At the end of every sports season one team stands triumphantly in front of flashing lights and falling confetti as they are presented with a trophy confirming that they are, without a doubt, the champions of the world. While we’d like to think this trophy wielding team is the best team in the sport, in many cases through no fault of their own they are not. Upsets, the unexpected and the downright unusual happen. It’s the beauty of sports, anything and everything can happen. But over the course of a seven game series the unexpected usually doesn’t pile up. The better team continues on. This is one of the only knocks against the NBA Playoffs, that the first two rounds really don’t matter because we know there are only three or four teams who can really win a title out of the field of 16. While this traditionally holds true, the ups and downs of this NBA season has left reason for every fan base to be worried about their team and you can talk yourself into any number of postseason scenarios. For this reason we’ve compiled the top reasons everyone (even the Warriors, Rockets and Cavs fans) should be nervous.
Nervous Because: John Wall’s Health
John Wall underwent a “clean up” procedure on his left knee at the end of January that left him sidelined till late March. The Wizards went 14-12 in his absence and were wildly inconsistent with wins over Boston and Toronto and losses to the Knicks and Detroit. But since Wall’s return the team hasn’t been much better, going 2-5 with more bad losses. Wall has also struggled to get back into the NBA groove since returning, averaging 6.3 turnovers in his return to action. Wall will need to be at his best for the Wizards to have a chance to upset the Raptors in the first round.
Nervous Because: Coach Tom Thibodeau
Minnesota’s Coach Thibs was once praised as the creator of the modern NBA defense, hedging on screens and dismantling the pick and roll offense. It helped the Celtics win a championship when Thibs was an assistant coach, but that was then and this is now. The world has caught up to Thibs and the Timberwolves are 13 out of the 16 playoff teams in points allowed and have glaring defensive holes when it comes to their young star Karl Anthony-Towns and 6th man Jamal Crawford. Additionally Thibs has a reputation of running his talent into the ground by overplaying key players and this year has been no different. If the Wolves look slow or tired come game 5 or 6 of the first round be on the lookout for all the takes pointing out Thibs’s questionable (lack of) rotations.
San Antonio Spurs
Nervous Because: No Kawhi Leonard
If anyone knows how to turn lemons into champion basketball teams it is Gregg Popovich but even he may have his hands full this postseason. Playing much of the season without their star player, Kawhi Leonard, was hard enough but now a postseason without him seems like an early nail in the coffin. Kawhi hasn’t played since January 13th so even an unexpected return will have to overcome the accumulated cob webs and quickly get into playoff shape to be of any help. Without Kawhi the Spurs can still hang around with the best of them but will struggle to have a knockout punch to move on to the next round.
Nervous Because: No (Real) Coach at the Helm
The Bucks fired head coach Jason Kidd in late January for under preforming with a talented roster. Since then the team has be lead by Joe Prunty who is in his third stint as an interim coach. While the Bucks have some very good young players and a uniquely assembled roster, so much winning in the playoffs is due to game planning and adjustments whether they are in timeouts or in between games. This becomes even more difficult when your star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is not a good jump shooter and your opponent has several days to game plan for it. Prunty will have to be creative to stay on par with coach Brad Stevens of the Celtics even though the Bucks will have the better players on the floor.
Nervous Because: You’re Counting on 36 year old Dwyane Wade
D-Wade can make a clutch shot down the stretch of a game. D-Wade can win you a playoff game. But Dwayne Wade can not win you a series anymore. The good news for Heat faithful is that their coach Erik Spoelstra knows this, the bad news is that he doesn’t have much of anyone else to plug in to get the job done. Outside of Wade and Goran Dragic the Heat are an assortment of parts that have been relatively interchangeable and extraordinarily average. When the going gets tough late in a game or late in a series, how confident are you in a 36 year old Wade to save the day?
New Orleans Pelicans
Nervous Because: Who Helps Anthony Davis?
Anthony Davis is one of the five best players in the NBA and is a phenomenal talent. After the season ending injury to Demarcus Cousins, the way I would describe the rest of Davis’s teammates would not be phenomenal. Outside contributions from Jrue Holiday and the late season addition of Nikola Mirotic, the Pelicans are counting on “Playoff Rondo” to help get this team over the hump in the Western Conference. That is not a formula for success. Extraordinary talent and heroic performances from Davis may cause an early round upset for the Pelicans but it will not help them when they run into the elite of the Western Conference.
Nervous Because: Counting on a Rookie to Win
When the Jazz replaced All-Star Gordan Hayward with rookie Donovan Mitchell, most did not expect Utah to be back in the playoffs let alone a five seed. That progress is due in huge part to Mitchell scoring a team high 20 points a game and helping drive a Utah offensive by creating off the dribble and making his own shot when necessary. As fantastic as Donovan has been, teams now have a whole series to clamp down on him offensively. While Mitchell will be an household name soon and take part in many NBA postseasons in the future it is always difficult to put so much faith in someone who hasn’t been on a stage this big before.
