Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
Ahh playoff time at last. As much fun as the NBA regular season is, the playoffs offer sweet relief from players missing games for “rest”, tanking discussions and having to watch the New York Knicks. Unfortunately, the past few seasons have failed to produce a first round that contained much excitement or surprise, and it doesn’t look like that trend will change this year. That does not mean, however, that I won’t be glued to my television screen from now until the time a champion is crowned. Here are my thoughts and predictions for each first round series.
Boston Celtics vs. Chicago Bulls
Last week I was pretty harsh on the Bulls and said that I would prefer the Heat make it over them, as a fan of the game. I stand by that, but now that Chicago is here they actually can test the Celtics a little bit if they can keep from fighting each other. Jimmy Butler is a scary player to go up against in the playoffs, and Dwyane Wade has to know that this could be his last ride in the playoffs so he may have some “Toby Keith theory” potential. That being said, Boston is the top seed in the East for a reason and Brad Stevens has had the team rolling pretty much all season, which is why he would get my vote for Coach of the Year. The Celtics have elevated their status from a barometer team (see my Yule Ball post for explanation) to a legitimate contender. Butler and Wade will be good for a win or two, but don’t look for an upset here. Boston wins in six games.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers
Cleveland hasn’t so much as slept walked through the last month of the regular season, as they have gone into a chemically induced coma. Wanting to be fresh for the playoffs is one thing, but the Cavaliers went a little overboard with it. LeBron James has put a ton of miles on his NBA odometer, and he has certainly earned the right to a night off now and again. However, I’m not sure if even he can just immediately flip the switch now that the postseason has begun and start playing 45 minutes a night of consistent high intensity. LeBron does deserve some credit though, because he does lead the NBA in minutes per game in the games he does play.
Paul George is singlehandedly good enough for at least one win in a playoff series and Myles Turner will be a challenging player for Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson to defend. Also, let’s not forget that Lance Stephenson was brought back to the Pacers strictly to be a LeBron irritant, or at least that’s my assumption. Indiana will steal an early win in Cleveland, which will serve as the wake up call the Cavaliers need. The Cavs win the series in five games.
Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Easily the most interesting series in the first round out East, the precocious Bucks take on a Raptors team that has found new life since the trade deadline. Toronto hit a lull in the middle season that looked like it might find them outside of the top four in the East come playoff time, but then they absolutely stole Serge Ibaka from the Magic and have been on a tear ever since. The Bucks, on the other hand, have battled through injuries to Jabari Parker (out for the year), Malcolm Brogdon, and John Henson and have fluctuated from the four seed in the East to out of the playoffs entirely and finally settled in as the six seed. Fortunately, Henson and Brogdon have both returned from their injuries.
Milwaukee also has a real shot at claiming four of the six major individual awards with: Malcolm Brogdon (Rookie of the Year), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Most Improved), Jason Kidd (Coach of the Year), and Greg Monroe (Sixth Man of the Year). Giannis and Brogdon both have my vote for their respective potential awards. Milwaukee also theoretically has the ideal defensive setup to defend Demar Derozan with their ability to put plenty of long-armed defenders on the floor to clog up driving lanes. However, I think Toronto will prevail, partially because in a real fight between a Jurassic Park-style raptor and an actual deer the raptor would rip the deer to shreds. Flawless logic. Raptors win in seven games.
Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks
Here’s a list of things I’d rather watch than an Atlanta Hawks basketball game: a Pitbull documentary (about the rapper or the dog breed take your pick), another Trump-Hillary debate, a “Dance Moms” marathon and “First Take”. The Hawks share the title with the Chicago Bulls for the 2017 Least Watchable Playoff Team, which sucks for Paul Millsap who went from a strong player on a really good and fun team to the best player on a decent team who looks miserable to be playing basketball. Fortunately, Washington is a really good team and a fun team to watch now, so this series won’t be a completely horrible viewing experience. We are finally getting to see what the Wizards look like with John Wall and a healthy Bradley Beal (knock on all the wood). Scott Brooks is also a Coach of the Year candidate, which is not something anyone expected to type or say but it’s true. The Wizards mercifully put this series away early and take the series in five games.
Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trailblazers
Not bold prediction: one game in this series will be absolutely bonkers. Everyone knows about the star power going head-to-head in this series, and on the offensive end it’s much more than typical for a 1-8 series. Portland is atrocious defensively, but C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard are capable of scoring 50 individually on any give night. What if I told you that at least one game in this series would approach 300 total points in regulation? Crazy? I promise you it isn’t. Unfortunately for Portland, fighting fire with fire isn’t really the strategy you want to take against the Golden State Light Years Ahead Lineup of Death Warriors. GSLYALODW pulls off the sweep in round one.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
If you are a fan of old school basketball, then this is the series for you. The Grit ‘n Grind Grizzlies are back and as long as they employ the trio of Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol they will be a battering ram on defense. San Antonio continues its consistent and efficient assault on the rest of the NBA with the most inconspicuous lineup of any 60-win team….maybe ever? Kawhi Leonard is a legitimate superstar and MVP candidate, but he is in no commercials, doesn’t have his own shoe, and would be the lowest key MVP of the last three decades. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still carrying the banner for the San Antonio “Old Guard” and as the end draws near for both of those guys it seems to fair to ask if this might be the last title opportunity for either or both of these guys. The Spurs “outgrind” the Grizzlies and take this one in five.
Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Other than Wanda Durant, who’s the real MVP? This series wouldn’t actually answer that question, but it is a rare first round matchup between the two MVP frontrunners. Harden vs. Westbrook has been the debate for the vast majority of this season and while this series won’t, and shouldn’t, settle this debate it does add a little extra juice to the series. This series didn’t need any extra juice though, because these have also been two of the most interesting teams to watch on a nightly basis throughout the season. OKC, in its first season post-Durant, has been “The Russell Westbrook show”, which has rivaled Kobe’s post-Shaq regular season performances. Westbrook has almost singlehandedly carried this team into the playoffs, and his full-court fastbreaks are equal parts electrifying and horrifying. Harden has operated more like a puppeteer than a wrecking ball this season, always having a hand in the team’s ball movement and controlling the entire flow of the game even if he is not always the one finishing the possession. If any series in the first round gets a “Must Watch” label, it’s this one. James Harden is my real MVP and Houston prevails in six.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz
Utah is the most underappreciated team in the NBA right now. Gordon Hayward has blossomed into a legitimate star and the number one scoring option on a bonafide playoff team. Rudy Gobert has a strong case for both the Defensive Player of the Year and the Most Improved Player awards. George Hill, despite battling multiple injuries, is having a career renaissance in Salt Lake City. The Clippers come into this series as the most overrated teams in the playoffs. Is the Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan core really strong? Yes. Is J.J. Redick one of the better two-way wings in the playoffs? Sure. But, this team has suffered through long stretches of mediocre play, Blake Griffin ranging from efficient to timid to awesome to average, and the Rivers (Doc and Austin) have probably been net-negatives for the Clippers this season. The loser of this series is likely looking at a major roster shake-up in the offseason, and if the winner looks completely outmanned in the second round then they both might see significant roster turnover. That means the time to strike is now for both of these franchises and I think the Utah Jazz will take a step forward and beat the Clippers in six games.