Ranking the NBA Playoffs’ biggest surprises

6. Kevin Love’s season-ending injury

The Cleveland Cavaliers could still win the championship. They do, after all, have LeBron James on their roster. The best athlete in the game can win you games in ways you didn’t know existed before, as he demonstrated with his clock-beating shot to tie Cleveland’s series with the Chicago Bulls, 2-2, this past Sunday. But the Cavs are now in a dogfight they didn’t see coming, battling against their own health and depth issues without Kevin Love, whose suddenly separated shoulder could be the turning point for a franchise. Whether the perennial All-Star uses the injury as a source of emotional solidarity with his team, or takes it as an omen that things were never meant to be, remains to be seen.

 

5. A vulnerable version of the Golden State Warriors

A 67-win season was one of the best campaigns within recent NBA memory. MVP Steph Curry led an offense that had too much shooting, creativity and cohesion for anyone to handle all year, and Draymond Green was the anchor to a hyper-intelligent defense that was just as good. But the Warriors, despite their most recent 101-84 blowout at the Grindhouse, are in a tooth-and-nail 2-2 battle with the Memphis Grizzlies. Mike Conley, Courtney Lee and — of course — Tony Allen have taken away the space and timing Curry and Klay Thompson are used to. Marc Gasol has made Andrew Bogut look out of his depth. The NBA’s juggernaut squad of the season has been tested, and perhaps sooner than we thought they would be.

 

4. Blake Griffin, point guard edition

Without Chris Paul for the first two contests of their second-round series with the Houston Rockets, many suspected the Los Angeles Clippers were quite screwed. What most of us failed to recognize is that even without Paul, the Clippers have one of the game’s most skilled playmakers: Blake Griffin. Collecting 13 assists as part of a stunning triple-double in Game 1, Griffin led the Chris-less Clippers to a 1-0 series lead. They haven’t looked back, now leading the series 3-1 after an impressive 128-95 smashing in Game 4.

 

3. Randy Wittman having tricks up his sleeve

Maligned by the media all season long for his unimaginative sets, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman has made full use of his roster this postseason. Implementing a small ball lineup with Paul Pierce at power forward and a surging Otto Porter Jr. at the three spot, he’s given point guard John Wall his best position to thrive in. And even without Wall, who recently fell and suffered a very untimely wrist injury, Wittman has dug deep into his bench to find what he needs — forgotten man Will Bynum played crucial minutes down the stretch of Saturday’s thrilling 103-101 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Now we’ll see if Wittman has enough left in his toolbox to get the Wizards through this 2-2 struggle.

2. Austin Rivers’ sensational play

Son to coach Doc Rivers, Austin has been the subject of mockery for months. Nobody likes nepotism, and the young Rivers looked like he was out of the league before Los Angeles signed him, and like the only way he still had a job was through family favors. Skeptics are eating feasts of their words these days, though, as the reserve guard has proved to be an invaluable piece of depth for his team. Shooting 49 percent from the field, including a red-hot 48 from beyond the arc, he’s made it possible for the Clips to preserve Chris Paul for future rounds.

 

1. Rajon Rondo’s epic fail

There just isn’t any precedent for what happened with Rajon Rondo and the Dallas Mavericks. Once lauded as one of the game’s most ferocious competitors, Rondo dialed in his time in Texas, looking demonstrably bored and upset as his difficult side rose beyond boiling point. Coach Rick Carlisle and team management were so beguiled and disappointed by his performance through two playoff games that they benched him for the rest of the year, citing a bogus back injury as the reason. Rondo’s heading into free agency this summer, and Dallas wants no part of a future with him. Whoever does sign him will be hoping for a time machine; Rondo in 2015 hasn’t shown us anything worth the money.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

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