It’s never too early to begin thinking about the playoffs.
Sure, the regular season has been great so far, if you’re ignoring that one of the conferences currently has three teams with a winning record, but that doesn’t mean we can’t already begin thinking about the potential the playoffs have in store for us. A lot can happen in those seven games. It can make or break a franchise, sending one into the vaults of the elite and the other into a downward spiral that may result in the breakup of the team. It can also make or break a player, essentially putting their entire legacy on the line if that player’s influence on the team is that great.
Seven games is enough for disdain and frustration to grow to uncontrollable levels. If you were to play a rival 48 minutes per night for up to two weeks, chances are that you, too, would end up finding some faults in the opposition. That only worsens if you’re on the losing end.
Not only can seven games create a rift between yourself and your opponent, but also between you and your teammates. These series have performed a great service in weeding out the players that don’t belong and don’t want to belong.
Many quality teams have been broken up because of their inability to beat seven games, resulting in a do-over on the outlook of the franchise.
It’s what a player’s entire career comes down to really. If a player can’t beat seven games, he’ll never been regarded as one of the best. Only those who conquer and showcase their fortitude and ability to withstand pressure from all aspects of the game, from their teammates, front office, media and fan expectations, are recognized later on as the elite.
An entire player’s career? The outlook of a franchise? This is why we love the playoffs. Not just for the entertainment value, but because of the ensuing result for both teams. With teams so quick to change their course, the playoffs have never been more significant.
While we wait another four months for the season that matters to begin, we take a look at five dream matchups we hope to see.
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The series that we are most likely to see, on account of the quality of the East, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are destined to meet in the postseason for a third consecutive year.
The Heat, sans Chris Bosh, topped the Pacers in six games in the 2012 semifinals behind enormous efforts from Dwyane Wade, scoring 41 in the Game 6 clincher, and LeBron James, dropping 40 points and 19 rebounds in a critical Game 4 win.
Indiana decided to change their strategy last year in their Eastern Conference Finals matchup. After effectively denying Roy Hibbert the previous year, Miami had no answer on either side of the ball against the 7-2 center, allowing him to average a double-double over the series that extended seven games. Miami wound up taking Game 7 by 19 points, in a game where Paul George was limited to seven points on nine shots, but the Heat came a LeBron layup at the buzzer away from failing to reach the NBA Finals for a third consecutive time.
The Pacers have played as well as they have in the past three seasons. Paul George is playing at an MVP pace, Roy Hibbert is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Pacers are off to an NBA-best 27-6.
They also enter the season with a significantly improved bench, replacing the likes of D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough with C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, although Watson has yet to find his touch, shooting below 40 percent this season. They also got back Danny Granger from injuries that have plagued him the past year-and-a-half.
One of their wins and one of their losses both came at the hands of the Heat in close contests. In the first game of the four-game regular season series, Indiana defeated Miami 90-84, keeping each member of the Big Three under 20 points for the first time in their time together. Hibbert made all the difference on offense, meanwhile, scoring 24 points on 16 shots and committing only two fouls.
However, Miami exacted revenge with the game back home, winning 97-94 behind a 32-point effort from Dwyane Wade and a 24-point effort from LeBron James.
The greatest benefactor for the Heat turned out to be getting Hibbert into foul trouble. Playing only 23 minutes, recording five fouls and taking only three shots, Hibbert didn’t have close to the same influence he had in the previous meeting between the two teams.
Miami held back by their own futile three-point shooting, shooting below 30 percent in both contests despite getting plenty of open looks against the league’s top defense, in terms of efficiency.
Indiana has made it a purpose this year to gun for the Heat. Just as the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics have done in previous years, they treat Miami differently from other teams, exerting a far greater effort and carrying a vendetta against the opponent that beat them in the playoffs in previous seasons. Plus, the Pacers believe that they have been the better team. They still claim to have been the superior squad last year.
I’d say the 27-6 record and the league’s top defense is enough to show the NBA, specifically the Heat, that Indiana has never been more serious about making a title run. They’re going to attempt a year-long boast of being the league’s best team, starting off with this hot start to the regular season and ending with the first title in franchise history.
The key to a series between these two teams will come down to Hibbert, the league’s top post defender, allowing opponents to shoot 41 percent at the rim and sending back 2.7 shots per game. If they have him on the floor and getting the benefit of the verticality rule, the Pacers are keeping the Heat from doing what they want to do, which is scoring in the paint.
