With the first round of the 2016 playoffs in the books and the match ups set for round 2, it’s time to look ahead to the second round series as we get towards the business end of the season.
The first round of these playoffs was characterised by a series of early blowouts, and although teams recovered and we got some close series, I think we can expect better from the conference semi-finals.
Cleveland (1) vs Atlanta (4) – Cleveland leads series 1-0
In a rematch of last years conference finals, a series which Cleveland physically dominated and won 4-0, the Hawks will try and gain revenge for what was a chastening end to a great season. Unfortunately for Atlanta I can’t see how this is going to happen. Going in to the series with an almost identical rotation against a Cleveland team that, on paper at least, looks even stronger than last year. With Kevin Love back and a fully healthy Kyrie Irving along with some additions to the bench such as Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson the Cavs look too strong. In last years series it was the LeBron James show as the king tormented Atlanta averaging 30 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists, one of the most dominant performances in recent memory.
This year James shouldn’t have to do it all himself which is a worry for Atlanta. LeBron is at his brutal best when he is reading the floor and setting up teammates for easy buckets. This in turn creates more space for him to drive in to the paint and score himself. The ability of James to defer to his teammates is crucial to the way Cleveland plays. Since coach Tyronn Lue took over after the All Star break the Cavaliers have been playing a more fluent game, moving the ball better, and eliminating the need for James to play hero ball (the Detroit series was the first since 2011 in which LeBron has not lead his team in scoring). They also have a clutch of excellent 3 point shooters in JR Smith, Kevin Love and Channing Frye and have played good if not great defence all season. With LeBron cranking it up into playoff mode it looks like the Cavs will only get better.
Is there any hope for the Hawks? Perhaps, but the first thing they have to do is turn LeBron into a jump shooter. James’ problems with his jump shot have been well publicised this season he is shooting 30% from beyond the arc, the lowest percentage of his career since his rookie season. In the first round the Pistons attempted to bait James into taking 3 pointers by leaving him wide open on the perimeter. However, James only took 19 3 pointers throughout the series showing his ability to leave his ego at the sidelines and pass up shots he is unlikely to make.
In terms of the Hawks offence they will have to lean heavily on Paul Millsap. Both Al Horford and Kyle Korver have been ice cold in the playoffs so it will be up to Millsap and point guard Jeff Teague to carry the load offensively. The Hawks have a good team but lack the firepower to seriously trouble this Cleveland squad who I fully expect will be playing in the finals again come June.
Prediction: Cleveland in 5.
Toronto (2) vs Miami (3) – series starts tonight
Toronto have finally made it to the second round after 15 years of heartbreak and Miami are back, competing at the business end of the season, after slipping into the lottery last year. This is perhaps the hardest series to call in the second round as so much depends on which Raptors team decides to show up. The nervy team who scraped past the Pacers in seven games or the team who won 56 regular season games and challenged Cleveland for the top seed in the East.
There is no doubt in my mind that Toronto has the deeper roster with an all-star backcourt and talented role players coming off the bench. However, it is all about the team’s mental state. Will they be liberated by first round success or crippled by the thought of making the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. The Heat on the other hand have been here many times before with Dwayne Wade, Luol Deng, Udonis Haslem and Amar’e Stoudemire contributing a wealth of playoff experience. Coach Erik Spoelstra will be hoping that these veterans can blend well with youngsters like Justice Winslow and Hassan Whiteside.
The key battles, where this series will be won and lost ,will be down low in the paint. Toronto have to find a way to get Jonas Valanciunas more involved against Whiteside. Valanciunas is an excellent low post presence with the ability to score, grab offensive boards and get opposing players in foul trouble. If he can get to work against Whiteside, a terrific shot blocker but not the greatest post defender, and get him in early foul trouble this will open up lanes for DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to attack the basket. As I mentioned in my post about the Raptors last week the play of DeRozan and Lowry are crucial to the Raptors chances. It now appears that Lowry has been carrying an elbow injury which will heap even more pressure on DeRozan, let’s hope he’s up to it.
