Round 1- The East.

by

The NBA season is a marathon, a slog, a death march or a victory lap.

It can be any or all of those things depending on what part of the season you’re in or what team you follow. As a fan of the Chicago Bulls, this season never lived up to any expectations. Despite a few solid streaks, the team never felt like a contender and everything from the All-Star Break on was like watching a beloved family pet at the end of their life; it hurt to see them in pain and while I still loved them, I just wanted to put them out of their misery. If you’re a Warriors’ fan, this entire year was one big victory celebration. I’ve lived that life before with the 1990’s Bulls, and can say that there’s no better sports experience than watching your team celebrate a title while simultaneously kicking the crap out of everyone they played. Whether your team is great, awful or something in between, the season is too long. That’s a discussion for another day, but what really matters is that all the pain and drudgery of the long regular season is behind us and it’s time for the good stuff to start.

Round One match-ups have a tendency to be less than exciting,

the bottom half of the playoff bracket is obviously less strong than the top, and you end up with some horrendous mismatches and very quick series. Occasionally you’ll get an upset in the first round, but normally things play out according to plan. In order to make these first few series more watchable, it helps to do a quick look at how each set of teams matches up: the key factors, the most important players and maybe a fun fact or two for when it’s a 30 point blowout. I’ll also highlight what my favorite match-up in each series is. So, without further Adu, let’s dive in:

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Go hard, or go home.

Eastern Conference

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Detroit Pistons: 

No player in the league has more riding on this years’ playoffs than LeBron James. By using a self aggrandizing letter in Sports Illustrated to announce his return to the Cavs last year, he permanently attached his legacy to his ability to bring a title back to Cleveland. This is just speculation, but it doesn’t seem like he expected things to be this difficult. He has had major sway when it comes to roster construction, play calling and even coaching changes, so if this team doesn’t win a title, it’s hard to put blame on anyone else without first blasting LeBron. With that being said, with LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, this team still has 3 of the best 30 players in the league and has shown glimpses of the powerhouse people thought they could be. There are still a lot of odd pieces on this roster, but LeBron still has times where he’s the best player in the world, so you can’t rule out the Cavs entirely.

Key Factor- Offensive Rebounding: I wrote about the Pistons’ a bit previously, so this is rehash, but the biggest advantage the Pistons had all season was their ability to pound teams on the glass and they were 2nd in the league in rebounding differential. and while the Cavaliers were 3rd in the league in the same category, and this strength is largely neutralized, the Pistons were also 2nd in offensive rebounding. Teams that pull major upsets tend to do so by exploiting a major weakness or area of strength, so the second chance points could be the only chance they have to knock off the Cavs.

Best Matchup- Kentavious Caldwell Pope/Tobias Harris vs. LeBron James: Unless you’re Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green, it’s impossible to stop LeBron James in a one on one situation. The only way to mitigate his effectiveness is to help judiciously off the right guys and be crisp with your rotations. With that being said, you still have to try to slow him down with your individual defense. The poor guy being assigned this primary role hasn’t been decided yet, but a big chunk of the time will see the vastly improved Caldwell-Pope and Harris taking this duty. Both players have been viewed defensive stoppers and potential 3 point gunners, and while the shooting hasn’t been there yet, they’ve both turned into solid defenders (top 15 at their positions for Defensive Real Plus-Minus). Like I said, one guy doesn’t stop LeBron, but these two have to at least contain him to give Detroit any chance at all.

Fun Things to Watch-Stan Van Gundy: The Notorious SVG may be my favorite coach in basketball. He is outspoken, frequently profane and always entertaining. Whether it’s imploring his team to “Form a fu**ing wall” on defense, or riding dirty on a BMX bike, he’s a treasure. Additionally, he’s also a brilliant basketball coach and executive. This is the 3rd different team that he has led to the playoffs, and considering the sad state of Detroit basketball since Chauncey Billups left, it’s his most impressive job to date.

My Pick: Detroit plays hard and will at least be a little bit feisty, but Cleveland has too much talent to lose to such an incomplete team: Cavs in 5

Toronto Raptors vs. Indiana Pacers: On the surface it’s hard to say that there are any similarities between Indianapolis and Toronto: Indy is known for it’s hillbilly population and backward thinking; Toronto is one of the hippest and trendiest cities in the world. Beyond the cold winters, the one thing they have in common is the sensitivity of the local fans. In both cities, if you say anything mildly critical about the local teams, you might as well have insulted somebody’s wife or called their kid ugly. I’ve experienced it myself with Indy’s teams, and Toronto fans are notorious for taking everything personally. It’s incredibly annoying, but on another level, it’s also very endearing. There’s a sense of “Us against the world” that doesn’t always exists in other markets. It’ll definitely be fun to see which fan base can be more insulted by any perceived slight.

