The first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs was just about right.
Were they entertaining? Sure.
Were they exciting? Ummm...not really.
See. I love basketball, particularly the NBA, so my interest in the game is biased. If this, however, were a season a new casual fan was hoping to make the leap to hardcore fan, my guess is that he and she would be left wanting.
There were great performances like Westbrooks’ 50-point triple double and Chris Paul trying to save the Clippers season on his own, surprises like the eight-seeded Bulls taking a 2-0 lead over the one-seed Celtics and the Bucks beating the Raptors by 29 points, throwback veteran games that Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Joe Johnson had, reminders of who-is-boss like the Warriors spanking the Trail Blazers in a sweep and LeBron’s ludicrous series against the Pacers, the disruptive emergence of new blood at the top like the Wizards’ John Wall and playing on a whole new level, and annual features like Clippers and the Grizzlies getting knocked out again.
Blame it on years of watching the NBA, but this first round felt a bit regular (no pun intended). Not that I did not have the urge, to wake up every morning and plough my way through two or three games (six hours of commitment! Commissioner Silver needs to take note), but this year’s playoffs felt more like Gangs of Wasseypur (great and memorable) than The Godfather (legendary). And that is fine, considering if we had a Godfather-level playoffs every season, then we would be immune when something special comes by.
That being said, we still have three more rounds that have the potential to turn these playoffs to one for the ages. So without further ado, here is my preview of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs Toronto Raptors
Regular Season Record: Cavaliers beat the Raptors 3-1
LeBron James was exceptional.
He finished with 32.8 ppg, 9.0 apg, 9.8 rpg, 3.0 spg, 2.0 bpg while shooting 54% from the field and 45% from 3-pt land. That’s a 31 year old who has played more than 1100 games in the past 11 seasons without missing the playoffs. God-mode.
The rest of the Cavaliers are yet to show up for the Playoffs. Kyrie Irving shot just 22% from the 3-pt line after averaging 40% for the season. Kevin Love was solid, but mediocre by his standards. The Cavs bench was outscored by the Pacers’ in every game, but that could also be largely because the Cavs big three shoulder such a large responsibility.
The Toronto Raptors expectedly had their hands full with the young Milwaukee Bucks. Had a play or two gone the other way, we would have had a Game 7.
Across the board, the Raptors’ stars, be it Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan or Serge Ibaka had an average series. DeMarr is clearly a No 1 option on offense for the Raptors now. This bodes well for Kyle Lowry who can take a few possessions off. The trouble is Kyle Lowry, who had a few good moments, is yet to show up in a more impactful way in the Playoffs.
Offensively the Raptors stagnated, averaging just 94 ppg on 44% against the 1077 ppg on 47% they averaged during the season. They did, however, finish the first round of the playoffs with the second best defensive rating.
The Cavaliers won the regular season series with the only blowout being the sole Raptors win, which did not feature the Cavaliers’ big three.
That doesn’t indicate that the Raptors are going to roll over.
This is an upgraded Raptors team now, with Ibaka and PJ Tucker, giving a ton of bodies to throw at James. They hope to capitalise on the fatigue that may have set in due to the 44 minutes he played during the Pacers series, and the 38 minutes he averaged during the regular season.
Both teams have a ton of firepower, but outside of LeBron James, both teams’ stars have yet to show up for the playoffs.
Prediction: I believe this will be closer than last year, with the Cavaliers winning this in 7.
Boston Celtics vs Washington Wizards
Regular Season Record: Tied at 2-2
Isaiah Thomas was the hero of the series.
To tally 33 points on 56% shooting including 43% from the 3-pt line a day after his sister passed away in an accident is stuff legends are made off.
Avery Bradley is an elite level defender and raised his profile as an offensive threat during the season. This series he took another leap to firmly establish himself as a third option behind Thomas and Al Horford.
The rest of the Celtics were solid. Al Horford did everything expected of a 100-million dollar signing. Marcus Smart was great, and Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk and Gerald Green all showed up to play, holding fort on that second unit.
I predicted the Wizards to wrap up the Atlanta Hawks in five games. I’m glad, however, that the Hawks pushed them in at least three games, preparing them for a deeper playoff run.
John Wall was exceptional. He absolutely destroyed his regular season scoring average by putting up 29.5 ppg (more than 6 ppg more) while shooting, 52.5% from the field and 47.4% from 3. His Game 6 stat line of 42 points, 8 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks while shooting 64% from the field is one of the all time great playoff performances.
He had a healthy Bradley Beal (who finished with 26 ppg) at the offensive end, and rising threats in Otto Porter Jr and Kelly Oubre Jr at the defensive end. The team will expect more from Markieff Morris (who ought to keep his focus on the game and not an opposing player) and Marcin Gortat.
