About halfway through the first round of the playoffs, most of the stuff I initially thought about these playoffs is being proven wrong.
Just to recap my picks–Eastern Conference first:
- Heat in 6 over Hawks
- Nets in 7 over Celtics
- Bucks in 4 over Bulls
- Sixers in 6 over Raptors
And in the West:
- Suns over Pelicans or Clippers (I wrote it before the play-in game, and I didn’t specify how many games, but I probably would have said 5 games)
- Timberwolves in 6 over Grizzlies
- Warriors in 5 over Nuggets
- Jazz over Mavericks (also didn’t specify here, but I would have said Jazz in 6)
I might only get 3 series picks correct here: the Heat, the Sixers and the Warriors.
I am shocked that the Mavericks not only won a game without Luka but won two games without Luka and hold a 2-1 series lead. Jalen Brunson has been spectacular, Spencer Dinwiddie is playing extremely well, and it feels like this series is over. I don’t see how the Jazz can win especially since Luka is coming back at some point.
Now, I will just say, and I hate to nitpick because I like Luka a lot and I think he’s great, his on-off plus-minus split this season was only +0.2, meaning the Mavs were only 0.2 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor than when he was off. They were +3.6 when he was on the court, but what the on-off split shows is how good the Mavs were when he was off the court compared to when he was on it, and the Mavs were still +3.4 when he was off the court. So maybe we shouldn’t have been shocked that the Mavs are doing so well without Luka…
Still, it’s the playoffs, and the playoffs are a completely different beast than the regular season. The Mavs absolutely need Luka back, and it is not an indictment on him that they’re winning without him. I think it says more about how good the Mavs are as a team and how great a job Jason Kidd has done this year. Also, the Jazz are just crumbling, and it seems like this is the end of the road for this core.
But let’s move on to some of the other series because I have some hot takes and overreactions I want to fire off after just a few games have been played this postseason:
- The Bucks are losing to the Bulls. I’m sorry, but Khris Middleton is too big of a loss for Milwaukee to overcome against this Bulls team. We saw last year in Game 2 of the Finals that if Holliday and Middleton aren’t performing, the Bucks are going to struggle even if Giannis goes off. In that game he was 15-22 shooting for 42 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 1 steal, and the Bucks still lost by 10 because Middleton and Holliday were a combined 12-37 from the floor in the game. Giannis is The Guy on that Milwaukee team, but Middleton and Holliday are both crucial components, and without either one of them, the Bucks are in trouble.
- Middleton getting hurt is a tremendous blow for Milwaukee and I don’t think they’ll be able to overcome it. I think losing him means their season is over. He’s their closer. Giannis is their best player, but Middleton is their closer. The dude had 40 in Game 4 of the Finals last year. The dude hit some massive buckets all throughout the playoffs last year including in decisive moments in the Finals. Not having him is devastating. I can’t overstate it enough.
- I should have given Chicago a little more respect coming into these playoffs. Alex Caruso is back, and the dude is a Difference Maker. DeMar DeRozan can go for 40, Zach LaVine can fill it up, Vucevic is a very solid center–the Bulls have pieces, and I don’t think Milwaukee has enough to beat them without Middleton.
- Shit, if DeRozan doesn’t shoot 6-25 in Game 1 the Bulls would probably be up 2-0 right now. The Bulls as a team shot 32% from the field in Game 1 and still only lost to Milwaukee by 7. That game was close late. DeRozan, Vucevic and LaVine were a combined 21-71 from the floor in that game–just 30%. The Bulls as a team were 7-37 from three, with both Vucevic and LaVine going 2-10 from deep, and DeRozan going 0-2. And again, they still only lost by 7 and it was close in the 4th.
- The Bulls are winning this series. Milwaukee is a first-round exit. And you know what? We should have seen it coming. As much as we all love Giannis, this Milwaukee team still has not fully proven themselves. They would have been a second-round exit last year if KD’s foot was 2 inches back–or if Kyrie and Harden were healthy. Take your pick. And then, in the Finals, they played a Suns team that only made it out of the West because all the other great teams in the West were injured. We’ll get to the Suns shortly. But even in the Finals, Booker hurt his hamstring and wasn’t 100%.
- If we really scrutinize Milwaukee’s playoff history closely over the past few years, I think I’m on solid ground here in saying they have not fully proven themselves. 2019 was the first year they were a legitimate Championship contender in terms of having Giannis win his first MVP and the fact that they won 60 games and had the #1 overall seed in the league. That year, they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and got up 2-0 on the Raptors, but then dropped 4 straight. Once Kawhi started defending Giannis, the series turned.
