Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 NBA Playoff Preview and Predictions


You don’t need me to tell you that the 2014 NBA playoffs will be the most exciting in years. The discrepancy between the East and the West is tremendous in terms of conference quality but within each conference there are great stories…and we know that the Finals are going to be competitive.

The main question for me is do I stick with my pre-season playoff picks or pull a 180 on my champion and other rounds results? I did correctly hit 12 of the 16 playoff teams but seeding ended up…a bit off. That is attributable to the incredible parity within the league because there are few clear favorites.

Since there are no clear favorites this year, the NBA paved the way for a few bold predictions on my part. (Comment with your own below.) Bold prediction #1: Kevin Durant will average 40 in one series. KD has been on a well-documented scoring tear for…well, the length of the season. He joined two of the most elite scorers in NBA history, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, by leading the league in total scoring for five consecutive years. He’s bound to shred opposing defenses throughout these playoffs, but I see him either a) taking advantage of the Grizzlies in round 1 and putting up 40 a game or b) in the Finals turning it up a notch and going full MJ.

Bold prediction #2: no series in the entire playoffs will end in a sweep. The favorite to prove me wrong on this one is Miami over Charlotte, with an outside shot to Chicago shutting down Washington. Joakim Noah and the Bulls truly have an “us against the world” mentality after their front office dealt one of the team’s core players, Luol Deng. They’re even out to prove their own team (management) wrong! But in the end, John Wall and Kemba Walker won’t let it happen. And Dwyane Wade still needs a warm-up series.


The final bold prediction will have to wait for one of the below series analyses. It will be worth the wait…and just remember that these are bold predictions. I’m not out here claiming Indiana will beat Atlanta and calling it anything more than a given. Although if Paul George continues his downward spiral, you never know. And at this rate, Roy Hibbert appears to have a better chance rebounding the saliva Frank Vogel spews after another missed box-out than hauling down a basketball from the glass.

FIRST ROUND

Eastern conference

(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks

When your leader scorers are Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, you’re going to have problems. That’s not to say that Millsap hasn’t improved as a scorer, but you can’t win a playoff series with him leading the way. Gus Fring had a better chance of surviving Hector Salamanca’s murder-suicide blast. It’s unfortunate because an Indiana vs. Charlotte series could have gotten veeeery interesting if Kemba and Al played to their offensive capabilities and the Pacers struggled to score 90. Or even if Al Horford returned (which he won’t). Indiana wins, 4-1

(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards

John Wall is finally here! Like Kyrie Irving, he was one of those guys you looked at and said, “man, why isn’t this guy on a playoff squad?” Well, folks, here he is, battling a ferocious Chicago team that is so good that Brooklyn pulled off the NBA’s first tank-for-a-lower-seed strategy. Although Wall’s FG% leaves much to be desired, his reckless abandon at attacking the rim is something that keeps defenses on their toes. Trevor Ariza might be the most underrated role player in the league, with a respectable 14-6-3, 1.6 steals per game, and a tidy 46-41-77 shooting. Washington will work their wizardry for a couple games but Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah anchor one of the NBA’s best defenses.
            Somewhere in Minnesota, Kevin Love is mulling over his options and banging his head against the snow wondering why he had to get stuck in the Western conference while John Wall gets a free ride to the playoffs. I am now telling Kevin Love EXACTLY where to take his talents (said in Tim Taylor voice from a famous 1971 movie). Chicago wins, 4-2

(2) Miami Heat vs. (6) Charlotte Bobcats

It’s nice that Charlotte gets a shot at the playoffs for the second time in franchise history but we all know how this one will end up. The one minor story that will be interesting to watch play out is MKG defending LeBron. We all know Kidd-Gilchrist for some of his facials, but he won’t be throwing down any on LeBron. His defense, on the other hand, will be interesting to watch. As will how Miami defends Al Jefferson in the post. But “interesting” here is relative. Miami wins, 4-1.


(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets

I tossed and turned over this pick. I got some heat for it from readers, and rightfully so. Both teams are talented but in diametrically opposed ways: one with a grind-it-out half-court offense and another one with high-flyers. Yes, Toronto started from the bottom and now they have Terrence Ross, Kyle Lowry, and Demar Derozan. Those guys make up a terrific trio. But I’m pulling the plug and taking the old guys on this one. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have too much pride to not get out of the first round. Brooklyn wins, 4-3


Western conference

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks

We arrive at the battle for Texas. A bunch of old guys running the show on both ends: Duncan, Ginobili, and Popovich vs. Dirk, Vinsanity Senior, and Shawn Marion. Monta Ellis will provide a match-up problem for San Antonio, but (as always) Dr. Popovich, Ph.D will figure it out. It’s almost pointless analyzing the Spurs because you can try to pull out the “can’t guard Dirk” or “they’re too old” cards but when Pop rests his team for the playoffs you know San Antonio will dine on lesser opponents. Dirk and Monta will pull out a game or two, but Dallas can only dream upsetting the West’s no. 1 seed (cue the nightmarish flashbacks to 2007 for Mavs fans). San Antonio wins, 4-1

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trailblazers

Trailblazers. The Trailblazers. (Skip to 3:01.)


