We are now down to the last eight, folks, and it’s time to bring out the old crystal ball to look at what the immediate future has in store for us. This year has seen a most unusual season, and we expect more sizzling action and surprises in the weeks ahead.
There will be a new king of the NBA at the end of the season, with the rude dismissal of King Lebron and the defending champs Lakers. In Lebron’s entire playoff experience, this is the very first time that his team has been eliminated right in the first round of the playoffs.
We also witnessed the emergence of new stars and new power blocks as the traditional power teams were bundled off unceremoniously. Only 3 of the 8 survivors have had the honor of winning the NBA crown, with the Philadelphia 76ers nailing the last NBA title way back in 1983.
That said, here are the latest on the ongoing NBA conference semifinal match-ups.
The Milwaukee Bucks may have stolen 1 game from the Brooklyn Nets at home, but the way they lost the first 2 games shows that they are just totally overmatched in the offensive end. The Nets’ firepower is so lethal and so diverse that it will need a focused, lockdown, total-team defensive effort from the Bucks to contain them. And the Nets haven’t even unleashed their fullest potential yet, with the absence of James Harden in the mix. Nets won Games 1 and 2 by scores of 115-107 and 125-86. Bucks stole Game 3: 86-83. If we have a low-scoring ballgame – meaning, the Bucks defense holds off the Nets’ hordes – then the Bucks have a fighting chance. If the Nets’ regain their regular shooting form, it will be an early exit for the Bucks. With Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and – very soon – James Harden taking turns on the offense, plus the rejuvenated Blake Griffin providing muscle underneath, this should be over for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in 5.
In the other eastern match-up, the Atlanta Hawks surprised the Philadelphia 76ers with an early wake-up call, winning Game 1 by a score of 128-124. The Sixers, top-seeds in the eastern conference, promptly hunkered down to work, winning 118-102 and 127-111 to move ahead 2-1. Trae Young has led an overachieving Atlanta drive, but sustaining this intensity will be the challenge. Having seen how they can be sucker-punched when complacent, the Sixers – starring veterans Joel Embiid, Tobias Harrris, Ben Simmons and multi-ring awardee Danny Green – should finish this off in 5.
In the west, the Phoenix Suns has jumped to a 3-0 lead over the Denver Nuggets, with lopsided wins of 122-105, 123-98 and 116-102. The big difference has been the presence of point-laureate Chris Paul, who has engineered the splendid maturation process of this young Phoenix roster. With Denver’s primary point guard, Jamal Murray, injured, last year’s Bubble Games darlings – the Denver Nuggets – are simply overmatched. With the wily Chris Paul directing the offense, Devin Booker taking care of the scoring chores, plus DeAndre Ayton doing a good job containing the newly-minted NBA MVP, Nikola Jokic, this should be over in favor of the Suns in 5.
In the most hotly-contested series of the conference semis, the Utah Jazz lead the LA Clippers 2-0, with the next 2 games to be hosted by the Clippers. With close call losses of 112-109 and 117-111, the Clippers were right there competing up to the very end. The Jazz are not a solo act like Luka; and they are a far better defensive team than the Mavs, with no less than the Defensive Player of the Year awardee, Rudy Gobert, patrolling the shaded lane. The key in this match-up will be that upcoming superstar, Donovan Mitchell, and whether he can be contained or not. The Jazz have won all its playoff games this year with Mitchell playing. Their only loss came without him suited up in Game 1 of their Grizzlies series. Both the Jazz and the Clippers were heartbreak losers to the Denver Nuggets in last year’s playoffs. Both were ahead 3-1 before being wiped out and humiliated by the Nuggets’ Jokic-Murray show. Hence, both teams have a lot to prove. But the Clippers’ epic fightbacks from 0-2 and 2-3 deficits in the first round of the playoff are character-defining events for the Clippers. This could be a showdown that could go down the wire. Despite the twin losses, I still see the Clippers winning this one in 7 games.
The winner of the Jazz – Clippers series will go up against the Suns. In the east, it should be the Nets against the Sixers. I foresee the winner of the Jazz- Clippers series to go all the way to the NBA Finals against the Nets. We will have a first-time champion this year, just 2 years after the Toronto Raptors joined the ranks of the titleholders in 2019.
The arrival of new stars and new alignments usher in a new dawn for the NBA. Traditional contenders such as the Boston Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs, the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors are now back in the rebuilding mode. Upstarts such as the Brooklyn Nets, the Phoenix Suns, the Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks – non-playoff contenders or borderline contenders last year – have crawled back into contention. It will be interesting to see how the new stars stamp their class on the league, how the veterans adjust to these upstarts, and how the game will eventually evolve.
Gentlemen, welcome to the ‘New Norm’ of basketball.
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