Only one first-round series remains unfinished as most of the other teams will begin second-round play today and tomorrow (and yesterday).
Plenty of Kentucky guys will tip off in the semifinal round, so let’s go series by series previewing the next round.
(1) 76ers vs. (4) Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks dispatched the Kentucky Knicks in five games as Trae Young ascended into hostile villainry in Madison Square Garden. On the other side, even without star player Joel Embiid for the final two games, Philly advanced past Washington in five games as well.
All thanks to Tyrese Maxey. Well, not really, but the rookie guard gobbled up some of the absent Embiid minutes and scored 15 and 13 points off the bench while playing 20+ minutes in Games 4 and 5 of the first-round series.
During the final few weeks of the season, Maxey found extra minutes while an injury took out a different Sixer starter and he proved he can contribute even as a 20-year-old. So when Embiid was sidelined and 76ers coach Doc Rivers needed to deepen the bench, Maxey was a primary option — and to no surprise, he’s been a fun and electric bench player.
Obviously, it’s best for Philadelphia’s chances at the title if Embiid returns, but Maxey has proved that as long as Joel is out, he can provide some scoring relief and trough defense.
(1) Jazz vs. (4) Clippers/(5) Mavericks
Once the bizarre yet awesomely entertaining Clips-Mavs series concludes, the winner will face a Jazz team that hasn’t missed a three in a month.
I’m kidding, but not by much. Utah shot right at 50% in the final four games of their first-round series to silence Ja Morant and the Grizzlies.
They’ll likely be the favorite vs. either of these teams, which both feature Kentucky guys. Playoff Rondo has made somewhat of a return for the Clippers while DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson have sat and watched the whole series so far.
For Dallas, Willie Cauley-Stein has served as one of several options at center for the Mavericks. If they want a 7’3 Latvian with perimeter skills then they’ll go with Kristaps Porzingis. If they want a simple stretch five? Maxi Kleber. If they want a defensive-minded rim-runner? It’s Willie’s turn!
With Rudy Gobert across the court, I would think the Mavericks would elect to spread the court out at the five and try to pull Gobert out of the paint with shooters like Kleber and Porzingis rather than a non-threat from deep like WCS but if they need a sturdy defender to handle a force like Rudy than Willie could be key.
(2) Suns vs. (3) Nuggets
How about the Phoenix Suns? Devin Booker, one-armed Chris Paul, and Cameron Payne’s redemption spurred a comeback Suns victory in the series against the Lakers. Or perhaps, the moment Anthony Davis went down sparked a total turnaround in the series and the Suns marched to three straight wins to turn a 1-2 series deficit into a 4-2 win.
Either way, Devin Booker has finally arrived on basketball’s biggest stage. He had a terrific Game 1 but struggled to score efficiently in the next couple of games. In the two closeout games, D-Book scored 30 in Game 5 and 47 in Game 6 to shut the door on LeBron’s face.
Just watch this absurd shooting performance from Booker:
Looking at the West now that one (and maybe both) of the L.A. powers are already out – one of them being the defending champions it is a wide-open field. I doubt the Nuggets can defeat Phoenix without Murray and the Jazz/Mavericks/Clippers are all unproven in the postseason and certainly beatable in the West Finals if Phoenix gets there.
All this to say: the Suns can win the championship. Even though they’re the two-seed that statement sounds funny, but they very well may be the best team left in the West.
They will likely beat the Nuggets and beyond that, who knows. The West has been lauded as the much better conference than the East, but to me, Philly, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn would each be the best team in the West as it currently stands.
In a wacky year that jousted LeBron out of the playoffs in the first round, why not Phoenix?
Here Come the Suns!