Boston Celtics v Miami Heat

Seven NBA playoff story lines to watch

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After weeks of trying to predict seedings and matchups while watching teams rest their perfectly healthy superstars, the playoffs are finally upon us.

In no particular order, here are the story lines we’ll be watching when the postseason tournament opens on Saturday.

How much damage can the Lakers do without Kobe Bryant?

L.A. opened the season as the favorites (on paper) to challenge the Heat in the Finals, thanks to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash during the offseason. An early season coaching change, followed by an insane rash of injuries derailed the Lakers’ chances all season long, and Kobe Bryant became the final casualty of the seemingly lost season once he went down with a torn Achilles injury just as the team was making a run at that final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers managed to keep it together without Bryant long enough to beat the Spurs and the Rockets to seal a playoff berth, and enter the postseason winning eight of their last nine games. But how this team fares without Bryant while they try to combat the efficiency of the Spurs machine in a series will be extremely interesting to watch, though undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Lakers fans at the same time.

How far can the Clippers go, and what will that mean for Vinny Del Negro’s future?

Vinny Del Negro is legitimately on the hot seat in Los Angeles, for a variety of reasons. How far the Clippers do or do not advance in the postseason is likely to determine his fate, but just how far does L.A. have to get for him to be safe?

The Clippers have a tough but favorable first round matchup against the Grizzlies, who they beat in the first round of the playoffs a season ago in seven games. Last year, the Clippers were swept by the Spurs in the second round, so getting there again this year probably won’t be enough by itself to bring Del Negro back next season.

A trip to the Conference finals might be enough improvement to retain Del Negro’s services, but honestly, it’s going to be Chris Paul’s decision as much as it will be anyone’s inside the organization. Paul is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and will have all the say in the world regarding whether or not Del Negro is brought back next season.

Will the Thunder return to the Finals without James Harden?

Thanks to Oklahoma City largely returning the same roster from a season ago that got them to the NBA Finals, the Thunder are once again poised to make a deep postseason run. But the elephant in the room is the fact that they traded James Harden away to Houston, and the reality is that if they don’t make it back to the Finals, this season will be a wild disappointment, and the front office will be scrutinized for choosing dollars over a legitimate championship chance.

Can the Knicks win a playoff series for the first time in 13 years?

It seems like a silly question, given the success New York has put together this year while being lead by the league’s leading scorer in Carmelo Anthony, and a likely Sixth Man of the Year candidate in J.R. Smith. But nothing is guaranteed for the Knicks despite holding the two seed in the East, and a first round matchup against the Celtics could be terrifying given the history between the teams this season, along with the intensity that veterans like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will bring to a seven-game series.

How much noise can the Warriors make?

The Warriors are in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 19 years, and with one of the best fan bases in the league there to support them, it’s an exciting time in the Bay Area for a basketball resurgence to be taking place. Mark Jackson has been successful in installing a winning culture in just his second season as head coach, but he and the team have said all along that simply making the playoffs was not the ultimate goal this season. We don’t know what the team believes it’s capable of internally, but a first round matchup with an injury-depleted Nuggets team could prove favorable if Golden State can play flawless basketball during the road games of this series.

Will the Spurs finally live up to their potential?

San Antonio has always been one of the more well-coached regular season teams. Gregg Popovich has his system installed, and has the players on the roster to execute it to perfection, no matter the injuries that may take place over the course of the season.

But despite the regular season success, the Spurs haven’t been to the Finals since winning it all in 2007, and have lost to teams they were favored to beat in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. We know the system allows for regular season success, but at some point the Spurs are going to run out of chances with their core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili to get back to the Finals. Another early exit this season would be a major disappointment, and might signify the end of an era in San Antonio.

Will the Heat repeat as champions?

This is the question we all want answered. Miami ran roughshod over the rest of the league during the regular season, and just about everyone fully expects them to continue the trend throughout the playoffs. The Heat have the best player in the game in LeBron James, and All-Star complimentary pieces in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that are a wealth of riches when compared to the rosters of other teams Miami might face on the way to a title.

The Heat aren’t just the favorites to repeat as champions; they’ve become the expectation. The way they finished the regular season by winning 37 of their final 39 games is absolutely absurd, and they did so even while resting their best players at times along the way.

It’s gotten to the point where we’d all be surprised if Miami didn’t win the title again this season. But that won’t make the journey any less exciting to watch.

Cavaliers keep re-watching their Game 7 victory over the Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a three-point basket against the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers’ win over the Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals was an all-timer.

LeBron James bringing a championship to title-starved Cleveland, the Cavs topping the 73-win defending champions who’d built a 3-1 lead, Kyrie Irving‘s shot, Kevin Love‘s defensive stand – the game had it all.

The Cavaliers obviously enjoyed it. And enjoyed it, and enjoyed it and…

LeBron James, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

“I’ve seen it a few times,” James said. “It was on NBA TV throughout the summer. I watch it from a fan’s perspective. I see what we could’ve done better, but I also watch it for enjoyment, to see those three zeros on the clock.”

