Monday, April 29, 2019

The Sentimental Favorite Series

By Ross Lancaster

The NBA playoffs have a lot of twists and turns from game to game and round to round on an annual basis. But one thing they don't usually feature is the promise of an unexpected team making the final couple rounds.

For six of the eight teams left, all is going to plan from how we've imagined it for months. The East's big four, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston, are all still standing in a second round we've imagined since December. All four think they can make the Finals — or better — and the two teams that go home in the first half of May will be devastated to have not made a Conference Finals in the new, LeBron-less East.

In the West, for the fourth time in five seasons, the Rockets and Warriors are matched up. It's not too much of a stretch to say that just about everything Houston has done this year has been with an eye towards vanquishing the Golden State dynasty in the playoffs. And thanks to the Rockets' 11-14 start, we get what's being hyped as NBA Finals-level series in the conference semis.

But what about that fourth series? One of Denver or Portland will be in the West Finals. The Nuggets haven't been there since 2009; the Blazers since 2000. And while the two teams did finish second and third in the West in the regular season, respectively, this wasn't supposed to be the matchup.

After all, Oklahoma City was actually favored to beat Portland, and the Nuggets' believers were few and far between after San Antonio grabbed a road win in Game 1 and led by 19 in the third quarter of Game 2.

What's more, though, is that both teams are very, very enjoyable to watch.

Nikola Jokic is simply a marvel, so much so that during the course of an offensively challenged Game 7 where the Serb missed 17 shots, Charles Barkley called him the best passing big man ever, and it didn't feel like a stretch. Denver ended up advancing in that game even after going 2-for-20 on threes.

No matter what happens against Portland, the implication that the Nuggets would fold in the big moment just because they have three starters aged 24 or younger and the team's core was in its first playoff run was inaccurate.

Then, there's Damian Lillard, who merely provided one of the most iconic moments of this era of basketball with his 37-foot shot over Paul George to eliminate the Thunder. And it shouldn't be lost that the shot capped off a 50-point night with 10 three-point makes.

Dame is now clearly the NBA's second-best point guard behind Stephen Curry. He'll be on Second Team All-NBA when the honors are announced in May, and it'll feel like a slight since he was on the First Team a year ago playing seven fewer games.

Of course, we don't yet know who will be waiting for the Nuggets or Blazers in the West Finals. Rockets/Warriors is going to be an almighty battle, just like it was last year.

But what was confirmed to me as I watched the fourth quarter of Game 1 between Golden State and Houston is this: each team is supremely unlikable, whether it be from the Warriors' Leviathan stature, the amount of borderline calls the Warriors get, the constant drama and whining from Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, James Harden's ridiculous flopping, or Chris Paul's all-around foul demeanor when the chips don't fall his way in a big game.

No matter who gets out of each West semifinals, the sentimental favorite and the team most neutral fans will be cheering for will come out of the Denver/Portland series.

You might think that the winner of Houston/Golden State is also a lock for the NBA Finals, but I'm not sure of that in the least bit. Houston simply doesn't have as strong of a nine-man rotation without Trevor Ariza this year, and Golden State is quite banged up with a team that doesn't defend like past Warriors teams in the Splash Brothers era.

As for the Denver/Portland series (note: this article was written prior to Game 1 on Monday night), the Nuggets are a slight favorite for the series at -140, which seems like an accurate bird's-eye view of the matchup. It will be very difficult for both Lillard and C.J. McCollum to shoot as well as they did against Oklahoma City, and especially considering how much Denver's defense has prioritized closing out on shooters and running them off the three-point line this year and against San Antonio.

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