NBA Round Two Preview

Posted: 05/01/2017 by levcohen in Basketball

Boston went down 2-0, Toronto was down 2-1, Memphis and Atlanta pushed San Antonio and Washington to 2-2 and looked to have the momentum… but as is usually the case, the first round of the NBA playoffs ended very predictably. The Celtics came back to win four straight and knock out the mediocre Bulls, the Raptors throttled the Bucks, and both the Spurs and Wizards closed out their pesky opponents in six games. The result: two first round sweeps (both one seeds), a five game series, four six game series’, and a seven gamer between the Clippers and Jazz that also served as the only upset of the first round — at least seed-wise. But even that “upset” wasn’t really an upset, as it came after Blake Griffin went down for the Clips in the middle of the series. This is the way the early part of the NBA playoffs usually goes. Luckily, things will start to get more interesting in Round Two. The way I see it, there’s only one clear second round winner — the Warriors, who should close out the Jazz as quickly as they want to. But the other three matchups could legitimately go either way depending on a few key individual battles and coaching decisions. Let’s start with the series that already started yesterday with Boston’s comeback win over Washington.

Wizards over Celtics in seven:

I know the Celtics won the first game of the series, but I still think the Wizards have what it takes to win this series, provided Markieff Morris’s ankle isn’t too badly injured. John Wall and Bradley Beal are so good that they dictate the lineups the Celtics have to throw out there. Avery Bradley has a very important role to play defensively, as do Marcus Smart and even Terry Rozier. Those three will be the primary defenders of Wall and Beal, while Isaiah Thomas will be hidden on the quietly effective Otto Porter Jr. (16 points on 10 shots). They’re all good defenders, but I think always having two of those three guys on the court will really hinder Boston’s offense. Bradley’s an adequate offensive player, but Smart and Rozier shot 28% and 32% from beyond the arc while providing little in the way of playmaking ability. Of course, none of this mattered yesterday, because the Celtics shot 19-39 from beyond the arc and Al Horford put up a 21-9-10 line. But that’ll be Horford’s best game of the series, and Jae Crowder probably isn’t making six threes again. And you know what that means? Isaiah Thomas has to create ALL of the offense. That’s fine with Thomas, who has been one of the best offensive players in the league all season long. I’m sure he’ll continue to put up big numbers, but at some point he’ll get cold and Boston won’t be able to score. And even when he can score, I think the Wizards have the offensive versatility to keep up, no matter how many lockdown defenders the Celtics put on the court.

Assuming Morris is back, the Celtics are going to continue to have some of the same rebounding problems they had against Chicago. They made Robin Lopez look like an All-Star, and the physical Marcin Gortat is going to continue to have a field day on the boards against Horford. Washington has a bigger and more versatile offense across the board. Let me put it this way: they’re more likely to win a game without much from John Wall than the Celtics are to win a game without much from Isaiah Thomas. I love Porter, and I think he’ll have a few big scoring games in a series in which he’ll be guarded by Thomas (who’s a foot shorter). Beal has a height advantage over all of Bradley, Smart, and Rozier, and is liable to go off on a personal 9-0 run at any time. He’s easily the best pure shooter in the series. And while Washington’s bench has been getting a lot of criticism all year (and rightfully so), I don’t think they’re that bad when they shorten their bench. They got stretched thin by the Morris injury in Game One, but assuming Morris comes back, the bench should be fine. Bojan Bogdanovic showed his ability to get hot in a hurry and Kelly Oubre is a solid two-way player. The one thing the Wizards CAN NOT do is go any period of time without either Beal or Wall on the court. Beal’s quietly very good as the backup point guard, something I think we’ll continue to see a lot of in this series.

In the end, this series really comes down to Wall, Beal, Porter, Morris, and Gortat against Smart, Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, and Horford. All season long, Washington’s starting lineup has been one of the most productive lineups in basketball. Everything works, and it should continue to work against a Boston defense that hasn’t been great this season. The Wizards got roasted defensively in Game One, but the Celtics’ shooters will cool down. This will be a tough series, but the Wizards should finish on top.


Cavaliers over Raptors in six:

I wanted to pick the Raptors in this series, because I think they have a lot of matchup advantages. Chief among those, of course, is the pick-and-roll offense. The Cavaliers got absolutely destroyed by the Pacers in pick-and-roll situations in the first round, and the Pacers have no right to be a good pick-and-roll team. The Raptors, meanwhile, scored easily an NBA-high 24.5 points per game directly out of the pick-and-roll this season, with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both proving dangerous with a head of steam or some room to pull up. And for as bad as the Raptors looked offensively in the first round, the Cavaliers are almost definitely worse defensively. It’s not just the numbers. Look at the players on the court for Cleveland! LeBron James and Tristan Thompson are the Cavs’ only real contributors who play good defense. And even LeBron can’t make up for the defensive lapses committed often by Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, and Kyle Korver (ew). The Pacers weren’t good enough to take full advantage, and I’m worried that Toronto won’t either, but if the Cavs do end up making the Finals, can you imagine how many points the Warriors will be able to score against this team? This is just your weekly reminder, I guess, that we already know who’s going to win the title.

