Photo: Bill Chaplis (AP)

Ah, casual sports fan: We meet again. The 2018 NBA playoffs begin this afternoon! How the hell will you know what is going on in the games, other than like a bunch of sweaty dudes bouncing a ball and throwing it through a pair of rings, if you don’t have some 10,000 words of preview and analysis to scan past in preparation???

I don’t know. I just know that if I don’t publish this blog, it will be hard for me to account for the last couple hours of my time. And for that reason and no others, let’s take a look at the first-round matchups! We’ll start out west, where the teams are good, instead of doing them in the order the games start, because that would make too much sense.

Houston Rockets (1) vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (8)

Photo: Ronald Cortes (Getty)

When is the first fr*ckin’ game?
Sunday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern, on TNT.

What is the deal with these teams?
I don’t particularly like typing it, because they’re not much fun to watch and I’d prefer the rest of the NBA not copy the let’s-have-our-two-best-players-take-turns-dribbling-for-23-seconds shit their offense lapses into whenever they can’t fly in transition—it’s not particularly telegenic even when the Rockets do it, and most other teams do not have James Harden and Chris Paul on them—but the Rockets were the best team in the league this season. They finished second in offensive rating (112.2); sixth in defensive rating (103.8); first in net rating (plus-8.5); and of course first in the standings, at 65-17. They put a death grip on the West’s top seed what feels like ages ago. They even took two of three in their season series against the Golden State Warriors; beating the Warriors more than once wasn’t quite as impressive a feat this season as in the previous three, but it might be singularly meaningful for the Rockets, who almost certainly will have to get through the Warriors to get to the Finals. They’re damn good, and possibly great.

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The Timberwolves, by contrast, are just regular good. Riding their starting five to death in the manner of all Tom Thibodeau-coached teams, they both made the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and made that a lot harder than it needed to be, as plainly visible exhaustion killed them in what sure felt like an absurd number of fourth quarters, and then a February knee injury to Jimmy Butler forced them to rely more on reserves who’d been gathering cobwebs to that point. And so they are the eighth seed instead of, say, the fourth.

Who are the important men?
This series features a lot of cool and important basketball men, Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns and Clint Capela and even maybe Andrew Wiggins sorta, but really the only guy who matters here is assumptive MVP James Harden, who will not slough off his well-earned reputation for weird-ass postseason meltdowns unless and until he hoists the championship trophy, and maybe not even then unless he add a Finals MVP trophy to go with it. Harden was the big show in the league this season—not because he finally dedicated himself to playing defense, ha ha, hell no, but because he unlocked God Mode at the other end of the court. He’s ridiculous.

I’m not sure I know exactly how to thread the needle on this description, but over the past two seasons Harden has reached a level of... completeness? ...as an on-the-ball offensive player that I think surpasses anybody I’ve ever watched. That’s certainly not the same thing as saying he’s the best or deadliest offensive player, I think, or anyway that’s not how I mean it. Like by contrast, Peak Steph Curry, on the ball or off, warps the floor like nobody else in history and can tilt the action overwhelmingly in his team’s favor even while barely ever touching the ball; Harden needs the ball in his hands to have that kind of impact, and tends to stand around when he doesn’t have it. But his suite of skills, when he does have the ball, is mind-boggling. He can do all the stuff, including stuff immortals like LeBron James and Michael Jordan mostly couldn’t or didn’t do, and then also some more stuff that usually isn’t included in the list of stuff—because pretty much nobody but James Harden can do it or would ever even want to—and he does it all with ludicrous ease and outrageous efficiency.

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Except when he doesn’t! Like for example in Game 6 of last season’s second-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, an elimination game from which he virtually disappeared, except for when he was turning the ball over six times and hitting 18 percent of his shots. Or in Game 5 of the 2015 conference finals against the Warriors, likewise an elimination game, in which he barfed up an insane and hilarious 12 turnovers—a record!—and somehow only attempted 11 shots. What I am saying here is, well, two things, really: First, that because of that history this series seems a little less certain than the average 1-vs.-8 matchup, and also that this was probably the last year that Harden’s regular-season brilliance will not seem at least a little bit gross and fraudulent if he once again craps his brain out in the playoffs.

