NBA Playoffs: Prepare for a More Exciting First Round Than Usual

Is it because we all sense that Kevin Durant is on his way to the bright lights of New York City? Is it because the Draymond-KD feud seems real? Is it because James Harden just put together one of the top-7 offensive seasons in NBA history? Is it because for the first time since his second season in the league, we have a LeBron-less postseason? Whatever it is, the 2019 version of the NBA Playoffs seem different — like we need to be paying closer attention to things we typically would gloss past. We can’t — and shouldn’t — just swipe right and try to move to the conference finals. Not this year, anyway. In the East, there’s no LeBron James so the door is open for any of the top 4 seeds; each of them can make a convincing case for advancing past the first two rounds. Out West, it’s fact — Denver, Portland, Oklahoma City, or San Antonio will be in the conference finals, playing for a shot at the NBA Finals.

It’s already shaping up to be a thrilling playoff ride. And we’re just getting started.

Western Conference

(1) Golden State v. (8) Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers might have the brighter future (AND brighter present) than their L.A. counterparts, the Lakers. But make no mistake, this series goes as long as the Warriors want it to go. Doc Rivers has done a masterful job this season and should get major Coach of the Year consideration; but his Clippers can’t hang with the Warriors, even if they choose to sleep-walk a game or two. Warriors in 4.

(2) Denver v. (7) San Antonio

The young Nuggets are super fun to root for. The problem is that they have no surefire scorer other than big man and top-4 MVP candidate Nikola Jokic — who actually prefers to pass than score. Yes, maybe Jamal Murray emerges as the go-to-guy when Denver needs a bucket late. Or maybe Paul Milsapp. Or maybe Gary Harris. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. The uncertainty surrounding how the Nuggets are going to get their offense in a seven game series against the best head coach of his generation (and maybe of all-time) cannot be overlooked. I don’t love the Spurs, but at least I know what Pop can do. I think LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan can do enough and will be put in opportunistic situations this series to get the job done. Spurs in 7.

(3) Portland v. (6) Oklahoma City

This is the great “Who Can Exorcise Their Postseason Demons?” series. Russell Westbrook has won 2 playoff games since Durant bolted for the Bay Area while the Blazers are looking to put last year’s embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Pelicans in the rearview mirror. Damian Lillard has had a top-6 MVP season in my estimation, and he’ll need to carry that over into the playoffs if Portland plans on advancing. Yes, OKC dropped in the standings over the final month and rumors swirling about Paul George’s shoulder only get worse by the week, but in the end the Thunder can throw so much more at the Blazers. Thunder in 6.

(4) Houston v. (5) Utah

I hear a lot of NBA insiders saying how this series is nearly a coin flip and that the Jazz could seriously threaten the Rockets. Listen, count me as one who fully believes in Quin Snyder and Rudy Gobert (and in Donovan Mitchell to an extent). But these Rockets won’t be slowed on offense — more specifically, James Harden won’t be slowed. Utah will bring the defensive intensity without question, but I have to ask: where are they getting enough offense to outscore Houston? Rockets in 5.

Eastern Conference

(1) Milwaukee v. (8) Detroit

The Pistons limped into the playoffs, and the Bucks have been the most consistent team in the entire NBA from start to finish. If the Pistons can steal one, the playoffs will have been a success. But don’t count on it. Bucks in 4

(2) Toronto v. (7) Orlando

I kind of like seeing the Magic back in the postseason. I don’t know if it’s the uniforms or the floor or the aerial views of Orlando and Epcot and Disney. I better not blink, though — it’s going to be over quickly. Raptors in 4.

(3) Philadelphia v. (6) Brooklyn

I’m not sold on the Nets giving the 76ers a huge scare. But it’s worth keeping an eye on Joel Embiid and his injury, as well as how Philly’s big 4 play together in postseason games. Brooklyn will play loose and fun and will challenge the Sixers. But in the end, I’m more interested how Philly looks entering round 2. They need to make quick work of the Nets. 76ers in 6.

