NBA Playoffs 2019, Round 1: Matchups, Talking Points and Predictions
It's the most wonderful time of the year, well at least for basketball fans it is, the playoffs are finally here. With the grueling 82-game regular season over, the business end of the NBA is upon us. This is where legends are born, reputations solidified, expectations dashed and dreams realized.
No matter how skilled a player or successful a team is in the regular season they will ultimately be judged by how they perform in the playoffs, where it matters most.
With LeBron's domination of the east finally at an end and the reigning conference champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers relegated to being bottom feeders, there will be a new eastern conference champion soon.
The Warriors are still the favorites in the west but there are chinks in their armor. Will they be stoped in their hunt for a 4th championship in five years?
Will Giannis be as effective in the playoffs? Will James Harden fade again? Will the Celtics drama hurt them? Is Philadelphia's ' Process' finally complete? These are all questions we will soon have an answer for and I, for one, can't wait.
While the first round may not be as competitive as the latter stages, there are still some interesting matchups to look out for.
The top contenders will be looking to start their campaigns on solid footing with the rest of the field hoping to play some inspired basketball and spring an upset. Here are the three most interesting fixtures in the first round.
Boston Celtics(4) Vs Indiana Pacers(5)
From a narrative standpoint, these two teams have had very contrasting seasons. The Celtics had a dream run in the 2018 playoffs making it to game 7 of the conference finals without the services of their two best players.
With their roster at full strength, they were the overwhelming favorites in the east coming into the season. Yet they have been a team divided. Kyrie Irving's wizardry with the basketball is undeniable, but the return of the ball-dominant point guard has meant that the younger players (Taytum, Brown, and Rozier) have had to accept a lesser role.
That they have failed to thrive in their new roles would be an understatement and this tension has spilled on to the court and affected their game on and off throughout the season.
The way Kyrie handled the situation has been by his own admission far from perfect and coach Brad Stevens who was hailed as the top coach in the league has been so far unable to maximize the talent on his roster. They end the season 49-33 with the fourth seed in an unusually competitive eastern conference.
Given their performance last year the Pacers were expected to be a playoff team at the start of the season but after Victor Oladipo who is unquestionably their best player suffered a season-ending knee injury in January they were supposed to fold, or at best squeak through to the playoffs.
Veteran NBA coach Nate McMillan had other plans, led by Bojan Bogdanović and Myles Turner who leads the league in shots blocked and is in the conversation for defensive player of the year they punched above their weight. They won seven out of the eight matches after the injury and sat in 3rd place in the conference at the beginning of March.
A tough late-season schedule had them drop back into reality but they still managed a 48- 34 season matching what they did last season in full strength and securing the 5th seed.
Celtics won three of the four head to heads in the regular season and decimated the pacers when they clashed in April for what was touted as a battle for homecourt advantage. The Celtics are shooting 46.5% from the field and 36.5% from the 3 point line compared to the Pacers who shot 47.5%(4th in the league) and 37.4%.
Despite the better 3 point percentage, the Pacers have an inferior 3 point game as they only shoot 25 of them a game (29th in the league) to 34 a game by their opposition. For the Celtics, anything short of making to the conference finals would be a failure and they will look to quickly brush aside the clearly inferior Pacer and save themselves for the more perilous challenges that lie ahead.
The Pacers will hope they can continue their Cinderella story and upset a vulnerable Celtics team that has looked dysfunctional all year.
Marcus Smart, the Celtics emotional leader, and best perimeter defender was injured the week before the playoffs and is expected to miss both the first and second round. Though his contributions don't always show up on the stat sheet he is an integral part of the squad and his absence will hurt Boston.
Prediction: Celtics beat the Pacers in 6 games.
Denver Nuggets(2) Vs San Antonio Spurs(7)
After narrowly missing out on the playoffs last year the Nuggets are a much-improved team this time around. Led by Nikola Jokic who has the passing ability to rival any guard and is arguably the best center in the NBA, and the 22-year-old up-and-coming point guard Jamal Murray the Nuggets have a 54-28 record.
The Nuggets are the second seed despite suffering injuries throughout the season which is really a testament to their rock solid bench. Despite this, the Nuggets were the team that everyone wanted to play in the first round because their only player who has any real playoff experience to speak ok is Paul Milsap.
Even their coach Michael Malone has never been to the playoffs before. The experience which they so dearly lack is something their opposition has in spades.
