THE BATTLE FOR BASKETBALL’S BIGGEST HONOR
Currently there are eight teams vying for a chance to bring home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, which goes to the team that ultimately clinches the NBA championship. Nothing short of sixteen wins will bring it home, and each of the following eight teams remaining still has a fair chance at ultimate glory.
These second round series will be some particularly fascinating matchups for hoops heads: Each series will likely be hard-fought, with titan going against titan and likewise for the newcomers. Lots of rosters laden with young players at their cores will test each other in the East, while the West will get a heavyweight showdown a round earlier than expected and a team that will make the conference finals for the first time in at least 10 years.
Rivalries, clutch plays and buzzer beaters have rolled in like the evening tide so far this playoffs. Let’s hope there’s more to come.
Western Conference #1 Golden State vs. #4 Houston
The Warriors seem to be revving their motors despite some injury setbacks.
Golden State’s DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins went down with a quadriceps injury in a Game 2 loss back in round one against the Clippers. He’ll miss the rest of the playoff run.
With the ascendency of James Harden, it looked like the Rockets might stand a better chance facing the reigning champions than in previous seasons. This year, Harden has looked every bit the MVP he proved to be last year and more, averaging 36.1 points per game (8.1 more than second place).
Even more impressively, that season mark is more than any other season by any other player except Michael Jordan’s 1986-87 season — and five Wilt Chamberlain seasons from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
And, well, the Rockets have Kenneth Faried added to the mix, so he and P.J. Tucker have a chance of out-intensifying even Draymond Green.
But, so far in the series, Steph Curry’s clutch shots and Klay Thompson’s ever present sense of cool have carried the Warriors to a 2-0 lead. That, and this other guy…
Golden State Warriors
Key Player: Kevin Durant
Next year, the Golden State Warriors are set to move away from Oakland to a new stadium in San Francisco. And, whether they win it all or not, Kevin Durant may not be coming with them.
Durant might move teams and even conferences after this year concludes — he has a player option for next year that he will likely decline regardless of whether he stays a Warrior.
Much-maligned for his decision to team up with the Warriors — who had just defeated him in a hard-fought playoff series — Durant has now become the centerpiece of the new normal for Golden State. In Game 6 in the first round against the Clippers, he scored 38 points in the first half.
So far in the playoffs, he is leading all scorers with 34.2 points per game.
Key Player: Chris Paul
If CP3 can stay healthy, then the Rockets have a serious chance. Last year, he went down with a right hamstring injury in Game 5 of this series, snuffing out any real hope Houston had to bring their first O’Brien Trophy to the city since 1995.
His durability has long since been a major downfall of building a team that relies heavily on him; last season was his first career trip to a conference finals.
Despite lots of turnovers in the first round (3.8 per game), he did lead the first round with 2.8 steals per game. If only his opponents chanted “swiper no swiping” beforehand.
Western Conference #2 Denver vs. #3 Portland
The Denver Nuggets have only made it to the conference championship three times, and they’ve never made it to the NBA Finals. Before this year, their last series win came 10 years ago.
Now they take on Portland for a chance to spark up some history in a match that’s sure to have lighters flicking across two fine cities.
After last year when the Blazers were swept in the first round by the Pelicans, losing each game by an average of nine points, Portland has come out with a similar roster but a much better attitude. Arguably their second-best player, Jusuf Nurkic — no shade to C.J. McCollum — broke his leg on March 25, but that hasn’t stopped Portland from looking like a well-oiled machine.
In the last series, they managed a big comeback in last game to close out Oklahoma City: With less than seven minutes left, they were down by 15. After a 50-point game from their star Damian Lillard and a great series for big man Enes Kanter, their next task will be to extend their run into the Mile High City.
Key Player: Nikola Jokic
When you reach into your box of McNuggets at McDonald’s, you have an image of what you’re going to pull out. But every once in awhile, you get an extra big one — one that is really two: two separate nuggets that fuse together to create an atypical and oddly-shaped version of the nugget you were expecting.
If that were a player personified, one who balks at the traditional ideals of what it takes to be a Nugget, that player would be seven-foot Serbian center Nikola Jokic.
He’s big, he’s lumpy and he’s versatile. His arms flap around his body, kind of like he’s a bird trying to take flight but is doomed to a life which ends in four parts inside a Happy Meal.
He also ended the season sixth in overall assists.
Pass the dipping sauce.
Portland Trail Blazers
Key Player: Damian Lillard
He’s got the cold-blooded precision of Jason Bourne and the range of Adele. After getting embarrassed last year in a sweep to the lowly Pelicans, he finished off a big comeback against Oklahoma City with a deep 3-pointer in a 50-point game.
Also, Lillard was top of the first round categories for field goals made, field goals attempted, 3-pointers made and total points.
He’s kept up his groove from the regular season when he ended ninth in points per game and 3-pointers made per game. He also was third in free throw percentage and sixth in total free throws made.
