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Hold onto your butts. The NBA Playoffs begin Saturday—if you somehow didn't know—and as far as we're concerned, real talk, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
The slog that is the NBA regular season is finally over and done with. We’ve anointed the best 16 teams in the league and given them the privilege to duke it out for the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the right to throw a parade for millions of their fans should they win.
The intensity is ratcheted. The stakes are real. The consequences of a bad game, a bad half, or even a bad quarter will haunt players for months, if not years. The pressure is on the Warriors to repeat, the Rockets to get over the hump, LeBron to reach an eighth consecutive NBA Finals, the Raptors to finally make some noise in the East, and for a bunch of playoff newcomers to raise their game to a new level.
We’re offering up our 2018 NBA Playoff Primer in 15 easily digestible portions and providing answers to questions like: Can (should?) Houston win it all? What playoff debuts are we most hyped to see? Who will be the breakout star of the 2018 playoffs? Do the Raptors really stand a chance against LeBron and co.? And if you want to throw down a few dollars on the action, we even offer up some value-based selections just so you can make things a little more interesting as you follow along from now until the middle of June.
The NBA Playoffs have arrived, kids. Make sure you’re prepared to son your buddies in all the appropriate talking points because it’s time for some action.
Can the Warriors Win Without Steph?
I believe the Warriors can get to the Western Conference Finals without Steph Curry, but I don’t think they’ll be able to get past a healthy Rockets team when they get there. For their offense to work in its truest form, he needs to be out there stretching the defense—especially against a team like Houston. I can see Portland, Utah, and the Thunder causing the most trouble for the Warriors without Steph. The Blazers core has been together for a couple seasons and they have one of the more dangerous backcourts in the league. The Jazz are young and talented enough to give them a competitive series even if they get swept or lose in five. OKC may be their biggest threat besides Houston, because of Westbrook’s hatred for them, Melo, and Paul George. The 2018 playoffs are going to be a tough go for Golden State for the first time since they began their run. — A.D.
Are the Raptors For Real?
We ask this every single year and yet, because the Raptors have continually reminded us that they aren’t for real, it's a valid, if not redundant, question. Is this year different? For starters, the Raptors are the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time ever. They have the deepest bench in the league and DeMar DeRozan is worthy of MVP consideration.
Of course there’s still plenty of doubt. The Raptors have stumbled down the stretch losing to the Cavs (twice), the Thunder, Clippers, and the Celtics. Does this mean much? Probably not, but if nothing else, it leads to more doubt surrounding Toronto due to their past playoff failures, including getting bounced by LeBron the past two seasons. The major question with the Raptors is how much will depth help in the playoffs when coaches tend to shrink their rotations? Shortening the best bench in the NBA means more of a burden falls on DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Can they shed past playoff nightmares to make a run? The Raptors' hopes for a NBA championship rely on just that. — Z.F.
Without Joel Embiid, Are the 76ers a Quick Out?
One of the best stories from this NBA season has been the upstart 76ers, who have gone from the bottom of the standings for years to a No. 3 seed with title hopes. Behind Joel Embiid and likely Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, the 76ers have transformed into a young and hungry squad that can shoot from deep, defend at a high level, and get out and score on the break. They have depth and can put lineups on the floor that can keep up with anyone.
There’s no question that Philly is going to be a serious problem in the NBA for years to come, but could this year actually be the year that they make a run? There will certainly be challenges, like not knowing exactly when Embiid is set to return from his orbital fracture surgery. There’s a chance he could miss only a few games of the first round, but if he’s not able to come back for the first series, it’s hard to see them advancing very far into the post-season.
However, if he does return, the table is set for Philly to go on a serious run with a potential second round matchup vs. the injured Boston Celtics or possibly even the lower seed that beats Boston. After that, it seems like it would be like playing with house money for the Sixers to even make the conference finals this year. The question though becomes, could this Sixers team actually make the Finals? Is is just Philly's year? Well, they certainly have the talent to make a deep run and as we've seen in the playoffs before, if a team gets hot, they can be extremely dangerous. Well, the Sixers are the hottest team in the NBA right now. Will the moment get too big for the young Sixers? That's the question we'll continue to ask over the next few weeks when watching Philly in the playoffs.
No matter what happens at that point can be seen as a win. Lose to LeBron and the Cavs? Oh, well, they weren’t supposed to go that far anyway. Actually make the NBA Finals? Then they’re way ahead of schedule. The East is way more open compared to the West. Can Philly take advantage? — Z.F.
