The 2018 NBA Playoffs are off and running, and the second-round matchups are starting to take shape. There has been a mix of surprises and predictability thus far, and the second round should hold more of the same.
The second and final Western Conference semifinal round was set following Utah’s win over Oklahoma City on Friday. The Rockets have been waiting since Wednesday to see who they would be facing in the second round.
With the matchup official, here are some predictions and analysis of what this series could hold.
The Rockets made short work of the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. Winning in just five games, Houston clearly overmatched and outclassed the Wolves.
Second halves were particularly strong for the Rockets. This includes a 50-point third quarter in Game 4. Every time it seemed like Minnesota had momentum, it was stomped out by the Rockets’ hot shooting and solid defense.
Chris Paul dribbles against Derrick Rose during their first-round series. (Photo by Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports)
Only one of the five games was decided by single digits, as Game 1 ended 104-101 in favor of the Rockets. The rest were either blowouts or not hotly contested. The closeout game was decided by 18 points, which is indicative of the what the Wolves were able to muster against the best team in the NBA, in the face of elimination, no less.
The Rockets have scored an average of 110.4 points per game through their five contests. They are first in 3-pointers made and attempted, leading the second place teams by a wide margin. Despite their high-scoring ways, Houston’s field goal percentage sits at 44.5 percent. This is probably due to their offensive style of play, relying on threes rather than high-percentage looks.
The focal point of that offense, James Harden, sits at 29 points per game in the playoffs. His 3-point percentage is sky high, at 38.5 percent. Chris Paul, his backcourt teammate, is scoring at a clip of 19 points per game, while dishing out 6.6 assists. Those assists actually sit 0.8 lower than Harden’s.
Houston just keeps solidifying itself as the best team in the NBA. But with a relatively easy first-round matchup over, now the real tests begin.
One of the best stories in the 2018 playoffs has been this Utah Jazz team. Led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, Utah took down a team led by three potential future Hall of Fame talents in the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In six games, the Jazz were able to ride their brand of defense-oriented basketball to a series win that not many saw coming. The combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was supposed to be built for playoff basketball. But the team fell flat against a potential new Western Conference powerhouse.
Donovan Mitchell drives against Corey Brewer during the first round of the 2018 playoffs. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)
Mitchell has been putting up numbers not seen by a rookie in the playoffs since Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Averaging 28.5 points per game while also grabbing 7.2 rebounds, Mitchell has continued his dominance. Ricky Rubio has also been playing very well, scoring at a clip of 14 points per game and dishing out seven assists. Rubio also had a triple-double in Utah’s Game 3 win in Salt Lake City.
Coach Quin Snyder’s team has arguably over-achieved this season on the back of a possible Rookie of the Year campaign by Mitchell. But their undeniable performances against Oklahoma City and their big three may paint this team in a different light. The defense is some of the best in the league, and the scoring is confusing and frustrating of opposing teams.
Utah is a team that struggles to draw free agents, but if the team continues to play like this, then Western Conference championships and NBA Finals appearances are certainly on the horizon.
Preview and predictions
Utah will be an interesting challenge for the NBA’s best regular season team. Houston has a historically high-powered offense, but NBA fans just saw the Jazz’s defense shut down some of the premiere scorers in the league in the first round.
With Rudy Gobert locking down the paint, he might neutralize Clint Capela in the post. His two blocks per game are tied for fourth in the playoffs, and he can guard smaller players as well. Rubio has never been known for his defense, but his offense has nearly matched that of Chris Paul’s lately. Plus, his passing ability rivals Paul’s own.
The matchup to watch, however, will be Harden versus Mitchell. The defensive end of the floor will be irrelevant, but the offensive show these two players can put on will be ridiculously exciting. Look for Mitchell to do his best to match Harden’s performance, while Harden looks to show up the rookie at all costs. Plus, NBA fans have seen Harden go cold in the playoffs in the past, whereas Mitchell just keeps on delivering.
In the end, though, it is hard to bet against this Houston team. Their regular season pedigree speaks for itself, and in the NBA, more so than any other sport, great offense can beat great defense.
This one will be close, and a new rivalry might be born. But expect the Rockets’ push towards the finals to continue.
Rockets in six
Featured image by Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports
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On Wednesday night, with their season on the line, the Oklahoma City Thunder were down 25 points with eight and a half minutes left in the third quarter. Boos were shouted from all around the arena, as the Utah Jazz looked like they were going to shock the Thunder on the road.
All of a sudden, Paul George and Russell Westbrook caught fire. Westbrook, who was abysmal in the first half, went 12-for-23, scoring 33 of his 45 points in the latter half of the game. He also added seven assists and 15 rebounds. George finished the game with 34 points and eight rebounds. Oklahoma City outscored Utah 66-43 in the second half, and ultimately won the game 107-99.
“Playoff Melo” is a liability in this series against Utah. (Photo from USA Today)
But where was Carmelo Anthony? He finished the game with just seven points on 2-for-6 shooting in only 25 minutes of play. Throughout the series, Anthony has been awful when he steps foot on the court. In five games, the 10-time All-Star is averaging 12.8 points on 36.9 percent shooting from the field and 21.4 percent from beyond the arc. The 33-year-old has just two assists in his 168 minutes of action, which both came in Game 1.
That is right, he has yet to record an assist in over 130 minutes. On Wednesday, OKC finally realized that they are a better team with Alex Abrines on the court instead of Melo.
