Commentary

First-round storylines

Warriors-Clippers, Nets-Raptors series headline opening round full of intrigue

Originally Published: April 17, 2014
By J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez discuss the most intriguing matchups in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.


J.A. Adande: How excited am I for the playoffs? I'm even fired up to watch the Eastern Conference. Yeah, the much-maligned Leastern conference. It turned out that seven of the eight teams have winning records, so it's not as littered with sub-.500 squads as we thought it would be.

What it does have is a ton of playoff newcomers. Seventeen rotation players (by my count) are making their playoff debut in the East, including the Washington Wizards backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. I won't hold them to the 36-point, 11-assist standard set by Derrick Rose in his first playoff game, but that does show the ceiling, and it speaks to the wild nature of these playoffs.

Be prepared for something you weren't prepared for. Don't take it for granted, for example, that we will see the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. How do you see these playoffs? Turmoil, or chalk?

[+] EnlargeClippers
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsThere have been plenty of fireworks between the Clippers and Warriors this season, making it one of the most intriguing matchups of the first round.

Israel Gutierrez: This has nothing to do with the playoffs, but I finally decided to look up the origin of the word "chalk" as it relates to sports -- mildly interesting if you're looking for a brief homework assignment.

But given that the term itself is outdated, I'll go ahead and say there'll be more turmoil, but most, if not all of it, will come out of the West.

I'm not of the opinion that the Pacers' struggles will worsen, or even continue, in the postseason. The Pacers' failures down the stretch had as much to do with not knowing how to handle sudden adversity and less to do with forgetting how to play basketball (although George Hill's past few games could suggest he's suffering from at least temporary amnesia). They might've already rediscovered their confidence by beating the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday and maintaining that No. 1 seed despite the tailspin.

And if they haven't bounced back into form, then a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, despite Indiana's history of struggling in Atlanta, will help them do it. And, unless you're picking Miami to not make the conference finals, I wouldn't predict turmoil in the East.

But in your half of the bracket, how can you not anticipate significant drama? Have you noticed the signs? The Thunder needed a one-point home win against the Detroit Pistons, where turmoil has lived and grown comfortable over the past few years, just to secure the No. 2 seed. And they're supposed to feel comfortable playing a Memphis Grizzlies team that's won its past five games -- all of them having a playoff urgency -- and is built to dictate tempo in the postseason?

J.A.: I'm not worried. Yeah, I saw how they barely squeaked out a win against the Pistons. I also saw how Kevin Durant refused to let them lose that game. This season has turned into Durant's Neo-dodging-bullets-on-the-rooftop moment. It's time to recognize him as The One. That makes picking a champion from this field a little easier.

The vast majority of NBA championship teams for the past three decades have had a Most Valuable Player on their roster. Commissioner Adam Silver will be handing the Podoloff trophy to Durant within a couple of weeks, which will make the Thunder "eligible," so to speak.

You might be focusing on their wobbles. I'm still fixating on the defense they played against the Clippers when the Thunder celebrated the return of their full starting lineup with an impressive victory in Staples Center. They looked championship level. They're ready.

Israel: I'm with you with Durant. If there's one player in the Western Conference, and possibly even in the entire league -- including LeBron James -- that can turn this postseason into his personal show, it's Durant.

Even against a Grizzlies defense, if OKC is in a game late, it's a safe bet Durant will still take over and pull out a win. He just finished a Michael Jordan-type season. A Jordan-type postseason wouldn't be much of a surprise at all.

But possibly the most intriguing series to start is that Los Angeles Clippers-Golden State Warriors matchup. It hurts that Andrew Bogut won't be a part of it, but given how explosive that Warriors backcourt is, don't you think there's some fear in the heart of Doc Rivers today? I mean, if he comes in, makes Blake Griffin an MVP candidate, has a record-breaking regular season for that franchise and still ends up losing in the first round, that would be devastating.

"

That Raptors-Nets series is intriguing, but it would still be only the fourth-best series in the West.

" -- Israel Gutierrez

J.A.: It wouldn't be so devastating that it would cost Rivers his job. Not after the first year of his three-year, $21 million contract. Big contracts like that don't just buy the coach financial security. They buy the franchise stability.

Mark Jackson and the Warriors don't have it like that. The same goes for Frank Vogel and the Pacers. I fear for Vogel and Jackson if they don't make the conference finals -- maybe even the NBA Finals, in Vogel's case. That's the sinister side of these playoffs.

Here's something to contemplate for teams thinking of a coaching change: For all of the coaching turnover last summer, only one new coach took his team to the playoffs with a substantially better record than the previous season. That would be Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Bobcats (but Jeff Hornacek sure came close in Phoenix). Firing the coach isn't the magical solution.

