Monday, May 19, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference Finals

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Oklahoma City Thunder

The Spurs received all they could handle from the Dallas Mavericks in the First Round and then barely had to break a sweat to dispatch the Portland Trail Blazers in five games. The Thunder didn't have quite as easy a road. Like the Spurs, they were taken to seven games in their First Round series, but although they only had to play one more game in the Conference Semi-Finals, each game with the Los Angeles Clippers was a grind. Then the news got worse for Oklahoma City as it was learned that Serge Ibaka will miss the rest of the playoffs with a calf injury. For whatever reason, the Spurs are skeptical that Ibaka really isn't available but all signs point to Ibaka not playing in this series.

The Spurs had an injury scare of their own against Portland in their Game 5 win as Tony Parker had to leave the game early with an injury. However, the time off between series has given Parker time to heal and he should be 100 percent for the Conference Finals. He is the Spurs leading scorer, facilitator and best player. He will matchup against Russell Westbrook of the Thunder. It will be Parker's task to limit Westbrook's scoring opportunities and try to force Kevin Durant to shoulder the scoring load for OKC. Danny Green starts at shooting guard but Manu Ginobli usually gets more playing time than Green off the bench. Thabo Sefalosha doesn't contribute much on offense for the Thunder but he is one of their best defenders and with Ibaka out, even more pressure will be on him to perform well defensively. Kawhi Leonard has the unenviable task of trying to slow down Durant. Durant played superbly against the Spurs in the regular season and is a major reason why the Thunder swept all four games against the Spurs. Durant has struggled with his shot at times this postseason but ever since being challenged by the local media in OKC, he has been nearly unstoppable and put the Thunder on his back in the series against the Clippers. With Ibaka out for the series that means that veteran Nick Collison will see much more playing time. I also expect Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins to perhaps play at the same time to try to match up with the size of Tim Duncan and Thiago Splitter. Adams, Perkins and Collison are all very limited offensively but one of them will have to step up and replace Ibaka's 12 points per game in these playoffs.

Caron Butler, Reggie Jackson, and Derek Fisher will see the most time off the bench for Oklahoma City. Jackson has turned into a reliable bench player, and the Thunder don't see a lot of drop off when he is on the floor. For the Spurs, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli will see a good amount of time coming off the bench. Diaw is another big man at the Spurs disposal and also another Spurs big man with better offensive skills than the Thunder's big men.

Unless you're a Spurs fan, you have to feel for the Thunder. For the second straight season they have lost a key contributor in the playoffs. They couldn't overcome the loss of Westbrook last season and without Ibaka in this series, I don't think they will be able to get past the Spurs. Ibaka is mostly known for his shot blocking presence and defense, but his offense will be missed as well. Unless someone from the Thunder like a Collison, Adams, or Perkins can find some offense, I think too much pressure will be on Durant and Westbrook's shoulders in this series to score the ball. The Spurs are playing with a ton of confidence right now and they smell blood with the Thunder hurting. Defense will be the difference in this series, as the Spurs defensive prowess will overcome the scoring power of OKC.

Prediction: Spurs over Thunder, 4-2

Friday, May 16, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs - Eastern Conference Finals

#1 Indiana Pacers vs. #2 Miami Heat

The Indiana Pacers might have just completed the bumpiest road ever to a Conference Finals. The Pacers are a respectable 8-5 in the playoffs this year, but when they lose, they like to lose in spectacular fashion. But despite their late season struggles, they are right where they want to be, with homecourt advantage against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat have taken a much more comfortable road to the Conference Finals, losing just one playoff game so far. When these teams closed the regular season, the Heat basically decided to concede the #1 seed to Indiana, hedging their bets that it didn't matter whether or not they had homecourt advantage. Now, we get to find out if that was a smart move or complete arrogance by Miami.

