NBA Playoffs 2019: Winners and losers from the postseason so far, from Kawhi Leonard to the disappointing Celtics
The second round isn't over yet, but some clear winners and losers have already emerged
Everyone who makes the NBA postseason is a winner. To not only be playing in the most competitive basketball league in the world, but also to make it through the grind of the regular season to be one of the final 16 is an accomplishment, no matter how you look at it. But, once we get to the postseason and the stakes are higher, clear winners and losers emerge due to surprising and sometimes disappointing performances.
The best part about the playoffs is that it can make or break a player's reputation. We throw regular-season performance out the window in the most extreme version of "what have you done for me lately?" It's not always fair, but it's what makes the postseason so exciting.
Here's a look at some of the biggest winners and losers of the postseason so far, with the obvious caveat that things can change for the players and teams still alive.
Winner: Kawhi Leonard
After he missed last postseason, perhaps some people forgot just how good Kawhi Leonard was. They certainly know now. Showing absolutely no negative signs from his mysterious quad injury, Leonard has put on a show throughout the postseason, at times appearing to single-handedly propel the Raptors to victory on both ends of the floor. He's been by far the best player on the floor in the Philadelphia series with his clutch heroics, and he's giving Kevin Durant a run for his money as the best player in the postseason so far. Kawhi may be shedding his title as the best "two-way" player in the league and heading straight for the best player, period.
Winner: Damian Lillard
Sure his team may not make it out of the second round, but we can't forget how many people picked Lillard and the Trail Blazers to lose to OKC in the first round after the season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic. Not only did Lillard lead the Blazers to a five-game victory, but he sent the Thunder home in perhaps the most savage way possible: waving goodbye to them after drilling a walk-off 37-footer. No matter how the Portland-Denver series plays out, Lillard has opened the eyes of any NBA fans who may have been sleeping on his incredible talent.
Loser: Russell Westbrook
Ugh. It's so difficult to fault someone who plays as hard as Westbrook, but this was another ugly, short postseason run for the OKC point guard. He shot an abysmal 36 percent from the field, with many of his misses coming around the rim and on pull-up jumpers -- for all the flak he gets for his 3-point shooting, he actually shot nearly as poorly on 2-pointers (.377) as he did on 3s (.324) in the five-game series loss. Westbrook's true shooting percentage (46.6) was sixth worst among all postseason players who have logged more than 30 minutes per game, and his performance resurfaced all the questions about whether he can lead a team to playoff success in a post-Kevin Durant world in OKC.
Winner: Nikola Jokic
The main knock on the Nuggets as they vacillated all season between the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the Western Conference was that eventually, when it mattered, Nikola Jokic would be a liability. His skill-set wouldn't translate to the postseason. He would be a defensive disaster. His conditioning wouldn't stand up to the brutal intensity of his first NBA playoffs. Jokic had one thing to say to that:
All he's done is nearly average a triple-double while leading his team to within one game of the conference finals. And he's accompished it all without changing his unorthodox game one iota. Jokic looks like a force to be reckoned with for years to come, and this postseason has put him on the national stage.
Loser: Joel Embiid
Call it the bad knee, the illness or a bad fit with his teammates, but Embiid has been anything but the dominant force we expected to see this postseason, particularly in the second round. The Raptors have pretty much nullified Embiid, whose brilliant Game 3 performance only further highlights the severity of his duds in the other games of this series. He's clearly still capable of being one of the best in the game, but putting up 16, 12, 11 and 13 points in four playoff games just isn't going to cut it. Embiid's second-round flop has only resurfaced health questions that he seemed to have already put behind him.
Loser: Ben Simmons
If Embiid is a loser of this postseason, we need to come up with a harsher term for Simmons. The second-year All-Star has been largely a non-factor against the Raptors in the second round, averaging fewer than 10 points and five assists per game after averaging just under 17 points and eight assists during the regular season. But more than the stats, Simmons just looks lost out there. Outside of transition, where he continues to be a major threat, Simmons has yet to find any sort of presence in the half-court, and has been largely nullified by Kawhi Leonard's defense. It's one of those postseasons that has to make the Sixers think long and hard about how to better maximize their young weapon.
Winner: Jamal Murray
Murray came into the his first postseason with the reputation of a streaky player -- capable of putting up 40 points one night and four the next -- and he pretty much lived up to that characterization in his first few games. In the conference semifinals against the Blazers, however, Murray stepped up when it mattered most. He was brilliant in the epic, quadruple-overtime Game 3 that ended up in a Nuggets loss, but even more impressive was his 34-point display in a crucial Denver Game 4 win, perhaps saving the team's season with his heroics. There were a lot of questions about Murray's status as a No. 2 to Jokic on a young, potential-filled Nuggets team moving forward, but this postseason he's proven that he's certainly on the right trajectory.
Winner: Enes Kanter
For a man whose lasting postseason legacy was his former head coach visibly telling his assistants that he couldn't play him, Kanter has done quite well to change his reputation this time around with Portland. Kanter hasn't been brilliant defensively, but he's done well enough to make his scoring and rebounding contributions a net positive, all while playing through a bad shoulder injury. Kanter kept the Trail Blazers afloat despite the loss of Nurkic, and likely impressed people around the league enough to earn himself a nice contract this summer as a free agent.
Loser: Boston Celtics
A potential 60-win team quickly devolved into a deleted scene from "Mean Girls," as the Celtics' bickering and public undermining of teammates led to a disappointing regular season. But still, all that could have been forgotten with a strong postseason. After sweeping an undermanned Pacers team in the first round and putting an absolute throttling on the Bucks in Game 1, the Celtics lost four straight games for about as inauspicious an ending as any of us could have imagined. The disappointment also has ripple effects for the future of the franchise, as now the departure of Kyrie Irving this summer seems more likely, which could cause a potential deal for Anthony Davis to be put on hold. There were a lot of losers this postseason, but the Celtics may have taken the hardest hit.
Winner: Los Angeles Clippers
The scrappy franchise that has shown four star players the door over the past few seasons continued to thrive with heart, discipline and a cold-blooded assassin named Lou Williams. Under the leadership of Doc Rivers, the Clippers' six-game showing against the defending champs, including two stunning wins at Oracle Arena, helped position them as one of the most promising organizations in the NBA. And with plenty of cap space this summer, they may have piqued the interest of some key free agents and set themselves up to be a real threat in years to come.
Loser: NBA officials
It happens every postseason, but after Warriors-Rockets Game 1 and Celtics-Bucks Game 3, the refs have taken their fair share of criticism for the way they've called playoff games. With James Harden falling on every 3-point attempt and Giannis Antetokounmpo barreling into the lane on nearly every possession, the officials' job has been particularly difficult, and they've caught significant flak for it.
In case there were still any holdouts in the "anti-analytics" crowd, they must have been persuaded by two of the postseason's most successful teams so far: the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks. From roster construction to style and pace of play, both Houston and Milwaukee have maximized the talents of their other-worldly superstars to turn into playoff juggernauts. Ultimately, of course, you still need top-tier talent to win, but being smart about the rest of it (in contrast to a team like Philly, which seemed to just gather as much talent as possible regardless of fit) has proven to be successful.
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