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NHL Round Two Picks

Posted: 04/26/2018 by levcohen in Hockey

The first round of the NHL playoffs underwhelmed a little bit. There were a historic number of blowouts and just one series that went the full seven games. The NHL is supposed to be the league with the craziest, tensest, most upset-happy playoffs. So far, that hasn’t been the case this year. The only worse-seeded team to win a series was the San Jose Sharks, who finished with exactly one fewer point than the Anaheim Ducks and were favored by advanced stats sites coming in. But while the first round disappointed, the end result going forward may be more excitement. The better teams advanced, and we have some close Round Two matchups (no team is more than a -145 favorite or a +125 underdog) and juicy storylines: can Washington finally knock off Pittsburgh?; Can Vegas keep winning?; Who wins Nashville-Winnipeg, a series between the two best regular season teams in Hockey?; Will Tuukka Rask bounce back after a poor first round showing?

After not watching much of most of these teams all season, I saw enough of them in Round One to feel fine about previewing the second round. With that being said, I’ll start with the series whose participants I saw least of.

Vegas Golden Knights over San Jose Sharks in 7: There are two big reasons that I didn’t see much of either team’s Round One series win. The first is that they play on the West Coast and therefore start very late. The second is that they both played just four games in the first round, sweeping away their opponents. The name of the game in Round One for both teams was goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury gave up three goals on 130 shots in four games for a .977 save percentage. Martin Jones conceded four goals on 132 shots, good for a .970 save percentage. These two defenses were the stingiest of the first round in terms of goals allowed, but that wasn’t the case when it came to shot prevention: San Jose and Vegas allowed the third and seventh most total shots per 60 minutes. Of course, not all shots are created equal, and 46 of the shots on goal against Jones came in a game that was out of reach throughout (and ended 8-1 in San Jose’s favor). Vegas, on the other hand, got outshot in three out of four games and won each game by a single goal. But the main point is that the first round defensive performances by each team were unsustainable and that we should expect some more goals in this one.

Vegas has relied heavily upon its top line for scoring all year, and that remains the case now. William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault are the team’s two most skilled offensive players and are both prolific scorers. They’ll likely be seeing a lot of Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose’s excellent top defensive pair. According to Corsica’s advanced player ratings, a compilation of advanced stats, Burns is the best defenseman in the NHL. He was also the team’s leading scorer in the regular season with 67 points and is one of the best point men on the power play in the league. San Jose disappointed on the power play in the regular season but scored six times on 20 power play opportunities against Anaheim, a sign that they may be coming together. They’re also a very different team with Evander Kane, who they got from Buffalo late in the season. Kane scored nine goals in 17 games with the Sharks and netted three in the first round. He slots in as the left winger on a first line that also has Joe Pavelski and do-it-all right winger Joonas Donskoi. They then have Logan Couture centering the second line, so this team definitely has firepower. Couture had his struggles this year, but still led the team with 34 goals. He seemed to be rounding into form heading into the playoffs — seven goals and five assists in his last 13 games — and added five points in the first round.

There’s no doubt that Vegas was the better team in the regular season. They’re also stronger where it matters most, as Marc-Andre Fleury has dominated all year and would be the Vezina Trophy winner had he played enough games. They roll four lines and are a quick, skilled team. Based on their first round performance, though, I still don’t think they’re quite as good as the point total or the first round sweep would indicate. They now get a tough second round matchup against a team that matches up well with their first line and tightened the screws in the first round. I think these are two evenly matched teams and that this series will come down to the wire. Both of these teams struggled a little bit down the stretch, more evidence that performance at the end of the regular season has very little correlation with performance in the playoffs. I’m going to take Vegas in 7 because I have slightly more confidence in their goalie and their top-end talent has been more productive all year. I do think the Pavelski and Couture lines can punish their defense, though.

Winnipeg Jets over Nashville Predators in 6: I know that Nashville’s been the best team in hockey this year. I know that they and the Lightning are co-favorites to win the Stanley Cup. Anyone who tuned in to the playoffs last year, when Nashville announced its arrival, knows how good this team is. They have two dominant defensive pairings — Josi-Ellis and Subban-Ekholm — and three rock solid lines. It was their third line, actually, that led the way in the first round, with Sissons-Bonino-Watson providing nine goals (all of which were even strength). It took them six games to knock off the undermanned Colorado Avalanche, but they were clearly in control throughout. Nashville was one of the most impressive teams I saw in the first round.

The problem is that Winnipeg, a team I barely saw during the regular season, was hands-down the most impressive. Next to Vegas, this team has been the biggest surprise in hockey. I think that the reputation of Winnipeg over the last few years — physical, undisciplined, unskilled — is outdated. Sure, they still have physical (and sometimes dirty) players. Dustin Byfuglien and 6’8″ menace Tyler Myers count there. But Winnipeg was way down at tied for eighth in most minor penalties taken and took just eight majors for fighting, tied for fewest in the league. Nashville, meanwhile, took the most minor penalties and 20 major penalties. Physical? Yes. Undisciplined? Not so much. But it’s the skill level that’s really changed in Winnipeg. Patrik Laine, the #2 pick in what will forever be known as the Auston Matthews draft, may have the scariest slap-shot of anyone not named Alex Ovechkin. He scored 44 goals this year after scoring 36 last season. And Laine is the right winger on the second line. The first line right winger? That’s Blake Wheeler, who’s been Winnipeg’s best offensive player for years and who broke out to the tune of 91 points (including 40 on the power play) this season. I think the Jets can really take advantage on the power play. They were the fifth best power play team in the league this year, and they roll out Wheeler, Laine, Byfuglien, Paul Stastny, and Mark Scheifele on their first unit. That’s a lot of firepower, and Winnipeg figures to get a lot of time on the power play.

These two teams played five times during the regular season and scored a combined 41 goals. So it’d probably be easy to forget that two of the three Vezina Trophy candidates will be playing in this series. Everyone knows who Pekka Rinne is, and the 35-year-old had one of his best statistical seasons this year. But the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck, who’s all of 24 and had flashed last season, was the league’s breakout star goaltender. His .924 save percentage was just a few points off of Rinne’s, and he won 44 games, tied for most in hockey. Now, he gave up 19 goals against Nashville (.882 saver percentage) in four-and-change games, so he still has a lot to prove. But he’s coming off back-to-back shutouts to close off the Minnesota Wild, so it doesn’t seem like he’s losing steam.

In terms of overall roster talent, I think Nashville’s better. But I promised myself after seeing Winnipeg’s utter domination of Minnesota (they really controlled the shots and pace of play) that I would pick them to win in the second round. Rinne struggled a bit in the first round, and I think people are penciling the Predators into the Stanley Cup Final a little too quickly. Winnipeg will hold serve at home, where they led the league with a 32-7-2 record, and steal one in Nashville.

Washington Capitals over Pittsburgh Penguins in 6: This is such a familiar series that I don’t even know what to say. This is the third straight time that these two teams have played in the second round. It’s Sid vs. Ovi. For the third straight year, the Capitals enter the series with home ice advantage over the Penguins. And yet, the Penguins are small favorites. Why? Because the Caps just haven’t been able to knock off Pittsburgh. Amazingly, in all five of Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup years (1991, 1992, 2009, 2016, 2017), the Penguins have gone through Washington. The Penguins are 9-1 in playoff series’ against the Capitals.

