Five Storylines to Watch

These Playoffs will Make or Break Andrew Wiggins

For the first time since 2004, the Minnesota Timberwolves are in the NBA Playoffs, despite the play of Wiggins — who the organization was hoping would make a jump this season.

I’ll be honest, optimism gushed from my fingertips each time I shared thoughts on Wiggins from the time he was a high school phenom, to his time at Kansas, and into parts of his second season. He looked to be a phenomenal prospect with some fixable issues.

From that point forward, disappointment would be an understatement when discussing the growth of the 23-year-old wing. His issues have turned into glaring weaknesses on a grueling NBA schedule.

In hopes that Wiggins would maximize his talent, Minnesota maximized his contract to an extended figure between $25 million and $33 million per year through the 2022-2023 season.

Don’t get me wrong, Wiggins still has time to find himself and fix his issues, but the clock is ticking. His current value is far below the money he will be making next season, and in business terms, he’s an extremely poor investment at this point. To act as if Wiggins doesn’t have major flaws would be discrediting the performance level of your eyesight.

This season was filled with poor shooting splits (.438, .331, .643), a career low in attempts around the rim, a career low assist percentage, and abysmal defense. Given his freakish athletic ability, length, and other natural gifts, it’s disappointing to see where he is at along his NBA journey.

Wiggins can be frustrating to watch as there are many games where he looks as if he’s just standing out there. He doesn’t make his teammates better and plays defense that often resembles a revolving door. He can certainly fill up the basket, but his inability to contribute without being a volume scorer has grown to become nauseating. And frankly, he doesn’t do it at a high enough clip that should reward him the amount of shots he chucks, or really, a starting position on many of the other playoff teams — certainly not for his price tag.

If you’re waiting for him to develop, or to get experience, he has maxed out his opportunity.

Since Wiggins came into the NBA in 2014, he leads the entire league in minutes played with 11,841. Second is James Harden, 11604, third is LeBron James, 11022.

Experience isn’t going to help, but maybe a change in scenery will. Or a coach that is able to get the best out of him. Or maybe, what Minnesota fans are really hoping for, playoff exposure to push him to the next level.

There’s a chance that Wiggins finds a better version of himself in the playoffs given the raised level of play, coaching, emotion, and stakes.

That said, the Houston Rockets are a horrendous matchup for Minnesota, as they averaged 129.8 points per 100 possessions in the four games this season.

Look, nobody is picking Minnesota to win this series — hardly anybody is picking them to win more than one game — but if Wiggins can put together an encouraging series, Minnesota has a chance to win a game or two. If that happens, and Wiggins can show an improved version of himself, maybe he’ll have a future on this roster beyond a potential trade chip.

Giannis and his Bucks have the opportunity to take the next step

After a season bouncing around the MVP conversation, and ultimately landing on his second straight All-NBA team, Giannis Antetokounmpo has an opportunity in front of him to ascend his game and team to the next level.

For Milwaukee fans, and Giannis, a trip the Eastern Conference Finals would make up for a rather disappointing regular season. To get there, the Bucks would need to defeat a depleted Boston roster, and win a war against the young, uprising 76ers.

Both series present question marks along the path, but conquering this process isn’t inconceivable.

After averaging 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, Giannis has shown he’s one of the best players in the league, but now it’s time for him to prove it in the playoffs. An opening round matchup against these Boston Celtics might be exactly what Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to get the train on the tracks.

If Giannis is believed to be as good as everybody says, it’s time for him to take the next step by using this postseason as his platform.

Boston — really, unlike anyone else — has zero answer for The Greek Freak’s game. Nobody on their team is capable of matching up with him, or the fire power he brings with each spinning, falling scoop shot from outer space. Without anybody capable of staying in front of Giannis, and Horford, Baynes, and a bucket of wings serving as the Boston rim protectors, the ride to the rim is as open as a bowling lane.

Watching Giannis dominate a game with the same ability as Marcus Smart to knock down an outside jump shots is bizarre. In the final minutes of the game, with a spread floor, he is almost as terrifying as LeBron because of his length, giant-sized strides, and finishing ability.

Even with great defense, his arms extend the way a fire truck’s ladder does so that he can get the angle on his shot. Naturally, this gives him an argument as the best transition player in the league, along with the origin of his nickname.

Per Basketball Reference, Giannis is just behind LeBron in field goal percentage within 3 feet of the rim — .766 to .756.

With nice pieces around the Giannis, I believe their time is coming. Escaping Boston won’t be easy, but if they can they’ll be an intriguing team moving into the future. A reason for their optimism is that they have several encouraging pieces, one of the most intriguing, for me, is Jabari Parker.

