10 Bold Predictions for the 2014 NBA Playoffs

Alec NathanFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2014

10 Bold Predictions for the 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    Finally, we can breathe a sigh of relief. The NBA's hectic regular-season slate has concluded, and it's time for playoff basketball. 

    With the seeds finalized and two months of peak NBA action set to start Saturday, it's time to dive into the matchups and make some gutsy prognostications. 

    So how did we go about making these bold predictions? Firstly, several of the statements pertained to underdogs and dark horses. In addition, it was important to challenge some conventional wisdom in order to help provide contrasting angles and opinions on some of the postseason's biggest storylines and showdowns. 

    Also, the order of the predictions reflects the progression of the postseason, so first-round upsets and the like are listed first as a result.  

    But before we get started, here's a complete rundown of the first-round matchups in both conferences. Start dates for each series are noted in parentheses. 

     

    Eastern Conference

    1. Indiana Pacers vs. 8. Atlanta Hawks (Saturday, April 19)

    2. Miami Heat vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats (Sunday, April 20)

    3. Toronto Raptors vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets (Saturday, April 19)

    4. Chicago Bulls vs. 5. Washington Wizards (Sunday, April 20) 

     

    Western Conference

    1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 8. Dallas Mavericks (Sunday, April 20)

    2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 7. Memphis Grizzlies (Saturday, April 19)

    3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6. Golden State Warriors (Saturday, April 19)

    4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Portland Trail Blazers (Sunday, April 20)

     

    All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and current as of Thursday, April 17, unless noted otherwise.

The Atlanta Hawks Will Push the Indiana Pacers to at Least Six Games

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    If you haven't watched the Atlanta Hawks much this season, get ready to be entertained when they clash with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. 

    Although the Hawks enter the playoffs without Al Horford (right pectoral surgery), they possess one of the most enjoyable offenses to watch when everything's clicking. 

    Under the leadership of first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have become known for their three-point shooting prowess and decisive ball movement. 

    On the season, Atlanta ranks No. 2 overall in both threes attempted and total assists, while ranking No. 13 overall in three-point field-goal percentage. Given Budenholzer's background as an assistant under Gregg Popovich, those numbers shouldn't come as a tremendous surprise. 

    In addition, the Hawks split the season series with the Pacers two games apiece, scoring an average of 96.8 points across those four contests. According to Basketball-Reference, Atlanta's scoring average against the Pacers topped those of the Miami Heat (90.5 points per game), Los Angeles Clippers (96.0), Houston Rockets (96.5) and Golden State Warriors (96.0). 

    And as Grantland's Zach Lowe recently tweeted, "Hawks are gonna spread the floor, shoot a ton of 3s, and make the Indy bigs run around a bit. Some entertainment potential for a 1-8."

    Eight seeds historically fall flat against No. 1 seeds, but don't discount a Hawks crew that's one of only two teams (San Antonio being the other) that has won by double digits at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season, according to NBA.com's John Schuhmann

    Here's one final tidbit to consider: According to Schuhmann and NBA.com's stats database, the Hawks boast the most efficient offense against the Pacers among all Eastern Conference clubs, generating 104.6 points per 100 possessions. 

Houston Will Sweep Portland

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    The Portland Trail Blazers will make their first postseason appearance since 2010-11 when they square off against the Houston Rockets in Round 1, although it may very well be a truncated stay. 

    After a blistering 25-6 start over November and December, the Blazers cooled down by posting month-to-month records just two games above .500 in January and February before going 8-9 in March, when Terry Stotts' club scored a season-low 102.1 points per game. 

    Not only that, but Portland's defense—even during a superb season-opening stretch—has been nothing more than average. 

    According to Basketball-Reference, the Blazers will enter the playoffs with the league's 16th-ranked defense, one that surrenders more than 107 points per 100 possessions. Among the eight Western Conference playoff qualifiers, that mark ranks seventh, ahead of only the Dallas Mavericks. 

    To complicate matters, the Blazers struggled with Houston's explosive offense all season long, one that finished the regular season ranked fifth in pace (possessions generated per 48 minutes), first in free-throw attempts and first in three-pointers attempted. 

    And in four games (three wins) against Portland, the Rockets scored an average of 116 points per game, the second-highest average any one opponent dropped on the Blazers. 

