By: Dan Grant, Dave Osubronie and Daniel Reynolds
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 come Osubronie, Grant and Reynolds to answer your burning questions for the NBA post-season.
1) What first round series are you most looking forward to?
If you’re a die-hard a Kobe fan you may want to skip down to Dan’s section. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I wish Kobe retired months ago. Sure, his last game was entertaining and nostalgic, but a whole year of it was completely unnecessary. There have been so many other story lines that needed of our attention and were neglected. A certain devastating point guard (not named Steph Curry) doing things we haven’t seen in almost 40 years. A legendary power forward who could be playing his last playoff series ever. No, he hasn’t announced his retirement yet, but with all the hype around Kobe this year, would you? These two players are why there is no playoff series I’m looking forward to more than the Thunder vs. Mavericks.
Russell Westbrook has never been a traditional point guard. His trigger happy style paints him as more of a more shooting guard. Trying to figure it out was the problem from the start. We should have never tried to label him in the first place. He’s a hybrid of both positions and that actually makes him better This year he tied Magic Johnson for most triple-doubles in a season with 18. He accomplished the final triple-double in the first half! Too bad this never got the acclaim it should have, again, because it was Kobe’s last game in Oklahoma.
Dirk Nowitzki, on the other hand, has us all attempting his one legged fade away since the moment he arrived in the league. His impeccable shooting accuracy has elevated him from other big men and after years of determination, he eventually won a championship. He has another year on his contract, but after carrying a mediocre team to the playoffs again, I think this could be his last season. When the Mavs lose this series (when, not if) I hope Dirk gets the farewell treatment he so rightfully deserves.
The first round is usually kind of bogus in the NBA. Every now and again we get an absolute treat like last years Clippers-Spurs series, or the Warriors upsetting the Mavericks in 2007, but for the most part the match-ups are a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the case for the Toronto Raptors the past two seasons, and this year, I’m looking forward to seeing them get the monkey off their back.
Two years ago, the Raptors appeared headed for the tank. A Rudy Gay-DeMar DeRozan wing combination wasn’t working, Kyle Lowry was sometimes at odds with head coach Dwane Casey and things generally stunk. A mid-season trade of Gay for a whole NBA bench unit turned Toronto into one of the best stories in the league, and they were favoured in a first round match-up with the veteran-laden Brooklyn Nets. Cue the heartbreak, as they lost in 7 games. Last year it was even worse; after beating the Washington Wizards during all four regular season match-ups, another Paul Pierce-ified squad pushed Toronto out, as the Chocolate City Dubs smashed Toronto in an ugly first round sweep.
Toronto will take on Indiana in the first round, and while the Pacers are well coached and have a superstar in Paul George, they should be able to dispatch the Pacers in Round 1. The series will certainly be closely contested; Toronto went 3-1 during the regular season, but all the games were tight, including a Raptors overtime win, one of seven OT losses for the Pacers this year.
It’s no secret. I, like most everyone else, find the Golden State Warriors delightful. And by extension, I find the Houston Rockets detestable. Both teams are designed to operate around their keystone player — Steph Curry for the former, James Harden for the latter. But where one team excels because of its star, the other team does so almost in spite of him.
So why this series? Well, the East is not particularly thrilling to me (outside the Raptors of course, but I write about them enough). And the West is really only exciting in the later rounds — when the inevitable confrontations between the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs and Warriors actually happen. So, for now, I will revel in the beautiful destruction rained down upon the most loathsome of basketball teams. The Rockets will get swept by the Warriors and then they’ll have a summer to figure out how they steered themselves into such a ditch. And I hopefully won’t have to listen to any more talk about how the Raptors should have taken Clint Capela instead of Bruno Caboclo. Plus, get all the way out of here Dwight Howard. And Beasley? Let me tell you a thing or two about…
You know what, just watch the games.
2) What player is best positioned for a playoff breakout?
