The 1-8 and 2-7 series in the Western Conference are going at least six games. And after falling behind 3-0 to No. 4 Philadelphia, fifth-seeded Toronto won the next two.
The lower seeds have proved formidable foes in several first-round NBA playoff matchups.
Last season in the first round, there was one sweep, four series went five games, two went six and went one seven. The one and two seeds in both conferences were pushed beyond five games in just one of four series.
This season? Just one sweep and four series will go at least six games with 13 games decided by five points or less.
Why have the first-round series been so competitive? Injuries, great players and great coaching, and it has drawn in fans, with TNT and ESPN/ABC reporting increased TV ratings.
And the conference semifinals could be just as compelling.
Let’s not discount injuries. They often play an important (however unfortunate) role in who wins in the playoffs. It’s part of playoff basketball after a long regular season. Injuries were piling up at the end of the regular season (Luka Doncic in Dallas, Lonzo Ball in Chicago, Steph Curry in Golden State, Chris Paul in Phoenix, Robert Williams III in Boston) and now they’re happening during the playoffs.
Name a series, and injury situations impact almost everyone.
Phoenix’s Devin Booker sustained a strained hamstring in Game 2, a game New Orleans won, and he missed Games 3, 4 and 5.
Philadelphia took a 3-0 series against Toronto, and then Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid played the next two games with a torn ligament in his right (shooting) thumb. The Raptors won Games 4 and 5 and can force a winner-take-all Game 7 with a victory in Game 6 on Thursday. And the Raptors started the series with injuries and illness and then lost Fred VanVleet for half of Game 4 and all of Game 5.
The Heat are also dealing with injuries. Kyle Lowry missed Games 4 and 6, and Jimmy Butler missed Game 5. Still, Miami eliminated Atlanta without Lowry and Butler in the lineup.
Doncic missed the first three games of the Dallas-Utah series, and the Mavs still took a 2-1 lead. Now, Jazz star Donovan Mitchell is bothered by a bad hamstring.
The Timberwolves and Pelicans aren’t just plucky underdogs. Karl-Anthony Towns is an All-Star, Anthony Edwards is headed that way, and D’Angelo Russell averaged 18.1 points and 7.1 assists for the Timberwolves.
For the Pelicans, Brandon Ingram has been an All-Star and is playing like one in the playoffs. CJ McCollum has been a 20-point a game scorer for nine consecutive seasons — and has been perhaps the most important trade deadline acquisition this season. Jonas Valanciunas is a rebounding behemoth, and Herbert Jones will make first- or second-team All-Rookie.
Toronto is just a few seasons removed from a championship and some players still remain: VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes was just named Rookie of the Year.
Even short-handed Denver, on the back of All-Star Nikola Jokic, took a game from Golden State before the series ended Wednesday.
And that’s without mentioning the All-NBA players/MVP candidates on the higher seeds.
Coaching and preparation
The league is loaded with good and great coaching, including some underappreciated coaches like Minnesota’s Chris Finch and New Orleans’ Willie Green – both of whom are helping their teams give the top two seeds in the West a difficult series. Nick Nurse won Coach of the Year in 2020, Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer in 2015 and 2019 and Golden State’s Steve Kerr in 2016.
Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra and Phoenix’s Monty Williams are coach of the year finalists this season.
They assemble quality assistants and video coordinator staffs, and preparing for one opponent in a best-of-7 series allows coaches and their staffs ample time to develop game plans that try to expose weaknesses, take advantage of mismatches and utilize the right rotations. It becomes a game within a game.
The NBA will be even better next season. It was difficult to make the playoffs this season and might be even more difficult as teams return healthy players to lineup. Of course, injuries will happen, but …
With Kawhi Leonard (presumably) back alongside a healthier Paul George, the Los Angeles Clippers will be better, and if issues are resolved in Brooklyn, the Nets will be better with Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons alongside Kevin Durant for an entire season.
Shouldn’t the Los Angeles Lakers be better with Anthony Davis and LeBron James? Denver will get Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back next season, and a healthy Cleveland and Chicago won’t falter down the stretch.
Many of the teams at the top aren’t going anywhere: Phoenix, Memphis, Golden State, Miami, Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Dallas will try to get better around Doncic.
A team like Detroit will improve with Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart. Atlanta, with Trae Young, should rebound from a tough season following last season’s Eastern Conference finals appearance.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt