THE NBA PLAYOFFS: THE MOST WONDERFUL TIME OF THE YEAR
Photo via TheSportingNews.com
There truly is no better sport to watch or play than basketball (this coming from a lifelong baseball player). While there definitely are lulls in the long 82-game season, the intensity of the playoffs is truly magical to watch, although the first round needs revert back to a best-of-five format.
The every-possession-is-monumental atmosphere of a playoff basketball game puts it above every other sport, including my beloved baseball. The only other sport I've heard people rave about that could possibly compete with playoff basketball is playoff hockey. I really wish I liked hockey – but i could never really get myself into it. Tons of respect for both hockey players and fans though.
With that being said, we at Lampin' have decided talk about our expectations from each of the 16 playoff teams.
This year's playoffs have gotten a little more interesting, as Bron's Cavs aren't necessarily the lock that they were at the beginning of the season to make the Finals, and barring a stunning upset the Eastern Conference Title will now run through Beantown (although it's only a matter of time before LeBron goes into ManGod mode). Out West, everyone's favorite team to hate, the Golden State Warriors, are almost certainly going to find themselves playing in (and probably winning) the 2017 Finals.
Nev took the Eastern Conference while I took the West (shouts Johnny Mills). Let's get into it.
8. Portland Trailblazers
Those of you familiar with this blog know me to be a huge Laker fan. However, if the Lakers were to mysteriously vanish off the planet (at this point I wouldn't completely rule that out as a possibility) you would find me rooting for Dame D.O.L.L.A. and company (Giannis' Bucks would be a close second).
With a backcourt that is liable to catch fire at any moment, Portland is a dangerous team to face in the playoffs. However, they have the misfortune of going against a Golden State Warriors team that has more talent than most countries' Olympic teams. You have to admire the confidence of Lillard, who claimed that the Blazers would take the series in 6. Had they had Rasheed Wallace and Ruben Patterson from the early '00s Portland squad on the current roster, that might be more believable.
Our prediction: Lose in four to Golden State in the first round.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
The fucking tank that goes by the name of Zach Randolph.
I'm not going to pretend I'm some NBA expert who knows anything about the Grizzlies. Truth be told, I couldn't name you five players on the Grizz. All I know is that Mike Conley is nice as fuck and playoff Zach Randolph is nothing to mess with. Also, if Chandler Parsons is healthy (I could Google this right now but refuse to) it won't make a difference because he's been too busy being thirsty on Instagram to make an impact on the basketball court.
Our prediction: Lose in five to San Antonio in first round.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Brodie and the boys have the not-so-enviable task of taking on Mike D'Antoni's transcendental offense led by James Harden, who, as much as I hate to admit it, has one of the great beards sports has seen in my lifetime, up there with Eric Gagne's chin music, the David Ortiz's precision line up, and Brett Keisel's cascaded face bush (if you think Brian Wilson should be on this list please FOH – sorry Nev).
Aaaanyways, Russ will be the MVP, but Harden will take the series. The Thunder would be the worst team in the league without Westbrook. This was very much evident in the Thunder's Game 2 loss despite Westbrook's ridiculous 51-13-10 stat line (which apparently he doesn't give a fuck about). Maybe 60 will be enough for a win?
Prediction: Lose in five to the Rockets in the first round.
5. Utah Jazz
Joe Johnson reminded everyone that he was still in the league on Easter Sunday after hitting a game-winning floater over Jamal Crawford, shocking Clipper fans worldwide, including all 12 that were fans before 2012 – but we'll get to the Clips in a bit.
Gordon Heyward has blossomed into an All-Star, and he has established himself beyond 'the guy who missed that half-court game-winner,' but depending on how serious Rudy Gobert's injury is, Utah might find itself struggling to get past the conference semis (side note: George Hill is an all-time class act and as long as that guy is in the league, I will be rooting for him).
Prediction: Lose in six to the Warriors in the semis.
4. LA Clippers
While the Warriors might be America's favorite team to hate, the Clippers are mine. Besides Chris Paul single-handedly ruining the future of the Lakers (I understand this logic is flawed please let me be a salty fan for a minute), the players that occupy the Clip Show's roster are utterly impossible to watch. Let's take a look:
Blake Griffin: I saw a tweet the other day that said something along the lines of "Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard are two of the most physically gifted players of their generation, and both are equally painful to watch." Straight fax.
