Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:04 AM
NBA Playoff Essentials
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It’s pretty wild no one knew who they were squaring off against in postseason until the final games tipped off on Wednesday night.
After Milwaukee came out with no intention of being competitive against Philadelphia, it became clear we’d see the Pacers open in Cleveland but determining all of the other matchups required other games to go final. The Heat and Raptors went into OT. So did the battle for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference between Minnesota and Denver.
It was a fun season livened up by the excitement of the final week but featured too many buzzkills to be considered great.
Kyrie Irving won’t participate in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is likely done too. DeMarcus Cousins will be in a suit on the bench for his first postseason “appearance”. Stephen Curry won’t be part of the first round. Jimmy Butler got back just in time to go and Joel Embiid is expected to do the same when the weekend arrives, sporting a black mask.
Over the course of the regular season, you’ve read columns commenting on most NBA teams, but given the roller-coaster ride the Warriors and Cavs have taken us on, it feels like I’ve been writing about how to approach the matchup most anticipated when the regular season began, the seemingly inevitable Cleveland-Golden State, Part IV.
When things looked bleakest for the Cavs, after losses in eight of 10 between Christmas and Jan. 15, my opinion was to stick with them. Although it took the unexpected trade of Isaiah Thomas to perk things up, Cleveland enters the postseason at 6-to-5 to get out of the Eastern Conference per the Las Vegas Westgate SuperBook's latest update after it was even money as of Monday. The Cavs are 8-to-1 to win it all, and while I wouldn’t get behind that, consider this my very clear suggestion that you ride the best player of this generation to get back to an eighth consecutive NBA Finals.
In a season where James Harden has checked all the MVP options with a brilliant, dominant season as the best player on the best team, 33-year-old LeBron James has barged his way into the conversation, suiting up for all 82 games for the first time in his career. His Cavs have never needed him more, sabotaged by injuries to Kevin Love and pieces that didn’t quite fit coming over in return for Irving. Despite bouts with brutal defense and stagnant ball movement, Cleveland managed to finish fourth in the conference and arrives at this point healthier than it has been all season. For that reason alone, the Cavs will be formidable.
While I wouldn’t sell off the Warriors at all, I’m not as confident that they’ll be back to defend their title as I am that Cleveland will be back in another NBA Finals. Golden State needs Stephen Curry to work off any rust in a hurry, while Houston did what it needed to in ensuring it landed homecourt advantage. Expect to witness an epic Western Conference finals.
In the East, expect status quo.
Some may tell you that the East is as wide open as it has been since James returned to Cleveland after leaving Miami, but I wouldn’t believe the hype on that. Here are my notes on why to fade the rest of the conference, with Westgate’s odds in parentheses.
Toronto Raptors (3/2): This is the deepest team in the conference and they’ll have the homecourt edge at Air Canada Centre, so I’ll buy them as the favorite. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry must still prove they can get it done when it matters most, and it certainly didn’t help that LeBron administered his mind as the shorthanded Cavs won a pair of games against the Raps in late March to reaffirm their dominance. Fred Van Vleet hasn’t been healthy down the stretch, so getting him back to the level he had been playing at is essential.
Philadelphia 76ers (6/1): Embiid will be back to improve a team that has looked tremendous without him. Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli were brilliant additions, so this team needs to be taken seriously as Ben Simmons continues to improve and gain confidence. However, he’s a liability at the free-throw line and this group is light on guys who have felt the heat of the playoff spotlight. That’s ultimately going to catch up to them.
Boston Celtics (20/1): Losing Irving means there will be no Gordon Hayward comeback either, so it’s on Al Horford and the kids to do the heavy lifting. Although Jaylen Brown has emerged and rookie Jayson Tatum is extremely polished, there is a ceiling this team will ultimately hit since Brad Stevens’ Xs and O skills will only be able to carry them so far.
Washington Wizards (40/1): John Wall has made it back and no one is talking about the Wizards being better off without him anymore considering how quickly that bubble burst. We’ll see whether keeping their ship afloat didn’t wear everyone out since the group is currently playing the worst of any East playoff team. Having won a few series the past few years, the hope is that this group will be ready to go when the weekend arrives. The talent is there. Cohesion and depth is not.
