After a pretty slow start—the home team won the opening game of each series comfortably—the first-round of the NBA playoffs caught fire. Setting aside the Spurs/Heat sweeps of their lackluster opponents, every series was competitive. The Celtics and Rockets attempted to make history by coming back from 0-3 down in their series, but came up short after valiant efforts, while the Bulls overcame the Nets in a 7-game series that surprised many by being one of the more entertaining tilts of the first-round. And then there’s Steph Curry. He’s awesome; enough said…well, I’ll say a little more about him later.
So eight more teams have fallen by the wayside, and eight are closer to the ultimate goal of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. Here’s how the second-round breaks down:
Miami Heat (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (5)
It feels as though the Miami Heat have been resting for so long (Thanks Milwaukee!) that people are almost forgetting they’re still in the 2013 playoffs. They took care of business against the Bucks in a thoroughly professional and ruthless manner—they weren’t spectacular, but they didn’t have to be. It seemed like the Bucks hung around in each game for a couple quarters, before a 10 or 15 point run would blow the game wide open. And that was it, game over. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers made the corners 3s they’ve made all year (you can’t beat this team when those go down), LeBron continued to make high percentage shots, and importantly and ominously, Dwayne Wade got plenty of rest. The Heat are just warming up.
For the Bulls, things weren’t quite as smooth. For starters, they’re not the Heat so it was always going to be more of a struggle in their series with the Nets. But the absence of Luol Deng (sorry folks, you can’t play basketball after getting a spinal tap) for the last two games, and Kirk Hinrich, made their 7-game series win all the more impressive. This is a team that does the unglamorous, gritty, and underappreciated things extremely well—setting screens, chasing down loose balls, getting deflections etc.—and just like with Popovich’s Spurs, there’s a system in place. A hard-nosed defensive system which everyone buys into, and it’s hard not to root for the Bulls because of it. Joakim Noah personifies all that is great about that system. Don’t ever omit his name in any ‘best big man in the NBA’ discussion.
Unfortunately for Chicago, it’s going to be hard to get past the Heat on grit and determination alone. At this stage it’s clutching at straws to hope Rose returns, and with Deng and Hinrich’s status still unknown, the Bulls are one banged-up team. The Heat, on the hand, are well rested, injury free, and will be raring to go against a team that, quite frankly, they love to hate. Bulls’ fans can take solace in their 2 victories over Miami in the regular season, including the inspiring win that broke Miami’s historic streak, but it’ll be a different story in the playoffs. The Bulls struggle on offense—every set has to be executed to perfection—while the Heat can score in a multitude of ways, and have the defense to shut the opposition down. The Bulls will steal a game in Chicago, and will continue to play spirited basketball, but the Heat will triumph in 5.
New York Knicks (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (3)
After struggling for large chunks of their respective series, it’s pretty tough to get a good gauge on the Knicks and Pacers. Are the Knicks the team that shut down the Celtics for 3 games, moved the ball around to create space, and got timely scoring from Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith? Or are they the team that looked flat in Games 4 and 5 of that series, couldn’t score from the outside, and became infatuated with running isolation plays down the stretch of Game 6, as they almost blew a 26-point lead and looked scared to death? It’s hard to tell. By the same measure, who are the Indiana Pacers? The team that blew out the Hawks in 3 games at home, matching their stifling defense with explosive offense, or the team that was blown out twice by a distinctly average Atlanta Hawks side on the road?
At their very best, of course, the Knicks are a team that spreads the floor brilliantly, running their offense through Melo who can score or create open shots for everyone else by drawing double-teams. The Pacers’ identity revolves around their gritty, stifling defense, led by the frontcourt tandem of David West and Roy Hibbert, and the brilliant two-way play of Paul George, who was excellent in the Atlanta series. So assuming that we get the best of each team, we’re in for a long, tough series—a series that may evoke memories of those classic Pacers-Knicks match-ups from the mid-90s.
The Pacers will undoubtedly create match-up problems for the Knicks—Melo won’t be able to guard David West at the 4, for example—but ultimately the Knicks will be able to create more offense in games that will likely be low scoring. Paul George is a fantastic defender, but if he’s put on Melo for long stretches, it will affect his offensive game, especially considering that Woodson is likely to throw Iman Shumpert at him. And assuming that J.R. Smith will play more like he did in the regular season, and less like he did in the final games of the Celtics series (a big assumption, I know) the Knicks will be able to create shots in the key moments. Finally winning a playoff series after 13 long years, and against the hated Celtics, lifts a huge monkey off the Knicks’ back. They’ll use that momentum to get past Indiana, but only just. Knicks in 7.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
So, straight off the bat, let’s lay a couple of silly notions to rest: 1. The Grizzlies made a mistake in trading Rudy Gay, and 2. The Thunder are better without Russell Westbrook. Firstly, no disrespect to Gay, but the Grizzlies are absolutely a better team without him—it’s addition by subtraction in that regard. They now have a clear identity—like they did in 2011 when Gay was injured—and they realize that their strengths lie in their low-post, inside-out game. Against the Clippers, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were monstrous. Z-Bo in particular was unplayable, dominating the offensive glass and posting-up so deep that it was practically impossible to stop him when he caught the ball. Mike Conley also emerged as a star in the series, matching Chris Paul stride for stride, and crucially, the Grizzlies got timely outside scoring from Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless off the bench.
