We had another great week last week. Is it just me, or are these playoffs a lot more exciting than last year’s? Let’s review:
1 Atlanta def. 5. Charlotte
It was a valiant effort by the Hornets, but at the end of the day it’s always appeared likely that nobody in the East would be able to take down the Hawks. What else can you say from a starting lineup that requires zero rotation and has only one weak spot? Charlotte heads into the offseason with its head held high – but still, it must figure out its cap situation. The team was able to squeak by, and the cap will rise during the summer, but Charlotte will still be looming dangerously close to the cap.
7. Indiana def. 3. Toronto
The Pacers are legit. They also had seven more games than the Raptors did. But they’re legit.
1 Golden State def. 5 Phoenix
All year, and at the beginning of the playoffs, the question about the Suns was whether or not they’d be able to overcome their relative lack of talent beyond the backcourt. That question was answered last week. The Warriors continue to roll, backed by a 240-point (!!!) week from Curry.
2. San Antonio def. 6. Sacramento
So much for the matchup of the century. Both teams were scorching hot coming in, but the Kings kind of just underperformed here, putting up the second worst score in the second round. There are some glaring weaknesses on the Sacramento roster that were successfully masked all season, but that will have to be addressed in the summer if the Kings want to make the jump to the next level. The Spurs, meanwhile, continue their red hot streak. Taking them down will be a tall order.
CONFERENCE FINALS PICKS
1 Golden State vs. 2. San Antonio
I think this was the matchup we all saw coming, but now that it’s here, things have changed. The Warriors have been kings all season, but the Spurs have looked unstoppable for about two months now. Owners of the longest winning streak in the league, the Spurs have been getting unbelievable output from Drummond, Towns and Kawhi and even some help from minor players too. But Kawhi has a nagging injury and Pop loves resting people at this point in the season. Weak efforts from the Holiday brothers are also a cause from concern. Is now the time for the secret weapon, Kobe Bryant? My gut has been saying San Antonio will win the championship for a few weeks. But now, I’m less convinced. The Warriors are still the best team in Real Deal to me, and their performance thus far in the playoffs backs it up. Golden State has its issues, but right now they look both deeper and better at the top (read: Curry). I’m picking Golden State to get to the finals.
1 Atlanta vs. 7. Indiana
Exciting! The underdog versus the top dog. The perennial favorite versus the up-and-comer. The established versus the rapid rebuild. In my totally biased opinion, I’ll be rooting for the Pacers because a. It’s exciting and b. I can’t imagine the seller’s remorse of having walked away from the Hawks just for them to walk into a championship the next season. Despite all that, I am going to pick Atlanta to win. They’re just better. Indiana will have its chances for years to come with that young core, but now is Atlanta’s time.
Wow, what a first round! We had nail-biters, upsets, come from behind victories – just about everything you could realistically hope for. Let’s review:
1. Golden State def. 8. New Orleans
I gotta say, this was a better matchup than I, the eternal Pelicans optimist, was expecting. Propelled by the big three of Davis, Kyrie and LMA, New Orleans hung in there all the way and even lead early in the week. But that Curry-Thompson duo was just too much to handle.
2. San Antonio def. 7. Memphis
Things went pretty much according to plan here. Memphis would’ve stood a better chance at full strength, but it’s hard to win a playoff series when your highest scorer is Jeff Green. The Spurs looked great, getting expected brilliant performances from Drummond, Kawhi, and Towns, while Jrue Holiday and Gorgui Dieng were also terrific, ensuring an easy win for San Antonio.
6. Sacramento def. 3. Utah
I expected the Kings to win, but I did not expect them to be as much of a force as they were this week. Sacramento was one of the best teams in the opening round. A great week from Boogie, Dirk and co. The Kings will hope for a bit more from a healthy Beal/Wade backcourt, but when you get 100+ points in a week from both Matt Barnes and Jason Smith, of all people, you can consider yourself a bit lucky. But the Kings grabbed a big lead early and never let go. The West was just too tough for Utah to really break ground this year – they were one of only six teams to score over 1,000 points last week and the only one who did so that didn’t advance – but the Jazz will be an interesting squad going forth.
4. Phoenix def. 5. Houston
Ok, the Suns are a serious title threat. There were some question marks about this team all season: Are they deep enough? How far get they get with mediocre frontcourt play? But when Russell Westbrook drops you 257 points, some of those questions start to fade away. He remains the most dangerous player in the league until further notice, as he vaulted Phoenix to the highest first round score and laid waste to a Rockets team that got a lot from James Harden, but basically nothing from anyone else.
