– Evan Sally
What an incredible NBA season this was. Golden State sets the record for most wins in a season. Steph Curry shatters his own record for 3s in a season and set a new, probably unreachable standard for shooting in the NBA. We saw the end of Kobe, who despite suffering through the most miserable Lakers season in history, ended his career in the most Kobe-way possible, a 60 point, 50 shot stunner. Russell Westbrook had an incredible 18 triple doubles and Kevin Durant scored 20+ points in a ridiculous 64 games in a row. These feats along with so many other amazing performances came together to shape a uniquely special 2015-16 season. After many months and 1230 games, we’ve finally reached the playoffs, how could you not be excited? While some of the 1st round matchups are bound to be mismatches, it’s always interesting to see which players and teams can rise to another level in the postseason. The Eastern Conference Playoffs will be undoubtedly dominated by the spectre of LeBron James; the living legend has won the conference 5 years in a row, and his Cavaliers are poised to do it again. However, unlike years past, the Eastern playoffs will feature 8 teams all with winning records and I’d argue 8 teams that have hope for the future if not the present. For each series I’ll take a look at which narrative interests me the most.
Cleveland Cavaliers (1) vs Detroit Pistons (8)
Playoff LeBron: Is the jumper back?
Reddit’s NBA community is one of the best places for NBA discussion on the Internet, a place I frequent regularly. A few days ago a post was getting a lot attention that I found both interesting and surprising: LeBron James has been better than Steph Curry over the last quarter of the season. You can read the full details in the link above, but the author’s main thrust was that LeBron’s faltering jump shot has improved enough recently to make him a hyper efficient offensive player again, in the vein of the Miami Heat version of LeBron. Considering he’s never lost his efficiency at the rim (shooting an absurd 65% on shots within 10 feet of the rim on 10 shots per game, the highest percentage in the league for players who qualify), the return of LeBron’s jumpshot should terrify his opponents. This series against the Pistons will be the first test of that jumper in a more intense environment, and while the Cavs should glide through the first round, the Pistons can throw a quality defender like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a rim protector like Andre Drummond at him to frustrate him. Detroit is also led by one of the best coaches in the league in Stan Van Gundy. This should be a worthy tune up for LeBron and his Cavaliers as they prepare for the wars to come.
Cavaliers in 4.
Toronto Raptors (2) vs Indiana Pacers (7)
Can Toronto get past the first round?
Salute to the Toronto Raptors. The franchise that had famously never won more than 50 games in a season zoomed past that to a record breaking 56 wins this season. There were some questions if after suffering back to back playoff disasters the Raptors front office should shake things up, and so far they’ve been rewarded for their loyalty. All Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been excellent and coach Dwane Casey has been able to take a team that features defensive sieves like Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas to the 11th best defensive rating in the league this year. But for a franchise that hasn’t made the 2nd round since Vince Carter was rocking the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors can’t enjoy the fruits of their labor until they finally win a series. Like the past two years when the Raps lost to the Nets and Wizards in the postseason, they are facing an opponent that they are more talented than but are featuring a playoff veteran who’s knows how to win when it gets tough in April. Paul George is back to an All Star level after coming back from his gruesome leg injury to lead a not very talented Indiana team back to the playoffs. Let’s get this straight to start; this Raptors team is much better than the team of the previous playoff failures and this Indiana team is much worse than the Nets and Wizards were. But George will pose a threat and if he puts up 45 points in Game 1 to shock the Raptors, Toronto’s great advantage, their raucous home crowd, may turn on them. Perhaps more than any series, it’s the most important for the Raptors to win game 1 and gain control of this series.
Raptors in 5.
Miami Heat (3) vs Charlotte Bobcats (6)
Is the Heat rising?
