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The 2022 NBA playoffs are in full swing. A number of teams already look like title contenders, while others should be starting their summer vacation plans.
While most of the storylines have gone as expected—the healthy Golden State Warriors are dominating, Chris Paul is defying age to mid-range teams to death, Giannis Antetokounmpo is destroying things on both ends of the floor—there have been a few variations from the norm, for better or worse.
One week into the postseason, these are the NBA’s biggest surprises and disappointments.
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
We knew based on his regular-season performance that Brunson was good. We didn’t know he was capable of going nuclear in the playoffs.
Over his first three games against the Utah Jazz, the 25-year-old averaged 32.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists with a true shooting mark of 60.2 percent. The only players who have ever matched those numbers in a postseason are LeBron James (three times), Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade.
While Brunson has a long way to go to maintain that stat line, it does speak to his dominance after he averaged 8.0 points per game off the bench in the playoffs last year.
His strong play helped the Dallas Mavericks take a surprising 2-1 series lead over the Jazz, who should have been able to toy with the Mavs, who were missing Luka Doncic. (Doncic returned for Game 4 on Saturday, but Utah evened the series despite Doncic’s 30 points and Brunson’s 23.)
Like Doncic, Brunson is an expert at controlling the pace, getting to his spots and using screens to his advantage. He’s leading all postseason players in drives per game (24.7) and points off drives (17.3) and is making 54.8 percent of his attempts when getting into the teeth of the Jazz defense.
An unrestricted free agent this summer, Brunson is pumping up his value, proving he can be a lead ball-handler and shot-taker on a winning team.
Brunson’s surprising success also leads us to our first disappointment of the postseason.
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Already on shaky ground after failing to advance past the second round in each of the past five years, Utah is in danger of dropping its opening playoff series for the third time in four seasons.
This would easily be the worst of the exits given that Dallas didn’t have Luka Doncic for the first three games and still built a 2-1 series lead, one that Utah eventually tied at 2-2 on thanks to a Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert alley-oop with 11 seconds left.
There should still be a high level of concern for Utah, however, given the way this series began.
Not only has the soft Jazz perimeter defense allowed Jalen Brunson to look like prime Dwyane Wade, but even ice-cold shooter Maxi Kleber (29.8 percent overall and 18.8 percent on threes in the second half; 13.8 points per game and 60.0 percent from three in the series) has caught fire.
Utah is also dead last in assist percentage (49.0 percent) and is forcing Dallas to turn the ball over at a minuscule rate of 8.5 percent, by far the lowest mark in these playoffs. Despite leading all postseason scorers with 30.3 points per game, Donovan Mitchell is shooting just 39.6 percent overall and 23.5 percent from three while playing like a turnstile on defense.
The Jazz were supposed to bury the Doncic-less Mavs early, not find themselves tied at 2-2 going back to Dallas with Doncic now active.
Unless Utah can win two of three, including at least one on the road, major changes will likely come this offseason.
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Imagine being told two seasons ago that Jordan Poole, a rookie averaging 8.8 points per game on 33.3 percent shooting, would not only start over Stephen Curry in the 2022 playoffs but also lead the Warriors in scoring.
Such is the case, as Curry has voluntarily let Poole have his starting job as he returns to full strength following a sprained ligament and bone bruise in his foot. The 22-year-old has taken advantage of his opportunity, lifting the Warriors to a 3-0 series lead over the Denver Nuggets by averaging 28.7 points (tied for fifth overall with Jimmy Butler), 3.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.0 steal while shooting 66.7 percent from the field and 59.1 percent from three.
It’s borderline unfair what the Warriors are doing: adding to their Hall of Fame trio of Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green with a developing star such as Poole.
Be it his ability as an off-ball shooter coming off pin-downs like Thompson or his creativity to finish around the rim or dribble himself open for threes like Curry, it’s easy to see the parts of his teammates’ games that Poole has absorbed into his arsenal.
He’s blended into whatever role the Warriors need him to fill, either as a primary ball-handler or spot-up shooter, and sometimes both on the same possession. Poole is also a good defender, which one has to be to carve out a rotation spot with Golden State.
