“I feel like we’ve earned our respect from everyone now.” Those were Victor Oladipo’s proud words after falling short to the Cavs in Game 7 on Sunday. It’s also likely what LeBron communicated to Oladipo after the buzzer sounded and they embraced like a father who had just seen his son ace a test or fix his car by himself for the first time.
LeBron and Oladipo embrace and talk after the game. pic.twitter.com/GUoH4na1Of— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) April 29, 2018
Even though wins are the currency of the playoffs, one’s performance in the postseason can also serve as a badge of honor for those who proved themselves capable of making some noise on the biggest stage. Through one round, here are some of the figures who have earned respect:
Victor Oladipo and the Pacers
“If y’all don’t respect the Indiana Pacers now, I have no respect for you,” Oladipo continued after the Pacers’ loss Sunday. “Nobody thought we were going to be here — not one person — but us in the locker room.”
He’s not wrong. Nobody, myself included, expected them to even make the playoffs, much less force LeBron into a Game 7. This put a chip on their shoulder that lasted an entire season. By qualifying as a 5-seed, the Pacers deserved our praise. By going toe-to-toe with LeBron and taking the series the distance, they legitimized their stellar season and became a potentially terrifying team for the LeBrons of the world and the future of the East.
Indiana should have won this series. The Pacers had the better team even if they didn’t have the best player, which is already a win after this team was forced to trade its presumed best player for presumed spare parts last offseason. Head coach Nate McMillan turned the Pacers into a machine while Oladipo made the leap into a version of young Dwyane Wade. The Pacers might still need more to make a run at the East’s top crop, but after their performance against the incumbents, we won’t be surprised with their success anymore.
Mitchell is breaking the notion that experience trumps youth. He spent six games winding the Thunder into loops with his dribble and finishing them off with dynamic scoring by beating them to the rim or just crossing over and into a perfect 3. In many ways he was unstoppable, and a pure joy to watch. He was the personification of a type of playoff naivete that was almost beneficial to his cause; he played like it was just another game, and that meant, more than once, that he was the best player on the floor.
Mitchell will face a more arduous task against the top-seeded Rockets, but it’s almost gravy at this point. He’s 21 and has already earned the type of postseason respect that players spend years trying to achieve.
Winslow is home after the Heat were dispatched by the Sixers in five tough games, but combine his play in the series with how he finished the season, and the Heat can hang their hats on the fact that they have an official enforcer who can also become their best two-way player. Winslow struggled to get going after he was drafted in 2015, but he’s come on as of late, shooting well from 3 (38 percent on the season) and proving his defensive prowess. In the playoffs, he also wasn’t afraid to get spicy.
Winslow hasn’t made a full-on leap just yet, but he’s still just 22, and this small jump in 2018 is enough to divert his path from injury-riddled potential bust to surefire starter and possible All-Star.
The Celtics don’t have a superstar: Kyrie Irving is out with a knee injury. The Celtics don’t have a star: Gordon Hayward has been out the whole season. But [cue Tony Stark voice] the Celtics have an Al Horford. And he is pretty damn good.
Horford was the best player on the floor in a series that included Giannis Antetokounmpo. Much like he’s been all season, Horford was the lynchpin of everything the Celtics did successfully — from screens to his defense on Milwaukee’s bigs — an expert in making crucial, unquantifiable plays. The best number to show Horford’s impact is this: The Celtics were nearly six points per 100 possessions better when Horford was on the floor than when he wasn’t. Horford is underrated only if you choose to ignore him.
What else is there to say about the Sixers that won’t make you think this is Chris Ryan ghostwriting this blog? They’re amazing, have endless potential, and are the favorites to make the Finals out of the East, a thing that doesn’t feel like fiction, but rather like a near certainty. Conventional basketball wisdom tells us this is way too early for them to succeed, but their mix of youth and vets has made it possible, and their dominance has made it feel right. They’ve already earned our respect this year, but now may also be when they surprise us by winning so much more than we ever expected for their first playoff appearance.
Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo
Holiday and Rondo have an entirely tougher job to do against Golden State in Round 2, as evidenced by Game 1 on Saturday, but we would be remiss if we didn’t recognize them for what they did in dismantling the Blazers backcourt in Round 1. The duo has been shadowed by Anthony Davis all season, and each player’s reputation has been hurt by either an exorbitant contract (Holiday) or an inability to stay on a team (Rondo). In four games, the two put together a masterpiece that also served as their reintroduction to the basketball mainstream. Suddenly, everyone realized that Holiday was one of the best defensive guards in the league and that Playoff Rondo wasn’t just a ghost from postseasons past. Don’t say that Davis doesn’t have a good team around him; that’s no longer the case.
Giannis’s and Markieff Morris’s Alternative Facts
“I thought we were the better team … we have the better team,” said Antetokounmpo after the Celtics eliminated the Bucks Saturday.
“We was the better team,” Markieff Morris said after the Wizards were eliminated Friday.
There’s nothing like some revisionist history. And nothing like some revisionist history that also serves as an indictment of your performance. It’s easy to scream “Scoreboard!” at both Morris and Giannis, but I actually respect their ability to be irrational. The Bucks should have won, and the Wizards could have if things have broken the right way for them. The problem: They didn’t. Sorry, guys, there’s always next year.