    Also consider the Rockets are getting defensive centerpieces Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley back just in time for a playoff run. The Blazers could be in serious trouble.

Brooklyn Will Defeat Toronto Handily in Round 1

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    A Brooklyn Nets loss and Washington Wizards victory on the regular season's final day sent Jason Kidd's squad tumbling into occupancy of the Eastern Conference's No. 6 seed and straight into a first-round date with the Toronto Raptors. 

    On the surface, the Nets feel like slight favorites. Since January, they've posted a record of 34-17 and risen up the ranks on the offensive end, generating 106.7 points per 100 possessions, good for No. 14 overall. 

    Take note, though, because the Raptors haven't been shabby either. In fact, they were far and away the Atlantic Division's most consistent team this season and went a very respectable 34-19 over the final three-and-a-half months. 

    Factor in the Raptors' 10th-ranked offense (108.8 points per 100 possessions) and defense (105.3 points per 100 possessions), and Toronto's actually the more well-rounded team. 

    However, let's consider what Dwane Casey's up-and-coming club is trying to overcome. 

    Yes, the Raptors are the sexier pick because of their youthful exuberance, as exemplified by the breakout performances of DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and Kyle Lowry, but the Nets have the edge in the department that may matter most: Experience. 

    According to TSN 1050 Radio's Josh Lewenberg, the Nets' starting five has 399 games of playoff experience. Toronto's starting five? A whopping 24 postseason appearances. 

    The Raptors are a great story and a team that will undoubtedly become an annual staple of the playoff picture moving forward. But it's rather difficult to bet against a team in the first round that's led by Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, the offensive stylings of Deron Williams and with help from key contributors like Shaun Livingston and Andrei Kirilenko. 

    And here's the kicker: According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, the last time the Raptors won the Atlantic Division and captured the No. 3 seed, they bowed out in the first round against Kidd's New Jersey Nets.

Memphis and Oklahoma City Will Go the Distance

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    No disrespect to the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, but the first-round series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies may be better than any matchup we see in the Eastern Conference playoffs. 

    A grudge match of the 2013 Western Conference semifinals, expect the Grizzlies and Thunder to challenge each other's wills in a showdown of elite offense vs. gritty defense.

    A few facts for those of you unfamiliar with Dave Joerger's Grizzlies: Their offense scored the fourth-fewest points per game for the second season in a row, but their offensive efficiency crept up to No. 15 overall. 

    The defense remained among the league's best, too, limiting opponents to 104.6 points per 100 possessions. And just like Lionel Hollins before him, Joerger didn't stress pace. Memphis finished dead last in terms of possessions per 48 minutes, generating 5.5 fewer than the Thunder. 

    And as Oklahoma City will tell you, while that formula may not look pretty on paper, it's extremely effective when offenses are forced to execute heavily in the half court come playoff time. 

    But the Thunder have one advantage this time around that they didn't in 2013: A healthy Russell Westbrook, who enters the postseason averaging 25.1 points, 6.6 assists, 5.9 rebounds and two steals while shooting 44.9 percent from the field over his last 10 games.

    Not only that, but Westbrook posted an efficient 24 points per game on 58.3 percent shooting while recording a staggering offensive rating of 155 over two regular-season contests against the Grizzlies.  

    Redemption won't come easy, and the upset alarm is already being sounded, but Oklahoma City is loaded with more lethal weapons this time around to stave off the relentless Grizzlies. 

Golden State and L.A. Will Play the Most Entertaining Series of the Playoffs

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    With Andrew Bogut sidelined due to a fractured rib, according to Yahoo Sports' Marc Spears, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will be tasked with carrying the weight of the Golden State Warriors' playoff hopes.

    And while the Los Angeles Clippers may very well emerge as series victors, they're not going to do so with the ease that many believe. 

    Although it can be argued that Golden State's offense regressed this season, it actually finished 2013-14 averaging over one point more per 100 possessions than it did during a revelatory 2012-13 campaign, according to Basketball-Reference

    Perceived hiccups abounded, but the Warriors still recorded the league's fourth-best three-point field-goal percentage, seventh-most assists and eighth-best effective field-goal percentage. 

    Any time you have Curry and Thompsonwho each shot better than 41 percent from three and combined to hit a staggering 484 triples this season—you're going to have a chance at extending a series. 

