The NBA Playoffs have officially arrived. That sentence was supremely liberating and refreshing to type because this is the time of year in North American sports where fans are forced to pretend to like games they usually glance over at on silent televisions in the back of the bar. The NHL Playoffs have also commenced, but nobody just sort of watches hockey. Either you grew up playing hockey and love it to death or you’re confused as to what a “period” is and why there are only three of them. Baseball has also made its triumphant return to primetime programming. While I will concede that “America’s Pastime” has captured my attention in recent years and is certainly a fun game once you take the time to understand it, the MLB season consists of 162 games. It’s tough for me to care about a week one loss in the NFL and those guys only get 16 games before the postseason kicks off, so when I’m at the bar and see the Mets and Marlins playing game 8 out of 162 it’s tough to be interested when I could be following Sports Jeopardy! on the other screen. For the percentage of you that enjoy soccer, I’m an Arsenal fan and the Premier League will not be mentioned in this column again.
The point here is that the NBA Playoffs, beautiful and chaotic and occasionally dumbfounding as they are, have arrived just in the nick of time to save us from hastily googling hockey highlights before that one die-hard Bruins fan in your office makes his way to your desk to ask if you saw Brad Marchand’s saves last night. The NBA is perfect for casual onlookers and hoopheads alike because anybody can turn on the TV after dinner and be mesmerized by Kawhi’s slow-anaconda-squeeze style of defense and subsequent offensive explosions. The intense fun of the playoffs can be enjoyed without any context, yet remains exciting even when you’ve been there for blowouts and DNP-rest fiascos. Before Cavs and Pacers tip off we’re going to rank the best matchups you should be going out of your way to watch based on how potentially fun, violent, and closely contested that series might turn out to be.
- OKC Thunder (6) vs Houston Rockets (3)
The Rockets-Thunder matchup will definitely be the most fun, mostly because Russell Westbrook will be involved. In case you weren’t aware, Westbrook just pulled off a season in which he averaged 30 points, 11 assists, and 10 points for an entire season with several 50 point, insanely clutch game-winning shot performances mixed in just for fun. Russ has been must-see-tv all season long, but we should all be bracing ourselves for his inevitable transformation from terrifying force of nature to pure energy — similar to when Electro just becomes electricity itself in Amazing Spider-Man 2. Also driving Westbrook’s ascension will be the fact that James Harden, his former teammate and widely acknowledged rival for the MVP trophy, will also be on the court.
(Above: Russell Westbrook prepares for the 2017 NBA Finals)
Now, the MVP fight unfortunately loses some of its luster because the NBA – a league that is usually self-aware and actively dedicated to being the most fun- decided to announce all of its regular season awards at a ceremony in June. That’s right, awards based on the regular season which have already been voted on and balloted as of this week will not be revealed to us until after the Finals. Apparently Adam Silver has been reading “How to Make the People Hate Your League by Roger Goodell” in his spare time. A few years ago the NFL decided to reveal all of their awards at a ceremony where they hire some poor, popular comedian to deliver an opening monologue where they try to roast players who have just lost the most important games of their entire lives and make light of the NFL’s issues. Here’s the problem – there’s nothing funny about domestic violence, CTE-related deaths, and all of the other things Goodell tries to pretend aren’t happening in the league he has for some reason been trusted with. Anyway, the point is we’ve been robbed of the opportunity to hear that James Harden won the MVP right around Game 3 of this series with the Thunder 2-1 and watch Westbrook decapitate him at half-court for the four games as the Thunder advance 4-1.
MVP announcement or not, this series will be insanely fun to watch on a nightly basis. Underrated storylines here are the likelihood that Westbrook and second-best Rocket/NBA version of a hockey goon Patrick Beverley will most likely get into a fight. Most NBA fights are just a lot of pushing and shoving, but these are two guys that will most certainly be throwing punches. Russell Westbrook once sustained a dent in his face – A DENT IN HIS FACE – and just kept playing basketball. Set your DVR.
