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The NBA playoffs are finally here (almost)

Houston Rockets' Chris Paul (3) and James Harden (13) celebrate in the second half during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Roar Guru
7th April, 2018
2

The NBA season has dragged on and on, just like the long Australian summer of cricket.

Unlike the Aussies, teams in the NBA don’t have the luxury of turning to sandpaper to make things better. Truth be told, the closest thing to a cheat code in the league is Steph Curry and there is a real chance he misses at least the first round of action.

Is there any chance that his absence sees them become the unlikeliest first-round loser in NBA playoff history? Well, no, but there are some teams that Steve Kerr and crew would rather not see if given the choice. So how will the playoffs look in a week’s time? Let’s glance into the crystal ball and give a narrative for each series.

Western Conference

Houston Rockets (1) v San Antonio Spurs (8)
The Rockets have sealed the #1 seed, meaning they can win the NBA title as long as they don’t lose at home. Of more immediate concern is their recent playoff history and the lack of big game players on their roster.

James Harden may win the MVP but he quit in the Spurs series last year, and that dark cloud sits over his head, while Chris Paul’s sure-fire Hall-of-Fame career does not include any conference finals action, let alone NBA finals action.

Even without Kahwi Leonard, San Antonio have the best defence in the league as far as points allowed and rank top five in opponent three-point percentage, three pointers attempted and field goal percentage.

We know what Houston are, and what they are do, but even without Leonard the Spurs are best placed to push them to a long series. If Kahwi finds a way to come back, a Houston implosion may be imminent!

Having said all that, this version of the Rockets seems well equipped to go deep into the playoffs and will handle the pesky Spurs in 5.

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Narrative – the Spurs as we know it are done, so where does Kahwi get traded to?

Golden State Warriors (2) v Minnesota Timberwolves (7)
The sky is blue, water is wet, and the Warriors are elite. No Curry robs them of their best player, and Kevin Durant is happy sitting back chugging wine and shooting the breeze with Bill Simmons as he continues to straddle the line between ‘maybe he is that real’ and ‘damn that boy is fake’.

If you haven’t listened to the two-part pod, do yourself a favour.

Anyway, I digress – most expect the Warriors to roll over the competition but without Curry, there are a couple of sides they do not want to see. But Minnesota poses a huge headache for them, assuming Jimmy Butler gets his legs under him and is back on court and productive.

The Wolves have posed problems for a fully fit Golden State team in recent years because they have no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns, and Jeff Teague may leave Quinn Cook’s corpse in a pile.

Yeah, I know Teague is far from elite but Cook? Spare me. Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green should do enough to win, but the series could easily go six games and Minnesota can play their starting five 40+ minutes a game without impact in the playoffs, which is handy because Thibs is going to do that anyway.

Of some concern is that the Wolves are middle of the road as far as opponent offensive rebounding totals go, but they rank second in both least turnovers and free throw percentage, both of which figure to be huge in a playoff series. Give me the Warriors in 6.

Narrative – does Steph Curry need to play in the second round against Portland, or can he rest?

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Golden State Warriors' guard Steph Curry (Photo: AP)

(Photo: AP)

Portland Trailblazers (3) v New Orleans Pelicans (6)
The Blazers have gone from woeful to competent defensively and head into Round 1 with arguably the best backcourt in the league. They rank top five in opponent field goal percentage, opponent points per game and team rebounding, and know that if they keep the game close, they have one of the NBA’s best closers in Damian Lillard.

The Pelicans will have the best player on the court in Anthony Davis, but we have been robbed in not being able to see him and DeMarcus Cousins together in the playoffs. Make no mistake, no team wants any part of the two best big men to be teammates since Duncan and Robinson.

Instead, we will get fed a steady diet of E’twaun Moore and Darius Miller and perhaps we get Playoff Rondo. When engaged, Rondo has defensively played the point guard role better than any player since Jason Kidd and while he is aging, he may well flick the switch.

Hell, Boston probably lose in the first round last season if he doesn’t get injured! If he does turn back the clock, the Pelicans can push the Blazers to six games but that’s as far as they go.