This is a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals and these are two teams that know each other quite well. The single most important player in this series might just be Roy Hibbert of the Pacers. In last season's Conference Finals with Miami, Hibbert gave the Heat nightmares throughout that series and was the main reason the Pacers nearly knocked off the Heat. Hibbert has shown his importance to the Pacers even more this year. Some of the Pacers worst playoff performances have come when Hibbert has inexplicably disappeared. But when Hibbert has been on his game, the Pacers have looked like one of the better teams in the NBA. Chris Bosh was badly outplayed by Hibbert in last year's matchup, but he seems to be playing with far more confidence this season. He can't let Hibbert get too comfortable down low, but he also doesn't have the body to match up with Hibbert when Hibbert is in the zone. Another crucial component of the Pacers starting lineup is David West. West is the Pacers leader, and his clutch performance in Game 6 against the Washington Wizards helped propel Indiana to be able to close out that series. The Wizards had no one that could match up with West, but the Heat are hopeful that Shane Battier can stay on West and limit his offensive game. Paul George is the Pacers best player and his one on one matchup with LeBron James will once again take center stage in this series. George is important as the Pacers best player, but he isn't good enough to single-handedly will the Pacers to wins. They will need Hibbert, West, and especially Lance Stephenson to provide strong play for them to have a chance in this series. Stephenson is a wild player, and he seems to be off in his own world sometimes, but he is so valuable to the Pacers when he is playing well that coach Frank Vogel has no choice but to play him major minutes. Dwyane Wade isn't the player he once was but he still makes the Heat a more formidable team when he is on the court. His presence alone takes pressure off of James to feel like he has to do everything. Each team doesn't have exceptional point guards. The Pacers George Hill is solid but not spectacular, and Mario Chalmers of the Heat is mostly known for being James, Wade, and Bosh's whipping boy. But both players are capable of scoring and playing strong defense and any contributions they provide are a welcome addition.

The Pacers need more out of their bench in this series than they got against the Wizards. Luis Scola, Evan Turner, and Ian Mahinmi have to play much better in this series. Even C.J. Watson who was a complete non-factor against Washington, will be needed to spot Hill some in this series. Miami's best bench contributor is the ageless Ray Allen, and the energetic Chris Andersen. I wouldn't be surprised if you see Andersen and Bosh out on the floor at the same time quite a bit in this series. Andersen is the type of energy player that could really get into Hibbert's head and throw him off his game.

Predicting any series the Pacers are involved in this year seems fruitless. You just have no idea which Indiana team will show up from game to game. That level of inconsistency will be their downfall against Miami. Indian has the homecourt advantage but are just 3-4 at home in the playoffs this season and have been blown out multiple times. I expect Miami to take Game 1 on Sunday and control the series from there. The Pacers will have their moments in this series but it is clear that the Heat are the top dogs in the East and destined to make their fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Prediction: Heat over Pacers, 4-2

Monday, May 5, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs - Eastern Conference Semi-Finals

#1 Indiana Pacers vs. #5 Washington Wizards

The Pacers inexplicable free-fall at the end of the regular season carried over to what many thought would be an easy First Round series against the Atlanta Hawks. After being embarrassed at home in Game 5, the Pacers had to go to Atlanta to save their season. They were trailing late in Game 6, when David West put the team on his back, leading them to victory. Then at home in Game 7, the Pacers controlled the game and looked more like the dominant team they had been for the first half of the season. Now the question is, did that come from behind series win over Atlanta reignite the Pacers, or did they just luck out against an overmatched opponent? They will find out quickly when they take on the Wizards, the newest "it" team in the NBA. The Wizards took out the Chicago Bulls in five games and have many calling them a bigger threat to the Miami Heat than even the Pacers are.

