NBA Round Two Preview

Posted: 05/04/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

Should we make this a tradition? After picking NHL’s round two series’ a day after they started, I’m doing the same for the NBA. It’s the time of year that everything happens at once, and I’m not even talking about the Kentucky Derby or “The Fight,” neither of which I’ll focus on. I still have to recap the NFL draft, publish my personal NBA awards picks, and write some observations about the first month + of the MLB season. Now, though, it’s time for the more pressing issue: the second round of the NBA playoffs. I’ll start by saying that, no matter what happens this round (barring, of course, a Golden State series loss), the Warriors are now prohibitive favorites to win it all. If you gave me the Field at 2:1 odds, I still wouldn’t take it; I think the Warriors legitimately have a 70% chance of winning it all. Don’t let that keep you from enjoying the non-GS teams, though, because I expect three really intriguing matchups. Let’s start with the lopsided series:

Warriors over Grizzlies in 5: You probably know why the Warriors are good by now: the dynamic scoring backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the defensive prominence of Draymond Green (he can guard anyone!) and Andrew Bogut (best rim protector in the NBA), the length off the bench, the speed, the offense, the defense, etc. There are many reasons that they outscored opponents by 10.1 points per game in the regular season and are now 72-15. They are one of the best regular season teams ever. Instead of going on about how the Warriors can beat anyone without great performances from X-number of players, I’m going to tell you why the Grizzlies can win a game. First, I only think they can win if Mike Conley comes back. Luckily, it seems likely that Conley will be back at some point, so that’s step one. The point guard is so important not because he’ll be able to keep Steph Curry in check (he won’t) but because of the calmness he provides on the offensive end. I just don’t see Nick Calathes quarterbacking this team to a close win with some key late buckets; Conley can. But mainly, the Grizzlies’ chances to win a game rest on the shoulders of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The two big men could be a rare matchup advantage against Golden State, who has one dominant defensive big (Bogut) but not a second. If the Warriors stick Draymond on ZBo, Randolph could tire Green out. They might even force Golden State to use Festus Ezeli, the backup center who is the only Warrior who can do nothing for the team offensively, more often. After playing just 19 minutes in the four game series against New Orleans, Ezeli played 11 in game one against the Grizzlies. So the Grizzlies can pound the ball down low, get Bogut in foul trouble, get Ezeli into the game, hope Thompson and/or Curry is off, and win… one game. With Conley at full strength, they could have a chance at pushing the series deeper. I just don’t think Conley will be full strength at any point in this series, so Golden State should romp in the battle of opposite philosophies (fast vs. slow, three point oriented vs. post oriented).

Hawks over Wizards in 7: Yes, I know the Hawks looked bad in game one, when they lost the home court advantage. I also know that they looked out of sorts throughout the first round series against Brooklyn. The big men (Al Horford and Paul Millsap) are dinged up, Kyle Korver is cold, and the team doesn’t look like a 60-game winner. But I’m still picking the Hawks in this series. First of all, they were about as bad as they could have been in game one and still only lost by six. They got open shots and just missed them. Of their starters, only DeMarre Carroll shot better than 37%. They took 38 threes and missed 25 of them. Put aside, for a moment, that the Hawks were 3-1 against the Wizards in the regular season, with the only loss occurring against Atlanta’s second string team. Which team do you trust more? I know the Wizards have John Wall and Bradley Beal, but both are banged up, and the Hawks are the better all-around team. With the Wizards going back to the Nene-Gortat frontcourt that clogged the paint throughout the regular season, I expect Washington to have some more offensive troubles. On the other side of the ball, expect the much quicker Horford and Millsap take advantage and put up some points. Meanwhile, Korver is just too good of a shooter to stay this cold. After shooting 49% from three during the regular season, he’s at 38% through seven playoff games. And while I respect Washington’s lockdown defense, it’s hard to defend quick, probing passes that the Hawks use to slowly beat teams. I’ll take the 82 games of evidence over the last few weeks worth, thank you very much. The teams are pretty even, so I think it’ll go the distance, but give me the home team in game seven.

