James Harden

The 2017-18 NBA regular season wrapped up on Wednesday, and after weeks of speculation, the seeds are officially set. That said, there’s probably a good chance you didn’t get to see all 16 teams that are advancing to the playoffs in action this season, so I took the liberty of creating a nice little “cheat sheet” so you know who and what to look for this postseason.

Eastern Conference

1. Toronto Raptors

Notable Players: DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry

Toronto Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan (10) and Kyle Lowry celebrate the dying seconds of their winning game against the Brooklyn Nets following second half NBA basketball action, in Toronto, on Monday, Jan. 18, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Coming off of another disappointing playoff appearance where they were swept in the conference semi’s by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors came into this season looking like a completely new team, as they were revamped by coach Dwane Casey, who made it a point for the Raps to move the ball more, rather than relying on the isolation abilities of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. To go along with that, the Raptors’ bench has been incredible this season, averaging 41.7 PPG, and highlighting the play of point guard Fred Van Vleet, OG Anunoby, Jakob Poeltl and C.J. Miles.

Even though the bench has been phenomenal, DeRozan will still be the focal point of the offense. Averaging 23.1 PPG, DeRozan has an excellent mid-range game and an exceptional post-up game, and despite the fact that this team has been focusing on ball movement, DeRozan’s iso game will be able to bail them out of tight games when the rest of the team isn’t hitting their shots.

This Raptors team may be the top seed in the East, but that doesn’t make them the favorite to come out of the conference. In the past, this team hasn’t been able to get by the juggernaut that is LeBron James. Coach Casey will definitely be in the Coach of Year conversation, but until they prove us all wrong, we will continue to look right past them, as the Cavaliers have.

2. Boston Celtics

Notable Players: Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown

Nov 5, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) drives to the basket as Orlando Magic forward Jonathon Simmons (17) defends during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After a lot of people (including myself) had this Celtics team slated to overthrow the Cavs and take the throne in the East, but the Basketball Gods would have other plans. In the first five minutes of the season, Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome leg injury that would end his season, and things didn’t look great for the rest of the Celtics’ season either. Despite losing their first two games, and as people began to write them off, the Celtics, led by Kyrie Irving and coach Brad Stevens, would go on to win 16 straight games.

The Celtics’ “next man up” approach has been the key to their success this season, as we’ve seen notable contributions from rookie Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye and more, but their luck may have officially ran out, as Kyrie Irving is out for the entire postseason after having two knee surgeries, both of which did not deal with the structure of Irving’s knee.

These scrappy role players have been able to fit right into where Stevens puts them all season, but I’m not expecting the deep playoff run that I was at the beginning of the year. It’s very possible that their defense gets them out of the first round, but without a dynamic scorer like Irving it’ll be hard to beat the likes of Philadelphia and Cleveland.

3. Philadelphia 76ers

Notable Players: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons

November 15, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts during the 115-109 victory against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

After nabbing their first 50-win season in 17 years, the 76ers have exceeded expectations as Joel Embiid appeared in his first All-Star game and played in 63 games this season, and top Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons looked like anything but a rookie, posting 12 triple-doubles this season, which is second most by a rookie behind only Oscar Robertson who had 26 during his rookie season. To go along with that, Robert Covington came out and earned the contract extension he received earlier this season, with stellar 3-and-D play, which is something any team needs if they want to contend for a title.

One of the questions that remain is where will Markelle Fultz be in the lineup? Will he get a lot of playing time, despite missing most of the year with that mysterious shoulder injury, or will they continue to go with TJ McConnell?

Another uncertainty is when will Embiid be cleared to play, and when he does play, will the mask prescribed to him after facial surgery effect him, and will it allow him to be aggressive in the post?

Despite these uncertainties, the Sixers have nothing to lose, and should continue to ride their momentum until it runs dry. Sitting in the 3 seed, a first round win will likely place them against the banged up Celtics in the conference semi’s, and as I stated earlier, without Kyrie Irving, it isn’t crazy to think that Simmons and Embiid can lead this team to conference finals, which looking back at how bad the past five years or so have been, is a major upgrade for the 76ers organization.

4. Cleveland Cavaliers

Notable Players: LeBron James, Kevin Love

Feb 25, 2018; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) shoots over the defense of San Antonio Spurs guard Dejounte Murray (5) during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season, this Cavs team had a roster that included Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Jeff Green. This team was LOADED…… If it were 2012. Rose, a shell of his former self after numerous knee injuries, and with Wade and Green getting older, the two words commonly used to describe them was “old and slow.” All of this, plus Thomas missing a lot of time with a hip injury that he suffered last year in the postseason, and then the organization, being disappointed with his play, and how he handled team affairs off the court, decided to shake things up at the trade deadline. Rose, Wade, Iman Shumpert and Thomas were all traded and replaced with Larry Nance Jr., George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood.

