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Vasiliy Lomachenko will put his WBO and WBA lightweight belts on the line against Anthony Crolla on Friday. We have a live blog of the action!
11 p.m.: We’re checking in for the live blog, which will get underway just as soon as the main card bouts get started.
Vasiliy Lomachenko is set to face Anthony Crolla in the main event of an ESPN+ exclusive main card on Friday evening. The card is backed up by prelims that will be streamed free on WatchESPN beginning at 8 p.m. ET, while the main card is set to start at 11 p.m.
Lomachenko was originally set to face Richard Commey after he took the vacant IBF lightweight strap, but Commey suffered a hand injury in that bout. Instead, Crolla is the WBA mandatory challenger. Lomachenko will put up hos WBO and WBA lightweight titles in the matchup.
In 13 bouts, Lomachenko has just one career loss, and it came in his second professional fight. He’s won 11 straight, including a unanimous decision over José Pedraza to unify the WBA and WBO belts. He’s won nine of his bouts by knockout and three by decision.
Most believe Lomachenko will run through Crolla, and preferred the Commey bout. But Crolla has fought some of the best and he’ll be at his best against Lomachenko. It could be a much more competitive fight than many expect.
The main card also includes a matchup between Gilberto Ramirez and Tommy Karpency at 175 pounds. Ramirez has his 168-pound belt, but is moving up a weight class. Ramirez is 39-0 and will not be putting his WBO super middleweight belt on the line. Karpency is a competent gatekeeper who has challenged for world titles multiple times.
Below is all you need to know to watch, including viewing information and the full fight card for Friday’s bouts.
All times Eastern
How to watch Lomachenko vs. Crolla
Date: Friday, April 12
Location: Staples Center, Los Angeles, Calif.
Time: 8 p.m. (prelims), 11 p.m. (main card)
Lomachenko vs. Crolla card
Main Card (11 p.m.)
Vasiliy Lomachenko vs. Anthony Crolla (for Lomachenko’s WBO and WBA lightweight titles)
Gilberto Ramirez vs. Tommy Karpency
Prelim Card (8 p.m.)
Mike Alvarado vs. Arnold Barboza Jr.
Alexander Besputin vs. Alfredo Blanco
Janibek Alimkhanuly vs. Cristian Olivas
Guido Vianello vs. Lawrence Gabriel
Ruben Rodriguez vs. Ramel Snegur
Christopher Zavala vs. Sergio Antonio Gonzalez
Elvis Rodriguez vs. Kevin Alfonso Luna
It didn’t count, but it will live forever in the minds of weekend hackers who wanted to see a green jacket-wearer play Augusta just like they would.
Zach Johnson, a Masters champion and still a top-100 player in the world, did something you literally could have done yourself at Augusta National hole on Thursday:
Wow! Zach Johnson is all of us… pic.twitter.com/BvVWA1wBvU
— Fantasy Golf Podcast (@fantasygolfpod) April 12, 2019
Johnson was about to tee off at Augusta’s par-5 13th hole, making his way through Amen Corner as he’s done 100 or so times before. (He’s played every Masters since 2005 and won in 2007, along with untold dozens of practice rounds.) He launched into what he likely figured was a standard practice swing, but he had his alignment wrong and hit the ball off the toe of his driver, spinning it off the wooden tee marker at the start of the 510-yard hole.
Check out the trajectory on that firecracker:
It didn’t count, because Johnson apparently wasn’t trying to hit the ball
He lined up his club head well to the left of where the ball was teed, or at least thought he had, which indicates that he didn’t intend to hit the ball with his practice swing.
If the ball’s not already in play, there’s no penalty for just picking it up, re-teeing it, and playing your shot as planned in that circumstance. Had Johnson accidentally hit the ball once it was already, say, in the fairway, that would’ve been a different story. He’d have had to just play it, or replace it with a one-stroke penalty, as per the USGA rules of golf.
He proceeded to birdie the hole, because sometimes, ball does lie.
After Johnson re-teed, he stroked a 285-yard drive down the left side of the fairway, with exactly the kind of soft, drawing ball flight the 13th hole invites. That left him 196 yards to the pin, and he stuck an iron 30 feet out, then two-putted for his four on the par-5.
It moved him to 1-over for the week, still a ways from contention.
So, while Johnson’s moment will be unaccounted-for in the record books, it will hopefully never escape the annals of history.
