Just like the NHL, the NBA isn’t waiting for the first round to end to begin the second round While two Eastern Conference series – Raptors vs. Pacers, Heat vs. Hornets – will conclude Sunday with Game 7s, the Western Conference and one series in the East are ready to go.
The marquee match is the Western Conference series between the Spurs and Thunder. The Blazers are the surprise team in the second round. For the second straight round, they will face a team missing its best player. Warriors guard Stephen Curry, last year’s NBA MVP, will miss at least the start of the series, with a sprained MCL in his right knee.
In the Eastern Conference, the top-seeded Cavaliers square off with the Hawks.
With two series pending, I am 5-1 in my first-round predictions. More impressively, I picked four of those winners in the correct number of games. (Update: I finished 7-1 in the first round, with five series predicted in the exact number of games.) I was one game off in the Warriors-Rockets series because, obviously, I couldn’t have predicted Curry’s injury (or the referees failing to call James Harden for a pushoff that the NBA admitted should have been called on his game-winning shot in the Rockets’ lone win). Injuries played a factor in the only series I got wrong (so far), with the Clippers’ Chris Paul and Blake Griffin missing the second half of the series against the Blazers, who I thought would push the Clippers to seven games even with Paul in the lineup.
Let’s examine the second-round series that are ready to go. (I added in the Raptors-Heat series after the matchup was determined.)
(seeding in parentheses)
(statistics are from the regular season, unless stated otherwise)
CAVALIERS (1) vs. HAWKS (4)
Cavaliers: The Cavaliers didn’t have too much of a problem in the first round. They swept the Pistons. LeBron James (25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists) is the dominant player, but, as I wrote in the first-round preview, the key to the Cavaliers’ championship aspirations may depend on the supporting cast. Kyrie Irving (19.6 points) and forward Kevin Love (16 points, 9 rebounds) wouldn’t be considered the “supporting cast” on most teams, but they are with the Cavaliers. Irving led the Cavaliers in scoring during the first round. J.R. Smith (12.4 points) can be streaky, but centers Tristan Thompson (7.8 points) and Timofey Mozgov (6.3), forwards Channing Frye (6.1) and Richard Jefferson (5.5) and guards Matthew Dellavedova (7.5) and Iman Shumpert (5.8) give a consistent performance. On most nights, you know what you’re going to get from that group. The wild card is swingman Dahntay Jones, who was added to the roster at the end of the regular season.
Hawks: Atlanta has balance. Forward Paul Millsap (17.1 points, 9 rebounds) and center-forward Al Horford (15.2 points, 7.3 rebounds) are balanced by guards Jeff Teague (15.7 points), Dennis Schroder (11.0) and Kyle Korver (9.2), as well as swingman Kent Bazemore (11.6). The positive is it is difficult for opponents to take away one part of the Hawks’ offense. The downside is they don’t have a “go-to” scorer late in games. Horford’s offense declined during the first-round series against the Celtics, which the Hawks won in six games.
Analysis: The Hawks should present a greater challenge than the Pistons, although the Pistons. The Pistons pushed the Cavaliers during games, but could never get over the hump to secure a victory. Without DeMarre Carroll, it’s unclear how the Hawks will match up with James. If Horford is more of an offensive force than he was in the first round, the Hawks could try to press an advantage inside. But the Hawks don’t appear to have enough answers for the Cavaliers. Cavaliers in 5
RAPTORS (2) vs. HEAT (3)
Raptors: The Raptors rely heavily – maybe too much – on guards DeMar DeRozan (23.5 points) and Kyle Lowry (21.2). The next-high scorer is center Jonas Valanciunas (12.8). The Raptors have depth across their front line with Terrence Ross (9.9) and Luis Scola (8.7). The wild card for the Raptors is forward DeMarre Carroll (11.0), who returned at the end of the season after missing more than half of the season due to knee problems. Although he’s not quite his old dominant defensive self, Carroll’s defense made a different against the Pacers.
Heat: The Heat are still led by guard Dwyane Wade (19 points), as they have for more than a decade. He works well with point guard Goron Dragic (14.1 points, 5.8 assists), who had an outstanding Game 7 against the Hornets. Swingman Joe Johnson (12.2 points) has been a nice addition, forwards Luol Deng (12.3) and Gerald Green (8.9) are solid players, and rookies Justise Winslow (6.4) and Josh Richardson (6.6) can make an impact. Richardson averaged 12 points per game during March and was named Eastern Conference rookie of the month. But the key for the Heat, aside from veteran forward Chris Bosh possibly returning after blood clot issues kept him sidelined since the All-Star Game, may be center Hassan Whiteside. Averaging 14.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.7 blocked shots, the 7-footer could provide the anchor in the lane that frees up the other Heat players to cover the Hornets’ 3-point shooters.