But on to Westbrook…
Sometimes, as Joni Mitchell says, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Scott Brooks and the Thunder understood what they had in Westbrook, but too many people in the media failed to understand his importance to the Thunder. The focus has often been placed on the fact that he shoots a lot—perhaps too much for a point-guard—and that he takes shots away from Durant. But, as is often stressed by his teammates, Westbrook needs to score. OKC just doesn’t get enough from their big men and his 25 points per game are vital—even more so now, given the absence of a certain James Harden. And Westbrook’s absence was felt in the Rockets series—they missed his scoring, his assists, his defense, and his overall energy and passion. The Thunder came through, but it wasn’t easy. So much pressure is now riding on Kevin Durant to score 40 points a game, rebound, and create shots for teammates.
And Lionel Hollins will look to make life incredibly difficult for KD. Memphis won’t be able to shut him down entirely—no team can—but Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince will do their best to get the ball out of his hands and make every shot a contested jumper. Hollins will be happy to double Durant and let the likes of Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and Kevin Martin try to beat them from the perimeter. On the positive side for OKC, Reggie Jackson has played extremely well at point-guard, while Nick Collison has always done a great job defending Z-Bo, a key match-up in this series. Durant is good enough to win games on his own in this series, but the locked-in Grizzlies will be too tough for OKC minus Westbrook. Memphis in 7.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
Okay, we did it again. We buried the Spurs while they were still alive and they came busting out through the cemetery ground, pissed, and as good as ever. To be fair, the way their season ended it was mighty tempting to write off San Antonio. Ginobli was injured—or so we thought—Parker looked like he was 40% healthy, and Stephen Jackson was let go at the last minute, suggesting some potential locker-room turmoil. But no, the Spurs are fine. Parker looks to be playing close to his best, Duncan is a freak of nature, and Ginobli looks like a guy who can once again give the Spurs 15 points off the bench. Oh yeah, and they have a host of fantastic role players buying into everything that Gregg Popovich is selling. They barely broke a sweat against the woeful Lakers, but their second-round opponents will give them much more to think about.
Speaking of writing off teams, few people were willing to pick the Warriors over the Nuggets (myself included), but the fearless Dubs proved the doubters wrong. In the most entertaining first-round series the Warriors were fantastic. After David Lee went down with a torn hip flexor (he’s back now, inexplicably) and they dropped a heartbreaker in Game 1, it looked all over. But the Warriors shot over 60% from the field in Game 2, and won Games 3 and 4 in a raucous Oracle Arena (the best home court advantage in the NBA) before closing out the series in Game 6. Of course, Mark Jackson’s side was led by Steph Curry, the MVP of the playoffs thus far. No one is more exciting to watch right now—when was the last time that you screamed for a player to shoot a three-pointer 5 seconds into the shot clock? No shot seems like a bad shot, he’s that good. And Curry has been given ample support by the other member of the ‘splash brothers’, Klay Thompson, and a host of other guys punching well above their weight; rookies Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, and the likes of Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, and a rejunvanated Andrew Bogut.
But while Steph Curry has been lighting it up, the Spurs will have been resting, and Popovich will have been plotting—plotting ways to stop Curry. He’s such a great shooter, with such a quick release, that you can never completely shut him down, but the Spurs have the weapons to make his life hard. When the Nuggets throw size at Curry, Iguodala in particular, they bothered him, and Popovich will likely stick Kawhi Leonard on Curry the entire series. The onus will then be on the rest of the Warriors to make shots, and you’ve got to figure that their percentages will drop at some point. At the other end the Spurs have a gazillion weapons on offense—unlike the Nuggets, they can hit outside shots. Duncan will give the Warriors’ frontcourt fits, while Tony Parker will be a nightmarish match-up for any Warriors guard. I hate to bet against Golden States, considering that I did it in the first-round, but the Spurs will be too strong. Curry and the Warriors fans make the series interesting, but the Spurs prevail in 6.