Finally, the NBA Playoffs are upon us. In a matter of weeks, a new NBA Champion will be crowned. For now however, it is time to soak in and, enjoy the Postseason. To be honest, it is kind of bittersweet, knowing that the 2016-17 NBA Season has almost drawn to a close.
But, with the playoffs just days away, it is time to take a look at top 10 things to keep in mind and watch for, during the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
10. Atlanta is getting hot at the right time
Back in February, it seemed as though Atlanta was all but certain to blow up its core of players and, subsequently begin a rebuild. Paul Millsap also seemed as good as gone. Fast Forward to April, and much has changed. With four wins in their last five games, Atlanta appears to be heating up. Also, the Hawks have came out victorious not once, but twice over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Atlanta’s second recent victory over Cleveland was a one-point, overtime victory.
The Hawks also boast a victory over the first-seeded Boston Celtics, in their last five games. With the Atlanta Hawks appearing to be heating up, this most definitely their Playoff opponent, the Washington Wizards, on notice. Do not let the fact that the Hawks record is 43-38 fool you because this team is hitting its stride at just the right time.
9. How long can the Portland Trail Blazers last?
After a thrilling race for the Western Conference's eighth seed, the Portland Trail Blazers have finally come out on top over the Denver Nuggets. Now the questions arise, “how long can Portland last?” Last season, Portland was able to defeat the Warriors just once, in the Conference Semi-Finals. As everyone knows, things have changed. Golden State has added former NBA MVP Kevin Durant to its roster.
For the Trail Blazers, not only will Damian Lillard and CJ Mccollum need to play their best basketball but, another member of the team will need to step up as well if he is healthy. After being acquired from the Denver Nuggets at the deadline, Jusuf Nurkic had been playing tremendously until he broke his leg. It remains to be seen if Nurkic will be available however, he could be the biggest X-Factor for the Trail Blazers. This series may not last long but, when Damian Lillard plays with a chip on his shoulder he plays phenomenal.
8. New Stars, familiar teams and, the big stage
Over the course of the past few seasons, the NBA has seen the rise of many new stars and, household names. Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls and, Kawhi Leonard are just a few. Although Kawhi has already established himself as a bona fide star, he continues to quietly elevate his game both on the offensive and, defensive ends of the floor. Jimmy Butler on the other hand, should be given some sort of award or something for picking up the slack for a very, very dysfunctional and unorganized Bulls team this year. This year however, we witnessed the rise of the “Greek Freak”, Giannis Antetokounmpo. For Giannis, it was always a matter of when he would become a star. His RAW athleticism combined with his length and overall talent creates a matchup nightmare.
The “Greek Freak” also helped carry his team, the Milwaukee Bucks back to the Playoffs. Leading the Bucks in every statistical category. One thing that all three stars have in common is that this year, they’ll all have the chance to shine on the big stage. While Leonard continues to quietly dominate the league, Butler and Antetokounmpo will surely have a large spotlight on them. Especially Antetokounmpo, who will have the chance to prove just how good he really is against one of the Eastern Conference's best, the Toronto Raptors.
7. Can the Indiana Pacers take another top team in the East to the limit?
The Indiana Pacers are set to take on the defending NBA Champion, Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of this year's Playoffs. Last year however, Indiana went the distance against Toronto, eventually falling by a slim margin in the seventh and final game. Although the Pacers were probably unhappy with the loss, that series featured stellar play from Paul George and then Rookie Myles Turner. Jump back to this year now and, the Pacers find themselves in the familiar position.
Once again, George and Turner will have to come up big but, another veteran will as well. Jeff Teague, who was brought in to give Indiana some more playoff experienced veterans, could also be a potential difference maker. Teague is one of a few players in the NBA who has been in the Postseason every year of his career, and, holds Postseason averages of 13.3 points, 4.7 assists and 2.7 rebounds. For Indiana, after struggling early on in the season, getting to the Playoffs is a huge accomplishment however, does not count on them only being content on just getting in.
6. It’s hot up in the 6ix
Speaking of the Toronto Raptors, they will be back in the Playoffs for a fourth straight year. Over the course of the past season, Toronto has gone through some major ups and, downs. From DeMar DeRozan’s scoring outbursts to losing Kyle Lowry down the stretch, the Raptors have seen it all. After acquiring Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker at the deadline, Toronto brings new faces to the playoffs. If the Raptors want to go on another deep Playoff run, they will need to play consistent basketball.
At times this season, Toronto struggled to find both offensive and, defensive consistency. With four wins in their last five games and, eight wins in their last ten games, Toronto is continuing to hit their stride. Going 14-7 without Kyle Lowry also is not bad at all. After closing out the regular season with a victory of defending NBA Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto’s confidence will be high heading into their first-round series against Milwaukee. With the addition of Ibaka and Tucker, Toronto is looking like a stronger defensive team however, as evident from the Raptors in years past, not all Regular Season success, translates to the Playoffs.
