NBA: Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The NBA playoffs are upon us and get started at 3PM Eastern time with game one between the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indiana Pacers.

I’m, of course, previewing every series like a good basketball blogger should starting with the four series kicking off today. I decided to start my first playoff preview off with a bang as there are two upset predictions right off the hop.

Without further ado, let’s get right down to it.

Eastern Conference Round One – Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (7)

Why the Cavs should win: The defending NBA Champions are ready to unleash the full extent of their talent after a stretch run that saw them rest players and look completely disinterested at times. It’s pretty clear that Cleveland has looked at the second half of the season as a formality and their focus has been on a deep playoff run and defending their crown. At least that’s the narrative the Cavs want us to buy into to explain their less than stellar performance down the stretch that saw them cede the top seed and saw them back into the playoffs with four straight losses, including back-to-back Ls to Atlanta as well as getting beat by Miami and Toronto.

But none of the really matters now that the postseason is here.

LeBron James is incredible. In any other season he would have been an MVP candidate, but with the heroics and Russell Westbrook and James Harden he will be overlooked, which is too bad because the King hit career high averages in assists (8.7) and rebounds (8.6) to go along with his best scoring season since his return to Cleveland at 26.4 points per game. Yes he’s rested. Yes he’s looked tired. Yes he’s played more basketball over the past seven years than anyone ever has (six straight Finals appearances and the 2012 Olympics) but at 32 years old and in his 14th season, LeBron is still the King.

He is easily one of five best players to ever pick up a basketball and he’s the greatest I have ever seen in my lifetime (I was born in the 80s and yes I know what that means). The playoffs are one of the biggest stages in basketball and for six straight seasons, LeBron has delivered on the biggest stage there is.

Kyrie Irving has had by far his best season ever as a scorer with 25.2 points per game on a career high 47.3% shooting. He’s picked up where he left off from his legacy defining performance in last year’s NBA playoffs and is looking to cement with another ring.

Kevin Love finally found his place with the Cavs before missing 22 games with a knee injury, but is back now and has regained the form that he found this season. Love averaged a full double-double for the first time in a Cavs uniform with 19.1 points and 11.1 boards per game. He’s proven invaluable in stretching the floor and spacing for the Cavs and he’s really used his athleticism and length to step up his defensive game. Love’s really found his groove in his third season with the Cavs which is good news as they look to defend their championship.

Tristan Thompson has continued to develop into a top interior defender and if he’s on his game will pose some significant match-up problems for the Pacers inside. If Thompson can also find his scoring touch inside, the Pacers will be in a heap of trouble.

Another key is for swingmen Kyle Korver and JR Smith to find their grooves and hit from long range, the Cavs have the ability to run up the scores with threes so badly that the Pacers will be out of games in no time.

The veteran depth of Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson and Deron Williams will also prove to be a lot for the Pacers to handle as they won’t be able to compete with the Cavs’ depth and experience with the grind of playoff basketball.

Why the Pacers should win: The Pacers really shouldn’t win. If they do win, it’s because Cleveland’s 12-15 performance and atrocious defense was the sign of decline rather than disinterest ahead of the playoff push and that seems highly unlikely.

Even if that were the case, the Pacers lack the star power to go head to head with Cleveland’s big three.

Paul George is a superstar and can really do it all. He’s coming off the best offensive season of his career that saw him average 23.7 points per game on 46.1% shooting to go along with 6.6 boards and 3.3 assists. He’s also the Pacers best defender and one of the league’s best two way players. If the Pacers have any chance in this series, it starts with a superhuman effort from George on both sides of the floor. He’s certainly capable of that.

Sophomore centre Myles Turner is going to have to elevate his play in a big way as well. The young big improved a lot on an impressive rookie campaign with 14.5 points, 7.2 boards and 2.1 blocks but will really need to make himself a presence on both sides of the floor to keep the Pacers in this. Turner will have to dominate the battle with Tristan Thompson down low to give Indiana a big man edge.

The Pacers are also going to have to hope that Lance Stephenson can find the form that made him a thorn in the side of the Big Three era Miami Heat and get under the Cavs’ collective skin while boosting the Pacers perimeter defense against a Cavs team that can absolutely destroy them from there.

One stat that does bode well for the Pacers is their ability to defend in transition. The Cavs score 20.7 points per game in transition. They are fourth in offensive efficiency in transition, averaging 1.16 points per game. The Pacers, on the other hand, defend well against the break, allowing only 14.7 points in transition. If they are able to slow down the Cavs transition game, they might be able to hang in this series.

