Updated: Oct 9, 2021
The first round of this season's playoffs have been nothing short of interesting—from surprising upsets by lower seeds to injuries to some of the NBA's biggest names, fans should expect the unexpected going forward. With that being said, let's review some winners and losers of the NBA postseason before the conclusion of the first round.
Winner: Trae Young, newest Madison Square Garden villain
“It’s quiet as f— in here!” Trae Young exclaimed after hitting the deciding floater in Game 1 against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Over 15,000 fans in the Garden had been jeering him to the best of their ability for the game’s entirety, but Young cancelled out the noise. Knicks fans haven’t seen that kind of brash confidence since Reggie Miller infamously made the “choke” gesture toward an incensed Spike Lee.
Young has always played with a chip on his shoulder. Despite his crafty handles and limitless shooting range, his 6-foot-1 frame has worked against him for his whole life. He’s had to work harder than most to become an elite point guard that can score against any NBA defender, no matter how much taller they are. His first-round performance, especially Game 1 in the Garden, has exemplified that. Be warned, Knicks fans, this is not the last time you will see Rayford Trae Young doing damage against your team when the lights are brightest.
Loser: Julius Randle, crashing to Earth
This is not to discount the excellent season that Julius Randle has had; it truly has been extraordinary to watch him improve in virtually every aspect of his game. With that being said, his series against the Hawks thus far has been extremely ugly. Randle went from regular season averages of 24.1/10.2/6.0 on 45.6% shooting from the field and 41.1% from deep to 18.0/11.6/4.0 on an unsightly 29.1% shooting overall and 34.8% from deep.
It’s been difficult to watch as the Hawks’ frontcourt—John Collins, Clint Capela, and De’Andre Hunter—has clamped onto Randle and his mid-range shot that has worked all season, until now. It’s also difficult to place the blame entirely on Randle; besides Derrick Rose, nobody has picked up the slack for a Knicks offense that has sputtered all series long. Here’s to hoping that this series was not a portent for Randle’s future.
Winner: Milwaukee Bucks, fighting off Ghosts of Bubble Past
I mentioned in last week’s article that the Bucks’ offseason was a major success, including the addition of two-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection Jrue Holiday. Holiday has been an underrated two-way guard for his whole career, but this season in particular was stellar. Though hampered by a three-week absence after contracting COVID-19, Holiday averaged 17.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game on 50.3% shooting overall and 39.2.% from deep, both percentages being career-highs.
The trio of Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo steamrolled the Miami Heat in four games, erasing any reservations about how the Bucks would respond after last year’s shocking second-round exit. Milwaukee seems to be peaking at the right time. Their toughest task lies ahead in their second-round date with the Brooklyn Nets.
Loser: Dame Time, all for naught
On Tuesday night against the Nuggets in Game 5, Damian Lillard became the first player to record at least 55 points and 10 assists and lose. He also set a postseason record for threes made with 12, all the while turning the ball over once in 52 minutes. It was a Herculean effort for Dame Time, yet he was forced to watch as his Portland Trail Blazers fell in double overtime, 147-140.
Now, the Nuggets have a 3-2 lead, and the annual cycle of “Damian Lillard needs help!” has continued once more. Lillard’s teammates truly let him down in crunch time. Jusuf Nurkic fouled out, leaving Enes Kanter and a 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony to guard MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokić. Robert Covington also missed two point-blank dunks, and CJ McCollum stepped out of bounds with 10 seconds left in overtime. Lillard has been simply metaphysical in the fourth quarter for years, but his supporting cast hasn’t even come close to that level of play.
Winner: Utah Jazz, propelled by Donovan Mitchell’s return
The no. 1 overall seed Utah Jazz had an inauspicious start to their postseason, suffering a Game 1 loss at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. Electric guard Donovan Mitchell, who sprained his ankle on April 16, was controversially held out of the opening game. Without his scoring punch, the Jazz’s offense struggled—they shot just 42.0% overall and 25.5% from 3-point range as a team. After Mitchell’s return, however, they flipped a switch.
Mitchell leads the Jazz in points per game (28.0) in the postseason as well as steals per game (1.3). He provides a beautiful contrast to fellow focal points Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley. Mitchell is lightning in a bottle, while Gobert and Conley are more methodical in their decisions. The combination has worked perfectly this year, as evidenced by Utah’s league-best 51-21 record in the regular season. Now that Mitchell is back, expect the Jazz to continue their quest for their first Finals appearance since 1998.
Loser: Boston Celtics, at a major crossroads
This season was filled with ups and downs for the Boston Celtics. They finished 36-36 and struggled to find a rhythm, as Kemba Walker fought through a bad knee all season and Jayson Tatum missed three weeks after contracting COVID-19. Worse yet, Jaylen Brown underwent wrist surgery before the postseason, taking him out of the picture for a Boston team hoping to hit their stride in the playoffs.
The outmatched Celtics were eliminated by the Brooklyn Nets in five games; less than 24 hours later, it was announced that president of basketball operations Danny Ainge was retiring and head coach Brad Stevens would take his place. Stevens can hopefully use his new perspective to address the issues facing the Celtics this offseason.
This season demonstrated how feeble Boston’s bench is, and the young players they’ve drafted in recent years haven’t made as big of an impact as they would have hoped. Will they bring back midseason addition Evan Fournier? Can they find a trade partner for Marcus Smart or an expensive Kemba Walker? How will they simultaneously navigate their limited cap space and build around their young core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? These are all questions facing Stevens and the Celtics front office. Good luck with that—expectations for a title have been looming for years.