Is this a good series or a butt one?
Houston swept the regular-season series between these teams, 4-0. The Rockets’ smallest margin of victory was nine points; the other three were straight-up blowouts. On top of that, two of Minnesota’s most important players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, whom Thibodeau probably will rely on for something like a combined 85 minutes per game in this series, have never played in the postseason before. This probably is a butt series.

What can I say to sound like a basketball knower?
“Ah, hm, yes, the above-the-break three-pointer, which the Houston Rockets attempted 32.1 times per game in the 2017-18 season, more often than any other NBA team. I definitely know what one of those is and feel that what just happened may have been that.”

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Who’s gonna win?
The Rockets are gonna win.


Golden State Warriors (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7)

Photo: Ronald Cortes (Getty)

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When is the first fr*ckin’ game?
Saturday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, on ABC.

What is the deal with these teams?
You know the Warriors. C’mon. Don’t make me do this. You know the dang Warriors! Everybody knows the Warriors.

Ugh. Fine! The Warriors went 58-24 this season, as their four—frickin’ four—big-time star players lost an absurd number of games to injury and the team pretty blatantly loafed through big portions of the schedule. I think it’s hard for them to stay motivated when they could moonwalk to 50 wins and their most pressing goal in the regular season is to live through it so they can steamroll everyone in the playoffs. For all that, they led the NBA in offensive rating (112.3), assist percentage (68.5), assist ratio (21.1), effective field-goal percentage (56.9), and true shooting percentage (60.3), finished with a top-10 defense, had the second-best net rating in the league, and of course won more than 70 percent of their damn games. They’re a model sports team and I hate them to hell and back!

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The Spurs’ roster is just a bunch of random European tourists R.C. Buford hoodwinked into joining the team when their flights landed in the United States. No two of them know each others’ names or speak any languages that share a common root. That did not stop them from finishing 12 games over .500 and with the fourth-best defense in the NBA, because the Spurs are the Borg.

On the other hand, this season marked the first time in 18 years that San Antonio won fewer than 50 regular-season games, and the first time in 20 that the Spurs posted a winning percentage lower than .610 (thanks to a lockout that nuked 32 games off the schedule in 1998-99, they finished with an absurd .740 winning percentage that season but won only 37 games), and only the third time since 1990 that they have not finished a season more than 12 games over .500. I think even an ardent but sane Spurs fan would acknowledge that the whole thing took on a surprising and unwelcome final-stand type of vibe as it went along. This might be the last chance to watch the Spurs-Spurs, or that might already have happened.

(...he says, grieving for a team that just won 47 games in the ludicrously stacked Western Conference.)

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Who are the important men?
It’s technically possible for Steph Curry to play in this series, though the reports make it sound like Warriors coach Steve Kerr would rather shoot him with a tranquilizer dart than let him risk re-injuring his balky ankle(s) in a series Curry’s teammates probably could take in five games with boulders lashed to their backs. Likewise, it’s technically possible for Kawhi Leonard to appear in this series, but the reports make it sound like he’d rather shoot his teammates with an Uzi than risk injuring any part of himself ever again.

I suppose that leaves Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green as the important men in this series, but honestly any two of them probably could drop dead before the odds flipped to favor San Antonio.

Is this a good series or a butt one?
I don’t think anybody should be surprised if the Spurs sneak off with one of the first three games. They just do that type of thing, even now, with an assortment of middle-school band instructors filling out three-fourths of their rotation. But still, this is a butt series. The sheer talent gap between the teams is the widest in the whole first round, and the Warriors are well more than smart and sharp enough to take advantage of every little bit of it. They clinched this series last May.

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What can I say to sound knowledgeable?
“I have heard of Bryn Forbes, I swear to God I have!”

Who’s gonna win?
The Warriors are gonna win.


Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. New Orleans Pelicans (6)

Photo: Steve Dykes (Getty)

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When is the fr*ckin’ game?
Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, on ESPN.

What is the deal with these teams?
This blog is getting long! Really getting to be a long blog. Eight matchups is a lotta matchups. This is only the third one!

The Trail Blazers went kinda nuts there for a while, didn’t they? Beginning just before the all-star break, they won 13 straight games, and their fabulous guard duo, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, briefly were the toast of the NBA. Of course, the Blazers lost seven of the 12 games they played between the end of that streak and the end of the regular season, including losses to two teams—the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies—that were trying to lose, but, uh, I guess let’s not focus on that. Their postseason hopes will depend on the winning streak being a truer representation of their abilities than what came after it, is the point.

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And then, hey, there’s the New Orleans Pelicans, who—despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a disastrous ankle injury back in the closing seconds of a win over the Rockets in January, and despite the remaining roster, Anthony Davis aside, mostly resembling a lightly radioactive landfill fire—make their more-or-less triumphant return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. The Pelicans somehow posted the 10th-highest team net rating in the NBA this season, a fact I’m pinning in its entirety to Davis, not least because the only other of his teammates I’m sure I can name is Jrue Holiday, who probably will fracture his tibia if I try to pin anything to him.

Who are the important men?
I think I just gave this part away. Let’s look at some cool videos!

Here’s Anthony Davis putting 53 points, 18 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 3 assists on the hapless Phoenix Suns:

Here’s Damian Lillard hanging 50 on the also very hapless Sacramento Kings in only three quarters of play:

And here’s C.J. McCollum likewise going for 50 in three quarters, against the extremely hapless Chicago Bulls:

And here’s, uh, Jrue Holiday, having a pretty good game a couple weeks ago.

But against the Blazers, who have haps out the ass!

Is this a good series or a butt one?
I think it’s a good series. The two teams split their four regular-season games, with each team winning once in the other’s building, and between the two of them they feature three of the NBA’s more enjoyable players, plus, uh, Jrue Holiday. He’s good, I promise he is.

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But seriously, a very plausible scenario for this series is Anthony Davis finding and unleashing The Total Anthony Davis Package for two straight weeks, which would be incredible. It’d almost certainly sink the very fun and likeable Blazers if that happened, which would suck for them and their fans, but I think I could live with it.

What can I say to sound knowledgeable?
Just screech and throw yourself on the ground and pretend to faint from ecstasy whenever Anthony Davis does anything. You’ll fit in with all the basketbloggers that way.

Who’s gonna win?
How the hell should I know!


Oklahoma City Thunder (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)

Photo: Chris Nicoll (AP)

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When is the first fr*ckin’ game?
Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern, on TNT.

What is the deal with these teams?
The Oklahoma City Thunder really went for it this past offseason, following on Russell Westbrook’s historic triple-double MVP 2016-17 campaign by adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, in hopes of giving themselves a shot at getting past the Warriors and Rockets at a time when almost the whole rest of the NBA either entered suspended animation or fled to the tank like cowards. The results have been sort of weird: an offense that clunked like hell and occasionally lapsed into being gruesome to watch; a still ongoing quest for a rotation of minutes that makes sense and doesn’t render Anthony in particular a hideously inefficient spot-up shooter; lots and lots of smarmy dickweed basketbloggers somehow figuring all of this renders a verdict on whether Westbrook should have been the MVP last season. It’s been patchy. And yet, here they are, with a top-10 offense, a top-10 defense, and homecourt advantage in the first round. I would not want to bet my house against them nuking one of the West’s top teams later in these playoffs.

If probably most observers expected the Thunder to be better than this, pretty much nobody expected the Jazz to be this good, after the loss of Gordon Hayward and George Hill last summer. They had a shot at the third seed like 48 hours ago! That’s ridiculous.

