NBA Playoff Panic Meter: Which Fanbases Should be Shook Entering the Postseason

With teams like the Warriors and Celtics facing major injury issues, how concerned should fans be? We break down which fan bases should be freaking out and which ones should chill.

Cary Edmondson
Image via USA Today Sports
Cary Edmondson

Most NBA fans entered the 2017-18 regular season holding the same belief: Golden State would win another title if the Warriors stayed healthy. Despite Steve Kerr’s effort to mitigate expectations (advancing to the NBA Finals four years in a row is hard!), it seemed nearly inevitable the Warriors would go back-to-back like they were on the cover of Lethal Weapon

“It’s pretty fucking sick to see how everybody is just in a fucking panic about what to do,” Draymond Green told GQ of his competition in the fall. “You sit back and think, like, these motherfuckers, they know. That’s the fun part about it: They know they don’t stand a chance.”

Around the same time, I spent a day with Klay Thompson. He doesn’t run his mouth like Draymond, but the whole team had an air of confidence. They were the best in the league by a longshot, and everyone, including them, knew it.

The caveat that Golden State had to stay healthy, however, has become relevant. The Warriors and several other contenders now face major injury issues and potentially tough early-round matchups.

How concerned should their fans be? Below, we break down the appropriate anxiety level for each fanbase.

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Boston Celtics

Current Record: 53-25

Likely Seed: 2

Likely First-Round Opponent: Washington/Miami/Milwaukee

Boston’s long-term future is bright—but if you were hoping for the team to compete for a banner this season, your apprehension is justified. The Celtics recently won six straight and somehow had a shot at the No. 1 seed, but it would be stunning to see banged-up Boston contend for a Finals appearance.

Danny Ainge assembled a robust roster in the offseason, and they started out hot, but injuries have ravaged this team. Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, and Daniel Theis are out. Marcus Morris and Al Horford have recently dealt with their own ailments.

Most importantly, it was announced Thursday that Kyrie Irving will miss the postseason. Kyrie is the engine that makes Boston’s offense run; the Celtics struggle to get good looks and finish at the rim when he’s wearing street clothes.

The Wizards bested Boston this season 2-1, and the Celtics want no part of a first-round rematch of last year’s epic East semifinal series. Miami would also be a tough matchup. The Heat, who won the season series 2-1, have 8-9 guys who play their asses off and a coach who may be Stevens’ equal. Hassan Whiteside and Kelly Olynyk would be a problem. Boston split with the Bucks, 2-2, and is probably hoping to see Milwaukee.

San Antonio Spurs

Current Record: 45-34

Likely Seed: 4-8

Likely First-Round Opponent: Pretty much anyone in the West

On one hand: the Spurs have Gregg Popovich. On the other: they (probably) don’t have Kawhi Leonard.

Any time a team loses an MVP caliber player for practically an entire season, they’re going to slide. The Spurs won 61 games last season, but they’re a different team without Leonard, whose future with the team looks very much in jeopardy.

Manu Ginobili implied Kawhi is not coming back for the playoffs, and a number of others around the league have echoed that sentiment. Even if Kawhi returns, he won’t be the same player—he wasn’t the same in the nine games he played this season—and he won’t play 40 minutes a night.

In his absence, everything revolves around LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been excellent. Aldridge recently suffered a knee contusion. He returned quickly, but San Antonio can’t afford for him to be even slightly hampered.

San Antonio’s first-round opponent is in the air, but two potential matchups are especially daunting. With the emergence of Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell, ascendance of Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert, and leadership of Coach of the Year candidate Quin Snyder, Utah is not a team anyone wants to meet in the postseason, despite its lack of experience. The Jazz won the season series, 3-1. A first-round tangle with Oklahoma City would be a dog fight. The Thunder and Spurs split the season series, 2-2, and all four games were competitive.

If the Spurs can escape the first round, they’ll likely play the Rockets—could a down-on-his-luck Pop somehow still best a flourishing Mike D’Antoni? Houston easily swept the three-game season series.

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Golden State Warriors

Current Record: 57-22

Likely Seed: 2

Likely First-Round Opponent: Pretty much anyone in the West

Though they have rebounded to win a few games of late, the world-beating Warriors suddenly look human. Steph Curry will miss the first round and possibly the second. Thompson, Green, and Kevin Durant should all be healthy, but they’ve faced their own injury issues.

Golden State fans shouldn’t be in Wakanda panic mode, but don’t expect the Warriors to breeze to the Western Conference Finals like they did last season. No West team will be a pushover.

