Finally. After five long months of jockeying, the 2015-2016 Regular Season has come to it’s conclusion. And what a wild night Wednesday’s series of finales proved to be. From the Golden State Warriors breaking the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls’ single-season record of seventy-two victories, to the Boston Celtics erasing a 26-point deficit to defeat the Miami Heat, to Kobe Bryant’s miraculous 60-point mic-drop to end his illustrious career, the final night of the campaign was indeed ripe with theater. With that said, business is set to pick up, as the NBA Playoffs will kick off Saturday afternoon, with a wonderful spread of games beginning north of the border with the Indiana Pacers facing off against the Toronto Raptors. However, the question that many are no doubt asking themselves is if there is any reason to really watch this postseason until the latter stages, particularly in the Western Conference where the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs look destined to collide in a potentially epic seven-game series? Indeed, that matchup has bared the look of predestination all year long, even with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers appearing to be quite threatening at times. But let’s be completely honest, folks; nobody outside of those teams’ respective fan bases can count themselves convinced that either unit will pull a monumental upset in the Conference Semifinals. The same can be said in the perpetually weaker and significantly less entertaining Eastern Conference, where you can practically pencil in the Cleveland Cavaliers as their representative in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year. Sure the Raptors are a solid team, but does anyone think that they’ll knock off LeBron and Co. in the Conference Finals? And even with the added wrinkle of a midseason coaching change providing short term drama, the Cavs would be sizeable underdogs against either the Warriors or Spurs should they advance to the Finals, and that’s with a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving at their disposal, which they didn’t have the luxury of when they fell to Golden State in six games last June. All in all, compare it to a year in which the NCAA Tournament plays out as complete chalk, void of all parity. Then again, stranger things have happened, so join us as we take a deeper look at each matchup in the First Round, and prognosticate just how far these teams will eventually go.
- (1) Cleveland Cavaliers v (8) Detroit Pistons: Though it may not seem like it, this is a series that could prove to be a helluva lot more complicated than you would expect. After all there is quite a bit of evidence to support the theory that the top-seeded Cavaliers (57-25, 1st in Central Division) can and will struggle to eliminate the young Pistons (44-38, 3rd in Central Division), who are making their return to the Playoffs after a six-year drought. This could become a reality if Cleveland doesn’t take Detroit seriously. During the regular season, the Central Division rivals met four times, with Stan Van Gundy’s charges besting the reigning Conference Champions three times, including both matchups at Quicken Loans Arena. All four meetings were relatively close, with each being decided by single-digits, none more than eight points. Detroit made excellent use of their size advantage, creating a decisive margin at the Free-Throw Line, netting an average of twenty freebies on 26.5 attempts, while Cleveland knocked down 15.5 of their 19.3 attempts. By getting to the Charity Stripe, they managed to control the tempo of the game, which is huge when you consider that the Cavs are at their best when employing a smaller lineup, in which they can push the pace of action. This figures to be a Coming of Age of sorts for Pistons’ Center Andre Drummond, who has become a dominant presence in the paint, particularly on the defensive end; the third-year Center led the NBA with 14.8 rebounds per game (4.9 offensive), along with 1.4 blocks, and 1.5 steals. And as Tyronn Lue’s charges quickly found out, he’s getting better on the offensive end too; simply put, even when they don’t play small, the Cavs have proven hard-pressed to handle this kid, as he’s averaged 20.3 points on 50.8% shooting, along with 13.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in three of those meetings. On the flipside, Detroit will have to shoot a respectable percentage from beyond the arc, so that Cleveland remains honest and doesn’t pack the interior in an attempt to swarm Drummond. Van Gundy’s preferred Four Out, One In system only works if he has multiple shooters to space the floor, and on the whole of the season they were very much a mixed bag; despite taking a fair volume of threes (26.2 per game, 10th Overall), the Pistons only connected on 34.5% of said attempts, ranking 22nd in the league. Tobias Harris (37.5% 3FG) was a brilliant pickup at the Trade Deadline, but they will need more from the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (30.9% 3FG) to truly put LeBron and Co. to the test.
