8 Questions As We Enter The Second Round Of The NBA Playoffs
In the Second Round, the matchups get even better
After a chaotic first week of the NBA playoffs, the Second Round matchups were ultimately settled in underwhelming fashion. We only had one Game 7 — the Los Angeles Clippers vs. the Utah Jazz — and even that series might have also ended earlier had Blake Griffin not gone down with a season-ending injury.
Then again, it’s the first time since 2008 that seven of the top eight seeds advance to the Second Round. On paper, this makes for really good matchups. But we’ve got some questions. 8 of them to be exact.
1) Can Golden State Run The Table?
In 1983, when asked how Philadelphia would perform in the playoffs, Moses Malone infamously issued the following prediction: “Fo’, Fo’, Fo’,” meaning the 76ers would sweep its way to the NBA Championship. The Sixers ended up dropping one game in the Eastern Conference Finals, finishing the postseason 12–1. In the 34 years since Malone coined the phrase, only the 2001 Lakers have come close to running the table. After bulldozing their way through the Western Conference, the “Shaqobe” Lakers dropped Game 1 of the NBA Finals to the Iverson-led Sixers, before winning the next four to finish the Postseason 15–1.
Can Golden State go 16–0? They got their first four out of the way. And it’s conceivable that they beat the Jazz in four. But it’s hard to see them getting past the Spurs or Rockets in anything less than 5, and even that is ambitious.
Although they are the first team since the 2001 Lakers with a high enough ceiling to go perfect, it’s safe to assume they will drop at least one game in the WCF and/or NBA Finals.
2) Are We Underestimating LeBron And The Cavs?
For the third straight year, the Cavs swept their First Round opponent. For the third straight year, each of the four games were closer than they should’ve been. Year after year, this generates the highly misleading expectation that a LeBron-led team is beatable.
Yet it’s unfathomable that the Raptors could beat the Cavs. LeBron has gone to six straight Finals; the Raptors, by contrast, were a threat to get beat by the lowly Milwaukee Bucks.
Sure, Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker will help the Raptors — a lot. But the reality is that LeBron’s current supporting cast is among the best he’s ever had, and that includes his tenure in Miami. Along with King James, the Cavs have seven guys who shot 40% or better from three-point range in Round One. While it may not be enough to upset the Warriors, LeBron and four shooters is enough to beat the Raptors every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
3) Is Kawhi Next In Line For LeBron’s Throne?
For the past ten years LeBron has held the “Best Player in the NBA” championship belt, regardless of who has won the MVP award. This hasn’t stopped many from prematurely speculating on his demise. Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo — these are all players we’ve projected to eclipse LeBron at some point in the near future. (Rose is the only player we can definitively say will never do so.)
The whole time we’ve overlooked one guy that possesses all the attributes necessary for genuinely surpassing LeBron: Kawhi Leonard. When you look back at his career’s progression, it’s shocking we didn’t attach the “Next” label sooner. Since his rookie year, he has leveled up each subsequent year. Others have as well, such as Jimmy Butler, but we should have always appraised Kawhi’s ceiling as higher than Jimmy’s. Perhaps most important of all? He shows up in the playoffs. On a Pop-coached team, he can expect to be nicely set up, year after year, to make deep postseason runs. Take a look at his career postseason numbers — if he continues playing at this level he will make a strong play to be LeBron’s true heir.
Three years after winning the 2014 NBA Finals MVP by holding his own against a Lebron who was at his absolute Apex, Kawhi is just entering his prime. At 25 years-old, Kawhi is arguably the second-best player in the league, a guy that guards his opponents’ best player while having enough firepower to dominate offensively. With a big series against the Rockets, expect NBA fans to settle on a consensus for Lebron’s throne.
4) Are The Celtics The Worst #1-Seed In The East This Century?
Probably not, though it certainly appeared they might be after dropping the first two games at home to one of the most dysfunctional outfits in many years. With that said, consider these other vulnerable 1-seeds.
This century, other top seeds in the East have underperformed, relative to expectations, such as the 2002 New Jersey Nets (Lost in the NBA Finals); 2003 Detroit Pistons (Lost in the Eastern Conference Finals), and the 2015 Atlanta Hawks (Lost in the Eastern Conference Finals).
