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NBA Playoffs: What We Learned From First-Round Exits

Postseason Full of Early Surprises

The first round of the NBA playoffs was one of the most surprising editions in recent memory. For the sixth time, a No. 8 seed took down a No. 1 seed in the first round. The Miami Heat became the first Play-In Tournament team to win a playoff series. This is also the first time the playoffs featured one of every numbered seed in the second round.

The NBA title odds are becoming quite unpredictable with six teams at +900 or less. How did we get to this point? Several contenders bowed out early. What did we learn from the first-round exits in the 2023 NBA Playoffs?

NBA Playoffs: What We Learned From First-Round Exits
Jimmy Butler #22 of the Miami Heat - Elsa/Getty Images/AFP

The No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks losing in a gentleman’s sweep (five games) against the Heat was the shocking upset of the first round. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed Games 2 and 3 with a back injury, but Miami was without one of its leading scorers, guard Tyler Herro, for four games. The Bucks were tabbed by many NBA expert picks as one of the top two favorites to win the NBA title. What went wrong?

We could pick apart Milwaukee’s roster, like the need for more guard scoring or an improved bench. The root of its first-round exit was coach Mike Budenholzer. In-game adjustments throughout the series were lacking. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra thoroughly outcoached Budenholzer. The final seconds of Game 5 say enough. Miami’s lob play to guard Jimmy Butler to tie the game fooled Milwaukee, and Budenholzer opted to not call a timeout following the bucket. Should the Bucks consider firing Budenholzer?

Cleveland Far From Competing

The Cleveland Cavaliers were a feel-good story in the 2022 season after an improbable turnaround. After acquiring four-time All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell in the offseason, it seemed Cleveland was approaching contender status. The Cavs had a solid season with a 51-31 record, earning a fourth seed. They were still a rung below the Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. However, most NBA predictions expected Cleveland to at least win the first round of the playoffs.

The Cavaliers were dominated in five games by the New York Knicks. This series was a harsh reality check for Cleveland. The Cavs are still far away from competing for a title. Their lack of experience showed, and the roster has problems that must be addressed, like rebounding, wing scoring and bench play.

Gobert Trade Will Haunt Minnesota

Following the 2022 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded guards Malik Beasley and Patrick Beverly, wings Leandro Bolmaro and Jarred Vanderbilt, rookie center Walker Kessler and four first-round picks for the Utah Jazz’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year, center Rudy Gobert. The trade immediately drew strong reactions. Utah pulled off a king’s ransom, and Gobert’s fit in Minnesota seemed strange.

The Timberwolves nearly missed the playoffs but snuck in as a No. 8 seed after beating the New Orleans Pelicans in the Play-In Tournament. Minnesota was trounced in five games by the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets. The T-Wolves were lucky to even win one game. This was not a surprise as NBA picks heavily favored the Nuggets. The Gobert trade could haunt Minnesota for years to come. The Timberwolves have gone all-in on winning now, yet they cannot get past the first round.

Clippers Will Never Be Healthy

After a surprising 115-110 Game 1 win over the Phoenix Suns, the Los Angeles Clippers were creating a buzz. They were without Paul George and managed to beat one of the sportsbook’s title favorites. Apparently, no one learned their lesson. The Clippers were quickly drawing championship hype after one game. It seemed Los Angeles would be without George for the entire series, and it has yet to find success in the postseason.

Phoenix silenced the buzz and won in five games. The Clips also discovered that Kawhi Leonard tore his MCL after Game 2. Once again, George and Leonard could not stay healthy. The two have played in 24 playoff games together with a 13-11 record. Let’s give the Los Angeles Clippers hype a rest next season. It’s the same story every year.

Kings Prove Their Worth

Most of what we learned was negative, which is not surprising. Losing rarely draws positive reactions. The Sacramento Kings are the exception. They went toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors in the first round. Losing Game 7 at home was disappointing, but this team is not going away anytime soon.

Guard De’Aaron Fox averaged over 27 points during the seven-game series. Guard Malik Monk delivered two performances with at least 28 points. Rookie forward Keegan Murray shined in Game 4 with 23 points. There was plenty for which to be proud. Sacramento did not play to its potential either, as forward Domantas Sabonis and guard Kevin Huerter were up-and-down throughout the series. NBA odds will likely expect another postseason berth from the Kings next season.

Now, it’s time to fully transition to the second round, as the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors will tip off Game 1 on Tuesday night. The NBA playoffs will deliver plenty of valuable lessons in the next month of play.

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