#7 Indiana Pacers at #2 Toronto Raptors, Game 1 (12:30pm Saturday, ESPN)
The Pacers also made a kick at the end, going 6-1 in the season’s final two weeks to go 45-37 and lock up the 6 seed in the East. Paul George came back from a season lost to a broken leg to play as well as ever, averaging 23 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists per game. Basketball Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Reggie Miller says George is obviously the key to Indy’s success. “The matchup between Paul George and DeMar DeRozan, will they equalize one another out, or can one get the better of the other. It’s gonna be interesting to watch.” George is gonna need help from the likes of the battle-tested Monta Ellis, whom Miller says could be an X-factor, as well as George Hill (12-4-3) and Ian Mahinmi (9-7-1 in just 25 mpg). The Pacers may be without sixth man CJ Miles for at least the first game, as he’s nursing a bad shoulder.
Would you believe the Toronto Raptors had the fourth best record in the NBA this season? Has there ever been a more unassuming 2 seed? The Raptors went 56-26, lost three in a row just twice, and not once since November, while the Clips and Thunder went through their own periods of drama. Toronto features maybe the best backcourt this side of Portland, with Kyle Lowry averaging 21-5-6 and DeMar DeRozan kicking in 24-5-4, while both playing solid D. The Raptors defeated the Pacers on opening day on the 2015-16 NBA season, and were 1-3 against them overall.
“With the Pacers playing small and as great as Toronto is, it’s one of those matchups that on paper, a 2 vs 7, that’s Toronto’s,” said Miller. “But the Pacers might have something to say about that because of Paul George and Monta Ellis.” Not that Miller is biased, mind you.
#5 Boston Celtics at #4 Atlanta Hawks, Game 1 (7pm Saturday, ESPN)
The Celtics stumbled badly over the last month of the season, going just 9-8, in part because of an injury to Jae Crowder, falling from the 3 seed to the 5 seed, as they finished in a four-way tie at 48-34, but came up short on tiebreakers. It would be easy to pile on, call them a bunch of chokers or underachievers, but the truth is they were probably playing above their heads for a while.
“You got a young, hungry, scrappy Brad Stevens team, on paper, you look at them, you wonder, how do they make the playoffs?” asks Miller. “Cuz they don’t have a real true superstar. Isaiah Thomas made the All Star team, but he’s not one of those guys who’s a huge difference maker, but he can make big shots.” Thomas is a 5-foot-9-inch, 185 pound shooting guard who makes just 43% of his field goal attempts, but who averaged 22 points, 3 rebounds and 6 assists per game. How he and Avery Bradley match up Atlanta’s guards will be key, says Miller. “The backcourt matchups between (Jeff) Teague and Dennis Schoder, and Isaiah Thomas and (Avery) Bradley – out of all four guards, who can gain the advantage? That backcourt matchup is going to be something to watch.”
The Hawks were among the primary benefactors of the Celtics’ nosedive, as it allowed them to be the home team in Round 1. A year ago these guys won 60 games were a trendy pick to make some noise in the playoffs, but last year they were a little lucky and this year they were a little unlucky, and so it looks as though there was a big drop-off. Nope. Paul Millsap and Al Horford form a formidable front court tandem, averaging 17-9 and 15-7 respectively, and Jeff Teague mans the point, scoring 16 ppg and dishing out 6 apg. The Hawks beat the Celtics in 3 of 4 meetings this season.
“I think it’s a fascinating series that features teams that don’t have superstar talent. Maybe the best player on the floor is Paul Millsap,” notes TNT analyst Brent Barry, who thinks the C’s late-season swoon will hurt them in the playoffs. “I feel like Boston needed the home court, but the two teams are fairly matched up with really great, great coaching on either side, so lots of chess match stuff to happen in that series.”
“Any time you’re dealing with a 4-5 matchup, it’s a coin toss,” added Miller.
#6 Dallas Mavericks at #3 Oklahoma City Thunder, Game 1 (9:30pm Saturday, ESPN)
The Dallas Mavericks finished strong, winning 7 of 9 down the stretch to go 420-40 and secure the 6 seed in the West, and those two losses were to the Clippers and Spurs, two clearly superior teams. So how do we like their chances against the Thunder? Not so much. The Mavs were one of only two playoff teams that were outscored by their opponents this season, as well as outshot, and outrebounded – it’s kinda weird they made it this far. Still, Dirk Nowitzki could get hot at any time, Deron Williams seems to have gotten at least some of his mojo back, and you simply cannot ignore anyone named Zaza Pachulia.
Still, the Thunder, led by the Dynamic Duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, are no joke. Westbrook this year tied Magic Johnson record of 18 triple-doubles in a season, and Durant has scored at least 20 points for the last 64 games, the longest such streak since MJ went 69 in ‘90-’91. Stir in Enes Kanter coming off the bench to average 12-8 in just 21 minutes, and these guys can run with anybody on any given night. The Thunder went 55-27 this year, the sixth-best record in the league and the at +7.3 had the third-best point differential in the league.
“There’s not a team in the Western Conference more dangerous than OKC if something clicks,” said Barry, who added that Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has been frustrated by the way his team can run text book plays in practice, and then fall back into bad habits come tip-off. “At times, OKC has looked like world beaters when everyone has been involved, but on the flipside at times, it looks like they reverted back to their old self, when it’s Kevin’s turn, Russ’ turn. When everyone is touching the basketball and everyone is involved, that’s when OKC is at their best. But sometimes they get a little bullheaded and it becomes a one-two show, and I just dont think thats’ good for the Thunder.”
The Thunder swept the season series against the Mavs, going 4-0, though Dallas did come within 3 points on two occasions – that’s something, right?