorer at 29.8 per game, is shooting 67% (!!) from the floor, 54% (!!) from three, and 87% on his free throws.
So despite some concerns from the first week, NBA fans can be confident that this year’s NBA playoffs will once again be FANtastic. As the top teams move forward, and face each other, expect to see more close games, amazing comebacks and buzzer-beaters. After all, this is the NBA.