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NBA Playoffs Preview: Eastern Conference First Round (with Gamblin Matt Mortensen)
[With the NBA playoffs beginning today, my good friend "Gamblin" Matt Mortensen and myself set out to give you an extensive preview of the first round match ups. Naturally that blew up into a column that was over 7,000 words. As a result, a one part column featuring all the predictions and analysis will now be broke into two parts. Here is the Eastern Conference portion.]
Goodness gracious me Matt, you’d think these sports leagues would space things out better. We just finished that NHL preview a few days ago and now we’ve got to bang out this NBA one almost immediately after. All while you’re abandoning me for a weekend of seclusion and romance! I see how things are.
M: Well it's not my fault! Don't go blaming me. You should be thanking me actually! We've just started this and I have to be up in 6 hours time! But at least it's the NBA playoffs. They are usually pretty one sided, thankfully.
This is true. And we know you love your sweeps. But enough about that because I’m pretty sure we’ll be discussing one in a moment. And the lord said onto Moses, “LET THERE BE BASKETBALL”. No I’m not giving up on The Ten Commandments references yet!
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (8) Detroit Pistons
Major Storyline: Can the Pistons win a game? I feel like this question could apply to many of these series’ Matt; especially applies here where the gulf of talent is pretty vast. Seriously, it’s like comparing Pentagon Jr. to Argenis. And I say this as someone who likes Detroit and how they’ve been put together by diabolical hater Stan Van Gundy. I suppose it’s good they’re getting the experience at least.
M: It applies to a lot of first round match ups this season I believe. In this match up specifically mind you? I'm actually not so sure. I actually am not looking forward to one series in the first round. I think 6/8 series are going to be pretty boring on the excitement level.
Cavalier with the Most to Prove: Kevin Love. Because duh. Forget the fact that his shooting percentage has gone the way of Richard Grieco since he joined the Cavaliers or that on any given day it seems like he could be on his way to Boston, LA or pretty much any other place than Cleveland; the man is the only member of the Cavs big three who hasn’t had any real playoff experience thanks to his Kelly Olynyk caused injury last year. Certainly it might be too easy to put Love in this category, but I actually think the low stakes make it more interesting to see how he does here. Dominant Kevin Love here will indicate to me that maybe the Cavs can go further than we all expect; same old same old Kevin Love will just make me go back to wondering how awesome it have been if the Cavs had kept Andrew Wiggins. Let’s take a moment to praise Flip Saunders once more for that trade Matt.
M: Kevin Love? Sure. But not here. It's too early for him to prove anything. If he wants to prove something than it should be in the conference finals. It's Tristan Thompson all the way here. He needs to show why he's worth as much money as he thinks he does. Especially going up against that beast of a man in Drummond. This is the match up in this series I'm most intrigued by. Both guys will want to enforce themselves on the games for their teams style and tempo. Whoever has the edge in this match up I think goes along way to how the games play out.
Piston with the Most to Prove: I’m guessing your Thompson/Drummond talk means you’re going with the iCarly loving big man here. It’ll please you to no end then that I’m going to be a contrarian and go with Reggie Jackson. I LOVE Reggie Jackson Matt. I thought he got a bad rap during his tenure in OKC (jokes on them now isn’t it?) and it pleases me greatly that he’s turned into a damn good point guard for the Pistons over the last two years. This is his first big test at being the leader of this team and I’m hopeful he proves his worth even though the Pistons are likely going to get Theon Greyjoy’d by Cleveland. At least maybe Reggie can shoot a bit better, really the only weakness in his game thus far (42% from the field, 36% from three if I’m not mistaken).
M: I am indeed going Drummond here! I don't really have much to add here that I already haven't said in regards to the Thompson part. I'm not saying that the Pistons can win this series because, well they can't. But I'm expecting Drummond to be quite the dominate player in this series and certainly make a couple games quite tight and close coming down to the final few minutes in the 4th.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: $1.06 for the Cavs and $10.50 for the Pistons to win the series. Think we’ll be seeing quite a few odds like these. This series is only going two ways. It's a sweep for the Cavs or it'll be 4-1. $3.60 for the sweep and $2.69 for 4-1. I actually like the Pistons here to steal a game. I'm sure that's going to completely surprise you here, Iken, in me not taking the sweep.