Narrative – Anthony Davis cannot do any more for the Pelicans…is it time for him to move on?

Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans

(Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons)

Utah Jazz (4) v Oklahoma City Thunder (5)
The Jazz are 26-5 in their last 31 games, and the biggest argument against them is that they will rely on a rookie in crunch time. Having said that, Donovan Mitchell is no normal rookie.

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Their rotation is solid, deep and flexible and they are coached by one of the shrewdest minds in the game.

Their defensive rating, defensive rebounding percentage and opponents points in the paint are all top five in the league, as are their opponent’s turnover percentage and opponent’s offensive rebounding percentage. Every game in this series figures to be slow and close and if Mitchell can handle the pressure of the playoffs, they can easily win this series.

They can play small with Jae Crowder at power forward, or go big with Derrick Favors on the floor and have the defensive dogs to throw at Russell Westbrook.

The Thunder lead the league in steals, offensive rebounds and forced turnovers and will fancy their chances of winning a half-court battle with the best player in the series. Of course, the loss of Andre Roberson is huge given Westbrook is selective in when he plays defence, but Paul George will not need to focus on one player against the Jazz, which could be a massive bonus for the Thunder.

Steven Adams against Rudy Gobert is worth the price of admission with cheap shots and tough play the order of the day; the Jazz are deeper but with shorter rotations, the Thunder’s lack of depth becomes a non-issue. This is a legitimate coin flip, but I give the edge to the Jazz winning Game 7 at home.

Narrative – the Thunder went all in and lost in the first round…bye Melo, and Billy Donovan too

Eastern Conference

Toronto Raptors (1) v Milwaukee Bucks (8)
The Raptors have changed the way they play, relying on the three-pointer despite their best player still not taking as many as he might do. They don’t turn the ball over, and they have a legitimate ten-man roster that has allowed them to interchange positions and dominate large portions of the regular season.

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However, they are stumbling towards the playoffs but will find relief in the form of a Milwaukee team that just doesn’t work. On talent alone, the Bucks are just better…the fact they wallow in eighth spot and are a likely easy out is equal parts indictment and development.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a generational talent who dominates games at both ends; Khris Middleton, Jabari Parker and Eric Bledsoe are handy supporting players. But it just hasn’t meshed despite a mid-season coaching change, and more changes are surely afoot over the summer.

Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Bucks in the NBA

(Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Both teams’ ranks bottom eight in second chance points, so Jonas Valanciunas is poised for a huge series if he can stay on the floor. Milwaukee rank 22nd in pace but force the second most turnovers. Their reliance on individual athleticism is apparent in the way they gamble on defence, a tactic that is fraught with danger against a Raptors team that commits the fourth-least turnovers in the league.

Toronto will thrive in front of a rabid home crowd who feels perennially disrespected, and one feels as though anything less than a Conference finals berth is a failure. It’s a safe bet that there is no upset on the cards here, and only the brilliance of Giannis prevents a sweep. The kid is so good the Bucks win twice, but Toronto close it out in six games.

Narrative – was Jason Kidd really the problem, and can Jabari and Giannis co-exist?

Boston Celtics (2) v Miami Heat (7)
The Celtics have been dealt as bad an injury hand as any team in recent memory. Gordon Hayward lasted five minutes, and Kyrie Irving may be done for the season.

Thoughts of him going head to head with LeBron in a back and forth playoff tussle might need to wait a year, but the Celtics would do anything to get him back for what could not only be a titanic series, but one that contains less legitimate star power than any other series in recent memory.

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The best two crunch players in this series could be Goran Dragic and Jayson Tatum…let that sink in for a minute. But that aside, two of the best coaches in the NBA will go tit for tat in what will be a long series.

Boston ranks first in opponent effective field goal percentage and second in opponent three point percentage, but Miami rank in the top ten in defensive rebounding and opponent second chance points.

Without Irving, the only Celtics able to create their own shots are two kids (Tatum and Jaylen Brown) and a loose cannon in Marcus Morris; Miami can turn to Dragic or Dwyane Wade, and surround them with a multitude of quality wings.

