by Peter Walsh
After a long NBA regular season, the Playoffs are finally upon us. From here on out, regular-season accomplishments mean nothing and with the pressure revved up, only the strong will survive. There are storylines aplenty heading into the postseason. In the East, it seems as if either the Heat or the Pacers will head to the Finals. Can the Heat overcome its injury issues and three-peat or will the Pacers shake their late-season funk and get back to playing the team-oriented, loose basketball that helped them reach the number-one seed?
In the West, nearly every team enters the postseason with 50 wins and a legitimate shot at making it to the Finals. Kevin Durant will assuredly win the MVP award but with a tough first-round matchup against the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies and a banged-up Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are guaranteed nothing. The Spurs amazingly won 62 games and are once again legitimate title contenders. But with Dirk Nowitzki awaiting them in the first round, San Antonio will have to be on top of their game to advance.
With excitement brimming and the first round set to kick off tomorrow, TNT’s Reggie Miller, Dennis Scott and Chris Webber took part in a media conference call to break down the most enticing first round matchups. Check out the best of what they had to say below!
Nets – Raptors
Reggie Miller: Both Paul Pierce and KG are championship caliber players and if you look at what Billy King has done for the Nets, they’re built for this time of year. This team was built for a best of seven series with no back-to-backs. This is one of the teams that played well since the All-Star break then faltered a little bit down the stretch, but I think they were looking at the seeding and who they matchup better with.
Toronto has no Playoff experience—which you gotta be careful with because Toronto is a scary team. The things they do best bother Brooklyn. They play great defense and have two guys in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan who can absolutely close games. It will be interesting to see how they approach it but all eyes will be on Brooklyn because they were built for the Playoffs this season.
Heat – Bobcats
Reggie Miller: Everyone thinks it’s a forgone conclusion that it’s going to be the Heat and Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the way they have finished the last month, it’s not a forgone conclusion anymore. If I’m seeded three through eight, I have to like my chances. I’m not sure Dwyane Wade is 100 percent healthy, but when healthy, Miami is the best team. But when have they been healthy for a consistent period of time?
Something to watch during this first-round matchup is Big Al Jefferson, who has been unbelievable for Charlotte. Whether it’s Birdman, Oden, Haslem or Chris Bosh, it’s going to be bodies by committee for the Heat. Jefferson is playing off the charts and we know size and physicality affects the Heat. Miami has the advantage when it comes to Playoff experience but Al Jefferson is going to be a load down low for the Heat.
Chris Webber: Dwyane Wade is the biggest question because it puts such a load on LeBron to have to penetrate and allow everyone else to score. Rhythm is a big thing and they are my favorite to come out of the East, but I will not be surprised if they hit some roadblocks along the way. It depends on how healthy Dwyane Wade and the big guys are because they are already undersized and get outrebounded.
Dennis Scott: I believe DWade, LeBron and Chris Bosh will be fine. I’m concerned about Ray Allen, Mike Miller isn’t there, Haslem is older, Battier is beat up because they’ve played small ball and have had him at the four and Beasley hasn’t worked out. I’m wondering who is going to hit the big shots, grab rebounds and help out the Big Three when they set the table.
Pacers – Hawks
Chris Webber: The Pacers have been trying to get their mojo back but they are still one of the most talented teams in these Playoffs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they come out of the East, but they seem like they are very fragile in the area of chemistry or believing in themselves and coming from experience, this is not something you want to be going through this late in the year. I know that getting the number one seed is important to a team that is trying to win the NBA title, but I wonder sometimes if too much has been put on that. I want to know how they are going to handle the expectations and this moment.
We’ve watched a lot of young teams mature and now we’re watching the Pacers movie. Is Hibbert going to dominate the boards? Are they going to cut down their turnovers? Late in the game there’s going to be a lot of face guarding and George and Stephenson are going to be locked up. Is there another guy that’s going to step up?
If they get back to playing like who they were, there are some fun times ahead for them. If they’re trying to work things out and find themselves, now is not the time to do it. No one is entitled to a Championship, everyone works hard and the scouting now is better than ever and they will be tested. I, like everyone else, am looking forward to seeing how they will do in the Playoffs.
Reggie Miller: They’ve got a young talent on their hands in Lance Stephenson and I’ve told people, to win Championships you have to have a little bit of crazy on your team and Lance Stephenson is a little crazy [laughs]. The good thing now is every team is playing with the same record and hopefully they can get back to playing the type of basketball they played the first 50 games where they were dominant on defense and sharing the ball on offense.
Rockets – Blazers
Chris Webber: When the Rockets played teams who weren’t as talented, they didn’t play with as much effort. I think this postseason is going to speak to the maturity of the team. Patrick Beverley plays such great defense for 94-feet which can wear out an opposing point guard but will he be healthy?
Now is not the time to change anything. Houston has proven that they love to play with threes, they’ve taken the least amount of two-point shots in the whole League. They want to get out and run which is much harder to do in the Playoffs with the teams controlling the pace and slowing down the tempo a little bit. Basically, they have to stay true to themselves and get easy shots and defensive stops and hopefully make their threes. They have to play the style they played all season because you can’t change your style in the Playoffs.
Dennis Scott: Kevin McHale has been trying to figure out what defensive team will show up. The best Rockets defense shows up when Dwight Howard gets a few touches early in the game because when it’s late in the game you have to make sure you can execute in the half court and that you’re big fella is involved. The more Dwight Howard is involved and engaged the better they’ll be on defense which will in turn help their transition game because of blocked shots.