- (4) Atlanta Hawks v (5) Boston Celtics: In what should be one of the more entertaining First Round matchups, the Hawks (48-34, 2nd in Southeast) and Celtics (48-34, 2nd in Atlantic) meet with more in common than not. Neither team possesses a “star” so to speak, yet are rather a collection of good players that complement each other well within the confines of their respective systems. In essence, they have both proven to be greater than the sum of their parts. After Boston enjoyed a comfortable 106-93 victory over Atlanta at TD Garden, last year’s No. One Seed proceeded to take each of the following three meetings, including both of their encounters at Phillips Arena in rather convincing fashion (121-97 November 24th, and 118-107 on April 9th). Mike Budenholzer’s charges shot a blistering 50.6% from the field in those meetings, including 40.3% from beyond the arc, while dishing out a very healthy 28.3 assists, quite a stark contrast to the 42.6% shooting of his counterpart Brad Stevens’ outfit. Look for the Hawks’ tandem of bigs Al Horford and Paul Millsap to be a decisive factor in this series against the Celtics’ platoon of big men. The veterans combine for 32.3 points, 16.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 3.2 blocks, with the latter proving very effective against Boston. In their most recent clash, Millsap exploded for thirty-one points on 13-of-22 shooting from the field (59.1%), including 5-of-7 from downtown (71.4%), with sixteen rebounds, three assists, a pair of steals, and five blocks. Boston’s struggles in defending them is curious given their prowess throughout the season; Stevens’ charges allowed their opponents to shoot just 44.1% from the field (7th Overall), including 33.6% from beyond the arc (4th Overall), while forcing the second-most turnovers in the league at 16.4 per game, and yielding a solid 48.7% Effective Field Goal Percentage (8th Overall). They’ll need a big series out of the diminutive Isaiah Thomas, who has blossomed since arriving in Beantown, registering career-highs in scoring (22.2), three-point field goals (167), free-throws (474), and rebounds (3.0). However, in the four meetings with Atlanta, he struggled on a miserable 38.3% shooting while committing sixteen turnovers.
- (3) Miami Heat v (6) Charlotte Hornets: The other half of the logjam in the middle of the Eastern Conference features the Heat (48-34, 2nd in Southeast Division) and Hornets (48-34, 3rd in Southeast Division), who spilt their four Regular Season meetings, with each team proving capable of winning on the other’s floor. Despite, their remarkable meltdown in the finale at Boston, which saw a 36-point swing result in a 10-point defeat (WTF?!?!?!), Miami ultimately proved to be the benefactor of tiebreakers, ascending to the Three Seed, avoiding a potential meeting with former star LeBron James until the Conference Finals. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, folks, for Charlotte doesn’t appear to be an easy out by any means. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be anything easy about this series in general; both of these teams are very good defensive units, with the Heat allowing 98.4 points (5th Overall) on 44.2% shooting from the floor (9th Overall), while the Hornets have permitted 100.7 points (9th Overall) on 44.4% shooting from the field (12th Overall). Furthermore, these teams are rarely in a hurry, instead preferring to play at a slower pace with Steve Clifford’s squad (95.7 possessions per 48 minutes, 17th Overall) looking like greyhounds in comparison to Eric Spoelstra’s charges (93.6 possessions per 48 minutes, 25th Overall), making this series the overwhelming favorite to be the old-school, grind-it-out, defensive slugfest taken straight out of the 90’s. While Miami has the name recognition of veterans such as Dwyane Wade (19.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists), Chris Bosh (19.1 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists) and Joe Johnson (13.4 points, 41.7% 3FG), Charlotte has a litany of overachievers, with Kemba Walker (20.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists), Nicolas Batum (14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists), and Marvin Williams (11.7 points, 40.2% 3FG, 6.4 rebounds) all enjoying career-defining campaigns. Keep an eye on Batum who missed the season finale with a sprained left ankle, and has thus been listed as Questionable for Sunday’s showdown at American Airlines Arena, for in addition to being a proverbial Swiss Army Knife on the offensive end, he’s one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, and could stifle the likes of Wade and Johnson throughout what is expected to be lengthy series.
