We missed a formal playoff preview this year so, instead, let’s jump into some quick thoughts for each playoff series and do our usual feature about the last time each team met in the playoffs. Today, we will do the East today and the West shortly after….
-76ers v. Wizards: As anticipated, the 76ers handled the Wiz relatively easily at home (Game 1 was competitive but Game 2 was decidedly not). The 76ers stars have been dominant and Tobias Harris’ great start bodes well for the later more challenging rounds.
What caught my eye specifically was how active Matisse Thybulle has been. He is a great at racking up steals (6 so far in two games) but he also has 7 blocks (!). Thybulle’s 1.1 blocks per game ranks seventh best in a regular season for any player 6’5 or under since the stat has been kept (Dwyane Wade has three of the top five seasons. The other two guards are David Thompson and Dennis Johnson). Moreover, on a per-minute basis, Thybulle’s is the best shot blocking 6’5 guard with a 4.9 block% (interestingly, Derrick Jones’ 2020-21 season is second on the list). It’s not clear how Thybulle will develop as a player but, even if he has plateaued now, he is hugely valuable. If he can learn to hit threes, then he will make a ton of cash.
On the Wiz side, they just don’t have the horses to compete with Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons (or even Harris apparently). Russell Westbrook has really struggled to make shots (9-27 from the field) but he has had injury issues and it’s really hard to finish in the paint with Embiid, Simmons, and Thybulle. If the Wiz can win one home game, they will consider this season a success by their modest ambitions.
When they last met: For two franchises that go back a long time, they haven’t had too many playoff matchups. This is mainly because the Wiz have been pretty bad for much of the last 40 years and the few times they were okay, the 76ers were not. They last played in the playoffs back in 1985-86, at the tail end of the Julius Erving/Moses Malone Era (they also had a young Charles Barkley). Philly was 54-28 and a solid third seed. The Bullets were very blah at 39-43 led by Jeff Ruland and Jeff Malone. The East was so weak that Washington still somehow netted a six seed with that record (for reference, the Bulls made the eight seed at 30-52).
The series was competitive and the Bullets stole Game 1 in Philly. Washington was down 17 with four minutes to go and went on an 18-0 run to close it out. In a nice data point regarding whether momentum exists, Philly came out and won the next two games (including Game 3 in Washington). The 76ers clocked the Bullets by 25 in the decisive Game 5. Young Barkley had 21.4 ppg, 17.2 rpg, 7.2 apg, and 2 spg (and in keeping with his three-point shot selection still went 1-11 from three). The ironic postscript is that Moses sat out the series and Ruland barely played. A few weeks later, they would be traded for each other in one of two infamous 76ers deals.
-Bucks v. Heat: Really not much to say here. Milwaukee has controlled much of the series (yes, Game 1 was fun and competitive). Milwaukee is just hyped up to move on and go toe-to-toe with Brooklyn and, if they beat the Nets, Philly. Milwaukee has a few worries in losing Donte DiVincenzo for the rest of the playoffs and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s problems shooting (1-12 from three, 17-27 from the line) but neither concern matters until next round.
On Miami’s side, the year has been a disappointment. They may have spent all their karmic capital in last year’s Finals run. Most of the players who played so well in the Bubble last season have not maintained that level this year. I assume Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler should be fine going forward. The biggest area of focus must be Tyler Herro. He has been okay during his two regular seasons but the hope was that his great Bubble play would carry over and it hasn’t. He’s still young but the Heat will soon have to make a decision on whether he is a trade piece to clear cap space or a cornerstone keeper (spoiler alert: he seems like trade bait).
When they last met: It feels like 10 years ago but it was actually last September when Miami shocked Milwaukee and dispatched the Bucks with relative ease. The tables have turned drastically this time. If you want a more distant match up, the squads previously met in the First Round of the 2012-13 playoffs. The Bucks were 38-44 and led by Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings (this was the year that the Bucks gave up Tobias Harris to Orlando for a few months of JJ Redick). LeBron/Wade/Bosh smashed the Bucks 4-0, winning by an average of 15 ppg and the Bucks lost Redick after the season.
-Nets v. Celtics: It’s been a bad year for Boston due to injuries and lack of size and they looked pretty cooked in the first two games. They showed a pulse and won last night behind Jayson Tatum’s 50 points. It seems likely that Brooklyn will regroup and win this series fairly easily unless Tatum can go crazy again.
When they last met: The Nets and Celtics played a memorable Conference Finals in 2001-02 where the Nets blew a big fourth quarter lead at home in Game 2 but came back to take a close Game 4 in Boston and close out the series in Boston in Game 6 (Keith Van Horn’s best moment as a Net). What might be forgotten is that the teams met in the Second Round in 2002-03. This time the Nets wiped the floor with Boston, sweeping the series 4-0. Jason Kidd was brilliant (19 ppg, 9 rg, 9 apg) and controlled the games. The most memorable moment of the series occurred at the end of a double OT Game 4. The Nets had the ball and Boston had given up with a 24 seconds left. Kidd, who had jousted with Boston fans quite a bit, declined to take the gentleman’s shot clock violation and made a three at the end of Game 4 just to stick it in Boston’s eye. (The Celtic players, other than Paul Pierce, didn’t seem too peeved afterwards).
-Knicks v. Hawks: This has been the only fun series in the East so far. New York has played hard but, other than Derrick Rose, they have really struggled to score. Julius Randle’s sudden inability to hit shots is a credit to the Hawks (specifically, Clint Capela’s looming presence) but you do get a sense that there may be some regression to the mean with Randle’s shooting. Less noticed is that RJ Barrett has shot nearly as poorly as Randle.
On the Atlanta side of the ledger, Trae Young has been amazing in hitting that floater when he gets into the lane. I have always been skeptical that Young could be so effective at his size but he has been against a very tough defense this series.
The sideshow in this series has been the New York fans versus Trae Young. Knicks fans got on Trae Young with the emphatic “F— Trae Young” chants in both games at MSG. I was not offended at the profanity but was at the lack of creativity. New York fans have always been very good at tweaking rivals with more thoughtful (and more personal) insults. The “Cheryl” chants at Reggie Miller are the best example but there are tons more. Knicks fans can do better in Game 5.
When they last met: During the Knicks magical 1998-99 eight seed run to the Finals they swept the Hawks in the Second Round. The Hawks had their 1990s core (Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Dikembe Mutombo) but seemed old and slow. Marcus Camby ran circles around Deke and Latrell Sprewell was highly effective. The Hawks tried to copycat the Knicks by trading Smith for JR Rider (another bad boy shooting guard) and jettisoning Mookie too. Rider played poorly and didn’t behave and the Hawks fell out of the payoffs for years thereafter.