NBA Playoffs Set to Begin on Saturday: Preview and Predictions

The NBA regular season has concluded, and with the playoff match-ups finally set, the playoffs seem like they will be as exciting as ever this year. Here is a preview of the first round match-ups.

Eastern Conference

George guards James in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo by Brian Spurlock of 'USA Today')

George guards James during this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo by Brian Spurlock of  USA Today)

(1) Indiana Pacers (56-26) vs (8) Atlanta Hawks (38-44)

The Pacers looked like one of the best teams in the NBA for the first half of the season, going 40-12 before the All-Star break, and seemed to be destined for another epic Eastern Conference Finals match-up with Miami, but since the All-Star break they have struggled, going 16-14. The Hawks, on the other hand, won seven of their last ten games to hold off the New York Knicks for the last playoff spot in the East.

The Pacers use a strong defense that is led by Defensive Player of the Year candidates SF Paul George and C Roy Hibbert to hold their opponents to just 92.3 points per game, second in the NBA, to smother their opponents. And they have an offense, which is led by George (21.7 ppg), that is just good enough to get by.

On the other hand, the Hawks feature average offenses and defenses–both are ranked 15th in the NBA. The Hawks are  led offensively by C Al Horford (18.6 ppg) and SG Kyle Korver, who leads the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage, making 47.2% of his 3’s.

Prediction: The Pacers seem to be getting their act together and will return to their early season form. George will play like he did early in the season, when he was considered an MVP candidate, and Hibbert and PF David West will make things difficult for Horford. Pacers in 4.

(2) Miami Heat (54-28) vs (7) Charlotte Bobcats (43-39)

The Heat–the defending champions–spent most of this season on cruise control, resting various players, including All-Star SG Dwyane Wade (19.0 ppg), for much of the season to make sure that they are healthy and well-rested for the playoffs, yet they still managed to snag the second seed in the East. The Bobcats have been one of the biggest surprises of this season; they are 43-39 this year after going 21-61 last year.

The Heat are led both offensively and defensively by the defending MVP of the last two seasons, SF LeBron James (27.1 ppg: 3rd in the NBA, 6.9 rpg, 6.1 apg), who is arguably the best player in the world. James teams up with fellow All-Stars Wade and PF Chris Bosh (16.2 ppg, 6.6 ppg).

The Bobcats’ signing of C Al Jefferson (21.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg), the improvement of PG Kemba Walker (17.7 ppg, 6.1 apg), and the implementation of a conservative defensive strategy by new head coach Steve Clifford that took the Bobcats’ defense from second-to-last in points allowed last year to fourth this year.

Prediction: The Heat have shown that they can turn it on when it counts, but they have continued to struggle guarding strong post players such as Jefferson. The Bobcats will put up a strong fight, but James and the Heat will prove to be too much. Heat in 5. 

(3) Toronto Raptors (48-34) vs (6) Brooklyn Nets (44-38)

The Raptors have turned their season around since trading SF Rudy Gay, having gone 41-22 since the trade. The Nets have also turned their season around, going 34-17 since Jan. 1 after going 10-21 in 2013.

The Raptors have been led by PG Kyle Lowry (17.9 ppg, 7.4) and  All-Star SG DeMar DeRozan (22.7 ppg) but have received contributions from many different players including SG Terrance Ross, PF Amir Johnson, PG Greivis Vasquez, PF Patrick Patterson, and C Jonas Valanciunas.

The Nets have thrived using small lineups since an injury to C Brook Lopez and have used a balanced attack led by SG Joe Johnson (15.8 ppg) and PG Deron Williams (14.3 ppg, 6.1 apg). Defensively, the Nets are rank 11th in points allowed, allowing 99.5 per game, and have been led by PF Kevin Garnett.

Prediction: These teams are fairly evenly matched talent-wise, and Lowry could go off against the slower Williams. However, the Nets’ length on the wing will disrupt DeRozan, and their experience could play a big role in a close series. Nets in 6. 

