NBA Playoffs: Eight subplots in the first round

Published April 14, 2018, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

By Rafael Bandayrel

The regular season has officially ended and only the best eight teams from both conferences are left standing.

For powerhouses like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Cleveland Cavaliers, anything short of a championship is considered a failure. Meanwhile, for young squads like the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Philadelphia 76ers, getting past the first round is already a victory.

Each team – whether they are a legitimate contender, or just looking to make some noise – is dreaming for an ending in which they’ll be handed the Larry O’Brien trophy, followed by a champagne shower in the locker room.

The road to this year’s conclusion is still far ahead of us, but there are stories embedded in every matchup along the way.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Toronto Raptors [1] vs. Washington Wizards [8]

Are the Raptors Jurassic Park or Barney?

Toronto Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan (10) and Kyle Lowry (7) celebrate after their 180-105 win over the Houston Rockets. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)
Toronto Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan (10) and Kyle Lowry (7) celebrate. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Raptors are one of the main-stay teams since the 2013-14 season, thanks to their one-two punch of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

But every year, the Raptors succumb to the pressure of the playoffs, especially against LeBron James teams. Last year, Toronto got swept in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers who went on to their third straight finals appearance.

This year, the Raptors have secured the number-one seed in the East as DeRozan played the best basketball of his career. Their dominant regular season led to Head Coach Dwane Casey’s strong case of winning coach of the year.

Toronto’s critics, however, have not been silence despite the team’success. If the Raptors want to shed the perception that they are “chokers” they need to slay “The King.” But when the Raptors get to an inevitable second-round matchup with LeBron’s Cavs again, will they show him Jurassic Park or Barney the Purple Dinosaur?

Boston Celtics [2] vs. Milwaukee Bucks [7]

Superstar vs. System

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, left, falls to the floor as he is defended by Boston Celtics forward Al Horford.(AP Photo/Darren Hauck)
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, left, falls to the floor as he is defended by Boston Celtics forward Al Horford.(AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

Boston Head Coach Brad Stevens is heralded as one of the best basketball maestros of this generation. Even after losing star forward Gordon Hayward during the season opener, Stevens had managed to guide his young Celtics that finished with the second-best record in the East.

But the post-season is dire for the C’s as they will have to play without their best player, Kyrie Irving. With minimal talent and limited playoff experience, the Celtics will have to rely on Stevens’ strategies to get them through the first round.

On the flipside, the Bucks have one of the most promising young studs in Giannis Antetokounmpo. This squad, however, had been in a slump to close their season. This collection of young players has yet to figure out what type of team they are; they only know they have a freakishly athletic centerpiece.

Cleveland Cavaliers [4] vs. Indiana Pacers [5]

Do the Cavs have a switch to flip?

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James is fouled by Indiana Pacers' Victor Oladipo. The Pacers won 106-102. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James is fouled by Indiana Pacers’ Victor Oladipo. The Pacers won 106-102. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Most years, nobody worries for the Cavaliers even when they are coasting through the regular season. In 2016, everybody learned that LeBron and his supporting cast are capable of flipping a switch and turning into the best team in basketball when the situation calls for it.

This year, however, is not most years for the Cavs. The defending East champs will head to the post-season without half of last year’s roster.

The four-seed Cavs are at their most vulnerable state since the second LeBron-era. Without an elite playmaker like Irving, the Cavaliers have to rely on a collectively solid performance from veterans Kevin Love, George Hill and JR Smith.

Meanwhile, Cleveland’s young role players Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Rodney Hood need to rise to the occasion for the Cavs to reach its fifth consecutive finals appearance.

Philadelphia 76ers [3] vs. Miami Heat [6]

Heavyweight bout: Joel Embiid vs. Hassan Whiteside

Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images/AFP)
Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images/AFP)

Since their first tense encounter in the preseason, Embiid and Whiteside have been talking smack back-and-forth on social media, with the former showcasing his masterful trolling at the expense of the latter.

And while Embiid’s game-one status is still up in the air due to his late-March orbital fracture, he will not be prevented from making his playoff debut.

