It’s playoff time in the NBA and there is no season for sports fans than the one we are living in now. Major League baseball is under way and the National Hockey League has started their post season. Combined between hockey and basketball, there are 32 teams playing in 16 series for the right to move on in the bracket and get to their respective finals. It can get confusing with so many playoff games each night, so to help you sort through it all, here is your 2015 NBA Playoff preview.
#1 Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs. Brooklyn Nets (38-44)
The Atlanta Hawks jumped out to an early lead in the Eastern Conference race and by the All-Star break top seed seemed to be all wrapped up. They finished 7 games better than the 2nd seeded Cavs and 22 games better than their first round opponent, the 8th seeded Brooklyn Nets. They were the best team defensively of all playoff teams, and the third best offensively. In the regular reason they swept the Hawks, winning all four games by an impressive average of 17 points. Led offensively by Al Horford (15.2ppg), Jeff Teague (16ppg), Paul Milsap (16.7ppg) and Kyle Korver (49.2 3P%), the Hawks can score from all positions on the court.
The Nets have a very good center in Brooks Lopez who averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The 7-foot big man has needed some big playoff games to carry his career to the next level and there is no bigger moment than an upset of a #1 seed. 14-year NBA veteran Joe Johnson will enter his 8th straight post season and will face the team who he brought there six times between 2007-2011. Johnson has a tendency for big playoff games and has averaged over 17ppg in his 81 postseason starts. He has never been past the second round and will need the supporting cast to all play well to do so this year.
Atlanta led the Conference in home wins, with an impressive record of 35-6. The Brooklyn Nets were 19-22 on the road. Those two records alone should tell the preview of Games 1 and 2. Brooklyn will have to defend their home court next week in 3 and 4 to avoid being swept by the surging Hawks. It won’t be easy and they will have to defend all five positions for the entire 48-minutes.
Match up of Series
The Nets’ Deron Williams will face off with Jeff Teague in a match up of point guards. Teague had a great scoring season, shooting 46% from the field and averaging 7 assists to 3 turnovers. Williams averaged 6 assists to 2 turnovers. Both will score in this contest as neither will play great defense, but it might come down to which one can cause the most chaos and force bad passes to make timely steals. If it turns into a shootout between the two, Williams will not be able to keep up with Teague, so he must make it a chess match style game. He needs to outsmart his counterpart and force him to over think sets. If he does that, the Nets have a chance to slow down one of the best transition teams in the league.
Atlanta wins if
Atlanta wins this series if they continue to play their brand of basketball and spread the offense out through all five positions. The Nets are not good enough defensively to slow them down, let alone stop them, so the only way Atlanta looses if their shooters get cold. With all five starters averaging over 12 points and 46% from the field, the Hawks don’t miss often.
Brooklyn wins if
Brooklyn wins if Atlanta gets lost on the way to the Barclay’s Center and has to forfeit games 3 and 4. Other than that, Brooks Lopez, who has averaged 18.8 in his four regular season games against the Hawks, will have to play his best series of his career. He won’t have the usual rebound looks, as Atlanta misses less than any other team on the planet, so he will have to pull down every loose ball he sees. It is a major uphill battle for the Nets in this series, but winning the rebound battle is the first step in the fight.
#2 Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. #7 Boston Celtics (40-42)
The Boston Celtics front office traded away their big stars and while fans readied themselves for a rebuilding year, no one told Head Coach Brad Stevens he was suppose to loose and miss the playoffs. His team responded with a 23-12 record since the All-Star break, second best in the Eastern Conference. The best record in that time belongs to the red-hot Cleveland Cavilers who went 22-9. The two teams will meet in the first round of a series that on paper should be an easy sweep for LeBron James and company. Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder know that you don’t play games on paper and they proved it by turning a lost season into the 7th best record in the Conference. Without a superstar or league leader on the roster, the Celtics used hustle and heart to win games against contenders such as Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, Toronto (twice), Cleveland (twice) and Milwaukee. They also went 11-7 on the road in that stretch. It seems impossible for Stevens to get any more out of his team this season than he has, unless of course they pull of an upset and send LeBron James home in the opening round for the first time in his career.
On the other side of the court, the Cavilers spent the first half of the season with more questions than the SAT test. In typical James fashion, he turned his game up in the New Year and started dominating every defender he faced. He is peaking at the right time and Sunday he will step on the court for his 72nd playoff game as a Caviler, the first in five years after his extended spring break in Miami. Joined by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, James has this team playing great basketball at the right time.
