Who You Should Cheer for in the NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference

I’m not going to go all analytical like I usually do with my NBA posts. To be honest, while I have been up to date with the NBA season thanks to League Pass, a swirl of coaching, job and other things have kept me from really being fully immersed in the NBA season as I have been in years past. That being said, I wanted to do some kind of NBA Playoffs preview, even if it was brief and more tongue-in-cheek and less “stats-based”. In fact, rare for one of my basketball posts, I am not going to use any stats at all. This is just a 100% from the gut, totally biased look in terms of who you should cheer for in the Eastern Conference first round playoffs. If you like it, great. If you feel my opinions are un-founded, I get it and agree with you. They probably are, but that’s not going to stop me from expressing them.

Enough with all that. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference First Round.

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons

I have a love-hate relationship with LeBron. I loved him when he started out his career, defended his Rookie of the Year award over Carmelo, and thought his performance against Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was one of the single-best playoff games in history. However, I hated him his first year in Miami for all that “Decision” hoopla, but I grew to love how he adjusted his game (mainly his back to the basket game) and truly became the alpha dog on those two championship Miami Heat teams. I liked that he came back to Cleveland, but I didn’t like how he used mainstream media again as his own personal PR firm (really when you think about it, the “Decision” and the SI “I’m Coming Home” piece really weren’t all that different, it’s just that we all liked the message more because we all resonate with that “coming home” feeling at one point or the other in our lives…more on that later). I really admired LeBron in the playoffs, especially in the Finals, as he pretty much won 2 games against the Golden State Warriors by himself.

And then Game 5 happened…and then all the “I’m the greatest player in the world” stuff…and then he got David Blatt fired mid-season this year, even though Blatt took them to the Finals and had them in first place in the East at the time and is a very good coach whom I liked from his Russia and Maccabi Tel Aviv days who didn’t sign up for the “LeBron circus” but adjusted anyways for the sake of his superstar and his team.

Seriously, Fuck LeBron. I am not questioning his talent or his hall-of-fame status. But he isn’t the player he once was, and he has gotten so into his own “persona” as Cleveland’s savior that everything he does both on and off the court just comes off as pretentious and disingenuous. And he hasn’t even been that good this year, as he is nowhere in the conversation when it comes to MVP, a rarity we haven’t seen in almost a decade. Add that with a supporting cast that includes a talented, but often-injured point guard (Kyrie Iriving), a post player who ransomed his old franchise to just become a spot-up shooter (Kevin Love) and a bunch of overpaid role players (Shumpert, Smith, Thompson…the list goes on) and it’s hard to cheer for this Cavs bunch. They’re talented, they deserve the No. 1 spot East, and when they are on, goddamn it they are tough to stop. But unless you’re from Cleveland, it’s hard to really get behind them and they don’t offer anything endearing except for the fact that they could bring a long-suffering city their first title in decades.

The Pistons on the other hand, really don’t have much of a chance. They lack a true point guard, and Andre Drummond, though a beast and one of the best “pure” low post players in the league currently behind Demarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, is so bad at free throws that you can’t play him in crunch time (as evidenced in their Game 1 loss). However, this is a Stan Van Gundy team and you can guarantee a couple of things:

1.) They are going to launch it. SVG made his bread in Orlando by surrounding Dwight with a whole bunch of shooters. The Magic went deep in the playoffs thanks to guys like Rashard Lewis and JJ Redick launching it from deep. The Pistons are built in that mold with guys like Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris as the Lewis-type stretch 4’s and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ad Stanley Johnson providing the Redick-esque support. Unfortunately, SVG lacks a Jameer-like point guard. Reggie Jackson is too much of a gunner and ball killer, and unlike his former teammate Russell Westbrook, when he loses his shit, he loses his shit in a way that takes his team out of the game. His stupid technical foul basically killed any shot or hope the Pistons had in terms of coming back.

2.) SVG makes great adjustments, and he has them play with great intensity and tempo. SVG knows how to coach. He finds weaknesses well and makes great adjustments. He did that with the Pistons often-times this year, and got them in the playoffs for the first time since the “Sheed” days because of his ability to adjust on the fly. And furthermore, SVG is a great motivator. Yes, superstars butt heads with him, but this Pistons team doesn’t have a Dwight or Shaq or DWade superstar. Drummond is still young and impressionable, and he doesn’t have the kind of ego that sunk the Dwight-SVG relationship. These Pistons will go through a brick wall for SVG and that will be key, especially considering it is yet to be determined how Tyronn Lue will handle in his first playoff series as a head coach.

3-point-oriented, tough, a great coach, young, and playing against LeBron…I don’t see how you cannot cheer for the Pistons this first round.