For a brief moment, we all got to see a Masters champion play Augusta with exactly the level of competence we would play Augusta. Never let us forget it.
Has this happened to you before?
It has indeed happened to me, sort of. The difference between Johnson’s episode and mine is that I wasn’t taking a practice swing.
Some years ago, I was teeing off the par-4 second hole at Mt. Lebanon Golf Course near Pittsburgh, a nine-hole course a few minutes from my house. I was playing either the white or the blue tees, so there were a few sets of tee markers in front of me.
I topped the ball with my driver, and also sliced it enough that it ran forward and to the left. (I am a southpaw.) It bounced off the thing and flew back at me, and I had to duck to avoid decapitating myself with a bad golf shot. I lost the ball, because it flew into a backyard behind me, and I was not in the mood to climb the fence. But I retained my skull.
Hit me with your golf-shot horror stories in the comments.
Tiger is charging up the leaderboard and fending off unintentional attacks by security.
Tiger Woods is charging up the leaderboard late on Friday at Augusta National, playing through some rain that has forced players to adjust a bit on the fly. In addition to the change in conditions, Tiger is also having to deal with slide-tackling security guards. It’s all coming at him.
After playing from the muck right of the 14th fairway, Tiger began to walk back out of the trees and towards the fairway to make his way up to the green. As often happens at these golf tournaments, the crowd starts to move in around Tiger after contact on the shot. And as often happens in response, security guards and gallery marshals began to try and hold the line.
Only one overzealous security guard started hustling his way into the area to keep the “patrons” back and bit it right into Tiger’s ankle. Woods immediately grimaced in pain and started limping dramatically trying to gather himself. Everyone watching held their collective breath.
After his approach shot on the 14th hole, a security guard makes contact with Tiger Woods. pic.twitter.com/0DNpWn1AkI
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) April 12, 2019
One of the very firm and Masters-specific rules is that there is absolutely no running at Augusta National. If you’re seen moving even just a tick above a speed walk, the Pinkerton security guards immediately stop you. It’s oddly obeyed 100 percent of the time. You never see running. But it’s unclear whether that kind of rule applies to the ones enforcing it.
While Augusta may appear pristine on camera between the fairways, it’s sloppy outside the ropes with all the rain and traffic this week. There’s not much they can do, even with spreading this kitty litter type stuff all over the high traffic areas. So it’s not surprising a running security guard might bite it. But that he had to do on a slide tackle right into Tiger’s ankle does qualify as a near national disaster.
Fortunately for the guard, and everyone rooting on Tiger, the four-time Masters winner drilled the subsequent birdie putt on the 14th after that absurd recovery short, the quality of which was lost in the mayhem of Tiger’s ankle nearly being sheared off. Then Tiger backed up that birdie on 14 with yet another massive putt on the 15th, bringing him to just a shot off the lead.
— Masters Tournament (@TheMasters) April 12, 2019
So we went from a complete scare of Tiger maaaaybe having to WD with one of the freakiest injuries in Masters history, to back-to-back birdies and a continued charge at the weekend lead. You may resume freaking out for the right reasons now.
There is beauty in the soloist. Within a shank, we see ourselves — the impermanence of anything, the tremble of uncertainty that shapes our march toward the unknown.
Below, you will find a video of Jon Rahm, a professional golfer, and a good one at that. Rahm is, in many ways, what we all are — young, alone, living life, having a blast. He’s at the fulcrum of golf — The Masters — high on the leaderboard. This is no matter, for the shank gremlins come at night, and you must pay them.
You will not find this on television, or on a highlight broadcast tonight. TV is in fact entertainment, sport is an escape. Life is arduous enough, and ESPN is not in the business of making the viewer confront the human condition. Perhaps, that is why this act is banned from television today. An act so powerful, a violent art so stirring — it needn’t be seen by the eyes of the public.
— leezo (@whatsupsports_) April 12, 2019
The shank is a toll, a tax on whatever greatness you’ve achieved, the ever-present reminder of the lien that the golf gods have placed on your self-worth. It exists to humble all and any, Old Tom Morris and Francis Ouimet and Walter Hagen sitting in whatever netherworld you believe in, sipping Bushmills, occasionally grabbing the spiritual controls of your swing plane and yelling ‘WATCH THIS’ . Whether from your local-club 40-handicapper to your middling collegiate player to your top-level tour pro, the bell tolls eventually for all — it is not whether you outrun it, or avoid it, just merely that it arrives at an opportune time.
