As for the hockey itself, look for the Sharks who breezed through the first round to continue to revel in the first post-season in a long time where they are not saddled with the pressure of being favorites or contenders. This time around, in a shortened season that saw a transformation in their offensive identity after years of shot expectations, the Sharks made the playoffs at a modest six seeding and quietly dispatched of the Canucks in no time. The Canucks are a total wreck but the Sharks have to like this new role they find themselves in. On the other hand, the Kings are very squarely on the radar unlike last year when they shocked the world. The Kings and Sharks split the four head to head games this year with the home team always coming out on top meaning the Kings getting the head start in LA is huge and might dictate the pace of the series even if it goes the distance which I expect it to. The Kings are faster, more physical and will look to take advantage of San Jose’s history of folding when pushed around. However, San Jose is the tougher team defensively and is hard to beat at home. Both Quick and Niemi are going to be beast in net.
MIAMI HEAT (1) VS. INDIANA PACERS (3)
Hey, I don’t mind being wrong especially if I was fairly sure I would be lol I wasn’t hedging my bets either though when I admitted the Pacers were highly likely to frustrate the Knicks into relying entirely on Melo to win. I knew the only thing that would get the Knicks to the next round was if JR Smith showed up which he did not. The Knicks were still very close to sending it to a game 7 at MSG and that would have almost ensured them the series. Unfortunately, they are almost as sad a story as the team in Brooklyn and that wasn’t going to get them anywhere against a team as anti-climatically disciplined as the Pacers.
The Heat on the other hand dispatched the Bulls with what, for long stretches, looked effortless. The Bulls are one hell of a courageous group and raced out to an impressive greeting in game 1 getting after it with great energy and effort but were really up against it the rest of the way. The Heat, truly, are yet to be tested.
So has that test arrived? There is no doubt that the Pacers are bringing the same (if not more intense) defensive energy and physicality as did the Bulls. However, they’re also bringing a more rounded out and effective offensive game as well with the ability to score buckets from all sorts of sources. Vogel’s system gives equal looks to Hill and George on the perimeter, Hibbert down-low and West everywhere. Now that Stevenson is getting routine looks too, it’s really a crapshoot as to who might hurt you. And it still won’t be enough. Look, I hate to pick against the Pacers after I did last round and don’t mean to discredit what they’ve done so far or are capable of but I think that they still won’t have the scoring to beat the Heat. They blitzed them pretty hard last year and looked like they were ready to unseed them when they took that 2-1 lead but the Heat gutted it out. The reason they could is the same reason they will again. The Knicks posed almost no defensive resistance and the series was really a quarter away from a game 7 where the entire outcome of the series would have been different. The Heat play top tier team defense and whoever LeBron covers probably won’t be going off and that’s likely Paul George. In addition, the Knicks were only able to stay with the Pacers because of the combination of their proclivity for the three point shot and the fact Indiana’s perimeter D is probably their only weakness. Against the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller and all the other shooters the Heat like to run through the wings for dishes from LeBron and Wade… that’s bad.
The Pacers are going to have to steal one in Miami. There’s an offensive firepower disparity here and it would take a truly focused and inspired effort by Indiana to keep up and take four games first. I’m just not betting on it.
Heat in 6
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (2) VS. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (5)
Again, I won’t be ashamed of having picked the Warriors to get past the Spurs as a) the Warriors are my team and b) they could have. Ultimately, they were too banged up at their most key positions and it was clear by the middle of the series that Curry’s explosiveness was MIA making it much easier for defensive standouts Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to chase him through any and all screens. Bogut was all messed up and, despite logging some minutes, Lee was hardly himself. For the Spurs, they still were very tentatively in charge of the series as it went on and had to escape some hairy situations with veteran badassery from Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. For long stretches, their shooting was abysmal and their half court offense void of second chance opportunities.