Similar to Wiggins, the once coveted Parker has had a questionable start to his NBA career, but health has been the reason why. When he has been on the court, Parker has been an impressive piece to their formula, but playing in 183 games of a possible 328 has slowed his development down considerably.

His Improved outside shooting, tenacious rebounding, playmaking, versatility, and unhindered athleticism has given the Bucks a nice spark since he returned in February. Like many, I loved Parker coming out of the draft, and still think he has a future with this team. Maybe this postseason he will turn it up another level and be a difference maker in one of these series.

Reminder, Parker’s athleticism is elite for his position, and each time he explodes for a thunderous finish, it reminds me that he’s the owner of one of the greatest pre draft workout ever recorded.

Another playoff appearance for Playoff Rondo

At this point, many have heard of Playoff Rondo — one of basketball’s greatest urban legends. It is a tale that has been told and will be told to basketball fans for generations to come. At one point, it seemed as this tale would never come to fruition again, but last season should’ve only increased the stories.

He’s back, healthy, and has the best teammate he has had since before his peak.

Anthony Davis has been spectacular, we all know that, and expect him to finish in the top two or three for the league MVP. But what has gone unnoticed by many is how unexpectedly awesome Jrue Holiday has been.

Jrue Holiday deserves All-Defense consideration, along with being one of the best two-way guards in the league. He’s rarely talked about, but effective, and good at his job.

Both Moore and recently shaved Mirotic are capable of doing this, or having a moment or two in the playoffs, as both can absolutely shoot the cover off the ball.

And, of course, there’s Playoff Rajon Rondo.

It’ll be fun to see if Rondo has one more magical playoff run stuffed deep within his bag of tricks to help New Orleans topple Portland. After splitting the regular season series with two games a piece, Davis is going to need Rondo to play like the year isn’t 2018.

For those who don’t know about playoff Rondo, it’s pretty simple, he’s at his best in the playoffs.

For some, they look at his regular season statistics and yawn at the idea that he can be effective come time for the postseason. But for others, they understand that he is secretly a basketball prophet when all the marbles are on the table come April and May. To be honest, it makes zero sense why he is so good this time of the year.

There are a lot of good stories, Reddit threads, and blogs that suggest Rondo’s effort level is suspect, unless great competition or the playoffs present themselves, but a simple quote from Dwyane Wade — who has played with and against him — shows how disruptive Rondo’s intelligence can be for opposing teams — “I hated him as a competitor. He knew all the plays. He messed up the fist option, and then he knows the second option. We were good enough to have a third option. We can go to him and ask him questions because he watches film all the time.” 

While he has aged, the intelligent, fiery point guard had Boston on the ropes just last season before fracturing his right thumb. Even with Jimmy Butler on Chicago’s roster, it was Rondo who was arguably their most important player while going up 2-0 with a 11 point, 14 assist, 9 rebound, 5 steal game.

You can’t be part of the crowd that says Playoff Rondo doesn’t exist if you were saying Boston would’ve lost to the Bulls last season had Rondo not been injured after two games.

Some of Playoff Rondo’s greatest performances include:

First round duel with Derrick Rose — 19.4 points, 11.5 assists, 9.2 rebounds

29 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists in ECSF Game Four vs. LeBron — Was the best player on the court throughout a series that contained LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, and the first of three straight wins to eliminate LeBron.

15 points, 20 assists, 11 rebounds at Madison Square Garden.

In 2011, Dwyane Wade was doing Dwyane Wade things and threw Rondo to the ground and dislocated his elbow. Only for Rondo to pop it back into place and finish the game by only using his one good arm.

44 points, 10 assist, 8 rebound with his zombie teammates against the Miami Heat at their peak.

Wizards Vs. Raptors is pivotal for both franchises 

Despite the Raptors setting a franchise record for wins, and the Wizards basically having a season from Hell, it’s still tough to sell this series as a traditional one vs. eight seed. It certainly doesn’t feel like it.

For one, if everybody plays to the level of their ceiling, I couldn’t begin to pick which team has the best player on the floor, which makes this thing even more complicated.

The Raptors definitely have a more talented team, but we’ve seen this exact series before and John Wall feasted on the leftovers of regular season Kyle Lowry, which propelled his team to a sweep.

For two, if there’s something either of these teams have taught us in the past, it’s that we can’t trust either of them.

You could slip me into a medically induced coma, wake me up after the series, and tell me any possible scenario happened between these two teams and I’d believe it.

“Raptors Swept.”

Makes sense, they’re the one seed. They did seem for real this year. 

Or

“Wizards won in five.”

Man, the Raptors really do hate the playoffs. 

Or

“Raptors won in 7.”

