first round

NBA playoff roundup: Summaries and analysis after two games

The first round of the NBA playoffs is here.

With every series shifting to the lower seeded team’s home court, it is time to take a look at where each team stands matching up with their opponent, some potential focus changes and predictions on how the next games will shake out.

Here is a summary of every series now that the first two games are in the books.

Eastern Conference

Raptors vs. Wizards

The Toronto Raptors finally shook the first game monkey off of their backs.

Up until Saturday, the franchise had never won the first game of a playoff series. Now, they hold their first-ever 2-0 lead.

Game 1 ended in a 116-104 win for the Raptors, although the final score does not quite tell the whole story. Toronto started off well, and got out to an early lead. By the end of the third, though, they only lead by one point. The bench players sealed the win in the fourth quarter, which is unsurprising, as Toronto’s bench has been fantastic all season.

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Lowry guards Wall during Game 1. (Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Game 2 was all Raptors, as the Wizards could not keep up after Toronto put up a 44-point first quarter. DeRozan led all scorers with 37 points, as the game wrapped with a 130-119 final score.

Although players like Serge Ibaka and Mike Scott have been terrific, the real story here is the battle of the backcourts. DeRozan and Lowry are winning this battle handily. Lowry is averaging 12 points and 10.5 assists, and DeRozan is giving the Raptors 27 points and 5 assists.

Wall seems to have no more rust to shake off, however, as he is putting up 26 points per game, and distributing at a clip of 12.5 assists per game. While Beal, who has played all year and earned his first All-Star appearance, can only muster 14 points and 3.5 assists.

The series is now shifting to Washington, but that is not necessarily a gigantic advantage. The Raptors away record is two games better than the Wizards’ home record. Expect the home crowd to give the Wiz a boost, but if the Raptors continue their trend of incredibly timely scoring, this series could be over in four or five games.

Celtics vs. Bucks

Although the Celtics are up 2-0 in the series, it has not been as lopsided as the record indicates.

In Game 1, Boston needed overtime to beat the seventh-seeded Bucks, after Khris Middleton knocked down a Hail Mary 3-pointer with 0.5 on the clock. It was a game of runs, as Boston had a 15-0 run to end the first quarter, with Milwaukee answering with a 21-5 run in the second. It was only fitting that a game that back and forth got an extra period.

As the old adage goes, though, better teams win in overtime. The Celtics outscored the Bucks 14-8 in bonus time, and took the win.

Game 2 ended with a 120-106 Celtics victory, but the Bucks were not hopelessly behind for the entire game. Rather, they hung around, but just could not muster the defense necessary to hold off Boston’s balanced attack.

As expected, Antetokounmpo has been the driving force behind Milwaukee, averaging 32.5 points and 11 rebounds in the two games. Middleton, the Game 1 hero, has been a scoring machine, giving the Bucks 31 points in the first game and 25 in the second. Outside of the Greek Freak’s 13 rebound performance in Game 1, though, no other Buck has had a double-digit rebound game. This likely has contributed to their 0-2 hole.

Without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics have looked just fine. In Game 1, four Celtics scored 20 or more, with Jayson Tatum only being one point shy of making it five. Six of Boston’s players had double-digit scoring games in Game 2. Not bad for an injury-laden team whose offense was written off after the All-Star break.

If the Bucks can break out of some bad habits and lackluster defense, they could even this series at home. But look for the Celtics to take the series with their more complete team and better coaching. Biding time until Marcus Smart can return in May, Boston has a lot to play for.

76ers vs. Heat

This series has been great, and will likely stay that way.

The “watchability” factor is due in part to the fact that Game 1 was an absolute blowout. The 76ers carried their cocky attitude and potent offensive attack into the playoffs to the tune of a 130-103 win. Even without Embiid locking down the paint, this young Sixers team found ways to score and keep Miami from doing much offensively.

Veterans and newbies stepped up for Philadelphia in the 27-point drubbing of Miami. Redick and Belinelli contributed 28 and 25 points, respectively, while Saric gave a 20-point performance. Ben Simmons, the possible Rookie of the Year, was one rebound shy of a triple-double, and Ilyasova turned in a double-double. There is not much an opposing team can do about that.

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Wade against Simmons in Game 2. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The story of Game 2 was vintage Dwyane Wade rearing his head. Wade played outside of his mind, scoring 28 points. He was playing off of the ball, however, only tallying three assists. Five other Miami players scored in double figures, including Dragic’s 20-point performance.

Saric and Simmons both had good second games, but while they received support scoring-wise, the defense was not enough to stop the Heat.

As the series moves to Miami, it will be the talk of the NBA if Wade can keep playing at this level. With Embiid still out, the series is up for grabs, as the mixed veteran and young talent of Miami tries to take advantage of the 76ers’ mostly inexperienced roster.

Hopefully, we are looking at a classic seven-game first round series.

Cavaliers vs. Pacers

The Pacers put an end to LeBron’s historic 21-game first round winning streak in Game 1 of this series. Considering all of Cleveland’s struggles this season, it is not really that surprising this is the year it came to an end.

In Game 1, the Pacers were on a mission to earn some respect. In the first quarter, they outscored the Cavs 33-14, and did not look back. Victor Oladipo, as he has been all year, was the focal point of Indiana’s offense. He scored 32 easily, while Stephenson, Turner and Bogdanovic all had double-digit scoring games.

LeBron had a triple-double, putting the Cavs on his back. It was not nearly enough, however, as they lost by 18 points on their home court. Only two other Cavaliers scored more than nine points, which cued the calls of “LeBron needs more help.”

Game 2 was a full-fledged LeBron takeover, though, as he was determined to not go down 0-2. James had 46 points and 12 rebounds, and outscored the entire Pacers team in the first quarter. As the Pacers cut an 18-point lead down to just four, more LeBron heroics sealed the win, as the Cavs came away with the three-point victory.

Any series featuring this Cavaliers team will be put under a microscope. The issues this team has had are not only well-documented but numerous. The second half of their season was less tumultuous, but it is generally agreed upon that 2018 could possibly put an end to LeBron’s streak of seven straight NBA Finals appearances.

Are the Pacers good enough to knock this battle-tested Cleveland team out in the first round, though? Probably not. Especially if LeBron continues his ageless 2018 campaign. Indiana does have a six-game advantage at home, versus Cleveland’s road record. But the Pacers continue to lean heavily on Oladipo.

Averaging 26 points in these first two games, probable Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo, has no choice but to keep playing this well if the Pacers want to keep winning. Everyone knows what the Cavaliers can do when they put it all together, so, even though NBA pundits will say otherwise, the pressure is on Indiana to continue to impress.

 

Western Conference

Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans

The Pelicans have taken a surprising 2-0 lead in this third versus sixth seed first round series. It is magnified by the fact that both of these games have taken place in Portland, which features a fantastic home court advantage.

The first game was close, but the margin of victory would have been two possessions, if McCollum did not hit a prayer of a three-pointer at the buzzer. As with many NBA games, the final two minutes were the most exciting of the game. The Trail Blazers were within one point with one minute left, after a McCollum three.

The last minute was punctuated by poor decisions and turnovers by Portland. Not to be overshadowed, though, was some excellent defense by Jrue Holliday, which included a massive block with nine seconds left.

Another bad second half cost Portland Game 2 as well. The Pelicans dominated the turnover game and took advantage of every opportunity handed to them. Playoff Rondo is back in full force, falling one assist shy of a triple-double in Game 2, and had a massive 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter. He even stole the spotlight from Anthony Davis, which is no easy task.

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Jrue Holliday celebrates after a late foul was called against Portland. (Photo by Sean Meagher/Oregon Live)

It is hard to pick the brightest spot on the Pelicans roster over the first two games. Mirotic has proven to be an important addition, averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. Jrue Holliday, as mentioned earlier, is playing well on both ends of the floor. Rondo contributed with his passing in Game 1, with 17 assists, and in all areas in Game 2. And of course, Davis has gotten his, with a 35-point, 14 rebound first game, and a 22-point, 13 rebound second game.

On the flip side, it is easy to pick out the problems for the Blazers. Lillard and McCollum have outright failed to carry the team the way that they did during the regular season.

Lillard is averaging 17.5 points, and McCollum has just a 15 point average. This is a far cry from Lillard’s 26.9 point and McCollum’s 21.4 point regular season average. These two simply need to play better, because when they do, the rest of the team feeds off of them. This is not an easy task, however, if Holliday and Rondo are going to continue to guard them as well as they are.

Yet another problem for the Blazers, is that the series now shifts to New Orleans. Not having the home court fans behind them has been a problem for Portland. The team is only one game above .500 on the road. The Pelicans only hold a three-game advantage at home, so expect the series to stay hotly contested.

Thunder vs. Jazz

Back-and-forth games have been the calling card of this series. Both games have been closer than their final scores indicate, due to late-game fouls and free throws. Lead changes are at a premium, and it appears that these two teams are evenly matched.

