Most years I write these threads with the Wolves season safely in the rear view mirror. It feels pretty good to know that tomorrow, we’ll have a dedicated, WOLVES PLAYOFF GAME THREAD.
But today, four series get underway, so lets take a look and chat about them, shall we?
A match up of two stumbling teams. The Warriors didn’t have much to play for down the stretch, and were (and remain) without Stephen Curry, who is out with an injury. It showed, as they went 7-10 over their final seventeen games. Still, they have to remain a favorite to at least reach the Western Conference Finals, and if Curry returns healthy at some point this post-season, a reasonable pick to repeat as NBA champions.
They have to pick it up without Curry first, however.
The Spurs sometimes look like they are winning purely on muscle memory, as without Kawhi Leonard, they are severely deficient in star level talent. LaMarcus Aldridge has been terrific for them, but beyond him there has been a lot of up and down play. They just don’t generate a lot of great shots with the group they currently have. They are 26th in Efg% in the league, and have thus turned to the offensive glass to generate points. You attack the offensive boards at your own peril against a Warriors team that was top five in pace and looks for transition three-point opportunities that can quickly run an opponent out of the building.
Gregg Popovich is one of the best ever, but it’s hard to see the Spurs overcoming the talent gap, even in the absence of Curry.
Warriors in six
It’s hard to know what to make of the Wizards at this point. They wound up a disappointing eighth in the East at 43-39, but also had John Wall available for only 41 games. Wall is back now, and appears ready to go, which seems like, and is, a huge benefit for the Wizards. On the other hand, Wall wasn’t quite the difference maker you would think: The Wizards were 23-18 (a 46 win pace) with him, compared to 20-21 without him. Better, but not vastly better.
The Wizards have been startlingly average. They are in the middle of the pack on both sides of the ball, and don’t do anything spectacularly well or extremely poorly. The fail to take proper advantage of their good three point shooting, which they will have to do to have any chance against the Raptors.
Toronto, meanwhile, secured the top seed in the East, but a couple of late losses to the Cavs and Celtics brought back memories of playoff struggles past. Still, this is a very deep and talented team that was top five in both offensive and defensive rating. They are still led by their back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but developed a much more effective style involving significantly more ball movement than we’ve seen in past years. It paid off with the 5th best Efg% in the league.
It’s their depth that has been most impressive this season. Everywhere you look, there are good players up and down the roster. In the starting lineup, Jonas Valanciunas has emerged as a force at center. Off the bench, they come in waves: Miles, Wright, Poeltl, VanVleet, Siakam...it’s a masterclass in roster building and player development.
I really enjoy this team more than I have in past years, and am hoping they can shake off whatever playoff demons are still remaining and have a successful run. But the Wizards are not the easiest team to start with if John Wall can get his mojo back. They are likely better than what you might expect from the Eastern eighth seed.
Still...Raptors in five.
Heat at Sixers
7:00 pm CDT
There was a lot of juggling around at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff spots in an attempt to avoid the red-hot Sixers, but in the end the Heat drew that straw, and will open in Philadelphia. The Heat had one of the feel-good stories of the season, with the return of Dwyane Wade, who has been coming off the bench for them, and they are well-coached and good defensively, but appear to lack to firepower to seriously compete in the playoffs. As much as I admire Goran Dragic, when he is your leading scorer, you probably don’t have a great offense.
The Heat are deep in competence, but are bereft of star-level players, which will be their demise this post-season.
Meanwhile, the Sixers merely won their final 17 games of the season. Yes, the schedule was shockingly soft, with only three playoff teams among those opponents, but still. 17 in a row, despite missing Joel Embiid for the final eight of those. Embiid will not play today, and his availability for the rest of the series is not clear, and that makes a big difference for the Sixers. On the season as a whole, they were 41-22 with Embiid playing, and 9-10 without him.
But they clearly improved throughout, and dominated the end of the year even with Embiid on the sidelines, and look very dangerous heading into the post-season. Ben Simmons, who will be the Rookie of the Year, has an argument to be on an All-NBA team at 21 years old. He’s emerged as a dominant all-around force despite his inability to shoot from the perimeter. It’s been one of the most impressive rookie seasons we’ve seen recently.
The Sixers have been most impressive defensively, using their length all over the court to stifle opposing offenses. They allow the lowest eFG% to opponents in the league thanks to their ability to contest just about everywhere. The Wolves saw it firsthand twice, when their bread and butter in the paint was just shut down by the Sixers.
Offensively, they surround their young stars with shooters like J.J. Redick, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington, among others, and go pretty deep on their bench, with only Simmons averaging more than 32 minutes per game.
Everything has come together quickly for the Sixers, and they might yet have to fight through some disappointment before they emerge as a true championship contender, but after several difficult years, the fans there are loving this team, for good reason.
Sixers in six
Pelicans at Blazers
I probably have a biased view of this series between teams that finished one game apart in the Western Conference, because the Wolves handled the Pelicans (4-0) all season, while losing their final two matchups with the Blazers. These teams are probably a lot closer in quality than I think.
Anthony Davis absolutely had an MVP caliber year, though he won’t win it, and just dominated down the stretch after the injury to Boogie Cousins. The Pels won 20 of their final 28 games, including five in a row to end the season and secure a playoff berth and the sixth seed. They got quality seasons from their perimeter guys around Davis—Jrue Holiday was terrific, E’Twaun Moore had a great year shooting the three, and Rajon Rondo re-established himself at point guard. Surprisingly, they finished with the fastest pace in the league.
They lack depth, however, and are not a great defensive team. Beyond Davis, they have no interior presence and struggle to rebound at both ends.
The Blazers got hot out of the All-Star break, solidified the third spot, and hung on despite going 5-7 over their final 12. Beating the Jazz on the last night of the regular season locked up their seeding.
They are of course led by Damian Lillard and his back court mate C.J. McCollum, who combine for over 48 points a night, but surprisingly they have been driven by a top-10 defense compared to their league average offense this season. It seems surprising because one thinks about that talented but undersized back court and assumes it gives back on defense what it creates on offense, but it doesn’t.
The giant Jusuf Nurkic in the middle helps clog things up, and lengthy wing Al-Farouq Aminu also helps on that side of the ball, but their scheme is also key, as they work hard to limit opponent’s three point attempts. Combine that with a league best field goal percentage against at the rim, and you have a successful unit.
Blazers in six.
Four games today, let’s chat about them here.
Who ya got?