The Biggest Surprises of the 2014 NBA Playoffs so Far

Joshua J Vannuccini@@jjvannucciniSenior Analyst IIIApril 28, 2014

The Biggest Surprises of the 2014 NBA Playoffs so Far

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    What a start to the 2014 NBA Playoffs.

    The first round isn't even over, but we've seen a lion's share of storylines to keep it interesting. With that has come a number of surprises that have kept us on our toes, making us ready for anything to happen.

    Whether it's been the level of competitiveness in the supposedly weak Eastern Conference, the dominant output of a certain player or a total reversal of what we were expecting, the postseason has given us everything.

    But to keep it in perspective, here's the biggest surprises of the NBA playoffs so far.

Honorable Mention: DeAndre Jordan's Free-Throw Shooting

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    DeAndre Jordan is shooting 56 percent from the free-throw line thus far in the postseason (streamers fall from the ceiling).

    After shooting 42.8 percent during the regular season, Jordan seems to have found his stroke at the line. He went 7-of-8 in a 138-98 Game 2 win, and followed that up with a 4-of-9 showing in Game 3.

    Jordan grabbed 22 rebounds that game, so I'll let the sub-.500 conversion rate slide.

    It only gets an honorable mention though, based on the relatively minor impact it has had. 

So Much for Home-Court Advantage

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    Not every team is going to be perfect at home in the postseason, but consecutive losses in your own building spells big trouble.

    The Houston Rockets and the Chicago Bulls did just that, letting two games apiece slip away to the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Wizards respectively.

    A 2-0 hole in the playoffs is deep enough to climb out of, let alone having to now win on the road in your opponent's building where the fans are rabid and hyped at the success of their team.

    Having said that, the Rockets and the Bulls did manage to win on the road but still trail 3-1 in their respective playoff series.

    In addition, the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder were the only teams to win the opener at home. 

    The amount of road wins in the opening games at home isn't too remarkable, considering the relatively even competitive field in each conference. But it is called home-court advantage for a reason.

Teams That Are Forgetting How to Shoot 3-Pointers

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    Sure, there's that thing called defense. But how does a handful of shooter-laden NBA teams shoot below 30 percent from long range in the postseason?

    Below are those teams:

     Regular Season %Playoffs %Differential %
    Memphis Grizzlies35.328.1-7.2
    Houston Rockets35.830.9-4.9
    Toronto Raptors37.227.4-9.8
    Brooklyn Nets36.925.0-11.9
    Oklahoma City Thunder36.125.5-10.6
    Golden State Warriors38.033.0-5.0

    Let's be fair to the Warriors: the Los Angeles Clippers led the league in defending the three-point line during the season, keeping opponents to 33.2 percent. The Grizzlies only made 4.9 threes per game in the regular season, so they might deserve a pass as well.

    But teams like the Thunder and the Rockets find themselves in situations they'd rather avoid, with OKC tied 2-2 against Memphis and Houston down 3-1 against Portland. Both sides' inability to hit their shots can play directly into that.

    The Thunder's central advantage over the Grizzlies is their shooting, as they match up well in every other area. They face potent perimeter defenders like Tony Allen, so it's justified to see their percentage drop. But something has to change four games into the playoff series.

    The same can be said for the Rockets, who have jacked up 27.5 long-range attempts and converted just 8.5 of them. Portland's perimeter defense deserves some credit, but Chandler Parsons (33.3 percent), Patrick Beverley (33.3 percent), James Harden (26.8 percent) and Jeremy Lin (16.7 percent) have all been missing wide-open attempts.

    With the interior dominance of Dwight Howard on display, as he's averaging 27.0 points and 14.3 rebounds, the lack of perimeter scoring has let Houston's postseason hopes slip away.

    Seeing teams shoot a lower percentage is pretty much expected in the playoffs, but some have fallen off the map. This inaccuracy could be higher on the list if this was the regular season, but this is what the postseason is all about.

    Physical, grind-it-out basketball.

The Indiana Pacers' Fall from Grace

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    What happened to Indiana?

    Well, trading veteran and locker-room presence Danny Granger may have had something to do with it. The alleged fight between Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner, per Yahoo! Sports, might as well. Roy Hibbert's "selfish dudes" comment might be too.

