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HQ Roundtable: The NBA playoffs are coming

We keep it simple this week on the HQ Roundtable as the panel discuss all things related to the end of the season: playoffs, awards, rivalries, and more.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The weather is getting nicer and the days are getting longer. This can only mean one thing: the NBA playoffs are coming.

Fans of the Toronto Raptors can finally rejoice after the team clinched a playoff spot on Saturday with the help of the Charlotte Hornets losing to the Milwaukee Bucks. Now with the post-season in mind, it’s all we want to talk about. Welcome to the HQ Roundtable. I am Sully Akbari, your host for this weekly series. Joining me this week to discuss playoff topics and more are Thomas Mooney and Jay Rosales.

Let’s hop right into our discussion!

On the Raptors:

1) If the Raps finish the season as the second seed, which seventh seed team would you like to see in the opening round of playoffs? (And who will actually make it?)

Sully Akbari: I’d like to see the Charlotte Hornets sneak into the seventh seed but that looks unlikely. Of the teams actually in the mix, I’ll go with the Brooklyn Nets. The Raptors’ two wins over the Nets this season have been opposites: they won on January 11 by 17 points and then on February 11 by two points (courtesy of Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning basket). Meanwhile, Toronto’s one loss came in overtime on December 7, a 106-105 defeat, but it was one they had three chances to win — in the fourth with Leonard’s miss, and two more times in OT courtesy of a missed three-pointer by Kyle Lowry and the wide-open game-winning three-pointer miss by Fred VanVleet.

Although the Raptors haven’t had a dominant season series against the Nets, I think a playoff series will be controlled and won by Toronto in four or five games. I just don’t see the Nets’ three-point heavy offense coming through enough in the playoffs. It would also be great to see because I want the Raptors’ brutal 2014 playoff series to be avenged in a way that it leaves the Nets with so much despair so as to never want to play Toronto in a playoff series again.

Thomas Mooney: Give me the Miami Heat all day long. We saw a preview of what the series could look like on Sunday, and Kawhi Leonard wasn’t even playing. Dwyane Wade can still have his flashback moments, but the team overall just doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up with the Raptors when they’re on their game. But with the Heat three games back of the seventh seed with 16 games to go, it’s likely we’ll see either the Detroit Pistons or Nets. In that case, I’d rather see the Nets.

Jay Rosales: Tired: Charlotte because the Raptors haven’t lost to the Hornets this season.

Wired: Brooklyn, because the Raptors have three players (Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam) who are better than their best (D’Angelo Russell). Because an eight-man playoff rotation that includes DeMarre Carroll is not scary. Because when playoff basketball calls for physical play, a team that turns the ball over 15 times a game (sixth-highest in the league) and gets called for fouls at a top-10 rate (21.6/game) is not scary.

I think the Magic sneak into the seventh-seed. They only face five teams with records over .500 the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Brooklyn, who many believe will finish as the seventh seed, has a seven-game road trip coming up plus match-ups against East playoff teams for all other games.

2) Looking ahead to the playoffs, what is your ideal nine-man Raptors playoff rotation?

Sully: PG: Kyle Lowry | SG: Danny Green | SF: Kawhi Leonard | PF: Pascal Siakam | C: Marc Gasol |

Bench: Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell/Patrick McCaw

I have Marc Gasol in the starting rotation because I have a feeling he is going to kick it up a notch in the playoffs. I’m not so worried about Serge disappearing in the playoffs because I just don’t see it happening this time around. Given Gasol’s skillset, he’ll be a better fit with the starters than Ibaka.

While I was ecstatic with the acquisition of Lin, I just don’t see him producing in the post-season with the way he has struggled since coming to Toronto. To me, signing Lin was an insurance move. So, unless Fred has an off night or Lowry and Fred need a breather, we probably won’t see much of Lin. There’s simply no room or point in having both FVV and Lin in the rotation since it would cut into the two-guard minutes, which the Raptors need it to be filled by Norm or McCaw. While Norm continues to keep his head above water, McCaw has started to play really well in the minutes he’s given. He isn’t forcing anything, picking his spots, and delivering when the ball is given to him, much like how VanVleet was used last season. That last spot should be used depending on how Norm and McCaw play. Lastly, Anunoby has to be in the playoff rotation because the Raptors need his size and defensive skill down low in the post and on the perimeter.

Thomas: PG: Kyle Lowry | SG: Danny Green | SF: Kawhi Leonard | PF: Pascal Siakam | C: Marc Gasol |

Bench: Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin, OG Anunoby

Going to a nine-man rotation in the playoffs means a few players are going to be left out, and for me, that means Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw are the ones missing the cut. McCaw has been a pleasant surprise, especially on the defensive end, but teams will leave him alone on offense, and the Raptors can’t afford to play 4-on-5. As for Powell, his inconsistency this year is what leaves him out, and you don’t sign Jeremy Lin to keep him on the bench in the playoffs.

Jay: PG: Kyle Lowry | SG: Danny Green | SF: Kawhi Leonard | PF: Pascal Siakam | C: Serge Ibaka |

Bench: Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Jeremy Lin, McPowNoby.

Alright, I couldn’t decide between McCaw, Powell, and Anunoby for the final spot. In fact, Lin is only ahead of them because he’ll have to play some spot minutes before we see Lowry and VanVleet share the floor in crunch time. OG holds a special place in my heart (I still believe he’s Kawhi 2.0) and “wins” my ninth spot. Honourable mention to McCaw, who absolutely earned his starter spot on Sunday in Miami, and Powell, who is doing well enough to make me occasionally forget he’s the only Raptor we have locked in for 2020-21.

