NBA First Round Playoff Review

Posted: 05/05/2014 by levcohen in Basketball

It was the best first round in ages, and maybe in basketball’s long history. There were five game sevens, three more than the previous record for most game sevens in a first round. And while only one of those five ended up in a true nail biter (Toronto vs Brooklyn, although the Warriors also kept their game against the Clippers close), there were also plenty of close games and two tremendous game winners. In the end, most of the favorites ended up winning their series, although it took them a lot longer than expected. The Bulls and Rockets were the only favorites to depart in the first round, and even they weren’t hugely favored. So while both one seed and the seconded seeded Thunder were on the ropes at some point in their series (all three had to go seven, and two were down 3-2), all three pulled through in the end. Let’s look at each of the series, and see why they turned out how they did.

Eastern Conference:
Pacers-Hawks: With all due respect to the Hawks, this series was all about the Pacers and their attempts to right the sinking ship. There were just so many issues, and it showed: for most of the series, the Hawks, the worst team in the playoffs, looked like they were clearly better than the 56-win Pacers. There was the issue of the much-maligned Roy Hibbert. Hibbert was frankly terrible throughout this series, and ended up playing just 22 minutes per game, with five points and four rebounds per game. Not only is that awful for an all-star, but it’s awful for anyone. You don’t think Hasheem Thabeet could be more productive in 22 minutes? How about Kwame Brown? It’s just appalling. There are people who say Hibbert has struggled because the matchup against the Hawks was terrible. I agree with that, but look who the Pacers replaced Hibbert with! Ian Mahinmi! It’s not like this was a good matchup for Mahinmi, either, and Ian played 18 minutes per game. So I’m sorry that Hibbert couldn’t guard Pero Antic, but it goes much deeper than that. Hibbert struggled at the end of the regular season, too, and I think it was really getting in his head. We know that Hibbert is a really thoughtful guy, and I appreciate that, but it looks like he was overthinking things in this series. Despite having post moves and being the most talented big in the series by far, he laid an egg because he didn’t believe in himself. I think it’s that simple. But Hibbert wasn’t the only problem. Remember when the Pacers pulled off their heist of Evan Turner, who was having a good season for the Sixers? Turner played four minutes in the last three games of this series. Ouch. In the end, the better team won, thanks mostly to David West’s leadership and Paul George’s resurgence. And now that they’re through to the second round, the Pacers have a chance to go to the Conference final, because they get to play the Wizards, who looked good against the Bulls but probably don’t have enough to get much further. Have the Pacers turned the corner? It’s very possible, but this series was less than impressive. So congrats to the Hawks, but let’s just say that I’m happy the series is over and disaster was averted. The rest of the playoffs will be more entertaining this way. Then again, the Pacers could well just become the Pacers of the first five games of this series and the last 30 of the regular season. I certainly wouldn’t put it past them.

Heat-Bobcats: This was the only sweep, and it probably was the correct result. The Bobcats have to be happy that they got to the playoffs and kept it close against the Heat, because it was probably more than they expected. Their star player, Al Jefferson, also was clearly hobbled in the playoffs, so the sweep is excused. Meanwhile, the Heat just took care of business, and reasserted themselves as favorites. They then got to sit for a week and just watch the madness that ensued in other series. The Heat now look nearly certain to make the NBA finals now, because Dwyane Wade is going to be a lot better after this week of rest, and I don’t think anybody in the East can win more than a game or two in a series against a Heat team with a full strength Dwyane Wade. Anyway, business as usual for the Heat against the happy-to-be-there Bobcats, who should be stronger next season.

Raptors-Nets: It was a good series, and it ended in absolute heartbreak for the Raptors, who were definitely the feel-good story of the playoffs. Four of the games were decided by five points or fewer, and only one of them ended in a double-digit victory. The difference, in the end, might well have been the vast experience of the Brooklyn Nets. Paul Pierce was huge, and Kevin Garnett ended with 12 points and 11 huge rebounds, including five killer offensive boards, in the deciding game seven. The Raptors also couldn’t defend Joe Johnson, an explosive and experienced swing man who was too physical to be guarded by a shooting guard (DeMar Derozan, Terrence Ross) and too quick and crafty to be guarded by a bigger guy. Whenever he had the ball in this series, it felt like good things were going to happen, and they usually did, especially in game seven. Despite the best efforts of Derozan and Kyle Lowry, who both got to the line at will and scored a lot of points, the Raptors fell short in the end on home court. This is much needed experience, though, and assuming the Raptors retain free agent Lowry, they should continue to be successful next season. Meanwhile, the Nets get a date with the Heat. They should be confident, given that they just fought through a tough series and that they are 4-0 against the Heat this season. Even with that said, though, the Heat have to be heavy favorites here; Miami in the playoffs is very different from Miami in the regular season.

Wizards-Bulls: It feels like this series ended ages ago, so I’m not going to go in depth here. The Wizards were just the better team than the Bulls, who looked as if they were burnt out. It might just be that they tried too hard in the regular season, which says a lot about how the league is structured. To be successful in the playoffs, you need to have something left that you didn’t expend in the regular season. The Bulls didn’t, while the streaky Wizards got hot at the right time. John Wall looked like the superstar point guard that he is quickly turning into, Nene gave DPOY Joakim Noah fits, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza knocked down three after three, and the Wizards generally looked tough to beat. They now play Indiana in a series which probably depends more on the Pacers than the Wizards. If the Pacers are first half Indy, they should win in five. But if they sink back into post all star break form, the Wizards have a fantastic shot to book a date against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference final.