Washington is not as good this year as they were the past two years, when they had really dominant hockey teams. Their 105 points were 13 fewer than last year and 15 fewer than the season before, and they dropped two games to Columbus in the first round before storming back to win the next four. The Capitals have been contenders for most of Alex Ovechkin’s career, but they’ve never even made the Conference Finals. I think that’ll change this year. The Capitals lost Marcus Johansson last year, but besides that the core is basically the same. A big reason they regressed this year was a shockingly bad season from goalie Braden Holtby, who actually got benched down the stretch. The good news: Holtby stormed back against Columbus, posting a .932 save percentage in four starts and a relief appearance. The bad news: he’s been good before leading into a Pittsburgh series and it hasn’t really carried over. But I think it’s safe to assume that Holtby is pretty much back to normal after an anomalous year, which means that Washington looks well-suited to advance deep into the playoffs. Of course, that means they’re in the exact same position as they have been over the last few years (albeit with less public pressure, I think). We know that this is a good hockey team. The problem is that the Penguins have always been able to reach a higher level in the playoffs than Ovi’s Caps have. This year, I’m not convinced that’s true.

On paper, Pittsburgh beat the Flyers pretty convincingly in the first round. And they did in fact score at least five goals in all four wins. But they showed serious defensive issues even against an inferior opponent — heck, they got torn up by Sean Couturier, who was playing on a torn MCL. That continues a trend we saw during the regular season, when the Penguins gave up 250 goals, most of any playoff team. I think that Pittsburgh’s defense is the weakest unit in the playoffs. They rely heavily upon Kris Letang, who’s good but injury prone. They clearly have no confidence in their third defensive pair. And much like Holtby, Matt Murray has taken a big step back this year, except that he hasn’t been as good in the playoffs as Holtby. Another big red flag for Pittsburgh: injuries. While the Capitals come into this series close to full strength, the Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, a star player and a third line winger, at least early on in the series. The loss of Malkin is really big, obviously. It may not matter if Sidney Crosby keeps playing the way he did in the first round, but the law of averages suggest that he probably won’t keep putting up 2+ points per game (even though he’s Sidney Crosby). I think Washington’s deeper, better defensively, and at least as good at goalie. And Pittsburgh’s injuries and defensive issues may keep them from reaching the gear that’s lifted them over the Capitals twice in a row.

Tampa Bay Lightning over Boston Bruins in 5: Boston is not a team that should be taken lightly. It took them seven games to see off the Maple Leafs, but they did. They beat Tampa Bay three out of four times and went 35-10-7 in their last 52 games. They showed all kinds of offensive explosiveness against the Maple Leafs in what was an open, fast-paced series. Had they figured out how to stop Toronto’s stretch passes from their own zone, they would have won the series with more breathing room, because they really did outplay the Maple Leafs. Sure, Tuukka Rask had some tough games, but he’s Tuukka Rask. He’ll bounce back. The problem is that Boston is now running into a Tampa Bay team that I think is the best in hockey. They certainly were over the course of the first half of the season. They ran out of steam a little bit down the stretch, going 25-15-3 in their final 43 games. That was most true of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who admitted that he was tired down the stretch. I saw everything I needed to see in the first round. Vasilevskiy had a .941 save percentage in the first round, and Tampa scored 18 goals in five games. Boston’s obviously a tougher matchup than New Jersey was, but I don’t see how they’re going to stop the Stamkos line. If Boston wins, it’ll probably be because of its special teams. The Lightning were the third best power play team this year while Boston was the third best penalty kill team. Boston was fourth on the power play, but Tampa was just 27th on the penalty kill. And the Bruins’ power play looked mighty en route to seven goals in the first round. Still, Tampa Bay is much deeper, is rested and comfortable, and has home ice, so I’m pretty confident that they’ll win this series.

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NFL Draft Analysis is Ruled by Clichés

Posted: 04/25/2018 by levcohen in Football

I like to believe that I watch enough college basketball – and understand the sport well enough – to form real, significant opinions about NBA draft prospects. Well enough, in fact, to compile a ranking of the best draft prospects every year. There are hits and misses: last year, I was relatively high on Donovan Mitchell (9th) and Josh Hart (16th), two of the biggest steals in the draft, but low on Jayson Tatum (7th) and OG Anunoby (21st), both of whom look pretty darn good. But the bottom line is that I know the prospects well enough to come up with a relatively informed top-30 ranking. That’s not at all true of college football. I don’t watch as much college football, and I certainly don’t feel as much exposure to the top draft prospects. Whereas with basketball I’m comfortable with my knowledge of what may or may not translate to the NBA (hence not taking an awesome college player like Caleb Swanigan high in the draft), with football I fear that my rankings would end up just being a list of who I thought looked best in college. So with the draft tomorrow night, instead of struggling through that difficult and useless process, I’m going to focus on the players to whom I’ve been most exposed. And that, of course, is the quarterbacks. A staple of NFL draft coverage is that every year it evolves (devolves?) into a series of clichés and weird scouting terms. That’s never been more apparent than with this year’s quarterback coverage. There’s been a rush to label each of the consensus top-five QB prospects, with draft analysts shepherding them into broad categories that they’ve used to describe draft prospects for years. With the exception of the “Sure Thing” (a la Andrew Luck), all of the major categories are represented. In fact, it almost seems as if the quarterback prospects are being used as a means to check off the use of each cliché. What are said categories, and where does each QB prospect fit in?

Note: This is less an evaluation of the quarterbacks than a compilation of the analyses I’ve seen about them. It’s my attempt to show just how cliché-dominant pre-draft scouting reports are.

The Raw, Projectable QB With a Big Arm: Josh Allen 

Of all of these categories, this is the one that is most assured to be covered. This is the quarterback who has a huge arm and endless potential. It’s easy to fall in love with arm strength, as many teams have showed over the years. It’s a pretty important physical attribute (although it can be argued just how important) and not one that can really be taught. So if a team can convince itself that it is the one who can develop this guy into a star – and most teams probably think they can – they’ll fall in love with this guy. That’s why this guy always goes relatively high in the draft. Sometimes it works out, but more often the guy flames out. This year, that guy is Josh Allen. He checks all the physical boxes. He’s tall, has big hands, and has the awesome arm strength. But he also has all the issues that keeps him from being a “Sure Thing.” He went to Wyoming and thus didn’t play much against top college defenses. And when he did face better defenses, the results weren’t good. Wyoming was just 15-9 against FBS teams when he started, and in his three starts against Power Five teams (all losses) he struggled mightily: 48-of-96, 437 yards, 1 TD, 8 INT. There are also times when it seems like Allen wouldn’t be able to hit the side of a barn. This category has found its perfect match yet again.                                                                                            

The Electric, Dynamic College QB With “Leadership” Issues: Baker Mayfield

This category is similar to the next one in its focus on personalities, but it’s clearly distinct because of its focus on legitimate actions and transgressions rather than characters and opinions. Since these category names are all made up anyway, this one may as well be renamed the “Johnny Manziel” because Manziel is the posterchild. With his on-field antics and off-field partying, there were concerns about Manziel leading into the draft, which caused him to fall to the back half of the first round. In Manziel’s case, those concerns turned out to be legitimate. The partying and smallness (not physically, although Manziel and Mayfield are both relatively short) on the field continued, and Manziel flamed out. This year’s version of Manziel is Baker Mayfield. Mayfield is not a prototypical leader and also has red flags (one oft-mentioned example). I could see him flaming out quickly, especially if he goes to a big market. But the category name didn’t lie: Mayfield was really electric in college. Like Manziel, he led his team to great success. He won the Heisman five years after Manziel did. The advanced stats sites love him. He’s not a traditional drop-back passer, but he can make all the throws and knows how to read a defense. He’s proven himself at the highest level of college football. And just because Manziel couldn’t mature and make it doesn’t mean that Mayfield can’t. Mayfield’s tantalizing in a different way than Allen but tantalizing nonetheless.