Key Factor- Who controls the pace of the game?: With their vastly different lineup constructions and player styles, the biggest battle for these teams is who will control how fast the game is played. Led by aggressive guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, you would think that the Raptors would be the faster team than the historically plodding Pacers. If you thought that, you would be very wrong. This season, the Pacers played at the 10th fastest pace in the league (99 possessions per game) while the Raptors played slower than every team other than the Utah Jazz (95.3 possessions per game). Toronto makes up for this slow pace by being hyper efficient (5th in the league), but when they’re forced to play at a faster pace, the defense isn’t able to keep up and the team success goes out the window. This happens in a lot of series, but only the Boston Miami series has a bigger gap in the way the two teams want to play. Toronto is definitely the better team, but if Indy can speed them up, they have a fighting chance.

Best Matchup- George Hill vs. Kyle Lowry: No other high level point guards in the league have fought for respect quite as much as Lowry and Hill. For Kyle Lowry there was always something about him for people to pick at: he was too fat, too short and couldn’t shoot. His answers: he lost 20 pounds in the off-season, turned into a low post monster and shot 39% on 3 pointers this season. For George Hill, his biggest knock is the fact that his draft rights were traded for those of Kawai Leonard. While Hill is nowhere near the level of Kawhi, he’s not responsible for what Leonard turned into. What he does do is provide the Pacers with quality defense (top 14 in real plus minus), smart ball movement and solid shooting when he does let it fly (40% shooting on 3 pointers). They already have their star in Paul George, and with Monta Ellis taking enough shots for the both of them, the Pacers don’t need Hill to be a gunner. Both these guys are bulldogs who play with a huge chip on their shoulder, and with Lowry dictating much of Toronto’s success, it’s up to Hill to slow him down and keep the Pacers in the series.

Fun Thing to Watch-The City of Toronto’s Behavior: Raptors GM, Masai Ujiri became famous in the playoffs a couple of years ago when he addressed the Toronto crowd prior to the start of the series against the Brooklyn Nets. He boldly grabbed the mic and dropped a hearty “Fu** Brooklyn” much to the delight of the crowd. The NBA was less than thrilled, and fined him $25k. He has toned it down a bit since then, but Raptors fans are crazy, so whether it’s Jurassic Park themed festivities, Drake concerts or something else, it’ll be fun to see what crazy things management will do to hype up the crowd.

My Pick: Indiana has one of the game’s premier superstars in Paul George, and Myles Turner has a chance to be truly special, but Toronto is able to throw waves of talent onto the court with guys like DeRozan, Lowry, Valenciunas and even Demarre Carroll. They’ve bowed out in the first round the last two years, but this Raptors team is too good and too deep. Raptors in 6

Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Hornets:  There’s no question that I hate Pat Riley. Whether it was his self-satisfied run as head coach of the L.A. Lakers, the thuggish tactics of his Knicks and Heat teams or his ability now to put together elite rosters without the use of cap space, the man is evil. Throughout the 1990’s, nobody tortured Pat Riley more than Michael Jordan, and while I’m not a Hornets fan, I am a Michael Jordan fan, and have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Charlotte area. When MJ retired for the last time, I thought it meant Pat Riley had won for good, so it’ll be fun to see a MJ led team do battle with a Pat Riley again, albeit in a different form than before.

Key Factor- Home Court Advantage: Outside of the big boys in the NBA (Cleveland, Toronto, Golden State, San Antonio and OKC), nobody in the league was better at home this year than the Charlotte Hornets. In Charlotte, they were borderline elite, outscoring opponents by 6.4 points per game opposed to being outscored by .9 points per game on the road. Meanwhile, the Miami Heat outscored their opponents by a marginally impressive 5.4 points per game at home, while being outscored by 2.1 points on the road. The 3rd through 6th seeds in the East all finished with the same record, and both Boston and Atlanta had positive scoring differentials on the road and at home this season, so no other match-up hinged on tiebreakers as much as this one. Thanks to their division record, the Heat won the tiebreaker and with both teams being so evenly matched, home court advantage could end up being the deciding factor.

Best matchup- Kemba Walker vs. Goran Dragic: Really, this whole series is full of fun match-ups; you have Dwayne Wade vs. Courtney Lee, Nic Batum and Luol Deng trying to out glue-guy each other, and Big Al trying to bulldoze Hassan Whiteside. All of those are great, but the two guys that really make their respective teams tick are the ball dominant point guards. Coming into the season, Walker was viewed as a guy who would get his buckets, but couldn’t shoot from outside or really lead a successful team. Well, that narrative can be put to bed, as he’s raised his scoring and efficiency, while also helping push an underwhelming roster to 48 wins. In Miami, Goran Dragic was viewed as a max-level player, and got paid as such. Unfortunately for him, his play in the early part of the season didn’t reflect this talent level, and the trade rumors swirled heavily around him. Something clicked around midseason, and since the All-Star break, he’s increased his scoring from 12 points on 11 shots with 5 assists per game up to 17 points on 15 shots along with 7 assists per game. It’s always been a questionable fit with ball dominant guys like Wade on the roster, but Dragic’s aggressiveness was a big key to the Heat’s improved play. With his usage and numbers going up, the Heat went 20-9 in the second half and vaulted their way to the top third of the standings. Whichever point guard asserts his will more effectively will give his team a big leg up in this tight series.

