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Brief 2017 NBA Playoff Recaps: Volume 1 (Opening Weekend)

Four games in each day, to launch the 2017 NBA Playoffs. One paragraph per game, that’s all time will allow.

Saturday, April 15

Cleveland Cavs 109, Indiana Pacers 108 (Miles To Go Before I Sleep…)

(CLE leads, 1–0)

LeBron very good, rest of Cavs looked rusty…Kyrie 1 of 9 from deep…Cleveland dodges bullet when C.J. Miles misses fade-away at buzzer. Paul George is mad at C.J. Miles for taking a good look. Too bad Sir Lance couldn’t steal one for Indiana, that would’ve made things dramatic. (Lance is bringing it back to 2013, by the way)…Kevin Seraphin got 16 playoff minutes! Don’t wake the monster…

Milwaukee Bucks 97, Toronto Raptors 83 (Sir Brogdon At Your Service…)

(MIL leads 1–0)

Giannis in attack mode, such a beautiful sight. Half court to the rim in 3 strides. 28 on 18 shots…President Malcolm Brogdon ain’t a rookie, he’s a savvy vet! What do you need? I got your defense, your timely shooting, your smart passing. Just tell me what you need…Khris Middleton is the only human on the planet who can shoot 4 of 15 and finish +27 on the night. Three blocks by Maker made me squeal with delight. Lowry 2 of 11 and 0 of 6 from deep. Wrist rust be a problem. Casey needs to get Valanciunas more than 5 shots. This is going 7.

Dwayne Casey needs to figure some things out before Game 2

 

San Antonio Spurs 111, Memphis Grizzlies 82 (Kawhi Can’t This be a Forfeit?)

(SA leads 1–0….soon to be 4–0)

When we heard Tony Allen was out for the series, we stopped holding out any hope that this would be competitive. The Spurs were ordered by Adam Silver to wait until the 2nd quarter to annihilate the Grizzlies, so they cooperated, ending the first with a 5 point deficit. Then San Antonio won the next three quarters by 34. When you want to watch every series, it helps to have one like this.

Utah Jazz 97, Los Angeles Clippers 95 (Win One for the Gobert!)

(UTAH leads 1–0)

17 seconds after tip and The Gentle Giant, Gobert the Great, was on the ground, crawling and shaking his head. It was a painful, deflating sight. Anyone who was rooting for the Jazz felt hollow inside. Quin Snyder’s expression was more than concerned. Not exactly panicked, though. He held himself together, and the Jazz held themselves together. Players like Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, George Hill, and Derrick Favors…pulled this one out. What a wonderful game. The Clippers have all the talent and the Jazz have all the grit. The Clippers are an empty vessel, with a ferocious point guard at the helm. They are less than the sum of their parts, while the Jazz are more than just a couple of Joes. What sweet music, Game One brought us. Joe Johnson has been reborn. Joe Ingles is the best YMCA gym rat in the NBA.

Slow-Motion Joe Goes With the Flow

 

Sunday, April 16

Golden St Warriors 121, Portland Trail Blazers 109 (McCollum Merely One Man…)

(GS leads 1–0)

C.J. McCollum was Golden State’s Gollum, they were never sure which way he’d go. Dropping 41 points on 28 shots, McCollum and his pal Lillard kept the Blazers afloat until the 15–2 Warrior avalanche began the 4th. Defensive Draymond opened the gates and the unassuming Ian Clark chipped in 7 of those 15. The first 36 minutes of the series may be the closest, though it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Blazers backcourt pull one out in the Rose Quarter.

Washington Wizards 114, Atlanta Hawks 107 (Chief Markieff Offers Relief)

(WAS leads 1–0)

The Wizards are probably the better team, and certainly the more interesting one of the two, but with time slipping away at the end of the half, the Hawks led, 48–42, and Washington’s Markieff Morris missed a contested corner three. The ensuing review showed that Morris had been fouled as time expired on the shot. Three free-throws and the lead was cut to 3, as they strolled toward the locker rooms. After the half, Morris opened up by hitting a 3, and the game was tied. Sometimes a game swings when you least expect it. The Hawks have little margin for error. The Wizards bench came up completely empty (except for Mr. Oubre). A few Tim Hardaway threes (0 of 6) and the Hawks might have pulled it out. Instead, Washington still holds home court for now.

