Category Archives: Game Previews

Previews of Bulls games and other big matchups.

Bulls with a Green Thumb (In the Garden): Opening Night Preview

The NBA knows how to schedule games, and the Bulls v. Knicks on opening night in New York has everyone’s attention.

Here’s the entangled storyline for this one – let’s see if you can unravel it: Hall-of-Fame inductee Phil Jackson is the new President of the New York Knicks. Phil, of course, was the head coach of the Bulls through the Bulls’ Championship years – snagging six championship rings with Jordan and Pippen. The Zen Master will have Derek Fisher, new head coach and former champion under Phil, leading PJ’s touted Triangle Offense, with which he enjoyed much success in Chicago and LA.

Phil was also the victor in the free agent market by persuading Carmelo Anthony to stay in New York, whom the Bulls sought aggressively this off-season, but failed to secure. Instead, the Bulls did manage to land the other prize of free agency, Pau Gasol, who won championships under Phil with the Lakers. New York and Chicago are two incredible basketball cities and experienced an intense rivalry in the last years of the 80’s and into the 90’s – the Bulls routinely dominating that rivalry.

If that’s not enough of a storyline for intrigue, let’s not forget what happened last year: Derrick Rose hit the game winning shot to stun the Knicks in their home opener.

Will Phil’s Zen-like mentality trickle down to the players? Will it be enough to overcome the lack of talent? Will Derrick Rose be too much? Will Melo regret his decision to stay with New York, opting to take more money in lieu of immediate championship dreams? How will the Bulls do without Jimmy Butler (ruled out indefinitely)? Will the Bulls’ reserves start to get it going? Will Pau and Noah figure out their roles? Will the rookies on Chicago have opening night jitters? Will Phil and Thibs get into a staring contest, winner-take-Melo? Okay, probably not the last one…

It’s a great way to kick off the season.

My prediction? I’m confident that the Bulls will pull this one out after getting behind early.

Stay tuned.

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Still Feeling Bullish: Game Two Preview

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photo via espn.com

Sunday evening did not go as planned in Chicago, as the Bulls dropped game one of their first round matchup against the Wizards. Despite limiting the offensive impact of backcourt mates John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Bulls failed to get enough stops down the stretch to take home a victory.

The big reason why the Wizards have this early series lead is the play of their big men duo, Nene and Marcin Gortat. Nene in particular destroyed the Bulls, scoring 24 points on 11-17 shooting. Gortat pitched in 15 of his own on 60% shooting to go along with an impressive 13 rebounds. Their impressive combination of size and soft touch make them a terror to cover anywhere inside the three point arc, and provide a huge challenge to the Bulls starting lineup.

Newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah was matched up on Nene for the majority of game one, leaving defensively challenged Carlos Boozer to do his best against Marcin Gortat. Boozer’s attempts at fronting the Polish Hammer had mixed results, as Wall lobbed some difficult passes into the paint. Those passes, when successful, bent the Bulls’ defense out of its comfort zone. When Gortat was able to secure inside position on Boozer, he drew the attention of Noah. And when Noah was worried about Gortat, Nene went to town.

While Wall and Beal were a combined 7-27 from the field, the slack was picked up for them by reserve guard Andre Miller. After a falling out with the coaching staff in Denver midway through the season, Miller saw his playing time reduced to zero. After getting traded to the Wizards as a part of a deadline deal, the Wizards picked up a valuable backup who brought stability to the second unit. Providing stability would be underselling what Miller accomplished Sunday evening; going 5-7 from the field in 14 minutes of play, Miller carried the Wizards in the early part of the fourth quarter, keeping the score close and providing crucial minutes for Wall to rest his legs. Miller’s outburst caught the Bulls completely by surprise. One could even say they forgot about Dre.

Looking ahead to game two, I believe the Bulls have a lot of reason to be optimistic. Game one was within their grasp, with a double digit lead in the third quarter and a quiet performance from the Wizards starting backcourt. But a complete power outage down the stretch offensively derailed what should have been a win.

Allow me to pull some stats from the always awesome SportVU data supply on nba.com:

Nene was 5 for 5 on contested field goal attempts.

