2016 NBA playoff preview and predictions
By Keith Cork
NBA journalist for the Stingray & Tuck show
It has been a long season for this Bulls fan. Not only has a historical record been broken, a legend challenged, but Chicago won’t even make the playoffs this season. The last time my team missed the playoffs, our nation was beginning a recession, No Country for Old Men won best picture, and Hillary Clinton was winning the Democratic Primary.
The good news is I’ll have plenty of time over the next few months to take an objective view at the upcoming NBA playoffs all set to kick of on April 16th. There will be stories galore with the historic season the Warriors have had (it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that ring), the impossible longevity of the Spurs, and a plethora of hungry young newcomers in the East. And above it all, the same question that has plagued the mind of every NBA coach in the finals for the past five years: Can we beat LeBron?
It should make for some fantastic entertainment no matter how it shakes out and I hope to break it down for you match up by match up in this article. Basketball is full of uncertainty, just like life, but if we look closely at the numbers and the match ups we should be able to make some educated guesses on how it would play out in a perfect world. Let’s pick some winners!
Cleveland (1) vs. Detroit (8)
I could write this section thusly: “LeBron, LeBron LeBron LeBron, LeBron. LeBron” and that would probably work just fine. “The team with the best player typically wins in the NBA” is the abbreviated mantra of mainstream sports news and it has some validity. The sheer way that LeBron, 6’8” and 250 pounds of muscle, changes the game is awe-inspiring every single time. Even to someone who has not been his biggest fan since The Decision. He is a point guard in a power forward’s body. He has his flaws, but LeBron at full tilt can not be stopped by anyone in the NBA, no matter how athletic you think your favorite player is. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving at full health are more than adequate counterparts, better in some respects than an aged Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but since they have failed so far to toughen up physically and mentally it all seems to rest yet again on LeBron’s monstrous shoulders. During last year’s playoff run he averaged 30.1 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.5 assists per game. And that was an off year. No joke, LeBron struggled mightily from the field shooting 41.7% and an abysmal 22.7% from the three point line for an effective field goal percent of 44%. Contrast that with his impressive for a high volume shooter 54.4% effective field goal percentage over the last four finals runs and you could be looking at a player who has the potential to easily score near 40 points per game. That will strike the fear into any NBA coach.
Andre Drummond is a promising young player who has improved in the key stats of points, rebounds and assists in each of the past three seasons. He’s not quite dominant, but he has definitely thrived in the Stan Van Gundy’s inside out system that once made it all the way to the NBA finals. The Cavs seem relatively weak at the center position at first glance, but they actually defend it very well by playing Tristan Thompson a ton of minutes. More on that in a minute. But despite all his upside, Drummond has a very glaring weakness shooting just 35.6% from the free throw line. Even if the Pistons get close, their best player is a liability in crunch time. Drummond is what makes this team tick and they should be very excited with the fact that they made their way into the playoffs this season behind their young center. We should see them in the mix for years to come.
If the Cavaliers have any chance to win an NBA title this season, the new hometown hero is going to have to be Tristan Thompson. He has averaged over three offensive rebounds a game every season he has played in the league and that activity not only gets the team more possessions, it tires the opposing big men as they struggle to keep him off the glass, sometimes committing two bodies to keep him off the boards. This is his sole purpose on the team, but the Cavs have done very well to allow him to be a one-dimensional player. They have realized that their star player is already a shot blocker and a terrific defender and they have a team mentality of playing the passing lanes more than challenging at the rim. Getting LeBron’s third ring will also hinge on a hot J.R. Smith, which should make any Cavs fan nervous. He has been surprisingly level-headed, at least for J.R., this season and he has hit his 3’s at a clip of 40% on the season. When the defense collapses on a driving LeBron or Tristan Thompson gets a board and the defense has lost the sharpshooter, he puts it through the basket with efficiency. He could be in for a nice postseason.
Reggie Jackson has had a career year in scoring the basketball, averaging a career high 18.8 points per game. He has benefited from playing alongside Detroit’s franchise center even while he has seen his assists dip down to just 6.2 per game. He’s been prone to boons and busts when it comes to scoring, but if he gets hot during the series he could really challenge the defensively suspect Kyrie Irving. The Cavs can easily switch LeBron on him or bring Dellavedova off the bench if they are willing to give up the scoring of J.R. The Pistons pulled off arguably the best trade deadline deal this season by landing Tobias Harris. It’s a small sample size of only 23 games, but he has looked to play quite well off of Drummond with his percentages going up in every shooting category. He will be a solid contributor during this series, but more importantly he the addition gives them a solid young trio with which to build around. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is almost like the counter-J.R. Smith. He’s going to hit some 3’s in the series and maybe some big shots, but he will miss his fair share as well. He’s still a young, promising player but he has yet to average over 34% from the three and that is the one area the Pistons will have to excel at with Stan Van Gundy type of ball.
