NBA Playoffs 2016: The Real Beasts in The East
For the first time in a while, the Eastern Conference isn't being referred to as the (L)eastern Conference. And lets face it, the only real match up of interest in the West is the inevitable Warriors vs. Spurs. And while the majority of teams that made the playoffs in the West are hobbled teams that realistically missed their windows to the Finals a year or two ago, many of the teams in the East are up and coming with chances to gain valuable playoff experience while they iron out their young cores, or freshly rebooted teams. The competition is there, but whether the majority of the teams are capable of making it past the clear favorites, Cleveland, is another story. Lets see what we're working with for the first round:
The first round in the East should actually prove to be more entertaining than in the West. You have two clear power houses in Cleveland and Miami, a few tier two teams in Atlanta, Toronto, and Detroit that have the potential to knock off the favorites, and the remaining teams that are most likely still a few pieces away from getting out of the first round, I.E. Indiana, Charlotte, and Boston.
Cavaliers vs. Pistons
Despite a 2-0 start by the Cavaliers, I still see the Pistons closing the gap and making the series competitive. The Pistons are embracing their new coach in Stan Van Gundy (SVG), who from his days in Orlando with Dwight Howard, understands how to work with a team that is partially built around a dominant yet raw big man like Andre Drummond. Problem is, SVG is lacking consistent shooting on this team to take advantage of the ball movement his players have been keying in on. Along with this, the only player in his starting line up with significant playoff experience is Reggie Jackson. Thanks to the acquisition of Marcus Morris, the Pistons are also doing their best impression when it comes to the "Bad Boy" Pistons of days past.
Cleveland, following a very close game one due to the Pistons uncharacteristically hot three point shooting, gave Detroit their own taste of being bombed on after J.R. Smith and LeBron James went off in the 2nd and 3rd of game two. James is being his normal first round self - focus on facilitating, preserve the body and energy, get teammates going, and attack when necessary. Kyrie Irving looks to have regained his shot and confidence at just the right time of the season, having kept the Cavaliers in the game in that first quarter with his scoring. Kevin Love has been consistent on the boards which is not an easy thing to do against Andre Drummond and the reach of Tobias Harris. In addition to his resurgence in rebounding, Love's shooting range has been useful in pulling Drummond and others away from the basket. This is one of the main reasons Love was traded for in the first place - his ability to be a super-stretch big while also being dominant on boards.
So what does Detroit need to do to make this series as close in wins/losses as it has felt for 80% of the first two games? Stay aggressive in drawing fouls and continue to frustrate the Cavs on defense. Getting any combination of LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, and Kevin Love into foul trouble early on forces the use of Timofey Mozgov. I liked Mozgov, last season. He can't catch a basketball to save his life this season. There was a noticeable negative impact with him on the floor in the first half when it came to offensive execution and turnovers. This and physical defense could possibly frustrate the Cavs enough to force LeBron out of his comfort zone should his offensive options become too flustered. From there, you can only hope LeBron has to carry the offensive load and that his on and off again jump shot isn't falling. Offensively, Detroit's only real closers are their backcourt duo of Reggie and Kentavious. If they keep the games close and defense tight, they will have some chances to grind out a few wins on their home court.
Ultimately, the Cavaliers are too talented and the up and coming Pistons are too inexperienced. I'm expecting the series to end in five games.
Hawks vs. Celtics
I was really excited for this series. As a background admirer of the underdog tenacity Brad Stevens has brought out of his team, combined with his achievement in bringing together each of these role players to form a very tightly strung system, I thought that this team stood a decent chance of beating the Hawks. Unfortunately, the injury to Avery Bradley has severed one of those vital strings holding the team together. Boston was already squeezing out every bit of potential out of this group as it was, and lack anyone outside of Marcus Smart to really fill in that defensive void. Speaking of Smart, holy shit his offense has not come along gracefully since being drafted.
Boston's back court is proving to be exactly what many worried about throughout the season: limited. Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson are both solid role players, but that front court paired with both hobbled Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk just isn't going to cut it against Al Horford or once Paul Millsap starts to play to his capability. Boasting the second best defense in the league, Atlanta has succeeded in stifling Boston's offense by pressuring the fuck out of Isaiah Thomas on the perimeter and surrounding him with bodies in the paint. His normal options of passing it out to corner/perimeter three point threats like Olynyk, Bradley, and Crowder have been nearly all but eliminated. No other player, besides maybe Evan Turner, has the capability of creating offense outside of Isaiah. This has lead to what have been abysmal offensive showings, although to be fair, Atlanta has been wildly inconsistent here as well.
At the end of the series, Boston will have really won out. A plethora of solid role players, a young and talented coach, combined with a huge amount of incoming cap space as well as their treasure chest of draft picks leaves the Celtics with a bright future. This series will only reinforce this team with valuable playoff experience. Meanwhile, Atlanta will most likely lose Al Horford this summer and be in the same boat as some of those bloated corpses masquerading around as contenders out West. There aren't any moral victories in the post season though. Hawks in four.
