Second round of NBA Playoffs get off to an exciting start

By Edwin Blebu
asst. sports editor

The Western and Eastern Conference semi-finals got underway on May 5 as the New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder continued their journey toward becoming NBA champions.

The first matchup of the day began in Oklahoma City, Okla. as the Thunder looked to protect home court advantage by knocking off the Grizzlies in what proved to be a very competitive game one. Although it came down to the very final seconds of the game, the Thunder were able to hold off the Grizzlies 93-91, thanks to a career playoff performance from all-star forward Kevin Durant. Durant ended game one with an impressive 35 points 15 rebounds and six assists, including scoring the final two points in the game to give the Thunder a three point lead with only seconds left to play in regulation.

Since the playoff-ending injury to fellow all-star guard Russell Westbrook, Durant has shouldered a majority of the scoring load for the Thunder, averaging 35 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. Despite the fact that the Thunder are a much better team with Westbrook, Durant is proving he can will his team to victory even against a defensive-minded ball club in the Grizzlies. Do not be surprised to see the Thunder pull out a victory in game two, especially if guard Kevin Martin can consistently provide an offensive spark coming off the bench just as he did in game one, tallying 25 points.

The Grizzlies will look to rely on the play of their frontcourt to slow down the pace of the game while increasing their defensive pressure on Durant. Look for Memphis to cut down on their on turnovers and rely on their low post presence a lot more throughout the game, especially during the fourth quarter when they aim to close out the game.

The second matchup of the day, the Indiana Pacers versus the New York Knicks, turned out to be the least competitive game of the doubleheader on May 5, as the Knicks lost at home to the Pacers 102-95. The major storyline behind the Knicks’ mediocre performance in game one revolved around the offensive struggles of all-star forward Carmelo Anthony and 2013 Sixth Man of the Year recipient J.R. Smith. Anthony scored 27 points while shooting 35 percent from the field and while Smith added 17 points on 26 percent shooting. These shooting percentages speak volumes as to the Pacers’ defensive pressure and physicality in game one of this series.

While Smith and Anthony continued to take contested shots, the rest of the Knicks found themselves getting outplayed and outhustled by the Pacers for a majority of the game. Pacers forwards David West and Paul George tallied 20 and 17 points respectively in addition to playing aggressive defense This particular semi-finals matchup has the makings of a competitive seven game series. Expect Anthony to bounce back from his poor game one performance and rally his teammates to play with a sense of urgency to avoid a two-game deficit before heading to Indianapolis on May 11.
The remaining second round matchups include the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, and the San Antonio Spurs.

The Heat will look to continue their dominance on their path to an encore performance of last year’s championship season. Fresh off of his fourth MVP season, the Heat’s superstar forward LeBron James looks ready to defend his throne as an NBA Champion.

The Bulls stunned the Heat in game one, defeating the defending champions 93-86. Nate Robison scored 27 points for the Bulls while Jimmy Butler scored 21 while playing the entire game.
The Bulls scored the final 10 points in the game to upset the Heat, who were led by James’ 24 point, 8 assist and seven rebound effort.

The argument can be made thatHeat’s rusty performance could be attributed to a long break between their final game of their first rounf series and the opening game of this series, but in the playoffs every game matters. If you have an off night your opponent will capitalize. If the Heat hope to defeat the pesky Bulls, who, by the way, ended the Miami’s 27-game win streak earlier this season, they must give maximum effort in every game.

Bulls’ center Joakim Noah should play an influential role for Chicago despite being hindered by plantar fasciitis. Given Noah’s well known dislike for the Heat, he will without a doubt look to assert himself early on in each game against the Heat, especially if the nagging injuries of Deng and Hinrich persist throughout the series.

In addition, the Heat’s head coach Erik Spoelstra has apparently been preparing his team for the possible return of 2011 MVP recipient Derrick Rose, as a precautionary measure. Although Rose still appears very hesitant about returning from his injury before he is mentally and physically ready, he hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility of returning at some point during this postseason. With Dwyane Wade returning from injury himself, Chicago is facing an uphill battle against the Heat. Look for guards Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler to keep things somewhat competitive before Miami exerts their dominance and puts the game completely out of reach on their home floor.

Saving the best matchup for last, the Golden State Warriors will look to capitalize on their momentum from the first round, while the San Antonio Spurs will focus on shutting down the three point capabilities of Stephen Curry. The Spurs are well-rested after sweeping a depleted Los Angeles Lakers team and will be looking to establish a slow paced and physical game plan in order to neutralize the high-octane offense of the Warriors.

On paper, the teams match up evenly as both the Spurs and Warriors have key players off the bench that will provide mismatches at several points throughout the series. Game one appeared to be a convincing victory for the Warriors when they were up by 14 points with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Spurs went on a 15-2 offensive surge lead by Tony Parker. The Spurs were able to fight back and force two overtimes before Manu Ginobili finally hit the game winning three with less one second left in double overtime. Although Golden State suffered a massive collapse in the final stretch of the game, look for players like Jarrett Jack and Harrison Barnes to continue to capitalize on offense for the Warriors as the Spurs will primarily concern themselves with stopping Curry from taking over the game, just as he did in game one scoring 44 points and dishing out 11 assists.

Expect the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker to share the defensive responsibility of guarding Curry, while also executing a variety of double teams to get the ball out of his hands in pressure situations.

In more ways than one, future hall of famer Tim Duncan could have his best series of the playoffs against the Warriors as a result of the lack of depth and playoff experience amidst the Warriors’ frontcourt. Duncan’s notoriously fundamental style of play will be a major factor in the series and could very well dictate the outcome of the early games in San Antonio.

Ultimately, don’t be surprised to see second year guard Klay Thompson to have a breakout series for the Warriors with so much defensive attention being placed on the shooting of his backcourt partner Curry. After being dubbed the best shooting backcourt in NBA history by head coach Mark Jackson, Thompson will look to prove to the world that his coach was correct in his bold yet valid assertion.