Celtics v Cavaliers
Regular Season: Cleveland 2-1
What a job Brad Stevens has done at the Boston Celtics (40-42). Very few would have looked at this Celtics roster and truly given them a chance of reaching the playoffs. If anything I expected Orlando’s rebuild project to chug along faster. But Boston’s hardworking, well-coached unit finished the season excellently and deserve their No.7 seed in the East. However, their odds of 25/1 to win this series rightly reflect the task facing them. Cleveland (53-29) has put down three months of exceptional basketball after a hugely uncertain start to the campaign.
Credit must go to coach David Blatt but for me the general management have turned Cleveland’s season around. The addition of Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert has given this team a defensive nous it lacked – Mozgov the rim-protector and Shumpert the wing commander. Mozgov’s contribution to this Cavaliers team cannot be understated, they are hugely better when Mozgov is on the floor JR Smith is also better fit at the two spot than the departed Dion Waiters. Then you have the superstars – Lebron James has played at an MVP level since returning from a brief injury in January; Kyrie Irving has adapted to his new role as the second option on the team and it took a lot less time than I would have expected. Irving has been sensational since the turn of the year. The third piece of this magnificent trio, Kevin Love, has had a much better year than many have suggested. Love is averaging just shy of a double-double (16.4 and 9.7) and has found his grove again shooting-wise.
The above odds don’t reflect much value but there is no other outcome for this series other than a Cleveland win. This Celtics unit is completely lacking in star power with Isaiah Thomas their closest thing to. Pay no heed to last Sunday’s obliteration of the Cavaliers by the Celtics when looking at this matchup. Cleveland sat all their starters barring Mozgov on the night. Despite Boston’s unrelenting spirit and the backing of a loud and proud support in games three and four I cannot see the Celtics win a game in this series. Lebron James-driven teams tend to win in four games in round one and this should be no different.
Nets v Hawks
With Al Horford back fit, Atlanta (60-22) were many pundits’ preseason tip to make some noise this year and not be too far behind the inevitable Cavaliers/Bulls battle for the Eastern Conference No.1 spot. However, the Hawks have outperformed their status as dark horses and finished the season seven wins ahead of Lebron and friends. Their orchestra is led by Jeff Teague, who has developed into an elite NBA point guard. Teague’s numbers of 15.9 PPG and 7APG tell only half the story. Teague controls Atlanta’s offensive rhythm; makes good decisions; picks the right passes. The Hawks’ frontline of Paul Millsap and Al Horford is as good as any in the league. And, they got Kyle Korver who sinks half (well 49.2%) of his three-point attempts.
The Brooklyn Nets (38-44) scraped into the playoffs via a win on the final night of the regular season over Orlando. Mikhail Prokhorov has thrown an obscene amount of money into this Nets franchise in the quest for a title. Instead he is left with a squad largely consisting of overpaid mercenaries. Deron Williams has shown signs of life of late but is nowhere near the player he was. Joe Johnson has, for me, always been largely overrated and his Player Efficiency Rating of 14.1 is a solid indicator of his current lack of true contribution to an NBA franchise. Brook Lopez has been solid in his return from a long layoff and they can take positives in recruiting the always effective Thaddeus Young in return for the bloated contract of an aged Kevin Garnett.
The difference between Atlanta and Brooklyn is that the Hawks are a team. Atlanta has seven players averaging double figures this season. They share the scoring and their exceptional ball movement allows for open looks. The Hawks have the 4th best shooting percentage in the league. Having Kyle Korver around will always help those statistics but DeMarre Carroll has also shot the ball very well this season and Millsap and Horford are automatic in the paint. Despite all this and the odds on offer I still don’t think this will be a cakewalk for the Hawks. I expect Deron Williams to pick up his game for the postseason; Brook Lopez is always an offensive threat and they have enough pieces to still give these Hawks a scare. Atlanta will win the series but not without dropping a game or two along the way.
Trail Blazers v Grizzlies
By winning the Northwest Division the Portland Trailblazers (51-31) were guaranteed a top four seed in the West and home-court advantage in round one. However this position somewhat sugar-coats the disappointment of their current form. Portland has dropped 11 of 18 to finish the season and their somewhat thin squad is being stretched to the limits due to injury woes. The Grizzlies (55-27) seemed nailed on to win the Southwest Division and take the No.2 seed until their form dipped and those around them heated up. The Grizzlies have dropped 9 of 19 and like their opponents, they are a little banged up and very much out of form.
