Sean Beckwith: NBA copy desk correspondence season wrap, playoff preview
Welcome to the final night of the regular season, or as NBA haters know, the only week that matters — wait, is it the final week or final minutes of a game that count? I’m not sure, I’ve enjoyed it all. However, that’s probably because I refuse to participate in the Tankin’ for Ayton sweepstakes.
Tonight, though, there is a monumental game between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. If the Nuggets win, it will be their first playoff birth since 2013 and set up a first-round matchup with the No. 1 overall seed Houston Rockets — pending playoff seeding shuffle, which is highly probable.
My question to you, Ben Welch, is do either of these potential 47-win teams stand a chance against the glitch that is the Rockets?
Ben Welch: This season, not only does the final week matter, but the final minutes of the final game of the season matter for a number of teams. The Nuggets have been hot lately, winning their final six games down the stretch to be in this position, while the Timberwolves have dropped in the standings due in part to an injury to star guard Jimmy Butler. I don’t necessarily think the Rockets or Warriors are going to be scared to face either of these teams, though the Wolves, now back at full strength, have the best chance to topple a high seed. Surprisingly, Derrick Rose Version 4.0 is playing decent for Minnesota having been joined again with his former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a reunion that once appeared as unlikely as Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero doing another movie together.
As far as playoff “births” go, former Denver luminary Carmelo Anthony underwent a “rebirth” with the Oklahoma City Thunder this season and will be back in the postseason for the first time in five years alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George. With a number of superteams being assembled to topple the Warriors, are there any dark horses in either conference that could make the finals?
SB: I mean, the Rockets can, but they’re hardly a dark horse. As far as the Warriors are (or aren’t) concerned, their ambivalence toward effort in the second half of the season has them ripe for an upset. The playoff scenarios are more convoluted than the Kawhi Leonard-Spurs saga, but I would be nervous about catching the Thunder in the first round with Steph Curry sidelined. Teams in spots four through nine of the West have been viciously trying to make the postseason since February. Combine Russell Westbrook’s hatred for Golden State and two months of highly competitive play, and the Warriors will be forced to do what they haven’t done in months: Play hard. And that might not even be enough.
How about the Eastern Conference? Are you still sticking to the Pacers pick? Or riding with your boy Ben Simmons and the surging Sixers?
BW: I’m just not convinced that the Warriors are going to wither in the playoffs. Gunning for its fourth straight finals appearance likely leads to players auto piloting it at times during the regular season, but I don’t think they’ll be so gripped with lethargy that two (or three, or four) future Hall of Famers are going to simply roll over. Coach Steve Kerr’s post-game interview hysterics and faux frustration remind me of the kid on the playground who crashes his bike into you and then pretends to be hurt, too. That’s not even a good analogy, it’s just what it makes me think of. The Warriors are fine and they know it.
Perennial Eastern Conference champions the Cleveland LeBron Jameses are looking a little softer than in years prior with their dearth of quality defense, but when LeBron is about to average 100 points, 75 rebounds and 30 assists during his march to the finals, it’s still a fearsome matchup for any team. I’m still riding in the Pacer car, because I don’t think the 76ers yet have the experience to contend, especially with Joel Embiid missing time.
With MVP-caliber players such as James, George and Leonard potentially on the move in the offseason (along with God knows who else), now is the perfect time to place your longshot Vegas bets on next year’s NBA champion. According to a shady online casino that I just browse through sometimes but definitely never play, Donald Trump had 25-to-1 odds at winning the presidency (same with George Clooney), and we all know how that turned out.
SB: Before I entertain a pick for next year’s champion like a blog looking for clicks the day after a title game with “Way too early top 25” lists, I’d like to point out that the Pacers are as inexperienced as the 76ers. Also, you picked the Thunder to win the title in our last discussion. I’d ask you what kind of logic you used, but I’m not sure you used any.
For the sake of posterity, I’ll pick — nope, not going to succumb to the pressure. I can’t believe we’re 500 words in and you haven’t mentioned the Wizards once. You know they’re in the playoffs, right? I guess I’d avoid talking about my team if they were busy angling for a seven seed, too. (To be fair, the Trail Blazers are limping into the postseason, as well, but we’re looking at a five seed, minimum.)
Other than your (or his teammates) morbid thoughts on John Wall, I want to know your level of intrigue going into the playoffs? This season doesn’t feel like a forgone conclusion of Durant versus LeBron 2.0 because the level of talent is at an all-time high. (We haven’t even mentioned the Greek Freak, The Brow or Toronto, the No. 1 seed in the East.)
BW: The Thunder are indeed going to win the trophy, riding on the hairy back of Steven Adams. The 7-foot Kiwi is one of the most underrated players in the league with his toughness and rebounding abilities, though he looks like what happens when you press “random” while creating a custom player in NBA2K18.
As my hopes for the Wizards to have a franchise season (or even an above-average one) diminished over time, so has my penchant for peppering in winks to my favorite squad. Though all is not lost for the Macabre Cadre (that phrase rhymes on paper but not when you say it aloud) because they potentially face a favorable matchup with the Boston Celtics minus Kyrie Irving or the Toronto Raptors, who the Wizards tend to generally match up well against. If my boys get into a groove during the first round, they could possibly go deep with a little luck — but any Washington sports team finding a bit of luck is the funniest joke in this column yet.
I’ve admired your restraint during this season-long basketball series in discussing the team from Portland. But now it’s time for a little self-interest with the Blazers performing above most people’s expectations. How do you think they’ll fare in the postseason? And are you confident in your James Harden MVP prediction?
SB: I would be bully on the Blazers if not for an abysmal shooting slump from C.J. McCollum and a return to the mean from Al Farouq “Open for a Reason” Aminu’s shooting. I don’t see them getting past the first round unless they play the Thunder, who they swept in the regular season. The Jazz (Donovan Mitchell), Spurs (coaching) and Pelicans (The Brow) are terrifying,
While I ride with the Beard over the Brow in terms of facial hair and this season’s MVP voting, Davis has been “Me playing ‘NBA Street: Vol. 2’ unstoppable” since Boogie Cousins went down. The tools were there and now he’s seeing and playing the game at savant status. If Giannis Antetokounmpo — your pick for MVP — takes a leap like Davis took this year, we might be having this conversation about those two this time next April.
But before we look ahead to the 2018-19 season, some team has 16 postseason wins until we recap the NBA Finals in June. Enjoy the playoffs!