And here we come to the weakness of this Cavs team, as always. It doesn’t matter so much in the playoffs as the starters are apt to play upwards of 40+ minutes per game, but it still can cost a team a close game. They have a serviceable backup in Dellavedova, but he is a liability on offense if his shot isn’t falling. If Mo Williams can return in reasonable health, it could be huge for them. Williams is a big time player who consistently hits big time shots. The Cavs for some reason never seem to carry those end of bench veterans to call on in postseason games like past finals teams. They could desperately use someone like a Ray Allen type to turn to in a pinch. Right now, they just have bodies to throw out there.
The Pistons are similarly thin, but they do have one name that is particularly intriguing in this match up Stanley Johnson is in his rookie season and has admittedly hit a wall as of late, but in stretches earlier in the season we saw a ton of potential, specifically when Caldwell-Pope was out. He is something of a James Johnson type, an athlete who can produce in multiple categories and really puts the hustle in to make him a solid bench player. I think that is what he will develop into eventually, but he is particularly noteworthy in the fact that he should get some minutes guarding LeBron James. The Pistons will probably try Tobias on James, maybe a little bit of Marcus Morris, but the rookie will get his time. As the series quickly gets out of hand, Van Gundy may play him more minutes to ensure he gets valuable experience. It would not surprise me to see him play 25-28 minutes in the final games as the main defender on LeBron and he will automatically be the go-to in the case that Caldwell-Pope, Harris, or Morris gets into foul trouble (which almost everyone that guards LeBron does).
The Cavs have looked better under Tyronn Lue and I’ll have to admit my bias growing up watching him shut down Allen Iverson with some superb old school physical defense. They are incorporating all their weapons now, most notably Kevin Love and they have shaken up the starting five to incorporate the activity of Tristan Thompson. They Cavs also have the experience over the Pistons from last year’s deep playoff run.
Prediction: Cavs 4 – 0
Toronto (2) vs. Indiana (7)
In what is probably the most intriguing match up in the Eastern Conference, we have a team that consistently overachieves in the regular season against a team that was considered by some to be a title contender just a few seasons ago. Kyle Lowry is easily one of the most likable players in the NBA if you strictly care about the skill necessary to be a 6’1” point guard and to put up solid numbers consistently. He is always first to the floor and he kicks and scratches for every single statistic that he earns. Last year he dealt with injuries going into the playoffs which some believed to be caused by his weight, but he is considerably slimmed down this year and looks quick. Hopefully for the Raptors, he can have a better effort this year. DeMar DeRozan will put up over twenty points per game, but his bigger role here will be using his 6’7” frame to bother the 6’3” Monta Ellis. He’s scoring with much better efficiency this season at 44.6% from the field and a much improved 34.1% from three. He doesn’t shoot the three often, preferring to slash and draw contact, but he has been knocking them down this season and he had some big games last year in the playoffs.
I think basketball fans around the world are pleased to see Paul George playing basketball at the same level as two seasons ago when he was an emerging superstar. He played in eighty games this season and put up averages similar to what he had been doing prior to the injury. The cast around George has improved in my opinion. David West went to the Spurs to sit on the bench and try and get a ring and Roy Hibbert went to L.A where he is mired in mediocrity. Their spots were replaced by a duo of young big men we’ll get to later that are far more conducive to letting Paul George be the focal point of the offense and still provide the rebounding and shot blocking that can make the team great. Paul George is still an elite defender and it will be interesting to see how Toronto schemes to stop him if DeMarre Carroll is not 100%.
I want to say, just briefly, that I am the only individual in the world that I am aware of that had Luis Scola starting by the end of the season. The crafty vet is a solid player, though its more a product of a weakness at the position as Patrick Patterson is not great and Scola is solid but not outstanding. Both are negligible as the two biggest role players are going to be DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas. Carroll is the most important piece here because he will be desperately needed for his defense and three shooting ability. He is a highly underrated player who produces on both ends of the floor averaging 2 steals a game and 2 threes. He has only managed to play in 25 games this season due to injury and he is just getting back, so it is a big question mark to the success of this team. Dwane Casey is still anxiously holding his breath for Jonas Valanciunas to take the next big step. He averages around 26 minutes a game and he saw the same workload in last season’s playoffs. It will be the same story unless he can have some big games against the somewhat offensively challenged Ian Mahinmi. JV will have to grab offensive boards most importantly. He has averaged an impressive 3 per game this seasons so far.
