NBA Playoff Preview
The past NBA regular season has been one to remember. There have been great storylines with everything from the Dwight-Kobe saga in L.A, to James Harden and Jeremy Lin bringing their talents to Houston, with battles for playoff seeds going down to the final day of the regular season. Every matchup is a must see game, with NBA stars going head-to-head every night. With the playoffs fast approaching, here are my predictions for the all of the first round of matchups.
#1 Miami Heat vs. #8 Milwaukee Bucks
Regular Season Record: 66-16
Strengths: The Miami Heat have been one of the best teams in the league all season long. With the help of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, the Heat have claimed the league’s best record and subsequently, home court advantage throughout the entire playoffs. Miami has a killer transition game that turns opponents’ turnovers into fast break points, faster than anyone can keep up with. They boast one of the league’s most efficient offenses, and they have the highest team field goal percentage in the league. If all else fails, Miami can beat you by just overloading you with James and Wade. All of these strengths give Miami a huge advantage over whoever they are playing.
Weaknesses: If Miami has one weakness, it is their ability to rebound. They rank 30th in the league with 38.6 boards per game. This could allow for Milwaukee to grab offensive rebounds and thus, obtain extra opportunities on the offensive end.
Regular Season Record: 38-44
Strengths: Milwaukee does not have many strengths, especially when going up against Miami, but their biggest strength is their ability to rebound the ball. The Bucks are fifth in the league with 44 rebounds per game. This will be a big advantage if they can force Miami to miss shots. They have an athletic backcourt in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Both guards have the ability to score 30 points on any given night. Milwaukee also has an upcoming star in center Larry Sanders. He is a force on the defensive end, averaging 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.
Weaknesses: What strengths Milwaukee has defensively, turn into weakness on offense. They are the third worst in the NBA in field goal percentage, shooting at a mark of just under 44%. While Jennings and Ellis have the ability to score 30 points a game each, they both have a reputation for having a poor shot selection, which will result in transition points for Miami. Also, the Bucks have been playing their worst stretch of basketball of the season, losing 12 of their last 16 games. Finally, they do not have enough wing athleticism to contain James and Wade, which will be key in pulling the upset over Miami.
Outlook: Milwaukee is, without a doubt not, a team that Miami should overlook by any means, but the Bucks are fighting an uphill battle. I expect Milwaukee to win a game or two on pure hustle and heart, but in the end, it will be Miami moving on to the next round. Miami wins 4-1.
#2 New York Knicks vs. #7 Boston Celtics
Regular Season Record: 54-28
Strengths: The New York Knicks have finally been playing the type of basketball that many expected of them when they first acquired superstar forward, Carmelo Anthony. The 28-year-old forward from Syracuse is the Knicks biggest strength in their matchup with the hated Celtics of Boston. He recently captured his first ever scoring title and has been efficient as ever this year, scoring 28.7 points per game on 45% shooting. He has the ability to score 50 points on any given night, and should take advantage of a weakened and old Celtics squad. Another strength for the Knicks is their team defense. They only give up 95.7 points per game, good for seventh in the league.
Weaknesses: While Anthony is a bona fide superstar, the Knicks have a tendency to stand around and let him go one-on-one for several possessions at a time. This strategy will not work against a stingy Celtics defense. In addition, New York lives and dies on their three point shooting, which if it fails, could cost New York their chance to advance.
Regular Season Record: 41-40
Strengths: The Boston Celtics have faced more adversity this season than they have in a long time. They have been hit with more injuries than most teams can handle, including the loss of their star point guard Rajon Rondo. But if there is one thing that Boston does and does well, it is that they always seem to come together and play great team basketball around playoff time. With the recent Boston Marathon bombings fresh in their minds, the Celtics have more than enough to play for and should come out swinging. They are led by star forward Paul Pierce, who averaged 18.6 points per game during the regular season. The C’s also play excellent team defense, led by forward Kevin Garnett, and emerging talent Avery Bradley.
