Here we are in April, where we as fans get to see some familiar and not so familiar faces showcase what they’ve been working towards for 82 games. Big names will strive to add to their legacy, while rising stars will be looking to make their first big splash. Consensus predictions were made early in the season by fans and media alike, and those predictions held all the way until the All-Star break.
Surprise, surprise. The landscape has changed since then. Parity won out in Conference play, elite teams have shown their blemishes, down and out teams are now 100% in, and a team that won almost 50 games was eliminated from postseason contention. Well, one part of the landscape hasn’t changed; San Antonio Spurs basketball.
Here is the first round broken down by matchup:
(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks
Why the Pacers will win
Larry Bird’s squad hasn’t had too much to smile about lately with on and off the court issues arising over the last 2 months. The loss of Danny Granger for Evan Turner is a setback they did not see coming, ultimately impacting them most in the locker room. They’ve gone from having a league best net rating of +8.6 before the All-Star break, to -2.7 post All-Star. That in short, is a freefall. Their offense has been stagnant due to having little to no spacing on the floor and their big men don’t have the same poise post All-Star break. Remember, this team at one point was on pace to be the best defensive team ever. Luckily for the Pacers, the postseason naturally slows the tempo down and plays right into their style of basketball. A recent win at home vs OKC and landing ATL in the first round may help them get their mojo back. If they can manage to get any sort of offense going, the defense should get reinvigorated and take care of itself.
Why the Hawks will win
You would think a team that has the longest running streak (7 years) of Eastern Conference playoff appearances would have more than a puncher’s chance against a struggling “elite” team. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. The Hawks pulled it together down the stretch to fend off the streaking Knicks for that final playoff seed, but before that it was looking very bleak. Losing Horford early in the season kind of put the writing on the wall for this over-achieving squad. Teague and Millsap are keys to the Hawks’ success. Not one, but both of them will have to play the most inspired ball of their careers. Stealing one of the first 2 games in Indiana will be needed to keep the #1 seeded team in the East on their heels.
Verdict: The Pacers aren’t nearly where they were pre All Star break, but will claw through this series despite a couple of scrappy wins from Atlanta.
Pacers in 6
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) Charlotte Bobcats
Why the Heat will win
Only 3 defending champs in NBA playoffs history have been swept the following year in the first round (Philadelphia Warriors in 1957, Heat in 2007 and the Mavs in 2012). This will not be one of those years. Lebron has been in coast mode for most of the season, still putting up MVP numbers. He’s been quoted as saying he zones out during the regular season, but locks in when the playoffs start. The Heat rank in the top 3 for offensive efficiency and points off turnovers, which is a direct result of Miami spacing the floor with shooters and getting out on the break after forced TO’s. A healthy Wade will determine the Heat’s longevity in these playoffs, but the first round should be a warm up to an eventual return to the Eastern Conference final.
Why the Bobcats will win
It’s hard to find ways for this relatively inexperienced Bobcats team to take down the defending champs, but the brand of basketball Charlotte has played this year gives them a glimmer of hope.The key matchups to exploit for Charlotte are Jefferson going to work on the Miami bigs and Kemba Walker breaking down Miami’s PG’s off the dribble. There are no other matchup advantages here so they’ll have to make the best of the ones they have. Despite Charlotte making major leaps this year in terms of creating a cohesive core, and landing in the top 10 in defensive efficiency (6th), they will need nothing short of a miracle.
Verdict: Miami took the season series 4-0, one of those games being the LBJ 61 point explosion. Charlotte will provide some stifling defense allowing them to sneak one game at home.
Miami in 5
(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets
Why Toronto will win
Few expected the Raptors to have a shot in the playoffs this season, let alone a division title and the 3 seed, but here they are. The only Eastern Conference team to land in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency is not something Brooklyn should glance over (although their defensive efficiency has slipped since the All-Star Break). DeRozan and Lowry have been consummate leaders all season and will need to be at their best against this veteran squad. The season series was split 2-2 between Toronto and Brooklyn, with 3 of those games decided by 4 points or less. The Raps will likely have to squeak out at least one win like they did back in January.
