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Frankly An Incredibly Good And Informative, Ah, Preview Of The 2019 NBA Playoffs, Part 2

Photo: AP Photo

Good day to you, hoop-sport friends! It’s time for the second part of our extremely on-time and thorough preview of the 2019 NBA playoffs. Today we’ll discuss the important topics of the first-round series that begin, uh, today: When and where they’re on TV, who’s in ‘em, how they got here, and of course, most importantly, which of them will be the target of mean-spirited asides in this blog as punishment for their crimes. Onward, to the games!

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)

When the working relationship is tremendous and you treasure the constructive dialog
Photo: Maddie Meyer ( (Getty)
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When does this shit start?
Sunday, 1:00 ET, on TNT.

Who are these groups?
Even more than the 76ers, the Celtics were the team that was supposed to benefit the most from LeBron James’s departure from the eastern conference. After all, they took LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers to the seventh game of the conference finals just last season, and did it without Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward, riding the heady play of some extremely young and inexperienced dudes. When a healthy version of that team, with Kyrie and Hayward, kicked off this season by waxing the Sixers, I fully believed I was seeing the beginning of a 65-win season.

Not so! The Celtics have been middling, dysfunctional crap all year, and didn’t even sneak into the top half of the East’s playoff seeding until just a couple weeks ago. Virtually everyone on the roster either regressed (the young guys) or declined (the older ones), the team reliably followed every brief run of success with a dispiriting losing streak, and the body language and post-game quotes were pretty much uniformly glum and horrible. The picture that emerged early in the season and never really dissipated is of a group of dudes who don’t really like each other very much and really don’t like playing together. It’s been great, actually.

As for the Pacers, I thought they were doomed when all-world guard Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured quad tendon back in January. It seemed to be the consensus view, and with good reason: Oladipo was a fringe but legitimate MVP candidate last season, and few middle-of-the-pack teams could lose one of those without collapsing. But they just kinda never broke stride, reconfiguring on the fly around their tough-as-hell defense, a 29-year-old journeyman scorer, and their pair of very good young bigs. They even wound up with the same playoff seed they had a year ago.

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For this feat of leadership and tactical and strategic adaptability, coach Nate McMillan will receive essentially zero consideration for the NBA’s coach of the year award. Instead, it will go to Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, whose MVP candidate played 72 games at the peak of his abilities and missed consecutive games exactly once all season, and whose team won 12 more games than the Pacers did.

Tell me about some of their persons.
The Celtics have an embarrassing wealth of notable persons, each one of whom gave at least a half-dozen dead-eyed quotes this season about their inability to play together. The most important one, both because of his centrality to what Boston does on the court and because he spent the past five months leaping unprompted in front of every microphone and camera on planet earth to petulantly insist that what he truly wants is for everyone to stop paying attention to him, is Kyrie Irving.

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Here, what the hell, let’s break up the wall of text with a video of Kyrie doing some basketball stuff.

It’s no good predicting what Kyrie will do in these playoffs, or after, when he will have the option of becoming a free agent. He delights in doing and saying counterintuitive galaxy-brain shit at least as much as he delights in pulling off counterintuitive galaxy-brain buckets. If he were 10-percent more normal, I’d say he was a mortal lock to leave the Celtics. That seeming like the obviously healthful thing to do, after how visibly and vocally unhappy he’s been all year, may wind up turning out to be the exact reason why he re-signs with them.

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But this is a playoff preview, not a free-agency preview! Kyrie showed, during his time as LeBron James’s running mate in Cleveland, that in the right circumstances his nigh-unparalleled individual shot-creating ability can make him something like a weapon of mass destruction in the playoffs. An injury kept him out of Boston’s conference finals run last spring, so this will be his first chance to show he can do it without LeBron on his team. The Pacers are a good test.

