Round two comes, and with it more failed prognoses of how things will go in each series. Injuries, dumb luck, regional bias, and faulty mythology are bound to deride me—and you—again, this time of year when emotion blocks objectivity and good sense. Here’s my latest attempt at defeating these wonderful demons, in the form of series assessments.
Heat v. Bulls
The Miami Heat are 41-3 over their last 44 games. 2 of those 3 losses have come at the will of the short-handed Chicago Bulls—and now one’s been in the playoffs. No amount of so-called rust can obscure the fact that LeBron and company are bothered by this squad. They aren’t used to teams over-matching their will-power. They aren’t used to having the fast break taken away this aggressively; that’s where they get the big scoring streaks they depend on in most of their victories, and where they slash your hopes with onslaughts of high-octane style that are sure to humiliate you, and break your spirit. The Bulls drop back with startling immediacy to prevent these sorts of runs, and force LeBron to answer complex multiple choice questions with every defensive front. And they’re never afraid. The Heat aren’t used to working so damn hard. The difficulty of playing the Chicago Bulls—not just layoff-induced lapses—is why they’ve already stolen a game in this series. Miami is still the indomitable favorite, but it looks (again) like many have underestimated the Bulls’ capacity to challenge. This is going to be a long, fun series—a treasure for basketball fans. And just imagine the showdown it can be again, next year, when both teams are healthy…
Thunder v. Grizzlies
The “let’s see what Kevin Durant’s made of” show has begun, in thrilling fashion. The intrigue of watching the Thunder without Westbrook is that of a contender traversing previously-unknown proving ground. This team, and Durant specifically, could be much better than we thought. And Sunday’s marvelous fourth quarter saw them playing the part, with Durant playing in crunch time like Steph Curry does in the third quarter. Every time he pulled up, with minimal separation, there was no doubt that he would make his shot. Memphis’ defense is incredible, but if Durant and Kevin Martin (the series’ x-factor) can continue to perform this well on the perimeter, and neutralize the Grizzlies’ truest strength (interior domination), then they could win this round with surprising speed. But the Grizzlies have shown extraordinary ability to adjust, game-to-game, and one wonders if Scott Brooks (perpetrator of many a round one blunder, non-orchestrator of offenses) is a good enough coach to keep up with the strategic shifts. Was the two-headed dragon of Durant and Westbrook hiding him as a weakness? This is the least predictable conference semi-finals series.
Warriors v. Spurs
Proving ground, again. Steph Curry keeps meeting the size of the moment; how much further can his ascendancy go, this post-season? How much more of a media-dream-come true can he be? Can the young Warriors begin to mitigate their routine fourth-quarter downfalls? That will be the key to this series, as Golden State proved they can generally hang with the Spurs, last night, but then petered off through a slew of youthful follies. They can’t rely on a similar lack of late-game conviction from their opponent, either, this time around. The Spurs are like your dad on the driveway, just waiting to unload a series of tricks you didn’t even know existed, as soon as your youthful bluster runs thin; the Nuggets, of course, were a team of a similarly young mentality. Over the course of this series, I see the Spurs taking too much advantage of the Warriors’ runs of bad decision-making. And, unlike the Nuggets, they have enough three-point shooting to offset some of the Warriors’, too. Maybe next year G.S. will have some more mettle.
Knicks v. Pacers
It’s always refreshing to see a hard-working, relatively anonymous team expose a cocky set of pretenders, on their glitzy home-court. (I guess I’ve exposed my Midwestern side…). Much of the Knicks offense is offset by a team who actually closes out well on jump-shots. Plus, Roy Hibbert has effectively put a moratorium on anything in the paint. And the Pacers offense, long under-rated after surges in productivity from George Hill and Lance Stephenson, won’t be so challenged that New York can go too long without scoring. The only way Spike Lee will be happy with this series’ result is if his team makes a lot of difficult, contested long-range shots. Because that’s all they’re getting.