But, in the wide landscape of sports calamity we celebrate today, the shank is unique. A Javier Pastore nutmeg, or a James Harden crossover, or a Bryce Harper batflip requires a two-party plot, a victor, and a victim. The pain, the distress, the self-reflection is lost in our celebration of greatness — overlooking the natural beauty and imperfection of the human condition seen in the victim.
And, perhaps, from that comes the beauty. Humankind has always been captivated, fascinated by the isolation of one. The majesty and emotion of a soloist filling a room with Ave Maria, the simple enjoyment of an airplane bathroom, the peaceful vulnerability of singularity. The shank is the fulcrum of such in sport. Within a shank, we see ourselves. We confront life’s fluid impermanence, and the solo act that is our long journey to an uncertain destination.
And just like that, it ends, as quick as it started. Beautiful and powerful, yet all too short. We are left uncertain, questioning, and humbled with regard to the world around us.
The Lakers now have vacancies at head coach and president. This week has been a mess.
The Los Angeles Lakers have capped off one of the most bizarre weeks in sports history by firing head coach Luke Walton, the team announced Friday morning. The announcement comes just three days after Magic Johnson stepped down from his role as team president in an impromptu speech given to the media without knowledge of anyone else in the organization.
“We would like to thank Luke for his dedicated service over the last three years,” stated Lakers general Rob Pelinka in a release. “We wish Luke and his family the best of luck moving forward.”
Per Yahoo’s Chris Haynes, Johnson had been granted permission by owner Jeanie Buss to fire Walton before he relieved himself of his own duties. Johnson had pushed for his firing during the season, but, according to Haynes, Buss didn’t want the public to think the coaching replacement search was done at the request of LeBron James’ agent, Rich Paul.
The short-list of Walton replacements at that point included former Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, Sixers assistant Monty Williams, and former Warriors coach Mark Jackson. As of Friday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski believed Lue was the frontrunner in the search.
According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, Walton might not be out of a job for long. Sacramento Kings GM Vlade Divac, who just fired his team’s head coach Dave Joerger on Thursday, has Walton as his first-choice for replacement. Per the New York Times’ Marc Stein, he’s already reached out for an interview.
The Lakers have a whole lot of mess to clean up before the 2019-20 season. Will they promote Rob Pelinka? Who’ll ultimately want to coach these Lakers? Where’s James’ head at?
There’s more to this drama to still unfold.
The latest arrest is one of several for the linebacker.
After being released by the 49ers on November 25, Reuben Foster was claimed on waivers on November 27 by Washington. He’ll join Zach Brown and Mason Foster as the team’s inside linebackers. The charges in Foster’s case were dropped and Foster was fined two game checks after being let go from the Commissioner’s Exempt list. Foster is eligible to join Washington for all football activities immediately.
The misdemeanor charge of domestic battery for #Redskins LB Reuben Foster has been dropped, as @TMZ reported. At this point, Foster remains on the Commissioner’s Exempt list. Here is the document. pic.twitter.com/0aCGYhFlSe
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 3, 2019
Why was Foster released by the 49ers?
The San Francisco 49ers announced on November 25th that the team would release the linebacker after he was arrested and charged with domestic violence while in Tampa Bay, Fla. with the team.
It was Foster’s third arrest of 2018.
Reuben Foster has been arrested three times in 2018 and was suspended for two games to begin the NFL season.
Less than 72 hours after being arrested on domestic violence charges and waived, a team claimed him on waivers, possibly to have him play right away.
Give me a break.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 27, 2018
Police describe the incident took place with a woman Foster was “in an on-again-off-again relationship over the past three years.” Police say that Foster and the woman were involved in a verbal altercation on the night of November 24th, which escalated when Foster slapped a phone out of the woman’s hand, before pushing her and slapping her.
Responding officers observed a scratch on the victim’s collarbone when they arrived to the scene at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Tampa Bay, according to a report from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Foster’s release follows several incidents dating back to before and since the team drafted him in 2017.
- During the 2017 NFL combine Foster allegedly submitted a diluted urine sample, which triggered a positive test. Subsequently he was kicked out of the combine when he had an altercation with a hospital employee.
- In January of 2018 Foster was arrested in Alabama for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
- Foster was arrested in February on suspicion of domestic violence and possession of an assault weapon when police responded to his home. Domestic violence charges were dropped in May of 2018 after the victim recanted her allegations that Foster hit her.