    And that might be enough picking at the Indiana Pacers.

    But on a serious note, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference has looked anything but. The Pacers are tied 2-2 with the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks and, much like the Spurs out west, have the potential to face an early exit at the hands of a No. 8 seed.

    Indiana isn't a dominant offensive team, and the defense has been terrific. The Hawks are scoring 93.0 points on 39.1 percent shooting, but they have still managed to outdo the Pacers in two games.

    Indiana finds the offense, outscores and defends Atlanta and wins one game, but it fails to carry that consistency into the next game (specifically Games 2 and 3).

    It took a couple of key plays for the Pacers to net Game 4, with the Hawks committing a number of turnovers down the stretch. To be fair, Indiana is forcing Atlanta into those situations and capitalizing on them.

    But it's still underwhelming to see such a dominant team fall apart. It has been surprising to see the Pacers struggle, despite their late season drop-off.

    The possibility of it happening was looked at more as a worst-case scenario, instead of a viable reality. It'd be much higher normally, but Indiana's play over the past few months has it right where it should be in the ranking.

The Washington Wizards Lead 3-1 Against the Chicago Bulls

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    Oh Derrick Rose, where art thou?

    The Chicago Bulls were meant to challenge anyone in the postseason, but they have fallen short of expectations. It remains to be seen whether that says less for this group or more for the up-and-coming Washington Wizards.

    Probably the latter.

    John Wall and Co. have felt the impact of the Bulls' defense to an extent, but are still shooting 46.3 percent as a team thus far. Bradley Beal's 21.3 points and 2.3 three-pointers per game have led the way for Washington, combined with the terrific play of Wall, Nene and Trevor Ariza.

    Chicago doesn't have the offensive weapons Washington does, which has really been the turning point in the series. 

    Even so, it's been surprising to see the Wizards jump out to a 3-1 lead. The Bulls were meant to be the team no one wanted to face in the playoffs, but have been outplayed in crucial moments.

    The final score of each game has come within single digits, with Chicago needing an 8-of-10 three-point shooting performance en route to 35 points from Mike Dunleavy to net a win. 

    Even so, few expected the Wizards to be leading the series, let alone this early on. Of the 19 ESPN Expert Picks, just one predicted Washington would outdo Chicago. The chances are undoubtedly in Washington's favor, and it'll likely mean an early exit for the Bulls. 

Dallas Mavericks Lead 2-1 Against the San Antonio Spurs

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    In the 2007 NBA playoffs, the No. 1 seeded 67-win Dallas Mavericks lost to the 42-40 No. 8 seeded Golden State Warriors in six games.

    In the 2011 NBA playoffs, the No. 1 seeded 61-win San Antonio Spurs lost to the 46-36 No. 8 seeded Memphis Grizzlies in six games.

    See what I'm getting at? If not, I'll lay it out.

    There hasn't been too many occurrences in NBA history where the No. 8 seeded team has knocked off the No. 1 seed. The Mavs and the Spurs were two teams to fall victim in recent seasons, and it may very well happen again.

    Only, Dallas is on the other side of the fence. And San Antonio is in the same paddock.

    The Mavericks holds a 2-1 series lead over the Spurs, after two consecutive morally damaging losses for San Antonio. If a 113-92 blowout defeat in Game 2 wasn't enough, the Mavs dealt a mighty blow with Vince Carter's game-winning three-point jumper in the closing seconds of Game 3.

    San Antonio's defense hasn't been itself, allowing 102.3 points up from 97.6 points during the regular season. The Spurs have kept Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis to 39.1 percent 42.9 percent shooting respectively, but it hasn't been enough.

    Dallas only just snuck into the postseason as well, edging the Phoenix Suns by .013 in terms of winning percentage.

    And with another game in Dallas, it'll be even tougher for the Spurs to come back and even the series. But hey, if any team can do it, it's San Antonio.

    But it's definitely been a surprise to see them down this early.

Damian Lillard Has Well and Truly Exceeded Expectations

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    This is meant to be Damian Lillard's first taste of the postseason. But you wouldn't be able to tell watching him play.

