Since this is the first time that the playoffs have taken place without LeBron James since 2004, that means that this year will be the first time we do not see James in the Finals since 2010. Because of this, this years playoff field feels wide open and would likely feature multiple contending teams if not for the Golden State Warriors, who will likely cause Thanos-scale destruction with their five All-Stars. With that being said, the opening weekend to the postseason was full of great games and surprises, here are the two biggest upsets and what they mean going forward.
On Saturday afternoon, the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets stunned the third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, defeating them 111-102. Led by Most Improved Player of The Year candidate D’Angelo Russell and his 26 points, he was able to overcome some early shooting woes and dominate in the second half, going 7/10 with 20 points to help seal the win. The Nets controlled this game more than the final score reflects. After racing out to a 17-point lead in the first half, the Philly faithful began to poor down boos directed at their own team throughout the rest of the game.
As for the Sixers, although it is just one game in a seven game series, the momentum in this series is already starting to turn out of their favor. Ben Simmons’ inability and utter refusal to even attempt jump shots continues to be an issue for Philadelphia in the postseason. Much like the Celtics did in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year, Brooklyn just sagged off of Simmons on defense closing both the paint and his passing lanes. This strategy rendered Simmons ineffective as both a facilitator and a scorer, as he was held to just nine points and three assists. The future looks even bleaker for the Sixers once you consider Joel Embiid’s injury. Embiid was a last-second game time decision to play, but clearly was not himself, as he struggled to get up and down the court and settled for too many jump shots. The Sixers were not the only Eastern Conference power to fall however, as the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic got the 104-101 road win over the second-seeded Toronto Raptors. In one of the weirder stories of the season, the Magic were led by career journeyman point guard DJ Augustin. His name may be familiar to some, as he was the starting point guard for the Charlotte Bobcats during their infamous 7-59 season. However, Augustin played like an All-Star on Saturday, finishing with 25 points and six assists. Augustin stepped up in the clutch, scoring the last five points for Orlando, none bigger than the three-point bomb he made with five seconds left to seal the victory. The momentum continues for the Magic, who have had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference since the All-Star break and have boasted the league’s best defense during that time as well.
Despite the calming presence of an NBA Champion and a Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard, the demons of previous playoff struggles once again came back to haunt the Raptors, as they are now 2-14 in game ones in their history. With that being said, it was not for a lack of effort on Leonard’s part, who scored an efficient 25 points in 33 minutes despite being suffocated by Orlando defenders. Much of the blame for the defeat will fall on Kyle Lowry’s shoulders as the five-time All-Star failed to score even a single point in the contest.
Although DeMar Derozan caught most of the attention and blame for the Raptors’ playoff struggles in recent years, Lowry has also struggled, and now the spotlight is on him. Not only are the Raptors feeling the pressure to make out of the East since LeBron James is gone, but they are now also dealing with the pressure of Kawhi Leonard’s upcoming free agency decision. Reports would indicate that his decision will likely come down to remaining in Toronto or signing with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers, with the Clippers likely being the favorites in that scenario. If the Raptors were to fall early and disappoint in the playoffs yet again, it would only increase the likelihood that Leonard departs in the offseason.