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Picking the NBA’s first round winners
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 19
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So did we go another year just for Heat-Spurs II? Or can Oklahoma City finally break through now that they are about to have the league MVP? Or has Houston made the offseason acquisition with Dwight Howard that will be the difference?
As the 2014 NBA Playoffs open Saturday with Brooklyn at Toronto at 11:30 a.m. CT followed by perhaps the premier first round matchup with the Warriors visiting the Clippers, this is a particularly difficult year to pick a champion.
That’s because the Heat look awfully vulnerable. Dwyane Wade dealt with season long knee issues and a tired Miami team stumbled to the close with a sub-.500 for almost two months. Though it was better than the close of the Pacers, who, nevertheless, held onto the top seed in the Eastern Conference even while losing much of their credibility.
The Bulls and Raptors tied for third? Anyone have them in Vegas?
In the Western Conference, the Spurs had the best record in the league, though they had a losing record of 2-10 against the top teams in the Western Conference. The second place Thunder have seen their defense punctured late in the season as they’ve gone back to their all Durant and Westbrook game. The Clippers even with the improvement of Blake Griffin still lack the wing defenders where the league’s best athletes play.
The Rockets have an injured Patrick Beverley back at less than full speed to save a porous defensive backcourt. The Warriors lost their starting center, the Grizzlies barely made the playoffs the last week of the season and the Mavericks likewise inched in to face the Spurs, who they haven’t beaten in three years.
We know who can’t win the NBA title: Everybody.
But because they make these series an odd number of games it always ends up that someone wins. Good luck trying to figure out who that might be. So let’s enjoy the ride. Here’s a look at the first round, which should be completed sometime in the fall.
1 vs 8: Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs Atlanta Hawks (38-44)
Season series: 2-2
You’d consider this the usual 1-8 warmup, especially with the Hawks having a losing record. But the Pacers’ slump has been one more for a psychologists’ session. Earlier cocky and confident, the Pacers went the last month blaming one another for every peccadillo. Hawks’ management was alluding to it being better to miss the playoffs when the players seemed to say the heck with that and played their way in the last week. Their big men shoot, which may make Roy Hibbert less involved than he’s been in a late season collapse. But the Pacers have too much to be caught by this team.
Pick: Indiana in 5
2 vs 7: Miami Heat (54-28) vs Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)
Season series: 4-0 Miami
In fact, the Heat never has lost to Charlotte since LeBron James arrived in Miami. But this isn’t your two years older friend’s Bobcats. They’re tougher with a defensive system of play and a scorer down low in Al Jefferson, who can be dealt with if you have size inside, which Miami doesn’t. It’s not the same defending champion Heat, though not only because of Wade’s injuries. Their bench is depleted of much of the shooting they had with Mike Miller gone and Shane Battier in decline. Coach Erik Spoelstra has toyed with different rotations all season, rare for a defending champion. This round will be their last relatively easy one.
Pick: Miami in 5
3 vs 6: Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs Brooklyn Nets (44-38)
Season series: 2-2
The Raptors Terrence Ross said a few weeks back they’d prefer to play the Nets, and the Nets more than any team sat players down the stretch to get to No. 6. So go to it. This is Toronto’s first time back in the playoffs since 2008 and they pretty much all season led the division the Nets or Knicks were supposed to win. Their Rudy Gay trade spread out the scoring, but perhaps more importantly gave them a bench they’d lacked with the extra players from Sacramento. They’re still a bit too perimeter oriented, though the Kyle Lowry/Deron Williams matchup should be intriguing as Williams fancies himself as tough while Lowry is. The question is whether the Raptors can contain so many Brooklyn perimeter players as the Nets moved to a smaller rotation once Brook Lopez was hurt. Though the Raptors never much have used their inside players this season. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce want Miami in the second round, so they’ll have to play now.
Pick: Nets in 7
4 vs 5: Bulls (48-34) vs Washington Wizards 44-38
Season series: 2-1 Washington
There generally are considered no upsets in the four/five matchup since the teams are close in record. Washington beat the Bulls twice in January just after the Luol Deng trade and with Nene, who didn’t play when the Bulls beat the Wizards in April.
Pick: There’ll be a full breakdown of the series on Bulls.com Sunday.
1 vs 8: San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Season series: Spurs 4-0
So how far can Dirk carry them? After missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2000, the Mavs got back and in the worst possible matchups against the Spurs. They’ve lost the last nine between the teams. The Mavs struggled all season to make the playoffs. They got a nice season from Monta Ellis, but their defense is the poorest among the playoff teams, which is no formula to deal with the precision Spurs. The Spurs are healthy and not as old as everyone always says with Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills.
Pick: Spurs in 4
2 vs 7: Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
This is one of the rare rivalries with this third playoff meeting in the last four years. They had a doozy of a seven gamer in 2011 and last year it was Memphis when Russell Westbrook was injured. The Grizzlies had a makeover of sorts since last year’s conference finals in firing coach Lionel Hollins and Marc Gasol injured part of this season. But they recovered with the acquisition of Courtney Lee, sending Tony Allen to a reserve role. They still succeed by their physical, slow game in a classic matchup with the Thunder’s fast tempo play. After a 10-15 start without Gasol, the Grrizlies were the Thunder’s equal. Westbook and Kevin Durant are two of the most formidable offensive players, but they tend to forget about the rest of the team, or, at least Westbrook does. It’s a crucial time for Durant now in his seventh season and no longer in position to take steps back in the playoffs. An early out puts a lot of pressure on the franchise with several teams saving 2016 salary cap room for Durant.
Pick: Thunder in 6
3 vs 7: Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs Golden State Warriors (51-31)
Season series: 2-2
Though Andrew Bogut is out with Jermaine O’Neal stepping in, this one still should be the wildest of them all with the way the Warriors backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson can make the most unlikely shots and go on incredible scoring runs. The Clippers are deeper and more well-rounded, but this is a classic point guard matchup with Curry and Chris Paul. It’s worth it for that alone. These teams have had hostilities rare for the NBA these days all season and should produce some of the most entertaining games of the playoffs. Plus, there’s loads of intrigue about coach Mark Jackson’s fate if the Warriors lose. It will be interesting to see if the Warriors try their top defender, Andre Iguodala, on Paul to thwart the Clippers, though the Clippers do have multiple ball handlers with Jamal Crawford off the bench.
Pick: Clippers in 6
4 vs 5: Houston Rockets (54-28) vs Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Season series: 3-1 Houston
Another good one with two high scoring teams. Portland has been one of the league’s most improved from nearly being broken up last summer. LaMarcus Aldridge with center help finally in Robin Lopez had an all-NBA season and vows to ramp up his physical play. So we’ll see if Dwight Howard is back to form. The Rockets have the high scoring James Harden, but they’ll need Patrick Beverley’s defense on Damian Lillard at a high level. It remains in question after a late March knee injury. The Trail Blazers also have an underrated defender in Nicholas Batum as Chandler Parsons slumped late in the season. But Howard with a late season break should be well rested and has a chance to reclaim his place as a top center.
Pick: Rockets in 7