NBA Lord's NBA Blog

NBA Lord's NBA Blog

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wednesday Windmill: The Boston Celtics need Al Horford to step up

The Boston Celtics are now up 3-2 on the Chicago Bulls after a 108-97 victory on Wednesday night. Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley each scored 24 points while Al Horford finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists. Horford was the major offseason acquisition for the Celtics, signing a 4 year, $113.3M contract in free agency. After inking such a massive contract, he was expected to be the new face of the Celtics and cement himself as the next great big man in franchise history.

While the Celtics had a great regular season, finishing as the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Al Horford didn't exactly live up to expectations. He averaged a solid 14 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, but "solid" isn't going to cut it when you are making top of the line money. Instead of being a 20 & 10 guy, Horford has been a 14 & 7 guy, which isn't what the Celtics paid for. They are paying for Horford to produce like he did on Wednesday night on a regular basis and at times exceed that level of production.

If the Boston Celtics want any chance of reaching the NBA Finals, they need their highest paid player (by a lot) to play like it. Isaiah Thomas has been the MVP of this Celtics team and he is making roughly 25% of what Al Horford is making. At the beginning of the season, the Celtics were expecting Al Horford to be their top player, not Isaiah Thomas.

While it's obviously a great thing that Isaiah Thomas has exceeded expectations, it shouldn't be forgotten that according to the payroll, this is Al Horford's team and it's time he plays like it. If Horford is able to produce closer to the 20 & 10 level that he was expected to, the Celtics have a great shot at making it to the NBA Finals. If he stay right around where he's been all season, the Celtics are not going to get past the Cleveland Cavaliers. It's that simple.

The NBA playoffs are where the stars earn their money and so while he hasn't had the best regular season, Al Horford can still earn every penny of what he is making if he leads the Celtics to the NBA Finals. Will he do it? I honestly doubt it, but I'm willing to say he deserves a shot. He had a huge game in a pivotal Game 5, so he's proven that he can step up in the playoffs. Whether or not he can do so consistently is the $113.3 million dollar question.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Tomahawk Tuesday: Can the Golden State Warriors go all the way without Steve Kerr?

                                          (Keith Allison. Click here for source). 
The Golden State Warriors completed a 4-0 sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, winning by a final score of 128-103. With this upcoming week off as they await the winner of the Clippers-Jazz series, the biggest drama in Golden State deals with the health of their head coach Steve Kerr, who has been experiencing headaches and other symptoms stemming from his back surgery. Specifically, Kerr has dealt with spinal fluid leakage, which has triggered a lot of these symptoms.

Kerr has addressed the media saying that within the next week or two, he will make a final decision of as to whether or not he'll coach for the remainder of the playoffs. He doesn't want to be in and out of the lineup and be a distraction, so he'll either give it a go or Mike Brown will take over the coaching duties as he continues to recover.

The Warriors have gone without Steve Kerr before, but this could be the first time they'll be looking to a win a championship without him at the helm in the playoffs. While I'm sure he'd keep a strong presence if he's unable to go, his absence on the bench would still loom large. Mike Brown would have a ton of pressure on him to keep the Warriors in championship level form.

The good news for the Warriors is that in Kerr's absence, they've done very well. Under Luke Walton, they had the best record in the NBA and finished the season with an historic 73-9 record. During the playoffs this year, they've gone 2-0 without Kerr and seem to still be the same well-oiled machine that they've been during these past three seasons. Playing under Mike Brown will be different, but he's inheriting a great situation and system to work with. If he were to mess things up, one would almost have to wonder if he was trying to do so. All he needs to do is sit back, let the players do their thing, and offer reassuring words of encouragement should a game get close. There are so many leaders on this Warriors team in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. These guys know what to do and really ought to make things as easy as possible for Mike Brown. 

In my opinion, the Warriors can absolutely win a championship without Steve Kerr and their ability to do so should not be taken as a slight to him. It should be taken as a compliment. He has created such an effective system for his players and gotten them to buy in to the point that they run on autopilot this late in the season. At this point, I think you could have Kermit the Frog in a suit and tie on the Warriors' bench and it wouldn't make a difference. They are that good. 

I think the only concern for the Warriors is whether or not Mike Brown makes the right decisions in crunch time, but in such moments, he can rely on the plethora of leaders he has on his team to help him make the right decisions. These guys know what to do late in games and so Mike Brown really shouldn't feel that much pressure when games get close. He just needs to make sure he keeps the Warriors in the same groove they've been in all season and not mess with anything. So long as he does this, I think the Warriors will be in great shape. 

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Monday, April 24, 2017 Podcast: Breaking down the 1st Round of the NBA Playoffs

On this week's episode of the podcast, I break down the 1st Round of the NBA Playoffs up until this point. I especially focus on the series' that are tied 2-2 (Celtics-Bulls, Raptors-Bucks, Spurs-Grizzlies, and Clippers-Jazz). 

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Skyhook Sunday: Can anyone in the East stop the Cleveland Cavaliers?

The Cleveland Cavaliers made quick work of the Indiana Pacers, completing their four-game sweep on Sunday by a final score of 106-102. LeBron James had another fabulous game, finishing with 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists while Kyrie Irving finished with 28 points. The Pacers gave the Cavaliers a good scare in Game 1, losing 109-108 after C.J. Miles missed what would have been the game-winning shot from the elbow. After that game, the Cavaliers took firm control of the series and never looked back.

Going into the playoffs, the one team who we all thought had a chance at dethroning the Cavaliers in the East was the Boston Celtics and after the way we've seen them struggle with the Chicago Bulls (2-2 series at the moment), it's hard to see them finding a way to take out the Cavaliers even with home court advantage.

Earlier in the week on TNT, Charles Barkley made a great point, stating that the Cavaliers don't respect anybody in the East. He's right. The Cavaliers' sole mission is to make sure they are healthy and in a good groove come the NBA Finals. They respect whoever the Western Conference produces as their champion, but there isn't one team in the Eastern Conference who they respect.

That isn't to say there aren't players in their conference who they respect. I'm sure LeBron James has a lot of respect for Paul George, Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and others, but that's different than respecting the teams that they play on. The bottom line is that the Cavaliers more or less believe it is a foregone conclusion that they'll be playing in the NBA Finals and as such treat the rest of the Eastern Conference as a mere afterthought. The Eastern Conference playoffs are merely hoops to jump through en route to the NBA Finals.

