10 Burning Questions Entering 2014 NBA Playoffs

Matthew SchmidtFeatured ColumnistApril 19, 2014

10 Burning Questions Entering 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    Are Tim Duncan's Spurs and LeBron James' Heat on a collision course to the Finals again?
    Are Tim Duncan's Spurs and LeBron James' Heat on a collision course to the Finals again?Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    It's that time of year. The time when dreams are either crushed or made into reality. A time when legends are made and goats (and scapegoats) rear their ugly heads.

    Folks, after a long, unpredictable regular season, the 2014 NBA playoffs are finally here, and boy, do they look scrumptious. There will be no shortage of drama this season.

    Can the Miami Heat three-peat? Can the San Antonio Spurs avenge a devastating Finals loss from a year ago? Can the Indiana Pacers shake off their stunning second-half struggles?

    Those are only some of the questions that we will be asking heading into the first round of the postseason, a postseason that could very well end up being the best one we've seen in many years.

    From the stacked Western Conference to the suddenly (and surprisingly) competitive East, there is plenty of excitement to go around.

    Let's dive in.

Is the Miami Heat's Extra Gear as Potent as It Once Was?

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    The mantra for the Miami Heat during the Big Three era has always been the same.

    Wait until the playoffs.

    The past two years, that mantra has proven to be sound, as the Heat have won back-to-back championships and are vying to become the first team to three-peat since the Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-02, as well as only the sixth group to ever do so.

    The question is, can the Heat turn it on for the postseason as they have been able to do in the past?

    Statistics would tell you that it will be tough.

    In the two championships that Miami has won with LeBron James in tow, Erik Spoelstra's club relied not on its explosive offense, but its dominant, disruptive defense to win games down the stretch. 

    During the 2011-12 campaign, the Heat ranked fourth in defensive efficiency. Last season, they ranked seventh.

    This year, however, they ranked 11th.

    Seems like a somewhat negligible difference, right?

    Well, not necessarily. Not when you take into consideration the fact that the last team to win a title ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers.

    Do the math. That was 13 years ago.

    So can Miami reach that next level and kick its defense into gear for the playoffs?

    "Certainly, we were tested," Spoelstra told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick about the regular season, a season in which the Heat limped to a 13-14 finish over their last 27 games. "And that's the most important thing."

    Is it? I'm not so sure.

    Of course, counting Miami out would be astronomically silly. It is, after all, the two-time defending champion and houses the best player in the world.

    But questioning its ability to win a third straight title is not the least bit ludicrous. Not with its struggling defense, and not with Dwyane Wade sitting out 28 contests this season with various maladies.

Can the Indiana Pacers Right the Ship?

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    Early on in the season, the Indiana Pacers looked unbeatable. They were steamrolling the competition with unbridled ferocity, Paul George was an MVP candidate, and Roy Hibbert looked like a surefire lock for Defensive Player of the Year.

    Oh, how times have changed.

    The Pacers went 10-13 over their final 23 games, once going through a stretch where they couldn't crack 80 points for five out of six contests. Not surprisingly, they lost those five games, including a 103-77 home beatdown at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.

    Indiana then hit rock bottom on April 6 when it trailed the Atlanta Hawks, 55-23, at halftime and would go on to lose, 107-88, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

    The Pacers did close out their season winning three of their last four games, including a huge 102-97 triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but a lot of the same problems still persist.

    Could the Danny Granger-for-Evan Turner trade really have affected the locker room chemistry so much that it resulted in this downward spiral? Well, if that is indeed the case, and Indy fell apart because a veteran who was shooting 35.9 percent was dealt, then it wasn't ready for the big-time, anyway.

    Regardless, it's silly to blame this all on Turner when there are clearly much deeper issues here.

    Let's start with Hibbert, who has been undeniably awful in recent weeks.

    In the past four games, the 7'2" center has gone 3-for-28. Yes. Three for twenty-eight. That is 10.7 percent. That is what you would expect from someone like...actually, you would not expect that from any NBA player, never mind a 7'2", 290-pound behemoth who made the All-Star team.

    But wait, there's more.

    In the months of March and April, Hibbert has averaged a measly 4.2 rebounds per game. Over his last 11 contests? Three and a half, and he didn't register a board at all twice over those 11 games.

    Then you have George, who shot only 39.6 percent from the field and posted a minus-1.8 plus-minus after the All-Star break.

