With the NBA regular season in the books and the 2017 Playoffs ready to tip off this weekend, we've assembled our team of hoops experts, Amaar Abdul-Nasir, Maurice Merrell and Martin Sumners, to give you some things to chew on as the real season gets underway.


MOST INTRIGUING SERIES

Amaar: Cavaliers vs Pacers

Forget the debate about whether LeBron James can lead the defending NBA champions to a repeat performance. I’m not so sure the Cavs even make it to the Finals.

And despite LeBron’s 11-0 record in first-round playoff series, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if Cleveland gets knocked off in the opening round this year.

This is not the NCAA Tournament. The NBA playoffs have seen more than a few No. 1 and No. 2 seeds go down in the first round, and some recent defending champs – the Spurs in 2015, Mavs in 2012, Heat in 2007 – have also made early exits. Two of them were swept.

The Pacers ended the regular season on a roll, winning five in a row to secure the No. 7 seed in the East. Indiana’s last loss was one of the most entertaining games of the NBA season; a double-OT thriller in Cleveland in which Paul George (43 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists) and LeBron (41, 14 and 11) engaged in a shootout reminiscent of Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins in 1988.

Cleveland’s struggles on defense in the second half of the season, issues with chemistry on a club that brought in perhaps one too many new parts and has had key guys miss time with injuries, plus a Paul George explosion waiting to happen will make this series more competitive than a lot of people anticipate.


Martin: Thunder vs Rockets and Cavaliers vs Pacers

No doubt that the Houston vs Oklahoma City series will be popping like microwavable popcorn.  

You may recall Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon dismantling the Admiral David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals the season Robinson dethroned Olajuwon as MVP.  But how often will the two MVP frontrunners match-up in a first round series?  

Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook without former teammate Kevin Durant had the evergreen light, going Big O, averaging a triple double. Rockets point guard James Harden, with new coach Mike D’Antoni’s revamped Phoenix Suns seven-seconds-or-less offensive philosophy, damn near duplicated the feat  

This one-on-one battle between the former teammates with their shared OKC roots is much like the conflict highlighted by the Netflix series The Get Down, showing the battle for supremacy of disco versus hip hop.  Who you got?!     

The Cavs are crumbling from within - impossibly imploding despite all the mid and late -eason moves such as acquiring Kyle Korver,  and DWill x2 (Deron and Derrick Williams).  The Cavs enter the playoffs the losers of four straight, including a game it was up 26 points in the fourth quarter.  

There is LeBron James and Tristan Thompson beefing.  But is this trend a function of rickety defense or merely malaise?  Whatever the source, watching this ongoing drama unfold in a first round upset will be fascinating.  Could the King be slayed that quick and easy?!

Well, the Pacers may be the right team for the task.  In the first regular season meeting this year, the Pacers won 103-93.  In the last, the Cavs needed double- overtime to emerge victorious, 135-130.No doubt that the Houston vs Oklahoma City series will be popping like microwavable popcorn.  

And the Pacers haven’t lost since that April 12th game, running off five straight in beating Toronto, Milwaukee and Atlanta.  Also, historically, the Pacers and Paul George have had three consecutive cracks in the playoffs at LeBron while with Miami and gave the LBJ and company fits.  The Heat needed six games twice and once, the Pacers took it to seven games.  Surely, we cannot forget that the LeBron whisperer has returned with Lance ‘Born Ready” Stephenson blowing back into town in a Pacer’s uniform.


Maurice: Thunder vs Rockets

Picking another first round series that’s more intriguing than the Houston Rockets vs the Oklahoma City Thunder, is like voting for anyone other than Russell Westbrook for MVP this season. It’d be strictly done to be contrary and fake controversial.

The layers to the Rockets vs. Thunder series are thicker than grandma’s double-chocolate fudge cake after Christmas dinner. Harden’s having a career year, one where he’s the MVP in any other season. But he’s facing Westbrook’s historic, Oscar Robertson co-signed MVP-esque stats.

Westbrook’s on a quest to prove he can win as the unquestioned leader of the post-Kevin Durant Thunder. Two of the then-Thunder’s three young stars that made the 2012 NBA Finals will have MVP’s soon, with either Harden or Westbrook joining KD in that high esteem.

Whoever loses the MVP race will have a trophy sized chip on their shoulder, undoubtedly throwing gasoline on what should already be a fiery series. Houston won the season series 3-1, but all the teams playing now have a record of 0-0. 

The Brodie would have to go straight Super Saiyan to pull off this upset, but after the season he’s had, how much can we put past Westbrook?


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LEAST INTRIGUING SERIES

Amaar: Bucks vs Raptors

If you’re not sure which playoff series the NBA ranks lower than the rest, just check your TV guide and find the first series to have one of its games aired on NBA TV.

This year, that honor goes to Raptors-Bucks, the 3 vs.6 matchup in the East.