Game 1 featured two of the “OK3” have terrific nights. Paul George and Russell Westbrook combined for 65 points and 20 assists by themselves. Carmelo Anthony added 15 points and 7 rebounds, which helped carry the Thunder to a win.

Donovan Mitchell continued his dismantling of NBA defenses, with a 27-point night. He was also good for a double-double as he notched 10 rebounds. Six other Jazz players were in double figures in the scoring column, but the OK3’s 80 points were too much for the rookie-led Utah team. Both teams scored over 100, setting the stage for, possibly, the most exciting first-round series, depending on preference.

Continuing that trend, Mitchell did it again on Wednesday, earning 28 points. Derrick Favors turned in a double-double, and Ricky Rubio flirted with a triple-double. There were 13 lead changes in the game, but the last one in the fourth quarter belonged to the Jazz.

Westbrook, George and Anthony combined for 54 in Game 2. But Utah’s scoring was much more timely. The Thunder played well on the offensive end, as they usually do, but the defense that the Jazz are known for kept them ahead when it counted.

If the Thunder’s big three can continue averaging 67 points per game, it simply will be up to the Thunder’s bench to outscore Mitchell. The other big obstacle is Rudy Gobert, who locks down the paint with the best of them.

Utah’s home court advantage is significant, but the Thunder can score anywhere. Westbrook will have to continue to get his teammates involved, and Mitchell will have to play his brand of basketball to keep this series as fascinating as it has been.

Much like the Sixers-Heat series, we could be in line for a seven-game shootout here in the first round.

Warriors vs. Spurs

It seems as if the Warriors are doing just fine without Stephen Curry.

This is looking like the most lopsided series in the first round of the playoffs, because neither Game 1 nor Game 2 were close. The Spurs took minimal leads during Game 2, but they were short-lived. Other than those few instances, it has been all Warriors.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are showing their age, and the absence of Kawhi Leonard is glaring. Even the Warriors’ bench is looking to be too much for San Antonio. The Spurs have lost both games by 21 and 15, respectively.

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McGee and Thompson both go up for a block on Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

They allowed Durant and Thompson to score over 30 in Game 2. Their only real scoring threat on a consistent basis is LaMarcus Aldridge. Even so, the Warriors can allow him to score whatever he wants as long as they continue to lock down the rest of the offense.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are playing so well that they have managed to take over the series despite just one double-double from any player in either game (Draymond Green, 12 points, 11 assists). Steve Kerr and this Warriors team are not only accustomed to the playoffs, but they have grown used to playing without Curry. Playing without the two-time MVP may not even cost them a game in this round.

The Warriors might perform sweeps of the Spurs in back to back years. Their only hope of salvaging a game is hoping Aldridge can keep repeating his 34 point, 12 rebound performance he put up in Game 2. Along with that, they will need Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili to score 15 or more while playing good defense.

Other than that, all the Spurs have to look forward to is the trip home, where they play well. But it is very likely the advantage will not mean much.

Rockets vs. Timberwolves

Game 1 of this series saw what is probably the closest the Timberwolves will come to snatching a victory away from the best team in the NBA.

Losing by only three points, the Wolves lost their chance to tie on an abysmal final possession that ended with Andrew Wiggins losing the ball out of bounds with less than a second remaining on the clock. Minnesota played well, and Houston played as poorly as they are going to, and it still was not enough.

James Harden went off for 44 points, as he essentially scores at will. Only Capela and Paul could muster offense worth mentioning, as Harden was option number one, two and three for the Rockets.

Burgeoning star Karl-Anthony Towns only took nine shots in the entire game, making three of them. That is not winning basketball for the Wolves. It seems as if their only hope is to overpower the Rockets with Towns in the paint, as Capela makes his shots, but gets no plays ran for him.

Game 2 was the kind of blowout one might expect for the one seed versus eight seed matchups.

The Rockets won by 20, and only needed 12 points from James Harden to do it. Chris Paul was the standout in this game, backed up by Gerald Green. Only three Wolves scored in double-digits, none of them scoring 20 or more.

Frankly, the Timberwolves are outmatched and outclassed. As the series moves to Minneapolis, a crowd that has not seen a playoff game in 14 years may shake the Rockets enough to allow Minnesota to steal a game away, though.

It is going to take more than 6.5 points per game from Towns to do it, though.

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Raptors Wizards preview

Raptors vs. Wizards series preview

The NBA postseason is finally here, with plenty of intriguing matchups.

In the Eastern Conference, the top-seeded Toronto Raptors will be taking on the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards. The Raptors will be looking to prove to the doubters that they are indeed a top-tier team in the league, while the Wizards will be looking to pull off a big upset.

Here is a look at this first-round playoff matchup.

Regular season summary

Raptors

For the first time in team history, the Raptors are a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Raptors finished the season 59-23 as one of the most balanced teams in the NBA.

The team was led by the duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. DeRozan averaged 23 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. Lowry averaged 16.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game. Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka and CJ Miles also contributed at least 10 points per game.

Raptors Wizards preview

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are the leaders in Toronto. (Photo by Getty Images)

Offensively, the Raptors finished fourth in points, with 111.7 points per game. They shot the ball efficiently too, finishing seventh in field goal percentage at 47.2 percent. Unlike most of the league’s playoff teams, Toronto scores a lot of its points in the paint as they finished sixth at 48.6 per game. All that time spent inside has also helped them averaged 17.3 made free throws per game, good for ninth in the league.

Toronto also handles the ball very well. They finished sixth in assists and had the sixth fewest turnovers, which put them fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio.

One area they could improve on is 3-point shooting, as they rank 18th at 35.8 percent. It is not terrible, but one of the lower percentages among playoff teams.

Defensively, the Raptors allowed the sixth fewest points per game. They were also fifth in opponent field goal percentage and 11th in opponent 3-point percentage. They rank second in blocks too.

Toronto’s bench also was a major contributor to its success. The bench ranked fifth in points, fourth in field goal percentage, fourth in rebounds, second in assists, second in blocks and first in steals.

It is safe to say the Raptors are one of the more well-rounded teams in the NBA right now.

Wizards

The Wizards have now made the postseason in four of the last five seasons.

Like Toronto, Washington is led by its backcourt. John Wall missed half the season due to injuries, but still managed to average 19.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game. Wall’s absence also played a role in the Wizards’ low seed.

Bradley Beal was the main man in Wall’s absence, averaging 22.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Otto Porter Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr. and Markieff Morris each contributed over 10 points per game as well.

Raptors Wizards preview

Bradley Beal was the top scorer on the Wizards this season. (Photo by Getty Images)

Offensively, the Wizards were a bit above average, ranking 13th in points per game and 11th in field goal percentage. But they finished fourth in 3-point percentage at 37.5 percent. They also pass well as they finished fourth in assists.

Defensively, the Wizards were not bad. They ranked 15th in opponent points, 15th in opponent field goal percentage, sixth in opponent 3-point percentage and 10th in steals. However, they could improve their defense inside. They rank 21st in rebounds, 19th in points allowed in the paint, 21st in opponent second-chance points and 22nd in blocks. If they want to win some games in the playoffs, they will need to play better defense inside and prevent opponents from getting multiple chances to score.

Washington’s bench is also about average, ranking 16th in points, 12th in field goal percentage, 17th in rebounds and 20th in assists.

Breakdown and predictions

Breakdown

The main matchup fans will be watching is between the stars in the backcourt. DeRozan and Lowry against Wall and Beal will definitely be interesting to see.

Things get interesting elsewhere. The Wizards shoot the three better than Toronto, but Toronto does a lot of scoring inside. Toronto’s defense does fairly well at defending 3-pointers, but Washington’s defense does not play well inside.

Toronto’s bench also overmatches Washington’s. Washington’s starters are going to have to put in a lot more work than Toronto’s starters if they want to stay in the game.

Prediction

Toronto and Washington tied in the regular season matchups at 2-2, but do not expect this series to be that close.

Toronto is just too good on both sides of the floor, and their bench can also take care of business. Washington will not be able to defend the Raptors inside. Washington has made it out of the first round in its last three postseason appearances, but not this season.

Having Wall back will be a nice boost for Washington and they may be able to take a game from Toronto, but this series belongs to the Raptors.

Raptors in five

 

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Three teams you do not want to face in the playoffs

The chances of an upset in an NBA playoff matchup is dependent upon various things, inclusive of matchups, recent play, and countless other numbers that only the tip-top analysts understand how to compute. But, with the off chance that there is an upset, it is always a ton of fun to try and figure out who is capable of it and who could possibly fall victim to it. Below I will look at three playoff teams capable of an upset and how they could possibly outperform their higher-seeded opponents.

Photo source: www.ftw.usatoday.com

Washington Wizards

The loss of John Wall for a couple months definitely hurt the Wizards here, but his return to action can only help the Wizards succeed in the playoffs. He looked a bit rusty in his last game with just nine points and eight turnovers, but he and his Wizards still have four more chances this regular season to shake off any rust.

