As the dust of bubble life has settled and the NBA Playoffs have gotten started, the quality of basketball has risen. The stakes are raised and teams have the prerequisite comfort needed to function at the highest of their abilities amidst the living conditions they’re challenged with. Though understandable, no excuses are being made and the ball is rolling. Let’s take a look at the 5 things I’ll be paying most attention to as these series get started.

Independent of each team vying for the 2019-2020 Larry O’Brien trophy, I am curious to see if there is any correlation to teams playing games much earlier in the day. Typically playoff games are later in the evening or at night time during the week, with earlier games scheduled for only Saturdays and Sundays. However, through the first round at least, the NBA will be having games spanning from 1:30pm to 9:00pm EST. I do not think it will be all that much of an issue, but it is indeed worth noting. 

I also wonder how much the absence of a home court advantage will play as teams go deeper into their respective series. Usually a 10-point lead at home can be amplified and seem larger than it is with a rawkus crowd cheering for more. Being at a neutral site, I feel as if leads, runs, and separation on the scoreboard are far more apt to be evaporated, making for much more contentious play and down to the wire action.

Coinciding with the dynamic of a lack of crowd presence, I wonder if there will be an uptick in technical fouls and referee intervention with both players and coaches. Things will be seen and heard a lot more concisely by the officials, and that could lead to more policing than usual by them, evident by the Porzingis ejection in the second half last night. 

Aside from this, let’s take a look at my team specific instances.

Lakers

Typically, leading into the playoffs we can dive into the numbers of a 1st seeded team and pinpoint exactly why they are the contender that they are. However, that is not the case for the Los Angeles Lakers. Through 8 seeding games which served as a precursor to the playoffs, the Lakers were at the bottom of the league in both 3-point shooting and defense. Though their shooting from deep was never something considered elite for them, they have viable shooters that just have not been knocking their shots down. This grew more and more concerning as we got closer to the finish line of the regular season. Not only has their shooting been bad, but their defense in turn has been just as bad. Some of this can be attributed to their long misses from deep, which in turn lead to fastbreak opportunities for their opposition. Some of this can also be attributed to them locking up the 1st seed early on in the seeding games. Regardless, it is more than worthy of recognition. They have not yet replicated that energy and continuity that they had before the hiatus, it will be interesting to see if/when/how quick LeBron James and Anthony Davis can get their team to rekindle that fire. Better late than never is the motto, and they will need to right the ship in regards to each of these dynamics because they face a locked in Blazers team with players in Lillard and McCollum that are positioned where they are seeing issues at, being the guard positions. Match-ups make fights and stylistically, these two teams attack the others weakness directly, making for a potential

Rockets

The Houston Rockets are the most unique team in the playoffs. I feel that this rendition is even more under a microscope than the previous versions. Playing with no true center means they’re conceding the all-important rebounding battle, which in the playoffs takes an extreme level of audacity. However, they trust their system and with head coach Mike D’Antoni on the hotseat, “Morey Ball” is something being embraced to the fullest extent. They trust and believe in both their system, and their franchise player James Harden. It’s well documented that he has had a handful of hiccups and moments where he has not been able to get Houston where they want to be. Pace in the playoffs is always a lot more controlled and games are decided in half court settings. Harden, though an all-time great player, becomes a lot more predictable in these situations. Teams can easily overload the side of the floor he is on, send a double team, or even a triple team to him. Evident by his 4.5 turnovers per game since becoming the leading act for the Rockets, he’s susceptible to a barrage of turnovers any given game. His partner in crime and the other playmaker on the team, Russel Westbrook, has averaged nothing less than 4.0 turnovers per game in the playoffs the last six years. If they’re conceding rebounds, they simply cannot turn the ball over at a high volume. Though their stock is placed in these two and their team 3-point shooting ability, this rendition of the Rockets will be under much scrutiny should they come short of the conference finals. Never shy to speak his mind, owner Tillman Fertita has placed an onus on the team to reach their potential and has seemingly hung the idea of big change as a result in response to a deemed “early” playoff exit of any kind. Their stylistic approach leads them to having a higher variance in the outcome of their games than any other team in this year’s playoffs. They can of course run off 20 made three’s which can break the back of any opponent who attempts less from deep than they make in a game. However, if the Rockets are missing or even having an average game percentage wise from deep, that can allow for a disciplined team (like their opening round opponents, the Thunder) to string together stops and scores and win ball games. I will also be curious as to if they can get the stops necessary to compliment their style of play.

Sixers

Sans Ben Simmons, there is now a bigger spotlight on Joel Embiid. One of the best big men in the NBA, he will now be the undisputed focal point of the offense for them. He will also be challenged to become a leader and establish a new identity. Both he and head coach Brett Brown have their hands full with a youthful and highly dynamic Boston Celtics team. On paper, even without Simmons it seems as if the Sixers can still salvage a series victory versus the Celtics, but that would take dominance from Embiid and a timely uptick in production from the others namely Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, and Al Horford. These are their most veteraned players and the guys Brett Brown will hope can hold things down when Embiid needs to rest. They are going to struggle controlling pace if Embiid does not establish himself as a force on the block, and the lack of an elite playmaker who can control pace and get Embiid the ball in advantageous positions (along with getting other guys like Harris and Korkmaz) is going to be a bigtime issue. I truthfully don’t see a feasible or sustainable way for them to navigate in the absence of Simmons if Embiid does not embrace this opportunity to grow and assert himself accordingly. Not unlike the Rockets, big changes loom should they have another shortcoming in the postseason this year.

Aside from these three instances, there are a few others that I will be monitoring.

  • Milwaukee’s play in the halfcourt (a continuation from the last two postseasons for them)
  • Rotations and defense for Denver; how will Mike Malone stagger his plethora of talent?
  • Can Doncic and Porzingis continue their tandem play versus the Clippers?
  • Are the Heat as good as their grit and tough-minded approach suggest?
  • Who will be the surprising players (like Fred Van Vleet of last season) who step up and help catapult their team to another level as the stakes rise?

What will you be paying attention to through the first round of the playoffs? 👀

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