By Harry Allison
The NBA’s second season opens tomorrow night at the Wells with the Sixers, who hadn’t made the playoffs in six years, facing the Heat.
Here’s a summary of the full league play:
No. 3 SIXERS (52-30) vs. No. 6 Miami Heat (44-38)
Two years ago, the Sixers were two years into Sam Hinkie’s sink-to-the-bottom-themed, multi-year rebuilding plan, and all they had to show for it were 10 measly wins. Now, though … well, if you didn’t get the idea back then, you sure do now.
Ben Simmons is a revelation, a skyscraper of a point guard who guards four positions expertly, devours whatever the defense gives him and stuffs the box score like no rookie since Magic Johnson. Dario Saric is everywhere Brett Brown needs him to be, all the time. Markelle Fultz is out of the wilderness and posting triple-doubles. The Sixers have barely missed a beat without All-Star center Joel Embiid, and enter the playoffs owning an NBA-best 16-game winning streak. They lock down, they hunt 3s in transition, they push the pace and they work you until you break. They’re the genuine article, and they were worth the wait.
In the other corner: a Miami side built primarily at the other end of the lottery, in the second round and through free-agent signings that, be honest, led you to cock an eyebrow or two as you wondered what exactly Pat Riley thought he was constructing down in South Beach. The Heat are a perpetually hard-charging tough out that beats you with grinding defense, waves of wings, the playmaking of Goran Dragic, occasional interior dominance from Hassan Whiteside and more James Johnson than you ever realized you wanted or needed. They don’t have the top-end talent Philly can unleash with Simmons and Embiid, but Erik Spoelstra’s club won’t beat itself, and will take advantage of every Sixer misstep it can.
In that respect, the Heat are a perfect opening test for Brett Brown’s young club, a kind of next-level professional proving ground. If Philly can calmly handle its business here andget Embiid back in time for Round 2 … well, let’s just say things could get awfully scary in the Eastern bracket.
• Game 1 @PHI: 8 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 14 (ESPN)
• Game 2 @PHI: 8 p.m. ET, Monday, April 16 (TNT)
• Game 3 @MIA: 7 p.m. ET, Thursday, April 19 (TNT)
• Game 4 @MIA: 2:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 21 (TNT)
• Game 5 @PHI: TBD, Tuesday, April 24 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @MIA: TBD, Thursday, April 26 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @PHI: TBD, Saturday, April 28 (TBD)*
No. 1 Toronto Raptors (59-23) vs. No. 8 Washington Wizards (43-39)
After a disappointing end to last season, the Raptors set about triggering a “culture reset” aimed at moving away from isolation-heavy offense and facilitating a more free-flowing, ball- and player-movement-heavy style. The results have been fantastic: Toronto’s owned one of the NBA’s best offenses despite All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry each doing a little bit less, with coach Dwane Casey empowering a young, hungry second unit to step up and prove they deserve more shots, more opportunities and more minutes. The Raptors have ridden the more egalitarian approach to the best record in franchise history and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs; they believe they’re good enough to win it all, even if the rest of the NBA-watching world still needs some convincing.
Their path to proving it will begin with a visit from the Wizards, who infamously swept a higher-seeded Toronto club out of the first round back in 2015. Alas: this time around, Paul Pierce works for ESPN.
John Wall and Bradley Beal are still around, though, and as long as the Wizards have their All-Star backcourt intact along with frontcourt bully Markieff Morris and do-everything wings Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr., they’ve got a puncher’s chance of taking it to anybody in the East. The problem with the Wizards, however, is that they can also look capable of laying an egg against just about anybody in the East. Sometimes, they can look both ways in the same night. They’ll need the coin to land on heads more often than not to stand a chance to toppling a heavily favored Toronto team.