3) By season’s end, who on the Raptors will win a major award?

Sully: I have a total of four Raptors winning five awards. Pascal Siakam wins the Most Improved Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard is named to All-NBA First Team and NBA All-Defensive First/Second team, Kyle Lowry may be able to sneak into All-NBA Third Team, and Masai Ujiri takes home Executive of the Year award.

Thomas: I think we’ll see three Raptors on these lists at the end of the year. Pascal Siakam has to be a lock to win Most Improved Player of the Year, and Kawhi Leonard should be a lock for a forward spot on All-NBA and All-Defense teams. The only question mark for me is whether Kyle Lowry sneaks onto the All-NBA Third Team.

Jay: Four Raptors will be honoured: Executive of the Year will go to Masai Ujiri, Most Improved Player of the Year will go to Pascal Siakam, All-NBA will go to Kawhi Leonard, and All-Defense will go to Leonard plus one of Kyle Lowry or Danny Green.

Around the NBA:

1) Outside of Milwaukee, Toronto, Golden State and Denver, which one of the 12 teams currently in the playoff mix has more to lose if they fall in the opening round of the playoffs?

Sully: It’s got to be the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were upset in six games in last season’s playoffs at the hands of the Utah Jazz. That series was a lopsided one in favour of the Jazz as the Thunder were blanked on both ends of the floor. It was clear the Thunder needed to make changes in the off-season to revamp their roster outside of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Steven Adams. That trio got man-handled by Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert, and Ricky Rubio.

However, nothing super significant was done! This is basically the same team from last season, minus Carmelo Anthony and adding Dennis Schroder. To make things worse, they were/are still deep into the luxury tax and were/are still capped out.

After starting the season 0-4, the Thunder looked good right up until the All-Star break. Now, OKC is facing a tough road ahead with their upcoming schedule. They’ve also been passed by the Rockets, with the Trail Blazers looking to do the same. We could very well be seeing the Thunder on the same crash course as last season if they are matched up against the Rockets, Trail Blazers — or the Jazz yet again — in the opening round of the playoffs. If that turns out to be the case, then I’d expect actual change coming in OKC’s off-season.

Thomas: I think the Portland Trailblazers have the most to lose. They’ve gotten swept in the first round each of the last two seasons — to the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans — and if they face a similar first round exit again this year, they’ll have to seriously consider breaking up the Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt. It might be the only way to upgrade the roster considering the money they have tied up to players like Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard past this season.

Jay: Philadelphia has so much riding on this playoffs, it must keep Sixers fans up every night. The Process was paused when they acquired Jimmy Butler, and flat out buried when they traded for Tobias Harris. Philly’s future is now with the Butler-Harris-Simmons-Embiid core. Should they lose in the first round (or even the conference semis, if they get blown out), the Sixers could lose both Butler and Harris to free agency. Multiple years of tanking, only to end up with 2 playoff trips and none in the East Finals, is a one-way ticket to alienating a fanbase.

2) After the Lakers-Celtics game on Saturday night, NBA ESPN analyst, Jalen Rose, mentioned that team rivalries don’t exist in today’s NBA. Do you think that’s the case?

Sully: I certainly don’t think the rivalries are as heated as they were in the ‘80s and ‘90s but I do think teams look out in the schedule and single out games they want to win more than others. Think of the Celtics-Lakers, Celtics-Raptors, Knicks-Nets, the Texas Triangle with the Rockets, Spurs, and Mavs rivalries. Each one of those match-ups has rich history. I’m sure players want to keep the tradition alive in making sure their team has the upper hand.

I also think social media plays a big part in keeping rivalries heated and alive. Think about, say, Enes Kanter and Spencer Dinwiddie taking shots at each other over which team is the best in New York.

Or when Draymond Green sent a subliminal message with his Arthur Fist shirt, a clear shot at LeBron James who posted the same image with the caption ‘Mood’ back when his Cavaliers were struggling in November of 2017. There’s no love lost there!

Overall, I think rivalries still exist but they’re not as intense as they were back in the day.

Thomas: I think Jalen’s right to a certain degree. For specific fan bases there is still hatred for certain teams, like how Raptors fans hate the Celtics, but for the league as a whole and how it markets themselves, team rivalries aren’t as apparent. I think that it mainly has to do with how it’s turned more into a star-driven league than ever before, with more and more fans tuning in just to watch certain players. So it’s become more of, let’s watch LeBron James vs. Kyrie Irving, or Kevin Durant vs. Russell Westbrook, instead of the Lakers vs. the Clippers, at least from a national perspective.

Jay: If you spent longer than 10 seconds to think of a response, you probably have to agree with the former Raptor’s analysis. That’s not to say it’s necessarily a bad thing. Rivalries of the past (Lakers-Celtics, Spurs-Mavericks, Pistons-Bulls) were predicated on the marquee players (Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Tim Duncan-Dirk Nowitzki, Isiah Thomas-Michael Jordan). In today’s NBA, superstars are more likely to change teams than ever before — bringing with them the ability to maintain rivalries. Warriors-Thunder could have been this decade’s marquee rivalry if Durant stayed put. Cavaliers-Celtics could have been a legendary rivalry if LeBron stayed put. Rivalries still exist, but the best ones are between players, not teams.