2014 NBA playoff previews

NBA Playoff Preview: Brooklyn Nets vs. Toronto Raptors

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

Brooklyn Nets: 44-38 (6 seed)

Toronto Raptors: 48-34 (3 seed)

KEY INJURIES

None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possessions)

Brooklyn Nets: Offense 104.4 (14th in the NBA), Defense 104.9 (19th in the NBA)

Toronto Raptors: Offense 105.8 (9th in the NBA), Defense 102.4 (9th in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. The Deron Williams – Kyle Lowry matchup: Kyle Lowry has been a key contributor in the Raptors’ return to the postseason for the first time since 2008, and he may be the best individual player in the series. Deron Williams, meanwhile, has had an inconsistent season in part due to injuries, and in part due to not being needed to carry the load nightly on a veteran Nets team. Williams will need to help slow Lowry defensively and keep pace in running his team from a numbers standpoint. At the very least, Brooklyn’s team defense needs to contain Lowry and prevent him from taking over at times the way he’s proven capable of doing throughout the regular season.

2. Experience vs. Exuberance: The Nets have a veteran roster built for the postseason, with players like Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett who have been there many times before. Toronto, meanwhile, has three starters who have never tasted the postseason. Jason Kidd has been there as a player, but has never had to make the adjustments necessary that a seven-game series requires from a head coach, while Dwane Casey has postseason experience coaching as an assistant, most recently on the 2011 Mavericks squad that won the title.

3. The best of the best: This may be one of the more competitive first round matchups, regardless of conference. The Raptors have the best record in the East since trading Rudy Gay in December, while the Nets have the best record in the conference since Jan. 1. The teams split the regular season series at two games apiece. This is a matchup between two teams who got used to winning essentially the entire second half of the season, and neither one is going to be an easy out.

PREDICTION

The postseason is where the Nets having that huge payroll will pay dividends. They have three guys that can take the game over offensively on any given night in Johnson, Williams and Pierce, and developed role players throughout the season that can provide what’s needed on both ends of the floor to simply get the job done. It won’t be easy, but this series will prepare Brooklyn for the challenge that awaits in the later rounds, and the Nets’ experience will end up being the difference.

Nets in 6.

NBA Playoff Preview: Charlotte Bobcats vs. Miami Heat

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

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

KEY INJURIES

None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possessions)

Charlotte Bobcats: 101.2 (24th), Defense 101.2 (6th in the NBA)

Miami Heat: Offense 109 (2nd in the NBA), Defense 102.9 (11th in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. Al Jefferson: The Bobcats’ big free agent signing last summer is the reason the team finds itself in the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and just the second time since the franchise moved to Charlotte in 2004. Jefferson has been the anchor offensively, averaging 21.8 points and hauling down 10.8 rebounds per game. And that’s going to be a problem for Miami, considering that defending elite post players is where the team struggles most defensively. Jefferson will need to increase his output against the Heat’s soft front line defense, or at the very least, cause double teams defensively that open up shots for his teammates.

2. Healthy Heat: Miami played too many games this season at less than full strength, with players being shuffled in and out of the lineup to compensate over the long, 82-game grind of the regular season. But all 15 players practiced in advance of the first round matchup, and you can bet that Greg Oden will get some run defensively trying to slow Jefferson. Having Dwyane Wade available for the postseason push will obviously be a boost as well, but for Miami the goal here is to find some chemistry with its best players, and form a playoff rotation moving forward that it can rely on as the team moves deeper into the postseason.

3. How quickly does Miami flip the switch? It’s been a long regular season for the Heat, but now that the playoffs are here, it should theoretically be go time. No team has made it to the Finals four straight seasons in almost 30 years, and there’s a reason for that. For Miami to become the first, it will need to get to the more meaningful matchups as quickly as possible, while exerting the minimum amount of energy to do so. This Heat team hasn’t historically swept its playoff opponents, but if it can dispatch the Bobcats in four straight, it may give us an indication of juts how ready they are to begin their title defense.

PREDICTION

It really comes down to whether or not the combination of the Bobcats solid defense and Al Jefferson’s inside presence can combine to give the Heat fits for one or two games. It would take an extremely strange set of circumstances for Charlotte to earn four victories, and we’ll go with the more likely scenario that they manage to squeak out one instead.

Heat in 5.