While the Cavaliers believe that they are virtually invincible in the Eastern Conference, is that really the case? Is there any team that has the ability to upset them? As much as I want to say that there is, it's pretty tough to think of any team who has a real shot at doing so. The Celtics as I've already mentioned are struggling to get out of the first round, the Raptors are likewise having a difficult time with the Bucks, and the Wizards I don't quite feel are ready to advance to the NBA Finals, though they are certainly putting together a championship caliber team.

As of right now, there really doesn't appear to be a team in the Eastern Conference capable of knocking off the Cavaliers. That isn't to say there aren't other good teams worth watching. The Bucks are developing into a serious contender as are the Wizards and Celtics. It's just that none of those teams are there yet. Give them a couple more years and it very well might be a different story. But as of right now, expect it to be smooth sailing for the Cavaliers all the way until the NBA Finals.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Saturday Slam: The Memphis Grizzlies won't go down without a fight

On Saturday night, the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the San Antonio Spurs 110-108 in overtime to even the series at 2-2. Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley and Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard dueled it out down the stretch and in the end, it was Grizzlies center Marc Gasol who hit the game winning shot, leaving the Spurs with just .7 seconds on the clock to go the length of the floor.

Mike Conley finished with 35 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists while Kawhi Leonard finished with 43 points and 8 rebounds. Both guys played an amazing game and left it all out there on the floor. It was definitely the best game of the playoffs so far.

This win by the Grizzlies encompasses what they are all about, which is playing hard and never quitting. The Grizzlies could have easily packed this one in and given up considering the brilliant play of Kawhi Leonard. Instead, Mike Conley lived up to his record-breaking contract and delivered the goods down the stretch, hitting multiple clutch floaters in the lane and doing everything he could to get his team the win.

In my series preview, I picked the Spurs to win in six games and I stand by that pick. The Spurs are the more talented team and in the end, that is what I think will make the difference. That said, the Grizzlies are showing a lot of fight in this series and certainly have a great chance to take the Spurs to a Game 7.

At that point, anything can happen. Mike Conley is proving his worth and he's getting good support from the likes of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and JaMychal Green. Andrew Harrison stepped up with a key block from behind down the stretch, so the Grizzlies really are making winning plays on both ends of the floor.

You don't have to be a Grizzlies fan to respect them. They play hard, they don't give up, and they play as a team. They aren't flashy but what they do works. They only care about winning games and they don't care how ugly they need to play to get the win. Tonight, they made winning plays down the stretch and didn't back down. Whether or not the Grizzlies actually come out on top in this series remains to be seen, but what is certain is that they won't go down without a fight.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Fadeaway Friday: 2017 NBA D-League Finals Preview: Raptors 905 vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers

On Sunday at 8:00 PM EST on ESPNU, Game 1 of the 2017 NBA D-League Finals will tip off as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (32-18) take on the Raptors 905 (39-11). Game 2 will air on Tuesday at 7:00 PM EST on ESPNU and Game 3 (If necessary) will air on Thursday at 7:00 PM EST on ESPNU. Above is the bracket of the 2017 D-League playoffs, each round being a best of three games series with the lower seed getting the first game at home and the higher seed getting the last two games at home. As the higher seed, the Raptors will get Game 2 and Game 3 (if necessary) at home.

When looking at this series, what first stands out is the difference in pace that these two teams play at. The Vipers are averaging 120.1 points per game, which leads the D-League while the Raptors are averaging 106.8 points per game, which is 14th in the D-League. Both teams have gotten to the championship game playing at very different paces and so it will be really interesting to see whether the Vipers get the Raptors to speed up the tempo or if the Raptors can get the Vipers to play at a slower tempo. In matchups like this, whichever team is able to dictate the pace usually has the edge.

In a way, both teams are a good reflection of their NBA affiliates. The Houston Rockets are the second highest scoring team in the NBA and play at a very fast pace whereas the Toronto Raptors rank 10th in scoring and don't rely as much on their ability to score. In the D-League, teams ideally run systems similar if not identical to their NBA affiliate so as to better prepare potential call-ups for the NBA. It's always fun to see these type of similarities between the NBA and its developmental league.

As far as what players there are to watch for, the main player to watch for is Raptors small forward Bruno Caboclo, who was taken in the 1st round of the 2014 NBA Draft to the shock of literally everyone watching. The Raptors drafted him knowing he'd be a project. If you are a Raptors fan, you should watch this series just to see how Caboclo does since he has the potential to be a major part of the team's future going forward.

You might be wondering what kind of future Caboclo has if he's still in the D-League, but at just 21 years of age, he's like a minor league baseball prospect that could still be a junior in college. Rather than playing college basketball, Caboclo has gotten seasoning in the D-League and currently has the opportunity to get a taste of championship level basketball in the D-League Finals. It will be interesting to see how Caboclo does in this series and whether or not he can have a coming out party of sorts.

Another player to watch for if you are a Raptors fan is Pascal Siakam, a power forward who was taken in the first round by the Raptors in the 2016 NBA Draft. In addition to how Bruno Caboclo does, it will be important to see how Siakam does as he too looks to become a part of the Raptors' future. If both guys have a big series, that will be a very good sign for the future of this Raptors organization.

While this series doesn't have the weight of an NBA playoff series, it's still a championship series and should prove to be entertaining. The Vipers play a very entertaining style of basketball and the Raptors have two very important pieces playing in this series. Plus, Jerry Stackhouse is coaching the Raptors, so there's even something for those who crave a little throwback action. While I understand that NBA playoffs action is more important, do try to find time to watch some of this series. Especially if you are a fan of either the Houston Rockets or Toronto Raptors looking for a window into your team's future.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wednesday Windmill: Can the Chicago Bulls reach the Eastern Conference Finals?

The 8th seeded Chicago Bulls are stunning the NBA world right now by taking a 2-0 series lead over the 1st seeded Boston Celtics. With the next two games in Chicago, the Bulls have an excellent chance at sweeping the Celtics and pulling off one of the most monumental playoff upsets in NBA history. I don't care if the Celtics are regarded as one of the weakest top seeds ever. An 8 seed sweeping a 1 seed would be the biggest playoff upset in NBA history. The Bulls are two games away from doing the unthinkable and there's no reason to think they are done making history. 

