With the play-in tournament out the way, it’s finally time to treat ourselves to the main course instead of continuing to munch on chicken wings and spinach dip. After one of the most tumultuous regular seasons in NBA history—thanks to rampant injuries, COVID-19 health and safety protocols—and a far too brief offseason each taking their toll on the league, we’ve finally reached the promised land known as the NBA playoffs.
Here are some key takeaways from opening weekend.
Pour Some Liquor on the Curb for Steph Curry
For the second season in a row, the Golden State Warriors will be standing outside the club begging the bouncer to let them in. Last season, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson both missing almost the entire year, it was a forgone conclusion, but this season, with Steph back in the fold, there were much higher expectations in the Bay.
Sadly, despite Curry spontaneously combusting every game and averaging a career-high 32 points a night, the rest of the roster was underwhelming as hell and just never had enough firepower to make a strong push for the postseason. And as contributors like James Wiseman and Kelly Oubre fell to the wayside—with Thompson out a second consecutive year due to an Achilles tear—it was just never meant to be.
“Obviously a crushing way to go out, two straight games that were basically gut punches,” coach Steve Kerr said after the Warriors were eliminated from the play-in tournament on Friday. “We felt like we had control of the game the other night and lost and then really didn’t have the control of this one but could have won, we had the last shot in regulation. The ball just didn’t go our way.”
Considering the Warriors have won three championships (most recently in 2018) and have spent most of the past decade obliterating the rest of the league, don’t expect them to garner much sympathy. But Curry is an absolute joy to watch, and in being the best shooter in the history of the league, it’s a shame that we won’t have the privilege of watching him destroy his opponents in the offseason.
Are the Bucks Finally Ready to Make the Leap?
Under head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Milwaukee Bucks have transformed into a regular-season juggernaut whose stout defense is anchored by future Hall of Famer Giannis Antetokounmpo. But in the playoffs, despite all of the media acclaim and fanfare, they’ve flamed out year after year. Last season was the most egregious example, with the Miami Heat embarrassing the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (the Bucks lost the series 4-1) and casting serious doubt on Giannis’ ability to elevate a team into championship contention.
This season, with a brand new contract, a renewed focus, and the addition of Jrue Holiday, Giannis is hell-bent on a different outcome. And if Saturday’s game against the Heat is any indication—because it’s only right that these two face off again, but this time in the first round—the Bucks might finally finish the job.
With 0.5 seconds left in overtime, two-time All-Star Khris Middleton knocked down a jumper to avoid yet another gut-wrenching loss to the Heat and pushed the Bucks a 1-0 lead in their first-round series.
“I have confidence in myself,” Middleton said after the game. “You miss a lot of shots. You make a lot of shots. You just have to trust all the work you put in during the season and practice.”
Only time will tell if the Bucks will finally live up to the hype and exorcise their playoff demons, but at least for one night, they looked like world beaters.
Big Stage, Even Bigger Performances
Everyone loves an underdog and this weekend did not disappoint.
With Donovan Mitchell out with a sprained right ankle—the same injury cost him the last 16 games of the regular season—the 8th-seeded Memphis Grizzlies went to work; and behind a 31-point assault from Dillon Brooks, Memphis socked the Utah Jazz in the mouth and handed the No. 1 seed a shocking 112-109 defeat.
“He’s our spirit leader,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said, heaping praise on Brooks. “His intensity just permeates throughout the entire team.”
Another surprise came in the Phoenix Suns-Los Angeles Lakers matchup on Sunday, and not because the 7th-seeded Lakers lost to the Suns, but how bad they looked while doing it. Against the Sun’s sixth-ranked defense, the Lakers were only able to muster 90 points. But what was far more concerning than that was Anthony Davis’ putrid shooting performance (he finished 5-16 from the floor) while LeBron James continues to struggle after returning from a high-ankle sprain that cost him 20 games during the regular season.
On Sunday, King James was hesitant to attack downhill (of his 13 shot attempts, only four were within 10 feet) and was unable to provide the Lakers with an offensive spark that they desperately needed. But despite his shortcomings, it was Davis who took full responsibility for the team’s poor performance in Game 1 of their series.
“There’s no way we’re winning a game, let alone a series, with me playing the way that I played,” Davis said after the loss. “So, I mean, this is on me. I take full responsibility, for sure.”
And while the Temecula Clippers reared their ugly head again this weekend, thanks in part to Luka Doncic doing Luka Doncic things, we can’t talk about the playoffs without mentioning Trae Young putting the Knicks to bed with this game-winning floater:
“This is a coming-out party for him and he’s ready to do it,” teammate Lou Williams told reporters after Young finished with 32 points, 10 dimes, and seven boards to give the Atlanta Hawks a 1-0 lead in their series against the Knicks.
I love this game.
The NBA Playoffs continue on Monday with the Heat going head up against the Bucks, while the Portland Trail Blazers attempt to take a 2-0 series lead against the Denver Nuggets.