It is an outstanding time of year for the sports fan! So much to choose from on a sunny, lazy Saturday.
The Mets won 11-8 today, extending manager Mickey Callaway’s March dominance to two consecutive years. He owns April, too, ya know…
Gonzaga is up two at the half against Texas Tech, with the winner advancing to the Final Four. And last night Duke somehow escaped with a super shaky victory for the second game in a row, dashing the last, faint hope I had in the only NCAA pool I was still technically alive in.
Mets announcer and former star Ron Darling posted excerpts of his new book in today’s New York Post, and in the process shat all over former Mets teammate Lenny Dykstra (who clearly deserved it based on his subhuman behavior displayed quite publicly over the entirety of his post-baseball life, but still…). So there are plenty of topics to gravitate toward in today’s SportsAttic.
But I’m feeling NBA playoffs as the 82-game regular season winds down to it’s final few days.
And as someone who likes nothing more than reminding people that I said something months ago that appears increasingly likely to play out in the manner I had predicted, I’m watching the Golden State Warriors closely. The two-time champs are absolutely wobbling to the finish line as we all wonder if they can close out their three-peat the way everyone had assumed they would back when the 2018-19 season began?
You remember the Dubs, don’t you? The three-times-in-four-years champs who filled their only roster hole this past offseason with All Star Boogie Cousins on a bargain-basement, one-year deal as he worked back from injury?
Yup, them. Well if you took a look at the standings today, you saw the Dubs in a dogfight with Denver (Denver?) for the top seed in the Western Conference following last night’s excruciating loss to the Timberwolves.
Will they or won’t they? My call at the beginning of the year was that the Dubs would repeat (hard to argue with five all-stars in the starting lineup, even if Draymond isn’t playing like one this year), but that their crown would not come as easily as everyone believed back in October.
Yep, I’m gloating on that call, and with the Dubs’ collective whining about the refs stealing one from them last night still audible in the distance, I’m now taking my prediction one step further and saying they will not emerge as champs this year. And yeah, I’m glad.
I, for one, am a little tired of the whole soap opera around Kevin Durant and what he may or may not do this offseason. KD leaving won’t be the beginning of the collapse of the Golden State Empire, Rome will already have burned by the time he heads down to L.A. this summer. Drop the mic. Full stop.
The current consensus storyline seems to be that come the offseason, KD will depart Oakland with his third ring in as many years tucked neatly in his suitcase, and that will signal the demise of the Three-Peat Dubs. The final dynasty numbers would boast four championships in five seasons (and it would be a FIVE-PEAT if the NBA hadn’t stolen one from Golden State to give Cleveland and the King a ring a few years back).
Nope, sorry, not happening Dubs fans. I think they’ll still capture the top seed in the west with north of 55 wins, a successful season by most standards, but they’ve been a tad off all year long, both in terms of results and also chemistry.
The Bay Area logic has it that the champs are just bored with the regular season slog, and that once the playoffs come around they will simply turn the switch and the super team will emerge. Not so fast.
The playoffs are a rough and tumble battle of attrition, and the west offers no breaks right from the get-go. Unlike in the east, where the top tier teams will feast on weak first round opponents, there are no patsies out west. So let’s take a look at the road in front of the Dubs, and where the potholes sit that could wear down the title machine before the preordained parade heads down Market Street sometime in late-June.
NBA Western Conference
We’re going to begin with the assumption that the Warriors do sneak off with the top seed in the conference. The Nuggets (who scare no one) will take the number two slot, and then it gets interesting.
Currently the Rockets and Blazers are in a dogfight for the three seed. This is an important one, because the three seed would avoid Golden State until the conference championship round, should things progress according to form. This means that the aging Dubs will have two rounds of punishment wearing the tread on their tires before coming face to face with the Houston team most see as their toughest potential matchup.
A week ago the Blazers were an interesting wild card, playing phenomenal team ball, with a star in Damian Lillard who is among the most exciting players to watch in the league. Then in one awkward and gruesome bad landing, Portland center Jusuf Nurkic was done for the season, taking with him any chance the Blazers had of finally shedding the label of “best team with no chance to win a playoff series.”
Despite the injury, the Blazers remain red hot, having won nine of their last 10, and will almost certainly reach 50 wins. But the Rockets will sneak past them to earn the three, thus setting up the potential for a rematch of last year’s epic conference final, where if not for a Chris Paul injury, Houston might have put a premature end to the Warriors run. An added boost to the Rockets title aspirations is the fact that the two biggest threats to give the Dubs a brutal, physical fight in the first round, the Thunder and the Spurs, sit in the seventh and eighth slots in the west.
Neither of those teams can take out the champs, but either will win at least one game and beat on the weary Warriors the entire 48 minutes every game. If the Rockets really luck out, the Dubs will draw the Thunder, because Russ Westbrook loves taking it to Steph Curry with a national audience looking on (not to mention his old pal KD), and Steven Adams will enjoy putting a hurting on the Golden State big men.
Once the Dubs rid themselves of their pesky first round opponent, they’ll limp into the conference semis, where they’ll host the winner of the 4-5 series (I’m calling that one Blazers-Jazz, with the Jazz taking out the team from Voodoo Donuts-land — get it, hole in the middle, get it? — earning themselves a trip to the Bay Area).
