2020 NBA Playoffs Biggest Storylines – Conference Quarterfinals (Post-Game 1s)

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.

Saransh’s Storylines:

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.

Nikhil’s Storylines:

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.

Anish’s Storylines: 

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!

‘The Last Dance’ Review, Recap, and Reaction

By Saransh Sharma and Nikhil Pradeep

The 5-week, 10 episode docu-series on the greatest run by a team in a decade in the history of sports, concluded today, with the ending being capped off with the 1998 NBA Finals victory by the Chicago Bulls to win their 6th championship in 8 years, thus completing ‘The Last Dance,’ which was what coach Phil Jackson called this last year quest for the dynasty. So much happened behind the scenes and off the court that we really did not know until now, and the fact that we got the chance to capture all of that and see Michael revisit and talk about these moments was truly remarkable. There are so many big pieces to the ‘98 Championship run from so many different past seasons, whether it be playing against Dennis Rodman and losing to him and the Pistons constantly and then eventually recruiting him to the team, and also Jordan having retired for baseball, then coming back and getting back in shape, Scottie Pippen’s role, Jerry Krause’s ignorance, MJ’s winning mentality being described as ‘disrespectful,’ and so much more. Here is the big review, recap, and reaction all-in-one to all the events, details, decisions, descriptions, and much more, of how ‘The Last Dance’ turned out to be successful, both as the ‘98 season, and as the critically-acclaimed docu-series.

Saransh’s Reaction

Michael Jordan’s Competitive Nature

The competitiveness of Michael Jordan is second to none not just amongst basketball players, but amongst athletes. Whether it was an NBA Playoff game, golfing with his dad, or just a simple ‘coin toss across the room’ game with the team security guard like in Episode 6, everything was a competition to Mike. The most impressive thing about his competitive nature was what motivated him to compete at such a high level. Sometimes it was as simple as just losing, like it was for him against Detroit and Orlando, seeing them celebrate in Chicago and winning against him in a series, but sometimes it was just one action or comment by someone that was their downfall, and Michael’s rise. When Charlotte stole a game from Chicago in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference in 1996 and B.J. Armstrong talked a little trash, it was over for Charlotte. The next 4 games went to Chicago and they even swept Orlando in the Conference Finals.

Then there was the side of Jordan which I think a lot of people were surprised to see and hear about, which was the ‘not-so-nice guy’ side of him. The stories of him at practices are honestly as legendary as you can think of. He punched Steve Kerr after a practice after Kerr did not back down from him when Jordan got mad at Phil Jackson for putting Kerr on him and making fun of him. He then proceeded to apologize and talk it out on the phone with Kerr, and as they were both competitive guys, they understood why it got heated. But even as great as Michael was, there were still people that did not like his ways as a teammate. Former Bulls Point Guard John Paxson talked about how he would be scared at times, and Power Forward Horace Grant apparently could not eat after games because Jordan did not let him. But at the end of the day, this made Jordan the greatest, the tough love. It was so hard for him to talk about his teammates, that he started tearing up talking about it and hearing about how some of his teammates felt sometimes. But in the end, the hard truth was that it was his way of gaining trust of them, and making them realize what he expected of them. If he did not go so hard on Kerr, Jordan would not have trusted him to take the Finals-winning jumper, he would not have trusted Scottie Burrell to be such a great role player, or Dennis Rodman to go out and skip practices, or even let guys like Luc Longley and Bill Wennington, who got overlooked, be vital pieces of the team in every title run. What made Jordan so great was that he involved his teammates through his trust in them and instilling his mental fortitude into them, and if you did not want that, you did not have to play with Michael and enjoy the great journey.

The Legend of Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr was a man who came from a humble beginning. Kerr was born into a family of UCLA professor Malcolm Kerr, and eventual professor Ann Kerr. As they were both professors, Steve’s family had Steve and his brother very academically-minded and focused, as the only time the TV would be on from Monday through Thursday would be for big basketball games. Malcolm being at UCLA, loved basketball and got Steve into it by taking him to UCLA games, and at that time, the John Wooden coaching era was going on, and the greatest college basketball teams ever were there for Steve to witness live and in-person. Steve played all through high school as well, but did not receive offers until the very last minute, when Arizona offered him a scholarship. At this time, Malcolm had gone to American University at Beirut, along with his wife and Steve’s brother. However, the story of Malcolm being shot and killed was truly heartbreaking, and really drove Steve to be the person and competitor that he is. 

When Kerr got to Chicago, he brought that competitiveness that he gained that drove him after having lost his father, into the championship culture of Chicago. He challenged Jordan, did not back down, did not let himself get brought down by Jordan’s competitive edge at practice, which sometimes Jordan took too far, including the time he punched Steve. From that time forward, however, their trust levels and understanding of each other was like no other. It led Steve to be trusted by Jordan to hit the Finals-winning shot in ‘97, just like MJ trusted John Paxson in ‘93 to do the same thing, whom Steve learned from and mentored. He not only won his rings with Chicago, but also in San Antonio as a player in 2000 and 2002, and a coach of the Golden State Warriors dynasty from the past 5 seasons. All in all, Steve’s competitive edge and love for basketball came from his father, who instilled in him the game, life values, and a hard-working nature into Steve.