Chicago Bulls 106, Boston Celtics 102 (Tragic Turn for Cs but Baby Please…)

(CHI leads 1–0)

What an awful turn of events for Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics. A tragedy clouded what should have been an exuberant first round home game in Boston. Despite it all, Isaiah showed up and did what he always does: scored. 33 points on 18 shots, 10 of 12 from the line, and 3 from deep. Isaiah finished with a +12. So did Bobby Portis, the Bulls 22 year-old who came off the bench with a fury. Those ten minutes without Isaiah belonged to Portis, who scored 19 on 8 of 10, grabbing 9 boards, dishing 3 assists and blocking 2 shots. After the Bulls sent Gibson and McDermott packing, Portis has seen his minutes grow. Once he started knocking down threes at the end of the regular season, his confidence apparently grew as well. Boston’s 53-wins and home court advantage are in the rear-view now, as they fight off Jimmy Butler and Bobby Portis, looking to even things on Tuesday night. Bradley and Horford did their parts, along with Isaiah. Crowder, Smart, Olynyk, and Jaylen have to give more.

Houston Rockets 118, OKC Thunder 87 (Roll the Thunder, Hear Their Cry)

(HOU leads 1–0)

No more debates, no more MVP concerns, just throw the ball up and play. The better team won. The better team has Patrick Beverley, whose offensive contributions (21 points on 13 shots) pale in comparison to the impact of his Westbrook-hounding. Russell can rampage all over the regular season, but he won’t rampage all over Mr. Beverley, who has never known the concept of fear or intimidation. Westbrook’s 6 of 23 line, and 9 turnovers were a big part of the problem. His sidekick, Victor Oladipo, was a dreadful 1 of 12 from the field, misfiring on all 6 three-pointers. OKC’s only hope is to contain Houston’s relentless attack, in which James Harden dissects their defense and makes life simple and breezy for Clint Capela and Nene, who shot a combined 14 of 17, feasting on lay-ups and dunks. Either redirect Harden away from the paint, or Westbrook has to play three times as well as he did tonight and Oladipo needs to wake up. This could be over in 5.

***

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Will update on a weekly basis.

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End of Season NBA Predictions: Eastern Conference Stretch Run

With 25 games left in the NBA’s overly-long 82-game season, we’re back in action after the restful All-Star Break. The trade deadline proved about as exciting as a Nets-Suns match-up. Tobias Harris will be a useful addition over time in Detroit, but he won’t impact Detroit’s possible series with Cleveland (1 vs 8).

Meanwhile, no the Boston Celtics did not make a splashy trade at the deadline. As a Celtics fan, I’m relieved they didn’t trade the Brooklyn pick for a short-term upgrade and a better shot at Toronto/Cleveland this year. Realistically, the Celtics need to win one playoff series with this new young core before they think about short-term improvements. If they have a chance to land Blake Griffin or Kevin Love, that would change the equation. Even if the Brooklyn pick turns into the 2nd or 3rd overall selection, the Celtics could certainly build around Simmons, Ingram, or Bender, each of whom could play power forward. If it ends up 4th or 5th (Damn you, Suns!), Ainge may be more likely to package that pick with other 1st rounders and other young Celtics. We shall see. The prospect of drafting three more rookies (they will have Dallas’ pick as well as their own and Brooklyn’s) would seem to make for an extra crowded training camp, and a very young team.

Eastern Conference

The Cleveland Cavs will coast into the playoffs, incorporating Channing Frye’s shooting off the bench. Kyrie and Love will allow LeBron to sit most of the final week of the regular season, with the top seed wrapped up.

