The Playoffs: First Round – 2015

After 82 gruelling games, it comes down to this. The 2015 NBA playoffs are less than 48 hours away. It’s time to have a look at each series and break down which teams will advance.

Eastern Conference:

1 Atlanta Hawks – 8 Brooklyn Nets:

The Hawks have been ludicrous this season. Mike Budenholzer should be a runaway candidate for COY (coach of the year), he’s guided a roster devoid of any legitimate superstar to the first seed in the east. The Hawks amassed 60 wins, and Al Horford, who missed much of last season with several injuries, also deserves accolades for Atlanta’s rapid ascension.

But that would be a cruel summation of ’14-’15 Hawks, who had four players selected to this year’s All Star game. In essence, the Hawks have become the east’s manifestation of the San Antonio Spurs; a beautiful team to watch. Under the Budenholzer offense, the Hawks rack up 25.7 assists per game (according to Basketball Reference).

This will not be an easy task for Brooklyn, who limped into the playoffs off the back of Bojan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic’s 28 points secured the Nets the eighth seed (who defeated the Magic 101-88 in the final game of their regular season)

Prediction: This series doesn’t require a prediction. It won’t even be close. A starting five of Teague, Korver, Carroll, Millsap and Horford will dismantle the ageing Nets. They are every chance to complete a sweep. Atlanta in 4.

Paul Millsap (USA Today Sports)
Paul Millsap (USA Today Sports)

2 Cleveland Cavaliers – 7 Boston Celtics:

Brad Stevens is the feel good story of the year. He’s one of the youngest coaches in the league and he’s harnessed together a promising young roster. Suddenly Evan Turner is dropping triple doubles in a Westbrookesque fashion, Isaiah Thomas has been a revelation off the bench. After the Rondo trade, it was conceivable that Boston would look wholeheartedly towards the future, opting to tank the remainder of the season to enter the lottery.

Stevens was having none of that, the Celtics posted a 20-11 record after the All Star break and outpointed Miami and Indiana en route to a playoff berth. Whilst Boston’s ’14-’15 record of 40-42 seems unspectacular, this team is not to be taken lightly. They won seven of their last eight games (7-1 in April) and Jared Sullinger has made an early return from injury.

Of course, their opponent is nothing to sneeze at. LeBron James on his own is enough of a handful, but then there is Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavaliers are a deep team, extending beyond the big three. J.R. Smith converted 38% of his treys in the month of April on over nine attempts, and Timofey Mozgov provides Cleveland with exceptional rim protection.

Prediction: The Celtics are a nice story to come out of a season marred by injuries, but there’s no disguising the inevitable. LeBron will have his way and it’s hard to see how Boston can contain Cleveland’s expansive array of shooters. At best the Celtics will take a game at home, but perhaps that’s generous. Cleveland in 5.

3 Chicago Bulls – 6 Milwaukee Bucks:

Chicago will be feeling cautiously optimistic that they can take this series in less than seven games. Milwaukee is a much improved outfit under the reign of Jason Kidd, however there’s still a lot of improvement to be made. Common sense suggests that Chicago should not have any issues putting away the young Bucks, but they are one injury away from becoming underdogs. Derrick Rose has returned from surgery, he tore the meniscus in his right knee on February 24, the same injury he sustained last season.

Everyone wants to see Rose return to the force he once was, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that may never eventuate. He’s an exceptionally poor shooter, highlighted by his 28% clip from downtown this year. Although Pau Gasol has been a revelation on the low block for the Bulls, and Jimmy Butler has become an elite two way player, an injury to Rose could potentially derail Chicago’s post-season campaign.

Because of this, Milwaukee is a chance.

Prediction: Chicago should advance.However, this series is not as black and white as some have perceived it to be. In the end, Milwaukee’s lack of weapons and Chicago’s suffocating defense will most likely decide this series. Chicago in 6.

Pau Gasol will be big for the Bulls (USA Today Sports)

4 Toronto Raptors – 5 Washington Wizards:

The Toronto Raptors have been insipid lately. Truly insipid. Don’t let their 49 win season (a franchise record) deceive you; they were virtually a no show for the last third of the season. They posted a 13-16 record post All Star break and lost nine of ten games immediately after the All Star game. If not for the heroics of Lou Williams, who is a legitimate sixth man of the year candidate, Toronto could have flushed their hard work early in the season down the drain.

Luckily for Drake and his posse, the Raptors clinched the fourth seed.  Truth be told, this is the only series in the east that is truly hard to predict. Washington have had their moments, but they too suffered from an atrocious run of form later in the season (3-10 Feb record). John Wall enjoyed his finest season yet, averaging career highs in assists (10pg) and field goal percentage (44.5%).

Paul Pierce’s assessment of the Raptors was brutally honest, and may be the most entertaining revelation to come out of this matchup. Time will tell.

Prediction: It’s tough to ascertain who will come out on top in this one, but Toronto’s porous defense (101 points allowed per game, 19th) will cost them this series. Expect Paul Pierce to take it up a notch in the playoffs also. Washington in 7.

Western Conference: 

1 Golden State Warriors – 8 New Orleans Pelicans:

Chef Curry v The Brow. That’s what this series appears to be on first glance, but that would be selling both teams short. Klay Thompson is quite simply insane from behind the arc, and played himself back into form in the last week of the season (24ppg, 50% fg). Let’s not forget Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green, who are elite defensive players. Bogut provides the Warriors with elite rim protection, whilst Green’s versatility means Steve Kerr can run with smaller lineups on the floor.

The Warriors won 67 games. 67. Let that sink in for a moment. Surely Golden State cruise through the first round right? Wrong.