DeAndre Jordan: If you turn on the TV at any given time during a Clippers game, chances are you will see one of three things:
DeAndre Jordan complaining about a foul called on him
DeAndre Jordan at the free throw line
DeAndre Jordan viciously sucking the soul out of someone with a monster dunk
I like a soul-crushing dunk as much as the next guy, but at 33 percent, the numbers just don't do it for me.
Chris Paul: Should be a Laker. One of, if not the best point guard of this generation, which is saying a lot considering how guard-heavy the league has become. But should be a Laker. Now if you'll excuse me it's time for my quarterly Chris Paul cry.
3. Houston Rockets
Arguably the most improved team in the NBA from a year ago, the Houston Rockets have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with this season. With a ridiculous amount of snipers from three, if you catch Houston on a good night your chances of winning are slim (s/o Marty). Of course, at the helm of the H-Town squad is James (or Jimmy as I like to call him) Harden, who is averaging a cool 29 and 11.
You could easily make the argument that Harden should be the MVP – though you'd be wrong – and let me say that I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Dude has undeniable talent, whether he's taking you to the rim or shooting a three in your face. That being said, I hate James Harden. But it's not in the same way that I hate Blake Griffin or Draymond Green – I hate Harden because he's so damn good.
His slow-motion drives to the rack, the head lean, the uncanny knack for drawing fouls, its's just so infuriating to watch how easy it is for him. I've come to appreciate his game more is game more than I did last year, when he was paired with the equally frustrating Dwight Howard.
Anyways, Houston should make quick work of Russy's Thunder,and they will get past Kawhi and the Spurs, before eventually losing in Game 6 to the Warriors in a 155-150 offensive shootout.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Those hands make Uma Thurman's look like Burger King hands
The basketball version of a Shakespeare sonnet, Pop's Spurs have been a playoff mainstay for the past 20 years. Whether led by David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio always seems to buy in and take at least 50 games in the regular season.
Let's talk about Kawhi Leonard. The NBA's silent assassin, Leonard has undergone a booming transformation from a defensive-first role player to a full-blown superstar in front of everyone's eyes. I love Kawhi and the way he plays–especially how he can definitely fit 25 baseballs in his hand. As good as the Spurs may be, I think if you give the Rockets seven games, they will have four hot shooting nights. Unfortunately for Kawhi and co., they will find themselves exiting in the second round.
Prediction: Lose in 7 to the Rockets in the conference semis.
1. Golden State Warriors
The team with 4 of the league’s top 25 players in its starting lineup surprisingly had the league’s best record, and could eventually upset its way into the Finals—maybe even a championship.
Jokes aside, it will actually be surprising if the Dubs lose more than four games in the playoffs, and with a healthy Durant a championship is almost certain against a Cavs team that has fumbled its way into the playoffs. Even though it probably doesn’t need to, Golden State still plays solid defense, which puts them above every other team in the league, and with its star power it is impossible to stop on the more glamorous side of the ball. Fuck Draymond Green though.
Prediction: Defeat the Cavs in the Finals in Game 6.
8. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls enter the opening round coming off a 7-2 finish to edge out Miami for the final seed in the East. Led by second year coach Fred Hoyberg, the middling Bulls look to ride Jimmy Butler’s star power into the second round. He is a young, headstrong player that would scoff at any claim that his team is outmatched. His dynamic athleticism and scoring ability give the Bulls a fighting chance to stay competitive with the Celtics, a superior team from nearly every angle.
While guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade bring a plethora of playoff experience, the former displays an obvious lack of shooting confidence and the latter is well past the prime of his Hall of Fame career (see: missed dunk, yikes). EDIT: Wade played remarkably well in Game 2, totaling 22 points while going 3-4 from deep.
Chicago is inferior to Boston in nearly every aspect of the game, save for its size and rebounding ability. Center Robin Lopez had a strong opening night, hauling in 10 rebounds and netting 14 points. EDIT: Lopez had a strong Game 2 with 18 points and 8 boards. Lopez was deadly in the 16-19 foot range and can hit uncontested jumpers on command. Lopez must continue to outrebound his shorter counterpart, Al Horford if the Bulls are to keep the series competitive.
The X-factor label for the Bulls falls upon the shoulders of Rajon Rondo, whose stock has dramatically decreased over the past few years. Rondo averaged a meager 7.8 points per game in the 2016-17 campaign. If Rondo continues to pass up open looks from 15-20 feet, the Celtics will have a much easier time of spreading their defensive focus to more potent threats, i.e. Jimmy Butler.
