Late NBA First Round Preview

Posted: 04/21/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

I know, it’s late. In fact, given that there has been so much attention on basketball and the first round of the playoffs, I wasn’t even going to make this post. I figured that there had been enough speculation already, and that I’d start making my picks when the mediocre teams had been completely weeded out (in the second round, that is). After seeing six of the eight game one’s end with a single digit difference, and especially after seeing Indiana continue their complete self-combustion in game one, when they lost at home to the Hawks, a not-so-formidable opponent who lost their best player, Al Horford, at the beginning of the year and slumped to just 38 wins, six games under .500, I wanted to make predictions. I still wasn’t sure, though. Not until the last game of last night, which was both terrific and unbelievable. Portland, who I love and had backed even before the series, rallied from 10 down with under four minutes to go in the game and six down in overtime to beat the Houston Rockets, who many have backed as a darkhorse to win the West. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the playoffs, and even the first round, are fun to watch, and since they’ve brought out a lot of opinions, I want to make predictions, albeit late and fairly brief ones.

Eastern Conference:

1 Indiana Pacers over 8 Atlanta Hawks in six: The Pacers in their current state are not a threat to usurp the Heat at the top of the East, even though they are the top seed and will have home court advantage throughout the first three rounds. Had I not been aware of how poor the rest of the East is, I would have been shocked to see how many people picked them to even be in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. My expectations for the Pacers, sky high for most of the season as I placed them #1 in my power rankings time after time, were much lower. With all that being said, I was shocked to see how poorly the Pacers played on their home floor against the worst team in the playoffs. The Hawks played inspired basketball this season, but they started KYLE KORVER, DEMARRE CARROLL, AND PERO ANTIC in game one. Do any of those guys crack the Pacers’ starting lineup? Of course not. Do any of them even crack the Spurs’ 9-man rotation? Maybe Korver, because he is a good three point shooter, but that’s about it. The Hawks right now are basically a two man offense, and the Pacers, the best defensive team in basketball throughout most of the regular season, could not stop those two guys. Jeff Teague scored 28 points and got to the line 10 times, hitting nine free throws. He also embarrassed Evan Turner. By the way, that Turner trade looks absolutely dreadful for the Pacers now. And Paul Millsap added 25 points, hit nine more free throws, and hit two three pointers. Remember, this is a Pacer team with two of the best defensive players in the NBA in Roy Hibbert and Paul George, both DPOY candidates. They couldn’t stop Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and a bunch of role players? Come on. In the end, I still think the Pacers will pull this series out. They are so much more talented, and so much more experienced. The bottom line is that, if they lose this series, they have themselves to blame for it. Period. Again, they self-combusted, and they didn’t even face adversity in the form of an injury or anything else. Maybe people heaped on expectations, but they embraced them. Now they have to back it up.

2 Miami Heat over 7 Charlotte Bobcats in five: The Bobcats played well in game one, and were in it throughout. They actually led for much of the first half, which I was surprised by. Al Jefferson is a beast, and I was sad to see him hobbling to the locker room midway through the first half. This guy just cannot catch a break. He’s played on bad teams throughout his career, and was excited to get back to the playoffs. After starting out so well (4-4 from the field), it was a blow to both Jefferson and the Bobcats, because the Heat can not stop a healthy Jefferson. After Al was injured, he did return to the game, but was clearly hobbled. He had to labor up and down the court, and shot just 5 of 13 after the injury. This Bobcats team actually matches up really well with the Heat. They are a well coached team (Steve Clifford has done a great job) who play good defense. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can defend LeBron James, 60 point game aside. And they have some players who have stepped up in big games before. Kemba Walker for UConn three years ago and Gary Neal for the Spurs last season come mind. So I think the Bobcats will keep these games close. But they are nowhere near as good as the Heat are, especially with a healthy Dwyane Wade, who was tremendous yesterday. I hope Jefferson’s foot gets better, because it will make the series much more intriguing, but I like the Heat in five games regardless. Given the demise of the Pacers, I’m having a hard time imagining a team other than the Miami Heat representing the East in the 2014 NBA Finals.

