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NBA Analyst

NBA Analyst

The Race for the Play-In Game: Teams to Fear

We’ve all heard the mixed emotions surrounding the play-in game, several welcome it, and some don’t. A common denominator regarding the naysayers of the play-in tournament is the fact that it doesn’t benefit them. For example, lower-seeded teams are thrilled to be awarded another chance to make the playoffs, but players/coaches that are in a position such as LeBron aren’t fond of it. He resents the fact that he might have to play in a do-or-die situation game to make the playoffs or go home. Without further explanation surrounding the topic, let’s get into some teams that organizations around the league do not want to see in the play-in tournament.

6. Washington Wizards

It hasn’t exactly been the ideal year for the Wizards. Covid and injury had ravaged this team to a low point that fans aren’t even aware of. In the eminence of Covid, the Wizards had to go two full weeks with no practices and could only see each other in the parking lot in their cars. Players have been in and out of the lineup all season and therefore the Wizards’ starting lineup has seen multiple changes. A major part of the Wizards’ success as of late is simply Russell Westbrook. Russ has now accumulated a total of 180 triple-doubles, which is one shy of the great Oscar Robertson. Many people wonder what happened, and the answer is, he got healthy. The bubble was not a good time for Russ. He played through a quad injury and contracted the virus while in Orlando, which we have seen (per Jayson Tatum) that Covid can mess with an athlete’s ability to compete. Westbrook continued to fight through the injury throughout the first half of the season and fully healed over the All-Star break. It made matters worse for opposing teams that Russ was not a fan of being left out of All-Star weekend, giving him extra motivation to come back stronger. With his healthy legs, Westbrook has retained his ability to drive and finish in the paint, as he is back up to shooting 67% from the restricted area. The Wizards’ defense has been a topic of discussion throughout the season, and despite being one of the worst in the league, they’ve improved to the 20th ranked defense, which still isn’t sufficient enough, but with an offense such as Washington’s, it’ll do adequately. After losing Thomas Bryant to a season-ending ACL injury, the Wizards have (sort of) made up for it with the trio of Alex Len, Robin Lopez, and Daniel Gafford. Players such as Raul Neto and Garrison Mathews are always willing to sacrifice their bodies to save a loose ball, draw a charge, and play aggressive and irritating defense. A focal point that teams will try to target is Davis Bertans. His defense is outright awful and opposing teams are already figuring out ways to switch him onto a big man or guard, both of which can easily score on Bertans. You heard that right, Bertans can’t guard big men because he is too weak. He can’t keep up or maintain a low center of gravity while defending guards either. It will be interesting to see how much court time Bertans will see in the tournament.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis might not have an outright star such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown listed above, but Ja Morant can get the job done. The one factor that could put this team above the Celtics is the wondrous depth of their roster. Unlike most teams where you have the main bench player, this team doesn’t have one guy. They have several players who evolve together to make up a dominant bench that can destroy the opposing team’s benches. With the return of Jaren Jackson Jr., this only amplifies the intensity of the bench, adding to the depth of the power forward position which has a ripple effect that allows certain players to be able to play other positions. This team plays a scrappy style of defense that ranks 9th in the league and accumulates the most steals per game. Key guys (this year) such as Grayson Allen and Kyle Anderson have stepped up their games to benefit their team in the long run and both of them will remain a focal point come tournament time. Injuries and Covid have taken their toll on this team as well. They’ve recovered quite well, but Grayson Allen and Xavier Tillman are listed as out at this very moment. These are two essential players for this team and Memphis will be holding out hope that they will both be available for the tournament along with everyone else on their roster.

4. Boston Celtics

This is a close one between the Celtics and the Grizzlies and I went with the Celtics only because of their star power. It’s hard to doubt a team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Whether they will be fully healthy or not is a question looming above the organization. As of now, Jaylen Brown and Tristan Thompson are listed as out but are likely to be available for the tournament. Unfortunately for the two players, they might be encouraged to play before their previous injury has completely healed, which could cause a more serious re-injury. Even if the Celtics somehow made it through the tournament, they won’t make it far through the playoffs as they don’t have reliable and consistent assets that come from their bench. 

