NBA play-in preview: A new contender in the East?

Photo Courtesy of Gobierno CDMX on Flickr.
Photo Courtesy of Gobierno CDMX on Flickr.

It’s early April, and even as the occasional downpour attempts to dull the budding La Jolla pre-summer buzz, there’s no need to fret; sunny days and starlit nights of slow, rolling summer months are just around the corner. In the meantime, we have the NBA to occupy us, as another eventful regular season nears its conclusion.

 

The league’s play-in tournament kicks off on April 16, and the final two playoff spots in each conference, the 7th and 8th seeds, are to be filled by the four winners of the respective matchups between the 7-10 seeds. According to ESPN, the projected East play-in matchups (as of April 4) have the Philadelphia 76ers facing the Indiana Pacers in a win-and-in situation, while the Atlanta Hawks draw the Chicago Bulls. In the West, the outlook has the Sacramento Kings taking on the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Golden State Warriors versus the Los Angeles Lakers in a lose-and-take-a-cruise match.

 

Before my play-in predictions though, there are a couple of interesting nuggets from this regular season. In the Eastern Conference…

 

The Boston Celtics: You know that song “Santeria” by the ska group Sublime? I was listening to it earlier and started thinking about Bradley Nowell, the supremely talented singer of the group who sadly passed before the release of the album that made his band notable. 

 

“Santeria” is a phenomenally multi-layered work of art, but there’s a “shroud” of unfulfilled potential and loss — the yin and yang that comes from creative authenticity. Something along those lines is palpable atop the Eastern Conference, where the Celtics, despite barrelling into the playoffs with breakneck velocity, have some sort of weird layer of “teeth-clenchingness” wafting over the Boston Garden: is it the loss of Marcus Smart? Udoka’s departure? Long-term effects of a title slipping through their fingers in this year’s Finals? The realization that their championship window that’s been precariously dangling open for the better part of a decade could now slam shut with yet another postseason shortcoming? Whatever’s going on in Boston, these Celtics will soon start another playoff run, as — on paper, at least — one of the most imposing teams in their storied history. But like the post-Nowell Sublime, it just doesn’t feel the same

 

The Milwaukee Bucks: It feels like I just recently wrote a tribute to Damian Lillard as, tragically, a Blazers fan, and now I feel like Ben Affleck talking to Matt Damon at the end of “Good Will Hunting.” You (Milwaukee Bucks) owe it to us (Portland Trail Blazer fans) — “it,” of course being a deep playoff run, truncating no earlier than the Eastern Conference Finals, at worst. After all, Lillard could’ve just participated in early playoff exits while still nestled cozily in the PNW. However, for the Bucks to make a deep run, they’ll have to fix some glaring deficiencies. Their poor record on the road (18–20) indicates potential for costly errors in the late stages of playoff matchups in raucous, hostile arenas, and their once-vaunted defense now intimidates few: Milwaukee allows the most points per game (116.8) out of the top five Eastern conference teams. 

 

Nevertheless, this is a veteran team with a championship pedigree and a bonafide superstar duo. That’s a scary tagline when June rolls around. Also, this team has so many interesting stories; think of all the narratives that’d be quelled, or stoked, if the Bucks earn a second ring in the Giannis era. Can you even imagine it? Two-time NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo. Two-time champion Khris Middleton. Damian Lillard, NBA champion. Two-time championship-winning head coach Doc Rivers? Madness!    

 

Let’s call it on a brainy note: play-in predictions.

 

Philadelphia versus Indiana in the win-and-in matchup looks more and more like the 76ers each day. Sure, Joel Embiid’s banged up, but health improves with time, he’s used to playing at not full strength, and most importantly, he’s back, which is huge, because I’m taking a semi-powered Embiid over Myles Turner on both sides of the ball. Tyrese Haliburton and the Pacers are a young, high-scoring squad, and they’ll look to drown their opponents in shots. But against head coach Nick Nurse’s squad and their newly-returned protagonist, I predict them to come up well short. 

 

The Hawks will face the Bulls to keep their respective seasons alive. Atlanta had a really good late March, beating Boston twice, but upon closer examination, two of their wins were against the pathetic Blazers and Hornets. And even the expansion Raptors beat the 1996 Bulls. Jackson Caudell wrote in Sports Illustrated that: “The Atlanta Hawks have been one of the most disappointing (if not the most disappointing team) teams in the NBA this season and they have also not been healthy.” Unfortunately for the Bulls, they’ve been even less healthy. Without Zach LaVine, the squad is at high risk of being dispatched by the Hawks, who I predict will win this game, but subsequently endure a thrashing by the loser of Indy–Philly.

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