The Gold Rush: NBA Playoff Preview
By BLS Columnist, Justin Goldman
Last week in my MLB Season Preview, I wrote about how this is my favorite time of year for sports, and how it’s the time when I get to write two of my favorite columns. The first was that baseball preview; the second is this week’s column—my NBA Playoff Preview.
I’m always excited for the onset of the NBA playoffs, but this year I’d say that’s more true than ever before. That’s in part, naturally, because my beloved Golden State Warriors had a historically great regular season and are, at the very worst, co-favorites to win the title. But beyond that, we’re looking at a bunch of compelling storylines and intriguing matchups. As always, the playoffs are when players and teams make their legacies. Who will be remembered, for good or ill, forever after this June? Here’s what I think.
We’ll start with the JV conference, which really only has one team that anybody believes can play on the varsity level.
Atlanta vs. Brooklyn: I’m a little bummed that the Pacers couldn’t sneak into the eight spot—them making the playoffs after Paul George came back from his horrific broken leg would have made for a nice story. Instead, we get this series, in which the biggest question is whether or not the Hawks can keep the NYPD from breaking any more of their players’ legs. You have to figure that Atlanta will just lock everyone in their hotel rooms the two nights they’re in NYC, right? Hawks in 5.
Cleveland vs. Boston: Here’s a theory: I think LeBron wanted this matchup. He’s suffered two of his most devastating playoff losses to Boston, and the Cavs basically threw two games to the Celtics last week—it’s like they were begging the Celtics to get up to the seven seed, so that this matchup could happen, and so that LeBron could eviscerate them. Cavs in 4.
Chicago vs. Milwaukee: The Bulls are the far superior team, but I think this is gonna be fun. You’ve got the close geographic rivalry (people from Wisconsin seem to hate people from Chicago for some reason—is this a Midwestern version of the Boston–New York inferiority complex thing?), and you’ve got the Greek Freak’s first playoff series. Anytime you get to watch Giannis is a good time. I think we could see a few close games, but I just don’t see how the Bucks are going to score enough to pull games out down the stretch. It’s such a bummer that Jabari Parker (who aside from being a gifted scorer—and how I wish someone would describe me that way—is a Chicago native) got hurt this season. Bulls in 5.
Toronto vs. Washington: If Chicago had fallen to the four seed, the Wiz might have had a chance to pull another first round upset. They just match up well with the Bulls. But this is a terrible matchup for them. Kyle Lowry can play even with John Wall, and Toronto has way more depth. Both of these teams struggled down the stretch, but Washington basically quit on their coach. They’ll probably have a new one of those next year. Paul Pierce won’t be haunting the T-Dot this year. Drakes (and really, shouldn’t they just change the team name to that at this point?) in 6.
Atlanta vs. Toronto: Between the injuries and the lack of a superstar scorer, Atlanta faces a lot of questions as a one seed heading into these playoffs. But Toronto’s not the team that’s going to expose them. Hawks in 6.
Cleveland vs. Chicago: Oh man. This should be a doozy. These teams don’t like each other. LeBron and D-Rose don’t like each other. And the history … well, it’s not great for Cleveland.
I have a coworker who’s from Northern Ohio. He sits across from me and can’t see my computer screen, but when I played this clip in the office the other day, he knew from the first second of audio what I was listening to. Life’s been rough for Cleveland fans, man.
Anyway, back to business: If I believed in Rose, I’d pick the Bulls in this series. As it is, the Bulls played the Cavs very tough in the regular season this year, and I think this is the series in which Kyrie and Love’s lack of playoff experience might come back to bite Cleveland. But I think they’ll pull it together to grind out a series win. Cavs in 7.
Atlanta vs. Cleveland: And here’s the big test for Atlanta. Can the Spursian teamwork and system of the Hawks overcome the star power of the Cavs? I think Cleveland’s tendency to go one-on-one will hurt them some, and Atlanta seems like a team that could carve the Cavs’ questionable D. And yet … I gotta go with LeBron. Cavs in 6.
Now, on to the varsity:
Golden State vs. New Orleans: I’m excited to see Anthony Davis’s first playoff series, and I’m kind of expecting him to win one of the two games in NOLA by himself with some insane 45 point, 25 rebound performance. That’s the only reason I’m not predicting a sweep. Dubs in 5.
