I, much like the NBA 2019-2020 regular season, experienced a bit of a shutdown. But, also like the NBA, I am back and, well, I’m back. The seeding games and play-in tournament have come to an end, meaning the playoffs start today. Before we begin, I’d like to discuss some major storylines before the postseason gets underway.
Will Chris Paul Get His Revenge?
When I did my Western Conference predictions at the start of the season (almost a year ago), the Oklahoma City Thunder were not in my playoff picture. I didn’t give them much consideration; no one did. Us in the media believed Paul would be dealt to the Miami Heat or another contender, leaving OKC in a rebuild.
CP3 has put us all to shame, as he has led this Thunder team to the fifth seed in the Western Conference. His über-efficient play earned him an All-Star selection and re-earned him league wide respect he shouldn’t have lost in the first place. His leadership alongside growth from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, solid play from Steven Adams, and bench production from Dennis Schröder has coach Billy Donovan looking like a Coach of the Year candidate.
Where did Paul get dealt from last summer? That would be the Houston Rockets, who received Russell Westbrook in exchange for the “point-god”. After trading away Clint Capela, the Rockets have played “microball”, a style that has unleashed the best Westbrook we’ve ever seen. He’s attacking the paint like a maniac and no longer hucks up bad threes. Oh, and James Harden is still dropping 34.3 PPG, leading the league in scoring for the third straight year. Combine their stellar backcourt production with shooters who have the neon light, and you have a high-octane offense.
The fact that these two teams have identical records and are facing off in the first round can only be described as epic. Three stars in Paul, Westbrook, and Harden, playing against their former teams. The Rockets having the two best players in the series would normally be the favourites. However, this is 2020.
Russell Westbrook’s quad strain will cause him to miss at least the first game, maybe two or three. If that is the case, the Thunder can key in on James Harden; while he’ll still perform, that increased attention will tire him out and force him to rely on his teammates. Sure, the Rockets can get hot from three some nights, but they can also go ice cold. Will they have enough to stay afloat if/when Russell returns?
On the other side, it remains to be seen how impactful Steven Adams will be in a series like this. The Rockets are susceptible to being dominated on the glass, so you’d expect Adams to excel there, especially on the offensive glass. When it comes to defending, is Adams comfortable being on the perimeter and contesting shots, or will his tendency to stay in the paint lead to him being played off the floor? Billy Donovan could tinker with Danilo Gallinari playing the five for stretches, but will that hold up defensively?
Westbrook or no Westbrook, this will likely be the most entertaining first round matchup, and if you ask me, I want to see Chris Paul take the W against the team that thought he was “washed”.
Pacers vs Heat: Round…What Are We At Now?
January 10th, 2020: I didn’t have class, so I got a haircut, bought groceries, and cleaned my new apartment that was filthy from my subletter. Why is this at all relevant? While cleaning my fridge, I clearly remember watching an ESPN video discussing the Jimmy Butler-TJ Warren altercation from two nights before. For Jimmy Butler, this didn’t come across as a surprise. A truly self-made star, he’s done worse than exchange pleasantries and blow a kiss. It was TJ Warren who shocked me. Being acquired from the Phoenix Suns for cash considerations, I knew he was a solid scorer, but not one to engage in such activities that could lead to an ejection. Seven months later, and while we look back fondly on that January matchup, the narrative regarding these two players and their respective teams has changed.
While Damian Lillard was named the Bubble MVP – should’ve been Devin Booker – TJ Warren was easily the biggest surprise of the restart. He averaged 31 PPG on 58/52/89 splits, including a career high 53 points against the Philadelphia 76ers. People slept on the Indiana Pacers coming into the bubble. All-Star Domantas Sabonis injured his left foot prior to the bubble, adding to Jeremy Lamb’s ACL & meniscus tear from February. Additionally, Victor Oladipo’s playing status was a rollercoaster to follow, and while he ultimately ended up playing, this isn’t the 2018 Most Improved Player. Despite all that, the Pacers went 6-2 in the bubble and secured the fourth seed.
The Miami Heat started the season at on fire, and though they’d cooled down towards the end of the “regular” regular season, they are still a very talented team. Many view them as the team that poses the greatest threat to the Milwaukee Bucks, with a long list of defenders to throw at Giannis (or any star) and their litany of shooters. While they only went 3-5 in the bubble, they played well, even with Jimmy Butler missing a few games. With their leader healthy, they believe they can go all the way this year.
One of the Heat’s bubble wins came against the Pacers, where they limited Warren to a bubble-low 12 points. Does this give us an accurate glimpse into how the series will go? Maybe, maybe not. Nate McMillan and Erik Spoelstra are two excellent coaches who will ensure their teams will play hard. Will we get another Warren-Butler flare up? Can Oladipo look more like himself? Will Miami’s shooters get hot and outshoot the Pacers? We’ll find out starting tomorrow.
Are We Still Trusting the Process?
