As the regular season winds down and the playoffs nearing, let’s run down the biggest weakness for every contender down the stretch.
Celtics: Depth Scoring
Since Gordon Hayward had his season ended only minutes into his season, the Celtics have often struggled for points scoring outside of Kyrie Irving’s 24.4 points per game. While Jaylen Brown has taken nice steps forward and Jayson Tatum brings really nice bounce for a rookie, the Celtics continue to suffer from a low scoring bench and very little depth in the points department, especially as now Irving stares down the possibility of missing the entire first round due to knee surgery.
Only 104.3 points per game sandwich them between the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks for nineteenth in the league. They only flaunt a single player with more than 15 points per game while all other contenders on this list have two to three. Their top-ranked defense will be the catalyst going into the postseason but going cotton-mouthed in the second or third round could be a deathwish.
Raptors: Please Don’t Blow This
Truth be told, after adopting a more heavily adept three point system and team-centric style, this might be the best Raptors team ever assembled. At their current rate, they will break their franchise record for wins in a season. The question, come playoff time, will be can they shake the choking label and finally get over the hump. Every year the Raptors finish top of their class only get to smushed by a superior Cavaliers squad or, even worse, upset in the first round.
Shedding playoff failure and a choking tendency is much easier said than done. Just ask the Washington Capitals or Kansas City Chiefs. Teams who have a history of failure seem to just keep repeating history, no matter how talented the team may be. For the Raptors, they can’t let the past few seasons get to them. As the Celtics slowly unravel due to injuries and the Cavaliers still ironing out drama, the Eastern Conference is as open as it has ever been. With no glaring weaknesses on the roster, with depth built to go for miles and the backcourt duo of DeRozan and Lowry firing on all cylinders, the Raptors just have to believe to succeed, no matter how campy that may sound.
Cavaliers: Cut the Drama
The Cavaliers factory of drama has been the butt of jokes and memes all year long but seeing as the East is awful enough for them to snag a playoff spot anyway, it hasn’t hindered them too badly in terms of success. In comparison to preseason expectations, this season has been a disaster but to be fair, they still get to participate in playoff basketball. However, it may be short-lived if they can’t work out their family drama.
Their trade deadline efforts smoothed out a little drama but with Tyronn Lue mysteriously stepping down because of “health reasons” leaving them basically without a head coach, the sitcom in Cleveland appears to only continue. Kevin Love’s triumphant return should hopefully give LeBron a much needed second option but as the Raptors soar, they will have to clamp down on the dramatics before they can focus on what actually matters-getting revenge on the Warriors or taking down the Rockets.
Theatrics always distract and under the bright lights of the postseason, could inadvertently take precedence over performing as a unit on the court. With the nation’s eyes on them and the emotions running higher than ever, the combination of the playoff emotion and already present drama could be a lethal mix. Allowing this to get in the way of actually performing, especially with last season’s Finals dud still prevalent in their minds, may be too much for them to overcome.
Rockets: Play in the Paint
The Rockets have thoroughly been unstoppable in almost every respect, however, have flashed weak rebounding. Being only eighteenth in the league in rebounding and having a single player with over six rebounds per game (Clint Capela with 11.0 rebounds per game) is a little alarming. Their starting point guard has the second most rebounds per game as Chris Paul averages only 5.6 per game.
Their high energy offensive three-point barrage playing center stage over good fundamental basketball works for regular season play, but as the game starts to slow down come playoff time, the unheralded explosiveness may get them in hot water. While the only other teams with equivalent firepower also downplay rebounding, something this essential to winning basketball games could come back to bite them late in the playoffs.
Warriors: Get Healthy
As the cutthroat battle for the first seed in the West rages on, the basketball decided to slam the Warriors with injury after injury, downing their entire big three of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson. While Thompson is close to suiting up from a broken thumb, Durant’s ribs and Curry’s knee leer a much more murky future.
After being bumped in the paint and fracturing a rib against the Timberwolves on March 17th, Durant may not even return for the regular season. Luckily, the season still has roughly a month to it and after already clinching, the Warriors really can coast and give Durant the rest he needs. The same does go with the latest MCL ailment for Curry, no matter how disheartening it may have been for him (Editor’s Note: Curry will miss up to three weeks, and will miss the first round of the playoffs). He will cut it a little close for the postseason and knee injuries always bring a level of risk to return from but, even as stacked as the Western Conference has been, the reigning NBA champions still stand as the favorites to repeat so long as everybody can keep their health intact.
And for the war against the Rockets for the first seed? Draymond Green went on record to explain “We’re not going to spend the rest of our year tryin’ to fight for the #1 seed – if it happens, it happens. Our goal is to get better each and every day.” After their explosive 73-win season in 2015 where they limped into the playoffs and barely cracked the NBA Finals only to blow a 3-1 lead against the Cavaliers, the Warriors are no strangers to overexertion but it seems as they have learned their lesson with a much more patient approach to the regular season.
Thunder: Carmelo Anthony
Now, this isn’t pinning the Thunder’s failures and shortcomings on the newly acquired Carmelo Anthony, rather put, that his performance, whether superstar or mediocre, could be the key in a seven-game series. With a relatively pedestrian 16.6 points per game this year, he’s unsurprisingly a step slower from carrying the Knicks a season ago. Now the third option in the shadow of the reigning MVP Russell Westbrook and the far more efficient Paul George, his general decline came without much surprise.
However, despite at the ripe age of 33, Anthony still has that signature scoring touch and his efficiency has a genuine connection to the Thunder’s success. Even though his points scoring doesn’t vary too much in wins and losses, he shoots a smooth 42.4 percent in wins while 38.9% in losses. As the third scoring option, the Thunder ask for efficiency over production. Since Westbrook runs the offense and George as his sidekick, Anthony’s job is simply hit the open shots he gets and be capable of creating offense when everyone else struggles.
On a crash course with the loaded Warriors and Rockets in the playoffs, having the added firepower of a dynamic Anthony could be what separates the Thunder from the rest of the field. In games against the two giants (seeing as they have gone a combined 3-2), he shot a clean 48.5% in wins while only 40% in losses. While improbable, if Anthony can find a way to turn back the clock, we could see Houston or Golden State getting more than what they bargained for.