After what feels like an eternally long week and a half since the National Championship, the first-round matchups of the NBA playoffs will grace our television screens on Saturday afternoon. Many people believe that a fourth finals clash between Cleveland and Golden State is in doubt as neither team looks particularly great heading into their playoff stint, and they’ll have to get past formidable opponents on both sides of the conference before they can challenge each other for the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. Here are five storylines I am curious to see unfold over the next few weeks.
- Will Philadelphia have enough left in the tank to make a deep playoff run?
We’ve been hearing about trusting the process for three seasons now, and that belief may finally pay off for a franchise looking to retain the third seed in the conference standing and make their first playoff appearance in the past six seasons. Undoubtedly the hottest team in the league right now despite the injury to star center Joel Embiid, a fourteen-game win streak and the playmaking abilities of rookie forward Ben Simmons have propelled them much further than many around the league expected they would this season. The veteran combination of role players such as J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli have provided valuable offensive depth for an extremely young team, while the return of rookie guard Markelle Fultz provides Simmons with multiple offensive resources at his side heading into their potential first round matchup against Giannis and the Milwaukee Bucks. My only concern, pending Embiid’s return within the next week or two, remains whether or not a team as youthful as them can challenge the likes of Boston and Cleveland for serious contention. Very few people on their roster have playoff experience (none of the big three- consisting of Embiid, Simmons and Fultz) and could fall victim to stage fright as they approach bigger games in later rounds of the conference. Simmons is one of the most talented young players I’ve seen enter the game in a long time, but could his cockiness and swagger prevent the Sixers from toppling a team like the Bucks in the first round?
- Can a Boston team missing both of their stars make it out of the second round?
I could hear the groans of Boston sports fans all the way here in Madison this past weekend, as news broke that star point guard Kyrie Irving would be sidelined for the duration of the season due to complications from his non-invasive knee surgery a few weeks back. Coupled with the still gruesome leg injury suffered by free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward this past fall, the Celtics face their playoff run with a combination of young talent like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum alongside of the limited veteran playoff experience from big man Al Horford. Brad Stevens is one of the most talented coaches in the sport today; and I have no doubt that he’ll keep the ship afloat through their first-round matchup with the Miami Heat next week- but after that I remain skeptical if they can beat anyone else left in the league at that point. Even in the very unlikely chance that Indiana could somehow topple the Cavaliers and move on to face Boston at the Garden, I still see a combination of Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner causing nightmares for a relatively undersized and undermanned Boston team looking to prove that their roster can handle the load just fine despite missing their best two players. Unlike Philadelphia, who I believe has nowhere to go but up, I think that losing in the first or second round would be an ugly sight for a Celtics franchise that is still seen as building towards their ultimate goal of becoming the perennial powers in the Eastern Conference. Can the young talent still left make a deep push, or will it take one more year before the Celtics can call themselves the leaders of the east?
- How do the Spurs fare in this playoff run despite Kawhi Leonard taking himself out?
The situation in San Antonio has gotten ugly over the past few weeks, with teammates turning on each other (not looking at you Tony Parker) and raising the attention of the media unlike anything we’ve seen during head coach Gregg Popovich’s reign down in the desert. Leonard, one of the most talented offensive and defensive players in basketball, seemingly will not be coming back to help the Spurs make a push at challenging Golden State or Houston in the conference finals – so this leaves the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to put together the broken pieces and fight off a serious contender in Utah in their first-round battle. Five championships with the old vanguard speak for themselves, yet it’s obvious that things aren’t the same for this Spurs team. I see them struggling to keep up with the athleticism and range of newly crowned Jazz stars like Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, who provide both the offensive firepower (Mitchell) and defensive prowess (Gobert) to potentially demolish the fundamentally sound system of basketball that was once so highly regarded in San Antonio. For a guy who almost singlehandedly defeated LeBron in the finals just a few short years ago, Leonard was the one bright spot on this aging team- and his absence will certainly be felt regardless of whether or not the media spectacle has become an overblown disaster for the franchise. As of right now, I can’t see the Spurs finding a way to get past Utah in the next week. This will cast even further doubt on Leonard’s future in San Antonio and may spell the end of the historic run we’ve seen since their first championship back in 1999.
- Is it truly within God’s Plan to see the Toronto Raptors come out of the east?
I apologize for the awful Drake pun, but in all seriousness, it might finally be the year we see someone other than Cleveland emerge from the Eastern Conference finals victorious. I firmly believe, despite losing to the Cavaliers the past two meetings, that the Toronto Raptors are prepared to take that next step and compete for a chance to make the finals. Both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are playing some of the best basketball in the league, they’re shooting the ball at an unbelievable rate and have home court advantage locked up for their first three matchups guaranteed. This is a team that has carried the moniker of close, but not quite there for the past few seasons, yet with a seemingly broken-down Celtics team and few other real challenges left throughout the conference it may finally be their time to shine. Nothing would make more excited than seeing LeBron reach his eighth straight finals appearance, but Dwane Casey and the boys may prevent that from happening in just a few short weeks.
- Can the Houston Rockets finish off their nearly perfect season with a championship?
Shockwaves reverberated around the league last July as Chris Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets, a decision that didnât make much sense to me at the time as both Paul and Rockets superstar James Harden are some of the most ball dependent players in the league. I couldnât picture how an offense would be able to function through both of their high demands for shot opportunities, as well as continue to provide help on the defensive end following the departure of unsung hero Patrick Beverly in the trade. Boy, how wrong I turned out to be. Harden has posted historic numbers this season and is seemingly on his way to winning the most valuable player award. Paul has provided both solid offensive contributions and veteran leadership within the locker room, something that Harden has struggled with in the past, and the emergence of Clint Capela as one of the most dominant big men in the Western Conference has made this team truly enjoyable to watch. Not only do they own the best record in the league heading into the playoffs, but I feel have the chance to unseat Golden State as the team to prevail from the western half of the league. Daryl Morey has put together quite a season so far; and anything less than a championship would be a failure for the Rockets going forward. Could this be year it finally happens?