We’ve seen it all year. Talented Western Conference teams making the grueling charge to the playoffs, bloodying each other along the way while the two Eastern Conference frontrunners played leapfrog to decide who would end up with the first and second seeds.
For a little perspective, the ninth seeded Phoenix Suns would have been the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Now entering the second round, these playoffs are telling the same story.
Despite the apparent weakness of the Eastern Conference contenders, with Miami serving as the obvious exception, there is still fun to be had watching these playoff matchups.
Indiana Pacers vs Washington Wizards
Let’s get this one out of the way. For a solid three months, we have seen the Pacers go from apparent world-beaters to complete dysfunction. The Pacers were built on the basis of having a core of five guys who play really well together. Watching them now, that simply isn’t the case. Shooting guard Lance Stephenson and small forward Paul George did not space the floor or shoot the ball well in the first game.
Center Roy Hibbert has continued his struggles, playing less than twenty minutes after committing five personal fouls without posting a single rebound or point. After going to seven games with the eighth seed Atlanta Hawks, the Pacers will be lucky to go seven with the Wizards if they lose tonight.
The Wizards look strong coming off their six-game series with the Chicago Bulls. John Wall and Bradley Beal look confident; together, they will be one of the most talented backcourts in the league for years to come. Small forward Trevor Ariza brings championship experience to the roster.
It’s hard to tell if they are for real or are just very good, as they have had the good fortune of playing the offensively challenged Bulls and these slumping Pacers.
Miami Heat vs. Brooklyn Nets
The Heat have the most extreme on/off switch of any team in the league. After losing six of their last eight games heading into the postseason, their struggles are long behind them after sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats.
Dwyane Wade is well rested after playing just three games in all of April, and LeBron James continues to carry the superhuman burden of doing everything and anything the Heat need to win. They are the prohibitive favorite to come out of the East. Brooklyn could sure have used the rest Miami enjoyed. Going to seven games with the Raptors was not best course of action for Deron Williams’ ankles or Paul Pierce’s aging body. Despite winning all four of their matchups against Miami during the regular season, there are serious questions about how much Brooklyn has left in the tank. For any chance at winning this series, they will have to avoid a game seven in Miami.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Portland Trailblazers
San Antonio seemed like the Spurs of old in their first game against Portland, as ball movement had their shooters firing on all cylinders. It’s hard to say anything new about the core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich. They are seemingly ageless and will continue to prove everyone wrong, so it’s safer to stop picking against them. Houston was easier to guard for Portland, since the ball tended to stick in Dwight Howard of James Harden’s hands for the majority of most possessions. Houston’s defensive scheme also suited the Blazers as they avoided switching and had no answer for power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. We’ll see if this young team with the potential for offensive explosions can slow the Spurs’ attacks for long enough to steal a game.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers
This is the marquis matchup of the playoffs. Recently named 2013-14 regular season MVP Kevin Durant against the pick and roll hurricane that is Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The Clippers looked dominant in the first matchup, but there is no question that Oklahoma City will rebound. It is statistically impossible for Paul to go eight for nine from three-point range again, so the game should be closer. With that said, the Clippers have everything they need to win: outside shooting in J.J. Reddick and Jamal Crawford, interior defense from DeAndre Jordan and an offensive spark plug off the bench in Darren Collison. Matt Barnes provides perimeter defense and mental toughness, and Paul makes it all come together. The Clippers are dangerous. The real question lies in the supporting cast for OKC. While Serge Ibaka is a solid third option, starters Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins are not offensive threats. Coach Scott Brooks experimented with a smaller lineup, playing Durant at the four, Ibaka at the five and a mixture of Caron Butler, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher at the two and three spots, but it was too little too late. Both of these teams are battle tested and hungry to keep their hopes for a title alive.