The Guy Who’s “Too Smart” and has too many “Off-the-field interests”: Josh Rosen

Of these five categories, this is the only one that also applies to different positions. If NFL people hate anything, they hate players who are outspoken when it comes to anything other than family, (Christian) faith, and football. The NFL isn’t, er, particularly socially progressive. And we’ve seen what happens when players try to use their influence to advance issues that are important to them – Colin Kaepernick is still not on an NFL roster. Josh Rosen is obviously that guy this year. He’s liberal, and has been outspoken in his disapproval of Donald Trump. In the NBA, that would be a nonfactor. In the NFL, it may be a nonstarter for some conservative owners. It’s accentuated by the fact that the quarterback is supposed to be a leader, so of course there has to be a discussion about whether someone with Rosen’s views can be a leader of a locker room. Nothing in Rosen’s history as a football player has indicated that he can’t be, and in fact I think he can be a good leader. But there’s no doubt that Rosen thinks differently than most NFL players in that he’s an outspoken liberal Jew. That makes him a nice fit for the “too smart” category. I really want Rosen to end up in New York, by the way, and the New York teams draft second and third and both could take a quarterback.

The Prototypical Quarterback Prospect: Sam Darnold

After he led USC to a 2017 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State in what was an unbelievable game, Darnold had the look of a “Sure Thing.” Unfortunately, he was a year away from draft eligibility, and in that year he showed enough flaws to fall back a rung. Darnold is the prototypical quarterback prospect because he has the look of a great, traditional quarterback and yet has flaws that make it evident he remains a work in progress. He has good accuracy but made a few too many bad decisions last year, leading to 13 interceptions. His team also regressed, which serves as a red flag for a lot of NFL analysts. And unlike Rosen and Allen, whose college offenses were more similar to the NFL, Darnold played in what was very much a college spread offense. I think others who fell under this category – good tools, potential to be a prototypical good quarterback, clear question marks, unsure fit – included Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill. Fit is very important for all quarterback prospects, of course, but I think it’s especially true for QBs in this category, because they have all the tools but have for whatever reason failed to put it all together and are thus not clear #1 picks. Whether that’s more or less of a red flag than quarterbacks with more clearly identifiable issues (like Allen’s accuracy) is up for debate.

The Black Guy Who May Have to Switch Positions Because He’s “Athletic”: Lamar Jackson

Draft coverage wouldn’t be draft coverage without at least a little adherence to the institutional prejudice that still is a dominant strain throughout the league. It seems to be a relatively common appearance that a black quarterback enters the draft with rumors that he’ll be moved to running back or wide receiver because he’s so “athletic.” This year, that’s Lamar Jackson. Never mind the fact that Lamar Jackson was the most dominant quarterback in college football over the last two years, winning a Heisman and remaining in competition for a second. And let’s throw away the truth that being “athletic” can actually be a big advantage for a quarterback, too. Lamar Jackson is still black and athletic, so there have to be rumors that he’ll switch positions. Sometimes, players placed in this category do actually end up needing to switch positions simply because they’re not good enough to stay at quarterback. Terrelle Pryor is a good example of that. And Lamar Jackson has serious accuracy issues that could conceivably necessitate a position change. At the very least, his problems will – and, I begrudgingly admit, probably should – keep him largely out of the running for a top-five pick. But Jackson was the best quarterback in college football, and while I’m no scout, I think it would be ludicrous to make him switch positions without even trying him at quarterback, a position that now has plenty of non-traditional passers. That’s why he’s a good fit for this ludicrous category.

 

These clichés are so widely used for good reason. They’re a good way for people like me to gain some familiarity with the prospects without having to do much work. But they can also be dangerous. I am generally not a fan of the projectable big-armed guy, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t like Josh Allen. It’s useful to use precedent to group players like this while also recognizing that these clichés aren’t the be all and end all of what these prospects are. 

All eight NBA first round playoff series’ have now gone two games. There’s plenty to break down from the first 96 minutes of basketball (or 101 in the Boston-Milwaukee series, which had one insane game go to overtime) in each series, and I thought this would be a good time to take a breath and check in on where things stand. I recognize that most teams that get out to 2-0 leads end up winning (the widely circulated stat is 93%, although obviously a large part of that is the team that’s up 2-0 is flat-out better, something that applies to only some of this year’s quintet of 2-0s), so I’m going to split this breakdown into three categories. Here, first, are the easiest series’ to put to bed.

The Three 2-0 Series’ That I’m Ready to Call:

Houston over Minnesota
Golden State over San Antonio
Toronto over Washington

These three series’ reinforce what I was hinting at in the parentheses above. Houston, Golden State, and Toronto are all up 2-0, and they’re also all clearly significantly better than the teams they’re playing. Minnesota-Houston is the biggest bloodbath, as the Rockets’ 20-point win in Game Two showed. Houston won that game by 20 — and the score was 98-75 before the starters were all pulled — despite a 2-of-18 shooting game from James Harden. This came right after a coin-flip game that the Rockets won despite shooting 10-of-37 from three. Minnesota’s offensive gameplan has been horrendous in this series. They got fluky Game One performances off the bench from Jamal Crawford and especially Derrick Rose and were still just average offensively. And last night, they fell apart (85.2 points per 100 possession, per Cleaning the Glass). Karl-Anthony Towns has 13 points on 5-of-18 shooting for the series. Jimmy Butler has taken 17 shots. The team’s leading shot-takers are Andrew Wiggins (29 shots, 31 points) and Rose (22 shots, 25 points). They just can’t score enough. My pre-series prediction was that the series would go five games, with three clear Rockets wins and two coin-flips. I’ll stick with that, although it could easily be a sweep.

There’s even less to say about Golden State-San Antonio. I think it’s fair to say that the Warriors have flipped the switch. Both of these games have been blowouts, and that was true even though LaMarcus Aldridge had a great Game Two (34 and 12 on 11-of-21 shooting and 12-of-12 from the line). The Spurs just aren’t good enough to bother the Warriors even without Steph Curry. I picked the Warriors in six, but that was only because I believed it would take Golden State a little longer to get going in the series. They were ready from the tip, and I now don’t think this series will last more than five games.

The most interesting part of the Toronto-Washington series was seeing whether the Raptors could break their remarkable 10-game losing streak in Game Ones. The answer: yes, they could. It was closer than it should have been, but the Raptors pulled away late and won by eight. They then won the next game by 11, but the spread was 20 when all the starters were pulled with 2:32 left in the game. DeMar DeRozan isn’t going to stay as hot as he was in Game Two, but DeRozan and Kyle Lowry aren’t going to be as quiet as they were in Game One, either. This series is going pretty much as I expected. The Wizards are a midrange heavy team and have shot 23 more times from midrange than Toronto has. Meanwhile, the Raptors are sticking with their gameplan and have hoisted 62 non-garbage time and non-heave threes in two games. They’ve made 28, an unsustainable rate, but the Wizards are shooting pretty well from three, too (17-of-40). They just don’t shoot enough threes to keep up with the Raptors. I do think the Wizards have the talent to be heard from in this series, and it should go back to Toronto for a Game Five. But as long as the Raptors keep playing the way they played all season, it shouldn’t go any further than that. I’ll stick with my pre-series prediction of Raptors in five.