Weaknesses: There is just no other way to say it, the Celtics are old and slow. They have struggled all year against teams that can run the fast break, and the Knicks will run whenever they are given the chance. Also, I don’t know if Boston has enough offensive firepower to keep up with New York, as they only scored 96.5 points per game during the regular season.
Outlook: This should be one of the more entertaining first round matchups. These two teams always show up to play against one another, and they just flat out do not like each other. Even with Boston’s old age and lack of offense, they have a lot of pride on the line and will come to play. I expect New York to advance in a hard fought series over Boston. New York wins 4-2.
#3 Indiana Pacers vs. #6 Atlanta Hawks
Regular Season Record: 49-32
Strengths: Indiana will never be confused with being a flashy, fun to watch team. But they do know how to win. They have improved their record by at least five wins every year for the last four years. They are the best defensive team in the league, holding opponents to a 42% shooting percentage. They grab the most rebounds per game as a team with a mark of 45.9. They are very solid at every position on the floor and have a deep bench. The Pacers are led by guard/forward Paul George, who figures to be one of the top 10 players in the league in two to three years. The 22 year old averaged 17.6 points, 4.1 assists and 7.6 rebounds per game this year. Indiana is also lead by lengthy center Roy Hibbert, who makes a huge impact on their defense with 2.6 blocks per game.
Weaknesses: While Indiana is great defensively, their offense tends to sputter and stall. They scored only 94 points per game, which was good for 23rd in the league. With their weapons, Indiana should be able to score closer to 100 points, if they are fully committed offensively. Also, Hibbert is known for getting into foul trouble, which could leave the Pacers with a big hole in the middle of their defense.
Regular Season Record: 44-38
Strengths: Atlanta is a team that everyone seems to forget about because they do not have a ton of star power. The Hawks however, have put together another solid season and should be a tough out in the playoffs. They were second in the league in assists during the regular season with 24.5 per game. They have no problems sharing the ball between teammates and this will help them against a tough Indiana defense. The Hawks are led by their talented frontcourt of Josh Smith and Al Horford. Both players average over 17 points per game and both pulled down more than eight rebounds a game. Both Smith and Horford are young, athletic players that will help spread the floor for Atlanta.
Weaknesses: Unfortunately, Atlanta never seems to have enough firepower to advance past the first round. Their guards do not have a great ability to create their own shot off of the dribble, and thus, they only scored about 98 points per game during the regular season. Also, their defense has been suspect throughout the season, allowing opponents to shoot 45% from the field. Finally, the Hawks’ bench is not very strong and will not be able to compete against the likes of Indiana’s bench.
Outlook: Atlanta might win a game, maybe two, but I expect Indiana to come in focused and ready to go from the start. Their league-leading defense should contain Smith and Horford, and their bench will provide a huge spark against Atlanta’s. Indiana should have little trouble advancing. Pacers win 4-1.
#4 Brooklyn Nets vs. #5 Chicago Bulls
Regular Season Record: 49-33
Strengths: The Nets are loaded with talent. In their first season in Brooklyn, they did not disappoint, capturing the fourth seed in the East. Lead by star point guard Deron Williams, Brooklyn loves to get up and down the floor, scoring almost 97 points per game. Since the all-star break, Williams has averaged 22.9 points and eight assists per game. They also have other scoring options in guard Joe Johnson (16.3 ppg), center Brook Lopez (19.4 ppg) and power forward Andray Blatche (10.3 ppg). The Nets are also 6th defensively in points allowed, at 95.1 per game.
Weaknesses: Brooklyn tends to fall into the trap of playing one on one vs. their opponent. Whether it’s Williams or Johnson, the Nets will stand around and wait for one of those two to make a play, thus causing their offense to become stagnant. They are also 27th in the league in assists with a mark of 20.3 per game. If the Nets do not pass the ball around against a tough Bulls defense, they will have a hard time advancing to the next round.
Regular Season Record: 45-37
Strengths: Head coach Tom Thibodeau always prepares his team to play hard and focused, no matter who it is against. He has always had a reputation as a defensive coach, and this year has been no different. Without star point guard Derrick Rose, who’s missed the whole season recovering from a torn ACL, the Bulls placed third in the league in points allowed with a mark of 92.9 per game. Chicago also is eight in the league in rebounding at 43.2 boards per game. Leading the Bulls is small forward Luol Deng, who is one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Deng averaged 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game during the regular season, and will be Chicago’s prime scoring option against Brooklyn.