The Pacers will have to continue to get solid rim protection from Ian Mahinmi, but they can’t count on him for much else. George Hill has had a far less than stellar year and they can not count on him to step it up against a superb defender in Kyle Lowry. On a team ranked 19th in total points per game, they need first and foremost for Monta Ellis to return to the player he was in Dallas. “Mercurial” is the word that every sportswriter likes to tag Ellis with and it couldn’t be more appropriate. If he starts to shoot it well, he could sustain that streak the whole postseason and he has the capability of averaging 20-25 points per game. The Pacers will need his scoring to keep Derozan and Lowry occupied on the defensive side of the ball.
The Raptors have four very solid backups in Bismack Biyombo, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross, and James Johnson. All of those players, by committee, make up a very solid second unit. There has been a trend with teams that have very good second units getting high seeds and under-performing in the playoffs because those players don’t matter as much and Toronto really fits the mold here. Their bench is also versatile with a shooting specialist in Ross, stretch four in Patterson, a shot blocking and rebounding specialist in Biyombo and an athletic swing man who brings a lot to the table in hustle and defense in James Johnson. Their bench is hands down one of the best constructed second units in the league. When each player performs their part, their specialization, they play some very good basketball. It is a big reason that Toronto is sitting at a number two seed.
The Pacers have two players that come off their bench that can contribute big for them in a playoff series. Myles Turner has had a fairly successful rookie campaign, notching 10.4 points per game and a solid 1.4 blocks per game. The Pacers have slid him to the bench to give him more scoring opportunities and it hasn’t really made much of a difference as of yet. They are still trying to figure out his role, but as he matures he should find his way solidly into the starting lineup alongside Ian Mahinmi, which will make them a very formidable rim protecting duo. I want to say that he will be successful against a somewhat weak front line in Toronto, but the rookie is heading into uncharted waters. It could be a coming out party or it could be a let down. The other big name on Indiana’s bench that pops out is Ty Lawson. As noted above, George Hill has struggled with efficiency and consistency this season. Lawson was averaging roughly 15 points and 10 assists a game not too long ago before he suffered some off court issues with alcohol. While he has not looked in the best of health, he does have several seasons worth of playoff experience and he has proven that he can elevate his game when given the chance. If, and that is a big if, something clicks for Lawson he could potentially turn his fortunes around in this postseason and earn his way back into relevancy.
Dwane Casey and Frank Vogel are both decent coaches, though sometimes Casey baffles me with roster management and end game decisions. I would give a slight advantage to Indiana there, but not much to turn the tide. Both teams have enough playoff experience that it won’t bear much of an effect on the series either. The biggest advantage here is home court advantage which goes to the Raptors. The Raptors are 32-9 at home while the Pacers are 18-22 on the road. Playing for the regular season works out sometimes and in this case I think it will be the deciding factor in what should be a very close series.
Prediction: Toronto 4 – 3
Miami (3) vs. Charlotte (6)
Miami and Charlotte should be a slug-fest like none other. A lot of interesting and new pieces in this series that will make it a huge question mark. As a Bulls fan, I have to hate the Heat, but Pat Riley has done a phenomenal job recovering from the loss of the best player in basketball. When he left Cleveland, they couldn’t make the playoffs until the King returned. Just a few years removed in Miami and the Heat find themselves contenders once again. Chris Bosh is out again, Dwyane Wade has had a less than spectacular season on those bad knees and yet the Heat find themselves as the third seed at the end of the season. I believe the answer is a combination of things, but the biggest portions of those things belong to Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. Dragic’s numbers are down this season, but since the all-star break and after Bosh went down, Dragic has been the floor general he was in Phoenix. He’s ran the show in a faster paced offense and developed a real rapport with the Heat’s starting center. He should continue to be fantastic and the most reliable player on this Heat roster. Whiteside is one of those players who can garner a triple double with blocks. A rarity and fun to watch no doubt, the young man is averaging 14.2 points, 11.9 rebounds and an astounding 3.7 blocks. The real reason the Heat are number 3 in the East is a 7 foot man in the middle that gives any player who relies on driving to the hoop nightmares. It will be interesting to see how he fares in his first playoff appearance in a young career.
