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Are our Aussie NBA stars on a playoffs collision course?
For Aussie basketball fans, the 2017/18 NBA regular season has been one like we've never seen before. With an unprecedented level of Australian talent contributing to successful squads, NBA league pass subscribers have been able to get their daily fix of top-flight hoops with an Australian flavour.
Last month, I outlined the path for our various Aussies to reach the postseason. With less than one week left until the first round begins, all seven (Ben Simmons, Matthew Dellavedova, Thon Maker, Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum and Aron Baynes) look likely to figure in playoff basketball. What's more, a number of these stars could very well be in line to lock horns in the first round.
The NBA regular season wraps up on Thursday morning Australian time, what better time then than now to speculate on the potential of some enthralling playoff battles?
Philadelphia 76ers (Ben Simmons) v Milwaukee Bucks (Matthew Dellavedova, Thon Maker)
Prospective Rookie of the Year front runner Ben Simmons, the sensational first year man out of LSU, has been on an absolute tear of late, carrying his Philadelphia squad to 14 straight victories and their first 50 win season since 2000/01.
Even more impressive has been the fact he's shouldered the load without his All-Star big man Joel Embiid, who recently underwent surgery to repair an orbital fracture in his face. Despite Embiid's absence, Simmons has his squad in the Eastern Conference's third seed, which could have them in line to face the similarly up and coming Milwaukee Bucks squad.
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently in a tie for the sixth seed (3 v 6 in the NBA format) with the Miami Heat, though Miami hold that sixth spot by virtue of their head to head record this season. In an interesting twist, the Sixers and Bucks square off on regular season finale night, Wednesday night US time, which could well determine their fate heading into Game 1 of the playoffs.
Matthew Dellavedova has endured a frustrating year for the Bucks, multiple long lay offs interrupting his second year in the Cream City, though a return to the court is still the goal by playoff time. Thon Maker has himself, had an up and down year, going from starter to back-up, to now third string center behind veteran big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller.
Milwaukee hold the season series advantage 2-to-1 so far, though recent form would suggest that Simmons' Sixers would head into this one as strong favourites. Getting the opportunity to see Simmons square off with MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo over a seven game series would be must watch basketball.
Utah Jazz (Joe Ingles and Dante Exum) v San Antonio Spurs (Patty Mills)
The Utah Jazz have been on a roll, winning 27 of their 32 contests since January 24th. The ever reliable Joe Ingles has been a major part of that success. At the age of 30, Ingles is averaging career high marks in points (11.5 points per game), assists (4.7), rebounds (4.2), and three-point percentage (.441).
The other piece of the Australian Utah Jazz puzzle, Dante Exum, has recently made his return from a serious shoulder injury suffered during the NBA pre-season schedule. In his eleven games since returning, Exum is averaging career highs in points per game (8.7) and three-point percentage (.385) despite playing a career low 15.6 minutes per game.
For the Spurs, NBA champion Patty Mills continues to be a staple in Gregg Popovich's rotation with his typical scoring punch, though in a more prominent role than ever. In his previous seven NBA seasons, Mills had only started 18 career games. This season he has started 34, including the last 20, as future Hall of Fame guard Tony Parker moved into a bench role.
Mills appeared the most likely of all the Aussie players to miss the playoffs one month ago, though in typical San Antonio style, they've rallied to now sit in the Western Conferences 6th seed, tied with the New Orleans Pelicans for fifth.
Utah on the other hand, sits 4th, meaning a 4 v 5 matchup is well and truly on the cards. San Antonio squares off against New Orleans on Wednesday night, in a contest that appears likely to decide who will get the opportunity to take Utah on.
Utah leads the season series 3-to-1.
What about Aron Baynes?
Aron Baynes and the Celtics are locked into the East's second seed, poised to battle whoever finishes 7th in the conference. As outlined earlier, this could very well be the Milwaukee Bucks, pending results down the line. Baynes has provided a physical presence at center all season for a Celtics team that will head into the playoffs severely undermanned. The Celtics are missing multiple contributors for their postseason run, including All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. This places the Celtics in a perilous position at the business end of a season they were hoping to contend in.
With under a week until the playoffs begin, the implications are real, the possibilities endless, but the one thing you can be certain of, Australian talent will play a major role in the outcome of NBA playoff basketball in 2018. What more could you want?