BIG MAD - NBA Playoffs MEGA PREVIEW Pt I- EASTERN CONFERENCE (5.14.21)
Part one of my guide to the 2021 NBA Playoffs
Greetings all! We are a mere DAYS away from the kickoff to the Play-In Tournament and the beginning of the most glorious time of the year: The NBA Playoffs. I have compiled a handy viewing and betting guide for your reading and money-winning pleasure. Enjoy!
(NOTE: I had to break it into two emails because they are so dang large! Part two will cover the western conference and will follow this email shortly)
EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
The Sixers at the time of writing have a comfortable three game cushion over Brooklyn, and are your presumptive number one seed. And rightfully so. They have been the best team in the East this season even with the upstart Nets and the stalwart Bucks. I’m convinced Joel Embiid probably would be the runaway MVP favorite had he not missed two weeks in mid-March and sort of lost the narrative momentum. He’s not only flirting with a 50/40/90 season as a freaking CENTER (51.6/37.7/86.6) but he’s probably the best defender in the NBA not named Rudy Gobert. Offensively Ben Simmons has kind of found his ideal niche as a sort of opportunistic, Westbrookian energy guy who still manages to impact the game tremendously despite taking a mere 10 shots a game. They don’t run anything for him, and it’s probably better that way. Brett Brown’s biggest mistake might have been trying to make Simmons into the focal point of the offense when he’s better suited to kind of play rover and make things happen organically.
The Sixers are sort of built for the playoffs in a way that most NBA teams these days aren’t. They have three elite, All-NBA caliber defenders (Embiid, Simmons, and Thybulle) capable of neutralizing whatever talent opposing teams might possess. Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, and Danny Green provide enough spacing and scoring to run with the likes of Brooklyn, and when the game slows down they can consistently get good shots by virtue of dumping it to Embiid in the mid post and letting him clown whoever is foolish enough to guard him. The only blemish on their season is that Dwight Howard is on their team. But it sort of baffles me how they have sort of flown under the radar even as a one seed, because this team is scary as fuck. They also have a relatively easy path to the Finals. Brooklyn and Milwaukee are going to beat the piss out of each other on the other side of the bracket, both of whom will have to go through Miami along the way. Philly will easily dispatch whatever cannon fodder emerges from the play in, likely Boston who just lost Jaylen Brown for the remainder of the season, and then face an overmatched Knicks or Atlanta team.
Brooklyn has sort of been the sexy pick here since day one. Top to bottom they might be the most talented team in the NBA, and not just because of KD, Kyrie, and James Harden. They have an unusual profile as a “superteam” considering that they have some serious talent outside of their core superstars that aren’t just veteran ring chasers on the minimum (which they have as well). Bruce Brown and Joe Harris are sort of the perfect backcourt complements to their stars and are guys built for the playoffs. Harris might be the best shooter in the NBA, coming in at a jaw dropping 47.8% on 6.4 attempts. That’s the highest percentage of the last 5 years, beating his own mark of 47.4% in 2019. And Bruce Brown offers a certain toughness and defensive versatility that is crucial when rotations tighten. They’re getting good minutes from Jeff Green which makes me angry as a Celtics fan. And Blake Griffin looks kind of like he did two years ago, not the shell of a man he’s been since then.
My only real concern with the Nets is that they don’t play a lick of defense. Even though they can score with the best of them, they defend like a lottery team. Yeah yeah you can tell me that teams can turn it on come playoff time. But thus team hasn’t really had a significant period of time with KD, Kyrie, and Harden on the floor together. KD has been hurt virtually the whole season and Kyrie just kind of takes off every couple weeks to do god knows what. They are kind of putting it all together on the fly, and I’m just not sure that can work especially against teams like Milwaukee and Philly who have been to war together for years and years. They are sort of the ultimate experiment in chemistry and it’s going to be interesting to see whether it blows up in their face or not. My hope is that it ends poorly.
The Bucks have sort of suffered from the fact that people are kind of just over caring about them. During the regular season they have overachieved tremendously in the past four years, but have just one conference finals appearance to show for it. Giannis is kind of having his own Lebron moment where he’s putting up a 28/11/6 statline, on par with his two previous MVP campaigns (in fewer minutes no less), and people simply couldn’t give less of a fuck. Sort of goes to show how MVP is almost entirely governed by narrative and is a media-driven award, but I digress.
Nonetheless, the Bucks are another team that is just built for playoff basketball. Trading Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holliday might be the coup of the century. Eric Bledsoe is a serial choker who has never shown up for a big game, while Jrue is a legit gamebreaking defender who is happy to defer to Giannis and Middleton offensively. He might be the only guy in the NBA who can guard the likes of Kyrie and Steph and Lillard. He’s kind of the perfect compliment to the roster they have. Their 9 man rotation has as much shooting and toughness as any team in the NBA. The addition of PJ Tucker, who has been both hurt and bad for them thus far, will kind of be a key development should they move on to Brooklyn in the conference semifinals. They basically need all hands on deck defensively. Giannis can’t be chasing KD around 40 minutes a game, and Harden is going to eat Middletons lunch over the long term. Jrue might be the only guy in the NBA who can neutralize Kyrie. But they need a fourth guy that can give those dudes a blow without conceding a 10-0 run in the process. I’m not sure Connaughton or DiVincenzo are up to it, and if it’s not PJ they might be in trouble.
