The grueling NBA regular season has finally come to an end and we can all take solace in knowing that the playoffs start this Saturday, April 18th. Every game matters now in the quest to win 16 en route to capturing the ever-elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. The narratives have been aligned in each Conference and we can’t wait to see how this post-season plays out. Will Joakim Noah get his wish and face LeBron and the retooled Cavaliers in the second round? Will the Spurs overcome dropping all the way down to the sixth seed in the final day of the regular season and top the Clippers after Round 1? Instead of going the traditional route and recapping the highlights of what was featured on-court during the regular season editions of our NBA Feet series, we decided to do something a bit different this year. We proudly present a list of 16 key players to watch during the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
This isn’t a list of the 16 best players entering the league’s post-season. Instead we’re looking at guys who may have more to prove than year’s past, or players who enter the first round for the first time in their respective careers. From key match-ups to X-factors, this is a compilation of who we predict to be the most entertaining and watchable on a nightly basis. With storylines like Anthony Davis and his first ever post-season appearance against a legendarily good regular-season Warriors squad to a Blazers team that needs Damian Lillard even more than they did last year, there’s plenty in store for what’s poised to be a memorable Round 1. Stick around for a full rundown of who we’ll be watching out for during the early goings of this year’s NBA Playoffs and be sure to let us know who your picks are by penning your thoughts in our comments section.
Round 1 of the 2015 NBA Playoffs begins this Saturday, April 18th.
1) Golden State Warriors
Player to Watch: Draymond Green
What He’ll Be Wearing: Air Jordan 11 Gamma Blue, Air Jordan 11 Legend Blue, Nike LeBron Soldier 8
It goes without saying that you’re tuning into any Dubs game to watch Steph Curry and Klay Thompson rain 3-pointers at a historic pace, but has there been a more entertaining “role” player than Draymond Green this regular season? The former Spartan has showcased a complete package on the defensive end and has fit into Steve Kerr’s system flawlessly thus far. From his verbal sparring with Doc “Glenn” Rivers to notoriously calling out Clippers bench player Dontay Jones for bumping into him during a post-game interview, we’re excited to see how Green effects the game and tries to get under the skin of the post-season noobie Pelicans during the first round. Prepare to be entertained both on the court and off.
8) New Orleans Pelicans
Player to Watch: Anthony Davis
What He’ll Be Wearing: Nike Hyperposite 2 PEs
Not seeing Russell Westbrook chuck up 40 shots a game in the first round is a semi-tragedy, but we have a great consolation prize – watching Anthony Davis’ playoff debut. He could be the best player in the NBA as soon as next season, and in the meantime, we get to see The Brow come into the playoffs in a near pressure-less situation and just play basketball. Nobody expects the Pelicans to win this series, but New Orleans is definitely motivated after a poor showing from Golden State in the late stages of the regular season made the Pels feel some time of way (they could be heard chanting ‘scrimmage’ in the locker room as they sealed their fate to play Golden State with a victory over the Spurs). The national spotlight will finally be on AD so the world can potentially see why he was referred to as a dark-horse MVP candidate in the early stages of the season. It’s Anthony Davis’ time to shine, and expect him to not shy away from whatever Bogut/Speights/Green throws at him.
Our prediction: Warriors in 5.
1) Atlanta Hawks
Player to Watch: Kyle Korver
What He’ll Be Wearing: Nike Hyperchase, Nike Kyrie 1, Nike Zoom Run The One
The Atlanta Hawks were amazing this season, but their #1 seeding seems a bit insecure because of one thing – LeBron James. But they do have Kyle Korver, a guy who almost finished the season with a historic 50-50-90 shooting performance from the field, which has created spacing issues for almost every defense. In a league that’s been as 3-point reliant as ever, Korver can blow a game open. Expect him to do just that and dominate the perimeter against the Nets. If you’re main goal is tuning in to see the Splash Brothers this post-season, you might as well watch the East’s best shooter, too.
8) Brooklyn Nets
Player to Watch: Brook Lopez
What He’ll Be Wearing: adidas D Howard 5
We, like many of you, are surprised that the mercurial Nets inched their way into the playoffs, especially considering the triumphant return of Paul George. Notice how the only person Paul Pierce recently didn’t throw under the bus was Brook Lopez? He’s healthy and one of the only motivated players on Brooklyn’s roster, and when his offensive game is on, he’s a tough challenge. Pair that with Atlanta not really having an answer for him in terms of size, and he’s ready to make a statement despite the probable sweep.
Our Prediction: Hawks in 5.