Joakim Noah allowed 78% of field goals attempted at the rim while he was defending. Taj let in 60%. For the regular season, those numbers were 46.8% and 45.7%, respectively.

DJ Augestin went 0-7 on uncontested field goal attempts.

Mike Dunleavy, playing in his first career playoff game, got off to a rough start and never got on track shooting just 4-12 from the field (although he was an efficient 3-8 from deep).

And I know I said it already but it bears mentioning again: ANDRE MILLER SCORED TEN POINTS AND CARRIED THE FOURTH QUARTER OFFENSE.

All those numbers should put a smile on your face (assuming your face does not enclose the brain of a Wizards fan) because a lot of the Wizards success and the Bulls’ struggles can be chalked up to random error and small sample size.

Of course the pessimist would quickly point out that shots will start to fall for Wall and Beal, and that Boozer’s, uh, “defense” is not getting better anytime soon. The 45-39 rebounding split is a bit disappointing as well for the Bulls as it will be difficult to ever secure a real advantage on the glass.

A bit of success that needs to be pointed out is that Washington, which managed to make 36% of their three pointers in game one, only attempted 11 such shots in game one. The Bulls stayed true to their defensive principles, not overhelping on drives and playing with a keen awareness as to which shots are most valuable in the game. The Wizards averaged about 21 triple attempts a game during the regular season, many of which were sweet shots from the corners. Those won’t be there this series.

In game two, look for the Bulls to get Mike Dunleavy involved early. If Dunleavy is hot, perhaps the Bulls roll the dice with a Kirk-DJ-MD lineup to give Butler some rest to keep him fresh for the home stretch. Remember the first quarter when Butler was slashing and driving to the basket, making difficult finishes and providing some relief to the sluggish Bulls offense? Tom Thibodeau needs to to a better job of managing Butler to ensure he has enough gas in the tank during crunch time.

Should shit really start to hit the fan, look for Taj to start the third quarter alongside Noah and for Boozer to only get minutes when one of the Nene-Gortat combo hits the pine. I know Thibs is not a man to mess with his routine, but Boozer seems an ideal candidate to carry the second unit offense for brief stretches and not have to worry about guarding elite big men at the other end of the floor.

Allow me to cut myself short before I really start to ramble into craziness. My overall takeaway from the first meeting of these two teams is that everything is fine. Game one is exactly how it sounds: just one game. The Bulls should continue to play their brand of bruising and methodical basketball and the coach will make the necessary adjustments that great coaches make. The Bulls are generally a safe bet coming off a loss, and in a home playoff game I don’t think they need any extra motivation.

The Ultimate Bulls-Wizards Preview

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If you haven’t yet, check out Bick’s terrific playoff previews: EAST / WEST

The Bulls and Wizards will begin play on Sunday evening at the United Center in what may be the most even matchup in the Eastern Conference. The interesting thing about this matchup is that it seemed very unlikely that these teams would even be faced up against one another. The Bulls fought tooth and nail for the three seed til game 82 only to fall just short, while the Wizards briefly lost control of even the sixth seed before somehow ending up at five (the Nets resting for the final two games had something to do with this). Now, the Bulls and Wiz will fight for the right to upset Indiana or dispose of Atlanta. The Wizards won the first two matchups between the teams, while the Bulls routed the Wiz more recently in the third. Here are some of the series’ key components to keep track of:

EXPERIENCE

Playoff experience can be overrated, but it’s undoubtedly important to some extent. For example, both Michael Jordan and LeBron James played more than half a dozen seasons before winning their first rings. Furthermore, Chris Paul has never made it out of the second round. On the other hand, the Thunder stormed to the Finals in 2012 on the backs of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Bulls are playoff veterans, having made the postseason each season since Derrick Rose was drafted. Joakim Noah relishes the playoff spotlight; even in his second season, he made the famous block on Paul Pierce and ensuing coast-to-coast and-1 score. Jimmy Butler played 48 minutes three straight games last year, and Taj Gibson has played meaningful playoff minutes for five seasons.

On the other hand, the Wizards have very limited playoff experience. John Wall and Bradley Beal will get their first taste of playoff ball against the Bulls. It may be difficult for the two to adjust to the improved game-planning that comes from seeing the same opponent over and over again, especially with Tom Thibodeau running things. Nene has 44 playoff games under his belt and Trevor Ariza has actually won a ring with Kobe, so the Wizards do have some veteran leadership that’s been there before. Still, it will be interesting to see how the young team fares.

