The NBA Playoffs are upon us and as many of you can expect, the number of playoff previews are slowly trickling in from just about every corner of the internet. We’re not immune to that here at FHM, but we try to take different methods on how we go about the usual things. This space is a good example of that as we write down the biggest questions all 16 playoff teams need to answer ahead of the first round.
Go check them out and let the playoffs begin!
Can the Golden State Warriors complete their run at immortality?
Seventy three wins are more than enough to propel the 2015-2016 Warriors in any “greatest team ever” conversations, but if Stephen Curry and the boys really want a shot at basketball immortality, they're going to need to cap off this historic season with a championship. Barring injuries, there doesn’t appear to be any reason why the Warriors can’t deliver. That’s what’s at stake for a team that has a chance to be talked about for generations to come. They need to get the job done, otherwise they might as well turn into the NBA’s version of the 2008 New England Patriots. Nobody talks about that team going 16-0 in the NFL regular season. Why? Because they lost the Superbowl to the New York Giants.
Have we seen the real San Antonio Spurs?
The team’s 67-15 record seems to point in that direction, but how many times have we been reminded that the Spurs we see in the regular season is different from the team we see in the Playoffs? That alone gives San Antonio the best shot at stopping the Warriors’ march to history on its tracks. Golden State took the season series, 3-1, but if you’re a Spurs fan, you’re probably not sweating that too much knowing that Gregg Popovich still has a couple of unplayed aces up his sleeve.
KD and Russ are two of the Top 10 players in the NBA. That’s enough for the Thunder to get to Round 2 where a heavyweight showdown with the San Antonio Spurs seems likely. This is another fork-in-the-road moment for a team that can actually beat anybody in the league, Golden State included. If OKC somehow finds a way past San Antonio, that Warriors clash in the Conference Finals will be an absolute bloodbath. But for the Thunder to even get in that position, Durant and Westbrook need to have their “A” games against the Spurs. Anything less and this team could head into one of the most uncertain off-seasons in franchise history.
Is this the Los Angeles Clippers' last chance at a title?
The clock’s ticking on this Clippers team and the higher the Warriors ascend to the top of the NBA, the faster the Clips’ title window closes. There is a feeling of “now or never” with this bunch and if they don’t make it out of the second round again, then you can expect at least one of its stars getting shipped out in the offseason. The fact that a potential matchup with Golden State looms in the second round, we wouldn’t bet on L.A. finally breaking through to the Conference Finals. Then again, Chris Paul has secretly pulled out another MVP-caliber season given all the turmoil the team has gone through this year.
How fun are Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to watch?
If not for those Splash Brothers down in Oakland, these two can make a case as the best backcourt in the NBA today. Nobody gave the Portland Trailblazers a chance in the off-season with the defection of four starters from last year’s team. But Lillard and McCollum have been everything you’ve expected them to be, and them some. We don’t think they can beat the Clippers in the first round, but don’t sleep on that series from being wildly entertaining. A 50-point game from Dame isn’t out of the cards, as is one of those patented McCollum games when he starts hitting some of the most impossible shots you’ll ever see.
Does Dirk Nowitzki have one last run in him?
If Chandler Parsons were available, the Dallas Mavericks might have more of a chance against the OKC Thunder in the first round of their series. But with him out of the season, the burden once again falls on the timeless Nowitzki to get the job done. He’s been able to carry the Mavs in spurts throughout the season, but we don’t see a scenario wherein he reverts back to 2011 Dirk and just carries the Mavs to the title. He also had a better supporting cast in '11 to help him out. Now, he’s got Deron Williams, Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia, and Wes Matthews backing him up. All these guys have contributed to the team’s success this season, sure, but they might not be enough to take down Durant and Westbrook.
Can the Memphis Grizzlies stay competitive against the Spurs?
This is another team that’s been ravaged by injuries and their two best players—Marc Gasol and Mike Conley—aren’t going to be available for the playoffs. That leaves the scoring burden on the shoulders of Zach Randolph, Vince Carter, and Lance Stephenson (Lance Stephenson!!!). Having Gasol and Conley would’ve made this a more compelling matchup but without them, the Grizzlies are our best bet to get swept in the first round.
Can James Harden average 50 points in the first round?
We sure hope so. That’s the only reason why the Houston Rockets are interesting to watch. Maybe Harden and Curry catch fire in one game and we see them both hit 50. Other than that, the Rockets aren’t going to do too much in the playoffs against the Warriors.