Kemba Walker has had a career year in nearly every statistic. His efficiency issues aren’t entirely cured, but they have been significantly improved and it will be a blast to watch him and Dragic go up and down the floor at break neck speeds. The biggest improvement Kemba has .seen is in his three-point percentage. A whole 7% increase over last season and he is shooting two more a game, meaning he has nearly doubled his production in the category. Predictably, his scoring has also risen. Nicolas Batum has had a minor resurgence as well, becoming a focal point of a team that has been on a tear since the All-star break. He’ll have to come up against the eternally solid defense of Luol Deng and probably a touch of the athletic Justise Winslow, which will prove to be tough. The Hornets are playing some of their best ball at the best time and have a key player returning in Al Jefferson. If Big Al can return to form, the Hornets could be very formidable indeed.
With Marvin Williams playing the stretch 4, the Heat will most likely shift their star role player to the power forward position and start Joe Johnson at small forward. Luol Deng will always have a special place in my heart for all those 40+ minute performances playing defense on the other team’s best player. Hustle is the name of his game and he is adept at slashing to the basket. He can hit a standstill jumper as well, but his biggest contribution will be guarding Batum or shutting down Marvin Williams. Joe Johnson has had some big games for the Heat recently and he is a stabilizing veteran presence for this team who has some new faces to bring along. Since coming over to Miami, he has averaged a stellar 52.2% field goal percentage and 43% from three. Those are hard numbers to sustain, but if they are indicators of what the Heat can hope for, he will be very valuable in this series. Johnson has always seemed like the kind of player who plays better when surrounded by talent and that definitely was not the case in Brooklyn, but he does have some superb players around him in Miami.
Courtney Lee is another one of those low usage monsters. He shoots 45% on field goals and 39.5% on three-pointers. He averages over a steal a game and he should do a very decent job guarding Dwyane Wade, though nobody is going to stop the Heat legend. Marvin Williams has been solid all season, but he should be kept in check for the most part by a combination of Deng and Winslow. Still, he’s averaging 2 threes a game and shooting it at 40%. He will still hit double digits on average.
Miami has done a good job finding solid backups for each position. It’s unfortunate that Tyler Johnson was hurt, but Josh Richardson has come on recently. Justise Winslow is another young player that the Heat struck gold with as a solid contributor. He is an athletic, bigger body that will produce across categories and guard multiple positions. On the other end of the spectrum, they have a veteran, but just as solid, presence in Amar’e Stoudemire to back up their bigs. Gerald Green rounds out their bench core and he is very up and down, but has big time scoring capabilities. If he gets hot, Charlotte’s second unit could get torched.
The two Jeremys are the biggest names of note on Charlotte’s bench. Lin had a rough year last year in Los Angeles, really discouraged by the constant demands of Kobe Bryant, but he has rebounded very well in Charlotte. Jeremy Lamb has fared pretty well since venturing outside of Oklahoma City for the first time. Together, they provide a reasonably consistent one-two scoring punch off the Charlotte bench. Other than those two, there is not much to write home about. The platoon situation at center will probably stick through the end of the season, but neither Cody Zeller or Al Jefferson will be a match for the shot-blocking capabilities of Whiteside. The Hornets might be best served playing Jefferson to extend Whiteside outside the paint and bring him away from the rim, but it remains to be told if Big Al can handle a big workload.
Erik Spoelstra has come a long way in a short time and demonstrates and great knowledge of the game and particularly player management. He deserves more credit than he typically gets. Steve Clifford is at least the equal if not better in terms of making the most out of limited talent. The Heat have some young players that will need to demonstrate courage stepping into a playoff situation so soon, some very important players on their roster. The Hornets are on a roll, but can they keep it going against a similarly hot Heat team?
Prediction: Miami 4 – 2
Atlanta (4) vs. Boston (5)
Atlanta matches up very well with Boston in the fact that their two strongest players are their big men. There will be some great basketball played in this series with two teams that share the ball very well and make the right play more often than not. The ball movement will be a thing of beauty and Millsap and Horford should have fantastic games against the relatively weak interior of Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson. Paul Millsap is probably one of the most versatile and undervalued players in the league. He’s a power forward who averages 3.3 assists per game to go along with 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks. Horford is similar and he just recently added the ability to step out and hit the three which is an increasing must in today’s NBA. The Hawks take a very team-oriented approach, but these two are the best bets to have big individual performances.
