NBA Playoff Discussion; The Eastern Conference First Round Breakdown – 1st May 2017

So the First Round is over, and what was a truly unsurprising result for the Eastern Conference, in terms of the teams that advanced to the second round, was also a great two weeks of basketball, in almost every factor. We saw the first glimpse of playoff Giannis, John Wall showing his true ability and personality, Paul George getting bitchy at his teammates, and triumph through adversary. But just how good was the Eastern Conference First Round of the 2016-2017 NBA Playoffs? I’ll break it down for you, team by team.

Boston Celtics

Boston were one of that teams that probably should have advanced to the second round, being the first seed in the East, but, at the same time, you have to feel like they could have easily said hello to an early playoff exit. Isaiah Thomas, despite playing through the tragedy of losing his sister just before Game 1 against the Chicago Bulls, played much better than could be expected, and generally rose to the occasion, as he has done all season-long. Where $120 million Al Horford was basically invisible all series, other than a couple of threes, role players like Terry Rozier and Gerald Green stepped up alongside IT. Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart played outstanding defense, particularly in Game 6, which helped bring the Celtics to the second round, where they took down the Wizards in Game 1, after being down 16-0 in the first quarter, creating a great game to open up the second round. A lot of people felt that Boston were a ‘bad’ first seed, lacking the offensive firepower that Cleveland has, or the defensive capabilities of the Warriors at the other side of the league. They are clearly without a go-to player, obviously despite Isaiah Thomas, which filled the minds of sceptics with doubts as to whether or not they could take down Chicago down the stretch of a 7 game series, which only inflated when the Bulls went up 2-0 on the road. But when Rondo went down, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, the Celtics became a much better team while the Bulls went back to the team they’ve been all season, bringing the series back to a 4-2 win, propelling them forward to the second round. Despite the 2-0 comeback, I’m incredibly sceptical on whether or not the Celtics can go toe to toe with the Wizards, especially when Thomas is likely to be locked down by a defensive star in John Wall, who is having a truly amazing playoffs. However, if Isaiah Thomas can rocket his team back to a comeback like he did in the first round, especially with what he was going through, you have to feel like the Celtics, who did secure the #1 seed remember, can defeat Washington, which can be backed up by their Game 1 victory last night. Who knows, maybe Isaiah will play better without that tooth that came flying out of his mouth during the game last night, because it surely seemed to get him going against the Wizards. But Al Horford, you’re getting paid $120 million, and you’re doing little to nothing on the court, and it’s hard enough for IT to carry the load of Boston’s offense when Horford is hitting the occasional shot, but he’s not even doing that this playoffs. And with IT likely to be looking to feed the ball more while being guarded by John Wall, Horford and the rest of the supporting cast in Boston are going to have to take some of the weight off Thomas’ shoulders, if they’re going to have any hope in taking down John Wall and the Wizards. You’ve already done it once Boston, just 3 more wins and you’ve got the conference finals under your belts.

Cleveland Cavaliers

I’m not entirely sure what to say about the Cav’s performance in the first round. LeBron was, well LeBron – that incredible freak of nature we’re all so used to seeing come playoff time, basically doing everything and anything he wants on the court, whether it’s dishing the rock or throwing down disgustingly sick dunks every chance he gets. Kyrie showed flashes of his ability as a scorer, able to take over games when LeBron needs him to splash 3’s when the game is on the line. They swept the Pacers without much difficulty, despite some of the games being relatively close. And I’ve seen people saying that the Pacers could have beaten the Cavs, judging by their ability to keep games close. But let’s be honest here – no they definitely couldn’t. LeBron and the Cavs got bored in some of the games, with LeBron and Kyrie not even going into the offensive half on more than one play, choosing instead to trust their teammates, 3 on 5, to get buckets. And in Game 3, when they went down by a huge 26 points, LeBron kicked into playoff mode and took over, leading the Cavs to the biggest comeback in playoff history. Look people, you can’t doubt LeBron James, especially when it comes down to the playoffs. We saw what he could do when he gets mad in the Finals last season, we’ve seen it already this season in that 26 point comeback. I don’t get how people can say that they won’t get out of the Eastern Conference, and with a straight face, no less. He’s done it already, he’s going to do it again. And no, I’m not saying the Cavs are going to do it two years in a row, I feel that Golden State have too much firepower this year, but I am saying, with LeBron James on their side, the Cavs truly have the potential to destroy any team that comes into their path, particularly in the East, especially when Kyrie and Kevin Love are feeling it. There’s not much else to say about Cleveland, so to sum up – LeBron’s a freak, I’m 99.99999% sure the Cavaliers are heading to the Finals again in June.

