Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Sam Routhier at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samrouthier.
As we approach the end of the 2016 NBA playoffs’ first round, there has already been plenty of action and intrigue in what is often considered a round devoid of mystery. Even with San Antonio and Cleveland showing Memphis and Detroit the exit, respectively, after four-game sweeps, in every other playoff series that is still active there remains at least some level of doubt as to who will advance.
So here, we give you a matchup-by-matchup look at the remaining series, starting with the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 8 Houston Rockets (Golden State leads 3-1)
This series felt over before Stephen Curry’s slip heard ’round the world, and it still feels like Golden State will be wrapping things up at home on Wednesday.
Props to James Harden for carrying Houston past a Curry-less Warriors squad in Game 3 (even if his teammates weren’t exactly thrilled with the Beard’s late heroics), but even with Curry gone at least through the end of this series, the Rockets do not have a prayer. Houston fans everywhere might be cheering for the Rockets outwardly, but inwardly I’m sure a great deal of them can’t wait for this season to end so they never have to see Dwight Howard wear Rockets red again.
No. 3 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 6 Dallas Mavericks (Oklahoma City leads 3-1)
Rick Carlisle claims to be the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, but we all know that this is just what he does in his spare time (while actually serving as the President of the Warlock’s Guild).
The Mavericks beat Oklahoma City in Game 2 thanks to a 21-point outburst from Raymond Felton, who until then was only a notable NBA player because it was absurd that a player of his caliber was still allotted minutes in an NBA rotation. Beyond the Felton-gasm, Dallas snuck by OKC because Kevin Durant only made seven of his 33 field goal attempts. But as any good trick-turner knows, its not the wand — it’s the wizard. The Mavericks limited the Thunder to 84 points thanks to Carlisle’s otherworldly game planning, and for one night, Mark Cuban got to fantasize about locking arms with Dirk Nowitzki and dousing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with Dom Perignon once more.
Oklahoma City came back to win games 3 and 4 handily, and even though Carlisle can coach circles, squares, triangles, trapezoids and pentagrams around Billy Donovan, the talent gap is too great for Dallas to really inflict that much more damage. Expect this series to end like the Golden State contest, with a blowout in Game 5 that makes you wonder how it wasn’t a sweep.
No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (Los Angeles leads 2-1)
I wrote this on Monday afternoon, and since that time this series will have advanced one game. I don’t care what the result of that game was. You shouldn’t either. The Clippers are destined to take on their sworn enemy Golden State in the next round, and that is when you should start caring about Los Angeles basketball.
Sure, Damian Lillard is going to score a lot. Maybe Most Improved Player award winner C.J. McCollum will too. Los Angeles will score more, Blake Griffin will continue to round back into shape and make us all remember he was the best player in the first round last season, and we all get to hear Doc Rivers’ forever-hoarse voice in more post-game conferences. Paul Pierce will make a big shot too; he always does.
Onto the Eastern Conference, where the only hopes of a series going seven games lie.
No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers (Series tied 2-2)
Whoa now! Someone forgot to tell Indiana that seven-seeds are supposed to roll over. The Pacers took Game 1 thanks to Paul George, who took a look around five minutes into the game and realized he’ll be the best player on the court the entire series. Toronto, which hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, was pegged by many to have its playoff woes behind it once and for all with a commanding performance in this series. But instead we are left with a best-of-three that could very well extend the series to seven games.
Beyond George and Monta Ellis (to a severely lesser degree), the Pacers do not have the horses to realistically stay in this race. But based on regular season results, this series should not have been guaranteed to go six games or later, so the best I can do for you here is say all bets are off and get your popcorn ready, because Indiana likely smells blood and is playing with house money.
No. 3 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Charlotte Hornets (Miami leads 2-1)
Much like in the Clippers-Blazers series, there will be one more game between the time I write this and the time it is published. Unlike in that series, this game will matter. Charlotte needs to pull a Boston and win that game to even the series at two games apiece. After Miami thrashed Charlotte in the series’ first game, many were ready to look past this contest and anticipate an epic Miami-Cleveland Eastern Conference Finals. But Charlotte had no intention of doing so, with a huge victory in Game 3.
More of the same in Game 4 will send the series back to Miami tied. Charlotte found its rhythm in Game 3 thanks to Jeremy Lin and Frank Kaminsky’s strong performances, but as the series goes on, Kemba Walker will need to take a step forward and dominate at times if Charlotte wants to keep pace with Miami’s offense.
No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics (Series tied 2-2)
Boston lost Avery Bradley to a hamstring strain in Game 1, and it looked likely that they’d lose the series as well. But after dropping both of the series’ opening games in Atlanta, the Celtics stormed out of the gates in Game 3 and never looked back, winning both games in Boston thanks to a combined 70 points from Isaiah Thomas.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has found new ways to spring Thomas free from the packed paint that he so often faced when driving to the rim during the series’ first two games. The most important development has been running Thomas as a shooting guard with either Marcus Smart or Evan Turner running point. With Thomas off-ball, the Celtics can set screens to free him at the top of the arc, creating a dilemma for Hawks defenders who can either leave Thomas slightly open for a 3-pointer or commit to defend the shot and risk Thomas flying by them toward the hoop. The emergence of Jonas Jerebko from change-of-pace forward to 3-point assassin for Boston has further aided Thomas, because the Hawks that were meeting him under the hoop are now further out at the 3-point line ensuring that Jerebko does not do this.
How Atlanta responds to the changes that Boston made to its offense will be a huge story heading into Game 5. Both of these teams are well-coached and disciplined, and it’s likely that the remaining games in this series will come down to the final minutes of each.