Which doesn’t bode well for them because although Golden State is underrated defensively, the Grizzlies are not; they’re widely considered top three in the league defensively if not the best. The Thunder, like the Bulls, were hardly the test we really wanted to see Memphis have because without Westbrook that was an entirely different looking Thunder. Suddenly, there was no flow to their offense, just everyone standing around watching Durant take the ball from the perimeter and try to work his way in against the beef jerky of defenses. As Sir Charles would say: “He can’t go one on five and win.” That said, Memphis still looked mighty impressive. They made sure they held their foot on OKC’s throat after, much like the Bulls did with the Heat, they took a blitzkrieg 1-0 lead in the series making everyone doubt for a moment. Then there was no doubt. Memphis plays championship defense, hustle like it’s the last day of their collective lives, have the best two bigs tandem in the NBA in Gasol and Zebo, have a point guard in Mike Conley who might finally get the props he deserves as one of the best in the league and are playing like they are ready to move to the next level.
And that is precisely what they’re going to do. Who doesn’t wish they had that textbook trajectory fall right into place like that? The Grizzlies made the move to Memphis, retooled and re-invented their identity, made some shrewd wheeling and dealing (how you like that Gasol for Gasol trade now, Lakeshow? lol) and worked towards becoming a perennial playoff team. They got there, got bounced and learned their lessons. Now their veteran core knows what it takes, play with a pro calm and top tier chemistry. That along with the measurables (their elite defense, domination of the boards and old school, grind low-post offense) is the perfect formula for beating the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
The Warriors posed issues for the Spurs on the boards even with Lee’s relative absence from the series and Bogut’s reduced mobility. Where the Spurs had the most trouble was in second chance points where they would go long stretches without being able to get offensive rebounds to continue possessions beyond the first look in a sequence. Undersized but energetic power forward Carl Landry was killing them. Memphis is a better rebounding team than the Warriors even when healthy. Everybody is active on the boards and Zebo makes a living on offensive rebounds. Also of concern for the Spurs is that while Bogut, Ezeli and Biedrins don’t have a shot, Gasol and Zebo can kill you from range the same way that Duncan can.
This series is going to be a low scoring bruiser. I’ll be looking for how the Grizzlies bottle up Tony Parker who was too quick for the Warriors to defend. I expect Tony Allen to get that job. It’ll be interesting also how San Antonio’s role guys like Green, Leonard and Neal are able to contribute offensively when the going gets tough for the Big Three. On the other end of the court, Conley’s continued maturation into an elite point guard is going to show up when he calmly paces the Grizz into consistently putting up points after stops by maintaining the flow through their bigs. Gasol and Zebo are in for some big games.
Grizzlies in 6
So far, so good. The only real shocker from the first round was Ottawa’s dismantling of the Canadiens in five. Games get tougher to call as you travel deeper into the wilderness that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And with that, we cease the yappin’ and get down to the slappin’.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (1) VS. OTTAWA SENATORS (7)
Well I totally struck out on the Canadiens squeaking by Ottawa; hell, it wasn’t even close. After watching how confident Ottawa looked defensively and how easy it was to dominate a team that was built to be a bruising, rough draw, one has to wonder if they don’t actually have what it takes to frustrate the Pens into getting out of their game and being vulnerable too.
Yeah but no, Cinderellas are named such not because they look pretty in their sparkly getups but because the clock does eventually strike midnight and everything turns into pumpkins and mules. The Penguins are just too strong and are probably going to the finals; it would take an epic collapse for that not to happen. Or their goaltending to fail. So far, Vokoun has stepped in for the struggling Fleury and has been the hot hand but making a deep cup run without a sure thing in goal is a tall order. Even then, I still don’t know if the Sens have the firepower to keep up with Pittsburgh on the scoreboard. They’d need Craig Anderson to continue being a stud in goal for one as Pitts’ most notable strength is their ability to put the puck in the net from any line at any time. The Sens could benefit from using the Karlsson injury (at the skates of Matt Cooke, of course) to their mental advantage.
Pittsburgh are older, sluggish and have a questionable goaltending situation but their veteran gamesmanship, elite talent and depth should be enough to get to the next level.