• Game 1 @TOR: 5:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 14 (ESPN)
• Game 2 @TOR: 7 p.m. ET, Tuesday, April 17 (NBA)
• Game 3 @WAS: 8 p.m. ET, Friday, April 20 (ESPN2)
• Game 4 @WAS: 6 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 22 (TNT)
• Game 5 @TOR: TBD, Wednesday, April 25 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @WAS: TBD, Friday, April 27 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @TOR: TBD, Sunday, April 29 (TBD)*
No. 2 Boston Celtics (55-27) vs. No. 7 Milwaukee Bucks (44-38)
The Celtics went from Eastern Conference finals hopeful to The Team Everyone Wants to Play in the time it took to announce that All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving won’t be suiting up in the postseason. Led by All-Star center Al Horford, Boston will still defend with intensity, precision and activity, and has enough young talent — wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, reserve guard Terry Rozier, among others — to produce something special on any given night. But they’ve had trouble scoring without Irving on the floor all season long, and those problems only figure to increase in the pressurized atmosphere of the postseason.
The question, though, is whether or not the Bucks can capitalize on what’s arguably the most favorable upset opportunity on the board in Round 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been unbelievable all year, an MVP-caliber scorer, facilitator and defensive game-wrecker. There’s more talent alongside him than there was this time last year, too, with Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker both healthy and point guard Eric Bledsoe in tow. And yet, the Bucks have felt somewhat like a team underperforming its talent level all season long — a group with a transcendent, incandescent star at the top, but without a sound plan for maximizing his contributions or those of the roster around him.
That doesn’t sound like a recipe for knocking off a well-drilled and disciplined Brad Stevens-led team. Then again, while all things might not quite be possible through Giannis, overwhelming a wounded Boston squad four times in seven games just might.
• Game 1 @BOS: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 15 (TNT)
• Game 2 @BOS: 8 p.m. ET, Tuesday, April 17 (TNT)
• Game 3 @MIL: 9:30 p.m. ET, Friday, April 20 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @MIL: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 22 (ABC)
• Game 5 @BOS: TBD, Tuesday, April 24 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @MIL: TBD, Thursday, April 26 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @BOS: TBD, Saturday, April 28 (TBD)*
No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32) vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers (48-34)
It’s been a chaotic season for the Cavs — if we’re being honest, it’s felt like three or maybe four seasons, really — but it’s ended in a very familiar place. LeBron James is going to start a playoff series at home, looking at a bracket full of teams he doesn’t believe can stop him enough times to matter, and plotting a course to an eighth straight NBA Finals.
The path there might be a bit bumpier than it’s been in years past. James and head coach Tyronn Lue are still working out the kinks on a roster that, save for holdovers like Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, was roundly shuffled up at the February trade deadline in hopes of ameliorating the damage done by the preseason trade that swapped a disgruntled Kyrie Irving for an injured Isaiah Thomas. A spate of late-season injuries have kept Cleveland from getting a long look at how all the pieces fit together. But there’s nobody in the basketball world better equipped at that particular act of on-the-fly problem-solving than James, who’s producing at an unprecedented level for a player in his 15th pro season, who ended the season on a rampage, and who looks poised to offer his annual late-spring/early-summer reminder that all of us who’d seriously consider others to be this league’s most valuable player are, on some level, kidding ourselves.
Standing in James’ way: a Pacers team that nobody expected to be part of the East’s top eight when they traded away franchise player Paul George on the eve of free agency. But then, we didn’t know that Victor Oladipo was about to make the quantum leap from “pretty good player who hasn’t really put it all together yet” to “deserving All-Star, legitimate No. 1 scoring option and top perimeter defender, clutch monster and possible All-NBA guard.” (If we had known, we probably could’ve made a lot of money on that extremely specific future bet.)
The Pacers don’t play fast, they don’t bomb away from deep, and they don’t have a whole lot of players most casual fans could pick out of a lineup. What they do have, though, are pieces that fit together — guys who move without the ball, get hands in passing lanes, get out in transition, and make you earn it. They’ve been one of the league’s best stories, and best-kept secrets, all year long, and they’re capable of ruining your day if you don’t take them seriously. Unfortunately for them, LeBron doesn’t tend to lose focus too often this time of year.
