Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 12:00 PM
The NBA Playoffs begin this weekend. About a month ago, the mainstream media had locked in on a storyline of "Golden State is still the clear favorite...if the Warriors don't win it will be Houston." Since Steph Curry's injury, the door seems to be a bit more wide open for welcoming in other contenders. Handicappers must determine how open that door really is...and who's capable of kicking it down.
Here's a list of key questions you should be thinking about as you approach the postseason.
*Is Golden State really as vulnerable as it seems?
The Warriors have played so far below their normal standard in recent days that it's hard to know for sure what to make of it. The games didn't matter. Golden State was locked into a #2 seed several days ago. But, the sluggishness on offense, the lack of teamwork on defense, and the new chemistry issues as Kevin Durant tries to take a leadership role that other Warriors may not appreciate...it's all adding up to real concern. The West is LOADED. It could be that teams other than Houston have a shot of eliminating the Warriors.
*Is Houston ready to win a championship?
It's clear that the Rockets roster was built to beat Golden State. Every new acquisition was in specific response to a Warriors strength that had to be neutralized, or a weakness that could be exploited. So, "on paper," Houston can definitely win the West and the NBA Finals. But, that's different than actually being on the floor, under pressure, against opponents trying to disrupt YOU. Chris Paul tends to lose his composure in high-pressure situations. James Harden can wear down if he tries to carry too much of the offensive load in a few weeks of outright war.
*Which of the other West contenders have the best chance to surprise?
Again, this conference is loaded. Virtually nothing separates the #3 seed from the #9 team, and only eight make the playoffs. All have clear strengths. But, "the best of the rest" all had issues that prevented them from reaching "championship" caliber. Be sure you're fully aware of everyone's strengths and weaknesses in terms of defense, rebounding, offensive ball movement, and making three-pointers. Early round action could turn into a "rock-paper-scissors" sequence of matchup advantages rather than pure Power Ratings.
*Is it Toronto's time in the East? Will it EVER bet Toronto's time in the East?!
The Toronto Raptors have earned the #1 seed on the other side of the brackets. This franchise has a history of slow starts in the playoffs, and disappointing finishes. If they've learned from all that, then this really is their year. But...some late season duds have raised the question again about how well the stars (and head coach) handle pressure. It wouldn't hurt your handicapping to review what went wrong the past two seasons with this group.
*Can Cleveland win with so many new contributors?
The Cavaliers did a partial rebuild of their team right at the trade deadline. Having poisons removed from the system was definitely a positive. But, can all the new faces work together under playoff pressure? Most importantly, can the Cavaliers play anything resembling team defense now that a championship is on the line. The regular season defensive stats were abysmal. You can assume more intensity is on the way. But, LeBron is getting old, and Kevin Love defends by putting his arms in the air while standing still. Volatile point spread potential here in either direction.
*Is Philadelphia going to arrive as an Eastern power a year early?
The Sixers have been on fire in recent weeks. That may not mean much because so many NBA teams are either tanking, or pacing themselves for the postseason. Young teams sometimes aren't smart enough to do that. This is a young team. That said, it's also a talented, well-constructed team that's playing with confidence. Be sure you watch every single Philadelphia game. Even if you're not watching a 2018 spoiler, you might be getting an early look at the 2019 Eastern champs!
JIM HURLEY has been preparing for weeks for the NBA Playoffs. Handicappers have the luxury of doing that given the length of the regular season, and the wide split this year between the have's and the have not's. Even if the specific matchups weren't determined until the last second, it was no secret who almost all of the entries were going to be for a few months.
*Our SOURCES and SCOUTS have been reporting back on a daily basis regarding health and team mindset. That's going to help NETWORK get out of the gate fast this weekend.
*Our STATHEADS have been crunching all the numbers to pin down true strengths and weaknesses. It's not enough in this sport to look at computer ratings or scoring differential. You have to dig deeper into cutting edge analytics. JIM HURLEY has always had the biggest knife.
*Our COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS have been running simulations around the clock for the past week to project any possible first round matchup. We know what the absence of Steph Curry is going to mean in a playoff series. We know the rate at which James Harden will wear down (maybe quickly, maybe so slowly that it won't matter). Thanks to our database, we know which teams perform the best in the last few minutes of close games.
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