NBA First Round Preview
Written by: Keith Alex II
#1 Warriors Vs #8 Rockets
There are four key things a team must do in order to stand a punchers chance against the Golden State Warriors in a seven game series: Slow the pace of the game to a crawl, keep turnovers to a minimum, limit transition opportunities and play disciplined defense with perimeter players that will put their life on the line to fight through screens, a bonus if your starting five is capable of switching every pick. The Rockets happen to be heading in the opposite direction of all four of these phases and stand a negative five chance of upsetting the Warriors in this series. While it’s fun to entertain the thought of James Harden leading an upset of colossal proportions, his record setting turnover count only stands to work in the Warriors favor as they capitalize on mistakes like no other in NBA history.
This may be a rematch from the Western Conference Finals, but that series went five games, and the Rockets are a worse team now than they were then while the Warriors have improved significantly. Harden deserves a lot of credit for dragging this Rockets team kicking and screaming to the postseason, but he is running headfirst into a buzz saw on a level this league has never seen before.
Warriors in 4
#2 Spurs Vs #7 Grizzlies
Rest In Peace Grit and Grind: 2011-2016. This marks the first season since 2010 where the Grizzlies rank out of the top ten defensively. Since losing all NBA center Marc Gasol to a broken foot in early February, Memphis has hit rock bottom defensively rivaling the likes of the 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers. They are losers of seventeen of their last twenty nine games, including nine of their last ten games, and will probably lose their next four in blowout fashion as well.
The San Antonio Spurs have gone through an odd stretch of offensive futility lately, only scoring 96 points per game in their last ten – a full five points lower than their season average – so facing a Grizzlies defense that can’t stop a nosebleed should be just what the doctor ordered. The grind house can possibly generate enough disruption to make a home game not embarrassing, but they won’t be able to grind themselves to an upset here barring a catastrophic injury. Whatever trick they pulled to make the playoffs in spite of their injuries is about to get whooped by a historically dominant Spurs team hungry for a championship push.
Spurs in 4
#3 Thunder Vs #6 Mavs
The Mavericks just aren’t a very talented basketball team; On paper they should lose each game of this series, but what they do have on their side is arguably the leagues greatest strategist in Rick Carlisle who has consistently proven an ability to get the best out of his roster in Dallas. JJ Barea has won player of the week on averages of 25ppg on 53% from the field, fueling a five game winning streak for the Mavericks. He + Dirk in the P&R can = massive problems for a OKC team that features one of the leagues worst P&R defenses. Offensively, the Mavericks should be successful. As they have always been with Dirk Nowitzki on the roster.
On the other end of course, they’ll get obliterated by the #2 ranked offense headlined by the two headed dragon that is Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, one of the all time great duos this game has ever seen. The Mavericks have defended well as of late since inserting Justin Anderson into the starting lineup, but this rookie is about to get a taste of arguably the most talented scorer to have ever play this game, and it likely won’t end very well for him or the Mavericks. They’ll put up a serious fight as they always do, but it won’t be enough. Perhaps the injury to Parsons and a successful signing of Deandre Jordan in the off season would have tipped things into their favor.
Thunder in 6
#4 Clippers Vs #5 Blazers
Counting against Damian Lillard has proven to be an unwise decision throughout his professional career, yet once again he will find himself at odds facing a surging Clippers team that has regained superstar power forward Blake Griffin just in time for a championship push. Ever since Chris Paul’s arrival in 2012, the Clippers have consistently ranked among the leagues best offenses in the league, a precise orchestra of P&R music conducted by the maestro of point guards himself, but different from previous seasons is the emergence of a stout defense, ranking top 5 in efficiency league wide. Both Lillard and McColum have been held to horrid shooting performances in the four combined played between the two teams, shooting just 32% and 38% respectively.
All of this being said, the Blazers have proved all season long that they thrive in situations where the odds are stacked against them. This was a team destined by many to be the worst in this league, and instead finished with the fifth seed in the conference. They can make any series competitive, as they will this one, but to win they need more support around Lillard & Mccolum for Rip City to establish themselves as true contenders in the West.
