2016 NBA Playoffs: Conference Semifinals
The first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs went as expected. The East was competitive, the West was a drag. Out of the 42 first round games thus far, 27 ended in double-digit deficits. The opening round did feature two Game 7s though: Raptors-Pacers and Heat-Hornets. However, it is unlikely another first round will compare to 2014, where five Game 7s were played.
Last year’s second round was one of the best we’ve witnessed in a while. While the only Game 7 was between the Clippers and Rockets, each other series remained competitive throughout. One weekend featured three game-winning buzzer beaters by Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce, and LeBron James. At one point, all underdogs led 2–1, before all four surrendered their seasons. Can this year’s conference semifinals live up to the greatness of 2015's?
#1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. #4 Atlanta Hawks
This was last year’s Eastern Conference Finals matchup — a very forgettable one. The Cavaliers swept the #1 seed Hawks (60–22) by an average of 13.3 points per game. Perhaps the most memorable incident that occurred in this sweep was the aggressive play of reserve PG Matthew Dellavedova. Dellavedova made a name for himself during last year’s playoffs, by injuring Kyle Korver’s ankle in Game 2 and provoking the ejection of Hawks franchise centerpiece Al Horford in a pivotal Game 3. Since losing homecourt advantage in that series, Atlanta’s status as a legitimate threat to an Eastern Conference championship has diminished.
The Atlanta Hawks went 48–34 in 2015–16, subtracting 12 victories off of the previous year’s total. However, by default, they will perform better in this year’s playoff duel with Cleveland. The Hawks fought an injury-plagued Celtics in the first round, and performed well… for a team that only eclipsed the 45% field goal percentage once in the series. Despite the poor shooting output, the Hawks managed to win games by 1, 17, 27, and 12 points. In a Game 4 loss, Paul Millsap torched the Celtics defense with a playoff-high 45 points. Millsap was not as scorching in the other five games, where he totaled 53 points (10.6 PPG, averaged 17.1 regular season).
Besides the obvious lack of LeBron James, the main issue Atlanta has in a matchup against Cleveland is rebounding. Despite outrebounding the Celtics in the first round, Hawks averaged 42.1 RPG in 2015–16, the lowest amount of all remaining playoff teams. The Cavaliers, who employ Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and Timofey Mozgov, averaged 44.5 and held opponents to only 41.0 RPG, ranking fifth in the NBA.
The role of Matthew Dellavedova in this series is one of the most intriguing storylines, especially after Dennis Schroder’s first round. Schroder, one of the best bench players in the NBA, was involved in a series of scuffles with Celtics PG Isaiah Thomas. He received a flagrant foul in the opening round, and given Dellavedova’s past, the Australian-native will do his best to keep Schroder and the Hawks’ frustrations high throughout the series.
Lastly, the Cavaliers have LeBron James. A team with LeBron James on the roster has not lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs since 2010. With LeBron’s team as a #1 seed for only the second time in that timespan, it should be expected for the Cavaliers to represent the conference in the NBA Finals once again. His main defender will likely be Kent Bazemore this round, who individually held the Celtics to 30% shooting last round. James and company have not had struggled with these Hawks at all, sweeping them in three regular season games.
Verdict: Cavaliers in 5 — If Detroit almost took Game 4, Atlanta can probably steal a game in Philips Arena, assuming they can shoot 45%.
TBD vs. TBD
Check back for updates of the series between the Toronto Raptors/Indiana Pacers vs. the Miami Heat/Charlotte Hornets.
#1. Golden State Warriors vs. #5 Portland Trail Blazers
After losing four of five starters from the 2014–15 squad, the Trail Blazers were expected to be contending for the lottery, not a championship. And while the championship hopes should not be too high for fans in Rip City, it has been a great and shocking season for Portland.
Damian Lillard (25.1 PPG) and C.J. McCollum (20.8 PPG) have combined to create arguably a top-three backcourt in the NBA. Last week, McCollum was rewarded for his massive rise to stardom, earning NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Increasing his scoring average by over 13 points, McCollum even led the Blazers in scoring with 27 points in Game 5. Even more surprising, Al-Farouq Aminu, already on his fourth team in six seasons, led the Blazers in scoring with a career-high 30 points in Game 4. The Blazers defeated the Clippers with more than their backcourt. Mason Plumlee crashed the boards against a team with DeAndre Jordan, and averaged 13.2 rebounds per game.
Perhaps the Blazers wouldn’t have beaten the Clippers if it wasn’t for the injuries to stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but the Blazers at least had the series tied 2–2 before the departure of Los Angeles’ dynamic duo.
