Article by: Harrison Weaver
The first round of the NBA playoffs are, for the most part, what we have expected. All the top seeds in the East took care of business in a relatively smooth fashion, with none of those series going any longer than 5 games. Now, we turn our attention to the West, and it is a much different story for them. I applaud Houston and Portland for coming into the playoffs in stride and playing very confidently. Houston took care of the Jazz without too much of an issue, only losing one game, which was a close-out one against this young Jazz team, who was really looking to defend home-court and come out with a moral victory. Houston even won Game 3, despite leaving the door wide open for Utah via a James Harden 0-15 start from the field. Outside of that, the Rockets were exceptional in their games.
Portland was also equally as impressive in their series against the Thunder. There was a lot of chatter back and forth between the two teams, most of it coming from, you guessed it, Russell Westbrook. The Blazers ultimately won 3 out of 4 by double-digit margins, surprising many fans and analysts. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were on fire from beyond the arc the entire series. Lillard averaged 33 points (50 in the close-out win) and shot 48% from beyond the arc, which is scary good. The Blazers overcame a 15-point deficit with 7 minutes remaining in Game 5. Then, with the game tied, clock winding down, Lillard hit that cold-blooded 37-foot game-winning three-pointer right in the face of Paul George. George later went on to claim that it was a bad shot, which is absurd because Dame is shooting 39% from beyond 30 feet in these playoffs, which is the same percentage that Paul George shot from three-point range, period.
So, a major round of applause for the Rockets and Blazers. However, we have two series which are still very much alive. The Nuggets and Spurs go at it in Game 7 tomorrow night at 10:00 ET. The Spurs played a great game in Game 6 last night, defeating the Nuggets 120-103, despite a 43-12-9 performance from Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets will be at home and will be favorites in this game. The Spurs have not really been able to slow down Jokic, but they have given Jamal Murray problems, and the supporting cast has been inconsistent. In a series that has been so back and forth, different guys stepping up in each game, I look at Game 7 as more of a coin toss. Gregg Popovich has been known for his excellent playoff game plans, and DeRozan, Aldridge, and Derrick White have all had an excellent series. The Nuggets on the other hand, are more talented and have shown that by locking up the #2 seed in the West, but their lack of playoff experience has shown. This sets the stage for an exciting Game 7, and an excellent matchup against Portland for whoever wins this game.
Game 6 of the Warriors versus Clippers series is tonight at 10:00 ET, in a series that almost everyone besides Clippers fans thought would go 4 or 5 games. The Clippers have been sensational. They have been gritty and have not backed down from any of the punches Golden State have thrown at them. In the center of it all is Louis Williams, who has been averaging 24.4 PPG in this series, which includes a whole handful of clutch buckets. The entire team overall has been playing well, which includes Lou, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari, which is essentially the entire team. In the end, Golden State is going to win this series, the talent gap is unfortunately too much for the Clippers to withstand for a 7-game series. The fact that they are still playing deserves endless credit. On the other hand, Golden State has been very disappointing, where their defense has been terrible, there has been very little effort or urgency, and players have even admitted that they are looking forward to Houston.
Houston versus Golden State is the matchup that everyone has been looking forward to all year. When the Rockets were healthy, they were one game away from eliminating the Warriors last season. The Rockets are now 37-14 when James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all play. They were 42-3 last year. Especially with the Warriors showing so many cracks which all can be credited to sloppy play, turnovers, lack of defense, questions about their future, and even championship fatigue. If they can flip the switch, they will still be the clear-cut favorites in this series.
The Warriors will always get their points in almost any situation. Between the three-headed offensive monster in KD, Steph, and Klay, and their help of the bench, the Warriors are nearly impossible to stop. What separates Golden State is their ability to lock down on defense. They have the personnel to match up with anybody, whether it is small-ball or a lengthy team, they have the guys to do it. Many of the Warriors game-ending runs come from a barrage of three-pointers combined with suffocating defense resulting in missed shots and turnovers, which then turn into more offense on the other end. They have not consistently shown that ability in these playoffs so far. What makes this so dangerous is that the Rockets have the weapons to match them offensively and will blitz Golden State if they play as lazy as they have against Los Angeles. To sum it up, the Warriors look very vulnerable, and James Harden, Chris Paul, and the rest of the Rockets will be hungry for revenge and ultimately would try for a championship drive.
In the East, we will see Milwaukee facing Boston and Toronto against Philadelphia. Both series are very hard to predict before seeing a game or two. Milwaukee and Toronto are both the strong favorites. However, Boston has been heating up at the perfect time, and like I have said in previous articles, they have perhaps the same amount, if not more, talent than Milwaukee does. Giannis is going to get his, meaning he is going to put up points, make incredible plays on defense, and his fingerprints will be all over this series. The Bucks supporting cast has been excellent, which is why they got the #1 seed in the East. It really depends on which Boston team shows up because we have all seen how well Brad Stevens can game plan and create smothering defensive schemes for Boston. They have the personnel to be able to try different lineup combinations to deal with the lengthy Bucks. I see this being a 6 or 7 game series, and if Boston can summon up the right chemistry, Milwaukee is then on the upset alert.
On the other hand, Philly has what is probably the second-best starting lineup in the NBA, which gives them the ability to experiment a little with who they are going to have guard Kawhi Leonard for much of the series. I can see the depth of Toronto being the biggest differentiator against Philly. Where the Sixers will be playing their starters very heavy minutes, probably 40+ minutes per game, the Raptors have tons of depth which includes Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Jeremy Lin. Their starting lineup is already stacked when you look at Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, and Danny Green. The Raptors are scary good and very deep. Philly will need Embiid to stay healthy, they will certainly need “Assertive Ben Simmons”, Jimmy Butler will need to play top-tier defense and give 100% effort through the whole game, Tobias Harris to step up and make shots and play good defense, and JJ Redick to get and stay hot from beyond the arc.
With quality performances out of the starting five, Philly fans will probably be celebrating. When they play good basketball together, the Sixers can beat anyone in the league, which they have demonstrated all year long. If any of the Sixers starters get hurt, I immediately hit the panic button because the Sixers’ depth does not go much further than Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, James Ennis, and TJ McConnell. Even some of those guys are scary to put out on the floor in crucial playoff minutes. If the Sixers can stay healthy and the bench can give at least half-decent production, this should be another 6 or 7 game series, which again is wide-open.
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