And you all thought the Warriors ruined the NBA.
The 2018 NBA Playoffs begin Saturday, April 14th. If the final few weeks of the regular season have been any indication, we have a lot to look forward to. The star power, the stakes, and most importantly the parity will carry us through to June–even if we have to stomach a fourth consecutive Cavaliers/Warriors matchup.
Here are the most important storylines to pay attention to as we head into the trenches.
Can We Trust the Raptors?
The Toronto Raptors have it all: the #1 seed, brotherhood, Drake, and an entire country behind them. They also boast consistency. When Kyle Lowry re-signed with Toronto in the 2017 offseason, many wondered if the Raptors were signing up to long-term mediocrity and continued postseason embarrassment by LeBron James. But if this season of NBA basketball has proved anything to us, it’s that we need to monitor, if not wholly destroy, our expectations.
Ball movement, switching out 2s for 3s, and incredible bench play have boosted the Raptors up, up, and away from the Celtics and Cavaliers, last year’s Eastern Conference contenders. Having a top-5 defensive rating and a top-3 offensive rating doesn’t hurt either. Perhaps most importantly, DeMar DeRozan has changed, completely refreshing his game. Not only is he shooting more 3s on an improved percentage, but his assists are up, and field goal attempts are down. He’s sacrificed for the sake of the franchise, and it’s paid off so far.
There remains the concern over the Raptors’ playoff sustainability. Lowry has relinquished parts of his game, just like DeRozan: he’s playing five fewer minutes and averaging six fewer points than 2016-17, handling the ball less and allowing the offense to flow from places beyond the pick-and-roll. But as one-half of an All-Star core, Lowry remains as vital to the Raptors’ success as DeRozan. So having a reputation for disappearing in the playoffs is not conducive to assuring the masses that you can make a championship run.
In 2016, Lowry shot a dismal 31.6% from the field in Toronto’s 7-game first-round series. In the Eastern Conference Finals a month later, Lowry shot 28.6% in each of the first two games, both losses against the Cavaliers. In 2017, DeRozan shot 7-21 and 0-8 in crucial first-round games against the Bucks. Lowry would succumb to a sprained ankle in the second round, and the Raptors were swept out of contention by the Cavaliers. Lowry and DeRozan have an unfortunate knack for underperforming in the games that they really just need to get out of the way. If they’re serious about getting past LeBron and making a title run, the Raptors need to be a dominant 1-seed, and focus on embarrassing teams out of contention rather than humiliating themselves. The Raptors’ first-round performance should give us a glimpse of what to expect as we head into May.
Wizards, Bucks, and Celtics: How Much Disappointment Should We Expect?
The Bucks are frustrating. The Wizards are confusing. The Celtics are finally human. Three teams once hyped to make serious individual pushes this year have fallen short, and while all are absolutely worth watching in these playoffs, there’s little sense getting attached. It would be a waste of energy, because neither the Bucks, nor the Wizards, nor the Celtics look prepared to emerge from the second round if not the first.
In December 2017, Bucks coach Jason Kidd was criticized for pointing out that, perhaps, expectations for his young team were just too high. Soon enough, Kidd was fired. Not much has developed in the time since to prove Kidd’s points wrong, though. While Giannis Antetokounmpo is a generational talent and has been tasked by the NBA community with carrying the league’s torch when the time comes, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the present as long as his praise hinges on the future. Antetokounmpo began 2017-18 on a tear, gaining early MVP attention for his unstoppable all-around play. Giannis has had to balance the weight of Milwaukee on his shoulders while the players around him file in and out. Eric Bledsoe came over in November, Jabari Parker returned in February after a full year of inactivity, and reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon came back from a 30-game absence on April 9. The Bucks are offensively dysfunctional, and their defensive strategies are in flux. Khris Middleton, Parker, and Antetokounmpo have the potential to morph into one of the NBA’s scariest trios–but first, they need consistency.
Few NBA teams are as befuddling as the Wizards. When John Wall was sidelined for knee surgery in February, co-star Bradley Beal infamously said that playing without Wall means “everybody eats.” Considering Wall was averaging better than nine assists to that point, Beal’s statement suggested tension between teammates–sure enough, there was something there. In any case, restructuring the offense worked, and the Wizards went on a 5-game win streak without their 5-time All-Star. Ball movement went up, net rating improved, and they beat the Thunder, Raptors, Pacers, Cavaliers, 76ers, and Bucks in February. Naturally, hot takes began to fly: are the Wizards really better without John Wall? Preposterous.
