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Who to root for in the NBA Playoffs

If you don’t have a rooting interest and need something to watch, here’s a Tar Heel-oriented NBA Playoffs guide

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs
Still got it.
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost the worst time of the year for a lot of sports fans, including myself. Soon, it’ll be summer, and almost all meaningful sports action will be on delay until September, when football season starts again. Summer’s highlights include such heart-stopping events such as: the MLB regular season (zzzzz), the PGA’s US Open (solid background noise), and the ATP’s Wimbledon (only fun for a week). It’s absolute torture.

The two best postseasons in sports, and arguably the two best viewing sports in the world, are NCAA men’s basketball and NFL football, and both of those have ended. Thankfully, to mitigate our boredom for another month or two, the NBA Playoffs have just started, and while the NBA regular season has its fair share of detractors for being too long and encouraging players to be lazy, the playoffs have none of that and are a legitimately high-quality product. They can help stave off our sports ennui for a couple of months.

“But Akil,” I imagine some of you are saying, “This is a website for college sports fans. I don’t know a thing about the NBA! How do I get invested in its postseason without a team to root for?”

Fear not, loyal reader, as this is your guide, from Tar Heel to Tar Heel, to the teams to root for and against based on our shared Tar Heel Fandom. Let’s start with the heels (no, not Heels) of the tournament:

“BOO!” TIER

16. Atlanta Hawks (#5 East)

This one makes sense both geographically and in terms of college basketball. The Hawks’ roster includes two Duke alumni, and both are particularly hatable ones to boot: Mike Dunleavy, who is somehow still employed at age 36, and Ryan Kelly, one of the forerunners of the trend of “Duke players growing beards in the NBA so they can pretend they didn’t go to Duke” (Yes, this is a thing).

It doesn’t change the punchability of his face, though, which I’m sure you all remember well. Additionally, North Carolina and Atlanta have a fierce rivalry across sports: The NFL and NBA are the most prominent examples. The best way to represent North Carolina these playoffs is to root against the Hawks.

The Hawks are currently losing 0-1 in their series against the #4 Washington Wizards and resume play at Washington on 4/19.

15. Cleveland Cavaliers (#2 East)

The Cavaliers are the epitome of what everybody hates about the NBA regular season - teams and players taking entire games off to preserve themselves for the playoffs, playing undisciplined basketball, and neglecting defense at times. The Cavs are by far the most talented team in their conference, but dogged it down to the #2 seed because they didn’t feel like trying hard enough. It should drive college basketball fans nuts, and there would be nothing sweeter than seeing them receive their just desserts for it. Also, their starting point guard is alleged Duke alumnus Kyrie Irving, but I don’t actually remember seeing him play for them, so it’s not too big a deal.

The Cavaliers are currently up 2-0 against #7 Indiana, and travel to Indiana for the 3rd game of the series on 4/20.

14. Oklahoma City Thunder (#6 West)

Russell Westbrook is an extremely polarizing NBA player. Some love the passion and determination he has shown in willing a roster of relative unknowns to the playoffs in the extremely competitive West, and his production is eye-popping (for those who don’t know, Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a season this year). Others think he hunts stats to the detriment of his team’s betterment. I will say just this: Watching him, you will believe that it’s possible simultaneously to hunt assists and hurt your team’s flow. The Thunder also employ Duke alumnus Kyle Singler, one of my personal least favorite players to go through Durham, so that’s a nice motive to want them to lose.

The Thunder are currently down 0-1 to #3 Houston and resume play at Houston on 4/19.

13. Washington Wizards (#4 East)

The Wizards seem to be making a habit out of drafting players from UNC’s rivals. Their core includes John Wall (UK, though your mileage on him may vary), Markieff Morris (Kansas), Kelly Oubre Jr (Kansas), and Daniel Ochefu (Villanova ‘16). Plenty to root against here for Heels fans.

“MEH” TIER

The next five teams have pretty much nothing of interest to offer Carolina supporters, either for or against them:

12. Houston Rockets (#3 West)

James Harden is absurdly good. He’s also infuriating to watch as a basketball fan, as seemingly half his drives are designed to draw fouls instead of to score. It’s effective, but for Carolina fans, it might be torture. Add their relentless 3-point barrage strategy and it’s pretty antithesis to classic Carolina basketball. I don’t mind it, but many of you will probably feel differently.

11. Utah Jazz (#5 West)

A look at the roster might have you scratching your heads at this one, and justifiably so. No Heels are to be found on the Jazz’s roster, and former Duke player Rodney Hood is a key part of the roster. They should obviously be in the previous tier, right?

...

I couldn’t do it. The Jazz took a chance on Marcus Paige in the 2016 NBA Draft and even though they promptly assigned him to their D-League affiliate, I’ll have a soft spot for them for a while because of that.

