After six months of resting, flopping & losing — playtime is over
No more inconsistent Heat. No more games off for the Spurs. And those sub-.500 playoff teams? It was nice knowing you. Itâs playoffs, baby!
By Jimmy Spencer
It’s time to divorce the regular season.
It’s natural to enter the NBA playoffs married to those impressions left after 82 games and six months. But now? Wipe the slate clean.
We’re left with our seeds and the regular season doesn’t dictate how they’ll grow.
In a year in which regular-season wins rarely seemed a priority, renewed perspective is the only way to gauge this postseason. The Heat you’ve seen the last two months are not the Heat you’ll see in May and June. Superstars won’t rest, coaches won’t hold back and defense will once again matter.
In other words, forget much of what you just witnessed. You’re moving on. Here’s a look at each first-round series:
No. 1 Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks (38-44)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Coaches: Frank Vogel quickly went from a Coach of the Year candidate to the scapegoat in Indy’s late-season collapse. But he’s still one of the best coaches in the league and he’s proven in the postseason. You can shovel credit to Mike Budenholzer for his Hawks not folding, at least completely, after the Al Horford injury. But the first-year coach is simply outmatched in experience. Edge: Vogel.
X-Factors: Roy Hibbert needs to come back to life. Remember, it was in that blowout loss to the Hawks on April 6 when the Pacers center was benched for the second half. Hibbert has been dreadful to end the season and he also averaged just 5.0 points and 3.8 rebounds in four games vs. the Hawks. Hibbert is an uncertainty entering the playoffs, but facing the Hawks without Horford is an opportunity to find a postseason rhythm. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap will need huge series if the Hawks have a shot, but the interior presence of old man Elton Brand could actually be the difference.
Breakdown: The Pacers absolutely needed a slumpbuster like the Hawks in the first round. Indy has been awful this second half, losing 11 of 15 games against playoff teams. But the Hawks are only a playoff team by technicalities, and they offer the perfect appetizer for the Pacers. Even No. 1 seeds aren’t supposed to have the luxury of facing a team six games under .500 in the playoffs. The Pacers did get rolled by the Hawks in that April 6 meltdown, but consider that an aberration. There’s too much of a talent differential for Indy to lose in a best-of-7 series. If the Hawks are going to have a shot, they much scorch it from the outside (they did shoot 40.6 percent from 3-point range against the Pacers this season) and play the type of defense that held Indy to 23 first-half points on April 6. Catching that combination on one night is possible, but doing it four times is a tough task.
Prediction: Pacers in 5.
No. 2 Miami Heat (54-28) vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)
Coaches: Don’t sleep on Steve Clifford. The guy is worthy of Coach of the Year nods, and he’s capable of creating a defensive strategy to stop even the greatest of offensive firepower. But people have been sleeping on Erik Spoelstra for years now, and he is gunning for his fourth straight Finals. Edge: Spoelstra.
X-Factors: And people said they’d never get to see LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan (even if it is like one of those tricky Aladdin versions of a granted wish). While we’ll never get that matchup on the floor, Jordan will get a heavy dose of James, the league’s greatest X-factor since, well, Jordan. But it’s Dwyane Wade who must be healthy and productive to ease the load off James. The Bobcats can be confident they’ll get offense from Al Jefferson, but Charlotte needs Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to be the defensive stopper he is meant to be instead of the one who has been torched by superstars this season.
Breakdown: Miami is still the favorite to win the title. Just ask Vegas. And if there’s a Cinderella in this dance, it’s certainly the Bobcats. But this isn’t some Disney movie (yes, despite my above Aladdin reference), and the Heat completely outmatch the Bobcats in a best-of-7 series. Ultimately the Heat have too many superstars for the young Bobcats to contain. Now that doesn’t mean Charlotte will go down easily; there are a couple things in Charlotte’s favor, most notably: The past Heat champions have thrived off turnovers and getting points in transition, but no team after the All-Star break has averaged fewer turnovers per game than the Bobcats. Equally as valuable is the damage that Jefferson is capable of in the post. Still, when it comes down to it, LeBron is a top-five player in history and he won’t fail on a three-peat by falling to the Bobcats.
Prediction: Heat in 5.
No. 3 Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Coaches: Jason Kidd was a laughingstock early on, and for good reason. The first-year coach and his star-studded roster ended 2013 at 10-21 on the court, and saw assistant Lawrence Frank reassigned off of it. And while Kidd has found his groove in 2014, it still doesn’t match what Dwane Casey has done with these Raptors following the Rudy Gay trade in early December. Casey has pulled this No. 3 seed from nowhere, creating mysterious win totals in a way that mirrors what the great Gregg Popovich does in San Antonio. Edge: Casey.