When the NBA season began, I predicted that the Chicago Bulls would meet the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. At the time, I really thought they had the pieces. Jimmy Butler is one of the best shooting guards in the NBA, Dwyane Wade while aging still is capable of putting up 20 points per game, and they have some other quality pieces like Rajon Rondo, Nikola Mirotic, and Robin Lopez. Given how there was no clear #2 team in the Eastern Conference behind the Cleveland Cavaliers, I figured the Chicago Bulls were as good of a pick as any to get the #2 seed and take on the #1 seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. 

Things didn't exactly go the way I predicted. The Bulls had to wait until the last day of the regular season to find out if they would even make the playoffs. I picked the Celtics to sweep them in my series preview and thought that I was a fool for picking the Bulls to reach the Eastern Conference Finals at the beginning of the season. The Bulls looked like a team that was just lucky to squeak into the playoffs while the Celtics looked like a team poised to make a deep playoff run. 

During these past two games, the Bulls and Celtics have switched roles. The Bulls are looking like a team capable of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, while the Celtics are looking like a team that could be swept. It's crazy how things can change so quickly after just two games. 

To answer the question that titles this article "Can the Chicago Bulls reach the Eastern Conference Finals?" the answer is yes they can. They have the pieces and those pieces are finally coming together. While Jimmy Butler is averaging 26 points per game during this series, he's not the only one who has come to play. In addition to Wade, Lopez, and Rondo, the Bulls have gotten double-digit scoring productions from the likes of Bobby Portis and Paul Zipser. It has truly been a team effort to go up 2-0 in this series. 

At this point, I like the Bulls' chances of winning this series and advancing to the second round, where they will likely face the Washington Wizards. As good as the Wizards are, they are no slam dunk to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. They are still a team that is learning and growing. Dwayne Wade's playoff experience could be the x-factor in a Bulls-Wizards series and be what pushes the Bulls into the Eastern Conference Finals. 

I understand there is a lot of basketball to be played and the Bulls still have to take care of business in their series against the Celtics. But that notwithstanding, it can't be ignored that the Bulls suddenly have a very clear path to the Eastern Conference Finals. They're playing good basketball and are finally looking like the team that I thought they would be at the beginning of the season. It will be interesting to see if they can sustain this. 

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tomahawk Tuesday: Can the Utah Jazz advance without Rudy Gobert?

                                        (Credit: Click here for source)

The Utah Jazz escaped with a 97-95 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday to take a 1-0 series lead after Joe Johnson rattled home the game winning shot. Unfortunately for the Jazz, their star big man Rudy Gobert went out for the game with a bone bruise and hyperextended left knee, leaving him out for an indefinite period of time that likely lasts the duration of the series. Gobert, who averages 14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game is the fiercest defensive force the Jazz have had in the paint since Mark Eaton, who averaged a whopping 3.5 blocks per game for his career.

The question that is on the minds of everyone is whether or not the Jazz can win this series without Rudy Gobert. The answer to that question is yes they can, but obviously without him it will be a lot tougher. Fortunately, the Jazz have some things in their favor.

#1. They got the road win they needed: In my series preview, I stated that the Jazz needed just one win in Los Angeles to win this series because of how good they are at home. With or without Rudy Gobert, the Jazz should be able to hold down the fort in Salt Lake City. So long as they can just win out at home, where they are 29-12, they'll be fine.

#2. All the pressure is on the Clippers: The Jazz are playing with house money. The very fact that they made the playoffs is enough of a reason to call this season a success. They can just go out and play their style of basketball and see what happens. If they win the series, they exceed expectations and if they lose, they're still ahead of schedule in their rebuild process.

#3. They have some front court depth: Rudy Gobert is clearly the best big man on this Jazz team, but it isn't like he's their only big man. Derrick Favors, Trey Lyles, Boris Diaw, Jeff Withey, and even Joel Bolomboy can come in and give the Jazz good minutes in the front court. The Jazz have other guys who they can turn to in the post if needed.

#4. Rudy Gobert isn't done for the season: If MRI results had come back showing that Rudy Gobert had damage to his MCL, LCL, or ACL, it would be tough psychologically for the Jazz to win this series. Knowing that he isn't done for the season and that he will return if they can just hang on for a little while without him has to give them tremendous peace of mind. There are good odds Gobert is back for the second round of the playoffs, which is when they'll absolutely need him. The Jazz just need to weather this storm as best they can, knowing that if they do so well enough, the storm will cease and they'll get Gobert back.

The bottom line is that while it is a tough break for the Jazz to be without Rudy Gobert for an indefinite period of time, there are a lot of reasons to think they can still win this series without him. They already have a road win in the bag, very little pressure, quality reserves, and the knowledge that Gobert isn't out forever. I picked the Jazz to win this series in six games and I still stand by that pick.

Note: This article also appears on my Utah Jazz blog. Click here to check it out. 

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Western Conference Playoffs Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the #3 seeded Houston Rockets (55-27) will take on the #6 seeded Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35). The Rockets won the regular season series 3-1. Game 1 will tip off on Sunday at 9:00 PM EST on TNT.

When looking at this series, what stands out most to your average NBA fan is the matchup between Rockets guard James Harden and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. Both guys are in the MVP conversation and both at one point played on the same team in Oklahoma City along with Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. This reunion of sorts between Harden and Westbrook will be fun to watch as they go about trying to show which one of them is the more deserving MVP candidate.

Statistically speaking, both players have had phenomenal years. James Harden is averaging 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game while shooting 44.0% from the field, 34.7% from three-point range, and 84.7% from the foul line. Russell Westbrook has become the first player to average a triple-double for a season since Oscar Robertson, averaging 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. Even if they hadn't been teammates before, just from a statistical standpoint it should be fun to watch these guys go at it. This is one of the best backcourt matchups we've seen in a playoff series in quite a while.

When looking at the both the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder as whole, it is clear that the Rockets have more weapons than the Thunder. Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson, Clint Capela, and Trevor Ariza all average in double figures for the Rockets, giving James Harden plenty of offensive weapons to turn to. Plus, the Rockets also have a fantastic perimeter defender in Patrick Beverley, who has the capability of frustrating Russell Westbrook and making things harder on him than he'd like.

