It’s mid-April, and that means it’s time for spring weather (unless, like me, you live in Michigan), creative meals to use up that leftover mahtzoh in your cupboard, and of course, a tradition unlike any other:
The Masters, on CBS AGR’s annual “Big Shot Bob (Rob)” tournament.
It was a wild final night of the regular season, leaving little time for people to make their picks for this year’s tourney. But before I even get to reviewing our picks, I’ll briefly preview each first round series.
In the East…
- Raptors-Wizards: To the average fan, this series may lack excitement. After all, the Raptors were peerlessly the best team in the East, while the Wizards were a season-long disappointment. But look a little deeper and you’ll see that underlying this series are timeless questions about best predicting the NBA’s postseason. Does the fact that the Wizards swept the Raptors in 2014-15 with similar rosters reveal a matchup advantage or a mental edge? What do we make of the fact that the Wizards split the regular season series against the Raptors 2-2 without John Wall? Should the Raptors’ prolonged history of playoff underperformance be held against them? Can we expect a team reliant on strong bench performance to excel in the playoffs when rotations typically shrink? Digging more into the specifics of the matchup, there will be an important backcourt battle (Wall and Beal vs. Lowry and DeRozan) and a whole lot of tactical issues. Will the Raptors continue to play their deep rotation, and can they steer clear of the iso-ball that they have avoided this season, but so often emerges during the playoffs? For the Wiz: As is the case every year, they have stronger starters and a weak bench. If they shift minutes toward those players, are unafraid to go small in crunch time, and hit some threes in the process, the Wizards could be a sneaky upset. Then again, they are the Wizards.
- Cavs-Pacers: These teams faced off last year in the first round, but this year’s teams barely resemble those of last year. Everyone knows that the Cavs traded Kyrie for Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder in the offseason; IT and Crowder were then traded again for several key rotation pieces in an epic midseason shakeup. The Pacers now have Victor Oladipo running the show; in total, 5 of their 8 primary rotation players were not on the team last year. So, what will happen? Well, since entering his prime, LeBron James and his teams have never lost or even struggled in a first round series, so it’s tempting to say Cavs in 4 or 5. Then again, this year’s Cavs have been among the worst LeBron-led teams. Throw in the fact the Pacers are better than the average team that LeBron has faced in the first round and that they were 3-1 against the Cavaliers this year, and you have a slightly more interesting story. Especially if Lance Stephenson is feeling trollish with LeBron.
- Sixers-Heat: The Sixers are the better team, but they are missing Embiid for the some of the games this series, which could enough to make it interesting. The Sixers have been on fire behind the walking triple double that is rookie Ben Simmons. Then again, he’s a rookie leading a number of players who have zero or limited playoff experience. This year, the Sixers turned it over more than any other team, and whether the playoffs amplify or reign in this trend will be a critical factor in this series. For the Heat, their leader (Dragic) is a seasoned vet, but their biggest strength–their ability to play harder than their opponent–dwindles in the post season when everyone’s playing for big stakes. Their rotations have been flexible and interesting all year–especially concerning Whiteside’s role and minutes–and Spoelstra is unafraid of non-traditional rotations. One matchup to watch: James Johnson taking it upon himself to slow down and be physical with Ben Simmons.
- Celtics-Bucks: The Celtics are the better team, even without Kyrie Irving (and Gordon Hayward), but the Bucks have the best player in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Not only that, Giannis is a difficult player to game plan for. He’s unstoppable in transition or semi-transition. One on one, his length and athleticism allow him to find the rim against any defender, even without an outside shot. And when defenses collapse, he’s a willing and able passer. And yet, the Bucks haven’t improved from last year, despite better health, talent, and continuity. The Celtics, meanwhile, are much the opposite–they are greater than the sum of their parts, despite a number of new faces getting big minutes. Their vaunted defense should be as good as ever and Stevens will find ways to craft scoring around a disappointing Bucks defense. Still, an upset is more than possible here, especially if the Bucks get out in transition and hit threes around Giannis’ playmaking.
In the West…
- Rockets-Wolves: The Rockets have been dominant all season long–easily this year’s best team so far–especially when Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela were are all healthy. Sure, one of their rotation players is hurt, but this team is deep enough with wing players to survive Mbah a Moute’s absence. Especially when you have the soon-to-be-crowned MVP. So, what’s stopping this from being a sweep, then? Well, the Wolves have two superstars of their own in Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. To be clear: both are superstars. Even a few years ago, players outside the top five in the league couldn’t touch LeBron, Durant, Steph, and a few others. The talent pool at the top of the league is deeper than ever, though, and it means that an 8th-seed in the West can somehow boast players of their caliber. Moreover, Jimmy Butler is the perfect candidate to guard Harden (until of course, he is forced off of him through countless pick and rolls). Houston should win, but the Timberwolves might put up a fight.
- Thunder-Jazz: One might think that the Thunder are the clear favorites here. The Jazz don’t even have anyone that’s ever made the All Star team; the Thunder players, on the other hand, have made a combined 24 All-Star teams. With Westbrook’s second consecutive season averaging a triple double, the growth of Steven Adams, and the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony–it’s gotta be the Thunder, right? But then you remember that the Jazz had a better point differential despite Rudy Gobert’s missed time and Donovan Mitchell’s learning curve. And that Quinn Snyder has been a Coach of the Year candidate. And that they finished the season going an absurd 29-6. So, what will happen? Who knows, but a couple things to watch out for: the battle of the boards when the Jazz defend and whether Gobert can defend and disrupt Westbrook without getting into foul trouble.
