NBA PLAYOFFS: Who's hot, who's not on eve of real season

Apr. 17, 2014 @ 07:59 PM

To get another shot at LeBron James, the San Antonio Spurs may have to go through Dirk Nowitzki, then Dwight Howard and James Harden, and finally Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Survive all that, and maybe they can avenge that NBA Finals heartbreak.

“There’s definitely that burning desire in the back of your mind that really wants to get back there,” Spurs guard Patty Mills said.

They get started on Sunday, right before James and the Heat begin what they hope is a run to a third straight championship. Miami’s path seems much easier, but James’ team also appears more vulnerable than the one that was an overwhelming favorite in last year’s playoffs.

Maybe that was boredom, though. Count on the Heat to pick it up now.

“This is why we’re all here,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “The regular season is great and all, but this is the fun part. You wake up and you’re excited for the challenge of the playoffs. There’s no better time than right now.”

It begins Saturday with four games: Top-seeded Indiana hosts Atlanta, and Brooklyn visits Toronto in the Eastern Conference, while the West series openers include Golden State at the Clippers, and Oklahoma City against Memphis.

On Sunday, No. 1 overall seed San Antonio opens against Dallas, right before Miami welcomes Charlotte. Washington at Chicago, and Houston hosting Portland round out the action.

The postseason came to a thrilling conclusion last year, with the Heat rallying from a five-point deficit in the final 28 seconds of regulation to win Game 6. They went on to take a tight Game 7, helped when Tim Duncan missed over Battier from point-blank range down the stretch, to hand San Antonio its first loss in five NBA Finals appearances.

Many thought that was the last chance for the Spurs’ core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Instead, San Antonio won a league-high 62 games in perhaps the franchise’s finest all-around season.

Even the Spurs are impressed with the way they left disappointment behind, but all that matters now is what’s ahead.

“We are No. 1 overall and can’t be better than that. But it doesn’t mean anything,” Ginobili said. “The playoffs starts from scratch.”

And it starts with a Dallas team that won 49 games, which would have given the Mavericks the No. 3 seed in the weaker East. Houston and Portland tied for fourth with 54 wins — the same amount as the Heat earned to finish No. 2 in their conference.

Miami lost 14 of its final 25 games, often while playing without Dwyane Wade, and finished two games behind the Pacers. ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy is picking Indiana to win the East, in part because the Heat just don’t quite resemble the team that lost only three times after the start of February last season.

“I think they have a lot of guys who are not in their prime right now and their ability to consistently play well individually is just not there,” Van Gundy said Thursday during a conference call. “And then you have the health issues that to me, if they didn’t have some of those health issues, they’d be a 60-win team and they’d be the favorite.”

Still, the betting site Bovada gave 3 to 1 odds of another Spurs-Heat finals, best of any possible matchup.

If it happens again, San Antonio would get the decisive game at home this time — though that may not even come into play if the Spurs have to face either the Rockets or Thunder, who both went 4-0 against them.

Every series in the West could be a slugfest, which would make the playoffs no different than the regular season. The East has a sub-.500 Atlanta team along with postseason novices such as Charlotte and Washington, potentially making things easier for the Heat and Pacers.

But Toronto, Chicago and Brooklyn all compiled better records since Jan. 1 than Indiana and Miami, and will try to prevent the Eastern Conference finals matchup that’s been expected since November.

“It’s always wide open,” Nets coach Jason Kidd told reporters in Cleveland on Wednesday. “You guys sometimes limit it to just two teams, but guys that are playing on a daily basis in the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference feel like they’ve got a chance.”

The Spurs have been hoping for another one, ever since walking off the court in Miami where they were so close to victory in Game 6 that workers had already begun preparations for the celebration.

“We could have easily fell in a hole and let last year’s loss kill us,” Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said. “But we got back mentally together and trying to get the same goal accomplished.”

AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, Tom Withers in Cleveland, and freelance writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.


A LOOK AT THE EIGHT FIRST-ROUND SERIES IN THE NBA PLAYOFFS:

BY BRIAN MAHONEY AND TIM REYNOLDS Associated Press

EASTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 INDIANA PACERS (56-26) vs. No. 8 ATLANTA HAWKS (38-44)

Season series: Tied, 2-2. Indiana posted a pair of victories two weeks apart in February, but the Hawks won the first and last meetings. The final one was perhaps the low point of the Pacers’ season, when they were held to a franchise-low 23 points in the first half of a 107-88 home loss on April 6.

Story line: The Pacers got the No. 1 seed they coveted and now must take advantage of it. The Hawks played just well enough to hold off New York for the No. 8 seed and will try to knock off a team that looked vulnerable late in the season.

