NBA Playoffs 2014: Breaking Down Every Opening-Round Series
From here on out, every single second of NBA basketball matters.
There'll be no more tanking. We're finished with strategic rest for stars like Dwyane Wade and the San Antonio Spurs' aging core. Gone are the days of sedative basketball, and you can say goodbye to mid-February meaninglessness and snooze-inducing tilts between the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic.
Elimination is now in play, so the stakes are necessarily high. But this postseason features some uniquely intriguing narratives that add even more excitement to an already drama-laden slate.
Can Tim Duncan secure his fifth title? Will LeBron James and the Heat make it three in a row? Will Kevin Durant cap off a likely MVP year with his first ring?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Before any of those potentially historic milestones come into play, championship hopefuls and aspiring spoilers have to get through the first round.
Here's a breakdown of every opening-round matchup, complete with game times, viewing information, series-swinging X-factors and a prediction for the ultimate outcome.
Gloss over the details at your own risk. We're in postseason territory now, where wins and losses become life and death. Buckle up; this is going to be good.
Eastern Conference: Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Saturday, April 19, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
Regular Season Series: Split, 2-2
X-Factor: Indiana's Chemistry
This is a tough one.
There are probably a dozen keys that might swing this series one way or the other, and the Pacers' high-velocity free fall after the All-Star break makes them extremely tough to predict.
It's key to mention the difficult matchups the Hawks present for Indiana and Roy Hibbert, specifically. The big man was the league's best defensive player through the first 50 games of the season, but fatigue and a complete offensive breakdown resulted in a second-half benching against the Hawks on April 6.
If Pero Antic's perimeter game drags Hibbert away from the rim and exploits his already tired legs, the Hawks could notch an upset.
That's a significant strategic point to watch, and it could have a huge impact on the series. But it's just one of many smaller matchup-related quirks that arise in any postseason tilt.
The most important, potentially series-altering wild card in this matchup is Indiana's chemistry.
Lance Stephenson is unpredictable, Paul George can't figure out how to get into the lane and George Hill seems to have lost all confidence in his game. As a result, there have been plenty of upturned palms, slumped shoulders and media sniping from all corners in Indy.
Hibbert said there were "selfish dudes" in the Pacers' locker room back in March, per David Aldridge of NBA.com, and Indiana's across-the-board failure to play together as an offensive unit supports that analysis.
If the Pacers can put their slide—and the attendant interpersonal strife it caused—behind them, this could be a cakewalk. Remember, the Hawks are a sub-.500 team playing in a comically weak Eastern conference. Back in early February, the notion of Atlanta winning a single game against Indiana would have been laughable.
Now, the Pacers' fragile chemistry makes almost any outcome seem possible.
In the end, Indiana's first 50 games of utter dominance count for more than their last 32 of substandard play. Maybe the Pacers aren't the league-stomping defensive juggernaut they appeared to be earlier this year, but they're also not as bad as they've played recently.
Atlanta doesn't have the talent to compete with Indiana, and even if the Pacers are a bit vulnerable, they've got the postseason experience and defensive chops to make quick work of the Hawks.
Prediction: Pacers in five.
Eastern Conference: Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Regular Season Series: Heat swept series, 4-0
X-Factor: The Switch
You might think Miami's perfect regular-season record against the Bobcats tells us everything we need to know about how this first-round series will play out. But, as is the case with most regular-season Heat analysis, that undefeated mark doesn't reveal the whole story.
Most likely, the pain is only just beginning for Charlotte.
These are the games Miami cares about. This is the stage on which it actually cares enough to perform its best.
If the 'Cats couldn't notch a win against the Heat when the defending champs were coasting, how can they expect to put up a fight when the proverbial switch we all love to talk about gets flipped? In short, the Bobcats don't have a prayer.
To be fair to Charlotte, it played the Heat close enough to force overtime in one meeting and lose by a single point in another. So it's not like the Heat blew the Kitties out four straight times.
But LeBron James erupted for 61 points the last time these teams met, and Dwyane Wade only suited up for two of the four matchups.
The Bobcats are a nice story, and have enjoyed a successful season that bodes well for the future. But it's nowhere near ready to square off with the Heat in games that actually matter. When that switch flips, the Bobcats won't have a chance.
Prediction: Heat in four.
Eastern Conference: Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Saturday, April 19 at 12:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Regular Season Series: Split, 2-2
X-Factor: Backcourt Matchups
There are some fun wrinkles to this pairing, including Jason Kidd coaching sixth-seeded Brooklyn against third-seeded Toronto after being the point guard on the last Nets team to do battle with the Raptors in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup.