• Game 1 @CLE: 3:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 15 (ABC)
• Game 2 @CLE: 7 p.m. ET, Wednesday, April 18 (TNT)
• Game 3 @IND: 7 p.m. ET, Friday, April 20 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @IND: 8:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 22 (TNT)
• Game 5 @CLE: TBD, Wednesday, April 25 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @IND: TBD, Friday, April 27 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @CLE: TBD, Sunday, April 29 (TBD)*
No. 1 Houston Rockets (65-17) vs. No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
The Rockets have been the NBA’s best team since just about the starting gun this season, taking down the defending champion Warriors at Oracle Arena on opening night and never looking back. Daryl Morey’s big summertime swing to create a two-headed point-guard monster has worked brilliantly, with James Harden turning in a dominant season that’s likely to earn him the first Most Valuable Player trophy of his career and Chris Paul playing about as well as ever both alongside him and in his stead, ensuring that there’s always an All-NBA pilot at the controls of Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
Houston boasts the NBA’s No. 1 offense and a sixth-ranked defense, led by shot-swatting Swiss center Clint Capela and some nasty defenders on the wing. They just lost an important one, veteran Luc Mbah a Moute, for at least the first round, but they’re still a heavy favorite to advance to the conference semis for the third time in four years.
While Houston had its postseason ticket punched ages ago, the Wolves had to work overtime on the regular season’s final night to knock off the Denver Nuggets and earn their spot in the top eight. Minnesota’s been up-and-down for months, going 11-10 with a barely-positive point differential since the All-Star break. But the bulk of that iffy play came with All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler sidelined following surgery to repair a torn right meniscus suffered in the Wolves’ first post-All-Star affair.
Butler’s back now, turning in three straight solid games to help push Minnesota over the finish line; when he’s been on the court this season, according to Ben Falk’s numbers at Cleaning the Glass, the Wolves have produced the kind of point differential you’d expect from a 62-win team. If Butler’s ready to serve as that sort of rising tide, and All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns can wreak havoc inside and out against Capela and company, Minnesota might be able to trade baskets with the Rockets for a while. Whether a maddeningly somehow-bottom-10-ranked defense will be able to get enough stops to get serious, though, very much remains to be seen.
• Game 1 @HOU: 9 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 15 (TNT)
• Game 2 @HOU: 9:30 p.m. ET, Wednesday, April 18 (TNT)
• Game 3 @MIN: 7:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 21 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @MIN: 8 p.m. ET, Monday, April 23 (TNT)
• Game 5 @HOU: TBD, Wednesday, April 25 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @MIN: TBD, Friday, April 27 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @HOU: TBD, Sunday, April 29 (TBD)*
No. 2 Golden State Warriors (58-24) vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs (47-35)
It feels odd to say that a defending champ that just won 58 games and features four All-Stars feels shaky, but the Warriors really stumbled their way to the finish line this season. Golden State lost six of its last 10, capped by a 40-point pasting in Utah; that the late March/early April swoon came despite the presence of Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson andDraymond Green lends credence to the belief that, no matter how much talent the Warriors accrue, everything Golden State is still revolves around Stephen Curry. With the two-time MVP unlikely to return from his MCL sprain before the end of the first round, the Warriors still enter the postseason as a title favorite, but they also feel as vulnerable as they have in the Steve Kerr era.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, they’re not working at full strength, either. The Spurs have operated nearly all season long without their best player, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and top-three MVP finisher Kawhi Leonard, who’s been dealing since preseason with right quadriceps tendinopathy. Barring any super-long-con trickery, that’s expected to continue come Saturday.
It hasn’t always been pretty without Kawhi making two-way magic, but the Spurs, as ever, have kept on keeping on. Gregg Popovich’s club has weathered the end of its 18-year 50-win season streak by extending its 21-year playoff streak behind tremendous play from big man LaMarcus Aldridge, a defense that has remained in the top five in points allowed per possession all year despite lacking its best perimeter stopper, a knack for taking care of home court that’s seen them go 33-8 at AT&T Center, and timely contributions from a deep bench led by 40-year-old legend Manu Ginobili and professional scorer Rudy Gay. Their reward for all that perseverance? A first-round date with KD, Klay and Draymond. Not the coolest gift, if you ask me.
