The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) for the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason. Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test So we’re doing this again, eh? Oklahoma City and Memphis don’t have nearly the same enmity or respect or mixture of the two that the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers have, or the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat boast. There’s not a level of disgust there that will carry over into fisticuffs or even furrowed brows. These teams are meeting for the third postseason in four years, though, and we’d call this turn the rubber match if we didn’t think both outfits had a strong chance to hook up in 2015 or 2016 as well. The Thunder has been hot from the outset, even if the team hasn’t truly turned into a fully realized version of itself until the dawn of spring. Guard Russell Westbrook only recently returned to form, struggling in response to a torn meniscus suffered nearly a year ago in a playoff series against the Houston Rockets, and the two follow-up surgeries that the frightening injury necessitated. Westbrook, as is his custom even when he is healthy, marked his return with equal amounts brilliant and too-forced play in the bouts between operations, though his fulminations rarely took away from the Thunder’s chances at a win. Unless the team was on national TV, of course. Over the last month, though, Westbrook has been playing the finest basketball of his career. Just 25, he still notches an assist on 40 percent of the possessions he uses up, his rebounding has never been better, and though he’s tossing up more shots per minute than ever before, it’s hardly taken away from the work of his more-tenured teammate. Because Kevin Durant has come through with an MVP season. He came through with it without Russell, and with Russell both at his best and still-recovering worst when the two shared a court. He’s been the best player in the league this year, he’s helped drag the Thunder to the second-best record in the NBA with Westbrook gone for nearly half of his team’s games and former teammate James Harden working out of Houston, and he’ll rightfully take home the league’s MVP award sometime later this spring. It’s Houston that ticks Oklahoma City off most, not Memphis. The Grizzlies were the ones that ended OKC’s season last year with Westbrook on the sidelines, but Memphis didn’t exactly preen after downing a Thunder team working without its All-Star point guard, and Westbrook’s personal dartboard is likely filled with far more pictures of Houston guard Patrick Beverley (who caused Russell’s meniscus tear) than anyone else. That’s not to say Memphis doesn’t have Oklahoma City’s attention. The Grizzlies clawed their way into the playoff bracket in the last week of the regular season, working up a 33-13 record once Marc Gasol returned from an early season knee injury, slowing the pace along the way and turning in a stellar defensive effort. Other factors have aided in this return to form — Courtney Lee was a fantastic midseason acquisition, Mike Conley seems to get better game by game — but by and large this is the same Grizzlies crew, hoping to beat you in spite of the game plan that you think you’ve already sussed out. The problem here is that nobody has an answer for Durant, who ended his season with a brilliant 42-point, six-assist effort on Wednesday night . OKC is nearly a top-five team on both ends of the court in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency, and luring Durant into beating you with a singular effort — putting up huge points while the others struggle around him — is tougher than ever. The spacing and ball movement are improving, and while this may not be enough to topple last year’s NBA finalists later on in the postseason, it should be enough to gain revenge on the team that ended Oklahoma City’s season in 2013. They’ll have Westbrook this time around, though that’s only part of it. Durant is in the heat of a year for the ages, and the respect that Memphis has earned via its playoff series’ with the Thunder in 2011 and 2013 may hurt the Grizzlies as much as help. The Thunder knows what’s coming. That won’t keep them from bruising easily, though. Memphis doesn’t go down without a fight. Prediction: Thunder in six. Dan Devine's One Big Question Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over. What the hell are we about to see? No, seriously: The more I look at the matchups, the numbers and the recent history, the less of a bead I feel I have on what's about to happen. You can toss last year's second-round series thanks to the whole "no Russell Westbrook" thing. This season's first matchup came while Marc Gasol and Thabo Sefolosha were out of action, before the Jerryd Bayless-Courtney Lee deal that reshaped Memphis' wing rotation, and featured 32 minutes of pure uncut Jon Leuer. (He has played 69 minutes in the last five weeks. He's not likely to be a factor here.) Westbrook missed meeting No. 2, which saw the newly acquired Lee and Mike Conley roast the Thunder backcourt. Conley and Westbrook were absent for Part III, in which Lee and backup point guard Nick Calathes struggled against OKC's length and Serge Ibaka gained a measure of revenge on Zach Randolph for last year's Round 2 matchup. The season series finale was played without Kendrick Perkins (groin strain) and with Sefolosha leaving after just four minutes (ditto), and saw Mike Miller score 19 points in the fourth quarter (pretty weird) to fuel a Memphis rally that fell short because Kevin Durant scored 30 points after halftime (not that weird). Now, though, everybody — well, everybody except Quincy Pondexter , who we miss (and Buckets , who we miss DEARLY) — is back, and both teams seem as loaded as they've been in quite some time. Memphis has the third-best record in the NBA (33-13) since getting Gasol back from his MCL strain on Jan. 14, with OKC (31-14) right behind