Rockets Jazz preview

Rockets vs. Jazz series preview

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.

Houston Rockets

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.

Rockets Jazz preview

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.

Utah Jazz

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.

Rockets Jazz preview

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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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.

first round

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.

first round

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.

first round

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.

first round

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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Thunder vs. Jazz series preview

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.

Utah Jazz

Thunder vs. Jazz series preview

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

Thunder vs. Jazz series preview

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.

Analysis

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.

Prediction

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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NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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

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.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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.

NBA Western Conference Playoffs

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.

NBA Western Conference 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.

 

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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.

Photo source: www.detroitbadboys.com

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.

fantasy basketball playoffs

Non-studs that can carry your fantasy team

The month of March is arguably one of the most exciting times for basketball fans of all levels. For one, March Madness is underway, and the things we have seen this March are truly unbelievable. There have been plenty of upsets, buzzer-beaters and of course, Sister Jean.

However, the strictly NBA fans also have a lot to be excited and nervous about, as fantasy playoffs for most formats are underway.

We all know who the studs are in the NBA, and owners of guys like Anthony Davis and James Harden are loving life right now. But there is a plethora of players in the NBA that are not as studly as the guys previously mentioned.

Below are five NBA players who are flying under the radar as terrific fantasy options late in the season. Savvy owners should consider trading for one of these players (if your league doesn’t have a trade deadline).

Bobby Portis

fantasy basketball playoffs

Photo from www.chicagotriubune.com

Team: Chicago Bulls

Averages in the last two weeks: 13.7 points on 42.9 percent shooting, 8.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 1.4 3-pointers

Since the departure of Nikola Mirotic near the trade deadline, the rebuilding Bulls have found time for young power forward Bobby Portis. As the stats show, he’s made some noise as a good fantasty option.

While some blocks would be nice, the steals and 3-pointers are fantasy gold from the power forward position. He can be inconsistent at times, but as long as the minutes are there, he should be a great option for some points, boards and 3-pointers.

Ricky Rubio

Team: Utah Jazz

Averages in the last two weeks: 15 points on 40.2 percent shooting, 6.7 boards, 7.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.1 3-pointers

Rubio is notorious for playing what seems like below capability for the first half of the season or so. Then as soon as the All-Star break hits, he becomes a beast. This was very evident last season as he was a different player after the All-Star break in Minnesota, and similar trends have continued in Utah.

While the percentages may be hard to muster, he really does bring a little of everything else to the stat sheet to help out your fantasy team. With Utah in the ultra-competitive Western Conference playoff hunt, Rubio should continue to get plenty of time on the floor and plenty of numbers to go along with it.

Just keep in mind it may not always be pretty.

Tobias Harris

fantasy basketball playoffs

Photo from www.blazersedge.com

Team: Los Angeles Clippers

Averages in the last two weeks: 24 points on 50.4 percent shooting, 7.3 boards, 3 assists, 1.1 steals, 1 block, and 3.1 3-pointers

Similar to Utah, the Clippers are fighting to stay in the playoff race in a conference where just five and a half games separates the third seed from the 10th seed.

Harris is a huge reason why the decimated and Blake-less Clippers are still competing, and are even over .500 (6-4) in their last 10 games. He demands the ball and is finally being assertive, and the move from Detroit to Los Angeles could not have been better for his real life and fantasy value.

He is contributing a little of everything, and is doing so efficiently, shooting 43.1 percent from beyond the arc. If you have stuck with Harris since the trade, you are probably in good shape for your playoffs.

Julius Randle

Team: Los Angeles Lakers

Averages in the last two weeks: 22.9 points on 61.6 percent shooting, 10.7 boards, 3.1 assists

If you are an owner in search of efficiency and double-doubles who won’t kill your free-throw percentage, Randle is your best bet right now. He has been on a tear as of late, and Larry Nance Jr. moving to Cleveland has helped him out tremendously in terms of both minutes and production.

The only downside to his play is his lack of defensive stats in the last couple weeks, but at least they aren’t nonexistent. If the boards and efficient scoring is appealing, try to snatch him up.