 

No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics

This is a tough one. Atlanta has a lot going for them. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are underrated and effective post players who go unnoticed because they play in Atlanta and don’t have the “big” personalities (i.e. they haven’t dated any major celebrity of note). Dennis Schroeder has an awesome name, an awesome nickname (“German Rondo”) and is a fun player to watch when he’s on. Mike Budenholzer is one of the best NBA coaches in the league, who still got a lot from his team this year, despite some down years from some key players (Kyle Korver especially).

But, damn, this Celtics team. They are…so…freaking…fun to watch. They blitz it on the court with their tempo, and they are all young, all fiery as hell (Marcus Smart, Evan “The Villain” Turner, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, just to name a few, all play with serious “chips on their shoulders”, so much so that it comes off as endearing, unlike Jackson of Detroit or any white guard from Duke where it comes off as annoying), and play with the kind of tenacity that makes you forget about the pretentious “Unbuntu” days when Doc Rivers complained endlessly to refs (seriously did he do any coaching? Or did he just leave that to Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank?), Kevin Garnett picked on point guards, and Paul Pierce was being carried out on wheelchairs, only to return 15 minutes later. I know Boston, that era brought you a title, but your current Celtics are way more endearing to us general NBA fans and make us forget not only about that insufferable team, but also the crappy weather and over-bearing nature of your New England population.

Back to the Celtics, they do have major some major issues. Isaiah Thomas is one of the most fun players in the league, and I hit myself on the head everyday as a Kings fan that they let him walk for practically nothing because DeMarcus Cousins didn’t like how he shook hands with Chris Paul after a meaningless mid-season loss to the Clippers. However, he’s going to struggle defensively against Jeff Teague and he is closer to Nate Robinson than Chris Paul when it comes to point-guard mold. And, they lack a true offensive post player (Amir Johnson gives you post defense, but not much post offense), which will make things interesting against Horford and Millsap. That being said, despite these glaring disadvantages, you still feel like the Celtics are the favorites in this series because of their depth (They can play 10-11 deep, though losing Avery Bradley hurts big time), their breakneck pace and 3-point heavy approach (they nearly came back on the road against Atlanta despite being down as much as 29 points at one point), and Brad Stevens, who really should be Coach of the Year along with Portland’s Terry Stotts.

Speaking of Stevens, I have totally turned around on him since he was hired away from Butler. I didn’t know if he was going to be a good fit at the NBA, because it seemed like his personality and style didn’t mesh well with the NBA game. He wasn’t a former NBA player, and he seemed to rely more on unheralded talent to gain long-term success. I figured he would be overwhelmed or struggle to mesh with top talent and egos, which he never had before at Butler. However, Stevens has totally turned around this Celtics team in the post-Unbuntu era, and somehow molded into the kind of teams he coached at Butler: tough, relentless and well-prepared on a night-in, night-out basis (though to be fair, Danny Ainge really built this team to his strengths as a coach; a poor GM wouldn’t have given Stevens the amount of young talent and patience in a market like Boston; case in point: New York). And, he’s really good at drawing up inbounds plays. Jon Barry on the broadcast was gushing about his in-bounds play artistry like a 42-year-old overweight divorcee would about Pornhub now offering VR videos.

This one is a coin toss. But, the combination of Stevens, youth and fun style of play not only make the Celtics more endearing in this one, but also in a potential second-round matchup with LeBron and the Cavs.

 

No. 3 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Charlotte Hornets

This Hornets team came out of nowhere, really. Two years ago, in their final years of the Bobcats, they surprised everyone and made the playoffs. Then last year, in their first year of their rebirth as the Hornets, they acquired Lance Stephenson, and consequently chemistry went to shit, and they finished in the Lottery. With lower expectations this year, they acquired a bunch of guys coming off down years (Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes, etc.), got rid of Stephenson, drafted Frank the Tank from Wisconsin, decided to jack up more 3 pointers, and now they’re the six-seed in the playoffs. It’s fucking nuts how the NBA works sometimes.

The Hornets are the underdogs this playoffs, akin to Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA Tournament, and there’s something endearing in that description. However, despite their “Island of the Lost Toys” roster, this Heat team is infinitely more interesting and worth cheering for. Here’s three reasons why:

1.) This Chris Bosh health issue sucks. Nobody deserves a playoff run without Lebron more than this guy. I watched him live when he was with the Raptors and he truly is a unique talent that sacrificed more than people think to win two titles with the Heat. I’m convinced that he and DWade could be just as competitive as LeBron and the “Misfit Army” of the Cavs. But, this health issue with the blood clotting is keeping him out, and thus, we are deprived of that potential Miami-Cleveland matchup that would be all kinds of intriguing and fun. And the worst part is that Bosh cares so much about all this. He really seems like a truly genuine guy who wants to be out there on the court, and is not just posturing because he’s the Heat’s top-paid guy (along with Wade). I freaking hate this. Fate can be so cruel. I just hope this issue doesn’t force an early retirement, as I want at least one more year where Bosh could have a shot against LeBron in the playoffs.

