The 2014 NBA playoffs have fostered a lot of unpredictability thus far, and with three of the four reigning conference finalists taking the court in Monday's opening-round action, odds are that the results will be tough to gauge again.
Check out what retired Los Angeles Lakers legend and current ESPN analyst Magic Johnson had to say about the first round of the postseason thus far, which he considers the best ever:
The first round of these NBA Playoffs have been the best in the history of the NBA.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) April 27, 2014
That provides an idea of just how thrilling it has been to see some of the Association's elite squads struggle to get past their pesky opponents. At least the Miami Heat are taking care of business on their end, as they seek to close out the Charlotte Bobcats on the road.
The two No. 8 seeds are posing problems, though, and have a chance to push each regular-season conference champion to the brink of elimination with wins on Monday. Below is a closer look at the schedule, including predictions for each contest.
|Charlotte Bobcats vs. Miami Heat (Game 4)||Miami (-7.5)||7 p.m.||TNT||Heat|
|Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks (Game 5)||Indiana (-7)||8 p.m.||NBATV||Pacers|
|Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs (Game 4)||San Antonio (-4)||9:30 p.m.||TNT||Spurs|
Charlotte Bobcats vs. Miami Heat
Perhaps the only non-surprise of the first round has been that the Bobcats—sans any consistent scoring threats other than a hobbled Al Jefferson—have been competitive and scrappy but not good enough to beat the Heat.
Miami has taken a commanding 3-0 advantage in this series, and Charlotte doesn't figure to be a team capable of climbing out of such a hole. Following the Heat's Game 3's triumph at Time Warner Cable Arena, ESPN Stats & Info alluded to the perfect record Miami has had versus the Bobcats as of late:
Heat have now won 19 straight against the Bobcats (reg season & playoffs), including 18-0 in the "Big 3" era.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 27, 2014
As hard as the NBA playoffs have been to project to this point, there shouldn't be much suspense in the outcome of this series. Charlotte would love to deliver just one win for the home fans, yet that's easier said than done against the two-time reigning champions.
Jefferson is a matchup problem for the smaller Heat, but the Bobcats just don't have the personnel to deny LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on a consistent basis, nor the offensive firepower to get into a shootout.
While the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors continue to tangle in a tense Round 1 showdown, Monday offers the chance for the Heat to get maximum rest as they bid for a three-peat. With how lackluster Indiana has looked thus far, it's hard to fathom anyone else coming out of the East.
Championship-caliber teams take full advantage of these situations, and this upcoming contest should reveal coach Erik Spoelstra's Miami squad as a determined outfit poised to close this series out in a battle between two of the league's top five scoring defenses.
Prediction: Heat 93, Bobcats 90
Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks
Which underdog is likeliest to pull off an upset on Monday?
It almost slipped to a 3-1 deficit if not for the late-game heroics by stars Paul George and David West, who drained three-pointers late in Game 4 just to pull out a 91-88 win. Pacers coach Frank Vogel brought up how big the opportunity is to go back home off of that momentum.
"Usually the first team to win two games in a row in a series usually wins the series," said Vogel, per NBA.com's Scott Agness. "We have an opportunity to do that, so that’s our focus (Monday) night."
As Atlanta was building a halftime lead in the last contest, Sekou Smith of NBA.com alluded to a strong theme in the series, as the Pacers have rarely had an answer for Hawks point guard Jeff Teague:
Teague is just shredding the Pacers at will. No sense of urgency from the Pacers on defense. Korver with 8 rebounds, btw. Roy has 3.— Sekou Smith (@SekouSmithNBA) April 26, 2014
With his quickness, ability to penetrate the lane and his shooting range, Teague has given Indiana all sorts of problems. George Hill must continue to hold up his end in the point guard battle to ensure that the Pacers don't have Game 5 come down to the wire in front of the home crowd.
George also must continue to step up as a go-to guy in crunch time, because other than West, the Pacers don't have many others to rely on in those pivotal situations. While this should be a close clash for three quarters, expect Indiana to emerge in the fourth and assert its will as the clear, superior team.
Prediction: Pacers 97, Hawks 89
Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs
This clash between two of the three NBA playoff representatives from the Lone Star State has not been short on drama. Although it was expected to be a heated intrastate affair, few could have imagined the Mavericks on the brink of going up 3-1 on their home floor entering Game 4.
But such is the case, courtesy of Vince Carter's buzzer-beating trey that sank San Antonio this last Saturday. For a player who has come up small so many times in big moments and generally underachieved throughout his career, it was a big moment of vindication.
ESPN personality Skip Bayless was listless in the aftermath of the improbable outcome:
Please tell me I just dozed off and dreamed that Vince Carter hit a corner 3 at the buzzer to send the Spurs down 2-1.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) April 27, 2014
A shot like that from an improbable hero like Carter can be enough to swing a series, but with how resilient and consistent the Spurs have proven to be in coach Gregg Popovich's tenure, they will not fold like a cheap suit.
Tim Duncan knows this may be his last shot at an NBA title, so he should come storming out of the gates along with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, whose 4-of-14 shooting performance in Game 3 is part of what cost San Antonio dearly in a 109-108 loss.
There is almost more pressure on the Mavs to hold serve at American Airlines Center, because if they blow a shot to go up 3-1, it will require at least one more road win in San Antonio to close out the series. RJ Bell of ESPN notes that oddsmakers feel the West's No. 1 seed can still get it done:
The Spurs have plenty to lose by getting knocked out in the first round. However, Dallas is more likely to press the issue on Monday, despite the fact that its roster experience is among the few comparable to San Antonio's formidable nucleus.
Other than a two-game losing streak to end the 2013-14 campaign and a three-game slide in late January, Popovich's Spurs haven't lost consecutive games all season. With the heightened stakes of the playoffs, yours truly will have to see it to believe that San Antonio can lose thrice in a row in its pursuit of a Larry O'Brien Trophy.
In a rather high-scoring affair, look for the Spurs to lock down on defense in the fourth quarter and for Ginobili to bounce back from his underwhelming Game 3 to pull off this win.
Prediction: Spurs 103, Mavericks 98
Almost everyone loves an underdog story, but the balance of power in the NBA will be restored Monday when all three favorites take care of business. San Antonio has the toughest task of going into a building where it was heartbroken just days ago and trying to muster enough strength to even the series.
The Heat should get Charlotte's best shot, which probably won't be good enough to make it better than a one-possession game in Miami's favor. With how much the teams in the West should continue beating each other up in their playoff series and the lack of formidable adversaries in the East—particularly with regard to the Pacers—the Heat appear destined for a three-peat.