The Two 2-0 Series’ That Aren’t Over:

Boston over Milwaukee
New Orleans over Portland

Let me be clear: both the Celtics and Pelicans should now be considered heavy favorites to win their respective series’. I picked both the Bucks and Blazers to win and would obviously change both picks now that I know both teams are in 2-0 holes. But I wouldn’t be shocked if either team turned it around. Game Two was a throwaway game for the Bucks. The Celtics had a 6.7% turnover rate and shot 12-of-21 on midrange shots (95th percentile) and 12-of-30 on threes (62nd). Given that the Bucks rely on forcing turnovers and seemingly can’t grab a defensive rebound to save their lives, that kind of Celtics offensive performance is going to win almost every time. And Game One, the crazy overtime game that featured two threes in the last second of regulation, also had some troubling signs for the Bucks — a combination of more turnovers and way fewer offensive rebounds than their opponents. One thing that’s definitely proven true through two games is that the Celtics have a major coaching advantage. Brad Stevens is a really good coach, but more important is that Bucks coach Joe Prunty still doesn’t know what he’s doing. Center John Henson, who adds absolutely nothing offensively and is a poor defensive rebounder, has played 37 minutes in each of the first two games. I still believe that Milwaukee’s most talented five man unit — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brodgon, and either Jabari Parker or Tony Snell — is better than Boston’s. And even the Celtics’ vaunted defense hasn’t been able to stop Giannis or Middleton (65 points for the former, 56 for the latter) through two games. Giannis is still the best player in the series, so I refuse to count the Bucks out. And I think some portion of Boston’s offensive success has been a result of unsustainable shooting on tough shots. But Bledsoe is being destroyed by Terry Rozier, Boston’s been surprisingly efficient offensively, and the Celtics have been gobbling up offensive boards. That’s been a recipe for success so far, and I think it’s unlikely that the Bucks get their act together before the series ends. I still think their talent advantage will allow them to win a few games in this series, but Boston should win it, especially if guys like Rozier and Marcus Morris keep draining tough shots.

Right off the bat, it was apparent that the Pelicans would cause serious matchup problems for the Blazers. I recognized that before the series but believed the Blazers still had the talent to pull it out in seven games. Now, after New Orleans stole not one but two games on Portland’s home court, the equation has obviously changed. The Blazers have been flummoxed offensively, scoring 97.9 points per 100 possessions in Game One and 106.3 in Game Two (they scored 108.4 during the regular season). Jrue Holiday has been absolutely stupendous on both ends of the court but especially defensively. As the primary defender of Damian Lillard, he’s almost single-handedly ruined Portland’s offense. According to Tom Haberstroh, Lillard is 2-of-18 (Harden’s line last night!) for seven points when Holiday guards him and 11-of-23 for 28 when anyone else does. C.J. McCollum has 41 points in the two games and is trying his best to take over the scoring load, but the Blazers clearly need Dame. The Pelicans, who are the fastest-paced team in the league, have done a good job limiting fastbreak opportunities going the other way. The Blazers have barely gotten out in transition or to the line all series. On the other end, it doesn’t take long to realize that New Orleans is limited offensively. But they do have Anthony Davis, who flubbed a few layups in Game Two but has been generally awesome in this series. They also have Holiday, who scored at will at the rim against a defense that was the toughest to score on at the rim in 15 years. Portland is strong defensively but doesn’t have a ready-made Davis defender. Jusuf Nurkic is far too slow, and everyone else is too small. Another advantage New Orleans has: they know what their go-to lineup is. Davis, Holiday, Nikola Mirotic (who’s been sneaky-good defensively), and Rajon Rondo have each played 38+ minutes in both games, while E’Twuan Moore is the clear fifth choice (29 minutes per game). Portland, on the other hand, doesn’t know whether to play Nurkic or Evan Turner, both of whom saw big minutes reductions in Game Two. One reason for that was the return of Mo Harkless, who provided instant impact off the bench (11 points on 5-of-5 shooting along with active defense) in Game Two. The Blazers were clearly better when Harkless was on the court. But who plays with Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu (key because he’s the #1 defensive option on Davis), Lillard, and McCollum? In Game Two it was Zach Collins, who missed some big shots down the stretch and was disastrous defensively when he got switched onto Holiday. It could be Pat Connaughton, the springy ex-Notre Dame guard who provides shooting but not much defense. Or maybe they’ll go back to Nurkic, who’s the best player of the bunch. The good news for Portland is that, despite all these questions and despite the poor performances from Lillard and the otherworldly ones from Davis and Holiday, the first two games were each close. And New Orleans’s 24-17 home record was identical to their road one, so there’s no meaningful homecourt advantage. The bad news is that they’re down 2-0 (obviously) and it looks like the Pelicans have the two best players on the court. I still think it’s likely that the Blazers will claw back into this series and it’ll go six or seven games. I hope so, at least, because it’s been a fascinating chess match.

The Three 1-1 Series’:

Philadelphia-Miami
Cleveland-Indiana
Oklahoma City-Utah

A whole lot went wrong for the Sixers in Game Two. The Heat played physically, and it clearly impacted the Sixers’ offense. They scored just 102 points per 100 possessions and shot 42% from the floor and 19% (6-of-37) from three. Meanwhile, the Heat shot 49% from the floor as Dwyane Wade looked 10 years younger (11-of-16 from the floor for 28 points, most of which came on difficult and contested shots). The good news for the Sixers is that they still barely lost. That’s because they attacked the offensive glass and took relatively good care of the ball. The reason that’s so important is that the Sixers almost always shoot better than their opponents. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers’ eFG% (FG% that accounts for the extra point on threes) was 54.2% this year, fifth highest in the NBA. Their opponents’ eFG% was 49.5%, lowest in the league. The 4.7% difference was second only to Golden State’s (6.9%). The Sixers’ problems usually come when they turn the ball over, which they did more than any other team in the regular season. But they improved markedly down the stretch, and that improvement has continued in the playoffs. Some of what Miami did defensively in Game Two hurt Philly’s offense, but the Sixers still scored pretty regularly in the second half and got open shots throughout the game. If Wade doesn’t have a bonkers game, Philly probably wins despite shooting 6-of-37 from three. That’s why I think they’re still clear favorites in this series even if Joel Embiid can’t return. The scoring won’t come as easily as it did in Game One, when the Heat sagged off Ben Simmons and everyone was hot from three, but the Sixers have a track record that shows that they have a better and more explosive offense than Miami. And it’s not as if the Heat have cracked the code to guarding Simmons. He had 24-9-8 in Game Two, the game in which Justice Winslow and the Heat supposedly figured out how to guard him. I picked the Sixers in six before the series and will stick with that, although I do think there’s a good chance this goes seven, especially if Embiid remains out.

I can hardly believe how well the Pacers have played defensively in this series. They held the Cavs to 80 points in Game One and 100 in Game Two. Overall, the first two games have been hugely promising for Indiana. They’ve gotten to the rim at will and, thanks partly to the fact that the Cavs have no rim protection, scored when they’ve gotten there. That was especially apparent in Game Two, when the Oladipo-led Pacers were 29-of-34 on shots at the rim, putting them in the 93rd percentile of getting there and in the 98th percentile of finishing there. Of course, they still lost the game, but that was because LeBron James went nuts, scoring 46 points on 17-of-24 shooting. I can’t blame Indiana for that, because when LeBron’s on, no player or team in the league can stop him. A lot has been made of Nate McMillan’s decision to sit Victor Oladipo for the rest of the first quarter after he picked up two fouls in the first minute, and I agree that he should have brought Oladipo back into the game earlier. He’s generally a low-foul player (one foul-out in his career) and is also so key to the offense that the Pacers could barely score without him. And that decision may well have cost Indiana the game. But I’m choosing to focus on the positives: even despite getting only 28 minutes from their best player, the Pacers had the ball down three with less than a minute left and Oladipo took a wide open three that would have tied the game. He missed it, but the Pacers were right there in a game that LeBron dominated in Cleveland. More good news for Indiana: Kevin Love hurt his thumb, and while Ty Lue says he’ll be back out there in Game Three, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be 100%. Love hasn’t been efficient in this series, but he’s Cleveland’s second option and one of their only players who looks like he knows what he’s doing. Remember when the Cavs’ depth was being called a strength after their deadline deals? Well, it’s getting worked by Indiana’s second unit. Their best wings are J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver. Jose Calderon and Jeff Green get consistent minutes. So does Jordan Clarkson, who to this point in his career has shown no evidence that he makes teams better. I don’t really understand why Lue seems so reticent to give more minutes to George Hill (39 through two games) and Rodney Hood (36). Neither of those guys is playing particularly well, but to me, they’re clearly the two role players with the highest two-way upside. Calderon was out of the league last year while Green helps defensively but is 1-of-10 through two games. I do understand the desire to play Korver, who is so deadly from three and at least is aware of his defensive responsibilities, and Smith. But why not cut some Calderon-Green-Clarkson-Larry Nance minutes and give them to Hill and Hood? Really, we haven’t learned anything about the Cavs’ upside through two games. We knew it was all going to depend on LeBron, and we still know that now. But altering those bench units can really help, especially in a series that’s shaping up to be a close one. I told myself not to sleep on the Pacers coming into the playoffs and still managed to do just that. They’ve been playing at a really high defensive level for months, and it seems that that has continued into the playoffs. And on offense, they don’t seemed to be bothered by much that Cleveland tries defensively, and for good reason: the Cavs ranked 29th in the league in defensive efficiency this season. Myles Turner, who I thought could be played off the court in this series, has been really good offensively. Oladipo has been great. Darren Collison, the league’s best three point shooter this year, is still hitting threes. But the best news for the Pacers is that the offense still has a lot of room to grow. Bojan Bogdanovic, the second leading scorer on the season, has been getting and missing open threes. Thad Young has a lot more to give. I picked the Cavs to win this series in five, and I still think there’s an outside chance that could happen. But I now think it’s more likely that it goes seven with a good chance that Indiana wins. I still favor Cleveland, simply because they have LeBron and they can go a few notches higher offensively than Indiana can. If Kevin Love is seriously hampered though, that changes, because the Cavs don’t have another big man who can stretch the floor. Nance is a good piece but can’t shoot at all. I think there’s a chance that the Cavs could give some playing time to Tristan Thompson, who’s been out of the rotation but can make an impact on the offensive glass, where the Pacers are exploitable.