    Of course, the obvious counterpoint is that the Clippers ranked No. 1 overall in opponents' three-point field-goal percentage and have posted the league's sixth-best defensive rating since the All-Star break, per NBA.com

    But get this: Curry and Thompson torched the Clippers to the tune of 58.6 and 42.9 percent shooting from three, respectively, over the course of four regular-season games (which were split 2-2). 

    Factor in DeAndre Jordan's emergence as the Association's preeminent rebounder, Blake Griffin's all-around brilliance, Chris Paul's mastery of distributive techniques and the Clippers' thirst to finally shake their playoff demons, and this series could shape up to be the best the postseason has to offer. 

    An upset would be slightly shocking considering the Warriors are 6.6 points worse per 100 possessions with Bogut off the floor, according to NBA.com, but combine Curry and Thompson's firepower with Andre Iguodala's defensive presence, and we could be staring at a seven-game classic. 

San Antonio Won't Lose a Game Until the Conference Finals

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    The Dallas Mavericks drew the unenviable task of squaring off against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, and they could be looking at a quick exit as a result.  

    Yes, the Mavericks led the NBA by posting an offensive rating of 111.4 after the All-Star break, but their defense surrendered a ghastly 107.4 points per 100 possessions during that span, according to NBA.com

    Against such a well-rounded team like the Spurs, consistency on one end of the hardwood is only going to propel Rick Carlisle's offensive machine so far. With a defense that's been worse than the Sacramento Kings' and Orlando Magic's over the season's final two months, it's hard to imagine the Mavericks putting up much of a fight. 

    Now, the second part of this forecast is where things get really bold. 

    Since we've already gone out on a limb and said the Houston Rockets will trounce the Portland Trail Blazers, they would appear primed for a meeting with the Spurs in the second round. 

    And while the Spurs may feel like the overwhelming favorite, you'll undoubtedly recall that the Rockets swept the four-game season series with San Antonio, winning by an average margin of eight points per contest. 

    Of course, regular-season results aren't the end-all, be-all of postseason discussions, although they can provide some helpful data that can help identify future outcomes. 

    In this case, though, the Spurs have simply too many factors working to their advantage to believe this series will test their collective will. 

    Gregg Popovich's tactical savvy is in a different class from Kevin McHale's, and we know that San Antonio's third-ranked defense (102.4 points per 100 possessions) is capable of cranking things up come playoff time, especially against a turnover-happy Houston team. 

    Consider these facts: Houston committed the league's second-most turnovers while the Spurs committed the 11th-fewest. San Antonio is also one of the few teams capable of matching the Rockets' production from beyond the arc. (The Spurs ranked first in three-point shooting percentage.) 

    They may be four tight, hard-fought games, but if the Spurs bring their A-game on the defensive end every night, a sweep could feasibly be in the cards.

Oklahoma City Will Bow out in the Second Round Once Again

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    The premier matchup of the postseason may come in the second round, when it's possible we'll see the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder clash in an elite battle. 

    And as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale recently noted, this postseason could come to define Kevin Durant and his legacy as he seeks to capture that elusive ring: "This playoff push, whatever the result, means everything. Durant must deliver a championship or a reaction that shows not delivering a championship is unacceptable. Nothing less."

    But if Durant is the unstoppable force, then the Clippers may prove to be the immovable object blocking his path to glory.

    While the teams split the season series two games apiece, the Clippers have been dynamite since the All-Star break.

    As we've learned in the past, heating up at the right time can mean everything in the postseason, and the Clippers' net rating of 8.5 points per 100 possessions since the midseason recess is second only to the San Antonio Spurs, according to NBA.com

    There's also the matter of a fairly vanilla Oklahoma City offense that's over-reliant on one-on-one scoring, which CBS Sports' Matt Moore mentioned as the team's primary weakness with the postseason approaching: 

    The offense can become predictable, which magnifies execution. They're not punishing you with scheme, they're beating you with ability, so if you can match them with scheme and ability, you can make a run at them. Late game execution is just "give ball to Durant!"

    In a coaching battle between Doc Rivers and Scott Brooks, give me the former every time. With a championship pedigree and the pieces necessary to pull off the miniature upset, Rivers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could send Durant and co. packing after Round 2 for the second year in a row.