Israel: I'm not so concerned about Jackson's job security, unless he's got an eye on another job. Part of the reason is just how much his main players like him. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and David Lee could make this postseason a personal "Save Mark" situation. Not that the Clippers will have no say in this, but with Bogut already out and Curry and Thompson entering the playoffs on a roll -- Thompson is shooting 49 percent from 3-point range in April, with Curry just a couple points back at 47 percent -- the Warriors could make this a shooting contest.

And while Bogut's absence affects rim protection, Draymond Green's toughness could make life a bit difficult for Griffin before he even gets airborne.

J.A.: For Clippers-Warriors, I'm going with Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw's theory that two great players at the same position cancel each other out. So if Curry and Chris Paul negate each other, I'm taking Griffin over Green. Green might make things difficult for Griffin, but he won't win the matchup. That pretty much sums up my take on the series in general. It's still the No. 1 series to watch in the first round, the one everyone hoped for.

"

I fear for Vogel and Jackson if they don't make the conference finals -- maybe even the NBA Finals, in Vogel's case. That's the sinister side of these playoffs.

" -- J.A. Adande

What matchups do you most want to see in later rounds? To me, they both involve the outcome of this series. Golden State could advance and give us an extension of the regular-season matchup with Oklahoma City that gave us two games decided at the buzzer and Durant's career high of 54 points. And if the Clippers move on, could you imagine an NBA Finals with them against the Heat? Griffin and LeBron could combine to set a Finals record for dunks. Or flops. Either way, a Clippers-Heat Finals would be GIF-tastic.

Israel: The numbers geeks will have your head for the "mathematical" approach to the Clips-Warriors, but you'll probably be right anyway.

Before I venture back East -- that Toronto Raptors-Brooklyn Nets series is intriguing, but it would still be only the fourth-best series in the West -- I have to hit on Portland Trail Blazers-Houston Rockets. As much as Warriors-Clippers has the most intrigue, this series might have the most points. Like, over/under 240 points per game might be the standard.

We know the approach both teams take, with the Rockets leading the league in 3s made per game, while the Blazers might lead the league in itchy trigger fingers from distance. Between Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams, the Blazers have plenty of willing launchers who'll play about 30-35 minutes or more. And while James Harden put up better than 30 per game against the Blazers in the regular season, both Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge had big-time numbers themselves in this season series.

I've actually got a Portland upset in this one because they're just in a better place right now in their game. But if it's offense you want, this is the series to watch.

J.A.: Really quietly, the Blazers are the hottest team in the Western Conference playoffs, winners of five in a row and nine out of 10. Also on the low-low, we can add Terry Stotts to the list of coaches who could really use a series victory. The best Blazers season in years and yet, they haven't signed him on for more.

I wouldn't mind a Portland victory for his sake and the sake of the midrange game. Aldridge and the Blazers thrive on the shots the stat geeks despise. Also, if Lillard goes off, doesn't that mean we have to move him up to that level Curry reached last season?

Israel: Depends on how. If Lillard is just putting up a bunch of shots and hitting, not really. He needs to distribute as well as Steph does, too. And it's funny you mention Stotts needing a playoff victory, because you can say the same for Kevin McHale. They didn't bring Howard in just to exit in the first round.

In fact, let's put it this way: Outside of Rick Carlisle, there isn't a coach out West who wouldn't be heavily impacted by a first-round loss. That includes Memphis' Dave Joerger, who's following up a coach who reached the conference finals last season, and Gregg Popovich, who wants to rid himself of Game 6 nightmares once and for all.

OK, one more trip to the East. Brooklyn is the trendy pick as the "if not the Pacers and Heat, then who?" option in the Eastern Conference. Yet, this first-round matchup with Toronto isn't exactly Nets-friendly. The Raps want to take advantage of their athleticism on the wings, which could flummox the old-school approach from Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson.

Pierce held up just fine against Toronto in the regular season. Johnson not so much, shooting 37 percent over four matchups. Did the Nets make a mistake by not securing that 5-seed and facing the slower Chicago Bulls? Because if you're going to beat Miami or Indiana, you first have to actually play Miami or Indiana.

J.A.: I'll take Brooklyn's experience over Toronto's athleticism and home-court advantage. Whatever athleticism Pierce and Kevin Garnett have left can be unleashed without any need to keep something in reserve. But the biggest story in the East isn't who's going to play Miami or Indiana. It's whether Miami and Indiana are going to play each other. It's going to happen, and the Pacers are going to get past them this postseason. They wound up with that home-court advantage they (rightfully) felt they had to have, and they'll use it to get to the Finals against the Thunder.

OKC gets past the San Antonio Spurs in the West. Remember the Spurs? That team with the best record in the league? Why does it seem like they're not a part of any playoff conversation? The reason they're not more prominent for me is that the Thunder at their best impressed me more than the Spurs at their best. It's concentrated greatness over weeks, rather than sustained excellence over months, that matters most in the playoffs.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.

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