The Beginning of the End: Predictions and a look at the NBA playoff picture
Editor’s note: The preview portions of this blog were written by Matthew Vinsko. Brett Murdock contributed predictions.
Basketball is my favorite sport and it has been for a long time. Unlike baseball, football, and hockey, basketball provides high scoring affairs that can captivate fans and casual viewers alike with quick plays that include dunks, alley-oops, and even well-timed blocks.
That’s why each postseason provides a bittersweet experience for this fan. Yes, the level of play intensifies as we work to finally crown an NBA Champion, but at the cost of a four month hiatus to one of the world’s most popular sports.
This year’s postseason is ripe with storylines (Can James Harden stop his old team from reaching the second round? How long can the Lakers last without Kobe Bryant? Who will stop the juggernaut that is the Miami Heat?). But the real goal of the first round of the playoffs isn’t so much to answer these questions, but rather separate pretenders from contenders as each team takes its first step to the Finals.
Read on for predictions from both myself and my longtime collaborator, Brett Murdock, as we break down the ins and outs of each matchup in the first round.
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets
This is one matchup that might be closer than you think because of both team’s ability to put the ball in the basket.
Houston finished second in the NBA in scoring this year at 106 points per game with James Harden leading the way at just over 25 points per game. OKC finished third in scoring with 105 points per game, led by its MVP candidate, Kevin Durant, who finished with 28 points per game, second in the scoring title race behind Carmelo Anthony.
But as it’s come to be known in postseason basketball, defense wins championships, and the Thunder finished in the top ten of the league in points allowed at a shade over 95 points per game. Houston, on the other hand, allowed over 102 points per game, which won’t help them against the high-scoring dynamic duo of Durant and Russell Westbrook (no respect to Kevin Martin either; the guy can flat out score).
Harden can score with the best of them, but unless Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin can score consistently, expect Houston to serve as practice for the Thunder’s defense on their journey back to the NBA Finals.
• Matt: Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games
• Brett: Oklahoma City Thunder in 6 games
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers
Both the Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers wanted the San Antonio Spurs coming into the postseason for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the Spurs have sputtered in the postseason recently, including collapses at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder. Second, their injuries to key players like Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have affected an aging squad in need of veteran presence.
On the other hand, the Lakers come in having won five straight games, including two without Kobe Bryant, who is out for six to nine months following an Achilles injury. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have been playing better the past few weeks, and now lead a balanced scoring attack. The return of Steve Nash could put the Lakers over the edge and provide a legitimate playmaker for a team that could use it in Bryant’s absence.
The key to this series will be how Howard can carry this momentum, and his team, in the playoffs. People forget the guy took an average Orlando Magic team to the finals a few years back. Now surrounded by a much better supporting cast, the Lakers have a legitimate shot of pulling an upset if Nash is healthy and Dwight can dominate.
That’s a big if, and the Spurs have a deep squad that would like to erase recent postseason troubles. Who better to do it against than one of their oldest rivals?
• Matt: Los Angeles Lakers in 6 games
• Brett: San Antonio Spurs in 5 games
(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
Having family from the bay area has allowed me to take in a few Warriors games as I embraced one of the best home court advantages in basketball.
The Golden State Warriors have taken the next step this year, and the fans have embraced their young team, which is led by the all-time holder of most three pointers made in a season in Stephen Curry. Even though Don Nelson is long gone from the Warriors’ sideline, his run-and-gun approach lives on in the bay area; the Warriors averaged just over 101 points per game.
Their opponents in the first round, however, not only have a higher scoring average (106.1; tops in the league), but more experience. The Denver Nuggets have been knocking on the door for some time now, and hope to make a return trip to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the departure of Carmelo Anthony.
It should be a high scoring series featuring very different types of teams; while the Warriors like to run-and-gun, the Nuggets prefer to crash the paint with guys like Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried, and even Wilson Chandler leading the way.
When you have two teams of this offensive caliber, you have to go with who is taking the higher-percentage shots, and seeing as the Nuggets like to keep it close to the rim, the Warriors only shot is to rely on All-Star David Lee to slow down the pace. As that’s something they won’t do, expect the Nuggets to advance.
• Matt: Denver Nuggets in 6 games
• Brett: Denver Nuggets in 6 games
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
In a rematch of last year’s hotly-contested series, the Grizzlies and Clippers are set to matchup once more, only this time, without the likes of Rudy Gay.
Gay’s departure has allowed the Grizzlies to cement themselves as the league’s best defensive teams and rely more on their low-post scoring in the form of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. This more balanced forces Mike Conley Jr. to be the team’s playmaker, and he has responded by upping his points and assists.
