If the regular-season was any indication, the 2016 NBA Playoffs will be incredibly entertaining. We got some rare parity in the East as the Heat, Hawks, Celtics and Hornets all finished with the same record. The West is still strong but very top-heavy because of the historic success of the Warriors and Spurs. But in the playoffs, anything is possible!
Here’s a look at each first-round series ranked by strength of the matchup, and a breakdown of each team.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers
Despite the discrepancy in their playoff seeding, the Pacers and Raptors are actually evenly-matched. Indiana averages 102.2 points while Toronto averages 102.5. The battle between Paul George and DeMar DeRozan will definitely be fun to watch. DeRozan and backcourt partner Kyle Lowry form one of the best one-two tandems in the league, so it will be interesting to see who else steps up for Indiana to alleviate some of the pressure on PG13.
The Raptors secured their highest finish in the conference in over 10 years by going 56-26 and winning a weak Atlantic division for the third year in a row. DeRozan leads the team with 23.6 points, followed by Lowry’s 21.4 to go with 6.4 assists and 2.0 steals. Jonas Valanciunas is the anchor in the middle with 12.7 points, 9.1 rebounds (including 3.0 offensive boards) and 1.3 blocks. Toronto will also benefit from the return of DeMarre Carroll, who is still working his way back into the lineup after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in January.
For Indiana, George is far-and-away the focal point on offense with 23.2 points to go with 7.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals. The team’s second-leading scorer is Monta Ellis at 13.9. The emergence of rookie power forward Myles Turner has been a nice surprise for the Pacers as he’s allowed George to slide back into his regular small forward position. George can’t do it all himself, so someone will need to help shoulder the scoring load if Indiana hopes to advance.
No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics
It’s always fun when a team full of upstarts comes out of nowhere to clinch a playoff spot. The Celtics exceeded everyone’s expectations, going 48-34 and finishing fifth in the East. With no player on the roster over the age of 30, this group of young wolves is ready to make some noise in the postseason after years of swimming in the cesspool at the bottom of the NBA for years. Atlanta finished with the best record in the East last year, but struggled to get through the first and second rounds before being swept by the Cavaliers in the conference finals and will hope for a better showing this time around.
The Hawks are still a balanced team using a “scoring by committee” approach as none of their players average more than 20 points. Paul Milsap leads the way with 17.2 points followed by Jeff Teague (15.7) and Al Horford (15.2). Three other players average over nine points and four of their top six rotation players average three or more assists, led by Teague’s 6.0.
Boston ranked fifth in the league with an average of 105.9 points. Isaiah Thomas is the smallest player on the court but packs the biggest punch, averaging team-highs of 22.3 points and 6.2 assists. Avery Bradley chips in 15.1 points and Jae Crowder isn’t too far behind at 14.4.
No. 3 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Charlotte Hornets
The number-six seed is the Hornets’ highest ranking in the Eastern Conference in over a decade. Charlotte is desperate to see some postseason success after being swept in the first round in its only two playoff appearances over the last 10 years. The Heat failed to make the playoffs last season and are hoping to return to the top of the heap.
Even as age catches up to him, Dwyane Wade still manages to lead the Heat with 19.1 points. His running-mate Chris Bosh has missed extended time due to various health issues, but Miami still managed to go 48-34. Hassan Whiteside anchors the Heat’s fifth-ranked defense (98.5 opp. ppg.) with 14.2 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks. Goran Dragic adds 14.1 points and a team-high 5.9 assists.
Kemba Walker is hoping to recreate some of his March Madness magic to lead Charlotte out of the first round. The UConn alum averages a team-high 21.1 points and has benefited from the addition of Nicolas Batum, who adds 14.2 points and 5.8 assists. Al Jefferson has been limited to just 46 games this year, but he’s working his way back into the rotation and Charlotte could use the frontcourt depth.
No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons
Despite the Pistons holding three wins over the Cavs this season, this is probably the least interesting matchup of the entire playoffs. No one should expect Cleveland to drop a game to Detroit simply because LeBron James’ head will explode if that happens. James is a different animal in the postseason, evidenced by how he almost carried a band of misfit toys to an NBA championship last year after Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving suffered injuries. The Pistons have performed admirably all season, but the buck stops here.
The Cavs are of course led by James, who averages 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists. Kyrie Irving adds 19.6 points and 4.7 assists while Kevin Love posts 16.0 points and 9.9 rebounds. The question surrounding Cleveland has always been about how these three players can all post big numbers at the same time. We’ve seen it happen here and there, but never on a consistent basis. With the way ‘Bron-‘Bron plays in the playoffs, however, Irving and Love and the rest of the supporting cast need to just do their part, fill their respective roles and allow King James to guide them to the promised land.
