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Justin time: Previewing the first round of the NBA playoffs

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Kemba Walker

(AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

The Warriors broke the Bulls’ seemingly unbreakable record, the 76ers avoided matching their own seemingly unbreakable record and Kobe got to take 50 shots in a game. With another exciting regular season in the books, let’s look ahead to what should be a thrilling two-month playoff journey. Unless, of course, it’s interrupted by the pride and joy of the Canadian pop scene.

The matchup: No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. No. 8 Detroit (44-38)

Offensive rating: Cavaliers 108.1 (4th), Pistons 103.3 (14th)

Defensive rating: Cavaliers 102.3 (10th), Pistons 103.4 (13th)

Net rating: Cavaliers 5.6 (4th), Pistons -0.2 (16th)

STATS primer: The Pistons rely on their starting five A LOT. The league’s most-used quintet this season (915 minutes) came from the Motor City, which is amazing considering that group hasn’t been together since Ersan Ilyasova was traded to Orlando on Feb. 16. Enter Tobias Harris, who joined Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond for 462 minutes over the last 25 games to rank second behind Minnesota’s starters since the All-Star break. A ludicrous 74.3 percent of Detroit’s points come from its starting unit, the largest figure in the NBA and just ahead of … Cleveland’s 73.1.

Can the Pistons win? Probably not. They did beat the Cavs three out of four this season, though one of those came without Kyrie Irving and another came Wednesday night as Jordan McRae took 29 shots and Joel Anthony played 25 minutes. The Pistons are one of a few teams that can hang with the Cavs on the boards, as their 52.1 rebound percentage was a tick above Cleveland’s for second best in the league. The Cavs are at their best when Tristan Thompson is grabbing alley-oops off the pick-and-roll and crashing the offensive glass to create extra possessions, but he’s been marginalized against Detroit. In Thompson’s 74 minutes in the series, the Cavs have been outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s an extremely small sample but the worst Cleveland has fared with Thompson on the floor against anyone in the East.

BAI (Bieber Affected Index): 10: Justin Bieber has a concert at Quicken Loans Arena scheduled for April 26 – the same date as a potential Game 5 – so if the Cavs can’t sweep, the teenage girl population of Northeast Ohio may be set for a mutiny.

The pick: Bieber gets bumped, which upsets Drake, creating additional hostility for a potential Cavs-Raptors conference finals. Cavs in 5


 

The matchup: No. 2 Toronto (56-26) vs. No. 7 Indiana (45-37)

Offensive rating: Raptors 107.0 (5th), Pacers 102.4 (23rd)

Defensive rating: Raptors 102.7 (11th), Pacers 100.2 (3rd)

Net rating: Raptors 4.3 (6th), Pacers 2.2(11th)

STATS primer: The Raptors have won the last three Atlantic Division titles and have a grand total of three playoff wins to show for the first two. Can Toronto finally win just the second playoff series in franchise history and first since Vince Carter could jump? It’s hard to look at the numbers and see a title contender here, but the Raptors can make some noise in the East.  DeMarre Carroll was supposed to be the big addition, but the former Hawks forward only played 26 games, and Toronto’s jump from a nice regular-season team in a bad division to a legit power boiled down to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan getting to another level. Lowry’s average rose from 17.8 points to 21.2 as his 3-point shooting hit a career-high 38.8 percent, while his VORP of 6.3 is ahead of Kawhi Leonard’s and Chris Paul’s. No player in the league scored more points per game on drives than DeRozan (8.7), who also drew 166 fouls when bolting toward the rim – just five behind league leader James Harden.

Can the Pacers win? Maybe. Only the Suns allowed opponents to shoot better from 3 than the Raptors (37.3 percent), and Paul George, George Hill and C.J. Miles are all capable of going off from beyond the arc. A league-high 48.9 percent of the Raptors’ field goals are unassisted, and while letting Lowry and DeRozan penetrate and create worked in the regular season, relying on refs to call contact consistently in the playoffs is a dangerous line to toe. It did work against Indiana during the season. Toronto won three of four and got to the line at least 38 times in each victory, ultimately hitting the stripe 51 more times than the Pacers.

BAI: 4.5. Biebs isn’t set to invade Bankers Life Fieldhouse until June 25, which is after the Finals, but a two-night stop in Toronto in mid-May could provide trouble in the conference finals. In the meantime, there are other issues. Mumford and Sons has already moved a concert scheduled for the same night as Game 4 in Indianapolis to April 24, with lead singer Marcus Mumford politely claiming “it was not your fault, but mine.” That’s not all. The Who are set to play at the Air Canada Centre on the same night as Game 5, so a retirement tour that makes Kobe Bryant’s seem expeditious will be pushed back a night.