Foster was charged with one count of first-degree misdemeanor domestic-violence battery. His ex-girlfriend, Elissa Ennis, shared her message about her experiences with Foster back in early December.
Why was Foster claimed by Washington?
The linebacker was a first-round pick in 2017 and a tackling machine when he stayed out of trouble long enough to suit up for the 49ers. So it wasn’t particularly surprising that Foster got scooped up quickly, given the NFL’s long and torrid history of enabling domestic abusers.
In a statement on November 27th, the team’s senior vice president of player personnel explained the decision to claim Foster:
A statement from the Washington Redskins Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Williams: pic.twitter.com/zdxA8hmWtb
— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) November 27, 2018
Much of the team’s reasoning for the acquisition revolved around Foster’s former teammates vouching on his behalf, as well as the idea that those player could help Foster straighten himself out.
But none of the four Alabama players on the team was willing to confirm that they spoke to team executives about Foster.
We asked the following Alabama players if they talked to the front office about signing Reuben Foster:
Allen: did not talk to FO
Clinton-Dix: did not talk to FO
Hamilton: no comment
Anderson (via @Matthew_Paras): no comment
— Craig Hoffman (@CraigHoffman) November 28, 2018
According to the Washington Post, the team’s decision-makers were “far from unanimous” about claiming Foster. The decision was “masterminded” by team president Bruce Allen, who has been, so far, unwilling to speak to the media about Foster.
Upon none of his teammates confirming they were actually talked to about the signing, we asked #Redskins PR again for Bruce Allen.
We were told no.
— Craig Hoffman (@CraigHoffman) November 28, 2018
Head coach Jay Gruden spoke to the media on November 28th and said nobody should expect to see Foster play for Washington any time soon:
Gruden: “I anticipate it will be a while before (Foster plays).” Gruden said there’s no guarantee he ever plays again.
— John Keim (@john_keim) November 28, 2018
Jay Gruden on Foster claim: “We hold our standards very high…We just want to get to the bottom of what happened… At the end of the day we decided to make the move, and we’ll deal with the outcry, so to speak.”
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) November 28, 2018
The NFL’s domestic violence policy was revamped in 2014 with a six-game suspension for first-time offenders and a lifetime ban for a second offense. Foster was suspended two games in May for marijuana and drug charges after his accuser recanted in court and his domestic violence charges were dropped.
The show and the sport are basically the same anyway.
The time is nigh for our national obsession, that thing in which tribal organizations whose supporters grew up together and hate their rivals with a passion will vie for supremacy despite widespread disagreement over who’s actually No. 1.
Indeed, Game of Thrones is back.
We have assigned a college football program to the major Thrones houses. Spoilers follow, so don’t scroll unless you’re a) OK with that and b) kind of a dweeb.
That Team Up North prides itself as an honorable, morally superior organization. It engenders widespread devotion, with lots of people ready to die for it. But the house has not been able to find much happiness for many years. The leader of the family got beheaded by a southern rival when he went on the road. The Starks are Michigan.
Filthy rich, and the seat of true power in the realm. Knows a thing or two about having a fierce relationship with a brother. Alabama.
Current leadership thinks it deserves the top spot just because an oddball predecessor used to sit on the throne. Also, this house wins battles in dramatic fashion with fire as a backdrop. LSU.
The family has three brothers who have all claimed to be king:
- One who seized power in rebellious, bad-boy fashion, killing the other powers of the day.
- Two who spent various moments after that looking like they’d be the king forever, as they fought it out with each other and a handful of other elites.
Now they’ve had their resources usurped and are on the fringes of contention or worse. The Baratheons are Miami, Florida State, and Florida as one big group.
Rich, but bad at fighting and eventually crushed by a more powerful force. Vanderbilt.
Struck a massive blow to a dominant house a few years ago, carving up the opponent until it looked like a shell of its former self. The Freys thought they were on the way up after that. But their past misdeeds caught up with them eventually. Ole Miss.
Run by a young guy who’s kinda weird. Minnesota.
From a place few have visited, and most don’t understand their chants at all. Texas A&M.
Looked the part of a national power for a while, but it turns out they can’t do anything other than prey on the less fortunate before getting clipped by someone stronger. Washington.
Located on a remote chain of islands and forgotten about by the mainland, except when it’s putting on an epic display of either the sail-and-shoot or run-and-shoot. Hawaii.
Tathan of House Martell now plays for Miami. Next.
