NBA playoff predictions: Big stars advance, but how will they fare now?
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin advance in playoffs, but will Heat and Thunder eventually face off?
Can Tim Duncan lead the Spurs past LaMarcus Aldridge and the Blazers?
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images, Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images
By Jimmy Spencer
It's tough to let go, but we have to move past the magic of the first round. It was an intense and fantastic appetizer, but this second round of marquee matchups is going to taste even better. As the stakes grow, so do the powerful storylines.
The most provocative series actually comes out East, as the seemingly inevitable encounter between the Heat and Nets is finally upon us. The matchup borrows from the recent Heat-Celtics rivalry, and the clash between Miami's Big Three and the Brooklyn version of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett could get plenty feisty. The Pacers-Wizards showdown means a further showing of the Indiana mystery series and an even more entertaining look at Washington's dynamic backcourt.
But let's be honest, hasn't the story for much of the season been about which team out of the dominant West will ultimately face the Heat in the finals? You can make an argument for each of these four squads. The old-school Spurs try to extinguish the upstart Trail Blazers in a series of yesterday vs. the future. And if superstars are your thing, the Clippers-Thunder battle is what an All-Star Game would look like with actual meaning.
The Spurs will win if ... they set their imperious tone upon the series. We tend to see just how exacting Gregg Popovich can become when he gets to scheming. This second round vs. the Blazers could look quite similar to the Spurs' second round vs. the Warriors last season -- tumultuous at times yet somehow under control. Tony Parker generally regains his reputation as one of the NBA's best postseason players around this time each year, and don't think he doesn't take it personally when he matches up against a younger guard like Damian Lillard. San Antonio will need extra offense from him, too, if they can keep pace with Portland's offensive gifts.
The real trick, though, is how much the Spurs can impose their defensive style on Portland. The Spurs become quite tyrannical when it comes to closing out on three-pointers, and they will trap and switch on that good Portland pick-and-roll. The Spurs' defense speeds the offense, and it finally got aggressive in Game 7 vs. Dallas. If they can do that and also make life even a bit more difficult for LaMarcus Aldridge in the process, then the Spurs will force the Blazers to find extra scoring elsewhere -- and that's been a bad thing for Portland.
The Trail Blazers will win if ... the offense can put on the same show it did in the first round -- and then some. Lillard has proved he's a closer, and he's got an edge that makes it seem likely he'll hoist a trophy one day. And of course, Aldridge was the MVP of the first round, averaging 29.8 points and 11.2 rebounds against Houston. But the Spurs are a better defensive team, and they defend the paint well. The Blazers need to spread the Spurs out in the same way Dallas did. Portland's duo needs to recreate what Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis accomplished offensively in the Mavericks' wins. However, Game 7 was an example of how San Antonio has a way of forcing teams away from their strengths.
But remember, Portland has always been able to score; the problems come when its defense folds. When the Blazers began to sputter late in the regular season, it was because they couldn't get stops. Stopping Popovich's multi-edged offense takes far more defensive strategy and effort than what Portland had to muster against the more simplistic schemes of James Harden and Co. Portland had the worst defensive rating (109.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the first round of any team still playing.
The series X-factors: The Blazers need more from their bench. Portland's bench only averaged only 15.5 points per game against Houston, and 8.2 of those points belonged to Mo Williams -- who shot just 37.8 percent in the series. Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson will need to be much more effective if Portland has any hope of surviving San Antonio. The production of the Big Three is obvious, but the Spurs are really dangerous when Kawhi Leonard is getting to the rim and Danny Green is finding open looks.
Prediction: Spurs in 6. The Blazers relied too heavily on big games from Aldridge and Lillard against Houston, but it's hard to see Popovich not finding a method to slow that down. Portland's defense won't be able to get big stops late in games.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (def. Grizzlies in 7) vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (def. Warriors in 7)
Regular-season series: Split 2-2
The Thunder will win if ... Russell Westbrook gets the best of Chris Paul. The Clippers' bulldog defender just spent an entire series chasing Stephen Curry around the three-point arc and did it through pain (the hamstring in particular). Westbrook creates a much more explosive cover. Though he'll have the help of Darren Collison, Paul prides himself in his ability to lock down opposing guards and wants the job to be a primary role. But if Westbrook doesn't flirt so much with his three-point shot -- the one he hoisted far too often with little success throughout the start of the Memphis series -- he will eventually wear Paul down. When he does, the Clippers point guard could become less effective in his role of running L.A.'s offense. If the Thunder win this matchup, their advantage becomes heavy in the series.
