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Enjoy Basketball: Playoff series previews, possible Ben Simmons debut

Hawks sabotage Hornets, the Finals logo is back, and more

Welcome back to our last Enjoy Basketball newsletter before the playoffs! We'd like to give a big thank you to everyone for getting us past 20,000 subscribers in just half a month, it really means a lot as we start our journey of building a positive, community-minded, basketball brand. 

As part of our thanks for getting in early, we're running a playoff bracket prize pool powered by RunYourPool, with plenty of rewards for the winners! Make sure to sign up here if you want to join. Bracket submissions close April 16 at 1pm ET.

Playoff Series Previews

With no games yesterday to cover, now is the perfect time to dive a bit deeper into each first-round playoff series. These aren't predictions, but rather a handful of things about each matchup to look out for as you watch. 

Eastern Conference

Play-in winner will give Heat two very different first-round matchups

Where will the Heat find consistent scoring?

The one big knock on the Heat this season has been their lack of a consistent high-level scorer. Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro are all capable of having the occasional big game on the offensive end, but one (or multiple) of them will have to step up in the playoffs if they want to make some noise in later rounds. My bet for who will step up has to be on Jimmy Butler. During their finals run in 2020, he proved he can take his scoring to another level when needed and I wouldn't be surprised if he came out more aggressive in this first-round series.

Taking care of the ball will be critical

The Heat can be a bit loose with the ball at times, but they are also very aggressive when winning it back. They rank in the top five league-wide in both turnovers and opponent turnovers. This could be a big opportunity for the Hawks if they grab the eighth seed. Atlanta turns the ball over less than anyone, and if they can stave off the Heat's defense while forcing turnovers of their own, it could be a big opportunity to gain an advantage.

Nets look to cause trouble for dynamic, defensive-minded, Celtics

Ben Simmon's return could shake things up

If you thought this series wasn't already interesting enough, here you go. According to reports, Ben Simmons may make his Brooklyn Nets debut as early as game four. We don't know much about how effective he'll be coming off a back injury, but on paper, Brooklyn has always seemed like a dream scenario for him. Next to two volume scorers in KD and Kyrie, Simmons will have to opportunity to focus almost entirely on defense and playmaking. If he comes back in full form, things may get scary for the Celtics.

How much will Boston miss Robert Williams?

Along with Marcus Smart, Timelord has been the focal point of the Celtic's NBA-best defense. The Texas A&M product was in the middle of a DPOY-level season before suffering a partially torn meniscus in March. He might not be the tallest, but Williams was one of the league's best interior defenders this season. Against a team like the Nets, who rank fifth in the league in two-pointers made per game, his absence could be a problem. But hope is on the horizon, Woj reported on Wednesday that there is a "very real" possibility that Williams returns near the end of the series.

Can the Nets slow down the Tatum-Brown duo?

Both the Nets and Celtics have incredible scoring duos. But while Boston appears to have the personnel to handle KD and Kyrie (as much as you can handle two offensive superstars), the Nets may struggle with guarding Tatum and Brown. They've looked especially shaky guarding Tatum, who put up 54 points the last time these two teams met at the beginning of March. Before Simmons returns, they'll have to figure out a new approach for guarding the duo. If not, they could be in for a long series.

Bucks start potential title defense against resurgent Bulls

Can the Bulls exploit Buck's perimeter defense difficulties?

If you're looking for a weak point in this Bucks team, it's their three-point defense. Teams make and attempt more three-point shots against Milwaukee than any other team, and at an above-average rate. While the Bulls rank in the top five in three-point percentage, they take less of them than every other team. Chicago will need to translate that long-range accuracy into long-range volume if they really want to take advantage of this weakness. They'll really miss Lonzo Ball in this regard, who shot over 42% from deep on 7.3 attempts per game before his injury earlier this season. That puts a lot of this perimeter production on Zach Lavine's shoulders. He just might be the x-factor in this series if he can get going.

What can Chicago do to slow down Giannis?

