The 2013-14 NBA Playoffs started last week and I’m here to predict what will happen throughout the postseason. I wrote this column before the playoffs started, but elected to keep with tradition and publish on Monday. I haven’t re-written any part of the article, but here’s to hoping that Indiana can win the next four in a row, because I picked them winning in five.
I have written about the flaws in the postseason for both NBA and NHL here, last year, and will write about conference re-alignment sometime in the near future, but, for now, here are my predictions for these wild NBA playoffs.
Indiana Pacers (#1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (#8)
The Indiana Pacers soap-opera of a season was geared specifically toward earning the number-one seed and they did it. To say they got an easy matchup in the first-round is a huge understatement. This Hawks team (38-44) is playing without its best player, All-Star Center Al Horford, so they’re a depleted team with a sub-.500 record. However, they did beat Indiana IN INDIANA 107-88 just two weeks ago. Was Indiana just coasting then? They’ve complained, for sure.
Indiana hasn’t faced “adversity” like they’ve claimed. They’ve hit a rough patch. You can bet that Larry Legend will make his way down from the box to the locker room and give them a pep-talk. This team is too talented to lose the series, but it’s entirely possible that Atlanta will heat up from beyond the arc for at least one game with Point Guard Jeff Teague doing damage against the Pacers defensively weak backcourt.
Prediction: Pacers in 5
Miami Heat (#2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (#7)
You know how Disney writes movies engineered to have you root for one party and proactively dislike the other?
Remember Toy Story? Good, keep that in mind.
The Bobcats are better than they’ve been in years. Kemba has played well and Big Al Jefferson can pop off for 40 points and 20 rebounds on any given night. Their team defense has even improved to be in the top-half of all NBA teams.
Not even Disney could write a story where Big Al wins. Literally. They’ve tried. They didn’t let Big Al win.
The Miami Heat have the best player in the world and they’ll get Dwyane Wade back for the playoffs and the schedule of never having back-to-back games suits him. They’re the reigning champions and even if Jordan in his prime came back to lead the Bobcats, they couldn’t win this series.
Prediction: Heat in 4
Toronto Raptors (#3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (#6)
The fact that the Nets are a six-seed is garbage. Bill Simmons talks about the Basketball Gods and they should punish Mikhail and his bunch for tanking into this spot. This roster, the richest in NBA history, has the average age of a octogenarian convention so they rested guys. They’re so old that if Uncle Drew was real, he’d get offered a max deal by Brooklyn – who looks to monopolize on age.
Makes sense, right? Except that this story is the one that no one mentioned when they discussed tanking. The Nets have tanked their way to a great seed and are much more talented than sixth-seed in the East suggests. Also, bringing in Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett may have created something of a 2011 Miami Heat early season where players just aren’t used to playing with each other.
Now that they’ve had enough time to acclimate, small-ball aficionados (Paul Pierce at the 4, whaaat?!) will run this young team out of the playoffs. That’s because they’re rested legs who know how to win. Especially if Shaun Livingston keeps on keeping on as he’s been lately with his good knees and two-way talent.
No doubt that there’s talent on this Toronto team, but the streakiness of Terrence Ross and Joe Johnson’s domination of DeMar DeRozan points to a quick exit for the team from Drake’s home town.
Prediction: Nets in 5
Chicago Bulls (#4) vs. Washington Wizards (#5)
The Chicago Bulls are in the playoffs. In 2011 you would’ve said that made sense, and they probably did it as the one-seed. In 2014 you’d be half-right. They’re in, but they’re sure not the one seed. This is a team that traded arguably it’s second-best player (Luol Deng) to Cleveland mid-season and seemed to be tanking for the draft while watching their former-MVP Derrick Rose hobble around on Professor Lockhart mended legs.
The Bulls are tenacious defensively and are led by Center Joakim Noah and Coach Tom Thibodeau. This could mean that the experience on their roster could overwhelm the Wizards, whose experience leaves a lot to be desired. John Wall will have a more difficult time dribble-driving on this tight Chicago defensive front and the interior presence of Nene and Gortat could be thwarted by the physicality of Carlos Boozer and Noah. Sixth Man of the year candidate Taj Gibson keeps Chicago fresh when Washington has to resort to Al Harrington for offensive output and will limit him effectively.
