The NBA Playoffs Start For Real On Saturday Night

The first round of the NBA playoffs has been mostly ho-hum. That’s not entirely surprising, given that favorites in this league hold serve at a rate that can’t said of their NHL counterparts. The one notable exception has been the incredibly compelling battle between the Spurs and Clippers.
That one comes to a head tonight with a Game 7 at the Staples Center (8 PM ET, TNT) and the other seven series have all concluded. It’s entirely reasonable to say then, that this postseason begins for real tonight.
I’ve been able to watch five of the six Spurs-Clippers games and two things seem fairly evident. The first is that Los Angeles has progressed to the point of being the better team. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin they have the two players most able to take over at a moment’s notice, as both did in a Game 6 road win that extended the series.
The second thing though is that it’s not by much, and San Antonio’s superior veteran savvy has enabled them to steal a couple games they shouldn’t have had, in Games 2 & 5 in Los Angeles.

Because of that savvy, and the ability the Clippers still have to beat themselves at inopportune moments, this Game 7 is more compelling than most. Quite often, homecourt advantage is decisive in NBA Game 7s. But with the road team already having four wins in this series, you really can’t say that.
Furthermore, San Antonio’s veteran poise almost seems to work against them at home–they don’t seem to thrive on the crowd the way younger, more impressionable teams do. That’s why I wasn’t all that surprised they missed the close-out chance in Game 6. But that poise is invaluable on the road.
Remember last year’s NBA Finals? After two games it seemed like Miami had the edge on San Antonio. They Heat had stolen one of the first two games on the road and might have won both had it not been for LeBron’s cramps in Game 1. But the Spurs went on the road, tuned out the distractions and dominated the Heat two straight, setting the stage for another blowout back at home in Game 5.
I certainly don’t expect the Spurs to win in a blowout tonight–in fact, I’m not sure I expect them to win at all. What I do think is that homecourt isn’t the be-all, end-all in this series the way it is so often in the NBA and it’s added to the drama.
I’m convinced these are the two best teams in the NBA. The Clippers were my preseason pick to win the championship. The only reason I wasn’t sure about the Spurs was that I wanted to see what their health looked like come playoff time. They’re healthy, both teams finished the regular season on a roll and have now played up to expectations in this first-round series.
In a certain sense, it’s disappointing we couldn’t see this matchup later in the playoffs, but if nothing else, it’s livened up an otherwise pedestrian first round. I can’t wait to watch it finish tonight. Winner will end up pouring champagne at the end of June.
Here’s a look at how the other seven teams advanced to the second round…
Atlanta over Brooklyn in 6: The fact the Hawks got pushed this far by the worst team in the playoffs is concerning and skeptics of Atlanta (which include me) could take it as validation that they aren’t going anywhere. But before reaching that conclusion remember the 2008 Boston Celtics faced similar doubts–it was the first year of the Big Three, with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and none had won anything in the playoffs.
Ironically, it was Atlanta, then the worst playoff team themselves, that pushed Boston all the way to Game 7. But the Celtics won that series and they ultimately won the championship. In this series, Atlanta played consistently good defense and forward DeMarre Carroll was the best player over the course of the six games.
Washington over Toronto in 4: Speaking of Pierce, now he’s the ultimate in battle-tested veteran and he got the young Washington team off and running. Pierce drilled 20 in an overtime road win to start the series and they a couple dagger treys to seal the deal in Game 3, that all but clinched the series. Washington’s brilliant young guards, John Wall and Bradley Beal, were up and down offensively, but they were consistently strong on the defensive side, locking up Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Washington also controlled the interior with Marcin Gortat, Nene and Drew Gooden off the bench. The Washington basketball team had a long stretch of poor play, going 24-28 to end the season, but this team was my preseason choice to win the Eastern Conference and they finally look like it again.
Chicago over Milwaukee in 6: If you ever doubted how much the Bulls need Derrick Rose–and how much they can do when he’s healthy–this series should put an end to it. Rose played well, even electric at times in four games, and Chicago won each time. Rose either played poorly or just shot poorly twice, and Chicago lost both.
There’s certainly more to the team than Rose–Jimmy Butler was explosive offensively, and Mike Dunleavy lit it up from behind the arc in the record-setting 54-point win in Game 6, but Rose is what it’s all about.
Cleveland over Boston in 4: The mainstream media will tell you that the Cavs are all about LeBron and Kyrie. And in this case, the simple storyline is the truth. Cleveland’s defense was often spotty, Kevin Love came and went (before going permanently due to a dislocated shoulder in Game 4) and the young Celtics, the team I follow, consistently hung around. But LeBron or Kyrie, and more often than not, both, put up big numbers and were just too much.
Golden State over New Orleans in 4: First off, compliments to the young Pelicans star Anthony Davis, whose 35 points in the first game set the tone for a great individual series, scoring and rebounding. But the Warriors just had too much. Steph Curry showed why he’s the presumptive NBA by scoring 79 points in two road games, including a dramatic rally to win Game 3 in overtime. Backcourt mate Klay Thompson was almost as prolific.
But what’s most worth noting is that even with Davis attacking the glass, Golden State on the rebounding battle in every game. Draymond Green was the best rebounder and Andrew Bogut not far behind. If the Warriors are going to follow up their 67-15 regular season record with an NBA championship, that needs to continue.
Memphis beats Portland in 5: The Grizzlies have been one of the league’s best defensive teams in recent years and that was on full display in this series. The Blazers are heavily dependent on Lamarcus Aldridge and while he got his points, Memphis forced him into 37-for-104 shooting over the course of the five games.
In fairness, Aldridge played through an injury and risked his health just prior to hitting the free agent market. So full credit to him for effort and guts, but the Grizzlies play too much D and Marc Gasol had big games in the crucial Game 3 road win that all but sealed the series and the Game 5 home win that made it official.
Houston beats Dallas in 5: Dwight Howard was at his best in Games 2 & 3, the games that basically won the series, as the Rockets took a 3-0 series lead. Howard had 38 rebounds in those two games and then he went for 19 more in the clinching Game 5. James Harden got his points early in the series, but with inefficient shooting. Harden heated up towards the end of the series and had 28 points in the close-out win.
Houston is ultimately a team like Cleveland–they’re about the two stars and while subordinate players are going to be more important going forward, the H & H boys are more than enough to win a series against a Dallas team disintegrating with age and dissension.
The matchups in the second round will be Atlanta-Washington, Cleveland-Chicago, Memphis-Golden State, with Houston awaiting the LA Clippers or San Antonio. Second round games start Sunday afternoon and we’ll be back tomorrow morning with some brief thoughts on each series and a look at the betting lines for each.