The Warriors’ biggest struggle is up front. A few of their potential early-round opponents: Minnesota (Karl-Anthony Towns), Utah (Rudy Gobert), and Portland (Jusuf Nurkic). Those teams’ benches would size up Zaza Pachulia and yell, “expose him!” Minnesota has played Golden State especially tough in the past; Towns has been great.

Don’t be surprised if Golden State gets pushed to seven games early in the playoffs.

Philadelphia 76ers

Current Record: 48-30

Likely Seed: 3-4

Likely First-Round Opponent: Pretty much anyone in the East

With The Process in fruition, the Sixers were just finding their stride when Joel Embiid bumped heads with Markelle Fultz. Philly couldn’t afford an injury to Embiid or Ben Simmons. Embiid, who has emerged as a legitimate superstar this season, might miss the first round as he recovers from surgery to fix a broken orbital bone.

Yes, Philly has won 12 in a row, but Embiid’s injury is huge. Even if he comes back, you can’t expect him to be the same player—adjusting to playing with a mask is never easy.

The Sixers’ lack of depth has been their Achilles’ heel all season. Their bench unit has gotten better of late—thanks largely to the mid-season additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova and the pleasantly surprising recovery of Fultz—but the team’s success still boils down to Simmons and Embiid. Though Simmons is in one-man-wrecking-crew mode, Philly will need Embiid back—and playing like himself—to be competitive in the postseason. Dario Saric’s cellulitis shouldn’t keep him out in the playoffs, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

The Sixers will have their hands full if they draw Indiana, their likeliest opponent. Myles Turner, who dropped 25 on Philly March 13 with Embiid in the lineup, presents a problem, and Indiana won the season series 2-1.

Add the potential loss of Embiid to Philly’s lack of playoff experience and a difficult first-round draw, and Sixers fans have reason for moderate anxiety. This may be another situation, like that of Boston, that just takes one more year. Huge game to watch Friday night: Cleveland at Philly.

Toronto Raptors

Current Record: 56-22

Likely Seed: 1

Likely First-Round Opponent: Milwaukee/Washington/Miami

Raptors fans are watching the standings closely. It’s not about the first round—present struggles notwithstanding, they should be fine there—but if Philly overtakes Cleveland, Toronto could play the Cavs in round two. That’s a nightmare scenario for the Raptors.

The Raps have been the best team in the East this season, but they haven’t played up to their standard of late, and they still don’t have a good matchup for LeBron. Cleveland won both recent showdowns between the teams, including a convincing, 112-106 victory Tuesday—and the Cavs, of course, have a history of trouncing Toronto in the playoffs. If the Raptors are to make it out of the East, they’ll likely have to play LBJ and Cleveland at some point.

Even if the Raptors stick to their strategy and don’t revert to Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan isolation hero ball, the narrative—that they’re a great regular-season team that chokes when things get real, and that Cleveland owns Toronto—will rumble in the back of fans’ minds.

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Cleveland Cavaliers

Current Record: 49-30

Likely Seed: 3-4

Likely First-Round Opponent: Pretty much anyone in the East

Everyone seems to expect the Cavs will be able to put their inconsistent performance this season behind them and morph into a new team when the postseason starts. It’s reasonable considering Cleveland has made three straight Finals and, most importantly, has LeBron.

Anyone who’s watched this team this season, however, knows there’s ample reason for concern. Though Kevin Love’s return was big, their defense remains one of the league’s worst, and that could spell their downfall.

LeBron has been otherworldly since the trade deadline. He thinks he should win MVP; he at least belongs in the conversation. The Cavs are truly hapless without him. This team has at times looked reminiscent of the late-2000s Cleveland squads that LBJ willed through the East.

LeBron is on a seemingly arbitrary mission to play all 82 games for the first time in his career, and that could backfire in the playoffs. If he gets gassed—whether that’s in the first round or the NBA Finals—Cleveland is in big trouble.

Add to this the uncertainty of Ty Lue’s situation, J.R. Smith’s unpredictable play, the ever-present drama surrounding the team, and the lack of playoff experience for its young newcomers, and it becomes clear Cleveland winning the East is far from a sure thing.

Nothing is a given; no team looks untouchable. The regular season has been fun, and the postseason is shaping up to be even better. It’s fitting, given the parity in the NBA this season, that we probably won’t know the matchups until the very last minute.

The playoffs begin Saturday, April 14.

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