Key matchup I: Roy Hibbert vs. Pero Antic. Hibbert had an All-Star first half and tailed off afterward, and was similarly inconsistent against the Hawks. He was a no-show offensively in Indiana’s losses, managing two total points after shooting 0 for 5 in 9 minutes in the April 6 game. Antic played in both Atlanta wins, scoring 16 and 18 points.

Key matchup II: David West vs. Paul Millsap. West averaged 19.5 points in Indiana’s victories but just 10.5 in their losses. Millsap mostly struggled against Indiana’s defense, totaling 18 points on 6-of-31 shooting in the first three games, but the All-Star went for 17 points in the finale.

X-factor: Jeff Teague. The speedy point guard averaged 20 points in Atlanta’s two victories and could cause problems for a defense even as good as Indiana’s, yet he was held to only 8.5 per game in the Pacers’ wins.

Prediction: Pacers in 5.

No. 2 MIAMI HEAT (54-28) vs. No. 7 CHARLOTTE BOBCATS (43-39)

Season series: Heat, 4-0. It wasn’t always as easy as that looks. Miami won 97-81 on Nov. 16, rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to prevail 99-98 on Dec. 1, needed overtime to win in Charlotte 104-96 on Jan. 18, then finished off the sweep with a 124-107 win on March 3 — a game where LeBron James scored a career-high 61 points. The Bobcats are 0-15 vs. Miami since James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami.

Story line: Miami is not exactly rolling in its quest to win a third straight NBA title. The Heat didn’t get the No. 1 seed in the East and have lost 14 of their last 25 games since that 61-point night by James. The Bobcats went 7-59 two years ago, 21-61 last year and more than doubled that win total this season, so they know there’s no pressure on them here. And Miami, like most teams, doesn’t have a great answer for Charlotte star Al Jefferson.

Key Matchup I: James vs. Jefferson. They won’t be guarding each other much, but Miami’s star will have to keep the pressure on Charlotte’s go-to guy. If Jefferson is held relatively in check, Miami would call that a huge win.

Key Matchup II: Kemba Walker vs. Mario Chalmers. Walker can be explosive, Chalmers tends to give Miami big games in the playoffs, and both can take some pressure off everyone else in the offense by stepping up their own games.

X-Factor: Wade. He missed about one-third of the season because of injuries and maintenance. He needs to be great for Miami to win it all, and he knows that.

Prediction: Heat in 5.

No. 3 TORONTO RAPTORS (48-34) vs. No. 6 BROOKLYN NETS (44-38)

Season series: Tied, 2-2. The Raptors twice snapped Nets five-game winning streaks in January, and one of the victories coming without DeMar DeRozan. They blew out Brooklyn the night after the Nets played a double-overtime game against Miami and rested Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett, but the other three games were decided by a total of seven points.

Story line: The Nets sure seemed like they were angling for this matchup by the way they played in the final days of the season, apparently believing their veteran experience will carry them in the postseason against a young Raptors team that won the Atlantic Division crown that the Nets were favored to take.

Key matchup I: Kyle Lowry vs. Williams. Lowry was over 20 points three times, with a high of 31 in Toronto’s one-point victory at Brooklyn on Jan. 27. Williams had two costly turnovers down the stretch of that one, including a bad inbounds pass that Patrick Patterson stole and turned into the winning basket. Williams also sat out two of the games, then scored 18 in Brooklyn’s 101-97 win on March 10.

Key matchup II: DeRozan vs. Shaun Livingston. DeRozan averaged 26.5 points in the first two games he played and will be a tough matchup for the Nets. Livingston, their most versatile defender, wasn’t a starter back then but had 18 points, four more than DeRozan, when he was during the final matchup.

X-factor: Mason Plumlee. The Nets will probably want Kevin Garnett on the floor as much as possible during the playoffs, but should be more confident in what their rookie can do now after he made 79 percent of his shots in 10 April games.

Prediction: Nets in 6.

No. 4 CHICAGO BULLS (48-34) vs. No. 5 WASHINGTON WIZARDS (44-38)

Season series: Wizards, 2-1. Washington won in Chicago 102-88 on Jan. 13, topped the Bulls at home 96-93 four nights later, then lost at home 96-78 on April 5. Combined points in the season series: Bulls 277, Wizards 276.

Story line: Welcome to the matchup of surprises. The Bulls started 9-16, lost Derrick Rose to injury again, traded Luol Deng and seemed to be shutting down for the season. Someone forgot to tell the Bulls that part of the plan, and they finished with an East-best 36-16 record since Jan. 1. Washington made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, one of four teams from the Southeast Division to emerge.