Phil Jackson’s Resilience, Even When MJ Left

I think it is taking it a bit too far to say that Phil Jackson was overlooked throughout this whole run, but the work he did definitely can get a bit lost in the shadows when your players are as good as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Jackson was asked to make the Chicago Bulls into NBA Champions after Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had been asked to make them relevant. He took over as the head coach in 1989 after Doug Collins was fired in Chicago, which, given the success he brought to Chicago, where he took the team from nothing to the Eastern Conference Finals with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, the firing was a bit surprising, but Collins had been with the Bulls for a while, so therefore warranted his way out the door. Jackson took over the team when they were very close to ending the dynasty of the Detroit Pistons, and in his first year, he nearly did that. Had Game 7 been in Chicago and not Detroit, Jackson would have ended the dynasty in his first year with the Bulls, but the next year, Eastern Conference Finals rematch yet again, the Bulls swept, and won the 1991 NBA Finals over the Lakers, and then proceeded to win in ‘92 and ‘93. Then, out of nowhere, Michael Jordan retires.

Jackson did not back down or let Jordan’s retirement get in the way of him coaching this team. The team might have lost the greatest to ever play the game, but the team was pretty darn good even without Jordan. In 1994, the team won 55 games and if it were not for a blown call in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Knicks, they could have tried for their 4th straight championship. The year after that, the Bulls struggled a bit, but getting Jordan back got them a healthy seeding in the playoffs, but Orlando stole the series thanks to Horace Grant, the former Bull. He then allowed Jordan to be able to retrain his body back into basketball form and he helped the team add talent, such as Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman, and they helped go 72-10 and win the NBA Finals, and start another 3-peat. And then he did it again, going 3-peat with LA from ‘01-’03, and back-to-back in ‘09-’10. Phil Jackson is, in my mind, the greatest basketball coach of all-time, and it all started not when he won his first 3-peat with Michael, but the seasons he endured without him.

Nikhil’s Reaction

The 1992 Olympics Dream Team

For the first time, the United States sent a team of mainly NBA players to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona to compete in the Men’s Basketball tournament. This allowed the likes of Jordan, Bird, and Johnson to play on the same team, and form the inevitable Dream Team, the likes of which has gone down in history as one of the most legendary teams ever. What came as an initial shock was the exclusion of Isiah Thomas, and the sports media at the time associated Jordan’s icy relationship with him as a defining factor of this decision. Jordan, when interviewed for the filming of the documentary stated that he had no influence on the formation on the team, but did concede that had Thomas been selected, the flow and camaraderie of the team would have changed. Regardless, the cohesion of the team that did end up competing in Barcelona was second to none, and this is what elevated them above the rest. Their practices were some of the most competitive in existence, and this culminated in the infamous scrimmage in Monte Carlo. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan captained their respective sides in an anything-goes, trash-talking, no-holds-barred grudge match. At one point Magic’s team was up 8, and he felt the need to tell Jordan that if the famous ‘Air Jordan’ didn’t show up, they were gonna blow him out. As Saransh alluded to earlier, Jordan took this personally, and instantly made Johnson eat his words. He proceeded to score around 10 unanswered points, and won the game for his team. Those within the team recollected the tension in the air during the bus ride home as suffocating, but the instant Johnson cracked a joke with Charles Barkley, the team’s camaraderie rose back to prominence, albeit with Michael Jordan firmly at the helm of the ship. 

During the Olympics, the Dream Team faced off with Croatia, and the newly drafted Bull, Toni Kukoc. There was some friction between Jordan, Pippen and Kukoc, given that Jerry Krause placed a great amount of praise on the shoulders of the Croatian, and seemingly devalued the accomplishments of the current Bulls roster at the time. In the first game against Croatia, Jordan and Pippen seemed to go after Kukoc during the game, shutting him down defensively, and thus making every effort to make Krause look bad. However, the second time around during the Gold Medal game, Kukoc surged back and showed his worth even though they lost. The Dream Team took home the gold, and Jordan’s legacy started to take meaningful shape.

I found it very interesting to hear Kukoc’s side of this story, especially given the context of his situation before arriving in the league. Having hailed from Croatia, at the time a war-torn state of Yugoslavia, he, along with his teammates during the Olympics, all had an amazing amount of strength and focus that Team USA simply didn’t account for. To trash-talk, abuse, and target Kukoc doesn’t really faze him, simply because it isn’t comparable to the fight for his literal will to live. It just goes to show that no one’s story can be understood from a distance, and that everyone has certain traits that make them unbreakable, no matter what the circumstances are.