Can the Cleveland Cavaliers get their act together?
Doesn’t it feel like the Cavs have the most fragile mental makeup of a team that won 57 games in the regular season? They’ve somehow fallen under the radar this season because of what Golden State and San Antonio have done, but even then, the headlines that have come out of the so-called The Land have ranged from the head-scratching (David Blatt getting fired), the stupid (LeBron James unfollows the Cavs' Twitter account), and the downright absurd (Kyrie Irving's cheating scandal). Having said all that, the Cavs are still the favorites to come out of the East and James has been an absolute monster in the last few weeks. If the distractions are gone, Cleveland can still win the title.
What’s the ceiling for the Toronto Raptors?
A surprising two-seed has everyone picking the Raptors as the likeliest team to beat Cleveland in the East. But remember, this is basically the same team that got swept out of the first round last year by the Washington Wizards, who by the way didn’t even make it to the playoffs this season. That’s not to denigrate what Toronto has accomplished this year, but those questions persist because the Playoffs are a different brand of basketball. We do think that they can get out of the first round, but can they beat either Miami or Charlotte in the second round? We say yes, but with some reservations.
Can the Miami Heat stay healthy long enough to contend?
On paper, the Heat have the talent to reach the Conference Finals. But the game isn’t played on paper. Unfortunately for Miami, they’re best players are also the most fragile ones. Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, and Luol Deng have all battled injuries this year. We're not even mentioning Chris Bosh out of respect for what he’s going through. The point is this: If the Heat stay healthy, they’re a legitimate dark horse. If at least one falls to injury, their likelihood of success drops with it.
Is this the last hurrah for the Atlanta Hawks?
The Hawks are in a similar position as the Clippers in the sense that the current team will likely be dismantled if Atlanta doesn’t make a deep run this season. Repeating as the conference finalist will be an incredibly difficult feat to achieve this year now that the East has become more competitive. Between the Hawks and the Clips, our money’s on Atlanta to make an earlier exit, paving the way for the core of the team to be shipped off and the rebuilding to start in the ATL.
Can the Boston Celtics make a deep run?
For the record, we love this team. We love their mentality and we love that they have guys that are just absolute pit bulls. They can play against anybody and if the balls bounce their way, they could actually make a run at the East title. But doing so means beating Playoff LeBron in the second round, a task far more difficult than beating Regular Season LeBron. We think the Celts can get past the Hawks and then throw a couple of haymakers in Cleveland’s direction. But that’s as far as they’ll go, which is a shame considering that if there’s one team from the East that we think can take the Warriors down, it’s these guys.
Does Kemba Walker have some playoff heroics up his sleeve?
The Charlotte Hornets have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NBA and a big part of that is because of the emergence of Kemba. Talk about somebody who’s fearless, this guy’s it. The Heat-Hornets first round matchup will be fascinating to watch and we expect it to go a full seven games with Walker doing Walker things in at least two of those games. But can they beat Miami? We're less sure of that and only because the Heat have quietly been great in the last month of the season. If it were a choice between Walker and Wade as the biggest factors in the series, we're going with the three-time champ.
What’s the Indiana Pacer’s objective in the playoffs?
If the NBA had a Comeback Player of the Year award, Paul George is a unanimous choice. But other than George and Miles Turner, there’s not a lot to these Pacers that can be considered as long-term players for the team. The fact that they made the playoffs is a testament to the team’s competitiveness. But now that the level of competition is at a higher level, we don’t think they will be able to put up much of a fight. Give them credit for getting this far, but we guess the team’s treating it as a season to give its young players some post-season experience in anticipation of a deeper run in the years to come.
Does Stan Van Gundy have another LeBron upset in him?
Most people don’t remember this but the year Cleveland was the overwhelming favorite to win the title (2009), they lost to the Orlando Magic in the Conference Finals. Dwight Howard deserves a lot of credit for that but so does Coach Van Gundy, who dared LeBron to beat the Magic by himself by fielding four shooters around Dwight. That plan worked seven years ago, but the current Detroit Pistons personnel isn’t anywhere as good as that Magic team, which went to the Finals only to lose to the Kobe Bryant-led L.A. Lakers. We're excited to see how Van Gundy coaches this matchup, but other than that, we don’t see Cleveland having too much problems with Detroit.
Images via the official Facebook pages of the NBA teams