Monday, May 5, 2014

NBA Second Round Predictions: Two To Watch, Two To Wince

Um, Yup
As we get down to eight teams left in the Association's crucible, it becomes even more apparent as to how the league's westward tilt is just so extreme, and so, well, dangerous. There's going to be up to a week of games where only the West will be playing, only the West will be entertaining, and only the West... will be watching. Where most of America, well, isn't, at least by population count.

But hey, I work from home and can live late hours, so what do I care if the Association wants to hide their best action in plain sight? It's no skin off my nose. But by the time everyone will be watching, it'll be a lot less entertaining than, well, the early days. Let's get into it.

WASHINGTON vs. Indiana: Wizards in six

Two months ago, this would have been unthinkable. The Pacers were a defensive juggernaut, a lock to go at least two rounds in the weak East, and a club with a borderline MVP candidate in wingman Paul George. They had the a top three defensive center in Roy Hibbert, a candidate for Most Improved Player in the mercurial Lance Stephenson, and a hard as nails coach in Frank Vogel. They had classic secondary scoring big man assets in David West and Luis Scola. Their path to the top had been measured, orderly, and to the plan of past NBA champions. Step by step, brick by brick, safe as houses.

And then they traded for Evan Turner. And then it all went to hell.

That is, of course, unfair and simplistic and probably not the real cause of the trouble. Turner is just a bench player, nothing of any real consequence, and nothing that have the power to stop a well-run team. But well-run teams don't take on guys like Turner for the stretch drive; they stay with their own picks, and let them gel with the utmost in self-confidence. The Pacers, sensing a distressed asset that could make their bench unit better, moved in... and clearly, it set up a chain of weirdness. Maybe now, Vogel doesn't get the same attention in practice. Maybe now, Stephenson spends his minutes looking over his shoulder. Maybe now, the team doesn't benefit from Danny Granger in the locker room, the guy that had been here longer than everyone else.

In any event, they haven't been the same since. They stumbled down the stretch, looking for all the world like they didn't care if they got the top seed. They fell behind the vastly inferior Hawks, got back to even, then lost Game Five at home by miles. They gutted their way through a road win in Six, then got the first tolerable game from Hibbert in months to help win Game Seven. And now they face a Wizards team that's showing everyone that potential can arrive faster than anyone expects.

DC has a backcourt that's crazy young, but wildly talented. PG John Wall can go by anyone, and SG Bradley Beal is the best pure shooter left in the playoffs. (Light a candle for Stephen Curry.) Their front court is underrated but effective, with C Marcin Gortat a positive on both ends of the court, PF Nene Hilario a top six option when healthy, and SF Trevor Ariza with deep playoffs experience and a top-tier defensive game. They need Wall and Beal to be more experienced to be truly dangerous, but they work together, they are confident, and they've got no reason to fear the Pacers now. They'll have a hard time putting them away, and they are always an injury away from serious trouble, since they are genuinely thin... but they'll get it done.

Brooklyn at MIAMI - Heat in five

As always, there are real questions about how good the Heat really are. They gave up the #1 seed without much concern, they were 0-4 against the Nets this year, they are a terrible rebounding team with serious interior defense issues, and they spent much of the year yawning during games and looking about as interested as, well, a club that's been to the mountain top over and over again. LeBron James didn't quite let Kevin Durant take the MVP award, but take it he did, and Dwyane Wade was a part timer at best. If it weren't for the softness of the Conference, all of this might be, well, a story. Even their first round sweep of the Bobcats seems fraudulent, since the 'Cats lost their everything (power forward Al Jefferson) to an ever increasing amount of injury, and, well, um, Bobcats.

So why do I like them to win fairly easily? Three points.

1) Brooklyn just barely -- and we do mean barely -- survived a best of seven against all of Canada against the Raptors, in a series that could be charitably described as a coin flip. They aren't exactly a juggernaut themselves.

2) The Nets operate in crunch time through SG Joe Johnson, who presents matchup issues due to his size and strength at the position. Which isn't any real issue for the Heat, since they can just rotate LeBron James on him when needed. Paul Pierce and Deron Williams aren't good enough, from a percentage basis, to get this done, especially with Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers adding additional defensive firepower... I just don't see them scoring when it matters. At all.

3) Miami has another gear. Brooklyn doesn't. When the money's on the table, the Hear are able to flip the switch, especially with this much rest. So long as they aren't rusty to start this series, or prone to getting hoodwinked by the old Celtic veterans, they'll get this done. And continue their leisurely tour to the NBA Finals.

Portland at SAN ANTONIO - Spurs in seven

Both teams were taken to the limit in the first, with the Spurs having a rather easy extra game to manage at home, while the Blazers pulled out an amazing last-second bailout in six against the very game Rockets. The Spurs were uncharacteristically erratic in crunch time against the Mavs, but credit where due; that team had Dirk Nowitzki, and Monta Ellis isn't exactly hopeless, either.

They'll face a better and worse team in the Blazers, who have a dramatically better point guard in Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldrige in the prime of his career, and a fine third option in Nicolas Batum; all of that front line work is better than what the Mavs run out there right now. But the Portland bench is much weaker, and they just might be a little giddy after finally winning a playoff series.

In the end, I think the Spurs hold home court, get sneaky production from their collection of parts, and be more effective than the Rockets, who were doomed by weak defensive work from too many positions to get over the top.

Oh, and the Spurs have the best coach in NBA history, too. That'll help, too. And it will be pretty amazing to watch.

Los Angeles Clippers at OKLAHOMA CITY - Thunder in six

The survivors of two great series meet each other in a second round battle that won't be as much fun as the earlier rounds, but should still be pretty pure hoop. The Clips won't have the same extreme advantage inside that felled the Warriors, but they also won't have to deal with the death from beyond and transition strikes that the Dubs bring... but it's not as if Kevin Durant is weak sauce there, either. And while nothing touches the Roaracle crowd for sheer noise, the OKC megachurch rally  isn't a null crowd.

When it comes down to the meat of the matter, I look to Durant to win games, and Russell Westbrook to do more to help, rather than hurt. It's also really hard to see how the Clips can get past another opponent with Chris Paul a declining physical asset, and so much of their bench offense reliant on streak shooting Jamal Crawford. But if the Clips can slow this down, OKC can become oddly dependent on secondary shooters (Caron Butler, Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher) that are more likely to take them out than push them forward.

Last thing on this, the elephant in the room... the Donald Sterling situation. It's not going away, because Sterling isn't that kind of person, and there's only so long that they can turn this into fuel. The protests outside, the media fallout, the questions and distractions, they aren't going to help. And when you are playing an opponent that already has home court, not to mention Finals experience, it's not helpful. At all.

First round: 6-2

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