The Thunder on the other hand have only three additional guys scoring in double figures in Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams. Adams is much more of a banger and enforcer down low, so it really is just Oladipo and Kanter who give Russell Westbrook the scoring relief that he sorely needs. The harsh reality for the Thunder is that they have to rely a lot more on Russell Westbrook than the Rockets need to rely on James Harden, which puts all the more pressure on Westbrook to deliver the goods in this series.

If there is anything I can say that should give Thunder fans some hope, it's that Russell Westbrook might be a super human and the Rockets' jump shooting style could come back to haunt them. Russell Westbrook is having perhaps the greatest regular season in NBA history and has proven himself capable of carrying his team on his back. If there's anyone that can carry a team on his back against a team like the Rockets, it's Russell Westbrook.

 As far as the Rockets' jump shooting style is concerned, these guys shoot a lot of threes. They've made more threes than the 2015-16 Warriors did and have also attempted more threes in the process. In the playoffs, things always get more tight and it gets increasingly tougher to win by hitting jumpers. The old expression "live by the three, die by the three" seems to be the Rockets' motto. So far, it has served them well, but there's always the chance that they start to get cold and the Thunder capitalize in transition. The Rockets' risky style of play always puts things up to chance and should give the Thunder a lot of hope that they can find a way to pull off the upset.

While it is true that the Rockets live by the three and play a risky style of basketball, I still have them coming out on top in this series in seven games. I think this will be a back and forth series, but what will ultimately decide this series is the Rockets having home court advantage and more weapons. If this series goes to a Game 7, I think James Harden has a big game and his supporting cast plays big as well. Don't get me wrong, it would not shock me to see Russell Westbrook go into the Toyota Center and pull off the upset. If there's anyone who can do it it's him. It's just that the odds are not in his favor.

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Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview: Boston Celtics vs. Chicago Bulls

In the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the #1 seeded Boston Celtics (53-29) will take on the #8 seeded Chicago Bulls (41-41). The regular season series split 2-2.  Game 1 will be played on Sunday at 6:30 PM EST on TNT.

After dueling it out with the Cleveland Cavaliers down the stretch, the Boston Celtics were able to secure the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Isaiah Thomas leads the way for this Celtics team, averaging 28.9 points and 5.9 assists per game on 37.9% shooting from three-point range and 90.9% shooting from the foul line. Thomas has had an MVP worthy season for the Celtics, leading the league in 4th quarter points and guiding his team to the top record in the Eastern Conference. He has truly established himself as an elite NBA player.

In addition to Thomas, the Celtics have another quality guard in Avery Bradley, who is averaging 16.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Bradley is one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, capable of guarding anyone on the perimeter. When you combine him with Isaiah Thomas, you have something scary in the backcourt. Down on the block, the Celtics have Al Horford, who signed with the team in free agency after being with the Atlanta Hawks. Horford is averaging 14.0 points and 6.8 rebounds, giving the Celtics a very sound post presence.

In addition to the trio of Thomas, Bradley, and Horford, the Celtics have other quality players in Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Kelly Olynyk, and rookie small forward Jaylen Brown. The Celtics have a very balanced team, capable of doing damage both inside and out. While not many people expected the Celtics to get the top seed, they certainly earned it and deserve the respect that goes along with it.

As for the Chicago Bulls, this is a team that has not lived up to expectations. When they got Dwyane Wade in the offseason to go along with Jimmy Butler, lots of people expected this Bulls team to be an upper echelon team in the conference and be a contender. Instead, the Bulls barely squeaked into the playoffs and have had to deal with a lot of distractions caused by Rajon Rondo and rumors that head coach Fred Hoiberg was going to get canned.

In a way, it's a miracle the Bulls still found a way to make the playoffs. For a while there, they were looking like a lost cause. For them, this series is an opportunity to hit the reset button and see what the Jimmy Butler/Dwyane Wade combination can do in the playoffs. The pieces are definitely there to win this series, but the question is will the Bulls play up their maximum potential or will they once again underperform?

If the Bulls want any chance at giving the Celtics a scare, they need to get all they can out of Dwyane Wade, who is averaging 18.3 points per game. Jimmy Butler leads the team in scoring with 23.9 points per game and Wade is the only guy on the team who he can truly rely on to give him some help in terms of sharing the scoring load. If Wade is able to produce above his scoring average, the Bulls could make this series interesting. If on the other hand, Wade struggles and never gets into a groove, this series will be over really quick.

A lot of this depends on the health of Dwyane Wade, who has returned to the lineup after being sidelined with a knee injury. There are major questions of as to whether or not Wade is physically capable of playing up to the level that the Bulls need him to. In his three games back, Wade has averaged 11.3 points per game, which to say the least is not encouraging. Dwayne Wade is really the x-factor to this whole series. If he plays well, the Bulls have a chance to win. If he doesn't, the Celtics will win easily.

In terms of my prediction, I have the Celtics sweeping the Bulls 4-0. Isaiah Thomas is the best player in the series and the presence of Avery Bradley out on the perimeter will make things tough on both Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade. The Celtics are on a mission to get to the NBA Finals and they should be motivated to win this series as quickly as possible. I know I'm coming off as dismissive of the Bulls, but the truth is I don't see this series being all that competitive. If Dwyane Wade were at full strength, it would be a different story, but so long as it will be Jimmy Butler needing to play hero ball, I don't see the Bulls having a prayer.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Western Conference Playoffs Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers

In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the #1 seeded Golden State Warriors (67-15) will take on the #8 seeded Portland Trail Blazers (41-41). The Warriors won the regular season series 4-0. Game 1 will be played on Sunday at 3:30 PM EST  on ABC in Golden State.

It's nearly impossible to argue a case for how the Portland Trail Blazers can win this series. They are sitting right on the .500 mark and barely made the playoffs, edging the 40-42 Denver Nuggets by one game. The Warriors on the other hand have the top record in the NBA and are one a mission to win another NBA championship. They are determined to prove that the addition of Kevin Durant was worth it, wanting to move on from this series as quickly as possible.

What the Trail Blazers do have going for them is they have Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the backcourt. Lillard is averaging 27.0 points and 5.9 assists per game on 44.4% shooting from the field, 37.0% shooting from three-point range, and 89.5% shooting from the foul line. As for McCollum, he's averaging 23.0 points per game on 48.0% shooting from the field, 42.0% shooting from three-point range, and 91.2% shooting from the foul line. Both guys are elite scorers and shoot the ball very well from all ranges on the floor. If those guys get hot, they have the chance to beat anybody on any given night.

