A couple of weeks ago, Inside The NBA host (and former superstar/round-mound-of-rebound) Charles Barkley said that the first round of these year’s playoffs could be the ‘worst in NBA history’. His early fears were perhaps right: after all, seven of the eight first round series started off with the home team taking a 2-0 lead. Fortunately for the neutrals, six of the eight teams made a real series out of it and turned it into a round to remember.
The First Round is over and we can start looking ahead. The likes of Derrick Rose, Danny Granger and Amar’e Stoudemire were already questionable for the playoffs; and now, the absence of Russell Westbrook means that the path to a repeat championship for the Miami Heat is even clearer than ever before. For the rest of the teams in the playoffs, the mission is to survive and advance; advance as far as possible before the inevitable showdown against the NBA’s reigning champions.
With matchups getting closer and the repercussions for every decision bearing bigger fruits, the Second Round turns into a Survivor Series. Although nothing is guaranteed, we can assume that it will be LeBron James and the Heat waiting at the end. But who will advance all the way to challenge them?
First, let’s take a quick recap of the First Round. Despite Brandon Jennings’ outlandish prophecy, the Heat had no trouble defeating the Bucks sweeping them in an easy four games by an average of 12.25 points per game. Even though LeBron had a great series, you got a sense that he didn’t need to push it to the top gear. Wade cruised, and the supporting cast stepped up. The First Round, as predicted, was an early morning snack. Now the rested Heat get ready for the Second. They will be playing the Bulls, who kept on losing players (Rose – already out, Deng, Hinrich, Hamilton, and sicknesses/injuries to Robinson/Gibson/Noah) and still kept on bouncing back. Chicago beat the Nets in seven games in a series that will be remembered for the Nate Robinson 3 OT Game and for Joakim Noah’s heroic leadership.
The Knicks took an easy 3-0 lead over the Celtics before Boston showed incredible pride and heart to win the next two games and even make a legendary 20-0 run in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to give the Knicks a scare. In the end, Carmelo and co advanced to play the Pacers in the next round, who also won 4-2 against the Hawks. Forever stuck in mediocrity, the Hawks did even the series when they won games 3 and 4, but it wasn’t enough to stop rising star Paul George and Indiana’s tough defense from surviving and moving ahead.
Out West, the Thunder started comfortably against old buddy James Harden and the Rockets until superstar Russell Westbrook went down for the season and the series took a dramatic turn. Kevin Durant was good enough to help OKC take a 3-0 lead, but Harden and Chandler Parsons led Houston to wins over the next two games before OKC finally closed it out in Game 6. The Thunder will be facing the grit-n-grind Grizzlies, a team that is striking fear in the heart of all opponents at this point, in the next round. Despite going down 0-2 to the Clippers after a Chris Paul game-winner in Game 2, Memphis went back to their defensively tough ways to rattle the Clips and win the next four in a row. A rejuvenated Zach Randolph became a big reason for this turnaround, and newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol as well as Tony Allen beefed up this team’s defensive prowess.
The Lakers were the noisiest team in the regular season, with all their drama, comedy and injuries. The quiet Spurs silenced them in an impressive four-game sweep which left the Lakers broken, hobbled, and ejected. I was doing pretty well with my First Round predictions, getting them all right, until the last one: The 6th place Warriors pulled off a big upset as they defeated the Nuggets in six games. If the series could be summarized in a single sentence, it would be that the team with the superstar won. Yes, it is wonderful to watch an ego-less, star-less team like Nuggets play; but in the playoffs, it becomes necessary in 95 percent of the cases to have a transcendent talent to lead the team. The Warriors have that in Stephen Curry. Now, he must prepare for a much tougher challenge against the Spurs.
And with that, we look ahead at the Second Round ahead. Here are my predictions for all the four series:
Heat vs. Bulls: Don’t let anyone blinded by the Miami-tinted glasses tell you otherwise: this series will be no cakewalk for the Heat. The Bulls are a team that hustle hard and battle till the very end. If the Heat have superstars and MVPs on the court, then the Bulls have a superstar on the bench and he is Coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibs’ defensive-minded attitude will make this a physically testing series for Miami. A lot depends on the health of Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, and those guys can help contain (relatively) the explosiveness of LeBron and Wade. That said, we are still talking about the league’s MVP and best player here. LeBron will have to pull out some heroics in this series, and he will. I predict two different scenarios in this matchup, and both of them end up with a win for the Heat. If Derrick Rose returns, the Heat win in 7, if he doesn’t, they win in 6. Since we don’t know any better, we’ll assume that he doesn’t return, and Miami will win this series 4-2.
Knicks vs. Pacers: This is a series that will test a team that relies on great scorers getting hot against a team that prides itself on defensive discipline. Can the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith recover from a late-series slump against the Celtics and find their shooting stroke against the defensively tougher Pacers? It is worrying for the Knicks fans when JR Smith is your second-most consistent offensive option. But a positive for them is that the Pacers are quite inconsistent offensively too. The Pacers will bring in their meanest faces, but that won’t be enough as they won’t have the offense to counter New York’s. I predict that the Knicks will win in 6 games.
Thunder vs. Grizzlies: Without Westbrook, this suddenly turns into the most interesting series of the round. Despite having the NBA’s most gifted scorer in Kevin Durant, the Thunder showed an identity crisis in their offense in the last three games without Westbrook against the Rockets. Expect the defensive-minded Grizzlies to exploit those issues and make life hell for Durant. On the other side, the Thunder bigs will suffer trying to stop Randolph and Gasol in the post. It will be the best matchup of the round, and will go to all seven games; but I predict that the Thunder will begin to reshape their offense as they get used to life without their point guard and finally get comfortable in their new look as the series progresses. And, no matter who they send to stop him, ultimately Durant will lift his team to victory. Thunder to win 4-3.
Spurs vs. Warriors: The Warriors haven’t won in San Antonio since Tim Duncan was drafted back in 1997. That’s a long 16-year stretch. Golden State have a fantastic home advantage and actually split the season series 2-2 against the Spurs. On form, they have the best player in the series in Stephen Curry. But the Spurs are a special team; a team that not only have two players in Parker and Duncan who will be the best on court at any given time, but also a team that is deeper and better-coached than the Warriors. It’s been a good effort getting this far, but this is where the journey ends for Golden State. They will win one emotional game in front of their home crowd, but Spurs will win the series 4-1.
There is no time to rest or recover, and little time to plan ahead. While you blink after a fantastic end to the First Round, the Second Round will jump at you less than 24 hours later. Barkley was wrong about the First; now let’s hope that the Second continues the same exciting momentum. Who will survive in the end?