This is where the two injuries to Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso may really come back to haunt Chicago. While both are undersized when compared to Giannis, the two may have been the Bull's best option for slowing down the two-time MVP. While they did manage to hold Giannis in check when the teams first met up in January, (notably before Caruso's injury), he cooked them over their next three matchups to the tune of nearly a point per minute on 60% shooting, all Bucks wins. The Bulls' last hope might be Patrick Williams, who matched up fairly well with Giannis in his lone game against him, scoring 18 points on seven-of-nine shooting. 

Embiid, Harden and co. face off with lengthy Raptors

Can Philly's two stars overcome matchup problems?

This series will be the first real test of the Embiid-Harden duo, and it's certainly not an easy one. Nick Nurse has always game-planned well against Embiid (just look at the 2019 playoffs) and Harden might find himself in trouble matching up against the myriad of lengthy wing defenders the Raptors have on call. For the two to be effective in this series, they'll need to do what they do best, get to the line early and often. 

The hot-cold nature of the Raptor's shooting

The Raptors leveled out this year to an average to below-average team from beyond the arc, but that doesn't exactly tell the full story. They are prone to wildly ranging accuracy from three-point range and no player encapsulates that more than Gary Trent Jr. In nearly three-quarters of his games this season, the former Portland Trail Blazer has shot either over 40% (30) or under 30% (22). If Toronto can get all their shooters firing at once, it will make this series a lot easier for them. Conversely, a cold streak might spell doom for their chances at victory.

A Thybulle-sized hole in the Sixer's defense

It was always going to be a problem for whichever team ended up going against Toronto. Unless something changes last minute, Canada's vaccine mandates are going to hold the Sixer's all-defensive wing Mattisse Thybulle out of any games played in Toronto. Thybulle has taken the hardest defensive assignments all season, and his switchability is perfect against a team like Toronto who have many similarly-built players. Whoever he'd usually be guarding (Pascal Siakam perhaps) is going to have a much easier time at home than on the road.

Western Conference

Play-in winner faces near-impossible task against historic Suns squad

How do you match up with the Suns depth?

The Suns have been great all year. Not just because of the play of their stars, but also a spectacular well-rounded bench unit. Guys like Cam Johnson, Cameron Payne and JaVale McGee, play their roles to perfection and provide great support on both sides of the ball. It will be essential for any team looking to take down Phoenix to have great bench depth as well. I like the Clippers in this regard, who have had nine different players on their roster start ten games or more this season. Midseason acquisitions Norman Powell and Robert Covington might come in clutch off the bench, assuming they can make it past New Orleans that is.

Winning the free-throw battle will be key

If there's one gap in the Sun's armor it's their propensity to send other teams to the line. They finished 23rd in free throw attempts allowed this season and they lost both times they gave up more than 40 free throw attempts. The Pelicans are well suited to exploit the Suns in this way. New Orleans ranked sixth in the league in free-throw attempts, and second in free throws made. If they can get Phoenix in foul trouble early in some of these games, a Pelicans-Suns series might be a bit closer than you think.

T-Wolves look for first series win in 18 years versus young Grizzlies 

Can KAT hold strong on defense?

Karl-Anthony Towns is going to be seeing a lot of Ja Morant at the rim this series, and he's going to have to stand tall if Minnesota wants a chance at pulling off the upset. Towns has never been a great defender around the rim. Even this season, when the Wolves' defense has been better than ever, he ranks just 121st in DFG% within six feet of the basket. Keep an eye on how Minnesota works around this problem in the series, and how Memphis exploits it.

A series for shot blockers

If you're a swatted shot aficionado this is definitely the series for you. Memphis and Minnesota are two of the three best shot-blocking teams in the league and combined average over 12 blocks per contest. A particular player to watch in this regard is Jaren Jackson Jr, who averaged four blocks per game against the Wolves this season. If this series goes the distance, he has an outside chance of breaking some records. No player has had more than 30 blocks in a playoff series since Tim Duncan in the 03 Finals and if Jackson Jr. merely keeps up his season average versus Minnesota in a seven-game series, he'd be only two short.