1 Atlanta def. 8. Milwaukee
No surprise here, although the Bucks did look a bit threatening earlier in the week. The eight-headed attack of a well-balanced Hawks team is going to give everyone else it faces a lot of trouble.
7. Indiana def. 2. Cleveland
Whoa! Was anyone expecting this? Definitely not me. LeBron and Dray were both very good, as expected, and Melo was good when he played, but Cleveland’s problem continues to be that the supporting cast just lacks talent. The Cavs now need to take a hard look at their future. How long can they keep it going with LeBron and Melo as the marquee players? Markieff is going to have to be a difference maker for this team, which has no first round picks until 2018 and the rest of the division is breathing down their throats. Is Indiana’s defeat over the division title winner a sign of the changing of the tide? Interesting stuff to ponder here in a division that, in the end, turned out to be a lot more interesting than I thought.
3. Toronto def. 6. Orlando
Well, I was dead wrong. Not only did the Raptors beat Orlando, but they beat Orlando BAD. Like, they doubled up on them and them some bad. While not a huge shock, this is definitely a boost for Toronto and a disappointment for Orlando, which now finds itself in the midst of what seems to be a carefully thought-out transition period. There are several amnesty candidates this summer, and the Magic own the coveted Boston pick in the fall. The question becomes how they can turn that pick, Vucevic, Greg Monroe and what’s left of Pau Gasol into a title contender again like they were a year ago. Toronto, meanwhile, moves on with its head held high in what so far has been the hands-down greatest accomplishment by any team from the Atlantic Division.
5. Charlotte def. 4. Chicago
Wow, man. What a game. By far the most intriguing matchup that saw things go right down to the wire; the final score separated these two great teams by just TEN POINTS! Kemba Walker continues to be a dominant force, and Enes Kanter is at least good on fantasy teams if not in real life. This was just a punch-for-punch slugfest, start to finish. For every Whiteside double-double, Al Jefferson answered with a 21 and 10 game. For every dime dropped by Ricky Rubio, there was a 20-point game from Avery Bradley or a 15 and 10 stat line from Kent Bazemore. Neither team deserved to go home, but I tip my hat to the Hornets.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to my picks for this week!
1 Atlanta vs. 5. Charlotte
The best thing that happened for the Hawks this week was that the Cavs and Bulls, likely their two greatest threats to a trip to the finals, were both booted. On the other side of the coin, though, how dangerous are these new contenders? Charlotte has been a team that had exceeded expectations and defied odds all year long; what’s to stop them now? Truth be told, I wouldn’t be too comfortable if I were Atlanta – and that’s the first time I’ve said that all season. The Hornets weren’t too far away from the Hawks’ score last week. But, on the other hand, Atlanta did smack down Charlotte by almost 200 points in the last week of the regular season. I’ll take Atlanta here, but I think it’ll be close.
7. Indiana vs. 3. Toronto
Which team is breathing a sigh of relief here? The Pacers, because now they face the Raptors instead of the previously highly-regarded Magic? Or Toronto, because they get to avoid the big three of LeBron, Green and Melo? I am pretty excited for this battle. On one side, you have Toronto, who has coasted for two years, facing no competition for the division title and automatic high seed, and who has suddenly been snapped into reality, and who has so far lived up to it. On the other side, you have Indiana, whose rebuild from nothing plan has accelerated much faster than I think even they themselves could have hoped for, and whose young players – led by the 2014 draft class of Jabari Parker, Zach LaVine and Gary Harris – are really starting to gel. And, you know, despite building up this matchup like I have so far, I really think it’s going to be Indiana in a landslide. This team has been red-hot of late, and they put up the third best point total of all 16 playoff teams, behind only Phoenix and Sacramento. And if you take a look at the regular season standings, you’ll find that Indy finished in 10th place for total points scored. Where’d Toronto finish? 17th – in the bottom half of the league just ahead of Miami, Dallas and the Lakers. Sorry, Raptors, still no love in my predictions.
1 Golden State vs. 4. Phoenix
Ok, these two are actually really tough to pick. Two phenomenal matchups in the West here. Golden State has been one of the very top teams all season, and Phoenix has been super hot lately. The Suns had the second highest scoring total last week, and, on a somewhat low profile, are in the top four scoring teams all season. But until it’s proven otherwise, Golden State has been the best team in the West. As long as Curry and Thompson play, there’s really no rational reason to pick against this team until further notice. Phoenix started off great and finished the season on a tear, but the Warriors have consistently been on the top the whole way. Last week’s scoring total is a bit of a concern (they would have lost to six other teams if they played them last week), making me think that it’ll be a close matchup here, but when push comes to shove it’s just too difficult to pick against Golden State.
