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NBA Playoffs Threat Rankings: Conference semifinals

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

The Clippers are moving on, but can they rally emotionally again?  (USATSI)
The Clippers are moving on, but can they rally emotionally again? (USATSI)

More postseason: Conference semifinals schedule | Latest news & notes

So ... the first round of the NBA playoffs didn't go as expected, huh? At least that's how it went the first time we did the Threat Rankings, which are built on the premise of a few different variables.

Among the takeaways from Threat Rankings 1.0: Putting the Wizards 15th was not great. I managed to overlook just how terrible the Bulls' offense was and and didn't see the beast Nene would become. There were a few more misses -- and some hits. But undaunted, it's time go get on with it.

Here are the Threat Rankings for the conference semifinals. As we get into them, an explanation: These rankings are based not only on team performance, but the road they have to go through. So if a team matches up badly with its second-round opponent but well with its first, that impacts its ranking.

1. Miami Heat: The only top seed to really take care of business. While everyone else was struggling and floundering, the Heat didn't waste and time and swept the Bobcats. Oh, and they enter the second round with an extra week of rest.

2. San Antonio Spurs: Going to seven games against the eighth seed wasn't exactly inspiring, but they managed to close them out decisively. They were a Vince Carter miracle away from wrapping up sooner, but there's a sizable gap between the Heat and the Spurs.

3. Portland Trail Blazers: An unstoppable scoring machine (LaMarcus Aldridge). The dynamic young playmaker making a name for himself (Damian Lillard). A defense that performed better than advertised and a borderline-lunatic home crowd. Portland has talent, momentum and believes in itself, and that's a dangerous combination.

4. Washington Wizards: They face the Pacers in the second round, another matchup against a team that can't score. Washington's combination of veterans and emerging stars is coming up big time.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Don't be fooled, that struggle in the first round wasn't about "just missing shots." The Thunder's offense is solvable, Kevin Durant is disruptable and they are totally reliant on their two stars. But they are still a powerhouse.

6. Los Angeles Clippers: An emotionally volatile series may have taken a lot out of them. They have the toughest road remaining of any team, that's why they land here.

7. Brooklyn Nets: Veteran experience managed to get them past an overachieving Raptors team. Can Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett ruin LeBron's spring one more time?

8. Indiana Pacers: You beat the eighth seed -- who was substantially below .500 and without their best player -- in seven games. Congratu-freaking-lations.

Western Conference semifinals

No. 3 Clippers vs. No. 2 Thunder

Why OKC's dangerous: Kevin Durant has a fire lit under himself after the "Mr. Unreliable" fiasco ... Russell Westbrook remains the most infuriatingly effective player in the league for his critics ... Serge Ibaka will have a huge chance to make a name for himself in this series ... Caron Butler knows the Clippers' system ... They know they won't face a tougher challenge before Miami than what they went through vs. Memphis.

Why Clippers are dangerous: Blake Griffin has evolved into a primetime player, a true go-to guy and OKC may not have an answer. Kendrick Perkins won't have the same success vs. DeAndre Jordan he did vs. the Memphis' bigs based on raw athleticism. The Clippers have the athletes to run with OKC, maybe the only team that does. Chris Paul is still the Point God. LA has shooters to spread the OKC defense to the margins and can pound the team inside. They're riding an emotional wave right now. The lows are low, but the highs are incredibly high.

OKC's weaknesses: The offense gets hyper-predictable. Before Game 6, Kevin Durant had just 19 drives in five games, a pitiful number. If you can deter the Thunder from attacking the rim and get back in transition, they fall apart. In the regular season, the Thunder only scored .716 points per possession vs. the Clippers in pick and roll with the ball handler. Their transition defense was poor against Memphis, ranked 15th among playoff teams.

Clippers' weaknesses: They got torched defensively by Golden State, especially in the pick and roll. Paul is badly equipped to handle Westbrook's athleticism. The length of OKC's defenders will likely bother the Clippers' shooters.

Series X-factor: Matt Barnes (plus-six per 100 possessions vs. Thunder this season). Reggie Jackson in dual-guard sets. Thunder smallball with KD at the four.

Individual matchup I love: Serge Ibaka vs. Blake Griffin. Can Ibaka keep out of foul trouble and guard Griffin's improved jumper out of the triple-threat?

Moving on: Thunder in 6. Too much speed, too many weapons, and the best player on Earth this season.

No. 5 Blazers vs. No. 1 Spurs

Why San Antonio is dangerous: Have you been paying attention for the last 15 years?

Why the Blazers are dangerous: The Rockets series taught them they are good enough to compete, gave them belief in themselves, and gave them momentum. They have game-changing players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. They can get back into games quickly with 3-pointers and their defense was better than expected.

San Antonio's weaknesses: Their offense was caught off-guard by Dallas' man-zone hybrids and their bench has been bad so far in the playoffs. They lack a lot of versatility on the wing beyond Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili can suddenly disappear.

The Blazers' weaknesses: Is their defense really better, or did it just have a good series of matchups vs. Houston? Can they adjust to staying on a string vs. the Spurs' defense? They could struggle to get the ball in the post vs. the Spurs' help defense.

Series X-Factor: Robin Lopez's rim protection. Wes Matthews' defense on whoever. Kawhi Leonard checking Damian Lillard in switches. Mo Williams vs. Patty Mills.

Moving on: Spurs in seven. I think the Blazers make this one tough for San Antonio, but like in the first series, a Game 7 blowout comes on the back of Spurs' execution.

Eastern Conference semifinals

No. 6 Nets vs. No. 1 Heat

Why the Heat are dangerous: Count the rings.

Why the Nets are dangerous: Count the (tree) rings. They're experienced as all get out and know how to beat LeBron; they've done it before, though not in the recent past.

Miami's weaknesses: If you can shut down their initial actions (first pass, post entry, etc.) their offense can stagnate. They struggle inside on the glass and against post scorers. They don't have dominant backcourt size.

The Nets' weaknesses: They struggle with quality rotations due to foot speed. You can outrun them if you force long-jumpers. They foul. A lot.

Series X-Factor: Marcus Thornton bench points. Dwyane Wade post play on both sides of the floor. How Miami doubles in the post. Who Drake roots for.

Moving on: Heat in 6. The Nets are tough, but the Heat are better. KG and Pierce aren't who they were two years ago and Rajon Rondo ain't walking through that door.

No. 5 Wizards vs. No. 1 Pacers

Why the Pacers are dangerous: Paul George has gone back to playing like he did in November. David West is tough and reliable. Their defense can still thump you good for stretches. Roy Hibbert is still tall. They have decent depth.

Why the Wizards are dangerous: They're in a groove. Nene is healthy and engaged. John Wall can take over a game at both ends. Trevor Booker makes huge plays. They have shooters to punish doubles.

Pacers weaknesses: Have you seen them play the last three months? They're emotionally fragile and mentally lost. Their offense dies like an old car on the interstate and then their transition defense suffers.

Wizards weaknesses: They're inconsistent. A lot of their looks offensively were because of Bulls misses. If the Pacers score any better, that could be trouble. Their rotations are still a little bit weird.

Series X-Factors: Marcin Gortat's post scoring. Bradley Beal's ability to find and take 3's vs. mid-range 2's. Lance Stephenson's temper. John Wall's defense on Paul George on switches. Roy Hibbert's spirit.

Moving on: Pacers in six. I could see the Wizards taking even the first game and panic returning, but the Pacers also have a much more comfortable matchup set in this round than vs. Atlanta. Until they're dead I can't firmly believe it, no matter the signs.

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