After a disappointing one year hiatus from the playoffs, the Miami Heat have recovered from the loss of LeBron quite nicely. And unlike the formation of the Big 3 back in 2010 that was built on free agency, this Heat team has drawn from several different sources to replenish it’s talent, and now even without their best player Chris Bosh (who’s out with blood clots still. Get well soon CB.), the Heat have reinvented a methodical defensive team into a team that’s a high scoring, efficient offensive team without sacrificing too much defense. It’s as clear as the Heat’s splits before and after the All Star break, which is also about when Bosh left the lineup:
Before – Offense 96.0 ppg Defense 96.3 ppg allowed
After – Offense 107.4 ppg Defense 102.2 ppg allowed
It’s a startling difference. It’s also a testament that basketball isn’t as simple as the collection of talent on the court, but how they play together. Chris Bosh is without question the most talented player on the Heat, but running the offense through him as much as they were slowed the game down, and unlike the veteran laden Big 3 era Heat this is a team based on youth and guys that like to get out and run. The philosophical change that Bosh’s absence forced Coach Spo to make has worked for the best and made them a big time threat to the Cavaliers. Now that this team has figured out to play together you can see all the pieces of a contender. The star who still get his own shot in tough situations (Wade), the secondary playmaker (Goran Dragic), the rim protector and rebounding machine (Hassan Whiteside), floor spacing and experience (Joe Johnson), athletic, young wings that can defend (Justise Winslow) or score (Josh Richardson). It’s all there, and if they’re able to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat will be a hassle LeBron will not want to deal with. But they have to get there first, and their opponents the Hornets are no slouch. They finished with the same record as Miami and only lost the home court advantage in the first round through tiebreakers. Kemba Walker has become a dangerous perimeter player and if the game is close late, someone you don’t want anything to do with if you’re playing the Hornets. Nicolas Batum has rediscovered his promise from his early days in Portland and become a versatile defender and stat stuffer. Their coach Steve Clifford is excellent. I expect this to be one of the best series of the first round regardless of conference, but if the Heat get through it, they may be poised for a deep run.
Heat in 6.
Atlanta Hawks (4) vs Boston Celtics (5)
Can you win a playoff series if your best player is 5’9”?
The Boston Celtics, even after making the playoffs last season, have continued their stunning improvement, winning 48 games. The team that is allegedly rebuilding is well ahead of schedule for a couple of reasons. While they may not have hit the lottery yet from a player aspect, they certainly did from the coaching side. We didn’t know it at the time, but luring Brad Stevens from Butler may be a franchise defining moment for the future of the NBA’s most historic franchise. In a league littered with terrible coaches, Brad Stevens is already among the elite. While his team is full of solid useful players, it’s Stevens that makes them click. Guys like Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas, who would be very good role players elsewhere, are the two of the most important guys on a 48 win team. That’s wild. Stevens is able to use all of his interchangeable parts to almost always put the best lineup for the situation out on the floor. The Celtics aren’t the most talented roster in the league by a long shot. But their depth of talent might be some of the best in the league. This is a team that will simply wear you out, and won’t make any mistakes. They don’t beat themselves, you have to beat them.
However the game changes a bit in the postseason. Having a great depth of talent isn’t as important, as you’re playing the same team at least 4 times in a row and you always have the same rest as they do. Also players that have weaknesses get found out, as the other team’s coaches have a lot more time to scout you. Because of this, the adage of “the team with the best player will win the series” will almost always prove to be true. When the game gets tight, you need that player that can rise above the randomness of the sport and be consistently excellent. I’m not sure if Boston has that guy, but if anyone will rise to the challenge it will be Isaiah Thomas to try. Thomas has had a great year and had his first All Star appearance to prove it. Late in games Thomas a knack of being able to get his shot off despite his small stature. But this Hawks team is pretty good and well coached as well, and with 4 games at least to figure out how to stop Thomas, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer will have a great opportunity to do just that. The Celtics have been a great story, but Hawks players like Paul Millsap and Al Horford, star players that always make their presence felt, may be too much for the Celtics to handle.
Hawks in 6.
– Evan Sally (@Evan_Sally)