Penguins in 6
BOSTON BRUINS (4) VS. NEW YORK RANGERS (6)
Instant classic. New York vs. Boston. Original Six. Haven’t battled in the postseason since 1973. Blue-collar, fresh-off grueling seven gamers, they get to get all up close and cozy here. The Rangers demolished the Caps in their clincher, an indicator that a) the edge they had going in (their grit and grind and epic goaltender) is going to be their calling card and b) that their offense might be waking up again as they try for a second straight Conference Finals appearance. While the Rangers ran away with it late in the series, the Bruins needed a total Leafs meltdown and a blown 4-1 lead in game seven to advance after losing both games five and six. They won’t pull that sort of comeback on Lundqvist who right now is likely the best keeper in the playoffs. And he’s on fire – two straight clean sheets. It also doesn’t help Boston that New York is getting some of its scoring done on its third and fourth lines and if their studs were to get untracked, it could get messy for Rask.
To their credit, the Bruins are tougher defensively and while Rask is shaky in goal in comparison to the dude across the pond, he might be stout enough to where he frustrates a Ranger attack that, at times this season, just couldn’t get the light to go on despite all their scoring talent. Nash still hasn’t gotten on the board, Richards has only a goal and Callahan barely got his first contribution in game seven. It isn’t for lack of effort as the shots have been there but it has been other guys stepping up. If the big horses wake up, watch out.
Rangers in 6
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS (1) VS. DETROIT RED WINGS (7)
Oh this is every Hawks and Wings fan’s wet dream. We live for this rivalry so don’t let the seeding fool you; as deep, balanced and talented as the Blackhawks are, the Red Wings are going to show up to play. They were able to get past second seeded Anaheim by working hard up and down the lines and showing resolve in weathering several storms when it seemed the ice had completely tilted in favor of Anaheim. I may be a homer with this pick but make no mistake, the only way the Wings come out of this one is Howard must be huge in net (which he was against the Ducks for most of the series save a couple of defensive meltdowns in front of him that led to flurries of scores late in periods), they’re going to need the same balanced effort from all four lines in staying active and skating hard, and they’re going to need their studs Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen to continue to be amazing.
That may be too much to ask. The Blackhawks top line is possibly the best in the NHL and they have more talented depth behind them than the Wings do. Crawford was kinda tested by Minnesota but their offensive firepower was not enough to really challenge him. Truthfully neither really is Detroit’s who are hardly the goal-scoring juggernaut we’re used to seeing but they do have at least two lines that can score at an elite level.
That may still be too much to ask. The Hawks owned the Wings this season in four head to head matches, winning all four albeit three of them in OT (two on shootouts). All three of the OTL’s were tightly contested and exciting games so it isn’t as though the Blackhawks have dominated them in the actual play on the ice (although the fourth loss was a 7-1 drubbing at home). My brain is telling me Chicago has this one locked up. But there’s no way I’m picking against my boys.
Red Wings in 7
LOS ANGELES KINGS (5)VS. SAN JOSE SHARKS (6)
The battle for the Golden State begins tonight. Anybody who’s been in California long enough, originally or transplanted, knows that for all intents and purposes Northern California and Southern California are separate entities politically, culturally and topographically. It is also no secret that each respective region’s populations have a disdain for the other in all matters sports-related. In other words, expect the Shark Tank to be bellowing the age-old warcry “BEAT LA!” every time the action calls for it.
It’ll come down to a couple of things. The Sharks are historically a team that when physically punked, get frustrated and don’t dig deep enough and as a result have never made it to the finals. The Kings are the champs and know how to push those kinds of buttons but have to be concerned about their own vulnerability in special teams situations and the matter of having only scored 12 goals against the Blues in a six gamer. The cup window is closing for some of San Jose’s premier guys. Look for them to play with the urgency that’ll give them the edge here.
Sharks in 7
Round 2… FIGHT!
MIAMI HEAT (1) VS. CHICAGO BULLS (5)
The Nets are a trainwreck of epic wreckageness. How was it even possible for a team that well rostered to have been outplayed that badly by a Bulls team that was missing not only their best player but their second best scorer and their best outside shot? There’s no excuse for it (I am only miffed because I picked the Nets to win the series and the Bulls spoiled my perfect first round lol). Still, the real reason this happened is because the Bulls have so much more resolve, focus and are infinitely tougher. They were faced with an incredible challenge and they handled it. Big ups to Coach Thibodeau and his Bulls. Unfortunately for them, that is where the train will stop because they’re going to get slaughtered by the Heat in five. I don’t mean to be dismissive and I have a soft spot in my heart for the Bulls thanks to Michael but there’s just no way that the Heat, probably the best team in the game, are going to overlook or underhustle the way the Nets did. I’m going to give the Bulls a game only because their collective resolve is so strong but don’t be surprised if this is an outright sweep.