The pick: George and Miles shoot the Pacers to a pair of wins, but the Raptors embrace their musical guests and decide not to get fooled again. Raptors in 6


 

The matchup: No. 3 Miami (48-34) vs. No. 6 Charlotte (48-34)

Offensive rating: Heat 104.2 (12th), Hornets (105.1, 9th)

Defensive rating: Heat 101.5 (7th), Hornets (101.8, 9th)

Net rating: Heat 2.6 (10th), Hornets 3.3 (8th)

STATS primer: We’ve entered the 48-34 portion of the proceedings with the Battle for Josh McRoberts’ Soul. The East’s middle four playoff teams all finished with the same record, and the way things shook out gives us a rematch of the last time the Hornets – who are 0 for 8 in playoff games since 2002 – were in the postseason. Things figure to be much more competitive this time in a series that Vegas considers the toughest first-round matchup to call. Charlotte was the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season (31.8 percent) on the eighth-fewest attempts. Now it’s the eighth best (36.2 percent) while jacking up more 3s than everyone but Houston, Golden State and Cleveland. Kemba Walker is no longer a sub-40 percent shooter who can’t make a 3, Nicolas Batum averaged a 14-6-5 on fewer than 13 shots a game (Draymond Green this season is the only other player to do that in the past 10) and Marvin Williams reinvented himself as a 40 percent 3-point shooter who’s actually willing to rebound and play defense. The Heat don’t take 3s (18 per game, 28th) and rarely make them (33.6 percent, 27th), but shoot better in the restricted area than anyone in the league (65.3 percent).

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win?: Steve Clifford has Charlotte playing like a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts – though the parts, as we detailed above, are pretty solid – while Miami is still heavily reliant on the offensive brilliance of Dwyane Wade and the game-changing interior presence of Hassan Whiteside. This is probably not a series for Al Jefferson even though the 12-year vet has shown flashes of his former self off the bench since returning from knee surgery. The Hornets were outscored by 12 points in the 49 minutes he played against Miami but were a plus-20 when he wasn’t around. How’s this for a starting point? In the 60 minutes Batum, Walker, Williams and Cody Zeller shared the floor against the Heat – easily the most of any Charlotte foursome – the Hornets were a plus-38. That’s significant. Stick Courtney Lee or Jeremy Lamb out there to check Wade and Whiteside might be hanging around the rim with nothing to do. For Miami to win, it actually might matter more how its young guys – Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson – perform as opposed to the veterans.

BAI: 1. The pride of London, Ontario, isn’t set to hit South Beach until early July and Charlotte was not deemed a worthy enough stop by His Biebness. Heat fans will have to make a tough call prior to Game 3, though: Watch their team play in Charlotte or attend something called “Miami Bash,” which features such acts as Alex Sensation, Ken-Y, De La Ghetto and Jacob Forever. D Wade or Jacob Forever? Now that’s a Decision.

The pick: Those touting playoff experience will favor the Heat, but many of these Hornets have been there before. If Chris Bosh were healthy, this might go the other way, but Charlotte gets the slight edge. Hornets in 6


 

The matchup: No. 4 Atlanta (48-34) vs. No. 5 Boston (48-34)

Offensive rating: Hawks 103.0 (18th), Celtics 103.9 (13th)

Defensive rating: Hawks 98.8 (2nd), Celtics 100.9 (4th)

Net rating: Hawks 4.1 (7th), Celtics 3.0 (9th)

STATS primer: On paper this might be the most interesting first-round matchup between two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, but on the court Atlanta exposed the otherwise brilliant, swarming system employed by Brad Stevens. The Hawks put up 110.4 points per 100 possessions in winning the final three meetings and Boston had no answers for Paul Millsap. One of the league’s best defenders was a nightmare at the other end for the Celtics, averaging 25.3 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks in three games the Hawks won by a combined 43 points. Atlanta’s Spursian ball movement and Kyle Korver’s amazing accuracy were the big stories when it won 60 games last season, but the defense was good then and better than anyone this side of San Antonio’s in this one. Most of the Hawks’ best lineups come without Jeff Teague on the floor – they’re better defensively with Dennis Schroder – but what’s lurking behind either point guard allows for some leeway in non-pick-and-roll situations. It’s safe to say Isaiah Thomas will be able to break down either to some extent, but the Celtics are going to need more than their point guard running at an optimal level to beat Atlanta. This feels like a series Evan Turner could swing, but he could just as easily put Boston out of it as he could help it go the distance.

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win? These are two of the league’s eight fastest teams in terms of pace, but getting up and down the floor did nothing to favor the Celtics against the Hawks this season. The three Atlanta wins featured 106, 105 and 105 possessions while Boston’s lone victory back in December was a 97-possession slog they pulled out even with Avery Bradley sidelined. The Celtics are going to have to do a bulk of their work from outside the paint, as Atlanta is the best team in the league defending the restricted area (56.7 percent). Only the Lakers shot worse on catch-and-shoot 3s than Boston’s 34.6 percent, so that’s not going to be easy. Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder each attempt five 3s a game, but none is what you’d call a knock-down shooter.