Cleveland Prediction: 60 wins, 1st in East.

Raptor-Mania will ensue when the Toronto Raptors win their first playoff series in too many years. DeMarre Carroll will return from arthroscopic knee surgery by the end of March, in order to get up to speed by playoff time. Last year’s Raptors started 22-5, before crumbling in the 2nd half, but that won’t happen this year. Lowry’s conditioning and core strength are hugely improved, and DeMar DeRozan’s improvement has been well documented. Perhaps most importantly, the depth and defensive intensity of the Raptors bench will keep them ahead of the pack.

Toronto Prediction: 53 wins, 2nd in East.

The progress of these Boston Celtics has been rapid and consistent since acquiring PG Isaiah Thomas from Phoenix last February. After beating up on a weaker Eastern Conference to finish last season 24-12, Boston is now 33-24, on pace for 47 wins and home court in a first round series. Thanks to Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and addition Amir Johnson, the Celtics are one of the more physical defensive teams in the Association. Their cohesion and intensity has led to the league’s 4th best eFG% against (48.1%) and they force the 3rd-most turnovers per game. Boston still struggles with the rare traditional post-up big man, which could become an issue if they face Valanciunas and Toronto in the 2nd round. If the Celtics hold on to the third seed, who will they face in the first round remains to be seen, as seven teams have a legit chance to finish 4th-8th, and they may all finish within three games of each other.

Boston Prediction: 48 wins, 3rd in East.

The Indiana Pacers will catch fire as their schedule softens during the stretch run. Most forget the Pacers started 12-5, with Paul George shooting the lights out in November. As the season wore on, Indiana wore down, and their December schedule snuffed out that early start. Fast forward to Friday night in Oklahoma City: Paul George’s fresh legs, Monta Ellis’ scoring, and rookie Myles Turner’s 6 blocks and timely outside shooting (stretch 5!) led to a statement win for the young Pacers. Considering where they were a year ago, the progress and future-positivity is a testament to Larry Bird’s vision, Frank Vogel’s coaching acumen, and a host of shooters surrounding the potent Paul George. Myles Turner’s energy and versatility will become obvious, but he may hit the rookie wall by April. The Pacers are an enigmatic young bunch, but can they win close playoff games?

Indiana Prediction: 47 wins, 4th in East.

The Chicago Bulls are injured. “We’ve heard that song before!” you shout. Yes, they need a new song, I agree. Jimmy Butler is out for another few weeks with a sprained knee. Mike Dunleavy has a creaky back, and has been missed on the perimeter. Derrick Rose can’t absorb contact anymore, so he avoids it, and is limited defensively. Still…Pau Gasol is Pau Gasol. Butler has become capable of lifting the Bulls all by himself (see Philadelphia game, 53 points on 26 free-throws). Derrick Rose can still score, and Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic can both shoot. There is enough here to keep the Bulls afloat, even if floating is not at all what they’d hoped for in November.

Chicago Prediction: 45 wins, 5th in East.

Chris Bosh’s uncertain health status, the up-and-down Goran Dragic, and the aging Dwyane Wade will make it tough for the Miami Heat to make a real run, despite their light last 15 games. Miami will land somewhere between 5th and 7th in the East. If Bosh is able to play at full strength, and Dragic gets his confidence and health back, the Heat could put a first round scare into Toronto or Boston, and would make life extra difficult for the Pacers.

Miami Prediction: 44 wins, 6th in East.

The Atlanta Hawks will fail to regain their swagger from last year as the lost season continues even after the trade rumors die down. Atlanta has the 3rd-toughest schedule remaining in the NBA. The Hawks will fall to 7th or 8th in the East in what will be an insanely-packed end of season battle between Atlanta, Detroit, Charlotte, and Washington for two spots. DeMarre Carroll’s absence and Jeff Teague’s struggles come into focus by season’s end. I wish things got better for Horford, Millsap, and Korver. What a great story they were last year.

Atlanta Prediction: 43 wins, 7th in East.