If you recall last year, Washington competed with the first-seed Boston Celtics in a thrilling seven-game series and had every opportunity to overtake them, but ultimately fell short. This season, they have the same starters, with Kelly Oubre contributing key plays and numbers when teams decide to go small. Bradley Beal was finally an All-Star, Markieff Morris has been pretty good, and John Wall could be ready to return to his high-speed self.

The Wiz are in a three-way tie for sixth in the Eastern Conference with the Heat and Bucks, and any of these three teams could end up in any of those slots. If the Wizards fall to the eighth seed, they face a Raptors team that has yet to see Kyle Lowry be himself in the playoffs. If they fall to the seventh seed, it’s time for redemption as they will face the short-handed Boston Celtics, who they are definitely capable of beating with their current squads. The sixth seed would give them LeBron and the Cavs or Joel and the Sixers in the first round, which wouldn’t necessarily be the best case scenario. Keep in mind the Sixers have won eleven straight (a few without Embiid), and the Cavs have a player named LeBron.

I think the Wizards upsetting either the Raptors or the Celtics could definitely happen here, with the Celtics being their most probably victim. Regardless, whatever first-round matchup involves Washington should be a fun one.

Denver Nuggets

Denver is a team that has faced plenty of injuries this year as well, but they approach a playoff run with a fairly healthy and very deep squad. They have guys at literally every position that can produce crucial plays and numbers to the game, including guys like Will Barton and Trey Lyles who can get hot as soon as their shoes touch the hardwood. They have some phenomenal defenders in Millsap, Harris and Murray, and plenty of offense run through Nikola Jokic. Paul Millsap recently returned from injury, but the team is still without Gary Harris.

The Nuggets have not been at full strength yet this year, and it looks like they will be when the playoffs approach. They currently sit in the ninth seed, so the playoffs are not a sure bet. However, with the fourth-seed Jazz and Spurs just two games ahead of them, they could knock anyone out of the playoffs with a nice run.

We could see Denver playing anyone, like the Rockets, Warriors, or Blazers. While it is doubtful that any team will get past Houston or Golden State except themselves, a Denver-Portland first-round match would be a very exciting one, with the Nuggets having as good of a chance as anyone.

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Utah Jazz

With plenty of weapons for success, Utah is slowly becoming that one team that no one will want to play in the first round. They have gone 7-3 in their last ten, including three straight victories, and are seeing plenty of guys contribute. Similar to the Nuggets, this is a pretty deep team, with guys like Jae Crowder and Dante Exum stepping up while the starters take a break.

The story for Utah here, however, is the starting lineup. Joe Ingles is a playmaker and a huge three-point threat, and his uptick in minutes sans Gordon Hayward have thrust him into an important role for this team. Ricky Rubio has had his ups and downs this season, but his 31-6-8 line against the Lakers Tuesday night leads me to believe the past is behind him. Donovan Mitchell is the stud that he has proven to us and is ready to lead this team despite only being able to legally drink a beer as of last September.

The Jazz are in the fourth seed right now, so them remaining here wouldn’t be considered an upset, but no one knows what is happening in the Western conference right now.  I truly believe that they can handle almost any team in the West, excluding the Rockets and Warriors, and could make a decent run in this thing.

While the playoffs are crazy and nothing is set in stone, upsets are something that all fanatics of the game love to see.  These three teams I have discussed have just as good of a chance, if not better, to upset their higher-seeded opponent, and it should be interesting to see how it plays out. April 14thsure cannot come soon enough.

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Why each Eastern Conference team can and can’t win the NBA Finals

The NBA Finals have seen the same two teams duke it out for supremacy three years in a row. With legitimate threats to both reigning conference champions on both sides, the landscape of the playoffs already seems different.

Every playoff team has the same goal entering spring basketball, the legitimacy of each team’s claim to the throne has to be weighed because they all do have a shot at the title, however long or short it may seem.

Here are the reasons each Eastern Conference team can and cannot win the 2018 NBA Finals.

No. 8 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee has a young core centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo that has the ability to take teams by surprise. Their offense relies heavily on slashing to the basket, which translates to an extremely high field goal percentage.

Antetokounmpo is a certified superstar in the making, and he has the ability to put the team on his back if the jump shots aren’t falling. The other side of that particular coin involves the shooting talent around him being able to bail him out if he is, somehow, guarded successfully.

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Antetokounmpo is the focal point of Milwaukee’s offense and title contention hopes. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/AFP Photo)

What will hold them back from title aspirations is their defense. For every impressive offensive stat, there is a disappointing defensive one.

Their opponents are shooting almost 47 percent from the floor, and 37.1 percent from three-point range. Couple that with the lack of bench depth and inexperience, and the playoffs will be a tough hill to climb.

No. 7 Seed – Washington Wizards

The Wizards are perennial playoff contenders with a very talented roster. John Wall and Bradley Beal make up an impressive backcourt combination, and Marcin Gortat has the rebounding and put back abilities to make things interesting. The wing players, while prone to underachieving, also have high ceilings when they play well.

They are well-coached by Scott Brooks and, hopefully, entering the playoffs at full strength. The Wizards could be a dark horse betting candidates to make a deep playoff run. With enough confidence and momentum behind them, it is not out of the realm of possibility for Washington to compete for a title.

There has been turmoil in the locker room, however. John Wall is just now returning to basketball activities, so the Wizards’ best player will have significant rust to shake off.

That is not a good thing, considering they have to shoot themselves out of deficits more often than they would like. This is due to the same kinds of issues that Milwaukee has had to deal with. Impressive offense is only impressive if a team can keep themselves above water defensively.

No. 6 Seed – Miami Heat

Erik Spoelstra is proving four straight trips to the NBA Finals had more to do with him than NBA fans like to think. Many attribute those accolades solely to having James, Wade and Bosh leading the way.

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Erik Spoelstra and Goran Dragic are big reasons the Heat are back in the playoffs. (Photo by Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

This young team, though is rising above expectations sooner than expected. Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo are an excellent frontcourt tandem. The Heat are finding their identity in the paint and riding the shooting of Wayne Ellington and experience of Dwayne Wade back to a playoff berth. Spoelstra has clearly found out the right way to utilize these talents.

Young teams can give more experienced teams fits in the playoffs with their athleticism and timing. Miami also has the third-highest scoring bench in the league at 39.6 points per game. Add that to Spoelstra’s overachieving, and they could be a team to watch out for in the relatively weak Eastern Conference. Like the Wizards, the Heat can ride momentum all the way to finals contention.

Shy of Ellington, though, shooters are hard to come by in Miami. They rely on a post-heavy offense, which doesn’t necessarily hold up as well in a seven-game series as it does in an 82-game season.

Their defense is good, sporting the fifth-best opponents’ field goal percentage in the league. But they will be playing against some of the best and most dedicated jump-shooting teams in the league. If their looks start falling, that spells doom for Miami.

No. 5 Seed – Indiana Pacers

Victor Oladipo will undoubtedly win Most Improved Player this year, after showing the league what he’s made of after the Thunder traded him away in the Paul George deal. His points per game average this year is up six points. He is also collecting more assists and rebounds than he ever has.

Oladipo is the secret sauce to a Pacers finals run. He and Myles Turner have put Indiana on their backs this year, and few have been able to contain both of them at the same time. If teams do manage a strategy to keep them both in check, they will have to do it over a series of games, which is no easy task. If these two players can keep digging into their bags, then the Pacers are a team no one would truly want to face.

Again, though, the problem here is lackluster defense. At 18th in the NBA in opponents’ field goal percentage, the Pacers simply let their opponents score too much. Their three-point shooting abilities are good, but almost all of the teams above them in the standings are in the Eastern Conference.

The bench does not give the Pacers many minutes, at less than 17 per game. They are in the bottom five in that category and the bottom ten in bench scoring. So Oladipo and Turner truly have to carry the team if they want to be playing in June.

There is simply too much that can go wrong to call them a true NBA Finals contender. But given Indiana’s identity over the course of the season, that is probably exactly how they like it.

No. 4 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers have taken the NBA by surprise this season. A trip to the NBA Finals would cap off “The Process” and prove the brutal teardown and rebuild to be worth it.

Philadelphia is inundated with youth. Ben Simmons is one of two potential Rookie of the Year candidates and continues to dish out triple-doubles. Markelle Fultz is, surprisingly, playing this season, and if he can figure out his shot, it only creates another weapon. Robert Covington and J.J. Reddick are veteran leaders that seem to be drawing off the energy of the young core.

And then there is Joel Embiid.

While currently out due to surgery on an orbital fracture, he has been giving teams trouble all season. Both on and off the court. The trash talk is already legendary, and he has the play to back it up. Embiid averages a double-double at 22.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. We have even seen him step outside the arc when the opportunity presents itself.

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Embiid could miss some playoff games after undergoing surgery for an orbital fracture. (Photo by Matt Slocum/Associated Press)

If he can get back in time for a second-round series, this team could legitimately take over. They have been too much for opponents all season, and there is no reason to think that will stop when the playoffs start.

