NBA Conference Semi-Finals Preview
In the wake of the incredible rollercoaster ride the first round of this year’s playoffs were, with 5 of the 8 series going 7 games (and perhaps the most competitive first round matchup of all-time between Portland and Houston, and that didn’t even go 7), we’re left with 8 teams still standing as we move on to the conference semi-finals. Who will win? Well, unlike last year, I can’t claim a 100% track record at this point. But I did go 7/8 (and the only one I got wrong was the Clippers/ Warriors, which went 7), so I really wasn’t that far off. Let’s start with the West again:
San Antonio Spurs vs. Portland Trail Blazers
A few days can feel like an eternity in the NBA, and it seems like it was a lifetime ago when LaMarcus Aldridge posted back to back 40 point games in Houston to give Portland a 2-0 lead in that series. In the regular season, the Blazers showed a tendency to implode at times. But in this year’s playoffs, their mental toughness was put to the test by Houston and Dwight Howard, who was playing his best basketball of his career (at least offensively) and they were able to withstand desperate attempts by the Rockets to win either game 4 or 6 in Portland to level the series. That resolve will be put to the ultimate test against San Antonio who has created a culture of teamwork and quite frankly, appear to on a mission to redeem their meltdown in game 6 of the NBA Finals last season. There are some great matchups on paper here, starting with Parker vs Lillard, Duncan vs Aldridge, Leonard vs Batum, Manu vs Wes Matthews, Splitter vs Lopez etc. The more I look at it, the more I’m sold on how equally matched these two teams are. But the difference will be coaching and experience. Portland will challenge San Antonio, but I don’t think they’ll be able to get over the edge. Spurs in 6.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
On paper, this looks like a clash of serious contenders, but in reality, I don’t buy it. I picked the Thunder to win it all at the start of the playoffs, but (and this is not taking anything away from Memphis. They played brilliantly for 5 games) the way Oklahoma looked completely lost and incompetent on offense in the first round signalled alarm bells. The lack of structure and direction very nearly led to disaster and getting bounced in the first round. To their credit, they did survive, but they need to re-establish what gave them success in the regular season if they want to move on. The Clippers, on the other hand, looked vulnerable against an enigma of a Golden State team. DeAndre Jordan was brilliant (as was Blake Griffin) but Chris Paul needs to step up and be dominant if they want to be taken seriously here. Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook are very different players, and while Curry is effective by skill, Westbrook is a threat based off his athleticism. I don’t think Paul can slow him down. Griffin and Jordan, on the other hand, will have to work for everything they get against Ibaka and Perkins. Then we have Kevin Durant. Look, we all know Doc Rivers’ history of slowing down big time scorers in the playoffs (ranging from Kobe, to Wade, to Lebron), but that was when he was coaching in Boston when he had Tony Allen/ James Posey, Paul Peirce and Ray Allen (and also Rondo). In L.A., he doesn’t have anyone close to that. Matt Barnes is a high energy guy that has played well, but he isn’t of the same defensive calibre as the players I listed before. Thunder in 5.
Indiana Pacers vs. Washington Wizards
If we’re labelling the Clippers and Thunder as disappointing in the playoffs so far, then the Pacers have been a complete disaster. If they played anyone other than Atlanta (including some teams that missed the playoffs like Denver or Phoenix or even New York), they’d be gone. But the reality is they survived, and they now face a Washington team that surprised everyone (including me, and I picked them to win!) by the way they handled Chicago. Look, if we’re going by matchups based off form, Washington wins this easily. Look at the problems Jeff Teague caused Indy in the first round with his speed. Now you have John Wall, who is quicker and stronger at the same position. In addition to that, look at Nene and what he did to DPOY Joakim Noah, and now he has Roy Hibbert who played so bad that a 13 point, 7 rebound performance was celebrated like he dropped 40 and 20. Then on top of all that, you have Trevor Ariza, who can slow down Paul George, and you’ve got Bradley Beal coming off the bench and is capable of dropping 30 points any night. The matchups are in favour of Washington, and it’s not really close. But I think Indiana has been woken up, and the pressure of the stage might get to this Wizards squad. After the first round, nothing would surprise me, but I’ll go with the Pacers in 6.
Miami Heat vs. Brooklyn Nets
Does anyone else see parallels with Miami and John Cena? For years, John Cena was considered the face of the WWE and nobody could picture the company without him. Now with new talent emerging across the board, Cena seems out of place and nobody really talks about him. The same thing is kind of going on with Miami. The difference is the lack of exposure could be a good thing for the Heat. They dealt with Charlotte convincingly in the first round and have had plenty of time to rest up Wade. Brooklyn, on the other hand, were forced to win a highly competitive 7 game series against a young Raptors squad that played with a lot more focus and determination than I thought they had. So who has the advantage? The team that’s rested, or the team that had to win a playoff war? I say neither. They’re both veteran teams that have seen and done it all, and I don’t think they really care. The problem is despite going 4-0 in the regular season against them, Miami is a vastly superior team to Brooklyn, and the Heat won’t mess around. Miami will win this is a sweep, 4-0.