Closer than what was expected, but Toronto needs to get ready for LeBron. Washington will forever be a piece or two away. 

Or

“Wizards swept, Kyle Lowry was nonexistent, John Wall was brilliant.”

What?? I watched that series. Paul Pierce killed them? 

“No, no! That was 2015! Well, and the year before. “

 

No matter what happens, the losing team is bound to face some degree of turmoil and a potential roster overhaul after another underwhelming postseason.

For the Raptors, what more can you do? You’ve drafted well, developed well, made trades, but yet it’s the same old story year after year. Finishing the season as the perennial one or two seed is great, but not without a trip to the Finals and the consistent underperformance from your top players.

That said, they have an opportunity this time to use their young talent, depth, and two stars to punch their first ever ticket to the NBA Finals. They’ve been head and shoulders above the East all season and need to stick to what has gotten them there without ejecting the plan Dwane Casey has installed. They have superior depth, and need DeRozan to play like an MVP. And, of course, they can’t crumble in front of the other team like stone being crushed with a mallet. I’m looking at you Kyle Lowry!

For the Wizards, people are growing impatient with the current roster, frustration is boiling over in the locker room, players are calling out other players, and questions are rising surrounding the talent and future of John Wall.

The Wizards are the Raptors without a Conference Finals appearance.

Washington has an opportunity to make this a competitive series, but will need John Wall and Bradley Beal to play their best. They aren’t a deep team, but given the experience they’ve had together, they can make something happen if they get hot. John Wall, at his best, is plenty capable of bouncing around the Raptors defense like he’s inside of a pinball machine. There’s also a legitimate question as to if he’s even the best player on his team at this point. The Wizards backcourt is loaded, but it’s time that they make something happen.

Let’s remember, this is the same team that was only a few plays away from taking Boston’s spot in the Conference Finals last season.

Together, these two teams have been stuck in a pit that LeBron dug for them, clawing at the walls and surface to get out. Within that pit, they’ve felt the discomfort of their own decision-making skills and team problems over the years, but ultimately, they just haven’t been good enough to get out.

The window is very small for both teams, and this year could be their best chance. LeBron’s team seems to be down — until the annual switch flipping reminds us that they’re a tier better than everybody else — Boston is young and hurt, the Sixers are young, the Bucks haven’t put it together yet, and nobody else is close to ready.

If the result is the same for either team this season as previous ones, at what point do you stop trying the same approach from an organizational standpoint? Something will be shaken up, something will change, and it’ll likely be the loser of this series.

The staring contest between Kawhi Leonard and San Antonio

Fact: This is the least talented, worst team the San Antonio Spurs have had since before they drafted Tim Duncan.

Without Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich has placed the corpses of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Pau Gasol into his a bag that he drags behind him from game to game. I’d say that the Spurs have been riding their other veteran players — Danny Green, Patty Mills, Rudy Gay — but even they’ve seen better days.

This year has basically been LaMarcus Aldridge balling out, with the help of Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and random veteran zombies helping throughout stretches of different games. Even more zombies, some of them have had moments and stretches this season, but to say they’re the “same old Spurs” would be comical.

The Warriors, regardless of what their second half looked like, have been awesome in guarding Aldridge in the past. Without Steph Curry, this is the best matchup they could’ve got… as long as Kawhi Leonard doesn’t play.

If the league’s best perimeter defender, heart of this team, and unanimous top five player in the game rejoined his team, they’d have a chance at knocking off the goliath they’re matched up with. Seriously. However, for that to happen, they’d need Popovich and the Spurs to blink first.

I wouldn’t count on it.

Nobody really understands what is going on with this situation. Nobody knows the true reasoning for Kawhi not playing other than himself. He has had an exaggerated amount of recovery time for this particular injury, has been cleared by the specialists and team doctors, yet refuses to play.

I’m speculating, but I think it’s somewhere between him being unhappy with the help they’ve got him compared to other Western Conference teams, and him not enjoying how he’s treated in San Antonio.

Also speculating — Kawhi isn’t Duncan, he doesn’t want to be portrayed as this emotionless robot. I think he wants a signature shoe, wants to be a true star of this league, and not be an MVP candidate hidden behind the image of his coach and team logo. I think the Spurs culture might be burning him out.

The best thing both sides could do is put this behind them, for now, and throw together a competitive outing against Golden State. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that winning cures a lot of problems. Once the end of playoffs come, regardless of a first round exit or a Finals run, both sides would rebuild their reputations without further damaging their future.

If Leonard legitimately wants to be traded, playing would only increase what teams are willing to risk to obtain him, which puts him and the Spurs on better exit terms.

 

 

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