X-Factors: The Nets traded it all for a shot this season. They didn’t give up the house for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as a long-term investment; Brooklyn is meant to contend now. The absence of Brook Lopez hurts, but if Garnett and Pierce come to the postseason motivated, their leadership could be the difference. For the Raptors, they need to continue to utilize the secret formula that’s gotten them here, and that includes high-volume scoring from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Breakdown: This might be the most competitive series in the Eastern Conference first round. Entering the season, no one would have believed that Lowry would have owned the matchup at point guard against Deron Williams, but that’s how we walk into this series. Williams is going to have to renew his reputation as one of the game’s great guards, and that only happens if he gets consistent outside shooting from Joe Johnson along with inspired play (which shouldn’t be a problem) from Garnett and Pierce. The Raptors struggled to contain the Nets in their four meetings, allowing a true shooting percentage of 56.8 percent, the seventh highest of all opponents all season. Of course the absence of the injured Lopez continues to be a huge blow, so work on the boards from Andray Blatche, Mason Plumlee and Andrei Kirilenko is imperative. The Raptors have an advantage there, as the Nets were second-worst in the league in rebounding — behind only the Heat — in the season’s final 20 games. Toronto isn’t a fantastic rebounding team either, ranked 18th, but Jonas Valanciunas has an opportunity to eat up the Nets inside.
Prediction: Nets in 7.
No. 4 Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards (44-38)
Coaches: Tom Thibodeau is an absolute elite coach. You could make the argument he’s the best coach in the East. Despite being without an injured Derrick Rose and stripped of Luol Deng in a trade, his Bulls finished the regular season with home court in the first round. Randy Wittman has probably done enough to keep his job, satisfying a playoff mandate by guiding the Wizards to their first postseason in six years. While he's done an adequate job, he’s not even close to Thibodeau. Edge: Thibodeau.
X-Factors: D.J. Augustin is the best scorer on the Bulls and his ability to deliver in the playoffs will decide whether or not Chicago wins this series. Chicago will play enough defense, but it’s up to Augustin to provide just enough offense. To compete with Chicago’s size, Nene Hilario needs to be healthy and ready to mash with Chicago’s front line.
Breakdown: The identity of this era of Bulls basketball is defense as much as it was Jordan two decades ago. Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler should both find spots on the All-Defense first team, and that’s going to be a steep task for the playoff-inexperience backcourt duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal to overcome. Chicago’s intensity is going to be too much for the Wizards. Chicago isn’t “just happy to be here” — hell, does Thibodeau ever look happy? — so the Wizards need to have that mentality that they’ll get knocked in the jaw. The Bulls are playing the best basketball in the conference, as no East team has a better record since Feb. 1 than the Bulls (25-12). Washington hasn’t been bad, either, (22-15 since Feb. 1), but the playoffs are a different battle and Chicago has experience on its side.
Prediction: Bulls in 5.
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Season series: Spurs, 4-0
Coaches: Narratives seem to change for coaches from season to season. You’re a winner one year and a dud the next. Unless, of course, you’re Gregg Popovich. When you’re Pop, nothing changes from year to year. The Spurs’ system should come with subtitles, because few opposing coaches can understand it. But if there’s a one coach capable, it may be Rick Carlisle. The Jim Carrey look-alike is an elite coach in his own right, and if there’s a proper chess match to be had between a No. 1 and No. 8 seed, it’s between these two. Still, no one has the edge on Popovich. Edge: Popovich.
X-Factors: We could be saying the same thing about both of these guys for another two to three years, but Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki may not have many postseasons left. This matchup between two of the most uniquely talented bigs in the history of the game deserves to be savored. But while Duncan can have a mediocre series and still advance, Nowitzki is going to have to play as a superstar if Dallas will upset.
Breakdown: The Mavericks don't have enough defense to win this series. The Spurs were a top-five offense in the regular season, and that efficiency only seems to pick up in the postseason. Meanwhile, the Mavericks have the worst field-goal-percentage defense of all playoff teams. There are simply too many defensive holes for Carlisle to plug against the multitude of offensive options Popovich employs. If the Mavs are going to win, they’re going to have to outscore the Spurs. That’s not easy to do against a San Antonio defense that takes away scores at the basket and from behind the arc. San Antonio forces opponents to settle for jumpers, which is actually Nowitzki’s specialty (he scores 41.2 percent of his points from mid-range). Still, that’s a lot of made mid-range jumpers to win a series, and it’s not as if Dallas has enough youth or athleticism to overcome the Spurs otherwise.
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Coaches: The job Scott Brooks does very much depends on whether or not Kevin Durant is in a heroic mood. OK, that’s not fair; Brooks has helped build this on-the-verge dynasty since the beginning, and he’s had fantastic success in the first round. He certainly brings an understanding of managing a playoff series that first-year coach David Joerger does not. Joerger may be busy exhaling from a frantic end of the regular season (Memphis clinched a playoff spot on Monday, the 7 seed on Wednesday) to match the postseason readiness of Brooks. Edge: Brooks.