We knew Curry (25.7 points per game with 44.0 percent shooting from three) and Thompson (22.0 points, 45.2 percent from three) would continue to be big-time postseason players. We just didn’t know Poole would be even better.
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The raw numbers suggest Karl-Anthony Towns is actually having a good postseason, as the three-time All-Star is giving the Minnesota Timberwolves 21.3 points and 10.8 rebounds per game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
It’s been his inconsistency and lack of leadership/aggressiveness at times that could cost Minnesota the series, however.
Following a strong Game 1 in which he racked up 29 points and 13 rebounds in a shocking 130-117 win in Memphis, Towns shot the ball just 11 total times in Games 2 and 3, both Wolves losses.
After blowing multiple 20-point leads in Game 3, Towns refused to answer why he took just four shots in a 104-95 loss, wherein the Timberwolves were outscored by 25 points in the fourth quarter alone. Backup center Naz Reid took more shots in his 10 minutes, and Towns finished tied for sixth on the team in scoring with Jaden McDaniels.
His “next question” response to a fair inquiry about his lack of shots showed a lack of leadership and accountability by a player who was selected first overall in 2015. He shouldn’t let all the offensive pressure fall on the 20-year-old Anthony Edwards, who is leading Minnesota with 24.8 points per game.
Had Towns been even OK in Game 3, the Wolves would have a 3-1 series lead and all the momentum against the favored Grizzlies. Now, they’re locked in a tight 2-2 battle with two of the potential final three games taking place in Memphis.
If Towns wants to put himself in the conversation with the best centers in the game, namely Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, he simply can’t take playoff games off, especially not for a team that’s reached the postseason just twice in his seven years.
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Injuries are always the worst part of any postseason, and this year’s version has already featured its fair share.
Luka Doncic (calf), Devin Booker (hamstring), Khris Middleton (MCL) and Robert Williams III (meniscus) are incredibly important pieces for teams that finished with top-four seeds, and their injuries could derail their clubs’ chances to win the 2022 title.
At least, that’s what we assume.
The good news is that these teams have stayed afloat despite the injuries, a pleasant surprise for fans of the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics and people who simply enjoy watching quality basketball.
In the seven combined games that the four have missed, their teams are 6-1, with the lone loss being a Game 1 Mavs defeat at the hands of the Jazz.
In even better news, all have made their returns (Doncic and Williams) or are expected to return in the next round or two (Booker, Middleton).
That is especially important for the Suns minus Booker, as they can’t face the red-hot Warriors until the Western Conference Finals. Milwaukee gets to avoid the Miami Heat or Philadelphia 76ers until Round 3 as well.
Injuries have put a damper on far too many NBA Finals already (see the 2020 Heat, 2019 Warriors, 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers, etc.), so it’s good to see teams playing so well with absent stars.
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With LeBron James missing the postseason, this was Kevin Durant’s chance to take his place in the spotlight and make an argument that he should finally be considered the NBA’s best.
Instead, the Nets find themselves on the brink of elimination already with Durant’s poor play serving as a major reason why. In trailing the Celtics 3-0, Durant has shot just 36.5 percent overall en route to is 22.0 points per game, ranking just 22nd among all scorers. Of the 29 players who have attempted 50 total shots or more this postseason, Durant ranks 25th in field-goal percentage.
In addition to his poor shooting, Durant has been sloppy with the ball, turning it over 17 times. Brooklyn has been outscored by 25 points in the 129 minutes Durant has spent on the floor.
The end of Game 1 was especially bad, as Durant bricked a game-sealing three-pointer and then got lost on defense as Jayson Tatum slipped by him for the game-winning layup.
That simply can’t happen to one of the greatest NBA players of all time.
We should be witnessing Durant going off for 40 or 50 points, further cementing his legacy while leading a roster he helped to create. Not 4-of-17 shooting performances or critical lapses on the defensive end.
Durant needs to be better, and fast, as Brooklyn’s season is now on life support.
For a player who should be making us debate who is the best in the game, Durant has (momentarily) removed himself from the conversation with his performance.