Per 100 possessions, Melo’s plus-minus on the court is -12.6. In the regular season, he set career lows in points, assists, minutes, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and steals. Translation: While it has been a fun ride, the United States Olympic men’s national basketball team’s all-time leading scorer is a shell of what he used to be. However, this is a future Hall of Fame player we are dealing with. Let’s show him the respect he deserves.
Melo did not become a 10-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA selection and a three-time Gold Medalist with the USA Olympic basketball team by accident.
Anthony went for 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the National Championship Game. (Photo from Orange Fizz)
Anthony ranked No. 2 in his class, behind Amar’e Stoudemire, in regards to the top high school prospects. He committed to Syracuse before his senior year, and boy was it the right call. During his one season with Syracuse, Melo averaged 22.2 points and 10 rebounds, while leading the Orange to their first NCAA Tournament Championship in school history.
In the Final Four game against the University of Texas, Anthony dropped 33 points, which at the time was an NCAA Tournament record for most points by a freshman. In the championship against Kansas, a team led by Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, Anthony went for 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, all team highs, en route to 81-78 victory for Cuse.
Anthony was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and earned second team All-American honors, as well as All-Big East first team. He decided to leave college after his fantastic freshman season, and was selected third overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2003 NBA Draft.
Denver and New York Days
In his eight seasons with the Nuggets, Anthony averaged 24.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. He led Denver to the playoffs in every season from 2004-2010. In 2008-09, Anthony brought the Nuggets all the way into the Western Conference Finals. Although they ultimately fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games, Anthony did not disappoint. As a 24-year-old, Melo averaged 27.2 points per playoff game.
Glory days (Photo from RantSports)
In 2011, he was sent to the New York Knicks via trade. He was named an All-Star in his six full seasons with New York and led the league in scoring with 28.7 points per game in 2012-13. In 2014 against the Charlotte Bobcats, Anthony scored a Madison Square Garden and New York Knicks single-game scoring record 62 points in New York’s 125-96 victory.
Although he has yet to win a ring, and probably never will, Anthony is one of six players (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter) to have 24,000 points, 6,000 rebounds, 2,500 assists, 1,000 steals, and 1,000 3-pointers.
Melo also has four seasons with at least 1,200 points, 150 3-pointers and 300 rebounds. The only players with more seasons matching those numbers are Ray Allen, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Paul George. He ranks 13th all-time in total games with at least 25 points and five rebounds. Anthony trails Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by 10 games in this category.
He has seven seasons averaging 25 points on better than 44.5 percent shooting and three rebounds. The only players since 1990 with more seasons averaging those numbers are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Shaquille O’Neal.
NO. OF SEASONS AVERAGING 20 POINTS PER GAME
*= Still Active
NO. OF SEASONS
Love him or hate him, Anthony is one of the best scorers of this generation. While this season has been a disappointment, don’t forget how electric Carmelo Anthony once was.
Featured image by USA Today
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Featured image by Ravell Call/Deseret News
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The long NBA regular season is now over and the playoffs can begin. There are a lot of “super” teams that are coming together, some injuries and some contenders who are playing unusually poorly, which should create some competitive matchups. The Thunder and Jazz will meet in one of the more intriguing first-round series.
Donovan Mitchell (Photo by slcdunk.com)
The Jazz finished the season with a 48-34 record, which secured them the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Utah has been able to win so many games thanks to their elite defense, which allows 99.8 points per game. They are currently nursing a few injuries between Ricky Rubio and Dante Exum, but they did play in the season finale against the Trail Blazers.
Rudy Gobert anchors the Jazz defense with 2.3 blocks per game. He makes it hard for any opponent to drive the lane and pulls down a lot of defensive rebounds when he is challenged with 10.7 rebounds per game. His offensive game isn’t as good as last year, but he still averages 13.5 points per game.
The big surprise for the Jazz this season has been the emergence of rookie Donovan Mitchell. He was selected with the 13th overall selection in the draft and has outdone all expectations, averaging 20.5 points per game. Mitchell will draw a lot of defensive focus and will have to up his game in his first ever playoff series.
Mitchell and Gobert are the leaders of the offense and defense, respectively. The Jazz have Ricky Rubio, Joe Ingles and Derrick Favors rounding out the starting five. Rubio is tasked with running the offense and has done a solid job at 5.3 assists per game from the point guard position. He also leads the team with 1.6 steals per game. Ingles, the three, also makes plays for his teammates, with 4.8 assists per game. He is also Utah’s ace shooter from deep at 44%. Favors is the power forward who brings experience and is second on the team in PER (player efficiency rating) at 18.8.
The bench has some solid players, like Jae Crowder, Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Jonas Jerebko and Royce O’Neale, but leaves some to be desired. They rank 21st in bench scoring in the NBA. Crowder leads the bench scoring with 11.8 points per game. If the Jazz want to win the series they need to rely mostly on their starters.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The OK3 (photo by thunderousintentions.com)
Oklahoma City also finished the season with a 48-34 record but got the fourth seed via tie-breakers. A lot was expected out of the NBA’s newest big three with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining forces, but it took some time for the team to gel together.
Westbrook was just able to complete his second straight season averaging a triple-double, which has never been done in NBA history. He will always have critics who knock him for not being a great team player, but those critics can’t away how much he has done these past two years.
