The NBA Playoffs are well underway, and we are truly being treated to some great series’. LeBron James is back to being his playoff dominant self, but the Pacers are still fighting hard, led by Paul George. The Jazz are trying to figure out a new strategy against the Clippers now that Rudy Gobert is down indefinitely. Even the Blazers are fighting against the heavy firepower squad in Golden State, fuelled by their incredible back-court, who are an incredible scoring night in Game 1. But there’s a few playoff series which carry more weight than the rest. The 8th seed Bulls have something to prove with their experienced backcourt, and the Celtics are out to show they deserve that 1st seed place. The young Bucks squad are trying to show that they are not to be messed with, while Kyle Lowry returns to fuel DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors. And the MVP battle continues as Russell Westbrook and James Harden duel it out, trying to prove they both deserve that MVP award by progressing to the second round.
The Chicago Bulls are putting in work in the post-season, despite their 8th seed place in the regular season, and are showing the 1st seed Celtics that placement doesn’t mean a thing when you’ve got players like Jimmy Butler on your squad. And what’s funny is, a lot of people predicted this upset when the match-ups were set, because the Bulls have the ability to beat most teams in the league, although their regular season record shows otherwise. If I had to bet on an upset at the beginning of the playoffs, I would have put my money on Chicago taking down Boston, and for many reasons. Al Horford is pretty much diminished by Robin Lopez, Isaiah Thomas is slowed down relatively by Jimmy Butler, while he puts up anywhere between 20-40 points at the other end. Rajon Rondo is showing up for the first time this season, being just 1 rebound off a triple double, and tying the Bulls record for most assists inn a playoff game. For the first time, we’ve seen the Bulls’ “Big Three” show some chemistry and work together, which is why they’ve got a 2-0 lead heading back to Chicago. I’ve got to give a ton of credit to Isaiah Thomas for playing those first two games, despite the tragic loss of his sister Chyna in a car accident just a few days previous. It’s probably one of the hardest things a player will ever have to do – playing through grief, so respect to IT for showing up. And there’s a lot of people of Twitter saying it’s due to Thomas’ grief that the Celtics are unable to win, but I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, it’s awful what happened to Chyna, and if Isaiah was to play poorly, it would be understandable. But IT is still playing fantastic, I mean, he put up 33 in Game 1, only a day after Chyna’s death, so the blame cannot fall in Isaiah’s hands by any means. If you want to play the blame game, throw it at Al Horford and the rest of the Boston squad. Horford’s on a $110 million contract, yet he’s practically invisible while on the court, and is having little to no impact in the paint with the presence of Bulls mascot bully, Robin Lopez. So, despite the tragedy and grief he’s obviously playing with, IT is still showing up with a desire to win, but the rest of the Celtics are playing like a real 8th seed team, and not the kings of the East, and that’s why they’re heading to the Chicago 2-0 down, with a big mountain to climb. The way I see it, the Bulls could quite easily sweep the struggling Celtics, if they’re stars and supporting cast continue to play as they have been. A repeat of last night’s performance from Rajon Rondo, combined with another 20+ point game for Flash, and a typical night from Jimmy Buckets, could mean a swift exit from the playoffs for Boston, crushing Isaiah Thomas’ season-long effort.
I’m just going to say it now; Giannis Antetokounmpo is a freak in the playoffs. I mean, obviously he’s a freak all season long, hence the nickname – “The Greek Freak” – but he’s even more incredible when games truly matter. The Bucks, led by this freak of nature, are tied with the Toronto Raptors after last night’s narrow loss, thanks to huge games from Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But they are tied, and heading to Milwaukee for Game 3, and Giannis is showing no signs of slowing down. He genuinely does everything on the court, hence why he led the Bucks in every major statistic during the regular season. But despite his incredible performance, the Bucks fell just short of a 2-0 lead heading home, as Ibaka and Lowry led the Raptors to this narrow victory, with Kyle hitting a clutch game winning two to seal the deal, and Serge hitting some important threes and defending the paint against an eager Bucks’ squad. Ibaka even swatted one of the Greek Freak’s attempts to get to the basket, which just seemed to drive him more, to be quite honest. The Bucks have surprised many watchers, including myself, who believed the Raptors would steamroll to a 4-1/ 4-2 victory over the inexperienced squad. But I’ve changed my mind, following their performance in Game 1 and 2, and am starting to think the Bucks could advance to the second round, or at the very least, force a Game 7. It’s probably the closest match up, second maybe to the Clippers – Jazz without Rudy Gobert, and is proving to be one of the most exciting to watch. I mean, they’ve held the Raptors to one loss and a very, very narrow win, a set of circumstances which I would never have forseen, even with my love for the game of Giannis. Maybe they can force an upset here, if Middleton and Thon Maker step up for some big performances. But, in saying that, the Raptors could easily throw the Bucks to the curb, if these big games from Lowry, DeRozan, and last night’s Serge Ibaka continue for the rest of the series, especially DeRozan has one of his many 40 point games. Ibaka defended the paint extremely well last night, even forcing Antetokounmpo to hesitate, and even avoid the paint, while he stood there, ready to swat anything that came nearby. It’s quite a pity that Jabari Parker is struggling with that knee injury, as adding an extra slasher to the mix would make this playoff series even more exciting than it already is. One thing’s for sure, though; if this series carries on the way it has for the initial two games, we’re in for the one of the closest first round matchups in recent history, fuelled by huge performances from the respective stars of each squad.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden, or Patrick Beverley. Who is the most important player in that series? Obviously, Pat Bev shouldn’t be in that conversation, by any means, but my God, he locked down Russ so bad. Going into that Game 1, I was expecting a 50 – 15 – 15 game from Brodie, and anything less hadn’t even crossed my mind. Then I remembered that rivalry that started between Pat and Russ that instigated two years ago when Westbrook and Beverley clashed knees, forcing Russ to sit for the rest of the series. I also remembered that Pat is one of the toughest defenders in the league. But I had never imagined that he’d agitate Westbrook so much, holding him to less than 25, and preventing a triple double (it’s odd how I expect a triple double from Russ, I realise), which has gotten my hopes up for a better performance from the other MVP candidate, that lad, James Harden. A poor first-half shooting performance was made unapparent by continuous drives to the basket and superb passing, as well as cooking up Enes Kanter that one time, leading to an outstanding 37 point outburst. And as important as The Beard will be throughout this playoff series, Pat Beverley will be equally as important in locking down Russell Westbrook, preventing those amazing 40/50 point triple doubles we’ve almost become accustomed to seeing from the Brodie. He antagonised Westbrook to an extreme extent in Game 1, and will prove to be a vital tool in stopping the league’s most explosive player. It’s hard not to see that Beverley’s tough, almost illegally aggressive, defense is getting to Westbrook, as that screen which completely levelled Pat, from Steven Adams was clearly a shot in retaliation for Beverly locking down and getting into the head of Russ on several occasions. His defense aside, Pat had a breakout game in terms of shooting, putting up a great 22 points on 4 buckets from downtown, proving that he can be a force on both ends when he’s feeling it. Coming from a Houston fan, this probably sounds biased, but after that thirty point blowout in Game 1, I’m starting to believe Di’Antoni’s Rockets can blowout the Thunder, but their performance in Game 2 tonight will be important in finalising my thoughts on the match up.