- (2) Toronto Raptors v (7) Indiana Pacers: Lastly, we come to everyone’s favorite dark horse contender in the East, as the Raptors (56-26, 1st in Atlantic Division) face off against the Pacers (45-37, 2nd in Central Division) in a complete contrast of styles. If you thought the last two teams we covered played slow, wait until you catch these dinosaurs, as Dwayne Casey’s charges average just 92.9 possessions per 48 minutes, which is good for the second-slowest pace in the league. However, don’t be fooled, for it hasn’t deterred their success one bit, for Toronto set a franchise record with fifty-six victories, which they owe to their play on the defensive end. Usually, slower teams are among the best defensive groups in the NBA, and these guys are no different, allowing 98.2 points (3rd Overall) on 44.4% shooting from the field (11th Overall), including 47.3% from within the arc (5th Overall), while rarely committing fouls, getting booked 19.6 times a night (9th Overall). Furthermore, in their four meetings with Indiana during the Regular Season, in which the Raptors earned a trifecta of victories, they relegated the Pacers to 99.3 points on 41.9% shooting from the floor, while pummeling them on the glass (plus-5.7 rebounds). And then there is the not-so-small matter of the Charity Stripe, where Casey’s team really puts in work; not only do these guys get to the line frequently (26.7 attempts, 3rd Overall), but they shoot well from it, making an average of 20.8 of those attempts per game (2nd Overall). In the season series against Indiana, they averaged a staggering 35.3 Free-Throw Attempts, outscoring them by 8.5 points in that regard. The Raptors’ dynamic backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Rozen are as aggressive as they come, slashing to the basket and drawing a wealth of fouls in the process, with the pair accounting for a whopping 1,144 Free-Throw Attempts this season, netting a healthy 953 of them. Conversely, we have the Pacers, who jettisoned that style of play in favor of a faster, small-ball approach, which has helped them return to the postseason after a lost 2014-2015 campaign wrecked by injuries. Frank Vogel’s charges seek to push the tempo whenever possible, averaging 96.6 possessions per 48 minutes (11th Overall), though that increase in possessions hasn’t really parlayed into better offense; Indiana averages 102.2 points (17th Overall) on 45.0% shooting from the field (17th Overall), including 35.1% from beyond the arc (14th Overall), while struggling to take care of the basketball amidst the chaos, committing 20.0 turnovers per game. In fact, if not for a 6-1 finish to the season, this team may have missed the Playoffs altogether. With that said, the postseason return of a healthy Paul George is a huge plus for this team, particularly given that the Olympian missed all of the previous term after suffering a gruesome broken leg during a summer exhibition. The versatile wingman has taken to the switch in philosophy leading the Pacers in scoring (23.1), rebounding (7.0), and steals (1.9). And speaking of healthy returns, Toronto is expected to welcome back the services of DeMarre Carroll (11.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 39.0% 3FG), one of the better Three & D players in the game today, who had missed forty-two straight games rehabbing from knee surgery before participating three of the final five games of the year.
