High expectations follow NBA playoffs' historic first round

High expectations follow NBA playoffs' historic first round
May 5, 2014, 12:45 pm
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It would be understandable if Bulls fans didn't look back so fondly on the team's inspired regular season right now, given that not only did the unheralded Wizards dispatch their heroes in just five games (albeit in closely contested affairs), but the nature of the rest of the NBA's opening-round playoff series, with the exception of the defending-champion Heat sweeping the Bobcats, were extremely competitive.

But even Charlotte was competitive, until star big man Al Jefferson could no longer play through his plantar fasciitis, making the first round of the postseason go down as one of the most exciting witnessed in league history. Five series went to a seventh and final game, settled over the weekend, and while the likes of top-seeded Indiana and San Antonio survived, favored Brooklyn escaped against inexperienced Toronto, Oklahoma City prevailed over Memphis — aided by the league's eyebrow-raising suspension of Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph, not to mention injuries to starting point guard Mike Conley Jr. and Chicago native Tony Allen, who had made life difficult for league-leading scorer Kevin Durant — and the Clippers, after the turmoil of the Donald Sterling saga, eked out a win over the undermanned rival Warriors. The parity and close calls more resembled college basketball's "March Madness" than the professional level, as evidenced by Portland All-Star point guard Damian Lillard's walk-off, buzzer-beating 3-pointer to send home Houston.

With the second round beginning Monday night and no Bulls games to break down, here's some analysis of the upcoming second round.

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Eastern Conference

Pacers vs. Wizards: Wizards in 6

Indiana matches up much better with Washington than it did with small-ball, perimeter-oriented Atlanta and goes into the series with some confidence, having avoided a historic first-round upset on the heels of their late-season collapse. But the Wizards will be plenty confident themselves after knocking off the battle-tested Bulls with relative ease and given their explosive young backcourt's talent — particularly John Wall, who like the Hawks' Jeff Teague should have a field day against the Pacers — having enough size on the interior with Nene and Marcin Gortat to match up with David West and Roy Hibbert, and Trevor Ariza having the ability to slow down Paul George, it wouldn't be surprising to see them close it out even quicker. But let's give the Pacers a chance to recapture their previous form in at least a game or two before some of their old issues rear their ugly head, and when they ultimately fall, all of the nasty rumors surrounding the team come to light. One matchup to watch in this series is shooting guard, where Bradley Beal will attempt to continue making a name for himself against Lance Stephenson, an unrestricted free agent this summer.

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Heat vs. Nets: Heat in 6

Brooklyn has received a lot of credit for their midseason turnaround under first-year head coach Jason Kidd and their desire to play Toronto in the first round paid off, barely, leading to a matchup with another small-ball team in Miami. But despite the Nets' regular-season success against the Heat, the postseason is a different ballgame, and even with grizzled veterans in future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce adding toughness to the team, it says here that the three best players in this series play for the defending champs. Brooklyn's litany of wing scorers, dual point-guard approach — though Deron Williams' gimpy ankle takes away from that advantage — and Joe Johnson playing at a high level are all well and good, but it's difficult to imagine LeBron James not winning a game or two with his individual brilliance and between Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, one of his two sidekicks not having a takeover performance. The Raptors also seemed to take a lot out of the Nets, another advantage for the well-rested Heat, making this prediction another conservative pick. It will be interesting to see which team's bench rises to the occasion and whether role players like Brooklyn's Marcus Thornton and Miami's Norris Cole can make an impact on the outcome of games.

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Western Conference

Spurs vs. Trail Blazers: Spurs in 6

Don't read too much into San Antonio getting taken to the wire in the opening round: Dallas is a veteran squad, with no fear factor when it comes to their in-state foes. That said, the Spurs will want to wipe away any appearance of vulnerability, and as impressive as Portland looked in the first round, it came against a Houston team that's one of the youngest in the entire league, let alone the playoffs. The Blazers have a lot of firepower between the All-Star duo of the aforementioned Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, who looks to be a legitimate superstar. But while it's not a two-man gang — wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews Jr. are underrated, while center Robin Lopez is a force defensively and sixth man Mo Williams is effective as an instant-offense scorer off the bench — Portland's youth and depth is a concern against an experienced, precisely executing San Antonio team. All-Star point guard Tony Parker is playing at a high level, along with future Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan and sixth-man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili, as well as role players like Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and reserves Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. But the Spurs' biggest weapon might be head coach Gregg Popovich, and though Blazers counterpart Terry Stotts has done an admirable job, he could be overmatched in this series. The obvious matchups to watch in this series are Parker against Lillard and Duncan against Aldridge, but also keep an eye on Leonard and Batum, not to mention Splitter and Lopez, as secondary pieces could be key in determining the winner.

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Thunder vs. Clippers: Thunder in 7

As previously noted, both of these teams were fortunate to move on, and in the process of doing so, multiple flaws were exposed. For Oklahoma City, it's the same old story of offensive balance — more than the Durant-Russell Westbrook dynamic, the Thunder need to have other consistent scoring threats emerge, especially on the interior, which would theoretically reduce how much they relied on outside jumpers and perhaps influence Westbrook to be more of a distributor — while the Clippers, hampered at times by All-Star point guard Chris Paul's hamstring injury, didn't always look much different than they did before Doc Rivers was at the helm. While they clearly had extenuating circumstances affecting their concentration, the Clippers' defensive issues, even with shot-blocking presence DeAndre Jordan in the middle, was worrisome, and if Blake Griffin endures one of his occasional struggles or the likes of Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford, sharpshooter J.J. Redick or backup point guard Darren Collison isn't up to the task for a game or two, it's not hard to envision an Oklahoma City club with a trip to the Finals on its mind pouncing on them. The Clippers don't have an answer for Durant — not that many teams do — so if Westbrook can play under control most of the time, Serge Ibaka and sixth man Reggie Jackson can prove capable offensive options and tough-minded veterans like Caron Butler, Nick Collison, Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins make timely plays, there's no reason the Thunder can't advance, even if they're pushed to the limit. A battle of floor generals with two distinct styles in Paul and Westbrook should be a fascinating matchup to watch, and the point guard who can enforce his will on the series could end up being the winner.