Fun Thing to watch-Jeremy Lin’s Hair: Anytime someone does something outrageous, my first reaction is “They’re trolling us”. Whether it’s Donald Trump’s campaign, everything Rush Limbaush says, or LeBron James’ social media feed, I always assume people are playing a joke on us. With all his different hairstyle this year, I have to think that Jeremy Lin got sick of the attention for “Linsanity” and decided to do something outrageous to get attention in another way. I love when guys do outrageous things, and I can’t wait to see what playoff ‘do Lin reveals.

My Pick: I love Charlotte’s game plan and the way they attack teams with their length on defense and bench scoring. Miami needs a huge series from Whiteside and Dragic to make up for Wade’s regression. Even with the crucial home court edge for Miami, I like Charlotte’s overall team a little more: Hornets in 7.

Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics: The Celtics are one of the most successful franchises in sports history, so it makes sense that they have had rivalries with just about everyone at some point. While their greatest rival is absolutely the Los Angeles Lakers, the unquestioned second spot goes to the Atlanta Hawks. The Celtics and Hawks have been rivals dating all the way back to the 1950’s when the Hawks were still based in St. Louis and being led by hall of famers Clyde Lovelette and Bob Petit. The Celts and Hawks met 4 times in the finals in the 50’s, with the Celtics prevailing 3 of those times, and have met a total of 11 times in the playoffs throughout the years. The Dominique Wilkins led Hawks of the 1980’s were a legitimately great team, but never reached a Finals series as they were swallowed up every year, first by the great Larry Bird teams, and later by the Pistons and Bulls. Even recent series between the two teams have been testy, with Kevin Garnett and Zaza Pachulia nearly coming to blows in the 2008 match-up. Even though all the players involved in the rivalry are long gone, the fan bases definitely remember. These teams finished with identical records, and both fancy themselves as playoff spoilers, so there’s some serious pride in play here.

Key Factor- Crunch time: This is a little bit of overkill, as the difference between good and bad teams is their abilities to come through at the end of games. What makes it even more crucial in this series is the way in which these teams are constructed. While Boston does have a go-to scorer in Isaiah Thomas, both teams are generally built without one distinguishing star. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, as defenses aren’t able to focus their attention as much on stopping one main guy, but conversely, it does put more pressure on offenses to execute properly in big moments without “The Guy” to rely on if things break down. These teams are truly remarkable in today’s NBA, where every contender has a star or two, and I’d love to see them both succeed. Unfortunately for them, and luckily for us, they’re playing each other, so the winner of this series will be the team that can execute their game plan most effectively when things get tight.

Best Matchup- Brad Stevens vs. Mike Budenholzer: These teams are eerily similar in a lot of ways. Both are in the top-10 in the NBA in Pace of Play and defensive efficiency, both finished with positive scoring differentials at home and on the road and are both built around jitterbug point guards and ball movement (top-10 in assists per game). The similarities don’t stop there, as both are led by young (Stevens is 39, Bud is 46), analytically driven head coaches who provide a decided advantage over every coach in league outside of Popovich and Kerr. Although they took very different paths to their current position; Stevens worked and  coached at Butler almost immediately after college and Bud worked as a video coordinator and assistant for 20 years in San Antonio, they share a complete control over everything the team does. Neither team has any business being as good as they are,  but what really sets them apart is their players’ commitment to the game plan they provide. This match-up will be both intellectually and aesthetically pleasing as these two engage in a 7 game chess match.

Fun thing to watch- Team Basketball: I’m not one of those people who thinks the NBA is boring or full of selfish guys. It’s a league full of the best athletes alive, playing in a day where the effort and skill levels are at an all time high. However, it’s still nice to watch two teams that really understand how to function as a team. For Boston it’s the way they run their sets and communicate, and Atlanta moves on a string defensively as well as anyone in the league. There may be times where it gets a little ugly offensively for Atlanta, and Boston occasionally forgets about defense, but all in all, it’s going to be such a pretty series.

My Pick: Can I pick both teams? No? In that case, I like Boston’s offensive potential and the troika of defensive players they can unleash at any time (Any combo of Smart, Crowder, Bradley, Turner and Johnson). While I love the way Atlanta has overachieved, I think the defensive intensity with which they have to play has sapped their energy a little bit. It’s the little amounts that matter at this point. Celtics in 6

PART 2: The West

 

 

 

 

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