LeBron James continued to defy Father Time in his 15th season, as he played in all 82 games for the first time in his career, and even made a case for MVP as he always does. He handled the turmoil with the early season roster well, and didn’t miss a beat after the trade deadline, using his younger role players to his advantage.

Defensively, this team is…. younger? They’re still not great on defense, but I mean, they have LeBron James, and as long as he continues to play well, and the rest of the team is hitting their shots and filling their roles they have a strong chance of making it back to the Finals for the fourth straight year, 8th straight for James.

5. Indiana Pacers

Notable Players: Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner

Oct 4, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo (4) shoots against Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) during the second half against at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

What more can I say about this Pacers team other than that they aren’t supposed to be here? They traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Two players who had yet to prove themselves at this level, despite showing a lot of promise. AND we were all dumb to think that. Oladipo proved that he should be one of the building blocks of the future in Indiana, where he also played college hoops at IU, averaging 23.1 PPG and 2.4 SPG, Oladipo would be named to his first All-Star team, and will likely win the Most Improved Player award.

Indiana has also been able to win big games this season, winning two of the three games they played against the Cavs, and picking up a 20 point victory over the Golden State Warriors.

This team has been able to play beyond expectations this season, but there is a huge roadblock waiting for them in the first round: LeBron James. Like I said, they have beaten them twice this season, but playoff LeBron is a completely different beast, and as he’s proven in the previous seven seasons is almost unstoppable in the East. Rim protector Myles Turner will need to bring is A game and I’d love to see some of Lance Stephenson’s shenanigans if he ever guards LeBron, but unfortunately, I don’t see a deep run in the Pacers’ future.

6. Miami Heat

Notable Players: Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic

Miami Heat
Apr 8, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) shoots as Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat (13) defends during the first half at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat are one of the most interesting teams in the playoffs. Sure, Goran Dragic is an All-Star, and Hassan Whiteside is an elite rim protector, but on any given night, someone like Wayne Ellington or Kelly Olynyk will kill you. You really can’t game plan for them. They don’t have an elite scorer, so who do you focus on? They come out and kill you with an all around team effort, and coach Eric Spoelstra looks like a genius because of the way he’s coaching this group.

To go along with the role players, they have this guy named Dwyane Wade. Maybe you’ve heard of him? The three time NBA champion reunited with the franchise that drafted him at the trade deadline, and even though he’s not the young, spry man he used to be, he’s shown that on any given night he can take over and have a throwback game.

The fact that a different player can be the main guy on any given night makes this team dangerous for their first round opponent, the 76ers. And with Whiteside their to matchup with Embiid, their is a possibility that this team could upset Philly and make it out of the first round.

7. Milwaukee Bucks

Notable Players: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe, Jabari Parker

milwaukee bucks
Apr 15, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts after a play against Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (notpictured) in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre. Milwaukee defeated Toronto 97-83. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Bucks came out on fire, which was fueled by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was the early leader for MVP. Giannis, who has averaged 27.1 PPG, 10 RPG and 4.8 APG, has been a force to be reckoned with this season, as his length and athleticism makes him a tough cover, and nearly impossible to stop when he’s driving to the paint.

This team has also gone through a coaching change which changed the course of the Bucks’ season, for better or worse. The organization decided to move on from Jason Kidd, a new inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and gave the job to assistant Joe Prunty, who has not been making a strong case that he should remain in that position next season. Despite a strong start, the Bucks, who were slotted to be in the top half of the East in the preseason, have fallen to seventh in the conference.

The Bucks have a really long team, in the sense that their arms are extremely long. Giannis, Eric Bledsoe, John Henson and Malcom Brogdon all have really long arms, which should help their ability to protect the rim, and disrupt passing lanes, but defense, which was once this team’s identity a few years ago, is no longer something that they excel at. They just seem to rely on Giannis to go out and make everything happen for them. But as they sit in the seven seed, they will play a banged up Celtics team in the first round, and if Giannis completely takes over as he’s shown he’s capable of on numerous occasions, they can make a strong case to move on to the next round.

8. Washington Wizards

Notable Players: John Wall, Bradley Beal

Feb 27, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) drives to the basket around Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe (6) during the fourth quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting at eighth in the East, it really has been a disappointing season for the Wizards, but nonetheless, they are still in the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they’ve had a tough time finding their identity, with John Wall missing time with a knee injury, forcing him to miss the All-Star game. We’ve seen them play well without Wall, and we’ve seen them play poorly without Wall, so despite their “everybody eats” mentality, they’ve had a tough go at it.