The young squad will be fired up and eager to prove themselves. With their inside-out offense and some of the best defense in the league, they are a legitimate title contender, because they match up well with any team. Including and especially the two favored to be in the Western Conference Finals.

Ironically, though, their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness.

Youth means inexperience. Inexperience means being able to be taken advantage of. Meeting a veteran team like the Cavaliers, who know what it is like to play for and win a title, could be their undoing.

It cannot go without being said that the cockiness of this team is some of the most outspoken in recent memory. Philadelphia knows it is good, which might create a glare that makes them look past other opponents.

Either way, “The Process” will officially undergo its first test on April 14.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

The rollercoaster that has been the Cavs’ regular season is finally coming to an end.

After blowing up their roster before the All-Star break, the Cavaliers are sitting pretty as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. As we know, seeding is little more than a formality, as far as LeBron James is concerned.

The new-look Cavs are more youthful, better defensively, and seem less complacent than the pre-trades roster. Their NBA Finals hopes are renewed again after finally finding a formula that works after a multitude of injuries and locker room finger-pointing.

Do not kid yourself, though. The Cavaliers are coasting on reputation more than anything. They have been in the past three NBA Finals, thanks in large part to having the best player in the world on their team. They are the (wine and) gold standard of the Eastern Conference until further notice.

Intimidation will play a factor here, and so will their offense that can adjust to any opponent. Lue’s offense works in such a way that it, if a team’s defense takes something away, the Cavs can simply move on to another facet of their game with just as much success.

With Nance Jr. and LeBron James holding down the paint, and shooters to stretch the floor, defense still will not matter much to Cleveland, as they can go point-for-point with the very best teams out there, even on dysfunctional nights.

This particular Cavaliers iteration, though, is still relatively new. Jordan Clarkson has not quite figured it all out, and George Hill is showing his age next to the ageless wonder, LeBron James.

The problem, also, with playing no defense, is that shots do have to fall. Sure, the Cavaliers can make them, but as everyone knows, sometimes the ball just does not go in. If Cleveland has a couple of bad shooting nights, they will get blown out due to lack of defensive commitment.

Unlike the past three years, Cleveland has to prove themselves and play to their highest level to reach the NBA Finals. Then, after three hard-fought series wins, they will have to face the best of the other conference.

No easy task.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

Boston has the best coach in the NBA. That is enough of a reason why they can win the Larry O’Brien trophy, but let us explore some more anyway.

Brad Stevens has the ability to make something out of nothing. The Celtics, right now, are a team with unbelievably bad injury luck at the worst time, and they are still winning.

That is due to the incredible bench play and next-man-up strategy that the Celtics employ. Their offense is weak, but their defense is the best in the league. The system is flawless, and almost every team in the league would fall victim to it at least once in a seven-game series.

Owning an opponents’ field goal percentage under 44 percent is no joke. Boston ranks tenth-best in turnover ratio, and the rebounding is just as impressive. Surprisingly, even though their offense can be a bit anemic, they are second best in three-point percentage at 37.9 percent.

It defies logic, but even without Irving, Brown, Smart and Hayward, this team has steadfastly held the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. And they are only going to get healthier from here. If anyone can beat Golden State at its own defensive game, or hold the fast-paced Rockets offense in check, it is the Celtics.

They can, and just might win the whole thing.

But before one gets too high on Stevens’ ability to will his team to victory, it is important to remember that their returning players will, like Wall, have severe rust to shake off.

finals

The Celtics could be without Irving for the first round of the playoffs. (Photo by Brian Babineau/Getty Images)

Irving is coming off of a knee surgery, and his game hinges on his quick legs, handles, and iso scoring ability. That will not be easy to return to during his first minutes on the floor. Smart cannot return until May if Boston is still playing. And there is no telling who might go down in the meantime, with the Celtics’ luck as of late.

The key to a title for Boston is its defense. So, if a team can somehow figure out how to get the better of it for four games, then it is a wrap for this team. They do not have the firepower necessary to go shot-for-shot with some of the offensively-minded teams in the NBA like the Cavaliers can.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

Toronto owns a top-five offense and a top-five defense. They have the probable coach of the year, in Dwane Casey. They have DeRozan, who is only getting better. Lowry and Ibaka are still reliable, and they have the deepest bench in the entire NBA.

Opposing teams have to pick their poison with the Raptors, and even then, still might not get what they chose. They can beat you with their smothering team defense, or their ability to match points on the outside or the inside.

Toronto owns the best record in the East for a reason. They also own a massive home court advantage, and as the locked-in, one seed will keep it throughout the playoffs. This more driven and focused Raptors team will be a legitimate force in the playoffs, and it is almost assured that a number two or three seeded teams will have to be the ones to take them out if they do not reach the finals.

As far as winning it all goes, this might the only team that can beat the Houston Rockets by locking down their shooters. The communication on the floor is excellent, and the Rockets only go as their three-point shooting does. The Raptors perimeter defense not only can win them the title but can do it in less than seven games.

Unlike Cleveland, however, Toronto’s reputation is working heavily against them.

The Raptors have fizzled out in various rounds of the playoffs for years, and they will need to get that monkey off of their backs, both with their play and with their overall mental position. Toronto has, perhaps, more to prove than any other Eastern Conference team in the playoffs, regardless of owning the top seed.

They will still have to earn any respect they feel they deserve, which will either fuel them to a title or be what burns them yet again.

 

Check back here on Saturday for the reasons each Western Conference team can and cannot win the NBA Finals! 

Featured image courtesy of NBA.com

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defense

Ranking the defense of every Eastern Conference playoff team

Defense wins championships. We’ve all heard it ad nauseum. The exception to this rule, however, might be the NBA.

In the past five years, the NBA has become a veritable 82 game three-point shooting contest. In last years’ finals, the Cavaliers scored 86 points in a single half. Against a vaunted Golden State defense, no less. They also broke the record for most threes in an NBA Finals game (24), which was set by the Warriors just one game earlier.

That’s just one singular example of how much the NBA has shifted in the past decade. Regardless of the shooting sprees, though, defense hasn’t completely gone by the wayside.

In the 2017-2018 season, we’ve seen teams such as the Jazz, Celtics and Raptors embrace their defensive identity. This is due to coaching and a true recognition of playing to their own strengths. All three of these teams have ridden their defense to playoff berths (or a potential playoff berth in Utah’s case).

So which teams can buck the current trends and disrupt their opponent with a potent defense? And which teams are better off shooting their way to the NBA Finals? Here, we’ll rank each Eastern Conference team by their defense, based on opponents’ points per game, blocks, steals and points generated off of turnovers.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

During their three straight trips to the NBA Finals, Cleveland’s defense has never been the driving force. This has all come to a head this season, as they rank third-worst in the league according to their defensive rating.

When looking at their stats individually, they seem like they should place Cleveland in the middle of the pack. The Cavs block 0.3 shots less than opponents per game, they rank only 0.6 steals worse than opposing teams, and surrender only 0.3 defensive rebounds more than they pull in. They’re even positive in their points for/points against split by 0.5 points.

defense

Kevin Love tries to contest a shot against Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge. (Photo by Mark Sobhani/NBAE/Getty Images)

The problem is, when you put all of these middle-of-the-road stats together, they translate to an underachieving defense. If you’re an optimist, you could at least see consistency in their defense to offense, but mediocrity does not get a team far in the playoffs.

The statistics here paint a picture of a team who has had to fight for almost every win they have. Better defensive teams blow out their opponents more often, leading to rest for their stars. It seems as if the Cavaliers are going to have to heavily lean on their offensive capabilities to make it back to the finals.

7. Milwaukee Bucks

According to NBA.com, the Bucks currently stand at 17th in the defensive rankings. They are allowing 106.2 points per game and scoring 105.9 points.

This hasn’t hurt their record too much, though. The Bucks currently sit at 39-35, five games ahead of Detroit for the eighth seed in the East.

A team without a legitimate identity past “give the ball to Antetokounmpo,” the Bucks are fortunate to be in the spot they’re in. Their paint game will give some jump shooting teams fits, but they seem to rely on their offense too much.

Milwaukee’s defense gives up 13.0 second-chance points per game, which is in the bottom ten. They also give up 46.6 points in the paint per game, good for ninth-worst. That last stat is especially odd considering their offensive post game is in the top 10, but it doesn’t always necessarily translate to the other end of the floor.

The Bucks’ block and steal numbers are decent, but they will have to step up the closeout pressure in the playoffs if they hope to pull off an upset.

6. Washington Wizards

The Wizards are known for their offense, led by Bradley Beal in the absence of John Wall. Their defensive rating, however, sits at 106.1, which is good for a place in the top half of the league.