2) Houston Rockets
Player to Watch: James Harden
What He’ll Be Wearing: Nike Hyperchase, Nike Zoom Run The One
This is the matchup that Rockets GM Daryl Morey and Mavs owner Mark Cuban have been dreaming about all season. The Rockets actually survived to get the West’s second seed despite losing to the Spurs twice in the final weeks of the season, and they have to be happy to get an old Mavs squad struggling with chemistry issues thanks to the acquisition of Rajon Rondo. We could’ve said watch out for Josh Smith who transformed himself since being kicked out of Detroit, or even Dwight Howard who’s finally back from injury, but we had to go with MVP candidate James Harden. Will he draw as many fouls during the playoffs? Will he struggle during the post-season in general like years past? Or is this the year that The Beard finally upends the doubt and proves he isn’t Tracy McGrady reincarnated? This isn’t a comparison from a style of play stand-point, but one based on the two having both been members of the Houston Rockets and never making it past the first round despite gaudy regular season numbers. The Rockets got the match-up they wanted, now we have to wait and see if they get the version of Harden that they want too.
7) Dallas Mavericks
Player to Watch: Rajon Rondo
What He’ll Be Wearing: Whatever number the Anta Rondo is currently up to
Which Rajon Rondo are we going to get this post-season? We keep waiting for Headband Rondo to return. For Playoff Rondo. Not the regular season non-national-televised-game Rondo. Or the constantly-fighting-with-Carlisle Rondo. Regardless of situation, Rajon remains as polarizing as ever especially given that a decent playoff series would up his off-season free agency stock. And it is the playoffs, a magical destination where the last time the point guard was active he put up gaudy numbers like 44 points against the Miami Heat. For every point about the former Celtic All-Star there’s a counter point though. Like how that series was over three years ago and how Rajon is now 29 years old. He doesn’t bleed Maverick blue the way he did Celtic green, and one has to wonder if he flat out cares enough or is already patiently waiting to decide where he’s going to play next season. But there’s always a chance that something greater happens here and the Mavericks and Cuban get the Rondo they initially hoped they were trading for.
Our Prediction: Rockets in 7
2) Cleveland Cavaliers
Player to Watch: Kyrie Irving
What He’ll Be Wearing: Nike Kyrie 1 PEs
‘Is this what the playoffs feel like?‘ That’s what Kyrie Irving asked veteran teammate Mike Miller during the second game of the season against their renewed Central Division rival, the Chicago Bulls. Fast forward through the ups and downs of the Cavalier’s season and it’s easy to see the growth of Kyrie Irving under the wings of LeBron James. A 55 point game against the Blazers. A 57 point outing against the Spurs. Kyrie still doesn’t know what the playoffs are like, but he’s come up big in some heightened regular season games. Will he outperform LeBron’s expectations and take the form of a Wade-like running mate for years to come? His matchup against the Celtics will provide him with a quick learning curve and while the Cavaliers’ success depends on the performance of an aging-playoff mode LeBron, Kyrie’s tremendous play throughout the season has made him appear more than ready to help lead the new-look Cavs.
7) Boston Celtics
Player to Watch: Isaiah Thomas
What He’ll Be Wearing: An array of Air Jordan retros, Jordan CP3.VIII
Gone are the days of Doc Rivers and the Celtics’ Big Three + Rondo era, and in its place is a fun group of underdogs at the Boston TD Garden. A major factor in the turn around from the early goings of the season was the surprise acquisition of Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. Since joining, the Celtics have gone 20-11 behind the play of the potential Sixth Man of the Year. Being an undersized guard has only helped the tenacity in Isaiah’s game and being counted out against a heavily favored Cavs team will further motivate the 5’9″ point guard, His main goal will be to frustrate Kyrie Irving and company, helping a second unit that matches up rather well with the Cavaliers. Will it be enough to steal a game from Cleveland? Boston’s competitive drive relies heavily on their second unit’s motor.
Our Prediction: Cavs in 4.
3) Los Angeles Clippers
Player to Watch: Chris Paul
What He’ll Be Wearing: Jordan CP3.VIII AE
Talk about forgotten MVP candidates. Chris Paul and the Clippers edged out a close race and ended up grabbing the Western Conference’s third seed despite long injury hiatuses from both Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford. What got them there was simply an MVP-level stretch from CP3. And their reward? Playing the Spurs in Round 1. That’s just how things go in the unforgiving West, but CP3 just gets better and more motivated with age. In order for his legacy to grow, it depends on his leadership and play-making ability pushing the Clippers to at least the Western Conference Finals. This year could very well be the year if they manage to knock off the defending champions in the first round. We at least hope that the Clippers and Warriors face off in the WCF. For now, this could very well be the series of the first round. Look for Paul to prove his point about being left out of the MVP conversation once again.