- (1) Golden State Warriors v (8) Houston Rockets: It’s rare that a First Round matchup is also a rematch of the Conference Finals, and even rarer that that same series occurs in a One/Eight matchup, but that is exactly the case here as the Warriors (73-9, 1st in Pacific Division) battle the Rockets (41-41, 4th in Southwest Division). As you could imagine, Golden State got the better of their three Regular Season meetings, because after all, few teams were able to do the same to Steve Kerr and his charges. After watching these teams over the past five months, there is little evidence to lead us to believe that this particular series will be any closer than last year’s, where the eventual champs disposed of James Harden and Co. in five games. While the Dubs were busy making history, the Rockets spent the bulk of the campaign mired in mediocrity, with a surprise coaching change and an unsurprising feud between stars (ahem, Dwight Howard) dominating the headlines. With Kevin McHale getting the axe eleven games into the season, J.B. Bickerstaff did his best to salvage the situation, but the biggest problem was their utter nosedive defensively; to be blunt, their play on that end of the floor left a whole lot to be desired, allowing 106.4 points (25th Overall) on 45.9% shooting (19th Overall), including a dreadful 50.4% shooting from within the arc (24th Overall) and 36.1% beyond it (21st Overall), while getting outrebounded by 1.5 boards per game, and permitting 24.6 assists (29th Overall). Did we mention that three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard wears their uniform? To make matters worse, these guys can’t seem to refrain from fouling either, committing the third-most fouls per game (21.8), leading to their opponents attempting 24.6 Free-Throws against them (24th Overall), nearly negating their own league-leading 29.4 attempts in the process. So, how is all this a recipe for pulling the upset of all upsets, you ask? Simply put, it isn’t. Even with Harden lighting up scoreboards (29.0 points), this series reeks of a sweep, with the Warriors able to exploit every one of their weaknesses, which they did thrice during the season. Golden State outscored them by 12.3 points on 47.9% shooting from the floor, including 38.6% shooting from three, while dishing out 29.7 assists and committing only 12.3 turnovers. Reigning MVP Steph Curry has tormented the Rockets this year, averaging 30.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 7.5 assists, while shooting 53.8% from the field, including a blistering 11-of-25 from downtown (44.0%). Hell, in the time it takes you to read this piece, this particular series may already be over.
- (4) Los Angeles Clippers v (5) Portland Trail Blazers: Though conventional wisdom would lead us to believe that on seeding alone, this series between the Clippers (53-29, 2nd in Pacific Division) and Trail Blazers (44-38, 3rd in Pacific Division) would be by and large the most competitive in the Western Conference, the tale of the tape tells a very different story. After besting Los Angeles at MODA Center in rather easy fashion, Portland went on to lose each of the following three matchups during the regular season. At the crux of this clash are a pair of dazzling Point Guards, Chris Paul (19.5 points, 10.0 assists, 2.1 steals) and Damian Lillard (25.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 6.8 assists), who have each carried their respective teams through tough stretches throughout the year. Paul not only kept his team afloat while fellow teammate Blake Griffin (21.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists) was sidelined with numerous injuries, he piloted them to great success, going a surprising 30-14 without the freakish Power Forward. Lillard on the other hand, drove his team to a third consecutive postseason appearance after a mass exodus of talent, which saw the Blazers lose their other four starters, including All-Star big man, LaMarcus Aldridge in Free Agency. Instead, this young team proved their mettle, highlighted by the emergence of Shooting Guard C.J. McCollum, who in his third season, looks like the frontrunner for Most Improved Player honors. The sharpshooting Guard was a revelation, averaging 20.8 points on 44.8% shooting, including 41.7% from three, along with 3.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. However, the real story is what kind of impact Griffin will have on this series, and what Doc Rivers hopes will be long postseason run. Griffin missed forty-seven games this season due to a broken hand suffered in a bizarre fight with the team’s trainer at a restaurant while he was already on the mend from an ailing elbow. He was able to return to play in five out of the last seven games, averaging 10.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in 24.5 minutes per night in an effort to ease him back into the lineup. If he can return to the level of play before his unfortunate series of injuries, then this series will do little more than serve as a precursor to the real battle against Golden State in the Semifinals.
