John Frascella's biggest NBA Playoff takeaways so far
Like many of you, I stayed up until 1:30 a.m. EST watching basketball last night. And yes, this happens to me every freakin' year.
How could I go to sleep on a night headlined by Ja Morant, Chris Paul and Karl-Anthony Towns? It was a wild night in the NBA Playoffs, indeed. Let's get into some key observations and potentially controversial hot takes:
1. Ja Morant just might be the best basketball player in the universe.
The Grizzlies just keep falling behind. And who are they, really? You, casual basketball fan... how much do you really know about Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke? Have you been keeping up on Xavier Tillman and Ziaire Williams, lately?
I'm sure these names would be far more likely to ring a bell: D'Angelo Russell (former No. 2 overall selection in the NBA Draft), Anthony Edwards (former No. 1 overall pick) and the aforementioned Karl-Anthony Towns (actually the No. 1 overall pick in Russell's draft class). Veteran Patrick Beverley is known for his defense and bizarre antics, too.
And yet, these "unknown" Grizzlies went 56-26 in the regular season, while the "known" Wolves won just 46. This is a 2 vs. 7 matchup, and now the higher-seeded Grizz are up 3-2 in the best of 7. So how, exactly, did we get here? Two words:
Just take a second to take in this dunk right here.
Like... huh?? And kid has been doin' shit like this all season. And to be honest, it's not even about "name" players or dunks or highlight reels. It's simply about the fact that Morant can control an entire game on both ends of the floor. Last night, in what was very close to a must-win, he flourished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and three steals. The Grizzlies fell behind again (as I had mentioned earlier), and Ja's all-around dominance pulled them up from the pit.
Just everything about him clicks as a potential "best player in the world". Cool name. Cool look. Absolutely insane athletic ability. Truly bonkers technical basketball skills on both ends of the floor. And the kid is still just 22 years of age.
What do you say when "the sky is the limit" isn't enough?
2. The Minnesota Timberwolves are the most underrated team in the NBA.
Sure, I just went to lengths to explain how and why they are trailing the Grizzlies 3-2 in their opening round playoff series, but... these young Wolves are f'n good. These ain't the same old, disappointing Wolves.
"KAT" is still just 26 years of age. "DLo" is also still just 26. Edwards is a baby; 20 years old! And don't forget promising forwards Jarred Vanderbilt (23) and Jaden McDaniels (another baby, 21). Minnesota is absolutely building something, here.
I haven't gotten into my official rankings yet, but seeing what I've seen this postseason, Edwards already looks like a top 20-25 player in the game. Towns was already top 10-15, depending on your own personal opinion of him.
And speaking of Towns, this has been a breakout postseason for him. In his first go-around, back in 2017-18, his Wolves got crushed by Chris Paul, James Harden and the then-interesting Rockets. Charles Barkley famously ripped into Towns for his exceedingly underwhelming postseason performance. Then, the Wolves missed the playoffs in 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-21. Bad taste in Towns' mouth? Long "playoff hangover"?
Happy to see him back now, with a better team. 28 and 12 in Game 5, 33 and 14 in Game 4, 15 and 11 in Game 2 and 29 and 13 in Game 1. Much, much better. And this on the heels of an all-time dud, 3-of-11 and fouling out in the pressure-packed playin game against Paul George and his Clips. I've been impressed by the way he's bounced back from that disaster on a national stage.
These young Wolves aren't done, yet. Though, for now, I would prefer to see the Grizz vs. the Warriors in Round 2.
3. Wait... Trae Young is NOT clutch??
Flash back a year and Trae Young was the Toast of the Town. Flashy, brash, making big shots in the playoffs. He was livin' that Miller High Life.
Quick cut to the present:
1-of-12 in Game 1 @ the Heat (loss). 3-of-11 in Game 4 (loss). 2-of-12 in Game 5 (loss, ousted from playoffs).
