By Saransh Sharma, Anish Dhondi, & Nikhil Pradeep
With the Western Conference play-in now officially completed and the Portland Trail Blazers having won and gotten the 8th-seed, the entire NBA playoffs is set and the Conference Quarterfinals will commence. To see our NBA Playoff Predictions from before the NBA Bubble started, click the link here. We now will dive into the biggest stories to watch going into the start of the playoffs.
How Will Houston Play Without Russell Westbrook?
This entire season, while James Harden has always been the top scorer for this team, Russell Westbrook has been the leader and glue-guy for the team. Westbrook was the one who helped him and Harden get over their differences that they originally had to start the season, he was the one who helped the team get through midseason trade rumors and speculation that OKC won the Russ-CP3 had been rising. When Head Coach Mike D’Antoni wanted to start his small-ball experiment and thus GM Daryl Morey traded starting Center Clint Capela, Russ elevated his game the most. Russ had career-highs in shots per game made and field goal percentage, and overall was a more relaxed and under control player compared to what he was in Oklahoma City. He honestly is now an underrated player (surprising to say), but deserves the most credit of all the players for Houston’s success, especially since small-ball began.
That being said, after seeing how Harden, along with Eric Gordon and Jeff Green, played yesterday, if they play like this in Game 2 as well, having Westbrook back could have a highly-anticipated series end very quick. Only having an 8-man rotation will be tricky to manage with Westbrook back and also playing big minutes, but it means that playing guys like Gordon and Green more in the series, could be the difference. The series will hinge upon that bench support for Houston, and their health.
Did The Refs Sell The Mavericks And Ruin Their Series Momentum?
The Dallas Mavericks controlled Game 1 on Monday in nearly every facet possible, besides the final score, of course, but the referees had a lot to do with that. The ejection of Kristaps Porzingis, which was due to a slight shove, was probably the softest ejection I have seen in my entire life of watching basketball. If Porzingis got ejected for that, shouldn’t Carmelo Anthony get suspended every time he curses after getting a rebound? There were a few other questionable calls here and there after Porzingis got hurt which halted the momentum of Dallas, but had he not been ejected, the way Porzingis was dominating the paint with his rim protection and rebounding at the time, they would have won the game and taken all that momentum into Game 2 and prolonged this series more than expected. If you are Dallas, you could not have asked for a better start to the series against a heavily-favored Clippers team, but the ridiculous ejection, and final score, left nothing but a cloud of frustration for the team.
Does Brooklyn’s Overachieving Bubble Run Concern Toronto?
Simply put, no. Kevin Durant nor Kyrie Irving is walking into Orlando to suit up and play the defending champions. That being said, the run that the Nets had, including almost knocking Portland out of the playoffs (should have called timeout and drawn a play), and beating teams like the Clippers and Bucks in the process, the Nets showed that they are not here to be messed with despite their extremely shorthanded roster, but the defending champions have been way too good defensively to let Brooklyn get on a roll and shock the world. In Game 1, the Nets cut a 33-point Raptor lead to 9, but the Raptors defense was just too much, and they showed that their roster is simply too much to handle, and that they do not need Kawhi to be as scary of a contender as they are. As much as I would love to see the Nets make the series competitive, Toronto is too much to handle.
Can The Miami Heat Make Noise In The East?
This Miami Heat team has defied a lot of expectations this season, and having accomplished everything that they have has taken a lot of grit, a lot of grind, and most importantly, a LOT of team chemistry and self-confidence. Everyone, including myself, saw this year as being a lottery pick year for this team. That being said, there are still many limitations going forward though. In order to contend for a championship in this day and age, most teams require at least a superstar tandem (Ex: LeBron & AD, Kawhi and PG, Russ and Harden). The Heat do not have a bonafide duo that they can rely on during crucial moments in a speculative deep playoff run. Yes, Jimmy Butler is a given, but who can be that other piece? Bam Adebayo has proven himself as a worthy candidate, but his game is still raw and he simply isn’t at the level of most superstars in this league, even with his first All-Star appearance. One thing I will say is that Miami manages to find a way. As of this post, they have already gone one game up on the Indiana Pacers, and contributions as a team from Nunn, Herro, Crowder, Robinson etc. can really turn this team into a viable threat in the East, and give powerhouses Toronto, Milwaukee, and Boston a run for their money.
Are The Denver Nuggets a Real Threat In The West?
