Finally, the NBA Finals may not feature a Cavs-Warriors series
The prior three NBA playoff outcomes felt preordained. In the Eastern Conference, the league’s best player LeBron James, more aptly referred to as the King, reigned dominantly over what used to be a conference consumed by his greatness.
It appeared that other teams were simply delaying future success until they other teams finally began to catch up.
Out in the Western Conference, the league’s superior team, the Golden State Warriors, transformed the way the sport is now played with 3-point shooting and great defense, forcing the other teams in the West to adapt or die.
This season’s NBA playoffs have been different from the ones from years past.
LeBron appears vulnerable, and the other Western teams have adapted, quickly.
In the Eastern Conference, the top-seeded Toronto Raptors, after looking the part of a 59-win team, lost two games to the Washington Wizards, tying the series 2-2.
The Raptors are sure to hear their ghost of playoff past begin to reappear, as they now fall to a franchise record of 0-4 when they are ahead in an all-time playoff series of 2-1.
Unfortunately, this has become the Raptors’ playoff M.O. in previous years, and the pattern will continue if they do not make any adjustments. If they win the series, the Raptors will move on to face the victor of the series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers.
The Cavaliers, LeBron’s team, and the Pacers are currently knotted up 2-2. The Cavs, with only four players remaining from their 2016 championship squad, look beatable.
LeBron has carried the team, as expected, with a triple-double in Game 1 and a 46-point performance in Game 2.
However, the Pacers, carried by the incredible two-way play of Victor Oladipo, have not been intimidated by LeBron. They won Game 3 behind the heroics of Bojan Bogdanovic’s 30-point performance but then quickly forfeited home court advantage back to the Cavs in a Game 4 defeat.
Expect the Cavs to put in the work, appease their home crowd by clinching a Game 5 victory and let the King close the Pacers out on the road, winning the series in Game 6.
The other series tied 2-2 is the Boston Celtics versus the Milwaukee Bucks.
After taking what appeared to be a commanding 2-0 lead over Milwaukee going into Game 3, the Celtics fell behind by 23 points at halftime and could not recover, losing 116-92.
The same result followed in Game 4, leading to an even larger deficit. The Celtics, attempting a comeback, still fell short 104-102.
This series is now truly a toss-up, with the best player in the series, Giannis Antetokounmpo, capable of stealing a game on the road for the Bucks.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers, who most fans expect to replace the King and the Cavs as the conference’s best team, are already making waves this year.
The youth movement within the organization might just be naive enough to play well under the bright lights of the postseason.
With the 76ers’ star center, Joel Embiid, returning from a broken orbital bone for Game 3, the Sixers have simply looked like the more talented team.
Driven by the veteran leadership of Dwyane Wade, the Miami Heat were suspected of having the playoff experience edge in this series.
Instead, it was the Sixers who looked the part in Game 4, and calmly overcame a fourth quarter deficit to win 106-102.
The Sixers will win in five games, and may just emerge as the conference’s new favorite. Out in the West, the second round is taking quick form. The New Orleans Pelicans won their first playoff series since the 2007-08 season, behind the unsurprising performance of Anthony Davis and the breakout performance of teammate Jrue Holiday.
A player seemingly forgotten about due to his previous underwhelming play and significant injuries, Holiday has finally put it all together this postseason.
His coach, Alvin Gentry, called Holiday the league’s best two-way player in the NBA after his dominating 33-point, nine-assist performance.
Though undeniably biased, Gentry’s assessment is fairly spot on. Holiday has created arguably the most dangerous pick-and-roll combination in the postseason alongside Davis, while playing phenomenal defense on the Portland Trail Blazers’ usually lethal backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. He contributed 41 points in the closeout Game 4 while Davis contributed 47. The Pelicans’ next series against the Warriors will be a doozy.
The Warriors beat the San Antonio Spurs in an emotional five-game series.
This victory occurred after the death of the Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich’s wife Erin Popovich between games 2 and 3.
The Spurs played inspiring basketball, but the Warriors were simply better.
After winning the series against San Antonio, Golden State will now face the rolling Pelicans.
Davis will not be an easy cover for the smaller Warriors’ lineups and even if Steph Curry returns, expects Holiday will win that matchup one-on-one.
This will be an entertaining and lengthy second-round matchup.
Finally, the remaining two first-round series have basically played to script.
The Houston Rockets, after slipping up to a playoff-hungry Minnesota Timberwolves team in a Game 3 loss, blew out the Wolves in Game 4 with the assist of a 50-point third-quarter offensive onslaught, just a point shy of the 1962 Los Angeles Lakers’ record.
The Rockets are the better team, simple as that, and they will advance in five games to play the Utah Jazz in Round 2.
The Jazz, matched up against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, have played exceptional team basketball.
The Thunder and their dynamic trio of stars, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, took Game 3.
However, the Thunder have relied too heavily on isolation basketball to win games, and when their stars are not making shots, the offense bogs down.
This allowed the Jazz to get out and run the fast break on all the missed shots by the Thunder.
The Jazz should get credit, however, as they have played determined defense, not allowing Westbrook or George any easy looks.
Most impressively for the Jazz has been their backcourt duo.
Ricky Rubio has played the best basketball of his life, setting up his teammates per usual but also scoring at an abnormally and efficient high clip.
Rookie Donovan Mitchell has also risen to the occasion of playoff basketball.
Mitchell, after playing a few minutes in his first playoff game, almost threw up from his postseason adrenaline rush, but since then has looked cool, calm and collected throughout the series.
He set an NBA record of 55 points scored by a guard in his first two postseason games, eclipsing Michael Jordan’s record of 53 set in 1985.
Mitchell would go on to score 33 points — a franchise record for a rookie in a playoff game — in the pivotal Game 4.
He has looked every bit the part of a closeout player capable of scoring at will, something that the Jazz have sorely lacked in previous postseason appearances.
Expect the rookie and his adept team to advance in five games.
So far, these first round games have unequivocally proven that a fourth rematch between the Cavaliers and Warriors is anything but guaranteed.
The King’s iron-grip on the Eastern Conference throne looks vulnerable to rising challengers with three rounds to still conclude.
The Warriors, not taking a step back in competitiveness, have seen their competition around them rise quickly.
The Rockets are Golden State’s greatest threat, and they have evolved to become a more prolific 3-point shooting team while also ranking as a top-10 defensive team.
Both the Cavs and Warriors have set the bar high for championship-caliber teams in the NBA, and this postseason, basketball fans are being thoroughly entertained as many teams strive to overtake the two teams’ greatness.