Houston vs. Dallas: Here’s an interesting series for you. Dallas has looked pretty awful since the Rondo trade. They can’t play defense at all. And they’re going up against one of the best perimeter scorers in the league, James Harden, who many people (but not yours truly) thought should have won the MVP. I don’t know who they’re going to have defend Harden—Rondo? Yikes. On the flipside, though, Harden is pretty much all Houston has, and the Rockets have very much overachieved this year. And when I look at the coaching matchup—Rick Carlisle, who has won a title and is universally regarded as one of the best tacticians in the league, vs. Kevin McHale, who basically got his lunch money taken in the playoffs last year—I’m seeing upset potential. Fuck it. Mavs in 6.
Los Angeles vs. San Antonio. Oh my god. I don’t even know what to say. I should research this (whatever, who am I kidding?), but this has to be on the short list of greatest first round series ever. Two of the five best teams in the league. Two teams who everyone had as title contenders before the season and who both finished the season red-hot. Two coaches who have won titles. The best player of his generation, still going strong after almost 20 years, trying to win another title. The best point guard of his generation trying to get over the playoff hump after perhaps his best regular season yet. The breakout star of last year’s finals and this year’s second half taking it to the next level. It’s just nuts. How is this a series in the FIRST ROUND? Anyway, I’ve hyped this enough. This is gonna be an incredibly entertaining series, but does anyone actually think the Spurs are going to lose to the Clips? Yeah, me neither. Spurs in 6.
Memphis vs. Portland: These teams both struggled coming down the stretch, and both are banged up. As I former resident of the Rose City, I love the Blazers (second only to the Dubs), and as a former resident of the Town, I love Dame Lillard (second only to Steph—and maybe Draymond). I really hope Portland can pull this out, because I like them, and I think a second round Dubs-Blazers series would be wildly entertaining. But Memphis swept the season series, and they just seem to be a terrible matchup for Portland. Sorry, Rip City. Grizz in 5.
Golden State vs. Memphis: If you had told me three months ago that this was going to be the Dubs’ second-round opponent, I would have freaked out. With Z-Bo and Gasol, the Grizz seem to be an awful matchup for the Dubs, who thrive on going small. But these teams have seemed to be going in opposite directions for a while now, and the Dubs have killed the Grizz the last two times they played—once in Memphis, a game I attended, and once in Oakland, when Klay dropped a 37-point first half on the Grit and Grinders. I think this will be tougher than those two games indicated, but I’m saying Dubs in 6.
Dallas vs. San Antonio: We’ve got two lower seeds advancing to the second round here, but only one of them feels like a lower-seed. Dallas always plays the Spurs tough, and for a moment seemed like they were actually going to upset San Antonio in the first round last year. But this Spurs team is clicking at the right time, and the Mavs won’t be able to hang with them. Spurs in 6.
Golden State vs. San Antonio: And here we are. The proving ground. I’m already terrified of this series, and it’s two rounds and four weeks away from happening. Can the upstart Dubs, who had one of the greatest regular seasons in recent history, take down the grizzled Spurs, the well-oiled basketball machine on which Steve Kerr has built his blueprint? I want to believe. I really do. And there’s reason for hope: Two years ago, the Dubs played the Spurs very tight in a series in which they had the disadvantages of Curry and Bogut limping around and of having Mark Jackson as their coach. But I’m haunted by the game these two teams played a few weeks ago, when Kawhi Leonard just bottled up Steph and throttled the Dubs’ offense singlehandedly. And while it seems impossible that a road team could win a Game Seven in Oracle Arena, if there’s one team that you could see doing it, it’s the Spurs, right? This has a chance to be one of the best series of the last 20 years. And if it goes the way I think it will, I’m going to lie in my darkened room and sob for a week straight. Spurs in 7.*
*If you’re going to ask if part of the reason I made this pick was because I didn’t want to jinx my team by picking them to win the title, I will say: No comment.
Cleveland vs. San Antonio: Predicting that Warriors loss has sapped me of the will to live, so let’s make this quick: The likelihood is that this matchup would end with a Spurs victory, dropping LeBron’s finals record against Duncan and Popovich to 1-3. But back at the beginning of the season, I picked the Cavs to win the title, so I’ll stick with that. Cavs in 6. The King finally brings a crown to Cleveland.