Deep breath- Round 2 is here.

by

The first round of the NBA playoffs is all about endurance. Not just for the players, coaches and training staff who endured as many as 7 games in 2 weeks, but also for NBA fans themselves. The process of separating the basketball wheat from the chaff is painful at times and grinding at best. I’ve been a Bulls fan my whole life, and it took everything I had to watch games against the Milwaukee Bucks. By the time they finished off the young Bucks in game 6 with a 54(!!!!) point win, I had seen enough terrible passes, missed lay-ups and bricked jumpers to last a lifetime. You don’t watch sloppy basketball, you survive it.

The less than stellar quality of some of the first round matchups really brought to light how beautiful and sad the Spurs/Clippers matchup was. The biggest mistake I made in my NBA preview was discounting the Clippers’ chances. Thanks to the agreement the team has with Fox Sports San Diego, I’ve watched more Clippers games than any other team all season. I thought I had a read on them; they seemed like the type of team I wouldn’t trust in the playoffs- marvelously talented but as soft as the fancy toilet paper that doesn’t leave scraps on the bear’s butt in the commercial. After the most intense series I have ever watched, one which featured Blake Griffin eating Aaron Baynes’ soul, Tim Duncan turning back the clock to 1997 and a pro wrestling style display of mutual admiration, the Clips have earned my belated respect. After Chris Paul capped off a Willis Reed style gut check with a ridiculous one-legged floater that somehow dropped in, all I could think about was how wrong I was in misjudging them.

For the first time since the playoffs started, Thursday night had no games, which finally gave me a chance to take a deep breath and think about the other things I liked seeing in the 1st round and all the things I was looking forward to in the 2nd.

Looking back:
Aside from the Spurs losing, everything in the 1st round went down just about how people expected. The Cavs, Rockets, Grizzlies and Warriors coasted through overmatched and banged up opponents and the Bulls and Hawks struggled at times to polish off sub par competition.The only real surprise came from the matchup between the Wizards and Raptors.

Paul Pierce- King of the Trolls

Halfway through the season, the Raptors were firing on all cylinders. Kyle Lowry was an All-Star starter, DeMar DeRozan was coming back from an injury and they were the team nobody wanted to face. After starting 37-16 going into the  All-Star break, the Raptors finished 12-17 leaving some room for doubt in regards to their status as a real contender. While there wasn’t the idea of Toronto contending for a title, they still seemed adequately equipped to take down a (seemingly) mediocre Washington squad which also fell apart after a quick start. When Wizards’ forward, and NBA villain,  Paul Pierce went on the record before the series saying “We haven’t done particularly well against Toronto, but I don’t feel they have the ‘it’ that makes you worried”. I can’t say that I disagreed with Pierce, since Toronto seemed more like a paper tiger than anything legitimate, but in a league where hyper competitive guys find any reason to get motivated, I still get concerned with the prospect of bulletin board material.
Before the start of game 1, Toronto GM Masai Ujiri, addressed the gathering of rabid Raptors fans by shouting “We don’t give a sh** about ‘it’” in reference to Pierce’s comments. While it got him a fine from the league office, it definitely endeared him to the fanbase and players, and it seemed like the team and city were primed to rip the Wiz apart. Unfortunately for the Raps, Pierce more than backed up his words scoring 9 key points to help steal game 1 and never looked back, helping lead Washington to a decisive sweep. After the series, Pierce continued to troll Toronto’s fans via his twitter account, further cementing his status as one of the NBA’s top heels.
With the 1st round taken care of, the real fun could begin, and fun it has been. After four days of 2nd round action, all four series are tied at one game apiece. The old axiom says that “a series doesn’t start until the home team loses”, so now that all the home teams have lost, and the series have all started, let’s take a look into the future for the remaining games.

Hawks v. Wizards:  The Hawks had what amounted to a dream season this year:  ripping off a twenty game winning streak,  having a month where the starting five were all named “Conference Player of the Month”, putting four players on the All-Star team and having their Head Coach win the “Coach of the Year” award. The combination of Mike Budenholzer’s days on San Antonio’s coaching staff and Atlanta’s ‘all for one and one for all’  Pace and Space playing style earned them the nickname “Spurs East”, but the general consensus is that Atlanta was a cute story and a fun thing to watch, but would all fall apart once the playoffs started and teams were able to scout their offense and exploit their lack of a “go to scorer”. The Hawks did sputter down the closing stretch of the regular season, casting doubt on their legitimacy as a title contender, and a rash of bad luck certainly didn’t help things.
Thanks to a leg injury sustained by key substitute Thabo Sefelosha during a police incident and injuries to forwards Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the Hawks looked like a shell of themselves in round 1 against the Nets, stretching the series out to 6 games and never really establishing the same level of play they reached during the season. After losing Game One at home, it was all doom and gloom for Atlanta, as they looked like a team struggling to find themselves. Game Two looked somewhat better as it looked like they’ve figured out the Wizards defensive scheme. They also caught a huge break for the rest of this series after the news that John Wall has multiple fractures in his hand and wrist, but I’m far from optimistic in regards to their chances against either Cleveland or Chicago.
As for the Wizards, they couldn’t have been dealt a bigger blow than losing Wall. Without a doubt their most important player, his ability to break down defenses and either get his own shot, or find cutters and shooters was the key to their entire offense. Paul Pierce is capable of providing a spark, but he’s well past his prime and can’t give much more than 30 minutes a night. Without Wall in the mix, they’re still a scrappy team, but they don’t stand much of a chance in this series.