5. Can a healthy Clippers team finally win it all?
Once again the Los Angeles Clippers have returned to the Playoffs. For the Clippers, health has been their biggest issue. Now that Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are all as healthy as can be, this may be the team's last chance at making a run at winning it all. Both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will be free-agents this summer. It is no secret that Griffin has been weighing potential destinations for next year. As the Clippers get set to take on a young, explosive and, up and coming team in the Utah Jazz, their time to go on a deep run is now.
Potentially losing Paul or Griffin would be a major loss for the Clippers and, finally, all of their stars are healthy. With seven wins in their last seven games, the Clippers are on a roll heading into the Postseason. All that is left to do, is for this team to finally go on the deep Postseason run we have all been longing for. A trip to the Western Conference Finals, for the first time in franchise history, could be on the horizon.
4. Do not sleep on the Utah Jazz
For a few years, we have been waiting for the Utah Jazz to finally arrive. That wait is over. Lead by All-Star Guard Gordon Hayward, the Jazz are a very young team but, they have become a very exciting team to watch. Although Hayward averaged 21.9 points over the regular season, he is one of many players that has contributed to Utah’s success. Big Man Rudy Gobert has anchored the Jazz defense and, has become one of the premier shot blockers and, interior defenders in the NBA.
Utah finds itself up against a familiar foe in, the first round. In their 4 games season series, the Jazz lost 3-1 to the Los Angeles Clippers. Now, it is the Playoffs and, every team gets a fresh start. The Jazz may not have the most Playoff seasoned roster but, they do however, have George Hill as well as, Joe Johnson. Expect this series to be a fun one to watch but, the victories for either team, will not come easy.
3. Did you forget about Steph Curry?
It is easy to see why one may have forgotten about Steph Curry. Most of the buzz this year has been surrounding potential MVP candidates Russell Westbrook and James Harden and, the amount of minutes LeBron James is not playing. While your attention has been elsewhere, Steph is still being Steph. When Kevin Durant got injured a few weeks ago, Curry elevated his play and has not looked back. In fact, Curry has not scored under 17 points since March 21st. On April 5th, Steph also lit up the Phoenix Suns for 42 points and, added 11 assists. The point is, although his scoring average may be down from a year ago, the reigning MVP is still playing MVP quality basketball.
Factor in the arrival of Kevin Durant With Golden State facing off against Portland in round one, a matchup between Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard could very, very fun to watch.
2. Houston versus Oklahoma City could be the best series of the Round One and, entire Playoffs
To be honest, it seems cruel that we are getting such a highly anticipated matchup this early in the Playoffs. Nonetheless, for most, Houston versus Oklahoma City will be must watch basketball and, rightfully so. It is truly special that we will see not just to players who are single handedly rewriting the record books square off but also, two former teammates. For both James Harden and Russell Westbrook a series of career changing events has lead them to where they are. Now, the two favorite NBA MVP candidates and their teams, will square off however, only one team can remain. You already know that Russell Westbrook will come out firing on all cylinders. As future NFL Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis once said: “I’m pissed of for greatness.”
Most of the time, Westbrook seems pissed off to be great and, most definitely, better than great. Houston will counter Westbrook’s high octane offensive skills with their star, “the beard”, James Harden. Over the course of the season, Harden has also notched himself a few triple-doubles, 22, to be exact. Harden has to lead the way for an equally impressive Houston Rockets team. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey deserves a great deal of credit for signing Ryan Anderson and, Eric Gordon as well as, acquiring Lou Williams. Both Williams and Gordon are both favorites for Sixth Man Of the Year, talk about depth.
OKC on the other hand, do not just run on Russell Westbrook. Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo have all had tremendous seasons and after Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott at the deadline, the Thunder may have just enough pieces to go on a deep run. Doug McDermott could quite possibly catch fire from beyond the arc for the Thunder. Basketball fan or not, you simply will not want to miss this series.
1. LeBron, did you get enough rest?
When you are the reigning NBA Champions, the spotlight is going to be on you. Every move you make will be debated and, analyzed. When LeBron James is on your roster, well, everything changes. To close out the regular season, Cavaliers Head Coach Tyronn Lue, decided to rest James in order to save his body and, keep him rested for the Playoffs. Depending on how you look at it, resting James can be both a positive and, a negative. For fans, paying to see LeBron James play, only to find out he is resting seems just unfair.
For NBA teams, saving your impact players for the Postseason may be the next big trend. If you ask LeBron James, he is not worried, he also does not care, he just wants to win. Although Cleveland started to slide with James resting, he does have a lot of mileage on his body. Also, for anyone concerned about the fact that Cleveland is only second in the Eastern Conference, do not fret, LeBron won a championship with the Miami Heat ranked as the number two seed.
Only time will tell if resting LeBron paid off however, one thing is for sure, LeBron James will be a man on a mission, doing whatever it takes to bring home another Championship to his city.