The Wizards will have the edge for sure at point guard with John Wall going against Indiana's George Hill. Hill is serviceable, but the question is will he be able to keep up with the speed of Wall? The Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson is in a contract year and sometimes that shows as he attempts to play hero ball. Bradley Beal is mature beyond his years on the basketball court and quickly becoming one of the better shooters in the NBA. The Pacers will have the best player on the court, Paul George but George will be facing off with an excellent defender in the Wizards Trevor Ariza. The big man battle should be fascinating to watch as David West goes up against Nene and Roy Hibbert and Marcin Gortat face off. Nene has been key for the Wizards all season and he proved to be a matchup nightmare for Joakim Noah in the First Round. As mentioned above, West came up huge for the Pacers in their series with the Hawks. A lot was asked of West because of how miserable Hibbert was for most of that series. Hibbert did have his best game in Game 7 and Indiana has to hope that he has snapped out of whatever funk he has been in. If he isn't, Gortat could have a huge series. Gortat should be able to get Hibbert in foul trouble as Gortat is much more of a threat offensively than any big man Atlanta could throw against Hibbert.

The Wizards mostly employ Andre Miller, Trevor Booker, and Martell Webster off the bench, while veterans like Al Harrington and Drew Gooden could see spot duty. Ian Mahimi and C.J. Watson are employed by Pacers coach Frank Vogel, and Mahinmi outshone Hibbert in most of the First Round. Luis Scola fell out of the rotation the last two games of the series against the Hawks, but with the Wizards throwing a lot of players out there, I expect him to see some more time. Evan Turner has seen his minutes reduced drastically as that trade the Pacers made earlier in the season looks worse and worse.

I certainly underestimated the Wizards in the First Round but don't plan on making that mistake this time around. I still think the Pacers are a mess and got lucky that they played such an atrocious team in the Hawks. The Wizards have much more talent than Atlanta, and unless Indiana gets back to early season form, they are going to have their hands full with Washington. I believe the Wizards will make the Conference Finals for the first time in 36 years. I believe the edge they have at point guard with Wall and what Gortat should be able to do to Hibbert will carry Washington past Indiana.

Prediction: Wizards over Pacers, 4-2

#2 Miami Heat vs. #6 Brooklyn Nets

The Heat wrapped up their series against Charlotte in four games, which feels like weeks ago. The Nets grinded out a seven game series victory over the Toronto Raptors. Once again, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will get a chance to try to take out LeBron and the Heat. The Nets beat the Heat in all four regular season meetings this year, so that does give them some added confidence coming into this series.

The Nets have the advantage at point guard with Deron Williams being superior to the Heat's whipping boy Mario Chalmers. Even at 60% or whatever he is these days, Dwyane Wade is superior to the much traveled Shaun Livingston. Joe Johnson played excellently for the Nets in their Game 7 win over Toronto, and is becoming the Nets go to scorer and ball handler late in games. But the focus for him will have to be on the defensive side of the ball as he attempts to not let LeBron James go crazy. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are far removed from their prime and play far less minutes than they used to, but their playoff experience has proven invaluable so far. Shane Battier is out there for the Heat to play solid defense and hit the occasional three pointer. Chris Bosh should be able to outmuscle and outhustle Garnett but might have some problems facing Andray Blatche when he comes off the bench,

Jason Kidd likes to employ his bench as much as possible, meaning you should expect to see guys like Mason Plumlee, Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, Marcus Thornton, and even Andrei Kirilenko could see some time. For Miami, regulars off the bench include the ageless Ray Allen, the high energy Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and James Jones has somehow found his way back in the rotation.

I wouldn't read too much into Brooklyn sweeping Miami during the regular season, that will be thrown out the window once these two tip off tomorrow night. The Heat become a different, more focused team on the playoffs and if anything, those regular season losses will ensure that the Heat are ready to play the Nets. I think the Nets can defeat the Heat once or twice, but overall, don't have the skill to beat the Heat 4 times in a series.

Prediction: Heat over Nets, 4-2

2014 NBA Playoffs - Western Conference Semi-Finals

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers

The Spurs were given everything they could handle by the Dallas Mavericks in the First Round, before eventually prevailing in seven games. The Trail Blazers won their first playoff series in 14 years in dramatic fashion on Friday night. Damian Lillard hit a three pointer at the buzzer to give Portland the victory over the Houston Rockets.