Portland has a whole host of injury woes. They have already lost Wesley Matthews and Dorell Wright for the season and they will miss Arron Afflalo for most of this series. Going into Sunday’s game one there are doubts over All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, all-rounder Nicolas Batum and backups CJ McCollum and Chris Kaman. Portland have padded out their roster over the past year but they still lack depth and won’t succeed with such health issues. Memphis are not without their own injury worries as they sweat on the fitness of Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen for Sunday’s opening game. All three are extremely valuable to the Grizzlies; Randolph and Conley for obvious reasons and Tony Allen’s lockdown defence is key to Memphis’ success. Key players though they may be the Grizzlies will be able to cope without these losses and I expect all three to suit up come Sunday anyway.
The Grizzlies opened up in the first half of the season but have regressed to being defensive experts again. That won’t be enough to get them a title and this squad certainly should be aiming for a title tilt. They have an amazing frontline in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph that is effective on both ends of the court. Mike Conley is an elite PG at this stage in his career and they have a nice bench led by sixth man Jeff Green. The pieces are there but they don’t convince me as going any further than Round Two. Coming up against a banged-up Portland side is the best draw the Grizzlies could have got really as the No.8 Pelicans look a much tougher task at the moment that the No.4 Trailblazers. Portland have run out of steam and have too many injury woes. Damien Lillard is an utterly superb young guard and if Aldridge and Batum can stay fit then they will be competitive but the smart money is on Memphis at a decent price of 1.5.
Spurs v Clippers
How San Antonio (55-27) must wish they had beaten New Orleans on Wednesday night. In truth, the Clippers (56-26) likely wished the Spurs won also. A win for the Spurs would have seen them leapfrog the Clippers into 2nd place, leaving both teams with home-court advantage and an easier matchup. Going in to Wednesday night these were the two form teams in the league. The Spurs had won twelve on the bounce and the Clippers finished the regular season winning seven straight. This is a mouth-watering first round tie between two of the NBA’s best teams and it is a round one matchup that highlights just how strong this Western Conference is.
The price of around 2.5 on the Clippers is very tempting. The Clips struggled for consistency for large parts of the season but gathered steam towards the end and look in good fettle for the postseason. The Spurs have well and truly kicking into gear, in the way we have seen in so many seasons under Gregg Popovich and they are part of a trio of teams being talked about as potential winners (along with Cleveland and Golden State) in most discussions. However we cannot overlook the fact that the Clippers have home-court advantage in this tie. This really should be the tightest tie in Round 1 and certainly the best viewing.
The Clippers and Spurs are offensively efficient, ranking 2nd and 3rd respectively in terms of field goal %. The Spurs have the edge defensively though. Kawhi Leonard is the best wing defender in the league for me and he will be charged with shutting down the outside threat of JJ Redick and Jamal Crawford in particular. On the inside, the Clippers frontline should win the battle. Blake Griffin is a superstar and for me, so is DeAndre Jordan. Jordan has been hugely instrumental in the Clippers success this season, leading the league in rebounds with a stunning 15 RPG along with 11.5 points and 2.2 blocks. If the Clippers can dominate the inside, they will be hard to beat.
Where this will be lost for the Clippers is via their lack of depth. The Clippers’ much maligned bench (let’s omit Jamal Crawford from this statement) doesn’t stack up against that of the ultra-deep Spurs. All of Spurs players fit in seamlessly off the bench. Manu Ginobili will be huge again in the postseason; Cory Joseph and Patty Mills are very tidy guards to fill in for Parker and Green; Boris Diaw (who may start game one) is a highly skilled big man who was massive in last year’s postseason and could well be again. Aron Baynes is very tidy under the rim and Belinelli rounds out a list of quality backups. The LA Clippers don’t have any bench power and I worry for them when their starters sit to rest. Doc Rivers’ decision to bring his son Austin to the franchise hasn’t worked; Glen Davis offers nothing anymore; Spencer Hawes can be useful but has had an ineffective year. Barring Crawford and the recently acquired Nate Robinson their bench hasn’t much on offer and I don’t think you can beat the Spurs in seven games with such a lack of depth. Another horrible round one draw for the Clippers and I think they will fall short. Spurs to take it in 6 or 7+