If Chicago can make Washington a jump-shooting team only (and the Wiz do love to shoot jumpers), then the Bulls will dispatch Washington easily.
Prediction: Bulls in 6
San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (#8)
The Dallas Mavericks entire organization and fan base and any dog that wears a costume of the team for weird Christmas photos had this reaction when they realized earning the 8-seed meant they had to play the Spurs:
Really. The Spurs have swept them both the past two years in the playoffs, including, ESPN Stats and Info tells me, that they’ve lit-up Dallas D for 115 points per 100 possessions. If you’re new to basketball analytics: that’s a lot of points. Even though Rick Carlisle has done a phenomenal job at the helm of Dallas this season (beating out a great Phoenix team with a patchwork squad) that can’t save them. Also, RIP to Monta’ Ellis’ under-ratedly great season. His near-40 point increase in Field Goal percentage on three less shots per game, along with his ability overall to be a teammate, doesn’t mean a thing because Kawhi Leonard shuts him down like a Senior blonde, cheerleader girl does to an awkward, pimply Freshman guy. This doesn’t end up like the movies where the dude gets to kiss her once, either. It’s Stone-Cold Steve Austin rejection.
Prediction: Spurs in 4
Oklahoma City Thunder (#2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (#7)
This is an interesting clash of ideologies. The Grizz slow the tempo down and lob it into their two big men – Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – who dominate the post. On the other side, Oklahoma City runs more than a track team and every rebound they get, they outlet into a transition bucket it seems at least 50% of the time. Oklahoma City was ousted last year by Memphis, but that was after Patrick Beverley took out Russell Westbrook and he was lost for the entire series.
This series, however, is different. The weakest part of the Thunder’s game is their perimeter defense, but unfortunately for Memphis, they aren’t equipped to take advantage as Conley is a pass-first, dribble-drive guy and the team doesn’t shoot well from beyond the arc. There’s something to be said about having Derek Fisher and Caron Butler play crunch minutes for a championship contender, but as long as they produce, they have the legs to carry them through the post-season.
The best shot the Grizzlies have is to get Ibaka in foul trouble and then pick on Kendrick Perkins (hahaha, defense.) and Nick Collison down low.
BUUUUT, Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the game and Memphis relies on their defense and slow tempo to win games. There’s no scenario in which Memphis gets the bear off their back to win this series.
Prediction: OKC in 5
Los Angeles Clippers (#3) vs. Golden State Warriors (#6)
The fun part about this series is that they genuinely don’t like each other. Jermaine O’Neal storming the Clips locker-room to try and fight Blake Griffin back in March (O’Neal, not Bieber) makes this series as entertaining as you’d expect from two franchises near Hollywood.
The Warriors are interesting. They exemplify the basketball axiom of, “Live by the Trey, Die by the Trey.” They lose on their home court to Minnesota, Denver, and Charlotte, but win on the road against Oklahoma City, Phoenix, and Houston.
The biggest problem will be the size-advantage that Los Angeles holds. They have Blake Griffin – who discovered he has handles this year – as well as DeAndre Jordan, who’s developing nicely. Plus Glen Davis, who came over from Orlando at the mid-season sign deadline after being amnestied. The Warriors will be without Andrew Bogut, a guy whose presence is invaluable when designed to flush driving guards out of the lane. That means Golden State, who is already out-coached with Mark Jackson taking on NBA Champ Doc Rivers – will have to play Jermaine O’Neal serious minutes along with David “Defensive Liability” Lee against a solid front-court. Then again, each team is an entire defensive liablity, these games will be as street-ball as it gets, with each team doing their best 1990s UNLV Runnin’ Rebs impersonation of “Let them hit a two, let’s hope we drain a three.”
But, like I said previously, Golden State can swing it’s mood so quickly. If Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry heat up, they could own this series from beyond the arc. But chances are, the three ball can’t come through for them every night. The games will be high-scoring for sure, but the Clippers have the pieces to put together a complete series.
Prediction: Clippers in 7
Houston Rockets (#4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (#5)
Dwight Howard drops a match on a tank of propane every time the Rockets play the Blazers because BOOM! he goes off. Robin Lopez, better at defending than flashy big man LaMarcus Aldridge, gets owned down on the block. Omer Asik can do damage off the bench for Houston, as well, and while Terrence Jones is neither skilled nor big enough to cover Aldridge on the block, the rotations they use will be enough to take care off him.