Key Matchup I: Backcourt vs. Backcourt. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has a strong corps of guards to choose from in Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler and D.J. Augustin, who’s been great for the Bulls. He’ll need them all, and more, against Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal.

Key Matchup II: Joakim Noah vs. Marcin Gortat. Noah has been a rock for the Bulls, a probable vote-getter in both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year races. And he can control games now in many ways. Gortat will be busy.

X-Factor: Taj Gibson. Can be a big spark off the bench, and the Bulls are a club that feasts off getting a bonus influx of energy every now and then.

Prediction: Bulls in 6.

___

WESTERN CONFERENCE

No. 1 SAN ANTONIO SPURS (62-20) vs. No. 8 DALLAS MAVERICKS (49-33)

Season series: Spurs, 4-0. Three of the four wins came by single digits, with the Spurs getting a pair of nine-point wins (116-107 and 109-100) at Dallas, and a 112-106 win at home to go along with the only one-sided game of their series, 112-90.

Story line: The Spurs were 28.2 seconds away from an NBA title last year in Miami, the rope that would be used to cordon off the court was in place ... and then the Heat had other ideas. And while that obviously stung the Spurs, it also seemed to invigorate an older team that went on to dominate the season and win 19 straight at one point. They’re not trying to get back to the finals — for the Spurs, it’s all about winning them. And poor Dallas: Win 49 games and still be considered a big first-round underdog. That’s rare.

Key Matchup I: Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki. Of course. These guys have been opponents since 1999, facing off 78 times, 52 in the regular season, 26 and counting now in the playoffs. Duncan is 45-33 in those games. Yes, they’re old guys now. Yes, their teams will go as far as they take them.

Key Matchup II: Tony Parker vs. Jose Calderon. Deep in the heart of Texas, a guard from France and a guard from Spain are probably as vital to their teams’ respective hopes as anyone else. Calderon needs to keep Parker from going off — easier said than done — to give the Mavs a chance.

X-Factor: Factors, technically. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green had big roles in the playoffs last year, and Leonard especially has continued blossoming this season.

Prediction: Spurs in 5.

No. 2 OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (59-23) vs. No. 7 MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (50-32)

Season series: Thunder, 3-1. Kevin Durant, the scoring champion and presumed MVP, averaged 35 points in the final three games of the series. Oklahoma City won both at home, plus grabbed one in Memphis back in December. Thunder also controlled the boards in each game.

Story line: Durant says he’s tired of always finishing second. Well, he probably won’t in the MVP race, and there’s also plenty of people out there who likely think it’s his time for that breakthrough first championship ring. That being said, Memphis — which ousted OKC last year, albeit a Thunder team without Russell Westbrook — is probably the team no higher seed wanted to see on their bracket pod.

Key Matchup I: Westbrook vs. Mike Conley. Two of the better point guards in the game. A key for Westbrook will be keeping his wits about him and not playing this postseason to avenge the frustration of getting hurt a year ago.

Key Matchup II: Kendrick Perkins/Serge Ibaka vs. Zach Randolph. If Randolph was in a bigger market, he could be considered a bona fide star. When he and Marc Gasol were in the lineup together this season, Memphis’ two bigs played off each other as well as ever. Randolph plays well, Grizzlies have a serious shot here.

X-Factor: Mike Miller. He played a huge role in Miami winning its last two NBA titles, is healthy and tends to be extremely dangerous in the postseason. And he might have been the biggest key to the Grizzlies’ playoff-clinching win at Phoenix down the stretch.

Prediction: Thunder in 7.

No. 3 LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (57-25) vs. No. 6 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (51-31).

Season series: Tied, 2-2. Each team won twice at home, and the dislike between the teams couldn’t even be hidden on Christmas, when Blake Griffin and Draymond Green were thrown out of the Warriors’ testy two-point victory.

Story line: With superstar players on both sides and two division rivals who don’t like each other, this has all the makings of a classic playoff series. Golden State pulled a playoff upset last year from the same seed, but the Clippers have their best team ever and hopes of a deep run.

Key matchup I: Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry. Perhaps the NBA’s best-handling point guard against its best shooting one, and the All-Stars had a sensational duel on Halloween, when Paul had 42 points and 16 assists to beat Curry’s 38 and 11 in a Clippers victory. Paul averaged 28 points and 13 assists in three games, sitting out Golden State’s 111-92 victory on Jan. 30.

Key matchup II: Griffin vs. David Lee. Lee has to battle an injury to the nerve that connects from his right hamstring to his back, along with perhaps one of the few better players at his position. Lee had 20 or more points in all four games, as did Griffin, who finished it off with a 30-point, 15-rebound performance in the Clippers’ March 12 rout.