Nervous Because: Bad Matchup Potential
The Indiana Pacers have quietly positioned themselves as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference behind a noteworthy year from Victor Oladipo. While most of the NBA is transitioning to more position-less basketball and getting away from traditional big men the Pacers have built their key rotations around a traditional center, Myles Turner, and a traditional power forward, Domantas Sabonis, both of whom help stretch the floor or guard the perimeter well. While Oladipo is the straw that stirs the drink, the Pacers will be in some tough positions if they are forced to have a Turner or Sabonis try to guard a Kevin Love type player away from the basket.
Nervous Because: Can They “Flip the Switch” Again?
It is never a good idea to bet against LeBron James in the postseason, but the King has given us plenty of reasons to doubt this year. A complete roster overhaul before the trade deadline only helped the Cavs secure the fourth seed in the East and did not help them shore up all of their defensive inefficiencies. But all the turmoil comes against the backdrop and the expectation that the Cavaliers will “Flip the Switch” when it counts and put everything together under the bright lights of the playoffs. While history shows this has happened in the past, it is still okay for the Cleveland faithful to be worried if this is the year they can’t put it together when it counts most.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Nervous Because: Late Game Russell Westbrook
Before this season started we all made the same Westbrook – George – Anthony joke that there was only one ball for three ball dominant guards to play with. 82 games later George has transitioned beautifully to playing off the ball and Melo understands his role to spread the floor and shoot when open. But Russ is still Russ and had moments this year where he elected to take the contested 33 footer instead of dishing to an open teammate. Westbrook’s hero complex has been a blessing and curse for the Thunder for years but now with talented teammates around him Russ will need to delegate when necessary and be okay with not taking the last shot if it means a better shot for his team to win.
Portland Trail Blazers
Nervous Because: Two is Company but Threes a Crowd
There was a point in time when a two-headed dragon was terrifying. How do you deal with both of them? What? They BOTH can breathe fire? That doesn’t even seem fair! The league has continued to evolve however and the monster two-headed dragons now look like innocent french bulldogs when put next to the behemoths that are the three and four-headed beasts at the top of the league. Damiam Lillard and CJ McCollum are two talented guards on an over achieving Trail Blazers team but will need an unexpected star to burst onto the scene for them to get past the Warriors/Rockets.
Nervous Because: Embiid’s Health & Simmons Can’t Shoot
The 76ers are going into the playoffs the hottest team in the NBA winning 16 straight on the back of their young stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. But Joel Embiid is not 100%, sitting out the last few games of the regular season with an orbital fracture, and similarly to the Greek Freak, Simmon’s game is missing a jump shot. Two disadvantages you can guarantee the Heat and every opponent will try to take advantage of early and often by attacking the paint on offense and sagging off Simmons on defense.
Nervous Because: Best Player is Al Horford
Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving played a total of five minutes of basketball together this season and that stat sums up the Celtics year. When Kyrie was ruled out of the playoffs a little over a week ago it sealed the Celtics already grim fate. Even behind a deep roster and brilliant coach if you are a Celtics fan you know it is going to be hard to make a playoff push with Al Horford as the best player on the roster.
Golden State Warriors
Nervous Because: Steph Curry’s Health
The defending champions have had quite the up and down campaign this year. Most of the downs occurred through bouts of injuries that constantly plagued their roster. Unfortunately the injuries have trickled into the playoffs as Steph Curry is projected to be out until at least the second round. While Kevin Durant is the best player on the Warriors, Curry is the most important and having him at 100% increases the team’s margin for error when they matchup against the elite in the West or East. The worst case scenario for Warrior fans would be a diminished Curry returns too early and re-injures himself, leaving the team vulnerable to a Western Conference Finals loss.
Nervous Because: Can They Do it in the Playoffs
The system Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has put in motion in Houston has made no star shine brighter than James Harden. Highlighting everything great in the young guards game, Houston’s plan is simple – they want to shoot and make more three pointers than you. They will only take layups, dunks or threes and that’s it. It’s a beautiful strategy that the analytic gurus salivate over and it has helped the Rockets secure the top seed in the West. But systems and strategies all go out the window down the stretch of a must win game and our short term memories remind us of last year’s Harden collapse. The Rockets lost 114-75 in game six to the Spurs and James Harden only scored 10 points on 2-11 shooting. This prompted the question that will hang over Harden this postseason – Can he do it when it matters most?
Nervous Because: Is This the Same Old Raptors Team?
In 2014 the Raptors were the third seed in the East but lost in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The following year they were the fourth seed and were swept in the opening round. Then in 2016 the second seeded Raptors finally made it to the Conference Finals only to lose in six games to the Cavaliers in a series that was not as close as it sounds. And finally last year the third seeded Raptors were swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. In a word the Raptors recent postseason stretch has been disappointing. Every year the Raptors have added the “Final Piece” to get them to the promise land and every year they still come up short. This year final piece? An offensive shift from less isolation to more three point shooting. Will this get them over the hill? History says no.