The Houston Rockets would seem to have an advantage on the perimeter as well as James Harden is the best 2-Guard in the league, but Portland may have an advantage there. Skilled defender Wesley Matthews may be able to contain Harden, they’re both 6-foot-5 220-pounds, but Harden is a horrendous defender. Matthews can take Harden to the block and create more points that Harden will be able to generate with Matthews guarding him.
This series will be a very even one between two similar teams, but overall it’ll be Houston walking off their home court after the last game headed on to the Conference Semi-Finals.
Prediction: Houston in 7
Indiana Pacers (#1) vs. Chicago Bulls (#4)
These teams are very similar in the fact that they are both anchored by an All-Star Center – Noah for the Bulls, Hibbert for the Pacers – and are defensive first squads that, at times, have trouble scoring. The Bulls have seen a re-emergence from former lottery pick Point Guard D.J. Augustin, but it won’t be enough. The Pacers defend the pick-and-roll well, which creates problems for the pick-happy team of Chicago.
The Pacers a dysfunctional bunch, that’s for sure, but if there was a favorable draw for the second-round, it’d be the team that has the same – if not more – trouble scoring. The Indiana Pacers rank 22nd in Offensive Efficiency in the NBA this season with a 101.5, while the Bulls rank 28th – ahead of only Orlando and Philadelphia – at 99.3. This series will be a grinder series with plenty of block shots and low Field Goal percentages. These two teams were the top two in Defensive Efficiency Rating during the regular season with Indiana (96.7) taking a slight edge over Chicago (97.8).
Prediction: Pacers in 5
Miami Heat (#2) vs. Brooklyn Nets (#6)
This series pits two teams together who have played each other four times over the course of the regular season. Brooklyn’s three regulation wins have come by a total of three points. But, Brooklyn has proved they can hang with Miami in a close game (88-87 win in Miami April 8th) or in a shoot-out (101-100 win at home November 1st). They even play at a similar pace – Miami 93.3 and Brooklyn 93.7 over the course of the game.
Obviously Miami has the Big Three and are the favorite to win the series, because, well, when you have the world’s best player with good sidekicks like Dwyane Wade and undervalued Chris Bosh, then you get the benefit of any series forecast.
The biggest thing that Brooklyn brings to the table is the fresh, veteran legs – usually that seems like an oxymoron, but it’s not for the Nets, who have rested Kevin Garnett to the point of not using him at all. The Nets veteran presence are fresh and angry. The Miami Heat have back-to-back champions on their roster, yes, but remember that the Nets do, too. Jason Terry was an important part of 2011 Dallas that beat Miami in the Finals. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were brought over from the Celtics in the off-season and they mean a lot to the Nets psyche – to enter the series unfazed by Miami is huge. If this were Toronto or Washington – two young teams, inexperienced – they would have a difficult time playing against this vaunted team, but the Nets will be unfazed. Terry, Pierce, and Garnett being former champions complements nicely with their role players who have tasted victory, but have been unable to swallow. Andrei Kirilenko, veteran swingman, made it to the Conference Finals once, and Joe Johnson has never advanced past the second round.
Statistically, Miami holds the advantage in Offensive Efficiency Rating (109.0 to 104.4) and Defensive Efficiency Rating (102.9 to 104.9), but there’s something to be said about one team having the other team’s calling card. This roster, especially with Pierce at the four, is built to take advantage of Miami’s deficiencies. Shaun Livingston – who has been playing incredible basketball as of late – will force the Heat to pause at who guards whom. The Nets have three legitimate threats to score in Livingston, Pierce, and Johnson. Does Miami put physicality on the finesse of Johnson? Do they put the bigger James on Pierce and test his old-man strength?
The Nets have proven they can win in Miami. They’ve done it four out of four times. Where’s the reason to think they won’t do it four out of seven times?
Mikhail and the Nets will win the series and send sympathy flowers From Russia, With Love.
