The NBA playoffs are here! We’re talking all or nothing basketball from now until June, when one team will raise that golden championship trophy. Can the Miami Heat three-peat? Or will the stumbling Indiana Pacers recover in the playoffs to wreck Miami’s plans for back-to-back-to-back titles? Who will emerge from the West, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, or Los Angeles Clippers?
So many questions to answer before the confetti is thrown! Before the first tipoffs this weekend, SI Kids breaks down the first round postseason matchups.
Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)
Pacers Center Roy Hibbert’s struggles have hindered the once-dominant Pacers and make them a shaky championship contender. Hibbert has averaged 9.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in his last 10 regular season games, in which the Pacers were 4-6. He didn’t score any points in two of those contests, including a game against Atlanta.
Even without the presence of veteran big man Al Horford (torn pectoral muscle), the Hawks adjusted their offensive flow and put more focus on perimeter shooting. Good call, especially when Hawks guard Kyle Korver is nailing 47.2 percent of his three pointers this season.
Atlanta will test the Pacers perimeter defense, but Indiana will prevail if Hibbert steps up as the game changer on both ends of the floor, as he was during the Pacer-Knicks playoff series last year.
Prediction: Pacers in 6
Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
LeBron James watched Space Jam on Wednesday night (per his Instgram account). I wonder if that’s a part of his preparation for Miami’s series against the Michael Jordan-owned Bobcats. James, whose shooting percentage has improved each of the last seven years (56.7 percent this season), doesn’t need much offensive inspiration from MJ or an animated film anyway. James dropped a career-high 61 points on the Bobcats in March.
The 10 year-old Charlotte team enters the postseason for only the second time in franchise history. The inexperienced Bobcats will rely on leading scorer and rebounder Al Jefferson (21.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg), as the 6-foot-10 center anchors the Bobcats low post game. The explosive playmaker Kemba Walker (17.7 ppg, 6.1 apg) will go toe-to-toe with Miami floor general Mario Chalmers. It should be a good point guard duel.
Jefferson and Walker will help the Bobcats snag a game from the Heat, so no sweep here. But Miami’s experience and all-around game will be too much for Charlotte.
Prediction: Miami in 5
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
Basketball aside, how many camera shots will we get of rapper-turned Raptors ambassador Drake during this series? That might be easier to predict than the outcome of this series! Guards Kyle Lowry (17.9 ppg, 7.4 apg) and DeMar DeRozan (22.7 ppg) will be the Nets focus, but they can’t neglect Toronto’s third option, Terrence Ross. The forward has offensive spurts that are hard to contain. Just ask the Clippers who were unable to stop Ross from scoring 51 points against them in January.
After a yucky first half, Brooklyn set out to turn it all around as veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally adjusted to their roles in BK and the team shared scoring duties. This season, 10 different Nets players scored over 20 points in a game, tied for the second-most in the league. Defensively, the Nets are forcing 15 turnovers a game, so the Raptors must protect the ball.
This one will go down to the wire. But the Nets are better defensively, and when they are locked in, they win.
Prediction: Brooklyn in 7
Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
The Bulls lost their star guard Derrick Rose to a knee injury for the second straight season and traded away forward Luol Deng to free up cap space. And yet with those holes in the lineup, Chicago still thrived to a four seed. Joakim Noah, whose offensive and defensive do-it all nature is tough to stop, helped engineer the Bulls’s playoff push. With a double-double average (12.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg) and ability to find the open man (team-leading 5.4 apg), Noah is not letting his Bulls back down to anyone.
The Wizards may not have an exact answer to Noah, but Bradley Beal’s breakout season (17.1 ppg) gives the Wizards a slight edge in the backcourt with All-Star point guard John Wall (16.4 ppg, 8.4 apg). That alone won’t catapult a young Wizards squad, which hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2008, to the semi-finals.
The Bulls have enough fight in them to get past the first round without Rose, just as they did last season when they edged the Nets in seven games last year.