The team’s success is a testament to the abilities of Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Tomas Satoransky, and Kelly Oubre to step up when called upon. The glory didn’t last anyway: the Wizards went 6-8 in March. Wall returned on March 31 and had 14 assists in a win over the Charlotte Hornets. The Wizards then immediately lost four straight–two of them without Wall but against lottery teams. Then, in the Wizards’ penultimate game of the season, they beat the Boston Celtics behind Wall’s 29 points and 12 assists. On the last day of the season, the Wizards are the 8th seed. And we have no idea which version of them we’ll get in the first round.
The Celtics are entering the postseason without either of their two landmark 2017 free agency signings. Gordon Hayward, while close to full health and notoriously shady about whether or not he can make a return this season after his horrible injury in the season opener, is most likely not coming back. Kyrie Irving officially counted himself out on April 5, citing a bacterial infection in his knee. Marcus Smart, out with a broken hand, could return by the end of April–if the Celtics make it that far. Because for now, Al Horford is leading a bunch of kids into a first-round series against either the Bucks, the Wizards, or the Heat–all of which are scary teams hellbent on playoff success.
Young stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have performed consistently well this year, and Terry Rozier has proven himself a worthy point guard in the absence of Irving. But the Celtics are finally human and have lost four of their last five games. They won’t go down without a fight, but an early exit doesn’t mean much when considering how much they can accomplish next year.
Who’s Coming for LeBron’s Throne?
LeBron James isn’t about to settle. He is ready for an eighth straight Finals appearance, even if his teammates aren’t. He will drag all fourteen of them there if he needs to. Anyway, if LeBron isn’t spending $1.5 million per year on a champion’s body, then what’s he really paying for?
It’s honestly a shame that LeBron won’t get the same MVP consideration this year that James Harden has already secured. At age 33, LeBron is leading the league in minutes played, is maintaining his best scoring average in eight years, is shooting better than 60% from the field, and is averaging 8.7 rebounds and 9.2 assists–all during a bizarre, frustrating season that started with Kyrie Irving requesting a way out. Bookend that with a season ending with two roster revamps, a temporary absence by his head coach, injuries to his most cherished running mates, tensions with team ownership and management, and soup-based infighting. Oh, and LeBron is about to play his 82nd game of the season for the first time in his career. It’s not all going to be in vain.
Philadelphia might have something to say about that. The 76ers, who sit one game ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 3-seed, look ready for a real challenge. Recalling memories of the early Oklahoma City Thunder tandem of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Harden, the Sixers core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Markelle Fultz is about to make a splash in the first playoff appearance following The Process. Durant himself said recently that the young Sixers are about to have “a real learning experience” in their playoff journey, but doesn’t envision them making a Finals run like OKC did against the Miami Heat in 2012.
As they come down from a 15-game (possibly 16-game, depending on Wednesday’s result) win streak, the Sixers have to focus on how to win without Joel Embiid in the first round, then figure out how to reintegrate him without losing a step. Ben Simmons makes it easy: he’s averaging a triple-double through the win streak and is well on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. But is the “Fresh Prince” minted to dethrone the King?
On April 6, the 76ers led the Cavaliers by 23 at halftime. The lead itself was a sign of what was to come. Overcoming a deficit that hit 30 points in the second quarter, LeBron willed the Cavaliers to a 43-point third quarter, including 19 of his own. They dwindled the lead down to six. But basketball is a game of runs, and sure enough, the 76ers survived the avalanche. Up eight with less than two minutes to go, the Cavs made one last effort. They cut the lead again, and with 1.9 seconds remaining, LeBron was fouled on a three. While he missed what would have been game-tying free throws, LeBron showed that he’s not rolling over and dying for anyone. The game itself gave us a snapshot of the future: the 76ers are here. They’re giving LeBron, the Eastern Conference, and anyone else who stands in their way a run for their money. If the Cavs meet the 76ers in the playoffs, we’re in for a treat.