The Utah-OKC series still seems destined to go seven. I don’t have much new to say about it, simply because I think it’s gone pretty much according to script. The Thunder have the best players in the series, and when they exert their influence (see: Game One) the team will win. But the Jazz are well-coached and strong defensively, and in Donovan Mitchell they have a guy who can take games over down the stretch. There is cause for optimism and pessimism for both teams after Game Two. The Thunder will point to Ricky Rubio’s five threes and the free throw disparity (33 attempts for Utah, 18 for OKC) as unsustainable performances. They’ll also take solace in the fact that Jerami Grant has seemingly developed into a weapon off the bench and that Corey Brewer is healthy and playing meaningful minutes. The Jazz, on the other hand, know that Derrick Favors is dominating Carmelo Anthony in their one-on-one matchup. They now have confirmation that Russell Westbrook and Paul George are the only two players who can consistently create for themselves and will feel confident in their ability to slow them down. They also know that Rubio actually shot 35% from three this year and has the ability to make opponents pay if he’s left open. And, of course, they know that they wrested homecourt advantage away in Game Two. I still believe that this series is going seven. I’ll stick with my pre-playoffs prediction of Thunder in seven.

I’m a bit disappointed by the way the Western Conference’s seeding has turned out. There are eight good teams in, so of course the matchups will turn out fine, but we’re missing out on a few things I would have liked to see. Namely: a really tough first round series for Golden State (vs. Minnesota or OKC); a great second round matchup for Golden State (they get to avoid both Utah and OKC); a winnable first round matchup for the full-strength Timberwolves (i.e. against anyone other than Houston); and a chance to see all four of what I believe to be the best teams in the conference (Houston, GS, OKC, Utah) in the second round. But I shouldn’t be complaining, because the matchups we did get are still compelling. Portland-New Orleans and OKC-Utah seem bound to be super competitive series’, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Golden State-San Antonio went six or seven games either. Houston-Minnesota is a different story, although even that series has plenty of interesting strategic elements attached to it. Here are my Round One predictions:

Note: I didn’t have enough time to, you know, compose full sentences, so this is coming in little snippets.

#1 Houston Rockets over #8 Minnesota Timberwolves in 5: Rockets switch everything on defense, relentlessly attack switches on offense. The Timberwolves never switch, which makes them even more vulnerable. Who guards Harden? Jimmy Butler likely starts on him, but Houston will run him through a gauntlet of screens, and the T-Wolves start multiple subpar defenders. The Rockets should be able to score at will. Towns gets a nice matchup against Clint Capela. Both teams will score, but Minny (30th in frequency of threes) will trade 2s for 3s (Rockets shoot more threes than anyone else).

#2 Golden State Warriors over #7 San Antonio Spurs in 6: It may take the Warriors a little while to really get into the series, but they have a big talent advantage even with Steph Curry out. The Spurs haven’t been able to score on GSW without Kawhi in the past. Aldridge posting up 30 times per game won’t work — Draymond Green is too stout defensively. Worth noting that the Warriors have looked rudderless offensively without Curry despite all their other talent. Should be a defensive slugfest, but the Warriors have individual scoring talent (Durant) that the Spurs lack.

#3 Portland Trailblazers over #6 New Orleans Pelicans in 7: Pelicans are likely the worst team (or second-worst to San Antonio) in the West field but provide a tough matchup for Portland. Nobody can guard Davis. Jrue is a ++ defender who can shut down McCollum or slow Lillard. Rondo shows up in the playoffs. Pelicans are a good shooting team. They may put Jrue on CJ and trap Lillard to get the ball out of Damian’s hands. Force Nurkic to make decisions. Who’s stopping Jrue on the other end? I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blazers put Evan Turner or Al-Farouq Aminu on him simply because he’s NO’s only scary scoring threat outside of Davis. Who does Nurkic guard? I guess Davis, but he’ll get a lot of help. Can AD make the right decisions when he’s doubled? In the end, I don’t trust the Pelicans’ role players or defense enough to pick them to steal this series. Should be a good one.

#4 Oklahoma City Thunder over #5 Utah Jazz in 7: Jazz have unquestionably been better down the stretch, but I’m worried about their ability to score in the playoffs. Thunder have a higher ceiling when engaged. Who creates for Utah other than Mitchell? Mitchell isn’t that efficient, either (57th percentile in points per shot attempt, per Cleaning the Glass. Great for a rookie but still), and Paul George can shut him down — there are few more relentless defenders. Of course, Thunder will still play undisciplined defense at times, which is what Utah can pick apart. Westbrook will have his hands full on the other end. Can he score at the rim against Gobert? Will he settle for midrange jumpers? How does PG’s shot look? Will Melo get hot offensively? Tough matchup for OKC because the Jazz execute so well and play so well defensively. But the Thunder have the two best players in the series and should prevail. The Jazz don’t have a gimmicky offense per se, but it remains to be seen what will happen to their streaky offense when defenses tighten up in the playoffs.