COACHING

This is the biggest advantage for the Bulls in round one. For starters, Tom Thibodeau has a career winning percentage of .657 while Randy Wittman is sittin’ on a cool .367. Thibs has won more games while coaching more than 200 less than Wittman. More specifically though, Thibodeau is the top defensive coach in the league and adept at adjusting matchups on the fly. He sticks with his favorite players a little too long occasionally (ahem…Kirk Hinrich), but what coach doesn’t? (Besides Pops. Pops is a Terminator.) Wittman is literally one of the worst coaches in history. He’s lost more locker rooms than playoff series he’s won, but he did do a nice job turning this team into a legit squad. Still, if things go south for the Wizards, it’s hard to imagine Wittman making good adjustments over the course of a series.

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CORNER 3’s

Stat-savvy hoops fans already know that the corner 3 is the most efficient non-dunk in the game. Three is greater than two, and the corner is the shortest distance from the hoop. John Wall is the best in the league at finding open shooters in the corners, both by the numbers and the eye test. Anyone that’s watched Trevor Ariza drop 40 knows how great Wall’s passing is. On the other hand, the Bulls are excellent at keeping guys out of the corners. Even though Washington took two of three from the Bulls this year, they struggled from their usual hot spots in the corners.

A lot of the outcome of this matchup is tied up in who wins this battle. If Wall can find Beal, Ariza and Martell Webster open in the corners, not even likely DPoY Joakim Noah will be able to slow down Washington’s offense. However, limiting corner 3s is always one of Thibs’ priorities and the former CoY has no doubt been scheming all week. Keep an eye on this one.

DEFENSIVE BATTLES

The Bulls, as we oft discuss here, have easily the worst offense of teams still playing while the Wizards have a slightly below average offense. However, the Bulls characteristically finished the year #2 in defense and the Wizards were tied for ninth. This is not going to be a pretty series. Both teams excel at slowing the game down and beating you with their defenses, but Wall-led fastbreaks are an x-factor that could really hurt Chicago. Wall is a pickpocket in the backcourt and Trevor Ariza has earned his reputation as a top defensive stopper. Gortat does a solid job guarding the rim and Nene is excellent at altering shots while avoiding fouls.

Of course, you already know about the Bulls defense, but it’s nice to relish it sometimes. Joakim Noah will do his thing patrolling the entire half-court and it should be fun watching Jimmy Butler rack up steals and lock up Bradley Beal around the perimeter. Expect a lot of Taj Gibson, as Carlos Boozer hasn’t played in the fourth quarter in weeks. Don’t be surprised if a lot of these games end in the high 70s or 80s.

San Antontio Spurs v Chicago Bulls

PLAYOFF ROTATIONS

The Bulls have basically been using a playoff rotation since DJ Augustin joined the team in December. Hinrich, Butler, Dunleavy, Boozer, Noah, Gibson and Augustin play all of the significant minutes, with an occasional Nazr Mohammed or Tony Snell cameo. Washington doesn’t have the deepest rotation, but Nene’s inconsistent health has forced them to play around with a few more players. Wall, Beal and Ariza all played heavy minutes (Thibs Seal of Approval), but Trevor Booker, Drew Gooden and Al Harrington have had their minutes switched around often. Going further, the Wizards have several players between 9 and 20 minutes per game, while the Bulls rotation drops from 28 (Boozer) to 16 (Snell) to 7 (Mohammed). And Snell racked up most of his minutes when Butler was out.

Because Nene just returned to the rotation, the Wizards will try not to push him into heavy minutes. Opening up the rotation will force the Wizards to play inferior lineups when the Bulls go for the kill with Augustin, Butler, Dunleavy, Gibson and Noah to start the second and fourth quarters. If the Bulls can murder the Wizards bench lineups, the series won’t be close. Randy Wittman will have to utilize his bench effectively, which bodes well for Bulls fans. A lot is going to come down to the health and effectiveness of Nene.

