Part Four Of The NBA’s First Round Playoff Preview

These will be very short and concise since my flight landed right as Game 1 of Jazz-Thunder was starting.

No.5 Utah Jazz vs. No.4 Oklahoma City Thunder

How the Jazz can win the series:  Donavan Mitchell is unstoppable.  The Thunder have multiple options for him (Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Terrance Ferguson).  It’s gonna be tough, but Mitchell could end up being a top ten player in the league someday.  This is only the beginning.

Utah ranked 2nd in defensive rating this year.  They are a literal wall.  If you put Ricky Rubio on Westbrook and Joe Ingles on Paul George, you’re in good shape.  Rubio’s tenaciousness can pester Russ, leading him to take more bad shots and try to do more than usual (Or, more than he already does).

That will happen at least once this series.  Russ will take 25 shots and hit eight or nine of them.  Will it happen four times?  Ehhhhhh

How the Thunder can win the series:  They have much more firepower than the Jazz.  When Russ is on, he’s unstoppable.  When Paul George is hot, he’s unstoppable.  When Carmelo Anthony is standing in the corner, he’s standing in the corner.

The Jazz’s defense is amazing.  But the bowling ball that Russ is should be able to get through it.  I would put a no jumpshots allowed rule on Russ.

Who wins?:  Oklahoma City in seven.  I think the Jazz are gonna make the Thunder work.  Mitchell will go off once, Russ will suck once or twice, and Utah will give OKC a “scare”.  I don’t like Oklahoma City enough to consider them heavy favorites in this series.


No.8 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No.1 Houston Rockets

Why the Timberwolves can win: Ummmmmm…. because the Rockets offense isn’t one that takes advantage of bad athletes?  Even though Houston’s offense is a historic one, it’s not only that’s really hard to guard.

Here’s what I mean:  Houston literally puts five guys around the arc.  Either James Harden or Chris Paul start with it and try to shake-and-bake someone.  If they do, it’s a bucket!  If they don’t, they pass it to the guy standing 10 feet to their left or right and he either shoots a three or tries to isolate.

Because of this, the Wolves aren’t getting their defenders put in pick and roll or ball screens.  They have to defend one-on-one and close-out on guys.  That should be a little easier for them.  I’m looking right at you, Andrew Wiggins!

None it matters though.  The Timberwolves still won’t play defense, and even if they did, Houston is still gonna nail 28 foot threes in their face, which the Wolves won’t be able to counter.

What happens if Harden and Houston choke this series, carrying on the Rockets’ tradition?  How would you explain that?

This is why Minnesota can’t win.

Why the Rockets can win: I really have to think hard about this.

Jimmy Butler can only guard one of Harden or Paul.  The Wolves are close to the bottom of the league in three point percentage.  Houston plays defense.  Yeah, it’s not hard.

Prediction:  Houston in five.  The Rockets will shoot cold one game, and Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns will take advantage.

Part Three Of The NBA’s First Round Playoff Preview

Sorry for this preview being so broken up.  Being on vacation means using hotel, airport and Starbucks Wifi to write, and not having much time in general.  Anyways, here is previews for today’s early games.  Previews of Thunder-Jazz and Timberwolves-Rockets will be up later.

No.7 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No.2 Boston Celtics

Just another brutal first round series.  Had not for Kyrie Irving’s season-ending injury, this would have been at least watchable.  Kyrie vs. Giannis would’ve been a delight.

Now, we’re watching a Boston team that can’t score vs. a Milwaukee team that’s honestly just bad at the fundaments of basketball.

I told you this was gonna be a brutal series.

I’m just salty about Milwaukee.  I had them winning 55 games, Giannis contending for MVP, Jabari Parker being awesome again and everything coming together.  Nope.

First of all, coaching hasn’t helped them with any of their deficiencies.  Jason Kidd had no idea how to rotate guys defensively or clock reasonable minutes.  The offense relied too heavily on Giannis, although as we’re still seeing it wasn’t Kidd’s fault entirely.

