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