Taurean Prince

fantasy basketball playoffs

Photo from www.soaringdownsouth.com

Team: Atlanta Hawks

Averages in the last two weeks: 22.4 points on 49.1 percent, 6.6 boards, 3.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.1 blocks, 4.1 3-pointers

Prince has been one of the hottest players in the NBA. Like most other players mentioned, he brings a little of everything, including an insane 4.1 3-pointers per game in the past two weeks.

It might sound crazy, but these numbers could be sustainable, and possibly even improve. Ironically, he has been great at contributing steals with a one-steal season average, but that is his lowest point right now. The 0.4 steals the last two weeks could increase to at least 0.8 or one from this point on, but owners won’t be complaining much.

The Hawks are playing for lottery balls, and he is their best player right now, so the minutes and production should become more and more consistent after such a shaky first two-thirds of the season. His potential was evident in Saturday’s loss to the Bucks, as he erupted for 38 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and four 3-pointers.

While he won’t be averaging close to 40 points in the last 10 or so games, Prince is the perfect player to have on your team at this point in the season, and he is definitely peaking at the perfect time.

Conclusion

There are a ton of players that could’ve been great for this piece, but these are some of the best five non-star players fantasy owners can have on their team at this time. Fantasy playoffs are some of the most exciting times of die-hard NBA fans’ years, and these players will definitely increase the chances of victory. Good luck to all, and may the best team be victorious.

 

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James Harden Wesley Johnson

R.I.P. Wesley Johnson 1987-2018

Wesley Johnson’s NBA career officially ended on February 28, 2018 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, CA. He died by crossover, a painful death that I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemies. The murder was committed by the notorious James Edward Harden Jr., whomst has committed multiple murders before.

Example #1: Ricky Rubio

Example #2: Enes Kanter

Example #3: Austin Rivers

Example #4: Lance Thomas

How a man who has ended four career’s is still roaming our streets free is beyond me. This has lead to this moment. The moment where Wesley Johnson’s life came to an unfortunate end.

Analysis of Wesley Johnson gets crossed into next year

This is the moment Wesley Johnson realized he was being murdered. He looks as if he is falling off a toilet seat.

James Harden Wesley Johnson

(ESPN)

At no point in time should a player be looking like this on the court. There is 10 plus feet between them after James Harden stepped-back. That is NEVER a good sign.

James Harden Wesley Johnson

(ESPN)

The bench has now realized what they have seen. Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker are standing up ready to exclaim. Even my mans in the first row is already yelling and Wesley Johnson has just hit the floor.

James Harden Wesley Johnson

(ESPN)

James Harden and Boban both looking at Wesley Johnson’s soul leaving his body. This is what y’ll MCM look like in the twitter DM’s. Couldn’t be me.

James Harden Wesley Johnson

(ESPN)

Trevor Ariza then proceeded to run all the way to half court.

James Harden couldn’t even keep a straight face when asked about the move after the game.

There is no way Wesley Johnson can step on a basketball court again. And if he does, it has to be fade on sight when anyone says anything about the move. Can’t get any more disrespected than this right here.

Where were you the day James Harden eviscerated Wesley Johnson from our earth???

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Making the case for every fringe playoff team

The NBA season is halfway over, which means it’s time to start evaluating potential playoff teams.

The top four seeds in each conference are virtual locks, due to overall talent and coaching. The fifth-seventh seeds will do some changing around as teams jockey for their playoff seeding. Although, close followers of the NBA probably wouldn’t be surprised if the Pistons or the Trailblazers fell out of the playoff picture after overachieving slightly in the first half of the season.

As with any sport’s playoff, however, the most interesting storylines are the ones involving the teams on the bubble.

With that in mind, let’s look at each conference’s eighth seed and first two teams on the outside looking in.

Eastern Conference

Indiana Pacers (21-19, No. 8 seed)

The Pacers have been just fine without Paul George. Victor Oladipo has been playing close to his ceiling, although they’re still overpaying for him. The other piece of the trade that sent George away, Domantas Sabonis, has also been playing nicely. He’s two rebounds shy of averaging a double-double, and will probably end up setting career-high averages in every meaningful category.

While their offense has been clicking, their defense is some of the most below average in the Association. Not awful, just very mediocre. Their offense alone can win the Pacers enough games to keep them in the 8th spot. Lack of defensive consistency will have been their downfall if they fail to make the cut.

