I had a chance on Thursday to put up a post previewing the NBA playoffs... and then went to the driving range for my first bucket of the year. But I did have thoughts about each of these series! Originals are in italics, reflections on this weekend's games following:
Indiana Pacers - Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks lack of interior scoring will hurt against a Pacers defense that will regain some of its footing in a focused, playoff atmosphere. Atlanta have nobody to check Hibbert inside and will have a tough time stopping penetration by Stephenson and George. Indiana though is playing poorly enough that a random Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, or Paul Milsap scoring bonanza will give them trouble. Pacers in 6.
For some reason I thought a different Indiana team would show than the one that did Saturday night. For an anachronistic team that prides itself on defense and interior play, Indiana's lack of either was egregious. Each Hawks pass looked a few steps faster than the Pacers defenders making the defense bend in all sorts of convoluted ways. On offense, David West and Roy Hibbert were complete non-factors. The broader issue is that these do not seem like problems of scheme; rather, it's the players' inability to execute at a high level. How much these Pacers need a guy like Tyler Hansborough to inject their bench with much-needed athleticism and energy. The other problem? The Hawks won that game handily and it was no fluke - all their shots were good ones. Maybe the extra days of rest between games will benefit Indy's energy level after a grueling season as the top dog in the East, but that rest benefits Atlanta, too.
Miami Heat - Charlotte Bobcats
Miami have not lost to the Bobcats since the LeBron (and Bosh) era. They won't in this series. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will try, but he doesn't have the size or savvy to guard LeBron. The Bobcats preference to space the floor around Al Jefferson will prove frustrating, but Miami will be fine with more Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem. Heat in 5 (just because they don't usually sweep).
For just over 2 quarters this was a game. Al Jefferson dominated the Heat defense before being led away in the 2nd quarter for an undisclosed medical injury on his foot. It was a bad sign that the injury occured on a rebound where nobody bumped him - non-contact injuries are usually serious. Afterwards, it was revealed that the mystery Al Jefferson injury is as strained plantar fasciatias. Outside of the usual biggies (ACL, meniscus, labrum, rotator cuff, back issues), there are a few injuries you don't want to hear: high ankle sprain, hamstring, turf toe, pantar fasciatas. All of these not only sap a player's athleticism, but also tend to linger, not clearing up after a few days' rest. Kemba Walker is not going to beat the Heat by himself.
Toronto Raptors - New Jersey Nets
This is the matchup the Nets wanted, the one they fell into. Toronto cannot expose the Nets lack of interior defense and will need to push its pace to take advantage of New Jersey's age. Jason Kidd's squad has had a down, then up, then down season, but they should handle the frisky Raptors in 6.
I was finally right about something! You may think Joe Johnson and Deron Williams combining for so many points is an unrepeatable fluke, but the Truth putting the game away in the 4th is not.
Chicago Bulls - Washington Wizards
Chicago is looking forward to a matchup against reeling Indiana in the second round, but can't overlook the Wizards. Chicago's offense is just bad enough that two bad shooting games will probably happen giving this a real shot of going the distance. Still, Tom Thibodeau or Randy Wittman. Bulls in 6.
For a team that is gunning for Indiana, Chicago looked quite like the Pacers. The defense was a step slow as Washington really moved the ball. Washington made as many free throws as Chicago attempted (6 were from intentional fouls) and Chicago had no answer for the Prof. Andre Miller and Nene two-man game in the 4th. Down the stretch, a couple offensive boards were enough for the Wizards squeeze by (the final score belies how close the game was).
San Antonio Spurs - Dallas Mavericks
Someone from Dallas will have a hallmark offensive game a few times in this series, but the Spurs offense is too good. Dallas doesn't have defensive answers for Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. Rick Carlisle gets a game for his coaching performance this year. Spurs in 5.
In the Finals last year, the Spurs defense fell apart whenever Tim Duncan sat. Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw struggled, but were unable to protect the rim. The same thing happened in Sunday's game against Dallas. On the other hand, Parker and Duncan again look unstoppable on offense. Popovich has such a luxury in knowing that any deficit can be erased and any lead increased when he puts those two back in the game. Still, Dallas made a valiant effort despite their best player (and 10th scorer in NBA history) throwing up brick after brick. I might give the Mavs an extra game but still think the outcome remains.
Oklahoma City Thunder - Memphis Grizzlies
The Thunder will have issues guarding the Grizzlies inside regardless of which lineups they try. But late in this same series last year, OKC found some success using smaller lineups with Durant at 4, and have used doses of those lineups this year. The Grizzlies' size is a mismatch for every team in the NBA, but if the Thunder can go small, it will negate a big part of that advantage. Don't expect Memphis to go away though. Thunder in 6.
