By: Same Page Team
We made it to the end of the NBA regular season! With the playoffs starting on Saturday, it means it’s time for another Three for 3. Here comes Osubronie, Grant and Reynolds to answer your burning questions for the NBA post-season.
1) Which team is your favourite playoff darkhorse?
Thanks to a surprising stellar season by the Atlanta Hawks and the return of Lebron James to Cleveland, the Bulls are officially a darkhorse in the Eastern Conference. You would think with a former MVP, a two time champion playing at career highs and the potential most improved player they would be a favourite. Unfortunately, injuries have played a huge factor in the progression of the team. Possibly the “darkhorse” title will alleviate some pressure and they will embrace the underdog label right to the NBA Finals.
It may come as a surprise to you but Derrick Rose is not as healthy as he would like. With constant problems from knees and ankles that have deteriorated over years of slashing to the rim, he has struggled to stay on the court for a full campaign. Although he played just 51 games this year, the Bulls have found a way to finish 3rd in the East and lock home court in the first round. With Rose back and joined by Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, who have both had their own injury issues over the season, and the electric Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls will use the Bucks as a warm up to get ready for Cleveland. If they can recreate the chemistry they displayed when healthy, they are the best team to beat Cleveland and come out of the Eastern Conference as champs.
For a season with so many powerhouse teams in the Western Conference, it seems like most feel the Conference Finals are foretold. If Cleveland vs Atlanta and Golden State vs San Antonio don’t go down, it’ll be because something truly surprising went down. And for me, the team with the best shot at creating that surprise is the Houston Rockets.
Houston enters the playoffs with the two seed, finishing tie breakers and percentage points ahead of the Grizzlies, Spurs and Clippers. However, Houston’s ascent is all the more impressive when you consider they basically did it on the back of MVP candidate James Harden and a rotating crew of cast-offs and injury fill-ins. So why the Rockets? Well their best lineup played just 25 games together, but when it did, it posted the fifth best point differential (per 100 possessions, minimum of 350 minutes played) of any lineup in the NBA at +11.5; unfortunately for Houston, Patrick Beverley was a part of that lineup and he’s done for the year. However, the Harden-Howard-Ariza trio is set to give teams fits with their ability to play inside-outside. If we scrap the 350 minute minimum, Houston features three separate lineups that have absurd point differentials. The Harden-Howard-Ariza-Terry-Terrence Jones lineup is a +15.4, and the Harden-Jones-Terry-Corey Brewer-Josh Smith lineup is an absolutely insane +23.4.
More than any other team, the Rockets can throw different looks at teams, though it’s all within the philosophy of shooting three’s and getting to the line. They’ll get Dallas in Round 1 and should handle them easily, unless Rajon Rondo really does have another gear. A looming match-up with the Spurs in Round 2 is scary – most pundits say Kawhi Leonard’s defense cancels out James Hardens offense and the rest is elementary. But I think the Spurs will struggle to guard Jones on the perimeter in traditional lineups and if the Rockets go small with Ariza at the four and Jones or Josh Smith at the five in spurts, they could give the Spurs a real test. Regardless, I am a fan of both Harden and Dork Elvis, so I’m rooting for the Rockets to turn the West upside down.
The San Antonio Spurs start the playoffs as a 6-seed so screw it, we’re considering them a darkhorse. Forget that 11 game win streak at the end of the season, forget the defending championship pedigree, we’re looking at a team that will never have home court advantage in the playoffs. Through most of the season, when we were all gaga over the ascendant Warriors or mesmerized by the streaking Hawks, the Spurs were lurking. They survived injuries and inconsistent play. There were the annual appeals to the gods asking “Is this the End of the Spurs?” And yet, here we are.
The Spurs are the 6-seed because the Western Conference was once again a cross between Mad Max and Westeros. At the last second they were a second seed, which definitely gave the Warriors second round nightmares. And then, equally last second, they were a six seed, which definitely caused Chris Paul to trash a hotel room somewhere. The Spurs are your favourite and your darkhorse, they are impossible and they are inevitable. They are everything.