Speaking of injuries, Stephen Curry will begin this series on the Warriors bench, out with an MCL sprain that worsened after slipping on a sweaty Toyota Center floor in Game 4 against the Rockets. In games completely without the reigning MVP, the Warriors fared 2–1 against the Rockets, with the loss being by one point in Game 3. He seeks a May 9 return date, which would probably be by Game 5 of this series.
Without Curry, Steve Kerr’s 73–9 team is still stacked. Klay Thompson, who once dropped 37 in a quarter, has proven to be one of the league’s top shooting guards on both sides of the ball, and Draymond Green has emerged as one of the best defenders and big man passers (led team with 7.4 APG in 2015–16) in the NBA. Green and Andrew Bogut are also part of the deadly screen system that exists in Kerr’s offense. Although many debate the legality of some of the screens, there is no question that these picks have been effective in creating open three-pointers for the team with the league’s paramount three-point percentage. During Game 4 against Houston, Golden State drained a playoff-record 21 three-pointers in a game.
Despite the Curry injury, it is important to remember that the Warriors had 29 more regular season victories than the Blazers. Although many Portland role players stepped up against a struggling Clippers team, it may be difficult for this trend to continue once again, especially against the best record in NBA history.
But let’s not forget about counting Lillard out, ever.
“Last time they count me out, what I do? Game 6.” — Damian Lillard, from his rap song “They Sleep”
Verdict: Warriors in 5 — Since the Rockets managed to beat a Curry-less Warriors team, the Blazers should too, especially given their 3–0 record at home this postseason.
#2. San Antonio Spurs vs. #3 Oklahoma City Thunder
This is probably the best matchup of the second round. These two West powerhouses, that represented the conference in the 2012–14 Finals collectively, have met in three out of the past five postseasons. The Thunder stormed back from a 2–0 deficit in 2012 to win the series 4–2. The Thunder also stormed back from a 2–0 deficit in 2014, but eventually lost the series 4–2 to the 2014 champion Spurs.
The teams split the season series 2–2, but the final two meetings were not indicative of what we will see in this round. Both teams rested players late in the season, so unfortunately, the anticipated Boban Marjanovic-Steven Adams WWE matchup may not make a prominent appearance in this series.
Tim Duncan is 40 years old, yet he may be one of the most impactful players in this series. Oklahoma City, who runs most lineups with two traditional big men rather than reverting to small ball, is the best rebounding team in the league — and it’s not even close. The Thunder averaged 48.6 RPG, crushing the second-most at 46.3 (Detroit and Chicago). The Spurs were average in this field, only accumulating 43.9 per game. They will likely move away from small ball and allocate more minutes to Duncan instead of small ball favorite Boris Diaw this round. The Big Fundamental averaged 7.3 RPG in a career-low 25.2 minutes per game in 2015–16. The five-time champion never scored above 7 points against Memphis, but given San Antonio’s offensive depth, he didn’t need to.
That’s where the future of the franchise, currently in the midst of a 19-consecutive playoff appearance, factors in to play. Kawhi Leonard, the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, had a career offensive season. His shooting has magnificently improved, shooting 44.3% from three-point land and 87.4% from the charity stripe in 2015–16. Leonard, who made the series-saving block on Russell Westbrook in 2014, is now the Spurs go-to offensive player, along with new addition LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge has not escaped the second round of the playoffs before but is receiving his best chance in San Antonio. Along with a deadly midrange jumper, Aldridge provides impeccable floor spacing to this series. This is a key factor when facing the Thunder, and Gregg Popovich has utilized lineups with Matt Bonner before against them to lure their bigs out of the paint. Aldridge and Duncan run a great high-low post combination, which could be difficult to for paint-dwellers Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter to defend in this series.
Despite the slew of San Antonio offensive weapons, the Thunder own the top-two offensive players in the series: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Unfortunately for the Spurs, only one Kawhi Leonard is available to defend them, so Danny Green will likely begin the series guarding Westbrook. Westbrook has performed exceptionally against San Antonio in the past and averaged 26.8 PPG in the 2014 playoffs. If the duo can continue to attack the basket, where the Spurs lack sufficient rim protection besides Duncan, Oklahoma City could potentially pull off the upset en route to a conference finals appearance. Also, their role players (Randy Foye, Andre Roberson) need to become extra offensive threats in this series for the Thunder to keep the league’s best defense on their toes.
Final note: the Thunder are notorious for blowing 4th quarter leads. This happened 15 times in this season, including Game 2 versus the Mavericks. No lead is safe in this series.
Verdict: Spurs in 7 — The Spurs had 12 more wins than the Thunder, but this series will probably result in stolen home-court advantages, games decided in the final minute, and Popovich ultimately ousting first-year head coach Billy Donovan.
Note: All images were retrieved from Sportslogos.net.