The foreign flavour is only getting stronger in the NBA.
No LeBron James in the post-season means less attention from bandwagon fans but the pressure is still on a host of big names to prove they can cut the mustard when the lights burn brightest.
Apart from Giannis Antetokounmpo and his defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, just about every team in the post-season features a player who has talked a good game in the playoffs but failed to deliver.
The likes of Chris Paul, James Harden, Paul George (probably), Joel Embiid, last season’s MVP Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic and Jimmy Butler enter the playoffs lacking a premiership ring on their resume but have a golden chance to show they can take the final step with LeBron and his Lakers falling off a cliff to not even make the play-in game.
Not that any side was fearing LeBron’s squad this season as they bumbled their way out the back door but for the past decade, his juggernaut teams have been a near constant threat in the playoffs.
Apart from the Bucks, the only other teams that can go into the playoffs with a carefree attitude are the Memphis Grizzlies, who have exceeded all expectations to finish second in the Western Conference.
Here’s how the first-round match-ups are likely to shake out.
(1) Phoenix Suns v (8) LA Clippers/(9) New Orleans Pelicans: With the final play-in eliminator still to be held on Saturday, the two squads are battling it out for the right to be squashed by the Suns. George’s playoff record is his Achilles heel and unless Kawhi Leonard makes what would be a characteristically clandestine but highly unlikely return from his ACL tear, the Suns will probably sweep whichever team they face. Prediction: Suns in 4
(2) Memphis Grizzlies v (7) Minnesota Timberwolves: There will be no fear in the eyes of Ja Morant and his fellow Grizzlies young guns, particularly after Minnesota’s main man Karl-Anthony Towns was ineffective in their play-in win over the Clippers. Grizzlies in 5
(3) Golden State Warriors v (6) Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic should probably win back-to-back MVPs for the job he’s done dragging Denver to sixth in the West despite the award almost always going to a third seed or higher. Steph Curry looks at long odds to be making his return from a four-week layoff with a foot injury until at least midway through the series but the Warriors should still have too much firepower for the Nuggets. Warriors in 6
(4) Dallas Mavericks v (5) Utah Jazz: It feels like the beginning of the end of an era at Utah with coach Quin Snyder, star guard Donovan Mitchell and centre Rudy Gobert potentially on the move if this playoff run ends in heartache again. Doncic, once he shed his excess weight during a mid-season layoff, has been lighting it up but he has a lingering calf problem and could miss the first two matches so the Mavericks are not the near certainties they should be to advance to a second-round showdown with Phoenix. Mavericks in 7
(1) Miami Heat v (8) Cleveland Cavaliers/(9) Atlanta Hawks. The Heat are unlikely to get a player named in the three All NBA teams, which can be seen as a slap in the face or a hallmark of their team-first mentality. The Cavs have battled valiantly as injuries mounted but tailed off as the season has progressed and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Atlanta upset them at home in the final play-in but it would be a shock if either team got more than a game off Miami. Heat in 5
(2) Boston Celtics v (7) Brooklyn Nets: Easily the most intriguing first-round contest with Kyrie Irving up against his old team alongside Kevin Durant, keen to make up for last season’s dramatic exit at the hands of Milwaukee. The Celtics have been rapid improvers in the second half of the season with their defensive presence but Brooklyn have the offensive arsenal to cause an upset. Nets in 7
(3) Milwaukee Bucks v (6) Chicago Bulls. After being swept by the Bucks in their four regular-season meetings and their inability to compete with the higher-ranked teams, Chicago could be seeing brooms. Second-year forward Patrick Williams will be burdened with the task of stopping/slowing/politely asking Giannis to stay away from the rim. The Bulls are no chance in this one. Bucks in 4
(4) Philadelphia 76ers v (5) Toronto Raptors: The absence of Boomers defensive stopper Matisse Thybulle from this series for at least two, perhaps three, games could be decisive. Philadelphia don’t have a gun defender to chase Toronto’s jump-shooters so a lot will fall on Embiid’s shoulders at both ends of the floor. Harden, quite frankly, needs to harden up because his recent form since the Ben Simmons trade has been poor and no one is under more scrutiny for their history of playoff capitulations than the rapidly ageing former MVP.
Aussies in the Big Show
There’s only three left now – Patty Mills at Brooklyn, Josh Green at Dallas and Matisse Thybulle at Philadelphia – unless Ben Simmons suits up for the Nets.
A red line hasn’t been put through his name but the chances of him returning to the court this season seem pretty remote as he rehabs his back injury.
Nets coach Steve Nash said before the play-in win over Cleveland there was no update on the timetable for Simmons’ return after he received an epidural injection a month ago.
“He is moving more, he’s shooting, he’s starting to move a little bit on the court in a one-on-0 environment, so definitely positive signs, and it’s improving and moving, all those things,” he said.
“But like I said, he hasn’t been running full speed or playing against anybody so still a lot of markers to meet.”
The less said about his outfit while sitting courtside in the win over Cleveland, the better.
Saturday’s play-in eliminators
Hawks at Cavaliers (9.30am AEST): Trae Young can lead Atlanta past the fading Cleveland side which has punched above its weight but has run out of puff.
Pelicans at LA Clippers (12pm): Paul George’s Clippers are favoured on their home floor but no guarantee against a New Orleans side which is firing on the back of the offence provided by Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum and Jonas Valunciunas, and the defensive dynamo that is rookie cult hero Herb Jones.
Sunday – the real stuff begins
Jazz at Mavericks (3am AEST), Timberwolves at Grizzlies (5.30am), Raptors at 76ers (8am) and Nuggets v Warriors (10.30am).