Not really, even though I am taking the Cavs in four here. Again, I really like this Detroit team and where they’re going; that core of Jackson, Drummond (who is really, REALLY good) and Stanley Johnson coupled with SVG should lead to many good years for them. This is their first rodeo in the postseason though and I think the Cavs, after a campaign that emulated an MTV reality show more than a basketball season, will be looking to make a statement right away. All four games will be close, but the Cavs will prevail in a sweep.
(2) Toronto Raptors vs. (7) Indiana Pacers
Major Storyline: Am I the only one who thinks Toronto is really, REALLY good? Like good enough to beat the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals? I’m telling you Matt, I’ve got a feeling about this squad. Don’t let the fact that they’ve flown under the radar all year cloud the fact that they have two really dynamic scorers in Demar Derozen and Kyle Lowry (a top five point guard in this league by the way), a very solid center in Jonas Valančiūnas and a damn good coach in Dwayne Casey who values both ends of the floor (even though I do wish he’d have his really athletic squad push the pace some more). I’m all in on the Raptors here Matt; depending on how the next few rounds play out, I may even pick them over Cleveland to go to the Finals.
M: First of all. It's cause they are Canadian and you need to root for a Canadian team cause none made the NHL playoffs!!!
But yes, they are quite the adequate team I feel too. I think this will be quite the good match up for them. It’ll give them some competition but the competition won't be enough to beat them or make them scared that they’ll lose. That's unless my boy, George, starts going off and scoring 60 like my boy Kobe did!!
Raptor with the Most to Prove: I’m going to surprise you here Matt and go with DeMarre Carroll. I would’ve gone elsewhere here (and you easily can considering Toronto’s disappointing first round exits the past few years), but the fact that Carroll, the Raptor’s big signing from last offseason I remind you, has been out most of the season gives me cause for pause. I want to see how he does here in this series, his first real playing time in months. If he can get back to form quickly as the ultimate three and d guy, I’m going to feel even better about the Raptors chances going forward.
M: This is another easy one for me here. Kyle Lowry all the way here. Remember when everyone was talking about him at the start of the season? Well there's none of that happening now. That's probably a little harsh on him as other things have gotten more of the national attention. Not to mention he does play for Toronto. So you know, that USA bias isn't going to give him the time of day. He is my Most Improved Player this season. I think he's taken his game to a whole other level this season. He’ll be guarded by George Hill no doubt who knows how to and has stopped plenty of guys in his career. This will be a big series for the confidence of this Raptors team. You yourself brought to light their first round exits.
Pacer with the Most to Prove: Did I really just see you say that Kyle Lowry deserved the Most Improved Player award more than C.J. McCollum?! FOR SHAME MATT! Not since Dave Meltzer’s thoughts on female world champions has someone been this wrong.
Anyways, this has got to be Paul George here right? Not because the man necessarily has to prove his greatness but because he’s pretty much the only chance the Pacers here. Even after his injury and the fact that he still can’t seem to shoot more than 42% from the field (seriously, does this not concern people?) George is still great and still one of the three best players in this series. If he explodes, this becomes a whole different series.
M: Ugh yes. How many games have the Blazers won? How many have the Raptors won? Which player has improved the most this season in helping his team generate the wins? I'll take Lowry all day.I am all with you here that it's PG. I didn't realise he was only 42%. I still am baffled that he came back from that injury. So many people with that injury in many types of sports have had to hang it up because of the aftermath. Not for one second do I think that it doesn't impact his game or that he was the same player he was before that happened. He's clearly lost a step and he’ll never get that back. But he's the best chance the Pacers have of making this some type of series. And for their sake and ours I hope we get something half decent out of this. Mints Ellis isn't one to sleep on though. If he beats up, beware.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: $1.30 for the Raptors and $3.70 for the Pacers. Much like the Cavs series this is only going to end one of two ways. Raptors will be advancing. Sweep? I find the unlikely. Going the distance? I find even more unlikely. This will be over in 5 or 6. $3.60 for 4-1 and $5.30 for 4-2. I was leaning towards 4-2 before we started this but think I'll change to 4-1.