Analysis: Both teams needed seven games to advance in the first round, with the Raptors barely sneaking past the Pacers for their first series win since 2001. The Raptors have an edge at guard, but not by much. This could be a situation in which the Raptors, after surviving a first-round scare, get their act together, but I’m not so sure. The Raptors may be too dependent on their guards. Whiteside provides the Heat with a defensive stopper inside. Maybe it’s just the temptation of seeing LeBron James face the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but … Heat in 7
WARRIORS (1) vs. TRAIL BLAZERS (5)
Warriors: The Warriors (73-9), who broke the record for victories in a season, will open this series without likely league MVP Stephen Curry (30.1 points, 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds), who sprained an ankle and then sprained an MCL in his right knee during the Warriors’ first-round series with the Rockets. It is uncertain if Curry will be able to return during the series. But the Warriors still have Klay Thompson (22.1 points), and there are plenty of complementary parts on this well-built team. Forward Draymond Green, who often slides over to center, averages 14 points, 9.5 rebounds and a team-high 7.4 assists. Former Sixer Andre Iguodala (7 points), left, plays terrific defense and can rise to the occasion, as he did when he was named the MVP of last season’s NBA Finals, partly for containing the Cavaliers’ LeBron James. Forward Harrison Barnes (11.7 points), former Sixers forward Marreese Speights (7.1), center Andrew Bogut (5.4 points) and guards LeAndro Barbosa (6.4) and Shaun Livingston (6.3) all play important supporting roles.
Trail Blazers: After trading their entire starting lineup except guard Damian Lillard (25.1 points). he Trail Blazers surprised most observers by making the playoffs. They surprised even more people by winning a series, albeit against the injury-plagued Clippers, who lost point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin during the series. With Curry sidelined, Lillard and C.J. McCollum (20.8) might have an advantage over the Warriors in the backcourt. Guard Allen Crabbe (19.3) and forward Al-Farouq Aminu (10.2) are the only other Trail Blazers in double figures. Center-forward Mason Plumlee (9.1 points, 7.7 rebounds), guard Gerald Henderson (8.7 points) and former Sixer Maurice Harkless (6.4 points) have improved. Harkless had 19 points and 10 rebounds in the series-clinching victory over the Clippers. Plumlee has developed into a force on defense and on the backboards. The Trail Blazer may miss center-forward Meyers Leonard (8.4 points, 5.1 rebounds), who is out for the rest of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Analysis: Curry’s absence opens the door for the Trail Blazers. They have a terrific backcourt and a solid frontcourt. The upset possibility is real, and the Blazers believe in themselves. But the Warriors aren’t a one-man team – although they’ll be much better when Curry returns. Warriors in 6
SPURS (2) vs. THUNDER (3)
Spurs: The statistics are a bit misleading because head coach Gregg Popovich has been rationing minutes for players all season in preparation for the playoffs. He did the same during thing during the first-round sweep of the injury-plagued and overmatched Grizzlies. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, acquired during the offseason, has adjusting well, scoring 18 points per game (51.3 field-goal percentage) and grabbing 8.5 rebounds. But the player who has truly blossomed is Kawhi Leonard (21.2 points), whose offense keeps getting better and whose defense remains elite. Guards Tony Parker (11.9 points) and Manu Ginobili (9.6) have had their minutes limited, but nobody has been given more rest than center-forward Tim Duncan (8.6 points, 7.3 rebounds). Not only are the Spurs’ former Big Three well-rested, but the time they sat on the bench has made players such as guard Patty Mills (8.5 points), swingman Danny Green (7.2) and forward Boris Diaw ready to step up and player a larger role in individual playoff games. Veteran forward David West (7.1) and veteran guard Andre Miller, signed on Feb. 29, add to the Spurs’ quality depth and experience.
Thunder: With the Warriors and Spurs in the stratosphere, the Thunder have been flying under the radar this season. So perhaps many fans don’t realize that guard Russell Westbrook (23.5 points, 10.4 assists, 7.8 rebounds) has been playing at a different level. If anything, Westbrook elevated that level during the five-game victory over the Mavericks in the opening round. Forward Kevin Durant (28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds) wants to remind everyone that he, too, is an elite player. Center Enes Kanter (12.7 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds), acquired last season at the trade deadline, has been a nice complement to power forward Sergei Ibaka (12.6 points, 6.8 rebounds), even leading the Thunder in scoring with 28 points during one game against the Mavericks. Center Steven Adams (8 points) adds to the Thunder’s inside presence. Guard Dion Waiters (9.8) can be a complementary scoring threat.
Analysis: The Spurs breezed past the Grizzlies in the first round. But they face a tough second-round opponent in the Thunder, who might have the two best players in this series in Durant and Westbrook. The Spurs, however, have quality depth and experience, and they play tremendous team defense. Kanter and Ibaka will have an interesting battle down low with Aldridge and Duncan. It will be interesting to see if the Spurs match Leonard against Durant. This should be a terrific series. The Spurs might have too much quality depth. Plus, Popovich knows how to push all the right buttons, giving the Spurs an advantage over first-year NBA head coach Billy Donovan. Spurs in 7