The Heat currently rank fifth in the league in points in the paint per game. They need that dribble penetration in the paint not only to score those points near the basket, but to also open up the floor and get open looks for shooters.
With Hibbert on the floor, that becomes a significant problem for Miami. However, if he’s in foul trouble, as he was in Miami’s win over Indiana this year, the Heat can get into the paint at will and score 50 points in the paint against a team that only yields 35 of those points per game.
Naturally, Indiana leads the league in points in the paint given up. They have the past two years.
This series is a must-see for two reasons. One, it’s a matchup of two of the league’s top defenses, and it’s always intriguing to see how the Heat attempt to overcome the presence of Roy Hibbert. Two, these teams don’t particularly like each other too much, with Indiana carrying two years of Heat-induced losses on its shoulders and the Heat having to listen to the Pacers believing they’re a better team.
Surprisingly, this is the only series out East worth seeing. I’m positive a majority of the NBA’s fanbase would rather skip the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs in favor of a best-of-21 between the Heat and Pacers.
When was the last time you saw an NBA Finals as masterfully played as last year’s between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs?
It was the first time since 2010 an NBA Finals had gone seven games, the previous one being the Lakers’ victory over Boston, and only the fourth since 1990. It was an evenly-matched series between two teams that pride themselves on strong defense, while also delivering some of the best ball movement and shooting performances you’ll see on offense. Both teams finished with effective field goal percentages above 50 percent and boasted offensive ratings of 109 points scored per 100 possessions.
Not only did it feature LeBron James delivering a Finals MVP performance, averaging 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per, capped off by a 37-point effort in Game 7, but also a turn-back-the-clock series from Tim Duncan, who led his team in scoring (18.9 PPG) and rebounding (12.1 RPG).
San Antonio also received significant boosts from unlikely sources in Danny Green, who set the Finals record for three-pointers with 27 makes, and Kawhi Leonard, who played excellent defense on LeBron and averaged a strong 11.1 boards per game.
Unfortunately for those two, they’ll end up being remembered for their lowest points. Of Green’s 27 three-pointers, 25 of those came in the first five games as he shot 2-of-11 in the final two games. Leonard, as we all remember, missed a potential championship-clinching free throw that led to Ray Allen‘s legendary three-pointer in the right corner.
The Heat also had elite shooting totals, with Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers all shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Battier had the most memorable night, though, with his 6-of-9 performance in Game 7.
Allen and Tony Parker went shot-for-shot on incredible makes. While Parker made a ridiculous bank shot to win Game 1 and a step-back three-pointer in Game 6, Allen made all of the long-distance, low-percentage shots by San Antonio null and void when he drained arguably the most significant shot in Finals history.
All I’m asking is that we can get seven more games of this, because this is the way basketball was meant to be played.
The Heat wound up dishing out 148 assists on their 262 makes, while committing only 83 turnovers, to the Spurs 129 assists on 251 makes, while committing 95 turnovers. As a result of such elite ball movement, both teams ended up shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.
How shocking that the Heat and Spurs are currently both in the top three for the league’s best assist ratio, and are second and fourth, respectively, in offensive efficiency. The only other team with as good an assist ratio is the Atlanta Hawks, coached by Mike Budenholzer, a former assistant of San Antonio’s.
Perhaps the greatest part of the Finals was that there was no bad blood between either team. There was a mutual respect, especially among coaches, and there was not a single moment of the game considered too physical that needed the officials to step in. For the purists of the game who wish that teams would go back to fighting and hating each other, it’s tough to ask for that when the Heat and Spurs just played one of the best NBA Finals in the past decade and did so without any altercation. In fact, the only display of anger I could recall was from Tim Duncan, who was mad at himself and visually frustrated for seemingly the first time in his Hall-of-Fame career after missing an easy layup near the end of Game 7.
Can’t we just get one more shot at redemption for Duncan? And while we’re being greedy, can’t that shot at redemption come against the Miami Heat? A team that currently possesses the league’s greatest player and is on the cusp of becoming the first team to win three consecutive titles since the Kobe-Shaq Lakers.
Also, the Spurs, along with the Pacers, may be the only squads capable of beating the Heat in a seven-game series. San Antonio’s ball movement and Indiana’s interior presences… I’m not asking for too much, right?
If we ask for seven games between two teams, they either have to play the game well, as the Heat and Spurs did last year, or have an honest, genuine dislike for each other.