Philadelphia 76ers (19-19, first team out)

Philadelphia is one of the most exciting stories in the NBA this season. The “process” seems to have finally come to fruition, and we are finally seeing glimpses of what this long and arduous rebuild has wrought.

Even though the 76ers are a .500 team, don’t be fooled. They’re currently first in the league in rebounds per game, second in assists resulting made field goals, and sixth in points. A rested and re-energized team could ride that kind of momentum to a playoff spot after the All Star break. Plus, their first overall draft pick hasn’t even played five games yet.

NBA Playoffs

Embiid scores on Whiteside. (Photo by: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

What will keep them out of the playoffs is their youth and inconsistency in their game to game performances. As the season drags on, the young players might start to slow down, which will only exacerbate their inconsistency issues. Those red flags usually mean a .500 team will stay a .500 team, but playing in a weak conference will definitely help.

New York Knicks (19-21, second team out)

The Knicks are a force to be reckoned with in the paint on both ends of the court. They are ninth in points in the paint and second in points allowed in the paint. Yes, we’re talking about the New York Knicks.

The team is huge, size-wise. Porzingis, O’Quinn, Kanter and Noah are all either over or close to 7-feet. That length pays dividends over a long regular season, but could actually be a problem if they sneak into the playoffs. The East is full of jump shooting teams, which will stretch New York’s strengths too thin to make them truly effective.

Western Conference

New Orleans Pelicans (20-19, No. 8 seed)

New Orleans might very well be a better team than their record indicates. They’re second in points in the paint thanks to Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins. They’re also second in the NBA in assists per game thanks to some great guard play both from starters and off the bench. Not to mention they have the second toughest schedule in the NBA (according to 2016-2017 team records).

Team defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Pelicans. Bottom five in opponents points in the paint per game doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the front court they have. They also give up the third most points in the league per game.

NBA Playoffs

Davis and Cousins during a game against the Spurs. (Photo by: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It’s an especially strange case on New Orleans’ part. The chemistry and coaching is clearly there, as evidenced by the assist totals. But the defense is nowhere near where it should be, in spite of Cousins and Davis. Remember that Alvin Gentry was brought on to be a defensive mastermind, and the roster has only gotten better since he came to town. Maybe look for a coaching shake-up if the Pelicans miss the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers (18-21, first team out)

Doc Rivers’ team is hurting out west. The Clippers have been a staple of the Western Conference playoffs for the past six years, but the days of Lob City have finally come to an end. Chris Paul’s departure marked a culture change for the Clips, and the team has not found its stride just yet.

Los Angeles still has a great 3-point game. Beverley, Williams, Rivers and even Griffin can all pull up from distance. They also have great personnel for man-to-man defense. Those two things are golden in NBA playoff basketball. But, yet again, team defense is going to be the main hurdle between them and their playoff streak.

Utah Jazz (16-24, second team out)

The new look Jazz are in a soft rebuild. After losing their number one scorer in Gordon Hayward, the Jazz were almost certainly take on a new identity. But picking up Ricky Rubio and finding a steal in Donovan Mitchell should have stopped the bleeding more than it has.

Their defense is some of the best in the NBA, all around. In fact, the Jazz are top 10 in almost every meaningful defensive category under Quin Snider. Against the trend, the offense is what will probably keep Utah out of the playoffs this year. Although, again, this is a new look team. And offense almost always comes together more quickly than defense. If they can keep up the defensive dominance, they won’t be out of the playoff picture for long.

 

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Donovan Mitchell

Why everyone is talking about Donovan Mitchell

Donovan Mitchell was truly torn between staying at the University of Louisville and declaring for the draft. It seems as if he’s made the right choice.

The rookie sensation is on his way to a special first season. He is a go-to scoring option, and he can hold his own on defense. There aren’t very many things he hasn’t shown the NBA he cannot do, and the season is not quite halfway over.

Here are some of the reasons why the NBA is officially on notice.

Rookie of the Year candidacy

Mitchell is tentatively in the top spot for Rookie of the Year. But why?

