Detroit Pistons at Cleveland Cavaliers, Game 1 (3pm Sunday, ABC)
A month ago the Pistons were a .500 team battling the Bulls for the final playoff spot, but they put the hammer down to win 10 of 14, leaving Chicago comfortably in their rearview. Detroit is led by 6-11 rebounding machine Andre Drummond, who led the league with 14.8 rpg, and scored 16 ppg. Drummond is so consistent that he led the NBA in 15-15 games with 30, while DeAndre Jordan was second with 13. The Pistons offense isn’t high-powered, but it is balanced, as all five starters averaged at least 14 ppg, with Reggie Jackson leading with 18 ppg, as well as leading the team with 6.2 apg.
What to make of the Cavs? Two head coaches, two love triangles (Kyrie Irving-Kehlani-PartyNextDoor, and LeBron-CLeveland-Miami) and a whole mess of questions marks. It’s not often a 57-win team feels like a letdown. In any event, Lebron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have put up the numbers people expect of them, but the wins haven’t come, and Irving has been exposed as a liability on defense – this will eventually be an issue in the playoffs. Still, TNT analyst Chris Webber says the Cavs’ path to the finals is clear:
“(The Eastern Conference) is Cleveland’s to lose this year,” Webber declared. “I’m only convinced because LeBron is one of the greatest players we’ve seen – that’s the only reason, the only reason. It’s not because of how well they’ve played, the ups and downs of the seasons, because of team chemistry, it’s because of LeBron.”
LeBron James played an NBA FInals for the ages last season and it wasn’t enough, as he and the Cavs found themselves outgunned by Steph Curry and the Warriors. Webber says that James will have to do even more this year:
“He’s gonna have to play better. His team needs him to do everything. His team is gonna need him to be at his best. Being that the Warriors are better than they were last year, even if (Cleveland) is a little bit better… He’s definitely gonna have to be better. It’s on him more than ever before.”
No pressure, buddy.
The Cavs beat the Pistons in 3 out of 4 games this season.
Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs, Game 1 (8pm Sunday, TNT)
There’s no way around it: the Grizzlies are little more than cannon fodder, having long ago lost their two best players, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, to injury. If those dudes were healthy, you’d at least have to give them a puncher’s chance. But they’re not healthy.
“Obviously the injuries to Conley and Gasol really have hurt this team, you’ve traded Jeff Green away, and now Zach Randolph is kinda on an island by himself,” notes TNT analyst Reggie Miller. “And if you’re the Spurs, you’re gonna load up that way and you know what (Randolph’s) job description is: to pump fake, pump fake, try to go left, spin back right. The Spurs and Pop are tremendous at looking at those scouting reports and taking away your strength.”
While Miller has the utmost respect for the Grizzlies’ “grit and grind” on defense, their deficiencies on the other side of the ball are huge.
“A lot is gonna depend on where Coach (Dave) Joerger can find offense,” Miller said. “When you gotta rely on Matt Barnes and Tony Allen to score for you, you’re in trouble, because that’s not their job description.”
The Spurs spent the whole season playing in the shadow of the Warriors, and until the end of the season were actually sporting a better point differential. But when it became clear that the Spurs had locked up the 2 seed, the only thing head coach Gregg Popovich cared about was getting healthy and rested for what might be this core’s last hurrah, as Tim Duncan is 39 and just played the fewest minutes of his career, including strike-shortened seasons; Tony Parker is 33 and playing waning minutes with waning effectiveness; and Manu Ginobili is 38 and took a shot to the cubes so severe he required emergency surgery just two months ago.
While Miller isn’t worried about the Spurs getting past Memphis, he does have concerns about them:
“I want to see Boris Diaw, and how he is coming back from this injury. And to me, Tony Parker – he doesn’t have to be Tony Parker of a few years back when he was attacking the paint and he lived in there and he averaged like 11-13 points a game. But can he revert back to that in certain times in certain series. Obviously versus Golden State in the conference finals, you would love to see him put pressure on Steph Curry. Can he revert back throughout these playoffs of his former self of attacking the paint? And Boris Diaw is going to be key for this series, especially not knowing which Tim Duncan is going to show up. Diaw has to be that guy that plays at a high level for them.”
For all the miles on the old war horses, and the injury to Diaw, Webber says this Spurs team, featuring Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, is right up there.
“This is the best Spurs team of all time if you were to go just by numbers. Not too many teams are gonna have a chance to beat the Spurs this year,” Webber said.
The Spurs swept the Griz 4-0 this season, and tied the record for most home wins in a season, with 40.
Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers, Game 1 (10:30pm Sunday, TNT) On January 20, the Trail Blazers were a lowly 19-26 and perusing spring vacation packages. Now they’re 44-38 and a 5 seed. Life can be funny sometimes. The team underwent a big rebuild after the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge, and it took time for the parts to gel, but once guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum figured it out, the team took off. Lillard went 25-4-7 this season, while McCollum posted 21-3-4, on a team that features a starting five that is entirely 25 and under.
“If you’re Doc Rivers, this is a scary first-round matchup for the simple fact that (Portland head coach) Terry Stotts has two guys in Lillard and McCollum who can go out and create their own offense,” according to Miller. “They don’t need screens, they don’t need to be set up. Both guys are good with the basketball, and create offense for themselves and their teammates.”
“The only concern I have for Portland is their depth and their rebounding,” Miller added. “Will they be able to rebound with DeAndre (Jordan) and Blake (Griffin)? (The Clippers) are very deep, and they can just wear you down with their bench.”
After the Cavs, the Clips might be the toughest team to figure. They convinced DeAndre Jordan last off-season to stick around for one more title run, and then Blake Griffin’s season went sideways, as he hurt his shoulder on Christmas, then broke his hand punching a friend, for which he got a 40-game suspension. In all he missed 45 games, only returning on April 3, but the Clips still finished 53-29. Maybe the long layoff will prove to be a blessing, as he’ll have the freshest legs of any marquee name. Or maybe it will be a curse, and he’ll totally disrupt what the Clips put together. Time will tell.