The following is my breakdown of the prospective first round match-ups, as things stand.
Possible first round playoff series, today (seeds in brackets)
(1) Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder (8)
|Mr. MVP... Steph Curry|
The season-ending injury to Kevin Durant changes everything. I thought this would have been a very tricky match-up for Golden State. Not only that, Oklahoma City was one of my favourites to win the title. Uncertainly over Serge Ibaka’s status only affects my estimation of OKC’s chances even more. Russell Westbrook is the most dominant player in the NBA right now, but there’s no way he can overcome the NBA’s best team over seven games pretty much on his own. Side-note; Stephen Curry is amazing.
(2) Houston Rockets v Dallas Mavericks (7)
I’m hoping the Rockets get the second seed. It looks like they very might will with Memphis dropping like an anchor. I like Houston here. Their game is primitive to say the least; get the ball to James Harden and let him figure out the rest. Houston also leads the league in three point attempts (2,392) and games with at least 10 three-pointers made (51) this season. Now with Dwight Howard’s return they have the game’s best interior defender back. It just boosts the whole defence and augments their simple game-plan. I’m not sure it’s enough to win the title but it’s enough to beat Dallas.
In January after acquiring Rajon Rondo I thought Dallas was winning the NBA title. However, they have fallen away badly. Team chemistry is at a season low, and Dirk Nowitzki isn’t showing signs of the transcendence his team needs from him for them to be a factor in the postseason.
(3) Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs (6)
I took me eight years but I have become the biggest believer in the San Antonio Spurs. This is the best organisation in the NBA and probably in all sports (my only other contenders for this title would be the New England Patriots, the Crusaders (Super Rugby) and Bayern Munich). I hope Gregg Popovich stays on for another six to seven years, just so we can see how he manages the inevitable retirements of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and ushers in the next generation. That would be the final education in excellence, Pop’s last gift to us all. Regards this match-up, San Antonio are much better as a team and on form.
Kawhi Leonard is fit again and he’s a new wrinkle and the leader into the Spurs’ new age. It’s like adding a new engine to an already well-oiled automobile; his presence takes San Antonio from great to unbelievable.
|Dads... San Antonio Spurs|
Memphis is struggling to end the regular season. I didn’t rate them too highly in terms of winning the title to begin with. Yes, they have an identity and admirable passion, but their offence stalls too often. I doubt they can create enough offence to beat the elite teams over seven games.
(4) Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Clippers (5)
The Clippers have to pray they get Portland. It’s their only possible first round match-up, at this point, where they can be more or less certain of winning, which they have to do. Of all the teams that will make up West’s first round, the Clippers are in the greatest must-win situation. If the Clippers suffer playoff disappointment again there could be serious consequences at the club.
I would love to believe in the Clippers for the title. Chris Paul is the ultimate general, Doc Rivers the quintessential tactician and Jamal Crawford the most underrated player of all-time. But, I just can’t tag them seriously as championship winners. I doubt the mentality of players such as DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to a lesser extent. The Clippers have all the talent but I can’t bank on them when the stakes are highest. Portland is a good but inconsistent team. The loss of Wes Matthews also hurts them greatly.
(1) Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics/Indiana Pacers/Brooklyn Nets (8)
Whoever the Hawks get, they will win. Celtics may be the toughest possible opponent. They are young, energetic and unselfish on defence and attack. Maybe they can cope better with Atlanta’s ball movement. The Pacers are a continual work in progress, because of injuries and inconsistency. And the Nets are more of an isolation team – no chance against the Hawks.
(2) Cleveland Cavaliers v Miami Heat (7)
And interesting storybook drama; LeBron James returns to end Miami’s four-year reign in the East after helping establish the Heat Empire. If Chris Bosh was healthy this would be an even tighter match-up, in fact the Heat would be a higher seed. Somehow Pat Riley has managed to put together a good playoff team despite LeBron’s crushing departure. They have a healthier, back to being alpha-male Dwyane Wade who leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring. There’s Loul Deng, defensive tormenter of James in the past while he was with the Bulls and a top player in his own right.
|The King... LeBron James means Cleveland will|
have a big say in the postseason
And now they’ve added two gems. Goran Dragic is one of the most exciting guards in the league and has adapted seamlessly since his trade from the Phoenix Suns in February. And then there’s Hassan Whiteside, who the Heat have sort of lucked into. Despite his questionable temperament, he’s a rebounding monster, key in playoff basketball and a problem LeBron teams have always had, a lack of a top-tier centre. In my book this series is close. The Heat have held their own when the teams have played in Miami, wining two from two. They’ll take that confidence. And in any case, I’m still not convinced by the Cavs. They have hit some impressive highs but they can be beaten because they still take days off.
(3) Chicago Bulls v Milwaukee Bucks (6)
I love the Bucks. Jason Kidd is the coach of the year, or at least third (behind Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer). That said, the Bucks have no chance against Chicago, still a contender for the title in my eyes. Pau Gasol has played at a dominant level this season, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler are returning for the playoffs and Nikola Mirotic is a star rising at the right time. This is a team that looks as though they are just focused on the playoffs. Even with a half-fit Derrick Rose (if he returns), Chicago can do things in the postseason.
|Will Derrick Rose return to inspire the Bulls in the playoffs?|
(4) Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards (5)
Raptors to win in seven. Wizards have developed a disturbing habit of throwing away big fourth quarter leads. That won’t cut it in the playoffs. The winner here will lose to Atlanta in the next round.