The NBA playoff conference semifinals are here, and all eight teams have championship aspirations. Chaminade writers Matt Patterson (16′), Alec Neimand (16′) and Connor Hoyt (15′) give their predictions for the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies
Patterson: Warriors in five- Both of these teams played some great basketball on both ends of the floor in the first round. I picked Grizzlies to lose their first series, and they did more than the opposite of that. Besides the one game they lost, they manhandled the talented Portland TrailBlazers team for four games, showing that toughness and defense can still win playoff series. However, it has to be mentioned that Mike Conley will miss at least one game. Beno Udrih should do a solid job filling in for Conley on the offensive end, but it’s the defensive end where the Grizzlies may have a tough time matching up.
If there is one frontcourt that can match the physicality of Z-bo and Marc Gasol, it’s the defensive tandem of Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut. The Grizzlies big men won’t dominate this series like they did the last, and without Conley, I just can’t see this team scoring nearly at the rate necessary to keep up with the Warriors. Golden State has too much talent to lose to this banged up Grizzlies team.
Neimand: Warriors in four- The Warriors were all sorts of unbelievable in the first round. The Pelicans played fantastic the whole first round, and there was only one game where they had a real opportunity, but then Steph Curry went into Super Saiyan mode to send the game to overtime where the Warriors would win.
This second-round series is going to provide us with some fantastic matchups. We get to see Draymond Green and Zach Randolph go up against each other, and they are bound to get in at least two fights. There is also the second-best 2 guard in the NBA in Klay Thompson up against a top-five perimeter defender in the NBA in Tony Allen, and best of all, two of my top-three favorite mediocre, foreign centers, Kosta Koufos and Andrew Bogut! Koufos is actually from Ohio, but he plays for the Greek national team, so I count him as foreign. When it is all said and done, I don’t see Memphis taking a game. Without a fully healthy Mike Conley, there is no way they can keep up with this Warriors squad.
Hoyt: Warriors in six- The Grizzlies are a phenomenal team and I think that they will certainly give Golden State a run for its money. That being said, Conley’s status for the beginning of this series gives me pause. Teams with a higher seed that win Game 1 ultimately go on to win 85% of series and with a raucous crowd backing the Warriors along with Nick Calathes playing subpar basketball (to put it nicely) in Mike Conley’s place, my gut tells me that Memphis will have a tough time stealing Game 1 in the Bay Area. One matchup that will surely dictate the flow of the series will be Klay Thompson-Tony Allen. Will Dave Joerger revert back to Allen in the starting lineup so as to limit Thompson’s presence or will he continue with Jeff Green in that place? I envision a scenario in which Allen gets significant playing time; possibly even alongside Green because Stephen Curry will surely impose his will on Calathes. If Allen can pester Thompson, as he often does so well to the best scorers in the NBA, and limit his effectiveness, Stephen Curry will have to shoulder much of the scoring burden, which he will do if necessary.
However, the Warrior offense is far more efficient when Curry can act the role of playmaker, getting open looks for his teammates and then sealing the deal himself in crunch time. In the Grindhouse though, the series dynamic could change very quickly with Conley’s return. If the Grizz can get Golden State playing their tough style of basketball, I expect them to make things interesting. However, make no mistake— the Warriors are no longer a team that can be bullied, these guys can hold their own. The Warriors should win this series thanks to their depth and Memphis’ question marks in terms of health, but look for Conley to establish himself as a top-five point guard in this league; this series should give him the recognition that he deserves if he can play up to his billing.
No. 2 Houston Rockets vs. No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers
Patterson: Rockets in seven- This one is probably the toughest call out of the four series’. The Houston Rockets will go nearly a week without playing a game of basketball, while the Clippers will be riding the momentum of a huge Game 7 win over San Antonio. A huge factor of this series will be who controls the paint. Dwight Howard looked like his old self last series against the Mavs, averaging 3.0 blocks per game, while DeAndre Jordan in my opinion is currently the best defensive player in the NBA. One advantage for the Houston Rockets is that they will be able to switch the on-ball screens. One of the biggest reasons for the Spurs loss was that they could not guard the pick and roll between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They would switch on the screen, putting power forwards Boris Diaw or Tim Duncan on Paul. The Rockets however have two athletic, mobile power forwards in Terrance Jones and Josh Smith. Two guys very capable of switching on to Chris Paul and challenging his shot.
