Photo: Tom Sande (AP Photo)

Well hello there, casual basketball fan! Welcome back... to the crucible of champions. The NBA playoffs are upon us once again, probably within minutes or possibly even before I actually finish writing this very long (and good) blog. Oh crap!

Who are the teams? Who does the stuff on them? Who will hoist the [checks Wikipedia] “Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy”? What can you say about all of this in the company of possibly basketball-knowing acquaintances and fellow bar-goers that will not mark you as a clueless doofus? Buddy, I have got you covered. It’s fine to print this blog out and carry it with you to the bar and consult it for conversational nuggets.

Let’s check out the first-round series, in the chronological order they’ll start and/or have started already while I was working on this. Saturday’s first, and then Sunday’s tomorrow.

Philadelphia 76ers (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)

Photo: Elsa (Getty)

Advertisement

When does this shit start?
Saturday, 2:30 ET, on ESPN.

Who are these groups?
It’s weird to consider that, even with the big moves they made this season (swinging blockbuster trades for both Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris), and even with the air of triumphal inevitability that’s been swirling around the team’s homegrown young stars since Ben Simmons made his debut last season, this season, so far, seems like it’s been a sideways step for the 76ers at best, if not a small step backward. LeBron James’s departure from the East opened a power vacuum at the top of the conference; last summer the 76ers (along with the Boston Celtics, more on them in a sec) seemed like the team best positioned to fill it. But not only did the Sixers wind up with the same playoff seed they had last year—and with a record one loss worse—they’ve also been leapfrogged, decisively, by the Milwaukee Bucks. They still haven’t figured out any kind of productive, complementary fit between their two homegrown young stars. Even with the additions of Butler and Harris (and Mike Scott, who’s been great), they still have a troubling tendency to look completely lost whenever the deadly Joel Embiid-J.J. Redick pair isn’t on the court.

Of course, the real test of the changes they’ve made since last spring isn’t the regular season; that power vacuum at the top of the East won’t really be filled until somebody makes it out of the conference finals. The Sixers absolutely can represent the East in the Finals. They’ve got the top-end talent to do it. It might be time to worry if they don’t. The moves they made—including trading catastrophic former first overall pick Markelle Fultz in February for a 29-year-old role player and a pair of nothing-special draft picks—have made them into a team that isn’t really young or developing anymore. If anything, they fit more closely the profile of a slightly bloated contender nearing the end of its window, with a top-heavy roster and big names set to hit free-agency after the playoffs and an uncertain future. The time kinda seems like it might be now!

Advertisement

As for the Nets, shit, man, this season’s already been a fabulous success. They played fun, smart, competitive basketball all season, improved their record over last season by 14 wins, and sent D’Angelo Russell to the all-star game; the return to the playoffs has already vindicated ten times over the choice to focus on developing the young players they had under coach Kenny Atkinson, rather than bottoming out for a shot at some hypothetical future generational talent. They’re good and young and their future is bright, and I love them. I’m already very concerned about how long this blog is getting.

Tell me about some of their persons.
Let’s start with the Sixers. Embiid continued his staggering growth into one of the NBA’s absolute topmost handful of players this season; if the Sixers had improved much, he’d have been a serious MVP candidate, and he will be every season for the rest of his career so long as he’s healthy. But Simmons, pretty much across the board, is the exact same guy as last year. He still can’t and won’t shoot, and he’s still broadly a less important or valuable pairing with Embiid (and the key question for every Sixer for these playoffs and for the next half decade at least will be how well they fit with Embiid) than J.J. Redick is. Meanwhile, adding Butler theoretically gave the Sixers somebody suited to occupy the “closer” role in fourth quarters—and they’re still, overall, a pretty crappy fourth-quarter team. They haven’t yet quite figured out how to make the most out of having Harris on the team. But all of those players are good as hell, and that’s a lot of good-as-hell players for one team to have.

The Nets do not have quite as many good-as-hell players. But they have a lot of good players! Russell became the star of the team over the course of the season; a ballhandling guard who can shoot and create shots and cook in the pick-and-roll game is an extremely nice thing to have in a playoff series, and the Nets, in Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, have two of them. Possibly three, if I decide to call Caris LeVert a guard instead of a wing for the sake of crediting the Nets with three of those types of players. They can throw size at Embiid with large shot-spiking goof Jarrett Allen and Ed Davis, and they’ve got a glut of useful, vaguely switchable wing/forward types—DeMarre Carroll, Rodions Kurucs, Joe Harris, Jared Dudley—for lineup flexibility.

Advertisement

That’s too many Nets players to have mentioned, isn’t it? Just focus on Russell, Dinwiddie, LeVert, and Allen. Those are the cool guys who will be doing the fun stuff.

Is this series good or puke?
This series is good! It’s these young Nets’ first visit to the postseason, so probably don’t expect too much of them, but they’re ballsy and fun and under no pressure. They split the regular-season series between the teams. They can throw a scare into these 76ers, or at the very least bring the best out of them—especially if Embiid, who is still dealing with the balky knee that has caused him to miss 14 of 24 Sixers games since the break, sits out any part of the series.

