Close Encounters: Previewing the Second Round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs
Ok, so how are they supposed to top that?
How are they supposed to top perhaps the greatest First Round in NBA playoffs history? How are they going to top an NBA record five Game 7s, an NBA record eight overtime games, and 23 games decided by five points or fewer? How are they going to top two series decided at the buzzer?
Moments when Paul Pierce reminded us that “this is why he’s here”? Moments like Troy Daniels? The Vince Carter game-winner? Clutch four-point plays by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? The block that saved the Nets? Or Damian Lillard’s series-winning shot of the year?
All that, and so much more has already happened in this super-intense post-season, and we haven’t even gotten to the intense part yet. These playoffs have been shocking, amazing, and inexplicable… so inexplicable that the only way I can describe this experience is to call it ‘The WTF Playoffs’.
Now, only eight teams remain: Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, and Portland Trail Blazers. For everyone except the Heat and the Wizards – who closed out their match-ups with relative ease – the playoffs have already been a roller coaster ride. These teams haven’t exactly ‘won’ their series as much as they just ‘survived’ them.
And now, could they be looking forward to more close encounters ahead?
The unpredictability of the First Round threw off the predictions of most NBA analysts, and some of the teams that I expected to make it to the Second Round – Bulls, Rockets, and Warriors – were defeated and packed-up for an early vacation. The only series that played out to complete expectation was the Heat’s easy sweep of the Bobcats. The Hawks made life terribly difficult for the ‘favourites’ Pacers, but nevertheless, Indiana finally found their groove back after going 3-2 down to bounce back and beat Atlanta in seven games.
The Wizards looked surprisingly comfortable for a 4-1 win against a Bulls side that looked suddenly lost on the offensive end and couldn’t buy a bucket. The Raptors and the Nets played an entertaining seven-game series that came down to the very last drive, and Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry to help Brooklyn advance.
Out West, the surprising Mavericks really gave the league-best Spurs a run for their money, playing out six entertaining games before San Antonio upped the ante to blow out Dallas in the decisive Game 7. The Thunder and the Grizzlies played a seven game series too, and this one was a classic, featuring an NBA-record four consecutive overtime games (three of which were won by Memphis). There were memorable performances by players on both ends of the floor all series. Zach Randolph was shockingly suspended for the deciding Game 7, and finally, the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook survived Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, and co. to secure victory.
There is a trend here. The Clippers and the Warriors also played a contentious seven-game series, one where basketball was overshadowed by an off-court controversy, but nevertheless, some of the most exciting players in the NBA saved the game and gave the fans a great match-up. The Clippers used size to their advantage against the short-handed Warriors to move on.
Meanwhile, there was an explosion of offense between the Trail Blazers and the Rockets, a series featuring three overtime contests and several memorable individual performances. It was only fitting that a clutch game-winner by Portland’s Damian Lillard decided the series in six games for the Trail Blazers.
Now that the match-ups are set for the next round, I can look ahead and make predictions to see who will survive and advance ahead to the Conference Finals:
Pacers vs Wizards
Indiana are the NBA’s perfect example of why team chemistry is crucial. When chemistry was good, the Pacers’ underrated roster was unstoppable, jumping far ahead at the top of the East. But when chemistry was bad, the same roster stumbled to an ugly finish to the season and barely survived against the lowly Hawks in the First Round. Washington have momentum and rest with them, but Indiana might have finally regained some of their confidence after winning a tough series. The only thing stopping the Pacers is the Pacers themselves, and despite their offensive struggles, they are a super defensive team who can exploit Washington’s carelessness and lack of experience.
Pacers to win 4-2
Heat vs. Nets
The Nets swept the Heat 4-0 in the regular season, albeit all in incredibly close contests. Miami has all the talent, but Brooklyn has the mental edge from the season match-ups. Will it matter? The Nets are constructed specifically to counter Miami, as they take care of the ball to avoid Heat fast-breaks and have a variety of big or small lineups to throw at the Heat. This team will be an irritant to LeBron James and co. all series, and they will be tested physically and mentally till the very end. I still suspect that the Heat will make their way through the rubble, but it won’t be easy, and it will hurt for days.
Heat to win 4-3
Spurs vs Trail Blazers
The Spurs struggled to close out a motivated Mavericks team where the only major contributor on youthful legs was Monta Ellis. Now, they must face a Trail Blazers side full of youth and energy. Can the duo of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard – and the rest of Portland’s high-octane offense – give the Spurs trouble? Sure, but at the other end, they wouldn’t know how to stop San Antonio either. This will be the end of the line for the inexperienced Portland roster, as Popovich’s men will use their veteran savvy mixed with talent on both ends of the floor to outsmart and outwork them.
Spurs to win 4-2
[Photo: Kevin Durant]
Thunder vs Clippers
For the neutral, perhaps the most watchable series in the Second Round. Both teams were stretched to seven games by worthy first round opponents, and both have survived for a crucial second round match-up. Both feature various superstar caliber players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin), all of whom are capable of taking over the game at any given point.
Defensive beasts (Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan), and a deep bench on both ends will make this is a fun, closely-matched series. But eventually, the talents of OKC will be too much for the Clippers to handle. Los Angeles has no one capable of stopping Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul’s injury will keep Russell Westbrook free of his usual shackles too.
Thunder to win 4-2
The Second Round is just around the corner, with tip off only a few hours away. And as fans spoilt by the close encounters of the previous round, we’ll all be hoping that the remaining four series provide their share of memorable moments too.