Playoff Power Rankings: Human frailty, Paul George, a Cavs referendum

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images   Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images   Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images   Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images   Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images   Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images   Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images   Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images   Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images /

 We are now knee deep in the roiling sea of the NBA playoffs. The first round has been completed, the weak and infirmed have been separated from the pack. It’s time to reflect on the good, the bad, the fun, and the frustrating with some NBA Playoff Power Rankings. Below you’ll, find ten stories of interest, ranked for your reading pleasure.

#10 — The frailty of the human body

Stephen Curry’s ankle, and then his MCL. A broken bone in Chris Paul’s hand. A reaggravated quadricep tear for Blake Griffin. A wonky hamstring for Avery Bradley. It has been a busy few for weeks for NBA training staffs.

This will not be the first NBA postseason to be reshaped by injuries, nor will it be the last. And of course, it remains to be seen just how these injuries and (gulp) whatever additional ones may still be yet to come will affect the final outcome. The Golden State Warriors had no trouble dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1, without Curry, and he could conceivably be back in the lineup in time for the Warriors to continue their march to the title. Even if fully healthy, the Clippers would still have needed to finish off the Blazers, get through the Warriors, survive either the Spurs or Thunder, before playing the Eastern Conference’s best for a championship. Boston may have had more to give the Atlanta Hawks but even with Bradley swarming and shooting, they probably weren’t hanging another banner from the rafters this year.

Still, it is heartbreaking to watch collective dreams short-circuited by failing bodies. Every playoff team, regardless of their championship odds, has given so much of their physical selves to arrive at this point. To have that physical give way on them now, when they can finally see what it is all the sweat, soreness, and swelling was endured for, is incredibly cruel.

#9 — The Houston Rockets

What a perfectly appropriate ending to a perfectly terrible season of basketball — a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors who only received 38 minutes from their injured MVP. For Houston, this season was a frustrating grating series of peaks and valleys. They miraculously scraped their way into the playoffs and then tumbled back into their well-worn rut of frustration and apathy.

James Harden scored 133 points in the series and played something like 133 seconds of fully engaged and energetic defense. Dwight Howard shot 36.8 percent from the free throw line, just slightly better than Jason Terry (34.2), Trevor Ariza (25.5), Patrick Beverley (27.0), and Corey Brewer (25.9) shot from the field. The team’s total point differential for the five-game series was -94.

Watching the Rockets was painful this season, an exercise in joylessness that was probably only surpassed by actually playing basketball for the Rockets. The season is, mercifully, over. Here’s hoping there are some roster changes coming, for everyone’s sake.

#8 — Hack-a-my-heart

Generally, I’m impartial when it comes to the thorny issue of  “Hack-a-whoever.” I don’t love watching bad free throw shooters take free throws but I also don’t feel it’s a structural challenge to the integrity of the game. However, watching Andre Drummond, I’m starting to soften my stance of neutrality, mostly because I feel so bad for him.

Drummond missed 23 free throws as his Detroit Pistons were swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not enough to have single-handedly swung the outcome. But it hurts my heart to watch this nice young fellow have his greatest weakness repeatedly exposed for strategic advantage. Millions of dollars are lovely but I wonder how it works as emotional compensation for having to do the thing you are worst at, over and over again, in front of millions of people.

Drummond just finished the worst free throw shooting season in NBA history. By some estimates, his free throw shooting was the difference between them fighting for their playoff lives and maybe sitting as high as the No. 3 seed.

I think I’m finally ready to support action on rule changes here — I don’t think my heart can take watching Drummond shoot any more free throws.

#7 — Mark Cuban is on your side

Mark Cuban took some heat last week for drawing a distinction around Russell Westbrook, specifying to reporters that he was an “All-Star” and not a “superstar.” After Westbrook and Kevin Durant were finished mopping up their series against the Mavericks with a Game 5 win, Durant called Cuban an “idiot” when asked about the statement. The assertion is ridiculous on its face, Westbrook was arguably the second-best player in the league this season. As to the characterization of Cuban as an idiot, I think there’s a little more gray area.

