Brooklyn Nets at Toronto Raptors
11:30 am Central
The Nets recovered from a terrible start under first year head coach Jason Kidd to post one of the best 2nd half records in the league. They did so despite losing center Brook Lopez for the season after only 17 games. It is an old roster but a deep one, and they seem to have figured out how to integrate everyone. Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce have been their most consistent scorers all season from the wing positions, and have driven a fairly effective three point shooting attack. As befits their age, the Nets play at a slow pace and work for open shots, mostly from their perimeter guys. Not much in the way of post offense for the Nets without Lopez. Their biggest weakness is rebounding: they are among the worst teams in the league on the boards at both ends of the floor. The biggest positive surprise for the Nets has been the play of Mason Plumlee, who was the NBA's most effective rookie this season.
The Raptors are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 after winning a surprising 48 games. They really took off once they traded Rudy Gay to the Kings and developed a more balanced attack. The major beneficiary of this was DeMar DeRozan, who emerged as an effective scorer after several years of struggles, largely due to his new found ability to get to the free throw line. Kyle Lowry continues to play terrific basketball, and Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas are an impressive young front court. Also notable is the emergence of 2nd year man Terrence Ross, who has become an effective sharpshooter, making nearly 40% of his five 3 point attempts per game.
This should be a fun and competitive series. I like the Raptors in six.
Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers
2:30 pm Central
This sets up as perhaps the most fun matchup of the first round. Two of the higher scoring offenses in the league, both like to play fast, and both hoist up a bunch of threes. Three pointers are Golden State's main weapon, as they made the 2nd most in the league with the 4th highest percentage. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson led the way, both making over 40%. The Clippers would appear to have a decided advantage in the paint, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan while Warriors center Andrew Bogut is out with a broken rib.
These teams have squabbled all season, with a Draymond Green elbow to Blake Griffin on Christmas setting things off, and various pieces of trash talk, including complaints about Griffin's flopping fueling the fire. Meanwhile, assistant coaches have been falling by the wayside in Oakland, and there is serious question about Mark Jackson's future there. The rumors haven't stopped them from having a pretty successful season, though, and they are quite dangerous.
The question for the Clippers will be whether their top rated league offense can be its usual efficient self (5th in efg%, 5th in TO%, lots of free throws) facing the Warriors defense. Chris Paul had another monster season orchestrating this crew, and as Wolves fans saw, still has the ability to take over games when necessary.
The Clippers are better, I think, and should advance. But as we saw last season, Golden State has the ability to get hot and beat just about anyone. This one is worth watching.
Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers
6:00 pm Central
On the flip side of Warriors-Clips is this series. Ugh. Both teams stumbled down the stretch, with the Pacers hanging on to the first seed in the East due to Miami's struggles, and the Hawks sneaking into the playoffs at 38-44 because the Eastern Conference was awful. Missing Al Horford for most of the season didn't help.
It's impossible to see Atlanta making much of this series; whatever the Pacers struggles were late in the season, they remain the best defensive team in the league, and it's hard to imagine how the Hawks are going to score consistently enough to challenge a much deeper, more talented Pacers squad. The Pacers need to use this series to work out the kinks in their offense which emerged over the 2nd half of the season, as Paul George faded after his monster start to the year. They need to figure out how to get the ball in the paint more effectively, and rein in Lance Stephenson's hyper-aggression.
I'll give Atlanta a game and predict Pacers in five.
Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder
8:30 pm Central
This was not the matchup the Thunder wanted. Though not quite the same defensive unit we've seen the last few years, the Grizzlies remain a slow paced, physical team that takes it out of opponents over the course of seven game series'. In 2011, they took the Thunder to seven games in the Western semis, and last year they beat the Thunder in five after Russel Westbrook went down with his knee injury.
The Grizzlies got off to a slow start this year, in large part due to the early injury absence of Marc Gasol, and were 10-15 at one point. They went 40-17 the rest of the way to climb into the 7th seed in the West with 50 wins. Zach Randolph isn't the same ZBo anymore, but is still a load, they are a terrific rebounding team, and Mike Conley is quietly one of the best two way point guards in the NBA. They made a good trade to add three point shooter Courtney Lee, and Mike Miller actually played all 82 games this season.
The Thunder remain the Thunder. Westbrook returned and has looked mostly healthy, and Kevin Durant once again led the league in scoring, and seems likely to win the MVP award. Serge Ibaka had another tremendous season blocking shots and making jumpers. They used the draft pick they got in the James Harden trade effectively, as Steven Adams has been one of the most consistent rookie performers in the league at a position of great need as Kendrick Perkins continues to be a millstone.
Ultimately, I think the Thunder manage to get through this, but it isn't going to be a walk in the park. I'm sure they were hoping that Dallas would get the 7th spot setting up a matchup with the Mavs while leaving the Spurs to deal with Memphis, but that's not how it worked out. These teams have engaged in some fascinating series' over the last few years, and I wouldn't be surprised to see another close one.