The Detroit Pistons are taking the shape of Stan Van Gundy. Let’s rephrase that. Stan Van Gundy, who has a round, slightly oblong shape, is a wise coach, and as GM, he is shaping his roster around his uber-talented center, Andre Drummond, and his very skillful point guard, Reggie Jackson. Detroit needed shooting. They traded for Marcus Morris to play 3/4. Morris is having a solid year. They had Jodie Meeks for balance off the bench. Injured for most of the year. They hoped Anthony Tolliver’s range would provide help. Not so much. So….Stan traded for Tobias Harris and Donatas Motiejunas. Motiejunas, whose back has been cranky all season in Houston, shot 37% from deep in 2014-15, and has an array of offensive moves. Harris is only 23, and is on a solid contract, which will look better as the cap imitates the ocean, and rises. Detroit needs to make the playoffs to prove to its fans that there is progress. The city needs it. The team needs it. It will happen.

Detroit Prediction: 43 wins, 8th in East.

***

Left out of the Playoffs in this mad dash for the final three seeds: Charlotte and Washington.

Within going into much detail, both Charlotte and Washington will finish within three games of the 7th/8th bunch. Washington is the big disappointment here, as the Wizards hoped to finish with 48+ wins after some impressive playoff performances last year. Bradley Beal’s youthful knee issues and Nene’s old-fella knee issues have forced the Wizards into extreme small-ball lineups that haven’t worked out as well as planned. The addition of Markieff Morris from Phoenix can’t hurt, but they’ll need some time to build chemistry.

 

 

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Halfway There: The Juicy Middle of the NBA at Midseason

We have arrived…sort of. Welcome to the halfway mark of the NBA season. 41 games. All 30 teams have played between 38 and 43 games, so we’re as close to the midpoint as we’ll get. The All-Star Break is a few weeks away. As always at this time of year teams are dealing with multiple injuries and only three (Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland) have anything resembling a firm grasp of their playoff situation. That leaves 27 teams jockeying for 13 other playoff spots. In reality, more like 20 teams for 13 spots, which is a few more than usual this year.

This stretch of the season (six weeks between New Year’s and the All-Star break) is by far the most grueling. In an ideal NBA-schedule-world (70-game season), these six weeks would include 3 games per week maximum; 18 total). Instead, many teams will play 22 and 23 games in this stretch. Not only is the product on the court worse, injury-risk becomes magnified. Players are usually battling through injuries at this time of year as is. Back-to-backs and 4-games-in-6 days stretches compound things. As the NBA moves fully into a faster-paced, ball-movement-focused game, and as coaches look toward maintaining the health of their stars and restricting playing time to 32-34 minutes per game, the mid-year January stretch becomes a test in endurance, depth and the luck of health.

Making this time of year even more difficult to examine is the parity that exists throughout the NBA. As of January 17th, 10 teams—1/3 of the Association—are within four games of the .500 mark. Seven of those 10 teams are in the East. With few teams in obvious selling position as the trade deadline nears, questions abound. We have one month for teams to figure out how likely they are to make the playoffs (and, in the East, how likely they are to make the top 7 in order to avoid Cleveland in the first round).

It’s time to take a stroll through the Association. We’ll go from the bottom to the top, splitting this into three parts. Here’s the juicy middle, by current win pace.

