The NBA playoffs are finally here! A few close races aside, the last few weeks have been akin to Chinese water torture as teams have rested, tanked and done everything but try to win (in most cases). On that, it sucks that Denver and Miami didn’t make the playoffs because both were trying to win and would have made for brutal first-round opponents. But it hasn’t turned out that way, and now the rotations get shortened, coaches earn their money and the stars shine brightly under the most intense spotlight. The first round is here, and there could be many a twist and turn ahead…
Boston def Chicago in 7 games – This Boston team is fool’s gold. Their best offensive player is a historically bad defender, and they have no second option on which they can rely. A Cavalier meltdown has seen the stumble, arse-first into the #1 seed but they enter with a many a question about them. They have a bunch of nice pieces, but won’t have the best player on the floor and will rely heavily on outside shooting.
Two years ago, Rajon Rondo didn’t get his way in Dallas so he pouted, and in effect quit on the team. This season, he didn’t get his way, pouted but did get his way and now looms as a key player in this series. He, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler cannot play big minutes together as all three are minus shooters. If Fred Hoiberg was a semi-decent coach, he would realise this and stagger their minutes. Sadly, Hoiberg may be the worst coach we have seen in a decade and he will ultimately blow a 3-2 series lead and Game 7 by refusing to recognise the need to adjust his line-up.
Cleveland def Indiana in 5 games – the internet has exploded of late, dissecting what seems to be a Cleveland team that is on its knees and ripe for the picking despite being defending NBA champions. The narrative is that they have very few decent defenders, and will need their outside shooting and rebounding to see them through.
The Pacers were unconvincing and rode the back of Paul George all the way to the playoffs, with their late season acquisition of Lance Stephenson having many a scribe hopping into a time machine and wondering whether Roy Hibbert is going to stagger down the aisle, Willis Reed-style and bring the term ‘verticality’ back into the vernacular. Myles Turner is a stud, and the Pacers have a solid starting five and seem to match up well with this Cavs team.
LeBron James is a cyborg, the best player on the planet and a guy who seems to create drama to remain interested. Every season, his teams are written off late in the piece and every season, he responds with a dominant performance. We have all seen this movie before – LeBron will dominate this series, and it may well be a sweep unless PG13 can do something truly special. He will do that in Game 3 before normal order is restored and LeBron averages 33-9-8 in a romp.
Toronto def Milwaukee in 6 games – Toronto are the sexy pick to usurp the Cavs in the East, having acquired Serge Ibaka and P.J.Tucker to go with Lowry, DeRozan and others. They will enter this game knowing they can throw the tenaciousness of Tucker and the agility of Ibaka at a young, dynamic Milwaukee team. The return of Lowry and offensive power of DeRozan gives them a huge leg up in this series.
The Bucks are a few years away from truly competing for anything, and will miss Jabari Parker. But how much they miss him is debatable, as Khris Middleton has been remarkable since returning from serious injury and they have grizzled vets who know what it takes to win in the playoffs. But all that pales in comparison to Giannis. In this young star, they have a guy who has taken the league by storm and is arguably the best young player alive. His regular season performances in big games make you think he will thrive in the pressure environment of playoff basketball, and if his side can split the first two games they will head home to a raucous home crowd baying for blood and desperate for success. This could be the most intriguing first round series of them all but Toronto should outlast the Bucks in a dour battle.
Washington def Atlanta in 5 games – while the Raps-Bucks could be intriguing, this series could stink. The Wizards have one of the best backcourts in the league, whereas the Hawks are mediocre. They have claimed the five-seed as the best of a reasonable mid-level of teams in the East, but they offer very little other than nuisance value in this series. Dennis Schroeder is among the least effective starting point guards in the league, and is a sieve defensively so John Wall could go nuclear in this series. There is a chance the Hawks will need to move Thabo Sefolosha onto Wall, but that leaves Bradley Beal likely to explode.
The Hawks have been largely irrelevant for so long, even during periods of relevant regular season success and will lean heavily on Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard to dominate the frontcourt. This may well happen, as Millsap and Howard have a clear advantage over Marcin Gortat and crew but beyond them there is very little to be excited about here. The Hawks’ wings are inconsistent, and they will simply not be able to stop Wall, Beal and crew who are headed for the Conference finals.