- Portland Trail Blazers (8) vs Golden State Warriors (1)
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: “Really? You want me to watch the Blazers get steamrolled by the Death Star Warriors? I’d rather watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory or some other dumb and boring show”. Hear me out, people. In basketball more than any other sport the outcome of a game, and ultimately a series, can be legitimately affected by pure and beautiful hatred. Hatred is the undefeated most interesting component of sports in any context. I will unashamedly watch a game between any two teams in any sport, no matter how terrible or irrelevant they may be, if I’m aware that they genuinely hate each other.
Hate in today’s NBA takes on a different role between teams because everyone in the Western Conference absolutely hates the Warriors and the entirety of the Eastern Conference has been swinging at Big Brother LeBron, tears in their eyes and a hand on their forehead rendering them completely harmless, since the beginning of time. Hatred between teams doesn’t always manifest the way we want it to – even if the squads can’t stand each other we’re never treated to the all-out brawl at half court that we’re always hoping and praying for. However, since the rise (and fall, depending on who you talk to and how much you care about signature shoes) of one Stephen Curry we’ve been lucky enough to witness a brand new genre of hatred: Fuck Steph, I’m Better Than That Guy. FSIBTTG was cultivated by the seemingly overnight success of the Warriors and Steph in particular in a conference full of extremely talented point guards. “Steph is awesome, sure, but he’s got Draymond and Klay and Iggy! He had to go out and get Kevin Durant!” they scream as their teams inevitably fall powerless to Golden State in the playoffs each year.
Of all the point guards in the West afflicted by FSIBTTG nobody has worse symptoms then Portland’s Damian Lillard. Dame, who has various chips on his shoulder that he rotates depending on whatever team he may be facing that night, believes that every other player in the NBA is stealing the spotlight that is so rightfully his – and none more than Steph Curry. Lillard’s shining moment and largest display of FSIBTTG came last season when, in the first game following All-Star weekend which Lillard hadn’t been invited to, he scored 60 (read: SIXTY) points against the Warriors and spent four quarters embarrassing his defender: Steph Curry. While the Blazers may lose in 5 or even 4 games against the Warriors, you won’t want to miss out on the inevitable Dame Lillard FSIBTTG explosion.
- Indiana Pacers (7) vs Cleveland Cavaliers (2)
When you talk about teams in the East swinging up at LeBron, Indiana has to be the first that comes to mind. As a Heat fan I remember a time when the Pacers came at those LeBron and Wade teams with everything they had and still watched them make the Finals for four years in a row. That was back when Roy Hibbert was still a valid and contributing NBA player and Paul George was making his case as one of the top players in the NBA. In 2017, George is a bona-fide superstar who is probably going to receive a gigantic max contract come next season and the Pacers haven’t been talked about as a legitimate contender in years. So why is this a must-see matchup, then? I’m so glad you asked.
Paul George is almost the Bizarro to LeBron’s Superman. Where LeBron could play for any team and take them to the Finals, making even the lowliest bench players better with his otherworldly talent and leadership, George has toiled and toiled while seeing none of the results. I can only assume the George’s determined recovery from his grotesque leg injury and resurgence to the top of the NBA was fueled by plenty of highlights of his 2012-2015 battles with LeBron and the Heat. As he prepares to face a Cavaliers team that stumbled into the playoffs, relinquishing their #1 seed to the Celtics along the way, the time is now for Paul George to remind everyone why the Pacers were once a feared force in the Eastern Conference. He will, of course, need a little help from whichever four guys will accompany him on the court at any given time, which brings us to our next point…
(Above: the last time Lance Stephenson was relevant in the NBA)
Besides establishing Paul George as a star, those Pacers-Heat battles brought another figure into the national conscience. That’s right, Lance Stephenson re-signed with the Pacers just in time to make an ass of himself in hopes of throwing off LeBron’s game in the playoffs. Stephenson is best known for blowing in LeBron’s ear during a playoff game, but it is often forgotten that he pestered The King for three years and actually saw some weird version of success. Whenever an opposing player decides they’ve gotten big enough to go at the greatest player since Jordan, James’ only response is to elevate his level of play and humiliate them without directly revealing that he was ever bothered by their insolence in the first place (see: Terry, Jason). However, in Stephenson’s case, LeBron lashed out physically when the constant nagging and aggravation become too much to bear silently, even being goaded into six fouls by Stephenson’s antics. It’s become clear to the NBA world that Lance is about half the player we ever thought he was since his first stint in Indiana, but the Pacers should hope for their sake that he can still get inside LeBron’s head.
