With the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs in the books, here’s a preview and prediction for all four matchups in the conference semifinals, which begin Monday night:
1 San Antonio Spurs vs. 5 Portland Trailblazers
Regular season series: Tied 2-2
Frontcourt edge: Even.
Youth vs. experience: 28-year-old forward LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 29.8 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game in the Blazers’ opening-round series win over the Houston Rockets, but he’ll face arguably the best power forward of all time in four-time NBA champion Tim Duncan, who shot 58 percent from the field in the Spurs’ first-round series victory against the Dallas Mavericks.
Backcourt edge: Even.
Youth vs. experience part II: guards Tony Parker (31 years old; 19.9 ppg and 4.7 assists per game in Round 1) and Manu Ginobili (36; 17.7 ppg in Round 1) led the Spurs in scoring against Dallas. They will face young, dangerous Portland guards Damian Lillard (23 years old; 25.5 ppg and 6.7 apg in Round 1) and Wesley Matthews (27; 15.3 ppg in Round 1).
Coaching edge: Spurs.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs to four NBA championships since taking over the team in 1996. Portland coach Terry Stotts helped lead the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA championship as an assistant coach, but has never made a deep playoff run as head coach.
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
Portland has been on a roll since Aldridge’s return from a back injury late in the regular season, but San Antonio has a massive experience edge – and with a league-best 30-11 regular-season road record, the Spurs have proven they can thrive in raucous environments like Portland’s Moda Center.
2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 3 Los Angeles Clippers
Regular season series: Tied 2-2
Frontcourt edge: Thunder.
OKC has the likely 2013-14 NBA MVP, forward Kevin Durant, who led all Western Conference players with 29.9 ppg in the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers counter with forward Blake Griffin (23.3 ppg in Round 1 against the Golden State Warriors) and center DeAndre Jordan (12.1 ppg, 11.2 rpg in Round 1), but OKC’s regular-season rebounding margin of +3.8 was the best in the NBA.
Backcourt edge: Clippers.
A pair of star point guards – LA’s Chris Paul and OKC’s Russell Westbrook – will likely cancel each other out. That gives the advantage to the Clips, as guards Jordan Crawford and J.J. Redick combined for 31 ppg in the first round.
Coaching edge: Clippers.
LA coach Doc Rivers and OKC coach Scott Brooks have both been to the NBA Finals, but only Rivers has won a championship (with the Boston Celtics in 2008).
Prediction: Thunder in 5.
Even with their coaching edge, the Clippers have yet to prove they can make a deep playoff run in the Paul-Griffin era. Despite Durant’s struggles, the Thunder averaged 102 points in their first-round series win over the Memphis Grizzlies, the West’s No. 1 regular-season defensive team. Durant and Westbrook should be able to light up the Clippers, which allowed 101 ppg – 6.4 more than Memphis did – during the regular season.
1 Indiana Pacers vs. 5 Washington Wizards
Regular season series: 2-1 Pacers
Frontcourt edge: Pacers.
Led by forward Paul George (23.9 ppg, 10.7 rpg in Round 1 vs. the Atlanta Hawks), Indiana was tops in the Eastern Conference in rebounding margin (+3.5) in the regular season; the Wizards finished 18th in that category. In the first round, Pacers’ shooting guard Lance Stephenson averaged nearly as many rpg (8.9) as did Wizards’ center and former Phoenix Sun Marcin Gortat (9.6).
Backcourt edge: Wizards.
Guard Bradley Beal averaged nearly 20 ppg and shot almost 46% from 3-point range in the Wizards’ five-game opening-round win over the Chicago Bulls. In fact, the Wizards were No. 1 in the East from beyond the arc during the regular season (38%), while the Pacers were just 17th in the NBA in that category (35.7%). Stephenson and guard George Hill both struggled from 3-point range in Round 1.
Coaching edge: Pacers.
2013-14 marks the first time in his seven seasons as head coach that the Wizards’ Randy Wittman led a team to the playoffs. Indiana’s Frank Vogel has led the Pacers to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons as head coach, including an Eastern Conference Finals appearance last year.
Prediction: Wizards in 6.
The Pacers had the best record in the East in 2013-14, but they went just 12-13 in the last two months of the regular season. Washington went 14-10 during that stretch and has won 8 of 9 games overall, including the playoffs. Beal will guide streaking Washington past a slumping Indiana team that had to rally to avoid a first-round exit to the No. 8 seed Hawks.
2 Miami Heat vs. 6 Brooklyn Nets
Regular season series: 4-0 Nets
Frontcourt edge: Heat.
Forward and two-time defending league MVP LeBron James averaged 30.0 ppg (a league high) and 8.0 rpg, and center Chris Bosh contributed 14.5 ppg and 5.3 rpg in a first-round sweep of the Charlotte Bobcats. Nets forwards Paul Pierce (13.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg in Round 1 vs. the Toronto Raptors) and Kevin Garnett (8.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg in Round 1) are not the stars they used to be.
Backcourt edge: Nets.
Brooklyn guard Deron Williams struggled from the field in Round 1 (41% overall, 29% from 3-point range), but still managed 5.6 apg and 1.4 steals per game, while guard Joe Johnson led the Nets with 21.9 ppg on 52% shooting. Miami guard Dwyane Wade averaged 19 ppg in the regular season and 17.5 ppg in Round 1 of the postseason, but no other Miami guard averages double figures.
Coaching edge: Heat.
Miami wins this one by default, as coach Erik Spoelstra has two NBA championships in his back pocket thanks to LeBron. Jason Kidd led the Nets to a 44-38 record in his first season as head coach.
Prediction: Heat in 5.
In the 1992-93 season, Michael Jordan and the two-time defending champion Bulls went (for their standards) a disappointing 57-25 to earn the No. 2 playoff seed in the East. They came alive when the playoffs began and clinched a third straight title after defeating the Suns in the NBA Finals. In the 2013-14 season, the two-time defending champion Heat similarly went 54-28 and finished second in the East – but following their first-round sweep, they seem to have finally kicked it into high gear. Despite Brooklyn’s sweep of Miami in the regular season, look for the Heat – much like the 1992-93 Bulls – to roll to the conference finals.