Friday, April 15, 2016

First Round NBA Playoffs: The Chalk Also Rises

Chalk It Up
Typically, the first round of the NBA Playoffs is the best, because you've got the most hoop, and first round matchups that are just super tasty, because some team has overcome injury to make a late round and set up a booby prize matchup with a fading top team.

That's not the case this year. The best teams stayed strong all the way through, the surging clubs mostly just avoided a killer first round out, and the entire 8-series slate looks like it will only get to deep drama in maybe one, or two, cases.

That doesn't mean it will be any less watchable, because playoff hoop is playoff hoop, and pharmaceutical grade all over. But it will mean that we'll have a better second round, and a lot of chalk for the next few weeks.

And with that, on to the picks.

(1) CLEVELAND vs (8) Detroit

The case for the Cavs: Have the conference's best player and record. LeBron James treats the lEast like his own personal sandbox every April, and with a deeper and healthier team than last year, it's very hard not to see this as more of the same. Can run you out of the gym when the 3-ball is hitting or they are forcing turnovers, because James remains the world's most unstoppable force in transition. Keep an eye out for intriguing sub G Jordan McRae, who blew up the D-League this year and also went for monster numbers in a meaningless Game 82; he could be a very effective secret weapon.

The case against: Head coach Tyronn Lue is untested, which is to say, James also acts as the coach. In Kevin Love and Channing Frye, they have a very exploitable defender at PF, and swingman J.R. Smith can take you out of a game. Matthew Dellavedova is going to provoke a riot one of these days, seeing how he's the dirtiest player in the league and also Not Huge.

The case for the Pistons: Actually won the season series, 3-1, against these Cavs. Second best rebounding team in the Association, and while the Cavs aren't bad at that, they could volleyball them to frustration for large chunks of games. C Andre Drummond is an absolute beast, HC Stan van Gundy knows what he's doing, and they have defenders and athletes all over the roster.

The case against: Amidst all of those athletes, there really isn't a point guard, with gunner Reggie Jackson coming closest. Just not good enough on offense to win a playoff series, let alone against a really good team. James doesn't fool around in the first series.

The pick: Cleveland in five.

(2) TORONTO vs (7) Indiana

The case for the Raptors: Sneaky good this year, as the record shows, with a great home court advantage and a deep and potent back court. The bigs are better than you might think, and if F DeMarre Carroll is back from his injury, they are gelling at the right time.

The case against: No history of playoff success, and PG Kyle Lowry in particular has come up small. As perpetual champions of the tragic Atlantic, the Raps are routinely exposed in the playoffs. Good home court, and experienced enough to not get taken of the floor by a loud crowd.

The case for the Pacers: Paul George is the best player on the floor. Myles Turner might be a breakout candidate. Monta Ellis has had past playoff moments. The entire roster defends and moves the ball (well, maybe not Ellis), and they are well coached by Frank Vogel.

The case against: Just not good enough at the point guard position, and not particularly deep or special outside of George. While the bench in playoff games does not matter as much as in the regular season, it still matters, and the Pacer bench does them few favors.

The pick: Toronto in six.

(3) MIAMI vs (6) Charlotte

The case for the Heat: Best team in the lEast in the last two months. Once Chris Bosh went down with an injury and Joe Johnson came on board off waivers, they got spacing, three point shooting and ball movement, mostly because it also led to playing time for diamond rookie point guard Josh Richardson, and increased freedom for G Goran Dragic. Wildly experienced coach in Eric Spoelstra, and vets like Johnson, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng will keep the kids in line. In Hassan Whiteside, they've also got the NBA's best shot blocker, which can be all kinds of useful.

The case against: Might have spent their fuel to get the 3 seed, and the shocking collapse on the road against Boston in Game 82 was disturbing. When the 3s aren't hitting, this isn't a good offense, and they have only shot the 3s well in the past couple of months. Not a great matchup for them, in that they get a hot Hornets team, and might be looking past them to the Cavs.