These teams split the regular season 2-2, with both Wizards’ wins being blowouts and both Celtics’ wins being fairly close.
The glaring mismatch is at the guard position. The Celtics will have a hard time hiding Thomas on defence where would have to contend with Beal and Wall, both of whom have a considerable size advantage over him.
The Celtics are still a very well coached team, have more meaningful playoff experience, and are virtually unstoppable when they are hitting their threes and flowing seamlessly on defence.
The Wizards have a huge advantage at the guard position and would be foolish not to take advantage of it right from the start. Wall and Beal have much of offense locked down, but they will need all the help they can get to make a deeper playoff run.
This is going to be a dogfight, but I predict the Wizard will prevail.
Prediction: Wizards in 6.
Golden State Warriors vs Utah Jazz
Regular Season Record: Warriors win the series 2-1
I predicted the Warriors to beat the Blazers in five. They gladly made me eat my words.
For everyone, including yours truly, that doubted their ability to take care of business, this first round series was a stark reminder of the ungodly level of individual talent and team chemistry these Warriors possess.
They obliterated the Blazers and the convincing series win, not only speaks for itself, but needs no analysis or break down.
Everyone on the Warriors, be it Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and the rest of the crew were exceptional in the four games.
They lead all playoff teams in every conceivable category (top 3 in two categories) and showed almost no sign of weakness during the series.
This has been an incredible season for the Jazz, whose hard-nosed blue collar style of basketball is very reminiscent of the Jazz teams of the mid 80s to mid 90s. Unlike those teams, this team has no superstar to lead them. Like those teams, they have solid professionals who play hard every night, without taking a single possession off.
Gordon Hayward has risen to the top of the Jazz pack as their de-facto leader and Rudy Gobert, despite missing a couple of games to injury, is back in full swing. The pleasant surprise, of course, is Joe Johnson, who has turned back the clock and having a resurrection of sorts in these playoffs.
The Warriors won the regular season series 2-1, with just one win being a blowout.
The Jazz aren’t as efficient or do not possess the kind of firepower the Warriors can boast of. Their defence, though, is not to be trifled with. The Warriors can score at a blistering pace, but the Jazz are an elite level defensive team that can slow down, if not completely stop the Warriors going on back-breaking scoring runs.
The Jazz possess the Warriors’ kryptonite: competent big men.
The Warriors thrive when they play both Green and Durant at the same time, leaving them vulnerable in the middle against teams who have big men that can muscle them inside or tower over them.
This series will be much like the Raptors vs. Bucks series: the Jazz will give the Warriors a hard time and exhaust them, but will be unable to stop them from making their third consecutive Western Conference Finals.
Prediction: Warriors in 6.
San Antonio Spurs vs Houston Rockets
Regular Season Record: Spurs won the series 3-1
NBA Playoff history has a ton of memorable Texas showdowns. This promises to be another one.
The Rockets were everything their regular season made them out to be. Offensively, A-grade, defensively, well...D-grade.
It seems, the only way they plan to win games these playoffs is to outscore their opponents, something that is evident by their overall mediocre effort at the defensive end. Outside of Beverly, no one seems to be interested to play defence and everyone is anxious to get back to the offensive end as quickly as possible.
Once at the offensive end though, the Rockets are a beast that is hard to contend with.
Harden continues to raise his game and dropped 33 ppg to go along with 6.4 rpg and 7.0 apg. To help him, not only are the Rockets firing away at crazy rates (Lou Williams and Beverly shooting 41%, Gordon at 36%), they are also getting to the line and average nearly 27 ppg on free throws to lead all playoff teams.
The Spurs survived a slugfest of a series that was on the brink of becoming a seven-game series.
This is a heavily flawed Spurs team. They have exactly one reliable scorer on a nightly basis, leaving them vulnerable to nights on which they cannot get anything going.
While Leonard is a certified superstar, the Spurs survived this series because a different person stepped up in different games. That may seem like the perfect recipe, but no one single player was certifiably the second best player for the Spurs in all six games. That wasn’t good space to be in against a defensive minded team like the Grizzlies.
The Spurs won this series 3-1, but all games were incredibly close.
The Spurs are defensive gods. They throttle a team that believes can score them out of the game. Unfortunately, the Rockets are the epitome of the modern day offensive efficiency. While the Spurs can break down your morale at the defensive end, the Rockets can do the same at the opposite end.
In the end, the Spurs’ lack of a true second option this far, hurts their chances against a relentless juggernaut like the Rockets.
If the Spurs intend to make a series out of this they need to have at least one, if not two more players step up with Leonard in every single game of the series.
My heart and my head are at odds. I love the Spurs dearly, and nothing will make me happier than to see them make the Western Conference Finals. But with the sheer firepower the Rockets possess, it is hard to see them not figure out a way to four out of seven games.
Prediction: Rockets in 7.