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Who are the important men?
For the Thunder, the important men are Westbrook, George, Anthony, and Steven Adams, of course—but also, and probably not very comfortably, Corey Brewer and Jerami Grant. Brewer was an emergency hire at the beginning of March, after the Lakers bought him out of his contract; the Thunder needed someone to do a credible Andre Roberson impersonation—defending multiple positions, running in transition, bricking three-pointers, that type of thing—after Roberson blew up his knee and the in-house replacements weren’t up to the job. He’s been fine, mostly, but also is Corey Brewer and probably always will be. Grant, for his part, has been a bigger-than-expected part of the frontcourt rotation, mostly because Anthony’s been pretty bad and coach Billy Donovan can’t seem to figure out how to use him. Grant is spindly and bouncy and does several different things just well enough to present opposing teams with awkward problems, but I don’t think the plan when the team added Carmelo Anthony was for it to lead to people saying things like “Hey, Jerami Grant’s not bad.”

For the Jazz, the important men are Rudy Gobert, the giant and long-armed Frenchman who almost singlehandedly gives Utah the second-best defense in the NBA, and Donovan Mitchell, the short and long-armed American who bears probably more of a burden than is ideal in Utah’s 15th-ranked offense. Let’s just watch a video of him going bonkers against the Pelicans, because my fingers and brain are tired and there’s still a lot of blog left to write.

The Jazz also have Ricky Rubio. Google him, jerk!

Is this a good series or a butt one?
It’s a good series. On paper, in terms of the quantities of proven star-quality NBA players on their respective rosters, the Thunder ought to have a huge advantage. That’s especially true given that one of Utah’s most important players is a rookie who has never played nearly this much basketball in a single season in his life. On the other hand, the Jazz are one of the sharpest and most cohesive teams in the league and the Thunder, uh... aren’t. If you can’t picture Oklahoma City fraying and then just completely dissociating under the constant pressure of Utah’s fantastically disciplined and suffocating defense, well, I friggin’ can! In any event it’ll be interesting to watch, and Russ and Mitchell are two of the league’s most daring attackers.

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What can I say to sound knowledgeable?
Whatever the hell is the opposite of this shitbrain-ass tweet.

Who’s gonna win?
The safe bet is the Thunder. Having big stars who can do the shit all by themselves tends to matter more in the playoffs, as does experience.


And now, the shitty East, where the teams are not good.

Toronto Raptors (1) vs. Washington Wizards (8)

Photo: Harry How (Getty)

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When is the first fr*ckin’ game?
Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Eastern, on ESPN.

What is the deal with these teams?
I don’t want to talk about it.

Who are the important men?
Leave me alone.

Is this a good series or a butt one?
It’s bad.

What can I say to sound knowledgeable?
You can go to hell!

Who’s gonna win?
I hate you right now, I really do.


Boston Celtics (2) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (7)

Photo: Maddie Meyer (Getty)

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When is the first fr*ckin’ game?
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. Eastern, on TNT.

What is the deal with these dang teams?
Maybe this is Deadspin’s totally real and not imaginary at all anti-Boston bias showing itself, here, but for my money the Celtics come into these playoffs as the most vulnerable top-two seed I can remember. Their roster is a shambles! It’s almost not worth discussing their final rankings in things like offense (18th in offensive rating) and defense (first in the whole dang NBA), because half the rotation that built up those numbers over the first two-thirds of the season is in goddamn traction now. Of course, they still won 55 games, which is why Brad Stevens pretty much has to be the Coach of the Year, even if it happened in the crap-ass East.

All in all, it’s been a disappointing season for the Bucks, who were the sixth seed last year. Despite what at least looked like a stronger roster, and despite the early-season addition of Eric Bledsoe at a position of need, and despite a reasonable expectation that their bright youths would be even better after last year’s playoff appearance, they only improved their record by a measly two wins in 2017-18, got their doofus coach (justifiably!) fired, and I think just kinda don’t scare anybody. Last year they were the team nobody wanted to play in the East’s first round; this year, the only reason they’re not the team everybody wants to play in the East’s first round is that the Celtics are running out a goddamn MASH unit and everybody wants to play them instead.