Here's Why the Cavs Are Championship Caliber
LeBron James and the Cavs have been in constant turmoil this season. The Isaiah Thomas experiment was a failure. Of course, they don’t have Kyrie Irving anymore. Kevin Love has missed a number of games with injuries. The team traded for basically a whole new roster at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, LeBron might be having the best offensive season of his career. In year 15.
He’s averaging a triple double over the past month of the season and doesn’t look to be slowing down one bit. Love has come back looking healthy and the new pieces seem to fit well enough that the Cavs once again look like the favorites in the East. The question now becomes, are they actually going back to the NBA Finals and can they win a championship? Yes, and here's why...
The Cavs have shown enough over the past month to look like the favorites in the East. LeBron has been dominant, Love is scoring like a true second option, George Hill and Rodney Hood are contributing at high levels, and the defense has been better. Of course, playing better defense for the Cavs is simply playing average defense overall. They’ve been atrocious on that end for most of the season, which is why there’s still some doubts about whether or not they even make the NBA Finals.
But assuming they do get past the East, it's not crazy at all, considering the current health concerns surrounding the Warriors, that Cleveland is worthy and capable of winning another ring. If Houston makes it out of the West, it's easy to see LeBron and the Cavs taking them down in a series. They surely wouldn’t be the favorites, but there’s no reason to count LeBron out. In a potential Finals matchup with the Rockets, the Cavaliers could absolutely win. They would have the best player in the series in LeBron and would be able to throw their wing depth in Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson at James Harden. It would surely be close, but LeBron and the Cavs could pull it off. With the future of both LeBron and the Cavs uncertain, this upcoming run should tell us a lot about what might happen. — Z.F.
And Here's Why Houston Should Be the Favorites
The best team in the league probably should be getting more respect than it is entering the playoffs. But considering James Harden, Chris Paul, and Mike D’Antoni haven’t exactly excelled in the postseason during their careers, it’s understandable why you'd be blinded by the red flags. But with Harden, the 28-year-old soon to be NBA MVP, authoring one of the most efficient scoring seasons in league history, Paul playing the role of sidekick expertly, a well-rounded supporting cast that is dynamic, rugged, and arguably the league's second best behind Toronto, not to mention home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, yeah, Houston winning is pretty damn easy to envision.
But do we really believe it? Do we write that statement with any conviction? Are we trying to convince ourselves and ignore the fact that the Rockets really only have 1.5 or 2 (depending on your personal rankings) superstars while the Warriors—when healthy—have 3.5 or 4 (depending on your personal rankings)? Would we give LeBron and the Cavs the edge if they met the Rockets in the Finals? Will the Rockets improved defense carry over into the postseason? Will Harden run out of gas again like he did against the Spurs last year?
There are more questions than answers with the Rockets, which usually isn’t the case with juggernaut teams entering the postseason. But here are a few reasons why Houston can easily hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June:
- Harden is playing like Michael Jordan this season.
- They are far and away the best offensive team in the game.
- Defensively, the improvement from previous seasons is stark. Houston is rated better in defensive efficiency than all but six squads, including the Thunder, Warriors and Cavaliers, likely the only three teams that present a legit threat to them.
- The supporting cast is the best in the West, and superior to the Cleveland's.
- They’ve only lost seven games at home this season and the playoffs run through Houston.
- One that’s completely arbitrary, but hey, why the hell not considering NBA fans love a good conspiracy: Maybe it’s time for new blood in the Finals. —A.C.
Can the Thunder Make Some Noise?
Houston is the only team out West not named the Warriors that can make the Finals. OKC can make the Finals if Hoodie Melo somehow makes an appearance and that’s a big if. Anthony is averaging a career lows in points, assists, steals, free throw percentage, and shooting percentage. Plus, the Thunder aren’t deep enough to rock with the Warriors or the Rockets for seven playoff games; their bench is pretty nonexistent. They may be able to knock off a Steph Curry-less Warriors team if their kinda, sorta Big 3 play like a true Big 3. Westbrook will have to average a triple-double, George is gonna have to pretend he’s still on the Pacers, and Melo needs to figure out how to average 20-plus again. Not having Roberson has hurt the Thunder more than we expected, so if Brewer is able to play some lockdown defense, then anything is possible. I’m not willing to put money on any of this shit, though. — A.D.
Is the Smart $$$ on Cleveland?