- Then in 2020, in the Bubble, the Heat took the Bucks down in 5 games in the second round when the Bucks were again the #1 overall seed in the NBA. People thought it was a bubble fluke because the Heat kind of came out of nowhere, but the Heat have remained a really good team since the Bubble, and so it was not some fluke that the Heat won that series against Milwaukee.
- So basically, we’re looking at, over the past 4 years, Milwaukee lost to a better team, Toronto, in the Conference Finals in 2019. Then they lost convincingly to the Heat in the Bubble. In 2021, they won a chip but with the caveat that they were extremely lucky to beat the Nets in round 2. And now, this year, they look like they’re about to get bounced in round 1 by the Bulls. If the Bulls do in fact take down Milwaukee in this series–and you have to watch out because Billy Donovan was OKC’s coach when they choked away that 3-1 lead to Golden State in 2016–then that will be three major playoff disappointments in the past four tries. More and more people will look at the ring Milwaukee won in 2021 as a fluke–even now there are people online that try to discredit it as a “Hospital Ring” given all the injures that ravaged the league during last year’s postseason.
- Here’s a hard truth for Laker fans: Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan should be Lakers right now. They both wanted to be Lakers in the offseason, but the Lakers have the most incompetent front office in the NBA. Now those two guys are playing integral roles for the Bulls in the playoffs. Well done, Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, Kurt and Linda Rambis.
- The Suns are cooked. We’re about to learn yet again (because apparently, we never learn) that there’s a difference between being PLAYOFF GOOD and REGULAR SEASON GOOD. People believed the Suns were PLAYOFF GOOD because, after all, they made the Finals last year. But let’s be honest: the Suns would have lost in the first-round last year if AD didn’t get hurt. I know you all hate LeBron and think he’s literally the worst player in NBA history, but if AD stayed healthy, the Lakers were winning that series.
- But it’s more than just AD getting hurt in the first round when the Lakers were up 2-1. It’s the Western Conference Finals last year, too, where the Clippers were without Kawhi Leonard and still took the Suns 6 games. And the Suns won Game 2 on a one-in-a-thousand type play, that buzzer-beating alley-oop to Ayton off an inbounds pass. It was awesome to watch, but if we’re being honest, it was one of the most improbable and fluky plays in NBA history. The Suns easily could’ve lost to the Clippers in the Conference Finals–even though the Clippers were missing Kawhi.
- The Nets are done. KD can’t handle the double team. And he’s not good at going left. So much for the most skilled player in NBA history.
- Kyrie and LEBRON, not Kyrie and KD, were the most talented duo in NBA history. You quite literally had the two greatest finishers ever on the same team. Yes, that includes Michael Jordan. I’d put MJ at #3 behind LeBron and Kyrie. They were so good they beat a team that went 73-9. I know, it hurts. It hurts for KD, it hurts for LeBron haters, it hurts for Kyrie because one day he’ll realize what a mistake he made leaving LeBron, it hurts for LeBron because of what could’ve been. But it’s the truth.
- ISO GANG doesn’t work in today’s NBA. The Celtics have figured it out. They have Tatum on KD, then they send somebody else over to help when KD catches the ball, and KD doesn’t know what to do. He’s not an elite passer, so Boston can double team him with confidence that he’s not going to make them pay by finding an open shooter. Boston has the luxury of having so many defenders that they can just throw bodies at KD and Kyrie, and it works. They trust Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart to handle Kyrie, and then they have Tatum all over KD. Ime Udoka trusts Tatum to be in iso defense against KD, but a lot of times they’ll send either Horford or Jaylen Brown or Theis or somebody with size to double.
- The point is, I don’t see this changing as the series goes on. These are structural problems for Brooklyn, and I don’t know if they have answers–or if it’s even possible to solve these problems at all. Boston is just too good on defense, they’re way deeper, they have a superior coach, and I don’t think the Nets as currently constructed can win this series.
- However, the Nets need to at least try to make adjustments. They should start by doing a better job getting KD the ball up high, setting a screen for him and allowing him to come off a screen for a relatively good shot. I didn’t see a whole lot of that in Game 2 by Brooklyn–it looked like they just fed him the ball in ISO and trusted him to go to work. But it didn’t work. I want to see KD coming off ball screens and firing away. That’s really the only thing that might work for them in this series.