Why the Nets will win
The Nets combined playoff experience dwarfs the Raptors; 24 games for Toronto while Brooklyn has an impressive 399 games. Experience and veteran leadership from the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett is key to Brooklyn’s success. Since transforming their style of play to small ball once Lopez went out with injury, the Nets have the league’s second best record since January 1st going 34-16. The resurgent career of Shaun Livingston has him playing floor general, with Deron Williams sliding to SG. Add a loaded backcourt and a deep bench, the Nets are looking for a deep playoff run.
Verdict: This is easily the best first round matchup in the East. Don’t be surprised if this goes the distance for 7 games. The Raptors consistency throughout the year, and their young legs versus the aging Nets should propel them into the second round.
Raptors in 7
(4) Chicago Bulls vs (5) Washington Wizards
Why the Bulls will win
The Bulls have something in common with the Spurs. Just when everyone thinks they’re down and out their coach seemingly comes to the rescue and removes all doubt. That’s what Thibs has done with this Bulls team. It’s not all about the coaching, as Joakim Noah has made his case for MVP candidate with Derrick Rose out, and Taj Gibson is making his for 6th man of the year. Most should already be aware of Chicago’s defense (97.8 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the league), but the real silver lining is evident in their offense as of late. They’ve gone 23-2 this season when scoring over 100 points, something they’ve done 6 of their last 10 games. It could all be coming together at the right time for this arguably over-achieving squad. One thing’s for sure; no one wants to see this Chicago team in these playoffs.
Why the Wizards will win
John Wall and Bradley Beal will have to show what they’re made of in this series. It’s up to these 2 rising stars to push the tempo for the Wizards (8th in fast break points). The Bulls will make this series an absolute slugfest for the Wiz. Fortunately for them they have 2 beasts of their own down low in Gortat and Nene, with some sizeable bigs off the pine. However, the real story for Washington here is John Wall. When the offense is humming, it’s a direct result of John Wall able to push the tempo in transition and break down the first line of defense in the halfcourt. If he’s able to get by Chicago’s PG’s, kick it out to their shooters and force the issue on the defensive end (Wiz are 6th in points off turnovers), Washington may be able to land a few knockout blows early.
Verdict: This will be a grind-it-out series for both teams (and any team that Chicago ends up playing). The Wizards lack of experience in their guards will be the deciding factor in this one, as Chicago should take just enough steam out of their engine to win.
Bulls in 7
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks
Why the Spurs will win
Another year goes by and the Spurs still refuse to become irrelevant. Their core stars of the last decade have aged, but some clever lineup changes throughout the regular season worked to their advantage (yet again). Top 4 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, coach Pop has once again prepared his team for a finals run. Fun insane fact: 2013/2014 Spurs are the only team since the ABA/NBA merger to not have one player average 30 min/game in a season. Talk about longevity. Add in a 19 game win streak that went relatively unnoticed by the rest of the league and we have a well oiled machine that no one wants to see in their postseason schedule.
Why the Mavericks will win
Has everyone forgot about Dirk Nowitzki? He is having yet another career year gone largely unnoticed. He is absolutely dominating the midrange shot; of the 27 NBA players who have taken at least 200 shots from this area, he is the only one making at least 50%. Monta Ellis is in elite company this year, ranking behind only LBJ and Durant for clutch points (151 clutch points to be exact. Definition of clutch is what a player does in the final 5 minutes, with the score within five points). These 2 clutch performers combined with a solid cast of role players have the Mavs ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency (109 points per 100 possessions). The chink in the Mavs armour is their defensive capabilities, a place where the Spurs have a big advantage.
Verdict: Watching this chess match between Popovich and Carlisle will be one of the more interesting stories to start the postseason. The Spurs have the edge on the defensive end, which will be the deciding factor in this series.
Spurs in 5
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
Why the Thunder will win
Do we need any more reasons than the eventual MVP, Slim Reaper AKA Kevin Durant? He is likely going to accept that award this postseason, and he’s not done yet. After beating his Airness’ record for most consecutive 25 point games in a season (41), which he claims not to care about, bigger things appear to be on his plate. OKC ranks in the top 10 for both offensive and defensive efficiency, the former being a direct product of Durant. Their role players will have to step it up after an inconsistent season from the bench. The obvious x-factor, Westbrook, will have to stay healthy throughout the postseason and keep his recklessness in check.