How can I sound knowledgeable about the NBA when this series is on?
When Ben Simmons has the ball out near the three-point arc, lean over to the person standing nearest and whisper, “The famously stubborn and jumpshot-averse Ben Simmons will not be shooting a jump-shot right now.” This will make you sound like a real brain genius.

Advertisement

Who’s gonna win?
The Sixers, with far less firepower at the top of the rotation, beat a tough, experienced Miami Heat team in last spring’s first round despite Embiid missing the first two games of the series. The safe bet is they’ll escape these green Nets without too much trouble.


Toronto Raptors (2) vs. Orlando Magic (7)

Pictured: Real action from a Raptors-Magic game.
Photo: Shutterstock

Advertisement

When does this shit start?
Saturday, 5:00 ET, on ESPN.

Who are these groups?
There’s always one series that is like this, just painfully uninteresting and anonymous, and it’s always in the East, and in recent years it almost always seems to involve the Toronto Raptors and somebody from the NBA’s utterly fucking miserable Southeast Division. This year it’s the Orlando Magic’s turn. Who’s excited for some Evan Fournier floaters? The answer is no one.

Maybe that’s too uncharitable. In truth, the Magic aren’t a totally un-fun team, and the franchise’s return to competitiveness and the playoffs after six years wandering the outermost outer darkness has been one of the season’s pleasant surpraaaaahhhhhhhh I can’t do it, I can’t lie to you, this series sucks, I can’t imagine why anyone who doesn’t live in Toronto or Orlando would want to watch it, and the NBA should relegate it to friggin’ TruTV.

Advertisement

Tell me about some of their persons.
Literally the only fun player in this series is Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, who this season made an implausible leap from gangly developmental-project doofus to, broadly, a member of whatever the hell nightmare basketball species also gave the world Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s large, he’s skilled, his arms go on forever, and he flies around and does cool shit. He’s not Toronto’s best player but he’s the only Raptor who’s good to watch. It will be fun to check up on him in a couple of weeks, when they move on to the second round.

Is this series good or puke?
This series is vile green ass-mud from the dumpsters of hell.

How can I sound knowledgeable about the NBA when this series is on?
You can ask someone to change the channel.

Advertisement

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


Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (8)

When the team cohesion is incredibly strong and you’re all very thrilled to be here together
Photo: Ezra Shaw (Getty)

Advertisement

When does this shit start?
Saturday, 8:00 ET, on ABC.

Who are these groups?
You know the Warriors. They’re the defending-defending champions, winners of three of the past four titles, the defining power of the NBA’s modern era and, at their best, the best team in league history. They’re also unhappily trudging their way to the end of what’s so far been an awkward and joyless season—one that looks likely to be punctuated by some kind of dissolution of the core of their team. Ratto got into it better than I will; go read him for the specifics. It’s enough to know that the Warriors were bored of their own greatness by the beginning of last season; at this point, the only real intrigue facing them as a team isn’t whether they have what it takes to win their third straight championship (they do), but whether the prospect of doing so can hold their attention for two months, and who’ll leave them in free agency afterward.

Advertisement

Then there’s the Clippers. It looked like they were bailing out of the playoff hunt when they traded away Tobias Harris (and Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott) back in February, but instead they kept right on winning, with an ever weirder and more delightful assembly of random ornery competitors for a roster. For a while there, they had a real shot at a top-five playoff seed in the West; this crazy team genuinely could have beaten somebody, and it would have ruled. Instead, they skidded to eighth, where the best they can hope to do is push the Warriors hard enough for the latter team to register a detectable pulse for the first time since Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had their shouting match back in November. That’s a bummer.

Tell me about some of their persons.
For the Warriors, it’s the same guys—Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala—you know and love from the previous two cruise-control championships, plus DeMarcus Cousins. Offseason fears (or hopes) that Boogie would turn the Warriors into an even more absurdly invulnerable juggernaut seem misplaced, at least so far; mostly he has tended to make them slightly worse, and not even really in a fun way. A handful of times per game they all stand around and watch him maul his way into a low-post bucket. That’s about it.

The Clippers, like the Nets, have too many fun oddballs to give fair treatment to in a blog that, let’s face it, is already too frickin’ long! There’s Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell, and and and. Too many. Pay attention to Williams and Harrell, one of the league’s most fun and potent pick-and-roll combinations. Harrell is a feisty dunk-beast; Williams is the most enjoyably irresponsible pickup-ball hustler doing it in these playoffs. (Jamal Crawford couldn’t make it.)

Advertisement

Is this series good or puke?
I don’t think any team in the West is capable of giving the Warriors a non-puke series this season. Maybe the Nuggets, if they survive long enough to meet the Warriors in the conference finals.

What should I root for?
You should root for the Clippers to win the first game of the series, in Oakland. If we’re lucky, it might wake the Warriors up and turn them into, y’know, the Warriors. If we’re even luckier, it will shatter their already fractious team chemistry and lead to an open civil war in the locker room. (They’ll still win the series.)