The Pacers are going to need all hands on deck to perform at the top of their game. Vets like Thad Young, Jeff Teague, CJ Miles and Monta Ellis are going to need to take their games to higher levels than ever before. While it’s certainly possible, it’s not the most probable outcome, but anything is possible.

Who will win: The Pacers, like the Chicago Bulls, got hot at the right time heading into the playoffs. I think they will play the Cavs tough and hold their own in the series, but ultimately Cleveland will prove to be too much for them.

LeBron James is the best player in the world until he isn’t and the Cavs have surrounded him with too many weapons for the Pacers to have much a chance. I think Indians can absolutely steal a game but ultimately will be overwhelmed by a Cleveland team that’s ready to fire on all cylinders and defend their crown.

Prediction: Cleveland in five.

Eastern Conference Round One – Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)

Why the Raptors should win: After the Raptors went to the Eastern Conference finals last season, bigger things were expected from them this year. Instead the team fell off a cliff after a hot start and imploded defensively which lead to Kyle Lowry ripping his team while asking for help which the Raptors responded to by getting Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker. While Lowry missed most of the rest of the season with an injured wrist.

Ibaka, while initially sought for his defense, isn’t the backcourt presence that he once was but has reinvented himself on the offensive side with three point shooting and an ability to space the floor which can open lanes for a healthy Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and also provide more opportunities for Jonas Valanciunas down low.

PJ Tucker is an excellent three and D player. Extremely tenacious and capable of defending multiple positions while also mastering the corner three. Tucker adds a lot of grit and tenacity to a Raptors team that seemed to lack character at different points in the season. He adds a much needed spark to a squad that often looked listless and undisciplined on defense.

DeRozan remains a lethal scorer and is more than capable of creating his own opportunities and will take advantage of any and all lanes available to him. He’s enjoyed by far the best season of his career averaging 27.3 points per game on 46.7% shooting, 3.9 assists and 5.2 rebounds. The Raptors all-star is one of the best players in the league at drawing fouls.

With Lowry back in the fold, and the continued improvement of Norman Powell and Lucas Nogeira (who lead the team in blocks) gives the Raptors an even deeper rotation than the team that went to the Conference Finals last season.

They’ve been there before and are an experienced playoff team compared to the Bucks which should give them a competitive edge in the series.

Why the Bucks should win: Two words: Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 22 year old Greek superstar is coming off a season where he became the first player in NBA history to finish top twenty in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals and also the fifth ever to lead his team in every category. His statline of 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.9 blocks is incredible. He is the best player the Bucks have seen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suited up for them and is unlike any player I have ever seen before. His 7’3” wingspan and ability to run and floor and play every position possible is a match-up nightmare for the Raptors. They don’t have a player who can guard him.

Not Tucker. Not Ibaka. Nobody.

Combine that with potential rookie of the year Malcolm “The President” Brogdon who was a four year college player picked in the second round that blossomed into one of the best two way players on the team. He doesn’t have gaudy numbers but has a poise and ability to run the offense far beyond his years.

His pick n’ roll chemistry with sixth man Greg “Moose” Monroe is also something to watch out for as the Raptors don’t have a strong interior presence to counter the reinvented Moose who will undoubtedly be able to punish the Raptors in the low post and easily outmuscle Valanciunas. The Valanciunas match-up is extremely problematic for the Raptors as in their last meeting, the Bucks were able to deploy Spencer Hawes who torched JV for 16 points. Giannis can also drive in and dunk without the Raptors centre being able to do a whole lot about it.

In addition to Monroe, rookie big Thon Maker has started to make his presence known in the latter half of the season. Maker is a 7’1” rookie who can shoot threes. He will be a match-up nightmare for Toronto any time he is on the floor and he can draw defenders way out of position and if his shot fall, look out. The South Sudan product spent his high career in the area as well making for a nice homecoming story.

Khris Middleton returned to the line-up and sparked a 17-9 record after the all-star break including a 14-4 mark in the month of March that saw them surge back into the playoffs. The 25 year old swingman has averaged 15.4 points on 44.9% shooting since the all-star break and is one of the most overlooked second options in the league. He a versatile and efficient offensive threat who can defend his position as well. If the Raptors are forced to double Antetokounmpo, Middleton can easily torch them.