BAI: 3. Add Boston to the list of cities Bieber could infect invade in later rounds, as he’s due for May 10 and 11 stops at TD Garden. Atlanta got its two shows out of the way on the last two days of the regular season, which is a total baller move by a team that knew it would be playing important games in late April and May. Or … that’s just how the “Purpose World Tour” worked out geographically. The Bruins conveniently missed the playoffs and the Thrashers haven’t been a thing for five years, so these arenas are wide open.

The pick: The Celtics are fun to watch, make the most of their talent level and are about to add a top-five draft pick courtesy of the Nets’ stupidity. But for now, this is a tough matchup. Boston probably beats either of the other 48-34 teams, but not this one. Hawks in 6


 

Halftime! Here’s a picture of Bieber pretending like he knows who Mark Wahlberg is.

Justin Bieber, Mark Wahlberg

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


 

The matchup: No. 1 Golden State (73-9) vs. No. 8 Houston (41-41)

Offensive rating: Warriors 112.5 (1st), Rockets 105.5 (8th)

Defensive rating: Warriors 100.9 (6th), Rockets 105.6 (20th)

Net rating: Warriors 11.6 (2nd), Rockets -0.2 (15th)

STATS primer: Yes, it’s a Western Conference finals rematch in Round 1 that features the league’s top two scorers, the two teams who fire up the most 3-pointers and two teams who were each coached by two men this season. That’s about where the similarities end. The Warriors are much better than last season’s title winner and the Rockets are much, much worse. Golden State was missing Steve Kerr as he recovered from back surgery while Houston waited only 11 games before showing Kevin McHale the door and never quite looked like they were on the same page for the next 71. What were once an assortment of enticing options around James Harden now looks like a rotating cast of question marks centered by none other than Dwight Howard, who barely took six shots a game over the final month of the season amid reports his teammates were freezing him out. So yeah, it’s hard to look at the Rockets and get excited about the fact that they took nearly as many corner 3s (799) as mid-range 2s (899).

Can the Rockets win? Wellllll….

BAI: 0. Beebs hit Oracle Arena on March 18 and the Toyota Center on April 9. Coincidence that Golden State went 39-2 at home and the Rockets haven’t lost at home since (they’ve played two games)? Yes. Actually, that’s not even a coincidence. Let’s move on.

The pick: Harden has a huge first half in Game 3 – think like 30 points – and the Rockets lead by double digits at the break. But they won’t win that, or any other game, in this series. Warriors in 4



The matchup:
No. 2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. No. 7 Memphis (42-40)

Offensive rating: Spurs 108.4 (3rd), Grizzlies 102.6 (22nd)

Defensive rating: Spurs 96.6 (1st), Grizzlies 105.4 (19th)

Net rating: Spurs 11.8 (1st), Grizzlies -2.9 (22nd)

STATS primer: Poor Memphis. The Grizzlies have played almost an entire NFL 53-man roster worth of players this season thanks to an injured list that looks like Jack Bauer’s body count, and they almost built such an insurmountable lead for the No. 5 seed when healthy that it looked like they’d get a somewhat reasonable matchup with the Clippers in Round 1. But their 3-14 tailspin ultimately dropped them to seventh and a matchup with a team that, in many ways, is BETTER than the one that won 73 games. No Marc Gasol or Mike Conley, but Jordan Farmar played in the Finals six years ago! Heck, Chris Andersen was there two years ago! And Vince Carter? Well, he’s no stranger to playing basketball! JaMychal Green, Xavier Munford, Raheem McCullough, Jarell Martin and Bryce Cotton? Four of those five guys are real! Dave Joerger has done an amazing job keeping this M.A.S.H. unit together at all, but the Grizzlies weren’t going to beat the Clippers. Or the Thunder. They probably wouldn’t beat a few non-playoff teams in a seven-game series right now. Yet, we have to ask…

Can the Grizzlies win? Ummmmm

BAI: -10. These are the only two playoff teams whose arenas will not be graced with JB’s presence. Therefore, this series means nothing.

