By John Albinson, Chief Sports Editor
With the First Round of the NBA Playoffs in full swing, one thing has become blindingly clear: besides the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, no team looks like a lock to advance to the Semifinals. The Cavs, the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, were pitted against the No. 7 seed Indiana Pacers. After winning the first two games at home, Cleveland pulled off the largest second-half comeback in postseason history, thanks in large part to a monster game from LeBron James (41 points/13 rebounds/12 assists). With this performance promptly deflating any hope or momentum the Pacers could have possibly mustered with a Game 3 victory, the Cavs went on to win the next game and complete the sweep.
Golden State, on the other hand, has been dealing with a few more problems than Cleveland in terms of absences on the team, but still managed to sweep the No. 8 seeded Portland Trail Blazers. Superstar Kevin Durant, who missed the 19 games in the regular season due to a knee injury, sat out Games 2 and 3 of the series with a strained left calf. Head coach Steve Kerr sat out Game 3 with nagging head and back pains stemming from back surgery he received back in 2015, and could potentially miss the rest of the postseason. And yet, even without their head coach and their starting MVP-caliber small forward, the Dubs still found a way to easily breeze past Portland in the first round.
And that leaves everyone else. The Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seeded Boston Celtics found themselves in an 0-2 hole against the gritty Chicago Bulls, thanks in large part to the heroics of Rajon Rondo and Jimmy Butler. In an act of divine intervention, though, Rondo was cursed with a broken thumb and ruled out indefinitely–prompting the Celts to win the next two and even up the series at two apiece. My prediction is Boston takes this series in seven, but all it takes is for Jimmy Buckets to have two monster games for the Bulls to pull off the first No. 8 seed upset since 2007.
The San Antonio Spurs, led by superstar Kawhi Leonard, looked incredible in their first two games against the Memphis Grizzlies–and then the Grizz took the next two at home. If I were a Grizzlies fan, I’d be ecstatic about my team winning two games against arguably the best team in the league. If I were a Spurs fan, though, I wouldn’t worry. Head coach Gregg Popovich is too good at his job to let his team lose to a squad that only won 43 games in a season.
The Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder series seems like it might be over–I mean, the Rockets are up 3-1 against OKC–but when you have a guy like Russell Westbrook on your team, you’re never out of it until it’s over. This series has been great because it’s proven to be a microcosm of this season’s MVP race between Westbrook and James Harden: Westbrook continues to put up godlike numbers that statistically trump Harden’s, but The Beard still ends up (usually) with the win. My MVP vote still goes to Westbrook for this season, mainly because imagining the Thunder without him makes me cringe, but Harden still remains the guy with the wins. In the long run, though, either team is destined to lose to Golden State.
The Los Angeles Clippers have officially become The Most Depressing But Good Team in the league. For the second year in a row, All-Star power forward Blake Griffin will be forced to miss the entire playoffs due to injury, leaving the bulk of the offensive burden on point guard Chris Paul. Facing the young Utah Jazz, the Clips look poised to lose this series in seven.
Our last two series are both in the Eastern Conference, with the No. 3 Toronto Raptors facing the upstart No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks, and the No. 4 Washington Wizards playing the No. 5 Atlanta Hawks. The more intriguing series is the former, purely for how much fun it is to watch future superstar (and probable 2016-17 Most Improved Player) Giannis Antetokounmpo play basketball. “The Greek Freak” is arguably the most exciting player in the playoffs–he’s like if a mad scientist combined LeBron’s athleticism with Jason Kidd’s court vision and the jumping ability of a deer on coke. In short, he’s awesome–and as great it would be to watch the Raps’ duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan try to get revenge on Cleveland after last season’s defeat in the Conference Finals, it would be way more fun to watch a player who plays like a character you would unlock with a cheat code in NBA Street go head to head with LeBron. The same sentiment goes for the Wiz-Hawks series. Yes, the Hawks are sort of “fun” right now with Dennis Schroder playing the best basketball of his life and Paul Millsap doing regular Paul Millsap things, but Washington has a true superstar in point guard John Wall, and an All-Star talent in two-guard Bradley Beal. A potential second round series of Washington vs. Boston would pit two of the best point guards in the league (Wall and Isaiah Thomas) against each other–just like LeBron vs. the Greek Freak, that would be too much fun to pass up.
Photo courtesy of The Washington Times