PREDICTION: Bulls in 6

The Bulls have the talent and the coaching to put Washington away, and I expect them to. However, their utter lack of offense (no players averaging 15 PPG) will make it very difficult to score enough points against Washington’s legit defense. Wall has blossomed into a star point guard and will impose his will as much as possible. If the Wiz can shut down the Bulls and open up the corners, they can win the series. In the end, I think the Bulls’ defense will be too stifling and the offense will chip in enough.

 

Round One Preview, Part 2: The Eastern Conference

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By now I’m sure you’ve read my Western Conference round one predictions and are eager to dive into the East, so lets do it.

(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks

The hot topic in the NBA since the All-Star break has been “What the fuck is wrong with the Pacers?” The reason for Indiana’s recent struggles are complicated and involve a mediocre offense playing as it really is and a stellar defense perhaps losing focus in games that ultimately do not matter. It may have something to do with the heavy workload that the Pacers starting five has been forced to shoulder on their quest to get the top seed in the East. It may even have something to do with the team bringing in Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner to shake up the Pacers previously rock solid chemistry.

Whatever it is that ails the Pacers, it doesn’t matter in round one. Quite simply, the Hawks suck so bad that it doesn’t matter what kind of internal turmoil the Pacers are going through. Since losing Al Horford to a pectoral injury, the Hawks have slipped from the third spot in the east all the way to eighth, nearly falling completely out of the playoff picture. The Hawks simply are not built to be good this season, especially with their best player and All-Star center on the shelf for the year. New GM Danny Ferry even acknowledged in an interview that he didn’t care one way or the other if the Hawks even made the playoffs, as having a couple of ping pong balls in this loaded lottery would be better than the intrinsic value of “playoff experience.” Especially when that playoff experience is being experienced by guys like DeMarre Carroll (32 minutes a game), Shelvin Mack (20 minutes a game), Elton Brand (19 minutes a game) and Mike Scott (18.5 minutes a game).

One of the curious issues that have plagued the Pacers down the stretch has been the lackluster play of Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, a 7’2″ behemoth and defensive force has struggled to pull down rebounds and score from the post. Hibbert’s prolonged funk, combined with Paul George’s descent back to earth, has put a strain on the team that was previously thought to be impervious to internal struggle. With the Pacers drawing the Hawks in round one, Hibbert should have plenty of opportunities to work himself back into form. While Pero Antic’s shooting may present a challenge defensively for the plodding Hibbert, the majority of Atlanta’s bigs don’t have a prayer of keeping up with the Parks and Rec star.

Prediction: Indiana in 4

(2) Miami Heat vs. (3) Charlotte Bobcats

The Bobcats have been the feel good story of the Eastern conference this year, jumping from perennial doormat to Eastern Conference mediocrity, a status Michael Jordan and the Bobcats dreamed of when they signed Al Jefferson last summer. The Bobcats have built a stingy defense this year, despite a lack of rim protection from Jefferson, thanks largely to the development of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and first year head coach Steve Clifford. The Cats finish the season ranked sixth overall in defensive efficiency, five spots ahead of their first round opponents.

I’m not going to waste your time with a detailed analysis of why I think Miami is somehow going to pull off a win. Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are by far and away the best three players in this series, and sometimes that’s all you need to know. Miami is going to score in transition, they are going to ramp up their defensive intensity that has operated with an on-off switch all season, and they are simply going to overwhelm the upstart Bobcats. Miami’s aggressive pick and roll scheme, which calls for an all out blitz of the ball handler, is going to put a strain on the undersized Kemba Walker. Walker, who has made great strides this year as both a passer and a finisher, is not a high enough caliber point guard to consistently navigate Miami’s athleticism and aggression.

This final season of Bobcats basketball has been a fun one, and points to good things to come for the new Hornets era. But I would be absolutely shocked to see this series last six games.

Prediction: Miami in 4

(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets

The Nets, in one of the most cowardly moves in recent memory, tanked their way into this matchup so as to avoid the Bulls. Their motivation may also have been to get a crack at Miami in the next round, as Brooklyn went 4-0 against the defending champs this season. Brooklyn’s eagerness to fall into the six seed is peculiar to me simply because it seems that they are underestimating the challenge of going against Toronto.

