The NBA Playoffs are set to begin in the early hours of Sunday morning (CET) with some intriguing match-ups and highly anticipated confrontations as brothers go head-to-head and the battle between the two leading candidates for MVP clash.
With Golden State and Cleveland contesting the Finals for the last two seasons and both sides in the post-season picture again this year, they will have bullseyes on their chests again but with the finale screaming for a fresh look, the chances of that happening are better than ever.
TNT broadcasters Reggie Miller and Kevin McHale took part in a recent Q and A session via conference call to give their thoughts on the upcoming Playoffs and more pressing topics in question.
Reggie Miller on Russell Westbrook and James Harden meeting in the first round:
“If there’s any first-round matchup that I’m sure all eyes will be on, it is, as you mentioned, the two guys who are [leading the MVP race]. As great of a season as LeBron [James] and Kawhi [Leonard] have had, the two main guys on the card – the main draw – have been James Harden and Russell Westbrook. To have those guys go at one another in the first round…former teammates, great friends, the two leading scorers in the Association…from our side, this is a dream matchup, to sit and have a chance to watch these two great players and teams go at one another. To me, [it’s about] who can outscore the other, and not necessarily in a one-on-one matchup, but teams-wise – because really, Houston just wants to outscore you, they’re not going to stop you. So, can you get to their weapons? Can you run those guys off of that three-point line? It’s going to be about building a wall around Russell Westbrook. Can you keep him out of the paint? Can you stop him from penetrating? He doesn’t have the weapons that James [Harden] has on that Houston team, so to me, taking away those dynamics from each team [are the keys to the series].”
“As for the MVP, it’s a toss-up. You could make a case for both guys. It really is tough. To me, the run that Russell [Westbrook] has had – this historic run, something that has not been done in 55 years – to me, that kind of trumps everything. So, I’m leaning towards Russell Westbrook.”
Kevin McHale on Westbrook-Harden in the first round:
“I’m like Reggie, I’m going for Russell Westbrook. I said before Christmas that I don’t believe he can do it, but if he does end up averaging a triple-double at the end of this year, that will be one of the most amazing things I have ever seen, and I said that after he had about 25 games under his belt, never thinking he’d be able to do it; I really didn’t. Up to that point, I was on the Harden bandwagon. I thought James [was the MVP], but I really believe that the accomplishment that Russell made with averaging a triple-double – and getting his team into the playoffs – is amazing.”
“As far as that series goes, for the Rockets, it’s about [if they can] rebound with OKC. Houston will go small, and then [the question is whether] OKC can pound them on the boards with the big guys they have there. You talk about building a wall [to block] Russell Westbrook and it’s so hard because he gets defensive rebounds, he takes off, and on his first dribble he has already passed up two or three defenders. By the time he gets to half court, it has turned into an odd-man break, and Russell will go one-on-two. He’ll attack two guys if it’s just him. He turns a lot of even breaks into odd-man breaks because of his speed after getting [the ball]. For me, it’s shooting versus rebounding and I don’t think you’re going to be able to really contain either one of those guys. Both James [Harden] and Russell [Westbrook] are really great offensive players. You know, does [Westbrook have] four games with those crazy numbers [in him], [which would allow] OKC to pull a big upset and beat Houston? I would [pick] Houston overall, but it is hard to go against Westbrook in a straight seven-game series.”
Miller on how the Cavaliers season ended:
“I don’t know if this is coach talk, because Kevin [McHale] has been a coach as well as a Hall of Fame player, but you hear this all the time: the game of basketball or any sport, it can’t be a light switch, you can’t turn it on and off. If you look at the recent play of Cleveland, it’s kind of head-scratching, because there is so much ability and talent on that team. I know they had a rash of injuries throughout the course of the year, but the inconsistent play – especially at the defensive end, from the World Champions – has been a little [bit] head-scratching. If you’re Paul George and you’re Indiana, maybe you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. You just hope there isn’t a train down there, that train being LeBron James. To beat the Cavs and LeBron James four times it is such a tall order. But, I love the matchup of Paul George and LeBron James…we just saw 10 days ago the matchup in Cleveland in overtime when both guys put up ridiculous numbers. To me, it’s about supporting casts: I don’t like seeing Jeff Teague going down with the tweaked ankle. He will need to be 100 percent going against Kyrie Irving; that’s an advantage right there for the Cavaliers. How healthy will Jeff Teague be throughout this whole series? But again, beating LeBron James, Kyrie, Kevin Love four times? It’s a really tall order for Indiana. But I love the matchup of Paul George versus LeBron James.”
