True NBA fans don’t get their yearly fix of basketball heaven during March Madness — they get it in May and June. This year, the first round of the playoffs has been full of surprises and it’s just plain fun to watch. With upsets, game-winning shots and big-time comebacks, we’ve had a lot to talk about around the league these last few weeks. Here are the winners and losers of the first round:
Damian Lillard – Looking Good
When Lillard came into the league, there were a lot of people, myself included, who didn’t expect much at all from him. But he made it clear from his first moments wearing a Trail Blazers uniform that he was not just another early first-round point guard bust. Lillard took the NBA on in his rookie year à la Chris Paul in 2005, taking home Rookie of the Year honors in a landslide. He was fearless, he was very good and just about everyone who saw him knew that he was going to be something special.
Fast-forward to this year, and to say that the Blazers’ future is bright would be a huge understatement. Lillard finished his first ever first-round series with averages of 25-6-6, with all of his main statistical categories making drastic improvements. With LaMarcus Aldridge complementing Lillard’s all-star play, the Blazers were able to take down the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets in six games. The last play we saw from that series will surely be remembered for years to come. With 0.9 seconds left, trailing by two, Lillard caught the ball off a screen, quickly planted his feet and knocked down one of the most cold-blooded threes I have ever seen, sending his team to the next round.
He’s a guy who plays well beyond his years, and if he keeps progressing at this rate, we’re going to be seeing him hold up an MVP trophy someday, whether it’s in May or June.
Dwight Howard – Looking Bad
Speaking of Lillard’s shot, my favorite moment was actually the one we saw shortly after. The Laker in me will hate the Blazers as a team forever, but it will always love that post-game celebration for one reason: Dwight Howard’s face.
Dwight was once a top MVP candidate in Orlando and the easy choice for Defensive Player of the Year. He was once considered Superman. But ever since the Dwightmare began, it’s all gone downhill for him. He was out with a back injury for his final days in Orlando, traded to the Lakers, experienced the worst, most embarrassing year in the Kobe Bryant era at the time (and there have been a couple of really bad ones) and ran away from the bright lights to Houston. It didn’t take long for him and the rest of the league to realize that Dwight’s days playing second fiddle to a shooting guard were not over yet.
This team has been clearly established as James Harden’s team from the second Harden arrived two years ago. Let’s face it though — Dwight’s numbers are still up there. He averaged 26 points and nearly 14 rebounds per game in the first round — it’s just the way he looks on the court. He used to be the closest thing to Shaq we had left. He used to be a dominant force. For the last two years, though, he’s looked like a pushover. His mentality is that of a pushover, and his record of 2-8 in the playoffs since leaving Orlando is something that is surely haunting his already-tarnished reputation right now.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Looking Bad
Losing Game Five at home — no matter how close it was to a win — was not something that these hopeful champs should have let happen. They did what they were supposed to do, winning Game Six in Memphis in a convincing fashion and finishing it off at home in Game Seven, but there are some holes in the Thunder’s armor that the rest of the league is surely aware of.
The last time Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were both healthy in the playoffs, they made it to the Finals. However, San Antonio will have no fear playing the young Thunder superstars with home-court advantage and the powers of the anti-aging serum Gregg Popovich has been feeding his team for the last 10 years. That is, if the Spurs even make it to the conference finals, because Chris Paul is hungry for some championship action. Time to shape up, OKC; this is supposed to be your time to shine, not the Clippers.
Brooklyn Nets – Looking Good
This is a team that was built for the playoffs. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce look fresher than they did all season. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are perennial All-Stars and have plenty of playoff experience themselves. The Nets swept Miami 4-0 in the regular season. Yes, it’s just the regular season, but when it comes to taking down the champs in the playoffs, you need to take every advantage you can get. The Nets have the advantage of confidence and leaders who have beaten LeBron numerous times in the past. Brooklyn-Miami will be a fun series.
Indiana Pacers – Looking Bad
Well, when you talk about OKC going down 3-2 to Memphis, at least you’re talking about a pair of 50-win teams. The Pacers should be embarrassed for going down 3-2 to the Atlanta Hawks, a team that was well below .500 and still managed to make the playoffs in a poorly contested Eastern Conference. They tend to step up their game against Miami, but after barely slipping by Atlanta, this team had better get its act together quickly. Luckily, they have the Wizards in the second round and not the Nets.
Let’s hope for more amazing games in round two!
This article is an online exclusive and did not appear in the print edition of The Daily Nexus.