them. The Grizzlies enter the postseason having won five straight and 10 of their last 14 to fend off the Phoenix Suns and overtake the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 7 seed. They've basically been playing playoff basketball for four straight months, having to claw their way back from a 10-15 start, and they've got Gasol (averaging about 17 points, 8.5 rebounds , three assists, a steal and a block), Conley (about 17.5 points, six assists against two turnovers, three rebounds and 1.5 steals) and Randolph (about 19 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 assists ) all hitting their stride over their last 15 games. The Thunder had a curious end to the season, dropping games to the reeling Indiana Pacers and the injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans, and needing a game-saving dunk by Durant on the season's final night to knock off the Detroit Pistons and clinch second place. But the late-season record mattered less to Scott Brooks and company than successfully reintegrating the long-injured Perkins and Sefolosha back into the lineup and rediscovering their rhythm, and the latest signs seem promising. In 62 minutes of floor time over their last four regular-season appearances, the Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka-Perkins-Sefolosha starting five outscored opponents by just under 21 points per 100 possessions, a gigantic number. They scored at a clip that would rival the Los Angeles Clippers for the best mark in the NBA, while allowing fewer points per possession than the league-leading Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls. They're getting back to locking down the paint, disrupting passing lanes, recovering to shooters and clearing the glass, which allows for the likes of Durant and Westbrook (and, in second-unit lineups, potential X-factor Reggie Jackson) to take advantage of their athleticism and ram the ball down opponents' throats in transition. OKC ranks sixth in the league in fast-break points per game; Memphis, as you might expect based on their reliance on two interior behemoths, ranks 19th among 30 NBA teams in fast-break points allowed per game. Floor balance will be key for the Grizzlies, who have to force the Thunder to beat their set half-court defense (second-stingiest in the league since Gasol's return) as often as possible, and can't afford to give up easy buckets. Will Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger give Durant a variety of looks, rotating among Prince's length, Tony Allen's aggressive D, and the evidently forgotten James Johnson's length and aggressive D? Can Memphis keep things close enough throughout the first 43 minutes to bring their remarkable regular-season record in "clutch" time — 33-16 in games where the score was within five points in the final five minutes, outscoring opponents by a staggering 26.2 points per 100 possessions over 167 such minutes — to bear in the playoffs? Can all-of-a-sudden-iron-man Miller make OKC pay for packing the paint the way he did for the Miami Heat in the 2012 finals (and against the San Antonio Spurs last summer)? Will first-year coach Joerger be in over his head in a matchup with playoff veteran Brooks? Will Brooks' tendency toward sticking with unproductive lineups and making unimaginative offensive calls late in tight games give Memphis a chance to steal one a game at Chesapeake Energy Arena? Is Westbrook — who sure seems to be back to his old tricks, averaging 24 points, seven assists, six rebounds and two steals in just 29 minutes over his past 15 games — ready to show the playoff-watching world just what we missed after last year's meniscus tear? That's the problem with one big question; when you really think about it, it turns into an awful lot of little questions, and in the case of this particular series, I'm largely at a loss. So in the absence of more definitive data, I'll go with a gut feeling that also seems to make logical sense — when in doubt, pick the team with the nearly unstoppable scoring machine who's on a mission to take over the league. Even if it bums you out to say goodbye to such a fun Grizz team. Prediction: Thunder in 6. Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question. There are several ways we typically judge the quality of a playoff series: its length, the extent to which the teams’ styles complement each other, their past matchups, etc. By all these criteria, this series should deliver. The Grizzlies have rebounded from early difficulties and injuries to reestablish themselves as the tough-minded team they have been for several seasons, which suggests that they won’t easily bend to the will of the ostensible favorites. The Thunder also serve as a stylistic contrast to the Grizzlies, even if they’re not a pure finesse team. On top of all that, the Grizzlies ousted the top-seeded Thunder from the playoffs after Russell Westbrook went down in the previous series. It’s easy to predict that Westbrook will want to prove that he would have been a difference maker. More than all that, though, this series takes on special meaning because it comes after a truly special regular season from Kevin Durant. The OKC superstar was already acknowledged as one of the NBA’s two best players, but he elevated his game in virtually every conceivable manner and stands to collect his first MVP award in a few weeks. This postseason is not just an opportunity for the Thunder to re-enter the championship discussion, but a chance for Durant to prove that his regular season marks an ascendance to the same level (and/or above) as that of LeBron James. Other series may be better on a team-vs.-team basis, but Durant’s voyage through the playoffs looks like the most interesting storyline of the entire postseason. That journey starts here. Don’t miss it — you’ll either see a watershed moment in his career or a setback full of intrigue. Rating: 9 out of 10 Lil B hate-tweets Prediction: Thunder in six.
