Raptors Wizards preview

Raptors vs. Wizards series preview

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

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

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

Regular season summary

Raptors

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

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

Raptors Wizards preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wizards

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

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

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

Raptors Wizards preview

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

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

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

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

Breakdown and predictions

Breakdown

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

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

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

Prediction

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

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

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

Raptors in five

 

Featured image by Getty Images

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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.

finals

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

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

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

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

No. 8 Seed – Milwaukee Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

No. 7 Seed – Washington Wizards

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

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

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

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

No. 6 Seed – Miami Heat

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 5 Seed – Indiana Pacers

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

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

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

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

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

No. 4 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

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

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

And then there is Joel Embiid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No easy task.

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

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

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

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

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

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

They can, and just might win the whole thing.

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

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

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

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

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Featured image courtesy of NBA.com

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NBA playoffs 16 seed

Pros and cons of a 16-seed NBA playoff

A hot topic around this NBA season has been a potential 16-seed NBA playoff format.

This would eliminate conference-specific playoffs. Instead of the top eight teams in each conference getting a playoff berth, the top 16 teams, regardless of East or West designation, would get the chance to play for a title.

Obviously, there would be an adjustment period if this came to fruition. There are many potential reasons why such a format could and could not work. But, in its favor, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said that the NBA is exploring the idea. It seems as if the forward-thinking Silver is partial to the change.

With the commissioner behind it, and ever-changing landscape of the NBA, it might just be a matter of time until we see a 16-seed playoff. However, it will ultimately depend on fan and player opinions.

Here, we will examine the advantages and problems with a conference-free playoff.

Advantages

Best teams

The first, and most obvious, advantage of a true 16-seed playoff format, is ensuring that the 16 teams with the best records get a berth.

If the playoffs were re-seeded right now, the top 12 teams would all have been locks in the current format. The 13th and 14th seeded teams, the Wizards and the Heat, would be on high upset watch. The race for 15th and 16th seeds, however, would be an absolute dogfight.

The Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks all sit at 41-35. The last two seeds would come down to tiebreakers if the playoffs started today. With six games left for all of these teams, anything could happen during the home stretch regarding their records.

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The Nuggets could potentially be in the playoffs, if re-seeded. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Surprisingly, the Nuggets actually play both Los Angeles and Milwaukee before the season’s end. This almost ensures that Denver would not have to rely on tiebreakers, although it is impossible to say for sure.

All of this information is important, because the Heat and the Bucks are virtual locks to make the playoffs in the East versus West format, barring some very strange circumstances. If we were living in the land of the 16-seed playoffs, they would be fighting for their lives. Every single game would matter.

Meanwhile, in the West, the Clippers and the Nuggets are very much in the playoff conversation as of now. However, they have some work to do, and they need help from the Pelicans and Jazz. In the conference-less playoffs, one could say they would either have more or less of a chance of getting to play for the title. They have more chances to get their help from other teams, but they also have more chances to lose out.

Excitement and viewership

An NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere in the NBA playoffs can only be a good thing.

Imagine a No. 3 seed Warriors team losing against a No. 13 seed Washington Wizards team in the first round. How much would the country get behind a double-digit seed potentially finding its way to the NBA Finals? Would we start seeing teams made up of the best players in the world as “Cinderellas?”

These would all be storylines if the NBA switches to a new format. The excitement going into the playoffs would be at an all-time high in the first couple of years after the change. Familiarity and complacency would take hold after a while, as it does in all things. But rest assured, viewership would rise, especially in the first round, as NBA fans would tune in to see an upset.

The NBA brass could expect this uptick in viewership to last indefinitely, as people would tune in not to only see their team play, but to watch the potential upset games as well. From there, the interest could only grow further. There is little to no downside here when it comes to ad revenue and general watchability.

Problems

Travel

The biggest issue facing the new format would be travel concerns.

For the sake of example, let’s say the seeding works out so that the Clippers play the Celtics in the first round. Traveling from one end of the country to the other would either result in massively fatigued teams, or ridiculously long breaks between games.

Now, let’s say the Clippers and Wizards meet in the second round. This exacerbates the Clippers’ problem. And depending on if the Wizards got a team closer to them in the first round (like the Cavaliers), they have an unfair advantage going up against a road-weary Los Angeles squad. Adding on to this, if the Wizards met, say, the Jazz in the first round, then the fatigue problem is exponentially worse for both teams.

