This week’s edition of BetUS Unfiltered kicks off several weeks of NBA playoff preview content, with Hall of Famer Gary Payton guiding the way alongside host Dawn Lupul.
At the top of the show, Payton led off with a breakdown of the league’s new play-in tournament and sided with LeBron James, who recently panned the format, which pits the 7-10 seeds against one another in one-game playoffs with the final two playoff spots on the line.
“As a basketball player, you would say this is not real cool,” Payton said. “Because the simple fact is, if you make the seventh or eighth slot, you’re in the playoffs. You’re going to be playing the No. 1 or No. 2 seed and you will be in a seven-game series. Now you’re telling me to come and play against the 9th and 10th place teams who are not supposed to be in the playoffs because they didn’t make it, and you’re playing one game [for a] spot. … It doesn’t make sense to me.”
When it comes to the Lakers, specifically, the team enters Thursday’s games at 40-30, in seventh place in the Western Conference, one game back of the fifth-place Portland Trail Blazers and sixth-place Dallas Mavericks, who are each 41-29. All three teams have two games to play, but the Lakers remain the team with the second-best odds to win the NBA title, at +350 as of recording.
“This is really dangerous for them because they’re not at full tilt,” Payton said, adding that the Lakers of 2021 don’t offer everything the 2020 squad did. “It’s a different basketball team, too. You had a [Rajon] Rondo on that team, a [Danny] Green on that team, players who knew how to get in the playoffs and play playoff basketball and know the experience. Now you’ve got kids where you don’t know. (Dennis) Schroder is not at 100% and this team is at a low right now.”
Beasts of the East
Payton also discussed the Lakers’ opponent in last year’s NBA Finals, the Miami Heat, and whether the defending Eastern Conference champs are being overlooked in the title race. Prior to Thursday’s games, Miami sat fifth in the East at 38-31, but GP said the Heat could pose problems to a team like Philadelphia in a potential first-round matchup.
“The Heat are playing better basketball than they were about a month ago,” Payton said. “That’s a scary situation because now they’ve got their feet under them, and a lot of their players have come back — and it’s been the same situation with both teams, the Lakers and the Heat, they’ve been hurt.
“So I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Payton added. “This is an up-and-down roller coaster right now. I’m not going to give anybody the benefit of the doubt to win it. Miami could get on a roll and they can win basketball games because they’ve got a coach in [Eric Spoelstra], they’ve got a leader in [Jimmy] Butler and they’ve got players.”
However, Payton and Lupul also cautioned against counting out superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, the current No. 3 seed in the East at 44-25.
“It’s insane [to count them out],” Payton said. “When you’re not the top dog — and Milwaukee has been there the past three years, with a target on their back — now you don’t have a target on your back. Now you’re an underdog and you want to surprise you and people are not looking at you like that. People are like, ‘Oh, we can beat Milwaukee,’ then you come in there and you smack them. That’s what it’s all about right now, and I think Milwaukee likes its position.”
Elsewhere in the East, the topic of Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizards came up, and Payton was effusive in his praise for the DC guard. The Wiz currently sit in the 10th seed in the East, and Westbrook just this week broke Oscar Robertson’s career triple-double record, a mark that stood for 47 years until Westbrook logged the 182nd of his career on Monday.
Payton acknowledged it’s challenging to compare players from different eras, but was unequivocal in his praise of Westbrook and others who set all-time marks in today’s era.
“Every 10 years there’s going to be a great one that comes along, and we have them all the time,” Payton said. “It’s like (James) Harden was breaking Wilt’s scoring records, it happens. It’s like what (Steph) Curry is doing with the 3-point shooting, it happens. And we just take these records and hope that you can keep them, but records are made to be broken.”
For Westbrook, particularly, Payton said it’s his mental fortitude that’s been as impressive as anything else on the court.
“This kid is amazing,” Payton said. “He’s just amazing with what he’s done and [how he’s] stayed this way with all the negativity that’s been out against him — ‘You can’t play with him,’ and ‘he’s not a winner,’ and he’s not this. But this kid keeps continuing to play and keeps continuing to do work, and I love him because he’s a dog. He doesn’t care nothing about what people say and he goes out and gets it done. He backs it up.”
For that and more with Payton — including a preview of the Class of 2020 Basketball Hall of Fame induction, the Glove’s All-NBA picks and a Celtics breakdown you won’t want to miss — check out the whole show: