NBA Playoffs: Gleaning the Meaning

The NBA playoffs are a slog. Over nearly two months, 16 teams battle their brains out to be crowned the best of them all. Sometimes, the first step on that road is pretty simple to pass by. Other times, that opening salvo makes you take several steps back. At about the halfway point of this first-round fortnight(ish), this is what I've noticed about the 2022 edition of the postseason.

Heavyweight Showdowns on the Horizon

After Sunday's games, all of the Eastern Conference's better-seeded teams are in really good shape regarding their respective first-round series. If seedings hold, we may be in store for the most anticipated Conference Semifinal round in recent memory. Miami, Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia were all in the race for that top seed over the last couple weeks of the regular season. Now, they get to duke it out to represent the East in the Finals.

The Heat have reverted back to "Bubble Form," adding that veteran point man (Kyle Lowry) to their 2020 runner-up core. Jimmy Butler (bench arguments and all) is fully entrenched into Heat Culture. Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro have continually improved once they left Orlando in 2020, with Herro the potential Sixth Man of the Year across the league. The 76ers are home to the presumptive MVP. Joel Embiid has shined through all of the drama surrounding the franchise this entire campaign. Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo have prettier numbers in the well-rounded category, but Embiid appears to have had the most impact of the trio this time around. Adding in the addition of James Harden and the emergence of Tyrese Maxey makes this potential series all the more tantalizing.

The Celtics did not have the best record after the New Year (34-12), but I believe they've been the best squad since January 1st. A better way to illustrate that? They did have the best winning percentage after the All-Star Break (17-5). Yes, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the 1-2 punch that leads the way. But the team may be the most balanced in the Association. They were the best scoring defense during the season, had the best Adjusted Net Rating, and sported seven roster sports that averaged double-digit points per game.

Standing in the way for Boston would be the reigning champs. Unfortunately, the Bucks may not be whole for this showdown. Khris Middleton could very well miss most of this series after suffering an MCL sprain on Wednesday. But Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday should still have enough quality help to spread Middleton's impact around.

An Opportunity Thrown Away?

Let's be clear. The Timberwolves are a bit of low-hanging fruit right now. Most folks took jabs at them for the emotional celebration after beating the Clippers in the Play-In. While I wondered if they let off a bit too much steam, I understood it. Since I moved to the Twin Cities in Spring of 2007, I've only witnessed this organization play postseason hoops one other time. A few months after that first-round loss to Houston, the roster slightly imploded.

On Thursday, the Wolves led Memphis by 25 (or more) at two separate points during Game 3 of the series. They almost lost the first advantage. As everyone knows, they completely tossed the second advantage aside and let it get trampled into the dirt. The jokes, anger, and snide commentary connected to this incident may never go away. It's not just about a team coming back to win a game. This seems to happen to one of the underdog teams every couple to few years. It was the thoroughness of it. It was the multiple blown leads. It was the 12-point second and fourth quarters. It was being outscored 50-16 over the final 15-plus minutes of the contest. The confluence of circumstances will likely follow these players over the rest of their lives, especially if the Grizzlies pull this series out.

Even though Minnesota responded Saturday with a Game 4 victory, the squad may need to win this series and the next to quiet down all that outside noise. If not, they may need to take sabbaticals staring in the mirror to escape the cruel Internet world that awaits.

The Splashiest of Returns to the Spotlight

Two-and-a-half years ago, I wrote on this website about the perceived end to the Warriors run of excellence. Kevin Durant left for Brooklyn. Klay Thompson was in rehab after the knee injury he suffered in the 2018 Finals. Steph Curry had just broken his hand. And Draymond Green was working through a nagging finger injury. At the time, I warned that detractors shouldn't be so quick to bury the aura of the champion core in San Francisco Bay. But the hits just kept on coming.

During rehab, Thompson tore his Achilles. That injury forced the shooting guard out until the beginning of this calendar year. Just as this saga was seeing its end come around, Green suffered an injury to his lower back. Then, Curry strained his left foot. All of this occurred with 2020 second-overall pick James Wiseman out the entirety of the season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

Having gone through that list of events, the Warriors never wavered. They welcomed in Andrew Wiggins to help carry water while fallen stars were on the mend. They invested young talent into the roster. Now, with Curry, Thompson, and Green back on the court together, Golden State looks to reclaim their status as Golden Child of the NBA.  ("I, I-I , I-I I-I want the trophy.")  During their first-round series against Denver, they've looked the part, and everyone around the league should take notice.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In some way, I touched on six of the first-round matchups (even though I clearly bypassed the four from the East). That leaves two which have become unlikely toss-ups. The first involves the favorites out West.

New Orleans took the final game of the weekend to even up their series against top-seeded Phoenix. The Suns sported the best record in the Association this season. The Pelicans finished 10 games under .500, then fight through the Play-In tournament. But the mood of this matchup changed when star guard Devin Booker strained his right hamstring late in Game 2. The Pelicans won that contest. A Chris Paul dagger-fest kept Phoenix above the fray in Game 3 before New Orleans responded Sunday night. The longer Booker is sidelined, the longer that the 8-seed has belief.

The other series seems destined to go the distance. Utah and Dallas are teams that have a ton of potential, but may not fulfill on the promise of it. The Mavs fought on through the first three games without star point guard Luka Doncic. The Jazz took advantage early, swiping Game 1 in the Metroplex. Then, Jalen Brunson came to life. The NCAA champion (Villanova) brought some swagger, scoring 41 & 31 over the next two contests.

After Dallas gained control of the momentum, Doncic came back from his calf strain injury. The result? A 100-99, last-second Jazz victory. The series now boils down to a best-of-3. What happens over those possible three games is anybody's guess. Doncic could go off and carry Dallas to the second round. Donovan Mitchell could bring out his best "Spiderman" to lift the Jazz to victory. Any number of X-factors, from Brunson to Rudy Gobert to Bojan Bogdanovic to Spencer Dinwiddie, could play a huge role in stealing a win. This is one of those series where four games solved nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if six games didn't decide a thing. I also wouldn't be shocked if six games decided everything.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site