Jordan’s Stint in the MLB

The tragic death of Michael Jordan’s father in many ways defined Jordan’s career path, starting with his first retirement from basketball. At the time, Jordan’s reasoning was that he had produced 3 championships, and had given everything he had to the city of Chicago, so he figured that since he had no more challenges and no more motivation to play basketball, he should call it quits. The drama escalated and peaked during a White Sox playoff game, during which Jordan was present. The information of Jordan’s retirement leaked during the game, and the swarm of reporters and fans ensued. The media ran rampant with headlines up until the official press conference the next morning, in which Jordan stated that he was at peace with his decision, and also left the door open for anything down the road. What ensued was a list of allegations seemingly connecting the death of Jordan’s father, the presence of his gambling problem, and the progression of his career to his retirement. Some outlets even told a narrative that David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, veiled this retirement as a secret ban from the NBA due to his gambling. This is beyond absurd given that Jordan was the best thing to happen to the NBA financially, socially, and internationally. What is certain however, is that the retirement was of his own accord.

Jordan transitioned to baseball during his retirement period, and signed a minor league deal with the White Sox. This was one of his dreams that he had as a kid, and in many ways it follows his father’s dream to play in the MLB. The issue was that since Michael Jordan was such a polarizing figure all over the country, the facilities apparent in the lower levels of the MLB league system simply could not accommodate the amount of hype that he drew in. Due to this he was placed in the minor leagues Double A league, where the sufficient amount of fans could be accounted for. Couple this with the fact that Jordan had not played baseball properly since he was 17, and it was a seemingly disastrous fate. What no one expected however was how good he was. He started out with a 13-game hitting streak, and after a while opposing pitchers started to throw breaking balls rather than fastballs, the latter of which was never thrown for nearly a month. Jordan’s dry spell resulted in a media sandstorm, calling him out on his poor play, and labeling his decision as faulty. The most striking of these was the Sports Illustrated magazine cover of him missing a pitch, and labeled him as an embarrassment. As we all know, this lit the fire in Jordan’s mind, and he kept getting better and better as the season went on, to the point where it was speculated that he could’ve made it to the major leagues. The MLB had a strike that year, so that element of his career was cut short, and thus he returned to Bulls. What can be said however, is that he made a lasting impact in his reputation as the greatest ever.

Krause’s demolition of the Bulls: Good or Bad?

Jerry Krause has been documented throughout the course of the Bulls dynasty as a dictator type of general manager that would put prospective over his current players and even his own family to an extent. When the Bulls won their 6th championship, there was already huge speculation about what the Bulls would do and whether or not the team would get blown up. Jerry Reinsdorf, the team owner, states that he asked Phil Jackson to come back for the next year, which he turned down. He also states, that it would be suicide to keep the players they had due to injury, egos, etc. Jordan retorted that any player and coach would’ve been happy to sign the one-year contract to chase that 7th championship, and states that it’s “maddening” because it definitely could’ve happened. Following the 6th ring, Jackson, Pippen, Rodman, Kerr, and Jordan all left the Bulls organization, and the Bulls embraced a rebuild that can be argued to have progressed to the current-day.

I know that the immediate gut reaction to this is to have let Jordan and the team chase the 7th ring. But just to play devil’s advocate in this scenario, let’s look at the benefits of how things played out. Given that Jordan himself stated that he was physically drained following the season’s end, and that Pippen had struggled with injuries during the Finals run itself, it is almost a guarantee that someone essential to the teams success would sustain a lengthy injury during the season, jeopardizing a Finals run. This along with the fact that some players would inevitably ask for more money, and some key pieces would get moved around due to the nature of the business, all equates to a significantly lesser change of even getting to the endgame, let alone succeeding. In my mind there isn’t anything wrong with how the Bulls dynasty ended, because they went out on top. Doing so cemented their lasting legacy as the greatest dynasty to grace the NBA, and affirms Michael Jordan’s candidacy for the “Greatest Of All Time” conversation.

 

 

LeBron James: Looking Ahead to 2014

LeBron James has just won his 2nd title with the Miami Heat, and rumors say that he wants to get out of Miami. Where should he go? Here are my thoughts.

Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron should go to Cleveland because he will have a non-injury-prone sidekick in Kyrie Irving, and the Cavs gave Andrew Bynum a small contract to track down James. Though this may lead to many disappointing seasons due to the hatred from Cavs fans, some fans that had once burned their LeBron Cavs jersey will be begging to get it back.

LA Lakers

Kobe Bryant recently said he would want to team up with LeBron, but he does not want a pay-cut from the Lakers. The Lakers hit a huge luxury-tax of $29.6-million. Amnestying Pau Gasol and Steve Blake or Metta World Peace would do great to have room to get LeBron. Also, the Lakers will also track down Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks.

Chicago Bulls

Chicago showed interest when he made his first ‘Decision’, and many thought he would go there. Teaming up would D-Rose would mean that the Windy City will put up many more banners to come, and the once famous block by LeBron on Rose in ’11 will be forgotten forever.

 Miami Heat

LeBron said that he wants to stay in Miami for the rest of his career, and he should due to the fact he won both titles. Also, the Heat will try to chase some young and veteran players on the market to be able to convince LeBron to stay.

Stay tuned for more news on LeBron and free agency in 2013 and 2014!