1. Which first round matchup are you most looking forward to?
FT: Celtics-Nets. There’s history and a bit of bad blood. But perhaps most excitingly, there’s the contrast of styles. The Celtics are the best defensive team in the league (106.2 per 100 possessions), while the Nets have the two best one-on-one players today, Irving and Kevin Durant, who, together, own the best offensive rating among two-man lineups (122.8 per 100). There are also the wildcards of Ben Simmons making his Nets debut and the Celtics’ Robert Williams returning from his meniscus surgery later in the series.
GIO: Grizzlies-Wolves. It’s a matchup between relatively young squads with players capable of taking over the game in their own way (Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards to name a few) and players who bring a different level of intensity (Patrick Beverley and Dillon Brooks). Stars having a bad night shouldn’t be an issue for both teams as the Grizzlies and the Wolves have shown the next-man-up mentality that could prove pivotal in a seven-game series.
CARLO: Raptors-76ers. The boys from Toronto looked like they had no business challenging for the playoffs early in the season, but they have really turned things around and are looking like such a solid squad. Nick Nurse is one hell of a coach, and Fred VanVleet taking on more and more leadership seems to have allowed Pascal Siakam to focus on playing basketball. Spicy P played in 21 games since the start of March and put up 26.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals a game with just 2.6 turnovers while shooting 51.7% from the field. The Raptors coincidentally went 15-6 in that span. I love Joel Embiid, and I think he’s worked his ass off this season, but it feels like James Harden again needs to prove that he can deliver on the big stage. He was hampered by his hamstring last year, and I respect that he even tried to play, but now Harden needs to step up to the plate. With their best defender Mathysse Thybulle being unavailable for at least games 3 and 4, the Sixers are going to need to win through offense. I’m not entirely sure they can do it without the Australian.
ALDO: Raptors-76ers. It’s always fun when a team with top talent (Philadelphia) goes up against a feisty group with no consensus All-NBA player. The contrast in styles will be interesting to watch and the pressure on the Sixers to win given their all-in move for James Harden makes the stakes even higher. Any series that has a Nick Nurse-led team will always be a must-watch too and it’ll be fun to see what new tricks he has up his sleeve this year.
2. What’s your biggest first round upset pick?
FT: Nuggets over Warriors. Denver will have the best player in the series, regardless of whether Steph Curry returns. Nikola Jokic exploited the Warriors’ lack of size in the regular season, averaging 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists in four games. Kevon Looney, the Dubs’ only true center, had at least four personal fouls in each of their meetings; they’ll be extremely thin if he gets into foul trouble. Golden State’s 3-seed is deceiving because their win total was heavily frontloaded. Since January, the Nuggets have been the better team: better winning percentage, offensive rating, net rating, and point differential.
GIO: Raptors over the Sixers. Nick Nurse has normally had his way whenever he has had to face the Sixers. Doc Rivers is prone to collapsing even when the odds are in his favor. Those have happened on separate occasions, but don’t be surprised if they all occur in this series.
Embiid’s numbers against the Raptors look solid, but the percentages tell of a greater effort on his part. How he adjusts to schemes attuned to him will determine whether or not history repeats itself.
CARLO: Like Gio, I’m also going with the Raptors over the Sixers. Doc Rivers’ history of fucking up in the playoffs, plus the absence of Mathysse Thybulle in the games played in Canada, are a ticking timebomb just waiting to explode. The Sixers’ only hope to win is if Joel Embiid loses his mind for an entire series, but coach Nurse and his assistants are excellent gameplanners and I think they’ll create a good scheme to hound Embiid.
ALDO: Wolves over Grizzlies. They’re both young teams and while the Grizzlies were unstoppable in the regular season, I’m curious to see how they react when the games slow down in the playoffs. Their lack of three-point shooting and Morant’s health are two points of concern that could make for a sequel to Patrick Beverley’s over-the-top celebration from earlier this week. Minnesota is more than just a footnote here too and Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell seem hungry to make a name for themselves. The season series was a tie so this series might not be as lopsided as what is typically expected from a #2 vs. #7 match-up.
3. Who will be the breakout player of the postseason?
FT: Ja Morant is the easy pick and, if the Grizzlies reach the second round, I’m sure the media will embrace him as they did Devin Booker last year. But does Morant qualify as a “breakout player” considering that he already averaged 30.2 points, 8.2 assists and 4.8 rebounds last postseason? If he doesn’t, I’m going with his teammate, Jaren Jackson Jr. He has emerged as an elite defender this year to the point that his offense has become underrated (well, that and he only shot 41.5% from the floor and 31.9% from deep during the regular season). As defenses tighten in the postseason, Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane will not have the same looks they’re used to having, and I expect JJJ to step up with some big-scoring games.
GIO: Anthony Edwards. Regardless of when Minnesota’s season ends, Edwards will certainly leave a mark in these playoffs in the same way Ja Morant introduced himself to a larger audience with last year’s playoffs. He’s managed to improve his numbers while improving his efficiency and it’s safe to say that he has repaid the Wolves’ trust in him when they selected him over LaMelo Ball. The stakes are much different in the postseason, but looking back at his last two seasons, he’ll find a way to score.