Their worst defensive stat is the number of second chance points given up per game. It makes sense, given their guard-heavy style of play. To that end, the Wizards give up 45.6 points in the paint every night. They are also in the bottom 10 when it comes to blocks per game.

defense

Bradley Beal gets a hand up against Dwyane Wade. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Washington thrives on their ability to steal the ball and turn it into points. At 7.9 steals, their per game average is 10th best in the league. Creating more scoring opportunities for their fast-paced offense is paramount to the team’s success.

Steals alone won’t allow them to take a series, but if they can focus on their frontcourt play, the Wizards can definitely catch some Eastern Conference teams off guard.

5. Indiana Pacers

Indiana’s winning record and surprisingly good season are thanks in part to some serviceable defense.

They give up almost 2.0 less than they score every night, and their steals and blocks are in the plus column as well. The biggest discrepancy here is the block numbers, as they dish out one less than they receive. The 44.7 paint points given up per game are in the exact middle of the road.

The real advantage the Pacers have, though is their ability to turn turnovers into points. They are fifth best in the league, with 14.9 points off of turnovers. Considering their steals sit at 8.8 per game, that is just shy of a 60% success rate.

Much like the Wizards, the Pacers will have to rely on their quick hands to steal a series away from a favored team. But with a potent offensive attack with a very balanced defense, Indiana will be a tough out when April rolls around.

4. Miami Heat

Another surprising playoff contender, Miami’s young core has come into their own during the 2018 season. With a defensive rating solidly in the top 10, playing Miami has been more of a chore than was expected.

defense

Bam Adebayo forces Stephen Curry to pass the ball. (Photo by David Santiago/Miami Herald)

A great paint defense has been the key this year. Hassan Whiteside continues to come along nicely, and Bam Adebayo has created a one-two punch that makes easy buckets hard to come by. At 5.2 blocks per game, the team clearly has a defense-first mentality.

Their field goal percentage versus their opponents’ is pretty even, including a plus 0.2 percentage on three-point field goal percentage. The total rebounds and steals also sit narrowly in the plus column.

The real hurdle for the Heat will be keeping their big men on the floor. At 19.3 personal fouls per game, Miami allows 3.3 more free throw attempts than they take. In playoff games, those three points could very well be the difference between winning and losing a game. Discipline on the defensive end will be the name of the game for this young core in their search for a series win.

3. Toronto Raptors

Currently holders of the East’s top seed, and with all the talk of their defense-to-offense balance, one might expect the Raptors to hold a higher spot here. But, according to the defensive ranking, Toronto actually sits at sixth overall, and third in the East.

However surprising it may be, the Raptors are no slouch on that end of the floor.

They tower over their opponents, scoring 8.1 more points per game than their opponents, which is easily the highest on this list so far. They are positive in almost every defensive category. They own 1.2 more blocks per game over opposing teams, 0.7 steals, and have a 2.2% percent advantage in field goals made. Add in their fourth-best opponents’ points off of turnover rankings, and this is team causes problems.

Their biggest struggles come in the paint, like most of today’s NBA teams. A seemingly-paltry bottom half ranking in opponents’ points in the paint and a bottom five ranking in opponents’ second chance buckets are the problems for this team. Paint struggles have broken past playoff teams.

This doesn’t quite spell disaster for the Raptors, though. As previously discussed, jump shots have become the order of every game. It’s going to take some serious game-planning to truly expose these Raptors’ paint struggles to the tune of a win. Doing it four times out of seven is a much taller order.

2. Philadelphia 76ers

A surprising team to occupy this spot, the 76ers’ defense has led this shockingly young team to a playoff berth.

The opposite of most teams on this list, their paint defense is where this team thrives. This is thanks in part to Joel Embiid’s season-long coming out party. Accounting for 11.1 rebounds and almost two blocks per game, the team lives and dies by the center’s play.

Philly gives up just 41.8 points in the paint per game, which is third-best in the NBA. This translates to only 12.4-second chance points every game, good for a spot in the top half of the league. Add that to a 3.3 field goal made disadvantage to the 76ers’ opponents, and you have a formidable defense to deal with, regardless of shooting woes.

The only Achilles heel here is their miserable reputation of giving opponents points off of turnovers. Their opponents score 19.0 points per game off of Philadelphia turnovers, which is the worst in the NBA.

That is not encouraging, considering some teams will have to rely on their steals as their only form of defense. If the 76ers allow a bucket almost every time that happens, then they can kiss any shot of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals goodbye, regardless of their great play in the paint.

That will be the real litmus test of this young team. If they can stop that bleeding, then they have a chance to shake things up in the East.

1. Boston Celtics

The Celtics are not only the top team in the Eastern Conference but the best team in the entire NBA according to the defensive ratings.

Regardless of their woeful injury report, Boston, led by one of the top minds in the NBA in Brad Stevens, has a true defensive identity.

The Celts are solidly in the top 10 in opponents’ points in the paint, and opponents’ second-chance points. Their steals are even with their opponents, and their blocks are just 0.2 ahead of opposing teams.

defense

Injured star Kyrie Irving steals the ball from Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Matt West)

According to the field goal percentages against them, it’s clear this team contests almost every shot that goes up. They are in the plus column in three-point percentage, two-point field goal percentage, and total field goal percentage.

The most surprising stat is the fact that they only score 4.0 more points than opposing teams. But stats, however helpful, can be misleading when it comes to defense. The team play on the defensive end is completely apparent when watching this team play. They may play close games, but defense often comes out on top in those contests.

When the team gets healthy and gels in the playoffs, this defense could be the deciding factor in more than a couple of games. While their scoring isn’t much to write home about, stopping other teams from scoring can be just as productive.

Featured image by Nathan Denette/Associated Press

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playoffs

Predicting NBA playoff seeding

The NBA playoffs are almost upon us. Scheduled to start on April 14, the playoff picture is anything but concrete.

Injuries, fatigue, rest and a general agreement that seeding doesn’t really matter once the playoffs start, are all signs that anything could happen. The top two teams in each conference are surely safe, but the three through eight seeds are most certainly up for grabs.

With that in mind, here are some predictions on how the playoff seeding might shake out.

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Seed – Miami Heat

Eight seeds are the hardest to predict, for obvious reasons. The Heat, however seem as if they’ll wrap up a spot in the playoffs.

playoffs

The Miami Heat are an unexpected playoff contender this year. (Photo by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)

Their closest competition is the Detroit Pistons. Considering both teams’ remaining schedule is very comparable, the safe bet here is Miami. They are a more complete team with a battle-tested coach.

The Pistons would have to win all 10 of their remaining games against teams with losing records, and chalk up some upset wins, too. Even then, the Heat would probably have to drop some games they’re supposed to win. It seems as if the Blake Griffin pickup won’t be enough this year.

No. 7 Seed- Washington Wizards

The Wizards are a solid team, featuring fundamental play and a tough coaching matchup. They currently sit as the East’s fifth seed, but their schedule is ridiculously difficult down the home stretch.

11 of the Wizards’ 17 remaining games come against teams with winning records. With star point guard John Wall still potentially up to four weeks away from returning to the lineup, the Wizards are going to drop games. Washington is 10-6 since Wall had knee surgery.

Bradley Beal can certainly pick up some slack with his fantastic shooting ability. But the Wizards will need more help than that to stay in the fifth slot, or rise in the standings.

No. 6 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

With a pretty even schedule against winning and losing teams remaining, the Bucks should sit in the seven seed.

playoffs

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks look for a second straight playoff berth. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The young team, led by the Greek Freak, has been a mini-surprise in the 2017-2018 season. The Bucks fired their head coach in the middle of the season, causing some to leave the team for dead. But under interim head coach Jon Horst, they have found an identity.

That identity is give the ball to Antetokounmpo at every opportunity, sit back, and watch the fireworks. If teams find a way to guard Giannis, their three-point game is solid enough to rack up the wins necessary to play some springtime ball.

No. 5 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers, who had the most games in the NBA after the All-Star break, still have 19 games remaining.

Their path to the playoffs, however, is shockingly easy. Only six of their next 19 games come against teams with a winning record. With the youth on this team, fatigue will more than likely not be a problem down the stretch.

One thing to keep an eye on, though, is the inexperience and injury history on the team. The major pieces on the 76ers have never played a minute of playoff basketball. The players who have been to the playoffs are veterans, which is a nice way of saying that they’re old.

But these are mainly problems they’ll face once the playoffs roll around. The push to secure seeding shouldn’t be an issue for Philadelphia.

No. 4 Seed – Indiana Pacers

There’s no reason to think that the Pacers can’t continue to surprise the league. Their schedule is undeniably tough going forward, but the team has continued to manufacture wins.

Victor Oladipo is the focal point here. His meteoric rise during the 2017-2018 campaign is the largest part of the team’s success. Bogdanovic, Turner and Jefferson are all solid role-players, but Oladipo’s 24 points per game are still catching opposing teams off guard.

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

playoffs

LeBron James and the new-look Cavaliers made it to the 2016 NBA Finals, despite not being the top seed. (Photo by Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

When discussing why the Cavaliers won’t fall in the standings, it would suffice to just write the words, “LeBron James.”

