It’s pretty wild that no playoff matchups have been determined prior to Monday’s action and it’s increasingly likely no one will know who they’re playing until the final games are played on Wednesday night.
That’s made this a wild few weeks, livening up a season that has also featured too many buzz-kills to consider great.
Kyrie Irving won’t participate in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is likely done too. DeMarcus Cousins will be in a suit on the bench for his first postseason “appearance”. Stephen Curry won’t be part of the first round. Jimmy Butler got back just in time to go and Joel Embiid is expected to do the same when the weekend arrives.
Over the course of the regular season, you’ve read columns commenting on most NBA teams, but given the roller-coaster ride the Warriors and Cavs have taken us on, it feels like I’ve been writing about how to approach the matchup most anticipated when the regular season began, the seemingly inevitable Cleveland-Golden State, Part IV.
While I wouldn’t sell off the Warriors at all, I’m not as confident that they’ll be back to defend their title as I am that Cleveland will be back in the national spotlight come June. Golden State needs Stephen Curry to work off any rust in a hurry, while Houston did what it needed to in ensuring it landed homecourt advantage. Expect to see an epic Western Conference finals.
In the East, expect status quo.
When things looked bleakest for the Cavs, after losses in eight of 10 between Christmas and Jan. 15, I told you to stick with them. Although it took the unexpected trade of Isaiah Thomas to perk things up, Cleveland enters the postseason as at even money to get out of the Eastern Conference per Westgate’s Monday update.
The Cavs are 8-to-1 to win it all, and while I wouldn’t get behind that, consider this my very clear suggestion that you ride the best player of this generation to get back to an eighth consecutive NBA Finals if you haven’t already gotten in for more lucrative odds. If you have, double down.
In a season where James Harden has checked all the MVP options with a brilliant, dominant season as the best player on the best team, 33-year-old LeBron James has barged his way into the conversation, potentially suiting up for all 82 games for the first time in his career if he takes part on Wednesday. His Cavs have never needing him more, sabotaged by injuries to Kevin Love and pieces that didn’t quite fit coming over in return for Irving. Despite bouts with brutal defense and stagnant ball movement, Cleveland entered the week assured of homecourt advantage for the first round.
Sure, they’re likely going to play the Raptors (5/4 East, 12/1 Title) in the conference semifinals, but there’s no reason that the Cavs can’t utilize the extra practice time to sharpen up what is currently a healthy roster and turn it into the East’s biggest beast. James turns up the intensity level on the defensive end this time of year, so with George Hill healing up an ankle injury to ride alongside him, Cleveland is about to be tougher to score on than it has been all season. The Cavs have often been brutal on that end of the floor, but that’s about to change.
Some may tell you that the East is as wide open as it has been since James returned to Cleveland after leaving Miami, but I wouldn’t believe the hype on that. Here are my notes on why to fade the rest of the conference, with Westgate’s odds in parentheses.
Toronto Raptors (5/4): This is the deepest team in the conference and they’ll have the homecourt edge at Air Canada Centre, so I’ll buy them as the favorite. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry must still prove they can get it done when it matters most, and it certainly didn’t help that LeBron administered his mind as the shorthanded Cavs won a pair of games against the Raps in late March to reaffirm their dominance.
Philadelphia 76ers (6/1): Embiid will be back to improve a team that has looked tremendous without him. Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinellii were brilliant additions, so this team needs to be taken seriously as Ben Simmons continues to improve and gain confidence. However, he’s a liability at the free-throw line and this group is light on guys who have felt the heat of the playoff spotlight.
Boston Celtics (20/1): Losing Irving means there will be no Gordon Hayward comeback either, so it’s Al Horford and the kids set to do the heavy lifting. Although Jaylen Brown has emerged and rookie Jayson Tatum is extremely polished, there is a ceiling this team will ultimately hit since Brad Stevens’ Xs and O skills will only be able to carry them so far.
Washington Wizards (40/1): John Wall has made it back and no one is talking about the Wizards being better off without him anymore considering how quickly that bubble burst. We’ll see whether keeping their ship afloat didn’t wear everyone out since the group is currently playing the worst of any East playoff team. Having won a few series the past few years, the hope is that this group will be ready to go when the weekend arrives. The talent is there. Cohesion and depth is not.
Indiana Pacers (40/1): The conference’s biggest surprise rides likely Most Improved Player honoree Victor Oladipo back into the postseason in a year where they were expected to take a step back after dealing Paul George. There’s a chance that they can pull off a first-round upset if Myles Turner turns it on in what’s been a disappointing season, but the likelihood of them facing the Cavs first makes it difficult to get excited about their chances to continue stunning the basketball world.
Miami Heat (80/1): No one has the rim protection and perimeter defenders that this group brings to the table with Hassan Whiteside and Bam Adebayo in the post and guys like Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow available. If Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade can be competent closers and James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk find a way to create matchup problems as x-factors, this is going to be one tough out.
Milwaukee Bucks (80/1): Giannis Antetokoumpo is going to be the best player on the floor more often than not and Jabari Parker has been able to shake off some of the rust in his return from a torn ACL, so this is a team talented enough to be a difficult matchup. Malcolm Brogdon just returned from knee soreness, so if he hits the ground running, the Bucks are going to be capable of locking up opposing guards since he and Eric Bledsoe are relentless defenders.
Ride the Cavs.