What can Anthony Edwards do in his playoff debut?

I'm glad we didn't have to wait long to see Ant make his playoff debut. He looked sensational in the play-in matchup against the Clippers, dropping a myriad of clutch buckets to finish with a team-high 30 points. Against a Grizzlies squad with plenty of capable perimeter defenders, he'll need to continue at the top of his game if he wants to keep putting up big numbers.

Warriors draw tough battle against MVP favorite

Will Curry be back at 100%?

Stephen Curry appears to be getting healthy just in time for the playoffs, as the two-time MVP scrimmaged for the first time yesterday in nearly a month following a left foot strain. We've seen how tough the Warriors have found it without him recently, especially on the offensive side of the ball, so his effectiveness and availability will be key to swinging the series in Golden States' favor.

The Draymond Green - Nikola Jokic matchup

Talk about a clash of the minds. Watching the smartest defensive player in the league against the smartest offensive player for a whole series is a rare treat. Make sure you pay attention to this matchup, even off the ball as both players will be pulling out their whole bag of tricks for this one. The only question mark is Draymonds health. He didn't look quite the same right after returning from injury but looked much better over the last few games of the season.

Who will step up for Denver?

There's no Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. to save the Nuggets this time around, and somebody is going to have to step up besides Jokic if they want to win the series. Denver have multiple players capable of having some big scoring games, but I'd look for Aaron Gordon to potentially be the #2 guy. Draymond will be busy guarding Jokic, leaving Gordon free to potentially impose his will. You can also never count out Bones Hyland off the bench, although he might have a tough time with The Mitten Gary Payton II presumably guarding him.

Everything on the line for Utah against Luka and the Mavericks

When will Luka be back?

Despite this being just his third playoff series ever, Luka Doncic has already cemented himself as an incredible postseason performer. The Slovenian wunderkind put up three separate 40-point games in a first-round loss to the Clippers last season, and there's no doubt in my mind that he'll prove spectacular once again this time around. That is, if he can get healthy. Doncic has already been ruled out for game one with a calf strain, and the Mavs will be desperate to have him back since they lack a second star to carry the scoring load in his absence. 

The perimeter battle will be the deciding factor

It's a classic case of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object on the perimeter in this series. The Jazz boasts the league's second-best long-range attack this season by total three-pointers made, while the Mavericks have the league's best three-point defense. For Utah, their best bet might be to take the ball inside more. They have the league's second-best two-point field goal percentage and feature two hyper-efficient inside scorers in Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside.

Can Gobert dominate?

If there's one player who needs a big series this April, it's Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower put together another excellent season on the defensive side of the ball, but his lack of offensive game and switchability are once again big questions marks in the playoffs. Despite shooting over 75% from the field against the Mavericks in the regular season, Gobert only had a 13.4% usage rate. Against a Dallas team without a dominating interior presence, he'll need to impose himself more for Utah to win the series. Keep a close eye on his approach in game one, it could tell you a lot about how the rest of the series will go.

Latest NBA News

A mysterious train delay forced Hornets to walk to Hawks arena

As if the Hornets didn't have enough problems on Wednesday night, they couldn't even make it to the arena on time thanks to a train parking itself right in the way of the team bus. Eventually, the team just gave up on driving and walked the final fifteen minutes over to State Farm Arena, which was graciously documented by Montrezl Harrell on his Instagram story.

Coach James Borrego was not pleased by the delay and even seemed to imply that the train stoppage was orchestrated by the Hawks themselves.

“I’ve been coming to this arena for 20 years, I’ve never seen the train stop before the game,” Borrego said. “So, somebody figure it out. I have no idea. Our guys noticed, though. It’s good fuel for us.”

Personally, I would love it if this was an intentional act of sabotage by the Hawks. The sport of basketball could use more cartoon villain plots like this.