    Can Indiana rectify these issues in time to make playoff run? It's going to be very difficult, so difficult that people are no longer questioning whether or not the Pacers can beat a Western Conference team in the Finals, but are now asking whether or not they can win a series, period.

    I can't remember ever seeing a collapse like this. The closest thing I can think of in recent memory was the 2004-05 Minnesota Timberwolves, who went 44-38 and missed the playoffs a year after going 58-24 and reaching the conference finals, but the difference is that Timberwolves team was mediocre all season long. These Pacers were absolutely dominant early on and then simply fell apart at the seams in the second half.

    Sure, nabbing home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs is huge because now, Indiana will have the benefit of owning a potential Game 7 against the Heat at home, but it has to get that far first.

Is This the Last Hurrah for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    It seems like we discuss this on a yearly basis: Could this be it for the duo of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett?

    We first started mentioning the possibility of this happening during the 2011-12 season when Pierce and Garnett's Boston Celtics pushed the eventual champion Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. There was rampant speculation that KG would retire, but the big man ultimately decided to re-up with the Celtics and give it another go.

    The talk persisted last year in what turned out to be Pierce and Garnett's final season in Boston. Still, the two were traded together to the Brooklyn Nets for one more shot.

    But now, seriously, is this it?

    After all, Garnett missed 28 games this season, the most he has missed in any year during his illustrious 19-year career. Pierce? His contract is up this summer.

    There appears to be a better chance than ever that KG and The Truth will no longer be playing with one another when the 2014-15 campaign kicks off.

    So for all intents and purposes, these playoffs could indeed be the final hurrah for the pair of Hall of Famers.

    And you know what? There is a chance they make this potential last stand memorable.

    The Nets went 34-17 after their miserable 10-21 start and were able to complete a four-game sweep of Miami in the process. They also swept the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, nabbed a road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder and picked up numerous other signature wins throughout the year.

    Brooklyn is no joke. It is talented, it is teeming with veteran savvy, and it is incredibly deep, ranking fourth in bench scoring at 38.5 points a night this season.

    Not only that, but it appears that Garnett has plenty more left in the tank than we were led to believe, as he ranked second in the league in defensive RPM. Clearly, he still has a colossal impact on that end of the floor.

    If the Nets are able to get by the inexperienced Toronto Raptors in the first round, they will have a date with Miami (assuming the Heat aren't upset by the Charlotte Bobcats, and let's face it; they won't be) in the conference semifinals.

    Keep this in mind: Brooklyn is not afraid of the Heat, and that is almost solely because of the two former Celtics greats who now occupy the roster. Obviously, that doesn't mean the Nets will beat Miami, but it will certainly help.

    "I haven't run into too many people that Paul's been afraid of," Orlando Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn told Neil Best of Newsday before playing Pierce and Brooklyn on Apr. 13. "So he has a way about him, and I am quite sure he brings that to this team."

    So how about it? Pierce and KG against LeBron James one more time. Hey, considering they are 2-2 against one another in the playoffs, it's only appropriate that they have a rubber match.

Is a Heat-Pacers Eastern Conference Finals a Foregone Conclusion?

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Flash back to January. Did you really think there was a chance that we wouldn't have a Heat-Pacers Eastern Conference Finals?

    Of course you didn't. The Nets were bumbling, the Chicago Bulls were middling along, and Miami and Indiana were both rolling.

    Now, things are a bit different.

    The Bulls and Nets owned the top two records in the East, respectively, from Jan. 1 on. The Toronto Raptors "quietly" grabbed the conference's No. 3 seed. The Washington Wizards have been playing some fine ball of their own, too. Heck, even the Bobcats look pretty tough with their sixth-ranked defense.

    The road to the conference finals is no longer a cakewalk for the Heat and the Pacers. Miami will face the winner of the Brooklyn-Toronto series in the second round, and Indiana will get the victor from the Chicago-Washington clash.

    So who poses the biggest threat to the East's top two ballclubs?

    Well, for the Heat, it's the Nets. No disrespect to the Raptors, but Miami would much rather face a team whose starting five has a combined 24 games of postseason experience under its belt than one that boasts 399. Plus, Garnett and Pierce have always been a thorn in LeBron's side.

    It's a little tougher when examining which club is most threatening to the Pacers.

    Yes, the Bulls own the league's second-best defense, and Indiana has trouble scoring as it is, but the Wizards are no defensive slouches. They rank ninth on that end of the floor, and they are considerably better offensively, ranking 17th to Chicago's 28th.