If you're looking for value, you have to dig. And then dig some more. Because there ain't much on the board. The Warriors and Rockets are overwhelming favorites to win the Western Conference, installed at even money. In the East, Cleveland is -150 to advance to the NBA Finals. Only the Sixers, at +225, present any kind of value in the inferior conference considering their talent and the fact they wouldn't have to meet the Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference Finals when Joel Embiid would presumably have no issues with his busted up face.
Now, to win it all, we're advising you put some money down on Cleveland. The Cavaliers are almost 5-1 to win the NBA Finals and if you believe Complex's Gilbert Arenas, star of Out of Bounds, he thinks the Cavs will present a tough matchup in the NBA Finals for the Rockets (assuming Houston gets there, of course) and if you can lock in LeBron to win it all at that price, that's a damn good return on investment considering you're backing one of the best players in the history of the game. Michael Jordan, I guarantee, never had odds that low during his prime years with the Bulls. — A.C.
And the Breakout Star Will Be...
Superstars don't qualify for this. Putting Giannis here would be a total cop out. So would naming any fringe All-Star that just missed making this year's annual exhibition. No, we're talking a team's third, fourth, or even fifth option. Maybe even a sixth-man.
There are plenty of worthy candidates. Here's one from the East and one from the West we're anxious to see explode on the big stage:
Robert Covington: In his fourth year with Philly, he's actually averaging his fewest points per since joining the Sixers, but when he's hitting threes from the wing Philly is damn near unbeatable. Since he's shooting over 37 percent from beyond the arc right now, if Covington catches fire, the Sixers can ride him to a win or two in a series and maybe a much deeper run than expected.
Gerald Green: He's no young buck considering he's 32 years old and it's his 12th season in the league, but Green only joined his hometown squad mid-way through the season after getting cut by the Bucks at the end of training camp. On a Houston team loaded with firepower, his 11.7 ppg doesn't exactly jump out and he got lost in the shuffle a little when Joe Johnson was picked up. But Green's been balling down the stretch and as long as Mike D'Antoni doesn't drastically trim his rotation, there's no reason why Green shouldn't get plenty of minutes and continue to knock down threes. He's as much instant offense as Eric Gordon, but everybody knows/expects that from the Rockets' sixth man. But from the seventh or eighth guy off the bench? That's an awesome weapon at D'Antoni's disposal. — A.C.
Should the NBA Return to the 5-Game First Round Format?
Hell yes. But the NBA is not going to leave money on the table, so it’s never going to go back to the old way. A five-game series during the first round made for upsets and drama. Now a series during the first round feels like a chore. Granted, the 2018 playoffs are shaping up to being more balanced than previous seasons, yet I’m still not looking forward to the first round lasting forever. Sure, we’ve had upsets like when the Warriors beat the Mavericks in 2007 and when the Grizzlies ousted the Spurs in 2011, but those still could’ve happened in a best-of-five. Five game series breed chaos and we want chaos. Bring them back. — A.D.
The Celtics are Cooked, Right?
The Boston Celtics are going into the NBA playoffs as beat up and injured as we’ve probably ever seen a team seeded second in their conference. The team will be without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving for the playoff run. Marcus Smart probably won’t be available until the second round, if they get there.
And despite all of those injuries, we’re probably still underrating what this Celtics team can do in the playoffs. Can they win it all? Hell no. Can they make it to the conference finals? Probably not. But can this team, led by coach of the year candidate Brad Stevens, shake some shit up in the East? Absolutely. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team that has nothing to lose and that’s exactly what this Celtics team is.
They still have enough talent to beat teams and with their current roster behind Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier, they’re pretty damn elite on the defensive side of the ball. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Celtics still win their first round series. Hell, they probably wouldn’t be favored against the Sixers in the semifinals, but that series would be close, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Boston won. They’re scrappy, and while the lack of talent will catch up to them at some point, it might just be later than everyone thinks. — Z.F.
What's the Best First Round Series?
I'll make the argument that the better, more intriguing matchups can be found in the East. LeBron taking on the Pacers and his personal nemesis, Lance Stepheson, for a seven-game series doesn't get you gassed? Especially considering LeBron has never played particularly well in Indianapolis. Raptors-Wizards could easily go the distance now that John Wall is back for Washington. And who isn't fascinated by the Sixers as the Truth the Process crew break its postseason virginity with home-court advantage versus Dwyane Wade and the Heat? But give me Blazers-Pelicans since we didn't get the tantalizingly juicy Warriors-Thunder matchup we were low-key rooting for.
