The NBA playoffs start on Saturday.
We’re still a few weeks away from the marquee match-ups we all want to see (Heat-Pacers III, anything in the West). So consider this your basketball appetizer.
We went through every first-round series and picked the winners.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)
Thing to know: The Spurs eat bad defensive teams alive.
The Mavericks are the worst defensive team in the playoffs, based on points allowed per 100 possessions. This is a very bad thing when facing the Spurs.
The Lakers were the worst defensive team in the playoffs in 2012-13 … the Spurs destroyed them in a four-game sweep.
The Jazz were the 2nd-worst defensive team in the playoffs in 2011-12 … the Spurs swept them too.
This is a simple one.
Pick: Spurs in four.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
Thing to know: Seeds lie.
The Grizzlies were 40-19 with Marc Gasol in the lineup this year. That winning percentage (.677) is better than Houston’s and Portland’s, and would have made them the 4-seed in the West.
This has been an awkward match-up for OKC. The Grizzlies are the slowest team in the NBA at 89.9 possessions per game. They play big, which means Oklahoma City will play lineups that feature Kendrick Perkins, which hurts them on offence.
The Grizz knocked the Westbrook-less Thunder out of the playoffs last year. They also pushed them to the limit in 2012. But this year’s OKC team is better than those two, largely because of Kevin Durant, and Memphis still doesn’t do enough on offence to win four out of seven.
Pick: Thunder in six.
Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
Thing to know: The Bogut injury is huge.
This is the most exciting first-round series because these two teams actually dislike each other.
The Andrew Bogut injury really hurts though. Golden State was the 4th-best defensive team in the NBA this year, and the Aussie is one the big reasons why.
The Warriors had a similar injury in last year’s playoffs when David Lee went down. They responded by going small, torching the Nuggets, and giving the Spurs a surprisingly hard time in the Western conference semifinals.
That won’t happen with Bogut. The Warriors got away with going small last year because they had Bogut holding things together on defence. If they try to go small this year, Jermaine O’Neal or Lee will be manning the paint … which is not ideal.
Pick: Clippers in five.
Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)
Thing to know: Points!
Clips-Dubs might be more exciting because of the potential for Matt Barnes to punch something, but Rockets-Blazers is going to have all of the points.
Neither team is particularly good on defence. Houston is 13th in defensive efficiency and Portland is 17th.
Both are very good offensive teams. Houston does it by getting to the free throw line more than any team in the NBA. It might not be the most beautiful brand of basketball, but they’re 4th in the league in offensive efficiency.
Portland is even better, ranking 2nd in offensive efficiency. They create extra possessions by taking care of the ball (3rd in turnover rate) and grabbing a ton of offensive rebounds (3rd of offensive rebounding rate) — which should hold up against Houston’s relative ineptitude on the boards (20th in defensive rebounding rate).
Houston has been playing pretty well, and they have loads more experience. But we have to pick at least one upset here.
Pick: Blazers in seven.
Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)
Thing to know: The Hawks play the Pacers weirdly tough.
If you’re looking for a Big, Huge, Surprising Upset, this might be your best candidate.
Indiana’s struggles have been well documented. They played like crap after the All-Star Break. Without making any fundamental changes to their strategy, they got worse in every area all at once. They might be tired. They might have off-the-court issues. They might be sad because Danny Granger got traded.
Who knows. The point is that they have the statistical profile of an average team over the last two months, not a 1-seed.
But that’s not the real reason to be thinking upset here. The real reason is that the Hawks seem to have Indiana’s number. As NBA’s.com John Schuhmann pointed out earlier this week, Atlanta has the most efficient offence against Indiana of any team in the East.
The Pacers have the best defence in the league at 99.3 points per 100 possessions allowed. The Hawks scored 104.7 points per 100 possessions against them.
The problem with picking this upset is that the Hawks probably stink. They had a 38-44 record. Even if Indiana plays as badly they played in the last two months, they could still win this series.
Pick: Pacers in six.
Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
Thing to know: LeBron owns the Bobcats.
We’re big believers in the Miami Heat “gears” theory. Therefore, we’re just going to assume their sloppy play over the last few weeks is irrelevant and everything will get better when the playoffs begin.
So let’s talk about a crazy LeBron James thing. He’s really, really good against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who’s one of the better young wing defenders in the league.
His stats against him this year (from NBA.com):
- Minutes: 23
- Shooting: 18 for 30 (60%)
- Fouls drawn: 6
Pick: Heat in five.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
Thing to know: The Nets are goofy.
These have been two of the best teams in the East, record wise, since the beginning of 2014.
The Nets have done it by going small.
We’ve seen a bunch of teams do this in recent years, most notably the Miami Heat. But the Nets aren’t your typical small-ball converts. They don’t push the pace, and still do a ton of stuff in the post by sticking large guards on the low block.
Rebounding is an issue as a result. Brooklyn is 28th in defensive rebounding, which could be an issue against a Toronto team that ranked top-12 in both offensive and defensive rebounding this year.
At the end of the day these teams are pretty close, and it might come down to experience. The Nets have guys who’ve played in Game 7’s of NBA Finals and conference finals. On the other hand, Game 1 of this series will be the biggest game most of these guys on Toronto have ever played.
Pick: Nets in seven.
Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
Thing to know: Prepare for a rock fight.
This could be an ugly one.
These are two of the five worst offensive teams in the playoffs, and two of the four best defensive teams in the playoffs. Joakim Noah and John Wall are spectacular individual players who do things on the basketball court that no one else does. But Chicago’s slow-paced, suffocating style on both ends of the court should make this the lowest-scoring series of the first round.
Wall and Bradley Beal have the potential to get hot and run away with a few games. But Chicago is playing really well right now, they have a history of outperforming expectations in the playoffs, and they have the best player on the floor in Noah.
Pick: Bulls in seven.
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