The Raptors, after trading Rudy Gay many moons ago, seemed ready to pack it in and head to the lottery. But swapping out the inefficient shooting and ball stopping that Gay brought to the offense has allowed Toronto to flourish since the trade. Kyle Lowry, long considered to be an ornery fellow, has really come into his own this season and is averaging 18 points and 7 assists a night while shooting 38% from deep. DeMar DeRozan (four capital letters in one name!) has made his 4 year, $40 million extension from last season seem far more reasonable than it did at the time of its signing. DeRozan is never going to be a serious threat shooting the ball, but he has learned how to capitalize on the skills he does possess. DeRozan is averaging a career high 22.7 points a game thanks largely in part to his career high eight free throw attempts per game. DeRozan, averaging 7.2 drives per game, has grown as a decision maker in his fifth year in the league.

Brooklyn began their season in an absolute tail spin, with new head coach Jason Kidd appearing to be very overwhelmed and under qualified to lead this veteran team that has been built to win not next year or the year after, but NOW. When offensive centerpiece Brook Lopez went down with a broken foot, it seemed like a fine time to write a eulogy for this Brooklyn squad. But with the Lopez injury, the Nets were forced to play a unique style that has been incredibly successful the last two thirds of the season.

The loss of Lopez meant that Kevin Garnett would have to move over to the center spot. His move up triggered a chain reaction that has seen Paul Pierce, 6’6″, playing more power forward than ever before in his Hall of Fame career. Pierce’s move allows Joe Johnson, 6’8″ to slide over and play small forward full time. With a hole to fill at shooting guard, Shaun Livingston, 6’7″ has filled in superbly as a secondary ball handler alongside Deron Williams. That fivesome, of Garnett, Pierce, Johnson, Livingston and Williams, has been insanely good (in only 129 minutes together), posting a defensive efficiency of 89.9 and scoring at a rate of 107 points per 100 possessions. Swap out Garnett for Mason Plumlee, and the Nets continue to have success. That lineup has a net rating of +6.6.

Why have the Nets been able to succeed with these strange groups? A lot of it has to do with their ability to switch on pick and rolls. By essentially playing three small forwards and a rim protector, the general confusion and difficult rotations that most NBA teams have to deal with do not apply to the Nets. 1 through 5, those lineups are capable of guarding every man on the floor.

The Nets very loudly wanted this matchup, benching basically their entire rotation the last two games of the regular season. That type of move is likely to infuriate the often disrespected Raptors. But rage alone cannot carry a team to victory, and I suspect that the Raptors lack of any type of playoff experience will harm them against the most experienced team in the league.

Prediction: Nets in 6

Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls - Game One

(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards

While I’m sure this is the matchup you’ve all been waiting for, I regret to inform you that I will not be diving deeply into this series. The good folks at DRaT have decided to devote an entire post that really digs into the nitty gritty of the Bulls’ first round matchup.

Similar to the Nets-Raptors series, this one pits a team with plenty of postseason experience against a squad that may just be happy to be there. John Wall has taken a bit of a leap this season in terms of distributing the ball and understanding how to generate good looks for his teammates. But the Bulls play the best defense in the NBA and are so disciplined on both sides of the ball that I would be shocked if the Wiz make any real noise in this series.

The Bulls obviously do not possess any offensive fire power to blow a team like Washington away, making it likely that this series seems close on paper. But I predict that if anyone pays close attention, they will see a dominant Bulls victory.

Prediction: Bulls in 6

And allow me to finish on a side note. My girlfriend is a native of our nation’s capital and we have a bet for this first round series. If the Bulls win, she has to buy herself a Bulls shirt and if the Wizards win than I must do the same. While I am not concerned about losing this wager, it will make the games that much more exciting.

Feel free to comment with shirt ideas for my lovely girlfriend!

Round One Preview, Part 1: Western Conference

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The NBA regular season held our attention for the full 82 games this season, as nearly every playoff matchup came down to games that were played on the final day of the regular season.

Before I go on, I would like to bid adieu to the 14 teams that did not qualify for the playoffs. League Pass addicts across America shed a tear when the Phoenix was eliminated from the postseason. This year marks the first time in NBA history that the the Knicks, Celtics and Lakers will all miss the postseason. The poor Timberwolves will go down as the team with the best point differential to ever miss the playoffs.