They have to get through this guy first.

Anthony Davis will give the Warriors fits (USA Today Sports)
Anthony Davis will give the Warriors fits (USA Today Sports)

The Pelicans have all the tools required to make this series very interesting. For all of Golden State’s regular season dominance, the playoffs are a different beast. Quite simply, Steve Kerr will have to find a way to slow Davis down, otherwise this series could be extended. The problem for Kerr is, he has been unable to.

Although the Warriors are an elite defensive team, Davis feasted on Bogut the last time these two teams met (29 pts, 10 rbds) and guided the Pelicans to an 103-100 win. What’s even more concerning for the dubs, is that the brow is coming off a monstrous performance against the Spurs. Gregg Popovich had no answer for Davis, who dropped in 31 points and hauled down 13 rebounds.

Even if the Warriors found a way to contain Davis, the Pelicans have weapons. Tyreke Evans is an exceptional player, in the month of April Evans dished out seven dimes and averaged 16 points a game. Factor in that Omer Asik is an elite defender in the paint, and Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson could go off at any time. It’s clear this team is dangerous.

Prediction: It will be a challenge, but Golden State will pull through. Davis will put the league on notice for next season. Warriors in 6.

2 Houston Rockets – 7 Dallas Mavericks:

This is the matchup in the west in which seeding means the least. It’s also full of intriguing narratives to keep an eye on: Can Harden win a series as the number one guy? Will Chandler Parsons get revenge? Daryl Morey v Mark Cuban. The list goes on.

The Rockets won their first division title in 20 years, mainly because James Harden put together one of the greatest individual seasons in recent times. The beard led Houston to 56 wins, which was good enough to finish second in the west, but this series is far from a sure bet.

It’s entirely dependant on which Houston team shows up, and more importantly, which James Harden shows up. If Harden is aggressive and looks for his shot early, Dallas faces the real possibility of being swept. Dwight Howard missed half the season with reoccurring knee issues, but he looks primed for an impactful playoff run.

Of course, we all know what happens when Harden gets the jitters in the playoffs (look no further than the Houston v Portland series last season) and it’s theoretical it happens again. Rajon Rondo is an elite perimeter defender and will push Harden every game. Dallas are nothing to scoff at, they won 50 games. Nowitzki is nearing the end of an illustrious career, but there’s still enough juice in the tank to make things interesting. Monta Ellis is the barometer, if he plays well and Harden misfires, Dallas can win.

Prediction: This series will be decided early. If Houston maintains its homecourt advantage after the first two games or heads to Dallas after splitting the pair, the Rockets will take the series. Don’t be surprised to see Houston come out firing in game one. Houston in 6.

Can Nowitzki wind back the clock? (USA Today Sports)
Can Nowitzki wind back the clock? (USA Today Sports)

3 Los Angeles Clippers – 6 San Antonio Spurs:

At the expense of trying to sound like a broken record, this series is one that holds little weight in regards to seeding. The San Antonio Spurs are on an absolute tear and there’s no reason to assume they are slowing down. The Clippers on the other hand, are an enigma. They are a potent regular season team, and Chris Paul deserves every placement he gets on MVP ballots. J.J. Redick is a sniper from long range, and Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are a two headed monster.

Yet for whatever reason, they are an underwhelming proposition in the playoffs. The Clippers have had their moments in the post-season, but have failed to progress past the second round since the acquisition of Chris Paul. Unfortunately for lob city, it looks like season ’14-’15 is headed for a similar fate. There’s just no rational way to theorise the Clippers winning this series. The Spurs are too good.

Manu Ginobli looks like he is on his last legs, but don’t be surprised to witness yet another productive campaign from him at the business end of the season. The trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard is going to be a handful for any team that faces them, and it should not be a surprise to see a western conference finals matchup of Golden State v San Antonio.

Prediction: The Spurs tore up the last two months of their schedule, going 19-4 to close out the regular season. The Clippers are a good team, and if they had faced Houston or Dallas they would have been every chance to advance. Spurs in 4.

4 Portland Trail Blazers – 5 Memphis Grizzlies:

Many refer to it as ‘o.9’.

The Lillard game winner. (USA Today Sports)
The Lillard game winner. (USA Today Sports)

It broke the back of the Houston Rockets on May 2nd, 2014. Lillard’s heroics catapulted the young guard to superstar status, and Portland won the series. Dame has been up to his old tricks this season, averaging career highs in points, rebounds and steals per game. His raised level of consistency was a major factor in securing the Trail Blazers the Northwest Division.

Unfortunately, Portland has suffered a string of unpalatable injuries this season, the latest being Nic Batum, who suffered a right knee contusion. Batum remains touch and go for the series opener against Memphis, and has been listed as probable. This is a tough one to pick, and has the potential to be the most brutal series from the west (and that’s saying something).

Both teams are walking wounded, and Memphis has been atrocious. Down the home stretch of the season, the Grizzlies spluttered their way to a .500 record over the final ten games. After sitting in the second seed for much of the season, they limped their way down the standings and eventually settled at fifth. Zach Randolph has been injured. Marc Gasol has been injured. Vince Carter has been injured. Injuries everywhere.

It may sound cliched, but the last team standing will win. One feels that LaMarcus Aldridge’s thumb injury is a ticking time bomb, and if he were to go down in this series, Portland can truly kiss their ’15 playoff campaign goodbye.

Prediction: Both teams are banged up, but the Matthews injury was truly crippling. Afflalo has been serviceable, but it was a huge loss for Terry Stotts. This really could go either way, but Memphis are healthier. Memphis in 7.

(Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference and ESPN unless otherwise stated)


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