6) San Antonio Spurs
Player to Watch: Kawhi Leonard
What He’ll Be Wearing: Air Jordan XX9
The Spurs have everything they need to make another post-season run. Their health, their rest, and last year’s NBA Finals MVP. We doubt that Pop cares all that much about his team’s seeding, but getting the Clippers in the first round definitely doesn’t help things. After an incredible performance in last year’s NBA Finals, everyone expected Leonard to take the next step and put up numbers reflective of an NBA superstar. That wasn’t the case throughout much of the season as the 23 year old was sidelined by multiple injuries, but like his team in general, Kawhi has caught stride at the perfect time. He proved he was a force to be reckoned with last year. Expect him to do the same in Round 1.
Our Prediction: Spurs in 6
3) Chicago Bulls
Player to Watch: Jimmy Butler
What He’ll Be Wearing: Air Jordan XX9, the occasional Air Jordan Retro
The obvious selection would’ve been Derrick Rose, but that would be a disservice to the hard work put in by Jimmy Butler all season long. He’s the most likely candidate to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and his surprising play has kept the Bulls afloat in the unexpectedly tough East. When the Bulls were counted out, it was Butler’s All-Star level play that kept Chicago in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race that helped land them the third seed. The return of Rose will undoubtedly be the bigger storyline, but Butler’s ability to defend and needed offensive output will help ease Derrick’s transition to the post-season atmosphere after a two year hiatus.
6) Milwaukee Bucks
Player to Watch: Michael Carter-Williams
What He’ll Be Wearing: Nike Kyrie 1, Nike Hyperrev 2015
Michael Carter-Williams went from being the on-court general of the league’s worst team to his first NBA playoff appearance in less than a year. Under the tutelage of legendary point-guard Jason Kidd, Carter-Williams can only grow. He’s a weird player to watch on-court. He’s a horrible three-point shooter, and hasn’t yet found his niche, but J Kidd and the Bucks saw something in him when they acquired him mid-season. He’s uncharacteristically tall for his position, a statistic that could be said about multiple Bucks players, which causes match-up problems for the defensive-minded Bulls. If you’re a Bucks fan, an early exit is expected, but the growth will be great once Jabari returns next season.
Our Prediction: Bulls in 5
4) Portland Trail Blazers
Player to Watch: Damian Lillard
What He’ll Be Wearing: adidas D Lillard 1 PEs
We all know about Video Game Dame’s hallmark shot from last year’s playoffs that sent the Rockets packing earlier than expected, but the Trail Blazers need Lillard now more than ever. They’re limping into the Western Conference Playoffs riding a four game losing streak and fresh injuries to two starters. That said, look for a Matthews-less Dame to shoulder a heavy burden throughout a rough series with the Grizzles and truly emerge as a superstar (without ever getting snubbed on an All-Star ever again). Home court advantage in PDX certainly helps, because the FedEx Forum crowd is tough to play in front of.
5) Memphis Grizzlies
Player to Watch: Mike Conley
What He’ll Be Wearing: adidas CrazyLight Primeknit Boost
It just so happens that our two key players in this series will be spending the majority of their time guarding one another. While Lillard has had some notable defensive struggles in his young NBA career, Conley has been solid on both ends of the floor without getting the recognition he really deserves. He’ll spend the entire series picking apart the Blazers’ weakened defensive attack, and not having the burden of carrying an offense in a way that his counterpart has will make Conley that much more effective.
Our Prediction: Grizzlies in 6
4) Toronto Raptors
Player to Watch: Lou Williams
What He’ll Be Wearing: Anything ranging from the Nike LeBron Soldier 8, Jordan Jumpman One, to Drake’s OVO Air Jordan PEs
6 man like Lou Will. The funny thing is, Williams might not even win the 6 Man of the Year Award thanks to Isaiah Thomas. The Raptors match up with the Wizards, a team much like itself in that it started out incredibly hot and then fizzled after the All-Star break. Williams is the epitome of a spark-plug off the bench despite his late-game chucking, and he’s worked out more in Toronto than he ever has with any team. If Drake’s 6 Man doesn’t push Lou Williams into the collective conscious of Canada and America for reasons other than basketball, we hope his post-season play does because the Raptors need his, you could say, Energy. Sorry, we had to.
5) Washington Wizards
Player to Watch: John Wall
What He’ll Be Wearing: adidas J Wall 1
John Wall wins by default here, but you should also totally watch Head Coach Randy Wittman’s perfect combination of sincerely confused sideline reaction faces as a close second. Wall’s been one of the lone bright spots in what’s been a slowly sinking ship. Watching Wall’s electric play directly contrast with the prodded out pace of Kyle Lowry will be interesting enough, and with Paul Pierce’s words of wisdom from the Wizards’ bench this year, D.C. could build upon last year’s miscues and survive a close series with team #WeTheNorth. Not having home court advantage won’t really hurt this team, but having Wall’s perfect combination of court vision and scoring ability will lend a hand.
Our Prediction: Wizards in 6