2) Which player needs to step up the most for his team to succeed?
In another year filled with injuries to the starting line up, Jimmy Butler has been the foundation of the Chicago Bulls. With their former MVP Derrick Rose fighting to return to All-Star form, Butler has done everything he could to fill the void. The only question is if he can continue to be as productive in the playoffs to help the Bulls advance.
Already known as a elite defender, Butler will have to increase the pressure to contain Lebron James in a second round collision course with the Cavs. I won’t even entertain the idea that Boston or Milwaukee will upset the Bulls or Cavs, so let’s just focus on what matters. Butler has shown us numerous times that he knows how to get under Lebron’s skin and the Bulls will need him to continue to do whatever he can to tire him out.
Offensively is where Butler has made his biggest strides. Going from 13 ppg to 20ppg has not only increased the Bulls’ offensive power but has Butler as the front runner for the Most Improved Player Award. Stepping up in point production while Rose was injured has finally given the balance the Bulls have desperately lacked the last few years. Again, if Butler can continue to raise his game to level up against Lebron, the Bulls will not only win the Eastern conference Finals but have a good chance at winning their first championship in 17 years.
The Golden State Warriors are poised to become one the greatest teams in NBA history – if they win the title. To do that, they’ll need contributions from every member of their incredibly deep top seven. The Warriors are the leagues best offensive team but more than anything else, what separates them historically is their defense. For that defense to lead them to the promised land, they’ll need Andrew Bogut to do what he does best.
Draymond Green is receiving a heavy push for Defensive Player of the Year, and rightly so. But it’s easy to be a standout when you’re a cog in the Warriors incredible team defense. Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are elite perimeter defenders that might get DPOY buzz if they played anywhere else – when you put them on the floor with Green, the advantage the Warriors have becomes almost unfair. But the key to the whole thing? Bogut in the middle. He ranked second in the NBA in defensive rating – opponents averaged just 96.8 points (per 100 possessions) with Bogut on the floor. He blocked 5.3 percent of all opponents shots taken while he was on the floor, ranking 6th in the NBA, and 2nd of any player in the playoffs. He also played just 23.6 minutes per game in 66 games. Bogut’s punishing individual defense and cerebral team defense is the most irreplaceable part of this G-State team, besides Steph Curry. The Warriors have been saving him for this playoff push – their aspirations are not to win a round or two, but to go the whole way. If the injury-prone Bogut misses any time, they’re going to struggle to do that. Green and David Lee can fill it at centre in spurts, but against the beasts of the Western Conference, the Warriors are going to need Bogut anchoring their team if they’re going to take it all the way.
When Lebron James was asked who his MVP is he said Kevin Love. Presumably he didn’t then wink, snicker and run off laughing into the streets of Cleveland. Give Lebron credit: he understands that for the Cavs to get where they were designed to go, they need Love to have an impact.
If you’ve been keeping track, Love has not had the best season. His numbers are down huge across the board (there’s been a comical 10 point drop in scoring average to go with three fewer rebounds). His role on the new world Cavaliers has been questioned repeatedly – is he a spot-up shooter or does he need to be in the post? And there have been the hard to define questions involving his chemistry with his teammates. There was Lebron’s subtweet heard around the world, there is talk that Love keeps himself apart, there have been questions of heart.
It’s fair to say that the Cavaliers role players (Mozgov, Shumpert, Smith) can do their part. And Kyrie Irving will have the ball in his hands quite a bit to work his magic. Lebron will, like death and taxes, be Lebron. But if the Cavs get the Love of court vision, shooting and rebounding – rather than the sulking Kevin – well, why can’t they win the title?
3) How do you think the Raptors will do?
For the last few weeks, I’ve been worried. Not worried about who the Raptors were going to play first in the playoffs but how far they would advance once they got in. While the Raps are gaining popularity and respect among the league and its fans, the fact that the franchise has won only one playoff series in its 20 year existence has continued to damage the team’s credibility. We – yes, fans included – all need to actually win a playoff series (hopefully more) to become a real contender and gain respect around the league.
