After a full six months of watching games and formulating opinions on just about every player and every team in the League, the playoffs are finally here. The regular season is always exciting, but at times, the season can seem long and drawn out, particularly the closer we get to the postseason. But those first 82 games set the stage for the toughest 16 games a team will need to win if they want to be the ones popping champagne bottles while hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The postseason is full of great individual players to watch, as well as interesting and intriguing storylines to pay close attention to. Here’s a look at the five we think will be worth keeping an eye on this year.
Ease on Down the Road?
LeBron James is now in his 14th season and depending on who you ask, has spent the entirety of that time holding the title as the best basketball player in the world. But with news that Kyrie Irving will miss the playoffs due to knee surgery, Boston—the one team many felt had a shot to beat King James and the Cavs this year, even without Gordon Hayward—is no longer an obstacle, and the narrative around LeBron going into this years playoffs is that he has yet another easy road to the Finals. Obviously, this narrative takes into account LeBron’s sheer dominance in carrying teams to the Finals. But LeBron’s greatness will be tested more than ever this year with Cleveland’s decision to blow up its roster midseason and bringing in an entirely new cast of characters for him to work with. Going into the playoffs with a group of guys who have only been together a couple of months certainly presents its own set of challenges, but with teams like the Raptors and the 76ers playing at a high level and going into the playoffs with a lot of confidence, the certainly see this as an opportunity to finally dethrone the King. But, that’s why they play the games. And if you’ve been paying attention to LeBron James, especially over the back half of his career, then you know that it won’t be easy to eliminate him, especially not in the East.
North Stars Ready to Finally Shine
The Toronto Raptors have been here before. They’ve gone into the postseason as Atlantic Division champs, a top three seed in the Eastern Conference, and despite all of that, nobody outside of The Six actually viewed them as legitimate title contenders. And why is that? Because their dynamic duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, seem to disappear annually in the postseason. The two All-Stars have yet to figure out a way to bring their regular season brilliance and dominance, and duplicate it in the postseason. Both are hoping to shake that stigma this year and take advantage of home court in the East as the No. 1 seed. If the Raptors are going to live up to expectations this year and advance to the Conference Finals for the second time in franchise history, Dwane Casey will have to figure out a way to get offensive contributions from everyone in his rotation to take some of the nightly pressure off of his two stars. This means that guys like Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas, and top reserve Fred VanVleet will all need to be aggressive and carry their weight on offense. Toronto will also need to maintain the same intensity on defense that statistically had them ranked as one of the top teams in the League this year. There are high expectations for The North this year, and hopefully they can live up to the hype and keep things from going South like they have in previous years.
Don’t Just Trust The Process, Believe It
For the last few years, the Sixers lost on purpose, became one of the worst squads in NBA history, and along the way, had many people skeptical of this highly controversial plan and worried that all this motto would ever amount to is in justifying Philadelphia being downright terrible. But a healthy Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid this year changed all of that, and the two have transformed the Sixers into a team that Allen Iverson is once again comfortable with watching in person. Simmons has been dominant in his “rookie” campaign, putting up averages of 16 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. During the team’s 14-game win streak, the Australian native has averaged a triple-double and he passed Magic Johnson for most triple-doubles by a rookie. He’s certainly made his case for Rookie of the Year, while Embiid has staked his claim as the best big man in the League, when he’s not hurt, of course. Embiid has shown an all-around game that is second to none in the League, and he’s been totally dominant on the glass with averages of 23 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists per game. Embiid also seems to enjoy playing the game of basketball, and her certainly looks like he’s having a lot of fun dominating every center her’s run up against in the NBA. Brett Brown has developed an offense that doesn’t necessarily revolve around his two best players. The Sixers have seven players in the rotation who all average double figures, and the presence of Embiid and Simmons, along with the attention they draw and their unique ability to make plays for others, has caused guys like Robert Covington, Dario Saric, JJ Redick, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli to elevate their play. So, what you have in this years Philadelphia 76ers is a team that is quite possibly the one squad in the playoffs that nobody wants to see, and the one with the best chance to snatch the Eastern Conference crown from LeBron James. Make no mistake, with Embiid fully healthy and Simmons looking more like the second coming of Magic Johnson with each game, their youth and inexperience in the postseason could actually work in their favor, and we could all very well be witnessing the resurgence of NBA basketball in the City of Philadelphia. Trust the process? At this point, there’s no other choice.
Houston, Ready for Lift Off?
The Rockets have been an enigma since acquiring James Harden six years ago. As the face of the franchise and leader of the team, Harden has led Houston to the Western Conference Finals, but he’s also been on squads that have been knocked out in the first round three times, and the second round, once. Harden was a a complete no-show in Game 7 against the Spurs last season, causing many to speculate that having to carry the weight of being the primary ball handler, playmaker and scorer, for a full season, had finally caught up to him. So Daryl Morey went out and addressed that problem by getting his superstar some superstar help when he traded with the Los Angeles Clippers for Chris Paul last summer. CP3 has been the perfect compliment to Harden, as both are just as effective on the ball as they are off it, creating a problem that opposing defenses have yet to solve. The addition of Paul has helped Harden have a career year scoring wise, and his phenomenal individual season has made him the frontrunner for MVP this year. The Harden-Paul duo has helped the Rockets achieve the best overall record in the League and homecourt advantage throughout the Playoffs. With Golden State struggling with injuries, this year presents an opportunity for James Harden to shake the playoff failure monkey off his back, as well as Chris Paul, whose struggles to advance deep into the postseason are well documented and have been the topic of one endless debate after another. The Rockets are one of the most offensively talented teams in the NBA, but if they’re going to have any chance at making it through the playoffs and to the Finals, they’re going to have to defend, a trait that historically haven’t been synonymous with Mike D’Antoni coached teams. Opposing teams will have their hands full trying to stop the Rockets, but the real question is can they impose their will on defense and slow down the other team? That remains to be seen.
All Eyez on KD
Kevin Durant took a lot of heat for leaving Oklahoma City and going to the Golden State Warriors. But KD proved he made the right decision when he helped the Dubs win their second NBA Championship in three years, while putting on an impressive offensive exhibition, taking home Finals MVP in the process. But this year, things will be much different for KD and his Warriors squad. The team has been beset by injuries to their best players at the worst possible time of the year. Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have all been sidelined over the past eight weeks with various ailments, but no injury was more devastating to their championship hopes than Steph Curry suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his left knee in late March. Curry has said he hasn’t suffered any setbacks in his rehab, but it’s still too early to say if he’ll be back in time for the first round of the playoffs. This means the spotlight, and the eyes of the entire basketball world, will be focused on Kevin Durant so long as Steph Curry is sidelined. But KD won’t be the only one feeling the pressure to be great, Quinn Cook will also be expected to continue holding down the fort at point until Steph gets book. The Duke alum was recently rewarded for his solid play with a fully guaranteed two-year contract, and he’ll have an opportunity to show that he was worth every penny once the playoffs begin. The Golden State Warriors are still favored to come out of the West, even with Curry sidelined. But not having the two-time League MVP on the floor is a challenge this team will have to overcome, even if it is for a short period of time.