Tough one to call, really. The Heat are a different animal. From what I've seen, the best defensive teams in the NBA are the Heat, Celtics and Suns. When the Warriors try on D, they are probably No. 4. As for Miami, the plan was simple: consistently double Trae because we aren't afraid of anyone else on Atlanta's roster. Clint Capela, John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanovic were all dealing with various degrees of injuries. Lou Williams, a savvy playoff vet, was also out. So Spo and Pat Riley were smart, as always. Just make someone else beat us. Trae wasn't able to thrive out of the double team, at all. It was just plain ugly out there.
4. Speaking of "making somebody else beat us"... did DeAndre Hunter just announce himself as a rising star?
Just 24 years of age, DeAndre Hunter went 9-of-13 for 24 points in Game 4 against that tenacious Miami D. In the series-concluding Game 5 he one-upped himself with the best game of his career, 11-of-21 for 35 points, 11 rebounds, 3 threes and 3 steals. And this was particularly difficult to do while Trae was deferring to him and showing zero confidence.
Atlanta's gonna need this next year. They need players "three" and "four" with Trae and Hunter, too. Yeah, they made the playoffs, but this current roster construction isn't much of a threat right now. Everything changes a bit if Hunter continues this level of play next season.
5. CJ McCollum has never actually passed a basketball.
Look, I'm the first one for aggression out there on the court. Go after it! Shoot your shot! Be in attack mode blah, blah blah. But CJ McCollum truly takes all this to a completely different level.
Have you been watching the Pelicans play? At least Brandon Ingram tries to involve his teammates in the pick and roll. McCollum went just 7-of-22 in last night's ugly loss to Phoenix, and I'm pretty sure he took a shot every single time he touched the ball. He's been a difference maker for the Pelicans in general, but the playoffs are a whole 'nother animal. You gotta trust your teammates and keep them involved. Especially when you are a player like McCollum who breaks down the opposing D off high screens.
Jonas Valanciunas was 7-of-11. He is consistently a monster, to me. McCollum has to make a concerted effort to keep "Big V" fed and involved. The Suns play much better basketball as a team. The Pelicans simply won't be able to win 2 in a row with McCollum playing totally selfish Iverson ball.
6. Chris Paul continues to be the most polarizing postseason player of all time.
Here's a playoff comparison to Tony Parker, Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups and Steve Nash. Out of that group, in the playoffs, he's first in points per game and first in field goal percentage. He's second in assists per game. Basically, he blows everybody out of the water on paper.
But of course, That Ring is still missing. This year, he's doing a helluva job against a hungry Pelicans team in the absence of young superstar Devin Booker. Paul's teams take on his personality. The Suns are pesky and relentless on D. Offensively, they share the ball and play for each other. I actually think CP3 is one of the most underrated professional athletes of all time. I hope he gets That Ring this season.
7. Dillon Brooks had basically the worst game I've ever seen... yet the Grizz still won.
I like Dillon Brooks! He's a tough guy. He gets after it and competes.
But... 3-of-18 from the floor in 35 minutes of play? Are you kidding me, man? And in a deadlocked 2-2 series??
But hey, ya gotta give the kid credit, he certainly didn't stop shooting. This probably came from Morant and impressive head coach Taylor Jenkins. You've been doing it for us all year. Just keep shooting. We believe in you.
And yeah, he kept shooting, then Morant, Desmond Bane (25 points, 3 blocks, 2 steals) and Brandon Clarke bailed him out (21 points and 15 explosive rebounds). That's what teammates are for, I suppose. Just wanted to point out how bad the struggle was for Brooks. In both the 2nd and 3rd quarters, you could see him struggling with his shot, mentally. He was "pulling the string." I would have been out there telling him to "shoot through" the ball! Don't baby it, kid.
Morant vs. Steph Curry... here we come???
John Frascella is a published sports author and Senior Writer for Aaron Torres Online. Follow him on Twitter @LegendSports7 for all things basketball, baseball and football.
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