Although we may know the inevitable end of this year’s playoffs, NBA fans can still rejoice in the build-up to this year’s finals. Even the first round of the playoffs will have plenty of exciting games and potential upsets waiting to happen. Storylines surround plenty of teams and a few players have their reputation on the line. With the first round of the NBA playoffs coming up this Saturday, here are two series to watch:
Nuggets (2) vs Spurs (7)
Season Series: 2-2
Although the Nuggets have had incredible success this regular season, there are plenty of legitimate doubts about this team. To make matters worse, they are facing off with the arguably the greatest coach in NBA history. Having a basketball genius being able to meticulously plan how to destroy your team over a lengthy series should terrify any team, especially one coming off a 5-year playoff drought. Paul Milsap is the only player with any real playoff experience in the Nuggets rotation. Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Monte Morris are all key players who have less than 3 years of NBA experience and have played a combined total of 0 playoff games. The young Nuggets will finally have their chance to shine, but they also run the risk of crumbling under the spotlight.
One important factor for the Nuggets in this series is their homecourt advantage. During the regular season, they went 34-8 at home, which was the best homecourt record in the NBA. Since 4 of the 7 games will be played in Denver, the Nuggets hold a significant upper hand. Of course, the players will still have to perform and that’s the biggest fear with this young Nuggets team. Without a go-to guy on offense, how will this team handle a scoring drought and who will step up in the clutch? We could see Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray step up, but neither has proven to be an aggressive scorer yet.
Even with the uncertainty and inexperience surrounding the Nuggets, the Spurs have plenty to worry about themselves. The biggest fear for the Spurs is DeMar DeRozan pulling another disappearing act in the playoffs. The last three years in Toronto DeRozan’s stats took a nose-dive once the playoffs came around. It’s possible that under a new coach and new system DeRozan will perform just fine. But, the fear still has to be there for any Spurs fan.
Also, despite Popovich being the most experienced coach in the league and veteran leaders such as LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs have two very important rotation players that haven’t received many important minutes in the playoffs. These two players would be Derrick White and Bryn Forbes. Each of them played over 25 minutes a game and were very impressive in the regular season. Forbes had 12 ppg on 46/43/89 splits and White had 10 ppg on 50/40/81 splits as well as 4 apg. Unfortunately, that does not negate their lack of playoff experience. The way these young guards handle themselves will certainly be a key to the series.
This series will be a battle between old and new. The Spurs will be trying to win what could be their last playoff series under Popovich. The Nuggets will be trying to win their first playoff series under Mike Malone. No matter who comes out on top, these are two teams to watch in this year’s NBA playoffs.
Trailblazers (3) vs Thunder (6)
Season Series: 4-0 Thunder
The headline of this series is the duel of Damian Lillard and Russel Westbrook. Both players are extremely talented point guards who have remained loyal to the team that drafted them. Neither one has won a ring and had a disappointing exit from last years playoffs. Unfortunately, one of them is due for another first round exit.
Westbrook’s Thunder have been a confusing team (arguably the most confusing team in the NBA) that has looked like a contender at some points and an 8th seed at other times. Although they did sweep the Blazers in the regular season, they didn’t win any of those games by double digits, with one being an OT victory and another being a 2-point victory. I fully expect this series to go back and forth the entire time.
Paul George will likely be a key in deciding how this series ends given the team’s success when he’s playing well and there struggles when he plays poorly. After his shoulder injury, the Thunder have limped to an 8-9 record in their last 17 games. In those games, George averaged 1.9 fewer points per game, while shooting 3% worse from the field and 3.3% worse from three compared to his season averages. Given the uncertainty surrounding the health of his shoulder with the series around the corner, the Thunder could be in trouble.
The Blazers will be without Nurkic which dampens their chances of winning the series, but they still have their leader. Damian Lillard definitely has a grudge against Westbrook and I can’t imagine he’ll let the Blazers go down without a fight. Lillard has put up an unappreciated 25.8 ppg on 44/37/91 splits to go along with 6.9 apg. His backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, has averaged 21 ppg on 46/38/82 splits. The duel between this incredible duo as well as PG and Westbrook makes this a first-round series to watch.