And while their depth has been much improved in the form of new additions Jerryd Bayless and Ed Davis, their benches pale in comparison to the Clippers’, led by Sixth-Man-of-the-Year candidate Jamaal Crawford.
People forget that the Clippers had a 17-game winning streak earlier this year, and that Chris Paul should be a potential MVP candidate. Blake Griffin has taken strides this year in his shooting, and when you have guys like Crawford, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, and Lamar Odom all providing a spark in their own right, the deck might be stacked for the Grizzlies.
For Memphis to have a shot, they’re going to have to use their patented defense to find ways to shut down not only Paul and Griffin, but the rest of their team. The Grizzlies have elite defenders (including an underrated Tony Allen), but will have to make each game a slugfest in order to overcome the Clippers’ depth and balance.
• Matt: Los Angeles Clippers in 6 games
• Brett: Memphis Grizzlies in 7 games
(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks
This series isn’t going to be close. There’s not much to say when you have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh against an underwhelming team led by the likes of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, and a much-improved Larry Sanders.
Credit should be given to the Bucks for turning their squad into a playoff team, but when you give up nearly two more points than you score, those mistakes will come back to haunt you, especially when you’re playing the MVP and his running mates.
• Matt: Miami Heat in 4 games
• Brett: Miami Heat in 4 games
(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, the Boston Celtics are set to play some inspired basketball against a Knicks team that has lacked postseason success in recent memory.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and even Jeff Green have all stepped up their games in the absence of Rajon Rondo, and they all know that they’re nearing the end of their run together. While the additions of Jason Terry, Jordan Crawford, and even Courtney Lee have all proven to be more miss than hit, their depth still makes them a formidable out, especially with the country rooting for all things Boston.
But against a relatively healthy Knicks squad, the Celtics simply have enough firepower to compete with Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith alone. Add in guys like Jason Kidd, Iman Shumpert, and even Tyson Chandler, and it’s difficult to see the Celtics overcoming their age and injury concerns over the course of a seven game series.
While it’s hard to put the Celtics away for good, this season has clearly been a step-down from their run to the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago.
• Matt: New York Knicks in 7 games
• Brett: New York Knicks in 6 games
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks
In the absence of Danny Granger, the Indiana Pacers have flourished as a defensive team with multiple weapons on offense. Roy Hibbert has stepped up his game the past few weeks of the season, joining David West and Most-Improved Player candidate Paul George in a solid inside/outside attack. Add in their defense, which is second behind only the Grizzlies, and you have a team build for success.
The Hawks, on the other hand, should be commended for having a solid campaign after the Joe Johnson trade, especially in the absence of the high-scoring Louis Williams. Josh Smith has been up to his old tricks both inside and outside the arc, Al Horford continues to remind us why he was an All-Star a few years back, and guys like Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague continue to compliment the team’s work in the paint.
The Hawks have been inconsistent for years now, and if they garnered a matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, I might have to give them an edge. But against the defense of the Indiana Pacers, who just might be a sleeper to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks don’t have enough firepower to outscore the Pacers for four games.
The Hawks are hoping to land Dwight Howard over the summer, and if they do, they might be able to finally overcome the mediocrity they’ve seen for years now. In the meantime, expect the Pacers to advance and cement their status as the second (yes, second) best team in the east.
• Matt: Indiana Pacers in 5 games
• Brett: Indiana Pacers in 6 games
(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls
How the Nets achieved the fourth seed is beyond me. Besides the likes of Brook Lopez and Reggie Evans dominating the boards down low, the team does nothing well. They overpaid for a subpar backcourt in the likes of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, and lack the grittiness and determination to win that playoff teams must have.
The Chicago Bulls, on the other hand, play to win in all facets of the game. Even without their best player in Derrick Rose, the Bulls have cemented themselves as a defensive team that finished third in the league in points allowed at 92 points per game. While their offense has sometimes been sporadic, guys like Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer, and even Nate Robinson have all picked up the load.
The Bulls have shown they can hang with the elite of the Eastern Conference, having recently ended both the Heat and the Knicks’ winning streaks. Unfortunately for the Nets, they are far from an elite caliber squad.
Calling the Bulls winning this series an upset is a great disservice to what the Bulls have done, and continue to do, in the absence of a former MVP. If Rose does happen to return this postseason, watch out.
• Matt: Chicago Bulls in 6 games
• Brett: Chicago Bulls in 7 games