In all seriousness, Raptors-Bucks is not devoid of interesting angles or great players. Giannis Antetokounmpo, a.k.a. “Greek Freak,” will be making his first playoff appearance since raising his game to an All-Star level. For as much attention as Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron get, Giannis might be the one player whose team relies on him the most to bring it every night. He leads the Bucks in every major statistical category.

Toronto has the All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and midseason trade pickup Serge Ibaka makes them a more serious contender for the conference title.

But to the mainstream audience? It’s still Milwaukee and Toronto. In the eyes of many, the most intriguing thing about this series is that the winner will likely face Cleveland.


Martin: Spurs vs Grizzlies

Two teams that know who they are and not so much into the abracadabra of NBA basketball are clearly the San Antonio Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies. The problem is that in facing each other, there is a lack of clashing of styles.  

The old boxing axiom that styles makes fights applies as well to an NBA playoff series.  Perhaps the best two-way player in the game, Kawhi Leonard, can’t get any MVP love due to his and the team’s essential efficiency.  No glamour, no glitz.

Unless it’s your team where the goal of winning is tantamount, fans desire excitement like preachers need sinners.

 

The Spurs will kill you softly, swinging the ball around at a dizzying pace until the defense just fatigues like cowards.  

The Grizzlies will smash you with grit and grind like a prize fighter with an array of belly shots until you succumb.

Neither style is that flattering, unless you like looking under the microscope and seeing the unseen.  All the X’s and O’s versus the Z-Bo’s and Marc Gasol’s, however, don’t move the needle.


Maurice: Jazz vs Clippers

Even though the Golden State Warriors are probably going to sweep the Portland Trail Blazers, the matchup of Steph Curry and Damian Lillard is always fun to watch. So my vote for the least intriguing series is the No. 4 vs No. 5 matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Utah Jazz, mainly because the teams are pretty evenly matched, which could lead to a drawn out seven-game snooze fest.

The best thing about this series? The winner will most likely lose in five games to the Warriors in the next round because the Jazz are way too inexperienced to do playoff damage. And every time I’m ready to believe in the Clippers, they remind me that they’re the Clippers.

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WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? (Team we're most surprised to see in the playoffs)

Amaar: Atlanta Hawks

After the Hawks broke up the core of the team that was the No. 1 seed in the East two years ago and the No. 4 seed last year – only to get swept by the Cavs both times – it seemed like a half-hearted rebuilding effort was underway.

Atlanta let All-Star big man Al Horford go in free agency and traded All-Star point guard Jeff Teague to Indiana, replacing them with allegedly past-his-prime Dwight Howard and not-ready-yet Dennis Schroder. Then, during the season, the Hawks traded sharpshooter Kyle Korver (to the Cavs, no less) and reportedly shopped All-Star power forward Paul Millsap around to anyone who was interested.

It seemed ATL had given up on contending any time soon, but here we are today, with the Hawks as the No. 5 seed in the East facing a very winnable first-round series against the Wizards.

In case you haven’t been watching, Howard isn’t done yet. He ranks fifth in the NBA in rebounding (12.7 rpg), he’s in the top 10 in a few of those advanced defensive stats that I don’t quite understand (Defensive Rating, Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Box Plus/Minus) and he’s scoring a respectable 13.5 points on 63 percent shooting (4th in the league).

Schroder (17.9 ppg, 6.3 apg) has been just as good or better than Teague was at his peak in Atlanta, Millsap made the All-Star Game again, Tim Hardaway Jr. has turned into a fourth-quarter killer, and coach Mike Budenholzer has an underrated crew of role players that make the Hawks a threat.


Martin: Chicago Bulls

After the All-Star break, the Bulls seemed to start going backwards. Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade blasted teammates for not caring.  In response, Rajon Rondo on basically called them fake leaders on social media.  

The Bulls sunk, like Chris in Get Out, out of the top eight in the conference. And then Wade injured his elbow and he was thought to be done for the season.  It seemed like the moving trucks were all but procured. But a funny thing happened- the team started to win.  Wade promptly returned and the Bulls found a way to snare the eighth seed.


Maurice: Atlanta Hawks

I know Chicago’s the easy choice for the team no one thought would make the playoffs, with the whole Wade being old, Rondo being benched, Wade being hurt, maybe trade Rondo and then some saga. But that team has proven champions and will give Boston a fight before losing.

The team I can’t believe is even still a thing is the Atlanta Hawks. Ever since I was in high school (which was like… over 10 years ago. Trust me, I’m washed.), they’ve hovered around being a middle of the rung kind of team that won’t miss the playoffs, but won’t really do much in the post-season either.

Given the teams that made it and how stockpiled the Knicks led us to believe they were when this season started (they rose as high as third this season! WTH happened?), I just thought there wouldn’t be enough room for Atlanta.

But low and behold, Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap used their broad shoulders to clear out some space in the playoffs.

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HOW'D YOU MESS THAT UP? (Teams we thought would make it but flubbed the whole season)

Amaar: New Orleans Pelicans

Name another NBA team that has two of the league’s top-20 players and is watching these playoffs from home?