George has been a great two-way player for the Thunder this year, averaging 21.9 points and two steals per game. Anthony has struggled to find his role with his new team, but still averages 16.2 points per game. Steven Adams is underrated at the center position, who plays solid defense. Corey Brewer was brought in to help fill the void that was left when Andre Roberson was lost for the year. He is banged up but expects to play in game one to help round out the starting five. Brewer is a good defender and has shot 34.3 percent from three-point range since being acquired by the Thunder.
Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson, Alex Abrines, Terrance Ferguson and Josh Huestis all play over 10 minutes a game from the bench. Felton plays the point when Westbrook needs a breather and helps steady the second unit. Patterson is a glue guy, who can match up with bigs while also shooting from deep at 38.3 percent. The three-point sharpshooter off the bench though is Alex Abrines at 38.0 percent. Ferguson and Huestis are still young and developing. They rank 28th in bench scoring, which means they will likely make sure that one star player is on the court at all times to help carry the scoring punch.
The Thunder have taken three out of four games against the Jazz this season, but the teams haven’t played since December. The Jazz took the first game of the year between the two teams, but that was before Mitchell blew up and OKC’s big three had completely gelled together.
With both benches being below average, this series will be won by the starting lineups. The Thunder have the stars, but the Jazz have some balance and defense. The series could go either way, but the Thunder have the edge heading into the series.
Paul George was one of the best defenders in the league this season and can guard Donovan Mitchell to slow him down. If he can’t score as much as he usually does, the Jazz will struggle to find who can score consistently. Utah has a record of 17-18 when Mitchell doesn’t play or score twenty points. Their defense is good enough to make up for it on some occasions, but in the playoffs, they may not find much luck.
The Thunder are a streaky team who win several games in a row then lose several in a row. If the Jazz can take game one, a thing every team wants to do, they could get the Thunder to slide. Their best hopes lie in keeping Westbrook out of the paint. Gobert will have to be at his absolute finest protecting the rim and the perimeter defenders have to run Anthony and George off of the three-point line.
With the Thunder taking the season series and the Jazz being led by a rookie, who needs to get used to playing playoff basketball, Oklahoma City will win the series. It may take a few games to seal the series, due to the tough Jazz defense, but they will win the series and advance to round two.
Thunder in six.
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It truly is the “Wild Wild West” when it comes to the hunt for the NBA Finals.
We are only six days from the start of the playoffs, and seeding is anything but concrete. Every team, with the exception of the top two, could potentially end up anywhere. The third-seeded Trailblazers and the Nuggets, the first team out, are only four games apart.
Regardless of seeding, however, every team that makes the playoffs has the same goal: becoming NBA champions.
Knowing that the seedings can, and probably will change over the remaining two to four games for each potential playoff contender, it is time to take a look at what can propel them towards or keep them from winning the Larry O’Brien trophy.
No. 9 seed (first team out) – Denver Nuggets
While the Nuggets may be on the outside looking in for now, it is worth mentioning that they would safely be a playoff team if they were in the East.
Alas, they are not, and Denver is fighting for its playoff life with every game.
The Nuggets young core of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic are electric, and can be good for a very long time. Their positioning in some of the most important basketball stats is eye-opening.
Denver is sixth in points per game, seventh in rebounds per game (thanks to their fantastic length and speed) and fifth in assists per game. This makes them a scary matchup if they do claw their way into the postseason. Being able to score, rebound and share the ball consistently will make it hard for any team to dig its way out of an early hole, if they find themselves in one.
The youth and athleticism will also wear opposing teams out in a seven-game series. The Nuggets love to turn the transition game into a track meet after a steal, but also excel in post-up situations if it is called for, thanks to Jokic’s talents.
For all of these reasons, and the fact that some higher-seeded teams could overlook Denver due to their late season struggles, they could surprise the NBA all the way to the finals. Once the finals roll around, anything can happen, especially if a plucky eight seed manages to punch their ticket.
What will keep them from achieving those dreams, however, is their lackluster defense. With a defense good for 24th in the NBA, that probably will not translate well to the playoffs. As impressive as a sixth-ranked points per game offense is, it does not mean much if Denver cannot stop the best teams in the league from scoring.
The Nuggets certainly cannot go shot-for-shot with the Rockets or the Warriors, and the inability to overpower these teams defensively could spell an early exit.
No. 8 seed – Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves’ season has been a bit of a roller coaster. At times, they have seemed like not only locks for a playoff spot, but true contenders. At others, they have massively underachieved, falling to legitimately bad teams.
Surprisingly for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, the offense has been the strength for Minnesota. They are ranked seventh in points per game and leaning heavily on the bona fide stardom of Karl-Anthony Towns.
Towns can score inside, outside and distribute the ball well. Jamal Crawford has seemingly tapped into the fountain of youth to become an important part of the team. Before his injury, Jimmy Butler was averaging the most minutes per game in the NBA, and backing up that playing time with some fantastic numbers.
Karl-Anthony Towns will have to keep up his dominant performance if the Wolves hope to win a title. (Photo by Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)
Their star power is where their title hopes live and die. The Wolves are well-coached, and they have the ability to take over any game at most any moment. If Butler gets his pre-injury step back, then his iso scoring ability will be too much for almost anyone guarding him. Odds are, opposing teams will have to create a mismatch elsewhere on the court to stop him, which the Timberwolves can and will take advantage of. If they can find a way to make that work over multiple series, then there is no reason Minnesota cannot take everyone by surprise and walk home with the title.