Think they’re smarter than everyone else, and spend a lot of time in proximity to the powerful without ever being on top themselves. Northwestern.
The Night’s Watch
Much better a long time ago. Run by men who swear to never get married. Notre Dame.
MAYOR PETE’S BIG WEEKEND. Buttigieg to formally kick off campaign.
ENDORSEMENT. Former DNC Chairman Steve Grossman endorses Buttigieg: “Proud to support @PeteButtigieg and his vision for inclusive prosperity for all Americans.”
NO ENDORSEMENT. Pence says Trump never endorsed Wikileaks: “I think the president always, as you and the media do, always welcomes information,” Pence said in an interview with CNN. “But that was in no way an endorsement of an organization that we now understand was involved in disseminating classified information by the United States of America.”
ON THE RAG. This week on the gay magazines….
ISRAEL FOLAU. Rugby Australia’s meeting with homophobic star player changes nothing: “Folau met RA boss Raelene Castle on Friday, with neither party backing down in a feud that threatened to turn ugly. Folau maintained a stony silence after earlier holding crisis talks amid RA’s threat to tear up his multi-million-dollar contract following his latest attacks on homosexuals.”
POPE BENEDICT XVI. Former Pope comes out of retirement to blame sexual abuse scandal on sexual revolution of the ’60s and gay priests: ‘Church historian Christopher Bellitto questioned if Benedict, who turns 92 next week, was being manipulated by others. … “It is catastrophically irresponsible, because it creates a counter-narrative to how Francis is trying to move ahead based on the 2019 summit,” he told Associated Press in an email. “The essay essentially ignores what we learned there.”’
WORLD BANK. Trump says he considered Ivanka: “I even thought of Ivanka for the World Bank … She would’ve been great at that because she’s very good with numbers. She’s got a great calmness … I’ve seen her under tremendous stress and pressure. She reacts very well—that’s usually a genetic thing, but it’s one of those things, nevertheless. She’s got a tremendous presence when she walks into the room.”
JUSSIE SMOLLETT. Having the time of his life in Hawaii.
SPIN-OFF OF THE DAY. Disney+ is developing a spin-off of the gay coming out coming-of-age story Love, Simon: “The Disney+ project will be based on Becky Albertalli’s 2018 novel Leah on the Offbeat, which served as her sequel to the 2015 book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (on which Love, Simon was based). The book centers on Leah, the best friend of Simon Spier, as she attempts to navigate various personal issues, including friendships, relationships, body image and self-esteem.”
TACO TRUCK TAMMY. White woman threatens to call ICE on taco truck workers.
NEW TUNE OF THE DAY. P!nk “Can We Pretend”.
TRAINING VIDEO OF THE DAY. How cats are trained for movies like Pet Sematary.
KEEP OR CANCEL OF THE DAY. Queer Eye on hetero trends.
FRIDAY FLASH. Cody by Issa Tall.
The Oklahoma blocker could move inside for Minnesota.
A year after going 13-3 in 2017, the Vikings spent huge on quarterback Kirk Cousins. Things did not go as planned.
Minnesota dropped to 8-7-1 last season because of an inconsistent defense and an offense that couldn’t figure out its identity. Despite giving Cousins $84 million guaranteed, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer wanted more of a run-based offense. The team canned offensive coordinator John DeFilippo near the end of the season, with Kevin Stefanski taking over.
The Vikings won two of their last three games, but by then it was too late. With little cap room, they have done little this offseason to get better. The team will turn to the draft for that, and to hopefully establish a more clear identity on offense. Christopher Gates from the Daily Norseman is here in the SB Nation NFL writers’ mock draft is here to do as much.
18. Minnesota Vikings: Cody Ford, OT, Oklahoma
Gates: While we considered players such as Noah Fant and Christian Wilkins for this pick, in the end we decided that we needed to avoid the mistakes of past drafts and use this selection to address the biggest screaming need on the Vikings’ roster. That, of course, is the offensive line.
We considered a couple of offensive linemen with this selection. In the end, we made the decision that Ford would be the best fit for the Vikings with the way their line is currently constructed. Though he played tackle in college, Ford would likely slot in as the starting left guard for the Vikings and allow them to have some continuity on the offensive line. A lot of other offensive line picks the Vikings could make would probably require them to shuffle someone such as Riley Reiff or Pat Elflein to a different position, and after watching the team play musical chairs with the offensive line for the past couple of seasons, it would be nice to see them at least try to keep some sort of continuity.