New York Knicks
What is there to say about the Knicks that hasn’t already been said. Julius Randle turned up his sliders. RJ Barrett might be the second best player out of the 2019 draft. Derrick Rose looks like a version of himself who’s knee did not explode twice. It’s inexplicable yet entirely plausible considering that their coach is Tom Thibodeau. The Knicks are ready for playoff basketball because they have been playing playoff-style basketball for months and months already. They grind every game down to the point of unwatchability. My main concern with the Knicks is that once rotations tighten up, they lack both the depth and the top end talent to compete with the likes of Brooklyn or Philly or Milwaukee or even Miami. That being said, I think of all the first round matchups Atlanta is probably the most favorable matchup they could ask for. History has shown that the best way to neutralize an elite shooter like Trae Young is to beat the christ out of him for 48 minutes, and that’s exactly what New York is going to do. Immanuel Quickley and Elfrid Payton and Franky Smokes will pick him up 94 feet and each of them will probably foul out. Yeah, he’ll shoot 15 free throws per game. But Trae Young is very much the lifeblood of that offense, and if you can take him out of the picture and prevent him from getting into a rhythm, I think their overall effectiveness is greatly diminished. There is still a ton of jockeying in the middle of the eastern conference, and it’s entirely possible that the Knicks find themselves up against the Heat, who is probably the last team they want to face. The Heat can muck it up as good as the Knicks can, and I don’t think the Knicks have an answer for Butler and Bam and all the white boys stalking the perimeter.
The Hawks kind of stumbled out of the gate this season. They fired coach Lloyd Pierce at the All-Star break, and since that time they managed to really pull it all together, going 22-11 since that time under coach Nate McMillian. It’s kind of a make or break season for the Hawks. They are approaching the end of Trae Young’s rookie deal, which is kind of an important milestone. GM Travis Schlenk kind of staked his entire reputation on Trae Young, and after the Hawks exercise his team option for next season, he’s going to become really expensive. Bascially if they can’t at least get out of the first round this season, I would venture to say the seat is going to go from warm to hot for Mr. Schlenk. To his credit he’s surrounded Young with the requisite amount of shooting and playmaking and rim-runners to maximize his skillset. He’s got some nice pick and roll playthings in John Collings and Clint Capela. And he’s got some legit supporting scorers in Deandre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Danillo Gallinari, Cam Reddish, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Personally I’m not really convinced you can win with Trae Young as the focal point of your offense, but what the hell do I know?
The matchup they want to avoid most will be the Knicks, who are kind of the antithesis of Hawks basketball. The Hawks like to space things out and let Trae Young sort of operate the offense. But the Knicks have a veritable army of long and athletic guards they can throw at Young to slow him down. And I’m just not convinced that the Hawks possess enough playmaking outside Young to prevent their offense from stalling out. Huerter and Bogdanovic can make it work in a pinch, and I suppose they have LouWill off the bench. But things are going to grind down in these playoff series, and I’m not sure they can lean on these guys when that time comes.
The Heat might be the most interesting team coming out of the eastern conference. They’ve been kind of disappointing this season after their incredible run to the Conference Finals in the bubble last season. But I think that deep run kind of took it’s toll on this team, especially early in the season. That being said, the Heat are deep and tough and have enough shooting to keep them in any game. They have Dudes Who Have Been There up and down the roster. Duncan Robinson is the best spot up shooter in the NBA, and even though he’s come down to earth a bit Tyler Herro can get very hot very quickly. They can basically go 10 deep if they so desired. Even though Oladipo is out for the season they still have enough wing depth to throw at the likes of KD. And Jimmy Butler is playing the best ball of his career.
As a 6 seed the degree of difficultly required for a deep run like they made last year is virtually impossible. It’s likely they draw the Bucks in the first round, a team that I think the matchup surprisingly well with. And I think the memory of them absolutely shitpumping the Bucks in the bubble is still fresh in everyones mind. They have the bodies to throw at Giannis, and have more than enough scoring to stay afloat when rotations tighten. But even if they manage to pull off the upset, it’s likely they find themselves against Brooklyn in the Conference semis and then Philly in the Conference finals. It’s a fine line to walk but if any of the lower seeds are poised to make a run in the east I think it’s them. And if they can somehow elbow their way to fifth, a deeper run becomes all the more likely. I think they make light work of either Atlanta or New York, depending on how things shake out.