This could potentially go on all the way until the NBA Finals. If that is the case, then the fans are not going to get to watch the basketball they deserve to watch. Two tired teams, or mismatched teams due to freshness versus fatigue, is not what the NBA Finals should be about. It should be about the two teams that have had an equal opportunity to beat their opponents and earned their spot playing in early June.

Obviously, with the East and West format, the teams are much closer to each other, so travel is not a huge concern. Although, the Eastern Conference is not nearly as spread out as the Western Conference. Western Conference teams are arguably more used to travel fatigue, which presents another unfair advantage.

The NBA would have no choice but to severely tweak playoff scheduling every single spring, depending on where teams fall in the seeding.

Shortened season

A shortened season could fix the travel woes presented by a 16-seed tournament style playoff. But, while it fixes some issues, it also raises more questions.

Some teams have no choice but to go on long road trips due to scheduling concerns with their arena. For example, the Spurs go on their annual “Rodeo Road Trip” every February, as the AT&T Center, where they play, hosts the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.

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The Knicks have to evacuate Madison Square Garden, as the NIT Final Four contests are always held in New York. (Photo by Danny Wild/USA Today Sports)

The New York Knicks have to get out of town while the NIT Final Four and Championship game are historically played in Madison Square Garden. Since that happens in March, what would happen if regular season March basketball was cut to make room for an extended playoffs, if the Knicks were to be a contender?

This is without even mentioning how many teams share their arenas with other sports teams (especially hockey), concerts, events, etc.

The amount of planning that would have to happen is mind-boggling, considering the NBA won’t even know which teams will and won’t make the playoffs.

Also, since the 1967-68 season, players’ stats and totals have been reliant upon an 82-game season. The public will simply have to reckon with different averages and player statistics if the season is shortened significantly. It would also put an asterisk next to past players’ totals, which would change the framework of how we see past and future athletes.

Conclusion

The NBA Finals has always been the East against the West, the best both conferences have to offer duking it out for a championship ring.

NBA playoffs 16 seed

Silver has been discussing a 16-seed playoff format since the NBA preseason. (Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports)

With the lack of parity between the very best teams in the league and the middle-to-bottom in the NBA recently, a 16-seed playoff could work wonders in bringing back casual NBA fans. It would also plug the not-so-subtle gap between the quality of the Western teams and the quality of the Eastern teams.

 

If the best teams are going to keep getting better, and the worst teams are going to keep tanking, this could be the solution. However, it may just be more trouble than it is worth. Things would have to change forever, and supremely quickly to make this format work. Questions will have to be answered, and mistakes would definitely be made before it could be the very best version of itself.

As stated before, this decision will most certainly be dependent upon how popular the prospect is to NBA fans and NBA players. They are the arbiters of how the NBA will be consumed, and the front offices must listen and act upon those judgements.

Until then, conferences are still relevant.

 

Featured image by Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

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defense

Ranking the defense of every Eastern Conference playoff team

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

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

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

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

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

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

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

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

defense

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

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

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

7. Milwaukee Bucks

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

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

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

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

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

6. Washington Wizards

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

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

defense

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

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

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

5. Indiana Pacers

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

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

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

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

4. Miami Heat

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

defense

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

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

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

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

3. Toronto Raptors

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

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

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

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

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

2. Philadelphia 76ers

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Boston Celtics

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

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

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

defense

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

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

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

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

Featured image by Nathan Denette/Associated Press

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“From Our Haus to Yours”

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Love, DeRozan and the conversation we should all be having

One in six. 44.7 million. 18.3 percent. That’s how many people age 18 or older live with some form of mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Almost every adult in this country knows six other people. There is virtually no chance that you don’t know someone who fights one of these battles. Please think about that for a moment. Take the time to count out six people in your life who mean something to you.

Have any of those six people ever come forward and told you that they experience some sort of day-to-day struggle against, maybe, an anxiety or depression-related disorder?

If your answer was yes, then that’s not a problem at all. It’s not hard to be a good friend to someone who lives with a mental health issue. Simply check in often. Listen when they speak to you about it. More importantly, listen when they don’t wish to speak about it.

If your answer was no, then you are now privy to extremely disturbing information. Many people with mental illnesses choose silence over assistance. They would like to believe that they are nobody’s problem to be solved; no one’s burden to bear.

Or maybe you count yourself within the ranks of those who have to live life followed by this particular shadow. I do. So do some of the smartest and most successful people I’ve ever met.

It’s not discriminatory. Mental illness, regardless of “severity,” affects people of every race, religion, social status and tax bracket.

Just ask Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan.

