If you spent the months of late October through early April bemoaning the tanking, the plethora of superstar injuries and the incessant talk about the sorry state of the New York Knicks, the first week-plus of the 2014 NBA playoffs has been a much-needed palate cleanse.
For even those most married to their League Pass subscription, the regular season became a slog. By the time April rolled around, we were more concerned about simply getting to the playoff bracket than who would actually be filling it out. [Leaves roses for the Phoenix Suns].
It seems that six-month slog may actually have been worth it after all. While the NBA playoffs are typically defined by their inherent predictability, this year has turned expectations on their head. The Miami Heat were the only team to pull off a first-round sweep, disposing of the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday night.
Otherwise, it seems like we're headed for a whole heaping pile of Game 6s and 7s that will put a strain on your marriage and make your children wonder what happened to Papa for these last few weeks.
In other words, it's going to be great. (Unless you like family or something. Crazy person.)
Tuesday night continues the gamut of critical matchups, with the Wizards attempting to close out the Bulls and the Grizzlies-Thunder and Warriors-Clippers series both deciding who will take a pivotal 3-2 lead. With that in mind, let's take a quick look at a preview for each contest.
Washington Wizards at Chicago Bulls (-4.5)
So much for Nene's inexplicably dumb decision to head-butt Jimmy Butler and get himself suspended for Game 4 shifting the entire series. The Wizards, playing without their best two-way player, opened the game on a 17-2 run and never really looked back from there. Only a dreadful shooting performance to start the fourth quarter put the game in any question.
Down 3-1 heading back to Chicago for Game 5, the Bulls look like a team whose talent deficiency is finally catching up. Players not named Taj Gibson shot 22-of-62 (35.4 percent) from the floor. In the 68 minutes Gibson has been on the bench for the series, the Bulls have been outscored by 14.1 points per 100 possessions, scoring and defending at rates that would be at or near the bottom of the league.
"You can count on that guy every single day," coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters of Gibson.
The question is whether he can count on anyone else to pick up the slack. Joakim Noah is still putting up his customary 11.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game for the series and shooting over 50 percent, but he looks gassed. He's not able to create the same way in the high post against the likes of Nene and Marcin Gortat as he was during the Bulls' late-season run. Though there is some noise in these numbers, Chicago has been better on both ends of the floor in the limited time Noah has sat.
But the real problem here is that the Wizards are simply better. Randy Wittman has done a surprisingly strong job at game-planning against Thibodeau's defensive system. The Wizards are nearly scoring 108 points per a 100-possession sample, a full 10-point leap from Chicago's defensive rating during the regular season.
Washington has the best assist-to-turnover ratio of any playoff team heading into Tuesday night. Much of that can be attributed to the team's willingness to make the extra pass. John Wall leads the Wiz with 7.5 assists per game, but Nene, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza are all averaging around three or more per contest.
Who will win?
The Wizards, as they did throughout the regular season, are blitzing Chicago in transition. They have an adjusted field-goal percentage of 64.3 percent for the series and have stayed mostly in line with their league-best regular-season numbers, per Synergy. Transition was one of the few areas the Bulls had trouble with defensively—they ranked 10th during the regular season; all struggles are relative with Chicago's defense—and it's come back to haunt them.
Wall hasn't been able to get anything going off pick-and-rolls, and Chicago in general has continued its excellence in that area. Wall has attempted only eight shots (making four) from his vaunted right elbow spot all series. Despite the Bulls' typical strategy of forcing mid-range jumpers, their bigs have done a nice job of scouting and forcing Wall into areas where he's less comfortable.
Chicago isn't talented enough or equipped to win three straight games against this Wizards team. But with at least one more night at home, I'd expect to see every last ounce of energy extracted by Thibodeau's squad. Washington is better, but I expect the series to head back to the nation's capital for a close-out Game 6.
Score Prediction: Bulls 94, Wizards 90
Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder (-6.5)
Wasted chances. That's the only thing the Grizzlies could have been thinking about Saturday night. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant aren't shooting a combined 11-of-45 again. The Thunder aren't going to squander a 12-point lead through three quarters again, nor are they likely to score 80 points in four regulation quarters.
Game 4 set up a knockout blow for Memphis. It just couldn't quite get the job done. Some of that was due to an equally fluky performance from Reggie Jackson. Much like KD and Russ aren't going to continue missing three-quarters of their shots, Mr. April isn't likely to go for 32 points and nine rebounds again anytime soon.
Who will win?
The Thunder's offense and play-calling were as bad as they've been during the Scott Brooks era. Oklahoma City has no cogent game plan behind its first action. Brooks can draw up an initial play out of the timeout and has done so well at times during this series. But if that initial play is thwarted—something Tony Allen in particular has done a brilliant job at—Oklahoma City stagnates.