    To be perfectly honest, either of those two teams can give the Pacers a run for their money in a seven-game series.

    However, I think Washington, with its stout D, explosive backcourt and frontcourt depth, would actually pose the bigger problem for Indiana.

Can the Los Angeles Clippers Exorcise Their Playoff Demons?

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    When Chris Paul arrived for the 2011-12 season, expectations were high for the Los Angeles Clippers. They were no longer Los Angeles' "other team." This was a ballclub that was expected to compete for titles almost immediately with the tandem of Paul and Blake Griffin.

    However, it hasn't exactly worked out that way.

    In CP3's first season, the Clippers were eviscerated in the second round of the playoffs by the Spurs. Excusable? Sure, considering San Antonio was in the midst of a 20-game winning streak at the time, and Paul was kind of gimpy during that series.

    L.A. would be back with a vengeance the next year, right?


    After taking a 2-0 first-round series lead, the Clippers proceeded to lose four straight to the Memphis Grizzlies, as Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol thoroughly dominated inside and simply beat up Griffin and DeAndre Jordan en route to a convincing triumph.

    Los Angeles then went out and traded (yes, traded) for Doc Rivers, acquired the likes of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley and, most importantly, re-signed Paul when it appeared he might take his talents elsewhere in free agency.

    Championship aspirations? You bet.

    The Clips won a franchise-record 57 games this season, and that was with Paul missing 20 of them. Griffin has clearly taken his game to the next level, posting career highs in points per game (24.1), free-throw percentage (71.5) and win shares per 48 minutes (.205). Plus, Jordan has been an absolute monster, leading the league in both field-goal percentage (67.6) and rebounds per game (13.6).

    There simply cannot be any first-round disappointments this year, especially with Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut likely out with broken ribs.

    The Clippers are fully expected to challenge the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round, and if Griffin continues his level of performance, and Paul is Paul, they have a great shot of beating Kevin Durant and company and moving on to the Western Conference Finals.

    "It's all good and well," Paul said about Los Angeles achieving a franchise record in regular-season victories, "but it's all about the postseason."

    That's right, and if CP3 doesn't start getting it done in the playoffs soon, the pressure will start to mount on the superstar floor general. He has everything except a postseason legacy. It's high time he starts building it.

How Far Can Dwight Howard and James Harden Carry the Houston Rockets?

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    The last time we saw Dwight Howard in the postseason, he was getting ejected during an elimination game with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Oh, how times have changed.

    Howard is now with the Houston Rockets, and he appears to be happy and healthy. Not only that, but he has been pretty darn good.

    So can the Rockets advance far in the playoffs with the duo of Howard and James Harden at the helm?

    It will be difficult, as there are issues here.

    For one thing, Houston has some problems defensively, ranking 12th in defensive efficiency. It also allows 103.1 points per game, good for 23rd in the league. Much of that falls on the shoulders of the Rockets backcourt, as outside of Patrick Beverley, Houston does not have any guards who can defend all that well (and let's remember that Beverley is playing with a torn meniscus).

    Another major hole is the lack of depth.

    When the Rockets starters go to the bench, the offense suffers, as Houston's reserves post only 27.4 points per game. That ranks 26th in the NBA.

    Due to the fact that the Portland Trail Blazers, the Rockets' first-round opponent, have similar problems and are even worse off in those areas (16th in defensive efficiency and last in bench scoring), Houston should advance to the conference semifinals.

    However, expecting Howard and Harden to beat the Spurs is another story entirely. Howard and Harden would both have to be magnificent, and someone off the bench (Jeremy Lin?) would have to be consistently productive throughout the series.

    Sure, the Rockets may have swept San Antonio during the regular season, but the Spurs were not fully armed for all of those games (injuries and rest), and the playoffs are an entirely different beast.

    Houston is almost there, but it needs just a bit more firepower to really mess with the big boys.

Can Russell Westbrook Stay Healthy for the Postseason Grind?

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    Sue Ogrocki

    It's been a topsy-turvy year for Russell Westbrook.

    He tore his meniscus in the first round of last year's playoffs and then had surgery. Then, it was discovered that there was a loose stitch in his knee, so he had surgery again. Then in December, Westbrook experienced swelling in his knee. Want to guess what happened? That's right. More surgery.