Reggie Miller: Out of all the Playoff series, this will be the most entertaining. Everyone is going to be cashing in from three. Which team makes the other commit to defense will have the advantage. You know what you’re going to get from James Harden and Dwight Howard, Dame Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, but who’s gonna be the third guy to step up? The matchup between Chandler Parsons and Nicolas Batum is almost a wash since both guys love to get out in transition, they’re both long and can knock down threes. Damian Lillard cannot get frustrated by Patrick Beverley. That’s the biggest thing.
Thunder – Grizzlies
Dennis Scott: Is Russell Westbrook all the way back and can the team match the intensity they had the year they got to the Finals? You know Durant and Westbrook are going to step up but you’ve made Ibaka a jump shooter, is there a better way to get him involved on offense? They put so much pressure on him defensively to guard the other team’s best low post scorer which he does a great job of. Then there’s Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. Are they ready to take the next step and become better role players and help out the stars?
Reggie Miller: We know it’s going to be a physical series with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol playing ground and pound. We know these two teams have a history with one another. It’s been a long season for Kevin Durant with the absence of Russell Westbrook; he will win the MVP because of that. The ball movement was so crisp when Russell Westbrook was out. When you go against an excellent defensive team like the Grizzlies you have to have great ball movement. The Thunder have to find ways to get quick hitters for guys like Westbrook and Durant and try and get contributions off the bench from Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Caron Butler. If Mike Conley plays Westbrook to a draw, Memphis will win this series.
Chris Webber: The Grizzlies’ defense will mostly let anyone else but Kevin Durant score and if he does score make sure there’s a hand in his face. Of course, that’s easier said than done. The Thunder will need others to step up. I wouldn’t want to be the team that worked so hard to get the number two seed, has the likely MVP and then go up against a physical team that will be playing loose. Can you handle the frustration of losing a game then going back to Memphis, which is a tough place to play. The Thunder are the favorite to come out of the West but it doesn’t seem like a reward to have to go up against Gasol, Z-Bo and all those guys.
Wizards – Bulls
Chris Webber: The Playoffs are a place where you can really make your name and if I’m on the Wizards, I’m salivating if I’m John Wall or Brad Beal because I control the ball and the tempo of the game. I can attack and be aggressive and get fouls. In Washington if you play hard, the fans will love you and that’s the easiest way to get into the game and get the jitters out. I have the series going seven.
Which John Wall will show up? The one who tries to score 30 every night or the guy who dishes out 16 assists in a night. It’s all about John Wall attacking that defense. For the Bulls, there’s no Nate Robinson or Marco Belinelli, can DJ Augustin and Mike Dunleavy bring that same firepower that those guys did last year? I’m not sure, so I think the Wizards have a great chance at winning this series.
Reggie Miller: I really hope Chicago doesn’t overlook Washington. Between John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, that’s not a lot of experience but is a very young, very talented team. If you’re Coach Thibs, you cannot overlook this team.
Dennis Scott: I’m concerned about the Bulls this year because they’re playing a team that likes to play with pace. Last year they played a team in the Brooklyn Nets that played with a slow pace that gave the Bulls a chance to set up their defense. John Wall and Brad Beal get out, run and knock down threes and the Bulls can’t compete with that kind of firepower.
Clippers – Warriors
Reggie Miller: Doc Rivers only won one more game than Vinny Del Negro won last year but the culture has changed in the organization. We just did their game a few nights ago and they were up 20 against Denver and Doc was still animated, cussing out CP3, Blake, DeAndre. It’s called coaching. I always tell people great players want to be coached hard and that’s what guys like Doc and Pop do. Players respond to positive criticism. I think he’s done a fantastic job.
Jermaine O’Neal has played great for the Warriors all season in the absence of David Lee and Andrew Bogut. There’s no back-to-backs and I know he’s 37 years old but he’s a six-time All-Star and a couple of those years he was second or third in MVP voting. He’s tough, defensive-minded and can score down low. Marreese Speights is also going to have to come up big for them.
I give the Warriors a chance because it’s a rivalry between the two and they hate one another. When there’s a rivalry you can throw out who is and isn’t playing because there’s hate involved and it becomes personal. This is going to be one of those series with a lot of hard fouls. David Lee and Blake Griffin can’t stand one another and you know what? I love it! Klay Thompson and Steph Curry have to make shots. If they can hit shots, they’ll be in it.
Chris Webber: When Chris Paul went down you saw a lot of maturity and growth from Blake Griffin. The trust Doc Rivers has in the players is something you can’t underestimate. If you ask players on that team and around the NBA you sense the locker room is different, they feel like they’re entitled to a Championship because they’ve worked just as hard as anyone else and I don’t know if they’ve had that feeling before.
It seems that Golden State plays better when they go smaller. As a coach do you go to hack-a-Jordan and try and disrupt the flow and slow down the game? Probably not, but you never know. If you can make Blake Griffin play center and go smaller, you may be able to win. I think the Warriors are going to have an advantage at home because of their crowd but will they be able to rebound and get threes in transition and easy layups? If they can’t do that, they won’t have an advantage. I think they’ll have to commit to playing small.
Dennis Scott: It comes down to the Chris Paul-Steph Curry matchup. Will Steph make CP3 work? After the series are we going to say, “Steph Curry is a long ways away from being Chris Paul.” Or are we going to say, “Steph Curry is knocking on the door as being one of the top point guards in the League.”