The NBA Playoffs Are Already Living Up to the Hype

People expected a wild tournament. The opening games alone proved it.

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks is injured during Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Miami Heat at Fiserv Forum on April 16, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
And down goes Giannis — and his one-seeded Bucks.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Last Friday we wrote about the inescapable fact that outcomes for the NBA Playoffs in 2023 were “wide open” with possibilities, making the tournament much more compelling than it has been during various superteam eras of recent memory. Then Saturday and Sunday came and went, and just about all the opening games supported that perspective. Professional basketball fans could be in for something special this year, folks.

OK, so there’s still the chance that ultimately we’ll get the two number-one seeds from their respective conferences in the Finals, and one of them will sweep the other with an average victory margin of 44 points or something.

But we doubt that — and with good reason.

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First and foremost, half of the opening round games ended with a lower seed claiming victory. The Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers all stole a crucial contest on the road. Another Game 1 saw a prohibitive underdog, the Sacramento Kings, take down the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors.

Still think that’s not that big of a deal? Well, across all of NBA playoff history, about three quarters of the teams that capture the first game in a series have gone on to win it. So there’s a good chance we’ll see most, if not all, of those upset-minded teams advance.

Two of those series could be decided by significant injuries to major players. Though the Milwaukee Bucks entered the NBA playoffs as the overall favorite to win the championship, they not only lost Game 1 to the eighth-seeded Heat — who actually lost their first play-in game and squeaked into the playoffs with a home victory against the below-.500 Chicago Bulls — they lost by far their best player to injury. On a first-quarter drive to the basket, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ two-time MVP forward, fell hard on his backside and eventually left the game with what’s been diagnosed as a “back contusion.”

“There was an X-ray that was clear here,” the team’s head coach, Mike Budenholzer, said after the game. He was non-committal on the subject of a Game 2 start, saying, “[We’ve] just got to take it day by day, see how he’s doing and see how he feels.”

It was an ugly fall and, especially with players of his size, back injuries of any sort are a serious concern. Fortunately for the Bucks, the Heat have injury concerns of their own, albeit with a player of somewhat lesser significance — all due respect. Guard Tyler Herro broke his right hand while diving for a loose ball around mid-court during the second quarter. Grimacing in pain, he stayed on the floor and even attempted a three-point shot. But after missing it and getting examined, the Heat announced at halftime he would not return to the game. After the Heat win, Herro was seen with a cast on the hand.

While not a league MVP candidate like Antetokounmpo, Herro averaged more than 20 points per game this season for the Heat and, according to ESPN, tied for the team lead in usage rate with six-time All-Star Jimmy Butler.

“You can’t fully make up what Tyler has been for our team all year long, but guys got to step up, including myself,” Butler said after the game. “It’s like all hands on deck at all times, now more than ever.”

The Memphis Grizzlies are going to need guys to step up, too, after Ja Morant fell awkwardly on his hand during a fourth-quarter drive to the rim against the Lakers. He left the contest in agony and told reporters post-game that he’s “in a good bit of pain.”

What was in some ways more difficult to watch than Morant’s fall on the court was his demeanor off it after the game. The superstar has openly discussed his struggles with mental health, which may have played a role in a number of troubling incidents this past year that include violent encounters. He’s been sued by a teenager who said Morant threatened him with a gun, and this past week Morant countersued the boy for slander among other charges. The NBA also suspended him for eight games after brandishing a gun in a social media post.

Seemingly fighting back tears, uncertain as to whether or not he’ll be able to play again this season, he told reporters in front of his locker last night, “It’s just one thing after another.”

When Morant does not play, the Grizzlies are about a .500 team. With him in the lineup they were as good as any other squad in the Western Conference this past regular season, so if he can’t go, the Lakers will be heavily favored to advance.

The team that finished one spot behind the Grizzlies in the regular season conference standings weren’t given much of a chance to go very far in the playoffs, despite their health and higher-seed status. But the Sacramento Kings apparently came to play, and edged-out the Golden State Warriors in a three-point Game 1 win at home.

“Seventeen years have passed since Sacramento last played postseason basketball, which was the longest active drought in North American professional sports,” The Ringer wrote today. “Since the team’s last playoff berth, in 2006, the United States has experienced four presidential cycles, two recessions, and a pandemic. Along the way, the team’s zealous fans have endured poor play, ownership changes, and the lingering threat of the only professional team in the area leaving for good.”

The Kings’ victory over the Warriors, The Ringer added, was “a statement” saying that “it’s time to take Kings basketball seriously again, during this run and beyond.”

The Kings still have home-court advantage and an excited fan base highly motivated to see the now-iconic purple light beam vault to the heavens above the arena after some more playoff wins. But the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns, both of which are star-powered squads, just lost home-court advantage with their respective Game 1 losses to the Knicks and Clippers, two more teams looking to reverse longstanding trends of playoff futility. If they make it all the way to the NBA Finals two months from now and ensure fans that they will witness a five-seed lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time, that would be pretty surprising.

But shocking? The way the playoff picture looked coming into the weekend, with at-best hazy predictions, and considering the unlikely results so far? No way.

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