The Sixers have exceeded expectations by finishing with the third-best record in the East. Miami, on the other hand, did the same by getting to the post-season with a lackluster roster – thanks to Head Coach Erik Spoelstra’s brilliance.

The stage for a heavyweight bout is set, and one of two things will happen:

Either Embiid will add injury to insult, or Whiteside dish out some comeuppance. Whichever way this series goes, it will certainly make for one exciting first-round duel.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Houston Rockets [1] vs. Minnesota Timberwolves [8]

Could the young Wolves keep up?

Minnesota Timberwolves' Jimmy Butler, left, Karl-Anthony Towns, center and Jamal Crawford celebrate. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Minnesota Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler, left, Karl-Anthony Towns, center and Jamal Crawford celebrate. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

It’s been 14 years since the Timberwolves have qualified for the playoff but the drought is finally over, thanks to the franchise’s new era of stars: Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins.

But Minnesota’s playoff stint could be a brief one. They drew the league-best Rockets led by MVP candidate James Harden and nine-time All-star Chris Paul.

It’s no secret that the Wolves will be massive underdogs in the first round but they have the tools to push the Rockets to the limit.

Offense vs. defense will be another theme for this series as it features a chess game between Mike D’Antoni and Tom Thibodeau.

Portland Trailblazers [3] vs. New Orleans Pelicans [6]

Will “The Brow” rise to the occasion?

New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The DeMarcus Cousins-less Pelicans made it to the post-season cut in the unforgiving Western Conference. The reason they have made it this far is one man and one man alone: Anthony Davis.

The Pelicans will live and die by Davis. The 25-year-old juggernaut had never won a playoff game but this year he has a real chance of leading his squad to a series triumph.

Meanwhile, the duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum spearheaded the Blazers that finished third in the West. Lillard, like Davis, is playing an MVP-caliber season since the all-star break.

The Blazers and Pelicans are tied 2-2 in their season series and this first-round encounter will be decided by the better MVP candidate.

Golden State Warriors [2] vs. San Antonio Spurs [7]

Revenge or Repeat

San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) is fouled by Golden State Warriors' Kevon Looney (5) (AP Photo/Ronald Cortes)
San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) is fouled by Golden State Warriors’ Kevon Looney (5) (AP Photo/Ronald Cortes)

This is a bitter rivalry continues. Last year, the Spurs blew a huge lead game-one lead and ended up getting swept by the Warriors, following Zaza Pachulia’s infamous close out that ended Kawhi Leonard’s season.

The Spurs and Warriors meet again, however, under a strange circumstance. Both teams will be playing without their best players.

Golden State Head Coach Steve Kerr ruled out a Stephen Curry return in the first round as the superstar point guard suffered a Medial collateral ligament (MCL) tear. Meanwhile, Leonard’s health status has caused unrest in the San Antonio locker room as the forward refused to play despite being cleared by the Spurs medical staff.

Oklahoma City Thunder [4] vs. Utah Jazz [5]

“Talent wins games” vs. “Defense wins games”

Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George, center, reacts to a three-point basket along with Raymond Felton, left, and Russell Westbrook, right. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Oklahoma City Thunder’s Paul George, center, reacts to a three-point basket along with Raymond Felton, left, and Russell Westbrook, right. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

In basketball, there are two opposing schools of thought. One says talent wins games while the other attributes success to defense. The basketball gods have blessed us with a perfect matchup to settle the debate: OKC vs. Utah.

The Thunder added two bona fide star forwards in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony in the off-season, hoping to bolster their squad to a super team-status. Russell Westbrook once again finished the season with a triple-double average but the additions have been underwhelming during the season.

While the OKC’s signings of George and Anthony did not translate to significant improvement, they clearly lead Utah in the talent department.

The other end of the spectrum is the Jazz, one of the league’s best defensive teams. Utah lost their defensive anchor Rudy Gobert for a significant chunk of the season but rookie Donovan Mitchell salvaged their season by developing into a supernova.

 
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