And now it starts to get good. The NBA playoffs are off and running into the second round. We have already seen upsets, controversy, blowouts, comebacks.. and that's just in the Spurs & Thunder series! The pretenders have been weeded out, and now the contenders go head-to-head to fight for the spot in the Conference Championships. We'll take a quick look at both Conferences today, including the games that have already played out with a guess on who will come out victorious.
(1) Cleveland vs (4) Hawks
Cleveland won season series 3-0
What we know so far: So, Cleveland has realized that by shooting threes, they think they can beat anyone. And it makes sense. They have the roster to do so, and have finally bought into the system to go with it. Cleveland has won the first two games of this series, and though Game 1 was close at times, the Cavs still have their extra gear to turn it on in the end. Game 2 was a three-point party, as Cleveland set the record for made threes in a regular season or playoff game (23, previous record held by a team in Oakland). They did this on efficient shooting, helped by some pretty light Atlanta defense. The series heads back to Atlanta, where the Hawks get to watch some tape, string together a better scheme and hope that they can withstand the onslaught that is J.R. Smith and crew from beyond the arc.
Why will Cleveland win this series?: Because they are the defending conference champs, they are the one seed, they have a lot of talent, and they are tough to beat when they are "on". Face it, when the Cavs are comfortable, they look like world beaters. I'm sorry, but the Pistons or the Hawks have not really made the Cavs work especially hard so far. Sure, Detroit had some close games in the first series, but the Cavs stayed in control the whole time. They haven't really felt a challenge, and that is good for a fragile psyche team like this. Beat them once, and they get moody. Show them something uncomfortable, and they wobble. So far in the playoffs, they have shown focus and a dominant game plan, finally fitting their pieces together.
How do you beat these guys? You stop their penetration. You make them isolate and start over-dribbling. Face it - LeBron and Kyrie are addicted to it. They want to control the ball and be heroes. So let them... stay back on them, let them try to beat you themselves and then take your licks. Otherwise, Cleveland will finish this up in Atlanta and they will earn another sweep.
Why will Atlanta win this series?: Because someone on Cleveland will get hurt? Who knows.. This Hawks team continued to overachieve against Boston and has finally hit the wall of reality of their talent. They have so many great role players in Al Horford (he is an all star, but can he single-handedly lead a team?) and Paul Millsap (great, but still not great enough). They are a collection of parts, but so far those parts don't align to a win over an elite team.
If they want to win, first step will be to find the right defensive matchups. They might just have to admit that Kyle Korver has no place in this series. Thabo Sefolosha needs to be inserted and told to follow LeBron wherever he goes. Stick Dennis Shroder on Kyrie Irving (why is this guy not starting again?) and now we have some matchups. Then, they have to take a book out of Memphis' playbook and slow this game down. No pace, no running. They need to win these games 84-80. Abuse Cleveland down in the post with Millsap and Horford. If you try to out-shoot Cleveland, you will lose. So pace the game and make them work. Help Cleveland realize Kevin Love can't guard anyone in the post, and make him foul you into obscurity.
Who will in? This series was over before it started. It will be Cleveland in a sweep
(2) Toronto vs (3) Miami
Toronto won season series 3-1
What we know so far: Miami took Game 1 up in Toronto going away after Toronto came back to tie the game at the buzzer on a Kyle Lowry three. The Heat dominated this game for the most part, in a way that made the Lowry three even more unbelievable. Toronto had no purpose still being in this game, and in the end it showed as the Heat finished the deed in overtime. The Raptors, though playing at home, looked tired after a Game 7 in Toronto just days before -- a Game 7 they shouldn't have been playing in this first place. Is this Toronto team that good? Despite their record, are they simply a great regular season team who predictably falls apart when the intensity turns up?
Why Toronto will win this series?: Because they are the #2 seed, had a great record all year, and have great talent on paper. But all this might not matter as Kyle Lowry has chosen to predictably disappear in big games. Sure, he hit a half court buzzer beater to tie the game. That was also his only three made in the contest, surrounded by a 3-13 performance and 5 personal fouls. His back court made DeMar DeRozan added a complimentary 9-22 from the field, and Toronto made this game look easy for the Heat. Miami was up by seven with less than a minute to go. This game should not have been close.