20. Charlotte Hornets (pace: 37 wins)

Al Jefferson does not deserve this fate. Big Al has played in 14 playoff games in his 12 year career. Seven of those came as a 20 year-old rookie in Boston over a decade ago. Jefferson is one of the last of a dying breed: the low-post pivot big man without the foot-speed to survive in the modern pick-and-roll, pace-and-space era. Jefferson helped lead Charlotte to the playoffs in 2014, and promptly went down with a foot injury. Now, Big Al is recovering from right knee surgery. At age 31, and with too many miles on his old tires, it’s highly unlikely Jefferson will receive much interest in the off-season…which is why I’m secretly hoping the Celtics offer Big Al a one-year deal, hoping he has just enough juice left in the tank to give their bench a jolt of offense. It’s nice to dream of things coming full circle with Big Al.  After all, he was the building block which enabled the Celtics to land Garnett in 2007. Meanwhile, Nicolas Batum has exploded in a primary role with Charlotte. As a key supporter in Portland, Batum’s decision making was rarely highlighted. With Jefferson out, Batum has emerged, averaging nearly 16 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 5.5 apg. Sadly, without the defensive wizardry of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (out for year after shoulder surgery) and the post-presence of Jefferson, the Hornets have run out of steam, losing 9 of 10.

19. Utah Jazz (pace: 37 wins)

Record with Rudy Gobert in the starting lineup: 11-8; record without Rudy Gobert in the starting lineup: 7-14. From here on out, record needed to get to 40 wins: 22-20. After losing Dante Exum before the year started and playing stretches without everyone except for swingman Gordon Hayward, the Jazz have been surprisingly resilient. As Brooklyn fans consider the mistakes that led to what is now likely the least optimistic future of the 30 franchises, despite the free agent magnetism of New York City, the emergence of 3rd overall pick Derrick Favors has to cause severe intestinal pain. Favors, much like departed Jazz power forward Paul Millsap, has worked himself into one of the top young bigs in the league. Jazz fans can’t wait to see what Favors and Gobert can do with an actual point guard, once Exum returns next year.

18. New York Knicks (pace: 39 wins)

Kristaps Porzingis is fun to watch. All arms and legs and with nimble feet, he is nearly impossible to box out, which often leads crowd-pleasing put-back slams. Carmelo has turned a new leaf, embracing the role of wise elder. The Knicks are an interesting amalgamation of veterans (Lopez, Afflalo, Lopez) and young fellas (Kristaps, Grant, Gallaway). Still, the Knicks have a relatively tough stretch over the next few weeks, which may dim their playoff hopes slightly as the deadline nears.

17. Washington Wizards (pace: 40 wins)

The Wizards without Bradley Beal (stress reaction in leg) and basically without Nene (one knee, 10-15 minutes per game) are just as volatile as the Pacers. The Wizards attack focuses on racing past defenses in order to beat them and playing small ball around Marcin Gortat. John Wall’s blinding speed is most effectively used that way. The trouble: sustaining that pace and reserving enough energy for defense. John Wall has improved his jumper considerably over the years, and his offensive aggression has taken on new levels of importance without Beal (newly returned, with limited minutes) and Nene, but the lack of balance makes them vulnerable. They don’t have enough energy at ends of games (and not enough Beal and Nene) to play the top-level defense that they have shown over the last two years. Beal is one of the more polished under-25 two-way players in the league, and shown the ability to raise his game in the playoffs. All of this makes his injuries that much more troublesome to the Wizards franchise.

16. Orlando Magic (pace: 42 wins)

The Magic are playing defense, thanks in part to Scott Skiles’ preaching the gospel of rotations and physical play. The Magic are young and uber-athletic. The Magic started 19-13, before dropping 6 of their last 7. Two of the six losses came to the Wizards, and the other four came to East teams with better than .500 records. The Magic have improved, but now they have to deal with the reality that the East is filled with decent teams. Orlando’s offense is the problem. They can’t get to the free-throw line (18 FTA per game is last in the league), and they don’t take as many threes (22 per game is 23rd in the league) as they need to. The Magic are hoping Elfrid Payton gradually develops into a decent shooter. In the meantime, Orlando will do its best to claw their way to a playoff berth in the crowded East.