Bradley Beal however, has had an excellent year, making his first All-Star team and averaging 22. 6 PPG, shooting 37.5% from 3. The Wizards have also gotten good contributions from Kelly Oubre Jr. (11.8 PPG) and Tomas Satoransky, who played his tail off in Wall’s absence.

In the first round, we have a battle of dynamic backcourts, when Beal and Wall matchup against Lowry and DeRozan, but it’s the battle of the benches that will be key in this series. If the Wizards’ bench can play well against the Raptors’ bench, who have been outstanding this season, they could have a real shot at a first round upset.

Western Conference

1. Houston Rockets

Notable Players: James Harden, Chris Paul

Nov 9, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after making a three point basket during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Last year was definitely not James Harden’s, or the Rockets’ year for that matter. Harden failed to capture the MVP that he had been chasing since 2015, and the Rockets got bounced in the playoffs by a Spurs team that was missing Kawhi Leonard. This season however, The Beard is a shoe-in for MVP and the Rockets have dominated all season finishing 65-16, and have been almost unstoppable when Harden and Chris Paul both play.

Harden and Paul were a questionable marriage when the trade was made. Harden had just taken the reigns as lead ball handler the year before, and the Rockets pretty much exclusively shoot 3’s. In fact, after the All-Star break last season, Paul had taken more mid-range jumpers than the entire Rockets team combined, but somehow it has managed to work to near perfection. EVERYBODY (almost everybody) can shoot it from deep in Houston. Paul, Harden, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, PJ Tucker all shoot the ball well from deep, and go out there and dominate, no matter who the opponent is.

With all of the injury issues with Golden State, it’s not crazy to think that this Rockets squad can get the job done. That said, like with the Raptors, I won’t believe it until I see it. Harden and Paul are both known to choke in the playoffs. Harden, who bragged about not resting in games looked exhausted last postseason and Paul, as a part of that Clippers team couldn’t get the job done. But this season seems different. The only team that can stop Houston is a Warriors team that’s on top of its game.

2. Golden State Warriors

Notable Players: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson

October 25, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) high fives guard Stephen Curry (30) during the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Raptors 117-112. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a pretty weird season for the Warriors, who have won two NBA championships in three years, and are looking to make it to their fourth straight Finals. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have all missed significant time with injury, so we really haven’t gotten to see the Big 4 on the court together very much, and yet, they still find themselves in the two seed in the West.

With the injuries, and the losses (some pretty bad ones) some people have began to write off the Dubs, saying that their time is up, and that they’ve ran out of gas, and frankly, at times it definitely did look like they were out of gas, but I wouldn’t be slightly concerned about the Warriors this postseason. Even though they will be without Curry for the first round, and will be playing San Antonio, they still have Durant, who is one of the elite scorers we’ve ever seen in this league, Thompson who is one of the best shooters we’ve ever seen and Green, who brings energy to both ends of the floor. And since the Spurs will be without Leonard, I’m not too terribly concerned about the Warriors chances to win another title.

And sure, Curry might not be 100% when he returns, but let’s not forget the 2016 Finals, when they blew the 3-1 lead. Curry had a similar knee injury and it still took the final minutes of game 7 to put them down, and on top of that, they didn’t have Kevin Durant on that team.

3. Portland Trail Blazers

Notable Players: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum

The Blazers have kind of hobbled their way into the playoffs over this last stretch, going 5-5 in their last 10, falling just short of the 50 win mark. In what has been a very good season for C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard, you have to be a little concerned about the recent shooting woes that plagued Portland in their final few games, as they shot 28.5% from three during their final road trip of the season.

However, the Blazers were very impressive this season, and were able to come out on top of the monster traffic jam that was the 3-8 seeds, and Lillard has been spectacular this season, averaging 26.8 PPG, and dropping 36 in the season finale against Utah. His backcourt teammate McCollum has averaged 21.4 PPG shooting nearly 40% from 3.