The case for the Hornets: Under the radar and beasting, with Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin, Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum all firing on all cylinders right now. Deep, with six players averaging in double figures in points, and several others (Jeremy Lamb, Courtney Lee, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Spencer Hawes) in shouting range. If you are looking for a high seed with danger, this is your team.

The case against: Well-rounded teams without stars never do all that well in the playoffs. As deep as they are, none of these guys are very good at defense, with the possible exception of Batum, and they aren't playoff-tested, either. HC Steve Clifford, in his third season, isn't exactly a household name either, and you don't get a great home court advantage in the pro game in NC.

The pick: Miami in seven. This will be the best series in the East.

(4) Atlanta vs (5) BOSTON

The case for the Hawks: When they are on their game, the ball movement is spectacular, with quality bigs (Paul Milsap, Al Horford) and solid three-point shooting that leads to can beat anyone levels of competence. Unlike many other outfits, they are experienced at playing with each other, and have a cohesive unit and bench play (particularly PG Dennis Schroeder) that makes a real difference. Well-coached, with a deep run last year, and the ability to go that far again.

The case against: Haven't really been able to replace Carroll, who combined clutch playoff scoring last year with lockdown defense; replacements Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefalosha only do the latter. Starting SG Kyle Korver shoots "only" 39.9% from the arc, and for his level of defensive sieve, he really needs to be a lot better. PG Jeff Teague has also regressed, and the air around this team is just that their best days are behind them.

The case for the Celtics: Also super deep with six in double figures and several just below, but unlike the Hawks, they've got a true star (Isaiah Thomas) and exceptional home court advantage. Some of the best defense in the Association, especially in the backcourt, with Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart being so good that they cover for Thomas and Evan Turner. Coach Brad Stevens is a true star, and PF Jae Crowder might be the NBA's most under the radar quality player.

The case against: Bigs include hit and miss options like Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and Tyler Zeller, all of whom could be eaten alive by Horford and Milsap. Playoffs generally make bench work less important, which is a major strength for the Cs. As with all Atlantic teams, the won-loss record is a little suspect, and when they look bad, they look really bad.

The pick: Boston in six, because it will make me sadder.

(1) GOLDEN STATE vs (8) Houston

The case for the Warriors: Um, defending champions, just won 73 games, might be the best team in NBA history. Best shooting backcourt ever, best backcourt in the NBA. Underrated, somehow, defense, and the best bench in the league, too. Unfair on every level.

The case against: Deep in the range of reach here, but might not be playing as well as earlier in the year. Can make the mistake of playing pretty, rather than playing effective. Might be overlooking any first round opponent.

The case for the Rockets: James Harden is good enough to carry any team, at least offensively, for four of seven games. Michael Beasley has given them a new level of front court offensive performance, and if Trevor Ariza and James Beverly are hitting threes, they can be dangerous. Bigs Dwight Howard and Clint Capela are very athletic, and while this isn't a good defensive team, they are loaded with good athletes who can play defense. (Yeah, I know this makes no sense. But neither do the Rockets.) A lot more talented than the usual 8 seed.

The case against: Can't put a big on the floor who can shoot free throws well enough to prevent hacking strategies. Don't communicate well enough with each other to play good defense, and Harden in particular can just phone that in. Beverly just isn't good enough to start at PG in the NBA, and while he's got the heart to defend Stephen Curry, he doesn't have the quicks. Howard has never really fit into their offensive flow, and Howard is also a stone-cold loser. Bench is a real problem.

The pick: Golden State in four. Among many other things, the Dubs are heartless.

(2) SAN ANTONIO vs. (7) Memphis

The case for the Spurs: Loaded all over. Best coach in the business in Gregg Popovich, devastating defense, deep bench with great ball movement, and a 41-1 home court record (ye gads). Kawhi Leonard is a defensible MVP pick, and when they are hitting their threes, they are a magnificent basketball machine.

The case against: Have choked in first round playoffs before, and to this Grizzly team. Not as good on the road as they've been in the past, or as healthy. Could easily be looking past the first round.