Chicago Will Advance to the Eastern Conference Finals

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    Call it improbable considering the state of their offense and the scope of the injuries they've dealt with, but the Chicago Bulls are primed for a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

    Behind a defense that allowed the league's fewest points per game (91.8) and the second-fewest points per 100 possessions (100.5), Chicago has a chance to wreak havoc, not just on the Washington Wizards in the first round but on the Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals. 

    Remember, this is a Bulls team that defeated the Pacers twice during the regular season by beating them at their own game on the defensive end. 

    And while it's impossible to quantify the intangible characteristics that make the Bulls so special, Bleacher Report's Howard Beck recently explained how Tom Thibodeau's squad overcame so much adversity to put itself in a position to succeed: 

    The Bulls remember. They remember your slights and your doubts, your disturbing lack of faith. They seem dedicated to a singular mission—to defy expectations, crush conventional wisdom and obliterate everything we think we know about the NBA.

    They are going to keep winning through sheer force of will, their lineup depleted but their identity intact. The Bulls were built for this, having assembled a roster based as much on character as ability, and with a coach, Tom Thibodeau, who demands precision regardless of who is on the court.

    We can talk about how shoddy the offense is all we want, but if the Bulls can escape the first round and match up with the offensively inept Pacers—who are generating 100.2 points per 100 possessions on the offensive end since the All-Star break, per NBA.comthings could get ugly, fast. 

    And that's just the way the Bulls like it.  

For the First Time in 16 Years, We're Going to Get a Finals Rematch

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    Not since the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz met in the 1996-97 and 1997-98 NBA Finals have we been treated to a championship rematch in back-to-back seasons. 

    With the Miami Heat the class of the East (regardless of seed) and the San Antonio Spurs rising to the top of the Western Conference crop after recording a league-best 62 wins, it's time we were treated to a little history. 

    Of course, Miami's road to the Finals is decidedly easier than San Antonio's, with only the Charlotte Bobcats, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers (or Chicago Bulls) comprising the Heat's stoutest competition along the way. 

    As for the Spurs, they'll need to ward off worthy challengers like the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers. In fact, against the Rockets, Clippers and Thunder, the Spurs posted a combined record of 2-9 this season. 

    Considering these two teams' recent playoff histories, a Finals rematch may not seem like the boldest of calls. But the historical significance of a potential clash—and with a Miami three-peat on the line—could make for an epic conclusion to one of the strangest campaigns in recent memory.

Miami Will Three-Peat

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    Consult the brilliant minds in Las Vegas, and this may not seem like such a bold prediction. As of publication, Odds Shark had the Miami Heat listed as title favorites at 2-1 with the San Antonio Spurs lagging slightly behind at 3-1

    Examine Miami's performance over the final month of the season, though, and it's easier to doubt its chances at capturing a three-peat. 

    According to NBA.com, Miami posted a net rating of four points per 100 possessions over the last 30 days, 2.1 points worse than their season-long mark of 6.1. And to be clear, the slip-up has been on the offensive end, which is rather encouraging for a team that struggled to muster consistent defensive efforts all season long. 

    The fact that Miami's defense is allowing only 102.6 points per 100 possessions over the last month is a major confidence booster. The reason why? This season marked the first time in the Big Three's existence that Miami recorded a defensive rating outside of the top 10, per Basketball-Reference

    Another reason we can classify the prediction as bold: According to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, "If Miami wins the championship, it would have the worst record for a champion since...the 2005-06 Heat."

    However, it's also worth noting that one of the reasons Miami's stumbled into that historically significant territory is by prioritizing rest, which, along with experience, could pay dividends come playoff time. Veteran forward Udonis Haslem told Skolnick

    Once we get our full group of guys back, and we get into that playoff atmosphere, and that competitive spirit starts to rise and that blood starts to boil, I anticipate us coming out and playing Miami Heat basketball, similar to the way we competed against Indiana. It wasn't that long ago, even though it seems long ago, it wasn't that long ago that we showed what we're capable of, when we're focused and lock in.

    And you better believe this Heat team is battle-tested enough to overcome a No. 2 seed. According to NBA.com's John Schuhmann, the top eight players in Miami's rotation have more playoff experience than the same number of players for the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets, combined.