Much will be made of the Bucks inexperience but veterans Jason Terry and Matthew Dellavedova know what it takes to get there and will undoubtedly play a huge leadership role on the floor.

The Bucks are young and versatile group on the rise in some of the key positions the Raptors are declining in. With Demarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson both coming off disappointing seasons, Milwaukee is primed to exploit those match-ups with younger more dynamic players.

Additionally, as we’ve seen in previous play-off match-ups, Lowry and DeRozan aren’t always able to draw the same cheap fouls they enjoy during the regular season come playoff time. The Raptors were pushed to the brink by both the Pacers and Miami last season largely because of that fact and the Bucks are a far more dynamic and explosive team.

A lot of analysts aren’t seeing the upset potential here, but the Raptors have had tendencies to go through defensive lapses and blow big leads throughout the season, even after the additions of Ibaka and Tucker. Such a lull against the Bucks would prove fatal. The Raptors inability to move the ball will hurt them because iso plays aren’t going to work as well against a team with so many young and long defenders.

Of all the bottom four teams in the East playoffs, the Bucks offer up the most difficult match-up for the Raptors and are a young up and coming team with a generational talent ready to make a statement to the league.

Who will win: The Bucks are going to come into Toronto fired up and run all over the Raptors on the way to splitting in Toronto. Antetokounmpo is going to prove too much for the Raptors to defend and

Middleton will torch them as a second option. Jonas Valanciunas is not a strong interior presence and they lack long enough wing defenders to effectively shut down the Bucks attack.

When the whistles don’t blow for Lowry and DeRozan and the team can’t effectively move the ball to create chances, the walls will close in on Toronto and begin the end of the line for this core as the Bucks put the NBA on notice.

Toronto fans will cry conspiracy and claim the league doesn’t want them to win despite being the fourth largest media market in the NBA playing one of the smallest ones.

Prediction: Milwaukee in six.

Western Conference Round One – San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)

Why the Spurs should win: Watch THIS. Then watch it again. Marvel at it. Take it all in. That’s the San Antonio Spurs offense and it’s a thing of beauty. It’s a testament to teamwork, depth and a team that runs 11 deep night in and night out with a system that allows them to run a dribble weave without a single dribble. It’s basketball nirvana and everything the game should be. Absolutely beautiful. It’s the genius of Gregg Popovich’s system.

Of course that play started with a Kawhi Leonard steal. Someone once submitted an article to the me unsolicited. I didn’t end up running it because it was poorly written and the concept was really silly – it essentially amounted to what if fantasy basketball was real and you could select any player you wanted to start your franchise over with. But it did get me thinking about who I would choose. The answer is Kawhi Leonard.

In an era where Russell Westbrook shattered a 55 year triple double record, the MVP trophy is probably spoken for, but if we remembered that basketball is a game played on both sides of the floor – offense and defense then Kawhi Leonard was the best player in the NBA this year. Leonard’s often unheralded offensive game hit new heights this season as he averaged a career high 25.5 points per game, good enough for 9th overall in the scoring race, while averaging 1.9 steals per game which is good enough for 8th. He is the only player in the NBA to be in the top 10 in both categories. To drive the point home, he had the third highest player efficiency in the league (behind only Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant) while being sixth overall in defensive win shares. That’s a testament to the kind of complete game that we haven’t seen in a very long time.

The Spurs are still a 61 win team one season after the retirement of Tim Duncan largely because they have built around another team low key, team first superstar in Kawhi Leonard. The Grizzlies don’t have a match for this superstar.

LaMarcus Aldridge continues to be a testament to the Spurs’ substance over style and team over individual approach that will be the defining legacy of this team’s continued success. In his second season with the Spur his touches and point total continue to be lower than he was used to in Portland but he posted the best defensive box plus/minus of his career. Aldrige’s ability to stretch the floor and hit high percentage mid-range shots will prove to be a key to the Spurs victory in this series.

Dwayne Dedmon has been able to step up as the team’s new starting centre this season and has really been a solid presence in the middle. The Spurs will need him to be able to continue his high level defensive play against the Grizzlies and talented big man Marc Gasol. Deadmon had the sixth best defensive box plus minus in his first season with the Spurs and has given them a great match-up option in the middle, but he will need to be at the top of his defensive game to help San Antonio protect the interior against Gasol and the Grizzlies bigs.