    In his very first playoff game, he dropped 31 points and nine rebounds in a rowdy Toyota Center against the Houston Rockets. And then, with teammate LaMarcus Aldridge fouled out of the game, Lillard proceeded to convert a pair of free throws with 17 seconds remaining to give his team the lead.

    Lillard is mature beyond his years, playing like a veteran thus far. He's averaging 25.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists in four games, up from 20.7 points and 5.6 assists in the regular season.

    Houston's defensive guard in Patrick Beverley hasn't been able to slow him down, save for a 3-of-14 shooting performance in Game 2. It is wasn't for that bout of inaccuracy, Lillard would be shooting 49.9 percent from the field and 54.7 percent on threes for the series.

    For the record, he's still shooting 43.5 percent and 48.3 percent from the field and from three respectively.

    The point guard was named an All-Star this season, so it isn't surprising to see Lillard play this well on that front. But it is relatively spectacular considering it's his first playoff series and just his second NBA season overall. 

    Depending on how the postseason plays out, Lillard has the chance to climb to the plateau that is reserved for NBA superstars. He still needs to face some veteran competition to be truly tested. But heck, he's already playing like it and we're still in the first round.

The Offense of LaMarcus Aldridge

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    Wow, talk about dominant.

    The Portland Trail Blazers haven't made it past the first round of the playoffs since the 1999-00 season, and LaMarcus Aldridge has looked to end that streak.

    The big man dropped 46 points in Game 1, then proceeded to score 43 points in Game 2 to steal home-court advantage away from the Houston Rockets. Aldridge's combination of smooth post skills, length and silky high-release jumper have proved too much for the opposing defense.

    Even with Dwight Howard and Omer Asik down low, the power forward has bested the strength and size of both to be utterly potent on the offensive end.

    Per, Aldridge became just the third player in NBA playoff history to put in 40 points or more on the road in Games 1 and 2 of a playoff series. The other two players? Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady.

    After netting the Blazers a pivotal Game 4 at home, Aldridge is averaging an NBA-high 35.3 points and 11.3 rebounds on 52.9 percent shooting.

    He also had key blocks down the stretch, including the rejection of James Harden's layup that would have given the Rockets the lead with nine seconds remaining in regulation.

    It isn't a sure thing just yet, but Portland's comfortable 3-1 series lead against Houston is big enough to assume it'll advance to the second round. The Blazers will face either the San Antonio Spurs or the Dallas Mavericks, and you can bet Aldridge will look to continue his offensive dominance.

    In any case, Aldridge's offensive brilliance thus far has been unpredictable. But, he's expected to play at a high level to keep his team competitive as an All-Star forward, so it isn't overwhelmingly startling and therefore limits his placing in these rankings.

    But to make history? That's hardly on a to-do list.

The Emergence of Troy Daniels

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    Who is Troy Daniels?

    That was the question on everyone's mind when he checked into the ballgame, late in the first quarter of Game 3 in Portland. The little-used rookie guard played in only five regular season games for the Rockets this season, but head coach Kevin McHale will be kicking himself for not using him more.

    It's hard to predict what could have happened when the Rockets dropped the first two games at home to the Portland Trail Blazers, but Daniels' play the past two games has been huge.

    Not only did he knock down a huge three in the waning seconds of Game 3, but he dropped 17 points in Game 4 to keep his team in the game.

    Daniels also calmly drained three free-throw attempts with eight seconds remaining, pulling Houston within one point in what would be an eventual loss to put Portland up 3-1 in the series.

    It shouldn't come as a total surprise though, as Daniels went off for 22 points (6-of-11 three-point shooting) in 44 minutes in the final game of Houston's season. 

    But even considering that lone performance, he has come through again and again in the clutch for a Rockets team that has desperately needed another option. Free throws, three pointers, it hasn't mattered.

    Combine that with his relative obscurity as an NBA player, and Daniels has net the top spot on our list. Aldridge's scoring was absolutely dominant, but he's been expected to step up and dominate as his team's star player.

    Daniels, on the other hand, was a total unknown coming into the postseason. To make such an impact for his team on the NBA's biggest stage as a rookie, now that's surprising.