McHale also on Cavaliers:
“Cleveland looks disjointed – [the Cavs have] been up and down. The thing that concerns me the most about it is that Ty Lue keeps saying, ‘Oh, when the playoffs come, we will flip the switch,’ but the players are saying ‘no, we’re not together right now, we need more games, we need to play, we don’t need to sit [and] rest.’ So, there’s some disharmony about how everybody feels and [it could affect] how well they play going into the playoffs.
“The matchup [of Indiana-Cleveland], I like. Indiana, a lot like Chicago, they had a disappointing season, I thought they’d be better. They have a chance to put a whole different spin on that season with a great seven-game series against Cleveland. I would take Cleveland in this series… I’m really interested in seeing if Cleveland really can flip the switch and destroy 50 years of coach-speak [in the process]. [The Pacers] are saying, ‘we’ve got a chance. They’re playing poorly, and we’re playing well.’”
Miller on the Cavaliers being vulnerable:
“Everyone loves an underdog and everyone loves an upset. For me, will it happen against Indiana? A lot of things have to factor in and a lot of things have to fall into place. When LeBron James is healthy [and he] didn’t have Kyrie or Love in the Finals, he put on a show even though they lost to the Golden State Warriors. When [James] was healthy, he came back from being down three games to one. At the end of the day, we are in a new season now, the real season. A lot of times you’re just looking to get to the playoffs to turn on that switch. They know that they dominated Toronto and Boston in the postseason over the last few years. [Cleveland] is thinking, ‘so what if we start on the road, we know if we go into your building, we can dominate.’”
Miller on Bulls-Celtics and Dwyane Wade:
“Being an older player and playing on a younger team in my last few years with Indiana, I could not wait for the regular season to end and get to the Playoffs. It is such a long season for a guy when you’re in your mid-to-late 30s… When I was 35, 36, 37, the Playoffs were a sanctuary for me to get to because there’s no back-to-backs, you have time to prepare and lock in on your opponent, you watch more game film and it’s only one team you have to focus in on. I thought that’s when I was at my best, when I could lock in on you and try to take away your strength, almost like a chess match. For Dwyane, I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking. It’s been an up and down ride for Chicago this year between the coaching staff, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade… and [Rajon] Rondo starting or not starting. They found a way to make the Playoffs and it’s a new season. Those 82 games are gone now, everyone starts 0-0 so hopefully you would assume their best basketball is ahead of them. In my opinion, this is the best No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup, if you’re Chicago, that you could have dreamt of because what has Boston done in the Playoffs lately? Don’t get me wrong, Brad Stevens and his coaching staff have done a great job overtaking Cleveland for the No. 1 spot… but what have they done [in the Playoffs]? If you’re Chicago, you think, hey, Dwyane Wade and Rondo have won championships, Jimmy Butler has gone deep in the playoffs before. We have playoff savvy and we know how to win. I think this is a great matchup for Chicago.”
McHale on Bulls-Celtics:
“The one glaring thing I look at with Boston as far as a real deficiency is they don’t rebound the ball very well. Can Chicago get second shots, can they pound the glass, will they be able to physically dominate that inside paint area? Because Al Horford, I love the way he plays the game, but he’s not a great rebounder down there. They’re going to have to get tough on the boards. The thing I like in Boston’s favor… is [Avery] Bradley, [Jae] Crowder and [Marcus] Smart; they’ve got three guys that can go out there play against the strength of the Bulls, which is Wade and Butler. It should be fun… and should be very competitive.”
McHale on who has the advantage between Houston and Oklahoma City:
“Houston. Houston shoots better, Oklahoma City struggles to score. Houston is going to have trouble rebounding against that big OKC team, especially when Coach [Billy] Donovan stays big and they throw it up on the glass with [Steven] Adams and [Enes] Kanter. Overall, I think that Eric Gordon, who would be my pick for Sixth Man of the Year, is going to be able to generate some offense. Lou Williams can create some offense. [Ryan] Anderson makes shots, Trevor [Ariza]…they have a bunch of guys who can shoot the three and create some offense if Harden and Westbrook are just a flat-out tie. So much of that pressure is going to fall to [Victor] Oladipo, where he’s going to have to create offense for them. There will be a couple of dirty games in this series – dirty games [as in] both teams will not score 120 points. Houston is very comfortable scoring 120 points, but can they win those games in the 90s? It just ends up being kind of a scrappy game; can Oklahoma City win four against Houston? I say no.”