Speaking of Gasols, Pau has reinvented himself as an elite NBA sixth man. The 36 year old saw the lowest minute average of his career in his first season with the Spurs but also a renewed efficiency on both ends of the floor. The battle between Gasol and similarly reinvented Zach Randolph and the more emotionally charged one with his brother, Marc will be key to the Spurs success.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli are both older, slower and have had their skills eroded by time, but still offer veteran savvy and a knowledge and comfort with the Spurs system and Pop that will really help them get past Memphis. Younger guard Patty Mills and Danny Green should also be key contributors especially in stifling the Grizzles stingy perimeter defense.

If the Spurs stick to the plan and keep those passing lanes open for business, they should be able to overcome what will be an extremely punishing series with Memphis.

Why the Grizzlies should win: Memphis actually provides a far trickier match-up than their 43-39 record suggests. They have a punish, physical defense with an ability to clog passing lanes and slow down games to a halt.

One of the keys to their success against the Spurs will be the health of Tony Allen. Allen is out indefinitely with a strained calf. He remains one of the best defensive specialists in the league and his return in going to be vital if the Grizzlies are going to be able to overcome the motion offense.

Marc Gasol is only getting better at 32 years old. He was already one of the elite centres in the game but has added a three point shot to his arsenal which gives the Grizzlies a terrifying ability to stretch the floor and open lanes behind the big man. He enjoyed his best offensive season yet by averaging 19.5 points per game and remains one of the best forces in the league in box the offensive and defensive boxes. Gasol’s new arsenal can disrupt even the Spurs NBA-best defensive rating and if he is able to disrupt San Antonio’s defensive schemes the Grizzlies are going to have a shot.

Mike Conley signed a huge money deal last off-season and has proceeded to live up to the hype. The Grizzlies point guard had a career best year with 20.5 points, 6.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. Conley was such an underappreciated player that many questioned the big money he got, but has silenced many critics with his performance and his ability to take over a game. Not with flash, but with fundamentals. Conley’s game is built on compact dribble moves, high mid range jump shooting and good decision making. He’d actually be at home in the Spurs system and presents the same kind of fundamentally sound danger that the Spurs are known for.

The Grizzlies have also been able to reinvent themselves up front in a similar way to the Spurs with JaMychal Green now the starting power forward and veteran Zach Randolph taking on the sixth man role. The result has been a punishing and disrupting tandem at the 4 spot that can really cause a lot of problems for San Antonio if they are able to disrupt LaMarcus Aldridge and win the match-up on the low post. If the Grizzlies are going to win this series, it’s going to be in the paint.

With the aforementioned Tony Allen out and Tony Allen, understudy James Ennis also battling an injury, it’s going to be up to 40 year old Vince Carter, reinvented as a 3 and D man to take risks on both sides of the floor as he finds himself in a very important veteran role despite his advanced age. Of course a sudden re-emergence of Chandler Parsons’ game or the return of Ennis or Allen could take some of the burden off Vince, but without either of these scenarios, the Grizzlies reliance on the aged one-time Air Canada will be key.

The Grizzlies are also going to have to consistently attack Tony Parker and defense and hopefully neutralize the Spurs guard play and the natural flow of the Spurs offense. They did this to great effect when they upset the Spurs in the 2011 playoffs and are going to need to focus on that match-up once again.

Who will win: The Grizzlies represent a tough match-up for San Antonio and the worst case scenario in terms of the bottom three Western Conference teams that they could have matched up with. The Grizzles are going to punish San Antonio down low and grind down the pace of play and make this the type of physical match-up that can give them an edge.

But the Spurs have a 25 year old generational talent that is capable of greatness on both sides of the floor and comes up big when the Spurs need him the most. Remember that clip? It all started with a Kawhi Leonard steal. It starts with his ability to read a play and disrupt it and see the opportunity on the other end. There are very few players in the league or ever with that kind of court vision and that level of ability on both sides of the floor.

The Grizzlies aren’t operating at 100% health either, which will help the Spurs a great deal. If Tony Allen appears at all, he likely won’t be completely healthy. The Grizzlies just don’t operate with the same amount of depth as San Antonio and it’s Pop’s ability to run deep and use the second unit to create mismatches that will win the day for San Antonio. The Grizzlies won’t make it easy, but the Spurs are moving on.

Prediction: San Antonio in six.

Western Conference Round One – Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)

Why the Clippers should win: Veteran savvy. That’s what the Clippers are going to have to rely on if they are going to overcome the younger, more exciting upstart Utah Jazz team. The Clippers have been getting it done in Lob City a lot longer and the hope has to be that they will be able to bring it together one more time. Possibly the last time with the uncertain futures of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and JJ Reddick.

