NBA Second Round Preview

In the NBA, we’ve just finished what was constantly referred to as one of the best first rounds in league history.  We overreact to so many things in sports today that it’s easy to brush those declarations off as hyperbole.  But really, it’s not.  Consider the following:

  • Out of eight first round series, five lasted seven games.  By contrast, there were six game sevens in the first round of 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined.
  • The Pacers rose from the grave to prolong their bizarre season.  Now their title chances are on life support until further notice
  • The Raptors and Nets exchanged haymakers in a slugfest that came down to the final possession of the final game.
  • The Mavericks nearly toppled the invincible Spurs, showing astonishing resolve in a series that was expected to end in four or five.
  • The Grizzlies nearly capsized the Thunder’s title bid, and gamely battled in game seven even though they only had 40 percent of Mike Conley and 0 percent of Zach Randolph.
  • After being slapped with an absurd “Mr. Unreliable” headline, Durant executed the Grizzlies with 69 combined points in games six and seven.  The even more maligned Russell Westbrook, for his part, put up a 27-10-16 in game seven.
  • Damian Lillard hit the first series-ending buzzer beater I’ve ever seen.  He’s not just a closer, he’s an executioner.
  • The Warriors nearly dropped the Clippers and their sports-villain owner before DeAndre Jordan–yes, DeAndre Jordan–made a few plays to finish the Dubs off in game seven.

Is that enough storylines for you.  I didn’t even mention LaMarcus Aldridge’s series swinging performances, LeBron’s domination of the Bobcats, Tony Allen’s ridiculous pick and roll defense, Kyle Lowry’s all around brilliance, the Wizards making the leap or the Clippers’ stirring protest of Donald Sterling.  If that’s not a great round one, then I don’t think we’ll ever see one.

But now, things get really good.  Eight teams.  Really, any one of them has a puncher’s chance at making the finals.  So let’s skip the formalities and break this one down.

#1 Indiana Pacers vs #5 Washington Wizards

I, like everybody else, am tired of trying to figure out the Pacers.  But I think it’s interesting that after hitting rock bottom in game five against the Hawks (down 30 points, at home, basically waiting to die), they rallied back, took down Atlanta on the road then played their finest game in weeks in game seven.  Yes, I know it’s against the Hawks.  But Indiana had every chance to roll over in this series and didn’t.  They kept fighting.

They’ll face a tougher test this time around.  Against the Pacers, Hawks guards Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, and even Shelvin Mack took turns bullying Indy’s perimeter.  Now, they have to handle John Wall and Bradley Beal, rightfully recognized as one of the best backcourts in the league.

We know Indy can’t score all that well, so they’ll have to win this one with defense.  And that means they need some signs of life from Roy Hibbert.  The mercurial big man will have to keep Marcin Gortat off the boards and protect Indy from John Wall’s speed in the pick-and-roll.  Hibbert showed he’s still capable of impacting a game in game seven against the Hawks.

The Wizards, meanwhile, should take a page from Atlanta’s book.  If they use Beal and Ariza to spread Indy’s defense, Wall and Nene will have plenty of room to operate inside the arc. Wall loves to shoot jumpers from the right elbow, and keeping the Pacers stretched out will be critical to keeping Washington’s all-star in his comfort zone.  And fortunately, defending Indy isn’t rocket science.  They beat themselves on several possessions each game and fall into funks when things don’t go their way.  As a bonus, Trevor Ariza defense Paul George well.  The Wizards just have to watch out for Lance Stephenson and David West, who often energize Indy when George and Hibbert need a lift.

I don’t think the Pacers are as finished as everybody believes, and I don’t think this is a terrible matchup for them.  But the Wizards better than the Hawks, and have some similar players–a versatile offensive power forward, a quick point guard, a couple sharpshooters–as the ones that gave Indy such a scare in round one.  I think this one will be close, but Washington will prevail.

The Pick: Wizards in six

#2 Miami Heat vs #6 Brooklyn Nets

You’ll hear plenty about how Brooklyn swept Miami this year.  Ignore it.  Two of those wins were by a single point, a third was in double overtime, and the fourth was way back in November.  Miami is not going to be even slightly intimidated by Brooklyn because of a few bad breaks.