Again, this Thibodeau team surprisingly goes heavily against the mold previously casted by his other teams. Normally known for their shutdown defense, this Thibodeau team is flat-out average defensively. Barely outside the bottom 10 in terms of defensive ranking, mediocre defense is not something to get excited about in the playoffs.
In a case of strengths also being weaknesses, pure star power alone cannot get the job done for an average rebounding and defensive team. Add the fact that their bench ranks dead last in court minutes and offensive production, and leaning on Butler and Towns at (hopefully) full strength will be Minnesota’s option.
The Wolves can absolutely get out of the first round if they do not have to see the Rockets, but even that would require immense luck and unbelievable game planning. Sustaining a playoff run on two players and no bench does not make a true finals contender.
No. 7 seed – Oklahoma City Thunder
If it has been said once, it has been said a thousand times: The “OK3” have the ability to take over any game.
However, the Thunder have been underwhelming this season. It is hard to come up with a legitimate argument for why Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony could not figure it out and combine for 70-plus points on any given night. While Melo has lost a step and struggles to move without the ball, he can still fill it up. George’s defense has overshadowed his offense, which is impressive. And Westbrook is Westbrook, no explanation needed.
This team was not built for an 82-game season, it was built for the playoffs. It is important to remember that none of their big three have won a title, and they would all love nothing more than to check off that particular box. With Adams as a reliable rebounder and scorer in the paint, the Thunder even have a bail-out option if George and Anthony’s floor spacing is not working well and Westbrook’s lane to the hoop are clogged.
Their ability to win a title rests solely on their potential. It has been a potential that NBA fans have not seen. But again, this team screams, “NBA Finals contenders” on paper. With good game plans by Scott Brooks, they can absolutely reach that peak if it all finally comes together in the playoffs.
Similar to the Timberwolves’ problem, though, the Thunder’s bench is bad. Oklahoma City will absolutely have to ride the three big names through the playoffs. If we see more of what we have seen over the regular season in the playoffs, then a disappointing end to the season is inevitable.
Their defense is 10th in the league, mostly thanks to George and Westbrook’s ball-stealing abilities. Oklahoma City will be rolling the dice to see if they can rob enough possessions to win games. Many teams they might play throughout the playoffs will be teams that play fast and are not too worried about turnovers because of their scoring ability. Those steals will have to turn into points, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
No. 6 seed – San Antonio Spurs
Two words sum up the reason the Spurs can win the 2018 NBA Finals: Gregg Popovich.
That is an oversimplification, but it is not necessarily completely untrue. Popovich has never had less to work with as the Spurs streak of 50-win seasons will be coming to a close after 18 seasons.
With a 40-year-old Manu Ginobili, a Tony Parker that just cannot do what he used to and no Tim Duncan, the Spurs sit at the sixth seed. This without even mentioning the never-ending Kawhi Leonard saga that has plagued the team.
It looks like Greg Popovich and the Spurs will be advancing to the playoffs for 21 straight seasons. (Photo by Jim Cowsert/Associated Press)
The defense is some of the best in the league, and the 3-point percentage is excellent due to disciplined shot selection. Popovich can outcoach almost anyone in the league with just about any roster. That kind of thing is a huge difference maker in the playoffs. The Spurs do not need to win every game, just four out of seven. That is more than doable. With their winning culture and fantastic pedigree, if the Spurs reach the finals, it would be hard to truly see them as underdogs.
The age here is huge though. The team is old, and the young players are inexperienced. Their biggest playoff x-factor would be LaMarcus Aldridge, and teams have been able to shut him down in the past.
The Spurs were swept last year in the conference finals without Leonard. While it seems as if they have found an identity without him this year, it is going to be hard to make a meaningful finals run without the two-way superstar. Teams simply are not scared of the Spurs this year, and intimidation was a big part of their game.
San Antonio will have no choice but to overachieve if they want to win it all.
No. 5 seed – New Orleans Pelicans
Speaking of overachieving, the Pelicans are doing a whole lot with very little.
After DeMarcus Cousins went down with an achilles injury, most NBA fans left the Pelicans for dead. But Anthony Davis has put the team on his unibrow and taken the team to new heights. Averaging 28.1 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, with multiple 50-point games mixed in, the identity of this team is clear. The Pelicans want to give Davis the ball and figure it out from there.
New Orleans has fantastic shooting stats, stemming from their ability to pass up good shots for great ones. Their 3-point percentage ranks in the top half of the league, but they do not take very many, which lends itself well to high percentages. The defense is also good. The balance of this team spells hope for a run to the NBA Finals.
But Davis alone will not be enough to carry them to the finals, let alone win them. All an opposing team has to do is find a way to take him out of the game. This is no easy task, but these will be the best teams in the NBA the Pelicans will be playing against.
The fundamental basketball is sound, but pairing it with the run-and-gun offenses they will be facing will surely overpower New Orleans. If the Pelicans still had Cousins, this would be a completely different story. But as the team stands now, they might have the least chance to win the Finals, regardless of their fifth seed.
No. 4 seed – Utah Jazz
The defensive prowess of this team is their strongest suit. The defense of the Jazz alone can get them out of the first round.
With a scoring threat led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell and the improved shooting stroke of Ricky Rubio, Utah is a scary matchup. Coupled with their late season push, this team is coming together at the right time.
Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell has been a driving force in Utah’s playoff push. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
The passing and ball movement is fantastic. They have a great inside-out game, and they will be counting on teams underestimating them once the playoffs roll around. It was not too long ago that the Jazz were on the outside looking in. Now in the fourth spot in the West, they have legitimized themselves and are forcing teams to take them seriously.
The core might just be too young to make a deep run though. Leaning on defense is a tough sell when matching them up against the Rockets or the Warriors. Teams with their jump-shooting abilities thrive on finding the holes and exploiting them constantly.
Regardless of where they sit when the playoffs begin, the first-round matchup featuring the Jazz will be must-watch basketball for any NBA fan. This could be the beginning of something special, even if they do not have the juice to win it all.
No. 3 seed – Portland Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard combine for one of the best backcourts in the game right now. The emergence of Jusuf Nurkic as a rock-solid post player has given the team a great option down low. The bench is fantastic and the wing players are some of the best three-and-D men in the NBA
One could accuse the Trail Blazers of playing above their ceiling, but that is a hard argument to sustain given their records against the other best teams in the league. The defense is also playing nice, making Portland a complete team.
Being fourth in rebounds per game also guarantees them enough possessions to get their shooters going, which is essential in their offense. Portland can shoot themselves out of almost any kind of deficit they find themselves in. That kind of pedigree can win a title in any era.
However, playoff basketball is about adjusting when other teams take away their strengths.
The Trail Blazers are dead last in assists per game. It has not hurt them too much in the regular season, but if opposing defenses can take away their iso scoring game, then they are going to try to force the ball into tight spaces, resulting in turnovers.
Selfish basketball can win a team their division, or even their conference, but it does not lend itself well to winning a playoff series or a title. Portland will have no choice but to work to break themselves of that identity and find ways to move off the ball if they want to make it out of the Western Conference.
No. 2 seed – Golden State Warriors
The only thing more well-documented than Golden State’s struggles in the 2017-18 season is their dominance over the past three years.
Banged up, reeling and playing uncharacteristically down to their opponents’ level, the Warriors have let their death grip on the West slide. But this does not spell disaster for Golden State.
Until further notice, they are still the reigning Western Conference champions with a great coaching staff and four All-Stars in their starting five. It looks like the Warriors should be at full strength by the second round of the playoffs.
The Warriors might have to play the first round of the playoffs without All-Star Stephen Curry. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
If Stephen Curry comes back at full strength and Kevin Durant continues the current tear he is on, then the Warriors are still the scariest team in the West. Much like the Spurs, Golden State is coasting on reputation until they have to back it up once the playoffs start.
This roster, including a great bench, can own any team at a moment’s notice, no questions asked. They also know their opponents well enough to expose any weaknesses at any position. No one in the NBA community is going to be surprised if they represent the Western Conference for a fourth straight year. The Rockets will probably be their toughest test, so if they do make it to the NBA Finals, expect the dynasty to be official and unequivocal.
However, Houston is the tallest of orders for this team right now. Golden State has made it known that they are vulnerable. Again, the banged up roster could be a problem for the team. Sharing the ball is key to the Warriors’ success, and without shooters like Curry, an extra pass could lead to a turnover. It could also lead to missed shots, which is more of a problem this year than it has been in previous years.
This is because their defense has gone downhill in the worst kind of way. As far as points allowed goes, Golden State is 17th in the league.
Giving opposing teams confidence is the very last thing the Warriors want to do. Golden State thrives on putting their boot on teams’ necks early and applying pressure with a barrage of made shots.
They are not done until they are done, but the playoffs will undoubtedly be more of a test this year than they have been. And the NBA is all the better for it.
No. 1 seed – Houston Rockets
The offensive juggernaut that is the Rockets has earned the top spot through some amazing play. They deserve the home-court advantage and then some.
They are second in points per game, first in 3-pointers made, and their defense ranks in the top 10 in terms of points allowed. The Chris Paul and James Harden experiment has paid off handsomely, and the bench is rallying around the exciting brand of basketball that Houston plays night in and night out.
Even if the defense was truly awful, it would not matter due to the Rockets’ 3-point shooting abilities. Clint Capela also collects enough offensive rebounds to solidify himself as a legitimate playoff threat.
This team can dethrone the Warriors. They have beaten them in the regular season, even when the Warriors were at full strength. If Paul, Harden and Capela are on the floor, the Rockets cannot seem to lose. If they do make the finals over Golden State, go ahead and place your bets, because they can run away with it.
The only real problem with this team is their reliance on jump shooting. For Houston to thrive, shots have to fall. Any NBA fan knows that teams have nights where the ball just does not go in the basket. It is hard to believe that the Rockets would fall victim to enough of those games to remove them from title contention, but it is entirely possible.
If the Rockets can get the Warrior-sized monkey off of their backs and shake their reputation of fizzling out in the playoffs, the NBA Finals may very well be theirs to lose.
Featured image by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
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It is not a secret that James Harden is the clear frontrunner for the NBA MVP award. Other names are inevitably mentioned throughout the season, but Harden’s has been the mainstay.
Tuesday’s matchup between the Trail Blazers and the Rockets may have been his victory lap. A 42-point performance against one of the hottest teams in the league solidified his campaign, especially considering Portland’s team features some of the best guard play in the league.
Harden has been a man on a mission this season. After coming second in MVP voting twice, he has been out to show the NBA he is more than just a runner-up. He is an unstoppable force that will go down as one of the best multifaceted offensive players in league history.
Here is an in-depth look at his rise to glory during the 2017-18 season and why he is a virtual lock to take home the trophy.
