Thankfully after five Game 7s over the weekend, we don't have to wait for more NBA action. The league is back at it tonight as the Washington Wizards vs. Indiana Pacers starts at 5:00 p.m. MT on TNT and right after that game the Los Angeles Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder get after it, also on TNT.
My picks and previews:
Wizards vs. Pacers:
The Pacers got back on track in Game 7 behind a strong 30-point performance from Paul George. The fourth year guard is just 24 years-old and has grown his game each season. Impressive that he raised his free throw percentage from 80.7% to 86.4% while going from 3.5 attempts last season to 5.8 this season. His three point percentage remained steady at 36.4% on 6.3 attempts per game and his overall shooting was okay at 42.4% on 17 attempts per game, up from 14.9 shots per game last season.
George carries a heavy burden for the Pacers as he's relied upon on both ends of the floor. He led the team in scoring during the regular season and carried that over to the post-season, as well. He also takes the toughest assignments on the defensive end and can guard multiple positions. The Pacers will need a monster series from Paul in order to advance.
On the flip side, the Wizards need their 23 year-old point guard, John Wall, to come through on an even bigger stage. Yes, the series win over the Chicago Bulls was impressive (4-1 series win), but the Pacers, even with their struggles, are a more complete team with more firepower than the Bulls. Wall plays at breakneck speeds most of the time and averaged 18.8 points, 6.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and just 2.4 turnovers versus the Bulls. Coach Randy Wittman played Wall 38.8 minutes a night and that's with veteran Andre Miller on the bench. Wittman knows his best chance to win is with Wall on the floor and we'll see tons of him in this series.
Old friend Nene had a nice series against the Bulls, as well. He averaged 17.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in 35.8 minutes per game and that's including being suspended for Game 4 with a minor head-butt on Jimmy Butler. Washington cannot afford to lose Nene in this series and especially not for something like that. Nene's speed will be a killer for the slow-footed Roy Hibbert and even Ian Mahinmi and his size will be an issue for David West and Luis Scola. And on the defensive end, Nene's strength will help him against the taller guys and his speed will allow him to cover the pick-and-pop West/Scola.
It's tough to call Beal an X-Factor when he's a reliable scorer, but the youngster (just 20 years-old!) will be counted on to stretch the floor and take some of the heat off Nene and Wall. Beal averaged 19.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists against the Bulls and can electrify with his play. After watching this series, you may realize why the Thunder explored James Harden for the third overall 2012 pick and why the Nuggets were rumored to be looking to trade up in 2012 for Beal, as well.
As for Stephenson, rapper Fat Joe had it right when he said, "I swear he's going to the NBA." Seriously though, the kid nicknamed "Born Ready" was a supreme talent in New York and put together an impressive season for the Pacers. Check out some of his old highlights:
Stephenson seems like a guy where you could say: he'll shoot you out of that game. But he didn't do that in Round 1 against Atlanta, his worst game being just a 2-9 performance, but 1-7 from deep. I don't see him as being a wild chucker, but he does have some very creative moves and can get a bit sticky with the ball. Stephenson can do other things besides scoring as he averaged 8.9 rebounds against the Hawks to go along with his 15.4 points per game average.
I've very excited to see the Beal vs. Stephenson match-up in this series. Actually, I'm pretty excited to see this whole series. I'll take the Wizards in 6.
Clippers vs. Thunder:
One of the truest Tweets I saw after the Clips vs. Thunder match-up was set ...
It's gonna be weird when all of Oklahoma can't stand Blake Griffin after the next two weeks.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 4, 2014
I can't tell you how many teams played the Nuggets in the post-season and then earned my sports-hate. Well, actually I can tell you. I was a huge Sam Cassell fan when he played for the Rockets, but after he faced the Nuggets with both the Timberwolves and Clippers in the playoffs, I couldn't stand the guy ... same goes for Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Elton Brand, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and all the Warriors ... probably a few others too - haha. Am I bitter? You bet. That's what the playoffs can do to a person and we'll see how the Oklahoma fans treat Mr. Griffin. I recall some of the horror stories I've heard about the Nuggets playing in OKC in the playoffs with their fans ... we'll see how this shakes out.
There is going to be big time attention paid to the big names in this series: Chris Paul, Griffin, Durant, and Westbrook. The play of those four guys will decide the series, obviously, but there is also room for a ton of X-factors. The whole "Mr. Unreliable" vs. "Mr. Reliable" thing was a funny subplot to Round 1 between Kevin Durant and a local newspaper. The fans took to defending their star and Durant came through with monster performances in Game 6 and 7, scoring 36 points and 33 points respectively.
Of Durant's 36 points, 38% of them in Game 6 came at the foul line. That's an area that the Clippers could get in big time trouble in: foul trouble. If the Thunder were smart, they'd try to figure out lineups where Griffin was forced to cover Durant, Blake got into foul issues throughout Round 1 as he fouled out twice, had five fouls two times, and four fouls in a game. That's five games where the Clippers were in danger with Blake, OKC should attempt to duplicate that.
Westbrook could also be in for a big time series as the Clippers may struggle to guard him with Paul, J.J. Redick, or even the pest Matt Barnes. I have more concerns with how the Clippers will guard the Thunder than I do with how the Thunder will cover the Clips. Serge Ibaka vs. Blake will be fun and Doc Rivers must try to figure out how to exploit the speed and size of DeAndre Jordan vs. Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams. Jordan thrives in the alley-oop game and should find plenty of opportunities to attack the rim in this series.
The over/under for potential scuffles will be high in this series. People love to attack Griffin and with Barnes, Perkins, and Adams on the floor ... we should get some tense moments.
The Thunder went 3-0 against the Grizzlies when Jackson scored in double-figures; he put up 32 points in Game 4, 16 in Game 6, and 16 in Game 7. Scott Brooks replaced Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup with Caron Butler and benched Thabo and big man Nick Collison for the final two games of the series. OKC's bench basically features Derek Fisher, Adams, and Jackson. We may see Thabo and Collison get back into the rotation with a different match-up, but the biggest scoring threat is Jackson. Brooks would be wise to utilize lineups that feature Jackson playing with Westbrook and Durant as the team has been missing a reliable play-maker and scorer since the departure of The Beard.
It was hard to figure out what scoring meant for Crawford and the Clippers in Round 1 as the team went 1-1 when he scored in single digits, 3-2 when he scored in double figures, and 1-1 when he went for 22+ points. But the Clippers went 3-0 when Crawford shot over 50% in that Warriors series and he did so in Games 2, 5, and 7 when the team really needed him.
The 34 year-old (can't believe he's that old!) will be counted on to provide some scoring pop when he enters the game and we'll see how efficient he can be and if that'll again translate to wins for the Clippers in Round 2.
This has all the makings of a long series and I'm going to take the Clippers in 7.