Eight different stories: Previewing the second round of the NBA Playoffs
After the regular season reduced the fray of 30 to 16, the last two and a half weeks of the First Round further cut the number of remaining contenders to eight.
There is a certain amount of ruthlessness to the playoffs or knockout system, and whether certain fans like it or not, that ruthlessness is necessary. There may be 30 teams in the NBA, but only one of them can be the winner each year. This means that, one by one, 29 teams face disappointment, defeat, and sorrow, and when the champion is crowned, only one squad is left smiling.
After the regular season reduced the fray of 30 to 16, the last two and a half weeks of the First Round further cut the number of remaining contenders to eight. For the losers, the journey is now over. The Boston Celtics made the playoffs on a losing record only because the East is week, and were swept easily in four games by the Cavaliers. The defending champs San Antonio Spurs fell from two to six on a last day loss of the regular season because of the tough competition out West, faced off against the Clippers, and lost in Game 7 to a last second miracle basket by Chris Paul. But now that the First Round is over, both teams are on the same boat – the boat gone fishin’.
Now, eight teams remain: Hawks, Cavaliers, Bulls, Wizards, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, and Grizzlies. Each team brings with itself a different tune, a different message, and a different approach, but all aim for the same final result: the NBA title. There is a sense of ‘newness’ with Second Round. This will be the first season since 1998 that neither Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, nor Dwyane Wade will play in the NBA Finals. This will be the first time since 1995 that the West will be won by someone other than the Sonics/Thunder, Jazz, Spurs, Lakers, or Mavericks.
Eight Different Stories
Out East, the Atlanta Hawks have enjoyed their most successful regular season, finishing top of the conference with 60 wins, featuring four All Stars (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver), and providing what many believe is the greatest Hawks team of All Time (mid-80s ‘Nique squads may have a different opinion). From their time as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks to Milwaukee to St. Louis and their present move to Atlanta, the Hawks’ only championship season was with St. Louis in the Bob Pettit era in 1958. Since moving to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks have never even been to the Conference Finals.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are back in the hunt this season because their almost-native son – LeBron James – is back in a Cavaliers jersey. Except for a couple of rare deeper playoff runs, the first 30-something years of Cavaliers history were a disappointment of lottery basketball or First Round exits. Then James was drafted in 2003 and the team’s lucked seemed to change forever. In his first seven year stint in Cleveland, LeBron carried the team to the 2007 NBA Finals, one other Conference Final, and two seasons as the league’s best record. After four years and four Finals in Miami, LeBron returns to Cleveland to join Kyrie Irving and bring in (the now injured) Kevin Love in hopes of finally delivering a championship to The Land.
The Chicago Bulls history of success is well-documented, and most of those documents will have the one face on the cover: Michael Jordan. Widely regarded as basketball’s greatest-ever player, Jordan carried the Bulls to six NBA titles in six Finals in the 90s and two Conference Finals appearances in the late 80s. For the first 18 years before Jordan’s arrival, the franchise failed to make it pass the Second Round stage. And Jordan’s departure in 1998 left a void, too, one that was finally filled with the current team led by hometown hero Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and now joined by Pau Gasol (two-time champ with the Lakers), Jimmy Butler and more. In Rose’s MVP season in 2011, the Bulls lost to LeBron’s Heat in the Conference Finals. Will they lead the team back to its glory days again?
The only First Round upset was made by the sixth-place Washington Wizards. The franchise saw its glory days when it was known as the Bullets – from Baltimore to Washington – in an era that brought them their only championship in the Wes Unseld era in 1978. The Bullets made it to four NBA Finals in the 70s, winning only one. They haven’t been back to even the Conference Finals since 1979 and the last 35 years have mostly brought disappointed to the franchise. The fans will be hoping that this year’s squad – led by the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal and inspired by the performances of 2008 NBA champion Paul Pierce will be able to reverse the spell and make the Wizards play like the old Bullets again.
Out West, it’s a similar story of long-gone glory for the Golden State Warriors. There was a time when the Warriors were one of the NBA’s best teams. As the Philadelphia Warriors, they won two NBA championships, including the league’s very first Finals in 1947 (with Joe Fulks) and then in 1956 (with Paul Arizin). The team signed Wilt Chamberlain who went on to score 100 points in a Warriors jersey in 1962. The Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962 but Chamberlain moved back to Philadelphia. In 1975, the Warriors in their current, ‘Golden State’ avatar won their first and last title for the city, as a team led by Rick Barry swept the heavily-favoured Washington Bullets. The next 39 years have mostly been a period of disappointment, as Golden State only made the playoffs 10 times and never made it pass the Second Round. Fortunately, things have turned quite ‘golden’ out in Oakland now. In a team led by soon-to-be-MVP Stephen Curry and coached by Steve Kerr, the Warriors have become the NBA’s finest, winning a franchise-record 67 games and looking like the favourites to win the 2015 title.