Everyone seems to be infatuated with the possibility of a Clippers vs. Lakers Western Conference Finals, to the point where the third-seeded Denver Nuggets seem to be completely overlooked. This team is STACKED all things considered. Jokic and Murray comprise a deadly starting line-up, and up and coming players like Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol are both surprisingly sturdy in their play as well. Combine this with a perfectly crafted bench unit as well as key role players, and you have a team that could very well take down either one of the two LA teams. What’s even more appealing is that this team is built for the future, and can become a powerhouse in the Western Conference if they simply hold onto their assets they have, and continue to develop the young players they have right now as well. Yes, they might not have the complete answer for LeBron and AD, and may have not figured out the complete puzzle of Kawhi and PG, but this team has the resources necessary to piece it all together. And the best part is that even if they don’t find winning ways now, they can easily find it a few years from now, when the LA teams start to see players past their primes. Watch out for this Nuggets team to shock a lot of people now, and establish themselves for the future.
What’s Wrong With The 76ers?
Philadelphia on paper looks like a very dangerous team, yet in person they just seem lackluster. When you headline a team with 4 prominent figures in Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford, you expect production, and plenty of it. What we see though is a rather uninspired team that is missing something, and no one can really place a finger on it. Couple this with the injury to Ben Simmons, and you get a downward spiral of a situation for Philadelphia, one that puts head coach Brett Brown in the hot seat. Don’t get me wrong, the team is definitely winning games, and are placing themselves well within the provisional playoff picture, but many believe that the team just isn’t built or even inspired enough to contend with the likes of Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee. Joel Embiid himself has said that he needs to step up for his team, and yes, maybe his lack of production on both ends of the court is somewhat to blame for the team’s woes, but I don’t see it as an end all be all solution. Whatever their issue may be, they need to figure it out soon in order to get past the rather difficult first-round matchup with the Celtics.
Do the Blazers Have a Legitimate Chance To Defeat The Lakers?
After the Game one, upset over the Lakers, the Blazers have the league talking. Everyone knew before the Blazers would be a tough fight for the Lakers in the first round, and after game one they proved them right. The Lakers looks sloppy in their game and despite LeBron’s big triple double the Lakers couldn’t finish the game. The Lakers had issues making free throws in the clutch and Portland capitalized by hitting their shots. However, despite LeBron’s triple double, I feel like there is more left in the tank for King James. The real question is whether LeBron will activate playoff mode this early in the playoffs and completely take over the game or will he continue to dish out the ball and rely on his teammates to hit shots next game. The Lakers did a great job of hammering down in the paint and causing 3 of the Blazers starters to get 5 fouls and be in foul trouble late in the game. The Lakers definitely have the ability to defeat the Blazers on paper; it’s just a matter of chemistry and team experience (besides LeBron) which the Lakers lack.
Are the Bucks Still The Favorite To Win The East?
Similar to the Blazers pulling off an upset against the Lakers, the Magic defeated the Bucks in game one. This came to a surprise to practically everyone as the Magic seemed like the most forgotten team in the playoffs. After the Bucks loss, everyone is now beginning to question the Bucks potential. Now the real question is can just Giannis be enough to lead the Bucks to the Finals? Khris Middleton has been horrible in the bubble so far, and he is supposed to be Giannis’s secondhand man and without a consistent performance from Middleton it puts too much pressure on Giannis. Initially I had the Bucks making the finals, but because of their recent struggles I am leaning towards the Raptors-Celtics side of the bracket. It will be interesting to see the Celtics without Hayward but I still give them a slight edge over the Raptors. I believe whoever comes out of the bottom half of the Eastern Conference (Raptor/Celtics side) will defeat the Bucks and move on into the Finals. The Bucks are still a great team but I don’t see them as winning the championship, rather I see an Eastern Conference Finals loss coming their way.
Are We Sleeping On The Jazz?
Monday’s Game 1 against the Nuggets was one of the best games this year. The battle between Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray was like no other, it seems like in the clutch neither of them could miss and Murray got the slight edge in overtime. But we can’t forget about Donovan Mitchell’s historic 57 point game! Even with missing Mike Conley the first game the Jazz were neck and neck with the Nuggets. Conley is expected to be back for Game 3, this is important because Conley is another elite defender and to put him on Jamal Murray and contain him. This makes Jamal Murray use more effort with a better defender on him and Donovan Mitchell will be alongside another scorer and facilitator. The Jazz have always shown they are underdogs in the playoffs and are well capable of pulling off upsets. Although last year they struggled against the Rockets, the year before they defeated the Thunder, and the year before the Clippers. This Jazz team is improved from last year and have developed a better chemistry with great defense, good wing shooters and Donovan Mitchell taking the clear superstar position in this playoff series. The Jazz could make a decent push in the playoffs starting with an upset on the Nuggets. Don’t sleep on the Jazz!