Rondo has proven himself to be a high-caliber point guard and must renew his old form for the Bulls to even stand a chance. Experts also say that Rondo’s defense has faltered as well, which would give superstar Isaiah Thomas carte blanche on the offensive side.
Another key role player for the Bulls is Nikola Mirotić, the versatile power forward from Montenegro. The 6’10” Slav has the ability to change games with the deep ball. On April 6th against the Sixers, he went 6-8 from beyond the arc in a 102-90 win. The Bulls desperately need the three ball to add another layer to their attack. EDIT: Nikola Mirotić was stellar in Game 2, providing exactly what was needed from him: 3 converted 3-pointers.
Prediction: Despite a hot start, the Bulls blow a 2-0 lead and fall to the Celtics in 7.
7. Indiana Pacers
After two close losses in Cleveland, the Pacers are in desperate need of back-to-back victories at home if they are force a series of more than 5 games. The basketball community has unanimously agreed that the Pacers stand no chance against the Cavs, despite their quality. They simply lack the star power needed in the NBA to make a deep playoff run.
With that being said, Paul George is an incredible talent, at 6’9” with a 7’ wingspan that has made him a near impossible defensive assignment. Point guard Jeff Teague is a consistent performer, with a knack for getting to the rim. Second year player Myles Turner (University of Texas) had an impressive sophomore campaign, and will continue to develop as one of the best young centers in the Association.
Head Coach Nate McMillan has his work cut out for him as they face perennial favorite Cleveland. If all goes as expected, the Pacers will be overwhelmed by the offensive force of the Cavs, and will need everything to fall into place perfectly for the remainder of the series in order to advance.
Prediction: Despite Paul George's best efforts, the Pacers fall to the Cavs in 5.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are captained by their young, rising star, Giannis Antentokounmpo. At 22 years old, The “Greek Freak” leads Milwaukee in every offensive statistical category. It’s impossible to say what position the prodigy plays, due to the fact that while being 6’11”, he has the ball-handling and distribution skills of a point guard. The Raptor’s strategy with respects to Giannis will center around forcing him to take jump shots and keep him out of the paint.
Game 1 showed that “The Alphabet” has no intention of shying away from the basket, and possesses the length, quickness, and skill to leave any defender his size in the dust. The Bucks have not won a playoff series since 2001, and are looking to boost their organization into the forefront of the NBA with their exciting franchise player, who is in the first year of a four year, $100 million contract.
In February, the Bucks were plagued with the untimely injury of Power Forward Jabari Parker, a top producer for the Deer. Jabari underwent ACL surgery and will not be available for the playoffs. Khris Middleton has been asked to step in to fill the large void left by the imposing Bird. Middleton has played brilliantly in Bird’s absence.
Although he’s played less minutes than last year, the Bucks’ offense has received a huge boost from Middleton’s play. According to ESPN’s real plus-minus statistic, Middleton is the league’s sixth best player. Game 1, however, was a disappointment for the Texas A&M Aggie, shooting just 4-15 from the field.
Another interesting chess piece in the Eastern Conference matchup is Sudanese Center Thon Maker, towering at a slim 7’1”. He is capable of providing great help D against Toronto guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who are apt at shedding defenders on the perimeter.
The inexperienced Bucks show all signs of being a franchise on the up and up, and will continue to build their core around Giannis. The playoff experience will help pave the way for future success, but in a field of more experienced, more talented teams, it would be a surprise for them to emerge from the first round.
Prediction: The Bucks show a lot of promise, but nevertheless fall to Toronto in 6. Look for Giannis to come back in the 2018 playoffs angry.
5. Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are a repeatedly middle-of-the-road playoff team in the East. They managed to notch 10 consecutive playoff appearances, the longest streak in the East. They are scrappy in nature and have a team-oriented approach that lacks a single star that it heavily relies on for big games. Defense being their main strength, they notched a 43-39 record while being outscored by 70 points on the year.
Thusly, the big question for the Hawks following a close Game 1 is who will give Atlanta its offensive horsepower? Twenty-three-year-old German national Dennis Schroeder made a splash in Game 1, putting up 25 points and 9 assists. Schroeder is turnover-prone, and must limit his mistakes against a talented Wizards lineup that leaves little room for debilitating errors.