Joe Puntry hasn’t done a better job.  Nothing’s gotten better, and the Bucks are now the underachieving 7th seed that everyone wants to play.

The Bucks have serious issues, yet they’re so simple and so dumb.  The Bucks are like that 4th grade community league team that your son is playing on, and the refs are high schoolers and the coaches are Dads.  Their play is a mess.  They can’t catch passes.  They make dumb plays.  They have no awareness.  You get the point.

That’s the Bucks.  They don’t turn the ball over a lot, but when they do it’s at the most critical time.  It’s stuff like Khris Middleton accidentally stepping out of bounds, or Giannis taking a jumpshot when he shouldn’t.

Brad Stevens has to be licking his chops.  This is a suicide mission for the Bucks from that point of view.  Joe Puntry sounds like the owner of your local farm store.

The Celtics don’t really have anyone primed for Giannis (Who does?).  I guess you slap Jaylen Brown on him and hope that switching can catch him off guard and force bad shots (Not hard in Milwaukee’s offense).  That would force the ball to go elsewhere, which, given the play of Milwaukee’s offense lately, sounds like a pretty good plan.

But in a vacuum, the Bucks should be much better.  They have fiery guards in Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, both who are crafty with the ball and can shoot off the ball, though both have been in that 35% gray area from beyond the arc this season.  Middleton is an excellent scorer, and hasn’t regressed like others this year, but may not be suited for a secondary role.

The Bucks have to get guys to step up.  Getting this banged up Boston team was their only chance of winning in the first round.  The story of the Bucks has been when the ball isn’t in Giannis’ hands, things don’t work out.  That can’t be the case in this series.

Boston may not be able to totally slow down Giannis, but as this season has taught us, Giannis himself isn’t enough.  Couple that with the shortcomings on Milwaukee’s defensive end, and the Bucks are looking at a poor matchup.

What Milwaukee does have that Boston doesn’t is a closer.  The Celtics offensive rating plummeted to 101.9 when Kyrie was off the court this year, compared to 108.7 when he was on it, per NBA.com.  Now the Celtics are staring at that first number 100% of the time.

Without Kyrie, the Celtics are looking to Terry Rozier dribbling the ball just a little too much, 20 year old Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward’s Players Tribune videos for offensive production.  I would include Marcus Smart, but he’s not scheduled to come back from his own injury until Game 6, if the series gets that far. Smart, even though he’s a loose cannon, would be a huge upgrade over anyone the Celtics currently have on the offensive end.  The shots don’t always go in, but when they do, they’re at pivotal points in the game.  That alone would give Boston a chance at the end of games.

The offensive concerns I have about Boston may not matter though.  They could go old-school, and bang down low with Al Horford and Aron Baynes.  The Bucks pretend that rim protection doesn’t exist.  They have to put Giannis down there half the time, since John Henson just isn’t strong enough to contest shots, and Thon Maker seems like a swing and miss on a potential home run pick (Which, is okay.  It was worth it).

Boston will have to take what it can get offensively, which could be enough given Milwaukee’s likely overall disarray.  Tatum probably won’t be consistent, but he will have moments.  And those moments are gonna be the ones that carry Boston.  I expect Horford to get the ball a lot, Rozier to be subdued a little bit, and Tatum have plays ran for him.  No matter how basic or weak it is, Milwaukee won’t be able to guard it.  They’re just that bad on that end.

Picking against Giannis is scary.  Picking against Brad Stevens is terrifying.  In close series, systems give the edge.

Milwaukee will get a couple games.  Giannis is too good, and Boston will have a game where the ball just doesn’t go in.

Prediction: Celtics in 6


No.5 Indiana Pacers vs. No.4 Cleveland Cavaliers

I don’t think we talked enough about the fact that a LeBron James led team fell to the 4th seed in the East.  The Sixers had a better record!

What the Cavaliers did at the deadline certainly helped, but it didn’t really bring them above and beyond.  Getting back to normal was probably the first goal, and it was met, but any reach above that level would have been nice.

