Ring the bell. It’s Round 2 of the NBA playoffs.
So it turns out, as expected, all the favorites won in the first round.
I know, I know, the first round of the NBA playoffs isn’t technically over. The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz play a seventh game Sunday to determine, well, who gets swept by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Warriors were again, for the third consecutive season, the best team in the NBA. It’s meant one title so far. Golden State won 16 more games than the champion Cleveland Cavaliers, an encore on the Warriors record breaking 73-win season with a 67-15 record this season. This was the season the Warriors weren’t going to push for a record. After all, they couldn’t finish last season, losing three straight to the Cavs for the title. More rest this time. Oh, and Kevin Durant.
So the Warriors started 31-5.
Well, then Durant got hurt and missed 19 games, returning for the last three of the regular season. And then Steve Kerr become ill again from his recurrent back problems after surgery. Mike Brown took over for Kerr. Which should not be a big issue. Except if Brown reverts to his philosophy of playing slowdown, walk it up basketball. Then maybe it takes the Warriors five?
It was, if not an historic and all that dramatic first round with the one Game 7 ahead, it had its moments.
The Cavaliers say they’re ready now with a sweep of the Pacers. Paul George pretty much blamed everyone but George McGinnis. Larry Bird had enough for now. The Raptors were trailing 2-1 after losing Game 3 by 27 points to Milwaukee and still unable to spell Antetokounmpo. They won in six while also perfecting the art of giving up 20-point leads. The Wizards had too much backcourt for Atlanta, which didn’t have quite enough Dwight Howard. Or however much there is of him these days.
The Bulls? Where have you gone Rajon Rondo?
The Spurs believe they found the best player in the NBA on their roster, and Kawhi Leonard was pretty terrific in the six-game win over the Memphis Grizzlies. The Rockets had just too many guys for the Oklahoma City Westbrooks and took that series in five.
Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs Toronto Raptors (3)
The Cavaliers fell behind Boston for that top seed, tied in wins with the Raptors. They beat the Raptors three of four for the tiebreaker, but you can make less from these games than most regular season games. Three games were in the first six weeks, the Cavs winning all three. Then they changed half their team with Kyle Korver and Deron Williams since playing larger bench roles. The Raptors won the last game of the season when the Cavs played Jim Chones, Bingo Smith and Austin Carr. Toronto made the big February moves with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker adding defense to DeMarre Carroll. Norman Powell had a breakout game to help save the series with the Bucks, but it looks like six games again since the Cavs only take some games seriously. Last season’s Cavs six-game win over the Raptors in the conference final was typical with several Cavs blowout wins. Plus, Kyle Lowry hasn’t looked quite right since his back problems.
Pick: Cavs in 6.
Boston Celtics (1) vs Washington Wizards (4)
This should be the one to watch in the East. Both teams needed six to advance, but it seemed a lot more troublesome for Boston. And Isaiah Thomas left after the Bulls series to attend the funeral for his sister. The Wizards players were laughing during the first round being asked about the great Wizards/Hawks rivalry. Not that there is that great a one with the Wizards and Celtics, but there was some wild stuff this season between the teams in their 2-2 split. In a January game, Jae Crowder stuck his finger in John Wall’s face. And no one knew where that finger had been. The next game between the teams, Wizards players wore black to depict attending funeral for the Celtics. It’s a game of backcourts and the Wizards probably have the edge, though it’s the strength of both teams. Wall and Bradley Beal against Thomas and Avery Bradley, the latter strong against Jimmy Butler to close the Bulls series. Wall is playing at a phenomenal, near Kawhi Leonard level in these playoffs and it will be difficult for Boston to hide Thomas on defense. Teams constantly go after Thomas. But Bradley is the best defender of the four. Washington has a more well balanced starting five, but Boston has the better perimeter defenders. There are other curiosities. The Wizards tried to sign free agent Al Horford, who signed with Boston. Boston likes to run forcing turnovers; the Wizards led all first round teams in points off turnovers.
Pick: Wizards in 6
Golden State Warriors (1) vs Los Angeles Clippers/Utah Jazz (4/5)
The Clippers and Jazz were the closest in all the series statistically and in point differential. The Warriors swept the Clippers this season; the Jazz did win one game. Blake Griffin is out for the Clippers as they had to win Game 6 in Salt Lake City to get back to L.A. for a Game 7. The talk is more about whether the team will be broken up than how far it can go even with Chris Paul having some huge games. Yes, Joe Johnson has played well and in the clutch for the Jazz, but if you need him to do that, really? Against the Warriors. Golden State gets Matt Barnes back for the bench and perhaps Shaun Livingston at some point. Draymond Green already is on a roll and there’s just so much offense in this era where you have to be careful with perimeter players.
Pick: Warriors in 4.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs Houston Rockets (3)
These in state teams have some great history back to the phenomenal Hakeem Olajuwon/David Robinson series in the 90s that Dennis Rodman helped sabotage for the Spurs. Though Olajuwon was amazing in one of those classic Michael Jordan type things when Robinson got the MVP award and Olajwuon came out and dominated. Mike D’Antoni has nightmares seeing the Spurs and Gregg Popovich from D’Antoni’s run in Phoenix when the Spurs—and David Stern’s discipline—denied them a championship. The first round for Houston was a lot of the Westbrook/Harden even if they didn’t guard one another, though tough to tell often just who Harden is guarding. This time it’s Harden and Leonard. The Spurs with yet another season of at least 60 wins have become as one dimensional on offense as they’ve been since George Gervin played. With the taciturn Leonard, however, having a very loud game. Harden and his guys just outdid the likely MVP, and some say it should be Leonard as MVP as the best two-way player. Harden has an ideal setup in D’Antoni’s long shot system with a ring of three-point shooters all over the place and attempting them as quickly as they can. Leonard will harass Harden like no one else has and as good a defender as Leonard is, Harden probably won’t get away with as many of those rip through foul calls. Though Harden did average almost 28 per game against the Spurs with Leonard. Tony Parker was reborn against the Grizzlies, but will Pau Gasol get off the bench? And Patrick Beverley isn’t afraid to defend anyone. The Spurs won three of four in the regular season, and you look at their roster and big guys you never heard of starting and you wonder how. Is it Patty Mills making big shots again?
Pick: Rockets in 6