For a bigger player, Ford is surprisingly nimble on his feet, and that should help him fit into the zone blocking scheme new offensive line coach Rick Dennison is going to attempt to install this season. With this selection, we address the Vikings’ biggest need and give them someone they could build around on the front line for the long term.
Analysis: The best thing that could’ve happened to the Vikings in this draft is if there were a high-caliber true guard. There certainly isn’t a Quenton Nelson in this draft. Instead, the Vikings will have to get creative if they want to plug in a guard in the first round. North Carolina State’s Garrett Bradbury is close in terms of value, but he’s not a great fit for Minnesota’s system. Because of that, it’s hard to fault taking Ford. Even if Minnesota decides he stays at tackle, he is arguably an upgrade.
Top five remaining players:
- 8. Jeffery Simmons, DT, Mississippi State
- 10. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
- 13. Josh Jacobs, RB, Alabama
- 16. Noah Fant, TE, Iowa
- 17. Byron Murphy, CB, Washington
Who has the best chance of stopping the Warriors?
The NBA regular season is over, which means 16 teams are still in pursuit of the one true goal: an NBA championship.
But not every team has a serious shot at winning it all. Actually, only a handful of teams even have a puncher’s chance at challenging the Warriors, who are runaway favorites to three-peat this season.
Here’s every playoff team, ranked by championship chances.
First round: vs. Golden State
The Clippers didn’t have championship aspirations this season. Their goal has been to rebuild without tanking. Somehow, they’ve done just that.
But they drew Golden State, which is inevitable death in four games. Los Angeles has had an amazing ride, but this one’s coming to an end early.
15. Detroit Pistons
First round: vs. Milwaukee
14. Orlando Magic
First-round: vs. Toronto
The Magic have been a very good defensive team, but there’s no one on their team as good on both ends of the floor as either Kawhi Leonard or Pascal Siakam. Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star, but he’s drawn Marc Gasol in this matchup. This is a no-win situation for Orlando, but I do expect them to make it a five-game series.
13. Brooklyn Nets
First round: vs. Philadelphia
The Nets may secure a win at home, but the Sixers are too stacked. Brooklyn has exceeded all expectations, but it would be a shocker if they advance out of the first round.
12. Indiana Pacers
First round: vs. Boston
Indiana’s title hopes went out the window with Victor Oladipo’s devastating injury. Are they better than the world anticipated? Absolutely? Could they get out of the first round? Why not?
11. Utah Jazz
First round: vs. Houston
The Rockets are just not a good matchup for the Jazz, man. The last time they played, Houston won by 27.
First round: vs. Denver
You can’t ever really count out a Gregg Popovich-coached team, can you? There’s just something about the Nuggets that doesn’t spell definite doom.
The biggest question facing the Spurs: Which DeMar DeRozan will show up? If it’s the DDR with a chip on his shoulder, San Antonio might pull off an upset.
The West is dark and full of terrors, and the Spurs haven’t been one of the more terrifying teams of recent years. Of course, we say that now, until Popovich pulls a new trick out of his sleeve. You can never count the Spurs out, until they’re actually out.
First round: vs. Oklahoma City
It just might be. Neither team has playoff track record that instills belief. This one could go seven, or like last season, it could go four.
First round: vs. Indiana
Are the Celtics good enough? They were a game away from the NBA Finals last season, but somehow look like a shell of that team. There was no Kyrie Irving, no Gordon Hayward, and more importantly, no expectations of a young Boston team without their All-Star leader.
Now, Irving is back, Hayward is shooting his way back from injury, and the Celtics seem all out of whack. There is no reason a Boston team this loaded with talent at every position shouldn’t have one of the three best records in the East. But they’ve bickered amongst each other, straining their relationship along the way. Winning cures everything, and to some teams, the regular season doesn’t matter; only the playoffs.
The Celtics are still young, but they’ve done more with less. If Boston gets it together, in time, they should be able to get back on track.
First round: vs. Brooklyn
The 76ers have the second-best starting lineup in the NBA, only behind the Warriors and, yes, better than Milwaukee and Houston. With two All-Stars and two fringe All-Stars, Philly should coast through the first round.
Chemistry is still an issue, as is Ben Simmons’ inability to shoot a three, which shrinks the court for everyone else. Another red flag: the Sixers have lost three of four this season to both the Celtics and Raptors, and they lost two of three to the Bucks. Several of those games, however, were prior to the trade for Tobias Harris.
