After two whirlwind weeks of the NBA Playoffs, I feel like this:
The NBA Playoffs are excruciatingly, overwhelmingly, exhaustingly awesome. People are over this great nation of ours are screaming and collapsing and vomiting and….falling asleep with the remote control in their hands. Eight teams are gone and eight teams are left. One Round over. Three Rounds left. Fortunately, there will be two games each night for the next two weeks. These three-game nights are too much. For the NBA obsessed writer/fan/reader, the fast-forward button starts to take over, just so you can get to bed before sunrise.
Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but you understand.
In the Eastern Conference, the survivors hail from Miami, D.C., Indianapolis and Brooklyn. No Boston. No Chicago. No Canada. Those devoted Canadian hoops fans (images of Maple Leaf Square overflowing with crowds) who so exuberantly inspired their Raptors through seven games, down to the very last second, in which Kyle Lowry navigated all kinds of swarming hands in the paint, only to be denied by the ageless Paul Pierce. Now GM Masai Ujiri must decide how integral Lowry is to the Raptors future. Lowry’s spectacular second-half and playoff run will bring in multiple offers. The exciting young Raptors should keep this crew together. Meanwhile, the Nets have one day off before they face off with the defending-champion Heat.
Miami Heat (2) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
While it’s smart to dismiss the Nets’ regular season sweep of Miami as mostly noise, due to the fact that Heat guard Dwyane Wade did not play in any of the four games, the Nets do match up pretty well with Miami. The length of Livingston, Pierce, Joe Johnson, and Kirilenko will frustrate Miami. The Nets are great at taking away the corner three, one of the Heat’s offensive strengths. Expect fewer Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole open looks.
Wade has been resting patiently for most of the last six weeks, waiting to ramp up his intensity for these games. It will be interesting to see how many minutes he gets and how effective he is toward the end of this series. Chris Bosh should feast on the Nets bigs whenever Kevin Garnett hits the bench. Kirilenko is better suited to matching up with Bosh than Plumlee or Blatche. Jason Kidd would be wise to experiment with Kirilenko at the center. If Garnett can somehow manage to give 30 minutes, that may be enough to keep the damage to a minimum.
Though it remains unlikely the Nets can push this series to seven games, I wouldn’t expect a sweep either. The Heat may show some rust in Game 1, after a week layoff. Joe Johnson’s sweet-shooting will be absolutely necessary, as will some unexpected Marcus Thornton, Mirza Teletovic and Alan Anderson performances.
Expect Teletovic, who averaged 10.3 ppg in the four regular season games, to make a significant contribution.
As a Celtics fan, it’ll be fun to see Pierce and KG get one more shot to ruin Miami’s attempt at another deep playoff run.
Will Jason Kidd prove he can handle the pressure of late-game strategy as a first year coach?
Will Kevin Garnett play more than 20 minutes per game?
Will Dwyane Wade start limping around Game 4 or 5?
Darko Index Predicts: Heat in 6.
Game 1: Brooklyn @ Miami, Tuesday, May 6, 7pm EST, TNT
Game 2: Brooklyn @ Miami, Thursday, May 8, 7pm EST, TNT
Game 3: Miami @ Brooklyn, Saturday, May 10, 8pm EST, ABC
Game 4: Miami @ Brooklyn, Monday, May 12, 8pm EST, TNT
Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
Has a top seed ever been so heavily criticized at this point in an NBA season? In the internet age, where the criticisms feel more like chants than whispers, where quotes are linked to and every Larry Bird utterance and Roy Hibbert disappearance is under the microscope, the magnitude of the doubters is exponentially greater. Not to mention that the ridiculously early (January) MVP-debates that stir the straw that is the media-hyped narrative soup of the regular season stretched Paul George’s great first-half to mythical proportions. This Indiana team started the season with the mental focus of the playoff-Spurs…but that’s the very reason it started to crumble in March. 82 games. It’s a slog, a marathon, whatever word you want to use to describe the 25-week regular season…it’s seriously long and every team goes up-and-down. The word “unacceptable” should NEVER be applied to a regular season loss. One loss is always acceptable, given the context of the season. A three-game losing streak to mediocre or awful teams may be unacceptable.