6 Brooklyn Nets over 3 Toronto Raptors in six: The Raptors might be the least talked about three-seed of all time. They have no playoff experience, play in Canada, and are playing against a Nets team that might be the most expensive roster of all time and features household names like Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce and play in the biggest media market in the country. Game one showed me that this series will not be a cakewalk for the Nets. The Raptors were 41-22 after they traded Rudy Gay. The Pacers were 39-24 in that time. The Heat were 40-23. The Nets were 39-24. Had the Raptors traded Gay before the season started, they might be the #1 seed in the East. That’s amazing. But they don’t have playoff experience, and they lost their home court advantage in game one. I don’t think this will be an easy series, but the Nets should win and earn a date with the Miami Heat, who they are 4-0 against.

4 Chicago Bulls over 5 Washington Wizards in seven: Yes, the Wizards won game one. And they won it in Chicago by nine points, a pretty convincing margin. The Wizards scored 102 points, which is significant because the Bulls gave up triple figure points only four times in 34 games after the all-star break. Washington is also 3-1 against the Bulls this season following game one, so they might just have the Bulls’ number. The problem is that the Bulls are still the Tom Thibedeau Bulls, and I hesitate to pick against them and for a team with no playoff experience. At one point in the second half, the Bulls actually led the game by 12 points, after Mike Dunleavy Jr. hit three three pointers to start the third quarter. Chicago led 75-72 after a Wizards run to end the third quarter, and at that point I thought; ok, the Wizards just went on their run, and the Bulls still lead. They should win this. But they didn’t; the Wizards, led by Nene, who was defended by Joakim Noah, scored 30 points in the fourth quarter. And that was with the Wizards’ two top players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, failing to hit a basket and scoring four combined points in the fourth. Beal and Wall ended up shooting a combined 7-for-25, but the rest of the team shot 59%. The Bulls made someone other than the two guards beat them, and Nene and Marcin Gortat did just that. I’m concerned. In the end, I like the Bulls in a close, tough series. I don’t believe that Nene will continue to outplay Noah, and I don’t think the Wizards will shoot 35 free throws again anytime soon. The Wizards were always going to make this a close series, and the first game worries me, but I still like the Bulls, with their shutdown defense and years of experience, over the upstart Wizards.

Western Conference:

1 San Antonio Spurs over 8 Dallas Mavericks in five: The Mavericks had the Spurs yesterday beat. They were up by 10 with just over seven minutes left, and seemed in control of the game after leading throughout. But you always got the feeling that the Spurs would come back, and did they ever. San Antonio closed the game on a 19-4 run, thanks mostly to the fact that Dallas went cold; after starting the game at a 47% clip, the Mavericks hit just one of the 13 shots they took after going ahead by 10, and that was a meaningless bucket by Devin Harris at the buzzer. They also turned the ball over three times in the final seven minutes, after losing the ball just five times in the first 41 minutes of the game. In short, the Mavericks fell apart down the stretch against the Spurs, and probably blew their best shot at stealing a game in San Antonio. Had they won that game, I think this really could have been a long and arduous series for the Spurs. It might even have gone seven games. I think the Spurs would have won it in the end, but I would be predicting a longer series than the five gamer I think it’ll end up as now. This series is still going to be a fun and fascinating one to watch, because it has a bunch of interesting story lines, including Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki and the rivalry between these two Texas teams. I expect some close and tense games, but I don’t think this will be a long series.

2 Oklahoma City Thunder over 7 Memphis Grizzlies in six: I was expecting a close, hard fought series, so it would be fair to say I was shocked to see that the Thunder were up on the Grizzlies 56-34 at halftime. The Grizzlies are one of the best defensive teams in the game, and after a slow start rallied to win 50 games and the #7 seed. They also beat the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder in last year’s playoffs, and they won that series easily. So I couldn’t believe that they were being blown out. And then the third quarter happened. The Grizzlies outscored OKC by a score of 31-13 in the third quarter, and the deficit was shockingly just four entering the fourth quarter. In the end, the early hole ended up being too much for the Grizzlies, as the Thunder pulled away in the fourth quarter and won by 14. But this is going to be a tough series for the favored Thunder. Kevin Durant has something to prove after he played poorly down the stretch in the series last year, and he’s off to a good start, as he put up 33, 8, and 7 on 13-25 shooting, which is a normal game for KD. In a game in which the Thunder were so hot in the first half, their weaknesses were also exposed. The big three of Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka put up 73 points, and the rest of the team shot 32% and scored 27. That didn’t matter in game one, and it might not matter much in round one, but it definitely will matter later in the playoffs, and I think it will keep this series fairly close.