And with that, let us not speak of any of those teams again for a very long time. There are much more exciting matters at hand.

The first round of the playoffs promise to be excellent in the West and potentially interesting in the East, which is about the best thing a person could ask for. The West is loaded top to bottom and is where this preview begins.

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks

The Spurs have been locked into the top slot the last couple of days and have been resting guys accordingly. Dallas, on the other hand, has been going full throttle down the stretch to edge out Phoenix for the final spot in the postseason. After losing to Memphis on Wednesday night, the Mavericks find themselves in the worst case playoff scenario. Had they held off Memphis Wednesday and held onto the seven seed, Dallas could have potentially hung tight with OKC in round one. That matchup, like all of Dallas’ potential matchups, would have featured a talent imbalance not in Dallas’ favor. But with the Thunder as an opponent, at least the Mavericks could boast a sizable coaching advantage. Instead, coach Carlisle has to gameplan against Greg Popovich who is known for being a gameplanner himself.

The Spurs should easily dispose of Dallas, a team that can score with the best of them but has been very porous on the defensive end. Dallas gives up 105.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 22nd in the league. That’s not going to hold up against the Spurs’ 6th ranked offense in terms of efficiency. San Antonio’s drive and kick system is specifically designed to systematically pick apart a team like Dallas that plays matadors at both guard spots in Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon.

Dirk and company are too skilled an too prideful to just roll over in this series, but don’t have nearly enough fire power to keep up with San Antonio. I expect at least one crazy Nowitzki game winner, but do not expect more than one Dallas victory.

Prediction: San Antonio in 5

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(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

A rematch of a round two matchup from a year ago, this version of Thunder-Grizz promises to be a lot different with a healthy Russell Westbrook running point for the Thunder. The Grizzlies won 50 games this year despite enduring a six week stretch without reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. New coach Dave Joerger took some time to learn how to best use his roster, but has certainly become more comfortable at the reigns. Gasol’s return from a knee injury returned the Grizzlies’ defense to elite levels. Since January 15, the day Gasol rejoined the lineup, only the Bulls have played stingier defense per 100 possessions.

Oklahoma City enters the playoffs with high aspirations. After making the Finals in 2012, the Thunder lost their All-Star point guard to injury in the first round last year. Westbrook, who has re-injured his knee this season, seems to be fully healthy now. Since the calendar turned to March, Westbrook has averaged 23.4/7.2/5.8 a night on a pretty strict minutes limit. That limit will no longer be in place now that the games actually matter and Westbrook is ready to unleash himself on the Grizzlies.

Memphis, as defensively gifted as they are, will not be able to stop Kevin Durant. They probably won’t even be able to contain him. Durant has never been better than he is right now, on the verge of taking home his first MVP trophy. The Grizzlies extended Tony Allen specifically for this type of matchup, but Allen, at just 6’4″, will struggle to bother Durant’s shot. That’s no slight to Tony, as the entirety of the NBA has been unable to do much against Durant this season. KD has been averaging a cool 32 points a night on 50% shooting from the field, 39% from three. Durant has also broadened his game this year, more willing to put the ball on the floor now than in years past. According to SportVU data, Durant is driving the ball nearly six times a game this season, just one fewer than Lebron. On those 5.8 drives per game, Durant is scoring 6.2 points per game, the fourth highest mark in the NBA.

My final note on this series, which will be won decisively by the Thunder, is that Memphis allows the Thunder to play big, something that Scott Brooks loves to do for no reason. Facing a starting lineup of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Thunder have an excuse to give Kendrick Perkins run and not have it totally kill them.

Prediction: Thunder in 4

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(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

News of Andrew Bogut’s cracked ribs makes the likelihood of this series being an interesting one very small. The Warriors have the third best defensive rating in the NBA this year despite starting sieves at point guard and power forward. Golden State’s defensive success can be largely attributed to two men: Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, the latter of which will likely not be healthy in time for round one. Bogut has truly anchored the Warriors defense this season, acting as a final line of defense in the (frequent) event that Steph Curry lets his man by him.