15. Houston Rockets (pace: 43 wins)

After starting 5-10, the Rockets have slowly climbed back to above .500 at 22-20. This year’s Rockets remain a mystery after last year’s surge in April and May, surprising many with an improbable comeback in the West Semis against the Clippers, coming from 3-1 down. Those Rockets were propelled by Harden’s magicianship, and the versatility of everyone from the mercurial Josh Smith to the caffeinated Corey Brewer. Those Rockets finished 6th in defensive rating. This year, the Rockets defense is 21st. The return of point guard Patrick Beverley, after the firing of coach Kevin McHale has coincided with Houston’s upward climb. During a 10-game stretch without Beverley in the starting lineup, the Rockets were 3-7. These Rockets remain enigmatic. The chemistry that they found last spring doesn’t seem likely to return to the point where they have any hope of threatening Golden State or San Antonio.

14. Boston Celtics (pace: 44 wins)

Jae Crowder always seems to save these Celtics in the 4th quarter. Crowder’s play has been instrumental in that stabilizing role (see: West, David and Nene, Nene). Last night, Crowder did it again by tipping out an offensive rebound with Boston up 111-110 and 45 seconds left, and then again with four seconds left on a beautifully executed pin-down pass from Marcus Smart, to put the Celtics over the top 119-117 on a wild finish in Washington. Crowder saved the Celtics almost single-handedly earlier in the season against the Sixers. There have been two or three other games that likely would have swung from wins to close losses were it not for Crowder. He simply rises to the occasion when the Celtics need him the most. Need evidence, Crowder is 7 of 10 from beyond the paint in the 4th quarter with the Celtics down 6 points or less.

Though it’s easy to pick any sample and exaggerate its importance, there was a ragged stretch late in the recent Boston win over Indiana (four Celtics steals in the final two minutes) where the Pacers lack of a stabilizing force to replace their former-anchor/sage David West was so clearly evident. Paul George is running on fumes at the moment, with little help. The Pacers win represented the impact of defensive anchors, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder. The problem with these Celtics is how hard it is to consistently suffocate the NBA’s best and most-balanced offenses.

13. Indiana Pacers (pace: 44 wins)

see above. Also, Paul George needs some help in Indiana, as the leg which he broke 18 months ago has been sore lately. The Pacers have managed to play stifling defense yet again (tied 4th in defensive efficiency at 99.1) by running teams off of the three-point line, and closing off passing lanes. George Hill and Paul George remain a fearsome defensive duo. The attention that Paul has to pay to both ends of the court is going to be the issue as the season wears on. Paul George’s 3-point percentage has slipped by the month: 49% in November, 36% in December, and only 31% so far in January. Not surprisingly, the Pacers have dropped 6 of their last 10. Frank Vogel can’t get to the All-Star Break soon enough.

12. Memphis Grizzlies (pace: 44 wins)

Mike Conley deserves better than this. The Achilles has been plaguing him this year after the facial fracture that took him out in the first round against Golden State in April. Zach Randolph is now coming off the bench, destroying reserve power forwards. Marc Gasol is occasionally able to torch opponents, but seems to have settled into a distributing role. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough shooters to distribute to. As has been the issue in Memphis for years, there isn’t enough space, and there’s rarely much pace. The defensive-minded Grizzlies are now officially grizzled vets. It’d be fun to see Memphis match up with Oklahoma City if only to watch Tony Allen’s playoff defense on Kevin Durant.

11. Detroit Pistons (pace: 45 wins)

Detroit wants to make the playoffs very badly this year. After a rough stretch for the franchise, the Pistons officially have a new identity, crafted by coach and GM Stan Van Gundy. Center Andre Drummond is a rebounding force, who is learning the post-up game. As has been documented, Van Gundy’s success in Orlando with Dwight Howard hinged on three-point shooting surrounding the Goliath in the middle. Shooting guru Dave Hopla has been added to help spur the development of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Reggie Jackson, and rookie Stanley Johnson. The Pistons run a Jackson-Drummond pick and roll nearly every time down the court, which makes them more than a little predictable on offense. The benefit of this strategy is allowing Drummond to roll toward the rim on a huge number of possessions. This has led to the Pistons leading the NBA in offensive rebounding, an endangered species in the NBA. The Pistons and the Celtics are both one excellent shooter away from being a very tough out in the East.

 

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