The high stakes of the NBA playoffs

This year marks the first time in over a decade that LeBron James won’t be in the playoffs. The NBA suffered a 26 percent drop in viewership as a result. Despite that, this year’s playoffs have been exciting. We saw a former MVP get humbled in grand fashion, a team of misfits pull off a 30-point comeback, and a young team learn how to navigate to victory. As the second round comes to a close, there are storylines that might change the league for good.

 After game one, Boston took everyone by surprise as they went on the road and beat the first seed Milwaukee Bucks. In the series opener, Coach Brad Stevens debuted a whole new game plan to neutralize the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, forcing him to take shots from deep and run shooters off the three-point line. The Bucks responded by winning the last 4 games, spearheaded by Antetokounmpo’s stellar play. Antetokounmpo’s offensive versatility at 6-foot-11 has made him a matchup nightmare. The forward euro-stepped and spun around any and every defender thrown at him. This coupled with team shooting a respectable 34 percent from downtown all series resulted in a quick win. Milwaukee’s size, length and ability to switch on defense completely overwhelmed the Celtics. Gordon Hayward still hasn’t found a consistent rhythm within the offense, and overall has been a shell of his former self. Marcus Smart’s torn oblique has taken away some of his ability on defense. Kyrie Irving’s body language after game four showed the disconnect between him and his teammates. With rumors of him going to New York, game five may have been the last time we’ve seen Irving as a Celtic.

 The Toronto Raptors are looking to make their first conference finals since 2001. Kawhi Leonard has been playing on another level. The ex-Spur is averaging nearly 35 points and 10 rebounds on an efficient 59 percent from the court. Pascal Siakam has emerged as the second-best player on the Raptors. The Cameroonian has been averaging nearly 21 points and 5.6 rebounds. On defense he’s been a huge contributor using his length to disrupt the passing lanes en route to two steals per contest. The dark cloud hanging over the Raptors this season has been Leonard’s free agent status. Where the Raptors finish will determine whether or not the Klaw will stay in The Six. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia 76ers will go as far as Joel Embiid’s health takes them. There were reports of the star big man needing constant treatments for his knee and it shows. Because of that he’s on minutes restriction, averaging only 30 minutes per game.  He’s the team’s best rim protector but struggles when defending the pick and roll. The Sixers’ growing dependence on Jimmy Butler as a result is concerning given the lack of depth their roster has. He’s currently the team’s leading scorer at 22 points per game despite being the third option. Ben Simmons has been neutralized due to his poor shooting ability in a half-court set. A second round loss could be devastating for a team that’s made moves all season.

Kevin Durant’s recent games are reminiscent of his stint at Oklahoma City, a time where 90 percent of plays consisted of KD exploiting whatever mismatch came his way. Many of Golden State’s signature offensive sets involving Curry and Thompson have been slowly replaced with Durant playing isolation ball. In a seven-game stretch in this year’s playoffs, Durant averaged 39 points, shooting 51 percent from the field. Curry has been underperforming due to suffering a dislocated finger, excluding his performances in games four and five. The veteran guard has shot 39.4 percent from the field and a concerning 36 percent from the three-point line. The Warriors are trying to go for a fourth championship in five years. With Durant and Thompson becoming free agents this summer, this might be the last time we see this version of the Dubs. On the other side, James Harden has been playing amazing since coming back home to Houston. The reigning MVP dropped 38 points, 10 boards and four assists to knot the series at 2-2. His supporting cast also elevated their play the past few games. Eric Gordon had 30 points in game four, shooting 7-for-14 from the three-point line. PJ Tucker brought his hard hat, chipping in solid defense and 10 boards in game four while also scoring 17 points. Despite losing Durant in game five to a calf sprain, the Warriors still have enough talent to win this series. This is the rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals and the stakes are no different. Harden, who has been branded a choker in the last few playoffs, is fighting to end that narrative. If Houston wins the series, it’s a yellow brick road to the finals. If Golden State wins, it’s a chance at contributing to an already historic run.

After dispatching the Thunder in five games, the Trail Blazers carry a lot of momentum. Damian Lillard’s step-back three to win the series solidified him as a household name among most NBA fans. It also changed the discourse around the question of where to rank him amongst his peers. Enes Kanter has given the Blazers a post presence and much needed rebounding inside. The Turkish big man is giving 14 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game this series. It’s been a back-and-forth battle between the two teams. Star center Nikola Jokic orchestrates Denver’s offense, a balanced attack that has five guys averaging more than 10 points per game. The Nuggets have a good young backcourt with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. They also have solid veteran leadership in Paul Millsap, who is a skilled power forward. Portland’s backcourt has given Denver all that they can handle. Lillard opened the series with a bang, scoring 39 points. It was all for naught, as Denver’s balanced attack took Portland down, taking game one. The Blazers took game two on the road, despite shoddy, late game officiating. Rodney Hood came in clutch in game three, scoring seven points in overtime to give Portland a 2-1 series lead. After splitting the last three games, game seven will be in the Mile High City. Portland advancing would secure Damian Lillard’s legacy. For the Nuggets, a conference final appearance would be a big step toward them establishing themselves as a contender in the West.

A superstar is being born in Milwaukee. A man in Portland is searching for his place among the NBA’s elite. Several teams are trying to look for their first ring, and a team in Silicon Valley is trying to maintain a dynasty that may soon come to an end. These playoffs will be the beginning of a huge paradigm shift in the Association.