Heat vs. Hornets
The Miami Heat took a very unexpected approach after finding out that their star, Chris Bosh, was done for the season. Pat Riley, the evil and savvy basketball genius that he is, did a quick retooling of the team by adding Joe Johnson and decided to experiment with both Johnson and Luol Deng acting as stretch forwards. To say the pace of this team quickened would be an understatement. With no Chris Bosh to anchor half court possessions, the Heat decided to let Goran Dragic run his fast paced full court transition offense. Coupled with the emergence of their young talent in three point sniper Josh Richardson and the well-rounded Justise Winslow, the Heat are the definition of firing on all cylinders right now. Oh yeah, and they have a fucking monster at the center position named Hassan Whiteside. So whatever their slashers or bombers miss, his behemoth-ass swallows up and finishes. The dude can easily put up an 18/13 performance without any plays being drawn for him. Whatever team signs him this off season is going to be extremely lucky as long as their coaching staff can keep his shit together. (Celtics? Eh? Eh?)
The Hornets have finally been enjoying a mild upswing, but just aren't at that second round point. They, like too many teams in the playoffs, are dealing with injuries. Batum, arguably their biggest acquisition this past off season, sprained his ankle in the second half of game two and most likely won't return. That could very well be the last nail in the coffin for this team. As a team ranked in the lower half in pace, they would have stood a better chance against the Miami Heat that started the season. Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson each had probably the best possible first half in game two, and while they managed to keep it close in the second quarter, still trailed heavily in the second half all the way through. Their shots may continue to fall and other players like Marvin Williams and Jeremy Lin may have breakout performances in front of the home crowd, but I don't see it making a difference unless the Heat get sloppy. I just don't see this team keeping up offensively with this postseason version of Miami, especially without Batum. Heat in four.
Raptors vs. Pacers
Lesbihonest. Raptors are already underachieving just being 1-1 in this series based off of their regular season success and lack of viable players in Indiana. Their backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan are picking a bad time to go into a shooting slump. Their front court is a mix of injured, old, and inconsistent. To elaborate, Demarre Carroll is coming off an injury that is clearly inhibiting his normal grand hustle. Luis Scola is old and decrepit, but thankfully Patrick Patterson has bounced back and played well as his background. Jonas Valanciunas' production has saved this team thus far from being down 0-2 with home court advantage, but he has always been an inconsistent player that is just now feasting on a front court that was slapped together with duct tape after the departure of 7'2 money-sponge Roy Hibbert. If there is one thing though that I've noticed about Jonas Valanciunas thus far in his career, it is that mentally he can be taken out of the game.
The teams are both structured a bit top heavy with their back courts carrying the brunt of most of their offense. That's why the Pacers were able to win game one, where their back court of George Hill and Monta Ellis were able to make shots which helped spread the defense for their star Paul George. At the same time, Toronto adapted perfectly in game two and banking on Jonas Valanciunas dominating against the front court of Indiana. Indiana has very few options for the PF and C positions, with Ian Mahinmi and Myles Turner being their only real viable options. Both are getting into foul trouble against Valanciunas, leaving it difficult for head coach Frank Vogel to adjust.
Indiana will need a couple of things to continue to stay competitive in this series. Paul George will hit his shots, with Demarre Carroll still being hindered from inury, but George Hill and CJ Miles need to hit threes. Good ball movement will give them these opportunities. Myles Turner's offensive range is their best bet at being able to draw Valanciunas out of the paint, but Turner as well as Mahinmi need to stay out of foul trouble here. On the flip side, getting Valanciunas into foul trouble via aggressive drives to the basket could help keep him in check. Basically, lure him out of the paint, and shut down his confidence. Frank Vogel may need to get more use out of Jordan Hill, who was a solid big man for them most of the season but did lose minutes to Myles Turner due to his great early play for a rookie. Ball movement, defense, and staying out of foul trouble are the keys here.
Should Toronto's back court start clicking again and Valanciunas keeps up his production, it is most likely game over. But I'm going to play Devil's advocate with this one and hope for a back and forth series. Whateva, Pacers in seven. Fuck it.
After all of that, all I really want to see is the Cavaliers against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The drama, the story appeal, the uncertainty - I mean come on. LeBron James attempting to amend his promise of bringing a championship to his home state, while going up against the team he left them for and won championships for. Against his close friend Dwayne Wade, who will be exuding effort in one of his final chances to secure another ring at the twilight of his prime. I can already see Luol Deng throwing everything he has at LeBron in attempt to shut him down like he would try so many times in Chicago. After a season where the Warriors beat the Bull's record in wins, Kobe retired, the Rockets essentially imploded, Boston surpassed expectations, Portland defied the odds of making the playoffs after losing four out of their five previous starters, the Spurs managed to reload for the 725th time, Paul George bounced back from a potential career ending injury to lead his team to the playoffs, and the emergence of game-changing rookies like Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Emmanul Mudiay, Myles Turner, Justise Winslow, Devin Booker and many others...
Are you not entertained?