NBA Playoff Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

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

KEY INJURIES

Andrew Bynum hasn’t played since March 15, and the Pacers have officially ruled him out from participating in this series. Nothing new for the Hawks — Al Horford, Gustavo Ayon and John Jenkins have all been out for the season due to injury for a while now.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possessions)

Atlanta Hawks: Offense 103.4 (15th in the NBA). Defense 104.1 (14th in the NBA)

Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1. Can Roy Hibbert get right? Hibbert started off the season on a Defensive Player of the Year pace, protecting the rim for the league’s top defense. He still may win the award, despite his personal (and the Pacers overall) drop-off since the All-Star break. But Hibbert’s honestly been a shell of himself on both ends of the floor recently, and with the Hawks starting Pero Antic at center who shoots 3.4 three-pointers per game, Hibbert is going to have his hands full if he’s the one responsible for that matchup. Whether it’s Antic or not, however, Hibbert needs to use this series against a weaker opponent to get himself back to anchoring the defense that his team will need to rely on in the postseason’s later rounds.

2. Atlanta’s three-point shooting: The Hawks were second in the league in three-pointers attempted during the regular season, averaging 25.8 per game which was second only to the Houston Rockets. They also feature the best shooter in the game from beyond the arc in Kyle Korver, who knocked down his shots from distance at a league-best 47.2 percent on the season. This is what Atlanta does, but they’ll need to do it much better against a Pacers team that doesn’t allow points in the paint very easily. Despite averaging the second most attempts from beyond the arc during the season, the Hawks converted them at a rate that was good enough for only 13th in the league — that number has got to go way up for Atlanta to have a chance at extending this series.

3. Indiana’s intensity: The Pacers were shot out of a cannon to begin the season, determined to make sure that they would finish the year with home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs after losing a Game 7 in Miami last season. Indiana achieved its goal, but stumbled to the finish line and compiled a record of just 16-14 since the All-Star break. The Pacers saw just how dangerous Atlanta can be when you don’t come mentally prepared, and were shellacked by the Hawks by 19 points back on April 6 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. The Pacers will need to regain the swagger and team offensive cohesiveness that they proved capable of in the first half of the season.

PREDICTION

This really comes down to Indiana proving that they are still the best defensive team in the league, and using that to fuel an offense that struggles plenty in its half court sets. The Hawks likely light it up at least one game, but there shouldn’t be enough there to sustain success against a Pacers team that is built for the playoffs.

Pacers in 5.

NBA Playoff Preview: Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

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

KEY INJURIES

None. Which is saying something for the Spurs as they have had injuries (plus the Gregg Popovich preventative rest program) messing with their lineups all season long.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Dallas Mavericks: Offense 109 (3rd in NBA), Defense 105.9 (22nd in NBA)

San Antonio Spurs: 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 100.1 (4th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Can Dallas even slow the San Antonio offense? This is really the issue, and history says the answer is no. San Antonio has won the last nine meetings between these teams, sweeping this season series by an average of 11.3 points a game. San Antonio averaged 115 points per 100 possessions against Dallas this season, almost 7 per 100 better than their season average. The Spurs make the extra pass every time and that has led to Danny Green destroying the Mavericks from three shooting 12-of-20 from beyond the arc in the meetings this season. Look for Green to put up big numbers in this series. Rick Carlisle is a good coach who will throw a lot of different match ups out there hoping something works, but the reality is on the defensive end he’s playing chess with a handful of pawns while Gregg Popovich has a full arsenal of knights, bishops and other pieces to attack with.

2) Tony Parker. He has just abused Jose Calderon this season — 10-of-18 shooting when their were matched up, driving into the lane 13 times in less than 17 minutes and scoring 24 points on those drives (stats via NBA.com’s player tracking SportsVU cameras). The Dallas defense isn’t that good and when a gifted playmaker and scorer like Parker gets into the lane it’s all over. Look for Dallas to try some Devin Harris on him (they did that this season, as well as some Wayne Ellington) but they make that switch the Dallas offense takes a hit. Somehow Dallas has to find a way to contain Parker to have a chance in this series.

3) Dirk Nowitzki. He’s still one of the games great scorers. He’s still going to get his. The Spurs threw Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw at him during the regular season and he shot 50 percent against both. San Antonio can mix it up taking Kawhi Leonard off Monta Ellis for a while and throw him ad Nowitzki, too, but it will only help so much. For Dallas to win a game in this series, let alone dream of an upset, Nowitzki is going to have to be dominant. Ellis will have to be great also, the Mavs will need to find some kind of defensive answer, but it all comes back to Dirk — he has to be his peak self for Dallas to even have a chance.