After nearly six full months and 82 games for each of the NBA's 30 teams, the regular season now gives way to the postseason. With no clear favorite, a massively competitive Western Conference, and two big rivals atop the Eastern Conference, this year's playoffs figure to be worth the wait. Without further ado, let's take a quick look at the first-round matchups, along with full schedules (all times Eastern and some quick analysis. (We'll publish in-depth previews for every series later this week.) WESTERN CONFERENCE No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33) Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at San Antonio, 1:00PM on TNT Game 2: Wednesday, April 23, at San Antonio, 8:00PM on NBA TV Game 3: Saturday, April 26, at Dallas, 4:30PM on TNT Game 4: Monday, April 28, at Dallas, 9:30PM on TNT Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at San Antonio, TBD Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Dallas, TBD Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at San Antonio, TBD The eternally effective Spurs bounced back from last June's heartbreaking NBA Finals loss to finish with the league's best record, due in large part to the strengths of head coach Gregg Popovich and the mainstay trio of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili. The Mavericks return to the playoffs after a one-year absence and boast Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis as offensive leaders. San Antonio swept the season series 4-0 and looks like the favorite this year, as well. No. 4 Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28) Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at Houston, 9:30PM on TNT Game 2: Wednesday, April 23, at Houston, 9:30PM on TNT Game 3: Friday, April 25, at Portland, 10:30PM on ESPN Game 4: Sunday, April 27, at Portland, 9:30PM on TNT Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at Houston, TBD Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Portland, TBD Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at Houston, TBD With All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden, plus a strong supporting cast that includes the multi-talented Chandler Parsons, the Rockets have a solid chance at representing the West in the NBA Finals. The Blazers cooled down after a scintillating start to the season, but All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard present a formidable challenge for any opponent. Expect a high-scoring series from two of the NBA's most efficient offenses.
This Los Angeles Lakers season was always going to be a trying one full of challenges, but the reality has been something akin to a worst-case scenario. L.A.'s most popular squad enters Wednesday night's season finale at the San Antonio Spurs with a 26-55 record, second-worst in the Western Conference and sixth-worst in the entire NBA. The franchise will have to consider many options this summer as they attempt to reload and return to relevance. The most bizarre aspect of this terrible season, though, has been the relative absence of Lakers icon Kobe Bryant. In his 18th season, Kobe managed to participate in only six games as he struggled to recover from a torn Achilles tendon and subsequent injuries. He has been a presence around the Lakers, but he hasn't been the sort of ever-present force that has made him the NBA's most popular active player around the world. It now appears that Bryant has ended his 2013-14 responsibilities with the Lakers a little earlier than originally intended. As reported by Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times , Kobe has left the country ahead of both the team's home finale at Staples Center and Wednesday's season finale: Bryant went to France with family members either Tuesday or Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times has learned. The Lakers conclude their season Wednesday night against the San Antonio Spurs. A team spokesman said he was unaware of the situation and referred a reporter to Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, who did not immediately return a phone call. Bryant has been in a surly mood since the team's fortunes started sagging, muttering under his breath at last month's team photo that he doesn't like associating with a team so many games under .500. [...] Bryant was supposed to address Lakers fans before the team's home finale Sunday but showed up at Staples Center near halftime because of a migraine headache, a Lakers spokesman said. Instead of Bryant, Nick Young grabbed a microphone before tip-off against Memphis and called Lakers fans "the best in the world." Shortly after this report surfaced, Bryant tweeted about what he plans on doing to this terrible season: S*** season. Flush it. Forget it #amnesia Next Season will be epic #blackout #bussfam — Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 16, 2014 These sort of actions might be controversial for any other player in the league, but Bryant's position with the Lakers is virtually without comparison. As the team's longtime star, Kobe has taken on near-mythic qualities for Lakers fans. If he chose to leave town a bit early, then it must have been the right call. It's not even as if he's acting out against the team — the tweet's references to the Buss family and improved fortunes next season speaks to his commitment to the Lakers. (Getting paid $48.5 million over the next two seasons probably doesn't hurt either.) That's not to say that the Lakers figure to be particularly happy about Kobe's actions. Teams expect players to honor their responsibilities, even when injured, and a player heading off to Europe before the season's close isn't a great look. Yet Kobe is not any other player, and the Lakers have often considered the team's needs to be synonymous with his own. That might seem like a misplacement of priorities, but it actually makes some sense. Given Bryant's standing with the franchise, his public image reflects upon that of the team. It behooves them to not make too big a deal out of his trip. And, really, it's probably in the Lakers' best interest to call as little attention to this season as possible. As Kobe says, it was a season best compared to excrement. Flush it — plunge if necessary — and let 2014-15 serve as the air freshener. - - - - - - - Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @FreemanEric Stay connected with Ball Don't Lie on Twitter @YahooBDL and "Like" BDL on Facebook for year-round NBA talk, jokes and more.
|Adrian Wojnarowski||Dallasin 7||The Spurs still have one last, great stand in them, but Dallas is too deep now. Dirk has never had so many late-game shotmakers surrounding him.|
|Kenny Smith||Dallasin 6||The Mavericks have home-court advantage, and that's all they'll need.|
|Johnny Ludden||Dallasin 7||This figures to be another savage fight between the I-35 rivals. Not having George Hill at full speed -- or at all -- is a big loss for the Spurs. The Spurs do have this going for them: Josh Howard can't beat them.|
|Marc J. Spears||Dallasin 7||The Spurs are a No. 7 seed, but they're also capable of reaching the NBA Finals. Unfortunately for them, the Mavs are deeper. Dirk Nowitzki will have a big series.|