(4) Boston v. (5) Indiana

The Celtics might have actually caught a break with the Marcus Smart injury. As strange as that sounds, at least now Brad Stevens can properly allot minutes to Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier. The key to this series — and the entirety of the postseason for the Cs — is Hayward’s ability to score and score efficiently. Boston was 21-4 when he went for 14 or more points, and they were 25-3 when he shot better than 50% from the field. The increased minutes should help him see an increase in production. Celtics in 6.


Thanks for reading. Subscribe to the Sports Talk Center blog and you can receive emails when content is updated. Also, follow me on Twitter @brian22goodwin. You can also subscribe and download the Sports Talk Center Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts from: Apple iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play, or Spotify. Just subscribe, download, listen, and enjoy.

Listen to EPISODE 164 (“Seven Questions Heading into the NBA Postseason”) right here: 

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NBA All-Stars: Who’s Joining the Starters?

The NBA All-Star starters were announced last week, and, for me, there weren’t any real surprises. Would I have included LeBron James over big men like Anthony Davis or Nikola Jokic? No, but it’s LeBron so who’s losing their minds over that. Plus, now Davis is a little dinged up and I don’t blame anyone for preferring James over Jokic in an exhibition game for the fans. I was pleasantly surprised Kemba Walker is representing the East at the second guard spot alongside Kyrie Irving. I had Walker penciled in — and if you listened to my podcast from Friday last week (“NBA All-Stars & MVP Power Rankings”-Ep. 132) — then you know I was practically talking myself into Bradley Beal over Walker with Ben Simmons a very close third. But I stuck with Walker, and I’m glad the voters did, too.

Now, on to the tough part. Fourteen reserve spots remain that the NBA will announce January 31. Be reminded these 14 spots are divided up between the two conferences — seven for the East, seven for the West. Yet, the new “Captains Draft” format isn’t based on conferences so we won’t see an East v. West game like in years past. So why we’re still selecting viable all-stars based a parameter like “which conference you play in” seems laughable. Think about it. Multiple players out West will get left off the roster simply because they play in the West. Conversely, a few lucky souls in the East will be all-stars and can include that on their career resumes all because they play on an Eastern Conference team. The NBA is usually as progressive and ahead of the curve as any professional sports league we have in this country. C’mon Adam Silver, let’s fix this.

Anyway, here’s my reserve selections for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game:

WEST

I had Anthony Davis starting in my top 5. Listen, he’s an MVP candidate and it doesn’t matter that his team isn’t that good. AD is doing things we’ve never seen another player do — ever. His 29/13 stat line is impressive on its own, but then go ahead and add in that he also goes for 4 assists, 2 blocks, and a steal per game. That overall line has never been done in NBA history. Speaking of things that have never been done, Nikola Jokic is changing what we think a big man can do with his court vision. His 19/10/7 doesn’t totally jump off the page — although it should because the last center to do that was Wilt Chamberlain. But I urge you to pay more attention to those 7 assists and the fact that the Nuggets’ big man leads the NBA in passes per game. That’s crazy. You could argue no player impacts his team more than the Joker.

Let’s stick with the bigs and talk about the anchor of the league’s 4th best defense. Utah’s Rudy Gobert is the NBA’s best rim protector, but his impact on the Jazz offense cannot be discounted. Gobert leads the league in screen assists, leading to a league-best 14.1 points per game. (Full discloure, if you listened to my podcast on my all-star picks, I left Gobert out. That was dumb.)

If it’s guard play you like, then you’re in for a treat because the West has a bunch. Damian Lillard might be the most underrated and under appreciated player in the NBA. Playing way up in Portland doesn’t help his marketability, but Dame is nearly on Steph Curry’s level when it comes to range. Plus, he’s averaging 1.1 points per possession off the pick and roll. The team that swept the Blazers in last year’s playoffs has two players making it for me. Jrue Holliday has put up some really nice numbers in New Orleans — 21 points per game and 8 assists. What’s more impressive is that when he and Davis are both on the floor, the Pelicans have an efficiency rating equal to that of a 60-win team. On the other hand, when one leaves the court, the rating plummets to that of a sub-30 win team. Yikes.

