After a lackluster first week, the NBA playoffs really picked up in the last few days.
Six of the eight first round match-ups went to six games, and teams like the Thunder and Knicks has tougher times than we thought they’d have.
Our first round predictions were just OK: 6 out of 8 right (we missed on Chicago and Golden State), 3 out of 8 exactly right (SAS in 4, NY in 6, MEM in 6).
Here’s who we like in the conference semifinals.
Miami Heat (1) vs. Chicago Bulls (5): Miami in 5
Chicago has the pieces to slow Miami down. Luol Deng is as close as you can get to an ideal defender to stop LeBron James, Jimmy Butler should be fine against a hobbled Dwyane Wade, and the interior combo of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson can protect the rim when the breakdowns inevitably happen.
In addition, Miami relies on three-pointers (5th in the league in attempts) and Chicago gave up the fewest three-point attempts in the NBA during the regular season.
So there’s reason to believe the Bulls can slow down the Heat.
But there’s no reason to believe the Bulls can score with the Heat.
Carlos Boozer gave the Nets fits, but it won’t be as easy if LeBron decides to guard him. Nate Robinson ran the Chicago offence without incident against the Nets, but Miami is one of the best teams in the NBA in forcing turnovers (5th) and Brooklyn is one of the worst (25th).
Chicago’s tough, but Miami is too good to beat on toughness.
Miami in 5.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
New York Knicks (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (3): New York in 7
As we saw in Celtics series, the Knicks’ offence gets ugly when they can’t take or make three-pointers. They took five fewer three-pointers per game against Boston, shot 33% instead of their normal 38% per cent, and their offensive efficiency dipped from 111.1 (top-5 in the regular season) to 98.7 in the playoffs (worse than any team in the regular season).
Unfortunately for the Knicks, Indiana is the best team in the NBA at defending the three-pointer. They give up the second-fewest threes per game, and opponents shoot just 32.7% against them (the lowest percentage in the league).
So yeah, prepare for a ton more Carmelo Anthony isolation plays.
But outside of that very important edge in defending threes, this Pacers team doesn’t have a whole lot of advantages.
The resurgent Iman Shumpert should be able to defend Paul George, Tyson Chandler is the rare centre who can guard Roy Hibbert one-on-one, and guarding David West is a good match-up for Carmelo Anthony — who gets destroyed by guys who can beat him off the dribble, but plays OK defence against back-to-the-basket guys.
The Pacers also have a suspect bench and play horribly on the road (they just got smoked by the Hawks twice in Atlanta).
The pieces are there are an Indiana upset, but it’d take a monster series from George and another poor one from Carmelo.
Knicks in 7.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5): Memphis in 6
OKC looked absolutely lost for the first three and a half games without Russell Westbrook.
Their offence was just OK against Houston — which was the worst defensive team to make the playoffs. And more alarmingly, their defence was a mess against those small Rockets lineups with Chandler Parsons at the 4.
Meanwhile, Memphis is scary hot. After building a reputation as one of the best defensive teams in the NBA during the regular season, they’ve been the best offensive team in the playoffs, based on offensive efficiency.
Zach Randolph is back in form after a late-season slump, Marc Gasol is doing Marc Gasol things from the high post, and Mike Conley has boosted his numbers in both points and assists in the playoffs.
So this series looks like a blowout, except for one thing — OKC’s struggles against Houston tell us almost nothing about how they’ll play against Memphis.
The Thunder were thrown out of whack by a double curveball last series. First the Rockets went super-small and tried to exploit Serge Ibaka as a perimeter defender, and then Russell Westbrook went down. They had to adjust to Houston’s adjustments while also adjusting to the loss of Westbrook.
That won’t be the case against Memphis. The Grizzlies are a more comfortable match-up for OKC. The Thunder can play their two bigs at once, and Memphis doesn’t have a punishing guard like James Harden to take advantage of the Thunder’s slow-footed guards.
This series won’t be a blowout. But the Grizzlies are playing so well that you’d like their chances even if OKC had Westbrook.
Memphis in 6.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Golden State Warriors (6): San Antonio in 5
The Spurs shouldn’t be able to take advantage of the defensive weaknesses that Denver couldn’t against Golden State.
They can shoot threes. They have a post players to make the Warriors pay for going small. And they have Tony Parker, who should be dominant if Ty Lawson’s success against Golden State in the last series is any indication.
Things will be much tougher for Steph Curry as well. The Spurs had the 3rd-best defence in the NBA during the regular season, and the combination of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green is long and quick enough to chase Curry off the three-point line, or at least make him work harder for his points.
Golden State got a little lucky by drawing Denver — a good match-up for them to begin with, and a team depleted by injuries — in the first round.
This San Antonio team is on an entirely different level than the Nuggets.
San Antonio in 5.
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