That might’ve been the best ending to an NBA regular season we’ve ever had. A recap for those who did not spend eight hours of their lives watching all unfold like I did:
- Magic Johnson randomly announces that he’s stepping down as the Lakers’ President, claiming that he isn’t happy with a job this difficult. Who knew that actual work was required in the most complex sports league in the world?
- Dirk confirms the suspicion that he’s retiring and a plays a great final home game in Dallas.
- Simultaneously, Jamal Crawford (fresh off my roasting of him in my award picks column) went supernova on the Mavs, dropping a surprisingly efficient 51 points in the loss.
- Dwayne Wade celebrates his sendoff like he did his career, i.e. pretending it was a little bit better than it actually was. He was flat out bad against Brooklyn, only racking up the triple double due to Westbrookian like ball hogging, and the Sixers game is marred by the fact that he slipped and fell when trying to jump on the scoring table one last time. But congrats on retirement!
- The Rockets dominate the Thunder and appear to be breezing to the two seed in the West, only to fall victim to a brutal ten second stretch of a Westbrook pull up three, the first missed free throw of the night by Harden, and a game-winning corner three by Paul George. The Rockets path through the playoffs was flipped on head in an instant.
- It appeared that the sports gods were rightfully punishing the Nuggets for tanking the game against the Blazers in order to try and get the Rockets in the other side of the bracket, as the Nuggets were losing to a Wolves team that played Cameron Reynolds and C.J. Williams for a combined forty four minutes. The Nuggets were down eleven with three minutes left, only for Minnesota to score two points from then on, and for Denver to rip off a run that culminated in back to back threes by Millsap and Murray to seal the win. Injustice.
- But hold on, that somehow wasn’t the only strategic tanking ploy by a high seed in the West! The Blazers shamefully tried to avoid a bad match-up with the Thunder, playing only six players: four guys who will get exactly zero minutes in the playoffs, a brief touch of Zach Collins, and my Dad’s personal hero, Jake Layman. The sports gods did not let this crime slide, however, as the Blazer scrubs amazingly allowed 87 first half points, trailed by 28 points, then somehow destroyed the Kings in the second half 74 -44. After all this, the Blazers screwed themselves and forced a first round series against OKC, the Nuggets got bailed out and have their dream match-up with the Spurs, and the Rockets slipped into the Warriors’ side of the bracket and play a lethal Jazz team in the first round. The NBA is unbelievable. (Side Note: Can you imagine being Portland’s coaching staff watching that game unfold. I can just see Terry Stotts pulling Afernee Simons aside after the game, saying, “How dare you. I almost got away with this. Don’t you remember last year? We got swept because of a team had a guard that was too big for Dame and CJ, and now we play a team whose smallest starter is 6’4″ Russell Westbrook! You disgust me.”
And after all that, we’re here. A thrilling two and a half month stretch is about to ensue. Here’s my brief overview:
The Best Series of the First Round: (4) Rockets vs. (5) Jazz
We all talked about the Rockets being super hot, with their record of 24-8 since February 1st being the best in the league. The second best record in the league since February 1st belong to the Utah Jazz, who have been 21-9 since that mark. Who would have thought these two would play each other in the first round when they were 13th and 14th in the West standings midway through December? You could make a legitimate argument that these are 3rd and 4th best teams in the league after the Bucks and the Warriors. I really thought I might go with Utah, because just about everyone else is writing them off. They play elite defense angered by an ever improving Gobert, and in all honesty I should have looked at Donovan Mitchell harder for All-NBA 3rd Team. He’s averaging 23.3 ppg, has been shooting better from three than his rookie season, and is a plus defender. But the Rockets just have too much firepower, and will knock the Jazz out of the playoffs for the second straight season.
Rockets win 4-3
The Series that will be closer than people think: (2) Raptors vs. (7) Magic
The Magic finished 11-2 to end the season, with a stifling defense leading the way. They also split the season series with the Raptors, acquiring two double digit wins. Everyone seems to think the Raptors will breeze by with Kawhi fully rested and Toronto ready to unleash their super switchable lineup of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Siakam, and Ibaka. I don’t people realize just how good the Magic have been over the last month, and I think they play off that stereotypical Toronto playoff syndrome to make a great series out of this.
Raptors win 4-3
The Series that will NOT be as close as people think: (2) Nuggets vs. (7) Spurs
Everyone seems to think that Game 1 of this series is super important, claiming that the Nuggets will be scrambling fast if the wily Spurs come out and surprise the inexperienced team. While there maybe some truth in that, I really don’t think Denver will have much trouble in this series. This is exactly team they wanted to play. Denver is a system team that benefits to the beautiful cohesion of its role players. The only thing they didn’t want was to be in a series where a team had the two most dynamic athletes on the court (aka the Thunder). They’re pretty much a better version of the Spurs, who also rely on teamwork, passing, and overcoming their own athletic disadvantages. This combined with Denver’s dominance at home (34-7) and San Antonio’s struggles on the road (16-25), and I think the Nuggets will make quick work of them.