PREDICTION

Spurs in five. Monta Ellis to his credit has had a resurgent season and meshed very well with Nowitzki, but he is going to have Kawhi Leonard draped on him all series and that will slow his effectiveness. With Leonard and the Diaw/Splitter combination on the Mavs’ stars the Spurs don’t have to double off Dallas’ shooters much, which limits the Dallas offense. Meanwhile Dallas has no good answers to limit the San Antonio offense. I’ll give Dallas one home game because Dirk goes off, but that’s the best they can hope for.

NBA Playoff Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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REGULAR SEASON RECORDS

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

KEY INJURIES

None to speak of. Both teams have all the guys in their regular rotations. While Oklahoma City had kept Russell Westbrook out of back-to-backs as a precaution down the stretch, but that’s not an issue come the postseason.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Memphis Grizzlies: Offense 103.3 (16th in NBA), Defense 102.1 (T-7th in NBA)

Oklahoma City Thunder: 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 101 (5th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Can Memphis slow Kevin Durant? Durant will be the NBA’s MVP — 32 points a game on 50.3 percent shooting, hitting 39.1 percent from three. He is going to get his in this series, but during the season the Grizzlies have had some success keeping Durant in check when Tayshaun Prince was guarding him. In the more than 30 minutes Prince was on Durant this season Durant was 19-of-47 overall (40 percent) and 4-of-12 from three (33 percent), according to the NBA’s SportsVU camera data. The questions here for Memphis are: 1) Can Prince sustain that? Durant has torched Tony Allen and the other Grizzlies’ wings, so there aren’t a lot of good options; 2) If Prince can somehow sustain it he is an offensive black hole (true shooting percentage of 43.8, PER of 8.2) and they need scoring. Durant is an incredibly efficient scorer and will probably average 30 points a game in this series, but can the Grizzlies grind him and just make him less efficient? It’s key for them.

2) Can Oklahoma City slow Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol? Last year when these teams met in the playoffs Scott Brooks played Kendrick Perkins better than 20 minutes a game and that was an issue because they needed offense with Westbrook out. This year Westbrook is back and this may be the one series where leaning on Perkins is not a bad thing — when matched up on Gasol or Randolph, Perkins allowed fewer shots than any other Thunder big and held them to 40 percent shooting, according to the NBA’s SportsVU data. Gasol-Randolph shot 42 percent against Steven Adams and 48 percent against Serge Ibaka (but he had four blocks). Memphis is going to grind and get most of their points from this tandem, if OKC’s bigs can keep them from being efficient it will be a tough go for Memphis.

3) Russell Westbrook vs. Mike Conley. Mike Conley has become the best point guard in the NBA nobody is talking about. He is a traditional floor general, although the Grizzlies will needs one points out of him this series. More importantly, he’s one of the better defensive point guards in the league and he’ll be tasked with keeping Russell Westbrook in front of him and out of the paint — penetration breaks down any defense, the physical Grizzlies included. Westbrook cannot have an open runway to the rim and that falls on Conley — a task he is up to. The other key that ties into this (and falls on all the Grizzlies and not just Conley) is keeping Westbrook and the Thunder out of transition. If the game is fast paced — even for just a stretch — and the Thunder are getting easy buckets in transition, the Grizzlies will not be able to match that scoring. This needs to be grit and grind at its best for the Grizzlies. The Thunder need Westbrook to put up points, especially if the Grizzlies focus on Durant, but to do it efficiently.

PREDICTION

Thunder in seven. Memphis is not your standard seven seed — this is a 50-win team that was 33-13 after Marc Gasol returned from his knee injury and is hitting its stride at the right time. For Memphis to pull the upset (and it’s possible) they will need a monster series from Mike Miller — spacing the floor has been the Grizzlies’ issue the past few seasons (only 17.1 percent of their shot attempts this season were threes, lowest in the league) yet Oklahoma City can take mental defensive vacations where they give up good look threes. If Miller (45 percent from three this season) and the Grizzlies (Courtney Lee matters here too) can hit enough threes they have a chance. But Oklahoma City’s perimeter defense when focused is too much… plus they have that Kevin Durant guy. He’ll get them a win or two this series alone.