NBA Restart: The 2s and 3s
It officially happened. After a long four-month hiatus, NBA basketball is back. With two regular season games last night leading into a full slate of games over the weekend, fans everywhere have been and will be planted to the couch to see their teams once again. Watching the scrimmages has given us a bit of an idea as to what teams are going to look like, but with playoff spots and seeds up for grabs, anything can happen. In the most recent batch of tests, it was another total of zero positives and one inconclusive, showing that the bubble is working even with Lou Williams going to get some wings from Magic City. Adam Silver, the best commissioner in sports, and everyone else that worked to make this situation work has done an incredible job, and we all reap the benefits. It’s time we break down some of the biggest contenders to win a championship in the two and three seeds. Let’s hop in.
Denver Nuggets: Before any scrimmages started, this section would have been about how the Nuggets will have to run through Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray while getting support from their plethora of other talented role players to try and sneak out of the Western Conference gauntlet. After going 43-22, no real dramatic changes are needed. This is all still true, but Bol Bol’s emergence as a unique talent and scoring threat has added a new element to Denver’s dynamic. It may feel like Bol came out of nowhere due to his time in the G-League, but at one point he was considered a consensus top-5 pick in last year’s draft. A foot injury derailed that, and he fell into the second round where, after some trades, he eventually ended up with the Nuggets. At 7’2” with a 7’8”(!) wingspan, on the defensive end Bol swats shots and reaches in passing lanes with zero problem, but on offense is where he has surprised the most. Being able to simply reach over people in the paint with a variety of lay-ups and floaters makes him incredibly efficient around the rim, and his jumper is super smooth despite looking a little wonky. How much Mike Malone will play Bol when the lights shine the brightest is yet to be seen, but the biggest addition of the restart for the Nuggets might be a gamechanger.
All that being said, Denver will still need their stars to play their best for a chance at a Finals appearance. Nikola Jokic came back to the restart looking about thirty pounds lighter, but his game appears to be about the same, something fans should be happy about. In the playoffs, being able to play 45 minutes a game is worth more than getting pushed around a little more in the post, and the weight-loss should help that. Jamal Murray didn’t make the leap many expected him to this year, but he is still one of the best pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the league and can catch fire at any time. Veterans Will Barton and Paul Millsap are still valuable pieces of the team that can each put in twenty a game if needed, and guys like Bol, Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, Monte Morris, Michael Porter Jr. and Mason Plumlee will round out the rotation. This team is deep, talented, and experienced playing together, but will need some help if they want to compete for a championship.
Key to the Restart: Keep getting weird with it. When the Nuggets go big, they go WAY big. The starting line-up of Jokic, Grant, Bol, Millsap, and Plumlee from last Wednesday’s scrimmage was proof. This line-up looked understandably clunky, but switching out a guard for Millsap or Plumlee could make for a scary line-up to face. If nothing changes in the seeding, Denver would play the Rockets in the first round, a team that has gone incredibly small over the course of the season. A chance to dominate smaller rosters is exactly what the Nuggets might need to push them over the top, and keeping the line-ups weird is the exact way to do that.
Boston Celtics: Brad Stevens is one of the best coaches in the league, and he should be a COTY candidate once again after leading the team to a 43-21 record, but this season’s success in Boston comes from much more than just good schemes and coaching. After Kyrie Irving left in free agency, the Celtics went out and got Kemba Walker as his replacement, which turned out to be arguably an upgrade. Walker has been damn good in his minutes, and Jaylen Brown has quietly turned into one of the best wing players in the league, but Jayson Tatum has been the Celtics’ MVP this season. Averaging 23.6ppg and 7.1rpg, Tatum has become the number one offensive threat for Boston, especially late into the year. Shooting almost 40% from three and 45% from everywhere, he is the best scorer on the floor at almost all times. If he can continue the hot play he had going into the restart, Boston is a major contender out of the East. Add on the solid play from the rest of the roster, the Celtics are some good luck away from a championship.
One concern about Boston is, despite Jayson Tatum’s outstanding play, they went 5-5 after the all-star break, one of their worst stretches all season. They weren’t 100% healthy at the time, but it was still alarming to see a team with championship hopes slowing down. With Kemba Walker still nursing a nagging knee injury (he is expected to play in their first game), Boston is going to have to be able to perform against top-level teams without their main ball-handler if things go south. With no seeding changes or upsets, Boston’s playoff opponents would be the 76ers, the Raptors, and then the Bucks before the Finals. Sheesh. With one of the hardest roads to the Finals of any team, it’s going to take career performances out of guys like Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart plus everything Tatum, Brown, and other role players can give to come out on top. It will be tough, but the Celtics should have some help coming from some seeding shake-ups.
