After a fantastic opening weekend of playoff basketball, NBA fans were graced with a great week of storylines and highlight plays. With only one series being decided so far, (NOLA advancing in four versus Portland) there is still lots of basketball left to be played and the playoff landscape could shift at any moment. Here are five things I took away from this week and what they mean going forward.
1. The Pelicans Are Legitimate
As mentioned above, New Orleans was the first team to advance to the second round of the postseason and did so in a dominant fashion. They were the only team to sweep their opponent and will look to carry their momentum in their inevitable matchup against the Golden State Warriors (unless the Spurs can pull some sort of miracle). With the elevated play of Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo, plus the obvious power that Anthony Davis brings to the team, the Pelicans have the makings of a team that can hang with the Warriors and could even knock them out if they show any signs of weakness. But, that being said, Stephen Curry will in all likelihood be back in Round 2 and will bring Golden State to their full potential. Nevertheless, that second round matchup will be a great one and could have the Western Conference champion within it.
2. Portland: Whatcha Gonna Do?
On the other side of this Pelicans sweep is the Portland Trail Blazers. They ascended up the Western Conference standings and were a three seed that looked to make a deep playoff run. However, they find themselves as the first team on the outside looking in, scrambling to figure out what went wrong. Some are expecting the Blazers to make some moves this offseason in order to “reshuffle the deck”, so to speak. But Portland, due to being extremely cap-strapped, is caught in a rough spot. Their role players are not worth a lot due to their contracts and teams almost always never get full value back when trading a star player like Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum. The most likely outcome is that the Blazers will stay pat and try again next season, but they could surprise us.
3. Toronto v. Washington Is An Evenly Matched 1-8 Series
For almost all other NBA playoff seasons, the 1-8 matchups in the East and West are often quick and painless. Since 1994, only five times has a one seed ever lost a series to their eight seeded counterpart. Most of these upsets have to do with the dynamic play of a few players on the underdog squads; but, outside of maybe the 2011 Grizzlies (who defeated the San Antonio Spurs), there has never been a 1-8 matchup that has been as balanced as this Raptors-Wizards one is. Both teams have looked good on their home floors and have shown they both have what it takes to compete in these playoffs. This series seems like one that could go down to the wire and could produce an exhilarating game seven. Keep an eye on this matchup going forward as it will be a true toss-up of who wins each game.
4. Rockets Flying High Without Constant Star Play
In what has been a much more one-sided affair than I originally anticipated, the Rockets have played very well so far through three games and will look to wrap things up in short order. This is especially impressive when you look at how their best pair of players (James Harden and Chris Paul) have played together in this series. Neither Harden or Paul have scored 20 points or more in the same game so far against Minnesota after doing so 20 times in the regular season. It is amazing that the Rockets are playing this well with their two best players not quite connecting, but it means even more trouble for their opponents when they do find their footing.
5. Philly: The Most Overstated and Yet Underrated Eastern Conference Contender
One of the sexiest Finals picks before the playoffs started was the Philadelphia 76ers. They were playing like a well oiled machine and the Process looked primed for postseason action. Now that we are a week into things, one thing has made itself known: the Eastern Conference is a mess. The Raptors, Cavs and Celtics all have their problems and aren’t jumping off the screen as true contenders. The Sixers, who have arguably looked like the strongest team in the league, could reap the rewards of this consternation. Their projected path to the ECF seems like an easy one at this point and they have two of the best remaining players in the playoffs in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Now, both of these players are not known for their health and could go down at any moment. But, assuming health, this duo is a force to be reckoned with and could get Philadelphia to their first NBA Finals since 2001.