Defense wins in the playoffs. As long as you have some offensive balance, you can advance in the playoffs with great defense. Three primary examples: Grizzlies, Pacers, and the Bulls. With less than a day to catch our breaths after Chicago’s statement win in Brooklyn–the statement being team unity and heart will beat talent four times out of seven. Chicago took out a more talented and less determined Nets team without Derrick Rose, and more surprisingly, after losing Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, mid-way through the series.
On to Round Two:
San Antonio vs. Golden State
Golden State has been on a great ride, but the Spurs are deeper, more seasoned, and can win in a variety of ways. The Spurs offense can be led in a variety of ways: Tony Parker’s pick-and-roll, Duncan on the block (getting Bogut in foul trouble). The Warriors are hugely dependent on Steph Curry’s offense, which will be stifled by Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio’s resident stopper. Andrew Bogut’s impact, also critical to Golden State’s chances, will be minimized by Tim Duncan. The Spurs three-point shooting, with Danny Green, Ginobili and Parker will provide balance.
The Warriors have relied heavily on Jarrett Jack and Harrison Barnes, who took turns penetrating at will (Jack) and draining corner threes (Barnes). Neither will happen as frequently against the Spurs defense.
Darko Index Predicts: Spurs in 5.
Oklahoma City vs. Memphis
This series would have been brutal if Russell Westbrook were active and healthy. Without Westbrook, the added pressure on Kevin Martin, second-year point guard Reggie Jackson, and power forward Serge Ibaka, whose jump shot began to desert him post-Westbrook (3 of 8 in Game 4 and 4 of 13 in Game 6). Without Westbrook, Memphis’ defense can keep the Thunder from posting any huge quarters, their transition game far less effective without their one-man-fast-break.
Memphis simply wears its opponents down over the course of a series. If shooters Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless can provide enough balance to Memphis’ offense, the balance will be enough. Mike Conley’s playoff performance has been excellent so far, and now he gets Reggie Jackson instead of Chris Paul as a match-up. Conley’s steadiness is emblematic of Lionel Hollins’ coaching and the Grizzlies’ belief in each other. The general rule for a defense is “You’re only as good as your weakest link.” Against the Clippers, it was clear there were weak links (Barnes, Odom, Jordan, Griffin (after turning the ankle). For Memphis, there are zero weak links. Anyone who gets minutes can both: a) Play smart, physical defense and b) get the ball where it needs to go.
Durant will win a game or two by himself, and that won’t be enough.
Darko Index Predicts: Memphis in 6.
Miami vs. Chicago
The Heat have been waiting for about a week to see who they’ll be facing in round two after dispatching the Bucks. Chicago, meanwhile, should change their name from the Bulls to the Walking Wounded. When they’re not throwing up on the bench (Robinson), or making clutch threes (Belinelli and Butler), they’re busy getting spinal taps (Deng), dealing with a calf strain (Hinrich), or coming back from down 19 points in the 4th quarter and playing into triple-overtime.
The Bulls are a testament to Joakim Noah and Tom Thibodeau, who have a like-minded penchant for pushing through any perceived obstacles and willing themselves and their teams to greater heights. Noah’s teams in college and the NBA have always shown a toughness and passion rare among hoops teams. Stil, the Bulls owe everything that’s happened over the last two weeks to the determination of tiny Nate Robinson, whose Game 4 performance (14 of 23 for 34 points in only 29 minutes, most of which came in the 4th quarter and the 3 OTs) makes him the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the NBA today. Robinson again hit big jumpers and created penetration in the second half which led to Marco Belinelli’s 24-point Game 7 (3 of 6 from distance, and an efficient 8 of 14 overall). Belinelli’s range gives the Bulls a factor that Deng does not, and spreads the offense. Deng will likely be back by Game 2 of the Miami series.
All of this is to say that the Bulls will not be an easy out in Round Two, the way the Nets would have been. Do the Bulls have a legitimate chance to beat Miami? Not really. But they won’t get swept, and might even steal Game 1, considering how long Miami has been watching from home, feet propped up on the couch, while Dwayne Wade’s knee gets treatment. Chicago will give Miami a scare, but, in the end, the Heat have too many weapons, and while Deng can make life tough on LeBron, that well-balanced offense will outlast the weary Bulls.
Darko Index Predicts: Heat in 6.
New York vs. Indiana
This series will be the ugliest of the four. Defense, defense, and more defense, with the occasional break-out from Carmelo for New York and from Paul George for the Pacers. The match-ups are intriguing, with Chandler on Hibbert canceling each other out, Anthony and George battling it out, and Felton and George Hill engaged in a tug-of-war. The difference in this series will not be Pablo Prigioni or Iman Shumpert, who both had significant impacts for the Knicks in Games 4-6 of the Boston series.
David West’s jump shot and low-post game will give Indiana just enough offensive cohesion to edge out the Knicks, who were stifled for long stretches of games against Boston. The Pacers, whose defense is the most efficient and stingy in the NBA this year, will put the Knicks in a similar vice and New York’s reliance on Anthony and J.R. Smith to go isolation will be their downfall.
Paul George’s stellar defense will keep Carmelo from demanding a double team. Roy Hibbert’s interior defense will keep Smith and Felton from finishing at the rim. Which will mean a lot of contested jumpers from the other Knicks. Shumpert’s mid-range game will be put to the test. Which brings us back to David West.
Darko Index Predicts: Pacers in 6.