The case for the Grizzlies: Playing with house money, in that no one expects them to stick around. Very good home court. Zach Randolph is still operating at a high level, and Lance Stephenson has fresh legs and major motivation to get his career and next contract in gear. Vince Carter still gives good bench minutes, and with certifiable lunatics like Lance and Matt Barnes, they won't go down without a serious fight.

The case against: No Marc Gasol or Mike Conley. They are giving important minutes to Jordan Farmar right now, along with a bunch of guys who were in the D-League and beyond recently. Kudos to them for not falling out of the tournament altogether, but dear Lord in heaven, this year went south with a quickness, thanks to the injury bug.

The pick: San Antonio in five.

(3) OKLAHOMA CITY vs (6) Dallas

The case for the Thunder: In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they have two of the five best players in the Association on the floor for 90% of the important minutes, and honestly, that should be enough. Serge Ibaka is the modern definition of stretch four, in that he's a shot blocker who hits threes. Centers Stephen Adams and Enes Kanter give them a dirty work / bench offense tandem, while Dion Waiters, Randy Foye and Anthony Morrow all give them reasonable ideas for a fifth guy who could hit wide open shots and defend enough to win. Home court is pretty good, and the core of this club has been to the Finals. When they are on their game, they are prone to devastating runs, and look like they can match up with anyone.

The case against: For a team that could easily detail the world's dreams of a Warriors-Spurs WC Finals, their crunch time play-calling of Iso Hero Ball Fail, which hasn't changed in years, is just ridiculously bad. Defense isn't as good as it should be. If Westbrook's shot isn't falling, he can take you out of the game. Durant isn't as assertive as he could be, and the team tends to get unhinged by officiating. Bench work is erratic, and it's an open question as to who will get the crunch time minutes every game out.

The case for the Mavericks: Have played some of their best ball of the year late, with the fresh legs of Rey Felton giving them a real boost at point guard. They've also gotten good work out of Zazah Pachulia and Wes Matthews, and Dirk Nowitzki is still, well, Dirk Nowitzki. They play hard, have a good home court, move the ball well on offense and get the most out of their talent and abilities.

The case against: There's just not enough here, especially with Chandler Parson on the shelf, and Dirk now just an 18/6 guy who can't defend or hold position for boards, despite being a 7-footer. This is a jump shooting team that doesn't shoot it so well that they can defy the usual issues that the world has with such things. They also don't have anyone who can stay in the frame with Westbrook or Durant.

The pick: Oklahoma City in five.

(4) LOS ANGELES vs. (5) Portland

The case for the Clippers: Might be getting healthy and good at exactly the right time, with PF Blake Griffin coming back from his self-inflicted stupidity. PG Chris Paul is an assassin, and C DeAndre Jordan a two-way force. SG JJ Redick is a solid specialist, and PF Jeff Green has shown sparks in bench play recently. G Jamal Crawford has done great work in the fourth quarter, and they've got a solid home court. HC Doc Rivers has won it all before, and there's certainly enough on board here for a deep run.

The case against: It's more or less the same mix as in past years, and it's never been good enough. Rivers hasn't constructed a worthwhile bench in forever. Jordan's FT woes are legendary, and have been getting worse recently. Griffin comes up small and hurt in deep playoff runs, and Paul can assert his way into hero ball. There's a real sense that the window has passed, or that the Clips are just victims of poor timing, in that there are historically great teams that coincide with their rise.

The case for Portland: PG Damian Lillard is playing some of the best ball in the Association, and SG CJ McCollum has been nearly as dynamic, especially from behind the arc. C Mason Plumlee is skilled, and Meyers Leonard gives them a stretch distance shooter as well. Everyone hustles and defends, and the Portland crowd is always ravenous. G Allen Crabbe gives them bench scoring, while F Al-Farouq Aminu is a defensive hammer. They are also playing with house money, in that no one thinks they are going very far in this tournament, and could certainly surprise with hot shooting.

The case against: Jordan and Griffin should wreck them, and Paul should neutralize Lillard. Which leaves this all on McCollum, in his first playoff series, and wow, is that an awful lot to ask. Too much, really.

The pick: Los Angeles in six.

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