Raptors will win in six Matt. I will say that out of all the first round match ups this is the one where you may want to take a risk on your money. Paul George is a superstar and Frank Vogel is a really good coach; that combination will get them two games and if George explodes, it could lead to more. Again though, I believe in the Raptors and I think they pass this test and move on. Like you I love that it’s the Pacers here for them; it should serve as a respectable challenge that prepares them for what’s to come.
(3) Miami Heat vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets
Major Storyline: My goodness is this series even. Something pretty amazing happened in the East this season Matt; four teams (Miami, Charlotte, Atlanta and Boston) all had the same record and all could’ve gone anywhere from the 3rd to 6th seed with the right tiebreaker. That’s unbelievable. As such, I expect this series will be really, REALLY close and I expect this series, as well as the next we break down, will come down to who wins the coaching battle. And it’s a damn good battle Matt; we’ve got the always underrated Eric Spoelstra vs. the man who turned the Hornets into a near fifty win team with Marvin freakin Williams as their third best player. MARVIN WILLIAMS MATT! He deserves Kurt Angle’s gold medal for that alone.
M: But did he turn them around with a broken friggin neck? I rest my case. As I said way back when we started this, like an hour ago, man is it really 1:30am already? Damn you Iken! As I was saying. As I said way back when 6/8 of these series will be pretty non exciting. This is one of the series that will be full of excitement. Surprising to you I actually do like up and coming teams. One of them is the Wizards. The other is the Hornets. So I'm insanely happy that at least one of them made the playoffs so I can get behind them and cheer them on. This is old vs young. And old team that really shouldn't be competing for much longer against a younger hungrier team that will be competing long into the playoffs for the next few years at least.
Heat with the Most to Prove: M: I assume you’ll probably go someone like Wade here? Me? I'm taking Hassan Whiteside. Let's see how greedy and all about me this guy is. We all know he's after a max deal. We all know he's chasing that once the series is over. But does he decide to be a team player here or be a all about me and my stats kind of player here? I don't know. If he goes down the all about me route I really worry for the Heat’s chances. If he goes the team route then obviously the Heat will be a lot better off.
Nice job hijacking my pole position there Matt! I’m actually going with Goran Dragic, who used to be one of my favorite players in the NBA when he was with the Phoenix Suns. Key word there is was; I know the guy is still shooting 47% from the field overall, but his three point percentage is way down (only 31%), his points per game are way down (14.1), so on and so forth. He just doesn’t seem to be the same kamikaze genius that exploded off my screen in Phoenix. That has to change here, especially from the three point line.
Hornet with the Most to Prove: M: Kemba. Kemba. Kemba. It's time for Kemba to finally put this team solely on his back and step up and be an all star. He has the talent. He needs to find the inner grit and hunger and let that come out. He has enough talent around him now to help him out. But when it comes down to it he needs to take control and put away the Heat. Can he do it? I think he can. He doesn't need to worry about being double teamed cause he has other weapons ready and able to drain a shot.
Jeremy Jeremy Jeremy. Which Jeremy am I referring to Matt; why not both of them? As inconsistent as Kemba Walker is with shooting (if the man ever sees 45% from the field in a season, I’m going to assume he’s been replaced with a cyborg version of himself) and as much of unknown as Al Jefferson has been recently I at least know I’m getting 15-20 from both of them in this series (well at least from Kemba). The x-factors will be the two Jeremy’s, who were both really, REALLY good this year coming off the bench. If they contribute their usual great bench play, improve their three point shooting from their combined 31% during the season and get some foul calls the Hornets will have this. Seriously refs; can Jeremy Linn get some calls going his way? Or does he have to put a Knicks jersey on again for that to happen?
Gamblin Matt and the Odds and Winner: $1.68 for Miami and $2.24 for the Hornets to win this series. This is going long. 7 games long. If not, this is over in 6. No way someone wins this series earlier. The Heat are $5.95 for 4-2 and the Hornets are $5.25 for 4-2. But I fully expect this going 7. Heat are $3.98 for 4-3, that's insanely short and the Hornets are $8.50. Wow. That's insane. Flip a coin and pick a winner. Actually, no. I'm very confident that the Hornets win this series. The hot streak will continue.