Ben Simmons collects more rebounds and dishes out more assists at a guard position. Jayson Tatum is shooting 45.3 percent from three and turns the ball over less in the exact same amount of time on the floor. In fact, the only category of note in which Mitchell safely leads his top two challengers is points per game at 18.2.

Defense

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell steals the ball from Nance Jr. (Photo by Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)

Part of it might have to do with his commitment to improving his game on the defensive end of the court. He has commented on his own “perfectionist” nature when it comes to his defense and has said ex-Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s defensive expectations were one of the things that drove him to pick Louisville.

That commitment may not show up on the stat sheet, as his 1.5 steals per game and 0.5 blocks per game are not gaudy numbers. But they are only going to get better if Mitchell’s is as dedicated to improving as he says he is.

Also, it’s hard to deny when watching him play that he isn’t exerting the effort it takes to be a great defensive guard. Coach Quin Snyder has even lauded Mitchell’s ability to deny an offensive player the ball when they are racing to their spot. Keep in mind that anyone’s first year playing against the best scorers in the world is going to be an adjustment, period.

Offense

What will probably impress ROY voters even more, however, is Mitchell’s electric offense.

Again, he has 18.2 points per game, which leads all rookies at the halfway point on the season. He already has 16 games with 20 or more points, which puts him within spitting distance of the Jazz rookie record, currently held by another former Louisville Cardinal, Darrel Griffith. He’s sinking 3-pointers at an almost 36 percent clip, which is decent enough. Plus, his 43.8 field goal percentage is impressive considering he takes more jump shots than either of his top competitors.

The real story here, though, is his athleticism around and above the rim. He can get up, catch the ball in traffic and most importantly, slam it home. This brings us to our next point.

Dunk Contest

Donovan Mitchell’s dunks are fantastic. If he isn’t in the dunk contest this year, then the NBA might as well cancel it.

There’s no real way to describe a dunk using only words, so suffice it to say, he is exhibiting in-game feats of athleticism that one must see to believe.

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell throws down a dunk. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Mitchell told Michael Rapaport on his podcast that he would “love” to participate in the dunk contest over the All-Star break, but would be prepared to lose to Derrick Jones Jr. of the Miami Heat, if Jones were to participate. He went on to say that he’s probably lost to Jones in 12 out of the 13 dunk contests he’s been a part of, as they have competed against one another since they were young.

At only 6-foot-3, Donovan has already thrown down some dunks that will undoubtedly be in consideration for Dunk of the Year honors. This is helped by his tremendous jumping ability and having one of the most seasoned passers in the league, Ricky Rubio, at the point guard position.

Earning respect

Along with earning his spot in ROY consideration, Mitchell is also earning high praise from some of the very best players in the NBA.

After a workout with Chris Paul and Paul George, Paul told David Gardner of Bleacher Report that Mitchell was “going to be good for a long time,” while also commenting on his obvious love of the game.

The biggest story here, however, comes from an Instagram comment of all things.

On Dec. 16, the Jazz visited Cleveland. Mitchell scored 26 points in Utah’s losing effort, while LeBron James notched his 60th career triple-double. After the game, Mitchell posted on Instagram about how excited he was to be able to play against the players he grew up watching. In a comment on the post, James called Mitchell “young king.”

Donovan Mitchell

Mitchell tries to score against Wade. (Photo by: Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune)

This is significant. James has respect for all rookies, but he appeared to name Mitchell as a potential successor to his throne. That doesn’t happen every day. Regardless of whether it was in a press conference or on Instagram, this is James telling the world to keep an eye on this one.

Also, after that same game, Dwyane Wade lined up after LeBron and patiently waited his turn to give Mitchell a word or two of encouragement. Wade, one of the best shooting guards of all time, and a dynamic finisher around the rim in his prime, wanted words with Mitchell. Neither Wade or James had to to do these things. They were paying their respects to a first-year player. Make no mistake, that’s a big deal.

That is three potential Hall of Fame basketball players already touting Mitchell’s abilities and capacity to improve. And that’s without mentioning all the things that great players have said about him in press conferences after games against the Jazz.