Weaknesses: One of the Bulls glaring weaknesses is their lack of ability to score. As a team, they rank 29th in scoring at 93.2 points per game. Chicago also ranks in the bottom half of the league in three point shooting at 35%. If they cannot score consistently, the Bulls will not be around long in this year’s playoffs.
Outlook: This will be the closest matchup in the Eastern Conference for the first round. I expect a hard fought, fun to watch series, with Brooklyn advancing because they have too much talent for Chicago to stop. Brooklyn wins 4-3.
#1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #8 Houston Rockets
Regular Season Record: 60-22
Strengths: The Thunder are the consensus pick to come out of the Western Conference and make a second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. They are led by superstar forward Kevin Durant, who became the 6th player in the elusive 50-40-90 club. He shot 51% from the field, 42% from three point range, and 91% from the foul line. He has risen to being one of the top three players in the game today, and continues to get better. Oklahoma City also boasts one of the most dynamic point guards in the game in Russell Westbrook. The Thunder do everything well. They score almost 106 points per game, pull down 43.6 rebounds per game and hold opponents to just under 97 points per game. They are hard to beat on a bad day, and when they play to their full potential they are flat out unbeatable.
Weaknesses: The Thunder’s biggest weakness has, and always will be the play of Russell Westbrook. Although he is a threat to get a triple double on any given night, he can also turn in a 5-18 performance with only a few assists and a lot of turnovers. He only shot 44% from the field this year, something that he will have to improve on if the Thunder want to get through a tough Western Conference.
Regular Season Record: 45-37
Strengths: The Houston Rockets love to play a fast paced, run up and down the court style, and they are good at it. They were second in the league in scoring at 106 points per game, led by emerging star guard James Harden. Harden, traded from Oklahoma City to Houston just before the season started, will be looking to show his old team that they made a mistake. He averaged 25.9 points per game during the regular season, and can light it up from anywhere on the court. As a team, Houston was in the top ten in the league in three point percentage, points, field goal percentage and assists per game. They are a tough out for any team they face, and will not go down without a fight against Oklahoma City.
Weaknesses: The Rockets were in the bottom half of the league in opponent field goal percentage. This will have to improve if they hope to pull the upset over the Thunder. Houston loves to score, but they need to play defense, especially in the playoffs. They will not be given as many chances to run the fast break and thus, will not score as many points. Point guard Jeremy Lin will be a huge factor as well. He has come down to Earth after “Linsanity” last year, and has been inconsistent on both offense and defense this year.
Outlook: James Harden and the Rockets will make things interesting for the Thunder for a bit, but I expect Kevin Durant and company to keep their foot on the gas and advance. Harden will carry Houston to one victory though, proving just how talented he is. Thunder win 4-1.
#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #7 Los Angeles Lakers
Regular Season Record: 58-24
Strengths: The Spurs always seem to be in the thick of things. They have reeled off 14 straight 50 win seasons. They are efficient and hard to stop, even if you know what they are doing. The Spurs are fourth in the league in scoring at 103 points per game, and first overall in assists with 25.1 per game. Point guard Tony Parker is lightning quick and almost always makes the right decision with the ball. Center Tim Duncan is continuing to play well in his 15th season, averaging 17.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. San Antonio will play tough, team defense and will not make a lot of mistakes.
Weaknesses: Injuries always seem to cripple San Antonio. They are already without guard Manu Ginobili, and Parker is nursing some injuries as well. Also, the Spurs do not rebound the ball well, something that Los Angeles will look to take advantage of.