Also, Paul hurt his hamstring in Game 7, which can play a huge factor in this series. If Chris Paul was healthy, I’m taking the Clippers, but a hamstring injury is always bad especially for a quick guard like Paul. The Clippers can’t win this series without a 100% CP3, and as his huge minutes continue to pile on, his body will eventually wear down. The Rockets will win any game that Paul does not play in, so I predict Paul to return after Game 1 and create a evenly matched series, only to lose in Game 7 in Houston.
Neimand: Clippers in five- It is hard to believe that the Clippers are playing another series after that. The series against the Spurs had the complete feel of a Finals series. If I’m the Rockets, I am terrified of now having to face a team that has just effectively fought and clawed to beat San Antonio and possibly ended an 18-year dynasty. Houston’s biggest issue is that when James Harden is not on the floor, Houston has been looking to Josh Smith to carry the offensive load. That is like getting to cross the Grand Canyon on the Golden Gate Bridge for 90% of the walk, but the other 10% is on Nik Wallenda’s tight rope, not very enticing.
In fairness, the Clippers don’t play the prettiest basketball in the world, but it is evident that they know how to win. Doc just outcoached one of the best coaches in history, every Clippers’ role player is playing to their maximum potential, Blake is being Blake with his mix of scoring, rebounding, and passing, and Chris Paul is flat out unreal. Rockets can steal a game, but they are not going to be able to handle this Clippers team now.
Hoyt: Clippers in six- James Harden is playing magnificent basketball right now, that’s for certain. Sure, his statistics were probably a little inflated against a porous Dallas defense, but he’s willed his team to the second round despite key injuries to Patrick Beverely and Donatas Motejunas. Not to be outdone, Dwight Howard actually crawled out of his shell for the playoffs; he finally played some big boy basketball like he’s capable of doing! Enjoy it while it lasted though, Houston fans. If he still hasn’t yet, I think that DeAndre Jordan will show that he is a better player than Howard in this series. As for his free throw line woes, I can’t say that we should expect a drastic improvement from Jordan, but I know for a fact that he’ll be eager to prove himself against Howard. I see a fire and a passion in Jordan’s eyes on the court that I simply don’t with Howard, who is lighthearted to an extreme, and inappropriately so during the playoffs.
After the Spurs took the Clippers to the brink of elimination twice in the first round, Los Angeles is definitely battle-tested heading in to its second round matchup against James Harden and Co. Chris Paul once again proved that he is a legitimate closer and his gaffe against the Thunder in the second round of last year’s playoffs will be all but forgotten if he can carry the Clippers to the conference finals this time around. His hamstring should be a point of concern early in the series, but that man is on a mission and I don’t think he’ll allow it hinder him much, if at all. I think that the Motejunas and Beverely injuries will finally slow down Houston and though James Harden has been the de facto point guard of this team, I think that Terry handling the point guard duties for consistent minutes will lead to his exposure at the hands of none other than Chris Paul. I think it’s finally time that the Clipper curse is broken and Lob City reaches the conference finals.
No. 1 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards
Patterson: Hawks in seven- A statement was made by the Washington Wizards in the first round. John Wall and Bradley Ball are two of the brightest stars we have in this league, and Paul Pierce is still a different player in the playoffs. His leadership and experience gives Washington something that few other teams in the Eastern Conference have.
As for Atlanta, their 4-2 win over the Brooklyn Nets in the first round was not very convincing. The team got minimal production from their bench, whereas the Wizards bench played a huge role in the sweep against Toronto. All of this being said, I’m still taking Atlanta due to their balanced scoring, huge home-court advantage, and the fact that the Wizards are still a bit inconsistent on the offensive end. My prediction is Coach Budenholzer will find ways to slow down the elite Washington backcourt, and scrap together a Game 7 win at home.
Neimand: Wizards in six- Last round, I predicted that the Wizards would get swept because they are coached by Randy Wittman. Turns out Wittman decided to take his disaster of an offense and make it produce 110.3 points per game. Apparently Wittman’s success in the playoff last year was no fluke, and while he is a joke of a coach in the regular season, playoff Wittman is a legit force.
The Hawks on the other hand do not look like the team they once were. When they won in the first round, it never looked that impressive because it was the Nets, and when they lost two times, it looked awful because it was the Nets. Losing to the Nets is enough of an emotional injury, but Horford is struggling with a finger injury and they have already lost Thabo Sefolosha, and I don’t think a beat up Hawks team can win four games against a Wizards team that is firing on all cylinders.
