The 2019 playoffs tip off on Saturday. There’s no shortage of storylines to follow heading into the first-round action
Welcome to the Weekend Read. Below you'll find our best stories over the past several days, a ranking of the upcoming NBA playoff series and our favorite stories from around the web.
• From UMBC to ultimate redemption: For Virginia to win the 2019 national title, it first had to conquer unprecedented demons—and that meant telling its painful story. (By Andy Staples)
• Verne Lundquist retired from broadcasting two years ago, but he still makes his annual trip to Augusta, partially to work the Masters. (By Stephanie Apstein)
• Way-Too-Early Top 25: Ranking the 2019-20 college basketball leading contenders. (By Jeremy Woo)
• Are the quarterbacks in the 2020 draft class worth waiting for? (By Albert Breer)
• Every MLB manager has some risk of getting fired, right? We placed every skipper on the hot seat spectrum. (By Jon Tayler)
NBA Playoff Entertainment Rankings
The best time of the NBA season is finally here.
The 2019 playoffs tip off on Saturday, April 13, and there are no shortage of storylines to follow heading into the first round. As odd it will be without LeBron James on the court, his absence from the postseason means the playoffs could prove a lot more unpredictable. With unpredictability comes entertainment, and if last year’s first round is any indication of what’s to come, 2019 will be must-see TV.
If you don’t think you can keep up with all of it, we’ve got you covered. Here are the rivalries and head-to-head matchups that could make this a postseason to remember.
1. Trail Blazers (No. 3 seed) vs. Thunder (No. 6)
The Trail Blazers enter this matchup less daunting than they would have been with Jusuf Nurkic on the court, but even with the Bosnian Beast out with a compound fracture in his left leg, there will be fireworks in this series. This is a clash of two teams with plenty to prove after both suffered first-round exits a year ago.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum need a postseason breakthrough to prove they can carry the franchise to the next level. Russell Westbrook and Paul George, one of the league’s most dynamic duos, will be looking to impose their will as they have against Portland all season.
From a matchup-perspective, you can count on Lillard and Westbrook, two of the league’s elite point guards and big-game performers, going to war every night. Expect both sides to dig in for the distance.
2. Rockets (No. 4 seed) vs. Jazz (No. 5)
It’s a matchup between two of the league’s hottest teams, a clash that pits the No. 2 offense (Houston) against the No. 2 defense (Utah).
James Harden and the Rockets have shown themselves capable of running anyone off the floor when they are clicking offensively. And they’re finally healthy, with Chris Paul on a mission after his unfortunate end in 2018.
The Jazz will show up every bit as confident as the Rockets, though. Utah is a year older and better than last year, when it fell to Houston in the conference semifinals. Donovan Mitchell won’t let anyone forget last year’s postseason magic, and Rudy Gobert will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with.
3. Sixers (No. 3 seed) vs. Nets (No. 6)
No head-to-head matchup will feature more attitude than this one. Both the Nets and Sixers play hard, have depth and are well coached, setting up for a scrappy, star-studded battle.
Ben Simmons and D'Angelo Russell will be worth watching at point guard. If Joel Embiid plays, he and Jarrett Allen will clash down low. The Sixers now have guys who can pick apart individual matchups off of the dribble, but the Nets aren’t far behind—Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie have the potential to make Philadelphia’s life miserable if the shots drop their way.
The Sixers have more talent, but the Nets are still a dangerous team that has had success against Philly. This regular season series ended deadlocked at 2–2. Expect the postseason battle to be just as entertaining.
4. Celtics (No. 4 seed) vs. Pacers (No. 5)
Indiana might be without Victor Oladipo, but the Pacers have no intention of letting the Celtics get by easily. This team has been remarkably resilient, relying on balanced contributions from almost everyone on the roster. Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner, Wesley Matthews, Aaron Holiday, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young––any one of Indiana’s players could play well enough to give the Pacers the spark they need.
Boston should still have the advantage on the floor with Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum leading the way. If Hayward proves to be an X-factor and wreaks havoc on the Pacers’ defense, Indiana will have a hard time keeping Irving, Tatum and Jaylen Brown out of the scoring column.