After Tuesday’s 42-point performance, Harden’s stats stand at 31.2 points, 8.7 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game.
His player efficiency rating is an NBA-best 30.67. A stat like that is not only a testament to what he brings to his team, but also a comment on the success of the Rockets’ analytics-based team-building strategy.
James Harden is also shooting almost 47 percent from the field in his last 10 games, and 45.2 percent on the season. Considering the amount of jump shots he takes, that number is sky high. He is also shooting 86.7 percent from the free-throw line, slightly higher than his 85.5 career percentage.
James Harden during his 60-point triple-double performance against Orlando. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
At 37.5 percent, his three-point percentage may seem weak compared to the NBA’s best percentage, 44.7, held by Darren Collison. But, on average, he takes 7.3 more threes per game than Collison, meaning he hits more threes per game this season than Collison even attempts.
What should not be overlooked here is the assists. Harden is playing with Chris Paul, one of the best assist men in NBA history. He is actually averaging almost an entire assist more per game this season than his own point guard. Even with a prolific passer running the offense half the time, Harden still has the ability to distribute the ball and find his shots.
This is exemplified by his 27 double-doubles and three triple-doubles. Included in those is an NBA-record 60-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist performance that was good for the most points ever scored in a triple-double.
All of those are MVP-level stats, regardless of one’s feelings about the current “offense over everything” identity of the NBA.
Harden’s incredible season is garnering a lot of attention from players and coaches alike.
Of course Harden’s own coach is going to laud his abilities, but Mike D’Antoni took his praise to the next level.
Mike D'Antoni on Harden: He's unique. That's the best offensive player I've ever seen. He has so many weapons and now he;s shooting those step-back 3s. It's impossible to guard him. It's impossible."
Calling someone “the best offensive player I’ve ever seen” is a very big deal, especially coming from D’Antoni, who has been coaching professional basketball for almost 30 years.
Considering he has coached some of the biggest offensive names in basketball during his coaching tenures, such as Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash, it takes the praise even further.
Harden’s main competition in the MVP race, Anthony Davis, is a fantastic young player who has put the Pelicans on his back after DeMarcus Cousins’ injury. But even his coach, Alvin Gentry, said the race is, “not even close,” in an interview with The Houston Chronicle.
Eric Gordon, Harden’s teammate, has stated that he can’t imagine anyone else being the MVP this year. Chris Paul has gone on record saying the MVP voting will take care of itself.
The Beard himself, however, has been hesitant to talk about a possible MVP award. Again, he’s been in the conversation for the past five years, and come in second place twice. One of those second place finishes was against Russell Westbrook’s triple-double season last year. That is the very definition of running into a buzzsaw.
All of that aside, it seems as if his time has come this season. He has only one true competitor, and many sports news outlets are starting to ask if he can be the second unanimous MVP. He certainly deserves it, yet it’s likely some votes will swing to Davis, considering he is single-handedly keeping the Pelicans afloat in the playoff race.
The only thing that could possibly stand between James Harden and the MVP is his defensive shortcomings.
Harden has been the butt of many jokes regarding his effort on the defensive end of the floor. The internet is littered with GIFs of him barely running down the court, or simply clearing the lane completely when a player is driving towards him.
The Houston Rockets’ system has found a way to mask these issues though. With the offensive capabilities of the team, defense is not the focus so much as matching the other teams’ shots. If there is anything Harden can do, it’s go shot-for-shot with anybody in the NBA.
Harden guards LeBron James. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Even so, his defensive stats are up slightly from his career average. His steals are up 0.3 per game, and his blocks are up 0.2 per game. Now, these numbers aren’t huge, but consider that if there is a steal made, Harden is usually the one running up the court instead of holding the ball. And guards’ blocks are simply a luxury item, not to be compared to the importance of forwards’ block numbers.
Any coach or player will tell you that defense matters, and it does. But when a team puts up almost 114 points every single night, it can be allowed to take a back seat. Harden’s defense might be another reason he may not be the second-ever unanimous MVP, but it won’t lose him the award by any means.
With Lil B’s curse lifted once and for all, it is finally Harden’s year.
Featured image by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
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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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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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It isn’t news that the Western Conference is absolutely stacked.
The Warriors are far and away the best team in the league, let alone the West. But as we saw in the 2016 NBA Finals, even the best team in NBA history can go down swinging. All it takes is four bad games in May or June and all the regular season success is a complete wash.
So let’s rank the biggest threats to Golden State’s dynasty before the All-Star weekend.
Honorable mention: New Orleans Pelicans
Until recently, the Pelicans could have ranked as high as No. 2 on the list of potential problems for the Warriors.
Cousins tore his achilles tendon Friday night against the Rockets. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
But with DeMarcus Cousins out for up to 10 months after his brutal achilles tear against the Rockets Friday night, those hopes are all but dashed. In fact, not many would be surprised if they miss the playoffs entirely.
Their strengths against Golden State were squarely rooted in Cousin’s and Anthony Davis’ ability to team up and take over the paint on both sides of the floor. A four-game series against those two could at least wear almost any team down, if not eliminate them. The Pelicans also have the second best shooting percentage in the league. That’s a potent combination.
Davis and open looks won’t be enough to take down the Warriors’ four All-Stars. Couple that with the team’s lack of playoff experience and fourth-worst turnover margin per game, and it’s a long shot at best.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves are perhaps the best story in the Western Conference.
