With Lebron James out of the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, the NBA is in disarray. With Lebron comfortably on top of the Eastern Conference throne as its undisputed King whilst most of the league’s current stars were still in high school, you could forgive the other 14 teams for becoming disheartened. With Lebron out of the picture, a tidal wave of opportunity has revealed itself, and a wave of hungry challengers have stepped up to the plate, determined to rule the East for years to come. The result: action that has seen a lot more action through the first few games than the first few episodes of Game of Thrones’ final season. The West has had no shortage of spectacular games in its own right. However, the Western superteams have had their fair share of hiccups in Round 1. Given the dominating performances out East so far, the Western teams will need to address their problems quickly to have any hope competing with the new and improved Eastern Conference powerhouses. Whilst it is undeniable that Lebron is one of the league’s most exciting players individually, his absence this year has been the catalyst for one of the most exciting NBA Playoffs in years.
Without further ado, let’s get in to the grind of Round 1.
Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs Detroit Pistons (8). – Final score Bucks 4-0 Pistons.
This series largely went more or less according to expectations. With Bucks’ forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo continuing his dominant run, Milwaukee has become a team to fear in the East. Few players in the NBA can match the ferocity with which Giannis plays. Even at full strength, the Detroit Pistons never posed a significant threat to the top seed in the conference. The loss of a resurgent Blake Griffin to injury signalled a death sentence for Detroit, who must now look to capitalise on the next 3 years of Griffin’s contract whilst he is still in his prime. This may be a tough pill to swallow for Andre Drummond, whose individual production has been as expected throughout the season. If the Pistons want to compete more seriously next year, it looks like a shake-up is needed. Head Coach, Mike Budenhozer wisely restricted Giannis’ playing time in this series, and with Malcolm Brogdon likely returning to action soon, the Bucks are mounting a serious charge for the title this year.
Toronto Raptors (2) vs Orlando Magic (7). – Final score Raptors 4-1 Magic.
Whilst Toronto’s failure to sweep the severely outgunned Magic in just 4 games may be deemed a failure to some, the Raptors are looking like a formidable threat in the East. Unlike the Bucks, the Raptors have been a serious contender in the East for several seasons, but finally by acquiring Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs, the Raptors seem to have put it all together. Although Orlando’s surprise victory in Game 1 may have raised a few eyebrows, the Raptors have bounced back in extremely convincing fashion. Whilst Point Guard, Kyle Lowry may have pulled a disappearing act in the Game 1, he certainly had a few aces up his sleeve in Game 2 as he rallied, alongside Leonard, to even the odds and ultimately close out the series in relatively timely fashion. Pascal Siakim is gaining invaluable playoff experience which guarantee to make the Raptors a dangerous team next year even if Kahwi Leonard opts for a change of scenery.
Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs Brooklyn Nets (6). – Final score 76ers 4-1 Nets.
Brooklyn drew first blood in a frenetic series with no shortage of bad blood. With Joel Embiid clearly not operating at 100%, the Nets wasted no time in stealing the homecourt advantage from Philadelphia. An abysmal performance by Aussie-born Ben Simmons, alongside questions over Embiid’s health had some predicting an upset in the East. Unfortunately, some choice words from Nets veteran, Jared Dudley, of all people, awoke something vicious inside of Simmons, who went on to systematically destroy Brooklyn in the next 4 matchups. Simmons ought to seriously consider sending a fruit basket to the Dudley residence, as his words seemed to have raised Simmons from the slumber to he occasionally slips over the course of a series. Whilst Simmons may have escaped unscathed this time, he and the rest of the 76ers will need to be on high alert if they want to topple Toronto in the next round.
Boston Celtics (4) vs Indiana Pacers (5). – Final score Celtics 4-0 Pacers.
Kyrie Irving was built for playoff success. Spending the formative years of your career with Lebron James will do that to you. Whilst he did not catch fire every night, Kyrie showed a maturity and consistency that is absolutely crucial in finding playoff success. He left Cleveland and the immeasurable shadow cast by Lebron James to prove he could lead a team to greatness alone. Unfortunately, injuries robbed him of the chance last year, therefore Irving is determined to finally demonstrate that he is the Alpha Dog. Encouraging is that the Celtics managed to go deep into the playoffs last year without Gordon Hayward. Despite moments of magic this season, Hayward still looks a square peg in a round hole at times on offence. This will need to be addressed going into the next round as a matter of urgency. The Pacers were performed in typical Pacers post-season fashion. It is disappointing that they were not able to maximise their new-found Lebron-less playoffs. Irving’s composure will be key if the Celtics wish to overcome the powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks the next round. Boston’s perimeter and interior defence will need to be on complete lock-down to in order to shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo. With Marcus Smart still out of action, Boston are seriously compromised defensively against a player with the athleticism of Giannis. If (when) the Celtics are beaten on the wing, it will up to Al Horford to protect the rim. Easier said than done when facing the Bucks.
Golden State Warriors (1) vs Los Angeles Clippers (8). Final score Warriors 4-2 Clippers.