Steph and Draymond think 2017 Warriors team was greatest ever

On the latest episode of Draymond Greens podcast, aptly titled The Draymond Green Show, Green had longtime teammate Steph Curry on, and they had some pretty interesting things to say about the legacy of those 2010's Warriors teams. 

The segment started off with Green asking Curry whether he would trade his 2017 and 2018 titles for a ring in 2016, the year the Warriors won 73 games but eventually lost to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the NBA finals. Curry mulled the questions over a while, before eventually settling.

"There's always just gonna be that awkward acknowledgment of an amazing regular season and the finals run," said Curry. "But I'm gonna say no. I'm just glad I don't take myself too seriously cause god dang was that hard."

They went on to discuss how that team would have been the best ever, Draymond was even bold enough to say the 2016 team was the best ever at the time despite the finals loss. But both agreed that their 2017 squad with Kevin Durant was the best in league history.

“We were the best team ever. I don’t care what no one says," said Green. "I can’t see anyone beating that 2017 team, not even our first 2015-16 team. I can’t see anyone beating that 2017 team.”

Honestly Draymond, it's hard to disagree with you, although my heart will always have to go with Jordans Bulls.

The classic NBA Finals logo is back

I never thought I'd get this excited about graphic design and yet here we are.

After years of mundane, soulless modern logos, the NBA is embracing tradition and bringing back the iconic cursive finals design, reminiscent of so many classic series over the years. Now they just need to put back the massive finals iconography all over the court (I don't care that players complained it was slippery, it looked cool).

Good Reads

NBA teams play differently in the playoffs. What have we noticed with the Bucks, Grizzlies and other squads? -- Seth Partnow ()

Emotion proves the NBA play-in tournament works -- Tim Reynolds (AP News)

NBA Stats Notebook: How is Nic Claxton's interior efficiency so high? -- Ethan Fuller (Basketball News)

Kyrie Irving Has Put the NBA in a Postseason Predicament -- Michael Rosenberg (Sports Illustrated)

Today's NBA Picks

Atlanta Hawks @ Cleveland Cavaliers - 7:30 p.m. EST.

Jarrett Allen's questionable status really leaves this one up in the air for a lot of people. But the fact that he's questionable at all really seals the deal for me. I doubt he'll be back at full effectiveness, and I just don't see the Cavs being able to run with a Hawks squad who have been a top ten in the league since January. Cleveland struggled to guard Kyrie Irving in their first play-in game, and I don't see them doing much better against another elusive volume scorer in Trae Young. 

New Orleans Pelicans @ Los Angeles Clippers - 10:00 p.m. EST.

The Pelicans are coming off a big win over San Antonio in their first play-in game, although they did let off the gas a bit at the end. The Clippers, on the other hand, looked decent against the Timberwolves but fell apart down the stretch. Despite the loss to Minnesota, Los Angeles did enough to convince me they can get the win over New Orleans. They're one of the best perimeter shooting teams in the league, something that the Pelicans have struggled with defending all season. And with Zion Williamson still out, they won't have to worry as much about their weakness in the interior. 

Signing Off

Congrats on reaching the end of another regular season, everybody! Even though my Blazers are sitting at home this year, it'll be nice to watch the playoffs free of stress for once. As long as a former UNC player gets a ring I'll be happy.

Also, one last thing. Make sure to drag this email into your primary inbox! We've had some trouble with the newsletter sometimes getting put in the promotions tab (it even happened to me once or twice) so if you want to make sure you don't miss anything we do (including merch) just slide that email to the left. 

That's all for me this week, hope everyone has a wonderful weekend filled to the brim with playoff basketball.

Last Trivia Answer: Unlike Conor last week, I only knew part of the answer off the top of my head. The full answer is LeBron James in 2017-18 and Jerry West in 1964-65! I was really thinking Wilt but props to The Logo for an incredible run. 

Trivia Question: The Timberwolves made the playoffs for only the second time in the past 17 years this season! Outside of Kevin Garnett, who has the most playoffs points in T-Wolves history? Just so you all know, it's a very steep drop-off from The Big Ticket.