It seems hard to imagine that there are only four NBA teams left standing. The energy in Madison Square Garden, along with the first round performances of Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, and Jayson Tatum seem like a year ago. But there are now four teams remaining in the playoffs with the best chance of breaking their championship drought.
Despite spending plenty of money this offseason, the Hawks found themselves six games under .500 entering all-star break. They decided to cut ties with coach Lloyd Pierce and promoted Nate McMillan to head coach. After that, the Hawks finished the season 27-11 clinching the fifth seed. They defeated the Knicks in five games thanks to the heroics (and foul hunting) of Trae Young. But perhaps more impressive was their second round series against the 76ers where they won game seven on the road. Young's last second winner in game 1 against the Knicks, has set the tone for a postseason in which he's averaged 29 points and 10 assists. McMillian also deserves a ton of credit for turning around Atlanta's season. With their confidence sky high, there's a real possibility they might sneak into the Finals.
Once again, the Bucks had another impressive regular season finishing as the third seed, but appeared to have a difficult journey as they opened the playoffs against a familiar Miami Heat team that defeated them in five games last year. The Bucks convincingly swept the Heat after nearly blowing game one. In the semifinals against the Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks overcame deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to win in seven hard fought games despite Kevin Durant's brilliance. Giannis Antetokounmpo's stepped up in a big way, scoring 40 points in the deciding game through smart decision making. Moving forward, he should stay in the post because Milwaukee's offense is more efficent that way. They should also run more plays for guys such as Jrue Holiday and Kris Middleton, to get more involved in the offense. If the Bucks want to get over the hump, this is their recipe.
In November, the Suns boosted their playoff chances by acquiring future hall of famer Chris Paul. With an already promising core of Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Miles Bridges, this proved to be the missing piece they needed as Phoenix won 51 games during the regular season. Their first playoff opponent in 11 years were the defending champion Lakers who were favored by some (including myself) to win. They came back from a 2-1 deficit, winning the next three games with Booker capping the series with a 47 point masterpiece. They then followed this with a sweep of the Denver Nuggets to advance to the conference finals. Currently, they are up 1-0 thanks to Booker's 40 point triple double. Booker has balled out in his first postseason appearance, even though Paul hasn't been healthy throughout this postseason. With a healthy Paul, I think Phoenix has the best chance of winning their first championship.
Los Angeles Clippers:
It's crazy that the Clippers are finally in the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history after years of blown leads. It seemed like it would be another failure as they fell behind 2-0 to the Mavericks in the first round. Led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they overcome that deficit as well as a 3-2 lead to defeat them in seven thrilling games. Against the top seeded Jazz, they once again tied the series at two games apiece after falling 2-0. George changed the course of the series, with signature performance despite no Leonard to send the series back to L.A. up 3-2. The Clippers capitalized on this opportunity to win the series. Right now, they are down 1-0 to the Suns and must grab home court advantage by winning game two. Leonard's health is still a question mark and it's possible he'll rest of the playoffs with an ACL injury.
My Updated Predictions:
In the Eastern Conference Finals, I'm picking the Bucks to defeat the Hawks. Atlanta is coming into the series with supreme confidence, but if the Bucks play Giannis in the post, and run plays through Middleton and Holiday, they should win the series. Holiday can also be counted upon to shut down Young. Holiday is one of the better perimeter defenders and he'll be everything the Bucks invested in him if he shows up. However, Atlanta's offense is more efficent and with their improvement on the defensive end, Giannis could be headed home again.
As for the Western Conference, the Suns will probably win the series if they win today. The Suns have played exceptionally well together from a coaching to a playing standpoint and it has shown in their play. The Clippers can't be counted out after what they've done, but they must win game two to prevent Paul from returning with the Suns up 2-0. If the Clippers lose, it's difficult to envision a comeback, which is why this upcoming game has major implications on the outcome of this series. That being said, I think Phoenix wins this game as well as the series.
If the Bucks and Suns face off in the Finals, it's going to come down to who's the better coach. Both teams have talented rosters and defend the basket well. However, Mike Budenholzer hasn't seemed to unlock the Bucks offense while Monty Williams has the Suns offense playing extremely well. Therefore, Phoenix wins their first NBA championship.
Last Wednesday, the Knicks' dream season came to an unfortunate end against the Hawks in game 5 of the first round in the NBA playoffs. As tough as it was, the team gave fans a reason to smile for the first time in years. They went from being one of the worst teams in the league over the last five years, to winning more games this season than the last two combined. Let's look at how successful their season has been.
Despite the praise the Knicks received for hiring head coach Tom Thibodeau, expectations were low to begin the season. It looked like the losing would continue when the Knicks lost their first two games. But then they showed signs of what was to come with a stunning blowout over the Milwaukee Buck, which set the tone the season. Every game, the Knicks looked like they might've peaked, only to prove fans wrong and go on another winning stretch. In early April however, it seemed as though their magic was out after losing five out of six games. But like earlier in the season, New York wasn't done yet and proceeded to go on an amazing nine game winning streak. Even after their streak ended, they ended the season on an impressive note, winning three straight games to clinch the fourth seed before Atlanta ended the dream.
There are many people who deserve a ton of credit for the Knicks' success, starting with president Leon Rose. He made some smart, low-profile free agent signings, such as Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel, that significantly helped the team. Trading draft bust Dennis Smith Jr. as well as a second round pick for Derrick Rose was another fantastic move that brought more scoring and leadership to the team. His best move however, was hiring this season's Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau, the primary reason for New York's success. Night in and night out, Thibodeau always got the Knicks to play hard through working together on offense and defense. Their defensive in particular was amazing all season because all five players worked together to stop their opponents rather than one guy making a defense better. It's why they were the number one defense in points allowed. Thibodeau also got the best out of his players, most notably Julius Randle. After a rocky first season with the Knicks, Randle responded by leading the team in points, rebounds, and assists. He was rewarded with his first career all star appearance and the Most Improved Player award. RJ Barrett became a more polished player in his sophomore season, upping his scoring average from 14 to 17, while improving his shooting percentage from 32 to 40. Derrick Rose was a great midseason acquisition who gelled immediately and added more scoring. Other players were key contributors such as Noel, Burks, Immanuel Quickly, and Reggie Bullock.
As for the team's future, they don't have to rely on the draft lottery anymore. They have two first round draft picks, and with Quickley looking like a reliable scorer, fans can trust management to draft wisely. In addition they have lots of cap room to sign free agents. While most upcoming free agents have been extended by their teams, there are still some available free agents such as Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley, and Demar Derozan who could make a difference.. They should especially be interested in signing with the Knicks after the Garden crowd was rocking in every home playoff game. The Knicks can also use the money they have to bring back Rose, Noel, Burks, and Bullock among others. Giving Julius Randle an extension is another important priority. While they don't have to rush it, and his play fell off in the playoffs, he deserves the money for getting the Knicks in that position to begin with. The only exception might be giving him the max, but any other deal would work for both sides. Randle has previously said that he wants to stay in New York so there seems to be little obstacles in the way.
Although the Knicks season came to an end, this teams has a lot to be proud of. They finally look like a competitive team with players who play for one another, and got more out of this season than anyone could've thought. Fans have also taken notice and are excited to watch a good team for the first time in awhile, with celebrities such as Spike Lee. Fat Joe, Tracy Morgan, and Chris Rock filling the front rows. Although the Knicks didn't win a playoff series, the fact that some people predicted they'd win says a lot about their season. This team was fun to watch and more importantly, they have the foundation to be a great team.