The Spurs have the highest win percentage among any team in NBA history. Under head coach Greg Popovich they have now made it to the playoffs for 22 straight seasons(An NBA record) and five Championships.
In the offseason, they had to trade away their disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leanord for DeMar DeRozan who though very talented is not on the same level as Kawhi. Their best young player Dejounte Murray also suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan the Spurs have willed themselves to yet another winning season with a 48-34 record.
They split the regular season faceoffs at two apiece with the Nuggets thumping the Spurs in their most recent encounter. San Antonio shot 47.8%(2nd) from the field and 39.2%(1st) from the 3 point line but they rank dead last in three-pointers attempted per game at 25. Denver, on the other hand, put up a respectable 31 3-pointers a game at a 35.1% rate and shoot 46.6% from the field.
The Nuggets go into the series as favorites and will be looking to prove their doubters wrong. The Spurs despite their low seed would have every belief that they can take advantage of their oppositions inexperience and spring an upset.
The inexperienced superstar Nikola Jokic Vs playoff-tested LaMarcus Aldridge should be a very interesting matchup.
Prediction: Denver beat the Spurs in 6 games, wouldn't be surprised if it went to 7 though.
Portland Trail Blazers(3) Vs Oklahoma City Thunder(6)
The Trail Blazers are a perennial playoff team having made it to the playoffs now for 6 straight years on the back of their All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard. They were embarrassed last year being swept by the Anthony Davis led Pelicans and will be eager to redeem themselves.
Led by the all-star backcourt duo of Lillard and CJ McCollum along with the mercurial Bosnian big man Josuf Nurkic the Blazers had a 53-29 season securing the 3rd seed in a loaded western conference. The compound fracture suffered by Nurkic in March will be a big dent in their ambitions.
The late-season pickup of Enes Kanter will soften the blow on the offensive end but he is a liability on defense. Whether CJ who missed 10 games with a knee injury is fully fit will also be a concern for them. The late-season form of Evan Turner who had successive triple doubles coming off the bench is something they hope will continue into the playoffs.
The Thunder too were shocked last year being upset by a rookie led Utah Jazz in the first round. This season has been full of ups and downs, they started poorly(0-4) after which they had amazing run climbing up to the third spot by all-star weekend with Paul George putting up MVP level performances.
They then suffered a backslide which made them even qualifying for the playoffs far from a sure thing. However, they came back strong going on a five-game winning streak to end the season and qualify as the sixth seed. Though Russell Westbrook just completed a historic third straight season averaging a triple-double he has had a season filled with extraordinary highs and lows.
He is having the worst shooting season of his career and is shooting well below the league average, even his free throw percentage has plummeted to 65%. On the other hand, the former MVP leads the league in assists and recorded a 20 point-20 rebound-20 assist game, something which hasn't been seen in the NBA for over 50 years.
Paul George who is having the best year of his career and is an MVP candidate has become the most important player on the team but a persistent shoulder injury that still bothers him has caused a noticeable drop in his production. They lack any serious firepower beyond these two and a solid center in Steven Adams.
The Thunder and the Blazers faced off in four competitive games in the regular season where tempers often flared but the Thunder emerged triumphant every time. The tactics employed by the Blazers in their last regular season game would suggest that they were trying to avoid playing the Thunder in the first round.
They have very similar shooting stats separated by just one percentage point in Portlands favor. Among all the first round fixtures I believe it is this one that is most primed for an upset, especially given Portlands injury woes.
The duel between Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook should be the best matchup in the whole of the first round. It's two All-NBA level point guards at the peak of their powers squaring off against each other.
They also have a bit of a rivalry going which was acknowledged by Damian who said
“There’s something there. When Russ see me, and when I see him, it’s two dogs fighting. That’s what it is. I think it will be a great series.”
Lillard who had the worst playoffs of his career last year will be looking to put on a show and Westbrook is always up for a challenge.
Prediction: OKC Thunder beat Portland in 6 games.
The rest of the fixtures are Milwaukee Bucks(1) Vs Detroit Pistons(8), Toronto Raptors(2) Vs Orlando Magic(7), Philadelphia 76ers(3) Vs Brooklyn Nets(6), Golden State Warriors(1) Vs Los Angeles Clippers(8) and Houston Rockets(4) Vs Utah Jazz(5). All these should be fairly straightforward with the higher ranked team prevailing in no more than 5 games. Except for the Rockets vs Jazz which could possibly extend to 6 games.