Some might argue Minnesota fits that description, but the young Wolves, led by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, weren’t widely expected to be ready for the playoffs yet. They’re still marinating.

The Pelicans, however, were supposed to be a microwave-ready playoff team after they’d acquired DeMarcus Cousins in a midseason trade and paired him with Anthony Davis. Instead, they finished 10th place in the West.


Remember that night after the All-Star Game, when it was first reported that the Kings had dealt the disgruntled Cousins, arguably the best center in the league, to the Pelicans? Boogie was supposed to team up with Davis , arguably the best PF in the league, to form a new Twin Towers.

Old-school, low-post, size-matters basketball was back, some said. New Orleans was definitely making the playoffs, some said. The Warriors had better watch out because there was a new contender in the West, some said.

Then NOLA lost its first three games with Cousins, and pretty much faded into the background. Cousins and Davis had some monster games here and there, but both ended the season injured and NOLA ended up in the Lottery again.

Maybe next year? Maybe not.


Martin: New York Knicks

I feel like Deniece Williams - Silly for believing in the New York Knicks.  This offseason, they assembled a team around perennial All-Star Carmelo Anthony and second-year rising star Kristap Porzingis that seemed almost guaranteed to make the playoffs.  

Sure, Knicks President Phil Jackson over-reached with a broke-down Joakim Noah.  The former energy player was like a Zero Red Bull.  Yet, the sum of the rest parts in a less than stellar Eastern Conference should have won 42 games with ease.  

Things looked bright on Christmas Eve, as they sported a 16-13 record.  The next day, they lost a hard fought game, 119-114, to Boston and followed with losses in the next 7 of 8.  

In the midst of this streak, Derrick Rose went AWOL while the triangle was more like trigonometry to players weaned on pick-n-roll and isolation ball.  

However, the most absurd was Jackson communicating via Twitter on Melo’s flaws, like the old dude trying to mack young women at the club.


Maurice: Minnesota Timberwolves

When are the Minnesota Timberwolves going to be a good team?

Look, I know they’re young, Zach LaVine got hurt and they’re still figuring the point guard situation out. But it’s kind of frustrating watching a could-be superstar in Andrew Wiggins and a potential generational talent in Karl-Anthony Towns finish a season 31-51.


Imagine a young T-Mac, Tim Duncan and Vince Car… OK, maybe comparing LaVine and Carter is a bit of a stretch, but the T’Wolves have enough talent to get them to the playoffs. Add in defensive guru in coach Tom Thibodeau and Minnesota not making the playoffs is a disappointing trend that needs to end next season.

*****

POST SEASON PLAYA (Guys we're most excited to see that should be a household name by now)

Amaar: Isaiah Thomas

He is a rising star who could become a legit superstar this postseason. How he is not already a legit superstar, I don’t understand.

He’s a 5-foot-9 lifetime underdog, a relatable “everyman” type that grown-ups, grandmas and 3rd-graders all tend to love. (It’s that Steve Nash, Steph Curry appeal.) He’s electrifying on the court (28.9 ppg), witty in interviews, and, ya know, he plays for Boston. Thomas is what the NBA secretly wished Allen Iverson was. You would think he’d be as hyped up as any player in the league.

Since he’s not, he’ll just have to make it happen on the court.

The Celtics have the No. 1 seed in the East. The Cavs are still favored by most to win the conference, but Thomas could lead his team on an inspiring playoff run and make his name a legendary one.


Martin: Gordon Hayward

Playing in the outpost of Salt Lake City, he will finally garner the buzz commensurate with his game.  Hayward is averaging almost 22 points per game while grabbing 5.5 boards.  The Utah Jazz small forward will likely be the most sought-after free agent this summer (Steph Curry is technically a free agent but don’t hold your breath on him leaving the Warriors).  

Hayward entered our basketball consciousness when he almost took down the great Duke program with tiny Butler in the 2010 NCAA Championship game.  Look for him to destroy whoever the Los Angeles Clippers throw at him, as the small forward spot has been the weakest position for the Clippers forever.   

Hayward and the Jazz will defeat the Clippers and open a lot of eyes.  Who says the white American-born player is a unicorn?


Maurice: Isaiah Thomas

You know who Isaiah Thomas is. We know who Isaiah Thomas is, but this is his chance to make sure the world knows this generation’s IT is a bad man in his own right.

In his second consecutive All-Star worthy season, Thomas takes the Celtics to the playoffs for a third year in a row.

The last pick of the 2011 NBA Draft has now emerged as the NBA’s Mr. Fourth Quarter. But now he has a stage to truly breakout to the next level.

Some are questioning if the Cavs can get out of the Eastern Conference. That’s largely because Cleveland’s been struggling and maybe overlooked their own backyard in trying to  assemble a team to beat the Warriors in the Finals.

But Thomas has established himself as a clutch closer that’s hard to stop in the open floor or in a half-court setting, and his presence has the experts skeptical too.

Let’s see if he can carry the Celtics into real relevance once again.