Can you guess which category the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers fall into?
Still need some help?
How about one more? This is from the same game.
This series is so heated that even Golden State coach Mark Jackson had been involved in arguments with Blake Griffin.
Let’s not forget about what Blake has said in the past about the Warriors:
“If you look at it, I didn’t do anything, and I got thrown out of the game. It all boils down to they (the referees) fell for it. To me, that’s cowardly. That’s cowardly basketball.”
How can we also not forget that Matt Barnes is going to be a part of this series? Barnes, who may be the league’s top instigator, has already come a few inches away from having his face sent into another dimension by Serge Ibaka. If he isn’t scared of Ibaka, then he certainly isn’t worried about an Andrew Bogut, who he claims, “knows better than to talk it off the court.”
By the way, these are incidents from just two games this year. I haven’t even mentioned David Lee telling Blake Griffin to “stop flopping” last year.
As for the game itself, these are two of the best teams out West from an offensive and defensive standpoint. The Clippers rank sixth in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency, while the Warriors boast the league’s fourth-best defensive efficiency and, surprisingly, only the 11th-best offensive efficiency.
Any series featuring Stephen Curry is going to be worth watching, yet that may not even be the primary reason as to why we’ll end up tuning in for a series between the Clippers and Warriors. As much as we want to see great basketball being played, we also love to see altercations, especially those in the playoffs. These teams have only played each other twice thus far this season and show an overall disdain for each other. A seven-game series creates a lot of tension because of how much time you spend playing against one team, eventually growing frustrated and angry by a specific player’s demeanor or how they play.
We can understand why guys like David Lee and Andrew Bogut don’t care for Blake Griffin just as well as we understand why Griffin and Chris Paul aren’t planning on inviting Lee and Bogut to any barbecues anytime soon.
As far as rivalries go, at least ones that feature a genuine dislike between both sides, this may be the best the NBA has at the moment. A series between the Heat and Chicago Bulls may rival it, but that will lack the offensive intensity displayed by the Warriors and Clippers. Either way, this series is entertaining on many levels and it may well end up being the best of the 2014 postseason based on the potential of guys like Steph Curry and Chris Paul, to go along with the mutual disdain, if this series does in fact occur.
It seems as if any series involving the Golden State Warriors is going to carry over some resentment from the regular season:
My, what a coincidence that Andrew Bogut is at the center of every fight involving the Warriors this year.
But this series between the Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers isn’t about the altercations it may cause. This list isn’t completely low-brow and I’m not just a fiend for physical basketball, no matter how entertaining it makes these series. No, this series should be anticipated more for its potential on the offensive end, rather than its potential to double as an MMA event.
When it comes to shooting the ball, few teams do it better than the Blazers and Warriors. They are one-three, respectively, when it comes to three-point makes and are first and third, respectively, in overall three-point percentage. The Blazers, in fact, have the league’s top offensive efficiency, generating an absurd 110.1 points per 100 possessions.
The Blazers, currently the West’s No. 3 seed, have been greatly supported by the three-point shooting of Damian Lillard (44 percent on 7.2 attempts per), Wesley Matthews (43 percent on 6.1 attempts) and Nicolas Batum (37 percent on 5.6 attempts), while also receiving contributions from newcomers in Dorell Wright and Mo Williams. Wright and Williams lead a bench that formerly boasted Luke Babbitt, Meyers Leonard and Will Barton as its top contributors as recently as last year.
All of the shooting, and its accompanying success, has led to Portland ranking 29th in the league in points in the paint per game. While you may believe this to be an unsustainable to winning, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks also ranked 29th in the league in points in the paint.
It’s possible for Portland to win a title with their current playing style, but it is incredibly difficult.
Meanwhile, Golden State boasts arguably the league’s top pull-up shooter in Curry and arguably the best catch-and-shoot player in Klay Thompson. Curry is shooting 43 percent on nearly 11 pull-up jumpers per game and 38 percent on over five three-point pull-ups per game. Thompson is boasting a 45 percent conversion rate on nearly eight catch-and-shoot attempts per game.
While these two are at the top of their class in their respective comfort zones, they are not too far ahead of the Blazers’ own pull-up and catch-and-shoot masters, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews.
Lillard is shooting 44 percent overall and on three-pointers on his pull-up attempts, while Matthews is shootng 48 percent overall and on threes on his catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Among those who average at least 30 minutes per game, Matthews only trails Kyle Korver in catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage. Thompson trails Matthews by eight points.
