T-MONEY’S HOT SHEET
Eastern Conference Playoff Rundown
by Tracy Graven
Senior NBA Analyst
Due to a jaunt to New Orleans last week to watch the Pelicans play the Spurs and the eventual - and much needed - side trip to bake on the white sands at Gulf Shores, I’m running a game behind in my assessment of the Eastern Conference Playoff picture.
My apologies. Had to see A.D. and the end of an era (Spurs) in person.
Be that as it may, I stand by my original assertions and posts on social media about where I think things will shake out in the East.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS - TORONTO RAPTORS
I firmly believe that this series will be the undoing of Washington head coach Scott Brooks. I could be wrong, but it seemed from the outside that Brooks was hired ahead of Kevin Durant’s free agency to lure him back to his hometown, a la LeBron James.
When that didn’t happen, the Wizards were stuck with Brooks and he has done a formidable job. But he also did a formidable job in Oklahoma City. And, yes, he took the Thunder to the NBA Finals - with Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden. And couldn’t get even a second win against James and the Miami Heat at the time.
No disrespect, but John Wall and Bradley Beal are no Westbrook and Harden by any stretch of the imagination. And Ibaka showed Toronto fans exactly why the Raps exchanged Terrence Ross and a future first rounder for the Sergeant of Swat. Ibaka would lead Toronto to the victory with 23 points and 12 rebounds, playing like the Ibaka of OKC days.
Toronto ‘Raps’ this up in five games.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS - BOSTON CELTICS
2017-18 has been the Giannis Antetekounmpo coming out party. He is playing MVP-like basketball.
Boston, on the other hands, has become injury central, with Gordon Hayward out for the season after the first game and Kyrie Irving - who led the team all season with 24.4 points per game, led the team in assists at 5.1 per - is out for the C’s playoff run after having knee surgery. Not to mention steals leader Marcus Smart is out for at least the first round after surgery for a torn tendon in his thumb.
Easy peasy for the Bucks, right?
Not so fast. Despite Antetekounmpo’s 35 point, 13 rebound, 7 assist and 3 steal performance yesterday, the Celtics managed to push the Deer to overtime behind a Khris Middleton buzzer-beating three-pointer and come out victorious behind an unlikely cast of crew members that possess a never-say-die attitude.
While that creates momentum in this series and continues to propel Jayson Tatum into the Rookie of the Year conversation, I still believe that without Smart and Irving, the Bucks will find a way to make this a seven-game series and come out victorious.
Bucks in 7.
MIAMI HEAT - PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
This may end up being the most-watched series in the entire playoff picture right now.
Joel Embiid went down with an ocular fracture in late March, caused by teammate Markelle Fultz, who at that point, hit the only shot he’d connected with - Embiid’s face - and it was unintentional.
At that point, the Sixers were 42-21 with Embiid starting. They averaged 111.4 points and allowed only 99.7 points. Without Embiid in the game to that point, they only scored 101.8 per game and allowed opponents 105.7 points per outing.
Season over, right?
With Brett Brown in the running for Coach of the Year, the Sixers finished out the season winning their final eight straight and carried that momentum to blister the Miami Heat in Game One by 27 points behind J.J. Redick’s 28 points, Ben Simmons’ 14 assists, and Eryan Ilyasova’s 14 rebounds.
Former Cleveland General Manager David Griffin pointed out yesterday on Twitter “how huge it was that Bryan Colangelo was able to steal both (Marco) Belinelli and (Eryan) Ilyasova with buyouts. Ben … struggle to shoot range J, but … can play to the full bandwidth of their off-bounce gifts.”
That kind of insight demonstrates what a student of the game Griffin is and has always been, and why it’s a travesty how things went down in Cleveland and how he should be one of the most sought after and rewarded free agent … ahem, GM candidates this summer.
But he’s dead on. The Colangelo DNA is evident in Philly and it added to the Process already in place. Who says tanking doesn’t work?
Either that, or God is a huge Philadelphia sports fan this year (see Eagles, Villanova). I have the 76ers in six games.
INDIANA PACERS - CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
I said from the get go last week that this is the most dangerous position for the defending Eastern Conference champs to be in right now.
LeBron James doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m down 0-1 in the first round. I was down 3-1 in the Finals. I’m the last guy to ask about how you’re going to feel in the next couple of days,” James retorted at the podium after the Game One loss to the Pacers in Cleveland last night.
That’s not to take away from the magnificent job that head coach Nate McMillan has done with the Indiana Pacers this year.
Step back to the earlier statement about the Ibaka acquisition that Toronto exercised with the Orlando Magic.
Ibaka was in Orlando because Oklahoma City traded him there for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis’ draft rights and the aforementioned Ilyasova (76ers). Oladipo and Sabonis were sent to Indiana for Paul George - yes the same Paul George that dropped 36 points on Utah last night.
I’ve said all along that Kevin Pritchard and the Pacers got the better of that trade.
Kehinde Babatunde Victor Oladipo was also the best pick in the top 10 picks of that draft.
Same draft the Cavaliers overlooked Oladipo to select Anthony “Where Am I Now?” Bennett.
They overlooked him in 2013 and they overlooked him last night as the former Indiana Hoosier torched the Cavs with 32 points, six rebounds, four assists, four steals and even a block en route to the 18-point ousting on the Cavs home court.