NBA Round One Preview — Eastern Conference

Posted: 04/12/2018 by levcohen in Basketball

I didn’t do a first round NHL preview simply because I don’t think I paid close enough attention all season to make credible picks. But I’m trying my best to watch as much as I can of the first round so I can make second round picks. I don’t have the same problem with basketball. It’s been a really fun NBA season, and the playoffs look set to be awesome. The nice part about having nine god-awful teams is that the rest of the league is better than normal. That’s obviously true record-wise, but it’s also true when it comes to roster talent. The good players that the bad teams eschew have to go somewhere, and they generally go to good teams. As a result, even the seven and eight seeds — San Antonio, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Washington — have a lot of talent and pedigree. On the flip side, the top teams don’t seem as invincible going in as Golden State and Cleveland have over the past few years. The Warriors have struggled mightily without Steph Curry and won’t get Steph back until the second round (at the earliest), while the Cavs are clearly not the team they were with Kyrie Irving and have been awful defensively. The one seeds, Toronto and Houston, both had great seasons but have to answer for disappointing playoff performances over the last few years, while some of what makes them great regular season teams may not correlate to the playoffs. The Celtics, owners of the fourth-best record in the NBA, have been destroyed by injuries but can never be counted out. I’m very excited for the playoffs, and especially for the first round, which is generally boring but I think has a chance to have some great series’ this year. Here are my picks for the Eastern Conference Round One series’:

#1 Toronto Raptors over #8 Washington Wizards in 5: Toronto has a long history of being shaky in the playoffs. Their two longtime stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, have been banged up, ineffective, or both every single year. The Wizards haven’t been much better, but they did sweep the Raptors three years ago in their last playoff matchup. I understand why people are circling this as a potentially long series. Toronto’s biggest strength this year has been its bench, which has completely obliterated opponents. But benches are shortened in the playoffs as the starting units play more and more. And Toronto also sputtered down the stretch (7-6 in their last 13), especially defensively. Of course, Washington has been way worse all season and especially down the stretch. They’re 7-14 in their last 21 games and are playing more like I thought they would in the immediate aftermath of John Wall’s injury. Some of the losing has coincided with Wall’s return, and there have been rumblings about Wall’s teammates not liking him and about the team’s, er, less than ideal chemistry. I’m sure that’s overblown, because most issues are accentuated when a team simply isn’t playing well. And the Wizards are actually 2-2 in the four games that Wall’s played in since he returned and 1-7 in the rest of their past 12 games. I think the reality is that the Wizards are just a mediocre team. They rank 14th in the league in offensive efficiency and 15th defensively. And the Raptors are just so much better that predicting a close series is a bridge too far for me. Toronto’s done everything right this year. They rank ninth and fifth in frequency of shots at the rim and from three respectively and 27th from midrange. Last year, those numbers were basically flipped. Defensively, they allow the second-fewest threes (just 21% of opposing shots) and the sixth-most midrange shots. They allow a lot of shots at the rim but make up for it by forcing opponents into 59.7% shooting at the rim, second-best in the NBA. Washington, on the other hand, has an offense designed to generate midrange shots. They rank fifth in frequency of midrange shots and fifth in accuracy. Against a defensive team as strong all-around as Toronto (38.7% field goal defense on midrange shots, top-five in the league), I don’t think that’s going to work. I like a lot of Washington’s players — Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre — but they haven’t clicked as a team. Any argument that Washington will win this series has to start with a belief that they will click, that Toronto will fall apart, and that John Wall and Bradley Beal will outplay Lowry and DeRozan. I just don’t believe that’s likely to happen.

#7 Milwaukee Bucks over #2 Boston Celtics in 6: I’m making up for my very rational take on the Toronto-Washington series with an irrational one here. The Celtics have been remarkable all year at bouncing back from seemingly crippling injuries. Gordon Hayward had a horrific leg break in the first quarter of the first game, and Boston responded almost instantly with a long winning streak. Kyrie Irving hurt his knee, and the Celtics didn’t miss a beat. Even Marcus Smart, the team’s do-everything wild card, is out. It hasn’t seemed to matter. But it’s clear that, without their two best shot-creators, offense is a struggle for the Celtics. They don’t create great shots, and they’re below-average when it comes to offensive rebounding and free throw rate. All of that is understandable, and none of it has stopped the Celtics so far. But in the playoffs, when defenses tighten up, I think it’s bound to. The Celtics’ most dynamic offensive players are now Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who are in their second and first years respectively. They’re both good players, but they’re inconsistent. And I’m not sure Boston is well set-up to exploit Milwaukee’s clear defensive issues. The Bucks are an overly aggressive defense. Their aggression, in fact, is part of what cost Jason Kidd his job. Interim coach Joe Prunty has shown no signs of reining them in or doing much innovating of any kind. As a result, the Bucks rank third in turnovers forced but 30th in defensive rebounding and 29th in opposing free throw rate. Teams with great passers, dynamic slashers, or great rebounders can tear them apart. The Celtics have good passers, but they have neither of the latter two. And the Bucks can plug Giannis Antetokounmpo, a great defensive player, on Tatum and force Brown, Terry Rozier, and Al Horford to create more than they’re used to creating.

On the other side of the ball, the Bucks have a lot of offensive talent. They’re not a great shooting team, but they have the talent to get to the rim frequently and finish when they get there. Giannis is one of the best slashers and finishers in the league. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe can both create for themselves too. Jabari Parker is averaging 20 points per game this month, evidence that he’s starting to find himself again. He’ll be a real offensive weapon coming off the bench. Of course, the Celtics have been a phenomenal team all year, ranking first overall in defensive efficiency. They’re the stingiest team against threes (34.1%) and midrange shots (36.7%). They’re just 12th against shots at the rim, though, which seems meaningful against Milwaukee. Boston doesn’t have a real rim protector.

The biggest reason I’m picking the Bucks, though, is obviously Antetokounmpo. He’s the best player in this series, and it isn’t close. Boston’s a better team, with a much better coach, but I think things are simplified in the playoffs. Who has the best closing five? Who has the best player? On both counts, the answer is Milwaukee.

#3 Philadelphia 76ers over #6 Miami Heat in 6: I know the Sixers are on a 16-game winning streak. I’m a big believer in their talent. I think they have a very very bright future. But there are a few reasons that I’m not sure they’re going to romp against the Heat. The first is obvious: they seem likely to be without their best player, Joel Embiid, in at least Game One. And even when Embiid returns, it’ll be with a mask, so we can’t be sure that he’ll be 100%. The second is that the Sixers rely heavily upon players who can’t shoot. All three of their point guards, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and T.J. McConnell, are all-but non-factors from deep. The fact that McConnell is the best and most confident shooter of the bunch says it all. Simmons has overcome his shooting weakness all year long, but that generally becomes harder in the playoffs. Is Simmons just talented enough to overcome that? He may well be. But if there’s any coach who can turn it into a serious issue, it’s probably Erik Spoelstra, one of the best x’s-and-o’s coach in the NBA. The third is that the Heat have bodies to throw at Simmons. James Johnson defended Simmons well in their matchups this year. He’s big and physical and fast, which helps. Josh Richardson is really good and versatile defensively. And then there’s Justice Winslow, who’s one of the most athletic wings in the league. They’re not going to take Simmons out of the game, but they could tire him out. Fourth, the Sixers don’t have many reliable two-way players. Embiid’s return will obviously change that, but guys like Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, and Marco Belinelli have to be on the court to provide shooting but are (to different degrees) defensive liabilities. Robert Covington is a fixture in the lineup because of his two-way ability, and the same obviously goes for Simmons and Embiid. Amir Johnson is the team’s backup center because he’s a good defender. There’s a reason this team’s starting lineup was so dominant and that they rank third in defensive efficiency for a reason. But when it comes to wing defense, the only reliable player is Covington, unless Brett Brown decides to play Justin Anderson, which seems more likely after Anderson exploded in the final regular season game. But the point stands: in the playoffs, two-way players become more valuable, especially on the wings. The Sixers don’t have as many as the Heat.

With all of that said, the fact remains that the Sixers have the two best players in this series. They’ve been the better team all year. Joel Embiid will own Hassan Whiteside if he’s healthy. The Heat have a lot of depth, but the additions of Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova have given Philadelphia enough depth, too. If I knew Embiid would be 100% all series long, I may have picked this series to go five games. But I have enough respect for Spoelstra and his team’s defense and toughness (and not enough in Embiid’s health) to make it a six game series. I wouldn’t be shocked if it goes seven, either, just because the Heat are a pain to play against.