With two MVP caliber superstars in Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis battling for the right to face (almost assuredly) the Warriors, who doesn't want to see these two All-NBA First Team worthy ballers light up the scoreboard and put their teams on their back? Both should finish in the top five of the MVP voting and both could easily carry his squad to next round, although Lillard undoubtedly has the better supporting cast. If you're not hyped at the idea of two guys capable of scoring 40 with their eyes closed going at it every other night, please excuse yourself from this dimension. — A.C.
What Playoff Debuts are We Closely Watching?
A bunch of stars will make their playoff debuts. Here’s what we want to see out of a select few:
Ben Simmons: To continue to fill up the stat sheet but please, Ben, please... shoot the ball when you’re open from 10 feet. We're begging you. It's so awkward watching you stand around, looking for someone to shoot it for you. You're 6'9". But seriously, how much of an offensive burden will he have to take on if Joel Embiid can't get out there in the first round? Simmons has to step up his scoring.
Joel Embiid: We just want Embiid back on the court—in his glorious mask—and hopefully not instituting a self-imposed social media blackout (a la LeBron). Please keep tweeting and gramming your way through a deep run and calling out everyone in the East.
Andrew Wiggins: He’s so tantalizingly athletic and dynamic, but can he put together four or five performances to help the Wolves seriously push the Rockets in the first round? Probably not because the Wolves were atrocious against the Rockets during the regular season so can we see some commitment to defense from the former No. 1 overall pick, please? We get glimpses of greatness from Wiggins followed by maddening stretches of malaise followed by inconsistency, and defensive indifference. If he ever truly commits to the other end of the court—and the Wolves really need it from Wiggins just to keep from getting swept—the Canadian product has beast potential.
Karl Anthony-Towns: KAT or Embiid? It’s a toss-up, but maybe you give the slight edge to KAT because he hasn’t missed any significant amount of time. But like his teammate, show us some legit commitment to defense, please. It’s amazing how only a few years ago, we were debating Towns vs. Jahlil Okafor. Guess who’s going to be sitting on their couch watching the playoffs?
Donovan Mitchell: He’s the Rookie of the Year in our book and it really shouldn’t be a contest (official Complex Sports debate coming soon) considering he was at Louisville last year and now he’s guided the Jazz to the fifth seed in the West which nobody predicted last summer. Taking it up a notch, Mitchell didn’t even think he was worthy of being a first round draft pick this time last year. Now he’s got a chance to steer the franchise to its second straight trip to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 2008. The only problem is Paul George might be the one blanketing him during the series against the Thunder. But keep carrying Salt Lake City on your back, Donovan. And we can't wait to see what hoodie you wear for Game 1. — A.C.
Are We Sleeping on Portland?
We get it. It’s a two-dog race in the West. At least that’s the assumption. Either Houston or Golden State will represent the conference in the NBA Finals and the idea that any other squad is good enough to get there is blasphemous. But why can’t Portland surprise some people if Damian Lillard continues to play like an MVP? Why can’t the Blazers, who will be the third seed in the West, surprise, especially if they get a break and don’t have to see both the Warriors and Rockets in back-to-back series? With a transcendent star playing at a level we haven’t seen before and a dangerous sidekick in C.J. McCollum—NEWSFLASH—Portland has the backcourt firepower to shoot its way to at least one surprising series win. It also has role players that are enjoying fine seasons like Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. Yeah, those names don’t necessarily scare you, but sag off them at your own peril while trying to shut down Lillard and they just might send a heavily favored squad packing earlier than expected. I'm not saying we're going to see Portland sneak into the Western Conference Finals, but I am saying that sleeping on Portland would be dangerous and it's not really all that difficult to see a Blazers-Rockets showdown with an NBA Finals trip on the line. — A.C.
Should the NBA Get Rid of Conferences?
Although, it may feel this way, the Western Conference being dominant isn’t going to last forever. Right now, the East has a youth movement in the Bucks, the 76ers, and the Knicks (I'm deadass; if they could ever get their shit together enough to build around Porzingis properly as they try to topple the Raptors, Celtics, and Cavs in the next couple years). And while the Rockets and Warriors will reign supreme for at least the next two or three seasons, you still have Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Dame and CJ in Portland, Donovan and Gobert in Utah, the KAT and Jimmy in Minnesota, and the Nuggets and Lakers looking to build contenders around their young players. Once LeBron retires and the Warriors' run ends, the league will eventually balance itself out. I think the NBA should wait at least five more seasons before doing something as drastic as getting rid of Conferences. — A.D.
Now For Predictions
Zach Frydenlund likes...
Western Conference First Round
Adam Caparell likes...
Western Conference First Round
Sixers > Celtics in 6