The Clippers have also gotten it together at the right time. The often wildly inconsistent squad seems to have gotten it together by winning 11 of their last 13 heading into the playoffs. Their starting five have also been looking like more of a complete unit than at any other point in the year when Paul, Reddick, Luc Mbah A Moute, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have outscored opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions.

The key to the Clippers offensive success is, of course, the pick and roll. The Clippers score 43.5% of their points on ball handler pick and rolls which is the second highest mark in the NBA. Although the Jazz are a top defense, they aren’t very good in defending the Clippers signature play, allowing 0.88 points per possession on pick and rolls where the ball handler shoots. If the Jazz can’t shut down Chris Paul, they aren’t going to win this series and Paul remains one of the best point guard in the entire league and one of the most difficult to defend.

Another key match-up with be down low. DeAndre Jordan vs. Rudy Gobert. Two titanic big men are going to collide in one of the most important match-ups of the series. In addition to being the Jazz’s best defensive player, Gobert has developed into their second offensive option as well with a skill set that really mirrors that of DeAndre Jordan. He’s an excellent roller, an elite offensive rebounder and an explosive finisher. If the veteran Jordan can find a way to win neutralize the younger Gobert on offense that will be a key to the Clippers victory.

The Clippers should be able to force turnovers in key situations. Utah likes to work at a very slow pace which means the ball moves around a lot in shot clock situations. This is a prime opportunity to get some steals and create some distance on the scoreboard.

Health will also be an issue for LA. They are a very top heavy line-up without a lot of depth on the bench beyond Jamal Crawford, Autin Rivers and Marreese Speights. An injury to the any of the Clippers starting five would be a disaster against this Utah team, but if healthy, they’ve got the pieces and the veteran savvy to knock off the younger upstarts.

Why the Jazz should win: Utah are seen as underdogs in this series due to the Clippers top notch pick and roll game and veteran savvy but the Jazz do have Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw and George Hill on board to offer veteran insights. The Jazz were without Hill for a good chunk of the season, as he only played 49 games due to injury so him being back to health and in the fold is advantageous for the playoff run as he will run the offense from the point for the young Jazz team after a season that saw him average a career high for points (16.9) in limited action.

The key player for Utah is going to be Gordon Hayward. Hayward is going to be getting the big money this off-season and he deserves it coming off an incredible year where he elevated his game to an all-star level with 21.3 points per game on 47% shooting including just under 40% from three point range. Hayward’s offensive performance is going to the key. If he is able to light up the Clippers and keep his excellent season going, the Jazz are going to be in this. Gobert and Jordan are going to be battling, the guards will focus on Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin is going to create spacing issues, but Hayward’s ability to rise to the occasion can lift the Jazz to victory.

The Jazz’s versatility could also prove to be extremely advantageous as well. The Jazz can really alter their look by moving Joe Johnson to the four or deploying Boris Diaw in ways that create variant and difficult defensive match-ups for the Clippers. Keeping LA guessing and off-balance in order to cause match-up issues will be a key to victory for Utah and they do have the pieces and dynamic players to be able to accomplish that.

Another key will be the pace. Utah likes to play at a very slow pace. If they can do that without turning the ball over, they can hurt the Clippers pacing a lot and throw off their higher tempo rhythm which could see those chemistry issues from earlier in the season start to pop up again for LA. Utah is also the most effective transition team in the entire NBA, averaging, 1.2 points per possession in transition. If they are able to control the pace and therefore control the ball, they will be able to win this series.

Who will win: This one is a coin flip. The veterans against the new kids on the block. Jordan vs. Gobert. The pick and roll vs. a slow and steady pace. A team going into its last stand vs. a squad that should be there many times to come.

I am going to against the grain here and pick the Jazz in seven. I really think that Hayward is prime for a break-up and that the Clippers inconsistency is going to rear its ugly head again. The Jazz have an ability to throw too many line-up combinations at the Clippers that can wear down their top heavy line-up and allow them to knock off the vets.

I really think that the younger Rudy Gobert will take this opportunity to snatch the rim protector crown from DeAndre Jordan as well.

This series will see the balance of powers in the Western Conference begin to shift as the Utah Jazz upset the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games as the Lob City era comes to an end in an entertaining and competitive seven game series.

Prediction: Utah in seven.