Toronto Raptors

Man, these guys are so incredibly inconsistent. Their series with the Milwaukee Bucks was going back and forth between whether or not the Raptors were going to advance. “Can DeRozan get back into form?” “Can the Greek Freak be stopped?” “Are the Raptors’ role players going to show up when it matters?” These questions were flying through the minds of Raptors’ critics, such as myself, throughout the entire series. And that Game 4 performance, when DeRozan went 0-8 from the field, fuelled sceptics with all the firepower we needed to piss off every Canadian who’d ever heard of Toronto basketball. And look, I’m not one to be in denial when I’m wrong, but I don’t feel like I’m wrong about the Raptors, not yet anyway. They were dodgy in that series, and I’m convinced the Bucks would have sent them packing if Jabari Parker had recovered from injury, but they did finish it out in the end. DeRozan made a great comeback from the shocking 8 point game, throwing Giannis and the Bucks onto the curb, basically banning them from Canada, with the Bucks’ “Barney Theme song” whenever the Raptors set foot in the Bucks’ building. Serge Ibaka showed some flashes of a strong interior defender, protecting the paint against someone as rim-driven as the Greek Freak. The ‘mid-range assassin,’ aka DeMar DeRozan, stepped up to the challenge, silencing questions about whether he can perform in the playoffs as the leading scorer on this Raptors’ squad, excluding that Game 4 performance, obviously. Kyle Lowry showed signs of improvement, with a lot of people still sceptical about whether he’d be in full health after that injury which had him out for plenty of the season. Let’s be real with Toronto though, for a moment. They’ve got a lot of playoff experience on their squad, with their dynamic backcourt and Serge Ibaka being no stranger to the post-season limelight. But they are not, I repeat are not, going to put up a fight against the Cavaliers. I’ve been wrong before about this kind of thing, but I’m thoroughly convinced that LeBron James is too good for any Eastern Conference team in the playoffs, none of them can match up to his level of post-season intensity. That, combined with Kyrie’s scoring ability when he’s feeling it, spells bad news for everyone who had a sliver of hope for Toronto fans. But who knows, maybe Serge will lock down LeBron like he locked down Giannis in this small moments in the first round. Nah, saying that out loud just sounds ridiculous. Serge is probably going to be on a poster if he steps anywhere near LeBron. Congratulations to the Raptors for getting out of the first round, but I’m close to certain that your 2016-2017 playoff run has come to an end. You guys were just unlucky that the Cavs couldn’t secure the #1 seed, or you’d probably be headed to the Eastern Conference finals again.

Washington Wizards

I was pleasantly surprised with Washington’s performance in the first round, particularly against a strong Atlanta squad. John Wall showed just how dominant and game deciding he can be, following up on a close to MVP conversation-like season with a terrific Round 1 set of performances. Whether he was dunking on every Hawk who got in his way, chasing down his opponents with amazing defensive plays, or waving goodbye to Atlanta in Game 6, I found enjoyment in every aspect of his game throughout that first series. He and Bradley Beal stepped up for a huge combined 72 points to wave the Hawks goodbye in the Game 6 performance, showing flashes of one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA. Marcin Gortat showed signs of his early regular season self, turning into a foreign monster in the paint, bullying Dwight Howard in every game. Markeef Morris played decent as part of the Washington supporting cast, with his defense proving to a vital aspect in slowing down Paul Milsap, despite his 33 point performance in their season ending game. This series, the Hawks and the Wizards, was expected to go to Game 7 just because of how evenly matched the two teams were, but John Wall and Bradley Beal really stepping up and just terrorising the Atlanta defense in every attack they could. Whether it was John Wall running the floor in transition and throwing down a mean poster on the Hawks, or him kicking the ball out to his backcourt partner for a deep 3, they had the ability to destroy Atlanta. We also got a glimpse at John Wall’s confident side when he was trash talking the Hawks’ bench mid-game. And if there’s one man I want to see trash talk people, it’s John Wall. I mean, when you play well in both aspects of the ball game, you’ve deserved the right to bad mouth opponents to your heart’s content. Washington are matched up with Boston in the second round, and, although they’ve lost Game 1, fuelled by a hot shooting night for Isaiah Thomas, I have a sneaking suspicion we’re going to see an upset for the #1 seed, especially if the Wizard’s backcourt starts feeling it like they were in Round 1. All I’m sure of, though, is that we’re in for a great second round series. We know these two teams hate each other, they’ve been in several confrontations all season, so we can count on a couple of arguments, maybe even some fists being thrown, to fuel our desires for that playoff atmosphere.

