The NBA's second round begins Sunday with three of the four matchups set. In the East, a rematch of last season's conference finals pits the Cavaliers against the Raptors, while Boston and Washington play in what promises to be a nasty matchup between teams that dislike one another. In the West, the Spurs and Rockets face off in another MVP showdown. The Warriors take on the Jazz in a fascinating clash of styles.
Here's a look at three things to know about each series:
(2) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS VS. (3) TORONTO RAPTORS
- The Raptors aren't the same as last season. DeMar DeRozan is a little better, for one. But the big adjustments come from defensive personnel added at the deadline. P.J. Tucker gives them perimeter attitude, while Serge Ibaka anchors them with floor spacing as a four and small-ball five while being able to guard bigger opponents. Neither Tucker nor Ibaka can win a matchup with LeBron James. But they do present much bigger problems for the rest of the Cavaliers. Tucker could give Kyrie Irving serious fits on pick-and-roll switches, and if Ibaka can win his match up with Kevin Love, it would go a long way toward victory.
- The Cavs remain a minus-500 on the moneyline to win this series for a reason. For as good as DeRozan was in the final three games vs. Milwaukee, he was just as bad in Game 3, going 0 of 8. That's who these Raptors are, drowning one second, rising to the sky like Voltron the next. And you just can't have bad games vs. these Cavs, no matter how vulnerable their defense is. If you have a bad quarter, they're gone. The Raptors have a surprising amount of depth with guys like Norman Powell and Delon Wright, but they have very few one-on-one matchups where you think Toronto is definitely better. Cleveland has the best player in the series (James), and are at least tied for the third-best with Irving, and have the fourth best in Love. That's a problem for Toronto.
- Like it is with so many teams, smallball is key. The Raptors need to start Ibaka and Powell to give themselves the most offense they can muster to hang with the Cavs' starters. Play them to a draw, then use Jonas Valanciunas off the bench to punish the secondary units. Take advantage of the Cavs' pitiful defense, hope they don't find that switch, steal Game 1, protect home court, finish the job back in Canada in Game 6. That's a model for a series win, but they have to be able to hang with the starting units offensively. Smallball gets them part of the way, but they also need efficient shooting from DeRozan (difficult because of his shot selection) and key 3-point shooting from spot-up shooters. The Cavs are going to make 3-pointers. The Raptors can't try and throw rocks in a heavy artillery fight.
(1) BOSTON CELTICS VS. (4) WASHINGTON WIZARDS
- Someone's going to be suspended, so get ready for it. Could be Marcus Smart, could be Markieff Morris, could be Bradley Beal, could be Jae Crowder -- but there will be shenanigans. Both coaches need to be stressing composure and how getting ejected is what the other team wants. There is genuine bad blood and both teams have instigators. There is a real capacity for things to get out of control and the officials need to keep an eye on it. Smart and Morris are ready to throw hands at any moment.
- The Celtics' big issue is the backcourt. Once Rajon Rondo went down in the Bulls series, Boston always had an option to hide Isaiah Thomas on defensively. That doesn't exist with vs. Washington. They can "hide" Thomas on Otto Porter, and if Porter tries to back him down in the post, the Celtics can double, or Thomas can flop and get what is a pretty standard "pity call" in the NBA (small guys always get that offensive foul call in the post). But if Porter is slashing, going to the mid-range (where he's a 48 percent shooter) or just rising and firing over Thomas if Thomas falls asleep, it's a problem for Boston. Bradley Beal isn't as physical as the Bulls' Jimmy Butler, but he's a better shooter. Avery Bradley did an amazing job vs. Butler in the last round. But the Bulls did very little to get Butler moving around screens, but the Wizards can get Beal moving off-ball. That's huge in this series. The Celtics are great isolation and switch defenders, but chasing around screens is a problem for both Bradley because of size and Crowder because of mobility. The Wizards need to take advantage. Both Isaiah Thomas and John Wall will eat in this series, because they are the two best players in it.
- Playoff series are rarely determined by depth, but this one could be. The Wizards' bench made a late-season run to look respectable, but fell apart vs. Atlanta. The Celtics have depth for days. Guys all the way down to their 11th and 12th man can impact a game, and the Wizards starters are going to get tired eventually. If Boston's depth shows up and can just win their matchup, that could be enough to tilt this series, despite Washington having the best player in it in Wall.
(2) SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. (3) HOUSTON ROCKETS
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- Danny Green is going to be a tired, frustrated individual. Green, not Kawhi Leonard, figures to get the James Harden assignment for the majority of the game, with Leonard taking over in crunch time. Leonard needs the energy for offense and needs his fouls. Green has to stay on Harden's hip coming over pick and rolls, without getting caught in that nonsense throw-up-a-3-coming-off-the-pick foul officials are for some reason calling in these playoffs. Green also has to space the floor to keep pace with Houston's perimeter attack. He's got a lot of responsibility.
- The Rockets can't switch when Leonard runs pick and roll, where he's lethal. They don't have the mobile bigs to handle that assignment. Ryan Anderson is not the droid they are looking for there. So Houston is going to have to just accept a let-Kawhi Leonard-go-for-40-and-shut-everyone-else-down model. Leonard's super efficient, so it's difficult, but the rest of the Spurs' offense is low on playmakers outside of Tony Parker. Leonard's a fine passer, but not a great playmaker, if you can catch the difference. Don't try and stop Leonard, make the rest of the Spurs score the other 80 points they need to get there.
- San Antonio is never going to be out of this thing, even if the Rockets go way ahead, because Houston is turnover prone. San Antonio is disciplined and can get back into it. The Rockets will never be out of it, even if they go way down, because they can hit 3-pointers in flurry's which slice deficits quickly and San Antonio has a nasty habit of their offense going sub-zero. Do not expect either team to get separation in this series very often.
(1) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS VS. (5) UTAH JAZZ
- OK, the Jazz have a few things going for them. They have an extremely versatile roster on the defensive end. They can switch constantly, which will help, and their guards will have a better chance at containing Kevin Durant, or at least making him work, in pick and rolls. They have good depth and can throw multiple looks at you. If the Warriors go big, the Jazz are thrilled with Rudy Gobert contesting and recovering on JaVale McGee. If they go small, the Jazz feel they can keep Gobert in or go with Derrick Favors and still have the personnel. The Warriors' big thing is having configurations you can't match up with, but the Jazz have a counter for everything. It's whether it will work or not, that's the question.
- (Spoiler Alert: It won't.) Klay Thompson shot 14 percent from 3-point range this season vs. the Jazz and still had a plus-26.1 net rating. The Warriors' starters held the Jazz to a 74 offensive rating this season. The Jazz can defend anyone, but it's the weapons part they fall short in. That's why the Clippers series went seven games; they didn't have enough to take control of the series even with Blake Griffin out. The firepower is just not there. Utah was able to sneak past the Clippers because it could muck the game up without Griffin to get it to a close game, then close with Joe Johnson. That formula isn't going to hold vs. the Warriors.
- The saving grace for Utah? Gordon Hayward played just one game against the Warriors this season, same for George Hill. The argument is "the full-strength Jazz are a different animal and that will be the difference." Hill is going to have to be huge, because you have to wear down Steph Curry offensively and you have to hit 3's. He is the most important Jazz player in this series. Utah has to muck the game up, and have its guards show out to have a chance.