The NBA playoffs begin on Saturday, and who better to talk to than a former coach with a ton of playoff experience?
Mike Fratello reached the playoffs 11 times as an NBA head coach, and he’ll be part of Turner Sports’ coverage for the postseason. TNT begins its playoff coverage on Sunday with a tripleheader— culminating in exclusive coverage of the Eastern Conference Finals— and Fratello begins his work on Wednesday when he’ll call Game 2 of the Washington-Atlanta series on NBATV alongside analyst Steve Smith, play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff and reporter Allie LaForce.
The Czar took some time to talk to Awful Announcing about some key matchups, which contending team is most likely to be upset in the first round, which team faces and most pressure and more.
Note: This interview his been edited for length and clarity.
What makes this year’s playoffs especially exciting or compelling for you?
I just think the races down the stretch in both the Eastern and Western Conferences were really something. The number of teams that were involved. Up until recently, there were 19 teams still alive for a potential playoff spot. Two positions were not secured until the final night of the season with two in the Eastern Conference. I just think it’s been a great year of competition. And even a team that didn’t make it, Miami, should be commended for being 19 games under .500 and come all the way back to have a chance on the last night to qualify for it.
Then there was the great individual performance by [Russell] Westbrook, some of the storylines that were going on with injuries, guys who were out and came back. And then the deals that were done, like Toronto picking up Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, [Cleveland General Manager] David Griffin finding guys. I mean, he was all over the place to find guys, starting with the Kyle Korver deal and Derrick Williams, Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, Larry Sanders.
It’s been a year of a lot going on in the NBA.
It seems like the series that’s being the most talked about in the first round is Houston and Oklahoma City, with MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook going head to head. What do you think the biggest keys will be in that series?
From the Oklahoma City standpoint, you’re going to have to deal with making decisions on how you want to guard James Harden and how you want to guard the 3-point line. I would think those are two big decisions that have to come up as they do their game plan.
Are you switching? Are you double-teaming? Are you going under screens and letting them shoot jumpshots? And what are you doing at the 3-point line with those guys? Are you hugging up to them? Are you getting in your help position and rotating to them?
From the other side of it, Houston and their game plan will have to decide if they’re going to let Westbrook do his thing, get his numbers and just shut everybody else out? Or are we going to try and do a real good job on Westbrook and see if we can cause him problems and don’t let those big guys get on the glass and beat you up on the glass. That’s probably how I’d look at it to start out.
Which contending team do you think might be the most vulnerable to a first round upset?
I would think Boston, because of the veteran trio of Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade for Chicago. If those guys are at the top of their game, and if their perimeter shooting can be more consistent, and they can get something off the bench, Boston’s gotta be careful. They can’t take them lightly.
Cleveland just had a heck of a game against Indiana a little over a week ago [the Cavs beat the Pacers 135-130 in double overtime on April 2] and Paul George had 43 points. They’re obviously dangerous, and Cleveland hasn’t been playing well heading into the playoffs. Is that all because of rest and trying to get ready to turn the switch on, as people say they’re waiting to do? Can they do that and ramp it up? They’re certainly talented and deep enough, but can they do it? That remains to be seen. Indiana’s been playing well. Their best basketball has been down the stretch here.
Over on the other side, San Antonio had a 2-2 split during the year with Memphis during the regular season, and we know what that series has been about over the years. With the Clippers, we don’t know which Clippers team is going to show up. Are they good enough to go to the NBA Finals? They could be. If they’re all playing at the top of their game, if Austin Rivers can come back and can help them. But Utah’s a good, solid team and that’s going to be one heck of a series, that 4-5 series in the Western Conference.
The Cavs and the Warriors have played each other in the last two Finals. Which teams do you think are the biggest threats to that happening for a third straight year?
In the Eastern Conference, you have a number of them. Boston, Toronto and Washington, they’re all good enough that if Cleveland isn’t playing at the top of their game, they could knock Cleveland out.
On the other side, the Clippers just struggle with Golden State. They have a hard time getting past them. Houston could be good enough to beat them because of Harden and the 3-point shooting. And Houston’s defense is a little better than people think it might be. And then you’ve gotta give San Antonio a chance because they’re San Antonio and they won 61 games this year.
If you had to choose one upset in the first round, which would do you think would be most likely and why?
I could see Atlanta upsetting Washington. That could happen.
You’ll be calling Game 2 of that series next Wednesday on NBATV, what should we look for in that series between the Wizards and Hawks?
Washington showed during the year with that great run they had, that they’re certainly capable. And I think back to that great game they had, unfortunately they lost it, against Cleveland when LeBron James made that incredible shot off the glass to tie it and go to overtime. They have an exciting, dynamic backcourt in Bradley Beal and John Wall.
They added two pieces in Brandon Jennings to help out in the backcourt, and then they added Bojan Bogdanovic from Brooklyn, who gave them scoring from the second he got there. He was making shots, making 3-pointers and it was a huge plus for the bench they had. And Ian Mahinmi came back, finally, towards the end of the year. That was the big body to replace Nene [who left for Houston last offseason]. And he came back towards the end of the year. Washington’s a dangerous team.
Having said that, I just mentioned before that I thought Atlanta could beat them. Look at what Atlanta did the last week, week and a half, in games that they had to win, basically. And they knocked off some pretty good teams [Boston and Cleveland twice]. They’ve got an excellent coach, so that should make it an exciting series.
Last question: Out of all the 16 teams in the playoffs, which team do you think faces the most pressure to win a championship?
I think the most pressure goes back to Golden State because of the season that they’ve had and adding Kevin Durant to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. I think the expectations from people were “wow!” You got one of the top five players and added it to an All-Star backcourt, that broke the record for regular season wins, almost came back and did it again this year and might have won a championship [last year] if Curry wasn’t nicked up and if Draymond Green didn’t get suspended for that game, they might’ve had back to back championships.
So I think going in, they probably have the most pressure on them of any of the teams because of the expectations.