Heat in 5
NEW YORK KNICKS (2) VS. INDIANA PACERS (3)
We are in for a gritty battle. The Knicks have an obvious offensive edge with Melo and JR Smith able to go off for stretches where they are seemingly unstoppable. However, don’t overlook these Pacers who can irritate anybody with their ferocious defense and domination of the boards, able to then keep an opponent totally off balance… something we’ve seen New York very susceptible to; maybe even more so than any other team in the field. The Knicks survived the series with the Celtics largely due to the wild swings of their immense potential for firepower but not because of any manner of discipline or scoring balance. When JR Smith had to sit out a game to serve a suspension for being a bonehead, the Celtics turned the tide of the series and had the Knickerbockers wearing black and being ornery. No knock on the C’s who were spirited, if the Knicks found THEIR defense stifling and unsettling, wait til they get a load of Indy. The Pacers are actually fairly balanced offensively too with West, Hill and George able to put some buckets down when needed. I expect the Pacers to grind out some very tough games against the Knicks, frustrate their top threats and force somebody else to carry the load. If that happens more than three times, there’s a good chance that means the Knicks are staying in New York by next weekend. That said, I don’t think it happens that many times. I think the Knicks get lucky again and squeeze by because Melo drops 40 or something ridiculous in a critical tilt like game 5 or 6. Oh and there’s a chance we spot an Amar’e and who knows what that means.
Knicks in 7
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (1) VS. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (5)
Hate to be the harbinger here but this series spells all sorts of trouble for OKC and I am not sure they’re going to get through it. This would have been a very difficult series for them anyway were Westbrook not out for the rest of the year but the prospect of having to beat Memphis four times without him is not very encouraging. Granted, this is a veteran playoff team now and Durant is the best player in the West so it isn’t like they’re going to get run out of any buildings. What ought to be noted, though, is that the Grizzlies made very quick work of the Clippers with four straight wins after a game 3 adjustment. The Grizz are capable of antagonizing and shorting a team’s rhythm with quick active guards and two elite big men who are studs at both ends of the court. They exposed Griffin’s lack of an offensive game even before the ankle was an issue and made the Clippers one dimensional even though they still had plenty of guards who could score. The Thunder on the other hand lost their most explosive guard and outside of Martin, have unproven and shaky offensive options. If the Thunder are forced to become one dimensional as a result of Memphis’ defense, are they going to be tough enough defensively to stop them from scoring? The Rockets gave them some trouble after Westbrook went down and they don’t even play defense. I’m really not sure the Thunder get through here.
Grizzlies in 6
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (2) VS. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (6)
Most folks are going to tell me that the Warriors don’t have a chance against the mighty Spurs machine that hasn’t missed the playoffs since I was in high school and which can plug n play anyone from DaJuan Blair to Gary Neal and win. Except, the Spurs have not been an elite playoff contender since half a decade ago, are led by a big three that is aging (despite Duncan and Parker’s fantastic regular seasons) and have been resting courtesy of a quick first round. For older teams, that is often said to be a good thing. However, when they’re about to tangle with what is essentially the complete opposite scenario, a very young Warriors team that is full of energy both intrinsically and because they are coming off of a crazy, intense series, that may not be a good thing. The Warriors are going to have to play disciplined and cannot afford to turn the ball over as much as they did against Denver or go cold from the field for long stretches as they often did in that series. Late in games, they’re going to have to stay poised and focused on fundamental game scenarios. The Nuggets were very forgiving. Popovich and the Spurs will not be. I believe that, even though the Spurs are a get up and down the court team, the Warriors are significantly more athletic and explosive especially if Jack and Barnes continue to play the way they have. Bogut will have his hands full with Duncan and will get an opportunity to really earn that paycheck. If Curry goes off (which is a matter of when and not if, really), watch out. They have a bit of swagger now that this young group has a series win under their belt. Bring on the Spurs.
Warriors in 7