The NBA postseason is upon us and it should be a great one. The Western Conference has three can’t-miss first-round series, while the elite teams in the East look to get by some of the new faces in the playoffs.
For teams like San Antonio, Miami, Oklahoma City and Brooklyn, the most important key to the first round is to stay healthy. San Antonio and Brooklyn have veteran rosters and will need the extra rest to stay healthy throughout the playoffs. Miami will need to keep Dwyane Wade healthy and Oklahoma City hopes to have Russell Westbrook for the duration of the playoffs this season, unlike last postseason.
For each of the teams that advanced to the playoffs, fatigue will play a big part in who survived and advances throughout these next couple of months. But it won’t be the only factor. Here, I’m breaking down the key to all eight first-round series.
*** *** ***
Dallas vs. San Antonio
Key to the series: Mavericks’ perimeter defense
The Spurs finished the regular season with the NBA’s best record yet again this season. Head coach Gregg Popovich proved he is a basketball genius, recording the best record in the league while playing Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili less than 30 minutes per game.
The Spurs’ bench is deeper and more productive this season, making San Antonio the favorite in the West. The Dallas Mavericks can expect a heavy dose of the Spurs Big Three throughout this series, and Shawn Marion and Devin Harris will have to play exceptional defense in the series to give Dallas a chance.
The Mavericks’ perimeter defense has been an issue against the Spurs, allowing them to shoot 43.3 percent from three-point range in the season series. The Mavericks must amp up their defense if they want to have a chance in the series. If they don’t, Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Marco Belinelli will have a field day from the outside. San Antonio swept the regular-season series and we should expect the same in the first round of the playoffs. The Spurs have too much depth and too much experience to be upset by the Mavericks.
Portland vs. Houston
Key to the series: Turnovers
This may be the most entertaining series of the first round, especially if you like to see scoring. This series will feature two teams that are ranked in the top-five on offense and top-three in three-point attempts. The Rockets and Blazers are built similarly, both having a talented young guard (James Harden, Damian Lillard) with an anchor in the middle of the paint in Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
However, the most important key in this series will be the turnover differential. Both teams play an up-tempo style but are total opposites when handling the ball. The Blazers take care of the ball extremely well on offense and don’t give away possessions, ranking third in turnover percentage. The Rockets, on the other hand, rank 28th in turnover percentage, constantly turning the ball over and playing careless on offense. Both of these teams will score and execute on offense, but the team that protects the ball better will win the series.
Memphis vs. Oklahoma City
Key to the series: Setting the pace of the game
For Memphis, slowing down the game and keeping all possessions in the half-court is crucial for them in this series. Memphis isn’t the type of team that likes to get out and run, but rather pound the ball into the post and let their two big men, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, go to work. The Grizzlies want to force Oklahoma City to run their half-court offense to avoid Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant getting out in transition for easy baskets. The Grizzlies defend the three-point line very well and will try and force Kevin Durant to work inside against Memphis’ big men to get his points.
For Oklahoma City, they want to run, run and run against Memphis. Fast-break points will limit the effectiveness of Gasol and Randolph on the defensive end. The Thunder must win the battle on the glass and avoid second-chance opportunities for the Grizzlies. Memphis is 33-13 since the return of Marc Gasol and has been one of the NBA’s best teams down the stretch of the regular season. Last postseason, Gasol averaged 19.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game against the Thunder, when Memphis beat them in the second round. Oklahoma City must find a way to shut him down if they want to get out of this series alive.
Golden State vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Key to the series: The Warriors bench without Andrew Bogut
With Andrew Bogut missing the playoffs due to broken ribs, the Golden State Warriors will have to play a lot smaller against the size of the Los Angeles Clippers. Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green will have to make up for Bogut’s second-ranked defensive rating. Barnes was an impact player in the postseason last year but has struggled this season on offense. David Lee will have to play center for Bogut, making the Warriors low-post defense very vulnerable. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala will have to be lights out from the perimeter in this series.
For the Clippers, their offense should be run through Blake Griffin. Golden State has no one who can cover Griffin down low and he should be able to dominate on the offensive end of the floor for L.A.
The only concern for the Clippers is on the defensive end. With the Warriors forced to go small, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin will have to play defense out on the perimeter, as Golden State will spread the floor with their small lineup. Jordan playing too far away from the basket makes him a liability and a non-factor. If the Warriors can make their shots, the Clippers may have to go small to match-up better against Golden State.
Charlotte vs. Miami
Key to the series: Al Jefferson
For the Bobcats to have any chance of winning a game or two in this series, Al Jefferson will have to have similar results to the game he had against Miami where he recorded 38 points and 19 rebounds. Unfortunately, LeBron James had 61 points that night and the Bobcats lost. Jefferson has had a great year, averaging 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game and is a huge reason the Bobcats have made the playoffs for the second time in franchise history. The Heat struggle with effective big men and Jefferson possesses a big threat for Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen. For the Heat, the key to this series is simple: stay healthy.
Brooklyn vs. Toronto
Key to series: Brooklyn’s bench production
The turnaround for the Brooklyn Nets started when Jason Kidd altered the starting lineup. Shaun Livingston was a catalyst for Brooklyn in the New Year and resulted in the Nets being one of the best teams in the East since January. Brooklyn has dealt with many injuries to their star players and the bench has come in and played great basketball for Jason Kidd in his first year as head coach.
In this first round against Toronto, they will need to continue to do the same. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are old and battling injuries this late in the season. Andray Blatche, Mason Plumlee, Marcus Thornton and Andrei Kirilenko will need to continue to play effective minutes if Brooklyn wants to advance to the second round and meet with Miami, who they have beaten four times this season.
Chicago vs. Washington
Key to series: Chicago’s offense
Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls are known for their stifling, physical defense that drives teams crazy. The Bulls are anchored by their leader Joakim Noah, who is nasty, mean and driven to bring the city of Chicago a championship. The Bulls are first in points allowed per game, only allowing 91 points per game. However, if the Bulls want to advance to the second round they need to get better production on offense.
The Bulls are last in the league in points per game, scoring only 93.7 per contest. D.J. Augustin is Chicago’s leading scorer but a matchup with John Wall doesn’t work in his favor. Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy will have to be better on offense if Chicago wants to move on to the second round.
For Washington, Bradley Beal and John Wall will try and duplicate what Steph Curry and Klay Thompson did in their first career playoff series a year ago. Washington will have to be more physical than the Bulls to win this series, and I just don’t see that happening.
Atlanta Hawks vs. Indiana Pacers
Key to the series: Roy Hibbert
The play of Roy Hibbert may determine the outcome of this postseason for the Indiana Pacers. Hibbert was dominant in last year’s playoffs against both the Knicks and the Heat and will need to get back to that form for Indiana. Hibbert is in the worst slump of his career, shooting 29.3 percent over the last 13 games and hasn’t been effective on the boards like he was earlier in the year. Atlanta spreads the floor and will try to take Hibbert away from the basket. In the four games against Atlanta this season, he averaged season-lows of 21.7 minutes and only five points, and shot 28.1 percent. That will need to change if Indiana wants to escape this series and close out the Hawks quickly.
What do you think?
Follow Dan on Twitter at @D_Ingham5.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.