Like many Heat fans, I was ecstatic at the thought of having a “healthy” squad to begin the season. Then it happened… again. Chris Bosh had to take a leave of absence from the team to deal with the blood clot issues that caused him to miss most of the previous season. Thankfully the Heat had a diamond in the rough. Hassan Whiteside had stepped up. Judging by how he has elevated his game in the last year, he’s poised to be a breakout player during these NBA playoffs.
Whether starting or coming off the bench, Whiteside has been absolutely exceptional this season. He has posted per game career highs in points (14.2), rebounds (11.8), led the NBA in blocks (3.7) and has no intention of slowing down. Those 3.7 blocks per game and his defensive intensity have him in the conversion for Defensive Player of the Year honours. With a match-up against Charlotte on the horizon, it is extremely likely that he will dominate the opposing centers and be a key factor to Miami’s success during this playoff run.
The Heat players and coaching staff have all attributed his stellar play to the increased level of maturity Whiteside has shown this season. There have been some missteps, but he has continually improved the mental aspects of his game, which has been essential to his success. On top of it all, he is an unrestricted free agent this summer. With interest from the Lakers, Trailblazers and of course the Heat, this playoff run will be exactly what he needs to prove he’s deserving of a max contract and get that NBA 2K rating up.
Klay Thompson isn’t a superstar-in-waiting. He’s a superstar. This isn’t a fresh take, but on another NBA team, I think he’d be capable of carrying the load each and every night, scoring 25+ per game and devastating opponents with his lethal shooting prowess. He’s one of the best shooters not just in the league right now, but in NBA history.
He just so happens to share the floor with another guy who’s pretty good.
Thompson has been the silent Splash Brother this season, as running mate Steph Curry and the swaggering Draymond Green have bathed in the spotlight and accolades. But he’s essential to the Warriors success. Everyone talks about the Golden State offense, and rightly so. But they’re one of the best defensive teams in the league as well, and Thompson’s perimeter contributions are a huge part of that, especially given that Andre Iguodala has missed so much time. Curry has made strides on defense, but it’s still Thompson and Iggy that handle the Chris Paul’s, James Harden’s and Russell Westbrook’s of the world most of the time. Couple that with the fact that he just posted the third highest three point total in NBA history (276) while shooting .47%/.43%/.87% and what you have is a legitimate top 15 NBA player, and somebody who should absolutely make third team All-NBA, but probably won’t.
With teams keying on Curry (watch out for the nasty Patrick Beverley in Round 1), Thompson is going to have the opportunity to shine in this playoffs. We’ve seen before what can happen when he gets hot. While nobody can straight up stop Curry, I think teams will attempt an ‘anybody but him’ defensive strategy, which will leave the door wide open for Klay to show the world (again) how integral he is to the success of one of the best teams of all time.
Everybody remembers those times when it went wrong for Russell Westbrook. What were you thinking Russ? How you could shoot that shot Russ? Why gamble for a steal there Russ? These are the questions that follow one of the most singular forces in the NBA. These are the concerns of mere mortals. Russell Westbrook cares not. He says instead: Why not? (Actually, he says WHY NOT ?, but you get the point.)
Last season, with reigning MVP Kevin Durant on the shelf, Westbrook waged a one man war against the league to get his Oklahoma City Thunder into the playoffs. He failed. But this year, reunited with KD, Westbrook averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game. He and Oscar Robertson are alone in posting these kinds of season-long metrics. And for Russ, it’s all about this time now — the playoffs. For all the talk of Golden State and their historic run, and the Spurs and their historic run, and LeBron James and his continued presence, Westbrook is going to be the one to watch. His team sits in third, with advancement to the second round almost a certainty. Do you think San Antonio wants a piece of the Thunder in the West’s semi-finals? Well, do you? No?
3) Other than the Warriors and Spurs, does anyone have a real shot at this?