As for Kevin Durant, well, you know what you're going to get from Mr. Reliable. He will need to be the superstar we witnessed in Games 6 and 7 vs. Memphis, and odds are he will be. The Clippers will rely on the defense of Matt Barnes, which won't feel like anything as heavy as the drape of Tony Allen. It's not all offense, though. Remember, OKC ranked No. 5 in defensive rating (101 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the regular season. They defended the post so well because of Serge Ibaka, who will need to stay out of foul trouble to help offset the interior advantage of L.A.'s Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Clippers will win if ... their front court goes off again. What made the Clippers so tough in that Golden State series was their immense size advantage without Warriors center Andrew Bogut. The advantage remains, but it's far less dominant than it was for Los Angeles in the first round. But if Griffin plays like the top-three player in the league again, and he wears down the interior of OKC in a way that both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were able to do against OKC, it could open up the entire Clippers offense. If the production of DeAndre Jordan wasn't just a delusion as a result of a small Golden State, then Griffin will be stuck with fewer double teams. And if the defense does collapse to help on Griffin, then his lobs to Jordan may be open once again.
Los Angeles also can't play as sloppily as it did against the Warriors. Turnovers against the Thunder end in punishing transition buckets. The Clippers forced the Warriors into 17.3 turnovers per game in round one, and they could do the same thing to a Thunder team that turned it over 15.6 times against Memphis. The Clippers have to clean it up themselves, though, as they averaged 14.3 in the first round, many of which were unforced.
The series X-factors: There's no series with more superstars than this one, but ultimately the games could be decided on the performances by two off-the-bench guards. Both Reggie Jackson and Jamal Crawford were brilliant at times in the first round, and this series could come down to which one gets hot more often.
Prediction: Thunder in 7 games. Durant and Westbrook are just too much, and Ibaka is the perfect anecdote to the interior of the Clippers. The health of Paul may not last seven games.
No. 1 Indiana Pacers (def. Hawks in 7) vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (def. Bulls in 5)
Regular-season series: Pacers won 2-1
The Pacers will win if ... their defense can be as crushing as it was against the Wizards in the regular season. No team shot a lower shooting percentage against the Pacers in the regular season than the Wizards (36.9 percent). This includes just 32.7 percent from three-point range. Obviously, the story at this point has changed. The early-season Pacers we saw then were much different from this impostor we've seen lately. The confidence is lost, first displayed at the close of the regular season and further emphasized when Indy nearly lost in seven games to the No. 8 Hawks -- a team with a losing record. The Pacers' defense is what makes them great, and that's what needs to return as the heart of their successful model.
The Pacers saved face -- just barely -- in round one, and they did it with a scattered, inconsistent approach that reeked of an odd combination of desperation and stubbornness. In other words, they changed their identity at times to compete with the approach of the Hawks, and other times they just insisted on being themselves. There's an internal conflict at work, one that involves chemistry issues, selfishness and a lack of a clear direction. For the Pacers to move on to the next round, they need to return to that confidence that led them through the first five months of the season.
The Pacers' struggles stem from an absence of a streamlined offense that runs through the point guard. George Hill hasn't seemed capable of initiating a consistent offense, which is why Paul George and Lance Stephenson have forced the issue offensively and the scoring has suffered. The good news is that Roy Hibbert now faces a more traditional front court, and Indy must hope that's enough of a boost to see him return to the player he was before the All-Star break and last postseason. Without Hibbert playing well, the Pacers don't have much of a talent advantage, and they certainly have worse chemistry.
The Wizards will win if ... John Wall and Bradley Beal continue their progression into this second round. The best young backcourt in the playoffs already bounced the league's best defense, so Indy won't seem intimidating. The Wizards can't fall into a matchup of physical play with Indiana, though, and they must glide into that offensive system that overcame the Bulls. Washington beat the Bulls because they mostly made the pace theirs. It's going to come down to shooting, and whether Wall, Beal and Trevor Ariza can knock down shots.