2.) Goran Dagic doesn’t get enough love or appreciation from NBA fans for his talent and impact. He played in the shadow of Steve Nash, then was on lukewarm Suns teams that never made the playoffs post-Nash, and then went to the Heat post-LeBron where nobody gave a shit about the Heat except for the 50 percent of the Miami sporting fan population who stayed around when Lebron left town. Dragic has just always gotten overlooked. People talk about Kyrie. People talk about John Wall. People talk about Jeff Teague and Kyle Lowry. But Dragic? Never. And it’s too bad because he’s one of the most complete point guards in the league. He deserves to get more pub, and a potential opportunity to carve up Kemba, Lowry and maybe Irving en route to an Eastern Conference Championship would be the perfect scenario to get him more of the respect he deserves when it comes to being compared to other point guards in the Eastern Conference.

3.) And speaking of people who don’t get love, what about Erik Spoelstra? I love him because he’s Filipino, but with all this Coach of the Year talk, Spoelstra doesn’t get mentioned in the convo. He was a hell of a coach pre-Lebron and is showing that he’s a hell of a coach post-Lebron, but he’s barely mentioned as one of the best coaches in the game. Spoelstra has done wonders with this squad, molding them into their own unique blend without LeBron and has them playing as one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference as of this moment (especially true after their demolishing of Charlotte in game 1). Spoels, like Dragic, needs more love, and a deep run would do so, not to mention it would be an especially juicy story if it came at the expense of LeBron.

This is a tough series, because I like the Hornets a lot and have enjoyed following them this year on league pass. But this Miami team has more long-term potential, especially since they may be the team best-equipped to de-throne the Cavs. And that is why you should cheer for them not just now, but in the further rounds as well.

 

No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers

I don’t think Toronto will get far in the playoffs. And this is a tough series for them. Paul George is looking like Paul George pre-broken leg. Frank Vogel is one of the more underrated coaches in the league. The Pacers play a tough, physical kind of game that I think guys like Demar Derozan struggle with. And that was on full display in game 1, as the Raptors dropped game 1 at home, continuing their trend from the past two years of disappointing in the playoffs despite the tremendous support and regular-season success.

That being said, I am pulling for them. Dwane Casey is a much better coach than people think, and I think he gets way too much shit for the Raptors’ playoff woes than deserved. He has put the Raptors in situations to succeed, it’s just that a combo of youth and lack of somebody stepping up in the moment has done the Raptors in these past couple of years, not something Casey really could control. (What’s he supposed to do? Put magic dust on Derozan?) The Raptors fans are great and really have pulled for this team the past five years or so in a way that shows how big basketball really is in the Maple State. They basically treat every playoff game at home like Kansas City does for the USMNT during the World Cup at Power and Light (and like those KC fans, the Raptors fans get their hearts ripped out in big games…seriously, beating Algeria is NOT THAT BIG A DEAL soccer fans). Lowry, despite his own issues, is a gritty type of player who really has come a long ways from his days with the Grizzlies, and Jonas Valanciunas, one of my favorite Lithuanian players ever along with Sarunas Marciulionis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Sabonis and Domantas Sabonis (see what I did with the names there?) has also developed into one of the more underrated bigs in the game who can bang and board down low with any other post player in the NBA while still maintaining some offensive skill and touch around the basket.

But the biggest reason? I want to see them break the playoff hex. Being in bad losing streaks like this suck, especially when it is on such a big stage (as a Gonzaga fan, I think we can relate to the Raptors’ playoff disappointment) These fans care too much and have been through too much shit after those losses to Brooklyn and Washington in consecutive years. Furthermore, this team is young and built in a way that is unique compared to other teams in the league, especially in the Eastern Conference. Their roster is filled with guys who overachieve and overcome the modest expectations people have for them year after year. Lowry doesn’t have what it takes to be an elite point guard. Derozan is too perimeter-oriented. Jonas doesn’t have the skills to compete with other post players. Demarre Carroll doesn’t have a position in the NBA. Casey is dubious as a head coach as evidenced from his Minnesota days. And despite those expectations, the Raptors continue to win and continue to get better and better. I don’t think anyone thought the Raptors would be the second-best team in the Eastern conference going into this year and here they are, the No. 2 seed after one of the best seasons in franchise history.

But that would all go to crap if they lose to the Pacers. And they don’t deserve that. Not after all the progress they’ve made and the season they had. I’m not saying they can or will go far. I think Miami would be too much for them in the second round. But they are better than Indiana and they need to step it up. The fans and the organization deserve to at least get out of the first round for the first time since the Vince Carter days.

And lastly…the Raptors have super-fan Drake. Let’s not see Drake jump off this bandwagon after another first round exit. I want to see him courtside cheering for the Raptors in Miami in the second round.

That would just be oh-so-fitting.

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