Eastern Conference #1 Milwaukee vs. #4 Boston
Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is showing why he’s the future of the league this year with literal huge steps forward. This year, his assists have gone up roughly one per game, his rebounds have gone up two-and-a-half per game and his overall shooting percentage has gone from 53% to 58%.
In fact, with his three-point rate having dropped, his 2-point percentage has skyrocketed from last year at 55% now to 64% — the fourth-best in the league. He’s also the only player in the top nine in 2-point percentage that’s not a center; by volume, he’s shot 175 more 2-point shots than any other player in the top 16.
Antetokounmpo is third in points per game with 27.7, sixth in rebounds per game with 12.5 and 20th in assists per game with 5.9. He also led the league in some advanced statistics, posting a player efficiency rating of 30.9.The Bucks’ fourth-leading scorer, Malcolm Brogdon, has been out since mid-March and looks to return in the near future. They’ve missed him, but the addition of Nikola Mirotic hitting 3-pointers has given the Bucks a boost.
Despite Kyrie Irving being a nuisance on the podium over the latter part of the season, the Celtics are a well-drilled team that has both franchise knowhow and a core of young players that outperformed expectations last year.
And now they have the aforementioned Irving healthy as well as a growing-into-form Gordon Hayward. With their continuity of young players as well as the veteran leadership of Al Horford, things are looking up in Beantown.
Key Player: Giannis Ante… no wait. It’s Brook Lopez!
This seven-footer is the Bucks’ secret weapon. He finished the year third in blocks and has reprised his role in the playoffs where he is currently leading all players in that category with 15. Not too surprising for a giant.
But, in the 2016-2017 season, he Mighty Morphed his way from an eight-year veteran having made a total of three career 3-point shots into someone who shot 387 threes in one year, making them at a 35% clip. And it changed just like that.
This year, his volume and percentage have marginally increased even further making him the perfect weapon to use on mismatches in a half-court offense. Too bad his twin brother Robin isn’t doing as hot with the NBA’s new focus on space and pace style basketball: Now playing for the Bulls, he has yet to hit a dozen career 3-pointers.
Key Player: Gordon Hayward
After a horrific injury just minutes into last year’s season, it’s taken quite a while for Hayward to take on the significant role he was brought to Boston to perform.
He started the first 16 games of this season (except the one game he was inactive), but has only started three of the team’s 70 games since and none of the Celtics’ four playoff games in their first round sweep of Indiana.
In the first 15 games he played, he ended only seven of them with a positive plus-minus — a stat that counts up how many points your team scores versus the other team scoring while you’re on the court. Since then, he has mostly been put on the bench to begin games and has finished with a positive plus-minus in 39 of his remaining 63 games.
Additionally, in all six of Hayward’s games where he got a plus-minus of +20 or more, he played less than 30 minutes.
Eastern Conference #2 Toronto vs. #3 Philadelphia
After their loss to LeBron last offseason, Toronto’s upper management threw up their hands, fired Dwane Casey and replaced him with then-assistant coach Nick Nurse.
This postseason, Nurse and the rest of Toronto’s leadership has one shot to pitch Kawhi Leonard on staying in Canada. With rumors swirling about an impending move to the Clippers, will Leonard stand for the North and defend it from oncoming invaders?
Toronto tore through the first round of the playoffs with a 4-1 win over the Orlando Magic. For the past four seasons, the Raptors have been good — possibly even great; we’ll never know because they lost to LeBron’s team three of the last four years.
Now the Raptors stand in contention to take up the mantel in the Eastern Conference after the hole left by LeBron’s departure from the Cavaliers. They have to take on Philadelphia, who is also one of the primary contenders for that spot as the new gold standard of the conference.
Philadelphia’s long-term strategy is a hot-button issue in the NBA. They took an approach in 2013 under former General Manager Sam Hinkie which had the team trying hard to “tank” in an effort to take advantage of the NBA draft lottery system.
Through that process, they picked up Markelle Fultz, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The former two of these have proven to be boyz. The latter have turned II men, leaving the 76ers in prime position to make a championship run.
Key Player: Kawhi Leonard
In the first round of the playoffs he shot 14-26 from three. That 54% is a vast improvement on his career mark of 38%.
In the two games since, he’s only gone six for 17, but he’s made up for it by going for 80 points. It’s like he’s playing for a new contract in a warmer climate or something.
Key Player: Ben Simmons
This year, he’s at 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, with more than half of his games being double-doubles. In the playoffs, he’s raised his shooting percentage to a crisp 66%, up from 56% during the regular season.
He’s still got no range — a total of six 3-point shot attempts this year so far with zero makes — but he sure fills up a traditional box score.
All stats according to http://basketball-reference.com as of May 1. Check espn.com or elsewhere for the full schedule. Games televised on TNT, ESPN and ABC.