Boston still have enough quality to make a deep playoff push behind Tatum, Brown and Al Horford and you just know that Brad Stevens will formulate a gameplan to keep the games low scoring, slow and defensively minded.

The problem is that his opposite number Eric Spoelstra can match him at that game, and might have as flexible and solid a playoff rotation as there is outside Toronto. Miami have a legitimate nine man rotation that can play big, small, fast or slow and that will be able to guard the wings at an elite level.

If Irving cannot play, this series becomes a coin flip and I am going out on a limb with Miami winning in seven games.

Narrative – can this Miami team be more than a nuisance to LeBron?

Cleveland Cavaliers (3) v Washington Wizards (6)
LeBron James is good at basketball. I hear you saying ‘thanks for that, Captain Obvious’, but consider that the Cavs are 23-9 with Jose Calderon starting at point guard. Thanks folks, the East is a wrap as long as #23 is fit.

LeBron James

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Seriously though, this figures to be intriguing viewing as two key Cavs rotation players have never played in the post season (Larry Nance and Jordan Clarkson) and another has stunk when he has played (Rodney Hood).

Fully fit, the Wizards create match-up nightmares for the Cavs as John Wall and Bradley Beal will force J.R. Smith to put in some effort, and force Calderon off the floor. The fact Wall is coming back from injury is a concern, but Beal will present all kinds of problems for the Cavs.

Cleveland rank third in effective field goal and true shooting percentage, which has helped cover their anaemic defence. Their problems may not be exposed in this series; Washington are far from an effective offensive team, despite their talent. Marcin Gortat has been largely ineffective, meaning the Wiz will play small and in turn that allows the Cavs to play small to match-up effectively with Wall and Beal.

Nance and Kevin Love may spend some time playing together, with each providing elite skills at one end of the floor, and you wonder how much of this series will be experimental for later series as the Cavs look to get the mix right.

It is simple to favour the Cavs because they have LeBron, and if Wall were fit it might be a different story but Cleveland win in five games.

Narrative – does Tristan Thompson even get on the floor in this series, or the next?

Philadelphia 76ers (4) v Indiana Pacers (5)
The 76ers are the feel-good story of the season. Joel Embiid has been injury ravaged but has proven to be a truly once-in-a-lifetime talent in a time where the phrase is used far too often.

At both ends of the court, he is a difference maker and his health is critical for Philly. Ben Simmons hasn’t attempted a three-pointer, and can’t shoot, but is already one of the best 15 players in the world and doesn’t take any shit from anyone.

Lance Stephenson will play a role in this series, if only to try and get under Simmons’ skin, but the kid from Down Under looks unfazed at the best of times.

These two kids have only led the 76ers to the fourth ranked defensive rating, fourth ranked real plus-minus, as well as the top-ranked rebound percentage, and ranking first in opponent field goal percentage and second in opponent three-point percentage all the while playing at the fourth fastest pace in the league.

They will likely win 50 or so games, proving that we were all smart in trusting The Process.

One the other side of the court is the most surprising side in the league this season, led by the most improved player and the league’s newest superstar Victor Oladipo. Yeah, I said superstar…dude is the best shooting guard in the East, bar none.

Surround him with Myles Turner and Domantis Sabonis and a bunch of savvy vets like Darren Collison, Thad Young, Al Jefferson, Trevor Booker and this team is in this series up to its eyeballs.

Speaking of eyeballs, there is serious concern that Embiid won’t play because of the injury to his. In basketball terms, this would be a tragic outcome as these two teams are evenly matched – the Pacers defend the three-pointer very well, something that is key against this Philly team.

They also force the third-most turnovers in the league, but will be looking to slow the pace against the league’s fastest team. If they can turn the game into a half court battle, they will clog the lane and dare Simmons to shoot from distance.

If the game is fast they have no chance. The 76ers couldn’t have been more impressive, but everyone has been underselling the Pacers all season. Philly to win in seven games.

Narrative – forget The Process, can anyone say Eastern Conference Finalists?

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