We can debate the wisdom of antagonism as a strategy, but the Dallas Mavericks had clearly decided that it needed to be part of the tool box this postseason. They were at an enormous talent deficit, both Durant and Westbrook have seemed increasingly easy to anger this season, and if Dallas was going to pull off a miracle, injecting a little psychological variance did make some sense. What was most striking to me was that this strategy seemed to be implemented throughout the organization, from top to bottom. Bench players like Charlie Villanueva interrupted pre-game rituals. Rotation players went a little heavy on the physical aggression. Rick Carlisle went out of his way to twist a reporter into circles about the Thunder’s reputation for dirty play. And even the owner, Cuban, was out there trying to push buttons.

It’s probably far-fetched to assume that these actions were all carefully planned and orchestrated but getting under the Thunder’s skin was clearly a point of emphasis. Frankly, it was refreshing to see the organizational synergy — an owner willing to take pressure off his players making silly public statements, not because he was a loud-mouthed buffoon, but because it aligned with the team’s on-court strategy and he thought it might help them win.

#6 — The Boston Celtics melted

Each season and every team is like a snowflake — utterly unique and indelibly fragile. This Boston Celtics team was an incredibly fun arrangement. With a talent base a mile wide and inch deep, there were good in the collaborative, flexible, interchangeable way that starless teams often need to be to survive. Everywhere you looked there were little flowers of talent blossoming — Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, Jae Crowder. Isaiah Thomas was the team’s offensive engine and a delightful one at that, turning the idea of overmatched on its head. And always Brad Stevens was there, quietly tugging on strings to keep everyone moving into the right places at the right times.

As disappointing as their playoff exit was, this team was probably precisely as good as they could have been and they will be dramatically different next season. Flush with draft picks and cap space, some of these little talent blossoms will be shipped out for other parts. Others may stay and simply be moved down the rotation to make space for a new addition. The plan is to get better, but plans have a way of going awry.

We had the chance to look closely at this team, and they melted away. So for now, let’s just enjoy the memory of what we saw and what they were.

#5 — Norman Powell dunks away the darkness

In the first round, the Toronto Raptors had to do battle with the Indiana Pacers and the pressure of their past playoff failures. Kyle Lowry struggled to make shots. DeMar DeRozan get more involved but still wasn’t nearly as effective as during the regular season. They eventually prevailed in seven games because of their supporting cast, including rookie Norman Powell.

It took an enormous comeback for the Raptors to win Game 5 and that comeback was completed by Powell on this fastbreak dunk by Powell with 6:34 remaining in the fourth quarter.

That monstrous yam tied the score at 92-92 and seemed to reset everything for the Raptors, functionally and psychologically. The series was even. The score was even. The pressure had been shifted off their shoulders and onto the Pacers. With one steal and open-court explosion, Powell dunked away the past and cleared space for a bright future.

Turns out it wasn’t that easy. The Raptors dropped Game 6, and the pressure wound itself right up again. Powell was huge again in Game 7, scoring 13 points and making 3-of-4 three-pointers, helping to carry the Raptors over the finish line. As a rookie, Powell isn’t weighted down by any of the postseason psychological baggage that many of this teammates are playing with. Free and loose, he’s showing Toronto how to play.

#4 — Tim Duncan, still doing the damn thing

Tim Duncan is in the background of this San Antonio Spurs championship rim. He’s barely averaging 20 minutes per game in the playoffs and has attempted a grand total of 20 shots in five games. Duncan’s gravitas is the psychological underpinning for this team, but his functional on-court importance has receded considerably. This run belongs to Kawhi Leonard. It belongs to LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, and even Kyle Anderson.

Still, it is beautiful to watch Duncan out there still serving a purpose. As that purpose has shrunk over the years, he takes it no less seriously, treats it with no less respect. Duncan is one of the greatest stars to ever play this game. He may go down in history as one of the greatest role players ever too. If walking that path isn’t a perfect metaphor for the culture of the San Antonio Spurs, then I don’t know what is.