(4) Chicago Bulls (48-34) vs (5) Washington Wizards (44-38)

The Bulls have managed to get the fourth seed in the East despite losing former league MVP PG Derrick Rose to an injury early in the year and trading former All-Star SF Luol Deng. The Wizards have averaged 100.7 points per game, 16th in the NBA and have allowed 99.4 points per game, 9th in the NBA.

The Bulls have used an incredibly strong defense (1st in points allowed per game, with 91.8) to survive, despite having the lowest scoring offense in the NBA. The Bulls are led by All-Star C Joakim Noah, who leads the team in rebounds (11.3 per game), assists (5.4 per game), and blocks (1.5 per game) and is second in steals (1.24 per game).

The Wizards have been led by All-Star PG John Wall (19.3 ppg, 8.8 apg: 2nd in the NBA) and SG Bradley Beal (17.1 ppg).

Prediction: Although the Wizards have improved a lot this season, they should be no match for the older, tougher Bulls. Bulls in 5. 

Western Conference

Parker drives around Randolph during last year's Western Conference Finals. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein of Getty Images.)

Parker drives around Randolph during last year’s Western Conference Finals. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein of Getty Images.)

(1) San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs (8) Dallas Mavericks (49-33)

The Spurs were ignored by the general public throughout the regular season, but yet again, they have captured the first seed in the highly competitive West, despite dealing with various injuries to key players throughout the year. The Mavericks edged out the Phoenix Suns, who went 48-34 this season after going 25-57 last season, for the last playoff spot in the West.

The Spurs come into this series 6th in the NBA in both points scored (105.4 per game) and points allowed (97.6 per game) and are led offensively by their ‘big three’ of All-Star PG Tony Parker (16.7 ppg, 5.7 apg), PF Tim Duncan (15.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg), and SG Manu Ginobili (12.3 ppg). However, the Spurs share the ball very well (25.2 apg: first in the NBA) and receive offensive contributions from many different players, including SF Kwahi Leonard, SG Marco Bellineli, PG Patty Mills, SG Danny Green, and PF Boris Diaw. Defensively, the Spurs are led by Leonard, Duncan, and C Tiago Splitter.

The  Mavericks have been led by All-Star PF Dirk Nowitzki (21.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and newly acquired SG Monta Ellis (19 ppg, 5.7 apg). Although they only have two holdovers — Nowitzki and SF Shawn Marion – -from their 2011 championship team, they still have enough offensive firepower to compete for a title. The question is whether they can play championship level defense, which they have been unable to do since losing C Tyson Chandler in free agency after the 2011 championship.

Prediction: The Duncan-Nowitzki and Ellis-Ginobli match-ups will make this series very fun to watch, but the Mavericks do not have an answer for Parker on defense. Nowitzki and Ellis will have great series, but  so will Parker, Duncan, Ginobli, and Leonard. Spurs in 7. 

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) vs (7) Memphis Grizzlies (50-32)

The Thunder come into the playoffs with an MVP candidate — All-Star Kevin Durant — putting up almost unheard of offensive numbers, scoring tons of points incredibly efficiently. The Grizzlies used tough defense (94.6 points allowed per game: 3rd in the NBA) to return to the playoffs after a trip to the Western Conference Finals last year.

Durant has improved every part (scoring, passing, ball handling, defense) of his game this season and has managed to score 32 ppg while still managing to shoot 50.3% on field goals, 39.1% on three pointers, and 87.3% on free throws. He is joined by PG Russell Westbrook (21.8 ppg, 6.9 apg) and PF Serge Ibaka (15.1 ppg, 8.8 ppg, 2.7 bpg: 2nd in the NBA) to form a young, athletic trio.

C Marc Gasol, SG Tony Allen, and PG Mike Conley have led the Grizzlies’ strong defense that has allowed them to overcome their 27th ranked offense (96.1 ppg). Their offense has been led by PF Zach Randolph (17.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Conley (17.2 ppg, 6 agp), and  Gasol (14.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg).