The Clippers have seemingly gone under the radar down the stretch, being pushed aside in the media by the streaking Spurs and the floundering Pacers. But to the careful observer, LA’s Other Team is just as likely as OKC or San Antonio to make it out of the West. Blake Griffin has taken huge strides this season as a defender, post scorer and ball handler. Chris Paul’s shoulder injury ended up being a blessing in disguise as the Flyin’ Lion seemed to really come into his own in Paul’s absence.

It won’t be a cakewalk for the Clips, as Steph Curry and company promise to keep games exciting with their ability to make quick comebacks. No lead is safe against Golden State who is both fourth in three point attempts and percentage. With Bogut and David Lee both nursing injuries, I fully expect Curry to let it fly in the playoffs. Steph already averages 7.9 trey attempts a game, of which he makes 42%, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number climb to nine or ten against the Clippers.

The Clippers’ last two postseasons have ended in part because of a lack of offensive creativity. In the playoffs, when teams really have the time to study every little thing a team does, it is more important than ever to have a sophisticated system. With Vinny Del Negro at the helm, offensive sophistication was never a strong suit of the Clippers. But this season, under Doc Rivers, I expect the Clippers to fight off the offensive stalling that has been characteristic of their recent playoff runs. The Warriors will shoot their way to a couple of close wins, but there’s no way Chris Paul doesn’t get his team to the second round.

Prediction: Clippers in 6

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(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers

The 4v5 matchup out West might be the most purely entertaining series of the entire first round. In Portland and Houston, we find ourselves with two teams that love to score and don’t care much about slowing anyone down. Houston and Portland finish the season ranked 12th and 16th in defensive rating, respectively, making them far and away the poorest overall defensive matchup in round one. The two teams also rank fourth and fifth in offense, with the Rockets scoring 108.6 points/100 possessions and the Blazers scoring 108.3.

The Rockets defensive efficiency with Dwight Howard on the floor is a slightly more acceptable 102.2. That number hangs right at 102.1 when Omer Asik takes the floor. So why the poor overall numbers from the Rockets? Dwight has sat out eleven games this year and Mutant Judge Reinhold has sat out 34 contests due to various injury issues both physical and emotional. With neither rim protector in the game, Houston’s horrendous perimeter defenders routinely get torched. James Harden in particular has shown little to no interest in playing defense this season. But with Asik back in the fold and Dwight well rested and recovered from his recent injury, I expect Houston to show a level of stinginess they were rarely able to achieve during the regular season.

If not for Phoenix, Portland surely would have been the Little Engine That could team, a squad that some pundits picked to get the 7 or 8 seed, but not good enough to make any serious noise. But after getting out to a scorching start, the Blazers spent the majority of the season in the top four in the Western Conference. Portland’s explosive offense has come back to earth a little bit in the second half of the season, especially its clutch performance numbers. But Portland’s success is certainly no fluke, as Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge both submitted All-Star offensive seasons.

They say the long two is dead in the NBA but don’t tell that to Aldridge, the player who by far and away led the league in that type of shot. And while it would be nice for the former Longhorn to learn to shoot from just a few feet back, it is hard to complain with the results he puts up. LMA is currently shooting 48% from between 16-24 feet, in addition to the 57% he shoots at the basket. Aldridge is a tricky matchup for Houston, a team that lacks any sort of traditional power forward who has the size to make life difficult for Aldridge on the block and the speed to chase him around the perimeter. Dwight Howard, for all the rim protection he provides, is no longer the type of player who can completely dominate the entire floor defensively. 2009 Dwight could have made life miserable for Aldridge on the wings. 2014 Dwight will probably live with the inefficient shots.

The question mark for Portland offensively comes from the point guard position, where Damian Lillard will be matched up against the cagey and relentless Patrick Beverly. Beverly famously injured Russell Westbrook in last years playoffs when he lunged for a steal as Westbrook attempted to call timeout. Beverly has developed quite the reputation, and the swagger to go with it, since moving into the starting lineup this year. Tasked with tracking the oppositions’ number one perimeter option, Beverly has dedicated all of his energy to the process, knowing full well that his starting back court mate James Harden can pick up the slack on offense.  Beverly, who has recently dealt with knee issues of his own lately, will be key in slowing down Lillard and the Portland attack.

Prediction: Houston in 7 (but really we’re all winners because these games will be in the 120s).