Through one and a half rounds, it’s been the NBA’s postseason of the shorthanded contender.
Kelly Olynyk dislocated Kevin Love’s shoulder. John Wall fractured several bones in his hand. Chris Paul has missed multiple games with a hamstring injury suffered during what might become his legacy-defining game, a tremendous 27-point effort in game seven of the Clippers’ first round against the San Antonio Spurs.
Through the obvious disappointment of missing some of the game’s best performers on the biggest stage, the second round of the NBA playoffs has been a spectacular showcase of teams simply battling.
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Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Chicago Bulls
I love LeBron James more than most people I actually know. He’s unselfish, incredibly gifted and over the years has become a classy winner and beloved teammate and worthy role model on and off the court.
But there are limits to what LeBron can do at this point. With Kevin Love out for the remainder of the playoffs, J.R. Smith’s suspension for a sucker punch to Jae Crowder in their first round series against the Celtics and an ailing Kyrie Irving struggling to move with the fluidity and athleticism that usually defines his game, it’s been an uphill battle for LeBron and the Cavaliers.
In particular, Love’s absence has been a killer. Pick and rolls with LeBron, Kyrie and Love are nearly unstoppable. Love’s three-point shooting is a key to the offense that the Cavs have developed. Without his shooting keeping bigger defenders out of the paint, there’s very little room to do work down low for the heavy hitters in the Cleveland offense.
The Bulls have done an incredible job containing Kyrie and LeBron this series, mostly due to the physicality of their play. Pau Gasol is a less-than-stellar defender at this point, but Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler are absolute studs on defense, and Tom Thibodeau has done a great job making LeBron’s job harder all series.
With that said, sometimes there’s nothing you can do. The Cavs learned that in game three when Derrick Rose hit an improbably banked three-pointer at the buzzer to give them a 2-1 series lead. The Bulls tasted their own medicine when LeBron demanded the ball with 1.5 seconds left in game four and hit a fade-away long two-pointer to earn a tie in the series.
My prediction: It’s nearly impossible to predict at this point, but my money is on the Cavs in six. Don’t bet against The King. [Ed. Note: This prediction was made before Thursday night’s game.]
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Atlanta Hawks vs. Washington Wizards
I’m not certain, but I think Randy Wittman may have hustled the entire league. For an entire regular season, Wittman curated an offense that most closely resembled a clogged toilet. Dribble down the floor, pass to the center, a little bit of off-ball movement and then take a long two-pointer. It was horrible to watch and yielded fairly dismal results.
In the playoffs, the Wizards have been moving the ball, shooting three-pointers and have seemed to unlock a next level in their play.
Interestingly enough, the Hawks followed a semi-opposite trajectory. Their offense was a well-oiled machine during the regular season, raining threes and taking the league by storm. In the postseason, the threes haven’t been falling, even from sharpshooter Kyle Korver. This isn’t a coincidence, since teams have been keying in on Korver and not allowing him any room to shoot. Being unable to punish teams from three has hurt Atlanta tremendously.
The Hawks lost two games to one of the worst eight-seeds in recent history, the Brooklyn Nets, in the first round, and have looked like a shell of their regular-season selves.
Despite this, with Washington’s John Wall limited because of injuries, it’s increasingly unlikely that the Wizards will be able to win the series. Neither team has looked particularly good in the series, but the Hawks are a better all-around team when the Wizards are missing their all-star point guard.
My prediction: Hawks in seven.
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Golden State Warriors vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The Warriors were a historically great team this season. They won 67 games and blitzed teams with a phenomenal offense and great defense to back it up.
On the flip side, this may be the best Grizzlies team Memphis has ever seen. They play incredibly hard on the defensive end in an attempt to make up for their offensive deficiencies.
Coming into the series, fans and basketball writers alike didn’t give the Grizzlies much of a chance. With the potent offensive firepower of Golden State and their strong defense, it seemed unlikely Memphis would be able to outscore the Warriors in more than one game of the series.
Then the Grizzlies came out in the second and third games of the series and absolutely ruined the Warriors.
Tony Allen, of First Team All-Defense fame, is a wrecking ball on the defensive end and completely eliminated Klay Thompson from the equation. Marc Gasol was borderline unstoppable on offense and the Warriors just didn’t have the answers.
In game four, Golden State found the answers in exploiting a single matchup.
Head coach Steve Kerr put Andrew Bogut on Tony Allen. Bogut hung back in the paint, allowing Golden State to double team Memphis’ big men and basically daring Allen to beat them on the offensive end.
His limited offensive game made him a liability on that end, and once Memphis fell behind he couldn’t be on the floor because of how much he hurt them offensively. It was a masterstroke by a budding young coach and probably flipped the series in Golden State’s favor.
My prediction: Warriors in six.
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Los Angeles Clippers vs. Houston Rockets
This series is over. Despite the confounding effort in game five, the Rockets have looked uninspired and have basically given up on the defensive end. Meanwhile, the Clippers look as good as they’ve ever looked.
The main piece to the Clippers’ dominance has been Blake Griffin. He’s been spectacular and unstoppable on both ends. With Paul’s injury, he played a sort of “point forward” position most reminiscent of LeBron James of the past. He’s distributing the ball, shooting midrange jumpers and getting to the rim at will.
The Clippers’ defense has shut down James Harden, and it’s looking like the lights are about to go out on an otherwise great Rockets season.
My prediction: Clippers in six. [Ed. Note: This prediction was made before Thursday night’s game.]