The problem is that it's hard to win four games that way. The Trail Blazers will need others to step up in order to give the Warriors any sort of a scare. If there's one guy who could actually do this, it's Jusuf Nurkic, who may or not be available to play due to a right leg fibular fracture that he is recovering from. If Nurkic is able to go and be productive, that will be huge since he gives the Trail Blazers a third scoring option (15.2 points) and a big body down low (10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks). In addition to Nurkic, the Trail Blazers need guys like Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless, and others to step up and produce to take some pressure off of Lillard and McCollum. If the Trail Blazers turn into the Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum show, this series will be over quick.

The Trail Blazers can't rely on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to carry them because the Warriors are simply too loaded. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson combine for nearly 73 points per game and are all capable of getting hot from beyond the arc. In addition to their offensive potency, the Warriors are playing elite level defense thanks to Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Durant, who is averaging a career high and team high 1.6 blocks per game. The Warriors are simply the more talented team in this series and they should be able to put the clamps on both Lillard and McCollum on the perimeter.

My prediction for this series is the Warriors win in five games. The Portland Trail Blazers will win a game in Portland. They have a good home crowd and have the pieces to defend their home floor for one night. Once it shifts back to the Bay Area for a Game 5, the Warriors will win in a blowout and close out the series. The Warriors will simply prove to be too much for the Trail Blazers to handle. It's that simple.

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Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

In the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the #4 seeded Washington Wizards (49-33) will take on the #5 seeded Atlanta Hawks (43-39). The Wizards won the regular season series 3-1. Game 1 tips off on Sunday at 1:00 PM EST on TNT.

The Washington Wizards no doubt wish that they had a higher seed than what they got. The Eastern Conference has an upper tier consisting of the Celtics, Cavaliers, Raptors, and Wizards with the Wizards bringing up the rear as the #4 seed. The Wizards finished the regular season 4 games back of the top seeded Celtics and 2 games back of both the Cavaliers and Raptors. Had they not gone 5-5 in their last 10 games, they may be looking at having the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs instead of the #4 seed.

As disappointed as the Wizards should feel for not getting a better seed, they should also feel encouraged by the fact that they are hanging with the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The emergence of Otto Porter, Jr. and the addition of Bojan Bogdanovic has given John Wall and Bradley Beal a lot more help than they've had in years past. As a result, the Wizards are closing the gap with the top teams in the conference.

The biggest key for the Wizards in this series is to rely on all the weapons and balance that they have. John Wall (23.1 points and 10.7 assists per game) is perhaps the best point guard in the NBA right now and right by his side in the backcourt is Bradley Beal, who is also averaging 23.1 points per game. The Wizards' backcourt is scary good and then when you combine that with the other guys I just mentioned, you have a team that has the capability of doing a lot of damage in the playoffs. The Wizards can beat you on the perimeter, they can beat you down low, they do a good job on the boards, etc. Their balance is really impressive.

As for the Hawks, to a large extent it's a miracle they've done as well as they have. When they traded Kyle Korver before the trade deadline, there was also chatter that they might trade Paul Millsap or even Dwight Howard. The Hawks appeared to be a franchise that was tanking and entering in rebuilding mode. Instead, they finished as the #5 seed in the Eastern Conference and have positioned themselves to win a first round playoff series.

If the Hawks want to pull off the upset, they need to have a big series from Paul Millsap and rely on the balance that they also have. Millsap is averaging 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while Dennis Schröder is averaging 17.9 points and 6.3 assists per game. In addition to those two guys, the Hawks also have Tim Hardaway, Jr., Kent Bazemore, and Dwight Howard scoring in double figures. The Hawks have a lot of guys that they can go to as well and they'll need every one of them to step up.

Probably the guy who the Hawks could use the biggest boost from is Dwight Howard, who is averaging 13.5 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. Howard is a guy who has a lot of playoff experience and has even played in the NBA Finals. He knows what it takes to go deep in the playoffs and came to Atlanta with the hopes of helping them make a playoff run of their own. If he is able to have a big series and produce above his season averages, the Hawks will really give themselves a great shot at winning this series. Especially if Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder play up to the levels that they have been playing at.

This is a series that could go either way, but I have the Wizards coming out on top in six games. John Wall is the best player in the series and should be able to slow down Dennis Schröder in the backcourt. Wall is not only a maestro on offense, he is also a fantastic defender, averaging 2.1 steals per game. I see Wall making life hard on Schröder and really owning that matchup.

Bradley Beal might even be the second best player in the series ahead of Paul Millsap, which is just another reason to pick the Wizards. The bottom line is the Wizards are the better team and as a result they should come out on top. The Hawks definitely have the pieces to win this series, especially if Dwight Howard comes up big, but I really don't see the Hawks having an answer for John Wall. Dennis Schröder is a very nice point guard, but he will not win his matchup with Wall. Wall's ability to dominate that matchup will have a huge impact on this series and make things very tough for the Hawks.

My official prediction is Wizards in six games. The Hawks will stretch them a bit, but will not be able to pull off the upset. Unlike the Hawks, the Wizards have a real shot at coming out of the Eastern Conference and making it to the NBA Finals. The Wizards are at a different level and it will show in this series.

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Western Conference Playoffs Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz

In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the #4 seeded Los Angeles Clippers (51-31) will take on the #5 seeded Utah Jazz (51-31). The Clippers won the regular season series 3-1. Game 1 will tip off on Saturday at 10:30 PM EST on ESPN.

Of all the first round playoff series', this one projects to be the closest. The records are identical, for one thing and both teams have dominant big men and guys who can score from the wing. This series really could go either way.

The matchup down in the paint should be particularly fun to watch. Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan (12.7 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks) and Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert (14.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks) are a throwback to a different era when there were more dominant big men. Watching them clash down low will be reminiscent of watching Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing face off in the paint. There are so few true big men making an impact in the NBA right now and to have two of them facing off in the same series is certain to be a real treat.

While it will be fun to watch Jordan and Gobert face off, I expect the two of them to cancel each other out. Neither one will sway this series in either direction. What will ultimately sway this series is coaching, the perimeter play, and which star player is able to deliver the goods in crunch time.

In regards to coaching, I think this is a fascinating matchup. Clippers head coach Doc Rivers has a ton of playoff experience while Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder is making his first trip to the playoffs. That said, I think Snyder has done a better job with his team and really has the Jazz playing good basketball. The Jazz are moving the ball well, they are getting each other involved, and are playing defense at an elite level.