Irving, via Windhorst:

“I was rewatching the games and talking to my teammates about it, sending them snapchats of me watching,” Irving said. “I got chills. My stomach was dropping knowing the ball is going in but knowing exactly, emotionally how I felt at the time. It still gets me excited thinking about it. It’s such a huge moment for not only Cleveland but our team, our families, our friends.”

Iman Shumpert, via Windhorst:

“I’ve watched it over and over,” Iman Shumpert said. “Oh, it was enjoyable.”

At some point, the Cavs have to refocus on the upcoming season. Maybe they already have.

But I’m not going to tell them to stop reliving Game 7. It was a big deal. Enjoy it.

This can even be healthy if it motivates them to chase that euphoric feeling again.

And if it just distracts them from their goal of repeating? There are worse things – like being stuck on a Game 7 loss.

Report: Rockets give Gary Payton II fully guaranteed salary

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Gary Payton II #0 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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The Rockets scooped up undrafted point guard Gary Payton II shortly after the draft ended.

How did they do it?

Fully guaranteeing his deal, according to Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders.

I rated Payton a borderline first-rounder coming out of Oregon State, but he went undrafted. Perhaps, the league just deemed him unworthy. Or maybe the teams that liked him most weren’t positioned to draft him. Or maybe teams opted for lesser players in the second round who were willing to spend a year overseas or in the D-League.

Houston guaranteeing his deal certainly points to a robust market for the point guard. It could also indicate the Rockets plan to keep him into the regular season.

Payton gives the Rockets 15 players with guaranteed salaries plus restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas, who has an outstanding qualifying offer and seems likely to return. There’s no obvious candidate for Houston to waive to reach the regular-season roster limit of 15 – and it could be Payton. This could just be a (more expensive than usual) way of getting Payton onto the Rockets’ D-League affiliate. They won’t be the only team to eat a guaranteed salary this season.

With James Harden (yup), Patrick Beverley, Pablo Prigioni and Tyler Ennis at point guard, Houston doesn’t have a pressing need for Payton. But Ennis, who has accomplished little in two NBA seasons, should be on notice. That Houston values Payton so highly could mean Ennis is the odd man out. Both players, and everyone else, will have the preseason to prove themselves.

Payton, son of the former SuperSonics guard, has major defensive potential. Running an NBA offense will be a tall order, but he has enough raw skills to offer intrigue on that end. He’ll need his defense to buy him time.

Report: Chris Bosh fires agent

MIAMI, FL - MAY 09:  Chris Bosh #1  of the Miami Heat looks on during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors at American Airlines Arena on May 9, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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Who does Chris Bosh have in his corner as he tries to play following a third blood-clot issue?

Not the Heat, who say they’re no longer working toward his return.

Not his longtime agent, Henry Thomas of CAA.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Bosh is in the midst of the the biggest quandary of his career. He needs a trusted advisor at his side.

But that might not be enough.

Bosh still has $75,868,170 guaranteed over the final three years of his contract. If he doesn’t play by Feb. 9 and the Heat waive him, they can exclude his salary from cap and luxury-tax calculations (while still paying him) IF a doctor agreed upon by the league and players union says Bosh can no longer safely play.

Bosh would be a free agent in that scenario, but would anyone want him? How much would Bosh resent missing a partial season before that? How much would he sacrifice in a buyout to become a free agent sooner? What if the jointly selected doctor says Bosh can return? What do Miami and Bosh do then?

These are difficult questions, and Bosh needs someone to help him navigate the minefield that lies ahead.

Why did David West choose to come off bench for Warriors? Kevin Durant.

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 21:  David West #30 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts after scoring during the first half of the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on January 21, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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If you’re desperately searching for the flaws that will undo the Golden State Warriors, depth has to be the main argument. In order to get Kevin Durant under the cap Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Brandon Rush, and Marreese Speights had to be sacrificed.

However, they added a couple of veterans to fill in the gaps. Zaza Pachulia will be at the five, trying to be a poor man’s Bogut, is going to get the most attention.

But the Warriors also snapped up David West, who had gone to be part of the Spurs veteran bench last season and now is chasing a ring with the Warriors. How did that come about? Via the San Antonio Express-News.

“(The Warriors) reached out once we lost to OKC, maybe that night,” West told reporters at Golden State’s media day. “My agent was like, ‘If you’re interested in continuing to play, Golden State wants you.’ He was obviously talking to a few guys and to the coach during the process. Then, when Kevin Durant reached out, he told me he wanted me to come join, so it was a no-brainer.”

I have zero problem with a veteran player like West taking a pay cut and chasing a ring — we as fans can’t say “today’s players care more about money/friends than winning” then turn around and hammer the guy who puts winning first. That sounds like a Trump debate tactic.

Plus, West is going to get some run-up front with Golden State. He’s still solid — he is a physical defender, sets a good screen, and if you don’t stick with him on the pop West will destroy you from the midrange. He’s not his vintage self, but he’s still a guy a championship-caliber team can lean on.

And the Warriors will.