BY the time you’re reading this the 2019 NBA playoffs will probably be underway as 16 teams fight for the league’s ultimate crown. There is really only a handful of serious contender’s for the Larry O’Brien trophy, but that won’t stop some lesser ranked squads from flirting with postseason upsets. Every team will go into the postseason with a sense of optimism, but their hopes hinge on certain X-factors, who, if they hit their stride, can change the course of the postseason.
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WITH Marcus Smart succumbing to injury, there’s every chance Boston will re-insert Gordon Hayward into the starting line-up. It might be smart for the Celtics to deploy him against other second units though, with Hayward shooting 62% in his last seven games coming off the pine, averaging 16.9 points a game. Hayward has gradually worked his way back towards being the star he became in Utah and even if he isn’t the whole way there, any boost he can provide in the playoffs will be welcomed by a Celtics team that has struggled to gel over 82 games.
WHILE D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie form an exciting backcourt, the secret to success for Brooklyn lies in their sharpshooting sidekick. Joe Harris led the league in three-point shooting this year, canning 47.4% of his attempts and the Nets will need him to stay hot if they want to make their playoff visit worthwhile. Their first-round opponents Philadelphia are the 4th best team when it comes to defending shots behind the arc and if Harris can capitalise on some open looks, Brooklyn needs to be taken seriously.
THERE are a lot of question marks surrounding the young Denver Nuggets core this postseason. Locking down the No. 2 seed out West will be huge for their confidence and throughout all their trials and tribulations during the regular season there has been one MVP calibre constant. Nikola Jokic. The pudgy Serbian evolved into a superstar of the game this year, not in the traditional way we expect a center to do so. His 7.3 assists per game were the third most in history by a 7-foot player, bested only by two Wilt Chamberlain seasons and Jokic will have to be at his crafty, playmaking best straight off the bat against San Antonio. His offensive talents can help fuel a Nuggets run, but he needs to keep a level head and prove to everyone he and his squad aren’t just making up the numbers.
WITH Blake Griffin under an injury cloud, the Pistons aren’t being given a chance against the Bucks. While I still subscribe to the idea of this series getting ugly for Detroit, their only chance to turn the narrative on its head is if Andre Drummond is on song. Milwaukee was the best team rebounding the ball in the regular season and they’ll have to keep the 2018-19 rebound champ off the boards to advance to the next round. Drummond’s ability to hit the offensive rebounds, saw him lead the league in second-chance points and he’ll need every easy basket he can get his hand on if the Pistons want to even sniff an upset.
Golden State Warriors
EVER since DeMarcus Cousins told us all “he’s a Warrior” we collectively threw our hands up searching for the fast-forward-season button. Once he returned to the court Golden State became the death machine we expected them to, until they kind of weren’t. Since the All-Star break, they own a 16-9 record and are looking way too mortal for fans’ liking. Cousins’ form hasn’t lit the world on fire in that span either and ultimately the key to success for Golden State will be utilising Boogie in educated bursts. He can’t go out and expect to be a 25/10 guy even if that’s his nature, Cousins needs to buy into his role and execute where necessary for the Warriors to defend their crown. Should he do so a championship ring is his likely prize, but if he resorts to his temper tantrums and things fall apart at the seams, he could be a contributing factor to the end of the Warriors’ dynasty.
LANDING in the 4th seed might work out well for Houston. Of course, first things first, they need to take care of a Utah Jazz team that has, once again, peaked at the right time of year. Should they defeat the defensive dynamo in Salt Lake City, then a date with the aforementioned Warriors is all but assured. To advance to the Finals, the Rockets are probably going to have to go through Golden State at some point and if they had two healthy Chris Paul hamstrings 11 months ago, they might be the ones defending their title. CP3’s health is once again the biggest factor for them and locking horns with Goliath early, might be the best thing for them given Paul’s longevity. We are all well educated on what James Harden brings to the table, but a healthy Chris Paul throughout the entire postseason changes the game for Houston.
IT”S hard to paint the picture of Indiana lasting long in these playoffs. It’s unfair to expect too much from the Pacers after they lost their best player mid-season, although they’ve proved a lot of people wrong since then – including yours truly. Facing Boston in round one means they need to find a defensive scheme that can nullify Kyrie Irving, which is where Darren Collison comes in. Expecting him to shut down Irving one-on-one is unfair, but Collison can definitely make his life hard and force him to defend on the other side of the court. Should Collison tick those boxes and hamper Irving’s impact Indiana stands a chance of advancing and going on a run, as unlikely as it seems.