Key to the Restart: Stay firm and let things move around with everyone else. Even with the tough road ahead, the three seed is where Boston wants to end up. Moving up to the two seems unlikely, so not sliding to the four will be considered a major success. If the Celtics take care of their business, it is expected to see the 76ers move up to at least the five seed, dropping the Pacers to the six. This would give the Celtics a much easier first-round match-up, and makes it more difficult for the Bucks to make it out of the top-half of the bracket. A healthy Celtics team is dangerous, and with an easier road to the Finals they turn into one of the favorites.
Los Angeles Clippers: One of the best teams in the NBA all season, the Clippers have eyes on a championship for the first time in a long time. Led by reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, at 44-20 LAC were a force to be reckoned day in and day out, but could never quite catch their city counterparts in the Lakers. Had Paul George been healthy all year, it might be a different situation, but winding up in the two seed in the West is no small feat. Lou Williams (despite his recent bad decisions) had another great season off the bench, Montrezl Harrell was an efficient and effective big man, Landry Shamet got the job done, and Patrick Beverley did Patrick Beverley things. Doc Rivers did an incredible job putting out line-ups that gave them a chance to win every night despite the nagging health issues. Simply put, they were a really good team for most of the year. They only lost three games in a row one time, and looked like the strongest team in the league for stretches, but their road to the Finals is significantly more difficult than most two seeds in the past.
Only 5.5 games separate the Clips from the seven seed Mavericks (5 after last night’s loss), the team they would play in the first round with no seeding changes. They absolutely can and should beat the Mavs, but after that they would have to play the Rockets or the Nuggets. And then if they beat either of those really talented and experienced teams, they get the right to play (most likely) the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Arguably the most difficult road of any of the top seeds, people have begun to overlook the Clippers, which is an enormous mistake. This is still one of the top four teams in the NBA with two top 10 players in the league, who were added to a team that took the Warriors to the brink of elimination last season. Seeing this team in the Finals shouldn’t be surprising by any stretch. Despite Williams and Harrell being sidelined for the first game of the restart (they lost to the Lakers in a close one), this team is still one of the most talented and experienced in the playoffs this year.
Key to the Restart: Kawhi Leonard. The man that led the Raptors to a championship last season has been given a more talented roster to work with while the stakes are just as high. He averaged 26.9ppg/7.3rpg/5.0apg on efficient shooting, if he bumps that up to 30+ ppg for the playoffs LA is almost impossible to beat 4 out of 7 tries. Guys like George and Williams are great scorers, but they don’t dominate both sides of the ball like the Klaw does. With as veteran a coach as Doc Rivers is, he knows now is the time to let Leonard control the ball and be his best self. If LA wants to capitalize on their best title shot in the history of the franchise, Kawhi needs to have a second Finals MVP caliber postseason.
Toronto Raptors: Speaking of the reigning champs, Nick Nurse has led the Raptors to another incredibly successful season. Without Leonard, Pascal Siakam became the scoring leader alongside Kyle Lowry, the heart and soul of Toronto. It was expected the Raps would be good, but it was not expected for them to be a title contender again, yet they are a sleeper pick to hang another banner after this season. This squad is hard to beat due to their all-around talent at nearly every position. 2nd in DefRat and 1st in Points Allowed, opposing offenses struggle immensely to score against Toronto, something which could be the game-changer in a seven-game series. Serge Ibaka is still one of the most feared rim protectors in the league, Fred VanVleet is a nuisance to play against for any guard, and OG Anunoby has the skills to lock-up ball-handlers and bigs alike. With solid role players up and down the line-up, it’s difficult to find a deeper team than the Raptors in the whole league, and if Siakam or Lowry can step-up and take on that Kawhi-like roll deep into the postseason, it’s not difficult to see Toronto as one of the favorites in the restart.
If there has been one thorn in the Raptors’ side this season, it has been the Bucks. 0-2 against them this season, both games were relatively close and featured heavy Giannis usage. Both games he had over 15 rebounds, including a near 20/20 performance on Feb. 25. An outstanding defense has carried Toronto so far, but the Freak is a different animal. A mixture of Siakam and Ibaka is their best bet to stop him, and even that is pushing it. With all that being said, Nick Nurse is an incredible coach and this team is talented front to back. They upset a better team arguably twice in the East last year, they can absolutely do it again. Watching guys like Siakam and Van Vleet succeed is a sweet feeling and showing the NBA they aren’t a one-off team should be a priority, but they have a very long road in front of them before a shot at the trophy.
Key to the Restart: Go deep into the bench. This restart is a sprint, at least for the first couple weeks. With a strong seed locked up, Toronto should be letting guys like Chris Boucher and Terence Davis play big minutes for the experience. In the playoffs having guys that can come in and give you 5-7 strong minutes is invaluable, and the Raptors have plenty of guys that can fill that role. When you’re spoiled with riches, there’s no reason to play with a tight wallet. Let the young guys go and be ready to make a difference when the games truly matter.