Have the playoffs ever come at a more welcome time?
There may have been a decent level of parity this year with only two 60 win teams and a noticeable absence of cellar-dwellers but make no mistake… the end of the regular season went out with a whimper. Two years ago Anthony Davis and the Pels went toe to toe with the Spurs for the final game, punching their ticket to the 8th seed and knocking San Antonio all the way down to 6th. That win forced the Thunder to catch the playoffs from their couches and locked Popp and Company into one of the greatest first round series of all-time. This year? All the drama available featured the Pacers beating a skeleton Hawks team while the Nets wouldn’t even play Lin or Lopez in their last meaningless tilt of the season. Hell, the Western Conference matchups have been set for what feels like a month now.
BUT NONE OF THAT MATTERS BECAUSE IT’S FINALLY PLAYOFF TIME BABYY! And, more importantly, all that same parity may make this one of the more competitive first rounds in a while (at least in the East). And now, as we sweep the first couple weeks of April under the rug, let’s just get right into it. 24 hours of basketball is a lot to watch. And while some of it may be appointment television, other series are imminently, painfully, skippable.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF POWER RANKINGS
4.) Boston Celtics v Chicago Bulls
Tempting as it was to put the NBA TV Hawks in the bottom slot, this is by far the least competitive and least compelling of the bunch. It’s almost criminal that the Bulls were able to slip past Miami into the postseason, depriving us of James “Bloodsport” Johnson, Waiters Island, and the tough-as-nails Goran Dragic. Then again, for all of us crying over the Heat missing the playoffs well… don’t start the season 11-30.
Now Chicago did play Boston tough this year, splitting their head-to-head matchups and featuring arguably the best player in the series (I’ll believe in playoff Isaiah when I see it!) There’s also a tiny bit of intrigue in Rondo returning to TD Garden after he’s elevated his play in the last couple weeks of the regular season. Other than that, what is there to say? The Celtics have significant advantages in coaching, outside shooting, and pretty much every player on the teams 2-14. This might have been interesting if the Bulls held onto Taj at the trade deadline and had just tried to bludgeon the C’s with rebounding but as with the rosters currently constructed, don’t see this one going past 6. Then again, the Celtics have yet to win a playoff series in the Brad Stevens era….
3.) Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks
Aaaaand here are the NBA TV Hawks. Outside of San Antonio, the Hawks are a model of NBA stability, marking this as their 10th straight trip to the postseason. Even after swapping out Al Horford for snake-auction Dwight Howard this team barely missed a beat, turning their negative point differential into 43 wins. (What may hurt Knicks fans the most is that Tim Hardaway Jr. actually led the team this year in net rating while whisking the starting job away from $70 million man Kent Bazemore). This team plays fundamental defense, draws minuscule home crowds, and just does not do it for me. Or, really anyone else, hence the 1pm start time on Sunday.
It’s a shame too because the Wizards have been fascinating this season, turning a 2-8 start into one of the league’s more dominant home stands before lagging off a little towards the end of the season. New head coach Scott Brooks has gotten career years out of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter and has Kelly Oubre looking like a valuable wing off the bench. With the one-man tornado John Wall leading the attack, Washington can be a devastating offense and should be thrilling to watch in a 2nd round, funeral game series. Let’s just hope they can get past the Hawks first. This series might be tighter than some people realize.
2.) Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks
The NBA League Pass nerd in me wanted to put this matchup first. After the meteoric jump that Giannis made this season, Milwaukee has been one of the more exciting teams in the league. They’ve been up and down this year but Khris Middleton’s return to the lineup solidly forced this group back into the playoff picture (with the promise of a returning Jabari making this squad even more hopeful in ’17-’18). The Bucks have length at every position and players who can continue to get better in Thon Maker and “The President” Malcolm Brogdon. They might be an easier out than some people realize, but get ready see these guys in April and May for years to come.
On the other side of the bracket is Toronto, who radically transformed their team at the deadline with the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker. Unfortunately that also marked Kyle Lowry leaving the lineup for a process to remove bone spurs from his wrist. Still, the team played at a top-10 rate without him, surrounding Demar DeRozan with a truly fearsome defense and boosting the Raps to assume the only Eastern Conference team with a top-10 unit on both sides of the ball. Lowry has been either cold or banged up the last few postseasons, but if he’s truly ready to go, this is the best lineup Masai Ujiri has ever surrounded him with (not to mention the best challenger to Cleveland in the East). The Bucks should be an excellent first round speed bump for a Toronto team that has a huge rematch with the defending champs looming.
1.) Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers
Another argument against placing Toronto in the top spot? This game from April 2, 2017. While Paul George may have seemed a little moody this year, this is still a guy who can absolutely turn it up to a top-10 level when the occasion calls. If that was a regular season game, imagine these guys trading blows in the playoffs.
Not to mention this series taking on an added significance because of Cleveland’s extended 2017 malaise and their gradual tumble into the 2 seed. The Cavs may not actually be any more vulnerable than in years past – waiting to flip the switch like the 2001 Lakers – but there’s certainly a narrative and some really poor defense surrounding this team. When coupled with Indiana’s excellent play at home this year, this could be a surprisingly competitive series.
And, even if not, the Cavs are one of the most exciting teams in the league when they’re firing, absolutely scorching squads like Boston and Atlanta if they can get up the motivation for the game. I can’t think of anything more natural than James shutting up all his haters with a dominant first round performance (2 first round sweeps in the last 2 years) and showing Kevin Durant and the Warriors that the Larry O’Brien trophy hasn’t been given out just yet. And, if Paul George has to try to go toe-to-toe with the King just to keep these games interesting, all the better for us at home.
Tune in tomorrow for the Western Conference