Los Angeles Clippers
SIMILARLY to the Pacers, no one expects the Clippers to have a lengthy playoff stint. That’s not taking anything away from Doc Rivers and Co, who have also defied the odds since trading away their best player at the deadline. As they continue auditioning for star talent, L.A. will be out to prove they are more than an easy first-round sweep. For them to do so, they’ll need to eventually feature Montrezl Harrell, heavily. Out of all the players in the league who logged more than 24 minutes a contest, only Giannis has a better true shooting percentage than Harrell. The Clippers team/crowd feeds off the energy Harrell brings and even if there are more Warriors fans than Clippers fans at the home playoff games, Harrell can still bring it and try to swing a few games in Los Angeles’ favour.
Image from ocregister.com
LARRY Bird, Steve Nash, Steph Curry, Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller and now Malcolm Brogdon. All of these players share a special honour in the NBA as members of the 50/40/90 club, with Brogdon’s 2019 success seeing him join the illustrious group. Even with a plantar fascia tear holding the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year to just 64 games this season, there’s no denying Brogdon’s impact on Milwaukee’s climb up the standings and if healthy, he increases their ceiling for this playoff run. Having not played in a month there is still no concrete timetable for Brogdon’s return, which could hurt the Bucks’ title chances and their hopes of winning a potential rematch against Boston in the second round.
Oklahoma City Thunder
WE know what we are going to get from Russell Westbrook and regardless of Paul George’s health, he will be out there competing every night. For the Thunder to buck the trend of playoff failures though, Batman and Robin will need assistance. Enter Dennis Schroder, who arrived via Atlanta in the offseason for this exact reason. Possessing the offensive capabilities to swing a series – for better or worse – Schroder’s play against a guard-heavy Portland rotation will play a big role in OKC’s postseason run.
IT might sound silly, but Orlando just flat out executes the basics to a high level. They take care of the ball, play good defense and as a result, they’ve snapped a lengthy postseason drought. One big reason they are still standing is because of Terrence Ross’ ability to score the rock, with the Magic wingman averaging 17.5 PPG over their 11-2 stretch to close the season. I can’t see them stealing more than one game off the Raptors, but if they’re going to do so, at least one W will be fueled by the Terrence Ross 30-point revenge game.
THERE are a variety of ways this one could go; Joel Embiid’s health, their ENTIRE bench, Zhaire Smith, but eventually I landed on Ben Simmons. Lauded as the next great talent in the NBA out of LSU, Simmons has shown flashes of greatness inside the three-point arc since he entered the league. His offensive skillset won’t be the one I’m dissecting this postseason though, with Simmons’ defense the sole focus of my attention. If he can force premier guards like Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and, from game one, D’Angelo Russell into making mistakes and wreak havoc on the perimeter, then I wouldn’t be surprised if Philadelphia were the last team left standing.
THIS one is fairly straight forward now that Jusuf Nurkic has been lost for the foreseeable future. Buyout option Enes Kanter didn’t sign up for this responsibility, but it’s been thrust upon him, with a matchup against a friendly foe to kickstart proceedings. Known primarily for his offensive prowess, Kanter will need to take on a bigger responsibility in, not only amongst the offense, but on defense for Portland. He might have dropped 18.1 points and 11.4 rebounds a game since Nurk went down, but if the Blazers are going to quell the Thunder he’ll need to be at his defensive apex.
Image from oregonlive.com
San Antonio Spurs
I expect the Spurs to have a short playoff stay, but one way they can hold their spot out West is if Derrick White clicks. Having stellar guard play usually coincides with a good postseason run and ever since Dejounte Murray went down in the preseason, White has been flying. His per game averages might not jump off the page, but the Colorado Buffaloes alum provided a great first half of the season to give San Antonio a solid base to launch from, inevitably culminating in a playoff appearance. If he can kick his game up to another level and throw in one or two spectacular first-round performances, anything is possible.
IT’S crazy to think the Raptors managed to accumulate 58 wins with Kawhi Leonard preserving his energy for the postseason run, featuring in just 60 games this year. The updated championship odds might not reflect it, but there’s a lot to like about this Toronto team now that they’ve stepped out of LeBron James’ shadow. With Leonard set to be fully deployed, he is on the verge of reminding everyone that he should be in the conversation for the best player in the NBA, thanks to his elite two-way versatility. It’s unknown where he’ll play next year, but a Toronto Finals appearance, or (dare to dream) an NBA championship might make his decision a lot easier.
ONE year ago the Utah Jazz squared off against Houston in the second round of the playoffs, without Ricky Rubio. Fast forward to the present and they might have to prepare for similar circumstances, with hamstring/quad issues holding him out of four of the last five contests. Reports indicate Rubio will play in this series, potentially still missing game one, but make no mistake the Spaniard is crucial for the Jazz. Rubio’s presence will help him connect with Rudy Gobert for easy buckets and if he can shoulder the bulk of the playmaking duties it will only help to free Donovan Mitchell up to be a dynamic scorer. Plain and simple, if Utah wants to defeat Houston, they need Ricky.