Isaiah Thomas is quickly becoming one of my favorite players to watch. As a fellow short guy, I am constantly amazed at the impressive way that IT3 scores the basketball. He’s averaging over 20 points a game again and it has been absolutely necessary for the health of the Boston offense. He’s adding 6.2 assists per game as well, hitting the open shooters with ease. He actually has a slightly lower usage percentage compared to the last few seasons, so if he maintains his efficiency and that climbs back up he has a real shot to average 25 points per game and around 7 assists. He will keep Jeff Teague occupied the whole series.
Both teams have some outstanding role players, but it’s interesting to note here that Atlanta’s role players have struggled a bit this season. Kyle Korver has struggled mightily since returning from injury, his shooting form all kinds of jacked up. Jeff Teague has been a bit of a disappointment as well, but he has shot the three ball well this year which seems to be a growing trend among players on playoff teams this year. The emergence of Bazemore has been very nice for Atlanta though not very surprising to those who pay close attention to per minute production.
Boston has one of the best 3-and-D players in the game with Avery Bradley. He is a volume shooter, but he has put the ball in the hole more often this year than previous years. Jae Crowder has officially broken out, averaging 14.2 points per game as compared to 9.5 last year. He needs to continue to improve his three-point shooting, but this will probably be one of the most fun match ups to watch between Crowder and Bazemore. Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson stretch the floor very nicely and the spacing on both sides of the ball should be a thing of beauty. Both teams look to extend the floor and use ball movement to create open looks. There will not be much flash, but traditional fans of the sport will enjoy some competitive basketball.
It doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot because you can plug most NBA players into the Hawks system, but their bench is a very competent crew. Thabo Sefolosha is a 3-and-D specialist who can step into a starting role easily, Hardaway Jr. is a dynamic scorer in a 6th man role, and Dennis Schroder makes up for Teague’s deficiencies by being a solid point guard.
One of my favorite players to watch is backed up by another player that is quickly growing on me. Marcus Smart never quits and his hustle makes him an active defensive threat at all times. Evan Turner has been a very competent backup who can put up big numbers across the board. He has excellent court vision for a small forward, grabs a lot of boards and scores very well by driving the ball inside the paint. Kelly Olynyk has the capability of getting hot behind the arc and could be a difference maker if he can keep shooting 41% from the three point line.
Brad Stevens has worked wonders with a lack of top level talent and he deserves to be a coach in the league for many years to come. The Celtics are still relatively young which makes them hungry but also inexperienced. Mike Budenholzer is from the school of Gregg Popovich and the Hawks have went from one of the worst under-performing teams in the league to legitimate contenders in the Eastern conference.
Prediction: Atlanta 4 – 2
Golden State (1) vs. Houston (8)
How many half court shots will Stephen Curry make? One must only be reminded that the Warriors won the NBA championship last year and Curry is putting up career numbers this year. 29.9 points per game on a ridiculous 50.2% field goal percentage and an absurd 45.2% from three. Those are significantly better numbers across the board over last year’s playoff run and he sustained that production over the course of 79 games. Klay Thompson has had a quietly productive year as well and he should feast against the poor defense of James Harden. The key player for this match up though will be Draymond Green. Houston’s power forward position is a glaring hole on an already shaky roster and they have made up for this by somehow hilariously carrying six players on their roster that can play the position. None of them are very good and we have been getting a healthy dose of Michael Beasley lately as a result. Houston ranks dead last in defending the power forward spot and a career year with significant increases in all categories similar to Stephen Curry. He should feast in this match up and it would not be surprising to see him put up a couple triple doubles. He is the emotional leader for this team and while I believe going for the record has taken its toll on them, this is probably an ideal match up because a good series will get Draymond Green, their heart and soul, going strong from the get go.
It is exciting to watch James Harden go one against three for the first 20 times, then its just sad. His field go percentage isn’t really too bad considering his usage rate at 43.8 percent field goal percentage and a sky high 32.4 usage percentage. Dwight Howard’s usage percent sits at 18.4% this season. The only lower usage Dwight has seen was in his rookie year. This highlights the biggest issue with this Rockets team as they struggle to incorporate their second best player in any meaningful way on offense. It’s probably a bigger issue with Harden and his inability to share the basketball in long stretches which discourages even low usage players. If you ran as hard as you could, pushed and shoved to get yourself open and watched on in a sweaty frustration as your teammate shot over a double team, would you put forth the same effort the next play? Harden will have to deal with the always solid defense of Klay Thompson play after play as Dwight bumps with Andrew Bogut or Marreese Speights and does not see the ball. If Houston can figure out even this simple adjustment, they would be a better contender for the returning champs.
