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The Biggest Questions As The NBA Playoffs Draw Near

How far can the Boston Celtics go without Kyrie Irving?
by Kirby Garlitos | Apr 8, 2018
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We’re winding down the 2017-18 NBA season and there are still plenty of questions that need to be answered. We’ll skip the long introductions and get down to the business of asking—and answering—some of the biggest questions ahead of the last week of the regular season.


How far can the Boston Celtics go without Kyrie Irving?

It’s absolutely remarkable how the Boston Celtics have kept winning despite missing two of its best players, both of whom will finish the season having played a combined 60 games and five minutes. It’s a testament to the system Brad Stevens has cultivated with this team. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine the Celtics moving past the second round because of the Kyrie Irving injury. Not having their all-world point guard robs the team of their best player and unquestioned closer. They’ve gotten away with it so far as the regular season winds down, but what happens when it’s the playoffs and they only have one team to compete against? Adjustments will be made and the Celtics are still good enough to win in the first round, but a date with the Cleveland Cavaliers looms in the second round. Are you betting on this banged up team to take down LeBron James and the Cavs? We’re not.

Can the Philadelphia 76ers really make it to the conference finals?

There’s a roadmap that makes it possible, but that map is contingent on how quick Joel Embiid can return to the lineup after a facial contusion knocked him out of the rest of the regular season. Ironically, the road of lesser resistance includes a date with the top-seeded Toronto Raptors in the second round. The Raptors possess a lot of conceivable advantages, including stars DeMar Derozan and Kyle Lowry, a deep bench, and years of playoff failures that they’re desperate to shed. But it’s also that last part that could give the Sixers the opening to pull off a big upset. As great as the Raps have been this season, that kind of burden can be difficult to shake off, especially against a dynamic team that may or may not have the two best players in the potential series. Don’t book the Raptors yet for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals because the Sixers could be that team.

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Who’s the favorite in the East?

It’s a tired record and we’re sure a lot of you are going to be up-in-arms about this, but before you bring out the pitchforks and call for our heads, answer this question: can anybody in the East beat LeBron James in a seven-game series? The team that was best equipped to do that just lost its best player for the year. The top-seeded Raptors have yet to show that they can pull it off. Heck, the Sixers just beat the Cavs earlier today, but can they do it in that kind of playoff atmosphere against the best player of this generation?

And while we’re at it, have you seen what James has done this season, in his 15th year in the league? We can argue until the cows come home, but James is having one of the best seasons of his career. He’s shown that he can carry an inferior team to the Finals, and there’s no reason to think that he can’t do it this season. So, go ahead, mock our choice. Say we’re Cavs homers. But answer the question all the same: who’s the favorite in the East?

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Who’s missing out on the playoffs in the West?

Arguably the toughest question of this whole exercise. A look at the standings show that the two most likely candidates are the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Denver Nuggets. Both teams have identical 44-35 records and they still have a game to play against each other. Whoever loses that game is going to have a difficult time making the playoffs, but we’re not even sure that it could matter. The New Orleans Pelicans are still in a precarious position with games against the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, and San Antonio Spurs. The San Antonio Spurs—yes, the Spurs—are still vulnerable if they lose against the Portland Trailblazers and the Pelicans. So really, it’s anybody’s guess who gets left with the glass shoe at midnight.

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But for the purpose of this exercise, we’re going with the Nuggets only because they don’t have a gimme left on their schedule as games against the Clippers, Blazers, and Wolves are still on the table. Minnesota, on the other hand, plays the Lakers and Grizzlies before closing their season with a home game against Denver. If that final game turns into a loser-leaves-town match, we’re leaning on the home team with a healthy Jimmy Butler back to pull it off.

Rockets or Warriors?

It’s getting tougher to answer this question, but we’re sticking to our position from earlier in the season. If the Golden State Warriors get all their players back, they’re booking a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals for another showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Color us pessimistic, but we’re still not sold on the Houston Rockets, even if the team is running away with the best record in the NBA.

We’re still asking the same questions. Can James Harden and Chris Paul shed the huge monkeys off their backs? This season is probably the best chance they’ve had to really cement their legacies as two of the greatest players of all time, but it’s not going to be as easy as some people make it out to be. If the playoffs started now, a potential second round match-up looms between the Rockets against either the Utah Jazz or the San Antonio Spurs. That’s not a gimme for Houston, especially with how the Jazz have been playing in the past months. The Rockets should still make it out of it, but their reward is a potential date with the defending champs that could have its full lineup by then. Between a healthy Rockets team or a healthy Warriors team, we’re picking Golden State.

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Are the individual awards already set in stone?

The MVP (James Harden), Most Improved Player of the Year (Victor Oladipo), and Sixth Man of the Year (Lou Williams) appear to be locks so we can cross those awards off.

There are a handful of candidates for Coach of the Year, but it’ll likely boil down to any of these four names: Brad Stevens, Dwayne Casey, Quin Snyder, and Mike D’Antoni. Our money’s on either Stevens or Snyder to take it home owing to how much adversity their teams have been through this season.

The Rookie of the Year award is a two-man race between Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell. Simmons still has the inside track, but to spare everyone from arguing about who deserves the award more, we think they should just both get it. There’s precedent for co-ROYs before, most recently in 2000 when Elton Brand and Steve Francis shared it. There’s no reason to think it can’t happen again, especially when you have two rookies who deserve it as much as the other.

The Defensive Player of the Year award is the biggest toss-up of the bunch. Most of the pre-season favorites to win the award have either missed too many games or rarely played the whole year. That leaves three notable candidates: Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Paul George.

The Stifle Tower should be running away with this award. He’s the defensive anchor of the league’s best defensive team. That’s indisputable. But he’s also on schedule to play just 56 games. That’s going to be taken against him. Davis, on the other hand, has been MVP-caliber on both ends throughout the season. He leads the league in blocks and he’s the sole reason why the Pelicans are even a middle-of-the-pack defensive team. Take him out of that lineup and New Orleans is a lottery team. George is a sneaky candidate. We know about his defensive pedigree, but he also had the benefit of having Andre Roberson on the same team in the first half of the season. George wasn’t put in a position where he had to guard the best player on the other team on a night-to-night basis. Since Roberson went down, we’ve seen George step up on that end of the floor, and he’s still as good as advertised.

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Ultimately, we’re giving the nod to the Brow, only because he’s played way more games—on pace for 75—than Gobert.

Who’s winning Tankapalooza 2018?

The Phoenix Suns are in the driver’s seat with a one-game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies. But don’t sleep on Memphis yet. It just lost a one-point game to the Sacramento Kings under nefarious circumstances, and its three remaining games are against teams with no reason to join the tanking race. The Suns, on the other hand, have a game against the Dallas Mavericks, who themselves are still in the race for the third-worst record in the league with the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic.

Circle that game, folks. It’s happening on the last day of the regular season and in the middle of the most competitive playoff race we’ve seen in a while, take a peek at Suns-Mavs if you want to see the conclusion of the most exciting “race” this season. as for our pick to win Tankapalooza 2018, give us the Suns and the Grizzlies to finish tied for the worst record in the league with identical 21-61 marks.

 

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