Terrence Ross winning the dunk contest, appointing Drake as our global ambassador, and who could forget our GM’s inspirational speech; all of these things have helped attract NBA casual fans and turn them into part of Raptors pack. The turnout in Jurassic Park has proven how popular basketball has become in Toronto. We haven’t generated that kind of electricity since “he who shall not be named” (I’m still mad) was the face of the team. The Raptors are currently Toronto’s most successful team and finally have a chance at proving they have what it takes to be among the elite.
Will bars in Toronto finally play Raptors game on more than one TV while a random hockey game is on? Will Sportsnet play basketball highlights before the 23rd minute mark? I want to be able to say yes to both of those things, however, the Raptors need to prove the last year has not been in vain. It’s simple, they need to win. The franchise record is great, the Atlantic division banner is quite the achievement but winning a playoff series would give the Raptors what it most needs most: Respect. I’m going with Raptors in 6!
I feel like at this point, most Raptors fans would be pleased with a series win. We’ve just had the one, against New York back in 2001, so getting one this year would be a step in the right direction for a team that staggered to the finish line after a 24-7 start to the season.
With that said, if you’re a dreamer, you can see a road where the Raptors catch lightning in a bottle and ride a wave of high fives and finger snaps all the way to the NBA Finals! Let me make the case:
The toughest test will actually be Washington in Round 1. Anyone who’s watched this Raptors team knows they can catch fire at times. If they get going early in Round 1, that bodes well for the rest of the playoffs. Toronto beat Washington all three times they played this season, once in a blowout and twice in tight games. While that’s a positive it doesn’t mean a good goddamn come playoff time. Paul Pierce has already started jaw-jacking, recalling his Nets win over the Raptors last year and saying that this Raptors team doesn’t have ‘it’. DeMar DeRozan fired back, saying:
“Paul Pierce has always gotta say something. Just let him talk. I could care less what he said. He’d just better hope Chicago wins (against Atlanta) or whatever has got to happen so he won’t see what ‘It’ is.”
I love it! The first round is always more fun when there’s irrational bad feelings floating around. The Wiz will need a monstrous series from John Wall to beat Toronto, which is possible, but I think the Raps pull this one out. And because Toronto wound up in the 4th seed, they would play the winner of Brooklyn-Atlanta in the second round. If Brooklyn pulls an upset, that series becomes eminently more winnable for Toronto but even if Atlanta is waiting, they’re a team that won 60 games with a bit of smoke and mirrors. Their point differential (+3.4) is actually roughly equal to Toronto and the Raptors split the season series with the Hawks. With Thabo Sefolosha out for the year, Atlanta will struggle to guard DeRozan and Lowry and if Paul Millsap’s injured shoulder flares up, the Raptors could slay the giant! HEY, CRAZIER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED!
After that, I mean, Cleveland is waiting in the Conference Finals most likely, and LeBron James is incredibly injury prone, so we just have to wait for him to go down and….what’s that? He’s never missed a playoff game in his career? Oh. Well, alright. We might need some help on that one. Perhaps a JR Smith incident of some sort? I’m holding out hope!
I just need this win over the Wiz. Give it me Raptors. Give it to me.
I’m already looking ahead to next season. Is that wrong? The Raptors of this year are making strides. They won a franchise-best 49 games. They clinched another Atlantic Division title (it’s the worst division in the NBA, but still). They sent a player, Kyle Lowry, to the All-Star game as a starter. Yes, there was a lot to commend about the Raptors this year.
But the playoffs are already a bought-and-sold story. We know it won’t involve Toronto. The Raptors will make a bit of noise, maybe beat Washington (maybe not, really – it can go either way but I think the Raps will win), and then get put down by the Hawks (despite the 3-1 season record against them). There is just no way this team, with it’s wildly inconsistent play and objectively terrible defense, will make it any further than that.
But that’s OK. Making it to the playoffs is nice, having valuable players on your team is good, building a culture and a potential for something greater is the best. That’s why I’m already looking to next year. We know the Raptors can’t win the title, but for the first time in awhile (since 2002, specifically), we can be hopeful. Progress is being made.