3. Portland Trailblazers

It’s been an odd season for the Blazers as they try to hold the duck tape together that’s holding their organization together. I put this team above the Celtics for a couple of reasons. First off, they have a player named Damian Lillard, and that’s something to fear in itself. Another factor is injuries. It seems as if every time a player comes back from injury or the health and safety protocols in Boston, another player fills that spot, leaving it profoundly questionable who will be available come tournament time. Another point to mention is Portland’s notably stout bench that consists of Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, Derrick Jones Jr., Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Harry Giles Jr. In fact, the Blazer bench scored a combined 70 points in their last game against Cleveland. A key piece to Portland’s rotation has been Norman Powell, who is currently listed as out, so if he is ineligible for the tournament, the Trailblazers’ odds take a sizeable hit. Jusuf Nurkic will most definitely boost the Blazer’s odds in the competition, as the Blazers have improved mightily on the defensive end when Nurkic is on the floor. The Lillard and Nurkic pick and roll game has taken full effect as well, which will add another dangerous scoring arrangement that will make the team tougher to guard. Portland’s incapability of sharing the ball will hurt them in this tournament, however. They remain dead last in the league in APG with 21.1 per game. 

2. Golden State Warriors

It might not appear as if this team is one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament, but they most definitely are. Any team with Steph Curry is dangerous. Similar to the Heat, this team will demand full health to come out of this tournament and enter the playoffs. The Warriors were without Kelly Oubre, Eric Paschall, and Damion Lee. It is questionable whether these players will be available for the tournament. These three players may not resemble much to the casual fan, but they can dramatically benefit this team. Oubre has improved his three-point shot throughout the season, and although it still isn’t steady or reliable, at least it’s improved. Although he takes 5.2 threes per game, this is not his primary role. What is his role? With the pick and roll that Curry and Wiseman ran, Oubre was always in the dunker’s position. This meant that if the defense walled up Wiseman, Oubre was available on a backdoor cut, Curry would find him, and with the athleticism of Oubre, the output would transpire to a dunk. With no Oubre in a Curry/Looney pick and roll, that leaves one less option for the Warriors and requires them to take a lesser percentage shot. The predicament for Golden State has seemed to occur when Curry is off the floor. The Warriors have been more than weak without their leader on the court this season, and this seems to be the Warriors Achille’s heel to this day, however, over the past 15 games, they have improved. They’ve bolstered a top-three defense and maintained the second-highest EFG%, this due in major part to Kent Bazemore finding his rhythm from deep as of late. Golden State has also shown us how lethal a Curry, Bazemore, Wiggins, Green, and Looney lineup can be, as this slate of players is slaughtering other teams.

1. Miami Heat

The Miami Heat, alongside the Golden State Warriors, are the favorite to make a strong push in the playoffs if they have to proceed through the play-in game to advance upon the playoffs. You might question what makes Miami possibly the most dangerous play-in team available, and there are two distinct answers to that. The fact that they have Jimmy Butler, and the fact that when this team is fully healthy, not missing 2 guys, not even missing 1, when this team is fully healthy, they can beat good teams. If Jimmy Butler is in a one-game win or lose situation like this, I’m not betting against Butler. The combination of young guns such as Herro, Nunn, Robinson, and veterans who know the game defensively such as Iguodala, Ariza, Bradley, and Harkless. This team is already ranked 6th in the league defensively, however, their offense has struggled without a full roster. Goran Dragic ups his game in the playoffs, we’ll see that from him, Jimmy Butler helps his team with everything, rebounding, assisting, scoring, defending, holding players accountable, and helping teammates know where to be and what to do on the court. Another key piece of this team’s organizational success is Erik Spoelstra. Spo has seen just about everything you could observe in his 13-year career of coaching. He is an absolute menace at making changes mid-game and the Heat will unquestionably be feared in the tournament.