I would love it if the Raptors could make it past the Heat and into the Conference finals. This is a franchise that has suffered their fair share of nightmares at the time of year. However, I feel like the Heat might just have the mental edge especially as the series progresses.
Prediction: Miami in 7
Golden State (1) vs Portland (5) – Golden State leads series 1-0
The questions surrounding this series are not really regarding the outcome. They are almost all concerned with Steph Curry’s knee. When will Steph return? How rusty will he be when he does? Can the Warriors win it all without him?
I don’t think anybody really expects the Blazers the seriously challenge Golden State, with or without Steph Curry. In game 1 Klay Thompson went off for 37 and Draymond Green added a triple double as the Warriors pounded Portland 118-106. In Thompson and Green Golden State have two players who are more than capable of taking over a game in Curry’s absence. I would argue that both players are almost as valuable to the team as Steph as they are absolutely vital to the Warriors’ smothering defensive coverages. However, it is Curry and Curry alone who has pushed this Golden State team to heights that the NBA has never seen before. His ability to get his shot of from almost anywhere on the court with deadly accuracy provides opposing defences with a problem they have never seen before. There just isn’t really a way to defend a 45ft jump shot.
This is why it Steve Kerr and the Warriors coaching staff have a serious decision to make. Should Curry sit for the remainder or the Portland series and come back for the Conference Finals as close to 100% as he can be? Or should Kerr be thinking about bringing him back into the rotation as soon as possible to try and shake off the cobwebs before the tougher series ahead? It is probably a decision that will define the Warriors season. Without Curry the Warriors are still a great team but without him the field is blown wide open. Suddenly Cleveland, San Antonio and Oklahoma City will believe they have a real shot at a championship.
For Portland it has been an unbelievable season. After loosing 4 of their 5 starters from last season many experts believed that the Blazers would be firmly entrenched in the lottery and looking to rebuild around Damian Lillard. However, the emergence of CJ McCollum along with the terrific job Terry Stotts has done surrounding his two stars with solid role players has given Portland hope of a bright future. If they can continue to develop their young core and add some more inside scoring they can continue to climb the Western Conference standings. Unfortunately this matchup with the juggernaut that is Golden State has come too soon.
Prediction: Golden State in 5.
San Antonio (2) vs Oklahoma City (3) – series tied at 1-1
After Oklahoma City rolled over so spectacularly in game 1 trailing by as many as 43 I feared the worst for what looked to be the pick of the second round series. OKC looked like a bunch of kids playing against gown-ass men who wouldn’t give them their ball back.
However, the Thunder rallied well in game 2, benefiting from a sloppy Spurs performance and some dodgy officiating to steal home court advantage. OKC can’t hope to see the Spurs play anywhere near as poorly as they did last night as the series switches to Oklahoma City on Friday. But OKC will think they at least have a punchers chance of making the conference finals.
The most important thing the Thunder need to address is how they are defending LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging nearly 40 points over the first two games. In game 1 it was embarrassing how easy it was for Aldridge to connect on a series of midrange jumpers and Olajuwon-esque spinning post moves. Between Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams they simply must come up with a solution otherwise this series will be over quickly.
OKC also showed signs of the 4th quarter brain farts that have dogged them all season. Serge Ibaka’s foul on an Aldridge 3 point attempt with less than 20 seconds remaining was unforgivable. As was turning the ball the over on an inbounds pass on the very next position. On top of this the Thunder got away with a blatant offensive foul on the same play from Dion Waiters which the officials inexplicably missed. Billy Donovan really needs to address these issues in the off season as OKC always looks likely to implode late in games.
As for the Spurs they need to accept that they played a real stinker at home and move on. Greg Popovic will surely have is team motivated and ready to go for game 3 in OKC where it is vital for San Antonio to steal back home court advantage. This series looks to have caught fire and promises to be a real classic.
Prediction: San Antonio in 7