Philly’s biggest strength is simple: they have found a way to win at times when they should have lost, and they have the most dominant big man in the NBA. That should be enough, especially with their star-studded starting lineup. If it isn’t, well, Philly has some decisions to make this summer.
6. Denver Nuggets
First round: vs. San Antonio
I was inclined to move Denver down to eighth on this list for one simple reason: I don’t believe they’re as good as advertised. I believe in Nikola Jokic, I believe in Jamal Murray, and I believe in Mike Malone’s offense that’s allowed his Nuggets to absolutely obliterate teams. But I also believe star power wins championships.
So do good matchups.
The Nuggets will see San Antonio in the first round and the winner of Portland vs. OKC in the second. Anything short of a Western Conference Finals appearance is incredibly disappointing. Denver should theoretically be able to coast to their doom versus Golden State or Houston.
5. Toronto Raptors
First round: vs. Orlando
Pascal Siakam has been amazing. He’s been Toronto’s Draymond Green, a versatile two-way threat — only he can actually score, too. Kawhi Leonard is always his best self in the playoffs. Remember, he was the difference between the Spurs beating the Warriors, and the Spurs getting swept out of the playoffs. And the rest of the Raptors roster allows the team to switch defensively, run in transition, shoot threes and make plays.
Orlando has been good, by Orlando standards. But they don’t have the star power to compete. Toronto’s playoffs begin in the second round, more than likely a tough series against Philly.
First round: vs. Portland
Somehow, the Thunder regressed from playing championship-caliber basketball and find themselves in the bottom half of the West playoffs. They’ll have an uphill battle without home-court advantage and a first-round matchup against Portland. But if they make it out of that first-round, the door is wide open.
OKC has two superstars and a supporting cast of players that know their role.Paul George was absolutely fantastic for most of the year. Russell Westbrook has no choice but to come alive when the game matters most. And the Thunder had been a really good defensive team that George carried on offense.
Oklahoma City was a dark horse for a deep playoff run for many people. The odds are stacked against them, but if they play their best brand of basketball, there’s no reason why the Thunder can’t cruise by Portland and challenge Denver.
3. Houston Rockets
First round: vs. Utah
The Rockets were going to have to beat the Warriors one way or another. Now, they’ll just have to do it sooner, in the second round instead of the conference finals.
Houston shouldn’t have too much of a problem with Utah in the first round. They’ll spread them out, shoot threes, and let James Harden cook all night.
The Rockets were one win away from the NBA Finals last season, and that blown opportunity is still fresh on their minds this season. Houston isn’t the same team it was last year, but Harden has taken his offense to astronomical levels. He’s averaging 36 points per game this season. In the month of January, he averaged 43.6 points and put up 61-, 58- and 57-point games.
The Rockets are healthy, finally, after injuries to Chris Paul and Clint Capela. Houston might not be the same team, but they’re just as hungry, and they’ve got something to prove. They’ll have to prove it in the second round with their date
2. Milwaukee Bucks
First round: vs. Detroit
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks secured the best record in basketball. Milwaukee hasn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs this century. That should change, and it should change very soon.
The Bucks aren’t a one-man show. Khris Middleton is an All-Star, Eric Bledsoe could have been one, too. Brook Lopez is spraying threes like none other. And of course, Mike Budenholzer could be the Coach of the Year with what he’s done, taking Milwaukee from the eighth seed last season to the best team in the NBA.
Is it enough to overthrow the Warriors? Probably not. Is it enough to win the Eastern Conference crown? Toronto has something to say about that. So do Philly and Boston. But the Bucks are the East’s best hope. They’re the only team that could potentially have the best player on the floor, every game.
1. Golden State Warriors
First round: vs. Los Angeles
Can anyone actually stop the Warriors? If it’s not the Warriors themselves, the answer is a resounding, “Hell no!” Golden State has five legitimate All-Stars. Even though they’ve coasted through the regular season, they still enter the playoffs with the best record in the Western Conference.
There are little-to-no answers for Kevin Durant on an island, Stephen Curry in transition, Klay Thompson with more than a half-foot of space, or Boogie Cousins when he’s motivated. The Warriors are going to three-peat as NBA champions this season. No one, not the Rockets, Bucks, Raptors, Nuggets, Thunder or any other team in the NBA, has the means to stop them in a seven-game series.
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