X-Factors: The Grizzlies ended the season winning 33 of their final 46 games, after the return of Marc Gasol — they had been 10-13 without their center. Gasol’s presence with Zach Randolph in the interior creates the perfect postseason potion. That means the Thunder are going to need answers from bigs Serge Ibaka and 20-year-old seven-footer Steven Adams. These two teams last met at the end of February, and the Thunder won thanks to Ibaka’s 7-of-11 shooting for 16 points to go with nine rebounds (and 30 second-half points from Durant, of course).
Breakdown: There is no magic game plan to stop Durant, just as the entire league learned again this season. Durant deserves the regular-season MVP and his playoff numbers from last season (30.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists) showcase what he’s likely to repeat. But we know what Durant will provide. The bigger question mark is what type of production Russell Westbrook will bring. It’s naive to pretend he didn’t miss big chunks of the season with injury (following his absence in nearly the entirety of last postseason). His health is imperative for the Thunder’s hopes of contending. If Westbrook harmonizes with Durant in this series, it will be a much different outcome than when these teams met last year (the Grizzlies eliminated the Thunder in the second round in five games). The subduing style of Memphis can slow down Westbrook and Durant only so much. Close games, slowed down at the end, will require trading last-second shots. That’s only going to work out well for Memphis if Mike Conley and Mike Miller are up for the task. Sounds like a pretty tall order for the Grizz.
Prediction: Thunder in 7.
No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs. Golden State Warriors (51-31)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Coaches: There’s an interesting parallel between what Vinny Del Negro went through with the Clippers last season and what Mark Jackson has faced with the Warriors this season. Del Negro won 56 games last season, lost in the first round and lost his job to Doc Rivers. Jackson has led these Warriors to 51 wins in just his third season with the team, the franchise has made consecutive postseasons for the first time since the early ’90s, and yet he is on the hot seat entering the postseason. All that being said, having Rivers in the postseason instead of Del Negro is a huge reason why the Clippers should have more success these playoffs compared to last. That could be something Warriors management looks at when making decisions in the offseason. Edge: Rivers.
X-Factors: Chris Paul must be tired of hearing about how he’s never taken his team past the second round of the postseason. Stephen Curry has already proven how dangerous he can be if he gets loose from behind the arc, but Paul can be tenacious defensively and his play on both sides can more than negate what Curry provides.
Breakdown: This series would have been the premier matchup of the first round if it weren’t for the injury to Andrew Bogut. It’s a rivalry, and it’s a physical one. Golden State was already going to struggle with the size of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but the loss of Bogut to a broken rib takes away the Warriors’ enforcer and that’s a major, major blow. The Warriors did weather the David Lee injury last postseason in their first-round victory against the Denver Nuggets thanks to the shooting of Curry and Klay Thompson paired with the small-ball efforts of then-rookies Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Having Andre Iguodala on their side this time around helps, as he’s one of the league’s best perimeter defenders and leads a Golden State team that ranked third in the league in defensive efficiency. But the Clippers’ league-best scoring offense won’t be easy to tame — especially in the paint. Griffin has developed into one of the best scoring big men in the league, and he’s going to be too tough to contain for the Warriors’ front line (now led by aged veteran Jermaine O’Neal).
Coaches: Terry Stotts is a contender for Coach of the Year honors, and he certainly deserves it for the job he’s done accelerating the Blazers way ahead of schedule. Kevin McHale, meanwhile, is often overlooked just because he’s adhering to his team’s schedule — jumping from 34-32 in Year 1, to 45-37 in Year 2 before finishing 54-28 this season. Coaches make their name in the postseason though, and each coach will be under the microscope this series. Edge: toss-up.
X-Factors: Dwight Howard was all the NBA world could talk about last summer. He’s been a primary contributor to the Rockets’ success this season even though he hasn’t been dominant, let alone MVP caliber. If he can channel even something close to his Orlando power, the Rockets will win the series. The Blazers, like the Rockets with James Harden, will count on LaMarcus Aldridge for consistent superstar offense. But if Damian Lillard gets it going, Portland’s offense can outgun Houston.
Breakdown: There’s somewhat phony logic floating around about the Trail Blazers’ defense, and this postseason they’ll have to prove it wrong. Before the All-Star break, the Trail Blazers had the worst defensive rating (108.7) of any Western Conference playoff team. They were atrocious and, because of it, looked like an incomplete team destined for a stumble. They hit a complete free fall in March, going 4-9 from March 3 through 25, and seemed as if they might not even make the postseason. But since then, the only team in the West with a better defensive rating than the Blazers (101.8) has been the Spurs. The question becomes: Will Houston’s offense put the Blazers back on their heels when it matters? Harden is one of the league’s premier scorers, and teamed with Howard and Chandler Parsons, that becomes tough for Portland to keep up with. If the premier defense of Patrick Beverley can take away Lillard, Aldridge is then under a lot of pressure to score 30-plus each night. The series will be close, and it will come down to which superstars rise up. The best bet is on Harden.