Again, the Jazz will offer the haters little hope of seeing the Dubs exit the tournament at this early stage, but Rudy Gobert will administer even more pain and punishment on the Warriors front court, and the young and deep Jazz will create additional wear and tear for the conference’s top seed.
Meanwhile the Rockets will outlast the Nuggets in six to set up the rematch with Golden State. Unfortunately once again for the haters, though, there isn’t enough depth down in Houston to derail the three-peat train. Yes, James Harden is better than ever (hard to explain how this guy keeps improving from already-elite levels), but part of The Beard’s statistical breakout of MJ proportion is due to the fact that this Houston team is just plain not as good as they were a year ago. Paul is back and healthy (for now), but also a year older, and nowhere near a legit wingman for the Beard. Look for 40+ from Harden every night, with a couple triple-doubles along the way, but the Warriors will advance once again.
So, given that we all pretty much agree for the umpteenth year in a row now that the NBA’s west is far superior to its east, does this mean that the Dubs have it made? Emerging victorious from the conference assures them their predestined immortality, right? Again, not so fast.
NBA Eastern Conference
The east, from top to bottom, remains by far the inferior conference this season, but they are top heavy. The conference is sure to boast the two best records in the league come playoff time, with both Milwaukee and Toronto posting big-time impressive years.
Add to the two top seeds everyone’s preseason consensus team in the “most likely to give the Warriors a run for their money” category — Boston, along with the team that improved the most in-season — Philadelphia, and there is much intrigue as we try to connect the dots on who will face-off with the Dubs in the NBA Finals.
We’ll begin by assuming the one, two and three-seeds (Bucks, Raptors and Sixers) easily advance against the JV qualifiers who fill out the bottom half of the east’s playoff field. We’ll take the next step (albeit a shaky one) and call the Celtics winners over the surprisingly still-competitive Pacers, who just won’t be able to hang for an entire series with their best player in street clothes.
That will set up two conference semi-finals matchups that will be a helluva lot of fun to watch. And to the delight of literally everyone who follows the NBA (sans fans in Milwaukee and Toronto), the road squads will emerge triumphant in both series.
Once again such a result favors the charmed Warriors, because with Milwaukee and Toronto sent packing (by Boston and Philly respectively), the defending champs will now enter the finals with home court advantage, regardless of whether it’s the Sixers or the Celts who emerge from the east under this scenario.
A moment is required here to explain my rationale on the predicted early demise of the east’s two top seeds. Simply put, the team with the most stars wins the playoff series. The Greek Freak may be the future best player on the planet (at least until Zion Williamson turns 21 or so), but his supporting cast isn’t strong enough to win a championship.
And like Toronto a year ago, a well coached, balanced and deep team can accumulate a ton of regular season wins, before spectacularly crashing in the postseason. Say hello to the 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks.
Then I’m seeing the perplexing Celts finally putting it all together for the first time this season (and in a fitting and unexpected twist, look for Gordon Hayward to get his sea legs under him and be the difference-maker in this series), stealing a Game 7 in Milwaukee. This will set up the conference final any hoops fans worth his or her salt has been rooting for — Celtics versus 76ers.
Memories of Dr. J versus Larry, and Moses banging with McHale and The Chief! Yeah, you get the idea. The Sixers will have easily advanced out of the semis thanks to the time-honored equation that three stars trumps one, thus ending the short and relatively happy run of “Kawhi Leonard Goes To Canada.”
As for the conference final between these two storied franchises? Another classic comes our way, and this time the combination of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, supported by Jimmy Butler’s shutdown defense on whichever Celtic starts to get the hot hand, proves too much as the Sixers take Game 7 at home. Philly advances, setting up the Big Dipper Finals, featuring two franchises that both felt the need to trade away Wilt Chamberlain once upon a time.
And despite the Warriors having the home court advantage due to this fortuitous sequence of events back east, the dynasty ends here. The Dubs home court edge (questionable all year) goes away after splitting the first two games in Oakland, and they don’t make it back to the Bay for a Game 7.
Embiid thrives on the big stage, dominating an exhausted Boogie Cousins inside, while Simmons proves a matchup nightmare for the aging champs, with Andre Iguodala finally showing signs of age, and Draymond appearing two steps slow. J.R. Redick matches Steph bomb for bomb from behind the arc, while Butler costs Klay Thompson millions in free agency dollars by dominating throughout the six-game series win by the Sixers.
The finger pointing on the Dubs sideline begins as they drop Game 2 at home, and grows progressively louder and more animated, culminating in Draymond Green getting benched by an exasperated Steve Kerr for long stretches of Games 4, 5 and 6.
Such a result will do nothing to diminish the greatness we’ve witnessed from these Warriors over the past five years, but will signal a welcome sea change in the NBA dynamic moving forward. The Warriors won’t go away, of course, as they are too solid an organization not to retool in the offseason, and in doing so will continue to energize the San Francisco fan base. The Sixers will become the hunted and find defending a title is far harder than winning one. And in a league with ten teams capable of winning it all, the 2019-20 season will be a wide open one, which will be a breath of fresh air for all of us who’ve had our fill of Steph and the crew’s dominance.
Yes folks, the NBA remains fan-tastic.
So get your emails ready — the playoffs will start for real in about a week, and it should be a lot of fun seeing how far off base SportsAttic’s predictions are by the time the draft lottery rolls around!