I agree Matt. It might be wishful thinking because it’s really cool to see the Charlotte Hornets back in the playoffs and because my good pal Joe Brown (who might be reading this. Hi Joe Brown!) is a die hard Hornets fan. But even with all that I like the job Clifford has done, I like the balance of the Walker/Nic Batum/Marvin Williams/Big Al squad and most importantly I’m just not sold on the Heat, who look like a really good squad if the year was 2008. It’ll be a tight seven game series but ultimately Charlotte will prevail, leading to what should be a fun and refreshing Toronto-Charlotte round two series.
(4) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Boston Celtics
Major Storyline: Brad Stevens is a freakin wizard and he might just be the best coach in the NBA. I mean what more is there to say here Matt? This is a Celtics team that started Jared Sullinger, the NBA equivalent of the Pokemon Slowpoke, most of the season at center and somehow nearly was a third seed in the East anyway. The only logical conclusion is that Stevens is just plain better than everyone else at what he does. I can’t wait to see him and Budenholzer match wits. It’s going to be like that game of chess between Max von Sydow and Death from The Seventh Seal!
M: Can the Hawks score enough is the major storyline here. Boston finished 10th in offensive rating and 4th in defensive. The Hawks? 2nd defensively. Nice!! 21st offensively. Not nice. That's where this series will be won and lost. Can the Hawks actually put up enough points to keep up with the Celtics. I have my doubts.
Hawk with the Most to Prove: Move aside Matt; I’m leading this one off! Kyle Korver is my pick here. After an unreal season by his standards a year ago,, the Ashton Kutcher doppelganger has been disappointing; he didn’t even shoot 40% from three this year. Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Milsap may be the best players the Hawks have and Dennis Schroder looks like he’s going to be a star for them soon. But as of now the Hawks still go as Korver goes in my opinion; when he’s hitting threes like he can there’s no stopping them. He has to be more like last year and less like Dude Where’s My Shot?.
M: Kent Bazemore and it's not even close. I could be lame and cheat and say Al Horford and Paul Millsap as they are the heartbeat of the Atlanta Hawks. With your boy DeMarre Carroll bailing north of the border it's fallen into Bazemore’s lap to fill the roll of Carroll in last seasons playoffs. He's not going to score as often as Bazemore did and that's what worries me. He needs too. Perhaps even be more consistent. He's got the skills to get hot and he'll need to. Especially from deep. He's athletic enough to run the lane and drive the basket but if he can rain threes in tandem with Korver they are going to go along way in winning this series.
Celtic with the Most to Prove: Evan Turner. What is it with all these nomad role players somehow getting good Matt; first we had Marvin Williams and now we’ve got Turner, who when playing well really turns the Celtics into a whole other team. If he decides to be the poor man’s version of a distributing LeBron James and feeds the ball to Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder (who would be my second choice for Most Improved Player by the way), Kelly Olynyk and company, the Celts will cruise. If he decides to be the poor man’s version of a jack of all trades LeBron, the Celtics are in trouble. I don’t want you and your 25% three point shooting anywhere near this game Evan!
M: Kelly Olynyk to dislocate Al Horford’s shoulder or prove it was just a fluke. Or I guess I could say Isaiah Thomas. The Celtics don't have a legitimate superstar to lean on when it gets tight but he is the closest thing they have to one. He can score from anywhere on the court and I fully expect a chance for him to hit a game winner in this series will occur. He’ll need to take it.
Gamblin Matt and the Odds plus Winner: $1.58 for the Hawks and $2.46 for the Celtics. This is going to be another long series. Another game 7 for me. $3.88 for the Hawks and $8.20 for the Celtics. I can see this going 6 so just incase Hawks $6.55 in 6 and Celtics $4.90 in 6. The odds are seriously weird! I really really worry about the Hawks chances of keeping pace with the Celtics and being able to score enough points. I'm taking the upset again here. Celtics in 7. I would not be shocked in the slightest if they won in 4-1 however.
Celtics in six. I’m not betting against Brad Stevens Matt and if they had one other big piece here I’d honestly say they’d be the only team with a chance of beating Golden State in the Finals. As such they’ll just have to settle for a first round victory over a Hawks team that I think saw their window shut last year. By the way; Cleveland should be scared to death of this Celtics team. Legit. If the Celtics make it to the next round here I’d be very tempted to say they could give the Cavs a run for their money. At least they’ll have Kevin Love running away from Canadian Lightning. Fear Olynyk!
Check out our breakdown of the Western Conference this afternoon!