NBA Playoffs: Conference Semifinals Preview

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

The Nets and Heat face off in the second round.  (USATSI)
The Nets and Heat face off in the second round. (USATSI)

More postseason coverage: Playoff schedule, results | Latest news, notes

Season series: The 2-seed and 3-seed in the West are coming off of tough first-round series in which they needed seven games to advance. Going 4-3 in a playoff series is as even as you can get in a match-up, which prepares them for this series and makes sense since they split the season series with 2-2. The first game of the season series went to the Clippers at home, as they hammered the offensive glass and used their eight second chance points and 10-rebound advantage on the offensive glass to provide the eight-point margin.

The second regular-season game was a home victory by the Thunder in which OKC's defense was incredible, allowing only 41.8 percent shooting and shutting down everybody not named Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford. The third game was a Clippers' road victory in which Crawford went nuts for 36 points, Matt Barnes had 24 and the starting lineup for LA combined for 116 points to counteract Kevin Durant's 42 points. The fourth game saw the Thunder evening up the series in Los Angeles while once again the Thunder defense came through. Westbrook and Durant combined for 57 points, but the Thunder held the Clippers to 41.9 percent shooting.

STARTERS
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDERLOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Russell WestbrookChris Paul
Thabo SefoloshaJ.J. Redick
Kevin DurantMatt Barnes
Serge IbakaBlake Griffin
Kendrick PerkinsDeAndre Jordan

X-Factor: Serge Ibaka. The Thunder are going to go big initially with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka together, but DeAndre Jordan in this series could mean Oklahoma City has to adjust their lineup earlier in games and go with more athletic options that allow them to keep their defensive principles. Ibaka's ability to stay out of foul trouble and defend multiple big man positions will allow them to do this. Steven Adams may be too raw and a bit of a foul machine to play heavy minutes, but he's mobile enough to make Jordan have to work for the type of impact he needs to have on this series. Ibaka holding Griffin in check during these stretches is incredibly important. If the Thunder decide to go smaller with Ibaka at center and Nick Collison at the 4, Ibaka will have to play big enough to keep Jordan from controlling the glass and the paint.

On offense, Ibaka must be a threat to keep the Clippers from keying in solely on Durant and Westbrook. He doesn't need to average 20 points, but his understanding of space in the half court -- from spotting up for his jumper to finding the back channels for cuts to the hoop -- has to be perfect. He can't just be a watcher on offense; he has to be an anticipator.

Narrative: A post-Donald Sterling world for the Clippers. While the Thunder nearly lost in the first round with two of the best players in the world, they've been through this ordeal before and can draw on that experience to try to get back to the conference finals. The Clippers don't collectively have this by any means, and they'll still operate amid the distraction of whatever news about the Sterling aftermath. Anything that happens, they'll be asked about it. This Clippers are good enough to contend and they have the coaching to get them through this, but you still have to possess the most intense focus against a team like the Thunder in order to succeed. Living in this post-Sterling world may not afford them that opportunity just yet.

Prediction: Can the Thunder play as more of a team beyond their two big weapons? Can the Clippers retain the necessary focus to topple such a dynamic duo and good defense? These are the two questions that will ultimately decide the series. I think the Thunder have a better chance of going back to a total team effort than the Clippers do of not being distracted throughout big parts of this series, which is unfortunate for such a good team to have to go through. Sterling finding a way to hold them down once again is my deciding factor.

THUNDER IN SEVEN

-- Zach Harper

Season series: The Blazers and Spurs split the regular-season games 2-2. LaMarcus Aldridge missed one of the games, a Portland loss, and Tim Duncan and the Big 3 another, a Spurs loss. The Blazers finished plus-4 in the season series.

Aldridge averaged 21 points vs. San Antonio, Damian Lillard 25. Eight different Blazers shot better than 45 percent for the season vs. San Antonio. Tim Duncan averaged only 15.7 points vs. Portland, as Manu Ginobili, who was red hot vs. the Mavericks averaged 17 vs. the Blazers and Tony Parker just 12.7.

STARTERS
Portland Trail BlazersSan Antonio Spurs
Damian LillardTony Parker
Wesley MatthewsDanny Green
Nicolas BatumKawhi Leonard
LaMarcus AldridgeTim Duncan
Robin LopezTiago Splitter

X-Factor: Marco Belinelli. The Spurs had acquired Belinelli to be an upgrade over Gary Neal, but Belinelli has been dreadful in the playoffs so far after a very good regular season. The Spurs are going to need to win the bench scoring matchup, and Belinelli has to be a big part of it. He has to be decent enough defensively to keep on the floor and provide plays both with and without the ball.

San Antonio needs the 3-point shot when their starters rest. Belineli must step up for them.

Narrative: Doesn't Portland have more momentum coming into this series?

They just knocked off the Rockets in six games. They looked like the better team in every game, save Houston's Game 5 win. They have the superstar on the rise and the unstoppable post presence. They have the better home-court advantage. So why don't the Blazers have a shot?

Because it's the Spurs, man. Come on.

Prediction: I think this winds up more competitive than people expect. I don't think the Spurs are "fixed" after their Game 7 win. I think Portland is going to present problems. But just like Dallas surprised people with better defense than they showed in the regular season and a fantastic offensive performance, the Spurs still won, and decisively. I hate to make it this simple, but until the Spurs really fall apart, you have to trust them until the Western Conference Finals at least. History has taught us too much otherwise.