Miller on whether Golden State’s season was a success and Playoffs expectations:
“They achieved best record and home court advantage. Kevin Durant is back, it looks like he has returned to form. It’s hard to compare last year’s team with the 73 wins, because they didn’t finish it off with a championship. Steph Curry isn’t going to have same numbers he has had the past two years with Durant in the lineup. Did they have to mortgage some of the family farm [to get Durant], yes, but if you look at [Durant’s] numbers before the injury, in rebounding and blocks, he was having a career year. If you ask the 29 other teams if they would take Kevin Durant, I believe all of them would. It’s going to be a great playoff run, trust me. For the Warriors, to me, it’s obviously championship or bust. They have to win a championship, period.”
McHale on the differences between last year’s Warriors and the current team:
“[I wonder if] Golden State burned a lot of mental energy last year going for 73 [wins]. The one thing I thought was when they had to make plays late in a quarter [this year], they let Kevin Durant make a shot. I thought that was what was missing last year… Kevin Durant makes them better, he’s a closer. The Golden State offense equates to [taking advantage of] mistakes by the defense. They hit three or four threes, it just kills you because it’s so fast. They are better team with Kevin Durant in my opinion.”
Miller on what it takes to challenge Golden State:
“Let’s think about this…there are only two – maybe three – teams who can stick to their principles defensively against the Warriors. Not a lot of teams can match up defensively against that high-octane offense of the Golden State Warriors. Championship or bust – that is what it comes down to.”
McHale on Spurs-Grizzlies:
“Memphis is a weird matchup for San Antonio. San Antonio just doesn’t seem to get as much ball movement and body movement, they just don’t seem to play as well against Memphis offensively… We did a few games in the last month with San Antonio and getting to talk to [Gregg Popovich], I just love his approach, ‘We’re trying to get better offensively by cutting down a few turnovers. We need to have more good-to-great passes. We’ve got to get back on transition defence.’ All the little things you looked at were really fixable. All the little things that San Antonio was working on down the stretch I think will pay big dividends. It will be a rugged series, it will be a tough series, but I think San Antonio is going to beat Memphis. San Antonio is one of those teams, you just want to avoid them. No one says, ‘I can’t wait to play San Antonio.’ They are going to be a tough out for anybody in the West.”
Miller on how Memphis can put up a fight against San Antonio:
“If you’re San Antonio, you’re probably shaking your head because the one team you didn’t want to play in the first round was Memphis. This will not be like last year’s series, where everyone was hurt for the Grizzlies. This team plays hard, tough, physical defence and they have two things that bother San Antonio – a great floor general in Mike Conley and a low post presence that can score with his back to the basket or can stretch you out and shoot threes in [Marc] Gasol… [The Spurs] are not playing their best basketball come playoff time. That’s something that Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have always done, especially in the championship years, they’ve played well going into the playoffs. They played OK, but they haven’t played great and I think they’ve relied too much on Kawhi [Leonard], which they’ve had to because other players haven’t been in rhythm… This is going to be a physical and long series, especially if Memphis stays healthy… They give San Antonio fits.”
McHale on the Jazz returning to the playoffs after a five-year absence: “It’s important to play well, it’s important to get into the playoffs. I think there will be some playoff jitters that first night out there, but you settle into it pretty quickly and then you find the fun in the playoffs… You play the same team, the preparation, you get rest time, there’s a lot of fun in that if you like to compete, which Utah likes to do, they compete on every possession. Tough matchup against the Clippers… playing more free offensively and that’s just the antithesis of how Utah wants to play. That’s going to be a good matchup of styles. It’s important for Utah to come out and play well and win games. This is the start of hopefully a long playoff run with that nucleus of guys in Utah. They’re very different than most teams in the Western Conference that want to speed it up. Utah will go through three or four passes just to get their offense set and in rhythm. I think the Clippers are playing very well, they’re attacking more. Any time you can put Chris Paul in a broken floor, good things are going to happen because of his vision and ability to make plays out of nothing is great. I think it’s important for Utah to show well. A 4-0 loss, which I don’t anticipate happening, would be bad. That’s going to be a fun series.”