CARLO: I believe Morant is already a dark horse MVP candidate whose contributions to his team are simply overshadowed by how solid the rest of the roster is. Edwards, on the other hand, I think still needs another year to get cooking and really show us what he’s made of. My pick for breakout player this postseason is Desmond Bane, who I’ve really loved watching play this season. He’s a hard-nosed baller who is a perfect compliment to Morant, and he’s a big-time shot taker and maker. Minnesota is near the bottom of the league in defensive rating, and could potentially allow a lot of threes as well. That’s right in Bane’s wheelhouse.
ALDO: Jordan Poole has taken a leap this year, but he has been largely overshadowed by Golden State’s Big Three in terms of their media coverage and remains relatively unknown to the casual fan. Given the popularity of the team that he plays for among the league’s more seasonal audience (Translation: The ones who only watch the playoffs), he only has to continue playing the way that he has been over the past few weeks for the narrative around him to change in a major way. He also has a prime opportunity to take on a bigger load in the first round with Stephen Curry fresh off a foot injury and Klay Thompson still trying to rediscover his form following his two-year layoff. It really just takes one big game for a Warriors player to turn himself into a household name and Poole will have many opportunities to do so, especially in the first round.
4. Which HOF point guard-turned-coach guides his team deeper into the playoffs, Jason Kidd or Steve Nash?
FT: Probably Steve Nash because of the uncertainty surrounding Luka Doncic’s availability. Calf strains are tricky and the Mavs have been purposefully mum on his recovery timetable. Per The Athletic‘s Tim Cato, Doncic will probably be out “the first two home games and could miss further games beyond that.” Everything the Mavs do revolve around Luka; if he misses the first week of the series—which seems to be a reasonable assumption at this point—it might be over before he even suits up. If Doncic is healthy to start the series, I’m taking the Mavs over the Jazz. I’m picking the Nets over the Celtics, too. But I don’t see either advancing beyond the second round, so it could end up as a wash.
GIO: Aside from Doncic’s injury, Nash gets the nod here over Kidd largely because of the personnel on his squad. Having Kevin Durant on your squad is a guaranteed first-round pass and the return of Ben Simmons should add an interesting wrinkle to the Nets. If Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown go supernova in the first round, we could see both Kidd and Nash having an early exit.
CARLO: Steve Nash. Jason Kidd’s been successful in his first year with the Mavericks, but he relies heavily on one superstar who is currently hurt. Nash has the advantage of having two available in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and they’re going to be facing a Celtics squad that is unsure of when Robert ‘Time Lord’ Williams will return.
ALDO: I’m going with Jason Kidd. I don’t think the Mavs are better than the Nets, but given the context, like their chances against the Jazz. Historically, it is within the realm of possibility that Utah will blow a sizeable series lead or simply fail to capitalize on the absence of the opponent’s best player so I like Kidd’s chances of advancing to the second round. Meanwhile, Brooklyn is facing the Celtics, one of the hottest teams in the league, who won their season series 3-1. It will also be difficult for the Nets to cover Boston’s two physically imposing wing scorers in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown given their current personnel. Furthermore, it seems like Tatum enjoys playing against Brooklyn given that he has had two 50-point games against them over the past 12 months.
5. Fill in your Round 1 picks:
|(1) MIA vs (8) ATL||Heat in 5||Heat in 5||Heat in 5||Heat in 6||Heat|
|(2) BOS vs (7) BKN||Nets in 6||Celtics in 7||Nets in 7||Celtics in 6||Even split|
|(3) MIL vs (6) CHI||Bucks in 4||Bucks in 4||Bucks in 5||Bucks in 4||Bucks|
|(4) PHI vs (5) TOR||Raptors in 7||Raptors in 6||Raptors in 7||76ers in 7||3-1 Raptors|
|(1) PHO vs (8) NOP||Suns in 4||Suns in 4||Suns in 4||Suns in 4||Suns|
|(2) MEM vs (7) MIN||Grizzlies in 5||Grizzlies in 6||Grizzlies in 6||Grizzlies in 7||Grizzlies|
|(3) GSW vs (6) DEN||Nuggets in 6||Warriors in 6||Warriors in 7||Warriors in 6||3-1 Warriors|
|(4) DAL vs (5) UTA||Jazz in 6*||Jazz in 6||Jazz in 7||Mavericks in 7||3-1 Jazz|
* Assuming Doncic misses at least the first three games.
BONUS: Share your Finals prediction.
FT: These Suns are giving me the 2014 Spurs vibe. They’re hungry and focused. Suns over Bucks in 5.
Gio: Bucks over the Suns again. Even if Jokic and Embiid have gotten more shine this season, Giannis continues to develop and with a full and hopefully healthy lineup, it may be tough to stop them in a seven-game series.
Carlo: I’m not sure who the hell makes it out of that bloodbath they call the Eastern Conference, but I am confidently feeling that the Suns will redeem themselves and win it all this season.
Aldo: It’s hard to bet against the Suns in the West and I think the Heat will figure out a way to beat out the Bucks for the Eastern Conference championship. A Suns-Heat finals will also have a lot of potential for corny puns (“Can the Suns handle the Heat?” or “Are the Heat too hot for the Suns?”) which should be a fun sideshow. If this match-up does happen, I think the Suns will finally take the crown in six games and Devin Booker will announce to the world that he is a top-five player in this league.