Opening up

Love and DeRozan will make a combined $155,577,000 by the end of the 2019-20 NBA season. They’re provided with free travel, hotel accommodations, meals, training facilities, clothes and shoes. They both have lucrative sponsorship deals. On top of that, they’ll both get a share of the $20 million bonus that’s divided up between every player that participates in the NBA playoffs.

That money didn’t stop Kevin Love from having a full-blown panic attack during the third quarter of a game against the Hawks on Nov. 5. It didn’t keep DeRozan from tweeting a rather telling song lyric.

In an interview with The Star, published on Feb 25, DeRozan opened up about his struggles with depression. In it, he says, “We all got feelings… all of that. Sometimes… it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

DeRozan has said he’s “amazed” by the amount of support he’s gotten after speaking about his depression. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Most telling was the short statement in which the 28-year-old speaks on the roller coaster that life with depression can be. He says that he has “various nights,” alleging that any given day could hold myriad emotions and states of mind. He said his life has always been that way.

Just nine days later, Kevin Love published an article with The Players’ Tribune called “Everyone Is Going Through Something.” The story chronicles his own previously repressed conflicts with his own mental health.

He reflects on unlearning a playbook of behaviors taught to most men and boys that caused him to ignore any previous signs that he might need some support. Instead, over 29 years, he substituted healthy coping mechanisms with often-adopted strategy of “manning up.”

We are all human

It’s easy to see athletes as real-life superheroes. Seeing the kind of athleticism they exhibit night in and night out can cause the public to paint them as something they’re not: mythical creatures who were put on this Earth to entertain us in a modern-day gladiator arena.

It’s what causes people like Laura Ingraham to tell LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” As if being an athlete somehow bars you from having opinions and ideas about the world you live in.

I’ll admit that I’ve been part of that problem. It’s hard not to when you watch Aaron Rodgers execute three Hail-Mary touchdowns in the same calendar year, or when you see Michael Jordan dunk from the free-throw line. The incredible feats we see on any given night are almost laughably impossible.

But once they shed their uniforms and step away from the flashing lights, they’re just people.

That was the common thread through both Love and DeRozan’s stories. The idea that everyone is vulnerable and nobody is immune to this kind of problem.

Panic

The most eye-opening part of Kevin Love’s article was his detailed description of his panic attack. After a timeout in the third quarter, Love knew he was not physically able to re-enter the game, but couldn’t quite get a grasp on what was happening. He retreated to the Cavaliers’ locker room knowing something wasn’t right.

I was running from room to room, like I was looking for something I couldn’t find. Really I was just hoping my heart would stop racing. It was like my body was trying to say to me, ‘You’re about to die.’ I ended up on the floor in the training room, lying on my back, trying to get enough air to breathe. (Kevin Love, “Everyone Is Going Through Something)

Anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows the exact feeling he is talking about. It’s a frightening experience that is hard to put into words. To someone who may not know what a panic attack looks or feels like, it may seem silly or overdramatic. But allow me to give you my thoughts on this particular passage.

I’m someone who has not only dealt with this kind of thing before, but who writes for a living and has extensive creative writing education as a part of my college degree. With that being said, I have never in my life thought of anything that quite explains a panic attack as well as “looking for something I couldn’t find.” That is exactly what it feels like. A sense of indescribable hopelessness and fear, as if nothing is going to be alright ever again.

He may be 6-foot-10 and carry double-double career average, but in that moment, he probably felt the same way so many of us have: paralyzed, small, weak and scared.

Idolization

Knowing how we put athletes on a literal and figurative pedestal, it must have been unspeakably hard to come forward like DeRozan and Love have. Their stories have been met with support from fans and players alike, but showing vulnerability like this isn’t easy. It’s not easy for anybody. So, try to imagine what it must have been like unveiling these things when the eyes of the world are upon them.

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Kevin Love opens up about his recent struggles with his mental health. (Photo by Brad Rempel)

Men, women, boys and girls look up to them. They dream of achieving the invincibility and everlasting admiration of being a professional athlete. The idea that even one of these people would perceive some sort of weakness of character for coming forward with this personal information must have been hard to cope with.

But, as DeRozan said in his admission of his battle with depression, “we’re all human.” All the credit in the world goes to them for showing the individuals who look up to athletes that no battle needs to be fought alone.

NBPA action

In a Feb. 19 interview with SB Nation, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts spoke on NBA players’ mental wellness.

