The NBA’s Greatest First Round Ever has ended, which is a bit of a shame, but the idea that half the participants in the Greatest First Round Ever are still active should keep you keen on taking in the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs. This is where the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie prepare you for what you’re about to see.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
If it feels like a bit of a bummer that one of these two championship-caliber teams has to go out in the second round, then turn that glass into something half-brimmed half-full, partner.
The Clippers should win this series. The team often plays bigger than the sum of its parts, which is something you can’t quite say for Oklahoma City. Los Angeles may have needed seven games to down the Golden State Warriors in the first round, but GSW matched up well with the Clippers, the teams truly don’t like each other, and it can’t be easy to take four games in seven tries while your owner is being banned from the league after admitting to saying terrible things on an audiotape heard by millions.
The Thunder, meanwhile, still seem like a work in progress. They still seem like a system away, with a wrinkly playbook that hasn’t appeared to have added pages in years. The team still boasts the best player in the Western Conference playoff bracket, and point guard Russell Westbrook definitely righted his particular ship in OKC’s Game 7 win over the formidable Memphis Grizzlies, but nothing about this outfit seems reliable. The team made the NBA Finals in 2012 and probably should have had a fighting chance at defending that Western crown had Westbrook not injured himself last spring, but this still looks like the NBA’s most talented patchwork outfit at times.
This is where the Clippers, all veteran-laden and Ubuntu-familiar, would appear to step in.
Coach Doc Rivers’ crew is less reliant on star guard Chris Paul to dominate games this time around, with Blake Griffin pairing excellent footwork with his own cerebral takes on which avenue to explore once the triple-threat position is aligned in his favor. Rivers even managed to make contributors out of Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu, before the latter went down with injury, while expertly placing reserve guards Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison in the roles that suit them best. DeAndre Jordan might get lost defensively from time to time hovering around OKC’s basic screen-and-roll sets, but that won’t dissuade him from being the best rebounder in this series. And J.J. Redick is just start to hit the home stretch of his season.
The nagging issue? Kevin Durant is this league’s MVP. And the Thunder could still take this series with their all-around stud mostly working by his lonesome.
That wouldn’t be a preferred run. The Thunder, as with all teams, are at their best with misdirection feints drawing eyes elsewhere, and Durant steps into something special that was previously unseen. But Oklahoma City does truly have enough to win this series with Durant and Westbrook going at things alone. Especially if Griffin gets caught up in his own mastery, unable to choose between his fabulous offensive options. And especially if the wear and tear of a long season, once again, limits Chris Paul as April turns into May.
Because of the potential seven-game term and space to breathe, this could come down to a coaching duel, which would bode well for Los Angeles – in spite of Rivers’ admitted fatigue in the face of the hardest first-round series any NBA head coach has ever had to work through. Scott Brooks absolutely has to come up with something these Clippers haven’t seen before, and he cannot force Durant and Westbrook into saving this series on their own. There has to be a surprise, somewhere. There has to be a Thunder wrinkle that we’ve never taken in.
It’s a cruel turnaround, after Saturday’s Game 7 showings, but this is how the league works. The winner of this series will be the one that will show its opponent something it has never gazed upon, in working order. That’s how these things usually work out in May.
Prediction: Clippers in 6.
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.
Can the Clippers' wings provide enough perimeter firepower?
The Clippers and Thunder played four times this season. In the two games Los Angeles won, the Clips' wing collective -- Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Darren Collison and Jared Dudley -- combined for 122 total points. In the two losses, that group managed just 56.
On one hand: Yes, congratulations to me for being brilliant enough to figure out that getting a bunch of points from your complementary players is better than not having that happen. I'll be waiting by the phone for my MacArthur Genius Grant. On the other, though, that secondary production is critical in a series where the top-billed stars have so much on their plates, and figure to go a long way toward canceling one another out.
After seven games of dealing with Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and his perhaps-still-ailing hamstring must now deal with Russell Westbrook, fresh off a 27-point, 16-assist, 10-rebound triple-double in a Game 7 win. That would seem really unfair if it wasn't for the pesky fact Westbrook, after seven games of dealing with the forever-better-than-you-think Mike Conley, must now deal with Paul, who didn't seem too hobbled en route to 22 points with 14 assists and four steals against just two turnovers in the Clips' own Game 7 victory. Kevin Durant will be happy to finally be rid of Tony Allen and set his sights on a Clippers team against whom he averaged 32.5 points and eight assists per game this season, but he'll face another agitating defender -- hello, Matt Barnes -- back-stopped by an improved L.A. interior group anchored by long-armed shot-changer DeAndre Jordan.
If the likely MVP cools back down after a red-hot close to OKC's win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Blake Griffin could seize the reins as the single most productive offensive force in this series. The Oklahoma City native and former Sooners star averaged just under 25-10-5 on 49.3 percent shooting against the Thunder this season, and proved at multiple points during the first-round victory over the Golden State Warriors – or, rather, reinforced it, after proving it during the regular season – that he has become a force to reckon with as a scorer and facilitator in the post. It's lucky for Scott Brooks, then, that the Thunder have somebody capable of reckoning with Blake down there. His name is Serge Ibaka. He held Griffin to 40 percent shooting this year, and he helped limit Blake to a bummerific 4-for-20 mark in the post during four regular-season meetings. (Also, they have beef.)
The more shots the Clippers' wings can knock down from the perimeter, the more room Paul and Griffin will have to operate in the pick-and-roll, and that Paul will have when probing the defense with the dribble, and that Griffin will have when looking to orchestrate out of the post, whether for himself or others. The more pressure the Clippers' wings can put on the Oklahoma City defense, the more likely OKC will need to rely on wing stopper Thabo Sefolosha -- reduced to a DNP-CD late in the Grizzlies series due to his offensive impotence -- in lineups that could lower the Thunder's offensive ceiling.
Most importantly, though, the more offense and options the Clippers' wings can provide, the more likely it is this series moves from "can our best guys be better than your best guys" to "who's going to do the best job of mixing lineups, leveraging mismatches and making adjustments on the fly," a fight in which you'd have to make Doc Rivers a prohibitive favorite over Brooks. I believe the Clippers need the likes of Crawford, Redick, Barnes and Collison to be better, more often, than the likes of Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Derek Fisher, because I'm not sure I believe Griffin, CP3 and Jordan can be better, more often, than Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. I'm really, really excited to find out if I'm wrong.
Prediction: Thunder in 7.
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.
No matter how teams succeed on the court, the NBA thrives as a global organization based on its personalities. By that standard, this series figures to be the most exciting of the second round. The Thunder boast the league’s MVP in Kevin Durant and a volatile, massively exciting second star in Russell Westbrook, with both players at apparent turning points in how the public views their careers and futures. The Clippers are in the midst of franchise-wide upheaval (that could spread to the rest of the league). Head coach Doc Rivers appears to be juggling the ethical challenges of his situation with his responsibilities as a leader. On the court, Chris Paul has what looks like the most talented teammates of his career and his best shot at reaching the NBA Finals. Blake Griffin has come into his own as a star. DeAndre Jordan is coming off a near-dominant series. There’s a lot here.
The question, ultimately, is if all these elements come together in this particular matchup to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts. On a basic level, players like Durant and Paul will rise to the occasion at least a handful of times even on their worst days. They’re too good not to.
The utterly fantastic first round of the playoffs, however, has set the bar so high that we must be wary of declaring this series a classic before it even starts. What looks great on paper might not play out so amazingly in reality. We should proceed with hope but not certainty.
Rating: 9 Religious Experiences Out of 10
Prediction: Thunder in 7.