3 Los Angeles Clippers over 6 Golden State Warriors in seven: Game one was exciting, and the Warriors ended up winning it, but I don’t think that’s sustainable. The Warriors are without center Andrew Bogut, and much of the talk going into the series was understandably about the Clippers’ height advantage and their skilled players down low. Well, in game one, much of the talk became moot, as Blake Griffin, one of the skilled Clipper bigs, played just 19 minutes before fouling out. I don’t expect to see that again, and we also saw what Griffin can do in those 19 minutes. Even in limited time, he managed to shoot the ball 13 times and score 16 points. The other Clipper big man, DeAndre Jordan, ended up with a double-double, but wasn’t anywhere near as good as he is with Griffin. Jordan got off just five shots, but more importantly turned the ball over seven times. Even Chris Paul, the superstar point guard who put together a great all around game, tired at the end, as he turned the ball over and missed two free throws in a span of seven vital seconds. Paul will be blamed, but Griffin put him in a bad situation by fouling out when he did. Even Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison, the bench guards who so often rally the second unit and help build big leads, were poor in game one; they shot 4-20 for 17 points. In a way, it was a worst-case scenario game for the Clippers, and they still lost by just four and had plenty of chances to win the game. The worrying thing for Los Angeles is that the Warriors put up points even though their star guards were poor from the field. Stephen Curry, who is bound to have an amazing game or two in this series, didn’t have it in game one. He scored just 14 points. Klay Thompson scored 22, but missed 13 of his 20 shot attempts and added four turnovers to Curry’s seven. In the end, the Warriors turned the ball over 21 times and still won the game. Their bench helped, which I don’t think many people saw coming, because the Clips have a better bench than the Warriors do. The Clippers are the more skilled team, and I think they’ll win the series in the end, but it could and probably will go the distance.

5 Portland Trailblazers over 4 Houston Rockets in six: I liked Portland in this one before the series started, and I like them even more now, after what was an admittedly less than dominating performance. I understand why people love Houston. They have James Harden, one of the best offensive players in the NBA, and they have Dwight Howard, a big post presence. They also have some secondary players (Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley) with valuable playoff experience that the Blazers do not have. They can score on any team, as they showed against a poor Blazers’ defense yesterday. But they are full of holes. First and foremost, they can’t stop anybody on defense. James Harden is the worst defender in the NBA, which he showed yesterday. He’s also the slowest guard in basketball according to advanced metrics that chart average MPH. According to NBA’s new stat, Real Plus-Minus, which is supposed to be basketball’s less polished but still telling version of WAR, Harden is not a top-10 superstar that many think he is. Instead, he’s 42nd, because while he’s the fourth best offensive player behind LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant (good company), he’s a total black hole on the defensive end. That hurts in the regular season, but it hurts even more in the playoffs. Also, Houston’s second best player, Howard, missed the end of the season with an injury, and it was hard to know whether he would be full strength in the playoffs. He played decently offensively, but definitely didn’t help stop Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge, who rates as the 12th best player in basketball according to RPM (over both Howard and Harden), was a beast, putting up 46 points and 18 rebounds, making him the third player since 1986 to do so. The last two? Howard and The Dream, both currently employed by the Rockets, one as a player and one as a coach. Ouch. Damian Lillard also shone in his first playoff game. He scored 31 points, and most notably led the Blazers to a win down the stretch after Aldridge fouled out in overtime and told him to take over. Per ESPN, Lillard and Aldridge are the first teammates since some guys named Jordan and Pippen in 1992 to put up 45 and 30 in the same playoff game. It was an enjoyable game, with multiple runs and a desperation finish by Aldridge to tie the game at the end of regulation after a huge comeback, and I think it is going to be like this for the whole series. Neither of these teams can play defense, as no playoff team allowed more points than these two. But both have a lot of ways to put the ball in the basket. Houston and Portland scored the second and third most points of any playoff team and both have a bunch of players who can go off (Lillard, Aldridge, Howard, Harden, Parsons, Wesley Matthews). In the end, I think Portland will win this series. It’ll surprise a lot of people, but those people just haven’t been paying attention. After a midseason swoon, the Blazers won nine of their last 10, including five wins against playoff teams. The Rockets, on the other hand, lost three of their last five regular season games, and that trend has continued into the playoffs. It should be an exciting series, and I think it will be Blazers in six. If it goes to seven games, though, expect the Rockets to win on their home court.

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