The Sacramento Kings got off the that fast start, and while they’ve slowed down, De’Aaron Fox has not. Along with Buddy Hield, the two comprise one of the youngest and fastest backcourts in the league. Fox should be an All-Star. And if we’re talking about youth, let’s not forget about the shot of adrenaline that Luka Doncic has injected into the Mavericks team. Luka’s the leader of that team already — he’s only 19. His numbers bear out all-star consideration — 20/6/5. Only eight rookies have gone for 19/6/4 and all eight were on the team.

EAST

The case could easily have been made for either Ben Simmons or Bradley Beal to get the starting nod over Kemba Walker. I love Walker and he’s single-handedly responsible for keeping the Hornets in the playoff picture. But Simmons’s court vision is beyond reproach and he’s got the numbers to back it up — 17/9.5/8. If he could only shoot. Then there’s Beal who has completely taken over in D.C. — 31.1 points and 7 assists per game — after John Wall went out with injury.

As for a couple more guards, JJ Redick is putting up some really special numbers, considering he’s the fourth option in Philly. He’s attempting a career high in 3s per game and his 18.5 points per game is the most of his career. And if someone said the Nets would be pushing for the 5th seed in the East before the season started, I would have called for them to be institutionalized. Instead, here we are and De’Angelo Russell has been really good — 19.2 points and 6 assists per game. In January alone, Russell is averaging 23.1 points and his shooting percentages are up across the board from the field (+6%), from 3 (4%), and from the line (8%).

The three remaining spots go to Nikola VucevicBlake Griffin, and Pascal Siakam. No one has been more surprising this year than the Orlando big man. Vuc’s 20 and 12 have kept the Magic in the mix — although they seem to be fluttering now. “Point Blake” is being used in a way that completely maximizes what Griffin does best now at this stage of his career. His 26/5/5 might be the quietest 26/5/5 I’ve ever seen. And Toronto has such a strong bench and one of the most soundly put together teams in the NBA, you’ve got to look at rewarding somebody besides just Kawhi Leonard. Enter Siakam’s 15 points and 7 rebounds per game along with his 57% shooting from the field. He’s consistent and he’s reliable — and he’s their second most important player. Crazy? Maybe.

Honorable Mentions

There were a number of deserving players left out — as there always is. And if you play in the West, you really feel left out because the players grabbing the last few spots in the East are not as worthy as the first few guys in the West that have to stay home, such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl Towns, Danilo Gallinari. If not Gallinari, Tobias Harris and his 21 points a game could easily be making the trip to Charlotte as the Clippers representative. Also, it seems weird to leave a player from the Spurs out, especially after they’ve overachieved when everyone declared them dead and the dynasty done. Aldridge or DeMar DeRozan could certainly be All-Stars this year.

A name you want me to mention is one that I have little problem keeping off the All-Star roster. Well, there might be two — one is Jimmy Butler and I’m not making any apologies for this. You forfeit All-Star recognition when you publicly act like he’s acted and attempt to ruin one franchise and now seem to be working on another (not to mention your past history in Chicago). The other is Russell Westbrook. I love Russ and watching him the All-Star Game is fun — truth be told, I’d have little issue if he ended up on the roster. His true shooting percentage is so awful that it makes you question if he’s the most important player on that Thunder team. I know he’s practically averaging a triple-double, but how meaningful is that when of 291 players who’ve attempted 20 shots a game, Russ’s field goal percentage ranks him 273? He’s more entertaining, but Mike Conley might be more worthy of an All-Star selection this season.

There aren’t a lot of snubs in the more watered down East in my opinion, but Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton could make a case. The Bucks are a top-2 team in the conference and, usually, teams that good get multiple selections to the game. Their numbers balance out quite evenly, but Bledsoe’s defense might give him a slight edge over his teammate.


Thanks for reading. Subscribe to the Sports Talk Center blog and you can receive emails when content is updated. Also, follow me on Twitter @brian22goodwin. You can also subscribe and download the Sports Talk Center Podcast, wherever you get your podcasts from: Apple iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play, or Spotify. Just subscribe, download, listen, and enjoy.

Listen to EPISODE 132 (“NBA All-Stars & MVP Power Rankings”) right here:

Listen to EPISODE 134 (“What’s Next for AD and Potential Suitors? And SB53 Storylines “) right here:

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