The Houston Rockets have had their measure of success, and filled in the ‘Jordan Baseball retirement’ gap with their two NBA championships in 1994 and 1995 in a team led by Hakeem Olajuwon. Twice before in the 80s, the Rockets lost in the Finals to the Boston Celtics, too. This is a team that has featured many past stars of the game, like Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Elvin Hayes, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Steve Francis, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, and more. Now blessed with a team led by James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets will hope to evoke the echoes of the Olajuwon’s success 20 years later.
No NBA franchise has been short of success more than the Los Angeles Clippers. From their days as the Buffalo and San Diego Braves and to their present form as the LA Clippers, this team had somehow managed to be without a championship, conference, or even a division title from 1970 till 2012. Finally, over the past two years in the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin era, the Clippers have secured back-to-back Pacific Division titles. Now, they will be hoping to get to the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Finally, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies, the newest of the remaining teams in the playoffs. Starting in Vancouver in 1995 and relocating to Memphis in 2000, the Grizzlies didn’t enjoy much success until recently. The current team led by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph led the Grizz to their only Conference Finals appearance two years ago and will be hoping to repeat that feat again this season.
Second Round Preview and Predictions
Hawks (1) vs. Wizards (6): I can’t say if the Wizards sweep of the Raptors was more of the Wizards being that good or the Raptors being that bad. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but more importantly, The Truth – Paul Pierce – currently lies in Washington. The Wizards will strut into this series with new-found swag, and the talent in their arsenal isn’t that bad, either. However, I feel that the Hawks will still hold an advantage in this matchup. Although Atlanta stumbled a little against the Nets (and in Game 1 yesterday), I think they will bounce back. Expect a super-speedy matchup between Jeff Teague and John Wall, hot shooting between Bradley Beal and Kyle Korver, but the Atlanta bigs – Al Horford and Paul Millsap – will prove to be the difference-makers. Hawks win 4-2.
Cavaliers (2) vs. Bulls (3): The only matchup that has truly mattered in the Eastern Conference all season, and this is definitely the NBA’s most interesting Second Round series. Bulls-Cavs is a real rivalry with great talent on both sides. Even before Kevin Love hurt his shoulder, I had felt that Chicago’s depth and two-way potential would trouble Cleveland. The Cavs struggle defending in the post, and the Bulls’ big rotation could further exploit this weakness. Without Love, LeBron will have to focus more on defending bigs like Gasol, Noah, and Gibson inside, and this will hinder his offensive genius a little. Without Love, they will not be able to spread the floor with ease offensively. Ultimately, the edge will come to who wins the point-guard battle between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving – and my heart says Rose. Bulls win 4-2.
Warriors (1) vs. Grizzlies (5): The Warriors are making basketball magic over in the Bay Area, and Stephen Curry is the sorcerer leading this show from the point. Curry was ridiculously good against the Pelicans, averaging over 33 points and seven assists in the First Round. Meanwhile, the Grit-‘n-grind Grizzlies looked efficient and defensively sound in their beat-down of the Trail Blazers, but with Mike Conley’s status up in the air, Memphis’ immediate future is looking a whole lot more complicated. The Grizzlies are a great defensive team, the Warriors are a great defensive and offensive team. Memphis will aim to slow down the pace to hamper the Warriors from getting into their comfort zone. Unfortunately for them however, the Warriors are looking comfortable in all zones. Warriors win 4-1.
Rockets (2) vs. Clippers (3): After years of coming up short in the super-competitive West, the Clippers finally grew up and showed that they are a team to be truly respected by knocking out the defending champs in a classic seven-game series win. Now, they face a Rockets side that has surprised me all season and looked particularly comfortable in their 4-1 win over Dallas. In some ways, this may be the most annoying series to watch, with Chris Paul and James Harden taking part in a flop-fest / complaining-competition, while Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, and DeAndre Jordan collectively miss 1,350 free throws per game. With the pressure of facing early failure off their backs, I expect Clippers to be a lot more relaxed and confident in this series. If Paul’s hamstring issues are not serious, he should make the Conference Finals for the first time in his career. Clippers win 4-2.