- (3) Oklahoma City Thunder v (6) Dallas Mavericks: While it may not seem possible for a team propelled by Kevin Durant (28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists) and Russell Westbrook (23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 10.4 assists) to fly under the radar, that’s exactly what’s happened with this year’s Thunder (55-27, 1st in Northwest Division). With their dynamic duo healthy under the guidance of new Head Coach Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City has returned to the Playoffs after missing out last year due to injury ravaged campaigns from both their superstars. And at this point, it’s not very plausible to think that the veteran Mavericks (42-40, 2nd in Southwest Division) will offer much in the way of opposition in this series. In many ways, the championship window is closing for both of these franchises, who have been fixtures in the Western Conference over the past six years, but for very different reasons. In the case of OKC, Kevin Durant’s looming Free Agency has equated in may ways to a Doomsday Clock, as his potential departure will bring an end to an era for this franchise that came so close, but couldn’t quite get over the hump. As for Dallas, talisman-like superstar Dirk Nowitzki (18.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 36.8% 3FG) has entered the twilight of his illustrious career, while the rest of the roster has slowly eroded over time. Indeed, there is a strong likelihood that both of these teams may very well be at home watching the Playoffs this time next year. However, storylines aside, this series, like it’s Regular Season counterpart, figures to be a one-sided affair; Oklahoma City won all four meetings this season, outscoring the Mavs by an average of 9.5 points on 49.2% shooting from the field, including 37.3% from downtown, while dismantling them on the glass by 10.5 rebounds. Remarkably, none of Westbrook’s NBA-record eighteen Triple-Doubles came at the expense of Rick Carlisle’s charges, though the league-leader in assists did come close with twenty-four points, thirteen assists, and seven rebounds in their most recent meeting, a 116-103 victory at American Airlines Center. The only way this series gets drawn out is if Donovan and his cast get caught looking ahead to an inevitable encounter with San Antonio.
- (2) San Antonio Spurs v (7) Memphis Grizzlies: Lastly, in another series that could be over in the blink of an eye, the Spurs (67-15, 1st in Southwest Division) meet the Grizzlies (42-40, 3rd in Southwest Division) in what was just a few short years ago, the Western Conference Finals. However, this isn’t that stage, and these aren’t those Grizzlies. No, Dave Joerger’s charges deserve a lot of credit for simply getting to this point, given that they’ve been playing without star Center Marc Gasol since February 10th, and without Point Guard Mike Conley since March 7th. That’s 31.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 9.9 assists that they’re without, and they’ve been without them for little over a month, so by all means let’s give credit where credit is due to clearly the grittiest team in the NBA. With that said, this is where the buck stops. The Spurs won all four meetings during the Regular Season, and with the exception of a 110-104 victory at AT&T Center on March 25th, they were rather one-sided. Gregg Popovich’s charges outscored them by an average of 12.5 points per game on 51.5% shooting from the field, including 40.6% from three, while outrebounding them by a margin of 6.5 boards, and dishing out 23.8 assists per encounter. While Memphis typically thrives the slower the pace gets, thanks to the acquisition to LaMarcus Aldridge (18.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.1 blocks) during Free Agency, the Spurs are far more equipped to play a plodding style than they have been over the last six years. Despite averaging 93.8 possessions per 48 minutes (24th Overall), San Antonio has nonetheless proved lethal averaging 103.5 points (10th Overall) on 48.4% shooting from the field (2nd Overall), including 51.5% from within the arc (3rd Overall) and 37.5% from beyond it (2nd Overall), while serving out 24.5 assists (3rd Overall). Depth is a key component for this team, with Popovich utilizing as many as thirteen players in his rotation logging over thirteen minutes a night. With that said, the ascension of Kawhi Leonard has been the biggest story for the Spurs, with the 2014 Finals MVP proving his worth as the new face of the franchise. At just twenty-four years of age, Leonard has logged career-highs across the board, including points (21.2), three-point field goal percentage (44.3%), free-throw percentage (87.4%), assists (2.6), and blocks (1.0). In a common theme during the First Round of the Western Conference Playoffs, this one is academic, folks.