Few would have predicted that a Round 1 matchup involving the reigning champions and top seed in the Western Conference would be one of the last series to be determined. However, the resilience of the Clippers, anchored by the unrelenting offence of wily veteran, Lou Williams, made this series far closer than the Warriors would have liked. Golden State seemingly were sleepwalking in Game 2, which ultimately lead to the largest comeback in NBA Playoff history. Head Coach, Steve Kerr may be grateful to get any complacency circulating the Warriors locker room out of the way early. Klay Thompson was honest enough to admit what many suspected – that the team may have been looking past the Clippers, and already planning their rematch against the Houston Rockets in the next round. What is certain is that a meltdown of this proportion against a team as skilled as Houston, will guarantee that Steph Curry and the Warriors do not raise the trophy for the third consecutive time this summer. In the regular season, the Rockets toppled the Warriors in three out of four matchups, which will clearly give Steve Kerr lots to think about going into Game 1 in a few hours. The Warriors will be encouraged by the massive performances put in by Kevin Durant to close out the series, but the sight of both Klay Thompson and Steph Curry walking gingerly after last night’s game will be a massive cause for concern that the Rockets will look to exploit at all costs.
Denver Nuggets (2) vs San Antonio Spurs (7). Current score Nuggets 3-3 Spurs.
Despite defying all expectations this year, the Denver Nuggets have found themselves in a very precarious position in Round 1. Theoretically, grinding all season to earn a high seed should pay off massively when the Playoffs roll around, granting a generous matchup in the first round. Unfortunately for Denver, this logic goes out the window when the San Antonio Spurs are involved. The Spurs have made the Playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons, all under the guidance of legendary Head Coach, Gregg Popovich. Simply put, you do not want to face the Spurs in the Playoffs. The Spurs went into Denver in Game 1 and ruthlessly snatched the hard-fought homecourt advantage the Nuggets had slaved away all season to earn. After that, it was anyone’s game. Newly acquired Demar DeRozan seems to have meshed well with Spurs star, Lamarcus Aldridge; their combined 128 NBA Playoffs games perhaps leading to a mutual understanding and yielding some fantastic results. It is hard to believe that this is Nikola Jokić’s first time competing in the NBA Postseason. At only 24 years old, Jokić has shown some incredible maturity, and has almost singlehandedly kept the Nuggets in the series. His inexperience perhaps was most evident in the earlier games of the series, where his reluctance to demand the ball and take more shots hurt his team. Now it appears that he has come to the realisation that if his team wants to advance, he will need to do it himself. The Spurs will be throwing everything they have at Jokić in Game 7, which will likely open up space on the wings. However, Denver are not known as a deadly 3 point shooting team, so the Spurs can afford to collapse to protect the basket. What is for certain is that whichever team emerges victorious, both will have their work cut out against the surging Portland Trailblazers in the next round.
Portland Trailblazers (3) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (6). Final score Trailblazers 4-1 Thunder.
“Game.” With a ridiculously deep 3 point shot in the final second in Game 5 that would make Steph Curry weep, Damian Lillard sent the Oklahoma City Thunder packing. Despite finding form earlier in the season, the Thunder, exasperated by Paul George’s obvious shoulder injury, slumped towards the end of the season, and unfortunately wandered into the Playoffs unprepared for the threats ahead. Namely, Damian Lillard, who surely has proved to the world that he is one of the NBA’s elite. Though the Thunder’s star Point Guard, Russell Westbrook is known for chucking up questionnable shots at inopportune moments, credit must be given to Lillard’s tenacious defence. He refused to switch off of Westbrook in key possessions of each game. Lillard has earned a reputation as a great shooter and a crafty finisher, but if he can keep up this level of perimeter defence on world-class players like Westbrook, the Trailblazers will have a serious chance of going all the way to the finals. With the most dominant teams being in the Western Conference over the past several seasons, as well as Lebron James’ switch from Cleveland to the LA Lakers, a lot of attention has been drawn away from the Trailblazers. Despite not even qualifying for the Playoffs, Lebron and the future of LA basketball have dominated the headlines leaving Portland little more than an afterthought. Should either the San Antonio Spurs or the Denver Nuggets make the same mistake, they too will likely be waved bye-bye.
Houston Rockets (4) vs Utah Jazz (5). Final score Rockets 4-1 Jazz.
The demise of the Jazz in 5 games may be one of the more disappointing storylines to come out of the NBA this season. With the first 2 games being complete blowouts in favour of Houston, the Jazz started slowly and never really got going. Were they able to take advantage of the Rockets atrocious offensive performance in Game 3, they would have ended up winning 2 back-to-back and the momentum would clearly be in Utah’s favour. Unfortunately for the Jazz, the Rockets just about managed to find form sufficient enough to close out the series. Make no mistake, whilst the lukewarm performances down the stretch of the series may have been enough in Round 1, the Rockets will need a major boost in concentration if they wish to survive the next round against the Golden State Warriors. In last year’s Conference Finals against Golden State, Paul managed to outclass the Warriors almost single-handedly when Harden was nowhere to be seen. Were it not for the hamstring injury he endured at the end of the series (and which still seems to aggravate him a year later) the Rockets very well may have been defending champions this year. If they want to get to the Finals this year Paul will need to turn back the clock to will this team to victory.
[Featured Images Credits: Rick Osentoski @ USA Today Sports, via Reuters]