 If the Jazz are going to win this series, Quin Snyder's stellar coaching will have to be a huge factor whereas for the Clippers, Doc Rivers needs to find a way to use his experience to his advantage. Doc Rivers knows how he'll handle close games in the playoffs because he's been there whereas for Quin Snyder he is yet to be in those kind of moments. It will certainly be interesting to see what decisions both coaches make down the stretch of close games. The decisions they make could ultimately decide this series.

In regards to perimeter play, the Clippers have Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, and Austin Rivers while the Jazz have Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Shelvin Mack. The battle in the backcourt will be crucial to this series. Both teams have guys who can shoot it from beyond the arc and penetrate the lane. Whichever group does a better job will give their team a definite edge.

In regards to the star play, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will be expected to deliver the goods for the Clippers while Gordon Hayward and George Hill will be expected to do the same for the Jazz. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have more playoff experience than Gordon Hayward (first appearance), but George Hill has some playoff experience going back to his days with the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers. While there is more pressure on Gordon Hayward to have a big series, George Hill can help take a lot of that pressure away through his stellar play in the backcourt and also his calming influence. He's been there before and can help Gordon Hayward make the transition.

In terms of a prediction for this series, I have the Utah Jazz finding a way to win the series in six games. Salt Lake City is one of the toughest place to play in the NBA and I don't see the Clippers getting a win on the road in this series. The combination of altitude and rowdy fans is what makes Salt Lake City such a tough place to win. As for the Staples Center, that place isn't as tough of a place to get a road playoff win, especially when it's the Clippers who are playing. I have a feeling that the Jazz will steal a game in Los Angeles and hold serve at home.

In order for my prediction to come to fruition, Gordon Hayward will need to have a big series. He's an NBA All-Star and is the face of this Jazz team. If he has a big series and gets the help he needs from the rest of his teammates, I really like their chances. If on the other hand, Hayward shrinks under the playoff spotlight, the Clippers will be the team that comes out on top in this series. The Clippers are a very good team and we certainly can expect Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to step up. Gordon Hayward will need to do the same in order for his team to win.

Note: This article also appears on my Utah Jazz blog. Click here to check it out.

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Western Conference Playoffs Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies

In the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, the #2 seeded San Antonio Spurs (61-21) will take on the #7 seeded Memphis Grizzlies (43-39). The regular season series is split at 2-2. Game 1 will tip off on Saturday at 8:00 PM EST on ESPN.

Despite the huge gap in records, this series could be a lot more competitive than expected. While the Spurs are a true championship contender with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge at the helm, it isn't like the Grizzlies are chopped liver. They have plenty of playoff experience and have a very solid trio consisting of Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies are dangerous and certainly have the pieces to give the Spurs a good scare.

If you listen to the podcast that accompanies this preview, you would know that one of the things talked about is how the Grizzlies have been jinxed by injuries over the years. Shortly after recording the podcast, news broke that Tony Allen is out indefinitely due to a muscle strain in his right leg and isn't expected to play in the series. Without Tony Allen, the Grizzlies lose their best perimeter defender and the heart and soul of their defensive identity. His absence is huge and makes things a lot tougher for the Grizzlies to win this series.

The Spurs on the flip side are at full strength, which gives them a huge advantage in this series. Without Tony Allen in their grill, guys like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tony Parker should have a much easier time scoring from the perimeter and attacking the rim off the dribble. Look for the Spurs to take full advantage of Allen's absence in this series.

While it is true that the absence of Tony Allen puts the Grizzlies behind the eight ball, it isn't like the Grizzlies can't win this series. They can. We've seen them win playoff games on the road before and thrive in the underdog role. If the Grizzlies want to win this series, they'll need to get stellar production from the Conley, Randolph, Gasol trio and really muck up the game with their grit and grind style. If they can slow the pace down and limit the amount of possessions on both sides, they'll give themselves a shot at winning this series.

As far as the Spurs are concerned, what they need to do is take advantage of the fact that they have the best player in this series in Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is averaging 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. He's perhaps the best two-way player in the NBA and is a legitimate MVP candidate. If Leonard has a big series, the Grizzlies are toast. It's that simple. The Grizzlies have to do all they can to slow him down and force the Spurs to rely more on their other guys.

In addition to Leonard, the Spurs also have LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, and other weapons. The Spurs are the much deeper team, so it isn't like slowing Leonard guarantees a win for the Grizzlies. The Spurs should be able to overwhelm the Grizzlies with their plethora of options to the point that if Leonard has an off night, they'll still win.

When it comes to making a prediction for this series, I said in the podcast that the Spurs will win the series in six games and even with Tony Allen out, I'll stand by that prediction. The Spurs do have more weapons, but the Grizzlies' trio of Conley, Randolph, and Gasol should be able to extend this series to a Game 6. The Spurs will come out on top because they have more weapons, but the Grizzlies won't make it easy.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview: Toronto Raptors vs. Milwaukee Bucks

In the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the #3 seeded Toronto Raptors (51-31) will take on the #6 seeded Milwaukee Bucks (42-40). The Raptors won the regular season series 3-1. Game 1 will tip off on Saturday at 5:30 PM EST on ESPN.

The Raptors come into this series with a lot of momentum. They've won 4 straight games and 8 of their last 10 games. They are playing really good basketball with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry leading the charge.  DeRozan is averaging 27.3 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while Lowry is averaging 22.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 7.0 assists per game. Together, they form one of the more potent scoring duos in the NBA.

When looking at this Raptors team, the big question going into this post-season is whether or not trading Terrence Ross for Serge Ibaka will pay dividends for them. The Raptors have been in need of some sort of change or acquisition to elevate them into championship status and they are hoping that landing Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline will do just that.

So far, Ibaka has played well, averaging 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game, but he hasn't exactly lived up the hype either. Given that the Raptors ended up with the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference instead of the #1 seed is disappointing for them in light of the Ibaka trade. They hoped that by landing him, they'd have home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs instead.

That all said, the Raptors are definitely a better team with Serge Ibaka on the floor. He is much more multidimensional than Terrence Ross due to his ability to control the paint and shoot from beyond the arc. I want to make it clear that the addition of Serge Ibaka has made the Raptors better. They just haven't done as well with him as they hoped.

