The 2017 NBA Playoffs are almost upon us, with the first games tipping off on Saturday.
And while many sports pundits are predicting a Finals rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers, that doesn’t mean its still not going to be a hell of a battle for the coveted Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy.
ESPN’s freshest and most dynamic NBA commentator, Cassidy Hubbarth, sat down with TheWrap to share her thoughts on the upcoming NBA postseason and reveal what fans should look out for.
Can the Cavaliers get out of their slump?
“Obviously all eyes are drawn to what the Cavs are doing and LeBron James specifically. I don’t think anyone doubts he can pull off another championship, but the Cavs’ defense has been abysmal. Can they flip the switch? LeBron has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt, but his teammates need to pick up the energy on defense,” Hubbarth said.
“It’s not just been ‘sort of bad,’ they had the second worst defense since the All-Star break,” she said, adding that a lot will depend on how beaten up they are going from the Eastern Conference Finals into the Finals.
After being out with a sprained knee since Feb. 28, Durant’s return to the team comes at a time when Golden State has just gotten its groove back.
“The Warriors have become the magic team we saw last year and have really started to gel again,” Hubbarth explained, but with Durant back in the mix they have to keep that chemistry together. “The West is the Warriors’ conference to lose, but they have to keep peaking at the right time,” she said. However, if the Houston Rockets continue on their rise to excellence, “they will be an interesting match-up for any team.”
The often-discussed topic of the NBA MVP race on sports media usually comes down to just two names this season — Rockets’ James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder phenomena Russell Westbrook.
And funnily enough, the former teammates will most likely be playing each other in the first round of the playoffs. Now that’ll make things interesting!
“This is one of tightest MVP races for years,” Hubbarth said. “I have Russell as my MVP, but it does kind of hurt a little bit not to give a nod to James Harden too.”
However, “What Westbrook has been doing this season — a triple double is not just like a card trick. The Thunder have 47 wins and he has 42 triple doubles, which is like video game numbers,” she marveled.
On the flip side, after joining the league in 2009, “Harden has finally grown up and fulfilled his potential as a leader.”
Dark horses to watch for
While Hubbarth thinks it will be the Cavs and the Warriors in the Finals again, there are a lot of interesting teams in the mix to watch for in the meantime. “The [Toronto] Raptors are picking up nicely thanks to some good trades, John Wall has really turned into a leader for the Washington Wizards, and the Milwaukee Bucks are young but they can give people trouble,” she predicted.
Plus with the Celtics just having clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 2008, “Boston is a tough place for anyone to play.”
Youth vs. Playoff experience
It only makes sense that the younger the players, the more physical endurance — but with the unique pressure of the playoffs, experience is often a more useful asset.
“You have to have a combination of both youth and experience to make the right chemistry. As we saw last year with the Cavs’ miraculous comeback, anything is possible in the playoffs. Playoff experience is invaluable as it will tell you when to use your energy and flip the switch on — or when to think you can save it for the next game,” Hubbarth said.
Currently having the combination of both youth and experience on her side right now, 32-year-old Hubbarth has transitioned from being an in-studio anchor for “NBA Tonight” and “SportsCenter” to doing more side-line reporting and being mostly on the road.
“I’m about to start my first playoffs on the sideline and I think it is absolutely the best thing for me right now,” Hubbarth told TheWrap. “I felt like I was at a point where I was incredibly comfortable hosting studio shows and I haven’t flexed my muscles as much as a reporter.
“Being out and getting to know the coaches face-to-face, sitting in with our broadcast teams, learning the strengths and weaknesses of our players — it’s all invaluable experience,” she said. “It is definitely a new experience and came at a perfect time for me.”
As for who Cassidy is cheering for this post-season? This Illinois native is a born and bred Chicago Bulls fan.
ESPN will kick off the NBA playoffs with a Game 1 tripleheader on Saturday, April 15. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. ET when the Milwaukee Bucks visit the Toronto Raptors, with commentary from Ryan Ruocco, analyst Doris Burke and reporter Cassidy Hubbarth. At 8 p.m. ET, the San Antonio Spurs will host the Memphis Grizzlies with Mark Jones, Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Hubie Brown and reporter Israel Gutierrez on commentary. The tripleheader concludes with a 10:30 p.m. ET matchup between the LA Clippers and the Utah Jazz with Dave Pasch, analyst Doug Collins and J.A. Adande calling the action.