The first two days of festivities are in the books, with each first-round matchup in the 2014 NBA Playoffs officially entering the past tense and making the transition to “already played.” This is awesome, because for the next month and a half, the National Basketball Association is going to plaid. Or, at least, into the intensity of a “win or go home” scenario that is markedly missing during the end of the regular season.
All that said, there are some players who are remarkably good at performing when the pressure’s highest (viva Robert Horry!), and each new iteration of the playoffs creates new opportunities for reputations to be bolstered or tarnished, depending on how well a player adjusts to the challenge. DeMar DeRozan, of the Toronto Raptors, had a really bad night in his first postseason game, going 3-13. That’s not awesome, and clearly the Raptors need him to play better in the future — they lost, obviously.
There are other players, though, that put on performances that bring to light the fact that basketball is a pretty awesome spectacle beyond the sport and beyond the scoreboard. The ones that make what is an absurd athletic feat look as natural and as easy as breathing. Here are eight of those players.
1 and 2. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Seventy-seven points and 27 rebounds. A comeback that forced overtime. The first teammates to go for 45 and 30 since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Point guard Damian Lillard, playing in his first post-season appearance, and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge both put on performances that left the Houston Rockets, the ostensible favorites in this series, gasping for air.
Sort of. The game was sloppy, and fans of both teams can lodge legitimate complaints about the refereeing. Any game that features four players (Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, and Robin Lopez) fouling out and almost 80 free throws is not going to be the most effortlessly watchable game in the playoffs. Watching Aldridge take it to the proverbial next level was impressive regardless, and Lillard’s late-game effort helped the Blazers erase a fourth-quarter deficit and bring about overtime. Check out some highlights below:
3. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
No, DeAndre Jordan can’t shoot free throws. He’s never been able to, he’ll probably never be able to, but he hit both down the stretch after the Golden State Warriors intentionally hacked him — so there’s that. No one watches DeAndre for his free throws.
Taking a cursory look at Saturday’s box score, Jordan finished with 11 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots. He was 4-5 from the field, 3-8 from the free-throw line (even after those two clutch shots, he’s still awful at them), and the Clippers lost, although that had very little to do with DeAndre’s play.
Jordan might be the most athletic player in the postseason, an impressive accomplishment in the NBA, where everyone is in the sub-1 percent of genetic superstardom anyway. The Clippers’ Lob City moniker has faded, but the fact is that on any given play, a cross-court pass could turn into a flying slam, and that’s awesome. They can also work the lob in the half-court, too, even when the pass comes from L.A. newcomer Glen Davis:
4. Paul Pierce, Brooklyn Nets
When the Boston Celtics sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets for an army of draft picks and Gerald Wallace’s albatross of a contract, the implication was clear — the Nets are going to try and win a championship, the Celtics are going to rebuild, and Pierce and KG should be winning rings, not coasting through a 25-win season.
As Pierce continued to bury jumpers in the final fourth-quarter minutes of the Nets-Raptors game on Saturday, it looked more and more like the right move for both teams. “I don’t get rattled in the fourth quarters, down the stretch of playoff settings,” Pierce told reporters after the game. “I just try to stay calm, bring my calmness to the game, and just try to influence the rest of the guys.” By the end of this series, Pierce will have played in at least 140 playoff games. Watch the scores and the time left during this highlight reel, and decide for yourself if Pierce is staying calm.
5 and 6. John Wall and Nene Hilario, Washington Wizards
Nene Hilario is what makes the Washington Wizards a good team. While John Wall is the undisputed motor behind the playoff-starved franchise, which is making an appearance in the postseason for the first time since 2008, the Wizards are merely “all right” when they don’t have the 31-year-old Brazilian power forward banging down low. That’s a problem, since Nene has only stayed healthy enough to play all 82 games in a season once. That’s once over a 13-season career.
He was only healthy enough to start in 37 of the Wizard’s games this year, and he wasn’t close to a sure thing going into the playoffs. As of one game in, in which the Wizards dispatched the Bulls, 102-93, the forward looked healthy, dropping in 24 points and contributing heavily to the offense with his passing. On the other hand, Wall ended up with 16 points, and a hard-earned 8-10 from the charity stripe made up for his 4-14 shooting from the field.
Make no mistake, though, Wall is still fast. So fast. Getting his first points after grabbing his own offensive board, Wall focused on getting his teammates involved, finishing with 6 assists. Below are highlights from Nene and Wall, and there’s some really impressive play in there (especially when you consider this is all happening against Chicago’s defense).
7 and 8. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
There’s no better show in the NBA than the Oklahoma City Thunder when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who comprise the two-headed giant of OKC’s offense, are both making baskets and playing well. When they’re not, it’s easy to watch the team and determine that Scott Brooks needs to add a few more wrinkles to his offense. But that’s not what happened in Game 1. KD went for 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists, while Westbrook barely missed a triple-double as he notched 23-9-10. The Thunder also won the game, so that effort wasn’t wasted.
About one minute into the clip below, there’s an example of what makes the two so good together. Westbrook snags an errant defensive rebound then almost immediately flips it ahead, over a pair of hapless Grizzlies, to an in-stride Durant, who finishes with a slam. Immediately after that, there’s a Durant-to-Westbrook 2-on-1 that ends with a finger-roll layup and a sad-looking Memphis team. The playoffs are awesome.