All in all, Mitchell has the ability to be a true all-around player in the league. At the shooting guard position, that’s very impressive. He’s also managed to fill a Gordon Hayward-sized hole in the Jazz’s offense. It probably will not be enough to propel the Jazz to a playoff berth, or even a winning season, but he provides hope for a storied NBA franchise.

And no matter what team you may root for, the potential for another LeBron James should inspire that same hope.

 

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NBA's Gridiron Roster

The NBA’s gridiron team

Training camps have opened and football is in the air. As training camps get rolling there will be plenty of talk about what is happening on the gridiron. This means that basketball will be taking a backseat from now until February.

There is one more order of business left to discuss for basketball and its all for fun. Earlier this year, The Game Haus brought you the NFL’s Hardwood Roster which made an NBA roster out of NFL players.

It is time to reverse that and give you the NBA’s gridiron team. The only eligible players are current NBA players. Also, size is not going to translate the way it should just because basketball players are taller.

Offense

Left Tackle: Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors: If there is one NBA player who can protect a quarterback it is Draymond Green. Green is one of the most versatile players in the NBA. His playstyle shows his “I just want to win” mentality. Throwing him at left tackle is smart because he has proven to go that extra mile in order to win. He will rough up defensive ends all game long while making sure the quarterback stays off his back.

Left Guard: Julius Randle, PF, Los Angeles Lakers: The left guard position suits Randle because he has quick feet and is left handed. Guards need to be athletic and showcase an ability to pull on certain running plays. He is extremely explosive and if a play is called that requires him to pull, Randle will explode off the ball and create holes for any running back.

NBA's Gridiron Team

(Photo Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bSTeIhm86A)

Center: Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol is smart, tough and reliable. These are all qualities a team needs from their center. Gasol would be a great leader, thus setting the tone for the rest of the offensive line. Gasol is also a strong guy who could push around opposing defensive tackles.

Right Guard: Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder: Right guards need to be maulers in the run game. The first mauler that comes to mind in the NBA is Steven Adams. Adams is a tough, physical player who would excel at run blocking. He isn’t afraid to do the dirty work a team needs from an offensive lineman.

Right Tackle: DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans: Cousins loves to play a physical style of basketball and that could translate well into the NFL. He also finished second in the NBA with 20 technical fouls in 2017. Cousins would be willing to do whatever it takes to win and protect the quarterback. If he is this rough in basketball, imagine what he could do in a contact sport like football.

Tight End: LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron was a stud wide receiver in high school. He is so big that he would have to be a tight end. It has been said for a long time that LeBron is a physical specimen. He would learn how to be one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. LeBron has also shown his freakish athletism when flying through the air for a dunk. In the red zone, not one person in this world would be able to stop him for a jump ball. Seeing LeBron play tight end would be like seeing Gronk hulking up.

NBA's Gridiron Team

(Photo Credit: http://dailysnark.com/washington-fans-legitimatly-pissed-wizards-john-wall-wearing-cowboys-jersey/)

Wide Receivers: John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards: John Wall is a wizard on the court. Yes, that pun was intended, but it is true. Wall is one of the fastest players in the NBA and that could translate as a wide receiver. He has also displayed uncanny athleticism with some of his finishes at the rim. That creativity would be fun in the open field.

DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors: Imagine seeing DeMar DeRozan fighting for the ball in the air with defensive backs trying to stop him. DeRozan is a high flyer and that would translate to the gridiron.

James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets: James Harden is known for his euro step and getting all the foul calls. Imagine Harden in the NFL getting pass interference calls. As the team’s third receiver, he could work the middle of the field and move the chains not only catching the ball but because of penalties too.

Running Backs: Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston Celtics: Running backs have to have the mentality that they are better than everyone else no matter their size. Isaiah Thomas is the perfect candidate for that. He is so agile and quick that with his small stature, he could fit through any hole. He would be the perfect scat back for an NFL team.

Steph Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors: The way that Steph Curry can make defenders dance is just silly. Who wouldn’t love to see that against defenders on the football field? Carrying the ball rather than having to dribble it would allow him to shake and bake defenders effortlessly. Curry would be breathtaking to watch on the football field.

