Can a wounded Andrew Bogut and the Warriors rattle Blake Griffin enough to throw the Clippers off course?
The NBA’s second season has arrived and for the San Antonio Spurs, it couldn’t begin soon enough. The reigning Western Conference Champions finished a league-best 62-20, including season splits with the world champion Miami Heat and the Eastern Conference leaders, the Indiana Pacers. The Spurs are joined by (in the order of seeding): Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks. Here are my first round predictions.
(1) San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Spurs won season series 4-0.
|Game 1:||DAL at SAS | Sun., Apr. 20, 1:00 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 2:||DAL at SAS | Wed., Apr. 23, 8:00 PM ET | NBATV|
|Game 3:||SAS at DAL | Sat., Apr. 26, 4:30 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 4:||SAS at DAL | Mon., Apr. 28, 9:30 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 5:||DAL at SAS | Wed., Apr. 30 | If Needed|
|Game 6:||SAS at DAL | Fri., May 2 | If Needed|
|Game 7:||DAL at SAS | Sun., May 4 | If Needed|
One undeniable characteristic of the 2014 San Antonio Spurs is their incredible depth. Head coach Greg Popovich continues to get the most from one of his most talented rosters to date. No player has averaged more than 30 minutes per contest which is great for the Hall of Fame trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobi and Tony Parker — who missed more games due to rest than injury. The addition of Marco Belinelli was one of the great off-season acquisitions and could pay off handsomely. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have another season of experience and should take on an even larger this postseason. Jeff Ayres, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, Corey Joseph, Patrick Mills and Tiago Splitter bring grit and scoring off the bench.
After 16 NBA seasons, there is no question Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki will go down as one of the game’s greatest scorers. At age 35, Nowitzki still has his signature shooting touch which could keep him in the league for another year or two. The Mavericks themselves are returning to the playoffs after missing out in 2013. Monta Ellis has lost some of his luster since his days with the Golden State Warriors, but is no less dangerous. The steady and unselfish play of point guard Jose Calderon allows scorers like Ellis and Nowitzki to pick their spots. DeJuan Blair,Vince Carter and Shawn Marion give the Mavs proven depth and leadership. Samuel Dalembert is solid when he is locked in defensively. Devin Harris has been a steady hand when spelling Calderon. Forward Brandon Wright is a valuable reserve and one of the Mavericks best defenders.
The Mavericks lost all four games to the Spurs by totals of 9, 22, 6 and 9, respectively. In the loss on April 10th the Spurs were without Tony Parker, but Tim Duncan played nearly 40 minutes. If the Mavericks are going to give the Spurs any trouble Ellis and Nowitzki will need to get to the free throw line — which means driving the ball — a tough task against an airtight Spurs defense. I don’t see the Spurs trying to keep the Mavs around for long with Houston or Portland looming in the second round.
Spurs in five.
(4) Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Rockets won season series 3-1
|Game 1:||POR at HOU | Sun., Apr. 20, 9:30 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 2:||POR at HOU | Wed., Apr. 23, 9:30 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 3:||HOU at POR | Fri., Apr. 25, 10:30 PM ET | ESPN|
|Game 4:||HOU at POR | Sun., Apr. 27, 9:30 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 5:||POR at HOU | Wed., Apr. 30 | If Needed|
|Game 6:||HOU at POR | Fri., May 2 | If Needed|
|Game 7:||POR at HOU | Sun., May 4 | If Needed|
The Houston Rockets come into the postseason with a record of 15-9 since March 1st. The Rockets are as loaded as any team in the playoffs and have the components of a championship roster. James Harden, Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin are the veterans of the group, but it’s players like the fearless Patrick Beverley, sniper Chandler Parsons and the emerging Terrence Jones which makes this team a threat. The Rockets are a shoot first, ask questions later team as one of the NBA’s leaders in taking and making three-pointers. This may be a series where Howard is the focal point of the offense for the Rockets. Howard averaged 26 points and 14 boards in their four meetings against the Blazers. The Rockets bench is very good Francisco Garcia, Jordan Hamilton, Donatas Motiejunas and the embattled Omer Asik give the Rockets additional low post threats in a series which may be won in the paint.
Portland head coach Terry Stotts makes his playoff debut and the team is back in the playoffs after missing the last two postseason runs. The Blazers are fifth in overall scoring and led the league in rebounding during the regular season. All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard anchor the offense, but Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews provide the grunt work. Matthews looks to have finally broken through and found a place in the offense, ditto Lopez — who has been silently solid — not missing a start in the last two seasons. Veteran point guard Mo Williams leads a bench which may be without backup center Joel Freeland (sprained MCL).
The James Harden/Wesley Matthews and Patrick Beverley/Damian Lillard matchups will gauge the direction of this series. Howard, by all accounts should continue to dominate the Blazers in the paint. I’m somewhat surprised the Rockets took three out of four by an average of eleven points. Nevertheless, this is the marquee series of the first round and Howard should continue to catch wreck.
Rockets in six.