In addition, the already enormous chip on Kyle Lowry's shoulder might get even bigger at the sight of Joe Johnson, the man who many feel occupied an All-Star spot that should have gone to Lowry this year.
But the real focal point of this duel will be in the backcourt, where Lowry and DeMar DeRozan's youth, athleticism and aggression could pose serious problems for Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston.
Brooklyn plays an unusual style, reliant on post-ups from its backcourt players as an offensive staple. Against the sturdy Lowry and rangy DeRozan, an inside-out attack might not be a great option for the Nets. Plus, the transition threat and triple-heavy perimeter attack led by Lowry and DeRozan could prove too much for their slower, less-athletic backcourt counterparts.
On the year, DeRozan and Lowry both averaged 22 points per game on 50 percent shooting against Brooklyn, per NBA.com.
If the Raptors can disrupt Brooklyn's post offense while creating scoring chances at the rim and from long range in transition, the Nets could be in serious trouble.
Over the course of the season, the Raptors posted a higher net rating than Brooklyn did. And even though the Nets have been everybody's second-half darling, Toronto's net rating of plus-3.9 after the All-Star break was still better than the plus-2.4 figure Brooklyn tallied, per NBA.com.
Toss in the disrespect Toronto feels after seeing Brooklyn mail in its final game in order to avoid a matchup with the Bulls, and you've got a recipe for a focused, angry, motivated Raptors team.
Prediction: Raptors in six.
Eastern Conference: Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Sunday, April 20, 7 p.m. ET on TNT
Regular Season Series: Wizards won, 2-1
Sometimes, figuring out the x-factor is complicated. This isn't one of those times.
It's pretty simple, really: In the two games a healthy Nene was in the lineup against Chicago this year, Washington won. When he missed the April 5 tilt with a bad knee, the Wizards took an 18-point beating.
The big Brazilian saw limited minutes in four games over the season's final two weeks as he tried to get his legs back underneath him. He was effective in abbreviated stints, but it's hard to know how his knee will hold up if he's asked to log major minutes. If healthy, Nene gives Washington interior scoring and a whole lot of size on defense—two things it needs to compete with Chicago.
If he can't be a significant contributor, Chicago could absolutely stifle the Wizards' otherwise limited scoring attack.
Most likely, we'll see a version of Nene operating at less than 100 percent, which could be all the Bulls need to gut out a hard-fought series win.
"They’re definitely a tough matchup," Noah said of the Wizards to the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley. "It’s not going to be easy. Every game will be a tough battle. But I think we’re a team that’s battle tested. We know what it takes."
Noah's right; the Bulls know what it takes to win a series. In this case, it'll take a ruthless defensive attack willing to capitalize on a hobbled opponent. It's safe to say the Bulls are comfortable with that approach.
Prediction: Bulls in seven.
Western Conference: San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Sunday, April 20, 1 p.m. ET on TNT
Regular Season Series: Spurs swept series, 4-0
X-Factor: Dirk Nowitzki
Maybe it's a cop out to select the best player on the prohibitive underdog as the X-factor, but there's just no scenario in which the Mavs avoid a quick postseason exit unless Nowitzki turns in a superhuman performance.
Though a marginally better offensive team during the regular season, Dallas just doesn't have the balance or depth to compete with the Spurs on equal terms.
One particularly glaring weakness for the Mavs is its backcourt defense. Neither Monta Ellis nor Jose Calderon will have any success keeping Tony Parker out of the lane, and as soon as the Spurs' point guard gets into space in the middle of the floor, high-percentage shots come fast and furious.
The Mavs have the No. 22 defensive rating in the league, by far the worst of any playoff team from either conference. So as the Spurs blow past the century mark in every game (they averaged 112 in four meetings this year) Dirk will have to be the man somehow pushing Dallas to match those gaudy point totals.
Nowitzki has had a brilliant season at age 35, and he's got the unique scoring knack to get makeable looks even against the Spurs' stout defense. But he's not a miracle-worker.
Prediction: Spurs in four.
Western Conference: Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Saturday, April 19, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Regular Season Series: Thunder won, 3-1
X-Factor: Memphis' Adaptability
The Thunder are a team without many weaknesses, so if the underdog Grizzlies are to have any hope of notching an upset, they'd do well to exploit the only real chink in OKC's armor.
All season long, the Thunder defended the three-point line poorly. They allowed the second-most attempts from long distance and permitted opponents to convert over 37 percent of those shots, per NBA.com. A wise, adaptable Grizzlies team would space the floor, keep Tayshaun Prince glued to the bench and cast away with reckless abandon.