Who’s gonna win?
Take a frickin’ guess!


Denver Nuggets (2) vs. San Antonio Spurs (7)

Get a load of this doughy lad.
Photo: Maddie Meyer (Getty)

Advertisement

When does this shit start?
Saturday, 10:30 ET, on ESPN.

Who are these groups?
Winning the West’s top playoff seed away from the Golden State Warriors doesn’t mean quite what it did, say, two years ago, before they began treating regular seasons like the dull, sleepy-eyed commute to an unpleasant job. Still, for a while there it looked like these Nuggets might just do it, and that would have been wild. They didn’t even make the playoffs last season! Moreover, they didn’t even make any big, dramatic changes to their rotation from last season to this one. They just... got better... from the continued improvement... of the players they already had. Like real fuckin’ weirdos!

Then there’s the Spurs, whom frankly I don’t really want to discuss. But discuss them we must! This postseason marks the Spurs’ 22nd straight playoff appearance, and their 29th in the past 30 years. Only eight times, in those 30 frickin’ years, have they made the playoffs and failed to win a series. As a fan of the Washington Wizards, I find that track record absolutely disgusting. It makes me sick.

Advertisement

Anyway here they are, again, in the frickin’ playoffs. Once again, circumstances conspired to deprive them of a vitally important young building-block player for the entire season—this time, limby guard Dejounte Murray tore his ACL in the preseason; last time, Kawhi Leonard just kinda decided he didn’t want to be a Spur anymore—and they just plugged the next dude into the rotation and kept it moving. The Spurs have used one—one—top-20 draft pick since 1998. The active roster they will bring to tonight’s game will include a grand total of two players the Spurs selected in the draft, ever. Disgusting! Outrageous in fact!

Style-wise, the Nuggets and the Spurs are the two weirdest, most heterodox offensive teams that made the playoffs in either conference, and it’s a shame they can’t both advance. The Nuggets run their offense through the high post and use their guards as the cutters and finishers, rather than as pick-and-roll facilitators or shot creators. The Spurs proudly practice a style that would have been considered out of date by the turn of the millennium, mostly eschewing the three-point arc in favor of a combination of long two-point jumpshots and low-post back-to-the-basket isolations—basically the two worst kinds of shots for any team but them. Neither team is exactly “great” on defense, but they’re both smart and flexible.

Tell me about some of their persons.
The Nuggets have lots of good, fun guys, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris and Will Barton and Monte Morris and so on. But the only Denver person you really need to know about is round-cornered Serbian oaf Nikola Jokić, the slickest and most creative passer doing it in the NBA right now and also, oh by the way, a seven-foot center.

Look at this doughy lad go! Many of the very coolest passes anybody threw this season are in this video. I urge you to watch it.

Advertisement

Everything that works about the Nuggets works because they drafted and then had the vision to stick with and patiently build around this unprecedented space alien of a player: Since drafting him—41st overall! He wasn’t even a first-rounder!—in 2014, they’ve won 30, then 33, then 40, then 46, and now 54 games, and now they’re in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo sucked all the air out of the MVP discussion months ago, but Jokić has a strong claim to the third spot on the ballot.

(Frankly—I’m just gonna say it! I’m just gonna frickin’ say it!—I think if you magically replaced both of them with league-average starters at their positions, the Bucks would’ve been in the running for a playoff seed without Giannis, and the Nuggets would’ve been in the running for the first pick in the 2019 draft.)

The Spurs’ main guys are LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, but in typical Spurs-y fashion they’ll get quality contributions from a whole host of dudes, from Rudy Gay and Derrick White right on down the brain-meme chart to Bryn Forbes and Dāvis Bertāns and Jakob Poeltl. Pretty much any of them will just straight-up pop a 19-footer in your face! Like true madmen.

Advertisement

Is this series good or puke?
This series is good, and a lot less certain than your average 2-versus-7 matchup. By the numbers, the Nuggets are better at both ends of the floor, with more firepower at the top of the rotation and greater depth, but the Spurs are bringing the NBA’s deepest body of institutional experience to this series, and Denver’s key players and coaches have never been here before. Denver will probably win. But if you can’t picture the Spurs throwing the Nuggets into full-blown crisis by the middle of the coming week, well, I sure as hell can.

“Dāvis Bertāns”?
Dāvis Bertāns!

(That is not actually how to pronounce his name. It’s DAH-vis Burr-TAHNS.)

Who’s gonna win?
I don’t know! Probably the Nuggets. But the last time the Spurs went two consecutive seasons without winning at least one playoff series was NINETEEN FRICKIN’ EIGHTY NINE. Now they are facing an opponent whose key players have never been to the playoffs before, and whose coach has never been the head coach of a playoff team before. I don’t know!

Advertisement


Okay, that’s it for today, dammit. Come back tomorrow for a preview of the other half of the first-round series.