“We’ve been naive — I’m being kind when I say naive — in thinking that we didn’t have to address and make sure that we were giving as much attention to our players’ mental wellness, as we were their physical.” (Michele Roberts via SB Nation)

This quote and interview were before the DeRozan article was made public. That suggests, perhaps, this is more pressing of an issue than can be expressed by just two players coming forward.

Roberts went on to say that development of a mental health program is in its “early stages,” and that the NBPA has only made one hire. But work is being done and progress is being made in regards to tending to mental wellness.

She wants the program to be funded by the players’ union and NBA teams, yet have it operated separately from both. She cites potential concerns regarding players not utilizing the resource because they are afraid that information would affect their standing within the team.

Confidentiality would be paramount to the program, which speaks to the larger stigma surrounding the topic of mental health. Especially in the hyper-masculine world of professional men’s basketball.

Significance in sports

The mental health conversation in this country needs to continue to grow and change. If over 18 percent of the American adult population experiences something, we need to talk about it.

The problem is, so many mental health issues can be ignored, ill-defined, or even misdiagnosed. I’m not an expert, but it seems as if conversation and openness about what ails someone is the best place to start.

That’s why these two coming forward could signal a paradigm shift. Public figures seen as folk heroes by many, telling the world that even they are not exempt from these feelings can, should and has garnered attention.

Love and DeRozan are not the first athletes to admit to these kinds of problems though.

Kevin Love DeMar Derozan mental health

Kelly Oubre Jr. of the Washington Wizards was the third NBA player in two weeks to come forward with mental wellness problems. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Picabo Street, Ricky Williams, Joey Votto, Mike Tyson and many others have documented struggles with depression. Ken Griffey, Jr. took over 250 aspirin tablets during a suicide attempt in 1988. Rick Rypien, a Vancouver Canucks and Manitoba Moose center, succeeded in a suicide attempt in 2011. Kelly Oubre Jr. followed Love and DeRozan’s lead, just hours after Love’s article was published, opening up about his struggles on NBC Sports Washington’s Wizards Tipoff Podcast.

Significance in culture

It’s hard to know how to frame all of that information. Maybe it does actually provide hope that these conversations can become more normal. But, it could also just be more info to sweep under the rug, so we can pretend it’s not happening.

These kinds of talks that we have with ourselves and others are uncomfortable. They are oppressive, difficult and complicated. What’s worse is that when depression is getting the best of you, you may not want to talk about it. When it’s not, you probably don’t want to bring yourself down by hashing it out.

Athletes, movie stars, musicians and politicians can all help steer us in the right direction when it comes to opening up. This is where “normal” people come into play.

When people in the public eye use their platform to talk about a cause that is important to them, it’s not just so they can hear themselves speak. It’s almost always because they want it discussed by the masses. They want to open up a dialogue.

Leonardo DiCaprio uses his platform to raise awareness about climate change. The main talking point at this year’s Academy Awards was putting an end to sexual assault. But all of this means nothing unless it affects the public in a way that causes conversation and change.

Love and DeRozan are not discussing their mental health because they want you to feel bad for them. That would be completely futile, because they are multi-millionaires living their dream of being professional basketball players.

They are opening up to change the way we talk about these issues. I can’t speak to their exact intentions, but my gut tells me they want people, who are in similar situations, to know that they’re not alone.

Conclusion

You’ll notice that not once in this article have I used the words “suffer from.” It’s a common phrase to put in front of mental health terminology. In my opinion, though, it’s overused and inaccurate.

People who experience some sort of mental health defect should not be told what they do and do not “suffer from.” They are not in some perpetual state of suffering. They are simply people who live their lives carrying some extra weight.

Living is an obligation. Suffering is a choice.

To those of you who know what it’s like to deal with some of these issues, or to those of you who act as an ally to them, please always remember this: Our struggles do not define us. However internalized or externalized our problems may be, they are just a part of us. Not our whole, but simply a piece of an intricate puzzle that makes us the people we are.

Sports are universal and eternal. They have a way of capturing our hearts and imaginations, just like the best movie you’ve ever seen, or your favorite album. That is why I choose to believe that these stories will resonate. Because if our “superheroes” can tell us that they aren’t perfect, then maybe we can all start to accept ourselves and others as such.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit this link which features only a small number of the wide range of resources that are available.

 

Featured image by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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playoffs

Predicting NBA playoff seeding

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

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

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

Eastern Conference

No. 8 Seed – Miami Heat

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

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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.