As for those Pacers, keep an eye on Bojan Bogdanović, the aforementioned 29-year-old journeyman around whom they configured their offense once Oladipo went down. Cast mostly as an off-the-catch shooter for much of the early part of his career, Bogdanović actually has a nicely well-rounded scoring repertoire that really shines when he can get the ball on the move or attack decisively off the catch. His game is something like a right-handed version of what James Harden will be like when his athleticism is mostly gone and he can no longer first-step his way past the initial defender or reliably get all the way to the rim. Or like if Klay Thompson were a little tougher and more determined off the bounce, a little more creative as a cutter and passer, and also was hooping in Timbs, for some reason.

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These probably seem like insults, but I swear they’re not. Anyway he’s good. Roll the damn tape!

Also, look out for Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, Indiana’s pair of very good young bigs. They’ll be easy to spot, as they’re both tall as hell. Turner deserves some Defensive Player of the Year love for his rim protection and impressive switching ability for a guy his size; Sabonis isn’t remotely his peer as a defensive presence, but is a crafty, versatile, and extremely efficient offensive player, a good scorer and sharp-eyed passer who keeps things lubricated and moving smoothly when he’s on the floor.

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(If anything, Sabonis may occasionally like passing a little too much: Earlier this season I happened to flip to a Pacers game just before Sabonis uncorked a goddamn stunning, gorgeous series of pivot moves and shot fakes in the middle of the lane, humiliating his defender and bringing himself point-blank to the rim... and instead of punching down the uncontested dunk he’d more than earned for himself, he passed the ball to the corner, where one of his bozo teammates chucked up and bricked a three-pointer. I felt like I was going to cry.)

Is this series good or puke?
This series could be good. The Celtics can play amazingly sharp, beautiful two-way basketball when they’re at their best; the Pacers are tough and competitive as hell and never give an inch on defense. It’ll be good if the two teams bring the best out of each other—in which case the Celtics ought to win—and it’ll be even more wonderful if the Celtics melt down and the Pacers punt their sorry asses into the river and Kyrie leaves and then the Pelicans tell them they don’t want Jayson Tatum in return for Anthony Davis and Danny Ainge pulls his own head off and spikes it into a ravine and they have to give Terry Rozier a max contract just to stop the bleeding and they crap out shy of the second round every year for the next quarter-century.

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What should I root for?
You should root for the Pacers to win the series. Their refusal to let the Oladipo injury derail them, their on-the-fly reshaping to fit what they had on hand, and their gutty return to the playoffs really and truly is the best of what basketball-as-basketball (rather than as personnel management and asset optimization) can be, and the coolest shit would be to see them score a series win for their efforts. Also the Celtics can eat my butt and roast in hell.

Who’s gonna win?
I very badly want to pick Indiana, here. However, this is the hell dimension, and the Celtics have home-court advantage both literally and figuratively, so probably they’ll advance. Dammit.

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Portland Trail Blazers (3) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (6)

Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer ( (AP Photo)
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When does this shit start?
Sunday, 3:30 ET, on ABC.

Who are these groups?
I just wrote like 1,200 words about Pacers-Celtics. Not every series can get that kind of treatment. I’d be here through Christmas!

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There were long weeks in which Paul George looked like a legitimate candidate for both MVP and DPOY, Oklahoma City looked like a top-three team in the West, and it was possible to salivate over the possibility of a Thunder-Warriors conference finals that might have been one of the spiciest playoff series since the late ‘90s. Then there were even longer weeks when it seemed like the Thunder were plummeting all the way off the West’s playoff ladder altogether. The sixth seed is a disappointment, but all in all it’s probably the tastiest option on the menu of disappointments the Thunder spent the season eyeballing. At least they’re in, and at least they didn’t draw the Warriors in the first round.

Oh hey, speaking of teams that briefly entertained sky-high hopes and have had to settle for something less before the playoffs even started: A month ago I’d have been amenable to the idea that the Blazers were Golden State’s chief challengers in the conference. They were so good: A smart, stable, experienced, versatile team with tons of firepower at the top of the rotation. Then their extremely important center suffered perhaps the ghastliest leg injury I’ve ever seen in an NBA game. Maybe they shouldn’t be written off completely. But it’s that much harder to imagine them shocking the world, and it was already pretty hard.

