The seedings have held firm in the 2022 NBA Playoffs and the first round came and went without any upsets, which is not to say the playoffs haven’t been without an amount of head-scratching.
Surprises? There’s been a few. Happens every year. And that’s the beauty of the postseason, when the script isn’t always followed, when someone or some team pulls a fast one on us, when reputations are formed and reputations are dented, when something happens that nobody saw coming.
Here’s the Surprising Six stories of the playoffs so far, and how and why they mushroomed:
1. Kevin Durant (and the Nets) humbled
Sounds crazy now, but the Brooklyn Nets were — in the very reasonable opinion of some in the basketball world — a potential title favorite prior to 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 2021-22 projections didn’t take into account the unvaccinated Kyrie Irving sitting out a slew of games (which cost Brooklyn a favorable seeding).
Yet the Nets were swept and KD was uncharacteristically silenced. One of the league’s all-time efficient scorers shot 38.6% overall and from the floor and 33.3% on 3-pointers (after putting up 51.4% and 40.2% on 3-pointers in the 2021 playoffs). It was stunning to behold, and this is no disrespect to the Celtics’ defense, but Boston certainly didn’t show KD something he never saw before. And so, since trading Steph Curry for Kyrie — has anyone heard a satisfactory reason why he did so? — KD is ringless.
2. Introducing Jalen Brunson
Brunson is a solid, smart guard who took a solid leap during the regular season, starting 61 games, averaging 16.3 ppg. Some of that, in all fairness, perhaps was due to playing next to Luka Doncic and enjoying the freedom that such a role entails. But his play in the first round vs. the Utah Jazz shattered all reasonable expectations of him. Doncic missed the first three games of that series and the Mavs didn’t suffer because Brunson played like an All-Star. Was this just a small sample size, enhanced by Utah’s much-maligned perimeter defense? We will see in the Western Conference semifinals against Phoenix. Until then, the evidence is rather compelling.
Brunson is averaging 27.8 ppg in the playoffs, creating plays off the dribble and showcasing a deft step-back jumper. Most impressively, he’s careful with the ball — only two turnovers in 187 playoff minutes so far. And his timing couldn’t be better: Brunson is an unrestricted free agent this summer and probably priced himself out of Dallas (the New York Knicks are the clubhouse leader, because of close family ties to coach Tom Thibodeau, who has known Brunson dating back to his youth). Everyone now is waiting to see what Brunson does next, both in the semifinals and in free agency.
3. Al Horford, alive and well
Let’s examine the curious career path of Horford: He surprisingly left the Celtics three years ago by opting out and bolted to Philadelphia in a money grab (four years, $97 million). He immediately proved a poor fit next to Joel Embiid and became the target of jeers in Philly, especially after Horford famously flamed out in the bubble. He was dumped on the Oklahoma City Thunder before the 2020-21 season (the Sixers had to sweeten the deal with a protected first-rounder). The Thunder had no use for him and he appeared in just 28 games before being effectively told to sit down and collect checks. At this point, Horford was nearing 35 and approaching a career crossroad as time was running out and there was little demand for him.
The good news for him is the Celtics had tired of Kemba Walker. Last offseason there was a trade of my-bad-contract-for-yours when Horford and Walker were exchanged, sending Horford back to Boston — a place he probably should’ve never left. (Walker never played for OKC and wound up in New York, in case you forgot.) This is where the story turns for the better: Horford is playing very well for the Celtics in an important role once again. In these playoffs he’s hitting the perimeter shot (54.2% on 3-pointers) and rebounding (8.0 rpg). In short, he’s doing all the things that made him so beloved in his first stint with Boston.
4. Warriors go small, come up big
Coach Steve Kerr had a problem — a good one, but still — once Jordan Poole developed beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. When the playoffs arrived and Stephen Curry healed up and Poole’s time as a starter seemed 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 has worked. The Warriors have jelled with the lineup and are up 1-0 in the West semis against Memphis. It helps to have Draymond Green as the defensive anchor since he can guard bigs (as evidenced by how he held his own in the first round against vs. reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic). Since the Grizzlies don’t offer a formidable big man, the Warriors should thrive with this unit for at least another round. It works because it causes a matchup hell for the other team, having to defend against three quick guards who can create their own shots. This is all because of Poole and the surprising situation he made for himself — and the Warriors.
5. Trae Young, solved
The player who led the league in total points and total assists this season was muffled in the first round. The Hawks, who appeared in 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 missing one. Furthermore, Young averaged only 15.4 ppg and 6.0 apg.
Further-furthermore, he had more turnovers than assists. Even more, he shot 31.9% overall and 18.4% (!!) from deep in the series. That gives you an idea of how he was a non-factor for the Hawks, and when someone with his usage rate is nullified, the team doesn’t stand much of a chance, either. Obviously, the Miami defense deserves plenty of applause. What this does for Atlanta is make it more urgent that they find a co-star for Young (Donovan Mitchell?) this offseason.
6. Youngsters not scared
There’s an understandable learning curve and amount of jitters that come with making your playoff debut, but you couldn’t tell that this year. A handful of young players, barely out of their teens, seemed right at home, in fact, in the heat of the post-season. In other words: There was no need for them to wear sunglass because the lights were too bright.
This goes for Anthony Edwards, who took control for the Timberwolves, helped them take a pair of games from the No. 2 seed Grizzlies, and sparkled. Edwards averaged 25 points, for 40% from deep and aside from a few noticeable mistakes was the most dependable player on the Minnesota roster. Then there’s the Pelican rookies, Herb Jones and Jose Alvarado, who earned instant respect and praise for how they refused to bow down to the more experienced Suns. Max Strus of the Heat enjoyed a solid series in the first round. And Poole, who’s outscoring Curry, was a recent NBA G League call-up around this time last year.
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