Apart from James, though, the new pieces are fitting nicely in Cleveland. They have not lived up to the sky-high expectations formed just before the All-Star break, but that would have been nearly impossible. But, the team has been, without question, an upgrade from the previous iteration.

Cleveland’s schedule is fairly even going forward. Judging from their tumultuous season so far, the Cavs will probably lose some games they are supposed to win, and win some games they might be slated to lose.

With their experience, drive to prove themselves, and The King, the third seed is more than likely where they will stand going into the playoffs.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

The Celtics have the best coach in the league, by almost anyone’s measurement. Kyrie Irving is having a fantastic season, and their roster is complimentary to the team’s play style from top to bottom.

Offense has been a huge issue for Boston, recently. They currently sit at 16th in NBA offensive rankings. That’s hardly what one would expect from the team with the East’s second best record. But these shortcomings speak to the Celtics’ strengths more than anything.

The defense is fantastic. When watching Boston play, the team defense is undeniable. Coach Brad Stevens has a real commitment to the little things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. That is what will keep Boston at the second seed.

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

playoffs

DeMar Derozan has led the Raptors to the East’s best record. (Photo by Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

The decision on who would hold the Eastern Conference’s number one seed came down to who would win the remaining matchups between the Celtics and Raptors. The race for the top spot going into the playoffs could very well come down to those two games.

But, more faith needs to be put in the resume Toronto has built during the season.

The Raptors own the NBA’s fourth best offense and the third best defense. Coach Dwane Casey has clearly reached a new level. He’s reached these players and motivated them in a way that’s evident during every game.

The stars, Derozan and Lowry are clear leaders. Serge Ibaka has accepted his role as a third option. The bench is deep, and dangerous.

The schedule is tough, but the Raptors are tougher.

Western Conference

No. 8 Seed – Denver Nuggets

Yet again, the decision here came from examining remaining strength of schedule. The Los Angeles Clippers the Utah Jazz lose that particular race.

playoffs

The young core of the Denver Nuggets has been incredibly effective this season. (Photo by Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports)

Not to sell them short, however, the young talent on the Nuggets has definitely impressed. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic create a solid core that can keep them in any given game.

A paint-focused offense, and a serviceable defense should secure them a spot in the playoffs. It doesn’t hurt that Los Angeles has experienced roster shake-ups, and Utah is one of the streakiest teams in the league.

No. 7 Seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota was once as high as the number three seed. But losing Jimmy Butler to a meniscus injury has plunged them into a potential bubble team. Being that the West is so highly contested, that has proved to be a killer.

Butler was averaging the most minutes in the NBA, contributing 22.2 points, 5 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. Having a star go down with an injury would be a problem for any team. But it seems like this particular loss couldn’t have come to a more impactful player at a more important time.

The Timberwolves should have him back by the time the playoffs roll around, which is great news. Thibodeau and the Timberwolves need to keep the ship afloat until then, however.

No. 6 Seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have been trending downwards in the past 10 games. They are 6-4 in these contests, needing a 43-point performance by Westbrook in a come back win against the lowly Phoenix Suns.

playoffs

The “OK3” have underachieved, but they can all still be a force to be reckoned with. (Photo by Layne Murdoch Sr./NBAE via Getty Images)

Having them at the sixth seed is merely a belief in their defense and star power. The “OK3” are a force to be reckoned with in any game. George, Anthony and Westbrook hardly ever all contribute at a high level within the same game. But, all three of them are capable of going off, even if it is at the expense of the other two’s stat line.

Billy Donovan, once a scapegoat for the team’s unimpressive showings, has seemed to figure out the right balance. The bench is irrelevant here, as having three Type-A personalities in the same starting lineup dictate how the contest will be played.

Faith needs to be put in these three players, as none of them will accept missing the playoffs entirely.

No. 5 Seed – New Orleans Pelicans

Anthony Davis has been an absolute assassin in recent weeks. He’s had six 40-plus point performances since the beginning of February. All six of those games featured 10 or more rebounds.

Since DeMarcus Cousins went down, it’s no question that Davis has accepted is role as the number one, two and three options for the Pelicans. But it is a little ridiculous to think he can keep putting up these kinds of numbers every night.

If he has an off night, it’s hard to trust Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to will New Orleans to a win by themselves. With the kind of drive he’s been showing, however, Davis can keep them no lower than the number five seed.

No. 4 Seed – San Antonio Spurs

Similar to the Cavaliers, all one needs to say here is, “Gregg Popovich” to inspire confidence in the Spurs.

playoffs

Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich will no doubt be the determining factors regarding the Spurs’ seeding. (Photo by Darren Abate/Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard has only played in nine games since the beginning of the NBA season. He said in an interview on Wednesday that he hopes to return to the lineup this season. When asked for a specific timetable, he only said that he wants to return “soon.”

Soon means nothing, but if he does get the opportunity to return, don’t expect he’ll need an adjustment period. Kawhi is a premiere two-way talent that has been focused on playing since he left the lineup.

Airing on the side of a hiccup-less re-introduction to the starting lineup, the Spurs can hold their ground and even rise in the standings.

No. 3 Seed – Portland Trailblazers

Damian Lillard is now in the MVP conversation. CJ McCollum is capable of scoring 50 points if he has the ball enough. Aminu and Turner are solid wings that the team can lean on in the case of a shooting drought.

Portland notably upset the Warriors right before the All-Star break. They lost the first meeting, though, and have not been able to beat Houston yet. Anyone else in the league is on notice when playing the Trailblazers. The offense is great, the defense is quick, and the schedule is manageable.

No. 2 Seed – Houston Rockets

The Rockets embody the hope of every team that the Warriors can be overtaken in the Western Conference playoffs. And they still can.

The strength of schedule is, again, what makes the difference here. The Rockets play 12 teams with winning records, to the Warriors’ 11. Both teams play 7 teams with losing records. Since the schedules are so comparable, the trust has to be put in the defending champions.

Houston has an incredible three-point game, and the rest of the offense is only slightly less polished. The addition of Chris Paul has been revelation, and Clint Capela has risen to new heights. James Harden is running away with the MVP race.

But over their remaining games, the four Warriors All-Stars will intimidate opposing offenses slightly more.

No. 1 Seed – Golden State Warriors

As stated above, intimidation is the main reason the Warriors will probably sit in the West’s top spot heading into the playoffs.

Golden State are champions until they lose, and losing is the only thing at which the NBA can count on the Warriors being bad. Thinking that this particular team has grown complacent and aren’t concerned with owning the one seed, is a mistake.

playoffs

Golden State still has the most impressive roster in the NBA, regardless of their record. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

All four of the team’s superstars are hyper-competitive, and Houston taking away their spotlight has surely made them hungrier to assert their dominance over the conference. The Rockets and Warriors are certainly on a collision-course, but the Warriors will probably still own the regular season.

Featured image by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

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Giannis 0-2 in game-winning/tying opportunities since the break

There have been game winning or tying opportunities in the last 2 games and with 2 missed shots the Bucks have 2 losses. Once again, the Bucks had the quarter that killed them; this time it was the first, where they were outscored 40-22 by Washington. The defense will need to tighten the noose if Milwaukee has deep playoff aspirations.

Washington Wizards v Milwaukee Bucks

(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Bucks were playing catch up from the opening quarter and they were able to eventually catch up with the Wizards. When push came to shove that game-leading basket wouldn’t drop last night. Said Antetokounmpo, ” We were getting open shots, we were getting good looks, but the ball didnt fall.  I think we just did a great job playing through it.”

Giannis was asked if missing back to back game-winning shots hurts and he replied, ” It hurts.  But I’m going to keep doing it.  I’m not going to stop, I’m going to keep working on it.  That’s what the teammates want.”  Antetokounmpo got to a very good spot on the court for his final attempt, backing his defender in the post. But as he gave a shoulder fake, he briefly lost his footing and that threw his shot rhythm off, as he was fading away.  Even he recognized he lost his balance slightly.

Milwaukee fans are used to this.  Used to their team faltering down the stretch, used to sheer disappointment, hell there are many people in the state of Wisconsin that don’t even know how good this group is because of decades of mediocrity.  Known to never keep key pieces to the entire puzzle by trading away top stock, its going to take some consistency to build the people’s trust.  It is completely and solely up to them to get hot, to not have that bad quarter, because everything matters as we near to the final 20 games of the regular season.

Lets look at the bright side.  Jabari Parker had 16 points at half time.  For the Wizard, it was Brad Beal with 21 pts, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds. Otto Porter Jr. added 21 points for Washington.  Antetokounmpo’s final stat line reads 23 pts, 13 reb, 8 assists, 6 blocks, and 3 steals; that is literally stuffing the stat line and damn impressive. Also, the Bucks came back from a 20 point deficit and made the game competitive.  Against the top tier teams, you must remain consistent for 48 minutes, otherwise you can kiss you chances goodbye.