The Cavs had 13 more wins than their foe this season but the series between the two ended tied at 2 wins apiece, with the Celtics winning two games in three days this past weekend. James only played three quarters the whole weekend.
.464 is the difference between Isaiah Thomas’ free throw percentage and former Celtic point guard Rajon Rondo. Having a point guard who can hit free throws at the end of the game completely changes the offensive look of a basketball team. Isaiah Thomas averaged 19 points and 5.4 assists in 21 games with the Celtics and for those numbers he was crowned this year’s NBA Sixth Man, given to the best player in the league that is not a starter.
Match up of series
The question for the Celtics isn’t who will cover the best scorer on the planet, but how they will do it. At times this season Marcus Smart has drawn the responsibility. Jae Crowder and Evan Turner will likely find their share of match ups with LeBron James as well. He is such a tough player to guard when he needs to be covered at the perimeter as well as down low. In the past three seasons, James’ three-point percentage has risen substantially in the playoffs. He has no problem carrying the ball over the mid line and jacking a three from well beyond the arc, but he is just as likely to slash to the hoop, which makes him so dangerous. Crowder will be the most physical and Smart the quickest of the three to chase him around, so it will be interesting to see how they play this match up.
Cleveland wins if:
Cleveland wins the series if their starters do their job. Since J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov arrived from mid-season trades, the starting five for Cleveland has averaged a +19.3 rating while on the court. The Celtics starting five has averaged -7.2. That is a massive difference of over 26 points. If the starters can build a big enough lead, then the Celtics bench, which has been key all season, will have too big of a hole to dig out of.
Boston wins if:
The Celtics are not an easy out for any team and they have beaten many playoff teams in the last few months. They have won their last six games, all against playoff teams and carry that momentum into the opening round. Sunday, James will be playing his first home playoff game in Cleveland since 2010, so I expect him to have the game of a lifetime. Game 2 will be the big one if the Celtics could steal a win in Ohio and come back to Boston even. If they can win game two, the TD Garden is a scary place for any team to visit and the home crowd has fueled Boston to some great performances this year. James has missed some big shots in his career when he’s had 20,000 screaming Celtics’ fans on him. The key will be the bench. Isaiah Thomas will need to play the best basketball of his life. He thrives on big moments and he will need to execute them as well. If they can hold on long enough to keep the game close at the start of the fourth quarter, Thomas could take over.
#3 Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs. #6 Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)
Less than two hours of I-94 drive time separate the two franchises between Wisconsin and Illinois. The Chicago Bulls won the season series against the Milwaukee Bucks 3-1, with all four of the games decided by 12 points or less. Derrick Rose played in only two of the games and finished with 7 assists and 4 turnovers in the first one and missed 12 of 13 shots in the second.
Jimmy Butler (20ppg) leads a Bulls team who averaged 100 points per game in the regular season. He really came alive this year, jumping his scoring average up seven points while increasing his minutes, three point percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds, assists and blocks to career highs. With Derrick Rose spending much time on the injury list, Butler was forced to carry the load offensively, which he did in a major way.
The Bucks won 15 games last year and turned it around to win 41 this season. They did this with a dedication to defense through Head Coach Jason Kidd. Throughout the season his team ranked in the top five in defensive efficiency. The problem hasn’t been on that end of the court, but rather when they have the ball. The Bucks consistently turned the ball over, relying on the defensive set to keep them in games. Offensively they have five players averaging over eleven points per game and are led by Michael Carter-Williams (14.6) and Khris Middleton (13.4).
Rebounding will be important as both teams averaged similar numbers on the boards. The Bucks are 24th in the league with 42 rebounds per contest while the Bulls are 3rd, averaging 45.7. Only 3.7 rebounds separate the two teams in their overall statistics, however in the three games that the Bulls defeated the Bucks this season, Chicago out rebounded them 155-128. In the one game Milwaukee won, they outrebounded the Bulls 48-40.
Match-up of the series
Derrick Rose left the final regular season game Wednesday with a sore knee. He is optimistic about returning to the line up for Game 1 and is stern that it will not affect his play. Rose is a scary player to watch as you always have your hand ready to cover your eyes every time he drives to the basket, hoping this isn’t his next big injury. If he is healthy, there are few better players, or scorers, in the league, however that has been a big “if” this season. Coach Kidd will send Michael Carter-Williams on the floor to match up with Rose. At 6’6”, he has the frame to cause Rose some trouble. His defensive game is nowhere near complete, but scoring the way he has lately, with 17 ppg this month, makes him a headache to guard. If Rose can stay healthy and keep it together, he has the ability to take over the match up and dominate the series. If he isn’t, Carter-Williams could be next in line.