Cavaliers over Bulls in 7: The Kevin Love injury certainly makes what would have been a lopsided series much more intriguing. Love would have been a great weapon against Chicago, as his ability to shoot the ball and rebound would have proved key against Joakim Noah and Chicago’s big men. Now, the Cavs are going to have to go small-ball, with Tristan Thompson likely to spend a lot of time at center and Cleveland injecting more shooting into the lineup in the form of Shawn Marion, James Jones, or Mike Miller. And the Bulls are coming off an absolute demolition of the Bucks in game six; after losing games four and five, the Bulls responded by beating Milwaukee 120-66 in game six. That game showed Chicago’s ceiling, with Pau Gasol on point from midrange, Mike Dunleavy serving as the court-spacer, Jimmy Butler taking control offensively and defensively, Derrick Rose serving as a dynamic facilitator, and Noah staying active defensively and on the boards while serving as a key offensive cog. The scary part? I haven’t even mentioned the bench, which is pretty darn good. Nikola Mirotic was probably the best per-minute rookie in the NBA, Taj Gibson is a great sparkplug off the bench, Tony Snell is a great defender (important against a team with LeBron James), and a multitude of guys can hit threes. Game six Chicago is super scary for Cleveland, and it’s also scary for any other team. The Bulls are in a good position to beat the Cavaliers right now, with everyone healthy and two guys, Butler and Snell, who can constantly hound James. With Love out, they can also take advantage of a smaller lineup, as Noah and Gasol are both top notch offensive rebounders. They can force the Cavs to go big, with Timofey Mozgov at center and Thompson at power forward, which would take another scorer out of the mix. They are in a good spot right now.

The only problem is that the Cavaliers still have the two best players in the series in LeBron and Kyrie Irving, who looked fantastic against Boston. And as the first round showed, the team with the star players is generally going to win the series. I know I’m picking Atlanta over Washington, but I consider that to be an exception. This series will follow the rule, with the Cavaliers pulling out a tense game seven and advancing to the ECF.

Rockets over Clippers in 7: The Clippers are the sexy pick, especially after their tremendous series against the Spurs that felt more like the finals than round one. But I like Houston for a number of reasons, even without point guard Patrick Beverley or big man Donatas Motiejunas, each of whom is out for the season. The first is Chris Paul’s health; it’s suspect. Paul will sit out game one, which is probably a good idea and hopefully will allow him to rehab fully in time for game two. But hamstring injuries are iffy, and Paul’s game seven dominance was, while remarkable, not indicative of the real damage the injury will do to him and to the Clippers. I also expect LA’s key guys, from Paul to Blake Griffin to J.J. Redick to DeAndre Jordan, to tire, as they’ve all been playing massive minutes. And when they tire, Los Angeles’s bench isn’t good enough to keep games close. That’s big advantage #1 for Houston: the bench. You have to go eight deep to realistically have a shot of making the finals, and Houston can do that, with Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, and Pablo Prigioni all serving as good bench options (by the way, good job Darryl Morey; all three were acquired during the season. Shows how much better Morey is as a GM than Doc Rivers, who got Spencer Hawes and Hedo Turkoglu). Then there’s the fact that Houston is a very good defensive team, and while Los Angeles, the best offensive team in basketball, will have some success (Blake Griffin should have another great series), I think Trevor Ariza can greatly hamper either Paul or Redick, and Dwight Howard is a great rim protector. And that brings me to the matchup between Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, two players who play the same type of game. Jordan is younger, but Howard, I think, is still better at full strength. He can’t shoot free throws, but he’s still better than Jordan at the line and good enough that Hack-a-Dwight might not make sense for the Clippers. And he’s just as good as DeAndre on the defensive end. I don’t think we’ll see a whole lot of offense from either one (they’ll hit double digits but won’t have huge games), but this series hinges on how much of an impact they can have on the boards and on the defensive end, and I still trust Dwight just a little more. Of course, if this series were Chris Paul and Blake Griffin against Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, and the Houston bench, this wouldn’t be much of a series. But I haven’t yet mentioned the guy who is the most important and, with Paul injured, the best player in the series: James Harden. I picked Houston over Dallas in round one mainly because I didn’t feel like anyone could guard Harden. I’m picking Houston again here because I don’t think anyone can guard Harden. He can put up 30-35 points per game in this series. You want to put J.J. Redick on Harden? Harden will blow by Redick. Matt Barnes is a good defender but would get in foul trouble in the first three minutes. Austin Rivers? Dahntay Jones? Maybe, but you don’t want those guys playing offense. Besides, do you really want Austin Rivers and Dahntay Jones playing meaningful minutes in a second round playoff game? Paul might be the best defender on the team, and he’s already proven that he can handle LeBron James, so he’d probably do a pretty good job on Harden if he were healthy. But he isn’t, and even when he gets back on the court the Clippers will probably elect to hide him on defense so he can go all out on offense. So we’re back to square one. Nobody can guard Harden, and I’m picking the Rockets in seven hard fought games.

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