Atlanta Hawks

Much like the Wizards, I was genuinely surprised with the Hawks’ performances in the playoffs this year, but for the wrong reasons. They played lazy all series against an energetic Wizards squad, who propelled in transition, destroying Atlanta with incredible speed. I had expected the Hawks to take this series in 7 games, despite John Wall’s terrific performances, considering Paul Milsap’s improvement in recent years, combined with Schroder’s slightly overrated but still great ability over the length of the season. On paper, the Hawk’s backcourt was on a class above the Wizards,’ looking particular at Paul Milsap and Dwight Howard, who should be cleaning the offensive glass on every possession, something he hasn’t done in years for some odd reason. There was a point in time where Dwight was in the conversation for greatest centre in the league, a moment that has been completely forgotten about since the 7 footers days in LA, leading to claims of a has-been for Howard. Despite Milsap’s above average play in the series, the Hawks lacked fight throughout all 6 games, even in the games they won they seemed like a team who just wanted to be done for the year. For the entirety of the series, Atlanta had no answer for John Wall, who beat them repeatedly on coast-to-coast dunks and kick outs to Bradley Beal. Game 6 was a perfect example for how the first round went for Atlanta – they had a couple of high points in the game, Milsap’s 33 points being the main one, as well as a transition dunk for Denis Schroder, which seemed to be the only moments worth mentioning for the Hawks throughout the whole 6 games. Kent Bazemore was practically invisible in the first round, being basically the Al Horford of the Hawks, with only a couple of threes separating him for the fans in the crowd watching the game. It pains me to speak about Atlanta like this, because I’ve actually got a lot of love for Paul Milsap and his game as a whole, and am one of those secret believers that Dwight can be the centre he once was, cleaning up the boards while dunking on every man who gets in his path. But this series really filled my mind with some doubts regarding Atlanta’s ability to be a contender in the league, and I’m slightly hoping that Milsap gets traded to a team where he’d be in a position to win some games, and the ATL is just not that place. I’m sincerely apologise to the Hawks, but you guys need to step up your game if you want any hope of getting somewhere with this current squad.

Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee is probably the only team who got sent home in the first round, that you can still take out more good aspects of their performances than the bad ones. Most of these good aspects, however, revolve around the noticeable improvement of likely Most Improved Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, and that’s certainly not a bad thing, considering just how good the Greek Freak has become this season. Giannis has went from a reliable slasher to an all-around God in every sense, leading the Bucks in every major statistical category this season, which he has improved in from last year, I must add. We’ve been given a glimpse of playoff Giannis, and oh boy, that man is so good it’s almost illegal. He dunks on everybody, he plays outstanding defense on the other end of the floor, and he sends away any shot that comes near his basket. But the Bucks have a lot of other stuff to be grateful for, despite losing to a strong Raptor’s squad in the 4-2 series. For example, Thon Maker showed some flashes of his potential as a rim protector and space eater, completely dominating the paint on both sides of the floor. Also, Kris Middleton played amazing throughout the entire series, and Greg Monroe fits in well as a member of the Buck’s supporting cast, which is probably some of the best knows for Milwaukee fans coming out of the playoffs. And look, they couldn’t make it through the first round, especially when matched against an experienced Toronto team, but we’ve been given a glimpse of what the Bucks can create out of their squad when they choose to build around Giannis. You can clearly see that they’ll be able to surround Giannis with 4 shooters, giving the Greek Freak plenty of room to drive to the rim, and kick out to his teammates if he gets clustered in the paint. Milwaukee fans can be certain that Giannis is going to live in the gym for the next 4-5 months, working hard on gaining a consistent jumper, preventing defenders from sagging off of him, which in turn, will create more space for dribble drives. I mean, Giannis doesn’t have much of a problem getting to the rim already, but surrounding him with shooters will only create more space inside, and a consistent jumper means that those guarding him will no longer have the luxury of standing a few steps away from him and clogging up the lane. And I’m not talking about a 40-45% 3 point shot, but just enough to stop defenders from sagging off him, maybe 35%. If he can achieve this, and I truly believe he can, considering his improvement already from the last two seasons, and Milwaukee build around him like they should, I’m convinced the Bucks can make a deep playoff run in the coming years. Don’t worry Milwaukee, you’ve still got a lot to be happy about, no need to worry about that first round exit, the skies the limit for that young squad.