I know I’m not with Lil Wayne on this one, but Houston is simply more talented. The team with the best duo will win this series and that edge has to be given to James Harden and Dwight Howard. Oakland native, Damian Lillard, and All-Star forward, LMA, have a great squad but their stretch in early March was enough to make you wonder about the team that had the best record in the West early in the season. Even if Houston has to remove Dwight from late game situations, Harden + free throw line = wins. Houston wins, 4-2

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

Kevin Durant is not nice and Kevin Durant has not forgotten. The embarrassment that he underwent in the 2013 NBA playoffs losing to the Grizzlies and his improvement since then is enough to lead OKC to the conference semis. The individual games will be competitive, but Memphis will be lucky to win two games. I would not be surprised if bold prediction #1 comes true in round 1. Oklahoma City wins, 4-1.

(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

Not a single ESPN writer chose the Warriors to win, which isn’t surprising considering the Clippers have one of the most loaded rosters in the league. But when you remember that not a single ESPN personality picked Golden State to win round 1 in 2013 (and GS won), I have my ammo for your disagreement with this pick. One topic is obvious, though: this series hinges on the battle of the point guards. Bold prediction #3: Steph Curry proves in this series that he is a better point guard than Chris Paul.
            In the frontcourt, Blake vs. DLee will be fun to watch, too. I’m going to go ahead and place the over-under for fights in this series at 2.5. I’m taking the over. Golden State wins, 4-3.


CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

Eastern conference

(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (4) Chicago Bulls

Luck is truly in Indiana’s favor for these playoffs. They should be thanking Brooklyn for the worlds-most-interesting-tank because if this were Brooklyn instead of Chicago, I’d take Brooklyn. Alas, it is not and the reality is that Chicago is a poor-man’s Indiana. Joakim Noah is a contender for NBA Defensive Player of the Year but he doesn’t have the support around him to score…even against an offensively-challenged Indiana team. This series is more likely to have teams score under 80 than above 100. Indiana wins, 4-2.

(2) Miami Heat vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets

Everybody is salivating over two potential individual matchups this post-season: LeBron vs. Durant and LeBron vs. Paul Pierce. The former would make for the most interesting Finals matchup since Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird and the latter is the matchup of someone who can be perceived as passive vs. one of the fieriest competitors in the NBA (as a black mamba hisses at me). PP34 and KG are well past their prime and will probably log limited minutes but multiple fourth quarter battles of King James vs. The Truth? Yes, please.
            Jason Kidd has pulled off a minor miracle with the new Nets but ultimately playing against the best player of the game will be enough to win what would be a very exciting series. Miami wins, 4-3.

Take a reading break to enjoy the facial expressions on LeBron's and D-Will's faces. Joe's isn't too bad, either.

Western conference

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (4) Houston Rockets

Kawhi Leonard defending James Harden would be great to watch. James Harden not guarding Kawhi Leonard would also be fun to watch. Defense matters against the Spurs, because in addition to that PhD, Popovich also has a surgical degree in taking apart bad defenses. The man who popularized Hack-a-Shaq will not be afraid to take similar measures against Houston. The Rockets will run out of fuel in San Antonio. San Antonio wins, 4-2

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

The league’s best scorer, Kevin Durant, vs. one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, Andre Iguodala. Last time it didn’t end so well, with KD matching Steph Curry’s career-high in scoring for a single game but over the course of a seven-game series, this could get reaaaally interesting. My pre-season pick to make it to the Finals was the Golden State Warriors, but I can’t in my right mind pick them to beat OKC without Andrew Bogut. If the Warriors come together in this series and really click—and shoot—they certainly have an outside shot (no pun intended). Either way, this would also be another fun series to watch unfold. Oklahoma City wins, 4-2

CONFERENCE FINALS

Eastern conference

Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat

Indiana has made this the best rivalry in the NBA with their utter hatred of the Heat. While the Heat-haters had a viable reason to believe that the Pacers could win the East early in the season, it doesn’t look that way now. Dwayne Wade has been on a training program this entire year that has set him up to be as healthy as possible during the playoffs—like a Popovich scheme to the extreme. Wade told the Miami Herald that his knee is doing “very well” and “a lot better than going into it last year.” And with Chris Bosh emerging as a clutch shooter, the Heat are well-prepared for yet another deep post-season run. Miami wins, 4-3

Western conference

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

This series is like Toronto vs. Brooklyn 2.0. The young guys vs. the old guys…except San Antonio leaning heavily on Kawhi and OKC leaning (lightly) on Derek Fisher from the bench. Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard would be yet another heavyweight battle, but this is the year of the Durantula. OKC’s bench does cause some worry in this series because San Antonio with Patty Mills & Co. make up the second-best second unit in basketball (Clippers).
            Here’s where a bonus prediction comes in. Durant and Westbrook will need someone to help step up in crunch-time because the greats always do as the playoffs wear on. Bold prediction #4: Derek Fisher hits a game-winner in the Western conference finals.
            And that will be enough to propel OKC over San Antonio. Oklahoma City wins, 4-3.

NBA FINALS

Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

It would take the second time in three years for LeBron James and Kevin Durant to meet in the Finals for this to finally be considered a rivalry. Neither player has a particularly hostile personality but this Finals matchup would certainly change that. 1) Kevin Durant is desperate to prove that he is not the second-best player in the league. A championship would bolster his argument for best in the league, especially against LeBron and the Heat. 2) LeBron knows KD is coming. He feels the doubters questioning his team and knows if Miami doesn’t win this year that there is a chance the team falls apart with Wade’s ailing knees.
            KD made me question my pre-season pick, but I predicted Miami to win the 2012 and 2013 titles so I’m sticking with them for 2014 and the first three-peat since the 00-02 Lakers. LeBron puts up 30-8-7 and confirms his position as the greatest forward in NBA history with another Finals MVP win. Miami wins the NBA Finals, 4-3.



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