After a convincing Game 1 against the Washington Wizards, is it possible the Celtics avoid joining this group? It depends on whether you had high expectations for the Celtics in the first place. Despite their #1 seed, no one really thought the Celtics came into the postseason as the best team in the East. In fact, many had them several rungs down, behind the team they’re currently facing.
Even if they get past the Wizards, it remains really, really, really hard to see them beating the Cavs in the ECF.
5) Are The Rockets The Warriors’ Greatest Threat In the West?
Yes, and, while I know others would vehemently disagree with me, it’s not even close. For as good as Kawhi and Popovich are, the rest of the Spurs resemble a mix of borderline bench-warmers and aging vets. Meanwhile, the Rockets embody the blueprint required to beat the Warriors. Essentially, it comes down to two factors: three-point shooting and James Harden. Beating Golden State will require James Harden to steal two games, while being better than Curry and Durant. And the other two wins would have to come from an insane Rockets’ shooting night. It can happen, considering that the Rockets led the league in three-pointers attempted.
6) Is John Wall The Most Underrated Player In The NBA?
A resounding “yes”! Over his career, Wall has always seemed to be a notch or two below the league’s upper echelon of guards. When you think of the league’s best PGs, most NBA fans will spit out the following list of names before Wall — Curry, Paul, Westbrook, Kyrie, Lillard, Isiah, and Lowry. Further, when assessing the NBA’s top talent, the following fifteen guys have always been thought of as superior to Wall — LeBron, Curry, Durant, Harden, Westbrook, Kawhi, Paul, AD, Giannis, George, Butler, Draymond, Klay, Cousins, and Griffin.
That puts Wall outside the top-seven PGs and top-15 players in the league. After the First Round, it’s obvious we must re-visit these rankings. Wall has played like a top-ten talent and a top-five PG, at the very least. He displayed another gear in the Wizards’ close-out win in Atlanta, notching 42 points, 8 assists, and 4 steals, to push his series averages to 30 PPG and 10 APG. At 26 years old, we may look back at the 2017 postseason as the moment Wall solidified himself as one the NBA’s best superstars.
7) Are The Raptors The Grizzlies Of The East?
Toronto and Memphis have followed regular season success with annual first or second-round finishes. Both teams embody the mid ’00s Pistons’ blueprint. The problem is that while the Pistons were able to win with a bunch of fringe All-Stars, that strategy doesn’t bode well in the current superteam era.
Over the last seven years, the Grizzlies have stuck with the same core: Gasol-Conley-Randolph. Despite the success that usually stems from experience and familiarity, Memphis have only made it to the Conference Finals once, losing in the First Round (4X) and Second Round (2X) the other six seasons.
The Raptors are a mirror image of the Grizzlies, circa 2014. Currently in their fourth-consecutive postseason, Toronto’s core — Lowry-Derozan — made it to last year’s ECF, after being ousted in the First Round the previous two years. Barring an upset of Cleveland, the Raptors will enter next season in year-five of their current era, with their core another year older, as the franchise waits the end of Cleveland’s reign.
8) How Close Is Utah To Contending For A Title?
In the loaded Western Conference, the Jazz may be in the best position to wait out the Warriors’ inevitable run of titles. Provided, of course, that they keep their core intact. Even with San Antonio, Houston, and OKC possessing three of the top-five players in the NBA, Utah has their own potential-superstar in 24 year old Rudy Gobert. Further, compared to Harden, Kawhi, and Russ’ supporting casts, the Jazz have one of the best young cores in the NBA: Gobert (24), Hayward (27), Favors (25), and Hood (24). Although Utah will probably be ousted by the Warriors in the Second Round with relative ease, they have the framework in place to contend for the next decade.
If they were to pick up Chris Paul they’d instantly become the second-best team in the West. While it’s wishful thinking, watch the Jazz-Warriors series while imagining Chris Paul in a Utah uniform. With a starting five of Paul-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert, the Jazz would possess enough firepower, scoring, and size to topple Golden State’s assumed dynasty. In an era where we’ve seen LeBron team up with Wade, and Durant join forces with Curry, anything is possible.