2. San Antonio vs. 6. Sacramento
Another terrific series here. You’ve got two prolific teams whose owners have carefully and decisively rebuilt their rosters over the course of a year. The Spurs ended last year with Kawhi Leonard, the first overall pick and not much else. The Kings were clinging to Boogie and a bunch of washed up vets. Now look at them! Two behemoths! Riddled with superstars! Kawhi, Towns and Drummond versus Boogie, Dirk, Wade and Beal. I really think this is going to be a matchup for the ages, and potentially the most exciting one of the playoffs. Two great teams whose owners have done a terrific job of not only keeping/making their teams relevant, but also of transforming them into championship-worthy squads. Whoever advances out of this round will really deserve it, because this matchup is all-out war. This is the most difficult pick of the playoffs so far. I think Sacramento has more momentum (they had the best score in the playoffs last week) and might be a little deeper at the top of the roster than the Spurs, but the starpower of San Antonio’s big three might be too unstoppable. Kawhi, Towns and Drummond have all been averaging better than 50 points per game over the last month, and the “little three” of Jrue Holiday, Gorgui Dieng and Evan Turner have also been terrific of late. I’m picking the Spurs here.
The playoffs are finally here! Congratulations to the 16 entrants, and boo hoo hoo to the rest of us, who are now eagerly awaiting the lottery drawing (well, most of us are).
The playoffs are a time of action, and not a time for drawn-out preamble. So without further ado, here are the first round matchups, along with my picks!
1. ATLANTA vs. 8 MILWAUKEE
The Bucks draw the short straw here, losing out on a three-way tiebreaker with Orlando and division rival Indiana. Although, one could say they’re lucky to be here; an illegal roster dropped Miami out of the playoff picture and created this space for them. Atlanta has been the best team all season long – they and Golden State are the only teams who broke the 40,000-point mark this season – and there’s no reason to think that will change. The Hawks have avoided injury, miraculously, all season, and if they can avoid it for one more month, they might have a title on their hands. Let the good times roll…
THE PICK: ATLANTA
2. CLEVELAND vs. 7. INDIANA
Indy was my outside shot team that might make noise in the playoffs this year, but I just think the Cavs are too strong. That forward trio of LeBron, Draymond and Carmelo continues to just steamroll teams. Indiana has the brightest young roster in the league, but I think they’re probably still a couple of years away from being a legit contender. I’ll pick Cleveland safely here.
THE PICK: CLEVELAND
3. TORONTO vs. 6. ORLANDO
The sixth seed is once again the best seat in the house because it means a chance to go against the Raptors, who repeat as Atlantic Division champs by virtue of being not garbage. I do think the Raptors are better than they were last year, and they are probably better than the amount of crap I give them reflects, but Orlando is just better – and the numbers back it up. Not only have the Magic scored more points than Toronot, but they’ve played a much tougher schedule and face actual competition within their division – from every team. Toronto, in fact, has had by far the easiest schedule in the league, with only 30,000 points scored against them. Zach Randolph is a nice boost, and Orlando will be missing Oladipo and Kobe right about now, but that big three of Pau, Vuc and Monroe should be enough to get the Magic by, just barely, if they play.
THE PICK: ORLANDO
4. CHICAGO vs. 5. CHARLOTTE
You know, I really gotta give it up to the Hornets here (yes, again). I picked them to be dead last in the division, but they ended up in second place and were good enough this year to win a lot of the other five divisions in the league. That said, I think the edge here goes to Chicago, another team I’ve been praising all year long. This team has been just awesome lately, and they’re my best bet to challenge Atlanta for the conference title. Every player, from Whiteside to Wiggins to Rubio all the way down to Lance Stephenson, has just been clicking lately. This is a high-octane team. Charlotte has a lot to be proud of, but at the end of the day, I gotta go with the Bulls.
THE PICK: CHICAGO
1. GOLDEN STATE vs. 8. NEW ORLEANS
I gotta say, it was more of a nailbiter than I expected for the final spot in the West. New Orleans all but had it wrapped up, but I was willing to sniff at Dallas and the Lakers just because they weren’t mathematically eliminated. Lo and behold, all three teams go 1-2 in the final action of the regular season so none of it matters anyway. On the wings of Davis, Irving and Aldridge, the Pelicans have finally locked up a playoff spot – but against the best team I think this league is going to see in these playoffs. The Warriors have just been too good lately, and I am not picking against them until further notice. They were my preseason favorites, and I’m probably going to stick to my guns in making my picks going forward. Sadly it’ll be back to the drawing board for New Orleans, but all of that cap space, those injured players in waiting and those draft picks should help nurse the wounds.