What a half from Westbrook and Durant. Then, just as the Grizzlies were turning the tide in the 3rd, foul trouble came down on Zach Randolph. Those optimistic about the Grizzlies will note that their spirited comeback made this a game in the 2nd half. Those pessimistic will note that the same issues manufacturing offense persist.
Los Angeles Clippers - Golden State Warriors
The Clippers size is a nightmare for the Warriors will don't know what they'll get from David Lee/Andrew Bogut. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson can win games, and Iggy is a problem for the Clippers wing players (Jamaal Crawford). But I trust Doc to put a better defense on the floor than Mark Jackson can and the Clippers superior depth and talent wins this one in 6.
This game made me mad. Both teams looked completely disinterested in winning the game at the end. For two players regarded as clutch in Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, this was not a clutch performance. Turnovers, fouls, missed calls, missed free throws, see it all here. Golden State got a great game from David Lee in his comeback, but it was really the fake offensive fouls on Blake Griffin that changed the complexion of the game. Of all the reasons that I thought the Clippers would win this series and have a shot at the next one, the primeval one was that Blake has ascended a level this year with a functional jump shot, success at the free-throw line, and savvy passing instincts. But he was glued to the bench and the Clippers' other All-Star was unable to take them home.
And how many times as that been the case? Listen - I am one of Chris Paul's most ardent defenders. His career was irreparably harmed by the fateful collision in 2010, and he's had to manage himself ever since. But occasionally, great players have to lead, no will, their teams to victories. That's cliche, but it's also the truth. Here's a list of Chris Paul contemporaries (guys drafted around the same class or later) that have led their team to the Conference Finals as the team's best player: Deron Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Tony Parker, Paul George, Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo. Again, I love Chris' game. I love how he controls pace and tempo, knows who to feed and when to take over, and is a coach on the floor. I love how he competes on defense despite being undersized, gets in the lane against bigger and faster players, and makes everyone around him better.
But take a look at that list again. There are 12 players on that list. 12 players that have gone further in the playoffs than Chris Paul. Chris has been in the league 9 years, is a 7 time All-Star, has been the All Star game MVP, has been a 3-time 1st team All-Pro, and has won 2 playoff series. Two. T-w-o. Now I know this is unfair. The Spurs team he competed valiantly against in 2007 was historically great and under-appreciated, and the Lakers series in 2011 was masterful composition of per-game efficiency: 22 points on 12.8 FGA and 3.2 FTA, .545/.474/.796 shooting, 11.5 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 3.7 turnovers. I think it's safe to say that that guy is gone.
I think if you were to offer me Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul, straight up, I would still take Paul. Paul is too good a leader, doesn't take dumb shots, and is a much better passer. But put it this way: let's say their respective team leaders (Griffin/Durant) are injured or glued to the bench with fouls. Now who do you want. Which of those guys is capable of going off, scoring 30, and leaving everyone else in his dust? Which guy is truly, truly unguardable? I hate to say it, but it's not Christopher Emmanuel Paul. Please, Chris, prove me wrong. We haven't seen enough basketball out of you yet.
Houston Rockets - Portland Trailblazers
This will be an interesting series of zero defense. I think Portland will give Houston a run for its money - the Blazers are much better equipped to handle Harden/Howard defensively than Houston is for Lamarcus Aldridge. The question is whether the Blazers team we see will be the same Blazers team from the early season that scores gobs and gobs of points. I think if Patrick Beverley is healthy, the Rockets win in 7, but if not, look out.
Game 1 turned into an exciting back-and-forth affair, but afterwards I couldn't tell if both teams were playing well or if both teams are just that bad and defending. Still, Damian Lillard made some ridiculous shots and Portland deserved to win. I still like my Houston call though (pending Beverley's health). As of a few hours ago, he's a "go" for Game 2. Houston stuck to its game plan to play Aldridge one-on-one and while 46 points is a lot, I don't think it was a catastrophe as they had the other guys largely locked down. And Houston found that Dwight's post play can be effective against Portland bigs. He doesn't have the explosion at the end of the move that he exhibited in Orlando, but he constantly had Robin Lopez (a legitimate defnder) off balance, read Lopez well, chose the right way to attack, and made some nice passes to cutters. Yeah, free throws are an issue, but I still like how the Rockets were ahead for most of the game.
Memphis/OKC is already shaping up to be fantastic in Game 2. Here's to a fun first round!