SPURS IN SEVEN

-- Matt Moore

Season series: The Nets swept their regular-season series vs. the Heat 4-0 in one of the weirder season series we saw in 2013-14. The Nets won three of those games by one point, with the other victory coming by a margin of nine in double-OT. This was a season series that couldn't have been tighter, but it's hard to gauge just how much that means. In the first game, the Heat couldn't foul in the last three seconds to extend the game after Chris Bosh made free throws to cut it to one. In the second game, the Nets failed to end it at the end of the fourth and the first overtime, but didn't let the Heat score in the second overtime until there were 16 seconds left.

The third regular-season win came thanks to Joe Johnson stealing a Chris Bosh pass with about a second left, which kept the Heat from getting a shot off to potentially reverse their fortunes against the Nets. In the final game of the series, the Heat lost when Miles Plumlee famously blocked LeBron James' winning attempt at the rim and set the Internet on fire for the rest of the night. That completed the series sweep.

STARTERS
MIAMI HEATBROOKLYN NETS
Mario ChalmersDeron Williams
Dwyane WadeShaun Livingston
LeBron JamesJoe Johnson
Shane BattierPaul Pierce
Chris BoshKevin Garnett

X-Factor: Shane Battier. This isn't the Nets team that was supposed to challenge Miami. This is an adapted, small ball-centric effort compensating for Brook Lopez being out for the season. Since the Nets have figured out that small ball is the best way to maximize what they have left, that means Shane Battier will have to be as effective in these playoffs as he's been in the past for the Heat. He barely played in the series against Charlotte, but will be needed to deal with the lineup containing Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Shaun Livingston, and Paul Pierce. Battier will be asked to match up with any one of those guys at any time and he'll have to deliver some big shots on the other end of the floor too.

In their four games against each other this season, Battier was one of the few members of the Heat with a positive net rating. For players who played in more than one game against Brooklyn (excludes Roger Mason and Toney Douglas), Battier had the highest net rating at plus-4.0 points per 100 possessions. The Heat gave up just 92.3 points per 100 possessions in 63 minutes against Brooklyn.

Narrative: Did the regular season success of the Brooklyn Nets against the Miami Heat actually matter? I'm usually of the belief that regular season success against a team doesn't matter at all. The Heat were 1-3 against the Celtics and 0-3 against the Bulls in 2010-11 during the regular season. They beat both teams in the playoffs in five games, respectively. In 2011-12, they were 1-3 against the Celtics in the regular season but beat them in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. Last season, they were 1-2 against the Pacers but beat them in seven games in the ECF.

So does this 0-4 mark against the Nets mean anything? This will be more heavily scouted and game planned for than their random regular season contests. In the regular season, you're dealing with the randomness of travel schedules and when you're talking about four games that could have been ended with one different bounce, you're basically at the mercy of a coin flip probability. However, this Nets team still out-executed them in the final moments of four games and they have the veteran leadership and a lack of fear when it comes to the Heat's stars to believe those four victories should give them confidence.

Prediction: I don't believe the regular season success ultimately means anything for the Nets, but I do believe they're a really good team as constructed. Joe Johnson has been superb in the playoffs and role players are stepping up with their small ball lineups. However, the Heat have one of the best systems in the league, the coaching advantage, and arguably the three best players in the series. They also have been tested with this core time and time again, and have rarely been defeated since the Mavericks toppled them. I like the Heat to win a very competitive series.

HEAT IN SIX

-- Matt Moore

Season series: The Pacers and Wizards met three times, with the Pacers winning the two games decisively in the early season when they were dominant, and getting trounced in their final meeting when the Pacers were struggling.

The Wizards scored 73 and 66 points (!) the first two meetings, then caught fire for 91 points in their final meeting. Essentially, which Pacers team showed up decided the contests, as it will likely decide this one.

STARTERS
Indiana PacersWashington Wizards
George HillJohn Wall
Lance StephensonBradley Beal
Paul GeorgeTrevor Ariza
David WestNene
Roy HibbertMarcin Gortat

X-Factor: Roy Hibbert. It's rare that a starter is the X-Factor, but Hibbert's an unknown quanitity at this point. He's fallen off such a cliff, from production to performance to attitude, you have to be concerned. Then he comes out vs. the Hawks and sets the tone with eight early points in Game 7.

He should have an easier time vs. the Wizards, as they won't go five-out against him. Hibbert was plus-22 per game vs. the Wizards, nearly 30 points better with him on the court than off. But is this Roy Hibbert that Roy Hibbert?

Narrative: Indiana got past the Hawks, but the Wizards aren't the Hawks. They're rested, they're confident, they're talented, and they're hungry. The Pacers were still a mess for much of the series vs. Atlanta, but how much of that was matchup vs. genuine struggle? The Wizards can't go 5-out like the Hawks did. They don't have the personnel for it ... or do they?

If Washinton gets bold and goes with Trevor Ariza at the four at time, essentially conceding to David West inside, they can bomb from the perimeter. That's their best bet. The Wizards take a crazy amount of long twos. But if they go smallball, Indiana could be in the same spot but against a better opponent.

Prediction: The Wizards can win this series. Indiana didn't put away any concerns in the first round, they just survived. If the Wizards get inventive, they can give the Pacers the same problems Atlanta did.

But they probably won't.

Washington's probably going to take the same approach they did with Chicago, a similar team. Tough defensively, struggles to score. Nene can likely do the same work he did vs. Chicago. David West will be reluctant to extend out on him and Nene can body him in the post. It really comes down to whether the Pacers can score enough.

But I genuinely think the Pacers' defense is better. And Chicago's big problem defensively was that they scored so rarely, they never had a chance to set their offense. Indiana can score a bit better. And I think that's the difference.

I'm not confident, but...

PACERS IN SIX

-- Matt Moore

 
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