X-factor: DeAndre Jordan. With fellow center Andrew Bogut out injured, the Clippers’ dominant defender should be able to control the paint, but most not let his poor free throw shooting cost them down the stretch of any close games.

Prediction: Clippers in 6.

No. 4 HOUSTON ROCKETS (54-28) vs. No. 5 PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (54-28)

Season series: Rockets, 3-1. Houston rang up 116 points per game against Portland, and All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden from the Rockets, and LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard from the Trail Blazers all put up big numbers during the series. Aldridge had 31 points and 25 rebounds in Portland’s Dec. 12 victory, while Harden finished with 41 points, 10 rebounds and six assists when the Rockets pulled out a 118-113 overtime win last month.

Story line: Houston has the home-court advantage and high hopes in its first season after landing Howard last summer, but the Blazers had the much stronger finish to the season, winning their final five games.

Key matchup I: Patrick Beverley vs. Damian Lillard. Houston’s defense is so much improved when Beverley is on the floor to harass opposing guards, but he also was in double figures three times against Portland during the regular season and finished with nine points and 11 rebounds in the other game. Lillard had three 20-point games against Houston, but the Blazers’ lone victory came when he shot 1 for 10 for eight points.

Key matchup II: Chandler Parsons vs. Nicolas Batum. Batum’s average of 10.5 points against Houston was one of his worst against any opponent. But even if he doesn’t score much, the Blazers will need his defense against Harden and Parsons, who had 31 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in Houston’s 126-113 victory on Jan. 20.

X-factor: Howard. Assuming he’s fully healthy after missing time down the stretch because of an ankle problem, the Rockets will expect him to deliver points on one end and help slow Aldridge on the other.

Prediction: Trail Blazers in 7.

 

NBA PLAYOFFS DAILY SCHEDULE AT A GLANCE

All Times EDT
FIRST ROUND
(x-if necessary)
Saturday, April 19

Brooklyn at Toronto, 12:30 p.m.

Golden State at L.A. Clippers, 3:30 p.m.

Atlanta at Indiana, 7 p.m.

Memphis at Oklahoma City, 9:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 20

Dallas at San Antonio, 1 p.m.

Charlotte at Miami, 3:30 p.m.

Washington at Chicago, 7 p.m.

Portland at Houston, 9:30 p.m.

Monday, April 21

Memphis at Oklahoma City, 8 p.m.

Golden State at L.A. Clippers, 10:30 p.m.

Tuesday, April 22

Atlanta at Indiana, 7 p.m.

Brooklyn at Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

Washington at Chicago, 8:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 23

Charlotte at Miami, 7 p.m.

Dallas at San Antonio, 8 p.m.

Portland at Houston, 9:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 24

Indiana at Atlanta, 7 p.m.

Oklahoma City at Memphis, 8 p.m.

L.A. Clippers at Golden State, 10:30 p.m.

Friday, April 25

Toronto at Brooklyn, 7 p.m.

Chicago at Washington, 8 p.m.

Houston at Portland, 10:30 p.m.

Saturday, April 26

Indiana at Atlanta, 2 p.m.

San Antonio at Dallas, 4:30 p.m.

Miami at Charlotte, 7 p.m.

Oklahoma City at Memphis, 9:30 p.m.

Sunday, April 27

Chicago at Washington, 1 p.m.

L.A. Clippers at Golden State, 3:30 p.m.

Toronto at Brooklyn, 7 p.m.

Houston at Portland, 9:30 p.m.

Monday, April 28

Miami at Charlotte, 7 p.m.

x-Atlanta at Indiana, 8 p.m.

San Antonio at Dallas, 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday, April 29

x-Washington at Chicago, TBD

x-Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBD

x-Golden State at L.A. Clippers, TBD

Wednesday, April 30

x-Charlotte at Miami, TBD

x-Brooklyn at Toronto, TBD

x-Dallas at San Antonio, TBD

x-Portland at Houston, TBD

Thursday, May 1

x-Indiana at Atlanta, TBD

x-Chicago at Washington, TBD

x-Oklahoma City at Memphis, TBD

x-L.A. Clippers at Golden State, TBD

Friday, May 2

x-Miami at Charlotte, TBD

x-Toronto at Brooklyn, TBD

x-San Antonio at Dallas, TBD

x-Houston at Portland, TBD

Saturday, May 3

x-Atlanta at Indiana, TBD

x-Washington at Chicago, TBD

x-Memphis at Oklahoma City, TBD

x-Golden State at L.A. Clippers, TBD

Sunday, May 4

x-Charlotte at Miami, TBD

x-Brooklyn at Toronto, TBD

x-Dallas at San Antonio, TBD

x-Portland at Houston, TBD