Biggest Surprises of the NBA Playoffs So Far – Sports Illustrated

A quartet of favorites winning on Thursday may have dampened the chaos of the NBA bubble to a degree, but the first two games of each first-round series have featured a deep slate of surprises. Both No. 1 seeds went down in Game 1, the Clippers dropped Game 2 and the Thunder have looked frankly non-competitive. The next week of games should continue to deliver unexpected results.

So what have been the biggest surprises through the first four days of the postseason? Let’s dive into the list below.

The Bubble Effect

There is effectively no home-court advantage for the higher seeds in the 2020 playoffs, but it’s still been quite jarring to watch the underdogs play with such confidence. Perhaps we should expect that for Damian Lillard and the Blazers, though the Magic, Mavericks and even the Nets came out with plenty of confidence and firepower in the first two games. Favorites aren’t going on extended runs as easily without a home crowd. Youngsters aren’t struggling in adverse conditions. We should still expect the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks to advance past round one, especially after LeBron and Co.’s resounding win on Thursday night. But we can basically throw seeding out the window at this point. The strange environment could lead to a string of upsets down the road.

Houston’s Defensive Dominance

James Harden‘s defensive struggles have been discussed to the point of parody, and frankly, the narrative doesn’t quite match the metrics at this point in his career. Not only are Harden and the Rockets holding their own defensively in round one against Oklahoma City. They’re downright dominating.

Houston has clamped down on OKC’s three-guard lineup in the first two games of the series. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder combined for 35 points on 34 shots in a Game 1 loss on Tuesday. Paul was absolutely bottled on Thursday, registering a game-worst minus-36 in 37 minutes. The Thunder are struggling to create any separation against Houston’s collection of wings. Pick-and-rolls create no discernible mismatch, and open shots from three are few and far between. Paul’s revenge tour could be short-lived.

The Rockets’ offensive firepower is no secret. Their defensive performance has been a true surprise. This is a legitimate Finals contender, especially considering the early struggles for both Los Angeles teams.

Donovan Mitchell’s Superstar Showing

There’s little doubting Donovan Mitchell’s standing as one of the game’s top young players, though it’s been fair to question his ceiling after two straight playoff exits against Harden and the Rockets. But Mitchell has answered any skepticism with a fury through the first two games of the 2020 playoffs.

Mitchell dropped 57 points in a Game 1 loss on Monday, punishing the rim with dunks that actually deserve comparisons to Dwyane Wade. His Game 2 performance may have actually been more impressive. Mitchell completely controlled the action with 30 points and eight assists, making 10 of 14 shots and six of seven threes. Mitchell can occasionally be too ball-dominant for his own good. He’s not James Harden, though very few are. Utah needs Mitchell to embrace his playmaking prowess in order to take down Denver in round one.

Jimmy Butler’s Shooting

The Heat have always felt a tier outside the title conversation in 2019-20, and not just due to their extreme youth. Jimmy Butler is a shade outside the true top crop of players in the NBA, oscillating between an overqualified second banana and a middling top option. Butler’s jumper is the most notable reason for this designation. He shot just 24.4% from three this year, and he’s never hit 100 threes in a season. Teams feel comfortable going under screens against Butler. He’s a comfortable clutch scorer, though not a flawless one.

There have been no questions about Butler’s jumper in the 2020 playoffs. He scored an efficient 28 points on 8-15 shooting in Game 1, and he hit both of his attempted threes (including a dagger late). Duncan Robinson stole the show in Game 2, but Butler once again hit a pair of triples on three attempts. The percentages aren’t exactly important. The respect factor is. Butler needs to force teams out onto the perimeter, especially in the fourth quarter. So far, so good for Miami’s latest leading man.

Clippers’ Defensive Woes

The Mavericks sport the most efficient regular-season offense in NBA history, but we still assumed they’d run into a relative brick wall against the Clippers in round one. Los Angeles is led by two All-Defense wings, one of whom is perhaps the best defensive player of his generation. And there’s depth behind the two stars. Patrick Beverley is a standout defensive guard. Montrezl Harrell is a quality paint protector. But the playoffs haven’t brought out the best in Los Angeles. The Mavericks have gotten really whatever they’ve wanted through two games.

We could be looking at a 2–0 Dallas lead had Kristaps Porzingis not been ejected from Game 1. The Clippers are having legitimate problems containing the Mavericks’ size (shoutout Boban Marjanovic) and Luka Doncic knifed his way into the lane seemingly at will for much of the series’ first two games. There’s still certainly time for the Clippers to turn things around. They have the upside to be the best defense in basketball. But their energy and effort must see a significant uptick to truly compete for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. 

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