THE PICK: GOLDEN STATE
2. SAN ANTONIO vs. 7. MEMPHIS
This is probably the easiest pick in the first round, and it’s not for happy reasons. The poor Grizzlies have suffered critical injuries to just about every important player it had this season, and they basically have no chance against the red hot behemoth Spurs, led by Drummond, Kawhi and rookie sensation Karl Towns, aka the next Tim Duncan (but maybe better?!). Not much more to say here, but I do plan to talk more about the Spurs in round two.
THE PICK: SAN ANTONIO
3. UTAH vs. 6. SACRAMENTO
Sacramento is ready for the playoffs. Bringing in Beal and Wade makes this Kings team something of a juggernaut, and I think it’s likely that they absolutely roll over the Jazz, who closed out the second half strong to win the Northwest. Utah has a very nice team and is poised for continued success in their division, but Sacramento just looks like too powerful a foe. Boogie, Dirk, Wade, Gay, Beal – that team is just too deep to go home in the first round. Plus, Alec Burks might be coming back. The Kings seem to have benefitted the most from last-minute finaglings.
THE PICK: SACRAMENTO
4. HOUSTON vs. 5. PHOENIX
Houston is kind of a tough team to figure out. Sure, they have the resplendent James Harden, who is quietly the second-best scorer in basketball, but what else? Barnes and Matthews are pretty good. Noah and Ezeli were pretty good, but they’re hurt. And Deron Williams is somehow pretty good, too. I don’t know about these Rockets. But then again, they did win 56 games. Phoenix isn’t exactly chuck-loaded with talented depth, either, but that backcourt trio of Westbrook, IT and Knight is fantastic. What gives Phoenix the edge here is that several players – Deng, Ed Davis, E’Twaun Moore (yeah, seriously) and others – are overperforming. That matters in the playoffs, and it’s enough in my opinion to unseat last season’s Western champs.
So I guess I kind of took February off there, huh? I don’t even have the “short month” excuse because it was a Leap Year.
But I do have this excuse: I’ve been super hyped about the playoff race! One thing that’s great about this league in its formative years is that there are still so many teams that are so competitive. Such drama! And less than two weeks until it all finally begins!
So, without further ado, let’s break down the action (and no, I’m not doing any math over here, so I don’t actually know who’s clinched and who hasn’t).
GOLDEN STATE: As predicted (by me, anyway), the Warriors have all but locked up the best record in the West. That backcourt combo of Steph and Klay is just too impossible to stop, and it doesn’t hurt that the team is getting the best years ever out of the likes of Brook Lopez, KCP, Khris Middleton and Mason Plumlee. Myles Turner is finally paying dividends, and the draft day gamble might help vault Golden State to a championship.
SAN ANTONIO: From the first draft pick to first in the division. It’s been a rapid turnaround for San Antonio, but it helps to have the best two-way player since prime LeBron in Kawhi Leonard on your team as a foundation piece. Karl Towns is the hands down ROY and Andre Drummond is the definition of a ringer. Seriously, that midseason acquisition is unquestionably the best move anyone’s made in this league’s near-two-year history, because it changed the Spurs from a low-tier playoff team to a legitimate championship contender. If I’m in the West, I’m scare of playing this team. (Now all the Spurs need to do is trade me the Ghost of Kobe’s contract with a first round pick in the offseason.)
PHOENIX: I knew the Suns would be a top 10 team this year! Russell Westbrook is having one of the best single statistical seasons I’ve ever seen (too bad Curry is from another planet or he could win MVP this year), and IT has been a joy in Boston. This team needs Brandon Knight to come back pretty quick in order to be a real contender, but things have gone terrifically in Phoenix.
HOUSTON: Last season, the Rockets were the best regular season team and made it all the way to the finals. Things have been tougher this time, though, and the reason for that is the same reason for last year’s success: James Harden. Now, Harden’s stats are pretty amazing, but he got off to a super slow start this year (Kardashian voodoo magic). On top of that, Houston’s supporting cast has been pretty underwhelming and the injuries have piled up. Noah’s gone, Mo Williams is all but gone, Barnes has missed time, and Ezeli won’t be back until at least April – and by then it might be too late. Only one active player averages more than 22 points a game, and it’s Deron Williams, of all people. Houston’s a lock for the playoffs, but what happens next is up for debate.