In regards to the Milwaukee Bucks, this team begins and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who commonly goes by his nickname "The Greek Freak." Antetokounmpo has had a fantastic season, averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game. With Jabari Parker going down in the middle of the season due to a torn ACL, Antetokounmpo has had to lead this Bucks team and he has so far done an amazing job at doing so.

In addition to "The Greek Freak" playing like a superstar, the Bucks have gotten stellar production from a lot of their role players. Khris Middleton, Greg Monroe, Malcolm Brogdon, Tony Snell, and Michael Beasley have all done a really good job of taking the pressure off of Antetokounmpo and giving him the support that he needs. Without their production, the Bucks wouldn't have made the playoffs let alone finish sixth in the Eastern Conference. A lot of credit has to go to their head coach Jason Kidd for the way he has gotten his players to buy in and play as a team. The job he has done this season has been amazing and deserves to be mentioned.

The bottom line with this series is that on paper, the Toronto Raptors should win this series in five games. They have more weapons than the Bucks and while the Bucks do have Giannis Antetokounmpo and a solid supporting cast, there is a reason the Raptors have won 50+ games and the Bucks barely are above .500. The Raptors are the vastly superior team and smart money says they beat the Bucks rather convincingly in this series.

Usually, I go with smart money when I make predictions, but not this time. I do have the Raptors winning this series, but I think it goes the distance. The Raptors have had a history of underperforming in the playoffs and the Bucks on the flip side have nothing to lose. All the pressure will be on the Raptors to win this series quickly and I expect the pressure to get to them a bit. Milwaukee is not an easy place to play on the road and I expect the Bucks to be really tough when they are at home. Gianni Antetokounmpo will have a big series and his supporting cast will do a tremendous job at extending this series far longer than it really should.

What will decide this series in the end is home court advantage and the Raptors being the better team. I think that in a Game 7 in Toronto, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will find a way to get the job done and put the Bucks away rather handily. I expect Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas to play big in the post and step up when they absolutely need to. That said, this will be a close series and the Bucks will put a good scare into the Raptors. Don't glaze over this series. I expect this to be a fun one.

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Eastern Conference Playoffs Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Indiana Pacers

In the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the #2 seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (51-31) will take on the #7 seeded Indiana Pacers (42-40). The Cavaliers won the regular season series 3-1. Game 1 will tip off on Saturday at 3:00 PM EST on ABC.

When looking at this series from a distance, what stands out is the matchup between LeBron James and Paul George. LeBron James is looking to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to their third straight NBA Finals appearance while Paul George is trying to lead the Pacers to their first playoff series win since the 2013-14 season, a season in which they lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Both guys are the engine of their teams and really need to deliver the goods in order for their team to advance to the second round.

One of the biggest factors going into this series is momentum or the lack thereof. The Cavaliers have won 4 of their last 10 games and have lost 4 straight games while the Pacers are on a 5 game winning streak, having won 6 of their last 10 games. The combination of the Cavaliers struggling down the stretch and the Pacers finding their groove to sneak into the playoffs could be a recipe for an upset in Game 1 on Saturday. The Pacers know that in order to win this series, they probably need to get a split in Cleveland and Saturday should be the easier game to accomplish this task. If the Pacers can get the split in Cleveland, this series could get really interesting.

In addition to the presence of LeBron James and Paul George, the supporting casts of both of these teams will be vital. For the Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving will need to step up as LeBron James' sidekick and take the pressure off of him. Kyrie Irving has the capability to be the best player on the floor due to his wicked ball handling and silky smooth jump shot. While containing LeBron James is nearly impossible, trying to put the clamps down on Kyrie Irving is almost as tough. If Kyrie Irving is able to have a big series in addition to LeBron James, odds are good the Cavaliers will have too much for the Pacers to handle.

As for the Pacers, Jeff Teague is a player who needs to have a big series. As the floor general of this team, Jeff Teague is expected to score and get others involved on offense. Teague is averaging 15.3 points and 7.8 assists per game, making him one of the better point guards in the league. The matchup between Jeff Teague and Kyrie Irving at the point guard position will be crucial to this series and also very entertaining. Both guys do a great job at running the offense and it will certainly be fun to watch both guys battle it out in the backcourt.

The major question in this series is whether or not the Cleveland Cavaliers will wake up and not take the Pacers lightly. The Pacers play hard and they have a great home court advantage. Winning in the playoffs at Indiana has always been a tall order and with the Cavaliers going into the playoffs like they are, it doesn't look like it will be easy for the Cavaliers to get a road win in this series. The Pacers play with a lot of confidence at home and their fans really get behind them. If the Pacers find a way to steal a game in Cleveland, the Cavaliers will be in a lot of trouble.

In terms of predicting an outcome for this series, I got the Cavaliers in six games. I think this series could absolutely go seven games given the history between these two teams and the presence of Paul George. Don't let their record fool you: The Pacers are a tough team and they will not go quietly into the night. What makes me think this series ends in six games and not seven is the simple fact that the Cavaliers have their eyes on a much bigger prize. They are trying to stay as fresh as possible for the Eastern Conference Finals and they don't want to have to play in a Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs.

My personal prediction is going into Game 6 in Indiana, the Cavaliers will be up 3-2 and LeBron James will put the hammer on the Pacers to close out the series in six games. The Pacers will play the Cavaliers tough, but as soon as they start to look like a team that could win the series, LeBron James will put them away and get his team into the second round of the playoffs.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday Windmill: Critically assessing the Minnesota Timberwolves new logo

This week, the Minnesota Timberwolves unveiled their new logo for the future. Before I dive into my playoff coverage, I figured I would quickly address the Timberwolves' new look.

Upon first glance, I wasn't a big fan of the logo. It reminded me of some spin off of the Timberwolves' SB Nation logo and I just didn't like it. But upon giving it some more thought, I actually like the logo a lot. It's sleek, it plays off of the Timberwolves' most recent alternate logo and utilizes the colors of previous Timberwolves logos. The howling wolf is really cool and I like the look of the basketball behind it with a green star, which makes a connection to Minnesota being far north, hence the name of their first NHL team, Minnesota North Stars.