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

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

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

No. 5 Seed – Philadelphia 76ers

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

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

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

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

No. 4 Seed – Indiana Pacers

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

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

No. 3 Seed – Cleveland Cavaliers

playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

No. 2 Seed – Boston Celtics

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

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

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

No. 1 Seed – Toronto Raptors

playoffs

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

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

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

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

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

The schedule is tough, but the Raptors are tougher.

Western Conference

No. 8 Seed – Denver Nuggets

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

playoffs

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

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

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

No. 7 Seed – Minnesota Timberwolves

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

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

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

No. 6 Seed – Oklahoma City Thunder

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

playoffs

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

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

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

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

No. 5 Seed – New Orleans Pelicans

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

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

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

No. 4 Seed – San Antonio Spurs

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

playoffs

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

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

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

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

No. 3 Seed – Portland Trailblazers

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

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

No. 2 Seed – Houston Rockets

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

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

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

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

No. 1 Seed – Golden State Warriors

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

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

playoffs

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

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

Featured image by Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports

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

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

Washington Wizards v Milwaukee Bucks

(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Butler injury

How long can the T-Wolves survive without Jimmy Butler?

In Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets, Jimmy Butler suffered what the Timberwolves are calling a “meniscal injury” to his right knee.

With just over three minutes to go in the third quarter against the team with the league’s best record, Butler was fighting for a rebound in the post. Directly before he fired a pass to forward Taj Gibson, Butler took an awkward step and fell to the ground in pain, clutching his right knee.

Jimmy Butler injury

Rockets trainers and Chris Paul rush to see if Butler is okay, moments after injuring his right knee. (Photo by Michael Wyke/Associated Press)

While team doctors rushed onto the court, Butler was clearly in pain, judging by his contorted facial expression. He could not leave the floor under his own power, and it seemed as if one of Minnesota Timberwolves fans’ biggest nightmares had become a reality.

Due to the clutching of the knee, and the fact that he needed help off of the court, many thought the injury was surely an ACL tear. That would have been sure-fire season-ender for one of the best guards in the NBA.

Instead, the Timberwolves PR account released a statement Saturday at 3:45 ET that the injury was to his meniscus. They gave no timetable for his return.

Being that the injury isn’t necessarily a death sentence for Butler’s season, how effective can Minnesota be without him?

Possible return

Most meniscus injuries take four to six weeks to rehab, if it is not serious. That would put his return date somewhere between March 24 and April 7. If the injury is not severe, then Butler would be ready to play at least one week before the playoffs are slated to begin.

Let’s assume the worst for a moment, saying Butler cannot return until April 7. The Timberwolves will have two games before the playoffs’ start date on April 14. That gives him two “rehab” games to get reacclimated to the team before the important games start. Two games is far from ideal, but it is much better than simply tossing him into NBA playoff basketball without time to get a handle on the pace.

In the best-case scenario, Butler could return to the court during the March 26 game against the Memphis Grizzlies. That would be doubly useful. His first game could come against a subpar team, meaning the Wolves could win easily despite restricted minutes. Plus, he would have eight games to get into playoff shape.

We will know more about his return date soon, but for now all we know is that the Timberwolves certainly plan on having him return for their playoff run.

Expectations without Butler

Minnesota is currently the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Their surprisingly efficient offensive game plan has propelled them forward in a way that wasn’t supposed to come to fruition until next season. The problem is, however, much of that success was thanks to Jimmy Butler.

Jimmy Butler injury

Karl-Anthony Towns will likely become the focal point of the Wolves’ offense. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Before his injury, he was putting up 22.2 points per game, along with 5.0 assists and 5.4 rebounds. The biggest loss to the team, though, will be his minutes. Jimmy “Buckets” was averaging 37.1 minutes per game, which led all NBA players. Replacing someone who is on the court more than any other individual in the entire league will not be easy, regardless of their offensive output.

Tom Thibodeau likes to ride his starters hard. That has been his identity since he started coaching. But Minnesota’s relatively weak bench made it less of a strategy and more of a necessity. Considering Butler’s consistent offense and his admirable defense, he is a natural choice to eat up minutes for any coach.

But without him, it is likely that Jamal Crawford, Aaron Brooks, Shabazz Muhammad, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague will all have no choice but to help pick up the slack. Thibodeau is capable of creating lineups that will somewhat mask Butler’s absence, but players will have to shift positions often.

Karl-Anthony Towns is still having a terrific season, and the offense can shift its focus to him. Teague can play shooting guard, and Crawford can help stop the bleeding in the backcourt. With the talent on the team, it is probably unwise to bet the Timberwolves fall out of the playoffs completely.

