It’s likely you’re getting a slew of NBA playoff previews and predictions. Maybe you’re sick of them, maybe you like the slew! Maybe this is the one time of year when you truly can’t get enough. You want to know what Saddiq Bey ate for breakfast and how it’s going to affect his emotional approach to facing Marcus Smart. Actually, I’m projecting, that is what I would very much like to know, and therein lies the point of this playoff preview post.
I don’t (yet) have the direct line on how every athlete is prepping for their first playoff series, be it in their diet, sleep or skincare routine. I do, however, have a good handle on optimism and some unsung takeaways for each team in their first round and beyond.
Here are the flags — some fond, some freak — for every team in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
A lot of analysis is focusing on the fact that these Nets are no longer the same team as the one that started this season which, for these Nets, is great! Those Nets, if you already don’t remember, weren't very good! Yes, when the stars and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving aligned, there was some beautiful, very skilled basketball to watch, but there were no real indications that Nets team would stack up any better than this one in a playoff series.
Those Nets got swept last year by the Celtics, these Nets can chip a game or two from the statuesque Sixers. Mikal Bridges has been having one of the highest scoring seasons of his career since getting Brooklyn (plus, he looks so happy), Day’Ron Sharpe on Joel Embiid may be, initially, much more exhausting for Embiid, Patty Mills loves to get wily in games like this, plus, with no expectations really riding on Brooklyn, they’ll be imbued with a lightness Philadelphia does not have.
Fear not, Sixers fans. As implacable as your team has been in its overall playoff progression, it is also implacable in its refusal to yield. The Sixers are so stubborn. Probably the most stubborn team in the postseason mix. This heaviness has been their detriment in the past but with the rise of a person like Tyrese Maxey, who has made it his goal to rub some of his inexhaustible effervescence off on Joel Embiid and James Harden, there is a new pep in these Sixers’ step.
The Nets will probably run a couple of frenetic circles around the Sixers to start, but the Sixers stoicism, plus the anchors of Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker, will prevail. If these guys can finally strike a balance between reality vs. expectation, they’ll go far.
It feels strange to say the Hawks are a playoff team but hear me out. Atlanta, kind of plodding and tangled up throughout its regular season, suddenly comes alive under the big lights. This is certainly true for Trae Young. There’s also something to be said for the way Young is entering this postseason versus the team’s run of two seasons ago, when Young became the villain and stoked a disdain so strong in the hearts of Knicks fans that it gave us the gift of bing bong.
This postseason, with Atlanta’s decision to leak that it was open to trade talks for Young, he’s become root-for-able. It’s going to be really interesting, fun, and frankly telling, the way that Young decides to meld those two identities together (and as a result, the way that the Hawks front office has potentially made its life much more difficult for no reason).
They’re a juggernaut. This team has literally not changed one iota from the first time I watched them take the floor in the fall, in person when they were in Toronto, all quiet focus and easy-honed fluidity with one another, to now. There has been no wavering, only fixation. That’s scary and I wish the rest of the East well.
The best thing about the Knicks in the playoffs is it’s not all bravado this time. There’s still plenty of it, but what Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes have put together, how RJ Barrett has flourished, Obi Toppin’s sustainable sunniness, the way Tom Thibodeau’s so lovingly referred to this roster as “gym rats” essentially after his own heart — there are steady legs here. It of course doesn’t feel great not knowing if Julius Randle will be around, and I’m not sure it ever feels great being a Knicks fan, but suddenly the best-laid plans do not feel doomed.
Wow, do these guys ever like each other. Love each other even, as Lamar Stevens said in his beautiful blog about the team’s playoff journey. Just under that sunny surface though is a team ready to pummel you flat. What the Cavs had last year in size, ingenuity and raw skill, they’ve honed into tactically sound and very scopey basketball. They are dauntless and absolutely playing for each other. That’s an inexhaustible well.
I don’t have much to say other than it feels plainly unsound to ever count out the Warriors, so!
I was going to say the Kings are America's team but why stop there? The beam has no nationality, no care or even understanding of borders. It’s charged particles vibrating freely, and is that not the perfect description for the Sacramento Kings basketball team? Wanting the Kings to win is like wanting sunlight on your face, it feels good and doesn’t have to be much deeper than that.
While the Lakers' whole entire thing has been being a freak flag this season, much like the Warriors, it is foolish to discount LeBron James. James alone won’t be enough to get the Lakers farther than halfway, but James is as natural and inevitable in the postseason as weather. Plus, D’Angelo Russell is thriving and Austin Reeves is ready to be Lakers fans’ flavor of the week/month/however long they’ll have him and inevitably shift to their next undiscovered talent (that’s a L.A. thing, not a Reeves thing).
For the Grizzlies the only flag (fond, freak, green, red) is that this is what they’ve wanted. Memphis has worked to get here for seasons now and can’t and shouldn’t be happy with a first, even second round out. That desire, if it can shift into understanding and belief (also, intent) will be what propels them. The conversion will be the difference in the Grizzlies talking about how much they want to win and doing it.
This one is tough. Mostly because the Clippers have continued to operate in a metaphysical void of their own making. Who and what are they? We don’t know, but it’s possible that they do. It can be incredibly freeing to turn yourself over to Kawhi Leonard playoff basketball, and the Clippers' sake I hope they do it. As a Russell Westbrook lifer, I am also going to point out there is potentially no one in the postseason that wants to happily wield the crushed hopes of several competing franchises in their hands more than him. X-factor or Ammit, the Egyptian god who made a hobby out of devouring hearts — your call.
What a treat would be to watch this team rise from its own ashes! To get out from under its own perfect form and gorgeous brand of basketball! To harken back to the menacing days of Chris Paul making everyone’s lives miserable and treating the open floor like a chess board, or compress Cam Payne to the point where he is revealing once more in his specific brand of artistic and airy contortion shots. For the Suns, the real goal is to first locate a freak flag, and then really, really let it rip.