NBA playoffs are heating up

Injuries make finals matchup anyone’s guess

Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had another MVP-caliber season while leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the NBA. But a back injury has kept Antetokounmpo sidelined for some of the Bucks’ first round series against the Miami Heat, who led 3-1 heading into Wednesday’s game.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had another MVP-caliber season while leading the Milwaukee Bucks to the best record in the NBA. But a back injury has kept Antetokounmpo sidelined for some of the Bucks’ first round series against the Miami Heat, who led 3-1 heading into Wednesday’s game.

Carson Pfotenhauer, Sports Editor

The NBA was dominated by the East this season.
The teams to beat have been the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers, who are unsurprisingly seeded 1, 2, and 3, respectively.
The Bucks have one of the most dominant players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a great supporting cast of role players to help his game. Giannis has been Batman for the Bucks, while Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have both played Robin well this year.
Despite the Bucks’ top seed, the Celtics could be the best team in the league. They came up just short to the Golden State Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals, but they gave them a serious run for their money in six games and may be stronger this season.
Boston has the star power of Jayson Tatum (30.1 ppg) and Jaylen Brown (26.6 ppg), while Robert Williams and Marcus Smart both play very good defense, and Williams can rebound well.
The last team to watch in the East are the 76ers, who are led by MVP favorite Joel Embiid. Embiid has been a monster, scoring 33.1 ppg while dishing out 4.2 assists and grabbing 10.2 boards.
After floating around the league, former superstar James Harden has found a good role in Philly, putting up 21 points a night with about 10 assists. Young guard Tyrese Maxey has been making an impact as well, averaging 20.3 ppg.
But it’s not all about the East. In the West, the top-seeded Denver Nuggets have MVP candidate Nikola Jokic putting the team on his back once again. Jokic averages 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game.
Jokic and Embiid are a new breed of centers who can do it all and we can see how dominant this type of player can be.
The No. 2-seeded Memphis Grizzlies are led by one of the most exciting players in the league, point guard Ja Morant (26.2 points, 8.1 assists). Jaren Jackson Jr. is another talented big man who is a real force because he can work in the paint and drain threes.
With all that being said, not all of the first round games have gone as expected, in large part because of injuries to some key stars. Phily is the only team to sweep its series, knocking out Brooklyn on Saturday. The 76ers patiently await the winner of the Boston-Atlanta series.
Here’s where all of the other series stood as of Wednesday afternoon. Results from Wednesday night’s games were not available before The Californian went to press.
Western Conference
No. 6 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 3 Sacramento Kings (Series tied 2-2)
This highly anticipated Northern California matchup has not disappointed as it pits a dynasty versus the newcomers.
The last time the Sacramento Kings made the playoffs was 2006.
On the other hand, the defending champions, the Warriors, have been one of the greatest Bay Area dynasties, winning four titles in eight years.
But the Kings took advantage of the emotional boost from their long playoff absence by winning the opening two games at home behind an electric crowd and the dynamic De’aaron Fox, who averaged 25 points, four rebounds and six assists this season.
Domantas Sabonis (19 points, 12 rebounds, 17 assists) was great, but he’ll probably be most remembered for the grab of Draymond Green’s leg that led to Green stomping on his chest, getting ejected from the game, screaming at the Sacramento crowd, and getting suspended for Game 3.
Things looked pretty bleak for Golden State after this, but this is the Warriors we’re talking about here. Steph Curry, who will go down as one of the game’s greats, led this team back from the brink by averaging 34 points during the next two games.
The other Splash Brother Klay Thompson has been great this year, leading the league in 3- pointers made and averaging 22 points during the regular season.
The Dubs also have some fantastic supporting players in Jordan Poole, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins, whose return from a two-month absence has made a huge impact.
Both teams have dominated at home, so the Warriors will need to figure out a way to win on the road to advance.
No. 1 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 4 Phoenix Suns
Both of these teams won their first round series 4-1 on Tuesday.
Top-seeded Denver closed out No. 8 Minnesota, while Phoenix got past No. 5 Los Angeles, which won the first game in the series but eventually after the Kawhi Leonard joined an injured Paul George on the Clipper bench with his own injury.