Chicago wins if
Chicago wins this series if their veterans stay healthy. 2-time champion Pau Gasol enters his 10th post season where he averages 17.2 points and just under 10 rebounds per game. He has been great in the spotlight and now teams up with other veterans Joakim Noah (6 post seasons), Derrick Rose (4) and Taj Gibson (5) for their first playoff trip together. Health has been a question all season and while there is no doubting they can score and defend, they will need to stay upright to have any longevity in the playoffs. Gasol has dominated the Bucks this season, averaging 24.3 points in four games. If anyone loves this match up, it’s Gasol.
Milwaukee wins if
Milwaukee wins if Jason Kidd has a brilliant post season. He isn’t playing any more of course, but if he can get create a defensive plan that forces Chicago into uncomfortable shots, they have a good chance of winning this series. They cannot let Gasol get any type of rhythm in the post or Rose in the lane. They will need to spread Chicago’s offense out by clogging the middle and leaving less of an opportunity for Bulls rebounds. Offensively, Kidd will need to be creative with the screens he sets on Rose, forcing him to constantly move laterally to testing his knees on every possession. It wouldn’t hurt to attack Gasol and rack up his fouls early on either.
#4 Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs. #5 Washington Wizards (46-36)
The Toronto Raptors enter the playoffs having just completed the best regular season in franchise history. Kyle Lowry and company meet the Washington Wizards in the first round, a team they beat all three times during the regular season.
The Toronto Raptors are led offensively by DeMar DeRozan (20.1 ppg) and Kyle Lowry (17.8 ppg). As a team have the 4th most points per game in the NBA with 104. They started out with an exceptional record, but finished up 16-18 since the All-Star break. The Raptors will look to stay perfect against the Wizards this year and will rely on their scorers to do so. DeRozan scored 23 points and Louis Williams added 27 off the bench to lead them to their most recent win against Washington.
The Wizards, led by point guard John Wall, bring a unique offense to the series. In the past it was always a defensive mindset where teams could slow down Wall and win the game by letting the secondary players take the shots. This season is a lot different. Wall’s scoring average has dropped down to 17.5ppg but his assists jumped up to 10 per game. He has the NBA third best assist conversion rate at 46%. Now if a team slows down Wall’s momentum towards the basket, he can dish it off to Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce or Nene, knowing they have converted on these passes all season and are likely to score.
The Raptors have got to the free throw line 97 times in three games against the Wizards. They have converted 71 of them, which accounts for over 22% of their scoring. Toronto is the best team in the Eastern Conference from the line, making 79% of their attempts. Washington is ranked 21st in the league and averages 6 points less per game scored from the free-throw line.
Match-up of the series
Kyle Lowry vs. John Wall is the marquee match up of the entire first round. These two point guards can score and distribute as well as anyone. They both play a lot of minutes and the offense runs through them on every play. This match up, and potentially the series, will come down to whichever of the two make their possessions quality trips up the floor. Neither team is a run-and-gun offense, so their half court sets will need to be well thought out and prepared. Wall and Lowry are both smart ball handlers and rarely turn the ball over.
Toronto Wins if
Toronto wins this series if they play physical. They need to attack with drives and draw fouls, and when on defense they need to set double teams and force frustration on the Washington big men. If they do that and get to the line often, they win this series. Washington is a better rebounding team so they need to get Nene and Gortat in foul trouble. DeRozan is capable of taking over a game offensively, but the question remains if he can consistently do it in a 7-game series.
Washington Wins if
Washington wins this series if they get hot on offense. They get slowed down by fouls and cannot afford to do that this weekend. Constant shots, rebounds and second looks are how they will win this series. Last year in the playoffs Nene shot 55% from the field. Wall is playing at an all time high and he has Bradley Beal ready to slash to the hoop on every play. Toronto will be focused on guarding those three for the majority of the game, which should leave Mr. Clutch, Paul Pierce, open for looks. He thrives on these moments and there is no one in the series better suited for a big shot than Pierce. If he is on the floor in a close game, the Wizards are real contenders in this series.
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