There are always going to be a handful of lopsided playoff series in the NBA’s postseason, but this year we saw this truism get taken to different level entirely. Out of our four Conference Semi-final match-ups, three were five-gamers and the other was the most demoralizing sweep an NBA franchise has ever been forced to ensure. So why were the series over so soon? How did we end up with the first ever four day absence during the two months of the NBA Playoff Extravaganza?
Few surprises out west
Let’s begin with what was an expected short series in the Rockets win over the Jazz. Games 1 and 3 were easy Houston wins, Game 2 was a Mitchell-led win for the Jazz, and tight closeouts highlighted games 4 and 5. Most would have predicted a 5-6 game series, as few expected the already over-achieving Jazz to win more than one game over the top seed, the MVP in Harden, and the most efficient offense in league history. The Jazz put up a good fight and ultimately capped off a sensational season in which they rekindled hope for their franchise after Gordon Hayward’s departure to Boston. That said, the Jazz simply had no answer for the Houston three-barrage, and not to mention Harden’s unstoppable travel move. Offensively, the Jazz simply needed a little more offensive firepower.
The other Western Conference series was also rather predictable, with the Super Warriors finishing off the plucky Pelicans. Warriors’ haters had high hopes that the red hot, Anthony Davis led Pelicans could upset a Warriors team that would have to deal with reintroducing Steph Curry coming back from his injury. However, true to form, the Warriors dominated every outing — with the notable exception of game 3 — and Steph Curry looked even more deadly than usual. The Pelicans proved that they are good enough to contend, even with the injury to Demarcus Cousins, and now they must focus on how they will handle the impending free agency of Boogie.
Both these series finished very quickly due to the upsets of the higher seeds, courtesy of the Jazz and Pelicans. Admit it, we all wanted to see the athletic and intentionally crazy roster of Oklahoma City and Westbrook take on the Rockets. And we were expecting the Trail Blazers to try and down the Warriors in a three-point shootout. We can blame the lack of excitement and drama in the 2nd round on the collapses endured by both OKC and Portland.
A mental collapse in Toronto
Moving to the Eastern Conference, we look at the Cavs-Raptors series – or, in other words, the public execution of Canadian pride and Coach Dwane Casey. We’ve perhaps never seen a series where context, narrative, and perception played such a significant role. Everyone knew that LeBron James has owned the Raptors, and that Toronto have shrunk from the moment in years past. In truth, the Raptors were in every way the better team. It was evident early in Game 1, as Toronto jumped out to a sizeable lead, but then slowly collapsed in an almost inexplicable fashion.
That game also featured at least fifteen missed shots by Toronto that just barely rimmed out, including Valanciunas’s tip. The Cavs somehow won that game, which led to a beatdown in Game 2. Game 3 showed that Toronto still had some spirit left, but you could visibly see that spirit sucked out of all their players and coaches after LeBron made that ridiculous and admittedly stupid bank-in buzzer beater to effectively seal the series.
But let’s go back to Game 1 — the match that really decided the series. The Raptors had the chance to make a statement from the onset of the series, to tell a struggling Cavs team that LeBron was not enough to beat their superior depth, coaching, and play style. But the Cavs just found a way, and this had the double-effect of bolstering the Cavs’ confidence while and making the Raptors’ players (most notably Demar DeRozan) descend into a shrivelled despair. We can certainly admired how the Raptors had bounced back from last year to have their best regular season ever, but it’s difficult not to be disappointed in how they acted like petulant children when the game didn’t break their way. It was truly disheartening, and starting with the firing of Dwane Casey, the Raptors might want to move some of their stars in Lowry and DeRozan and begin thinking about how they can become a true contender once again in the next 5-10 years.
The next beasts of the east
In those next 5-10 years, the Raptors should give consideration to how they can compete with the rising beasts of the East: the Celtics and the 76ers. These two young outfits squared off in a series that broke the hearts of Philly fans, myself included. Despite ending up as a “Gentleman’s Sweep”, the series was fairly entertaining. All the games were very close, with the exception of the blowouts in Games 1 and 4. That left three close, 1-2 possession games in which the Celtics won all three. The Sixers had a twenty-two point lead late in the second quarter of game 2, which quickly evaporated as the Sixers forgot how to play defense, and suffered from dreadful performances by their shooters and their point guard in Ben Simmons.
Game 3 was a killer for Philly. The Sixers blew multiple chances to close out the contest including a wide open blown-dunk by Simmons; a Bellinelli buzzer beater being one inch in front of the line; and three horrible turnovers all with the game on the line. By game 4, Brett Brown had finally realized what Sixers fans and I realized in January: Covington stinks and TJ is a blessing that must always be appreciated and used. And after the Sixers easily won game 4, we were treated to an incredible game 5 which featured great performances by both Boston and Philly.
Here were the things that led to the Sixers demise. It was undeniable that the Celtics had a significant coaching edge, as Brad Stevens usually embarrasses most opponents. But this edge was exacerbated against Philly as Brett Brown was caught with poor rotations and made adjustments only after it was too late. Stevens, meanwhile, employed perfect line-ups and equally perfect out of bounds plays all series. There’s also something to the youth vs experience factor. This Sixers team had just one starter with previous playoff experience – a factor that contrasted sharply with the Celtics, a perennial post season team. Furthermore, the Celtics found the solution that had eluded teams during the Sixers 17 game win streak, discovering that the way to slow down the red-hot shooters of Reddick, Bellineli, and others was to force them to guard stronger, more athletic wings like Tatum and Brown. Tatum and Brown also guarded the shooters super tight, preventing them from getting comfortable, which led to unusual poor performances by the Sixer snipers.
One wing in particular, rookie Jayson Tatum, was a gut punch to Sixer fans. Tatum not only outplayed his trade counterpart Fultz, who sat on the bench all playoffs, but also outplayed the Rookie of the Year in Simmons. The Australian struggled to get anything going, as the Celtics exposed his below average YMCA -player level jumpshot. Meanwhile, Tatum was sensational and displayed a scoring maturity of a ten year veteran while also having the athletic spring of a twenty year-old.
Overall, the quick conclusion of the second round was due to a disparity in talent in the lower half of the Western Conference, a mentally unstable Toronto team, and Celtic team that employed athleticism and Irish luck to oust the Sixers.