Now that the Play-In games are over, the playoffs are set. After a remarkable and valiant finish to the regular season to qualify, the Spurs’ season is over. Much progress was made towards returning them to the level of success that we have grown accustomed to. Or more accurately, to the level of success Spurs fans have been spoiled enough to expect. Interestingly, the Spurs scored as many points as they gave up this over the course of the season. Unfortunately, they did not win as many games as they lost, which is a more important stat. The Spurs wound up with the worst record ever by a team that outscored their opponents over the course of a season.
As noted below, the Bulls were outscored for the season, but wound up 46-36, sixth place in the East. The Clippers wound up +2 total (!!) for the entire season but needed a 50 point win against OKC’s six-player G League squad in Game 82 to get above water.
But while the Spurs’ season is over, the NBA season is not. Spurs fans who turn off the TV because the Spurs season has ended miss out on a lot of great basketball. If you are reluctant, it may help you turn the TV back on if you have a playoff team to root for. Today we will talk about the Eastern Conference playoff teams, and which teams I will be rooting for — or against — and why. We finish with our annual poll asking which Eastern Conference team Pounders want to see in the Finals.
These are my thoughts on the Eastern Conference playoff teams, starting at the top of the standings:
Even though Spurs fans (and most fans of other teams) rooted passionately against the Heat during the Heatles era, this Heat team is not that team. With Eric Spoelstra still in charge (and looking like he hasn’t aged a day), the Heat remain an extremely well-coached team. The team’s offense features Spursian movement of players and ball, with shot selection at a premium. Defensively, the team plays hard and smart, keyed by the wondrous Bam Adebayo, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. On both ends of the floor, and in transition, the team plays hard, keyed by one of the game’s best competitors, Jimmy Butler. And the Heat have should-have-been-a-Spur Duncan Robinson. His uniform number should be 21 on the front and 50 on the back. Finally, even they came in first in the East, hardly anyone is picking them to be in the Finals. If you want a team to root for in the Eastern Conference, Miami could be the one.
Yet another team coached by a long-time Spurs assistant coach. Ime Udoka is deservedly a front-runner for NBA Coach of the Year after the Celtics finally bought into his coaching. They also have Derrick White, whose arrival coincided with the Celtics’ second-half surge. Are the two ex-Spurs enough to cancel out the Celtic Green, which everyone without a Boston accent has rooted against since Red Auerbach coached them? Totally your call — except for the first round, in which we can all cheer for the Celtics to take down the Nets.
Former Pomona-Pitzer player and long-time Spurs assistant Coach Mike Budenholzer is reason enough to want the Bucks to succeed. But wait, there’s more. Basketball fans everywhere absolutely must appreciate Giannis Antetokounmpo, possibly the best player in the game, even if he does not repeat as MVP. When your best player always works harder than everyone else, the entire team puts in more effort. But wait, there’s more. Basketball fans everywhere must also appreciates Jrue Holliday, a truly great two-way player (when his shot is falling) and a great teammate. Last year, he flew directly to Tokyo from the NBA Finals and immediately became the second best player on the gold-winning USA team. The only reason to root against the Bucks is Grayson Allen, a whiny Duke alum who looks like Ted Cruz. (Now that I have mentioned the Grayson-Cruz resemblance, you will never be able to un-see it.) The Bucks open up with a freeway series against the Bulls. As discussed below in the Bulls discussion, expect the Bucks to meet the winner of the Nets-Celtics opening round series.
Unlike the Heat, which offers no good reasons to root against them, the 76ers have a good reason to root for their opponent. New 76er James Harden has totally quit on two teams in the past two seasons. First, he ate his way out of Houston because he wanted to create a Big Three in Brooklyn. He then lazied his way out of Brooklyn so he could force a trade to Philadelphia. The 76ers also has an excellent young player, Matisse Thybulle, who elected not to get his second vaccination shot, which means he can’t play any of the games his team plays in Toronto. No, I will not be rooting for the 76ers, despite the presence of my guy Danny Green and the delightful and incredible Joel Embiid. (Unless the 76ers are playing the Nets, of course.)
No longer Spurs North, the Raptors remain a very well-coached, likable, multi-lingual and international team, much like the legendary Spurs teams of the past. Pascal Siakam has become a fringe All-NBA (third team) candidate, while undrafted powder keg Fred Van Vleet continues to be the heart and soul of this scrappy team. The Raptors also have some of the best names in the league — check out the roster. My only question is what “David Johnson” is doing in the midst of all those very cool names. In any event, just like the Miami Heat, no one expects the Raptors to be in the Finals, but they are also a team that no one in the East wants to play. And I love their red uniform with the diagonal white stripe. They should wear it all the time.
The Bulls were the surprise team of the first half of the NBA season, with ex-Spur (and ex-Raptor) DeMar DeRozan on mid-season MVP ballots. Alas, after being at the top of the leaderboard for much of the year, the Bulls have limped to the finish line, falling into 6th place. No one is picking the Bulls because they have convinced everyone that they are not a real threat in the playoffs. Because of the late season collapse, the Bulls were outscored on the season, meaning their 46-36 record is very misleading. Much of the late season collapse was injury related, but they have not played any better when some of the injured players returned. The Bulls are also 1-14 (not a typo) against the top four teams in the East. You can root for DeMar and the Bulls if you wish, but you should have a back-up plan for the second round on the playoffs.
In my “Tiers of Likability” column at the start of the season, I wrote this about the Nets:
LEAST FAVORITE TEAM: Brooklyn Nets: The new Death Star, with unlikable stars. When Kevin Durant is the most likable of your three best players, and your owner is a Russian oligarch, your team is just not very likable.
A helpful reader from Russia pointed out in the Comments section of that column that the Nets are no longer owned by a Russian oligarch (we would certainly be hearing about that now if they were) and that the former owner might not have been an “oligarch” anyway. My bad.
However, the Nets remain unlikable. For instance, while they traded the unlikeable James Harden, who quit on two teams, they traded him for Ben Simmons, who quit on the 76ers, and then refused to play on the Australian national team for the Olympics — claiming he needed time to “work on his game”. Apparently his “game” was not basketball, as has yet to suit up for anyone since last year’s playoffs — the “I don’t want to dunk” loss against the Atlanta Hawks. Even without Simmons, the Nets have Kyrie Irving, who also chose not to play much of the season. So while the Nets have ex-Spur Patty Mills (good on ya, Patty!) and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Nets remain a team that I will not be rooting for. You can if you want to, but if you do, we won’t be friends anymore.
When I think of the Hawks, I think of Trae Young. We have come a long way from his rookie season, in which Atlanta was getting roasted for trading the rights to Luka Doncic in exchange for the rights to Young and an extra pick that turned out to be Cam Reddish. At the start of their rookie seasons, Young struggled while Doncic was an immediate star. Since then, Young has become the face of the Hawks franchise, though still a polarizing figure as he seems to enjoy playing the villain, especially on the road. This season, he averaged 28.4 points and 9.7 assists — but at the same time he remains an atrocious defender. On the other hand, he has proven to be very durable, playing 76 games despite being generously listed at 6’1” and 164 pounds. (Side note: At a game, I once stood next to Allen Iverson, who was also listed at 6’1”. If Iverson was actually 6’1”, I must be 6’3” because I towered over him. As I probably would standing next to Trae.)
I heard a great comment about the Hawks on a podcast: “The Hawks have a lot of swagger for a team that finished four games above .500.” If you like a team and a player with swagger (justified or not), you probably like the Hawks and their star player, Trae Young.
Who are you rooting for to win the East?
This poll is closed