They have a gritty head coach who rose up through the ranks despite not playing a minute in the NBA. Jimmy Butler is a top-tier trash-talker and can back it up with his play. Karl-Anthony Towns continues to emerge as a premiere offensive weapon. Taj Gibson is finally stretching the floor, Andrew Wiggins has insane potential and Jamal Crawford is one of the best sixth men in the history of the game.
As exciting as all of that is, it’s probably only good enough to steal a game or two away from Golden State.
Towns being able to stretch the floor will give Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee fits, but the depth of the Warriors bench is nothing short of historic. Minnesota’s bench has potential, but it won’t be able to keep Golden State in check. This squad has potential, and they will definitely make the Western Conference playoffs. But it is most definitely a few years away from dethroning the champs.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Counting out the San Antonio Spurs is like counting out the New England Patriots. Anyone who has watched the NBA since 1999 will tell you that. The NBA’s version of Bill Belichick can outcoach anyone in the league, seemingly at will.
Leonard, Diaw and Popovich gameplan against the Warriors. (Photo by Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports)
The Spurs’ problems are obvious. First of all, losing Kawhi Leonard is a massive blow to any title aspirations. He might be the most balanced two-way player in the league. At 100 percent, he is easily one of the NBA’s top five players. There is no set timetable for his return, but it’s entirely possible that he comes back in time for the playoffs.
The other things standing in the way are age and pace of play. The Warriors like to speed up the pace offensively and get in transition quickly on defense. That should not at all inspire confidence, considering the Spurs slower, more deliberate style of play. This was entirely too obvious when they were swept by Golden State in the Western Conference Finals last year.
But the playoff experience on the team is hard to ignore. Manu Ginobili is still playing well off of the bench at age 40, and Tony Parker can still contribute at age 35. The younger talent is stepping up, and, as previously stated, Leonard is an absolute game changer if he can make it back in time for the playoffs.
Gregg Popovich isn’t done until he’s done.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
An underachieving Thunder team is still a possible issue for Golden State.
The biggest discrepancy between the two teams is the coaching. At 29-20, a lot of the blame for OKC not living up to its full potential is falling on third-year head coach Billy Donovan. Some of it is for his unwillingness to shake up the starting lineup, but also because of his inability to break Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony of their ball-hogging habits.
Oklahoma City’s big three. (Photo by Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)
We already know Steve Kerr can handle four All-Stars on one team, and has his team’s full support. Another thing he does exceptionally well is convince his players to move the ball. Golden State is first in the league in assists. The Thunder are 25th. That will undoubtedly swing the score in the Warriors’ direction.
However, Oklahoma City is first in steals, led by Westbrook and Paul George. Robbing Golden State of possessions is a massive key to beating them. Even though the “OK3” haven’t set the league on fire, it’s still hard to count out these players in any given game.
We all know Westbrook can take over a game at any given moment. George is shooting well and is a serious contender for Defensive Player of the Year. Anthony can still score with the best of them, he just needs to be willing to play off the ball more.
The second half of the season will be the real litmus test for this team. Don’t get excited, but don’t leave them for dead, either. As long as they get a decent seed in the Western Conference, they have an outside chance to pull off an upset.
1. Houston Rockets
This was an obvious choice.
The Rockets are first in both 3-pointers attempted and 3-pointers made. They’re third in free throws attempted and second in free throws made. They boast the NBA’s third-highest assist per game average. They are also second in points per game to, you guessed it, the Warriors.
Simply speaking, they are an incredible offensive group. Houston is the epitome of what the NBA has become in the 2010s. Led by one of the NBA’s best offensive minds, this team is easily the Warriors’ biggest roadblock.
During its first game this season, they beat Golden State by one point. On Jan. 20, the Rockets beat the Warriors by eight points. They were quick to tout their confidence in being able to overtake them in the playoffs. This may have been just a tactic, but one can’t deny it’s certainly possible. They are, after all, the only team that can keep up with the amount of threes Golden State can hit.
Until Friday night, the Rockets were unbeaten when Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela all suit up. Now 19-1 with its best players on the court, Houston knows what it has to do to win, and what they can adjust when they’re being overtaken.
Golden State does have a couple things on Houston, however.
Houston has to play Golden State’s game, which usually ends up being a disaster for anyone who tries it. Although they can probably match the Warriors for most of the game, if the shots stop falling, that spells disaster for the Rockets.
They also can’t rely on defense like the Warriors can. Since Houston plays so quickly, defense is essentially an afterthought. They can outscore most teams, so that’s not usually a problem. Golden State, however, is a completely different animal. Especially considering its bench depth.
It will be difficult. If they do take down Golden State, it will almost definitely have to be in seven games, meaning Houston will have to play the winner-take-all game in Oakland. But it is much more likely for them than the other 15 teams in the Western Conference.
With no more regular season matchups to watch, we’ll all just have to wait and see.
Featured image by Nathaniel Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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The evolution of the 3-point shot over the last decade has truly been remarkable. It has changed the game tremendously and placed the emphasis on a pace-and-space offense in today’s game. This is the type of offense the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers run. If you notice, those are four of the best teams in the NBA, and it is because their offenses are efficient and high-scoring.
The main point of these offenses is to try and take a lot of layups, dunks and 3-point shots, while eliminating the mid-range game. Since these types of offenses are becoming the new norm, that means there of plenty of 3-point shots being attempted and made. With so many 3-point makes, this allows for more opportunities to celebrate a make. Let’s look at the 10 best 3-point celebrations, in no particular order, by current NBA players.