Clippers in 6
#1 Cavs vs #8 Pistons
“I like it… I don’t want to fight Goliath’s homeboy or little brother. I want to fight Goliath.” – Reggie Jackson on facing the Cavaliers
As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. LeBron James has never lost a first round series in his career, and it would be nothing more than wishful thinking to predict that begins now. That said, the Pistons are equipped provide the the Cavaliers a challenge. Since inserting Tobias Harris into the starting lineup on February 2nd, Detroit has gone 16-9 producing at a top five offensive rate. Their defense however has ranked bottom five in that same span, and are just slightly above average for the season as a whole – largely boosted by Andre Drummond’s historically great ability to end opposing possessions with a defensive board. He will still have that ability against the Cavaliers, but the endless motor of Tristan Thompson, now the starting center for the Cavaliers, will help to nullify Detroit’s greatest strength.
There may not be two bigger question marks than Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for the postseason, but both averaged over 50% against Detroit in the regular season and should perform at a high level in this series. LeBron James is in the midst of one of the hottest stretches of his career, right in time for the postseason, and there’s no signs of him slowing down as he looks to capture a title for the Land. This has been a resurgent season for the Pistons franchise and we expect to see them here again in the following years to come, but this is not the season they make a postseason statement.
Cavaliers in 4
#2 Raptors Vs #7 Pacers
This is by far the greatest team in Toronto Raptors franchise history. Now, that isn’t saying a whole lot, but they have earned the right to be a respected contender to reach the NBA Finals and should not be judged based on previous disappointments. These Raptors are a well balanced, all around team that can score with anyone in this league thanks to the all star contributions of Lowry & DeRozan, while playing scrappy defense led by DeMarre Carroll, Corey Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. Carroll may not be a household name, but there should be no mistaking his role in defending Paul George as X factor in this series. When healthy he is among the very best perimeter stoppers in this league.
The Pacers are a hard-nosed, ugly basketball team that relies on a stout defense to win ball games not unlike previous seasons, but their offense ranks among the worst in the league in part due to Paul George’s offensive inconsistencies. After a scorching start to the season where he averaged nearly 30ppg on 47% shooting in the month of November, he crashed back down to earth and averaged 22ppg on barely 40% shooting for the remainder of the season. He has Kobe’s mentality, but half of the ability to create separation off the dribble. There is a good chance he is only the 3rd best offensive player in this series, and that won’t be enough to pull off the upset.
Raptors in 5
#3 Heat Vs #6 Hornets
This has been a miraculous season for the Buzz City faithful. Despite losing Michael Kidd Gilchrist for the season – twice – they have rebounded behind a new look perimeter oriented offense led by most improved candidate Kemba Walker and all around savant Nicholas Batum. The question is despite their success. can they handle the 3rd hottest offense in the NBA today?
Since acquiring Joe Johnson on February 28th, the Miami Heat have been on fire scoring 113.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s good enough to rank 3rd in the league behind the OKC Thunder. If this can be sustained in the postseason – on top of their elite ranked defense anchored by swat master Hassan Whiteside – the Miami Heat stand a chance of not only advancing in the first round, but beating Cleveland in conference Finals match-up. The Hornets will fight hard and this should be an extremely competative series, but home court advantage will work in Miami’s favor. Kemba Walker is an absolute gamer who could prove to be the best player in this series, but Miami has the tools as a team to overcome the Hornets in the end of a very hard fought series.
Miami in 7
#4 Hawks Vs #5 Celtics
This may be the type of series that gets exiled to NBA TV. Neither the Celtics or Hawks have exciting offenses, ranking 13th and 18th respectively, but they are among the leagues most stingiest defenses ranking 4th and 2nd in the league. The Celtics rely on a ferocious perimeter defensive tandem on Smart, Bradley and Crowder while the Hawks are anchored by a legitimate DPOY candidate in Paul Millsap.
What the Celtics do have that the Hawks do not however is an explosive go to scorer in Isiah Thomas averaging a career high twenty two points per contest. He ranks among the best in the league in terms of 1on1 scoring, ranking in the 82nd percentile of points produced in isolation per NBA.com, and can be relied upon to score when a situation gets tight. The brilliance of Brad Stevens as a strategist may prove to be the difference in this series that I anticipate will be the most tightly contested in the postseason.
Celtics in 7