What matters more is what happened the previous round.  LeBron averaged 30 points, eight rebounds and six assists against a well regarded defensive team.  When the Bobcats were hanging around in game four, LeBron shook off a hard hit to his thigh and coldly finished off Charlotte with a 20 point second half.  As long as he’s healthy, a team like Brooklyn–which needed seven games to beat Toronto–isn’t taking Miami down.  Don’t be a hero.  It’s the playoffs

 The Pick: Heat in five

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs #5 Portland Trail Blazers

I like both these teams and was satisfied with their round one performances.  Portland, of course, showed fearlessness in capturing two games in Houston and finishing off the Rockets with a thrilling game six.  The Spurs let the Mavericks hang around for a little too long, but they took care of business with a killer game seven.

For Portland, it’s all about the pick and roll with Lillard and Aldridge.  With shooters like Wes Matthews and Nic Batum.  It’s a sharp offensive system that led to four Trail Blazers averaging over 15 points per game against Houston, and the Spurs will have to solve to handle Portland.  After playing hurt for much of the second half of the year, Aldridge is playing his best basketball.  Lillard is a bit of a loose cannon, but he’s also a fearless attacker and needs to be checked.  The Spurs won’t have an easy time with this offense, though they will no doubt fare better than the Rockets.

But depth is a serious concern for the Trail Blazers.  Lillard played nearly 45 minutes per game in the first round, Aldridge 41, Batum 43, Matthews 40 and Robin Lopez 33.  That type of workload might not be feasible against the Spurs, who have a legitimate nine man rotation designed to stretch opponents thin.  Their stable of shooters will overwhelm the middling Portland defense.  In addition, the Spurs are stocked with lanky, tough defenders, such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who will make the Trail Blazers work harder than they did against Houston.  It’s easy to see a scenario where Portland plays well for a few games, but is eventually unable to compete with the Spurs’ depth, efficiency and airtight execution.

Portland had a wonderful season and a great first round, but at first glance they seem like the kind of team the Spurs dominate in the playoffs.  I don’t think the Trail Blazers can win unless Lillard and Aldridge can exceed their already outstanding production.  I’m making the safe pick.

The Pick: Spurs in six

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs #3 Los Angeles Clippers

This is the kind of matchup NBA fans dream of seeing.  Here we have two fast, athletics teams, each stocked with All-Stars, superior athletes and explosive showmen.  No matter who wins, there’s reason to think this will be a memorable one.

Right off the bat, the Clippers’ personnel poses a problem for the Thunder.  LA’s combo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will probably force OKC to play Kendrick Perkins for extended minutes.  Perkins ruins the Thunder’s spacing and really hampers their offense, as was clear in the first round against Memphis.  The Thunder’s best bet is to attack the paint and try to get Griffin and Jordan into foul trouble; beyond them, the Clippers have little to offer in terms of big men.

Much fuss was made over Durant’s and Westbrook’s struggles against the Grizzlies, but they should be much happier against the Clippers.  The Clippers don’t have anybody to guard Durant other than Matt Barnes, and I’m sure the Clippers don’t want Chris Paul to exert his energy chasing Westbrook around.  Oklahoma City needs its two stars to attack relentlessly, punishing the Clippers’ vulnerable perimeter defense and forcing Griffin and Jordan to compensate.  I wonder whether the Clippers will be able to slow down either Thunder star when the chips are down.

But the Clippers have plenty to be optimistic about.  They shook off the Warriors despite unbelievable distraction from Donald Sterling and now get to face a team that just went through hell against Memphis.  As a combo, Griffin and Jordan have never been better,and they could be damaging to the Thunder.  Shooters like Jamal Crawford and JJ Redick will stretch Oklahoma City thin and force Westbrook to play disciplined defense on Paul, which is not ideal for him.

I think the Clippers are a better matchup for the Thunder than the Grizzlies were, but I’m also concerned with how Oklahoma City will score consistently if they have to play Perkins for extended minutes.  I think both teams are resilient and tenacious, and that odds are we’ll probably have a seven game series in round two.  This will be it.  Just like round one, I think round two will be great in the NBA playoffs.

The Pick: Thunder in seven

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