Why the Grizzlies will win
Since Gasol has come back from injury, the Grizzlies have gone 33-13, a game better than OKC over the same span. The Grizz will attempt to play the ground and pound style they defeated the Thunder with last year, letting Gasol and Randolph go to work in the paint. They’ll have to do their best to slow the Thunder down with excellent transition defense and a slow pace on offense to limit OKC’s possessions. This is easier said than done with Westbrook back, who went down with injury last year during the first round against Houston and wasn’t able to play against Memphis in the Conference Semifinals.
Verdict: A hungrier, feistier, meaner Durant has already revealed himself this season. He hasn’t forgot about last postseason’s loss against the team that eliminated his second straight Finals appearance. Memphis may steal a game in OKC early and win one at home, but the team with the best player wins this series.
Thunder in 6
(3) LA Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors
Why the Clippers will win
The bad blood between these two teams has already spilled into the postseason. They have 2 of the best 10 players in the league in Paul and Griffin. Paul will be a handful for Curry who isn’t necessarily an elite on the ball defender. Griffin has made leaps and bounds this season in terms of being a leader and stepping up when Paul went down with injury midway through the season. With Bogut out for the foreseeable future and Lee just getting back from injury, the Clippers’ frontcourt could put a beating on GSW. When everyone is healthy, the Clippers arguably have the best shooters to spread the floor for them in Crawford, Redick, Granger, Dudley, Barnes, Collison and Turkoglu. 1st in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency (large in part to DeAndre Jordan’s increased focus on protecting the paint), the Clips are looking strong on both ends.
Why the Warriors will win
Curry versus Paul; you can’t ask for a better matchup of point guards to start the postseason. Curry just became the first player in NBA history to record back to back seasons with 250 or more 3 pointers made, and you can expect there will be no drought in this first round. With Bogut out, the previously unlikely defensive Warriors (3rd in defensive efficiency at 99.9 points per 100 possessions) will have to mix up their lineups to gain some of that defensive edge lost. This means a re-appearance of the 2013 Playoffs version of Harrison Barnes coming through at the right time, and Iguodala guarding everyone from Paul to perhaps even Griffin. Success for the Warriors will be found with their shooters and draining them at a better rate than the Clips.
Verdict: This is a tough one, but with Bogut going down and the Clips playing inspired ball with help from Doc Rivers, it’s tough to see the Clips going down in this one.
Clippers in 6
(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trailblazers
Why the Rockets will win
There is a semi-bold statement to make around this series; there’s a good chance it could set the record in a series for most 3’s attempted and made. The Rockets have been going by Daryl Morey’s philosophy of live and die by the 3, run the floor and get to the rim, by any means necessary. They score well in the paint (ranked 2nd) and will need to exploit that against the Blazers who have a lackluster frontcourt on the defensive end (28th in defending the paint). The Rockets have two bonafide stars in Harden and Howard and a multitude of shooters in their pocket, including Harden. A big factor in Houston’s success is their playoff experience; that includes both coaches and players. Exploiting Portland’s lack of experience and paint protection is the key to Houston winning this series.
Why the Blazers will win
Not unlike the Rockets, the Blazers like to light it up from behind the arc. Both teams are in the top three in 3 point FG attempted and top five in 3 point FG made. Offensively the Blazers score at a very high efficiency rate, have 2 great offensive creators in Aldridge and Lillard, have a ton of shooters to spread the floor, and lead the league in 2nd chance points. They will need to do all of these things at their very best to beat a powerhouse like Houston. There’s one huge x-factor key to the Blazer’s success; the Rockets turn the ball over at a disgusting rate (16.3 times per 100 possessions). The Blazers however, rank 2nd last in points off turnovers. They’ll have to find a way to exploit Houston’s sloppy possessions to give them an edge. If they can stop the Rockets like this in transition, they can make things interesting.
Verdict: A shootout. Both of these teams are very good offensively, but it will be Houston’s effectiveness in the paint and transition points that will put them over the edge.
Rockets in 7