The 2019 NBA playoffs begin with worthy contenders filling the top 4 slots in the East, and an extremely if not historically deep lineup 1 through 8 in the West.
Here are the opening match-ups. Play begins Saturday April 13th …
(1) Bucks vs. (8) Pistons
(2) Raptors vs. (7) Magic
(3) 76ers vs. (6) Nets
(4) Celtics vs. (5) Pacers
(1) Warriors vs. (8) Clippers
(2) Nuggets vs. (7) Spurs
(3) Blazers vs. (6) Thunder
(4) Rockets vs. (5) Jazz
And here are the main stories headed into the opening weekend …
Warriors are healthy and in sync heading into a first round matchup vs. the surprisingly competitive Clippers. Clipps have deadly weapons and are likely to score in big bunches, but there’s no reason to think it will be enough to get them even one game. Maybe the biggest reason: the new and huge post dimension that Boogie creates for the Warriors. He’s often been both productive and efficient in his recovery year which began mid January. It’s clear that he’ll have an enormous role throughout the playoffs and in many cases will be the best % scoring option for the Warriors. Consider that Bogut is back on the roster, Klay appears to be entering the first round much more confident and capable than last year, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney are an entire year better at both ends … this Warriors team is more versatile and experienced than ever. They may need to be, since their competition starting in Round 2 is likely better than ever as well.
Raptors may be the bigger story. Even with Boogie changing things up out West, Toronto seems poised for the first round in several ways they haven’t been in recent years. When healthy, Kyle Lowry has shown prolonged flashes of brilliance and now appears ready to run the offense when Leonard isn’t. Big difference this year though: the pressure is off of Lowry to score from outside now that Kawhi is available to do anything and everything (at both ends), Serge Ibaka is consistent and perhaps better than ever and Pascal Siakam is a year older and has proven to be among both the most skillful and versatile players at any position in the league. The Raptors have a lot to prove in this first round. They are deep and skilled and versatile and experienced (Marc Gasol will get meaningful minutes). The Warriors might be the only other team that is all these things.
The Bucks ended with *the* best record over season 18-19 and can easily lead the postseason story. They don’t however, and it’s because of little playoff experience. That holds for both the team and those watching them play: none of us know what’s about to happen. Is that a good reason to not list this story as the biggest this season? Hard to say, but it’s an excellent reason for not feeling safe about assumptions early on. Regardless, Freak rules the court like no other in the game today. He’s everywhere and does almost everything. Will it be enough to get them to the finals? Who will finish in the close games ahead? Without a healthy/available Brogdon who should be taking it to the hole? Middleton is the clear answer, but … again. Playoff experience. This will have be wait and see for now.
Rockets look ready, and for the second year they’re possibly the best threat to dethrone the Warriors. The “story” throughout the season is that Houston is less than it was a year ago, and especially defensively. It doesn’t matter what the story is however. Chris Paul looks healthy. Capela is better and faster. Nene looks healthy and “Manimal” Fareid will get minutes and will likely kick up the pace and “physicality” a notch when he’s in. Harden is playing *much* better defense. The Rockets have more depth than last year. Team defense has been excellent recently. No excuses for not getting to the WCF again.
The Celtics are “iffy” at this point, and for several reasons in no certain order … Smart is out with a serious ligament injury and will be for the next several weeks. Tatum – the issue here is a question for Coach Stevens: just what exactly is his role and how much time should the ball be in his hands? Is he good enough to create off the dribble or is he not? He better be, otherwise it makes no sense to orchestrate ball movement through him when Irving and Horford are more than capable of doing just that. Still, without Smart doing everything except shooting from outside well, they are a lesser team than they would be with a healthy Smart ready for big minutes.
The Sixers are a tough puzzle. It shouldn’t be this complicated with so much talent, but with Embiid’s recent health issues it’s become just that: complicated. First, Tobias Harris (just traded 2019) hasn’t helped much and often seems left out of the offense play after play. Simmons has hinted at few reasons to assume he’ll rule the paint or anywhere else. The team hasn’t played together much as a unit. That’s all true, and yet there’s Jimmy Butler, who has time after time and in less than a full season proven to be *the* closer for this team. There’s potentially a lot of good here considering the talent, but both Simmons and Harris need to step up on both ends of the court and do it consistently.
The Nuggets may not deserve much type here, so I won’t type much. Some great talent with a future MVP in Jokic, but something about their “grit” just doesn’t seem to be there. Strange considering Millsap starts at PF and gets big minutes. And looks to be incredibly efficient as well as tough as nails. Jokic can be tough and often is. But this team needs to get tougher overall to get past the first round.
The Thunder are mentioned low here due to a series of biases starting with Paul George’s health looking questionable. No one said it was serious though so … maybe that’s just a “wishful thinking” bias for non-OKC fans? Westbrook has had a rough season offensively, however was this because of a change in his role which led to George’s almost-MVP season. Maybe an “incomplete data set” bias here. I.E. do we really know what kind of “Westbrook” we’re about to see in the playoffs? Steven Adams has been an absolute playoffs MONSTER the last two seasons, but there seems to be less focus on him going into the playoffs. Maybe a “short-term-memory” bias? OKC has almost everything they need without great depth. Still, the talent is healthy and great enough push them through to the WCF.
The Jazz need to just come out and play. We haven’t yet seen enough from these guys. Rubio we know … he’ll be a pain to any defense in as many rounds that they go, but it may not matter much. Mitchell will and should have the ball in his hands most of the time. He has yet to show great ability to create consistently however. The Jazz will go as far as Mitchell can create and produce offensively. The defense is there with the best in the league, but that won’t be what’s needed to get past the first round.
The Spurs and Pacers have reasonable chances to get into the 2nd round, but that’s where the chances stop. For either of these teams to get to the Conference Finals … possible but reason to go into the details? Oladipo is out and Spurs are without their PG and have been for the entire season. Both teams are good, but to be great need someone to fill the respective (“injured”) roles effectively and consistently.