- Blazers-Pelicans: The Blazers were the better team all year, have more playoff experience, and are not missing an all-world center (one day, Boogie). But the Pelicans closed the season 20-8 and seem to have a newfound energy after fighting for their playoff lives. Rondo will get eaten alive by Lillard or McCollum, depending on the position, but Jrue Holiday has the ability to slow those guys down–especially with Anthony Davis guarding the paint. And Davis’ versatility poses a problem for Nurkic, who is great defensively, but is a bit of a paint-bound plotter. It’s true that the Blazers were the better defensive team this year (credit Nurkic and Terry Stotts, among others), are deeper and better coached, and got a superstar production from Lillard, who has been about as good as Davis this season. When you add it all up, this 3-6 matchup feels a lot more like a 4-5 matchup, which is unsurprising for anyone who followed the race for the playoffs in this year’s Western Conference.
- Warriors-Spurs: Sadly, this series can’t be properly appreciated with the knowledge that two MVP-caliber players will be watching from the bench. In Curry and Leonard’s absence, we should all appreciate the coaching before us–Kerr and Pop greats in their own right. Which means we’ll have a competitive series. Yes, the Warriors are way more talented, but they seem to lose their edge when Curry is out, or even hurt (see the 2015-16 NBA Finals for reference). If anyone is able to game plan KD, I’d trust it to be Pop–expect the Spurs to throw everyone from Murray to Green to Anderson to Gay. What I’ll be watching for is the strategy around small-ball. It’s been the Warriors’ greatest asset in recent years, even with their solid seasons from McGee, Pachulia, and David West. If they do go small, will the Spurs match, or double down with lineups featuring Aldridge and Gasol?
Onto the BSB(R), let’s take a look at some of the trends and oddities in people’s picks (click on images to enlarge):
First round thoughts…
- First thing’s first–we have a record-high 45 participants! This surpasses last year’s previous high of 38 participants. Makes me so happy, folks.
- 38/45 people had the Raptors getting past the Wizards. For a DC-centric crowd, that’s reasonable.
- All 45 people picked the Cavs. Even accounting for the LeBron-in-the-first-round effect, this is lopsided. Also, this marks the second straight year that the entire field picked one team in the 4-5 Eastern Conference matchup (last year, everyone picked the Wiz over the Hawks). Wild stuff.
- 39/45 people had the Sixers over the Heat. The Sixers are red-hot and clearly better, but the Heat could surprise with their experience and coaching.
- 30/45 had the Celtics winning, reflecting Kyrie’s injury and people’s faith in Giannis.
- All 45 had the Rockets winning. And 44/45 had the Warriors over the Spurs. In both series, I think an upset here is more likely than most, but I’m not surprised that no one took the risk (way to go, Walt!)
- Thunder-Jazz was the most “debated” matchup, here, with 29/45 choosing the Thunder.
- Only 11/45 had the Pelicans beating the Blazers. As I mentioned in the write-up, this should be a close series.
Second round thoughts…
- In what is a highly anticipated Round 2 matchup, 25/38 took the Cavs over the Raptors. Again, the Raptors are a tough team to predict in the playoffs. In total, 32 people have the Cavs moving onto the ECF
- Of the 39 people who have the Sixers in Round 2, 30 have them beating their opponent their and moving onto the ECF. Meanwhile, of the 30 people who have the Celtics in the second round, only 11 have them moving on to the ECF.
- 44/45 people have the Rockets beating their second round foe. Shout out to Greg, who prevented the “sweep” by picking the Thunder to upset the Rockets.
- To no one’s surprise, 42/44 people had the Warriors winning their Round 2 matchup. Dave Attewell and Dan Leifer boldly picked the Blazers to win. I’m skeptical they’ll win a game.
Conference Finals thoughts…
- In the East, the modal matchup was Cavs-Sixers, and 18/22 who predicted that matchup had the Cavs advancing. In total, 28 of the 32 people who had the Cavs in the ECF had them moving to the Finals and 9 out of the 13 people who had the Raptors in the ECF had them in the Finals.
- In the West, 41 people predicted Rockets-Warriors to occur, perhaps the most anticipated series of this year’s playoffs. The crowd was pretty split on the outcomes, with 22 of those 41 having the Rockets advance (including me). Taking a step back, this feels like a collective underrating of the defending champions.
NBA Finals thoughts…
- There are refreshingly more predicted matchups in the Finals than in recent years. Eight different matchups were predicted. Shoutout to Greg, who had the Thunder winning it all against the Cavs (the only person to have the Thunder in the Finals or WCF); Walt, who had the Blazers making it to the Finals and losing to the Cavs; and Ben Lempert, who had the Celtics losing to the Warriors.
- The West was the dominant pick to win, with 43/45 people picking a team from the West. 24 of those were Rockets victories and 18 of them were Warriors victories.
- The modal matchups were Rockets-Cavs and Warriors-Cavs, each happening 13 times. The only Cavs victory in these worlds was a Cavs over Warriors win, courtesy of Oliver “OG Commish” Harris.
Enjoy the first round, folks. I’ll give a BSB(R) and playoff update after the first round is over.
Who are your picks to win, both the playoffs and the AGR tourney? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.