Advantage: Golden State
Harrison Barnes is a low usage player who is luckily backed up by a veteran and former all-star. He plays his part much in the spirit of this Warriors team. He’s having a career year in scoring (have you noticed a trend?) even with few touches. Andrew Bogut has seen his role shrink year after year as the injuries pile up. He’s on his last legs, but he is still a very skilled big man who has the capability of putting up monster numbers in very few minutes. Mainly though he is a bruiser and an enforcer. Who doesn’t want a big Aussie on their side?
Patrick Beverley is the absolute perfect complement to James Harden and I’m glad Houston finally figured that out and are giving the young Chicagoan starter minutes again. He is a scrappy defender, but he doesn’t really stop really good players, let alone Stephen Curry. He’s knocking down threes at a career rate (40.2%) and he most importantly allows Harden to handle the ball most of the time. Interestingly, Trevor Ariza has seen his usage fall every single year he has been with the Rockets. He’d be a solid “worst starter” on a championship team, but he doesn’t make or break a series. Motiejunas/Beasley/Capela/Terrence Jones/Harrell/Josh Smith add up to be possibly one negligible player worth speaking about. Beasley is the most relevant of this troupe and he might score if Harden passes the ball enough.
Advantage: Golden State
Golden State’s bench is full of players who would make decent role players on other less successful teams. Marreese Speights is a per-minute beast. If he received starters minutes and produced as he has been, he would average 22 points and 10 rebounds a game to go with 1.5 blocks. Shaun Livingston is a fantastic backup point guard for Steph Curry as he offers a very unique and opposite skills set with his back to the basket mid-range game. Andre Iguodala caps this all off by backing up the team’s weakest position and providing a defensive and athletic anchor on the second unit. He had a good series in last year’s finals, but it wasn’t really that impressive in terms of numbers. Anyone who watched the games, though, knows that the Warriors would not have won the series without him playing as well as he did. The very decision to play the match ups and ride the hot hand turned the tide of the series in a way that could not be undone. Value is not always measured in points and rebounds, though he did well in both of those in that final series and should do it again this season given the opportunity.
The Rockets bench is a mess because they have opted for the platoon method to band aid their awful power forward situation. Jason Terry is a decent veteran presence off Houston’s bench, but his days of relevancy are waning and nearly gone. He will hit some clutch shots, but he no longer averages double digits or logs a ton of minutes. The two most intriguing names on the bench are Corey Brewer and K.J. McDaniels. Brewer has struggled this year but he is long and gets his hands on the basketball for a good amount of steals. K.J. plays a similar role, but younger and far more athletic. He is more a chip for the future of this Rockets team than a relevant player right now. There’s not a whole lot to like here.
Advantage: Golden State
Magic. That’s simply all you can call it when a team is in the midst of a historic season and just coming off of a championship run. The Warriors have it and all they do is improve. I’m not sure how much credit you can give to Kerr, but the players respect him and want to play for him, so he at least is not a detriment to the team. Houston has the opposite, a lot of negativity around the team who has consistently under-performed and seemed distracted far too often. Harden will hero ball a win for the Rockets and earn the admiration of his handful of fanboys, but the Rockets are outmatched at every step of the way.
Prediction: Golden State 4 – 1
San Antonio (2) vs. Memphis (7)
It could have been the old man battle with Dallas and San Antonio, but Memphis fell to the new record holding Warriors. The Spurs predictably find themselves in the top of the Western conference and they get a first round match up with a depleted Memphis squad. Kawhi Leonard has continued to bloom into a elite scorer averaging 21.2 points per game on the season while shooting a fantastic 50.6% from the field. He should have a great series to get him rolling against a team that is missing their defensive anchor. LaMarcus Aldridge has shot over 50% for the first time in 4 years. He has adjusted well to being part of a system that is bigger than any single player and he will continue to see a big chunk of minutes and shots for this Spurs team. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are older now, but they know how to reach another level come playoff time. Duncan was huge in the playoffs last year, showing there is still something left in the tank. Tony Parker struggled, but he is still the go to perimeter scorer on the team.