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No pressure or anything, but it sure feels like the Blazers have to win at least one series this year. Last year looked like it was the year they’d enter true contention out West—or whatever passes for “contention” for everybody other than Golden State in that conference—and then they not only lost in the first round to the sixth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, they got friggin’ swept. The Blazers have a very expensive roster; they’ve kept the core together for years. It’ll be devastating if they can’t get out of the first round again.

Tell me about some of their persons.
Thankfully for the word-count of this blog, all of the principals in this series are pretty familiar, and all have been in place for a couple of years. This was the season Paul George clearly surpassed Russell Westbrook as Oklahoma City’s best player and firmly established himself as one of the very best all-around players in the sport. So, what the hell, here’s some video of him doing stuff:

But make no mistake, Russ is still The Guy in Oklahoma City, if only because he’ll have the ball in his hands twice as much as anybody else. His third straight season averaging a triple-double might obscure, a little, that Russ was a total wreck as a scorer for most of the season, but the Thunder probably can’t advance unless he gets it together. That probably means shooting fewer jumpers, and it definitely means making enough of them to force defenders to stay in his area code.

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It’s still the Dame Show in Portland. Here’s him lighting these very Thunder up for 51 points back in March:

Moving on!

Is this series good or puke?
This series is fine. Neither team can call the season a success unless it advances at least one round; neither team will be able to look itself in the eye if it gets eliminated by anybody not wearing Golden State uniforms. This ought to make it pretty ferociously contested.

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How can I sound knowledgeable about the NBA when this series is on?
Every time the Thunder score, pound the table or bar angrily and yell, “Nurkić woulda blocked that!” It won’t be true, of course, but at least everybody will know that you know that there is a guy named Jusuf Nurkić who could have been in this series, but isn’t.

Who’s gonna win?
I have no idea! As yesterday’s games seemed to demonstrate, plenty of these first-round series could go either way, but this one seems the most like a toss-up right on its face. Moreover, both of these teams soiled themselves in last season’s first round. They can’t both do it this time. Or can they????

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Milwaukee Bucks (1) vs. Detroit Pistons (8)

Photo: Stacy Revere ( (Getty)
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When does this shit start?
Sunday, 7:00 ET, TNT

Who are these groups?
There wasn’t anything particularly bold or ingenious about the idea to space the floor around Giannis Antetokounmpo with shooters and secondary scoring options. It was the obvious, intuitive thing to do. What’s most notable about every coach he played under prior to Mike Budenholzer is that they didn’t do it. Even so, actually carrying it off—and not just for a couple extra wins over last season, but for a 60-win season and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs—is impressive as hell. The Bucks were, by a healthy margin, the best team in the NBA this season. Maybe they’re not exactly favorites to win the Finals. But it’s possible, and delightful, to imagine Giannis going completely fucking insane for seven games, crumpling the Warriors in his mighty fist, and claiming godhood.

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First he’s gotta beat the Pistons! That’s just about all I have to say about the Pistons.

Tell me about some of their persons.
GIANNIS GIANNIS GIANNIS.

GIANNIS GIANNIS GIANNIS!

G I A N N I S

This season has felt like a coronation. Between the vast leap he took as a player, the leap the Bucks took to the top of the East, and the basketball media’s at times uncomfortably transparent desire to make a formal transition from LeBron to the next Eastern Lord of Basketball (note: it would have been Joel Embiid picked for this role, if the Sixers had done what was expected of them), Giannis has been the clear MVP favorite since before the all-star break. It couldn’t happen to a better or more likable dude, or a more terrifying force of nature.

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Is this series good or puke?
This series is puke. The Pistons are the least compelling team that made the playoffs in either conference; they add nothing in particular to the baseline challenge—winning a playoff series—the Bucks face here. And for two teams that share a division and play each other four times per season, these two don’t even have any particular spice between them.