#3 — Paul George and the way, way back

Paul George had himself a playoff series. His Indiana Pacers took Toronto to seven games before ultimately falling victim to their own shortcomings. George was unbelievable. Through seven games, he averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.0 steals, with a 63.2 true shooting percentage. His team was flawed and, frankly, George was still somewhat clumsily working out how to use his individual talents to offset those flaws. It turns out that it is a task more suited for the offseason than the postseason, but the fact that he was even here trying is fairly remarkable.

The broken leg George suffered two summers ago was gruesome beyond description. I have still only watched the video once and would like very much to never, ever see it again. If there was a way to wipe it from my visual memory, I’d be all over that as well. There was never really a question of if George would play basketball again, whether he could ever be as effective was very much in doubt.

George was very good this season, an All-Star. He played 81 games and more than 2800 minutes. By Box Plus-Minus, his overall impact this year was every bit as good as his pre-injury peak. All that was well and good, but the playoffs is where the optimism truly gets tested. George is not quite as explosive; he was every bit as effective. He carried the offense with his shooting and shot creation. His defense, primarily on DeMar DeRozan, was phenomenal. The Pacers didt have enough to get past Toronto and moral victories are synonymous with losses. Still, all things considered, I’m willing to chalk up this playoff series from George as a big win, moral or otherwise.

#2 — Point Plumlee

One of the most fun aspects of every postseason is watching how necessity and the rhythm of multi-game matchups in a playoff series will push individual evolution. Every year, some player finds himself in a scenario where some small aspect of his skill set needs to be expanded and relied upon for his team to survive. The evolution of Mason Plumlee into Point Plumlee has been this year’s prime example.

Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney gave Plumlee’s passing and facilitation a thorough once-over last week. Suffice it to say, there were more than enough highlights for several video compilations.

During the regular season, Plumlee averaged 5.4 assists per 100 possessions, about the same as Gordon Hayward. In the playoffs, he’s averaging 10.1 assists per 100 possessions, about the same as Draymond Green. Combined with Plumlee’s defense, mobility, solid rebounding, the Green comparison is an intriguing one. Plumlee is not an outside shooter by any stretch of the imagination and he doesn’t have quite as much defensive versatility as Green. Still, watching him show off his vision and precision, turning the Blazers offense inside out as he finds cutters and open shooters, has been one of my favorite development of these playoffs.

#1 — Kyrie Irving’s got the Cavs magic in him

It’s been more than a week since the Cleveland Cavaliers completed their first round sweep of the Detroit Pistons. In that time, the landscape of the Western Conference has changed, the Raptors have (supposedly) defeated their playoff bad juju, the Miami Heat (supposedly) stopped messing around, and the Atlanta Hawks are (supposedly) now fully operational.

Congratulations to the rest of the Eastern Conference, but the Cavs look even more imposing than they did during the regular season.

Against Detroit, Kyrie Irving averaged 27.5 points per game and made 47.1 percent of his three-pointers. He used 32.5 percent of his team’s possessions in the series and had just 6 turnovers. This is the Kyrie that the Cavs desperately needed in last year’s Finals, the offensive punch that breathes life into their roster and keeps them from drowning in the swamp of LeBron James isolations. With Irving shooting lightning bolts from his fingertips and Kevin Love finding some room to breathe at center, the Cavs averaged 115.5 points per 100 possessions against Detroit — tops in the playoffs, and about three points better than what the Warriors did in the regular season.

Offensively, this is probably as close as we’ve seen to the Big Three at their collaborative best, not just for their individual performances but in how they manifest open shots for J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson. This series will absolutely be a referendum on the Cavs and their roster construction. They still might not have enough to beat the Warriors or Spurs, and getting to the Finals themselves will still be a challenge. Win or lose, it would be nice for the final judgement on this Cleveland team to be passed when they’re healthy and playing well.