The Clippers have been on a tear as of late winning 10 of 11 games, and only losing that one by a late basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder. This kind of hot streak is exactly how you want to start the playoffs. Brimming with confidence and finally fully healthy. Despite going 30-15 without Griffin, they have been ineffective as a unit against the top teams in the league. Griffin may still have a few games to get his shooting range back up to par, but until then, his ability to space the floor for DeAndre Jordan or increase they points in the paint is invaluable. Having Griffin up front also eliminates potential “Hack-a-shaq” situations which have cost the team dearly. Team assists have dropped while 3-point shots have increased without him. These Clippers might be the best chance beside the Spurs or Warriors to go all the way.
They have many pieces that match up well against the Warriors — an elite starting five, versatile bench, athleticism at every position. If they can find a way to disrupt Golden States chemistry as they have done in the close games this season , they have a chance — I know it’s slim but bare with me here — at taking down the champions. Following that series they would have to play a beat up Spurs or Thunder team which should have gone the distance against each other. Capitalizing on that fatigue and focusing on their up-tempo transition game will give them a fighting chance. In the end we’re picking teams on the basis that the Spurs or Warriors don’t win it all, but I still think the Clippers have the the best outside chance.
Remember when Oklahoma City made the Finals against the Heat in 2012? We thought we’d see that series over and over again, with two young and talented heavyweights battling each other over the next half decade.
Instead, OKC traded James Harden and stagnated, derailed by injuries to both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. As both Dave and Daniel have pointed out above, even in a conference that features this years editions of the Warriors and Spurs, the Thunder are a supremely dangerous team. They have not one, but two guys capable of taking over any game in a series and while you might be able to harry one of them with an elite defender like Kawhi Leonard or Andre Iguodala, how in the world do you handle both night in and night out?
You hope they handle themselves.
Even though they’ve replaced Scott Brooks with Billy Donovan, it seems like the Thunder still haven’t figured out what to do in crunch time, which is mystifying, seeing as this is year eight for the Westbrook-Durant combination. Many are also down on OKC’s chances because they didn’t finish the season strong. They were just 5-5 in their final ten games and didn’t look good doing it. Here’s why I’m not worried: the Thunder were never really in danger of losing the three seed, and they had absolutely no chance of catching San Antonio or Golden State for the 1 or 2 spots. OKC has basically been locked into their playoff position for three months. Of course they went on cruise control. They stayed healthy, and they’ve been deep in the playoffs before. There’s been a lot of talk about how LeBron James is about to have a ‘Forgot About Dre’ moment (copyright: The Ringer’s Joe House) because of all the attention the Warriors are receiving, but don’t sleep on Iceberg Slim and Furious Stylez.
Is it cool if I say the Cleveland Cavaliers? Of course it isn’t. The Cavaliers are not cool. Kyrie Irving is not cool. Kevin Love is not cool. LeBron James, in the throes of Peak Dad, is definitely not cool. Not even the presence of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert’s hair can make the Cavaliers cool. Nor the absence of David Blatt. This much we know is true.
But can the Cavaliers win? I don’t want to just wave my hand and say yes here, but, well… yes. Some things have to go their way though; I think we can admit that. We have to assume that LeBron’s recent ramp up can continue, uh, going up. By the Finals last year, LeBron was all the Cavs had in their battle with the Warriors, and for a little while it almost looked like it would be all they needed. Now, presumably with Love and Irving in tow, plus returning stalwarts Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, Shumpert and Smith (plus the remnants of Mozgov, maybe?), the Cavaliers at least have a team that can compete. They also added some much needed stretch-4 shooting in Channing Frye. Yes, there are still questions about lineups and usage that remain unanswered. (Should they just go small with Frye and Thompson all the time? Where does Love fit? Is Delly better in there against Curry?) But LeBron remains an answer.
The Cavs should also benefit from, let’s say, a slightly easier run to the Finals. Teams like the Hawks, Heat and, yes, Raptors, can challenge them, but I suspect once James goes into super playoff mode, the Cavs should cruise. Compare that to the West gauntlet, and it becomes easier to envision a scenario where a well-rested Cavs team sits waiting to take on whoever comes staggering their way in the Finals. Not saying it will happen, but it could.