Wesley Matthews bow and arrow
Let me start by saying this is my personal favorite. It is so simple, but also extremely effective.
The reason I like this the most is that Matthews does this celebration after every single attempt, no matter the score or the time in the game. Some of the celebrations that I go over only come out in big moments, but Matthews is consistent with his dedication to the celebration.
The three-and-D wingman from the Dallas Mavericks has a career 38.3 3-point percentage and over 1,300 three’s in his NBA career. This celebration originated while he was with the Portland Trail Blazers in a game in 2014 and has carried over until now.
In many cases when he makes a three, the Dallas bench will also erupt and shoot arrows in response.
(Jamal Murray, a second-year shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets, also does this celebration but Matthews started it first and has been doing it longer.)
Russell Westbrook holster the guns
Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook’s celebrations are just as primal and ferocious as his dunks.
Even though Westbrook is a prolific offensive player who can score at will, he is not the best three-point shooter. In fact, most would consider him to be below average with a career average of 31.3 percent from three. This does not mean he hasn’t hit some HUGE three’s in his career, which leads to the celebration at hand.
Westbrook enjoys to pretend he is a wild west cowboy, and instead of guns he holsters three fingers.
Jason Terry gotta jet
Although TNT analyst and former Houston Rocket great Kenny Smith is known as “The Jet,” Jason Terry is known for the celebration where he pretends to be a jet.
The current Milwaukee Bucks shooting guard is enjoying his 19th year in the NBA. He has been mostly a secondary piece on multiple playoff teams. He won a championship in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks over the Miami Heat’s super team.
During that playoff run, his 3-point “jet” celebration became popular. I remember copying the celebration while playing basketball in eighth grade. (But I only did it in practice, because I played like 20 total minutes the whole season).
D’Angelo Russell ice in his veins
D’Angelo Russell has had an inconsistent career so far, but he has shown the potential to be an explosive scorer and offensive player.
What has been the most consistent part of Russell’s career is his absolute fire celebrations. After hitting a late three-pointer in a 39-point performance with the Lakers, he pointed to his veins to show everyone they were filled with ice.
Recently back from injury, it’s good to see the now Brooklyn Nets point guard back on the court.
Although he hasn’t had the chance to break out this celebration yet this season, you can count on it at some point in the second half of the year when he is fully healthy and back to playing like he was pre-injury.
Danilo Gallinari “bellissimo”
Danilo Gallinari is the best Italian ever to play in the NBA. He has been long considered one of the better secondary scoring options in the league when healthy, which has been a problem for him over the past few years.
Gallinari has averaged 15.3 points per game in his career and has shot over 36 percent from deep.
In a game against the Utah Jazz two years ago, Gallinari broke out the Italian kiss celebration after hitting a three that effectively put the nail in the coffin for the game.
The Italians have a flair for the dramatic, which means when Gallinari bangs a shot in a big moment, watch out for the kiss.
James Harden stir the pot
Originally the dance of rapper Lil B, Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden has adopted the celebration into his own.
Harden finished second in the MVP race last year and is one of the contenders again this year. He has had plenty of moments to break out the celebration.
He usually breaks it out when he goes on a personal scoring run by himself or when he hits a big-time three down the stretch. You will see the MVP candidate stir up something special.
Carmelo Anthony 3 to the head
One of the most recognizable and classic celebrations in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony’s 3 to the head celebration is as good as it gets. Take the 3-point fingers and bang them against your head a few times and you are instantly Melo.
The former NBA scoring champ and current small forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder popularized the celebration in Madison Square Garden while with the New York Knicks.
It is as swaggy of a 3-point celebration as you are gonna get.
J.R. Smith celebration of any kind
This is sort of cheating, but any 3-point celebration J.R. Smith has broken out has burned down the arena, so I felt I had to include more than one.
Smith is a mercurial shooting guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is one of the streakiest shooters in the NBA.
Once he gets hot, watch out, because he will pull threes and hit from anywhere.
Here are his three best celebrations to date
He has skipped down the court, which is quite simple, but very swag if done right.
He has played an air guitar solo at center court after hitting a deep three while with the Knicks.
Finally, he has 3-point strutted all the way down the court after hitting a three over Kobe Bryant in the 2009 Western Conference Finals.
J.R. is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs.
Dion Waiters crossed arms
Dion Waiters is another player who is one of the streakiest love-hate players in the NBA. He told his Syracuse teammates to refer to him as “Kobe Wade.” He did this because he thinks of himself as a combination of all-time shooting guards Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant.
His confidence level is always sky high, no matter if he is 0-for-11 or 11-for-11 from the field.
The Miami Heat shooting guard broke out his stare down celebration after hitting the game-winning three against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016-17 regular season.
“If anybody would hit a game winner against me, it would be Dion Waiters” -Kevin Durant
LeBron James load the glock
Last, but not least, is one of the most electric celebrations I have ever seen. It was during the 2015 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors.
LeBron James brought down the house after hitting a late 3-pointer and then capped it off my locking and loading his imaginary glock.
Although the Cavaliers eventually lost this Finals series, we did get one of the best three-point celebrations of all-time.
BONUS: Best celebrations for missed shots
Nick “Swaggy P” Young Kemba Walker
All GIFs above courtesy of GIPHY.com
Featured photo by Getty Images
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