Indiana Pacers (40/1): The conference’s biggest surprise rides likely Most Improved Player honoree Victor Oladipo back into the postseason in a year where they were expected to take a step back after dealing Paul George. There’s a chance that they can pull off a first-round upset if Myles Turner turns it on in what’s been a disappointing season, but being first up to try and solve the LeBron James puzzle for an entire series makes it difficult to get excited about their chances of continuing to stun the basketball world.
Miami Heat (80/1): No one has the rim protection and perimeter defenders that this group brings to the table with Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo in the post and guys like Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow available. If Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade can be competent closers and James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk find a way to create matchup problems as x-factors, this is going to be one tough out.
Milwaukee Bucks (80/1): Giannis Antetokoumpo is going to be the best player on the floor more often than not and Jabari Parker has been able to shake off some of the rust in his return from a torn ACL, so this is a team talented enough to be a difficult matchup. Malcolm Brogdon just returned from knee soreness, so if he hits the ground running, the Bucks are going to be capable of locking up opposing guards since he and Eric Bledsoe are relentless defenders.
Here are a few notes on the field in the West. Westgate’s odds to win the conference are in parentheses.
Houston Rockets (10/11): Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson rested down the stretch and Chris Paul got himself right as well, so Mike D’Antoni is going to have to his full arsenal in play. The Timberwolves are a tough matchup on paper with Jimmy Butler back and Karl-Anthony Towns playing as well as he has, but Houston won its four regular-season meetings against the Wolves by double-digits, surrendering 122.8 points per game.
Golden State Warriors (10/11): With Curry sidelined, guys like Quinn Cook and Nick Young will have to make contributions, but it’s not like Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson can’t shoulder the scoring load enough to get past the depleted Spurs. It’s also an advantage that the Blazers/Pelicans ended up being the matchup on their side of the bracket even though they lost the last three meetings against those two and ended up just 5-3 on the season. Both OKC and Utah are tougher to matchup with.
Portland Trail Blazers (25/1): The Blazers finally snapped their late-season slump in order to finish atop the Northwest Division, holding on to a homecourt advantage they badly needed. Center Jusuf Nurkic came on late in the season and will be the x-factor here but losing underrated small forward Mo Harkless to knee surgery was a big loss, while CJ McCollum is slumping at the wrong time. Damian Lillard dominated the regular-season finale against Utah but has been bothered by ankle soreness.
Oklahoma City Thunder (25/1): Paul George rediscovering his shooting stroke after admitting that he felt off over the season’s final weeks is a major development and one reason why it might be worth getting back on the OKC bandwagon. Carmelo Anthony coasted down the stretch and may surprise with his ability to take and make big shots. Meanwhile, Corey Brewer ultimately became an effective replacement for Andre Roberson as a defensive wing.
Utah Jazz (40/1): Rudy Gobert’s ability to impact a series as the most dominant defensive force in the league today will be on display against the Thunder but may not loom as large against a perimeter-oriented team like the Rockets. Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio have really been tremendous down the stretch, which must continue to have a shot at getting out of this first series.
New Orleans Pelicans (100/1): If Anthony Davis can stay healthy, the Pelicans have one of the game’s most dominant forces to depend on in a winnable series against the Blazers. He scored 36 points in each of 2018’s meetings with Portland, shooting 31-for-47. Assuming Terry Stotts sends double-teams his way, advancing will likely depend on Nikola Mirotic and E’twaun Moore making the most of their open looks. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday will get the job done at both ends of the floor to give the Pelicans a fighting chance.
San Antonio Spurs (50/1): With Kawhi Leonard still not ruled out for the postseason and reportedly still working on returning, oddsmakers have held off on making San Antonio a 100-to-1 shot. If he’s unable to return, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Dejonte Murray, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and Danny Green will form the core of a team likely to be competitive but not talented enough to take seriously in a series against a heavyweight like Golden State.
Minnesota Timberwolves (150/1): Can Jamal Crawford have a big series? How about Jeff Teague? The Wolves have two of the best players in the league in Butler and Towns, so Houston will have its hands full if those fringe guys can knock down shots and get going. After ending a lengthy postseason drought, Minnesota is playing with house money and will at least get some playoff experience out of the deal.
Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]