THE fake war is over. The real battle is about to commence. The NBA Playoffs begin on Saturday. Every game meaningful. Every win precious. And what has gone before is now irrelevant when all that matters is the chase for a Championship.
Well, almost. We can ascertain already, from among the 16 teams left standing who, like LeBron James, are assuredly not going to be holding up a trophy in June – and who is in real contention.
And the first round will nudge some of the no-hopers out … and perhaps put a few of those with aspirations under the microscope.
The 2019 #NBAPlayoffs are set!
Games begin on Saturday, April 13th. pic.twitter.com/4ERS0ZeywQ
— NBA (@NBA) April 11, 2019
We’ll start with the West because, let’s face it, the three-peat is the Golden State Warriors to lose. Even though, this time, they’re not the overall number one seed. Even though they only just held off Denver to top the Conference standings. Even though they won less than 60 games and provided more than a few nights of G-League basketball.
But the Dubs, the 1.48 faves to win it all again, have always had the self-confidence that, once the 82-game grind of the regular season was over, that they’d arrive locked and loaded, ready for when it counts.
And if we discount the meaningless closing loss to Memphis when the only mission was fulfilling the minimal obligation to actually show up, the champs have won 14 from 17, demolishing Denver twice, dropping Houston and generally resembling their old selves. Plus they’re injury-free. And there’s the small matter of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry in tandem. Hard to stop.
Let’s also add emotion into this. Last run at Oracle Arena, that bear pit in Oakland that will soon turn from high-volume to low echoes. The potential for this being the final charge of these Warriors as presently constructed.
One might foresee Klay Thompson signing a new deal yet even genuine loyalty can be costed. That counts double with Kevin Durant who has already demonstrated before in his career that cold ruthlessness is his virtue. In this era of inflated salaries and budget juggling, temptation can wipe out gains.
First ever regular season game at Oracle vs last ever regular season game. pic.twitter.com/HTCB5JKwTi
— klay thompson (@KlayThompson) April 8, 2019
Plus, there is just the sense that if there were ever a time to dethrone the Dubs, it was 12 months ago and while an initial match-up with the over-achieving LA Clippers should pose them problems, it’s the ideal tune-up for the third rounds ahead.
The Rockets, with a healthy Chris Paul, have played well lately and are good value at 7.00 to win the West. Having carried so great a load, is James Harden capable of even more super-humanity on a team that set itself the closing target of a second seed and came up short?
Denver lack experience and have looked a little jaded over the last month when, in eight games against playoff-bound opponents, they only held two to below 104 points – just under their season average. San Antonio could be a disruptor in the same way Utah might trouble Houston.
The series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder though remains the most gloriously unpredictable despite the late injury to Jusuf Nurkic. Portland have kept rolling in his absence but he is a loss. OKC are astonishingly unpredictable: a trampoline that is bouncing high toward contention in one look and plummeting to the depths in another. Going under 215 total points in Sunday’s Game 1 at 3.25 could pay off.
All of which leads us back to Golden State. Proven. Perfection when roused. In the Wild West, the remain the class act.
— Sixers Nation (@SixersNationCP) April 5, 2019
Prediction: Warriors win 4-1 at 2.62
Prediction: Nuggets 4-3 at 5.50
Prediction: Thunder 4-2 at 4.00
Prediction: Rockets 4-1 at 4.00
FIRST ROUND EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF MATCHUPS pic.twitter.com/enOHMaFnn4
— HoopsHabit (@HoopsHabit) April 11, 2019
If the West seems predictable, then the Eastern Conference is anything but. The first round contains four expendables (sorry, Indiana) and a quartet of viable challengers. Bring on the semi-finals, really. Momentum, though, could be critical. Here’s the good news for Milwaukee. Our MVP favourite in Giannis Antetokounmpo. A great coach. Dynamic complements. And the NBA’s best record.
Yet the Bucks have not made it past Stage 1 in 18 years and while franchise DNA is over-rated, the very different problems set in the playoffs need alternative answers. Milwaukee have won a heap of games easily but in the post-season, it becomes about execution under pressure.
As this blog space has previously argued, doubt The Greek Freak at your peril. There is no more ferocious singular weapon in the NBA right now and a first round duel with Detroit will save a little energy for when the Group of 4 gather and scrap ahead.
But … the opening round should also afford their rivals the opportunity to tighten rotations and practice the art of strangulation. The Toronto Raptors may be deceptively better than their record given the number of games missed thus far by Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. They have seized victories in their absences but now that both are unleashed with no holding back, Canada should be excited. At 3.20 for the Conference, they are a very solid punt.
As should be Philadelphia, although a team which was reset twice in-season has not fully impressed. They’ll be starter-reliant, and heavily so. Forget the bench, their All Star Five will carry them as far as they go.
For the Boston Celtics, the Great Inconsistents, this should have been the season where all came together and blossomed. Instead, they wilted too often. Talent from 1-12 is unsurpassed. The ceiling is huge. If the Cs were going to click though, it should though have happened by now. And if they toil against a wonderfully pesky Pacers (worth a look at +6 in Sunday's Game 1 at 2.12), that may be the pre-emptive signal to retool, even if Kyrie Irving remains.
If not, it suggests a Bucks-Raptors duel for the (North)East crown. Marvellously awkward to forecast. A boon for the playoffs when a little uncertainty is the spice.
Prediction: Bucks win 4-1 at 2.40
Prediction: Raptors 4-0 at 3.00
Prediction: 76ers 4-2 at 5.00
Prediction: Celtics 4-2 at 5.00
Best bet: Take Kevin Durant for Most rebounds in the Playoffs at 11.00