With Mike Conley and Marc Gasol out, the Grizzlies are really struggling to find a consistency with their lineup. Zach Randolph will most likely play the power forward as the Grizzlies start JaMychal Green next to him. He’ll have a pair of capable defenders to deal with down low with a second year player as his running mate. Without Conley, it would be wise for the Grizzlies to slide Lance Stephenson into the starting five so they have a perimeter player that can score off the dribble. With Gasol out, they are missing their best player and that is hard to overcome.
Advantage: San Antonio
Danny Green has become one of the most perplexing weaknesses on a potential championship roster. He has shot the ball abysmally and has seen almost all his statistics fall. He is qualified for being the team’s whipping boy should they lose. He’ll need to turn his fortunes around soon to keep his starting job.
The GrindFather and the Thug. Tony Allen is an elite perimeter defender and he will wreak havoc on Tony Parker and Danny Green, though it probably won’t affect the Spurs too much. Matt Barnes is a perennially underrated player who produces on both ends of the floor. While his shot is inconsistent, he racks up the steals, blocks and rebounds on a regular basis. He is a solid starter in this league and though his number have been down joining the Grizzlies from the high-paced Clippers, he should have a solid series guarding Kawhi Leonard.
The Spurs have very little fall off when their bench comes into the game from a production standpoint and they have assembled a very serviceable cast yet again of players who will share the basketball and make the right play. The man, Manu Ginobili, struggled mightily last season but he’s going to go out there and put it all on the line every single night no matter what. He was a huge reason they were successful two years ago and he’ll need to return to that for them to be successful again. The rich get richer and the Spurs did just that this season by adding a duo of experienced players who are big threats on the offensive end of the basketball. David West has looked very good in short spurts that LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan were injured. Kevin Martin is another name to watch because of the season long struggles of Danny Green. Pop hasn’t looked to shake anything up, preferring consistent roles as always, but a close playoff match up might force his hand. He has the capability of putting up big scoring numbers, but not much else.
Lance Stephenson is the biggest story on the Grizzlies. Finally he has found the lightning that struck before in Indiana on a slow paced team that struggles to find offense and asks him to do more on that side of the ball. His play is unorthodox at times, but it is effective on a team that is missing its primary ball handler. He is averaging nearly 3 times more points than last year and he will have the sixth man role on this Grizzlies team throughout the playoffs. Vince Carter is almost 40 years old, but he seems to play like he is 25 whenever the Grizzlies give him important minutes. I don’t expect much, but he might have a game or two where he is relevant.
Advantage: San Antonio
We all know Popovich is a genius, but none of us knows why because he doesn’t talk to media unless its to support Craig Sager. Everything he touches is gold and the Spurs have been successful for a very, very long time under his leadership. Hard to say if he will retire when Duncan is done, but it would seem a fitting end. We all hate to see the great ones crumble. Both teams are very experienced at this point, but the injuries the Grizzlies have suffered is just simply too much to overcome.
Prediction: San Antonio 4 – 1
Oklahoma City (3) vs. Dallas (6)
I’ve wanted Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to make the finals for the last several years. Each time they let me down. I want to see a small market team succeed so I can be convinced that the system isn’t rigged for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. When the Pistons won in 2004, I was ecstatic. I feel I would be similarly happy for Oklahoma City to have something to cheer about. Westbrook has looked dominant at times and Kevin Durant is back into his MVP form. Against Dallas, they both should have some great numbers in this series as they get up and down the court faster than the aged roster of the Mavericks.
Dirk Nowitzki is a legend in some respects, his 7 foot European frame the catalyst for many NBA executives who began looking overseas for similarly skilled big men. In their championship run, he scored 27.7 points per game and shot 46% from the three point line. It was an amazing show to watch and one has to feel like the big man is capable of those outbursts again for the duration of a playoff run. He is helped this year by the newly added Deron Williams who has seen a resurgence in his own career. Both have had long and successful careers and both will look to step it up a notch for this match up
Advantage: Oklahoma City
Serge Ibaka is going to be very key in this match up as he will get plenty asked of him to keep Nowitzki in check. I’m sure Durant will get some opportunity as well, but Ibaka will bear the bulk of that responsibility. On the other side of the ball, Ibaka has struggled this season shooting the ball. Luckily, he has two of the most dynamic scorers in the game to defer to and generally gets his shots off two-man action with one of those two.
It’s unfortunate that Chandler Parsons is out for the season, but Wesley Matthews has filled in admirably. He has struggled to regain his consistency, but he has played about 40 minutes a game in their closing regular season games. Matthews is going to get a lot of shots, but the question is if he is going to knock them down.