It didn’t happen, which led to LeBron going into one-man wrecking crew mode and putting up insane stat-lines night after night.

Indiana has also been a one-man wrecking crew, with Victor Olidipo running the show.

That might be as simple as this series gets.

The Pacers are fine defensively.  They don’t have many of the stretchy, three-and-d wings the league possess right now, but their alternative has gotten them this far. The Pacers love to play three guard sets, with a stretch 4 in the corner and Myles Turner anchoring down low.

What that means is that they don’t have someone they can just plant on LeBron.  Sure, no one does, but some teams have a rotation of guys who can at least make him work.  Indiana’s best bet is probably Olidipo, which is problematic given the offensive load he must supply (30.1% usage rate this season).

This is a bad matchup for Indiana.  If you maximize your resources for LeBron, then you’re leaving shooters open.  This is a Cleveland team that can catch fire quickly.  If you don’t put pressure on LeBron, well, he’s torching you.  That alone may not work for the Cavaliers later on this postseason, but it will in this series.

Cleveland needs to let LeBron do everything.  It’s not great for durability and enjoyment purposes, but it’s the best option they’ve got.  And more importantly, it will work.

Defensively, stick George Hill on Olidipo.  The Cavaliers backcourt has been trash, but Hill is a pest defensively.  This is why you went and got him.  The biggest advantage every team will have over Cleveland is the guard play.   Indiana has that as well, but they lack the firepower around Olidipo for it to matter. LeBron may not get to the Finals, but Indiana won’t be the team to knock him out.

The Cavs horrific defense will give up at least one game up. They have that special ability to get absolutely ran in any game. Olidipo will put up 34 one night, and maybe Bojan Bogdanovic hits seven threes in another game and forces Cleveland’s hand.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6

Part Two: A Pelicans-Trail Blazers Mini Preview

The rest of the first round previews will go up tomorrow morning.

No.6 New Orleans Pelicans vs. No.3 Portland Trail Blazers

This series is a matchup of late-season bloomers.  The Pelicans seemed done after DeMarcus Cousins went down.  Portland was stuck in the middle until Damian Lillard went to another level, and elevated the Trail Blazers like Isaiah Thomas did to the Celtics last Spring.

The difference is that one of these late season runs made sense.  Portland frustrated me.  When Lillard and CJ McCollum were off the floor, they were screwed offensively.  They didn’t have any reliable shot-makers, or any sort of system.  That was until Shabazz Naiper started playing like UCONN Shabazz Naiper.

For Portland, it was all about guys finally reaching their potential.  We had been waiting for this.  We had been waiting for Portland to turn into a contender.

That was not the case with the Pelicans.  Ever.

What Anthony Davis did over the last 30 games of the season was magnificent.  It was a MVP performance, yet won’t get any credit since there were 2-3 other late MVP runs being made (Dame, Russell Westbrook, LeBron).  It was the classic put the team on your back performance.  Sure, Jrue Holiday started playing better and the Nikola Mirotic trade helped, but those guys aren’t capable of handling the load AD had.  AD took it on and powered through.

The bad news for Portland is that they will struggle to guard Davis, like anyone else would.  The good news is that they have all the firepower in the world, and that no matter what Davis does offensively, it won’t be enough.

The Trail Blazers’ best bet is probably Zach Collins.  Slapping a rookie on one of the eight best players in the league in a playoff series is usually a poor decision.  But Jursurf Nurkic is too lumbering to even attempt the task.  Davis doesn’t play down low; he sets up on the perimeter and goes to work.  Collins has quicker feet; he can defend more actively out there than anyone else on Portland.

Portland can also switch Al-Farouq Aminu onto Davis, but in that scenario Davis will post up from 15 feet out and back Aminu down.

Portland’s defensive play has risen this year.  They ranked 9th in defensive rating, stunningly good considering how bad Lillard and McCollum are on that end and how variable Nurkic can be.  But when Nurkic’s on, he’s a monster at the rim.  That, combined with their versatility from guys like Aminu, Mo Harkless (Who’s gonna miss the beginning of this season) and Evan Turner have plagued teams.

