These five are the biggest disappointments of the 2023 NBA Playoffs

NBA Playoffs

With the NBA Playoffs nearly halfway done, the final eight teams are wrapping up their series for the next round. We’ve had enough time to determine who overachieved (Phoenix’s Devin Booker, Miami’s Jimmy Butler, L.A. Lakers’ Lonnie Walker IV, Boston’s Derrick White), but what about those who have been a flop?

NBA fans have long argued the end-of-season awards should be handed out once the playoffs are finished. The reason? Not everyone who performs in beast mode during the regular season can handle the bright lights of the playoffs.

We’ve highlighted five starters who underperformed in their roles this postseason. These are the players who earned recognition during the regular season but have failed to show up when it matters most. That is because one thing NBA fans can agree on is that nothing matters more than the playoffs.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

jayson tatum

There are times Jayson Tatum looks like the next great perimeter wing. Then there are other times he looks like Andrew Wiggins with a deeper bag of tricks.

Tatum has yet to have that statement playoff run where he cements himself as the best-scoring wing in the NBA. Just look at what Devin Booker is doing this postseason. Tatum was red hot heading into the NBA Finals last season before deferring to teammate Jaylen Brown in crunchtime, scoring 12 points in Game 1 of the Finals and 13 points in the Game 6 elimination. This season, with an added dose of parity, the Celtics seemed ripe to come out of the Eastern Conferrence. But the Philadelphia 76ers have stormed back to take a 3-2 lead on the back of their MVP, Joel Embiid.

Tatum was held to just seven points (1-of-7 shooting) in Game 2. He’s also shot horribly from 3, going 8-for-25. With the Celtics facing elimination, the perception of Tatum as a true “superstar” is riding on how he responds in Game 6 on Thursday (7:30 p.m., ESPN).

Julius Randle, New York Knicks

julius randle

There was hope among Knicks fans that Randle would exorcize the demons that plagued him from a horrid 2020 NBA Playoff debut, where he was shut down by the Atlanta Hawks double teams.

Hobbled by two sprains to his ankle, he has played through the pain thus far. But he was not a factor when the Knicks beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games in the first round. In the second round, he’s been outplayed by his Miami Heat counterpart, Bam Adebayo. It led to the Knicks facing elimination in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden.

His number haven’t been horrible, with 24 points and 5 assists in Game 5 that helped the Knicks stave off elimination. But his defensive effort throughout the series has been lacking. He is routinely picking and choosing when he closes out on three-point shooters and helps in double teams. For all that was made about his regular-season return to form, he has been the third-best player in the postseason, conceding his spot to RJ Barrett and Jalen Brunson.

Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

donovan mitchell

The Knicks silenced the dialogue around their failed pursuit of Donovan Mitchell in the summer by neutralizing his impact in the two teams’ first-round battle.

After earning All-NBA First Team honors for his star emergence with the Cavaliers in the regular season, his production dipped to just 23.2 points per game in the playoffs. Even worse, he failed to get his teammates involved, often relying on isolation situations to get his own bucket while shooting just 43 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3.

Most glaring was his failure, for the second postseason in a row, to get the best in his matchup with Jalen Brunson. Last year, Brunson showed what he could do as a first option with the Dallas Mavericks, largely by hunting Mitchell on switches. It was deja-vu this year as Brunson again sought out Mitchell on defense, attacking the 6-foot-1 guard off the dribble and wearing him out on defense. For Mitchell to rewrite his playoff record, he needs a deep playoff run next year. But unlike this season, the Cavs will surprise no one moving forward.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

ja morant

For all the on-the-court antics, visible immaturity, and off-the-court turmoil, the playoffs presented the perfect opportunity for Morant to control his narrative. Instead, Morant had the worst playoff averages of his career — even if you acknowledge that these would be pretty decent numbers for most players. Morant averaged career lows in points (24.6), assists (7), and field goal shooting (42.5 percent).

Morant acknowledged that, telling reporters, “Off the court, making better decisions. On the court, being locked in even more. Being a leader of this team, it pretty much starts with me.”

Morant’s return to the team was supposed to bring them back the team that earned the No. 2 seed and home court advantage in the Western Conference. Instead, the Grizzlies were upset by the Los Angeles Lakers, who had to battle just to survive the Play-In tournament. As one of the youngest teams in the NBA, the Grizzlies need maturity and leadership from their best player. Morant’s poor performance this postseason did not set a confident precedent for the team’s future moving forward.

DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

deandre ayton

This one is the least surprising entries on this list. In the playoffs, at least, Ayton has never lived up to the No. 1-pick status (2018 NBA Draft). He has largely been outplayed, and substandard on defense during the Suns’ past playoff pursuits, including the 2021 Finals appearance.

This season, Ayton has averaged postseason career lows in points (13.3), blocks (0.7), and field goal shooting (54.5 percent). Two-time MVP Nicola Jokic has dominated the matchup with Ayton, who scored four and eight points in Games 3 and 4, even though the Suns won both games. Even more
embarrassing, he has yet to tally double-digit rebounds against the Denver Nuggets.

For the Suns to have a chance to overcome the Nuggets’ 3-2 series lead, they needed Ayton to be a solid counter to Jokic. It’s been said the great ones elevate their game when matched up against other great players. Ayton is a prime example of someone who shrinks in the face of a challenge.

Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo

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