• Game 1 @GS: 3 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 14 (ABC)
• Game 2 @GS: 10:30 p.m. ET, Monday, April 16 (TNT)
• Game 3 @SA: 10:30 p.m. ET, Thursday, April 19 (TNT)
• Game 4 @SA: 3:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 22 (ABC)
• Game 5 @GS: TBD, Tuesday, April 24 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @SA: TBD, Thursday, April 26 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @GS: TBD, Saturday, April 28 (TBD)*
No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) vs. No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans (48-34)
Damian Lillard’s been just about as good as it gets at the guard position this year, bombing away and dishing and controlling the game at a career-best level to propel the Blazers to the top of the tier just below Houston and Golden State out West. A Portland club that has long relied on its offense to outscore opponents now packs a defense that can clamp down, ranking in the top 10 in defensive efficiency throughout the season. If C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Terry Stotts’ army of intriguing specialists can hold up their end of the bargain and keep things close, the Blazers feel awfully confident that they’ll come out on top when the game gets to Dame Time.
A Pelicans team intended to be built around twin towers has instead wound up relying on a lone superstar to guide them, and man, has Anthony Davis ever delivered in the absence of injured partner DeMarcus Cousins.
The Brow averaged nearly 31 points, 12 rebounds and five combined blocks and steals over the final 30 games of the season, utterly dominating opposing defenses from every part of the court, raining down terror from above the rim and helping fuel New Orleans’ rise to a top-five defensive efficiency mark after the All-Star break. He’s had help — the finally healthy Jrue Holiday has been fantastic, as have post-shave Nikola Mirotic and veteran point guard Rajon Rondo — and he’ll need more of it if he’s going to not only earn the first playoff victory of his career, but push New Orleans out of Round 1 for the first time in a decade.
• Game 1 @POR: 10:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 14 (ESPN)
• Game 2 @POR: 10:30 p.m. ET, Tuesday, April 17 (TNT)
• Game 3 @NO: 9 p.m. ET, Thursday, April 19 (NBA)
• Game 4 @NO: 5 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 21 (TNT)
• Game 5 @POR: TBD, Tuesday, April 24 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @NO: TBD, Thursday, April 26 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @POR: TBD, Saturday, April 28 (TBD)*
No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder (48-34) vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz (48-34)
The Jazz have been one of the year’s best stories, a team that looked dead in the water multiple times this season — including before it, after losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward and starting point guard George Hill in free agency — only to go on an absolute tear after getting Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert back from a knee injury. Utah’s been one of the hottest teams in the NBA for three solid months, riding the league’s stingiest defense and the shot creation of Rookie of the Year hopeful Donovan Mitchell all the way from a possible lottery bid to the middle of the Western playoff pack.
While the Jazz have been on a nearly uninterrupted roll since mid-January, the Thunder have been a team operating in fits and starts all season long. On their best nights, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams and company can lay waste to championship favorites. On their worse evenings, they can look like a team without a clear sense of what it wants to do and who it wants to be, struggling even against some of the league’s lesser lights.
George bounced back from an ice-cold shooting stretch with a 40-point explosion in the season finale, during which Westbrook rebounded his way to averaging a triple-double for the second straight season. Both have shown the capacity to take over games, even in the playoffs, and Adams is just the sort of bruiser who’ll relish going toe-to-toe with Gobert inside. What kind of impact Anthony, who has largely struggled to make his presence felt has a lower-tier option, can make on the proceedings could go a long way toward determining the Thunder’s chances of advancing.
• Game 1 @OKC: 6:30 p.m. ET, Sunday, April 15 (TNT)
• Game 2 @OKC: 8 p.m. ET, Wednesday, April 18 (NBA)
• Game 3 @UTH: 10 p.m. ET, Saturday, April 21 (ESPN)
• Game 4 @UTH: 10:30 p.m. ET, Monday, April 23 (TNT)
• Game 5 @OKC: TBD, Wednesday, April 25 (TBD)*
• Game 6 @UTH: TBD, Friday, April 27 (TBD)*
• Game 7 @OKC: TBD, Sunday, April 29 (TBD)*