I said I wanted to pick the Raptors. I’m not going to, though, because I don’t buy that P.J. Tucker is going to be the magical addition who will figure out how to stop LeBron James, and I fear a rolling LeBron James more than I fear just about anything. Also: Cleveland’s offense is really, really, really good. Surrounding LeBron with a ton of shooting seems to really work. Funny how that works, isn’t it? The Raptors just aren’t good enough defensively to slow Cleveland down enough. Tucker’s a solid, hard-nosed player, and he’s probably a better option to guard LeBron than DeMarre Carroll is, but just barely, and Carroll routinely gets destroyed by James. Serge Ibaka isn’t the defender he used to be. Nobody can slow down Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers are going to score a lot of points.

If the Raptors were playing like they did early in the season, I’d pick them to win. But their offense is struggling, and it’s not just a playoffs thing; when I wrote this article in December, the Raptors were averaging 115.2 points per 100 possessions. By the end of the season, they were down to 109.8 points per 100 possessions, and they were 13th in the NBA in offense after the All-Star break. They’ll be a lot better than they were against the long, athletic Bucks in the first round. Kyle Lowry will turn it around and DeMar DeRozan will score a lot. But I don’t think the Raptors have enough juice to win a series against LeBron.


Spurs over Rockets in seven:

This is the best series of Round Two. Houston and San Antonio are two of the NBA’s top three teams, or maybe top four if we give LeBron and the Cavs the benefit of the doubt (which we probably should). This series could come down to an individual’s heroics versus a team’s efficiency. Surprisingly, the individual is Kawhi Leonard and the team is the Rockets. This is the least Spursy team I can remember in that they have one player who shoulders so much of the load both offensively and defensively. Luckily for the Spurs, nobody is more ready and able to handle such a large role for an extended period of time than Kawhi. Kawhi just destroyed the Grizzlies, and if the Grizzlies couldn’t stop him I have a hard time believing that the Rockets, who are much worse defensively, will. I assume that Houston will trap Leonard early and often, forcing him to make quick decisions and attempting to frustrate him. There are two problems with this plan:
1) Leonard doesn’t get frustrated
2) Leonard will generally make the right decision

And when you send two guys to trap Leonard, defending the rest of San Antonio becomes a problem. It would be less of a problem for a long, disciplined defense, but this is a Mike D’Antoni defense, which is to say a defense whose main goal is to get out of the way and get back on offense. I’m exaggerating, of course: the Rockets were good defensively against the Thunder in the first round, and guys like Patrick Beverley and Clint Capela play good defense. But the Spurs are a heck of a lot better than the Thunder, and if the Rockets roll out lineups with Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Ryan Anderson, and James Harden out there together they’re going to get killed defensively by the probing, methodical Spurs. While Tony Parker isn’t who he used to be and the Spurs seriously miss having a real second go-to offensive player, Parker’s still often dynamic, LaMarcus Aldridge can score the ball, Patty Mills is smoking hot from three and Danny Green will heat up. And whenever David Lee and Pau Gasol can get on the court (they’re huge defensive liabilities), they’re also very skilled scorers.

But the real reason I’m picking the Spurs to win this series in a squeaker is that they are a tremendous defensive team, one that has as good of a chance as anyone to slow down Houston’s juggernaut offense. The Spurs’ defensive philosophy is to force long twos, and they’re very good at doing it. They don’t allow opponents to attempt or hit a lot of threes, and they don’t send their opponents to the line with cheap fouls. Of course, the Rockets’ offensive philosophy is to get to the rim, get to the line, and shoot a ton of threes. Who will win out? Well, in the earlier meetings between these teams, the Spurs successfully forced the Rockets into a lot more midrange shots than they are generally comfortable taking. But I can see why most people are predicting that the Rockets will get over the hump in this series. In the pick-and-roll offense, the Rockets have been really hard to stop unless the opponent has a rim protector who can contest without fouling. The Spurs have.. David Lee and Pau Gasol, both of whom will be on the bench quite often, just as Enes Kanter was for the Thunder. Suddenly, Dewayne Dedmon is enormously important as a big who can serve as that mobile rim protector, and Dewayne Dedmon averaged 8.7 minutes per game in the first round. There’s also the James Harden problem. Namely, a healthy James Harden (we’ll see how his ankle is after five days off, but I’m assuming it’s fine, because if it isn’t than the Rockets have no chance) has been able to do just about anything he wants this season. And the Spurs aren’t going to put Kawhi on Harden all game long. Harden’s going to see a lot of Danny Green and Jonathon Simmons. Both of those guys are good defenders, but putting Green on Harden opens up a lot of options for Lou Williams (is Parker going to guard him? Please) and Eric Gordon. That’s why this Houston offense is so dynamic and why they scored at will against the Thunder even when their shots weren’t going down.

One another matchup to look out for: LaMarcus Aldridge against Ryan Anderson. Aldridge is going to get the ball a lot when Anderson is on him. He should be able to score at will.

I think the Rockets have more options than the Spurs. I think they probably have a higher upside. But I’m picking the Spurs in seven, because Kawhi Leonard is so darn good and because San Antonio is good enough defensively to at least make Houston think a little before dropping 120 points every game.


Warriors over Jazz in four:

Do I really have to explain myself? The Jazz are a perfectly good basketball team. Good for them for making the second round. They could certainly win a game in this series, and maybe even two. But can they beat the Warriors in a best of seven series? Never in a million years. I like Gordon Hayward, but he’s the fifth best player in the series. The four best all play for Golden State. That’s a wrap.

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