Hoyt: Wizards in seven- The way that the Hawks play basketball is beautiful, even poetic. In stark contrast, Washington can at times be stagnant and boring. Nonetheless, the Wiz took care of business against Toronto, making Kyle Lowry look extremely out of place in the process. My gut tells me to take Atlanta in this series, but I have a feeling that the Hawks’ lack of a superstar will be their dismantling. The Wizards feature a bevy of big time players headlined by their stellar backcourt and a proven winner in Paul Pierce, so I guess that I can overlook Randy Wittman presiding over their sideline and entrust my faith in them to reach the conference finals.
The Hawks will put up a fight, unlike the Raptors before them, and at times, will look as though they are in command of this series. But if the Wizards can just adhere to the process, and push this series to the limit, my intuition tells me to take the big time vet and his prodigies over the solid group of players with no one standout player.
No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 3 Chicago Bulls
Patterson: Cavs in six- The series we have all been waiting for since the beginning of the season. This is the real Eastern Conference Championship, as these are without a doubt the two biggest title contenders in the conference. First, the Kevin Love injury. People are forgetting about Tristan Thompson, who has the potential to make the same impact on a game as Love does, just in different ways. Thompson’s offensive rebounding and non-stop energy on the court may actually make him the better matchup against the Bulls front-court.
Here’s my issue with the Chicago Bulls. Five minutes left in the game, when Kyrie Irving and LeBron James can get their own shots at will, who do the Bulls go to? Throughout the first round, the team went on long droughts on the offensive end, and with a team that seems to have so many guys who can get it done, all of the sudden at times they seem to not have one scorer. Despite Derrick Rose’s sensational recent play, he is still very sloppy with the ball, and Pau Gasol had a very poor series against the Bucks. As great as Jimmy Butler has been, I don’t see him as a go-to scorer down the stretch, especially considering that he will be matched up against LeBron for 38 minutes of the game. My prediction is that the Bulls are given a chance to win every game, but are simply outplayed by two superstars in the last few minutes.
Neimand: Bulls in six- The Cavs swept the Celtics, but the Celtics kind of knocked out the Cavs. Kelly Olynyk, intentionally or not, has knocked out Kevin Love for the whole playoffs, and Jae Crowder giving LeBron hell for the whole series led to J.R. Smith hitting Crowder in the face and getting a two-game suspension. Take the two best shooters out of the starting lineup, the Cavs all the sudden become a team with horrible floor spacing, which is not good news when your two best players best attribute is penetrating the lane.
Also without Love, the Cavs’ big man rotation is just Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, and Kendrick Perkins. The former Celtic has been fantastic, but the latter only use in the first round was being sent in the game to slam Crowder with a massively illegal screen. It looks even worse when these three have to go up against probably the deepest and best big man rotation in the league. Between Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic the Bulls’ frontcourt has rebounding, passing, rim protection, post scoring, and three point scoring. Between Thompson, Mozgov, and Perkins, the Cavs’ frontcourt has rebounding and some rim protection. Lebron and Kyrie won’t be enough to take more than two games from Chicago.
Hoyt: Bulls in six- I’ve learned to never doubt LeBron James in the playoffs; he’s been there, done that, overcome his struggles in the Finals and now returned to Cleveland as a rejuvenated man. What I’ve also learned though is that inexperienced teams typically suffer when push comes to shove in the playoffs. The Cavs were not even tested in the first round by Boston, making quick work of the wide-eyed Celtics. These Bulls are not content with a playoff appearance, setting a championship as their goal from the first day of camp. If you think that Tom Thibodeau will not coach this series as if his life depends on it, think again. If you think Joakim Noah forgot about how much he hates the city of Cleveland, think again. And most importantly, if you think that Derrick Rose forgot about losing to LeBron in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, think again.
For once, the Bulls are healthy and even though the playoffs should provide all the necessary motivation to succeed, Chicago has all the motivation it needs to remain attentive throughout the duration of this series. The Kevin Love injury will be a big blow to the Cavaliers, as will the J.R. Smith suspension for the first two games of this series. Will LeBron defer to Kyrie in the absence of two of the team’s leading scorers? Or will he instead play like (Old) Cleveland LeBron and take over? I can’t wait to see where the scoring comes from aside from those two because Jimmy Butler will give LeBron fits. Pau Gasol has been the missing piece that Chicago has always needed and if Derrick Rose can play consistently strong basketball, Chicago should be able to pull this one out
There you have it, come back later for our Conference Finals predictions!