by Brandon Walker, For New Pittsburgh Courier
In this year’s NBA playoffs, there is no LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, but I am totally fine with that. Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets were swept in the first round, and I am cool with that, too, because in the four decades that I have watched NBA basketball, I have never seen a blend of superstars emerging in the game, rivalries getting heated, and such a competitive second round of the playoffs.
As of Tuesday, May 10, three of the series are tied at two games apiece, and the Golden State Warriors-Memphis Grizzlies series in which the Warriors are up 3 games to 1, it has been back and forth the whole series in which Golden State had a historical shooting performance in game three, and barely squeaked past the Grizzlies without Ja Morant. In Monday’s game, May 9, the Grizzlies held an 8-point lead up until Stephen Curry took over and helped get the Warriors out of the arena with a victory. I fully expect the Warriors to come out of this series, however, I think this rivalry is just getting started. Memphis has Morant, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson, and Dillon Brooks all 26 years old and younger that will learn from this experience and will give the rest of the Western Conference a run for their money in the future.
The question is, who may they play next? Either the Dallas Mavericks or the Phoenix Suns, which on paper favors the Suns because they have the league’s best record by eight games and that was without Chris Paul and Devin Booker for chunks of the season. But Dallas has Luka Doncic, who will be one of the best offensive players of his generation and Jalen Brunson, who has helped lighten the load for ball-handling and sharpshooters like Maxi Kleber and Davis Bertans. However, Paul is on a mission to get back to the Finals and a big man in the paint like DeAndre Ayton will make the difference.
As for the East, the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat are enjoying another chippy series that can show the contrast between the two teams. Jimmy Butler going up against the team that he felt scorned by back in 2019. James Harden looking to clear the ghost of playoffs past heading into free agency. Joel Embiid looking to finally have a signature playoff series win while battling eye and thumb injuries, while 2019 NBA champion Kyle Lowry battles a hamstring injury. These are two teams that have a blend of both will and skill that can easily represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, and it is a tough call to make but I am going to have to pick the Heat to come out of this series because of three factors:
One factor is James Harden’s inability to rise in big playoff moments. Until he proves otherwise, I will not pick a team that he is on to win a crucial playoff game. The next factor is Doc Rivers, he has a 6-9 record in Game 7s, and a .341 winning percentage in closeout games. His rotations and inability to make adjustments in a timely matter make him the most overrated coach in NBA history, in my opinion. The last factor is Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra, in contrast to Rivers, is the most underrated coach in NBA history. He brought in the position-less basketball that the Warriors and other teams revolutionized, and he rebuilt the Heat on the fly after LeBron left and Chris Bosh had his career cut short. He is one of the best at player development and building a team culture of toughness and accountability.
As for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics, I think this is an evenly matched series with plenty of star power, defensive intensity, and great coaching. In my opinion, the Bucks will not come out of this series without Khris Middleton. Middleton isn’t the flashy explosive player that Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown is, but he is solid and consistent. Middleton is also their closer in big moments like we saw in last season’s playoffs. For as great as Giannis is, I can’t see him getting past the duo of Brown and Tatum by himself.
This season of playoff basketball has been great, and hopefully, the rest of the NBA playoffs lives up to my expectations.