UTAH: A lock because the rest of the Northwest is so terrible. Portland had potential, but just wasn’t deep enough; the rest of the teams were just never any good to begin with. Losing Gallo is really, really bad for this team, but it’ll be interesting to see what the Jazz can do with a healthy Derrick Favors for the rest of the way.
MEMPHIS: Not the finest season for the Grizzlies, and I think their championship shot is shot with Gasol out for the rest of the season. Still, though, this is a very deep squad. Conley, Sullinger, Afflalo, Gordon and Mahinmi make for a solid, if not exactly flashy, team. If DeMarre Carroll ever comes back, things could get a bit interesting, but for now, who knows. This team has suffered a lot this season. It will be worth keeping an eye on whether or not the Grizzlies will attempt a last-minute move.
SACRAMENTO: I have to admit, I didn’t think much of the Kings last summer, but they’ve done really well this year. It helps a lot that they have a very attentive GM. Sacramento has played the waiver wire well and has made some low-profile trades that have made differences. Getting the injured Burks and Lou Will back will be big for this team. A well-earned playoff spot for the Kings, led by Boogie and Dirk, who is somehow still amazing at basketball.
That leaves one spot for four teams with a mathematical chance (ok, so I did do a bit of math. Like 32 plus 6, for example): New Orleans, Minnesota, Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers, who have been surging a bit lately. My pick is New Orleans – yeah, that’s right, you’re making the playoffs whether you like it or not, you Anthony-Davis-and-Kyrie-Irving-team! Dallas would be an interesting shout here, but I think the Pelicans’ lead is a bit too much. The Lakers are a case of too little, too late, despite having KD, and Minnesota has literally three good players on it to go with a bunch of fringe NBA guys. Dallas has the talent and the depth to catch up, especially now that D Rose is playing so well lately, but their poor start really knocked them out of contention. New Orleans is clearly the best team of the four and will be forced into the playoffs as the 7th seed.
ATLANTA: Did I colossally mess up by leaving this team behind? Sure seems like it. It’s been a dominant run. Everything went right for the Hawks. Virtually no injuries, which means that the team’s complete lack of depth never became a problem. Literally just a plug-and-play squad from day one and a free trip to the Finals. Ugh. Man.
CLEVELAND: Like Atlanta, everything went right for the Cavs. No real injury problems, the depth has been better than advertised and the big three of LeBron, Draymond and Melo have done their thang. Getting Jodie Meeks back might be a nice addition, but will more likely mean nothing. Also, mandatory shoutout to near-All Star ZAZA!
CHICAGO: The Bulls were terrible to start the year, but that’s all in the past. Not much to say about this team besides the things I’ve already said a million times: Chicago has a lot of good players. It’ll be super interesting to see them square off against Atlanta and/or Cleveland. For what it’s worth, I still think this team is the best in the East, all things considered.
CHARLOTTE: This team really came out of nowhere to me, so congrats to them. The salary cap thing ended up, SOMEhow, not being an issue, and Kemba Walker is the best player in the NBA that nobody is talking about. McCollum is a lock for MIP this year, and there are plenty of candidates, but Kemba to me has made the biggest improvement as a player from last year to now. He’s emerged as a great scorer, a great leader and stays clutch. The Hornets will look to make some noise in the playoffs, and they can’t wait to amnesty Nick Johnson in the summer.
TORONTO: All I can say is, don’t get too used to it.
That leaves three playoff spots for five teams: Orlando, Miami, Milwaukee, Washington and Indiana. This one is super tough to call, but I’m picking Orlando, Washington and Indiana here, meaning Miami and Milwaukee drop out. Both teams gave admirable efforts, but in my eyes have been trending down and just have less talent than the other three. Orlando is the clear best of the group, Washington has been surging for months now to overcome a horrible start, and I believe the future is now in Indy. So don’t worry, Milwaukee and Miami, now you have a chip on your shoulder and can yell “THEY DIDN’T BELIEVE!” when you inevitably make the playoffs now.
Now, let’s play the lottery!
The teams out of the playoffs are, in order from worst to least-worst (by my guessing here):
Oklahoma City (pick goes to New Orleans…lucky bastard)
Boston (pick goes to Orlando…another lucky bastard)
LA Clippers (pick goes to Detroit)
Minnesota (pick goes to LA Lakers)
Dallas (pick goes to Sacramento)
Milwaukee (pick goes to Detroit)
Miami (pick goes to Sacramento)
The Lakers and Kings each have two (project) lottery picks, and Detroit has three. Veeeery interesting.
Anyway, that’s all I got this time. What are your picks?