Prediction: The Wizards seem to have a grasp on how to defend the Hawks attack by forcing the Hawks guards to beat them versus giving up open jump shots off the drive and kick. However, I have faith in the Atlanta coaching staff and their ability to make adjustments. The Hawks look like they may have rediscovered a bit of their mojo, and If John Wall were completely healthy, I’d be tempted to ride the hot team, but even if he plays, it won’t be at 100 percent. Hawks in 6.

Before we move on to the Cavs and Bulls, let’s just recognize how tough NBA players can be- John Wall has five displaced fractures in his left wrist and is still considering playing later on in this series. If I break my wrist, I’m sitting at home with a bottle of codeine and probably not leaving the house, let alone trying to play basketball. 

I’m afraid we’re in store for a maestro level performance from LeBron

Cavaliers v. Bulls:   Prior to the start of the season, there were two primary narratives in the Eastern Conference: half the experts were anointing the Cavaliers as champs and the other half thought it would take them some time to gel and that the Bulls might be able to force their way past them if they could stay healthy. No matter which side you were on, the prevailing thought was that the East would be represented by either Cleveland or Chicago. While we got the match-up that we expected and wanted, it came a round earlier than originally speculated, thanks to unsteady play by both teams throughout the grinding regular season. The consensus coming into the series was that the Bulls, thanks to the Kevin Love injury and J.R. Smith suspension, may have the advantage against a shorthanded Cleveland team.
Similar to other Bulls v. LeBron encounters, Chicago came out on fire in Game One, imposing their will with physicality,  forcing LeBron into long two point jumpers, limiting his driving ability and just generally making his life miserable. Also like in other iterations, all the news reports were about the failure of James and how well the Bulls matched up with his team. This is the part of Bulls/LeBron matchups that make me want to start drinking: in Game Two, LeBron meant business. Normally content to pick his spots and set up teammates, James came out like a house on fire, scoring fourteen points in the first quarter before settling down for thirty-three points with eight rebounds and five assists in a blowout win. I remember watching Michael Jordan play, and I knew that if a team came in respectfully, kept their heads down and kept quiet, he was less intense and they might drop a game or two. The moment he felt as though he was being disrespected or challenged, he went into “Eff you mode”, and you had no chance. What we saw in game two was LeBron James in “Eff you mode”.  If he plays like that, it doesn’t matter what else happens, the Bulls are screwed.
Even with the emergence of Jimmy Butler as a legitimate scoring threat, Derrick Rose continues to shoot jump shots, which wouldn’t be a problem if he were a good jump shooter, but he’s not. In fact, he’s terrible. When you combine that with the ongoing injury struggles for Joakim Noah, who’s officially as mobile as Bran Stark in Game of Thrones, the Bulls aren’t the team I hoped they would be. In Game Two, Cleveland realized that all they had to do was double team the ball handler in any pick and roll involving Joakim, since he is as mobile as a paralyzed child. Without any semblance of a legitimate jump shot, he’s far from dangerous as a primary ball handler. Rather than adjusting the rotation to feature more of Nikola Mirotic and Pau Gasol playing together, Thibodeau seems content to trot out the same stagnant offensive system despite continued awful play. The continued phasing out of Mirotic is both mysterious and indefensible.

Prediction: I love the Bulls, but the only way they could hope to win is to exploit the Cleveland defense with pick and rolls featuring Gasol and Rose. If Thibodeau breaks his stubborn streak (Unlikely) and puts his best players on the floor, there’s at least a punchers chance, but the Cavs have the two best players in the series (James and Irving) along with the best offensive rebounders in the league (Mozgov and Thompson) and that normally leads to success. Cavs in 6.

Fear the Beard.