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(Also there’s the Wizards, who do not exist la la la la I can’t hear you.)

Who are the important men?
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will carry huge scoring and defensive burdens for the Celtics. Both are terrific, but it still seems a little unfair; they were supposed to have the privilege of growing in Kyrie Irving’s and Gordon Heyward’s shadows this season. Also, Al Horford will do annoying Al Horford stuff. I’m sick of him! This blog is too long already to make time for Al Horford!

The only Buck of genuine importance is Giannis Antetokounmpo: He’d have been the best player on the court in this series even if Irving hadn’t developed a spooky and ominous knee injury that ended his season prematurely, but he’s super-duper the best player on the court now. The Bucks are the lower-seeded team, and won’t have home-court advantage at the outset of the series, but for all practical purposes the state of the respective rosters makes them the favorites, or ought to; if they can’t make their way to the second round, it’ll be fair to lay some criticism on the very tall Greek fellow.

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Is this a good series or a butt one?
It should be pretty good. The teams split their four regular-season meetings, with three of them, and one of the Bucks’ wins, coming before Boston’s rotation got the mummy’s curse or whatever. The Celtics defend like hell and share the ball around beautifully and are a font of creative basketball; the Bucks, uh, don’t do any of that stuff, but they have Giannis.

What can I say to sound knowledgeable?
“YAH-niss Ahn-TET-oh-KOOM-po.” This was the same thing to say in last year’s Bucks series, but people still butcher his name all the time.

Who’s gonna win?
I have a gross hunch that the Celtics will win, and I hate it.


Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Miami Heat (6)

Photo: Jamie Squire (Getty)

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When is the first fr*ckin’ game?
Saturday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, on ESPN.

What is the deal with these dang teams?
The Sixers are the most acutely hot team entering these playoffs, on a bonkers 16-game winning streak that carried them from sixth place on March 15 to the third seed today. And they’ve done half that without their center and best player, Joel Embiid, who’s been out with a broken face and will miss at least the first game of this series! It’s nuts. Anyway they’ve got the NBA’s third-best defense and are its best rebounding team, both things owing to their roster being filled with very large persons. They also turn the ball over a lot. The 76ers organization is making its return to the playoffs after five years spent cynically and shamelessly gaming the league’s collective bargaining agreement and draft lottery system and pretending it was something more than standard-issue tanking, the scourge of the sport. Maybe you’ve heard a little about that scheme, from the pinheaded cultists presently screeching its praises into your face in all forms of media.

The Heat, for their part, pretty much held steady in the East’s playoff race all along, to the extent that I occasionally forgot they existed, distracted by all the other playoff contenders that spent the season bungee-jumping up and down the standings like attention-seeking assholes. They sport a top-10 defense but aren’t particularly great at any one thing. They’re just good: Deep, tough, versatile, smart, well-coached, with a nice balance of rubbery young athletes and crusty old-heads who’ve been here before. They’re good and I like them, and dammit, you will too.

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Who are the important men?
Hopefully the Sixers will get Embiid back before their playoff run ends; in addition to being their best all-around player, he’s one of the league’s most, uh... hm, how to put this... uh, well, he talks a lot of shit and makes opposing players want to punch him, and that’s entertaining. Miami’s Hassan Whiteside in particular does not like him, and in general has been the type of dude who seems plausibly like he might hit someone, in part because of his history of actually hitting someones. They’re both giants, they’re both good, and they’d have to defend each other and battle each other for rebounds, and in the playoffs that could get pretty spicy.

Until Embiid gets back—and possibly longer—the Sixers are Ben Simmons’s team. The sorta quasi-rookie (the Sixers drafted him in 2016 and he participated in that summer’s Summer League before a foot injury and the cynical demands of the team’s fourth consecutive intentional tank job conspired to keep him out for the entire regular season) quasi-guard (he’s built like a giant power forward but plays like a point guard, except he never shoots jumpshots and gets lots of rebounds) has been spectacular this season, averaging 16-8-8 without a jumpshot. The Heat are a really good defensive team and their coach, Eric Spoelstra, is in like his 573rd playoff series; undoubtedly they’ll come up with some kind of way to throw spikes down in front of Simmons and turn his lack of scoring range against him, and seeing how he responds will be one of the fascinations of the first round.

