The NBA regular season ended in historic fashion, with the Warriors getting 73 wins, while Kobe Bryant signed off with 60 points. Now, attention turns to the playoffs, where there are some intriguing matchups. During the playoffs, these five players will have plenty to prove and will be entertaining to watch as well.
Players To Watch In The NBA Playoffs
No NBA list is complete without some mention of the league’s pre-eminent player. His Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Toronto Raptors to the top seed in the Eastern playoffs, as James looks to claim his sixth consecutive Eastern Conference title. But despite strong support from Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, this team has underachieved somewhat. When Irving returned from injury in December – uniting the big three – the Cavs were 17-7. They have gone 40-18 since. They are still quite clearly a good team, but they have shown no obvious improvement when their stars are together.
James has been excellent though, particularly at the end of the season. He won’t win MVP, but he has a decent claim to be in the top three. As for the playoffs, he looks fated to end his season as he has done four times previously, by losing in the finals. His Cavs are the strongest team in the East, but it would take a monumental effort to overturn the Warriors or the 67 win Spurs in the NBA finals.
If we are to be denied a West final between the Warriors and the Spurs, Ibaka’s Thunder look the most likely alternative finalists. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are possibly the best duo in the league, but what will determine their success is the production of their backup. Among them will be Serge Ibaka, the 3-and-D power forward. His move towards the 3-point line has made him a less efficient scorer in the last couple of seasons. That was to be expected. But what is more surprising is his declining rebounding and block averages. He got below 7 rebounds and 2 blocks for the first time since his rookie season, despite playing 32 minutes per game.
The Thunder desperately need him to raise those numbers again, as he could face a tough duel with the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge in the Western semis. Aldridge has a strong mid-range game, so Ibaka’s solid defense will be required to deny him the space to get away that jump shot.
The Celtics have emerged as one of the surprises of the regular season, collecting the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They will face the Hawks, who finished with an identical 48-34 record. Central to Boston’s success has been Isaiah Thomas, their diminutive point guard. The NBA remains a star-driven league and it appears the Celtics have found theirs on what is a solid all-round team. Thomas’ scoring numbers have soared past 22 points per game and he is up in both rebounding and assists.
Although he is surrounded by good wing defenders in Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder, Thomas’ defense remains a major question mark. He will face up against Jeff Teague who had a brilliant end to the season, scoring 20 points per game in his last 10. Teague favours driving to the basket, which will challenge Thomas because of his lack of size. On offense though, Thomas is a force and he will hope that he can lift his Celitcs to the Eastern Semis with his scoring. That would probably leave an exciting battle with Kyrie Irving and the Cavs.
Toronto has the best chance of stopping Cleveland from taking the East again. They boast one of the best backcourts in the league in Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. Both are All-Stars and DeRozan’s ability to get to the free-throw line makes him a special offensive talent. He has steadily improved throughout his career and appears to be reaching his peak now. Him and Lowry’s form have given the Raptors three of their four division titles in the last three seasons.
Toronto still hasn’t won the East though. DeRozan’s potential clash with the Cavs’ J.R. Smith in the East finals could be crucial in finally winning it. Smith is a notoriously mediocre defender and DeRozan will look to exploit that. Inevitably, Iman Shumpert will be brought in to guard him, as he is a much better defender. If DeRozan can continue his relentless pursuit of the free-throw line, Toronto has a serious chance of making the NBA finals.
An All-Star selection still eludes the Clippers’ center, but DeAndre Jordan had another solid season. His scoring, although limited to mostly dunks, was at its highest ever. Despite missing Blake Griffin for a large chunk of the season, the Clippers went 53-29. Jordan deserves a lot of credit for that. His defense remains daunting, as he averaged more than 2 blocks per game for the third straight season. The Clippers face the Trail Blazers in the first round – a team who employed hack-a-Jordan in their November matchup.
It will be interesting to see if Portland repeats this tactic in the playoffs – it couldn’t spark a comeback in that November game. The tactic was most recently used by Dallas against Jordan. Although he shot a dreadful 6-23 from the line, the Mavs offense was disjointed, collecting only 12 points in their third quarter fouling spree. If the Clippers get past the Blazers, they should face the Warriors. Despite Jordan’s imposing presence in the paint, it looks unlikely that he’ll finally make the Western finals.
In all likelihood, the Spurs will face the Warriors in what would be one of the greatest playoff series ever. Whoever wins that should go on to topple whoever comes out of the East. However, these five players have a good chance of upsetting that status quo.