What should I root for?
Good, competitive basketball would be great; a series that goes six or seven games would be a nice, pleasant surprise. But the most important thing here is for the Bucks to escape the series in good health.

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


Houston Rockets (4) vs. Utah Jazz (5)

Pictured: You, in the background, pumping your fist like a total fucking dork, unaware that you had been captured for all time by the merciless lens of Yong Teck Lim, Getty stringer
Photo: Yong Teck Lim ( (Getty)
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When does this shit start?
Sunday, 9:30 ET, on TNT.

Who are these groups?
The Rockets got off to a horrendous start to the season. For a while there, not only did they look nothing like the team that pushed the Warriors to seven games in last season’s conference final, they looked like one of the worst teams in the West. Then James Harden heaved their sorry asses—seriously, just look at Houston’s roster, they suuuuuckonto his back, spent two months seeming to score 50 points on a damn near nightly basis, reached a level of pure individual offensive firepower not seen since Wilt friggin’ Chamberlain, and carried the lousy Rockets right back up into (very broadly defined) contention. For this he will finish a distant second in MVP voting.

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I know this is supposed to be the section where I discuss teams rather than individuals, but that’s stupid in the Rockets’ case. They’re James Harden. Whatever he doesn’t do, they won’t do.

Meanwhile, the Jazz are basically the same guys they were last season. That’s not just my way of hurrying to the finish line of this damn blog, either. They won 48 games and the fifth seed in 2017-18; they won 50 games and the fifth seed in 2018-19. Perhaps worryingly for the Rockets, they also whipped the favored, fourth-seeded Thunder in last spring’s first round. They’re absolutely capable of reproducing that result.

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Tell me about some of their persons. 
This is the season Harden’s love of popping three-pointers in defenders’ faces completed its evolution into an entire system of offense. Step-backs, side-steps, blatant travels cynically squeezed just inside the sea-lawyer-est possible letter-of-the-law-ass interpretation of the rules; Harden’s got ‘em all, at a higher level of control and precision than anyone else in NBA history.

Here’s him shooting an absurd number of absurd threes:

The Warriors (who else) created the playbook for managing James Harden in the playoffs: Get up into his body, give him no room to dribble, and force him to his right. The Bucks, earlier this season, debuted a cartoonish extreme of this, having Harden’s defender basically just stand next to him, on his left hip, giving him both a straight-ahead line to the hoop and the entire right side of the floor for the sake of imposing some limit on his options—for the sake of being able to make some prediction about where he’ll go. The Jazz are one of the NBA’s smartest and toughest defensive teams; it’s a fair bet they’ve absorbed this and will have some interesting variations on it as the series goes along.

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Oh right, the Rockets also have Chris Paul and Eric Gordon and Clint Capela. What matters is Harden!

Utah gets its buckets from all over: Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder, et cetera. Their most important guy is center Rudy Gobert, who may win his second straight DPOY award this season and who is the key to everything they do at the end of the floor—the defensive one—where the Jazz butter their bread. He’ll be the extremely tall Frenchman with his ludicrously long arms raised straight up in the air and various Rockets launching feeble shot attempts into his armpits. If you think I’m embedding a video of this doofus playing defense, buddy, you have got another thing coming.

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Is this series good or puke?
This series is good: These may be the most evenly matched first-round opponents, and they’re a fun combination of wildly diverging styles, the Jazz with their Spartan-ass defense and the Houston with its one-man assault. The Rockets have found some extremely exotic and bizarre ways to bomb out of the playoffs in recent years; whenever they eventually exit these, it’s sure to be weird and hilarious, and the Jazz seem well positioned to help them do it.

What should I root for?
Root for seven tough games, Harden being pushed to some truly insane heights of volume shot-making brilliance... and, unless you’re a Jazz fan, the Rockets advancing. They stand to add more to the later rounds than the Jazz could. I’m sorry, Jazz fans! It’s true and you fucking know it!

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Who’s gonna win?
This blog is over!

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