Prediction: Nets in 7
San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Houston Rockets (#4)
Listening to Zach Lowe of Grantland on his Podcast last week, “The Lowe Post”, he had guest R.C. Buford on. He’s the San Antonio Spurs General Manager and he shared a story that will prove to be telling in this series. At the end of each season, Coach Gregg Popovich and the staff go to a lodge somewhere and spend five days there, just looking at basketball tapes. They work nearly 18-hour days as they scour film. At that time, anyone can throw out any idea or suggest any rotation or scheme. This is why Popovich is the greatest coach in the league. He spends so much time preparing and he is never caught without a plan.
At the end of last season, Buford said they watched Games 6 and 7 of the Finals to “get it out of their systems” but you should believe Popovich will have that in his mind on replay whenever he steps on the court for a playoff match-up. And when Pop gets mad, you should never – talk to him, for one – but also never pick against him in a series of seven.
The Spurs will create lanes for First-Team All-Pro Tony Parker to drive, they’ll shoot corner 3’s with volume and success. They’ll give the ball to Tim Duncan, and he’ll be more than able to work in the post against Dwight Howard. Neither Terrence Jones nor Omer Asik are good enough second-options to inflict any real damage upon the Spurs, so this series will stretch San Antonio, but not too badly.
Prediction: Spurs in 6
Oklahoma City Thunder (#2) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (#3)
Oklahoma City plays in a college-like atmosphere where the fans are rabid and the stadium is blued-out at every home game. Los Angeles – the Clippers, that is – have been the second-rate team in their own building for the better part of thirty years. That won’t be the deciding factor in the series, but it is worthy of note.
Los Angeles is strong at the 1, 4, and 5 with Chris Paul – the third-best player in the league – Blake Griffin – a top-10 player in the league – and DeAndre Jordan – a man whose game has improved immensely this season and is a defensive force. Oklahoma City is strong at the 1, 3, and 4. They, like the Thunder, have a top-3 player in Kevin Durant who can score from anywhere doing anything. (Really, I think he could get buckets blind-folded, turned around if the right person was guarding him.) They have a good, athletic Point Guard and a stretch five that can shoot, block shots, and rebound in Serge Ibaka.
Both of these teams love to push the ball. The Clippers rank 10th in the league at pace, and the Thunder rank 12th. They’re evenly matched as the Clippers are the most offensively efficient team in the NBA (109.4) to OKC’s 108.1 – but Oklahoma City plays better defense.
No doubt this series will be an entertaining one, but the absence of Los Angeles defense will prove to be the difference.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
Indiana Pacers (#1) vs. Brooklyn Nets (#6)
I’ve trusted Indiana against significantly weaker opponents (Atlanta, Chicago) but are they trustworthy in the third-round against an opponent that can score?
I’ve trusted Brooklyn against strong opponents (Toronto, Miami) but will they have enough left in those old, tired legs by the third-round against an opponent that plays shut-down defense?
There are other factors including, “Will Indiana as a team spontaneously implode if, on team dinner night, Roy Hibbert gets cut in line for the chicken parm by Paul George?”
How about David West, who rooms with Hibbert?
Assuming that Larry Bird’s pep-talk (that will be a little threatening, right?) can unite this team into a team that can flip over the table and stomp on dreams, the Pacers should have the better position going into this series.
The magic powder that Brooklyn has used against Miami apparently doesn’t work against Indiana. The Pacers are 4-0 against them on the season, including beating the Nets whilst on the February skid that saw the Pacers lose to the 76ers.
Not only that, it’s not as if the Nets lost by one, like they did to Miami. They’ve lost by 5, 15, 17, and 1.
Indiana’s stellar team defense and their containment of Joe Johnson, who has the ability to do this, is key.
The Nets, just coming off a grueling series with Miami, will face mighty struggles against a re-energized, re-focused Indiana Pacers team.
It’ll be a scrap as Conference Finals games always are, but it’s the Pacers series to lose.
Prediction: Pacers in 7
San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (#2)
This is how it’s supposed to be. The two best teams from the conference coming together for a final time. This will be the most exciting series of the playoffs (including the Finals) because it pits old vs. new, Father Time vs. Up-And-Coming, slow tempo vs. fast-break for days.
This series, no matter who wins, will be a schoolyard battle between two kids who don’t like each other and turn recess into a heavyweight bout. There will be blood, on both sides, but it’s the side that gets up that will win.