The Philadelphia 76ers are easily the most disappointing NBA team this season. While awkwardly constructed, many expected them to challenge the Bucks with their size and talent. They did in fact prove they can beat the league’s best teams…as long as they were at home. With a putrid road record, a team who I predicted would finish second in the East is now a sixth seed. Joel Embiid is a superstar who doesn’t play like it every game. Ben Simmons doesn’t shoot threes consistently enough for defenses to change how they guard him. Tobias Harris is a borderline All-Star at best who’s getting paid like a max player. And speaking of bad contracts, the Horford signing has been the worst of last summer’s free agency. Having never played the power forward position before, he has struggled to play alongside Embiid, ruining the already poor spacing.
Coach Brett Brown decided to “shake” things up heading into the bubble. Horford would be moved to bench while guard Shake Milton would enter the starting lineup, sliding Simmons to the four. It was projected to give the starting five more shooting and allow the Sixers to have “Embiid’s team” and “Horford’s” team. Did this work? Well, they allowed TJ Warren to drop a fifty-piece on them, they lost Simmons to a knee injury, and Embiid isn’t 100% entering the postseason.
It’s a shame that Simmons is out, as their matchup against the Boston Celtics would likely be in their favour. The Sixers went 3-1 against the C’s this season as they were simply too big for Boston’s perimeter players. With “playoff Embiid” fully focused, I wouldn’t have given the Celtics much of a chance. But without their best defender and passer, it’s Philadelphia who will likely be eliminated. Can they steal a game by making it slow and ugly? Potentially. But I woefully underestimated this Celtics team; they are extremely talented and Jayson Tatum & Jaylen Brown have stepped up in ways I never expected. Add a healthier Kemba Walker, underrated Gordon Hayward, and the genius Brad Stevens, Philadelphia can’t compete.
What comes next for Philly is quite a depressing thought. While you never want someone to be unemployed, Brett Brown will likely be fired. I still think you give the Simmons-Embiid project another year under a “better” coach. You’d hope to surround the star duo with more shooting, but that is hard to come by, especially with Philly’s cap situation. The Process was once glamorous and exciting; now, the dream is turning into a nightmare.
Can the Blazers Upset the Lakers?
The bubble has not been very kind to the Los Angeles Lakers. Their offense was so bad, they went from a top fifth to eleventh in offensive rating IN EIGHT GAMES. As a team, they had splits of 43.8/30.3/72.4; the former two rank last compared to all bubble teams while FG% is second-last. While their ranking didn’t slip, their defensive rating did. They just didn’t seem to have the momentum or cohesiveness they had in March.
Should Lakers fans be concerned? Yes and no.
You never want to see your team struggle as much as L.A. did. For a team with title aspirations, you hold them to a higher standard of play. These struggles point out just how top heavy they are and how much they’re going to miss Avery Bradley. Their backcourt rotation now relies heavily on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Alex Caruso; while all “solid” players, none have the combination of defense and spacing Bradley provided. All three shot poorly from behind the arc in the seeding games as well. On the interior – where the Lakers should hold a massive advantage – their bigs didn’t seem all that threatening, particularly Javale McGee. Anthony Davis was wildly inconsistent with his play was disappointing and cannot fly if the Lakers stand a chance in the postseason.
HOWEVER, the seeding games didn’t mean as much for the Lakers as it did most other teams. They got the first seed locked up, which while less valuable than normal, still helps their matchup chances. Once that was confirmed, you saw them tinkering with different lineups, often resting a star and some key contributors players each game to get deep role players some time and rhythm. While it doesn’t totally excuse the poor showing, they didn’t have much to play for anyways.
Following an exciting race for the eighth seed and play-in tournament, the Portland Trailblazers have earned the right to face the Lakers in the first round. Damian Lillard is the hottest player in the bubble at the moment, as he averaged 51.3 PPG in the final three seeding games before sealing the Blazers’ play-in win with 31 points against the Memphis Grizzlies. There is no doubt that Dame, and to a lesser degree, CJ McCollum, will be a problem for the Lakers’ already weak backcourt.
Let’s take a moment to analyze the Blazers’ last few opponents. They beat the Sixers by three, who were already without Simmons and lost Embiid five minutes in. Then the Dallas Mavericks by three, who are certainly talented, but are lacking defensively guard-wise. After, they beat the Brooklyn Nets by one, a team who is missing basically their whole starting lineup. And finally, the Grizzlies by four, who are without Jaren Jackson Jr. and without his defensive abilities, it’s been extremely tough for this young team.
I don’t mean to take away from Dame’s insane performances at all. But if he needed such Herculean scoring outputs to beat mostly mediocre teams, do you really think the Blazers pose much of a threat to the Lakers? Sure, Dame can steal a game, maybe two, but the Blazers have no one to defend LeBron James. They just don’t defend, period. And while the Blazers have size to somewhat match the Lakers, when Anthony Davis is at center, I don’t see Portland stopping the pick and roll between him and LeBron.
Would you have liked the Lakers to have looked sharper in the seeding games. 100%. But do you really think a team led by LeBron and AD can’t figure it out? You’d have to be crazy to think that (sorry, not sorry Chuck).