    So Westbrook underwent three procedures on his knee during a span of eight months. Yeah, not good.

    Fortunately, Westbrook has looked healthy since returning from the third surgery in late February, averaging 22.3 points off 45.5 percent shooting.

    The concern is, can Westbrook remain healthy for the grind of a playoff run?

    During the regular season, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was able to monitor Westbrook's minutes, allowing him to accumulate 30 minutes only nine times in his 21 games after the point guard's latest comeback.

    It's going to be tough to limit his playing time that much during the postseason, as he is playing seven-game series against the best teams in what is perhaps the strongest conference in years.

    Perhaps Westbrook will be absolutely fine playing extended minutes again. He was able to play 30 or more minutes in five of his last six regular-season contests, so he is starting to get conditioned for that type of burn again.

    The playoffs are a different animal, though. Let's just hope he's good to go for the long haul.

Can the Golden State Wrariors Manage Without Andrew Bogut?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Unless some kind of miracle takes place, Warriors center and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Andrew Bogut will miss the postseason with a fractured rib, per NBA.com.

    This is an absolutely enormous development, and it all but destroys Golden State's chances of making any kind of noise in the postseason.

    Bogut is someone who anchored the Warriors' third-ranked defense and cleaned the glass with reckless abandon, averaging 10 rebounds per game and 13.7 boards per 36 minutes. 

    Not only that, but Bogut represented an underrated component of Golden State's offense, playing a significant role in the pick-and-roll game and shooting a career-high 62.7 percent from the floor. With Bogut on the court, the Warriors posted 110 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the bench, that number dipped to 105.5.

    As you can see, Bogut has been an integral cog on both ends for Mark Jackson's club, and it is going to be awfully difficult for Golden State to upset the Clippers and their dynamic frontcourt in the first round without his services.

    The only way the Dubs will have a chance of stealing this series is if both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson go ballistic from three-point range, and while the two have shown the propensity to do that (hello, last year's playoffs), that probably won't even be enough because you also have to get stops on the other end.

    Jermaine O'Neal has played admirably this season, shooting 50.4 percent from the floor and tallying .146 WS/48, but inserting him into the starting lineup is going to severely handicap the Warriors bench. Now, the only big man they have off the bench is Marreese Speights. Not exactly top-notch depth, is it?

    This Golden State team looked good on paper at the beginning of the year (I had them playing San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals), but inconsistency and injuries have derailed what could have been a very fruitful season.

Which Teams Are Most Vulnerable to Upsets?

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    The thing about the NBA playoffs is that they are not like the NCAA tournament. Upsets rarely happen due to the fact that it is a best-of-seven series rather than a single-game elimination where one bad outing by the top team in the league could result in a first-round exit.

    However, maybe this year more than any other year, first-round upsets certainly look possible.

    Let's start in the Eastern Conference, where the fourth-seeded Bulls will play favorites to the fifth-seeded Wizards (I'm not even going to mention the sixth-seeded Nets potentially beating the third-seeded Raptors because that really wouldn't be much of an upset).

    Would it really surprise anyone if Washington came out on top in this series?

    The Wizards can actually top Chicago's size up front with the likes of Marcin Gortat and Nene in the starting lineup and Drew Gooden, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker off the bench. That's what you call frontcourt depth. Plus, as we discussed earlier, they are a very good defensive team and are considerably better offensively than the Bulls.

    All season long, you've had to wonder about Chicago's ceiling in the playoffs. Sure, it plays with a ton of intensity and an irrepressible heart, but grit can only take you so far in the postseason. Eventually, talent and execution will win out, and it's no secret that the Bulls lack weapons offensively.

    Washington, on the other hand, has good low-post scorers, great outside shooting (it ranked fifth in three-point percentage this year) and a dangerous backcourt duo in the form of John Wall and Bradley Beal.

    Seems like a recipe for a potential upset, does it not?

    Then you take a look out West. You see the Thunder, and you see that they are matched up with the Memphis Grizzlies in Round 1.

    A cakewalk for Oklahoma City? No, sir.

    The Grizzlies absolutely have the necessary ingredients to give Durant, Westbrook and those boys fits.

    Memphis bounced the Thunder in five games during the second round of last season's playoffs. Of course, Westbrook was out, but the Grizzlies contained Durant, holding him to 42.1 percent shooting. Westbrook's absence certainly allowed Memphis to focus more on KD, but let's not forget that OKC did have Kevin Martin, so it's not like Durant was the only gunner that the Grizz had to worry about.

