(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies
This is a really tough series to predict. If I'm going purely by numbers and not matchups, I'm going with the Thunder, but when I look at the teams themselves and the matchups possible I want to say the Grizzlies may have a better chance.
After Westbrook went down, I estimated their new team strength would be around a +5.5 point differential, and lo and behold adjusting for their opponent and homecourt they were a +6 team after Westbrook went down. I even said, "Don't be surprised if they drop a couple games," and they indeed did. I was right on in predicting how much more Fisher, Reggie Jackson, and Sefolosha would play, but I did not predict an Atlas-like minutes load from Durant, which probably put them over the top to hit the +6 mark. He will not continue to play that much, as no one has done so in the playoffs since 2009. However, the Thunder now have a little more time to adjust their defensive problems and Reggie Jackson will have some actual experience under his belt.
Unfortunately for Memphis, if the Thunder continue to play at this level they are a slightly better team than the Grizzlies, and a slightly better team with homecourt advantage is a better decent bet. This is where the matchups come in. The Grizzlies are known for their bruising frontcourt, and Conley should have little trouble getting by Jackson or Fisher. Durant is now the only shot creator on the team, and he's going to be hounded by an elite defense with Tony Allen, Prince's long arms, and Marc Gasol waiting in the paint. And poor Kevin Martin, coming off a rough series when his team needed him the most, will often by harassed by Tony Allen. Weaknesses are magnified in the postseason where coaches and assistants work overtime in preparation, and the Thunder have some glaring problems: Durant turns the ball over when he forces the issue, the point guards are not starting caliber, and an entire system that relied on a player who had never missed a game is thrown into flux while the Grizzlies just feasted on a good team.
Another matchup problem is how isolation heavy Oklahoma City are. Against a great defense, a predictable offense will be destroyed, and this was not made apparent during the previous series because the Rockets were not a good defensive team. The Thunder had an unusually high scoring margin during the regular season, but they've also had magnificent health -- Durant, Westbrook, Harden when he was there, and Ibaka were missing less games per year than five. That inflated their team numbers a bit, and now they have to play without their all-star point guard. Even if I go purely by the numbers, this looks like a seven game series, but I think the Grizzlies take this one because they can exploit weaknesses.
What to watch for:
-Nick Collison is actually a Zach Randolph stopper, but it remains to be seen if the Thunder actually know this and will use it.
-Durant as a playmaker. Compared to most elite perimeter players, he's far behind in this respect. This is the time where he needs to emerge as a playemaker.
-Memphis is a terrible team shooting from the three-point line, but I don't think the Thunder are disciplined enough right now to take advantage of this.
-The rotation of the Thunder big men. How much will Ibaka guard Randolph? Will he draw him out using his jumper? Can Perkins actually guard Gasol and how much will he play? And how much smallball will we see?
-Randolph again will go against a highflying athletic power forward, and may again destroy a man built of pure muscle in the paint.
-Jerryd Bayless is acting like a kick-returner on offense, zipping to the rim with reckless abandon. Awkwardly, the Thunder are using Fisher and Martin off the bench at the guard slots, and there might be some odd matchups when Bayless is on the court.
Prediction: Grizzlies in six.
(2) New York Knicks vs. (3) Indiana Pacers
Matchups, matchups -- the Knicks rely on Carmelo's offense, and the Pacers have the newly minted elite long and quick defensive wing in Paul George; and they rely on long-range bombing while the Pacers are known for shutting down three-pointers. Team strength? It's basically a +3.7 team in New York versus a +3.3 team in the Pacers, except the Pacers have been luckier with health and New York (if they remain healthy) is probably a bit stronger.
I think we might be underrating the Knicks because the Celtics played their hearts out. When Carmelo is playing well, they're a pretty good team. It's that "when" that's in question, while the Pacers consistently have a great defense -- that, in fact, is why defensive teams fare better in the playoffs. Your three-pointers won't always hit their mark, but your rotations probably will. And, once again, we have a low post bruising team versus an offensive club. New York almost exclusively plays smallball now, which makes David West's defensive assignment a bit troublesome. However, Anthony will often be called to guard West in the post, likely taking abuse.
Notice how I keep downplaying the Knicks? They're an inconsistent team who have gone through dead stretches during the season, while the Pacers' biggest problem was Hibbert's horrid shooting problem, which went away as soon as he fully recovered from an elbow injury. But there's one key to the Knicks' season, and no, it's not the mercurial JR Smith; it's Tyson Chandler. He played terrible in the opening games of the Boston series, but improved as he went on. Shumpert, too, improved as the series continued, and he is their best wing defender and will be called on to defend Paul George. If Carmelo Anthony plays up to his standards, the Knicks with homecourt advantage have greater odds to win. But it's all contingent on "if"....
What to watch for:
-Tyson Chandler needs to keep his health because he's going against a great rebounding team and a Goliath at center in the post.
-The Pacers concede midrange jumpers, and this could work well in goading JR Smith into taking stupid shots instead of being aggressive and attacking the rim.
-Playing the Knicks, the Pacers actually get to be seen on national TV, and unlike the last game against the Hawks (the only one not on NBA TV) it will be heavily featured because of the lore of New York.
-Tyler Hansbrough has yet to see a shot he didn't want to take, and Kenyon Martin has been playing remarkable defense. Expect to see a few marvelous rejections when the benches are used.
-Sadly, Felton is highly important on offense, and as a fan in Portland would tell you this would not put one at ease.
-As a sidenote, I can't think of a more interesting destination for Chris Paul than Indiana. It won't happen for a variety of reasons, but his half-court mastery would be a perfect fit for a team desperate for offense.
Prediction: New York in seven games (I've written negative articles about you before, Carmelo, but now is the chance to redeem yourself.)
Edit: Accidentally called the Pacers a fifth seed. Oops.