A Late NBA Round Two Preview (besides OKC-SA)

Posted: 05/03/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

The first round of the NBA playoffs was, well, bad. There were two sweeps, two five-gamers, two six-gamers, and two seven-gamers, with most of the play reaffirming what we thought heading into the playoffs, which is that there are really only four teams with any chance at winning it all: Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland, and Oklahoma City. The biggest news of the first round was, unfortunately, injury news, as the Clippers lost Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and subsequently the series against a lesser Blazers team while the Warriors seemed to have dodged a bullet. Despite losing Stephen Curry for a couple of weeks, they had the luxury of playing a team (the Rockets) that clearly wasn’t expecting or even hoping to win and now get to play an out-of-their-league Blazers squad instead of the Clippers. Game one of the series was a few nights ago, and the Warriors cruised to victory. As long as they get Curry back before the next series starts, their championship goal is still clearly a realistic one.

As I write this post, three of the four series’ have started, with the fourth, Raptors-Heat, currently at halftime of game one. I still think this late preview will be helpful, though, because only Spurs-Thunder is past game one (more on those two games in a later post). The way I see it, two of these matchups are far more interesting than the others. Let’s start with the less interesting (and, I suspect, less competitive) matchups.

Cavaliers over Hawks in 5: I expected the Cavs to blow out the Hawks in game one, and, for most of the game, it looked as if I was correct. And then… the Hawks came back from 18 points down, took a (very) brief lead in the fourth quarter… and lost by 11. Now, one could look at this two ways. Is it a good sign that the Hawks fought back, or does the fact that the Cavaliers regained their composure and control of the game late matter more going forward? I’m a proponent of the latter. I think there’s absolutely no chance that Atlanta wins this series. That’s not because the Hawks are a bad team, because they aren’t. They were fully deserving of their 48 wins and probably slot in as one of the most talented teams in the Eastern Conference. I was going to say this is a good all-around team with no stars, but that would be selling Paul Millsap, probably the most underrated player in the NBA for the past half decade, short. Millsap has always been good, but at this point I really think he’s a star player. He somehow averaged 1.7 blocks and 1.8 steals per game this season and is a tremendous defender, and the quick power forward also nearly averaged a double-double with some big assists games sprinkled in. Millsap, in fact, may be the best matchup the Hawks can throw at LeBron James… But that doesn’t mean he has any chance of stopping LeBron. In the Steph Curry era, is it possible that LeBron has started to fly under the radar a little bit? Seriously, just watch the guy play for a little while, and you’ll soon see how dominant he still is. When the team needed it last night, LeBron took over with some key steals and buckets, and the King ended up with an easy 25 points, seven rebounds, nine assists, five swipes, and a block. In Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the Cavs also have perhaps the second and third best players in the series, although Millsap belongs in that argument too. But, for the most part, stars win in the playoffs. I could get into all of the advantages the Cavs have in this matchup, including their tremendous offensive rebounding against Atlanta’s poor defensive rebounding, but I don’t think any of that even matters here. I’m not going to overthink this one. The Cavaliers are a better team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they pulled off another sweep. Out of respect for Millsap and the gritty Hawks (and, of course, the dynamite German point guard Dennis Schroder), I’m going to push this series to five. But the Cavaliers should again have plenty of time to rest before the Conference Finals.

Warriors over Blazers in 5: This would be a sweep if Curry were healthy. He’s not healthy right now, although he might come back at some point in the series, but I don’t think the Warriors really need him here. As Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts said, the Warriors are a historically great team with Curry and still a great one without him. In Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors still have two bonafide stars without Curry. Green has gotten plenty of mostly-warranted hype this year, perhaps at the expense of Thompson, who I would take over any other shooting guard in the NBA, James Harden included. The guy defends, he can create his own shot, he’s obviously a tremendous shooter, and he can carry the team when he’s hot. This is a 73-win team, so of course it also has a lot of depth. From Andre Iguodala to Harrison Barnes to Andrew Bogut to Shaun Livingston to Marreese Speights and on and on and on, this team is flowing with talent. Not really much else I can say. Meanwhile, the Blazers lucked out against the Clippers, as they seemed well on their way to a first round exit before both Paul and Griffin were knocked out of the series. In Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the team certainly gets a lot of points out of its guards, but it doesn’t have the depth or size elsewhere to challenge Golden State. Green in particular will have easy matchups all over the place, as a Moe Harkless-type is far too small to guard Green and an Ed Davis-type isn’t fast enough. There’s also the fact that McCollum, er, can’t guard Thompson, who’s both taller and heavier than the Lehigh graduate. This has been a fantastic season for Portland, a team that was supposed to be buried in the lottery, but, barring a shocker, their season will end against the juggernaut Warriors, with Curry or sans the MVP.

Heat over Raptors in 6: Both of these teams had their shaky moments in the first round before pulling out victories in game sevens, and the winner will almost definitely be the odd man out in a group that includes Cleveland, Golden State, and either San Antonio or OKC. With that in mind, this series doesn’t seem like it’s going to be that important. I’d agree with that conclusion, but for one key factor: LeBron James will play against the winner, and the winner could be the Miami Heat. I don’t know about you, but I want to see D-Wade and Co. vs. LeBron in the Conference Finals. No offense to Toronto, a great regular season team that just doesn’t seem to have the talent to make a run deep into May, but those rooting for the most intriguing basketball should have a clear rooting interest, even though I personally like the Raptors more than the Heat in a vacuum.

I like the Heat for a number of reasons. First of all, Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s point guard and best player, clearly isn’t himself. He’s been downplaying an elbow injury that he’s been nursing for some time, but the injury is clearly hampering his play. Lowry just shot 32% from the floor in the first round and a dreadful 16% from three (on 6.1 three point attempts per game!) en route to fewer than a point per shot attempt. In the regular season, he averaged 21 points per game, a number that’s been slashed to 14 in the playoffs. Lowry’s co-star, DeMar DeRozan, hasn’t been too great either, with 32% shooting in the first round. Again, you can look at this two different ways. One is that it’s amazing that the Raptors even made the second round with terrible shooting from their stars and that the team will surely improve as long as the law of averages holds true here. The other is that this bad play from the stars is a harbinger of things to come against a better team than the Pacers one that the Raptors struggled so much with. Given that Lowry and DeRozan are just 35% and 36% career playoff shooters, I’m worried that the second statement might be more accurate.

There’s also the fact that the Heat are gelling together at exactly the right time. Hassan Whiteside has come out of nowhere to become one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, as he averaged 3.7 blocks per game this year, way ahead of #2 DeAndre Jordan (2.3). I certainly consider Whiteside, an efficient double-double machine who isn’t horrific from the free throw line, to be the most important player on the team. The backcourt of Wade and Goran Dragic has also slowly rounded into shape, while rookie guard Josh Richardson has become a terrific sixth man. Add in wings Luol Deng and Joe Johnson and this is a team that’s tailor-made for a series against a smaller squad like the Raptors. Jonas Valanciunas will score his points and get his rebounds for Toronto, but I think Miami’s guards and wings will often have their way on drives and finishes at the rim.

In the end, this is probably going to be a long series. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes seven, because these two teams are about equally good, but I’m picking the Heat in six simply because they have more reliable contributors and because I trust Wade more in the playoffs than I do Lowry or DeRozan.

 

Because game three of the Spurs-Thunder series isn’t until Friday (I have no idea why that is), and because I want to spend more time on what is by far the most interesting series of the bunch, I’m going to leave that fascinating matchup for tomorrow or Thursday. Until then.. enjoy the basketball and hockey!

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