That’s gonna be a problem for New Orleans, who struggles to shoot three and has trouble getting the offense going without Davis.  Sure, playoff Rajon Rondo is incoming, but he won’t be able to match the firepower of Lillard, McCollum and the three-and-D wings of Portland.  Plus, the Pelicans are horrific defensively.

The Pelicans will have to feed Davis when he’s on the court and hope it’s enough.  Davis may put up massive numbers, but the end result won’t be pretty.

Can they get a game?  Possibly.  They’re gonna have to hope Portland goes cold, and Davis would have to put up 50-15-11 with five threes and six blocks to go along with it.

Prediction: Trail Blazers in 4

Part One Of The NBA’s First Round Playoff Preview

Since I am currently on vacation in San Francisco, the previews of the first round of the NBA Playoffs will be rolling out through Saturday and Sunday.  Below are previews for Spurs-Warriors, Wizards-Raptors and Heat-Sixers.  A Pelicans-Blazers preview will be up later this afternoon, and previews of the other series will be up tomorrow morning.

No.7 San Antonio Spurs vs. No.2 Golden State Warriors 

The Eastern Conference matchups were always gonna be more intriguing.  But man, did the scenarios that played out Wednesday create some duds of a series out West.  Spurs-Warriors?  Blazers-Pelicans?  Bucks-Celtics?  Wouldn’t you rather watch Oklahoma City-Portland in the first round?  Or 76ers-Cavaliers?

Anyways, we have to work with what we got.  The Warriors are fine with that.  San Antonio was their best case scenario.  Stephen Curry will not be playing in this series due to a lingering knee injury.  Golden State is limping into the playoffs, most likely due to boredom.  They finished the season on a 7-10 run, which isn’t exactly the definition of momentum.

There’s not a massive reason to be concerned, though.  Had Golden State somehow drawn Portland or OKC in the first round, then we could be a little concerned.  But this is the Spurs, who haven’t really been my fancy this season.  Watching them without Kawhi Leonard is brutal, and even though LaMarcus Aldridge turning back into his MVP candidate-self has been delightful, San Antonio just hasn’t been a team I’ve enjoyed watching.

It’s a lot of postups and slow moving basketball, combined with the wizardy of Gregg Popovich and whatever spiritual stuff the Spurs have going for them that’s gotten them to where they are now.  I wrote before the season that this roster was a 30-35 win caliber one if Kawhi didn’t come back, and that if they exceeded that total, then Pop was unquestionably Coach of the Year.  I’m still deciding if I’m gonna follow through on that.

The Spurs have won with defense this year; some of their lineups possess stunningly low defensive ratings.  When comparing them to Golden State, it matters.  The Spurs win games cause of it, and Golden State loses games cause of it.

The counter to that is that Golden State hasn’t gave a single crap defensively all season and still ranked 9th in defensive rating.  They’re not even trying and they’re top ten defensively.

That’s gonna be a huge issue for the Spurs.  The slow, methodical basketball won’t cut it against the Warriors, who are going to be locked in on both ends.  We won’t see the settling from we saw from Golden State in the regular season.

Don’t be fooled by the Warriors taking only the 17th most threes per game in the league this year.  They still have two of the ten best shooters ever (Klay and KD.  Yes KD is top ten all-time in shooting).  That can be unleashed at any time.  It just hasn’t been this season.

The Warriors stepping it up defensively will be the key to this series.  Playoff Draymond Green will slow down LaMarcus, and the Warriors’ switchability can clog any passing lanes the Spurs try to create.  Poor effort from the Warriors could let the Spurs hang around in games, but the Warriors crunch-time presence and experience will reign.  Yeah, the Spurs don’t really have all the experience any more; Tony Parker and Manu Gibnobli’s presence helps, but the Spurs can’t afford those guys to be out there at the end of games.  Dejounte Murray, the closest thing San Antonio has to a crunch-time guy, is 21 years old.  Four years ago he was my age watching Golden State win the title.  Now he’s playing against them in the first round.