Beyond their dynamic duo, depth has been a constant weakness for this Thunder team. There are some intriguing names on the bench, but the Thunder are lacking that third option that they are going to let walk at the end of the season like they had with Kevin Martin and then James Harden. That player just doesn’t exist on this roster and it will take an increased effort from the entire roster to make up for that deficiency. Dion Waiters is a capable scorer at times and Enes Kanter has proven the same though he fell out of the rotation in Utah because of his lack of defense and toughness.
If David Lee is injured, it will be a huge blow for this Dallas team as he is still a capable scorer and would take advantage of Enes Kanter. If he is able to play, expect him to play more minutes that usual since the opposing center is Steven Adams who is not really a scoring threat. Even with the Thunder’s struggle with depth, the Mavericks somehow have an even weaker bench. They have several guards that can hold it down in Raymond Felton, J.J. Barea, and Devin Harris, but none of them is a game changer.
Advantage: Oklahoma City
It will be interesting to see how Billy Donovan fares as the Thunder failed in past years in part because of some questionable coaching moves. Rick Carlisle deserves a raise for somehow finding a way to keep the revolving door of players coming and going around Dirk Nowitzki all operating as one unit. Both teams are seasoned at this point and it should be a fun one to watch if the stars involved end up going at it with some solid basketball.
Prediction: Oklahoma City 4 – 2
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Portland (5)
This should be a very fun one to watch, a very high octane match up with a load of scoring. We could see games that end with scores in the 120s or so. The Clippers are getting back Blake Griffin just recently from injury and it is some perhaps fortunate timing as he will go into the match up fresh. Before he went down, he was having a very good season. He was a beast in last year’s playoffs, averaging 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1 steal and 1 block a game. Those are some scary good numbers and I’m curious if he has returned to that form. Chris Paul has put up some great numbers yet again, though his efficiency fell without Blake on the floor. His match up with Lillard will be the main focus of the match up as the two go back and forth scoring. Deandre Jordan will feast down low with his opposition being Mason Plumlee or Ed Davis. He should grab a ton of offensive rebounds and block plenty of shots.
Damian Lillard has seen his efficiency fall, but his scoring and assists have risen. Chris Paul is no slouch on defense, so it will be a hard fought battle for his points. C.J. McCollum is the biggest story in Portland right now, his sudden emergence the very reason that they are still a playoff contender. 20.8 points per game and 41.7% from three-point land is nothing to scoff at and his team has been winning. Their backcourt should be good for years to come and Trailblazer fans should be excited. The duo has their defensive deficiencies, but its not so bad that it offsets their great offensive skill.
Advantage: Los Angeles
J.J. Redick is shooting it lights out from behind the arc at 47.5%. His sharp shooting helped the team to stay in the top half of the playoff bracket. He should be able to light up Portland’s back court. Jeff Green has seen his usage fall since joining the Clippers, but he is a solid athletic wing that fills a very clear need for this Clippers team.
Al-Farouq Aminu is a solid athletic wing as well, so he should do well in neutralizing Jeff Green, though Green has the advantage in the one on one match up Moe Harkless and Mason Plumlee are decent players, but the real advantage is the ability of the team as a whole to get up and down the floor in a hurry in front of their quick guards. Unfortunately, they come up against one of the other teams in the league that is, if only slightly, better at that game.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Jamal Crawford is still the prototypical sixth man off the bench with his ability to score so well that he can single-handedly keep the Clippers in a game while the starters rest. He scores quickly in little to no time. Paul Pierce is a player who is known to hit clutch shots. He will have some big moments in this playoff run as long as he sees the floor enough.
The Portland bench is full of a lot of young unknowns, but this could be their coming out party. Ed Davis is intriguing because he is a highly defensive player, a blocks and rebounds specialist, that should probably be counted upon in this match up to try to keep DeAndre Jordan at bay.
Advantage: Los Angeles
Doc Rivers is a terrific coach and he has pulled this team through much adversity already. The Donald Sterling drama from a few years ago is now firmly behind them (though still firmly in all of our minds, hopefully) and they have played some very good basketball this season. Terry Stotts has done a fantastic job bringing this young Trailblazer team so far, but the Trailblazers are still a few pieces away from truly making waves. It’s possible one of their young players breaks out, but they made need to make some moves in the off-season. The Clippers will be much more relaxed in this series and if they score some big wins, which I think they will, early, they may take the wind out of Portland’s sails. The return of Blake Griffin is a huge deal for them at an opportune time.
Prediction: Los Angeles 4 – 0
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