Indiana Pacers

Indiana were by far the worst team in the playoffs this year, at least in the Eastern Conference anyway. And I’m not even talking about their performances on the court, which were about as good as they could have been, considering they were swept by LeBron and the Cavs. I’m talking about their chemistry as a whole.  After Game 1, for example, when C.J Miles chucked up that game-winning attempt despite Paul George’s pleas for the ball, PG went onto the podium, directly after the game, and basically bitched about how he should be the one to take that shot, not Miles. And don’t get me wrong, he’s absolutely right about that, he definitely should be the one throwing up a prayer in the last seconds of the game, forgetting about his hopeless attempt in Game 4, but you can’t go onto the podium and tell the world that you don’t trust your teammates enough to seal the game for you. First of all, that’s terrible for locker room morale, making yourself look like you’re better than the rest of your squad, especially when you’re supposed to be a leader like Paul George. Secondly, you’re announcing to the world that you believe your teammates aren’t good enough to be taking those kind of shots. And when you’re likely to be traded in the offseason, you want to be making yourself look like the greatest teammate in the history of the NBA, not downplaying your squad in post-game press conferences. He later went on to bitch about Lance Stephenson’s on-court behavioural antics, which again shows that there is clear locker room issues within the Indiana Pacers. It’s understandable that they didn’t win a single game against the Cavaliers, and nobody can honestly say that they didn’t try, especially when they were up by 26 at one point. But the Cavs clearly weren’t playing to their full potential, the potential we saw when coming back from that 26 point deficit, and it honestly made me feel bad for the Pacers, considering how hard they played to get to that 26 point lead, only for it to be blown up in their faces by a LeBron fuelled, unstoppable offense. It’s quite depressing when you think about it, the highlight of the Pacers 4 games in the 2016-2017 playoffs, other than Paul Geroge’s hilarious rants on the podium, was a Miles Turner poster over Tristan Thompson. There’s not really a lot to say about Indiana in the playoffs this season, other than how truly awful they were in almost every aspect. And to add insult to injury, Larry Bird stepped down from the Pacer’s front office, giving Paul George no reason to stay in Indianapolis. So the Pacers are likely to lose out on the face of their franchise in the offseason, which will top off a truly terrible season for Indiana.

Chicago Bulls

Where do I even start with these guys? They looked so good, and then they snapped back to reality, and turned back into the awful team we’ve become accustomed to seeing this season. In a 4-2 loss to the Boston Celtics, the Bulls were actually up 2-0, thanks to some great games from the Chicago ‘Big 3,’ Jimmy Butler, Dwayne Wade and Rajon Rondo, giving NBA fans everywhere signs of hope for an 8th seed upset over the underserving #1 seeded Boston. Then Rondo goes down, and the Bulls go from a 20 assist, 4 turnover team over the space of two games, to an 11 assist, 4 turnover team in the next two games, in which they lost both to an Isaiah Thomas fuelled Celtics offense. The Bulls were transformed, briefly, into a team that could potentially be exciting to watch, and maybe, just maybe, cause an upset and force themselves into the second round. Then, reality hit, and Chicago went back to that team who struggled the catch the basketball, draw up terrible offensive plays, and choose instead to load the ball into Butler and Wade in the post, which could maybe lead to a terrible 2 points. I suppose that’s what I get for having hope for what used to be the greatest franchise in the league. Screw you Bulls, screw you. I truly hope Jimmy Butler goes somewhere where his talent can be used to his full potential. Look at it this way, Chicago, at least Rondo has some leverage for getting paid this season, considering he was the decider on whether or not you scrubs would actually win a game.