Schedule

That being said, Minnesota has a rough stretch of games during the period they can count on Butler being out of the lineup.

If he returns on March 26, then nine of their 11 games without him will be against teams above .500. This includes a five game stretch in which they play the Celtics, Warriors, Wizards, Spurs and Rockets. These are not only playoff teams, but both favorite and dark horse contenders to reach the NBA Finals.

Jimmy Butler injury

Butler gets helped off the court by his teammates. (Photo by The Houston Chronicle)

There is a very real chance that Minnesota could drop all five of those games. Depending on what the rest of the teams below them in the standings do, that could just be enough to put them on the bubble. Being that the Timberwolves have less games to play than any other team in the league, this could dig them a hole that might be hard to get out of.

The good news is that after that stretch is done, the Wolves will play the Grizzlies twice, along with the Hawks, Mavericks and Lakers. These are all teams well below the .500 mark. Throw in a game with the Jazz and two games agains the Nuggets (which they will more than likely split) and that could give them life.

It’s not out of line to say their seed will go as Butler’s injury goes. If his knee is worse than the Wolves feared, they might be fighting for a spot. If it is routine, then Minnesota will probably end what is currently the longest playoff draught in basketball.

 

Featured image by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

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NBA Trade Deadline

NBA Trade Deadline deals recap

The NBA Trade Deadline yesterday was absolute madness. Trades were happening left and right. Twitter was blowing up just as much as the Cavs roster. Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Sharania were dueling back and forth to see who could break news first. My colleague Ben Hendricks broke down the Cavaliers trades in another piece so if you want to read up on those go check his article out. Below are all of the minor trades that took place in the hours leading up to the trade deadline at 3pm Eastern Time.

*season stats in parenthesis 

Elfrid Payton to the Suns

Magic receive: 2018 2nd Round Pick from Memphis

Suns receive: point guard Elfrid Payton (13 ppg, 4 reb, 6.2 ast, 1.5 stl)

3-Team Trade involving Emmanuel Mudiay

Nuggets receive: point guard Devin Harris (8.5 ppg, 1.9 reb, 1.9 ast) and Knicks 2018 2nd Round pick

Knicks receive: point guard Emmanuel Mudiay (8.5 ppg, 2.2 reb, 2.5 ast)

Mavericks receive: small forward Doug McDermott (7.2 ppg, 2.4 re, 0.9 ast)

Nets and Pelicans swap players

Nets receive: small forward Dante Cunningham (5.0 ppg, 3.8 reb, 0.5 ast)

Pelicans receive: shooting guard Rashad Vaughn (2.7 ppg, 0.8 reb, 0.5 ast)

Bulls get Vonleh

Bulls receive: power forward Noah Vonleh (3.6 ppg, 5.1 reb, 0.4 ast), cash considerations

Trailblazers receive: rights to Serbian center Milocan Rakovic

Wizards try to get under the Luxury Tax

Hawks receive: shooting guard Sheldon Mac (3.0 ppg, 1.1 reb, 0.3 ast) *will get waived

Wizards receive: future 2nd round pick that is heavily protected

Luke Babbitt is heading back to Miami

Heat receive: combo forward Luke Babbitt (6.1 ppg, 2.2 reb, 0.7 ast)

Hawks receive: small forward Okaro White (3.3 ppg, 1.8 reb, 0.3 ast)

Bruno gets shipped to Sacramento

Kings receive: small forward Bruno Caboclo (0.0 ppg, 0.5 reb, 0.5 ast)

Raptors receive: shooting guard Malachi Richardson (3.5 ppg, 1.3 reb, 0.5 ast)

Pistons shore up point guard position

Pistons receive: point guard Jameer Nelson (5.1 ppg, 2.2 reb, 3.6 ast)

Bulls receive: rights to swap 2022 2nd Round picks, center Willie Reed *will be waived

Pistons get a 3 and D bench player

Pistons receive: small forward James Ennis III (6.9 ppg, 3.5 reb, 1.1 ast)

Grizzlies receive: power forward Brice Johnson (1.8 ppg, 1.4 reb, 0.1 ast), future 2nd Round pick

Hornets pick up another Center

Hornets receive: center Willy Hernangomez (4.3 ppg, 2.6 reb, 0.8 ast)

Knicks receive: power forward Johnny O’Bryant (4.8 ppg, 2.6 reb, 0.4 ast), 2020 2nd Round pick, 2021 2nd Round pick

The 2018 NBA Trade Deadline was an exciting one. It will be interesting to see how all these new pieces fit into their new teams.

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