As far as pull-up jumpers go, no player who averages at least 30 minutes per game has a better effective field goal percentage than Lillard, and that includes Stephen Curry.
Both teams have the interior presences on offense, Portland with LaMarcus Aldridge and Golden State with David Lee, to keep some of the attention away from the perimeter, leaving the two backcourts to do as they please from beyond the arc. They also have the strong defensive presences, Portland with Robin Lopez and Golden State with Andrew Bogut, to keep the opposition shooting from deep.
Outside of a series between the Heat and Spurs, this one may feature the grandest display of offense. Both squads are in the top eight in assist ratio and their shooting consistency, mainly from those backcourts that were previously discussed, can make this series one of the more memorable in recent playoff history.
The lone memory I have of this series from last year is what’s leading me to believe that a series between these two teams could be electric.
It’s not because of James Harden playing his former team or even how dynamic each team’s offense is, Houston ranking third in offensive efficiency and Oklahoma City ranking fifth. No, it’s the memory of Russell Westbrook‘s reaction to getting his knee run into by Patrick Beverley.
Immediately after the play transpired, one that caused Westbrook to miss the rest of Oklahoma City’s short-lived playoff run, the livid look on Russell’s face could’ve moved a mountain. He had the look of a player who was thinking, “I can’t believe my season is going to end because of this.”
Westbrook certainly isn’t exempt of having committed his own questionable plays, but he took exception to Beverley’s play after the timeout, evidenced by him slapping Patrick’s hand away later on in the first half.
There are few players in this league as dangerous as Westbrook. His speed allows him to get to the rim at will, which also allows him to get free shots on pull-ups, due to the defender having to back off in order to not allow a shot at the rim. Although Westbrook is currently struggling on drives, converting only 31 percent of his drives, he’ll have plenty of time to up that average once he returns. I’m a firm believer in the Law of Averages, which makes it incredibly difficult to believe that Westbrook is going to finish this season shooting 30 percent on drives.
He won’t return until after the All-Star break. There will be doubt of just how close to his pre-injury form he can get upon his return, but he didn’t show any signs of letting up before he underwent the surgery that’s going to keep him out mid-February.
Four days before his final game of 2013, Westbrook went off for 31 points on 13-of-22 shooting in a 13-point win against San Antonio. He followed that up with 27 points on 8-of-17 shooting in a loss to Toronto. His year ended with a triple-double, 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, in a 29-point win over New York.
This Thunder team has faced playoff disappointment every year since 2011 when they fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals. That was followed up by their five-game loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, which preceded their semifinals loss to Memphis last year. There’s plenty of motivation to go around this Thunder team, but no player will have it more than Westbrook, especially if he ends up being matched up against Beverley. Westbrook didn’t play the Rockets in the 25 games he played this year. He’ll most likely get his first shot on March 11th when Houston visits the Thunder.
Also of intrigue will be the Dwight Howard-Kendrick Perkins matchup. These two have a history of going up against each other, with Dwight’s Magic meeting up with Perkins’ Celtics in two postseason series, each going at least six games.
In 28 regular season contests against Perk, Howard is averaging 15.6 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with 12.7 boards per. In his first game against Perkins as a member of the Rockets, Howard was held to nine points on 4-of-13 shooting in only 25 minutes.
In his past three matchups with Perkins, Howard has been held below ten points. To be fair, though, two of those contests came with Dwight as a member of the Lakers, where his health throughout the year could have been brought into question.
Dwight has also had several impressive showings against Perkins, however. He dropped 33 points on 20 shots while still a member of the Magic in 2012, and a 24-point, 21-rebound outing back in 2009. Still, it’s tough to ignore that Dwight has been held to such totals as nine points on four shots in 37 minutes, five points on 1-on-7 shooting in 44 minutes, and 11 points on 12 shots in 38 minutes.
In 13 playoff games, however, Howard is decimating Perkins, averaging 18.9 points on 56 percent shooting to go along with 14.2 boards per game. Twice has Howard scored at least 30 on Perkins in the playoffs. His most recent playoff outing against Perkins featured him scoring 28 on 11-of-17 shooting, but this was back in 2010.
Who knows? Maybe Perkins will actually make himself useful this season? His PER of 6.57, good enough for 313th in the league out of 329 players, does leave something to be desired.
Which series are you most looking forward to?
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