1. Best first round nicknames
I love giving people nicknames. I called my sister “Tin-tin” when we were little kids because she was thin—it wasn’t even remotely related to her given name—and everybody in the family still calls her that to this day. I have a friend from college who I kept calling “Razor” because his first name is Ramon. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. Thank you for not smacking the shit out of me each time, Raze.
With the first round in the books, it’s time to give out some fresh monikers.
If you need to close out a playoff series, who you gonna call? I’ll have Chris Paul all day, every day and twice on Sunday. Check out his last three closeout games:
• Game 6 2022 West Round 1 vs. NOP.33 points, 14/14 FG, 8 assists
• Game 6 2021 WCF vs. LAC. 41 points, 8 assists, 0 turnovers
• Game 4 2021 West Round 2 v. DEN. 37 points (25 in second half), 7 assists
“Ja ‘Call Me’ Morant”
Shout-out to my buddy Drew for this one! Ja Morant scored the Grizzlies’ final 13 points in their crucial Game 5 victory over the Timberwolves, including the game-winning layup—after which he busted out the “call me” celebration.
Ja, call me more!
Ja may be getting all the attention, but Desmond Bane was the Grizzlies’ most consistent scorer in the first round. He averaged 23.5 points and shot an astonishing 48.2% from deep.
He’s a cold-blooded predator—more of a giant carnivorous lizard than a cuddly bear. All hail, D-Rex! (I swear, this has nothing to do with the length of his arms.)
2. Second round predictions
I got burned in the first round because I made way too many upset picks (Nets, Nuggets, Raptors, Jazz). But if there’s something I learned from great NBA players, it’s that you’ve got to have short term memory. It’s a clean slate for Round 2, so why don’t we give this guessing game another go?
• Miami Heat vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The price the Sixers had to pay because Doc Rivers was so afraid of blowing a 3-0 series lead? Joel Embiid suffering an orbital fracture and concussion with four minutes left in Game 6 with Philly up 29, which makes his availability for the second round doubtful.
Embiid is his team’s MVP and without him, the Sixers aren’t any better than the Hawks—a team that the Heat dispatched handily in the previous round.
Pick: Heat in five.
• Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
The de facto East Finals. Boston is oozing with confidence after sweeping the pre-season favorites Brooklyn Nets. Milwaukee won their final three games against Chicago by an average margin of 23.3 points while playing without All-Star Khris Middleton.
I’m picking the Bucks and here’s why: I think the Celtics’ first round win is fool’s gold. Although the series ended in a sweep, the games were all pretty close. Boston’s widest margin of victory was seven points in Game 2 against a team that sucked on defense and with Kevin Durant playing like the Monstars stole his talents.
Milwaukee is a different animal. The Bucks had a defensive rating of 94.4 in round 1, which is almost ten points better than the second-ranked Heat this postseason. They limited DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine to seven and five points below their regular season averages. Like the Bulls, the Celtics are heavily reliant on their dynamic duo on offense. Shut down Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and Boston will be bleeding for points. The Bucks will undoubtedly miss Middleton, particularly when closing games, but I trust Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis, and Grayson Allen to provide enough support for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Pick: Bucks in six.
• Phoenix Suns vs. Dallas Mavericks
It will be curious to see if Deandre Ayton gets exposed like Rudy Gobert, but other than that, I don’t see Dallas troubling Phoenix. The Suns’ tough six-game series against the Pelicans may have been the wake-up call they needed. The Suns match up better defensively against the Mavs than Utah did in the previous round. They have the best perimeter defender on the planet, Mikal Bridges, to throw at Luka Doncic. Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, and Torey Craig are all switchable defenders who are capable of covering Dallas pick-and-rolls. Devin Booker’s return alleviated concerns about the severity of his injury and the extra days off should help his hamstring recover.
Pick: Suns in five.
• Memphis Grizzlies vs. Golden State Warriors
The Grizzlies didn’t look like the two-seed against the Timberwolves. Minnesota outplayed them for majority of the series, but Memphis won the fourth quarters. If they come out lethargic against the Warriors, then it may be a short series. That’s why I believe winning a closeout game on the road was huge for the young Grizzlies’ psyche. They now come into the next round with a much-needed confidence boost of having a series win under their belt and find themselves playing with house money against a team with championship expectations.
The Warriors seemingly unleashed a new iteration of the Death Lineup in the first two games of the Denver series, blitzing the Nuggets for an otherworldly 204.3 points per 100, with a defensive rating of 75.0 to boot. But peel back and you’ll realize how presumptuous the label is. In the last three games, the Curry-Thompson-Green-Wiggins-Poole lineup had a net rating of minus-20.9; their offensive rating was a less deadly 117.7, while their defensive rating was a godawful 138.6. Those three games were close, with all contests decided by five points or less. If Nikola Jokic had more help, the outcome could’ve easily been much different.
I’m tempted to pick the Grizzlies but the Warriors are still the smart bet. If Memphis had played like the team that won 56 games in the regular season, then perhaps I’d have more confidence picking them. But they’ve so far only shown glimpses of that, so I’ll hedge a bit after my first round burnout. I think it will be a close series and the Warriors’ experience may well prove to be the difference—but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Grizz pull off the upset with Game 7 at home.
Pick: Warriors in seven.
3. Throwback video of the week
Another CP3 throwback, this time his first closeout game against the Mavs in 2008. Closeout Chris’s final stat line: 24 points, 15 assists, 11 rebounds, 0 turnovers, and a rare playoff win in a game officiated by Scott Foster.