Quarterback: Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers: The summer league was just the beginning of what we are going to see from Lonzo Ball. His playmaking ability was Magic-esque. He can put the ball anywhere he wants to. A quarterback must be able to do the same. Lonzo has the perfect size for an NFL quarterback. He is the best choice for a quarterback because he has displayed amazing passing ability.

Defense

NBA's Gridiron Team

(Photo Credit: http://dailysnark.com/throwback-lebron-kevin-durant-played-football-game/)

Defensive End: Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs: The defensive end position has some of the most athletic players in all of the NFL. Kawhi is known for his world class defense and freakishly big hands. Throwing Kawhi on the end of a line and telling him to rush the passer could lead to a lot of sacks. Leonard would make a great edge rusher.

Kevin Durant, SF, Golden State Warriors: Kevin Durant is another freak athlete. If we follow the mold of selecting defensive ends, Durant is another player that can use his athletism to go get the quarterback. Durant would be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

Defensive Tackle: Zach Randolph, PF, Memphis Grizzlies: Defensive tackles have to be some of the most unselfish players on the team. The job description of a defensive tackle is to eat up blocks so that everyone else gets the glory. Z-Bo is the perfect candidate for a defensive tackle position. He will take up those blocks so the rest of the defense can eat.

Kenneth Faried, PF, Denver Nuggets: Faried is just as perfect of a fit at defensive tackle as Randolph is. He will get down and dirty and do what ever the team needs to win. Faried has proven that he doesn’t need the spotlight on him. Any coach would sleep well knowing that Faried could eat up blocks so that the linebackers can run around knocking heads off.

Linebackers: Tony Allen, SG, Memphis Grizzlies: Tony Allen is one of the most lockdown defenders the NBA has ever seen. Kobe Bryant said he was the toughest defender he ever had to face. Allen has that grit all linebackers need to succeed. Any running back that has to meet Tony Allen in the hole is in for a big hit.

Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler is one of the best all-around players in the NBA but he made his name on defense. He has a tenacity about him that Chicago fans fell in love with. Early in his career, he showed no fear in going up against the best offensive players in the game. Throw Butler in at linebacker and you have a versatile defender who can come up to stuff the run or drop back and defend the pass.

Marcus Smart, SG, Boston Celtics: Certain linebackers are just pit bulls and Smart has that pit bull mentality. Any football coach could put him at linebacker and see instant toughness from the rest of the defense. Smart will get physical and isn’t afraid to go toe to toe with other giants. His passion is palpable and his teammates would feed off of him.

Cornerbacks: Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trailblazers: Corners have some of the most difficult tasks in the game. Many people forget to list Lillard with the best point guards and the chip on his shoulder makes him fit the corner mold perfectly. Corners don’t always get the love when trying to stop the diva wide outs. In this passing era, Lillard would take it personally that he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. 

Andre Roberson, SG, Oklahoma City: Roberson is the perfect candidate to play cornerback. Most times the saying about corners is “if they could catch they would play wide receiver.” Roberson has no offense at all and wo

NBA's Gridiron Team

(Photo Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/draymond-green-warriors/)

uld fit this stereotype. He is long and receivers would get frustrated trying to match up with him.

Safeties: Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City: This could come as a surprise to most people. Why not running back or wide receiver? The answer is because the best safeties do it all. They come up and stuff the run game. They also patrol the field looking to destroy receivers and intercept passes. The MVP would be an amazing safety if he played football. Offenses would definitely be game planning against Westbrook.

Avery Bradley, SG, Detroit Pistons: Bradley is another player that has made a name on the defensive side of the ball. Bradley will do a great job at being the last line of defense. He would put fear into any receiver who tries to come across the middle of his field.

Special Teams

Kicker: Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors: Draymond has been known to kick groins. This seems self-explanatory that he would be the team’s kicker.

Punter: Ricky Rubio, PG, Utah Jazz: Picking a punter is tough. If Steve Nash was still playing it would be easy to pick him. Ricky Rubio grew up playing soccer in Spain. He would have no trouble booting the football if the offense stalls.

Returner: Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers: Over the past couple of seasons we have been able to see Kyrie dazzle defenders and the world, with his moves. Irving would be an electrifying return man in the NFL. His moves have proven to break ankles on the hardwood so why wouldn’t that translate to the gridiron?

 

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