The top NBA title contenders from each conference will return to action Tuesday night in the second round of the playoffs.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals will feature a well-rested Miami Heat team, which swept the Charlotte Bobcats without much incident then waited for the Brooklyn Nets to survive seven games against the Toronto Raptors. Brooklyn was the underdog against Toronto, but the Nets beat the Heat in all four regular-season meetings, so they're not going to fear the challenge.
Out West, the San Antonio Spurs surprisingly took seven games to down the Dallas Mavericks, though the Spurs destroyed the Mavs in the finale for a breezy end to the series. They will face a Portland Trail Blazers team that is happily riding the star power of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard.
The road through the second round won't be a cakewalk by any means, but the favorites know how to handle these opponents.
|San Antonio Spurs||3-1|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||9-2|
|Los Angeles Clippers||15-2|
|Portland Trail Blazers||25-1|
|Game||Time (ET)||TV Info||Projected Winner|
|(6) Brooklyn Nets at (2) Miami Heat||7:00 p.m.||TNT||Heat|
|(5) Portland Trail Blazers at (1) San Antonio Spurs||9:30 p.m.||TNT||Spurs|
(6) Brooklyn Nets at (2) Miami Heat
Brooklyn's length is meant specifically to bother the Heat offense. With so many rangy wings on the floor, the Nets can count on their defenders to get hands in shooters' faces and to deny driving lanes when Miami tries to attack off the bounce.
The Nets are 1st team ever to sweep a LeBron James team in a season series of at least 4 games— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 6, 2014
That formula stymied Miami again and again during the regular season, but it's not like Brooklyn has the Heat totally figured out.
Let's take a moment to acknowledge one important point about Brooklyn's four-game sweep: Three of the wins were each by one point, and the fourth went to double overtime. Miami very easily could have swept the Nets by just getting a few bounces to go its way.
Here, coming into the game with eight days' rest to face an old and creaky Brooklyn squad, the Heat already have an advantage.
Of course, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the dangerous Heat spot-up shooters are a load to handle under any circumstances, and this won't help Brooklyn.
But the real threat is Chris Bosh. The stretchiness of his offensive game will be a nightmare for Kevin Garnett to face, limiting him even more than he already has been in these playoffs. Mason Plumlee's athleticism will help, but the youngster isn't your ideal defensive sentinel inside when you're facing the Heat in the postseason.
Brooklyn will be able to counter Miami's preferred strategies later in the series, but this opener is not what the Nets need.
Heat 103, Nets 94
(5) Portland Trail Blazers at (1) San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio just got past Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle, only to face Dirk 2.0 and a Carlisle disciple.
Aldridge is one of the few remaining legitimate threats to make mid-range jumpers; per NBA.com, he's more accurate between 10-24 feet than he is in the five- to nine-foot range. He can also power his way inside if defenders close out too strong or simply post up and score with a number of moves from the block.
LaMarcus Aldridge has shot a fantastic 56.6 percent from the field in 21 games vs. Tim Duncan. http://t.co/yerqdWHVll— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) May 6, 2014
Also, like Dallas, Portland maximizes its big shooter's impact by surrounding him with three-point threats and drivers. Other than Aldridge, the Blazers are allergic to mid-range twos, opting to bomb from deep or get to the rim. That puts pressure on the defense to leave Aldridge's sweet spot unprotected, which is not a sustainable strategy.
Fortunately for the Spurs, their size will still be effective in this series. Being able to throw Tiago Splitter or Boris Diaw at Aldridge allows Tim Duncan to stay inside and protect the rim without surrendering the mid-range. Like against Dallas, it won't solve everything, but it's a passable strategy.
As long as the Spurs are at least decent on defense, they have Portland beat. Terry Stotts coached the offense under Carlisle when Dallas won the 2011 title, but his old boss is a far better defensive schemer.
Carlisle was able to solve San Antonio's offense for stretches in the opening round, but matching that feat won't be as simple as copying Dallas' tactics. Adapting your defense on the fly based to fit a form you didn't scheme yourself doesn't work when Damian Lillard is your point guard and Tony Parker is running circles around him.
Maybe Portland will be able to incorporate some of the Mavs' tricks as the series progresses, but more likely than not, the Spurs will have their way on offense.
Spurs 108, Blazers 96