I like the Blazers, they’re very scrappy. Dame always plays with a chip on his shoulder, but they face New Orleans in the first round, and I don’t think they have an answer for Anthony Davis who has been out of his mind since the All-Star break. If they hit their shots, and are able to contain Davis, they’ll be able to pull this thing out.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

Notable Players: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Steven Adams

Sep 25, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George (13), guard Russell Westbrook (0) and forward Carmelo Anthony (7) pose for photos during the Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

What an emotional roller coaster it has been for OKC fans. First, they were bad, then good for a brief period, then bad again, and so on and so forth. Nonetheless, here they are sitting pretty in the four seed, when a few months ago, we weren’t sure they’d be playing in the postseason at all. The pairing of the OK3 could’ve gone two ways for me; really well, or 2012 Lakers, with Kobe, Dwight and Steve Nash, and somehow, they landed somewhere in the middle of those expectations. On one hand, Paul George has really embraced his role as one of the key defenders on this team, but on the other hand, we’ve seen his offensive production go down.

Melo has been decent against bad teams, and bad against good teams, as his shots just aren’t falling for him.

Westbrook, statistically, has been incredible, as he finished the season averaging a triple-double for the second straight season, the first player to do so. But, we still see those same qualities of Russ’ that make it hard for guys like James Harden, Kevin Durant to stick around.

The Thunder split the season series with Golden State and even blew them out in a game, where they looked absolutely fired up, so they’re definitely a threat. Westbrook is an incredible athlete, and Steven Adams is unstoppable in the pick and roll, but I don’t see this OK3 experiment getting by Houston if they make it to the second round, but for their sake, they need to come out and make a splash if they want to convince George to sign with the team this summer.

5. Utah Jazz

Notable Players: Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert

Oct 10, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio (3) handles the ball defended by Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Alex Caruso (4) during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Jazz have been one of the more fun stories to watch this season, as Donovan Mitchell had his coming out party, and is in the Rookie of the Year conversation, Rudy Gobert has averaged 2.3 BLKPG, and his been a force in the middle. To go along with that, Ricky Rubio came out and had a heck of a season averaging 13 PPG and 5.3 APG.

This team has had its ups and downs this season. During some stretches they look like the playoff team that they are, and others they look mediocre. But like the Celtics and Brad Stevens, coach Quin Snyder has a system, and every player on the roster from Derrick Favors to Joe Ingles fits that system.

They matchup with the Thunder in the first round, and to be honest I don’t like their chances. With rookie Mitchell taking the scoring load, I assume Westbrook and George will swarm him defensively, and in the end, no matter how much we look at the numbers, playoff experience helps, and this Jazz team just doesn’t have it yet.

6. New Orleans Pelicans

Notable Players: Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo

Feb 25, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) reaches for a rebound over Milwaukee Bucks guard Tony Snell (21) in the second quarter at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a topsy turvy season for the Pelicans, going from a dominate force with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins sharing the paint, and going against the league wide trend of small ball, to losing Cousins to injury, but they’ve risen above it and made it to the six seed, where they have a very winnable series against the Trail Blazers.

Post All-Star break, Davis has averaged 30 PPG, 11.7 RPG and 3.5 BLKPG, using that ‘Russell Westbrook mentality’ and dominating. To go along with Davis, Rajon Rondo is playing very well, averaging 8 PPG and 8APG, and also ramped up his play after the Cousins injury.

If Davis continues to play at the level he’s been playing at, it wouldn’t shock me one bit if they blow by the Blazers in the first round.

7. San Antonio Spurs

Notable Players: LaMarcus Aldridge

memphis grizzlies
Apr 15, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) shoots the ball past Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half in game one of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 111- 82. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

They almost didn’t make it. Despite not having their star player for almost every game this season, the Spurs have made the playoffs for the 21st straight year.

There isn’t much for me to say about these guys. LaMarcus Aldridge has done a really good job taking the scoring load in Leonard’s absence, and Pop is obviously a hell of a coach, but without Leonard, who is dynamic on both ends of the floor, I can’t see this team making the splash that they usually do in the postseason, especially since they’re matched up against Golden State in the first round. It’ll likely be a first round bounce for the Spurs, but it was a hell of an effort by them this season.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

Notable Players: Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns

Minnesota Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler, right, drives past Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson during their preseason NBA game in Shanghai, China, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. (AP Photo)

Breaking a 14 year drought, the Timberwolves finally made the playoffs, but it took until the final game of the season to do so. We’ve seen some really good stretches from this team, but we’ve also seen them very, very tired, which we’re used to seeing from teams coached by Tom Thibodeau. I expect this group to put up a pretty decent fight against Houston in the first round, with Jimmy Butler being a monster on both ends of the floor, and having Karl Towns, one of the bright, young bigs in the league, but in the end, I expect the Rockets to run them into the ground, with their pace, and the fact that they are a lot deeper of a team than the Wolves.

It’s fun that they were able to make the playoffs in exciting fashion, but Houston is incredible, and the Wolves just won’t be able to matchup with their pace and space offense.

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