The point guard battle will be dynamic in this series between the Spurs Tony Parker and the Blazers Lillard. Lillard showed no signs of being overwhelmed by the playoff stage in the First Round and he will give Parker a ton of trouble when it comes to attempting to guard him. The other huge one-on-one battle will be Tim Duncan going against LaMarcus Aldridge. Duncan still plays at an extremely high level but Aldridge looks like a young Duncan with how he played against the Rockets. The Blazers have the size to match up with not only Duncan but Robin Lopez may have the advantage over Tiago Splitter. Nicolas Batum can also be a dynamic scorer for the Blazers but he will draw Kawhi Leonard, one of the better defenders in the league. Wesley Matthews of the Blazers and Danny Green of the Spurs are the shooting guards and both can fall in love with the three pointer.

The Blazers mostly employed a 7 man rotation against the Rockets, with Thomas Robinson and veteran Mo Williams getting the most action off the bench. Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobli, and Patty Mills ensure that the Spurs don't feel a major letdown when they have to go to their bench. The Blazers have the point guard, big man combo that could have them as legitimate title contenders for the foreseeable future. I expect them to give the Spurs plenty of trouble in this series, especially if Duncan cannot slow down Aldridge. In the end, I believe the Spurs experience will be the difference, as will home court when this series goes seven games.

Prediction: Spurs over Blazers, 4-2

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #3 Los Angeles Clippers

Both the Thunder and Clippers were involved in exhausting seven game series in the First Round. The Thunder overcame a 3-2 series deficit, when Kevin Durant responded to being called out by his hometown newspaper as unreliable. The Thunder also benefited from the Memphis Grizzlies being without their best player Zach Randolph for game 7, as he had to serve a suspension. The Clippers/Golden State Warriors series took a backseat to the audio tapes that came out of their owner Donald Sterling espousing his racist views. The team was able to overcome the distraction and behind coach Doc Rivers have seemed to become even closer as a team.

Both of these teams average well over 100 points and aren't exactly known for their defense, so fans of offensive basketball will be in heaven. There is also plenty of star power in this series. Chris Paul of the Clippers and Russell Westbrook of the Thunder are two of the premiere point guards in the NBA. Paul is the more typical point guard, looking to feed the ball to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Westbrook runs into criticism because he looks to shoot, despite having the second best player in the game on his team in Kevin Durant. Westbrook is an exceptional offensive talent though so it is understandable why he looks for his own shot. The Thunder's Caron Butler is still playing heavy minutes despite being older as coach Scott Brooks relies on his experience. J.J. Redick is in there to make threes and that is about it. However, that one aspect of his game is something he does better than almost anyone else. Serge Ibaka will be tasked with attempting to slow down Blake Griffin. Ibaka likely doesn't have the offensive skillset to get Griffin into foul trouble but he could upset Griffin's offensive game through his sheer defensive skill alone. Kendrick Perkins still starts for the Thunder but his backup Steven Adams saw more time than Perkins in Games 6 and 7 of the Memphis series and that trend could continue with the Thunder needing some youth to keep up with the Clippers DeAndre Jordan. Durant played great at the end of the Thunder's first round series but prior to that he was having a hard time with the Grizzlies Tony Allen. In this series he will have to contend with Matt Barnes. Barnes is a strong defender like Allen and also an instigator and could throw Durant off his mental game.

Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson see plenty of time off the bench. Fisher's shot isn't as reliable as it used to be, but he still makes enough three pointers that you can't ignore him when he is on the court. Jackson has really grown as a player this season and it was his play and ability to hit big shots that saved the Thunder's season with a Game 4 win in Memphis. The Clippers bench is highlighted by 6th Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, as well as reliable backup point guard Darren Collison. Danny Granger and Glen Davis will also see time off the bench but their minutes have become pretty minimal.

This series will basically come down to which team plays just enough defense to slow down the other teams proficient offense. I think the biggest matchups in this series will be how tight Barnes plays Durant and also if Adams is able to not let Jordan completely overwhelm him and abuse him. I think the Clippers have just enough of an edge in athleticism and more offensive weapons than the Thunder and that will be what keys them to the slight upset.

Prediction: Clippers over Thunder, 4-3