Editor’s note: Kyle Mangelson is a sophomore at St. Helena High School and a diehard basketball fan. His love for the NBA sparked an idea to create an Instagram account, @the.hoops.wire, which features original content and has gained more than 23,000 followers. “The Hoops Wire” will feature his commentary on the Warriors and the NBA, as a whole.
Up to this point, we’ve learned a ton throughout the NBA Playoffs.
We saw unexpected struggles and unexpected success. Let’s dive into some of the things we’ve learned.
In my eyes, Portland’s Damian Lillard has taken a huge step in his career in the playoffs so far. Entering this postseason, he had a reputation of failing under the pressure of the playoffs, particularly recently. Prior to this season, teams figured ‘Dame’ out. Defenses would trap him almost any chance they got, whether in the half court or off pick and rolls.
This approach forced him to give the ball up to his teammates early in the shot clock and forced role players to make plays rather than Lillard. We’d seen this time and time again. The Blazers had been swept during the last two postseasons, the most embarrassing coming last year when the Demarcus Cousins-less Pelicans upset the No. 3-seeded Blazers and exposed their system in a four-game sweep.
Many believed the Blazers should’ve traded Lillard or shooting guard CJ McCollum and start fresh. But the front office decided to stick with the core.
In the first round of the playoffs this season, Damian proved the world that he wasn’t just a guard who plays well in the regular season. He averaged 33 points, 6 assists and 2.5 steals on 46-percent shooting from the field, including a 50-point performance to close out the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. And that’s not to mention his 40-foot, three-point buzzer beater to end the series that he hit in Paul George’s eye.
His game-winner broke social media, with all the talk wondering if Dame is finally becoming the lethal guard fans in the postseason have always wanted to see.
Lillard continued his recent success in the second round, as the Blazer upset the Denver Nuggets in seven games. Lillard averaged 25 points, 6 assists and 1.7 steals per game on 40-percent shooting. Although, we have to give credit where credit is due. McCollum showed up in Game 7, putting the team on his back with a game-high 37 points and leading them to a four-point win.
Kawhi Leonard has also shown up big time this postseason. He led the Toronto Raptors to a Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, hitting an iconic buzzer-beater in the series finale over Joel Embiid.
Leonard has solidified himself as a top five player in the league once again. His excellence so far this postseason raises the question of whether or not he’ll decide to re-sign with the Raptors since he’ll be a free agent this offseason.
I see him resigning as more and more likely as time goes on. If I’m being honest, if they beat the Bucks and make it to the Finals I’d call it a done deal. The Raptors seemingly have finally broken the curse of playing horrifically in the playoffs compared to the regular season over the last few years. This, of course, largely due to Leonard’s impact on the floor. He is easily the best two-way player in the NBA.
Going back to Okalhoma City, the legacies of the aforementioned George and Russell Westbrook definitely took a hit during these playoffs. This will be the second time they’ve been bounced in the first round since George was traded to the Thunder.
When he re-signed with the Thunder last season on a 4-year, $137-million deal, I questioned why he made such a commitment. Why not sign another one-year deal and try again?
I feel that after this series, George is likely second guessing his decision. Westbrook continues to prove that he cannot lead an offense successfully. When Paul George was in MVP form earlier in the season and was the first option for the Thunder, they were the third seed in the West and a legitimate threat to the Warriors.
Then, George started cooling off back into the Geroge we’re used to watching, and they fell to the sixth seed. This proves Westbrook can’t lead a winning offense, and he never has. I’ve never been a huge fan of Westbrook’s playstyle. I can’t handle the oblivious stat-padding, like refusing to shoot wide open shots or to drive into the open lane because he is too focused on getting his 10th assist or rebound. That goes along with his poor decision making, especially in the fourth quarter when he seemingly develops tunnel vision and always has to be the one to take the big shots regardless of his extremely inefficient shooting ability.
I firmly believe he’ll never win a ring as the leader of an offense.