Golden State def Portland in 5 games – Damian Lillard has copped heat for predicting the Blazers will win in 6, which is strange because clearly the internet generation expected him to walk in with a broom, conceding that his team cannot beat Kevin Durant and his minions. If Jusuf Nurkic can get on the court, the Blazers have enough versatility and pure backcourt talent to make this a very interesting (albeit short) series and if they could split the first two game they may well put the Warriors on the back foot.
Then again, Golden State have four of the best 20 players in the world and arguably the two best offensive players in the NBA. It remains to be seen how Curry handles being the second option and whether ego comes into play; the Warriors talk about playing team basketball with Durant but the post-season will test this claim. In any case, they will pass 120 points in their four wins and Lillard will score 50 points to steal Game 3 at the Rose Garden, but the Warriors will use this series to get Durant back into sync.
San Antonio def Memphis in 6 games – the Spurs won 61 games despite having one All-Star and a bunch of one-way players, role players and old guys. You could argue that the league’s greatest franchise has not had less talent at any stage since the mid 90’s, but they have Kahwi Leonard. As I spoke about here (http://www.thefuzznba.com/news/the-most-valuable), Leonard is a marvel and has taken top-level efficiency to a whole other level. You could surround him with four shooters and he would find a way to get them the ball, or throw a big line-up in the game and watch him go to work. At the other end of the floor, he simply gets the ball when he wants it and leads a team with an underrated home court advantage and the league’s best towel waver.
Memphis come into this series relying heavily on veterans. Mike Conley is the league’s highest paid player and could decimate Mills and tony Parker, who is defending about as well as Jose Calderon these days. Marc Gasol will go head-to-head with his brother in a matchup for the ages, while Vince Carter has evolved into a shooting role player. Carter has been in the league for 20 years and this clip shows the best dunk EVERY YEAR over that period.
He is headed for the Hall of Fame, but is the third-best player on this roster at age 40. That is a bad sign in this series, and the Grizz will grit, grind and fight but they are not taking this thing past six games.
Houston def Oklahoma City in 6 games – James Harden is engaged, fit and has played some of the best offensively-controlling basketball in recent memory this season. He is playing under a coach that utilises his skills, and is surrounded by a three-point arsenal the likes of which we have never seen and may well be headed for a deep playoff run. Of course, Louis Williams tends to shit the bed in the post-season and the Rockets second-most effective player in this mode may be Pat Beverley, who is currently plotting how to injure Russell Westbrook without being ejected. The Rockets could average 16 triples a game and it wouldn’t be a surprise.
On the other side of the court, Westbrook has taken arguably the least-talented offensive supporting cast that a superstar has EVER had and made this a watershed season. There has been much written about his usage, but let’s face it he might need to average 45 fucking points a game to keep the series close. The Thunder defend well, but they will be playing a dangerous game against such a lethal Thunder team and may need to play plenty of Doug McDermott and Victor Oladipo alongside Westbrook to have even a sniff of scoring enough points.
The MVP debate is dead and buried, but the fact remains that a Thunder win in this series could be Russ’s greatest ever achievement…it just won’t happen. They will split the first four games before getting outgunned in Games 5 and 6.
Utah def LA Clippers in 7 games – It is not right to call the Clippers a polarising team, they are simply hated. Chris Paul is an all-time great, but the black mark on his career is never getting beyond the second round of the playoffs. If Blake Griffin retired tomorrow, he is best known for breaking his hand punching a non-playing member of the organisation and dunking over a KIA car. DeAndre Jordan will come up against the one guy who does what he does, better than him. There is no depth in this Clippers team, and the mental demons are constantly residing inside the heads of players and coaches alike.
On the other side, Utah’s two best players have very limited playoff experience but they have a cavalcade of experience to complement Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert. George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw were brought in to play roles in series such as this one, and while Hayward and Gobert will decide how well the Jazz go there is little doubt those veterans will appreciate the slow tempo at which this series will be played.
Game 7 will see the Clippers jump out to a big lead, tighten up and choke away yet another playoff series as Gobert will register a double-double with a handful of blocks, leading the Jazz into the second round.