The Warriors should be capable of sweeping this Spurs team.  A lackluster start, poor shooting or a lack of effort defensively could make one game close, but I still trust the Warriors to pull away in the end.  Letting this get to six games could hurt Golden State later in the playoffs.

Prediction:  Warriors in 4


No.8 Washington Wizards vs. No.1 Toronto Raptors 

It seems insane that the Wizards slipped all the way to the eighth seed.  They felt like another classic Wizards 3-4-5 seed that was never gonna make conference finals.  But then the East got cluttered like the West, and Washington lost a couple of really, really bad games (I’m looking right at you, Scott Brooks and John Wall in that Cavaliers game from a week ago!).

That Cavs loss was so bad that from it, Washington deserved the 8th seed.  I mean, Washington literally ran the same John Wall pull-up mid-range jumper two times on back-to-back possession when they needed a bucket late.  Both missed, expectedly so.

Washington has been the same team for years:  They can beat anyone on a given night or lose to anyone on a given night.

Toronto, until this season, was that.  Give Dwane Casey props.  He realized that they couldn’t keep isolating every time, so he instilled ball movement and elevated their ceiling offensively.  Toronto’s offense this year ranked only behind Golden State’s and Houston’s.  Not bad.

That doesn’t mean we can let the past out of our view though.  If there’s one doubt I’ve had about them this season, it’s the playoff history.  They’ve just never been able to win when it mattered.

What makes this series difficult, interesting and brutal at the same time is that both teams have the same history and the same issues.  It’s gonna come down to who chokes first, not executes.

You just can’t feel great about either team.  Both have guards who have a flared past chemistry wise, have coaches who have shown that they aren’t all that great, and have the same affinity for choking in the clutch.

This series might go nine games because nobody will figure out how to pull ahead of the other.

When it’s this tight, small things can make a huge difference.  For example, Toronto averaged the 3rd most three point field attempts in the league this year.  They were 18th in three point percentage.

Washington, on the other hand, shot the three very well, but only did it in a limited fashion.  They shot 26.5 threes a game, 23rd in the league.

It might seem backwards, but this works in Toronto’s favor.  They’re more equipped to spread the floor due to their depth.  Toronto can go small ball, and get Jonas Valancuinas off the floor.  The bench unit, which includes Pascal Siakim and Jakob Poeltl, has a 116.2 offensive rating compared to the starters’ of 112.9.

Toronto is more willing to move the ball, which creates more open shots, and more open threes.  The math has to allow something, for once, to break, and in this series, that could be huge.

At the same time, this is the playoffs, and Toronto loves to forget how to preform when they come around.  Kyle Lowry’s role has been deflated a bit; he’s scoring less and doesn’t have the ball as much.  What if he gets a little angsty and wants the ball?  “This is my time,” he’ll proclaim.  “Does DeRozan think he’s good or something?”

Plus, as good as the Toronto bench is, they’re young and inexperienced, and may not be able to handle the load they supported in the regular season.  Then again, even if they do fall off, they’re still probably better than Washington’s.

It’s becoming hard to make a case for Washington in this series.   Putting a lot of confidence in their chemistry and coaching doesn’t feel right, then again, neither does Toronto whooping anyone’s butt either.

It’s possible this series goes seven games not because of how good each team is but because of how bad each team is capable of playing when things ramp up.  It could seriously be a colossal collapse by each squad in every game.

It’s easier to see things crumble for the Wizards, though.  They’ll make it close, because Bradley Beal will have a game, Otto Porter will hit six threes in another game, and maybe Toronto shoots poorly to get it to Game 7.  The last scenario is unlikely.

Prediction: Raptors in 6

 


No.6 Miami Heat vs. No.3 Philadelphia 76ers

This is the series NBA hipsters are waiting for.  James Johnson small-ball lineups?  Richaun Holmes’ versatility on both ends?  Josh Richardson’s underrated defense?  Lets gooooooo!