The pick: Gregg Popovich gives Boban Marjanovic at least 25 minutes in at least one of these games. At some point, Pop trots out what will forever be known as “The Molasses Lineup” of Boban, Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Kevin Martin and Andre Miller, but that unit still goes on a 13-2 run. Spurs in 3. OK fine, 4


 

The matchup: No. 3 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. No. 6 Dallas (42-40)

Offensive rating: Thunder 109.9 (2nd), Mavericks 104.8 (10th)

Defensive rating: Thunder 103.0 (12th), Mavericks 104.3 (16th)

Net rating: Thunder 6.9 (3rd), Mavericks (14th)

STATS primer: The Thunder would certainly have preferred a matchup with the Grizzlies, but it’s not like the Mavericks should have them questioning whether they’ll survive to see the Spurs in Round 2. Oklahoma City swept four meetings with Dallas this season, twice winning by three points and twice cruising. That’s probably about what it should expect here, but the Mavericks can at least look to the sidelines for an edge. Rick Carlisle’s club gave the eventual champion Spurs their toughest test in the first round two years ago, and he’ll come into this series with a plan of how to contain Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The odds are long, of course, that it will work. The Thunder have made a living crashing the offensive glass this season, with a 31.1 offensive rebounding percentage that’s easily the NBA’s best and a 54.7 total percentage that’s also far and away atop the league. The Mavericks are 26th overall at 48.5, and those numbers have bared themselves out head-to-head. Oklahoma City outrebounded Dallas 194-152 in the four meetings, with their 58 offensive rebounds leading to 72 second-chance points. Enes Kanter, a defensive liability in many ways, has helped the Thunder grab 42.3 percent of available offensive boards in the 80 minutes he’s played against Dallas.

Can the Mavericks win? It’s fairly amazing Dallas is even in the playoffs. There are game when J.J. Barea is their best offensive player, or at least the one most capable of creating his own shot. But he’s slowed by a groin injury and he’s not exactly been a positive presence overall to begin with considering the Mavs have allowed 109.7 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break when he’s played. There’s enough offense elsewhere for Dallas to be able to hang in most games, but Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams aren’t likely to all have it going at the same time. This is where the absence of Chandler Parsons kills, and he lit up the Thunder in three separate Mavs wins a year ago. It comes down to this, particularly given Oklahoma City’s rebounding edge – Zaza Pachulia has to stay on the floor, and has to control the boards when he is.

BAI: 0. Bieber made all the tweens swoon at Dallas’ American Airlines Center on April 10 and wasn’t invited to Oklahoma City. Amy Schumer played Chesapeake Energy Center on Friday, the eve of the series opener. Perhaps a sign of Trainwrecks to come?

The pick: Dirk has one of those vintage Dirk games where the fadeaways are falling, Matthews gets hot from deep and the Mavs steal a game in Dallas before going out quietly to allow the Stars use of the arena to continue their Stanley Cup playoff run. Thunder in 5



The matchup:
No. 4 LA Clippers (52-29) vs. No. 5 Portland (44-38)

Offensive rating: Clippers 106.5 (6th), Trail Blazers 106.1 (7th)

Defensive rating: Clippers 100.9 (5th), Trail Blazers 105.6 (21st)

Net rating: Clippers 5.5 (5th), Trail Blazers 0.6 (13th)

STATS primer: Terry Stott’s team lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum and somehow managed to win only seven fewer games, so if you’re wondering why he might win Coach of the Year, look no further. CJ McCollum picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoff loss to Memphis and became a 20-point scorer in more extended minutes, also showing that he could thrive as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters (41.7 percent) in a bigger role. Beyond him and Damian Lillard, who took a step toward superstardom now that the show is officially his, it’s tough to find a reason why these Blazers finished as high as they did. The rest of the rotation is mostly full of spare parts, and there’s no consistent secondary scorer to rely on. That’s a problem when they’re going up against a backcourt that’s at least similar offensively in Chris Paul and J.J. Redick and can get points from Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford just as easily. There’s no answer for Griffin or DeAndre Jordan now that LaMarcus Aldridge is a Spur.

Can the Blazers win? Portland was starting Noah Vonleh at the four from about mid-November to mid-March before Stotts inserted Mo Harkless in his place, and that move has paid dividends. The Blazers have outscored teams by 13.3 points per 100 possessions since Harkless became a starter and they’ve been outscored by 8.3 with him off the floor. Harkless, McCollum, Lillard, Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu have posted a 16.0 net rating in that stretch, giving Portland a five-man starting unit it can feel good about, and the Clippers’ bench isn’t exactly great. The question will be if the Blazers can find a scoring option when the second units are on the floor.

BAI: 0. Bieber paid his respects to both the Moda Center and Staples Center in March. The Clippers have to share Staples with the Kings – and definitely, definitely not the Lakers – while the biggest thing happening in Portland besides the Blazers is something called the Pentatonix World Tour. I’ve been assured that’s an a capella group, so one more pitch perfect prediction and we’ll get out of here.

The pick: The Blazers are too good offensively and the Clippers too inconsistent for this to be a short series. The Lillard-Paul matchup alone should make this arguably the most entertaining first-round series, even if it doesn’t quite go the distance. Close enough. Clippers in 6