Hopefully Giannis and the Bucks start embracing this challenge and start delivering. Part of making the game winning shot constantly is in knowing how it feels when it doesn’t drop, the disappointment of a player, a team, a city, hell the entire state.  This is what drives the best to greatness and we all believe this resides in Antetokounmpo.

NBA All-Star

NBA All-Star Game predictions

You either love the NBA All-Star game, or you’re completely uninterested in it. There’s no real in between, and it’s not hard to understand why. Watching super-rich athletes engage in playground basketball with their friends is either exciting or nauseating.

NBA All-Star

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the 2017 NBA All-Star Game. (Photo by Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

In the past, it’s basically been a continuation of the dunk contest. Once the player is past half court, the lane clears, and the man with the ball gets to show off. Last year’s All-Star game ended in a 192-182 victory for the West. To put that into perspective, the average score of a game last season was 105.6 points. That’s how little NBA All-Stars are interested in guarding their man.

Now, be well aware that these are the best scorers in the league, in most cases. And defense is not only less exciting than offense, but it takes more effort. The All-Star break is a rare occasion that these star players can get meaningful rest, it is what’s paramount to a successful back end to a season, and playoff runs. So working hard on the defensive end of the floor doesn’t quite make sense for them.

The problem is that the game doesn’t mean anything. There’s no competition because bragging rights are essentially irrelevant to these players. They have already proven they’re the best in the game by being chosen, so why try?

The new draft format and $100,000 cash prize are attempts at trying to remedy this issue. It’s unclear whether or not these changes will make any difference in competitiveness. But before evaluating and predicting, let’s look at the updated rosters.

Rosters

Team LeBron: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, LaMarcus Aldridge, Bradley Beal, Goran Dragic, Andre Drummond, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook

NBA All-Star

Westbrook and Durant will be on the same All-Star team for the second year in a row. (Photo by Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Team Curry: Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar Derozan, Joel Embiid, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Klay Thompson, Karl-Anthony Towns

Worth mentioning here is the fact that LeBron’s squad has lost four All-Star selections to injury. In the first year of the draft format, that’s not good. It’s especially bad considering all of the injuries came from the same team.

Also worth noting is that Westbrook and Aldridge missed four games between them in the last week. They will be ready for the All-Star Game, but that’s two more question marks for Team LeBron.

The replacements for injured players were not conference-specific. While in the past, someone from the same conference would have had to be chosen, this time it’s simply overall vote-getters. This probably led to the continued snub of Lou Williams, and Dragic sneaking his way in.

Team Curry

With all of his original players still in the lineup, Curry’s team has to be the favorite.

With Antetokounmpo, Derozan, Horford, Embiid and Towns, the team has tremendous length. And those of them who can’t slash to the bucket can certainly handle themselves around and beneath it.

Add in Curry and Harden, and that should be all the shooting they need. But, still, they have Butler, Lillard, Lowry and Thompson to pick up the slack. All of them can also get to the hoop, as well. But with the length on display, expect to see a lot of three-pointers from this team.

Team Curry is also being coached by Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets have the best record in the NBA, and the most potent offense in the league. Not that a team of this many great players will need much coaching, but expect D’Antoni to draw up offensive set pieces consistently and try to win this game with 150-plus points.

Team LeBron

Again, this team has been decimated by injuries. Four have been replaced, and two more are reportedly not at 100 percent.

Those replacements have been: Paul George for DeMarcus Cousins, Goran Dragic for Kevin Love, Kemba Walker for Kristaps Porzingis and Andre Drummond for John Wall.

NBA All-Star

Kristaps Porzingis won’t participate after tearing his ACL on Feb. 6. (Photo by Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports)

These injuries have made the team markedly smaller. Porzingis’ and Love’s replacements cost the team almost two feet of length. Having Drummond in for Wall stops the bleeding a little, but Drummond is not effective more than five feet from the basket. Kevin and Kristaps are both big men who can shoot from anywhere, and rest assured they would be if they were playing.

Some NBA fans might like the current lineup better for one reason or another. The point of All-Star selections is that they are subjective. And in just one game, the pieces don’t necessarily have to fit perfectly to win. But, losing four bonafide All-Stars for players that were “the best of the rest” shouldn’t inspire confidence.

LeBron’s team is being coached by Dwane Casey of the Toronto Raptors, who have the best record in the East. A no-nonsense defensive coach is a definite shake up for the All-Star Game. If Casey holds the other squad to less than 140 points, he will have lived up to that reputation.

We all know that LeBron is tired of losing, but we’ll see if he can will his team to that $100,000 prize.

Effort

Speaking of $100,000, does it really matter to some of the richest athletes in the sport? These players not only have massive contracts, but they’re all so good that they have deals and endorsements and appearances to help bolster their bank accounts.

What many fans might not know, is each member of the losing team will get $25,000. So that narrows the net winnings to $75,000. Sure, it would be life-changing money for most people in the world, but is that $75,000 worth the effort to these players?

Players don’t want to sound ungrateful, or out of touch with the rest of the world. So odds are, all 24 of them would answer with some form of, “yes, of course it matters.” And I’m sure it would be nice to have $75,000 more than you had yesterday. Especially if you receive it for playing a game you play every single night. But the fans will never really know how interested the players are. It’s an exercise in futility to read into it too much. The players will give however much they want to on the court, end of story.

LeBron will be out there trying his best to win. Curry will, too. They did put these teams together, after all. They want to be seen as a better “fantasy” manager than the other. But with the injuries, LeBron’s team has an excuse if they lose, and Curry’s team has a small incentive to take things easy on defense.

NBA All-Star

Curry and James picked the All-Star teams, and will go head-to-head again in 2018. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)

With the new format, this should be a more competitive game. It will still be high scoring, and there will still be more joking around than defensive pressure. But the winning team won’t be eight points shy of 200 this year.

Prediction

Team Curry wins, 163-148

This was an easy call to make. The shooting and athleticism on Curry’s team is overwhelming. LeBron’s team will show more effort, and with Coach Casey on the sidelines, will be more engaged on the defensive end. But in the end, the shooting is what will matter.

People will clear the lane for Antetokounmpo, Harden and Curry will take 15 three-pointers each, and Embiid will trash talk his way either into or out of America’s heart.

Featured image by Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

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Three-Point Contest

2018 JBL Three-Point Contest preview

The upcoming JBL Three-Point Contest will take place during NBA All-Star Weekend on February 18th in Los Angeles, CA at the Staples Center. It was originally introduced in 1986 with Boston Celtics legendary small forward Larry Bird winning the inaugural contest. He is also tied with former Chicago Bulls shooting guard Craig Hodges for the most wins in the event with three each.

The rules of the event are pretty simple. Eight contestants compete against each other to see who the best shooter is. There are five shooting racks placed around the three-point arc. Four of these five racks contain four regular basketballs worth one-point and one multi-colored ball worth two points. One rack is filled with all multi-colored money balls, called the “money rack”. This rack is placed at the shooters discretion at one of the five locations on the arc. All of these balls are worth two points. Each shooter gets one minute to shoot as many of the 25 balls as they can, starting from one side of the court all the way to the other.

The order of the shooters is selected randomly, the only exception being that the returning champion will go last. The top three scores from the first round advance to the finals, where they shoot again to see who the winner is.

Now let’s meet our eight contestants:

Eric Gordon

Houston Rockets shooting guard Eric Gordon will try to repeat as champ after winning last year contest over Boston Celtics’ point guard Kyrie Irving. The nine year veteran out of Indiana is one of the best bench scorers in the NBA, averaging 19.1 points per game.

The 2016-2017 Sixth Man of the Year winner has made 146 three’s on the year, which is sixth-most in the NBA currently. He is shooting 33.6 percent on three’s this year for the Rockets, who are second in the Western Conference currently.

Devin Booker

The Phoenix Suns’ shooting guard is currently putting up career high numbers, averaging 24.1 points per game. The third-year player from Kentucky is one of the best scorers in the league, currently 12th overall, ahead of ahead other stars such as Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and Victor Oladipo.

Last year he had a 70 point game in TD Garden in a loss to the Boston Celtics. He was the 11th player of all-time to score 70 or more points in a game.

The young star is making 2.6 three’s a game while shooting 38.1 percent from deep. He previously competed in this contest as a rookie in 2015-2016, losing in the final round to Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors.

Klay Thompson

The two-time NBA champ is back competing in the JBL Three-Point Contest for the fourth year in a row. The 2015-2016 winner is one of the best two-way shooting guards in the NBA. He routinely guards the best guard on the other team while also averaging 20.3 points per game. He is leading the association in three-point percentage at 45.2. He is averaging 3.3 three’s a game for the pace and space Golden State Warriors. He is second in the league with 170 three’s made, only trailing Houston Rockets guard James Harden.

He has already cemented himself as one of the best shooters of all time with his picture perfect stroke and will try to win another trophy. He is tied for the record for most points scored in a round with teammate Stephen Curry with 27 out of the possible 34 points. He did that back in 2015-2016.