I really don’t want to write this, because I know that just by writing it I’m going to talk myself into thinking the Celtics are some kind of dark horse contender. Kemba is averaging 28 PPG in the month of May. They have a rare mix of top end talent and an NBA Finals caliber 9 man rotation, even without Jaylen Brown. They have been to three of the last four conference finals. And yet, they won’t. They are a dumpster fire, an illusion. Jaylen Brown is out for the season with a torn ligament in his wrist, and with him go glint of hope that this team can put together at least a respectable showing in the playoffs. In a word, this team is in freefall.
Here’s how it’s going to go down. They will probably blow out the Pacers or Wizards in the play in, because the Pacers aren’t even trying to be good this season and the Wizards are the Wizards. I can see them taking Game 1 or 2 against Brooklyn or Philadelphia on the back of a heroic Kemba/Tatum game, and everyone will talk about how they are finally putting it together. Then they will go down by 24 in the first half of Game 3 and at that point they might as well end the season. Never before have I loved the individual players of my team while simultaneously hating every second of watching them play together. They have been down 20+ points 37 TIMES this season. Take me behind the wood shed and put me out of my misery.
(Shortly after their elimination expect my annual Celtics Post-Mortem)
Of all the teams to emerge from the play-in tournament in the east, I think Charlotte has the greatest potential to do some damage. They 8ish man rotation isn’t quite as top heavy as the likes of Boston or Atlanta or Washington, but it’s full of solid players. Terry Rozier might be my favorite big-game player to watch in the NBA. During his time in Boston he never failed to show up for a big game, and he has a penchant for hitting clutch shots in big spots. Even as a rookie Lamelo is basically already the leagues best facilitator outside Nikola Jokic. Although you can’t win in the playoffs with rookies, fortunately for the Hornets they don’t necessarily have to lean on him in any meaningful way.
If they can take care of the Wizards in the first round, unfortunately they will run into the buzz saw that is Philadelphia. They don’t really have an answer for Embiid unless the NBA legalizes spinning backfists and Biyombo can catch Joel slipping. That being said this team is extremely young with a lot of talent, and just getting out of the play-in will be an important building block for their future development as contenders.
I love the Washington Wizards. On paper this team kind of makes no sense, and I can easily imagine an alternative reality where they are a lottery team. I can also image a world where COVID didn’t happen and this team is in fourth or fifth place. First they don’t cash in with Bradley Beal and decide to make it work, instead of blowing it up. And Beal proceeds to play absolutely out of his mind. He’s probably the most complete scorer in the NBA and had Steph Curry not went bonkers the last six weeks he’d be the scoring champ. They trade the worst contract in the NBA in John Wall for the second worst in Russell Westbrook, and somehow it works out perfectly. Westbrook looks like he did in OKC, putting up his third triple double season in four years. Top to bottom this team is kind of ass, but Westbrook and Beal are simply willing this team into the playoffs, and that sort of thing can’t easily be discounted.
That all being said, they face a steep uphill climb in beating the Hornets or Celtics twice to get out of the play-in. I can see them taking Game 1 in a game where Beal goes for 46 and Westbrook has a 14/17/21 statline (you choose which is points/rebounds/assists), but taking two in a row is not easy.
I’m still trying to figure out how Indiana got here. They’re kind of having a down year. After they got in on the Harden trade, essentially moving Oladipo to Houston in exchange for Caris Levert, I kind of assumed they’d be punting this year. On paper this team is pretty good. Brodgon can ball, and Sabonis was an All-Star. They have the horses but whatever reason they couldn’t put it together.
Well, I guess we do know the reason. Last week a WojBomb dropped which outlined the tumultuous first season of head coach Nate Bjorkgren. Woj reported that the first year head coach has “significant work to do with his relationships among players”, and then Bjorkgrens “style of coaching and communication” is the “root of team turmoil”. Reading between the lines here, I think it’s apparent that all the players fucking hate Bjorkgren becuase he’s an asshole, to the point where they just don’t want to play for him.
WHAT I’M WATCHING
Boston Celtics - I’m dutifully obligated to watch my beloved Celtics limp their way through the play-in only to get trounced by Brooklyn. Honestly I would prefer they just lose the play in and not get my hopes up.
New York vs Atlanta - This is sort of a clash between the new school and the old school, and I’m curious to see how it play out. If you have ever wondered how a team 30 years ago might fare in todays NBA, here is your chance.
Brooklyn Nets - This will really be the first time we have seen the Nets at full strength all season, and I am excited to see how it works. We have all seen the tired trope of “OnLy OnE bAlL” but I think that this team has the talent and infrastructure to sort of dispel that myth.
Alright folks there’s some money to be made here in the east. Also for reference I’m using ActionNetwork consensus lines, which is probably close to whatever your preferred bookie is using.
Miami Heat - I’m going to be hammering the Heat against whoever they pull in the first round, whether it’s Atlanta or New York. And either way I’m betting unders as well.
Jayson Tatum Points - No Jaylen Brown only means one thing for Jayson Tatum; more shots. He’s fully infected with KobeBrain and I can legit see him taking 25+ shots per game.
Sixers to Win Finals - You can get some good value on the Sixers depending on where you bet. I’m seeing them as high as +1600 to win the title, which for my money is a steal.