    Yes, Westbrook is ready to go this time around, but you know what? Memphis is better than it was last year.

    Don't let its inferior record compared to last season fool you. Marc Gasol missed 23 games this year, and early on, the Grizzlies were still adjusting to new head coach Dave Joerger.

    Memphis has better shooters than last season (Courtney Lee and Mike Miller), a vastly improved point guard in Mike Conley, and the lethal frontcourt tandem of Gasol and Zach Randolph still remains.

    The Grizzlies have multiple defenders they can throw at Durant, namely Tayshaun Prince, the revitalized James Johnson and, of course, a pitbull in Tony Allen. They also have two very good perimeter defenders who can spend time on Westbrook in Conley and Lee, and that could end up being the most imperative aspect of this series.

    If Memphis is able to beat Oklahoma City up inside again and take away Westbrook, not to mention frustrate Durant, it is going to have a very realistic shot at beating the Thunder.

    "Playing Grizzlies' basketball going into the postseason was key," Allen told Teresa M. Walker of the Star Tribune after the Grizzlies' Wednesday night win over the Dallas Mavericks, which clinched the No. 7 seed for Memphis. "And we wanted to try to keep that momentum going."

    A scary thought for the Thunder, indeed.

    The Grizzlies have won 14 straight home games heading into the playoffs, so Oklahoma City best avoid any slip-ups in Games 1 and 2 in OKC.

Can Anybody Beat the San Antonio Spurs?

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Do any of the preceding questions really matter?

    Let me start out with a quick story.

    I was watching the Spurs and Houston Rockets play on Monday, April 14. It was a meaningless game for San Antonio. It had already locked up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, and Gregg Popovich was more concerned with getting his guys the proper rest than he was with garnering a pointless win. So Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills all sat.

    However, in the first half, I noticed something scary. Tim Duncan was on the floor at this time (he didn't play the fourth quarter), and it was the beginning of a Spurs possession. Rockets center Omer Asik had just fouled Duncan on the other end, and after the two got back down the court, Asik was jovially talking to Duncan and laughing during the dead ball.

    But you know what? Duncan wasn't laughing. He wasn't talking, either. As a matter of fact, he did not even acknowledge Asik. Instead, he coldly stared the other way, waiting for Tony Parker to bring the ball up the floor. It was pure, utter focus, and it was downright frightening. 

    The playoffs are here, and Duncan knows it.

    The Spurs are the best team in the league. They finished with the best record at 62-20, No. 1 in average point differential at plus-7.8 and enjoyed a 19-game winning streak where they trampled opponents by an average of 16.8 points a contest.

    Also keep in mind that San Antonio is playing with a massive chip on its shoulder. It was 28 seconds away from winning a championship last season, but we all know how that ended. It seems like this team is on a mission, and don't think for a second that its positive attitude has been lost on Popovich, per Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News:

    What does impress me about the group is the fact they've competed and gotten themselves in this position after a devastating loss in the Finals last year. I thought they were pretty amazing after Game 6 to play as hard as they did in Game 7, when I think a lot of teams would have just given in. Beyond that, they came back, put it aside and have done what they've done.

    So can anybody beat these guys?

    Well, we know the Thunder pose a matchup problem for them. Westbrook gives Parker fits, and Oklahoma City has the interior defenders in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka to at least make things tough for Duncan.

    Still, over the course of a seven-game series, you are really going to have to bring your A-plus game to best the Spurs. We know what Durant and Westbrook can do, but do the Thunder have enough depth across the board? OKC ranked 14th in bench scoring this season at 32.2 points per game. San Antonio? First with 45.1.

    The Spurs offense is a well-oiled machine. The team leads the league in three-point shooting, yet it is also seventh in points in the paint. It is also tops in assists and is No. 1 in fourth-quarter scoring.

    Oh, and not one player on the club averaged 30 minutes per game, so everyone is fresh.

    Shall I continue?

    It doesn't just stop there, though. San Antonio is also a defensive stalwart, coming in at fourth in defensive efficiency.

    Alright. No need to bore you with any more stats, but you get the idea. The Spurs are very good, and it is going to take a masterful effort from an opponent to beat them.

    “It's been a long season, and we're ready for the playoffs, definitely," said Duncan.

    Be afraid, playoff participants. Be very afraid.