- Chicago Bulls (8) vs Boston Celtics (1)
I have to start this section by saying that now and forevermore I will be actively rooting for the worst possible outcome in life for the Bulls and anyone associated with them. They started this season by taking away my favorite player of all time and franchise legend Dwyane Wade from the Heat then bookended it by narrowly edging those same Heat out of the eighth seed after Miami went 30-11 in the second half of the season. I hate Chicago, but that’s beside the point. The layers of intrigue between these two teams are what make this matchup essential viewing.
Let’s start with the obvious: nine years ago Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics point guard, won the NBA Championship and proudly hung the banner in the TD Garden. Rondo is now tasked with breaking every heart in Boston by knocking the surprise 1-seed Celtics out of the race for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Rondo’s journey since leaving Boston has been checkered and, at times, seemingly at its end, but here he is returning to the city that made him with revenge in mind. There is an urban legend known as “National Television Rajon Rondo” that has been lurking in the NBA shadows for years. Plenty of statistics support the fact that Rondo’s statistics have always elevated when he is playing in front of a national television audience as opposed to a non-televised game or locally aired matchup. I would show you some of those stats, but Cavs-Pacers started 17 minutes ago and it’s a beautiful day outside. We can’t always get what we want. The question currently facing Rondo is whether or not his alter ego can sustain its stellar performance through a series of nationally televised games. I can’t wait to see his answer.
After Rondo, the motivation angle for Chicago gets a little more abstract, so stick with me here. At the NBA’s trade deadline earlier this season it was widely believed that the Celtics would make a push to acquire Jimmy Butler, Chicago’s young star of a shooting guard who spent his season trying to overcome the extreme dysfunction of the Bulls. That trade never happened and Butler was forced to keep running Fred Hoiberg’s terrible plays. I can’t say for certain that Butler felt slighted by Boston’s inaction, but I can say for sure that he now has the opportunity the show the Celtics and their fans exactly why a trade for him should have been their first priority. Jimmy Butler vs Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler vs Jae Crowder are going to be so much fun to watch.
As far as the Celtics go it’s easy to forget that they’re the top seed in their conference because, despite winning 53 games, the Celtics just don’t feel intimidating. That may have something to do with their best playing standing at all of 5 feet and 9 inches. Isaiah Thomas may have spent the season scoring more points than anyone else in the fourth quarter and doing what seemed impossible for the past six years – stealing the 1 seed from LeBron, but his being the face of the Celtics still skews their perception as a team not quite ready to compete with the larger-than-life patriarch of the eastern conference. It remains to be seen if Thomas can lead Boston to victory in physical matches late into April, but for now just have fun watching him work.
There you have it, folks: the basketball you need to see this month. Grizzlies vs Spurs gets an honorable mention because of the Gasol vs Gasol matchup, but neither brother has ever been particularly intimidating or physical and this isn’t exactly the peak of their careers. What really did this series in was the loss of Tony “First Team All Defense!” Allen who was headed for a Thor vs Hulk clash of the titans with Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers have already plotted this year’s spectacular collapse against the Jazz and the Raptors are just suffocatingly uninteresting. Although I would recommend catching a few games of that series just to see Giannis, who led the Bucks in points, assists, rebounds, and blocks this season. The kid’s unreal. The Hawks aren’t scaring anybody and the Wizards will be more fun to watch in the second round. Don’t @ me.