Dwight Howard commands the lion’s share of rebounding for the red and yellow (and neon?), hauling in nearly 13 boards a game. While he has a physical advantage in the matchup against Gortat, Howard must prove himself to be a viable scorer in which a 20 point game could yield a game-changing difference. Howard has faced a lifetime of scrutiny after consistently underperforming with regards the high standards set for him. In a landscape of NBA centers who are multi-faceted, Howard’s low-post game must be efficient and effective, as the Hawks do not often look to create iso opportunities for him.
The Hawks place the brunt of their offense on 33 year-old veteran Paul Millsap. Millsap excels in the 1 on 1 game, with a deadly midrange jumper as well as a penchant for finishing in traffic. Millsap has been a fixture for the Hawks over the past four years, and is eager to make his first Finals appearance as his prime is dwindling.
Prediction: See below.
4. Washington Wizards
As the 4 seed facing the 5 seeded Hawks, this series will be highly contentious without a clear favorite. The Wizards edged the Hawks in their regular season matchup by a tally of 3-1. The Wizards bring to the table a fast-paced offense that hinges on their fastbreak prowess. John Wall had his best year yet, averaging 23 points and nearly 11 assists per game.
Wall would, under normal circumstances, be considered an MVP candidate, if not for historic years from Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Wall had a strong Game 1 performance in a 114-107 win, putting forth a 32/14/4 statline. Wall runs a backcourt supported by the steady Bradley Beal, who is a formidable scoring option and had a breakout season.
The Wizards have gained the reputation as a hard-nosed, physical team. Paul Millsap of the Hawks said after Game 1 that Wizards were “playing MMA”, as opposed to the Hawks “playing basketball”. The Wizards missed the playoff in 2016 following two consecutive postseason appearances, and played Game 1 with a chip on their shoulder.
This is evident from instances such as Wall diving for a loose ball, a move often criticized by those who put a star’s health above one possession. The Wizards defended their style of play after a flurry of media outlets questioned their tactics.
Marcin Gortat, offered his postgame thoughts: “I mean, we are trying to play physical basketball. That’s how it is. If you watch the other [playoff] games, it’s the same kind of basketball.” Gortat himself will play a key role in the series, after a solid output in Game 1 with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Gortat has struggled along the stretch, but could be paramount to the Wizards’ continued success.
Markieff Morris and Otto Porter Jr. round off a frontcourt that supplements the Wizards top-notch guard play. Morris is an emotional leader for the Wizards and can provide a spark that can be a difference maker in a tight game.
If the Wizards were to move on to the second round, they will likely face a tough Celtics squad after a chippy 2-2 split between the two teams during the regular season.
Prediction: The Wiz take a closely contested series against Atlanta before eventually falling to Boston in 6.
3. Toronto Raptors
Photo via USA TODAY Sports / Nick Turchiaro
The Raptors impressed critics last year in the Eastern Conference Finals, taking the seemingly unstoppable Cavs to a Game 6 before falling. The Raptors enjoyed wild success earlier in the year, pacing with the godly Warriors in offensive categories. After a hot 18-7 start, Toronto showed signs of streakiness, losing four in a row here, winning three in a row there.
The Raptors roll into the postseason playing extremely well, taking 12 of their final 15 games. The lone Canadian team hosts similar names from last year, highlighted by All-Star starter DeMar DeRozan. Offseason roster alterations came in the form of trading (Buck killer) Terrence Ross and a first round pick for strongman Serge Ibaka, who provides some much needed bulk and rim enforcement. EDIT: Ibaka proved to be a key to Toronto’s success in Game 2, netting a +13 differential and spreading the court with 6 assists.
Coming into Game 1, the Raptors were favorites but struggled mightily throughout, allowing fastbreaks led by Antetokounmpo. Game 2 will shed some light on whether the surprising result was a matter of adjusting to the Bucks’ style of play and a lack of execution. EDIT: Antentokounmpo’s productivity was stifled by the Raptors defense in Game 2, and was held to a +6 differential.
Either way, the Bucks have set the tone for the series and Toronto will have to slow the pace on the defensive end as well as keep Giannis at bay. Poor shooting from both DeRozan (7-21) and fellow guard Kyle Lowry (2-11) upset the tempo of Toronto’s offense, disallowing them from ever getting into a groove.