This will seem like a cop-out and is one (it’s Saturday and I’m still not done with this blog yet!), but pretty much everybody in Miami’s rotation is important. Since I can feel your side-eye radiating against my face all the way from here, I will say that of particular importance are the dudes whose shooting range can tease Philadelphia’s defense loose in uncomfortable ways. So, like, repulsive Canuck ogre Kelly Olynyk, who can shoot and play center, will be important, and so will spiral-eyed three-bombing madman Wayne Ellington, who is open and has a green light even if Philadelphia’s Robert Covington literally climbs onto his head. And of course Hassan Whiteside will be important, and Goran Dragić, and Johnsons James and Tyler, and Josh Richardson, who might very well be Miami’s best player, and and and and. They’re all important! I wasn’t just bullshitting!

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I really would like to say that Dwyane Wade is an important player in this series. He could be. More probably his lack of shooting range and inability to stay in front of anybody on defense will make him a liability. It would be cool to see him Old Man Game his way into a lot of free throws and a handful of savvy steals; he could swing the outcome of a game or games that way, if he picks his spots. That would rule.

Is this a good series or a butt one?
It’s good just by virtue of how little anybody knows for sure about the 76ers; even if they stay as hot as they’ve been since mid-March and smush the Heat, it’ll be fascinating as a portent for the next round. But the actual games could be fun, too. They split their four regular-season meetings, with the Heat taking the two more recent ones.

What can I say to sound knowledgeable?
Just shriek “Trust the Process!!!” on a constant loop all series long. Half the national basketball media will assume that means you’re a goddamn genius.

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Who’s gonna win?
Probably the Sixers.


Cleveland Cavaliers (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)

Photo: Andy Lyons (Getty)

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When is the first fr*ckin’ game?
Sunday, 3:30 p.m. Eastern, on ABC.

What is the deal with these dang teams?
Hey, how about those Pacers! They bowed out of the first round for the second straight year last spring, then traded away (not by choice) Paul George for what looked like, well, not quite flotsam, but at best a couple of green doofuses who’d need a few years to grow into their gifts. The best anyone could find to say at the time was that it was a move made with the long-term in mind, signaling, if not quite a full-on tank job, then a small and prudent step backward that would pay off a little farther down the road. And here they are, the fifth seed in the Eastern frickin’ Conference not even 365 days later. Turns out the players they got are just straight-up good, already.

As for the Cavaliers, c’mon, you know about them. They lost in the Finals a year ago, then Kyrie Irving requested a trade, then the players they got back in the resulting trade turned out to be turkeys, then they blew up half the roster at the trade deadline, and now they are entering the playoffs as the fourth seed with a roster of dudes who’ve been teammates for all of like 25 games. They’re bringing the NBA’s 29th-ranked defense with them. Anyone who tells you they are not the favorites to represent the East in the Finals is lying.

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Who are the important men?
That’s because of LeBron James, of course. Somehow, at age 33, in his 15th professional season, LeBron not only played all 82 games for the first time in his career, but did it while leading the NBA in minutes per game, setting new career highs in assist and rebounding percentages, outscoring his career points-per-game and points-per-36-minutes averages, and leading the league in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, a holistic measure of, uh, just what it sounds like). For this he will finish a distant second in the MVP voting, despite being, by miles, the NBA’s best and most valuable player. There are whole entire divisions you would trade for him in a heartbeat.

For the Pacers, man, I really need to wrap this up. Victor Oladipo is awesome! Likewise Myles Turner!

Is this a good series or a butt one?
It’s good, okay? It’s good. The Pacers won three of the four regular-season meetings between these teams, but I wouldn’t bet on them repeating that winning percentage in this series.

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What can I say to sound knowledgeable?
“Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.”

Who’s gonna win?
This blog is over!