But Memphis played at the league's slowest pace and attempted the fewest triples per game during the regular season. So don't expect the Grizzlies to attack OKC where it's most vulnerable.
Instead, the Grizz will rely on their stingy defense, bruise-inducing style and Marc Gasol's high-post passing. It's a strategy that helped Memphis play some of the best ball in the league after Gasol returned from a knee injury in January, so it'll be hard to fault it for sticking to what works.
Unfortunately, it won't work against the Thunder, who beat Memphis three times this year in four tries. That lone defeat came with Russell Westbrook watching in street clothes.
Expect Kevin Durant to have a much easier time against the Grizzlies in this postseason than the last time around, especially with his top running mate looking healthy enough to help him push the pace.
Memphis is tough, and it won't go down without a fight. But because the Grizzlies simply don't have the weapons or outside-the-box scheme to capitalize on OKC's shoddy perimeter D, they won't be notching an upset.
Prediction: Thunder in six.
Western Conference: Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Saturday, April 19, 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Regular Season Series: Split, 2-2
X-Factor: Small Ball
With Andrew Bogut out indefinitely (h/t Sam Amick of USA Today) because of a broken rib, the Warriors have almost no choice but to go small against the Clippers' imposing front line. It'll be a desperate ploy born of desperate circumstances.
Golden State played the Clips to a 2-2 draw this year by matching up physically and following Bogut's exceptionally chippy lead. But spacing the floor—probably with a heavy dose of Draymond Green and David Lee as a 4-5 combo—is the best of the bad options available to the Dubs.
The Clippers aren't afraid to pick up the pace, and they won't have to take their conventional two-big lineup off the floor to do it.
If Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson can turn in a Splash Brother-y effort from beyond the arc, Golden State can win a couple of games. But these Dubs forged their identity as a defensive force with Bogut on the floor, so any attempt to redefine themselves at this late juncture should be viewed as the last-ditch gimmick it truly is.
Jermaine O'Neal will see a few minutes here and there, but Lee looks to be the Warriors' answer at center. That means respectable interior defense is absolutely out of the question. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are going to have a field day—or, field series, I guess.
Unless Bogut makes a miraculous return that allows the Dubs to match up in the size department, this battle for California won't be very interesting.
Prediction: Clippers in five.
Western Conference: Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)
Viewing Information: Game 1: Sunday, April 20, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Regular Season Series: Rockets won, 3-1
X-Factor: Portland's Interior Defense
The Blazers are a strange defensive team, one built around a perimeter defense designed to limit three-point looks at the expense of a wide-open lane defended only when Robin Lopez is on the floor. Portland's starting center limits opponents to an excellent conversion rate of 42.5 percent at the rim, a figure bettered only by Hibbert among heavy-rotation bigs, per NBA.com.
Unfortunately, what the Blazers prevent in efficiency they surrender in volume. Only the atrocious Los Angeles Lakers' interior defense conceded more attempts in the restricted area this year.
On balance, the Blazers' gimmicky defense hasn't really worked. They finished the year ranked 17th in defensive efficiency.
That's an unsustainably poor figure for any playoff team, but it'll likely mean a quick death against the Rockets. Generally speaking, the Blazers get away with their defensive strategy because they don't foul often.
But it's impossible to avoid fouling James Harden. And with a scheme that invites penetration, the league's best foul-drawing guard is going to rack up the freebies while putting the Blazers' extremely thin frontcourt rotation into foul trouble.
Defending the lane against Houston in the half court will be a huge issues for Portland, but as B/R's Dan Favale points out, the Rockets' brand of ball is ideally suited to capitalize against the Blazers' D in plenty of other ways:
Almost half of the Rockets' 107.8 points per game (51.1) come in the paint. Theirs is an offense predicated on the dribble-drives of Harden and Jeremy Lin, the interior prowess of Dwight Howard and routine fast-break incursions.
Defending transition isn't the Blazers' forte, not that they have any defensive strengths. They rank in the bottom half of fast-break defense, which poses problems when facing the league's third-most potent transition team. A lot of problems.
If Lopez can somehow force Harden and Co. into taking difficult shots without fouling, the Blazers will be able to get out in transition against Houston's own shaky defense. That's a tall order, even for an interior defender as imposing as the Blazers center.
Portland's offense is dangerous, and LaMarcus Aldridge presents a matchup problem for every frontcourt player on Houston's roster. Expect the Blazers to put together one or two red-hot shooting games from the perimeter against the Rockets' occasionally disengaged defense, but don't bank on a series upset.
The Blazers are just too generous on defense for more than a six-game series.
Prediction: Rockets in six.