For those that don't know, I spent time in Minneapolis and St. Paul doing missionary work for my church and so I got to know the Twin Cities area really well. I used to bike past the Target Center every day and grew to really love the community. I think the logo embodies a lot of what the state of Minnesota is about: Alone, strong, united, and cold; a bit off the grid with a culture that is unique and special. Timberwolves fans should fully embrace this logo and look to the future of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins with a new found brightness of hope.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Saturday Slam: Kevin Durant returns for the Golden State Warriors

After missing the entire month of March and the beginning part of April due to a Grade 2 left MCL sprain and tibial bone bruise, Kevin Durant will return to the lineup for the Golden State Warriors tonight when they take on the New Orleans Pelicans. The team announced this earlier today while also announcing that Stephen Curry would not be playing tonight due to a left knee contusion.

The return of Kevin Durant is obviously huge for the Warriors as they are trying to enter the playoffs with all of their pieces healthy and ready to play. As good as this team was a year ago without Durant,  it is clear that his addition has been huge, giving them one more offensive weapon that can take over a game. Durant has been the most efficient player on the team, averaging 25.3 points per game (tied for 1st with Stephen Curry) while also averaging fewer field goal attempts than Curry and more free throw attempts.

Kevin Durant's presence has made the Warriors all the more efficient on offense and as we saw at times last year, their tendency to play inefficiently got them into some trouble. Durant hasn't just made the Warriors more efficient through his own efficiency. He has in turn made Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson more efficient as well by not making them feel the pressure to take as many shots as they did last year. While it is true that the Warriors didn't need Durant from a pure scoring perspective, it is beyond clear that they have tremendously benefited from his ability to make them play much cleaner and more efficient basketball.

Going forward, the main goal of this Warriors team is to just stay healthy until the playoffs start. By being 4 games up on the San Antonio Spurs, the Warriors virtually have the top seed clinched. They just need to make sure that they are well rested and in a good spot for when the playoffs begin. The Warriors remain my pick to come out of the Western Conference, but with the Spurs right on their heels, staying healthy and in a good groove are vital in order for them to get back to the NBA Finals.

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Wednesday Windmill: The Washington Wizards are evolving into championship contenders

The Washington Wizards currently sit at the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference at 47-31, tied with the 3rd seeded Toronto Raptors. At just 3.5 games back of both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, the Wizards are in the middle of an intense battle for positioning atop the Eastern Conference standings, establishing themselves as a true championship contender.

During the past couple of seasons, the Wizards have flirted with championship contending status, reaching the conference semifinals in both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. With John Wall and Bradley Beal as their one-two punch in the backcourt, the Wizards have rightfully entered the conversation as a true contender in the Eastern Conference.

What's been lacking during the past couple of seasons is merely experience and development. While the Wizards had been playing really good basketball, they have needed more seasoning in order to bloom into a true championship contender. This season, the Wizards have continued to make strides towards their goal of being a championship contender and it has largely been due to the supporting cast that they have put around Wall and Beal.

During the Wizards' rise to prominence, Marcin Gortat has been a rock solid post presence, averaging 10.7 points and 10.5 rebounds per game this season. While not being the flashiest player in the world, Gortat produces consistently and brings his hard hat every night. Without having a strong post presence that demands respect, the offense would not open up for John Wall and Bradley Beal like it has.

During this same stretch of time, Otto Porter, Jr. has slowly but steadily gotten better. After looking like a bust during his rookie season, Porter is now averaging 13.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game on 51.8% shooting from the field, 43.8% shooting from three-point range, and 82.5% shooting from the foul line in his fourth NBA season. The emergence of Porter has been huge since the Wizards really had high hopes for him to become a cornerstone player of their franchise. Porter gives the Wizards a versatile wing that can attack the basket and do damage on the perimeter. He compliments Wall and Beal really well and allows them to be much more effective.Without his progress, the Wizards would not have the upward trajectory that they have.

As far as this season is concerned, the Wizards made a really good trade to bring in Bojan Bogdanovic from the Brooklyn Nets. Bogdanovic has given the Wizards another quality wing to work with, averaging 13.5 points per game during his 22 games with the Wizards on 47.3% shooting from the field, 39.6% shooting from three-point range, and 92.9% shooting from the foul line.

 By putting two quality wings around John Wall and Bradley Beal in addition to the steady of presence of Marcin Gortat, the Wizards truly appear to have a recipe for long-term success. I still think the  Cavaliers or Celtics come out of the Eastern Conference, but the Wizards are right there knocking on the door. They have the talent, the versatility, and the depth to do a lot of damage in the playoffs and give both of those teams a run for their money.

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Skyhook Sunday: The Portland Trail Blazers are locking down the 8 spot out West

For much of the season, the race for the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs has consisted of a bunch of mediocre teams stumbling in the dark and tripping over each other with no one being competent enough to separate themselves from the rest of the competition. Finally, after five months of this stumbling and tripping, we have ourselves a team that is finally pulling away from everyone else. That team is the Portland Trail Blazers, who have won 9 of their last 10 games (6 straight) and are finally at the .500 mark at 38-38. With six games left and two full games up on the 36-40 Denver Nuggets, it looks like the Trail Blazers are going to secure the 8th seed and give themselves a chance to take on the top-seeded Golden State Warriors.

A big part of the Trail Blazers' late season surge has been the magnificent play of Damian Lillard, who has put up 30+ points in 6 of his last 10 games. Lillard dropped 36 points at San Antonio and 49 at Miami, both of which were crucial road wins. Lillard is playing like a guy who feels he should have played in the All-Star Game and is really doing all he can to lead his team into the playoffs.

Of course, the major question in all of this is does this all really matter? I mean, the Warriors are going to breeze through the first round of the playoffs regardless of who they face, right? Without giving away my impending Warriors-Trail Blazers playoff preview, what I will say is that anytime you have a guy like Damian Lillard on your team, you got a shot to do some damage. The NBA is a star driven league and teams with guys like Damian Lillard always have a shot to make some noise in the playoffs.

What helps Damian Lillard is that he has a fantastic backcourt mate in C.J. McCollum, who is averaging 23.3 points per game. Together, these two guys are capable of making life hell for any team. Especially when they are playing up in Portland.

At this point, all I can say about the Portland Trail Blazers is that they have certainly earned the 8th seed in the Western Conference. While they are yet to officially clinch it, all signs point to them doing so. They're on quite a roll and Damian Lillard is playing like a man on a mission. It will certainly be interesting to see what will happen in Game 1 of a Warriors-Trail Blazers series should things continue to go as expected.

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