Prediction: The Thunder will have trouble containing Gasol and Randolph, and the Grizzlies will use their physicality to try to counteract the talent and athleticism of Durant and Westbrook. This will be a tough series, and the pace will favor the Grizzlies, but Durant is having one of the greatest seasons ever, and he will find a way to keep it from ending in the first round. Thunder in 6.

(3) Los Angeles Clippers (57-25) vs (6) Golden State Warriors (51-31)

New head coach Doc Rivers has led the Clippers, who have the league’s highest scoring offense (107.9 ppg) and 14th ranked defense (101.0 points allowed per game), to the playoffs. The Warriors, who rank 10th in both points per game (104.3) and in points allowed per game (99.5), have managed to grab the 6th playoff spot in the West while dealing with injuries to All-Star PG Stephen Curry, PF David Lee, C Andrew Bogut, and SF Andre Igoudala.

The Clippers feature arguably the best point guard in the game, All-Star Chris Paul (19.1 ppg, 10.7 apg: 1st in the NBA) along with an athletic front line of All-Star PF Blake Griffin (24.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and C DeAndre Jordan (10.4 ppg, 13.6 rpg). The Clippers also have arguably the best sixth-man in the league, SG Jamal Crawford (18.6 ppg), and one of the best shooters in the league, SG JJ Reddick (15.2 ppg).

The Warriors are led in both scoring and assists by Curry, who averages 24 ppg and is fifth in the NBA in assists, with 8.5 per game. Curry (42.4% on 3-point field goals) teams up with SG Klay Thompson (41.7% on 3-point field goals) to form what many consider to be the best shooting back-court in the NBA. The Warriors have also received important contributions from Lee (18.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg) on offense. Defensively, the Warriors have improved by adding Igoudala via free agency but will sorely miss Bogut, who is out indefinitely with a broken rib.

Prediction: This could easily be the most exciting first round series, as it features Lob City (the Clippers) vs the Splash Brothers (Curry and Thompson). The point guard match-up between Paul and Curry should be very fun to watch, and there should be no shortage of highlights due to alley-oops from Paul to Griffin and Jordan and long 3’s from Curry and Thompson. However, the Warriors will struggle to defend the Clippers, especially Griffin and Bogut, due to the absence of Bogut, as well as Curry’s and Lee’s below average defense. The Warriors will also miss PG Jarett Jack, whom they lost to free agency during the summer, because he allowed Curry to play off the ball. Now, Curry will have to be the main ball-handler for the Warriors for almost the entire time he is in the game, and this could be an issue because Curry has struggled with turnovers this year, and Paul leads the NBA in steals per game, with 2.48 per game. So, the shooting of Curry and Thompson will be able to keep the Warriors in the series, but it will not be able to overcome all of these other issues. Clippers in 6. 

(4) Houston Rockets (54-28) vs (5) Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

The Rockets have the league’s 2nd ranked offense (107.7 ppg), and they have used their offensive prowess to clinch the 4th spot in the West. The Trail Blazers started off on a tear, going 24-5 in their first 29 games. They then cooled off quite a bit but now seem to be to be finding their groove again, having won nine of their last ten games.

All-Stars SG James Harden (25.4 ppg: 5th in the NBA, 6.1 apg) and newly acquired C Dwight Howard (18.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg) lead the Rockets’ potent offense. However, many believe the Rockets’ suspect defense (103.1 points allowed per game: 23rd in the NBA) could be their downfall. However, they should start to play defense with more urgency, and that, along with Howard’s ability on that end and their offense should be enough for them to be competitive.

The Trail Blazers have relied on their own All-Star duo of PG Damian Lillard (20.7 ppg, 5.6 apg) and PF LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg) along with Nicholas Batum (13 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.1 apg), who can do a little bit of everything. Like the Rockets, the Trail Blazers also have a strong offense and a below average defense.

Prediction: This series may be the highest scoring playoff series because it features elite offensive players in Harden, Howard, Lillard, and Aldridge and lackluster defenses. It appears that neither team will be able to stop the other, but the Rockets’ stars are more experienced and a little better than the Trail Blazer’s at this point in their careers. Rockets in 6. 

Click here for the schedule, including which channel each game is on, of the first round.

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