The Jazz lead the L.A. Clippers 1-0 with a rematch in LA coming on 4/19.

10. Indiana Pacers (#7 East)

Jeff Teague from Wake Forest might be a familiar local face to some Heels fans. Other than that, nothing here.

9. Toronto Raptors (#3 East)

Toronto is a fun team to watch, and DeMar DeRozan is a wonderfully old-school player who refreshingly doesn’t care about the three-point line.

The Raptors are currently down 0-1 to the #6 Milwaukee Bucks and will have rematched them at home by the time of this article’s publishing.

8. Chicago Bulls (#8 East)

Historically, Chicago and UNC are very significantly linked. One might say that one’s ceiling is the other’s roof, if you catch my drift. If that’s enough for you, disregard this entirely. As far as the current team, though, other than the underdog factor, there isn’t much as far as Tar Heel or Carolina connections.

The Bulls have taken a surprising 1-0 lead against #1 Boston, with a rematch at Boston to have been played by the publishing of this article.

7. Golden State Warriors (#1 West)

James Michael McAdoo is the first Tar Heel to make an appearance in this article. This doesn’t get Golden State into the next tier for two reasons:

1) He barely plays for them.

2) They’ve already got him a ring.

The Warriors are also the league’s poster boys for modern basketball’s three-point revolution, though they’re far from the worst offenders (see Rockets, Chicago, above). Charlotte native Stephen Curry is very easy to root for if you go this route, though.

The Warriors have a 1-0 lead over #8 Portland with a rematch in Sacramento coming on the 19th.

“GO HEELS!” TIER

The following teams all carry Tar Heels on their rosters, so be on the lookout.

6. Portland Trail Blazers (#8 West)

Tar Heel alumnus Ed Davis started the season fairly strong, averaging 4.3 points and 5.3 boards in 17 minutes per game. Unfortunately, halfway through the season, a nagging shoulder injury was aggravated to the point that it needed surgery, and Davis was rendered out for the season. He’ll still get a ring if the team wins it all, but there unfortunately isn’t a Heel to watch on this team.

5. Boston Celtics (#1 East)

Former UNC player Tyler Zeller seemed to be valued pretty highly by the Celtics a couple of years ago, when they paid him to be their starting center. Since then, though, Zeller has been relegated to the bench most of the time, only appearing in 51 games this season and averaging 10 minutes in those games. In the playoffs, outside of blowouts, the chances you’ll see him play are slim, but again, we’re still rooting for him to get a ring.

4. Milwaukee Bucks (#6 East)

Zeller’s former teammate, John Henson, has found himself a place in the Bucks’ frontcourt rotation. He averages a healthy 19.4 minutes a game, and in those minutes, puts up 7 points per game, 5.1 rebounds, and, in true Henson fashion, 1.3 blocks. The Bucks are also a very fun team to watch, with superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way.

3. San Antonio Spurs (#2 West)

Former Tar Heel Danny Green made a big splash in the 2013 NBA Finals as his sharp outside shooting (including setting the record for most three-pointers made in an NBA Finals) and stellar defense nearly carried the Spurs to a championship during a series when many of the Spurs’ regular stars underperformed. His team did not seal the deal that year, but won a title the following year. Green continues to be a key part of the Spurs’ lineup, and is regarded as one of the best 3-and-D players in the league. Out of all the Heels in this list, he has by far the most visibility, and if he can pull his 2013 magic out again, more ability than anybody else to look like a Finals MVP.

The Spurs lead the Memphis Grizzlies 2-0 with a trip to Memphis scheduled for 4/20.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (#4 West)

The Clippers have two former Tar Heels on the roster: Veteran point guard Raymond Felton and rookie Brice Johnson. Felton gets significant minutes as backup point guard (to Chris Paul, a Wake Forest alumnus and North Carolina product), while Johnson, after spending the majority of the year out with a back injury, is slowly working into the lineup. While we may not see Johnson this postseason, nothing would be sweeter than seeing him get the ring he deserved with the Heels. Seeing Felton on the court, having rejuvenated his career, is even better.

1. Memphis Grizzlies (#7 West)

Vince Carter is simply not human, as Will wrote earlier this month. The 40-year-old is one of the oldest players in the NBA, with 18 years of experience, and is still making a positive impact for his team, averaging 25 minutes per game and netting averages of 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game. The Grizzlies are first on this list because throughout his long and storied career, Carter hasn’t yet gotten a ring. As unlikely as it might be, this could be the year to send him off with the ultimate goal accomplished. A lot of the other guys on this list have some time left to get theirs, but Carter’s longevity can only last so long. We can always hope!

As always, GO HEELS!