The seedlings held up well in the 2022 NBA Playoffs and the first round came and went without any upsets, which isn’t to say the playoffs haven’t been without scratching their heads.
Any surprises? There have been a few. Occurs every year. And that’s the beauty of the playoffs, when the script isn’t always followed, when someone or a team pulls us off a quick one, when reputations are built and reputations are tarnished, when something happens that no one saw it coming.
Here are the Surprising Six stories from the playoffs so far, and how and why they’ve multiplied:
1. Kevin Durant (and the Nets) humiliated
It sounds crazy now, but the Brooklyn Nets were — in the very reasonable opinion of some in the basketball world — a potential title favorite heading into the season. Wait, it gets even crazier: Durant has now won exactly one playoff round since leaving the Golden State Warriors via free agency in 2019. Some context is needed, of course. Durant missed an entire season in Brooklyn while recovering from Achilles surgery, and those rosy projections for 2021-22 didn’t account for unvaccinated Kyrie Irving sitting out a streak of games (which cost in Brooklyn a favorable ranking).
Yet the The nets have been swept away and KD was uncharacteristically silenced. One of the league’s all-time leading scorers shot 38.6% on aggregate and from the floor and 33.3% on 3-pointers (after shooting 51.4% and 40.2% on 3-point range in 2021 playoffs). It was beautiful to see, and that’s no disrespect to the Celtics defense, but Boston certainly didn’t show KD something he hadn’t seen before. And so, since Steph Curry was traded for Kyrie, has anyone heard a satisfying reason why they did it? — KD is ringless.
2. Introducing Jalen Brunson
Brunson is a solid, smart guard who has made a solid leap during the regular season, starting 61 games, averaging 16.3 points per game. In all honesty, part of that may have been down to playing alongside Luka Doncic and enjoying the freedom that such a role entails. But his first-round play against the Utah Jazz shattered all reasonable expectations of him. Doncic missed the first three games of this series and the Mavs didn’t suffer because Brunson played like an All-Star. Was it just a small sample size, bolstered by Utah’s much-maligned perimeter defense? We’ll see in the Western Conference semi-finals against Phoenix. So far, the evidence is pretty compelling.
Brunson is averaging 27.8 points per game in the postseason, creating plays on the dribble and showcasing a deft jumper from the back. More impressively, he’s careful with the ball — just two turnovers in 187 playoff minutes so far. And his timing couldn’t be better: Brunson is an unrestricted free agent this summer and likely pulled out of Dallas (the New York Knicks are the club frontrunner, due to close family ties with coach Tom Thibodeau, who has known Brunson since his youth). Everyone is now waiting to see what Brunson does next, both in the semis and in free agency.
3. Al Horford, alive and well
Let’s take a look at Horford’s curious career path: he surprisingly left the Celtics three years ago by retiring and fleeing to Philadelphia as part of a money grab (four years, $97 million) . He immediately looked bad next to Joel Embiid and became the butt of ridicule in Philadelphia, especially after Horford died in the bubble. He was dumped on the Oklahoma City Thunder ahead of the 2020-21 season (the Sixers had to sweeten the deal with a protected first round). The Thunder had no use for him and he appeared in just 28 games before he was actually asked to sit down and collect checks. At this point, Horford was approaching 35 and approaching a career crossroads when time was running out and there was little demand for him.
The good news for him is that the Celtics were fed up with Kemba Walker. Last offseason, there was an exchange of my-bad-contract-for-yours when Horford and Walker were traded, sending Horford back to Boston — a place he probably never should have left. (Walker never played for OKC and ended up in New York, in case you forgot.) This is where the story turns for the better: Horford is playing great again for the Celtics in an important role. In these playoffs, he’s hitting peripheral shooting (54.2 percent on 3-pointers) and rebounding (8.0 rpg). In short, he’s doing everything that made him so beloved during his first stint in Boston.
4. Warriors grow small, grow
Coach Steve Kerr had a problem – a good one, but still – once Jordan Poole developed beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. When the playoffs rolled around and Stephen Curry healed and Poole’s time as a starter seemed to be over, Kerr had to make a choice, and he did. Kerr stayed small, started Gary Payton II against the Grizzlies and kept Poole, Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor when it mattered.
Well, it worked. The Warriors gelled with the roster and lead 1-0 in the Western semi-finals against Memphis. It helps to have Draymond Green as a defensive anchor since he can keep the big ones (as evidenced by how he held his own in the first round against reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic). Since the Grizzlies don’t offer a great big man, the Warriors should thrive with this unit for at least another round. It works because it causes a hell of a match for the other team, having to defend against three fast guards who can create their own shots. It’s all because of Poole and the surprising situation he’s created for himself – and the Warriors.
5. Trae Young, resolved
The player who led the league in total points and total assists this season was snuffed out in the first round. The Hawks, who made it to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals, were ousted in five games by a Miami team that didn’t have Kyle Lowry for two of them and Jimmy Butler was missing one. Additionally, Young averaged just 15.4 ppg and 6.0 apg.
Moreover, he had more turnovers than assists. Even more, he shot 31.9% overall and 18.4% (!!) from deep in the series. It gives you an idea of how he was a non-factor for the Hawks, and when someone with his usage rate gets canceled, the team doesn’t have much luck either. Obviously, Miami’s defense deserves a lot of applause. What that does for Atlanta is that it’s more urgent that they find a co-star for Young (Donovan Mitchell?) this offseason.
6. Young people are not afraid
There’s an understandable learning curve and amount of jitters that come with your playoff debut, but you couldn’t tell that this year. A handful of young players, barely out of their teens, seemed at home, in fact, in the heat of the post-season. In other words: they didn’t need to wear sunglasses because the lights were too bright.
That goes for Anthony Edwards, who took control of the Timberwolves, helped them win two games from the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies, and shined. Edwards averaged 25 points, went 40 percent from deep and aside from a few notable errors, he was Minnesota’s most reliable roster player. Then there are Pelican rookies Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, who earned instant respect and praise for their refusal to bow down to the more experienced Suns. The Heat’s Max Strus had a strong first-round streak. And Poole, who surpasses Curry, was recently called up to the NBA G League this time last year.
* * *