#4 Cleveland Cavaliers over #5 Indiana Pacers in 5: There’s not a lot to say here. The Pacers have had a remarkable season, playing far above their talent level and winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo is clearly the league’s most improved player, and the fact that he — surrounded by a bunch of role players and Myles Turner, who still hasn’t unlocked a lot of his potential — has led this team to nearly 50 wins is terrific. A lot of credit should also go to coach Nate McMillan, who will likely get some Coach of the Year votes (although there are a LOT of great candidates for CoY). But the fact is that the Cavs have LeBron James, who’s made seven straight Finals. I’m not convinced that his team is good enough to make it eight. But I am pretty sure that they’ll beat a team they outperformed during the regular season (by record, although granted they had a worse net rating) despite taking a lot of games off. As long as LeBron is playing at a high level — and boy has he ever this year, at least offensively — it’s going to take a lot more than Victor Oladipo and a cast of role players comparable to Cleveland’s to dethrone the King.

This has been a really weird NBA season in terms of record distribution. 18 teams will finish the year above .500, which is a record. There aren’t any truly horrendous teams, with Phoenix currently bringing up the rear with 20 wins. But as I’ve written before, there are an obscene number of teams who are either blatantly tanking or are just terrible. Nine teams have between 20 and 27 wins, and eight of the nine (bar the Nets, who don’t have a first round pick next year and are in the doldrums simply because they suck) have been trying to lose games for month. And that means there are lots of easy wins up for grabs for the rest of the NBA. Bizarrely, with either three or four games left for every team, there are just three teams with between 27 and 42 wins: Detroit (37), Charlotte (34), and the Lakers (34). That leaves the aforementioned 18 teams with 42+ wins heading into the final week of the season. In the Eastern Conference, there’s still some jockeying to be done amongst the eight playoff teams, but all eight — the eight teams in the conference with 42+ wins — have clinched playoff spots, so all that’s up for grabs is seeding. The showdown between the Sixers and Cavs in Philadelphia tomorrow night is the most important game left in the East. The Raptors and Celtics are pretty much locked into #1 and #2 and the same goes for Indiana and #5, but Miami, Washington, and Milwaukee all have 36 losses, so we still have no idea what the playoff matchups will be.

But there’s always some playoff seeding to be determined in the final week of the season. The real intrigue comes in the Western Conference, which obviously has the other 10 teams with at least 42 wins. Just one game separates the fourth seeded Jazz from the tied-for-seventh Pelicans and Timberwolves. The Nuggets are just one game out, and the Clippers are one game behind Denver. I’ll be focusing on the seven teams (Utah, San Antonio, OKC, New Orleans, Minny, Denver, LA)  battling for five spots. Which teams will make it? How will they be seeded? What first round matchups should we be rooting to see?

Utah Jazz (45-33): The Jazz are obviously in the best spot by virtue of being the only team on this list with just 33 losses. They’re two full games up on the ninth-placed Nuggets and would have to drop below four other teams to fall out of the playoffs entirely. Tiebreakers make prognosticating this very tricky because every different combination of teams (and number of teams) with the same record yields a different result, but two wins in their final four games should cinch a playoff spot for the Jazz. And given that the Jazz are 26-5 in their last 31 games, 2-2 should be no problem. The schedule is tricky, with no total pushovers. But all four games are winnable. The Jazz are 7.5 points at home against the Clippers tonight, then go to LA to face the Lakers. They should win both games. But if they don’t, they’ll have good chances against Golden State and Portland, both of whom may well have nothing to play for. By the way: the Jazz are three games behind the Blazers, which means their game would be played for the #3 seed if the Jazz win out and Portland loses out. Seems unlikely, but the Blazers have games at Houston, San Antonio, and Denver in the interim. The Jazz are far more likely to move up to #3 than they are to fall out of the playoffs entirely.

San Antonio Spurs (45-34): The Spurs are in a more precarious position than they’d like. That’s because they were edged out by both LA teams on their two-game road trip, both in games they should have won. The Spurs are now 1-11 in their last 12 road games and 14-26 on the season, which is decidedly un-Spursian. But two of SA’s final three games are at home, where they’re quite good. One of those games is against Sacramento, which is a gimme. The other is Saturday against Portland in what should be one of the best games left in the regular season and what’s a potential playoff preview. Then the Spurs play in New Orleans on the last night of the season in a game that should at the very least have huge seeding implications. If the Spurs take care of business at home, they won’t need to win in New Orleans. But if they split at home, they may need to beat the Pelicans to guarantee their spot in the playoffs. Even if they go 1-2, they’re likely to make the playoffs just because the Nuggets and Clippers have tough schedules and are both unlikely to win out. So for the Spurs (like with the Jazz), these final few games are more about seeding than anything.

Oklahoma City Thunder (45-34): The best thing the Thunder have going for them is a home bout with the Grizzlies in their final game, which is about as easy as it gets. Unfortunately, OKC’s other two games aren’t quite so easy. They’re at Houston and Miami. It’s possible that the Rockets will take it easy as they prepare for the playoffs, but they’ve had the #1 seed locked up for some time now and haven’t seemed eager to ease up on the throttle. The Thunder will be underdogs in that one. And while OKC is probably better than the Heat, the fact that it’s on the road (where Miami is 25-14) means that it’s a toss-up at best. The same that I said about the Spurs applies for the Thunder. If they go 2-1, they’ll make the playoffs. If they go 1-2, they’ll still likely make it but could well drop to the seventh or eighth seed and a first round matchup with Houston or Golden State. I think San Antonio’s final three games are meaningfully easier than OKC’s (partly because they have two of three at home and partly because they avoid Houston), so the Spurs should maintain an edge over the Thunder when it comes to seeding.

Minnesota Timberwolves (44-34): The Timberwolves have had four full days to think over the embarrassing 121-97 loss they suffered at home to the Jazz in their last game. Just two unimpressive wins separated that loss from a far more egregious one — at home against Memphis. As a result, the Wolves, who have seemingly been in the 3-5 range for almost the entire season, have dropped to a tie for seventh in the conference. There’s some good news for Minnesota: they’re the only one on this list without a game against a current playoff team left, and, more importantly, they’re probably going to get Jimmy Butler back. Butler is a game-time decision for tonight’s enormous matchup with the Nuggets in Denver. I actually think the T-Wolves may be better served holding him out in the high altitude and bringing him back slowly in should-win games against the Lakers and Grizzlies before ramping him up in their final game, a home tilt against the Nuggets. If Butler’s fully ready to go tonight, of course, he should, because the Wolves could make the final game much less tense if they win their next three games. He’s obviously very important. The Wolves are +7.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and -5.2 when he’s off it. He’s their best defensive player, which is especially important against a Denver team that is very potent at home. Anyway, if Minnesota manages a split against Denver, they’ll be fine. I still am pretty confident that they’ll make the playoffs, and I actually think they could move up out of the dreaded seventh or eighth seed. They shouldn’t have put themselves in this position, but with Butler they have a good enough team to pull themselves out of it.

New Orleans Pelicans (44-34): If any single team that’s currently holding down a playoff spot falls out, it’ll likely be this one. The Pelicans just ended a four game losing streak with a win over the Grizzlies, and they have another cupcake in Phoenix tomorrow night. But New Orleans’s final three games look tough, with games at Golden State and the Clippers before a home tilt against San Antonio. One thing that could end up helping the Pelicans is the fact that the Clips may be out of the playoff race by the time they play the Pels, which would make them easier to beat. The Pelicans seem likely to go 2-2 down the stretch, which should be enough to allow them to hold onto the seventh or eighth seed. They seem unlikely to move up, though, and are vulnerable because Denver holds the tiebreaker over them should they finish in a two-way tie for eighth. So even a 2-2 finish doesn’t guarantee a playoff berth for New Orleans. But Anthony Davis’s squad is still more likely than not to be playing in the postseason.