Bradley Beal

The star shooting guard for the Washington Wizards is back in the contest for second time, originally competing in the 2013-2014 contest that Italian legend Marco Belinelli won. He is averaging a career high in points this year, scoring 23.8 points per game for a Wizards team that has somewhat struggled so far this year.

He is shooting 37.4 percent from the three-point line so far this season, and has made a total of 126 three’s. Beal is also a first-time All-Star this year in now his sixth season out of Florida.

Paul George

One of the best small forwards in the NBA, Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to have figured things out after a rough start to the year, sitting in 5th place in the Western Conference. George is currently leading the league in steals with 2.2 per game while also continuing to score well, averaging 21.7 points per game. He is fourth in three-pointers made with 160, and is 15th in percentage at 42.3 percent.

He has been one of the best swingman in the league since getting drafted 8 years ago from Fresno State in the 2010 NBA Draft. This will be his second time competing in the contest.

Wayne Ellington

Wayne Ellington has been known to be one of the best bench three-point specialists in the league since entering it in 2009 as a 1st round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves. In the past two years with the Miami Heat, the ninth-year shooting guard has really exploded.

After making career high 149 three’s last year, Ellington has already broken it with 159 threes this year, fifth overall in the NBA. He is also averaging a career high 11.3 points per game while shooting 39.8 percent from beyond the arc. He has been a very good role-player for a surprising good Miami Heat team, who are currently sitting seventh in the East.

Kyle Lowry

The four-time All-Star point guard for the Toronto Raptors will be competing in his third straight three point contest. He has lost the previous two years, in 2016 to Klay Thompson and last year to Eric Gordon. Kyle Lowry has steadily improved his game over his 12 year career, going from back-up to starter to star.

The all-around point guard is averaging 16.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game while shooting 38 percent from deep. He has made a total of 140 three’s on the season. He and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan have helped lead the Toronto Raptors to 2nd place in the Eastern Conference so far this year.

Tobias Harris

The recently acquired small forward for the Los Angeles Clippers is having a career year, averaging 18.2 points per game between the Clippers and the Detroit Pistons. He is also shooting a career high 41.1 percent from downtown. He is also a player who has improved more and more each year at different aspects of his game.

After riding the bench his first year and a half in the league with the Milwaukee Bucks, he was shipped to the Orland Magic in the J.J. Redick deal. The Magic put him in the starting lineup and he has become a really good small forward since. He has made 116 three’s on the year, which is already a career high. This is his first time competing in the contest.

Luca’s Prediction: Wayne Ellington

Three-Point Contest

Waynee Ellington celebrates after hitting a 3 (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

This might seem like a surprise pick in a stacked field, but Wayne Ellington has a quick release and shot to win this contest. I believe he will continue adding on to a career year and take home the 2018 JBL Three-Point Contest trophy.

 

Featured photo by NBA.com

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NBA All-Star game snubs

2018 All-Star Game snubs and surprises

The 2018 All-Star game starters and reserves are set. We don’t know what color jerseys the players will be wearing, but we do know who will be wearing them.

So it’s time to cue the profanity-laced tweets and cries of “popularity contest.” Let the fans’ opinions on how to fix this defense-free contest both somehow simultaneously be heard and spectacularly ignored. Let’s bask in the interminable glory of four Warriors starters making the roster for the second year in a row. At least they might be playing on different teams this time.

The newly implemented draft system was meant to be an exciting way of adding an air of competitiveness to the game. Ask the NFL how that worked out for them.

What’s more is the fans won’t even get to watch the draft. The rosters will be announced on Thursday on an extended edition of TNT’s Tip-Off program.

Regardless of anyone’s feelings, the stage is set. So after we take a look at how voting is counted, let’s break down the biggest snubs and surprises from the All-Star game selections.

All-Star game voting

The voting for starters is split between fans, players and media. The fans votes make up 50 percent, while the players and media both account for 25 percent.

NBA All-Star Game snubs

Leaked All-Star Game jerseys are drawing bad reviews from fans (Photo by Conrad Burry)

The three frontcourt players (regardless of small forward, power forward or center designations) and the two guards with the highest combined vote totals in each conference are selected as the starters.

 

Starters: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, James Harden and Kyrie Irving

The All-Star game reserves are chosen by the NBA coaches. They are asked to choose three frontcourt players, two guards and two more players at any position. These players have to be in the coach’s conference, and cannot be players on their own team.

The backcourt and frontcourt players with the highest vote total are selected. Then, the two extra players are chosen by votes, and position preference stated on the coaches’ ballots.

Reserves: Kyle Lowry, Bradley Beal, John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Love, Kristaps Porzingis, Al Horford, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green and Karl-Anthony Towns

Biggest snubs

Paul George

NBA All-Star game snubs

Paul George snubbed from All-Star game despite his great defensive season (Photo by Russ Isabella/USA TODAY Sports)

Paul George has been a part of a rocky experiment in Oklahoma City. At 27-20, the Thunder are currently the fifth seed in a tough Western Conference, but with their big three, one can’t help but think they are underachieving.

 

George is having a monstrous defensive season. While defense is not quite at a premium during the All-Star game, it isn’t like his offense is suffering because of it either. George is leading the league in steals at 93, and is still averaging almost 21 points per game. He’s also shooting the 3-pointer well at 42.2 percent.

In an offense dominated by two ball-hogs, that’s not bad. And many people, Russell Westbrook included, think it should have been enough to earn him a spot on the reserve roster.

Lou Williams

Lou Williams has been a revelation off the bench during the first half of the season. He’s shooting 45.1 percent from the field, and hitting 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers (of which he takes a lot). He’s averaging about 32 minutes, again, off the bench, and has had 14 games scoring over 30 points. That includes a 50-point game against Golden State, a team known for its defense as much as its offense.

Some claim that playing starters’ minutes off the bench was actually a mark against him during All-Star voting, but it also speaks to his willingness to be a team player. Those intangibles coupled with those numbers are the makings of an All-Star.

Chris Paul

Chris Paul has been pretty famously banged up this season. What most people may not realize, however, is that Paul has played in over half of the Rockets’ games this season.

When he plays, they win. Period.

When Paul has suited up this season, the Rockets have gone 23-5. When Paul, Clint Capela and James Harden are all in the lineup, the Rockets are 17-0. That’s a testament to his leadership and court vision.

Paul is averaging 19.1 points per game and 8.9 assists per game. He is also averaging a career-high 5.9 rebounds per game.

Of course, his assist numbers would be higher if the Rockets could stay healthy, but 8.9 isn’t too shabby for a team that takes as many jumpers as Houston does.

Andre Drummond

NBA All-Star game snubs

Drummond is upset he was left out of the All-Star Game reserves (Photo by Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

Finally, Andre Drummond was left out of the All-Star game reserves. He is averaging 14.3 points and 15 rebounds per game, with the rebounds being the league’s best.

 

His free-throw shooting percentage is also up an incredible 24.3 percent, which is significant for one of the NBA’s worst at the line. His 3.9 assists per game are also up from his career average of one. Not too bad for a true center.

Drummond has been pretty vocal about his displeasure towards being left out of the All-Star roster. You can see exactly what he thought if you visit his Twitter page, as long as you’re not at work, that is.

Biggest surprises

Al Horford

The Celtics’ center Al Horford somehow made it on to the All-Star game reserve roster averaging just 13.3 points, and less than eight rebounds per game. Although his assist totals are slightly higher than Drummond’s, he’s also more of a stretch player than Drummond is.

He ventures outside the 3-point line much more than some other centers, which could have been seen as an asset. That opens the door to more passing lanes than living under the basket does.

He’s also playing almost the exact same number of minutes as Drummond is on a better team. That alone lends itself to not really having to lean on Horford as much as Detroit has had to lean on Drummond.

This isn’t a completely unwarranted All-Star game appearance. It perhaps is just an example of bias towards a more complete team.

Guards over forwards

As stated in the voting section, the two “wild card” spots on the reserve roster are given to which ever kind of player the coaches would prefer to have on the teams. Those spots in both conferences went to guards.

It’s not totally shocking, seeing as how the league has changed to rely on quickness and 3-pointers. But if the fans are supposed to believe that NBA coaches are all as committed to defense as they say they are, that should probably show up in the All-Star game. You would expect them to be favoring blocks and paint presence over quick hands and pull-up jump shots.

Watchability

In conclusion, 2018’s All-Star game just might be more watchable than previous iterations. The draft is a fun experiment, even if it doesn’t quite work out. And it’s already proven itself useful if all four Warriors don’t end up on the same side.

Even though the jerseys may be terrible, and the draft is not televised, it’s important to remember that the league is trying new things. The NBA isn’t ever going to make everyone happy with the All-Star game, especially the players. No matter how selection is done, there will always be players who are vocal about not being on the roster.

There will always be fans claiming that none of it matters anyway, or about how their voice is not heard enough. But it’s a tradition, and it is the very nature of traditions to be divisive.

Either way, N.E.R.D is playing the halftime show. That should be enough of a reason to tune in.

 

Featured image by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

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