The duo have played for LA for four seasons, but have shared the court only 118 times.
Denver’s Nikola Jokic and the depth of the Nuggets dominated the Timberwolves in the first round. Jokic, the two-time defending MVP, and budding star Jamal Murray performed well in this series. Murray averaged 27 and Jokic 26. They will need to continue to do so to avoid an upset by the Suns.
On paper, the Suns look to be one of the contenders out West. They added one of the greatest players of all time, Kevin Durant, which can only increase their chances of winning.
The Suns’ roster already has Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. Adding Durant to this already powerful lineup will only help the Suns.
Between Paul and Durant, 305 playoff games have been played, and Durant is a two-time NBA Finals MVP and champion.
Although big men are once again becoming dominant in today’s game, the star power and playoff experience of the Suns should triumph.
No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers (Lakers lead the series 3-1)
The Grizzlies have been one of the favorites in the West all year long, and for good reason.
Led by Morant, a rising superstar, the Grizzlies seemed to be the clear favorites but lost the openers in Memphis and Los Angeles to go down 2-1.
The Grizzlies could have gone down 3-0 with Morant out the second game with an injury, but Memphis’ supporting cast of Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks stepped up.
The trash talking Grizzlies were feeling good after that win Brooks started mocking LeBron James, which immediately came back to haunt him and Memphis in Game 3.
Brooks got ejected while James and the Lakers dominated early en route to victory. James reminded everyone why he is called the King.
At the age of 38, James (29 points per game) has shown zero signs of slowing down and is still competing at an elite level while on the hunt for a fifth ring. This could happen now that his team is coming together.
Anthony Davis got healthy at the perfect time. He played only 56 games during the regular season, but when he plays he makes a huge impact for the Lakers, as everyone has witnesses these first three games.
If they keep playing like this, the Lakers can go deep this year, A Lakers-Warriors conference semifinals would be enticing.
Eastern Conference
No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Miami Heat (Heat lead the series 3-1)
It’s safe to say that no one was expecting this. After winning a play in game to earn the No. 8 seed, the Heat have stunned the top-seeded Bucks.
Behind the playoff force that is Jimmy Butler, Miami won the opener and hasn’t looked back, despite the loss of Tyler Herro to a broken hand in that game.
The Bucks finished the season with the NBA’s best record, but they’re now a game away from elimination. Only five other top seeds have lost in the opening round to a No. 8 seed, the last coming when Philadelphia upset Chicago in 2012.
Much of the issue comes from the injury to Antetokounmpo, who suffered a lower back contusion and missed the end of Game 1 and all of Games 2 and 3. But he returned to Game 4 and the Bucks still loss, largely in part to Butler’s 56-point explosion.
The Bucks are going to need to figure something out and fast or their season will end in inglorious fashion.
No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 5 New York Knicks (Knicks lead series 3-1)
In 2020, the Knicks ended their eight- year playoff drought. Even though they were dominated by the Hawks in the first round, they ended the narrative that they were bottom dwellers.
The Knicks are back in the playoffs behind the duo of Julius Randle (25 points, 10 rebounds, four assists) and Jalen Brunson (24 points and six assists).
After Cleveland lost James it looked like they had a long rebuild ahead. But it didn’t take too long as the Cavs earned the fourth seed in just four years post-LeBron.
Their top picks Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Evan Mobley have benefited them greatly. They traded Sexton, Lauri Markennen, Ochai Agbaji, and three first round picks to Utah this offseason for superstar Donovan Mitchell and it has paid huge dividends as he is now the franchise cornerstone.
The Knicks are a big surprise because the Cavs were one of the best teams all year while the Knicks were inconsistent, but here we are. The winner gets the winner of the Bucks-Heat series.
No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers vs. No. 2 Boston Celtics
Even though this isn’t official yet, the Celtics are up 3-2 on Atlanta and barring any more last-second heroics from the Hawks’ Trae Young, should advance. Young hit a last-second shot in Game 5 to extend the series.
This would be one of the best match-ups in this year’s playoffs. The only shame is that it could come in the conference semifinals. Unfortunately, one of these contenders would be knocked out early. Expect it to be Philly with the expected MVP Embiid to take this match-up over Tatum & Co. in a seven-game series.