Westbrook dribbles for five seconds before hoisting a contested jumper or gets into the lane for a wild layup attempt. Durant holds and looks at his teammates waiting for something—anything—to happen before hoisting a contested jumper. Serge Ibaka either pulls up from mid-range or passes out to Westbrook or Durant, both of whom go through their same processes over again. It's not that Brooks lacks understanding of how to draw up plays. It's that he lacks the teaching skills and knowledge to ingrain in his players what should happen after the play is called.
Credit here goes to the Grizzlies, who have one of the three or four players actually capable of disrupting offenses in this fashion. Allen has been phenomenal all series long. Oklahoma City has scored a solid 105.5 points per 100 possessions when Allen has been on the bench. That number drops the whole way to 96.4 when Allen is on the floor—roughly equivalent to the Pacers' season-best mark. Durant has shot 47.1 percent from the floor with Allen off, 35.8 percent with him on. Hell, the Grizzlies are even better offensively from a numbers perspective with Trick-or-Treat Tony on the floor.
"I'm going to gamble whether it helps the team or not...that's what I do, that's what makes me who I am today," Allen told reporters prior to Game 4. "If I convert, it's a pat on the back. If I don't and it hurts the team, I'll try to get it back on the next possession."
Of course, Memphis might want to be concerned about its own issues scoring points. Only the Bobcats have been worse offensively in these playoffs. Zach Randolph's averages of 18.3 points and 8.5 rebounds only look great until they're juxtaposed against his 36 percent shooting rate. Mike Miller is one of the only Grizzlies who can stretch the floor but is shooting 27.3 percent overall.
The Thunder remain quietly one of the league's fiercest defensive teams, and their length kills a Memphis roster in need of all the space it can get. Randolph has been blocked an almost embarrassing number of times underneath.
Oklahoma City's offensive struggles can be fixed by virtue of having two of the league's 10 best players. Memphis' cannot. It would only be right if we were headed toward a Game 7, but expect the Thunder to get back in the swing of things at home.
Score Prediction: Thunder 101, Grizzlies 89
Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers (-6.5)
In light of the disgusting and racist comments purportedly made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling, this series has taken on a whole new meaning. It's really not about basketball anymore. It's about a man with decades of horrific accusations of discriminatory behavior and the people he views as his underlings, what we are all supposed to do about this and how we are to process it.
A decision about Sterling's fate within the NBA is expected soon. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he will give Sterling the same "due process" that's afforded to his players. Meanwhile, there's an actual basketball series going on—with a potential NBA championship contender seemingly crumbling under the weight of these unforeseen circumstances.
The Clippers players have attempted to put a brave face on the issue, but it was clear Sunday they were going through the motions. Stephen Curry and the Warriors' ungodly shooting display in the first quarter couldn't have helped encourage an already discouraged bunch. Yet many of those threes—a sum of which came in transition—were the direct result of Clippers turnovers. Los Angeles attempted to punch its way back into the game at multiple junctures; it just felt over after those first six or so minutes.
Head coach Doc Rivers has not sounded like a man who receives any pleasure working for Donald Sterling's basketball team the past few days. He's repeatedly declined to confirm he'll be back next season, declined the opportunity to speak with Sterling personally and left a not-so-subtle call to action for the commissioner's office.
"These last 48 hours or more have been really hard for our players and for everyone," Rivers told reporters in a conference call Monday. "I would just like to reiterate how disappointed I am in the comments attributed to our owner, and I can't tell you how upset I am and our players are."
The message of hurt, frustration and anger was shown in other ways as well. Clippers players wore black socks, wristbands and headbands in a silent form of protest. They dumped their Clippers warm-up jackets at center court before the game, exposing inside-out, all-red shirts. According to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, they may be planning an even more staunch protest when they return home for Game 5.
The Clippers took off their shooting shirts and dumped them at center court. pic.twitter.com/Nod5QWsWJy— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) April 27, 2014
The word "distraction" gets used far too much in professional sports. But this is the definition of a distraction. A just, right distraction that takes precedence over anything that happens on the floor—yet a distraction nonetheless.
Here is the part where you're supposed to create some false narrative. To say the Sterling situation will galvanize the Clippers to overcome and win. Or that the situation has become far too big, and that Golden State will capitalize the way it did Sunday.
The truth of the matter is I have no idea. No one does. It's unfair for anyone to even begin psychoanalyzing the situation because we are not Chris Paul. We are not Blake Griffin. We are not J.J. Redick. When Rivers acknowledges the "impact" Sterling's purported comments have had, he's probably underselling it tenfold. But a couple days can change a lot inside a human being.
The Clippers are a better basketball team. They are more talented (especially with Andrew Bogut still out) and better coached, and they have two of the league's 10 best players. NBA history says, over a seven-game sample, that Los Angeles would win. I picked it in five games heading into the series.
Now? I'm not so sure. And, for once, that's OK.
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