NBA Playoffs 2014: 5 Teams Poised for a Postseason Collapse
Some teams that flashed some potential en route to the NBA postseason will be sorely disappointed in how they perform there.
It's not quite accurate to predict that, say, the Dallas Mavericks will fall apart against the San Antonio Spurs. Such a claim discounts the quality of the opponent. San Antonio is so good and so methodical on both sides of the ball that Dallas won't have any response.
Granting that the Mavs are a very good team this year and better than nearly everyone in the East, that wouldn't be a collapse. A much better team would be doing what it's supposed to. That's a dismantling.
The true disappointments will be the squads that have a shot to do some damage in the playoffs, even if it's as an upset threat, but fall short. These won't just be the teams that lose, but the ones whose losses will haunt them into the offseason.
The Brooklyn Nets were 10-21 heading into 2014 and went 34-17 the rest of the way. That record since January 1 is tops in the Eastern Conference, though the dismal start marooned Brooklyn down at the sixth spot.
But no matter—a team as hot as the Nets should be able to get past the Toronto Raptors, right?
Not when Toronto has answers for Brooklyn's strengths and means to capitalize on Brooklyn's weaknesses.
The Nets have stymied opponents this season with their length on defense, employing Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston and Joe Johnson on a giant perimeter defensive front loaded with wingspan. The thing is, none of those guys can stay in front of Kyle Lowry, a darting nightmare for Brooklyn who will be able to penetrate at will and either score inside or break down the defense for other scorers.
And Brooklyn isn't strong enough to stop Toronto around the rim. Amir Johnson isn't an elite post-up guy, but he's crafty enough to do some damage against small-ball forward Paul Pierce. At the center spot, Kevin Garnett is not the energetic interior stopper he used to be, and the Nets will be left wanting that protection.
In fact, the X-factor in the Nets' first-round exit will be Jason Kidd. If he tries to unleash KG over Mason Plumlee and hopes playoff experience carries the team, Kidd will be fielding a weaker lineup more susceptible to Toronto's attacks. That's what Garnett was brought to Brooklyn for, though, so Kidd will likely put ill-advised trust in his vet.
Brooklyn may have the better team right now, but Toronto will still be able to exploit the Nets in the opening round.
Golden State Warriors
Andrew Bogut has a broken rib and there is no timetable for his return. That means the paint is wide open for offenses going against the Golden State Warriors.
So just the Dubs' luck that they drew the Los Angeles Clippers and Blake Griffin.
With the Splash Brothers, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, pitted against Griffin, Chris Paul and Lob City, this matchup is poised to be the offensive explosion of fans' dreams. But the Clips feature a more varied offense and, with Bogut out, a much stronger defense than the Warriors do.
David Lee is a nice scorer and rebounder, but he is too severe a minus defensively to be expected to stick with Griffin. Any other option would be better, but it's not like Harrison Barnes can stand up to the bullying, and Jermaine O'Neal has to keep DeAndre Jordan from dunking on him. Maybe Draymond Green can withstand Griffin for a stretch, but that's a very temporary stopgap.
The inside will be free for Griffin post-ups and jaunts inside by Paul, Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford. Offense will come in great heaping platefuls, but the highlights will far exceed the quality of the games; this series will be full of blowouts.
Let's get this out of the way right now: The Indiana Pacers will beat the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, and it won't be very difficult.
But after pushing the Miami Heat to the brink in the 2013 conference finals and winning the East this season, getting out of the first round is nowhere near enough for Indy. Although the Pacers held onto the top seed, they are by no means their usual formidable selves right now.
Roy Hibbert might be best served by resting for the entire Hawks series. He doesn't have the energy to go straight up against every inside attempt right now, and since the All-Star break, he's averaging 8.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in 28.2 minutes per game while shooting 39 percent from the field. Remember, this guy is 7'2" and made the All-Star team.
There's no shot Frank Vogel sits Hibbert for any significant chunk of play against Atlanta, save for garbage time. No matter how easily the Pacers breeze past the Hawks, Hibbert won't be very much fresher come a second-round meeting with the Chicago Bulls.
At that point, Joakim Noah will make Hibbert's life hell. Asking the Pacer center to step out to defend passes from the high post, then jumping back under the rim to deter shooters, all while contending with Noah's manic aggressiveness, is way too much right now.
So it won't matter whether Paul George, Lance Stephenson and the rest of the Pacers return to their dominant form. Indy will go as far as Hibbert can take it, and when Noah gets the best of him, the Bulls will knock Indy out.
Portland Trail Blazers
During one March stretch, the Portland Trail Blazers went 4-8 and looked vulnerable, in part due to a LaMarcus Aldridge back injury that sidelined him for seven of those games. Once he returned, they finished the season 9-1, and all was well in Rip City.
That doesn't mean Portland can run with the Houston Rockets, though.
James Harden and the Rockets generate tons of offense by going straight at opposing guards, challenging them to stay with them in pick-and-roll coverage and racing up the court in transition. They, and especially Harden, are superb at finishing at the rim, drawing fouls inside and kicking to spot-up guys off drives.
Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are very good defenders who can contain some of those penetrations, but Damian Lillard is the perimeter version of David Lee on that end. A Patrick Beverley or a Jeremy Lin could victimize Lillard just fine, but Portland's defense tends to match Lillard against shooting guards at times. When that happens, Harden will absolutely destroy him.
Houston has perimeter defensive issues of its own, but the tandem of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik keep the inside much more secure than Robin Lopez can for Portland.
The Blazers can do some damage with their own high-powered offense, but the Rockets will just have more holes to exploit, and that'll be enough for them to blow past Portland.
John Wall isn't having Hibbert-level problems lately, but he's in a rough patch of his own.
The star Washington Wizards point guard averaged 13.8 points per game in eight April games on just under 43 percent shooting, including 20 percent on threes.
That last stat is imperative. When he's clicking from long range, Wall's offensive diversity can be impossible for opponents to stop. The same is not true when all he can do is barrel through the lane.
Sure, he has the speed and the burst to beat opposing point guards even when they sag off of him, but his weakness from beyond the arc allows defenses to shade their perimeter rotations more toward Bradley Beal. When Wall is not draining threes as the first scoring option, Beal, a talented yet inconsistent scorer who needs all the support he can get, gets eliminated as the second.
The Bulls have no problem taking away a team's offensive strengths. Jimmy Butler can lock down Beal himself, and with help, make him basically useless. Mike Dunleavy will stick to Trevor Ariza in the corner and have the presence of mind not to stray.
If the outside game isn't working, the Marcin Gortat-Nene tandem roughly equates to a poor man's Noah and Taj Gibson. Washington definitely can't count on winning on the block.
That leaves Wall against D.J. Augustin and Chicago's collection of misfit point guards. The Wizards need him to win that matchup resoundingly for anything else they try to work. Without his jumper, though, Wall is left driving at Noah and Tom Thibodeau's interior defense, and Washington has no chance of winning like that.