At the end of the regular season, the sixteen names in the NBA playoffs were no real surprise. The irregular seeding, however, has made for interesting matchups.
Teams such as the Trailblazers and the Raptors had gone beyond expectations, while the Cavaliers and the Kawhi-less Spurs had fallen into lower seeds than desired. At the time of writing, the first game or two of each first round matchup has been played – what can we take from them?
The Toronto Raptors, first in the East after a record breaking season, find themselves up against the Washington Wizards – a fellow team with an all star back court, albeit one in a form dip. The opening
ame at the Air Canada Centre – in which Washington centre Marcin Gortat lamented the Toronto fans’ noisy arena for preventing on court communication – initially saw a tight, competitive matchup in which John Wall was the dominant playmaker. However, Kyle Lowry, Demar Derozan, Serge Ibaka and of course, the famous Toronto ‘bench mob’ stepped it up in the second half, taking the opening round 114-106.
This was a vital mental victory for the Raptors, who, before Saturday night, had not won an opening game in the playoffs in franchise history. Washington’s collapse in the second half, meanwhile, was much down to John Wall’s transition from a playmaker to a ball-hogger. Going 6 for 21 and missing layup after layup in the second half, it reflects the need for Washington’s other stars – Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris, who was excellent at the 4 – to excel in the upcoming games. Prior to the series, many predicted Toronto would take the series in 4 or 5 games; after game 1, I see no reason to doubt this.
The (broken) Boston Celtics lined up against the unpredictable Milwaukee Bucks – who, as you may remember, put in a series of spirited performances against Toronto last year.
The opener saw four Celtics impress in particular – veterans Marcus Morris and Al Horford were backed up by solid performances from Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown. Brad Stevens is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the NBA, and despite the absence of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, led his team to second in the East.
The Bucks, meanwhile, outside the obvious threat of the Greek Freak, possess the potent Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. The latter failed to perform on Sunday evening, condemning his team to the loss. The fixture itself, however, was an enthralling one, sent into overtime thanks to two deep shots from Terry Rozier and Khris Middleton, before Stevens guided his team to victory. The series is still very much up for balance, and if the Bucks can steal game 2, they are surely the favourites.
The Philadelphia 76ers, fresh off a sixteen game win streak which saw them take third seed, are dark horses to go to the conference finals, if not further. Two matchups against Miami – who underwhelmingly retained a playoff spot – have taken place, with the expectation of the 76ers taking it in 5, or even sweeping the series.
The Heat were destroyed by 27 in the opener thanks to standout performances from JJ Reddick and Marco Bellinelli, as Philadelphia continued to live by the three. Unfortunately for the 76ers, they died by it the next game, shooting just 19% from behind the arc. This was compounded with a Dwyane Wade intent on rolling back the years, meaning the series is levelled up. Miami, who impressed defensively during extended stretches in the regular season, have reason to be confident of beating an Embiid-less, inexperienced side over the series.
The Cleveland Cavaliers shouldn’t be this low in the article, and neither should the Indiana Pacers – but for very different reasons. A substandard regular season from the Ohioan team meant they were matched up against a Pacers team who had just lost Paul George. Instead of rebuilding, incoming Victor Oladipo, a first time all star, led Indiana to the fifth seed against all odds.
Cleveland were further rocked on Sunday night when they were limited to just EIGHTY points by a resolute opposition. Even though he ended up posting a triple double, Lebron James’ failure to take a shot in the first quarter was a reflection of the Cavaliers’ offence throughout.
Having said that, NBA fans have known for over a decade that ‘playoff Lebron’ is something special – for an ailing Ty Lue, it’s time for the beast to be released, and for teammates like Kevin Love to support him. The Pacers, meanwhile, can continue to rely on Victor Oladipo to feast offensively, but locking down Lebron and co. on the other end will be the key in this matchup. Last year’s sweep of Indiana didn’t reflect the tight scorelines; this season, I suspect the series to go all the way to the bitter end – and in game 7, I wouldn’t bet against the team with James.