Still, the Pacers have been underdogs in the Eastern Conference before, and the Celtics have been known to squander chances all season. Marcus Smart will be missed, as he’s expected to miss the first two rounds of the playoffs with a torn oblique. With a break or two in the Pacers’ favor on any given night, this series could turn into one the playoff’s most intriguing.
5. Nuggets (No. 2 seed) vs. Spurs (No. 7)
This will be as tight of a series as any, with a young Nuggets team looking to prove their regular season wasn’t a fluke against an experienced Spurs team ready to rebound from last year’s early exit.
LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan have caused plenty of matchup problems during the season series between the two teams. DeRozan has past playoff demons to fend off, and if Aldridge is in a rhythm, San Antonio has a real chance to pull off an upset over an inexperienced No. 2 seed.
On the other end, Nikola Jokic has skipped a few steps this season: He’s a 24-year-old who has turned himself into one of the league’s top players despite never playing in the playoffs. This could be his opportunity to turn himself into a household name.
6. Warriors (No. 1 seed) vs. Clippers (No. 8)
Just because it’ll very likely be a sweep doesn’t mean it won’t be entertaining. The Clippers defied all odds this season, and it’s unlikely they’ll back down just because they’re facing the Warriors in the first round.
The killer off-the-bench duo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell will generate some intrigue, and we know Patrick Beverley will try to get on Stephen Curry’s nerves. The toughness and energy that have been hallmarks of the Clippers’ season could make for a few suspenseful finishes.
This might be the last postseason Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson have with Golden State. The Warriors will make sure to end the era properly with big performances.
7. Bucks (No. 1 seed) vs. Pistons (No. 8)
To say that this contest is a mismatch would be disrespectful to the meaning of the word. The Pistons have lost all four regular-season matchups against the Bucks with an average margin of defeat just above 12 points, and they got blown out in embarrassing fashion twice on the road. Really, Detroit is lucky to be in the postseason at all after running face-first into the annual winter wall once again this season.
Some decent back-and-forth between Giannis Antetokounmpo, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond might be the only thing that keeps this series from being completely forgettable.
8. Raptors (No. 2 seed) vs. Magic (No. 7)
No one needs to watch the Raptors play the Magic. Yes, Orlando is one of the hottest NBA teams since the start of February, but in the grand scheme, the team is still a boring non-contender.
And the man who has served as a massive block between the Raptors and postseason advancement? He’s nowhere to be found—in the Eastern or Western Conference playoffs. With LeBron James on the sidelines this spring, look for Toronto to breeze through this series. — By Alaa Abdeldaiem
BEST OF THE REST
Editor's note: Below are some of our favorite stories of the week not published by SI. This week's list is curated by Alaa Abdeldaiem.
• In an excerpt from his book, “Once More We Saw Stars,” shared on Vulture this week, Jayson Greene begs the question: What happens when your child is killed by a piece of your daily environment? Somehow, in the face of the most profound grief and sorrow, Greene is able to find meaning.
• Clayton Baker was slammed facedown to the ground, handcuffed and arrested and had his reputation ravaged for committing one transgression he didn’t think anyone had noticed––stealing sand from Augusta National Golf Club. NJ.com’s Steve Politi takes a dive into the harrowing tale of Augusta National’s sand thief.
• He’s the gun-toting gangster who sank into a street-crawling addict and then got clean and made a decision: tell the truth, walk away and hide from the mob. He’s been in Indianapolis 11 years now. This is IndyStar reporter Zak Keefer’s must-read story of reformed New York gangster John Franzese Jr. and the famous father he sent to jail.
• In light of Craig Carton’s three-year prison sentencing last week, The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten takes a look at how a morning host on WFAN ended up running a Ponzi scheme.
• Thousands of bodies are buried in shallow graves around Raqqa, Syria. With little funding, no DNA-processing equipment and no camera, one group of men has been tasked with identifying human remains and reburying them where they belong. Wired’s Kenneth R. Rosen introduces us to Syria’s body pullers.