Betting James would have rather have had Oladipo to come back to Cleveland to than C.J. Miles and Jarrett Jack. Thanks Chris Grant.
Meanwhile, LeBron James passed Michael Jordan on the all-time playoff field goals list. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of him now.
James, in his 15th year, is playing MVP-like basketball. Like a fine wine, he seems to get better with age. But he’s going to need a lot more help than the nine points that Kevin Love offered him the single digits (Love, George Hill, Rodney Hood) and goose egg (Jeff Green) that his starters gave.
The Pacers win puts a huge chip on the shoulders of LeBron James and that’s potentially lethal for Indiana. The caveat is if he can bring the other players along with him or of this is an early exit and finger-pointing begins anew in Cleveland.
It’s LeBron’s last run in The Land. Enjoy it. He will. I think the Pacers have a chance to put a scare into the Cavs - maybe already have. But Cavs take this in six games, maybe even five if James can get the rest of his team engaged.
(1)Houston Rockets vs. (8) Minnesota Timberwolves
For most of the 2017-18 season the NBA has been trying to catch up with Chris Paul, James Harden and the Houston Rockets. The duo which critics said would crash and burn ignited a fire that set the league ablaze almost from the start. Now the Minnesota Timberwolves have the unenviable task of trying to slow down the league’s best offense.
The Timberwolves, for their part, were believed to be one of the best teams in the Western Conference, but injuries and an extremely competitive West led to the team needing a win over Denver on the last night of the season to sneak into the playoffs. In fact, they needed overtime and a heroic performance from Jimmy Butler to get it done. It remains to be seen if Butler’s return is enough to make Minnesota interesting once the playoffs start.
The mismatches are clear. Minnesota has a vastly better front court with one of the league’s premier big men in Karl Anthony-Towns. The Rockets have a clear advantage in the back court behind Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon. Houston is deeper and much more lethal on the offensive end. If Houston’s three-point attack falters, the Timberwolves might grab a game or two in this series. If it doesn’t, it’s not a stretch to say the Rockets are likely to sweep their way right into the second round.
(2)Golden State Warriors vs. (7) San Antonio Spurs
One of the most bizarre seasons in Spurs history nearly ended with the team’s record number of consecutive postseason appearances coming to an end. The Kawhi Leonard saga has many wondering what his future in San Antonio might be, and his absence makes it unlikely that the Spurs – no matter how brilliantly LaMarcus Aldridge plays – can overcome the defending champion Warriors.
Of course, the Warriors won’t be at full steam, either, as franchise cornerstone Steph Curry will be out nursing a knee injury. Fortunately for Golden State, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all ready for action. Nonetheless, the Warriors ended the season winning just four of their last ten games, and that should give their faithful reason to have some anxiety entering postseason play.
Aldridge is likely to have a big series for the Spurs, and you can bet Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol will all blow the dust off of their aging games to help here and there. The Spurs are deeper, to be sure, but they are also significantly older, and that may well spell the key difference in this series. Don’t expect the Spurs to be swept, but beating the Warriors – even sans Curry – is more than they can pull off without Leonard.
(3)Portland Trailblazers vs. (6) New Orleans Pelicans
The most unlikely success stories in the Western Conference are the Portland Trailblazers and the New Orleans Pelicans, so it seems only appropriate that they should meet in the first round. The Blazers were struggling under the weight of big contracts for underperforming players at mid-season, right about the time that New Orleans lost DeMarcus Cousins for the season. Nonetheless, two teams that might have justifiably missing the playoffs are ready for the NBA’s big dance.
Simply put, the Blazers rode their tremendous back court into the postseason, with Damian Lillard putting up MVP numbers and CJ McCollum making a lethal complement to him. That’s a significant accomplishment, but will their buffet of mediocre forwards be able to hold down Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic, who ended the season by dominating LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs?
The Pelicans didn’t waste time mourning over the loss of Cousins, instead landing Mirotic via trade and working him right in as an outstanding complement to Davis. Mirotic had one of the best months of his career in April, averaging 22.2 points per game and shooting over 53% from the field. Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday probably can’t stop Lillard, but they may be able to contain him enough to get an upset for the Pelicans in this match-up.
(4)Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Utah Jazz
Generally speaking, the four-five matchup is expected to be the most interesting in the first round of the playoffs, and that certainly promises to be the case with the West’s middle match-up. The Utah Jazz were one of the hottest teams in the NBA over the second half of the season, with rookie Donovan Mitchell playing like a seasoned veteran and Rudy Gobert showing why he’s one of the most underrated players in the NBA. They helped the Jazz win 22 of 25 games over a stretch from January to March, which also was the key to Utah’s return to postseason play.
The Thunder, too, took a while to hit their stride. The trio of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony looked rough at times, ugly at others, but ultimately came together for the stretch run. Westbrook is coming off his second straight season of averaging a triple-double (the first player to ever do that twice), and he will certainly give Mitchell a test like no others. George was scorching hot over the Thunder’s last two games and Anthony appears content to fill in the slack between his two superstar teammates.
On the surface, the Thunder look like more than a match for the Jazz, with three established stars ready to overwhelm the rookie and his dominant front court mate. Then again, the Jazz have overcome all expectations this season. OKC had best come ready to a fight.
Bill Ingram has 17 years of experience covering the NBA and is now a contributing writer for nbAradioshow.com. You can find him on Twitter: @TheRocketGuy.
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