Rockets v. Clippers:
As excited as I was for Clippers/Spurs, I was nearly as excited for Rockets/Clippers. I say ‘was’ because I didn’t know that Chris Paul’s hamstring strain would be so bad that he’s missed the first two games and is “uncertain” for game three. (Side note: How bad is the injury when a guy like Paul, who would try to play if his foot fell off, is forced out of a lineup? Again: NBA players are not pansies.) The only thing that gives me hope for this series is the recent play of Blake Griffin. His first couple years in the league, he was a glorified dunker with no semblance of an offensive game and a complete reliance on his athletic ability.While it was certainly exciting to seem him as a fixture on SportsCenter’s Top-10, it felt hollow and left me wanting more.  Even with his dramatic improvement this season, critics were quick to point out how much he shied away from pressure situations and failed to take over games in big situations. After Games One and Two, you can put that narrative to sleep, Old Yeller-style. With the team’s point guard and leader out, Doc Rivers has restructured the offense to run primarily through Griffin and he’s responded by averaging twenty five points, thirteen rebounds and eight assists per game and playing at a historically great level.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, even with a healthy Paul, they may have trouble knocking off Houston. The Rockets have fully embraced the analytics driven style of play: No long two point jump shots- only three pointers, layups/dunks and free throws. This led to a season in which seventy five percent of their shots came either at the rim or beyond the three point line and they smashed the all time record for three pointers made in a season. Led by MVP runner-up James Harden and a seemingly healthy and motivated Dwight Howard, the Rockets will be able to throw enough defenders at Griffin and (if he’s healthy) Paul to wear them down and reduce their overall effectiveness. I can see a scenario in which Houston goes cold from the three point line and their offense stalls, but they have too much depth and scoring for that to be realistic.

Prediction: I’m salivating over the potential of this matchup, and not even the “Hack a Shaq” tactics can dull that excitement. The level of competitiveness and athleticism will be off the charts,  but the Rockets have too much ammunition and scoring from their reserves for the Clippers thin bench to overcome: Rockets in 7.

 

Warriors v. Grizzlies: While the Hawks were running a blitzkrieg on the Eastern Conference, the Golden State Warriors were ripping through the West like a group of dads playing against their ten year old sons. They finished second in offensive efficiency (Points per 100 possessions) and first in defensive efficiency in the NBA this season. To put their season in perspective, they had the 8th best point differential in league history. 6 of the 7 teams ahead of them won the title.  Their 39-2 record at home is tied for the 2nd best of all time, behind only the 1986 Boston Celtics. They won in blowout fashion often enough that their top stars were able to sit out a large number of 4th quarters- ostensibly reducing their minute load and keeping them fresher for the playoffs.
The whole offensive system is based on the ability of the entire lineup to pass, cut and shoot. Paced by league MVP (and my fiance’s man crush) Steph Curry, there was no better way to excite an NBA nerd than to send a text or tweet with the words “Warriors are on TV tonight.” With either Curry or Thompson liable to go off Jimmy Chitwood style on us at any time and Draymond Green perfecting his role as NBA boogeyman, they were can’t miss TV for any NBA fan. With that being said, the one team the ‘Dubs didn’t want to see was the Memphis Grizzlies.
While the rest of the league has gone small, focusing on quick, athletic players, the Grizzlies hopped in the time machine to go back to the 70’s and 80’s by pairing up behemoth post-men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. It’s definitely not pretty, and the lack of offensive explosion is a legitimate concern, but this type of lineup is the only real kryptonite for the Warriors system, since they rely so much on Draymond Green’s ability to defend multiple positions. I love Draymond, and he’s one of the best defensive players in the league, but matching him up with Gasol or Z-Bo in the low post is just unfair. The Griz run a high/low big-to-big passing scheme unlike any other in the league which will cause serious issues if the defense breaks from their system in any way.

Another potential boost comes  from the return of Mike Conley. The only player  for Memphis who can consistently break down the defense to create his own shot, Conley missed Game One with a broken face. Added onto his ongoing Plantar Fasciatis, the possibility of his return seemed improbable at best. When he came back for Game Two, the energy for Memphis was palpable, and while I hate the concept of momentum in sports, after stealing game two at Golden State, the Grizzlies look like they’re riding the wave from Mike Conley’s gutsy return going into game three.

My apologies to Chef Curry.

Prediction: I still think the Warriors are the best team in the league, and Steve Kerr is an excellent coach. But this is a truly horrible matchup for them. Even though the ‘Dubs have the league MVP, and the best players seem to find ways to win in these situations, Andrew Bogut’s ability to stay out of foul trouble is the key for Golden State. If he can stay on the court, and defend the low post, allowing Green to play on the high post, the Warriors will pull out the series in what will be one heck of a battle. Unfortunately for them, Bogut has never exhibited a consistent ability to do so. Conley’s guts, plus Z-Bo and Gasol’s post dominance carry the Grizzlies to just enough offense.  Grizzlies in 7.

Now that we’ve gotten through the grind of an eighty two game season full of occasionally crappy basketball, we get to have our real treat. All four of these series have the potential to go the distance, thanks to the matchup of playing styles and talent distribution. For the most part, the teams that are left are here because they’re among the elite in basketball. This is the time of year when players are fighting for something greater than endorsements or public attention: they’re fighting for a place in history. 

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