Regular Season Record: 45-37
Strengths: It has been a roller coaster season for the Lakers. They gone through three coaches, injury after injury, and chemistry issues. To top it all off, they will head into this matchup with superstar shooting guard Kobe Bryant, who tore his Achilles three games before the season ended. With that said, Los Angeles still has some players that can contribute. Center Dwight Howard and power forward Pau Gasol are two of the main reasons why the Lakers were fourth in the league in rebounding at 44.8 per game. In addition, they score 102.2 points per game, good for sixth in the league. With Bryant out, look for the Lakers to spread the ball around and score from all angles.
Weaknesses: The Lakers biggest weakness all season was their defense. They were just flat out not good in that department. Los Angeles allowed 101 points per game, putting them in the bottom 10 in the league in scoring defense. With no Bryant, they will be hard pressed to stop any perimeter threats, as he was their best wing defender. Howard will have to step up and keep San Antonio out of the paint while scoring consistently on the offensive end.
Outlook: The Lakers are riding a wave of momentum, having won five games in a row to close the season, and will give San Antonio all that they can handle. With that said, I expect San Antonio to win a hard fought series where every game will be close. San Antonio wins 4-3.
#3 Denver Nuggets vs. #6 Golden State Warriors
Regular Season Record: 57-25
Strengths: If you’ve ever watched the Denver Nuggets play, you have probably enjoyed it a lot. They love to run up and down the court, and they can’t score. They were first in scoring in the league at 106.1 points per game, with eight players scoring over nine points per game. They are athletic at every position and their bench plays very well. Denver is also second in the league in rebounding at 45 boards per game. They were also a league best 38-3 at home during the regular season.
Weaknesses: The Nugget’s biggest weakness is not having a go-to scorer in crunch time. They have several really good players, but no stars. It will be interesting to see who steps up for them late in games. Injuries may also play apart, as Denver has already lost forward and second leading scorer Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL. Forward Kenneth Faried may also miss some time as he nurses an ankle injury.
Regular Season Record: 47-35
Strengths: Like Denver, the Golden State Warriors love to run and gun. They scored the seventh most points per game during the regular season, coming in at 101.2 per game. Led by star point guard Stephen Curry, the Warriors can score from any position on the floor. Forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut help make up a Golden State team that was third in the league in rebounding with 45 per game.
Weaknesses: Golden State’s biggest weakness is defense. They gave up a shade over 100 points per game during the regular season, something they will look to improve upon. Also, their shooting can be inconsistent at times, relying on the three point shot to bail them out.
Outlook: This will be without a doubt the most fun and entertaining series to watch. Both teams will score and score often, so bring lots of popcorn and soda. Denver will narrowly avoid being upset based on the fact that they are nearly unbeatable at home. I’m going with Denver by the slimmest of margins. Denver wins 4-3.
#4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5 Memphis Grizzlies
Regular Season Record: 56-26
Strengths: The Clippers boast a bevy of scorers, and have brought some pride back to their franchise. They were top ten in scoring, assists and opponents points per game during the regular season. Led by star point guard Chris Paul, Los Angeles looks to overcome a similar Memphis team that they defeated in last year’s playoffs. Power forward Blake Griffin will look to create some highlight reel plays and center DeAndre Jordan will try and protect the paint with his shot blocking.
Weaknesses: The Clippers are not the greatest rebounding team, averaging only 41.6 board per game during the regular season. They are also in the bottom five in the league in opponents three point field goal percentage. “Lob City” as they are known, will need to improve upon these things in order to get past a tough, gritty Memphis team.
Regular Season Record: 56-26
Strengths: Memphis is a very well balanced team. They have seven players scoring over eight points per game, and their bench is among the best in the league. The Grizzlies also hold opponents to 89.3 points per game; good for best in the league. Power forward Zach Randolph will need to continue to score and rebound efficiently, and point guard Michael Conley Jr. will need to control the tempo while keeping pace with Chris Paul.
Weaknesses: Memphis does not do a great job scoring the basketball. They rank in the bottom half of the league in field goal percentage, three point percentage and points per game. They will need to improve on all of these if they want to get past a solid Clipper defense.
Outlook: This should be a close series and much like last year’s, should be a defensive, grind-it-out battle every game. The Clippers will advance solely on the fact that they have more talent that Memphis, but an upset is not out of the question. Los Angeles wins 4-2.