- The Nets are saying that Ben Simmons will play in Game 4, barring any setbacks. What kind of “setbacks” are they referring to here? He’s not injured, is he? Do they mean mental setbacks? I don’t think bringing Ben Simmons back is such a good idea. I know Brooklyn has to do it because they’re basically desperate right now. If I’m the Celtics, I’m intentionally fouling him to send him to the free throw line and destroy his confidence. If the series gets back to Boston, imagine Ben Simmons going up against that crowd. Forget it. They will eat him alive. He’ll melt into a puddle. The bigger story is the Celtics getting Robert Williams back. Tomorrow in Game 3, he’ll play limited minutes. Williams will have a bigger impact on this series than Ben Simmons.
- The Warriors are the prohibitive favorites in the West. The Nuggets are overmatched, but they’re not this bad. The Warriors are just really good. They now have three Splash Brothers with Jordan Poole. It’s ridiculous. Nobody in the West has enough defenders to take care of all of them. And then Draymond Green is the glue that holds it all together: he anchors the defense; he creates and distributes. I don’t care what he averages in terms of points. They don’t need him to score points. They have 4 guys who can all go for 30 in Steph, Klay, Poole and Wiggins. And they have bodies coming off the bench, too: Gary Payton II, Bjelica, Otto Porter. The Warriors are stacked.
- The Warriors are the best-run franchise in the NBA. That’s just the truth. They have the best coach, Steve Kerr, and the best system. Other than Andrew Wiggins, all their talent is homegrown. They found Jordan Poole at pick #28 in the 2019 draft. And they even deserve credit for Andrew Wiggins. They traded for him, nobody wanted him. His contract was thought to be one of the worst in the whole league. Golden State turned him into an All-Star Starter. The Warriors are the Patriots of the NBA. They really are. Everything they touch turns to gold.
- I’m almost at the point where I’m picking the Warriors even if the Suns win this series against New Orleans and get Devin Booker back. I don’t think the Suns can deal with Golden State, although I will say I do think the Suns are the one team in the West that is best equipped to do so because they have a lot of perimeter bodies they can throw at the Warriors’ shooter with Bridges, Crowder, CP3 and Booker.
- If Phoenix does in fact lose, as I now expect, I don’t know who the tougher matchup for the Warriors will be: Memphis or Dallas? I really don’t know. Memphis should be the obvious answer, but Dallas plays stingy defense, and they have lots of bodies and guys who can get buckets. Brunson, Dinwiddie can step up in a major way as we all know. But Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock–these guys can get buckets, too. Plus, when Luka comes back, he will control the tempo of these games.
- And I’m not even ready to give up on Minnesota in this first round series. I know Minnesota blew two 25-point leads to Memphis last night, but Minnesota is a young, emotional team and they’re prone to stuff like that. They still have not yet fully figured out how to win. I don’t think that game is going to wreck them emotionally. I think they’re young and they will be able to bounce back. I’m not saying they’re going to win the series or anything, but I’m not ready to give up on them just yet. I still think they have some fight left in them.
- However, KAT having just 4 field goal attempts in last night’s game is not acceptable. KAT is starting to feel like a Rich Man’s Ben Simmons. I think he might be in his own head right now. He’s been acting up all season long, maybe Pat Bev has rubbed off on him too much. I think KAT needs to be more mature out there, honestly. He needs to be his own man. It’s a sign of immaturity that he gets Pat Bev on his team and all the sudden he starts chirping and acting like Pat Bev out there. That’s not who he is. I know the guy has been through a lot the past few years, so I have to cut him some slack, but I don’t like the cockiness he’s been showing combined with his poor showings in the playoffs. It’s not a good look. He’s got to just put his head down and be himself.
- So, I guess my new Finals pick is Celtics-Warriors now. I mean, I’ve slandered most of the other contenders out there and the Celtics and Warriors are the only teams I don’t have anything bad to say about. So I guess by default that’s my Finals pick.
- I don’t want to sleep on the Sixers, but my theory on them is the same as it’s been the whole time: Embiid will eventually get hurt, and James Harden just doesn’t get it done in the playoffs. I am still not buying into Philly even after they’ve gone up 3-0 on Toronto. I am still extremely skeptical of the Sixers.
And the final hard truth: the playoffs are better with LeBron.
UPDATE: Literally an hour after I published this 😫😫😫:
I love Embiid as both a player and a personality. Even though he has James Harden on his team, and I don’t want to see Harden win a ring, I root for Joel Embiid. If the Sixers won a ring, I’d be okay with it because I like Embiid a lot.
This just sucks. Why is this man cursed?