Before the Pacers’ wagon-wheels fell of their ever-lightning bandwagon, back on March 12, Bird told the Indianapolis Star:
“A lot of times, we don’t take the fight to them [the opponent],” Bird told the Star. “A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We’ve got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we’re playing against. We can’t have the mindset it’s just another game; it’s a very important game. All of them are.”
While Bird has a point that developing a consistently dominant franchise, season-to-season, takes a mental approach that sets one team apart from the rest, he misses a few points: 1) The Pacers won 49 games in 2012-13; 2) These Pacers have never played in an NBA Finals; 3) These Pacers are a defensively dominant, offensively-suspect crew, without the depth of those dominant franchises in San Antonio, Miami, and to some extent, Oklahoma City.
Bird’s desire for these Pacers to bring the mental approach that his mid-80’s Celtics teams brought to their games is understandable, but his insistence that they never let-up is unrealistic.
The media turned this Pacers team into what they wanted: an imagined rematch of last year’s great Eastern Conference Finals series in which the Pacers surprised the casual NBA fan with their tenacious defense and grinding offense. Like the Memphis Grizzlies, the Pacers became a formidable foe. I wrote more in-depth about the Pacers season here. Simply put, they were never the team that people thought they were. They are a very good team with real flaws and match-ups are critical to how dominant they are at any given time.
Which brings us to their match-up with the upstart Washington Wizards.
The Wizards style-of-play brings a breath of fresh air compared with the factory-smoke air that the slug-it-out Chicago Bulls style brings. The regular season match-ups favored Indiana, but two of the three games were played without Wizards forward, Nene. Dominant at times against DPOY Joakim Noah (who was admirably fighting through a knee injury), Nene will not find the same level of success against David West and Ian Mahinmi. Without Nene facilitating so effectively, John Wall’s range will be severely tested. The Pacers may sag off of Wall the way teams defended Rajon Rondo early in his career. Expect some vicious interactions between Nene and David West. Flagrant fouls will be ubiquitous.
Many are talking about the perimeter defense of Trevor Ariza as a Paul George stopper. This worked pretty well in the regular season. Ariza has a similar body-type to George, and can contest those fade-away jumpers in isolation better than most wings, with his long arms. More than anything, it would make sense for Wizards coach Randy Wittman to send Ariza running all over the baseline, like Ray Allen in Miami, in order to wear George out on the defensive end. If this is the case, Pacers coach Frank Vogel may take George off of Ariza, though Bradley Beal is equally capable of running all over the place in the half-court.
The Wizards may take a page from the Hawks’ playbook, and go extra small, forcing Indiana’s defense to stretch out. If they do, Hibbert absolutely needs to dominate on the block, and West must facilitate from his coveted elbow spot. The problem with going extra small is that the Wizards won’t have any real chance of setting the tempo through offensive rebounding and second-chance points that come with the efforts of Marcin Gortat.
Bradley Beal is one of my favorite young players to watch. He has a similar kind of poise that Damian Lillard possesses, rarely showing the exasperation and exuberance that John Wall plays with. Though Wall has that electricity that is contagious, Beal plays with the even-handed confidence of Ray Allen. Can’t wait to see how he does in this series. I’m hoping Wall doesn’t forget how important Beal and Ariza are to the team’s success.
Will Nene or David West get ejected from more than one game each?
Will John Wall turn the ball over more often than Paul George? Will both of them average five turnovers per game?
Will Bradley Beal hit more than one game-winning shot in this series?
Darko Index Predicts: Pacers in 6.
Game 1: Washington @ Indiana, Monday, May 5, 7pm EST, TNT
Game 2: Washington @ Indiana, Wednesday, May 7, 7pm EST, TNT
Game 3: Indiana @ Washington, Friday, May 9, 8pm EST, ESPN
Game 4: Indiana @ Washington, Sunday, May 11, 8pm EST, TNT
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