Reggie Jackson leads Detroit with 18.8 points and 6.2 assists. The point guard has enjoyed the addition of Tobias Harris, who was acquired via a mid-season trade and is a more-than-serviceable second option. Andre Drummond is a double-double machine with averages of 16.3 points and 14.8 rebounds and as we pointed out in our Players To Watch post, Drummond gives Mo-Town an advantage up front..
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers
The premier matchup in the West pits a hungry young point guard in Damian Lillard against a savvy veteran floor general in Chris Paul. Both are cerebral in their own way and can take over a game at any time. Lillard plays with a chip on his shoulder after multiple All-Star snubs and will step on any opponent’s throat with no remorse. Paul is one of the fiercest competitors in the league today and has great disdain for anyone who gets in his way.
Blake Griffin returned to the Clippers lineup earlier this month after sitting out due to injury and a suspension. He’s still trying to find his groove but whenever he does, Los Angeles will be tough to beat. Paul averaged 19.5 points, 10.0 assists and 2.1 steals. J.J. Redick, DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford will all have to pick up the slack while Griffin gets comfortable.
The Blazers were thought to be dead-in-the-water after losing LaMarcus Aldridge to free agency, but Damian Lillard isn’t about that “rebuild” life and willed Portland into the postseason. Lillard averaged 25.1 points and 6.9 assists and got help from an emerging C.J. McCollum, who greatly improved in his third year with an average of 20.9 points after averaging under 10 in his first two years. No other Portland player averages more than 11 points, so the team’s success rests on McCollum and Lillard’s shoulders.
No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Houston Rockets
Any series involving the Warriors is bound to be exciting, and this one just happens to be a rematch of last year’s conference finals. But the Rockets barely made the playoffs and hardly elicit enthusiasm from anyone due to their bland playing style. So let’s all just watch Steph Curry and the Warriors dazzle us with a barrage of three-pointers and mind-bending passes.
Is it even necessary to give you a breakdown of Golden State? By now, you’re probably a bandwagon fan (aren’t we all?) and can recite their stats off the top of your head. Curry is having another MVP-caliber season, leading the league with 29.9 points while adding 6.7 assists, 5.5 rebounds and a league-high 2.1 steals. Klay Thompson adds 22.2 points while Draymond Green contributes across the board with 14.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, say, Curry slipping on a banana peel, the ‘Dubs are still the favorites to win it all.
James Harden is far-and-away Houston’s best player with 29.0 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds. No other Rockets player averages more than 15 points. Dwight Howard posts 13.7 points and 11.8 rebounds. The Rockets had an epic collapse against the Warriors last year, but don’t expect anything to be different. It’ll be a surprise if Houston manages to get a win.
No. 3 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 6 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks are an experienced team but they’re running into a buzz-saw in the Thunder. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant don’t care about Dirk Nowitzki’s attempt to make another run at a title in the twilight of his career. Oklahoma City is still searching for some real postseason success, so this young group will try to feast on the aging stars of Dallas.
The Thunder have the second-most prolific offense in the league with an average of 110.2 points. The dynamic duo of Durant and Westbrook is probably the best one-two punch in the league, but they’ve only made one NBA Finals appearance. Durant posts 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists while Westbrook averages 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals. Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters would likely need to up their scoring to provide OKC with some balance on offense.
Dallas had been expected to go nowhere this season after losing out on the DeAndre Jordan sweepstakes. Nowitzki’s 18.3 points leads a group of wily veterans who can scrap their way to some tough wins. Deron Williams follows with 14.2 points and 5.8 assists. The Mavs are definitely hurt by the loss of swingman Chandler Parsons, who is out for the season after having knee surgery in March.
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies
This series would probably be more attractive if Memphis wasn’t so ravaged by injuries. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the team’s top two scorers, are both out for the Grizzlies, so it’s almost a given that the Spurs will be bringing their broomsticks to the court.
San Antonio is the best defensive team in the league, holding opponents to 92.9 points. The era of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli has taken a backseat to usher in the team’s new stars. Kawhi Leonard is an MVP candidate, leading the Spurs with 21.1 points, and is one of the best defenders in the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge adds 18.8 points and 8.6 rebounds and has only gotten better as he became more comfortable in his new surroundings. The Leonard-Aldridge connection will lead San Antonio far.
With no Conley or Gasol, Zach Randolph is left to shoulder the load. Zeebo averages 15.3 points and 7.8 rebounds and will definitely have to up those numbers if Memphis is to have any hopes of an upset. Lance Stephenson adds 14.2 points.
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