Who will that side be?
There’s the argument that Oklahoma City’s youth and endurance and athleticism will be too much physicality for the Spurs. That Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will tirelessly run-run-run the Spurs back to Texas.
There’s also the argument that Gregg Popovich is a genius (not an argument, fact) and that his absurdly efficient team can play nary a player over 30 minutes per game while blowing teams out and earning the top record in the NBA. That means age could be nullified as a factor because the Spurs have never fallen to pundits who have said, “The window is closed.” And they’ve been saying that for years.
The Spurs do have Tony Parker and San Antonio’s floor general is one of just two players averaging at least 20 points and seven assists per game on 50 percent shooting. That the other is a guy named LeBron. Huh. Good company. Not that Russell Westbrook is a bum, he’s not, and his effectiveness is unquestionably valuable, so that position is a stalemate.
Where Oklahoma City will win the series is by limiting the corner 3 that the Spurs love to let fly so often. Danny Green, the San Antonio swingman, will be guarded by terrifically tenacious Thabo Sefalosha on the perimeter and the Thunder have done a great job all year at limiting the trey ball.
Where San Antonio will win the series is by pounding the ball inside to Tim Duncan. If the Spurs can get Serge Ibaka in foul trouble at all, and he goes out, Tim Duncan will run rampant over the defensive “efforts” made by Kendrick Perkins and roughshod through Tommy-point-seeking Nick Collison. Also, Kawhi Leonard, other than LeBron, is the best defender against Kevin Durant in the NBA, so that gives San Antonio hope. But not much. Iceburg Slim Shootin’ It From the Suburbs, as Jalen Rose likes to say, will still drop 30 per game, hoping to get his team back to the Finals.
And that’s a hope that Coach Pop won’t be denied after watching Ray Allen hit that corner 3 that he loves so dearly, with Tim Duncan not on the floor last season. Coach Pop will not let his team lose.
Prediction: Spurs in 7
San Antonio Spurs (#1) vs. Indiana Pacers (#1)
If you’re thinking, “Wow Sam, you really went out bold and predicted that two number-one seeds would make the NBA Finals, huh?” you would be right. I did pick the conference’s two top-seeds to make the Finals. Perhaps it’s because they’re the best two teams.
To give a position by position breakdown, let’s determine the winner of the NBA’s most coveted title.
PG: Tony Parker > George Hill; Parker is First-Team All-NBA, Hill is not. Strong advantage Spurs.
SG: Lance Stephenson > Danny Green; Stephenson has triple-double potential every night, but could explode mentally during a game. Danny Green is a legitimate outside threat, but Stephenson is athletic enough to guard the perimeter.
SF: Paul George > Kawhi Leonard; Leonard will have a much easier time defending George than he will Iceburg Slim, so that bodes well, but people have lost sight of how good Paul George is. Pablo S. Torre’s ESPN the Mag feature on him displayed what George can really do. This is a more even category than some might realize, but it’s still advantage Indiana.
PF: Tim Duncan > David West; is it okay to give to “Greater Than” symbols to Tim Duncan? Duncan is possibly the best four to ever play the game. He can pass, he can shoot, he can rebound; Tim Duncan has fought Father Time and won, David West shouldn’t be a problem.
C: Roy Hibbert = Tiago Splitter; Hold up! “Sam, you’re making All-Star 7-foot-2 Hibbert equal to TIAGO?! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” Once you calm down, I’d like to point out that Hibbert can just disappear for some games. He’ll get out-muscled on the boards or get in early foul trouble – a nasty penchant of his. San Antonio’s big man is having the best season of his three-year career. He’s averaging 10.5 points and six rebounds on 59.2 percent shooting in just 24.1 minutes per game. While Splitter isn’t the most skilled of shot contesters, he’s one of the best help defenders San Antonio has.
So after all this, it’s tied 2-2-1.
Coach: Gregg Popovich > Frank Vogel; The man has four championships in five tries, Coach Pop is one of – if not the – best coaches to sit the bench of all-time. He’ll have his team geared up to go when the ball is rolled out.
Prediction: Spurs in 6
Prediction: Even though the Spurs win the title, Coach Popovich still scoffs in the media’s general direction.