The NBA playoffs tip off Saturday. American-Statesman columnists Kirk Bohls and Cedric Golden address key questions for the postseason:
1. Who’ll win it all?
Bohls: Please stop shoveling dirt on Golden State. Yes, we all have Warriors fatigue and wonder why Kevin Durant isn’t an alpha dog. But the Warriors remain the most complete and versatile team in the league, and once Steph Curry returns, they will drop 65-win Houston in seven games in the West finals and then beat LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers again for the title in six games.
Golden: File this one in the I’m-going-hate-myself-in-the-morning folder. Give me the Houston Rockets to win title No. 3 in six games over the Cavaliers. Give me Chris Paul to make it through a postseason without breaking a bone. Give me James Harden to show up when the stakes are the highest. Give me hell if the Warriors pull it together for their third title in four years.
2. Which 7- or 8-seed has the best chance to advance?
Bohls: That’s easy because in the East, the seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks catch the fragile second-seeded Boston Celtics, who are without Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and maybe Marcus Smart. Love this factoid: Milwaukee hasn’t won a postseason round since 2001 — when Giannis Antetokounmpo was 6 years old.
Golden: The eighth-seeded Washington Wizards free-fell into the postseason with five losses in their final six games, but they are talented enough to give the Toronto Raptors all they can handle, especially if John Wall plays up to his ability. Plus, Raptors guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry haven’t been the most reliable shooters in the postseason.
3. What was your best (and worst) preseason prediction?
Bohls: I predicted that the 76ers’ Joel Embiid would be the league’s best sophomore, pre-orbital fracture, and that the T-Wolves would return to the playoffs. But I also totally zeroed out saying some player named Kawhi Leonard would be this year’s MVP. Hey, he had a really good nine games, didn’t he?
Golden: My best was Ben Simmons for rookie of the year. I also mentioned that he would rack up several triple-doubles (he was third in the league with 10, behind Russell Westbrook and LeBron James). My worst was picking Charlotte to squeak into the playoffs. The Hornets finished 36-46.
4. Where will Kawhi Leonard be playing this time next year?
Bohls: Right where he is now. He can’t make much money elsewhere as he can in San Antonio; the Spurs have to give him a max contract offer to keep him.
Golden: Phoenix would be his ideal landing spot since there’s very little pressure and not a whole lot of media buzz about one of the league’s worst teams, but I’m thinking the Spurs wouldn’t want him in the Western Conference so I can see them dealing him to Milwaukee for a couple of players and a draft pick.
5. What has to happen for the Rockets to cut down the nets?
Bohls: They have to hope their defensive improvement as the league’s fifth most efficient unit continues in the playoffs. They’ll have plenty of offense and P.J. Tucker adds badly needed toughness and grit. James Harden can’t zone out and have a meltdown like he did last year.
Golden: They have to beat the Warriors, pure and simple. The Western Conference may be deep but on its base, it’s a two-horse race when it comes down to it. Beat the Dubs, win the title, plan the parade.
6. Would you enjoy playing with triple-double machine Russell Westbrook?
Bohls: Darn right. The fewer rebounds I’d need to get. Listen, Westbrook would be an excellent if not easy choice for back-to-back MVP honors after becoming the first player in history to average a triple-double twice, but Hardenhas to win the award or he’ll pout all summer. Westbrook is the best player in the league not named LeBron.
Golden: I would. He’s the Association’s James Brown — the hardest working man in the business. No player in the history of this league has played with as much intensity as Westbrook. Plus, as a cartilage-deprived owner of bad knees, I would just camp out on the three-point line and launch dueling bricks with Melo.
7. Who’s the most under-rated player in the playoffs?
Bohls: Without question, Anthony Davis. Few players can dominate a game at both ends of the floor like this Pelicans powerhouse. He may not be under-rated generally, but he shouldn’t take a back door to James, Curry, KD or anyone. He’s that good, even without Boogie Cousins.
Golden: Clint Capela. the Rockets have big-time players at several positions but their young post does a nice job of cleaning up on both ends. In today’s Euro-centric game, a center averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds and nearly two blocks a game is a luxury.
8. Will the Thunder surprise and make the Finals?
Bohls: No way. Not without Andre Robinson and maybe not without Corey Brewer, who hurt his knee in Wednesday night’s finale. Carmelo Anthony is so far beyond his prime, he can’t even see his twilight. And free agent Paul George will be too busy checking with flight agents and realtors in Los Angeles.
Golden: Nah. If they had the Carmelo Anthony from 2008, I would like their chances but they’re one superstar short of making a significant post-season run.
9. Who’s the rookie of the year?
Bohls: It may well be Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s do-everything forward who leads all newbies in every category but probably points. But I’ll take the electric Donovan Mitchell of the ascending Utah Jazz, who’ll give Oklahoma City all it can handle in the first round and might even beat the Thunder.
Golden: I’m sticking with Simmons. Imagine how good he’ll be when he learns how to shoot.
10. Is the Spurs’ run over?
Bohls: Perhaps. Hate to hedge because no one should ever underestimate Gregg Popovich. That said, they haven’t been the same since the worst quad injury in sports history ended Leonard’s reign. Blame it on Zaza Pachulia. Oh, they still play defense and were a top-five squad defensively for the sixth year in a row, but LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t enough to get San Antonio past the first round, and the Tony Parker-Manu Ginoboli pairing is nearing an end.
Golden: Not until Pop retires, and he doesn’t look burned out to me. The Kawhi thing might push him out of the door, but I doubt it. He’s the best coach in one of the best-run organizations in professional sports. As long as he’s there, the Spurs will be a player.