(3) Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs. (6) Golden State Warriors (51-31)
Season series tied 2-2
|Game 1:||GSW at LAC | Sat., Apr. 19, 3:30 PM ET | ABC|
|Game 2:||GSW at LAC | Mon., Apr. 21, 10:30 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 3:||LAC at GSW | Thu., Apr. 24, 10:30 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 4:||LAC at GSW | Sun., Apr. 27, 3:30 PM ET | ABC|
|Game 5:||GSW at LAC | Tue., Apr. 29 | If Needed|
|Game 6:||LAC at GSW | Thu., May 1 | If Needed|
|Game 7:||GSW at LAC | Sat., May 3 | TNT | If Needed|
Doc Rivers’ gang comes into the playoffs winning 20 of their last 25 games, including an 11-game winning streak. Chris Paul looks to be as close to 100 percent as we’ve seen since missing 18 games with a shoulder injury. The architect of Lob City will look to push the tempo at every opportunity against a smaller Golden State squad. Blake Griffin averaged 24 points and nearly 10 rebounds in what was arguably his finest season. DeAndre Jordan was the greatest benefactor from the arrival of Rivers. The center started all 82 games, averaged 35 minutes per game and posted 10 points 14 rebounds and 2.5 blocks every night. Sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Darren Collison and J.J. Redick give the Clippers outside shooting to offset the paint presence of Grifffin and Jordan. Glen Davis, Willie Green and Hedo Turkoglu round out a solid second unit.
As disappointed as some are at the Golden State Warriors season, it should in no way cost head coach Mark Jackson his job. The reality is the Warriors can’t sneak up on anyone anymore, and any organization who fires a coach after a 50-win season needs to be taken to task. The health of center Andrew Bogut (fractured rib) is paramount for the Warriors at this point, Jackson has already inked Jermaine O’Neal as the starter for Game 1. Steph Curry continues to amaze with his ability as a distributor as much as he does with his shooting. Klay Thompson and David Lee balance out the Warriors offense as the only other double-digit scorers. The Warriors acquired defensive-minded forward Andre Iguodala for a series such as this. Iggy is one of a number of players who are interchangeable — which may lessen the blow if Bogut is limited. Harrison Barnes was dynamite in the postseason last year and is expected to rise to the occasion once again.
Chris Paul vs. Steph Curry or Steph Curry vs. Chris Paul, no matter how you flip it, this is a matchup of two of the game’s best lead guards. The absence of Bogut will rob Golden State of a physical presence –which set the tone in their four meetings this season (each team won on its home floor). As noted earlier, the Clippers will look to run against the Warriors and try to shut down their three-point attack (the Clippers were top in the NBA in three-point defense). The Warriors have to do some running of their own while maximizing their perimeter attack. Other than that, the Clippers simply have too much firepower.
Clippers in six.
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)
Thunder won season series 3-1
|Game 1:||MEM at OKC | Sat., Apr. 19, 9:30 PM ET | ESPN|
|Game 2:||MEM at OKC | Mon., Apr. 21, 8:00 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 3:||OKC at MEM | Thu., Apr. 24, 8:00 PM ET | TNT|
|Game 4:||OKC at MEM | Sat., Apr. 26, 9:30 PM ET | ESPN|
|Game 5:||MEM at OKC | Tue., Apr. 29 | If Needed|
|Game 6:||OKC at MEM | Thu., May 1 | If Needed|
|Game 7:||MEM at OKC | Sat., May 3 | TNT | If Needed|
What we’ve witnessed from Kevin Durant this season has been nothing short of amazing. If you remember Durant and the Thunder opened the season without guard Russell Westbrook — who was recovering from a knee injury suffered in last year’s playoffs. Durant took it upon himself to shoulder the load. With Westbrook back in the lineup, the all-galaxy forward hasn’t missed a beat and just might snatch up his first NBA MVP Award. There have been no complaints about Westbrook’s shot selection this season, instead what we’ve witnessed is a player who is getting better each season. Westbrook like Durant can get any shot he wants and there are enough shots to go ’round. I don’t think he bought into that notion earlier in his career. Reggie Jackson has turned into a reliable scorer and gives Westbrook a more natural look at the two spot. Serge Ibaka has developed as scoring touch to go with his relentless defense (2.7 blocks per game), Ibaka can double at center when Kendrick Perkins needs a rest. Rookie Steven Adams has made the most of his 15 minutes per game with respectable averages of four points and four boards. Derek Fisher remains as the steady veteran who gives the Thunder intangibles we don’t see in black and white. Adding Caron Butler gives the Thunder one more scorer with tons of experience.
The Grizzlies were dealt a massive blow when rookie guard Nick Calathes was suspended for twenty games for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy, the suspension begins immediately. The Grizzlies aren’t the same team we saw grind their way to the Western Conference Finals last season. The firing of head coach Lionel Hollins did something psychologically to this team and they have not been the same. Dave Joerger did an admirable job in his first season as head coach, it will be a point of note to see who sticks around for season No. 2. Zach Randolph still managed to post 17 and 10 this season, Mike Conley remains one of the more explosive, yet underrated guards in the game. Marc Gasol is getting back to form after missing 23 games earlier this season. Memphis has a solid defensive core led by Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, Jerryd Bayless is a reserve who can get hot for stretches.
The Thunder were hoping to draw the Grizzlies after they were bounced by their in-season rivals in the second round last season. Memphis just isn’t the same team we saw last season, neither are the Thunder.
Thunder in five.