They will likely mimic the strategy of pulling Hibbert away from the basket and spreading Indy's defense. Basically, if the Wizards do what the Hawks did, they will win because the Wizards are a much better team than the Hawks, with more offensive weapons. On the defensive side, the Wizards must protect their rim. The Pacers are significantly worse when they are limited to perimeter jumpers, and Marcin Gortat and Nene must be defensive anchors to clog the middle. The angry version of Nene is plenty dangerous, and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals should be plenty of motivation. The Bulls were obviously miserable offensively, but don't discount Washington's ability to get tough on defense. This Wizards team may be headlined by their young scorers, but Washington is also a good defensive team and that could tie up the Pacers' already struggling offense.
The series X-factors: Trevor Ariza's veteran presence was huge for Washington in the first round. Like Paul George, he's an excellent two-way perimeter player capable of offsetting George. If he comes close, that's a huge swing in Washington's favor. As far as Indiana, no player is more needed than Hibbert. The Pacers' center must show up this series if Indy has a hope to return to the East finals.
Prediction: Wizards in 6 games. The Pacers barely escaped a team with a losing regular-season record. Washington enters the series as the better team, and even six games may be giving Indy too much credit at this point.
No. 2 Miami Heat (def. Bobcats in 4) vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (def. Raptors in 7)
Regular-season series: Nets won 4-0
The Heat will win if ... they just keep doing their thing. Miami should change nothing. LeBron James is the best player since Michael Jordan, and he's playing in his prime, and his team is loaded with talent, and he has all the motivation in the world to once again quiet Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Need more? The recipe doesn't change: Miami relies on James. When the defense overloads on him (as it must), it can't possibly contain a cutting Dwyane Wade or a midrange jumper from Chris Bosh. That strategy is why the Heat's blend is so dominating. And if those pieces are failing, Ray Allen is sitting somewhere on the perimeter waiting to show off the forever-young shot of his. The Heat would like an up-and-down pace, but if it slows to a half-court style, they have plenty of weapons for that, too.
Miami enters the series as the favorites to win a third consecutive title for good reason. Miami's first-round sweep provided further rest and further proof of just how dangerous they are -- in case anyone had forgotten. The Heat spent most of the regular season resting up for these playoffs, and the sweep only helped that. Wade is the greatest benefactor of that rest, and he's just one reason why the playoffs version of Miami is such a different beast than even the glorified regular-season version. Certainly there's an urgency behind the aging roster of the Nets, but the Heat face more pressure than any team in sports, and they won’t be caught off guard.
The Nets will win if ... the entire team plays with the intensity of Pierce and Garnett. Look, this team was built to face the Heat in the postseason. Brooklyn has the talent to pull it off, and that should scare Miami. The Nets' 4-0 season record against the Heat may not hold too much water, as each team featured multiple lineup combinations and strategies. But you have to believe there's plenty of confidence on the side of Brooklyn. Don't think of the Nets as a typical six seed either; Miami has its hands full here. Brooklyn was four games better than the Heat since Jan. 1. This relatively early second round is the perfect setting for the Nets, as the veterans still have their legs at this point. Then again, energy shouldn't be an issue anyway for a matchup they've had circled for some time. These Nets are going to come out aggressive after a seven-game series, and if the Heat are any bit rusty after the layoff of a first-round sweep, Brooklyn could steal one of the first two on the road.
Aside from simple go-get-'em intensity, though, Brooklyn also could have a strategic advantage. The Nets counter the Heat's smaller-ball efforts by running Joe Johnson and Pierce as forwards and Garnett in the middle. By doing so, it takes away the usual matchup troubles the Heat deliver, and it offsets the absence of long-injured Brook Lopez. The Nets are still underdogs here, and big offensive performances late in games by Johnson and Pierce will be needed. To do that, Pierce is going to need to stay out of foul trouble, which could be tough depending on how the Heat decide to punish him with matchups at power forward.
The series X-factors: Deron Williams needs to be sensational and nothing short of it. He's arguably the greatest advantage the Nets have at any positional matchup. Williams was brought to Brooklyn to be an elite point guard. He needs to find his scoring rhythm, and he needs to spell the shooting of Johnson and Pierce by attacking the lane and earning easy baskets for the rest of the Nets. The Heat will get production out of their Big Three, but Allen's shooting would be an added jab at the Garnett-Pierce duo that still holds a grudge against Allen for leaving Boston.
Prediction: Heat in 7. This one will resemble those recent Celtics-Heat battles, and it could be the best series we see out of the Eastern Conference this entire postseason. Ultimately though, James and the Heat's talent will be too much for Brooklyn.