Nuggets win 4-1
The Series that I didn’t want to pick: (3) Trail Blazers vs. (6) Thunder
I really hated making this pick. I really did. I despise Russell Westbrook, and I don’t like going with the general public, who all seem to be riding the OKC upset bandwagon. But the match-up problems are simply too pronounced to ignore. One of CJ or Dame has to guard Westbrook, and by guard I mean get physically destroyed by, and the other can be hidden on Terrance Ferguson, but even then, Ferguson is a full five inches taller than both of them, making it easier for him to hit spot up threes. I think Lillard has been on another level all season, and I would have picked this Blazers team to make the Conference Finals if Nurkic hadn’t tragically broken his leg. Now poor Dame has to watch Enes Kanter get eaten alive by Steven Adams. Life isn’t fair sometimes.
Thunder win 4-2
The Series that scares me if it gets to a sixth game: (3) 76ers vs (6) Nets
I mean, I shouldn’t be that scared. The Sixers avoided the Magic, the league’s hottest team and a team that beat them twice and should’ve beaten them a third time. But the Sixers are horrible at guarding quick, elusive guards, and the Nets have two in D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. Fortunately, Embiid outweighs Jarrett Allen by what seems like 500 pounds, so he should feast inside on his way to some monster stat lines. Then again, we’re unsure if Embiid will play in the first two games as he’s been dealing with knee problems. Just know that I have a safe room already prepared for when the Sixers are down twelve in the fourth quarter of game five.
Sixers win 4-2
The Series where the Pistons will get destroyed: (1) Bucks vs. (8) Pistons
I think the title is pretty self explanatory.
Bucks win 4-0
The Series that I’m surprisingly interested in: (1) Warriors vs (8) Clippers
Listen, I know that the Clippers have as much a shot at winning this series as the Wizards do of landing Kevin Durant this summer, but we shouldn’t just dismiss this as a sweep. The lob city Clippers always got owned by the Warriors, but this re-born team of veterans, rookies, and castoffs has actually given Golden State some problems. Ultimately, it won’t really matter that much, but I bet you that we get a classic forty piece from Lou Williams in game 3.
Warriors win 4-1
The Series that would’ve been better if it happened a month ago: (4) Celtics vs. (5) Pacers
By that title, I mean that the Pacers were still hanging onto third a month ago, playing inspired ball behind the offense of Bojan Bogdanovic. Over the last few weeks, however, they’ve regressed and are recently coming off multiple losses to the Celtics, which included a twenty point butt kicking in Indiana. The Celtics have serious problems, and I’m sure everyone will be rooting for the Pacers from a good guy vs bad guy perspective, but the bad guys just have too much talent in this one.
Celtics win 4-1
I’m not going to go into too much depth on the series after the first round because there’s no certainty that these will actually be match-ups that occur. But I’ll still give you my predictions, with a tiny bit of explanation.
Warriors over Rockets 4-3 – This is the real conference finals. Even though there are a lot of signs that point to a Houston upset, I’m a firm believer in the theory that you don’t pick against the team that always wins until someone takes them down.
Nuggets over Thunder 4-1 – I’m not kidding when I say everything worked out perfectly for the Nuggets. They would lose to both the Jazz and the Rockets in a series, but instead will either play an injury riddled Blazers team or a Thunder team they always destroy. Wow.
Bucks over Celtics 4-2 – I thought about the Celtics for a little bit, because they’re overall talent is superior to the Bucks at each position except for one. But that “one”, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is a infinitely better than any player on the Celtics’ roster. When in doubt, you roll with the best player.
Raptors over Sixers 4-1 – I really love my Sixers. I would gladly cut off my own healthy knee to give it to Embiid, and TJ McConnell needs to run for governor of Pennsylvania one day. Unfortunately, I have been skeptical of this team all year. They constantly get bogged down with an inability to run any kind of creative offense, they are just lazy and stupid on defense half the time, and I’m really not sure if Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons are that great. I really hope I’m wrong, but the Raptors always kill the Sixers, and this series will probably be a repeat of what Boston did to Philly in last year’s second round.
Warriors over Nuggets 4-0 – Remember how the sports gods somehow took mercy on the Nuggets by tanking that game against the Blazers? Well here is there comeuppance. The Warriors have beaten the Nuggets to a bloody pulp in their last three match-ups, which they will happily do again on their way to a fifth straight finals appearance.
Bucks over Raptors 4-3 – This will be a bloodbath. The Raptors are probably the better overall team, as there’s a chance someone like Siakam could explode on Milwaukee with Giannis locked up on Kawhi duty. But Milwaukee proved to me that they’re ready. They’ve gone through enough trials in the last two years to come out as a strong, grizzled team. Ultimately, that home court advantage is the difference, as Kawhi gets what he deserves for costing the Raptors that chance at the one seed for resting so many games.
The NBA Finals
Warriors over Bucks 4-3 – If I had any real courage, I would pick the Bucks to win this series. They’ll have home court advantage, they match up well with the Warriors, and no team has ever won the title with a guy having one foot out the door like Durant does right now. But I just think the Warriors are that amazing. That will be there legacy: Even though they seemed dysfunctional and disjointed at so many turns, their collection of basketball talent was so immense that it simply overtook any of those deterrents. The Bucks are a great team and should probably win it all, but I think we’ll see the Warriors separate themselves to be greater than other problematic dynasties like the 2010s Heat or the early 2000s Lakers. The Warriors will prove they belong in the upper echelon of NBA greatness, with dynasties like the ’60s Celtics, the ’80s Lakers, and the ’90s Bulls.