Prediction: After getting past Milwaukee, the Raptors once again get eliminated by Cleveland in six games.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
The polarizing Cavs come into the East as the number 2 seed after a shoddy finish to the season, winning just 6 of their last 15 contests. This may not be the best indicator, however, as stars LeBron James and Kyrie Iriving played limited roles down the final stretch, an effort by head coach Ty Lue to save his prized players for the presumptuously long playoff campaign ahead.
The reigning NBA champs look to repeat their Eastern Conference dominance in a relatively feeble field of 8 teams, only the top 4 of which were more than 5 games over .500 in the regular season. While the marquee matchup of LeBron James and Pacers star Paul George has proven to make for an entertaining series, the Cavs will have no problem finishing their opening series after getting out to a quick 2-0 lead.
The Cavs boast the league’s third best offensive efficiency ranking, following the Warriors and Rockets. They are platooned by the trio of James, Irving, and power forward Kevin Love. The Cavs run an established lineup of players, with 2017 being the third year featuring the three All-Stars.
Irving has averaged 30 points over the first two games of the series, while Love played a pivotal role in Game 2, putting up 27 while going a flawless 12-12 from the free throw line. Supporting cast aside, LeBron’s abilities alone are enough to stifle a team like the Pacers.
He is a nightmare for any defense, as he can willingly create opportunities for either himself or a teammate. However, going deeper into the playoffs, Cleveland’s glaring weakness, its porous defense, will become increasingly apparent. The Cavs rank 20th in the NBA in points allowed per game (107.2). LeBron is the Cavs’ defensive anchor, and when he spends crucial playoff minutes resting, the Cavs defense will be exposed.
Irving in particular has shown himself to be a poor perimeter defender, which will prove a challenge when facing an opponent with greater offensive depth than the Pacers. Players such as Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson will play an important role on the defensive end, with Shumpert commanding a track record of staunch defense.
Overall, the Cavs have enough firepower to be the favorite to come out of the East to appear in their third straight Finals, but there is enough evidence to be dubious about the certainty of beating an ECF opponent such as the Celtics, even more so against the Warriors in the Finals.
Prediction: The Cavs pull it together and march their way into the Finals, but cannot contain the Warriors and lose in 5.
1. Boston Celtics
The Celtics begin the playoffs with a personal crisis striking their undeniable MVP, Isaiah Thomas. The day before Game 1 was to take place in Boston, Thomas’ half-sister Chyna was killed in a car accident. For obvious reasons, Thomas was visibly shaken up pregame (to the disliking of obstinate TV personality Charles Barkeley) but managed to put on a dazzling performance of 33 points and 6 assists en route to a 106-102 loss to the Bulls.
The famed organization left the decision of whether to play or not to Thomas himself, who admirably pushed on to perform up to his usual standards. The incident, while emotionally crippling, shouldn’t affect Thomas going forward, as he knows his team will rely on his efforts if they intend to delve further into later rounds of the playoffs.
While the Celtics are a heavy favorite against the eight-seeded Bulls, the Game 1 loss at home highlighted a lacking facet of the Celtics defensive schema: rebounding. Through three quarters, the Celtics yielded an astonishing 20 offensive rebounds to the larger Bulls unit, leading to 23 second-chance points. The Celtics rely heavily on center Al Horford for an effective inside presence, who managed to grab just 7 boards.
Putting up an impressive offensive display of 19 points, Boston will need Horford to remain a stalwart secondary scoring option to Thomas, who’s ability to drive to the cup opens and draw defenders to him open an opportunity for Horford. Moving forward, head coach Brad Stevens realizes he must instill a sense of urgency in his players when it comes to missed shots on the defensive end. Following Game 1, Stevens noted, “For the first 2 ½ quarters we didn’t rebound at all. And then, ultimately, they made big shots, so there were no rebounds to be had.”
Key players the Celtics will ask to step up to the task at hand include guards Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart. Both are defensive-minded players who will be assigned the daunting task of guarding Bulls star Jimmy Butler as well as seasoned playoff veterans Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade.
The Celtics are the better team and look to win the series handedly. However, after a Game 1 loss at home, Stevens and his squad must readjust to secure the boards to limit second chance points. Offensively, Thomas will be expected to maintain a high output of activity with a lending hand from other scoring options such as Horford and Bradley.
Prediction: Look for the Celtics to make a deep playoff run, presumably to face Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals. Despite a 0-2 start to their first series against the Bulls, their continues to be precedent to support the Celtics winning the series. With the somewhat unimpressive performances put on by the Cavs so far, the Celtics have a real chance to usurp the 2016 champions.