This series is fascinating.  Both teams have immaculate versatility, which is displayed by their switching on the defensive end and their ball movement on the offensive end.  It’s beautiful to watch.

Miami has the tougher task.  Stopping Ben Simmons is the whole league’s nightmare right now.  He’s gone up a level in the last month.  The passing and attacking with the basketball has been astonishing.

The Heat were 7th in defensive rating, and have the lengthy wings needed for excellent defense in today’s NBA.  But nobody has anyone for Simmons.  The Heat don’t as well.

The Heat are great off-the-ball.  They close out and are long enough to switch consistently.  They were above average when defending the three point line.  But Simmons doesn’t possess that threat, and it’s somehow an advantage.

Despite a performance that’s gonna land him on an All-Defense team, Josh Richardson doesn’t have the size to keep up with Simmons.  His athleticism allows him to make any pass, whether it’s a kick-out to the perimeter or scoop under the basket.

Miami doesn’t have anyone to contain that.  With Joel Embiid out at least one game, the Sixers are gonna have to rely on Simmons to give them matchup advantages.

The problem with Philadelphia is that Simmons, WHO IS DEFINITELY A ROOKIE, is a rookie.  He’s never done this before.  Embiid hasn’t done this before.  Neither are real closers either.  Who’s Philly going to at the end of games?

Sure, guys like Marco Belinelli, JJ Redick and Ersan Ilyasova help when it comes to a furnacing a young team.  But the ball screens on the perimeter that Philadelphia loves to run for Redick and Belinelli doesn’t work with two minutes left in Game 5 of a playoff game.

This is the role that Markelle Fultz was gonna play this season.  Despite the flashes, you can’t expect that in these playoffs.  Plus, he’s a rookie too.  Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.

This is how Miami wins the series.  The Heat lack a go-to guy as well, but have a well-rounded, deep roster that can throw out any lineup they want.  Miami swings the ball like the Spurs; it kicks out and around like a pinball and is only shot when a lane opens up or a three is available.  It’s marvelous, and it’s all thanks to Erik Spolestra, who knows how to get 110% out of his guys.

Philly is long and athletic.  They’ve been a menace defensively, ranking 3rd in defensive rating.  But a lot of that has been due to Embiid’s presence at the rim.  Miami has to take advantage of that for however long he is out.  While Simmons and Robert Covington are good defensively, Redick and Belinelli are not.  When Philly switches and the Heat get Richardson or Goran Dragic on of those two, it’s go-time.    The Sixers have depth in the front court. but nobody affects the game quite like Embiid.  His return will be huge.

Miami has to steal the games the Sixers play without Embiid.  Philly is too talented for Miami to win every game based on skill and being better.  The Heat have the infrastructure to do both.

The Hassan Whiteside dilemma bothers me.  A lot of people are passing over it like it was just another thing, but I think we need to consider it more seriously.  This is a guy whose effort fluctuates.  Yes, Embiid is motivation.  But even if the motivation is there, who says Whiteside handles Embiid?  What makes Embiid special is the athleticism and ball-handling skills.  He’s a bucket-getter.  Miami had to bench Whiteside in crunch-time just a couple weeks ago since he crams the paint doesn’t allow for as much spacing.  He kinda just lumbers around.  That doesn’t work anymore.  It won’t in this series.  What happens when Embiid spaces Whiteside out to the perimeter?  That will happen, and it makes Philadelphia deadly.  James Johnson is a much better option, but we also need to consider to even Johnson, a skilled, stretchy defender, may not have a chance.  We’re dealing with a Hall of Fame talent from Embiid.  Nobody has an answer for that.  I have no doubt he’ll be back sooner that later, and that’ll power the Sixers through.

Miami will get a game or two due to the Sixers inexperience.  If it’s close at the end, it’s anyone’s game.

Prediction: Sixers in 6