Prediction: Bulls in 6
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)
The Spurs are constantly called old. Tim Duncan is 37, Manu Ginobili is 36, and Tony Parker is 31. But these guys can still win, propelling the Spurs to the best record in the league this season, 62-20. There’s a lot of basketball mileage on their bodies, but their longtime chemistry, unselfish play, and experience will help them drive far into the playoffs.
The Mavericks are led by an older guy, too: 35-year-old Dirk Nowitzki (21.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who helped the team win a championship in 2011. Nowitzki gets some scoring relief when Monta Ellis puts up buckets (16.5 ppg). Jose Calderon provides a hot hand behind the arc, shooting nearly 50 percent of his treys. There’s only one team that has a better three-point shooting percentage than the Mavericks’s 38.4 percent this season, and that’s the Spurs (39.7).
In this intra-state rivalry, where three-pointers will reign, the seasoned Spurs will cruise.
Prediction: Spurs in 4
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
OKC is healthy and ready for a Finals return, but they have to go through Memphis again (for the third time in the last four postseasons). With the zippy-dribble-drive energy of guard Russell Westbrook, who missed most of last year’s postseason due to a knee injury that hindered him this season too, shot blocker Serge Ibaka (2.7 bpg), and the 2013-14 NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant (32 ppg), it’s hard to even imagine OKC not making it to the semifinals.
But Memphis can. The Grizzlies slipped out of playoff contention early this season, but found themselves eking back in behind the improved offensive efforts of underrated point guard Mike Conley (17.1 ppg, up three points from last season) and his effective pock-and-roll. It’ll be fun to see him and Westbrook faceoff during this series.
Conley will lead the charge with big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to grit and grind and test the Thunder. But OKC will shoot its way to the next round.
Prediction: Thunder in 7
Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
This will be the most exciting series of the first round. The tandem of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin going to the hole against outside shot makers Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will make for an unforgettable series.
Griffin has been superb this season. The power forward is making more free throws, so he’s more comfortable drawing contact and getting the charity stripe and has shown he push the ball down court to facilitate plays. Oh, and his jumper has improved too (he’s not just a dunker). Chris Paul, who missed 18 games due to a separated shoulder, continues to prove he’s the best point guard in the league (his 10.7 apg was tops in the NBA). For Golden State, Curry unleashes threes effortlessly. When he’s not knocking down a trey, Thompson is (the Warriors 38 percent three-point shooting is ranked fourth). Warriors defensive specialist Andre Iguodala will be tasked to slow down Paul, but it will be far from easy.
Golden State will have to play small ball as 7-foot center Andrew Bogut nurses a broken rib. Look for the L.A. to take advantage of that.
Prediction: Clippers in 7
Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)
When it comes to points and rebounds per game, the Rockets and Trail Blazers are quite similar. Portland tops the league in boards (46.4 rpg), while Houston is not too far behind in fourth place (45.3 rpg). Houston’s scoring is second best in the NBA (107.7 ppg) and Portland’s point production is fourth-best (106.7).
Turnovers and points in the paint are where the two squads differ. Protecting the ball is problematic for Houston. The Rockets commit 16 turnovers a game, the second most in the league this season. Portland has the second fewest miscues per game (13.7). The dominating Dwight Howard helps the Rockets average 50.9 points in the lane, but Portland only musters up 37.7 points in the paint in each contest.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg), who pulled down 20 or more boards against the Rockets twice this season, will strap this team to his back for a Portland upset.
Prediction: Trailblazers in 7
What team do you think will win the 2014 NBA championship? Let us know in the comments section below!
Photos: Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated (James), John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated (James), Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images (Pacers/Hawks), Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images (Heat/Bobcats), Kathy Willens/AP Photo (Raptors/Nets), Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images (Bulls/Wizards), Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images (Spurs/Mavericks), Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo (Thunder/Grizzlies), Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images (Clippers/Warriors), Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images (Rockets/Trail Blazers)