Western Conference:
Spurs-Mavericks: This is probably just what the Spurs needed. After cruising through 82 easy games, many people were fast tracking them into the Finals. They were playing against a Mavericks team who hadn’t solved them in ages, and their star players were healthy. It was supposed to go no more than five games. It went seven, but it went seven in perhaps the best way possible. The Spurs never really looked like they were going to lose this series. They were matched by the Mavericks, who along with eight other teams in the West would be the second best team in the East, but they always seemed to be in control. In game seven, they blew out the Mavericks by 23, although it felt like much more than that. Manu Ginobili looked nothing like the Manu who struggled in the playoffs last year. He was the Spurs’ best player, averaging an efficient 18 points, four rebounds, and five assists in 27 minutes per game. Guys like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green still need to step up if the Spurs expect to go all the way, but this was nothing more than a wake up call for Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.

Thunder-Grizzlies: Unlike the Spurs, I really thought the Thunder were in trouble, especially when they went down 3-2 to the Grizzlies. I think they got really lucky: two of the Grizzlies’ three best players were hobbled or out in game seven (Mike Conley was injured, and Zach Randolph was suspended), and the Thunder still won by just 11. After this series, which featured four overtime games (three of which were won by Memphis), it seems clear that the Grizzlies are a really really tough matchup for Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City. In particular, I’m referring to Tony Allen. There aren’t many players who can bother Durant, but Allen is one of them. KD shot just 44% in the series, and was even called out by a newspaper following the game five loss. Durant should be better against the Clippers, who don’t really have anyone to stop him. And then there is Russell Westbrook, the most polarizing player in the NBA. Everyone knows that Russ took too many shots in this series. He shouldn’t be anywhere close to Durant’s shot total, but he nearly shot more than the second best player in the league. He shot it at a poor clip, too: 38%. And yet, Westbrook’s numbers are dazzling. He averaged 26 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists in the series, and threw in a few triple-doubles. In the end, Russell Westbrook will always have his detractors, but I don’t think there’s any question that he makes this team much much better, and I think he was the X-factor in this series. If Westbrook plays well, the Thunder are going to win games. It’s that simple. Props to the Grizzlies, who played spirited basketball and kept the series close despite being less talented and more banged up than the Thunder. After getting blown off the court in the first half of game one, Memphis was outscored by just 16 points in the remaining 6.5 games. They definitely scared Oklahoma City, and nearly won the series.

Clippers-Warriors: In a series that was marred by things that had nothing to do with basketball, the better team won this series. That’s not to take anything away from the Warriors, who played well in the absence of center Andrew Bogut. But, without Bogut, the Warriors had an advantage in the backcourt with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over a banged up Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, but they got destroyed down low. We knew Blake Griffin would get his numbers, but DeAndre Jordan was the difference in this series. Jordan put up 12 points, 15 rebounds, and four blocks per game, numbers that were described by Stephen A Smith as “Wilt Chamberlain-like numbers… In a half”. All Wilt (in a half) comparisons aside, Jordan came up with key boards again and again, and even hit more than half of his free throws in the series.. if only just. Paul looked shaken up, so hopefully he’s ready for the series against the Thunder. He’ll need to be, because you need to be full strength to defend Russell Westbrook. In the end, the Clippers’ undoing might be the lack of production from their midseason acquisitions, namely Glen Davis and Danny Granger. At the trade deadline, when many pundits thought the Clippers needed one more big man to push them over the top, the Clips stood pat. They ended up picking up veterans Davis and Granger with the thought that they’d provide experience and leadership. The result? 21.1 combined minutes per game, 5.2 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game, an assist per game, and sub 40% shooting. Not what the Clippers wanted or were expecting. Now, Jordan and Griffin need to stay out of foul trouble and pile up the minutes (37 and 35 averaged per game) in order for them to have a chance against OKC.

Rockets-Trailblazers: In the words of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, this was a series of coin flips. The biggest margin of victory was 10 points. Three of the first four games went into overtime. Four of them ended with a margin of five points or fewer. That’s why it’s fitting that game six ended the way it did. The Rockets took a 98-96 lead with less than a second remaining, seemingly winning the game and sending it back to Houston for a decisive game seven. Damian Lillard had other ideas. Lillard got open, thanks to a defensive blunder by multiple Houston players, and nailed the game winning three. And that’s how the series ended. This was very much a game of four stars: Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge for the Blazers, Dwight Howard and James Harden for the Rockets. Aldridge was a beast in this series, but Howard matched him. The difference was Lillard, who averaged 26 points, six rebounds, seven assists, 47% shooting, and clutch shot after clutch shot. Meanwhile, Harden averaged 27, but it took more than 22 shots per game to do so. He shot 38%, including under 30% on his nine three point shots per game, to go along with five rebounds and six assists per game. Most of all, he stunk defensively, which led to point after point from Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum. The Rockets are a young and promising team, so they’ll be back, but they somehow need to teach Harden how not to lose concentration defensively and how to play defense, and they need to trade Omer Asik for a power forward. Meanwhile, Portland gets the unenviable task of facing San Antonio. I expect that their season will end against the Spurs, but it has been a fantastic run from a team that wasn’t even supposed to make the playoffs. Now that the Raptors are out, they and the Wizards are the best “feel good” stories left. I’ll be cheering for them.


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