Toronto needs to get some rest, come back in Game 2 and get back to what made them great. They can hold Miami on the defensive end. They just need to score enough points themselves. Fresh legs should help with the shooting, and their overall talent will show through. I love the matchup in the paint, as Jonas Valanciunas showed up in a big way in his battle against Hassan Whiteside. The Raptors will make this series a close one as they always do - finding ways to make winnable games look hard.
Why Miami will win this series?: Miami is fun to watch. The are such an odd collection of talent, with so many enigmas. Joe Johnson plays big minutes for these guys! Joe Johnson can't run anymore! Hassan Whiteside is a beast and should be unchained, and was to the tune of 17 rebounds. It was a balanced scoring effort from the whole squad, and a rejuvenated Dwyane Wade is fun to watch. Miami doesn't win pretty - a lot of pick and rolls with Goran Dragic, kick outs to average shooters, and a scrappy veteran drive to win games. Can they really pull this off?
Sure they can! They have home court advantage now after a Game 1 victory, they play great in South Beach. They got this!
Who will win? This one gets tight... but I think Miami wins in 6. Toronto has the pieces, but I still don't trust them. The Raptors aren't done losing at home, and this one will wrap up back up North with a sad home crowd.
(1) Golden State vs (5) Portland
Golden State won season series 3-1
What we know so far: Golden State up 2-0. You know the story... Kinda sad this isn't a series against the Clippers. We deserved better.
Why the Warriors will win this series?: Because they are the champs.
Why the Blazers will win this series?: They won't. They are facing the champs and Stephen Curry is coming back on Saturday.
Who will win? Give one to Portland as Curry gets his legs back, and Portland is tough to play at home. Warriors take one, then finish it back at home with Curry saluting the crowd.
(2) San Antonio vs (3) OKC
Teams split season series 2-2
What we know so far: What a crazy first two games in San Antonio... The Spurs blow out Game 1 going away, and everyone writes off the Thunder. Then the game goes haywire, the refs help out OKC and through dysfunction emotions and a nutty 12 seconds the Thunder pull out a win in Game 2. Now the series heads to Oklahoma and who knows what will happen? Will Russel Westbrook go off for 45? Will he punch a teammate? Will the Spurs score enough to keep up with the Thunder's home barrage?
Why the Spurs will win this series?: The Spurs win because they are smarter than you. They are older than you, but they know how to play the game better than you. If the game is called evenly, the Spurs win. But if the Thunder can grab and push their way into controlling the ball, nobody can beat them.
The good news is that San Antonio gets a few days to relax and regroup, and with a little time looking at film I have faith they will come up with a plan to stop the Thunder's offense again. The Spurs win because LaMarcus Aldridge is a beast and is finally the focal point of the offense. Everything goes through him, and he will continue to get midrange jumpers. The Spurs will hit their threes, and will go back to their Game 1 dominance.
Why the Thunder will win this series?: Because they are the wildcard. Who knows what happens with this team... so much raw emotion and talent, and zero control. Maybe this is why they win: Consider the Spurs the computer. The only way to beat the computer is to be so unpredictable the Spurs have no model on how to beat you. They follow no pattern, so they can't be predicted!
The Thunder wins because they have Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook. They also now have the home court advantage and that OKC crowd is pretty hot. Man.. this series has been great!
Who will win? Selfishly I want the Thunder. Realistically, the Spurs win in 6. The teams split the next two, SA wins back at home, and the series wins with Kevin Durant ripping off his jersey and throwing it into the crowd on his final sign he won't be coming back.
Go Warriors! What a great round two so far, and even more excitement for round three. We will check back in once this round is done for another look at the matchups for the Conference Finals. Until then, say a quick prayer for Steph Curry's knee and we will see you Saturday in Portland!