Denver Nuggets (43-35): The Nuggets control their own destiny. If they go 4-0 down the stretch, they will make the playoffs over the Timberwolves and would likely rise further up the standings. The only reason they can say that is that they have won three straight game, all in nail-biting fashion and all against playoff teams. Twice, they rallied back from double-digits down in the fourth quarter thanks to huge performances from a rapidly improving Paul Millsap, who now looks to be at full strength. The Nuggets have always been a good home team and are 29-10 in their own stadium this season. They have home games against the Timberwolves and Blazers. On the road, they get the Clippers and then the Wolves on the final night of the season. Like the Pelicans, they’ll be rooting for a Utah win over LA tonight, because it’ll make that Clippers game slightly easier. A 3-1 finish would also be good enough for the playoffs if the Nuggets end up in a tie for eighth with the Pelicans, so the Nuggets are certainly still in the hunt.

Los Angeles Clippers (42-36): It’s somewhat miraculous that the Clippers are even still in the hunt. It took a 41-point fourth quarter in a comeback win over the Spurs, but here they are. And they’ll almost certainly need to win out to have a chance. The biggest obstacle is tonight’s game at Utah. As I’ve been hinting at, I don’t think it’s likely that they win that game. But if they do, they’ll like their chances in their final three games, all at home against New Orleans, Denver, and the Lakers. It seems far-fetched that they’ll win all four and equally unlikely that they’d be able to sneak into the playoffs with 45 wins.

My prediction:
4. Utah Jazz (48-34)
5. San Antonio Spurs (47-35)
6. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
7. Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)
8. Denver Nuggets (46-36)
9. New Orleans Pelicans (46-36)
10. Los Angeles Clippers (43-39)

Ideal First Round Matchups:
Here’s a few of the Round One playoff series’ I think we should all be rooting to see.

  • #2 Golden State vs. #7 Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook and his old team. These teams have had some real battles, and can you imagine how ridiculous this matchup would be over the course of a best-of-seven series? To make matters even more interesting, Steph Curry will likely miss the entire first round, which makes it both more of a KD-Russ Alpha Male battle and also more of a real series. Would I be surprised if the Thunder beat a Steph-less Warriors team in Round One? Sure. Would I be shocked? No.
  • #1 Houston vs. #8 San Antonio: This is more likely to be a Round Two series, but  the Spurs could still drop to eighth. The Rockets would almost certainly win the series, but it would still be fun because it would mean another meeting between Mike D’Antoni and Gregg Popovich, who has historically owned D’Antoni in playoff matchups (see: last year). It seems highly unlikely that Kawhi Leonard will return at this point, but that’d make things even more interesting. I bet that the Rockets would be rooting pretty heavily against seeing the Spurs in the playoffs this year, even though San Antonio has less talent than most of the other teams on this list.
  • #3 Portland vs. #6 Minnesota: I just think this would be a super fun, high-scoring, well-played series, especially if Butler is fully healthy. Both teams held serve at home in their four matchups this year, and I think the series would almost certainly go six or seven. There would be a lot of interesting nerdy statistical subplots — like how Minnesota’s unusual offensive approach (lots of midrange shots, fewer threes than anyone else) would match up against Portland’s surprisingly good defense (best opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim but 28th on midrange shots, which they force at a high volume).
  • #4 Utah vs. #5 Minnesota: Classic offense vs. defense. The Timberwolves are fourth in offensive efficiency but 26th defensively, while the Jazz are 17th offensively and second defensively (and easily first since Rudy Gobert returned from injury). Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Gobert would be very fun. The 121-97 score on April 1st may indicate that this wouldn’t be a great series, but I’d guess that Butler’s return will help correct that.

Elite Eight — Sunday Games

Posted: 03/25/2018 by levcohen in NCAA

Given the alternatives, I think we should be pretty happy about the Final Four matchup we’re getting on the left side of the bracket. Florida State and Kansas State were great March stories, but at the end of the day they were mediocre teams all season and didn’t really belong in San Antonio next weekend. Instead, we get a Michigan team that’s won 13 straight games against the best type of Cinderella — one that’s clearly much better than its 11-seed would indicate. The way that Loyola (Chicago) disposed of K-State was extremely impressive. They tore apart the Wildcats’ stingy defense and thoroughly outclassed Kansas State. Michigan will be a moderate favorite come Saturday, but it seems much more likely that Loyola can move on than K-State had they knocked off the Ramblers. And from a narrative standpoint, this is the best we could have gotten. Michigan is a public favorite with alums everywhere who will turn out in droves in San Antonio. Loyola is the lovable underdog with a 99-year-old sensation of a chaplain. It should be fun. Now to see what the other Final Four matchup will be.

#3 Texas Tech vs. #1 Villanova:
Spread: Villanova favored by 6.5

West Virginia was a good test for Villanova. Texas Tech will be another one as the Wildcats try to continue to tear through the Big 12. The Red Raiders are easily the best defensive team Villanova has played on the year. They’re fourth in the country in defensive efficiency after Michigan edged ahead following their performance last night. They’re not as physical as West Virginia, and they don’t press, but they have a bunch of long, quick defenders. Texas Tech held Purdue — one of the best offenses in the country, although granted they were without Isaac Haas — to 65 points. They forced the Boilermakers, normally not a turnover-prone team, to turn the ball over 17 times. Given that a few of Villanova’s secondary ball-handlers — Donte DiVincenzo and Collin Gillespie — had real turnover issues against West Virginia, turnovers could be an issue. And Texas Tech has also proven that it can score the ball. Keenan Evans has been a killer in the second half of tournament games. He’s been dealing with a toe injury but has scored 61 points on 32 shots (and 22-of-25 shooting from the line) in three tournament games. He’s a handful. The problem is that the Red Raiders just don’t have the firepower to keep up with Villanova. They’re going to have to hope that their defense is good enough to derail the Wildcats’ scalding offense. Villanova scored 90 points against West Virginia and is shooting 47.8% from three through three tournament games. The Wildcats were in tight battles throughout the first half of the Alabama game and most of the West Virginia game, but both times they reached an offensive level that the opponent couldn’t come close to matching. I expect the same type of thing to happen here. Texas Tech has a great defense, but Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Villanova’s offense will do enough to advance to the Final Four against the tough Red Raiders. Villanova wins 76-67.

#2 Duke vs. #1 Kansas:
Spread: Duke favored by 3

I hinted at this in my Kansas-Clemson prediction, but I’m still not convinced that the Jayhawks are GREAT. I know they’re going to be a tough out. They’re a tremendously talented offensive team. But they still lack depth, as evidenced by their performance down the stretch against Clemson when Udoka Azubuike and Devonte’ Graham were saddled with foul trouble. Duke’s going to be able to score against them. We know how talented they are offensively, and I think it’s fair to ignore their offensive struggles against Syracuse, because Syracuse’s defense is unlike any other. The Blue Devils now face a more normal and pedestrian defense, and it’ll show. The most interesting part of this game will be seeing how Kansas fares against Duke’s zone defense, which is what’s turned around the Duke defense this season. Kansas has the talent — and, crucially, the three point shooting — to exploit the zone. Both of these teams like to push the pace, but I’m not sure Kansas should want to get into a track meet with Duke. Marvin Bagley is a terror in transition and holds a big speed advantage over Azubuike. Udoka got fatigued pretty early against Clemson, and Duke will surely try to tire him out again given how effective he was against the Tigers. Bagley and Wendell Carter are handfuls and shot a combined 19 free throws against Syracuse, so foul trouble could again be a factor for Kansas. This is a compelling matchup between two high-powered offenses, but I think Duke has a real edge thanks to their interior strength. Graham needs to have a big game here after struggling mightily with his shot (14-of-43 from the floor) in his first three tournament games. But Graham’s a sub-40% shooter for the season, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect a super efficient performance against Duke’s top-10 defense. Graham’s a great distributor, and I think he’ll lead his team to a pretty solid offensive effort, but Duke will take this game 85-79.