1. Which Eastern Conference team can be considered a "sleeper?"
John Lava (@JGBHoops): The Atlanta Hawks. Just kidding. The Toronto Raptors are my pick. Everyone (including me) is picking Brooklyn in their first round series, and Toronto is suddenly a major underdog, but they do have two All Star caliber guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and though Miami would probably prefer to play them over the Nets, they would at least be able to challenge the Heat.
Cyril Armel (@Cee_Armel): My Eastern Conference sleeper team would have to be the Toronto Raptors. All year long they’ve been the most consistent team in the Atlantic Division and one can even say the most consistent team in the conference. Specifically after Rudy Gay’s December trade that shipped him to Sacramento, the Raptors have quietly and efficiently put together the best regular season in franchise history with a 49-33 record. Take that in for a minute. Not even Vince Carter, T-Mac or even Chris Bosh led their respective Raptor teams to more wins. A first round matchup with the Brooklyn Nets is on deck however. Toronto played well against the Nets during the season and rightfully so have earned Home Court. Not going on a limb and saying that Miami or even Indiana would have trouble on their hands with the Raptors, but it is the playoffs and anything can happen.
B.J. Boyer (@wcboyer24): The Toronto Raptors. The praise they have garnered throughout the regular season has abandoned them as the start of the postseason nears. Many analysts, writers and bloggers (including myself) have picked the Brooklyn Nets to emerge victorious in their seven game series against the Raps. There is a reason Toronto won 49 games, and they are out to prove it in their matchup with Paul Pierce and company. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are two guards who's games are filled to the brim with all-star potential. Anytime you have that type of firepower and a unit that's 10th in defensive rating, the prospect of an unexpected playoff run could come to fruition. Hopefully for the Raps, they don't fall casualty to the immense pressure that comes from a playoff series. Especially against a veteran unit like the Brooklyn Nets.
Alex Fischbein (@Sixers_RunWitUs): My sleeper for the East is none other than the Brooklyn Nets. They've had some rough spots this season, but with the amount of experience they have it would be senseless to count them out already. They might not be the youngest team, but they have key players who have experienced the playoff atmosphere before. Look for Pierce and Garnett to lead this team to some wins that no one expected.
Martin Soaries (@marley_mcfly): Washington Wizards. The Nets are probably the majority dark horse in the Eastern Conference, but the Wizards can emerge as a sleeper if John Wall is prepared to operate against the tenacious Bulls defense. Wall can put lots of pressure on Chicago in the first round by getting himself and backcourt mate Bradley Beal going offensively, while Nene and Marcin Gortat man the paint with Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster as wing options. This team is feisty with some manpower. Don’t sleep.
2. Which Western Conference team can be considered a "sleeper?"
Lava: The Memphis Grizzlies. Would be tough to say that anyone could stop Kevin Durant in round 1 with the season he's having, but if anyone can do it it's the Grizz. The potential for Russell Westbrook's injury issues to continue as well as the fact that the Thunder really only have Ibaka to stop the Gasol-Randolph combo (sorry Perk) give Memphis a shot to make this an exciting series.
Armel: Western Conference sleeper would have to be the Memphis Grizzlies. The one team in the west that every other team in the conference dreads playing. The fact that they managed to put together a 50 win season with the departure of Lionel Hollins in the off-season, playing a chunk of their early schedule without Marc Gasol as well is a testament to their resolve. Last Year’s Western Conference runner-up will be a tough out for the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. OKC will be looking to avenge their playoff loss last season. Memphis will be a physically challenging opponent so we should be in for a great series.
Boyer: The Memphis Grizzlies. This was a tough pick for me, as I was teetering between the Grizz and the Rockets, but the Grizzlies experience and top notch defensive execution allows me to give them the nod. Although it may be tough to slow eventual league MVP Kevin Durant, OKC will find difficulties in stopping the haymaker interior punches Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are sure to land. This series will be a compelling one, and a series that could prove to be uncomfortably lengthy for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Fischbein: The Sleeper in the west is pretty hard to predict because of the high skill level of every team. That being said, my sleeper in the west is the Portland Trail Blazers. In the beginning of the year, everyone was talking about them. The hype died down as the season went on, but the Blazers are still playing some great ball. Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and company are a solid team and they can hang with all of these western teams in the playoffs. Look for them to make some noise again.
Soaries: Golden State Warriors. No one ever falls completely asleep because they realize the incessant threat of Stephen Curry, but not even I picked the Warriors to pull the first round upset over the Clippers. Without Andrew Bogut they’ll likely be going small again, which may or may not turn into a difference maker for their success. Either way, with the Clippers and the Rockets making the supposed leap to potential contender, Golden State can be considered the sleeper in the West.
3. Which player do you feel will breakout during the 2014 NBA Playoffs?
Lava: In my opinion a team has got to make the second round, if not the third, in order for a player from that team to become the breakout player of the playoffs. To me that gives the advantage to Kawhi Leonard. He's been arguably the most important piece for the Spurs this year as the team has been nearly unstoppable since he returned from injury, and though he's not a flashy player he certainly can have some highlights.
Armel: Blake Griffin has to breakout this year in the playoffs for the Clippers to take that next step forward. My pick to come out the west before the playoff picture was defined has been Doc’s Clippers. Griffin may finish 3rd on the MVP ballot as a result of his stellar play in the absence of CP3. The lone knock on BG32 has been his perceived lack of toughness. He is constantly the target of abuse in games and up to this point has lacked the fire in response that some Hall of Famers and analysts wish he would display. But I think he will breakout and give CP3 the much needed 2nd option output he has sorely lacked in his many post-season appearances.
Boyer: This may be a hope, rather than a fair assessment, but I'm hoping John Wall and or Bradley Beal are the ones to come to the forefront this postseason. Both are deserving, especially Wall who's excellent season has made the previous personal frustrations and team turmoil seem like a decade ago. The Wizards were once a unit hammered by immature and egocentric players. Now the roster is a bunch of hard working guys looking to storm into the playoffs and make noise. That noise could be loud and very frightening for the rest of the league if Wall and Beal are able to coexist in the acute world that is the NBA Playoffs.
Fischbein: I'm going to Indiana for the breakout performer of the playoffs. Lance Stephenson, who has been playing well all season, will play even better this postseason. He's going to come to every game with the same intense, fiery attitude and he will tear it up. Don't be surprised if you see him get a couple triple-doubles this postseason either because he has proven he can get one at any time.
Soaries: Terrence Jones. For the Rockets to have success I think Jones needs to continue his steady play from the regular season. Playing mostly at the stretch-four Jones makes Houston faster and helps spread the floor to create mismatches. Even though he’s not one of the Rockets’ many outside shooting threats, it opens up more chances for him to be a glue guy in other areas in which he thrives. This is a chance for him to break out.
4. Which team has the toughest first round matchup?
Lava: Clippers. LAC's reward for being the 3 seed in the West is the most dangerous team in the NBA. Once the Warriors get hot, their opponent is absolutely screwed. They're the best 6 seed I've ever seen and they will give the Clips a hell of a series.
Armel: The Oklahoma City Thunder have the toughest matchup in these 2014 playoffs. Memphis-OKC always seem to find each other in the Playoffs with this being their 3rd meeting dating back to the 2011 playoffs. The teams have split their playoff meetings with 1 series win apiece (OKC winning 4-3 in ’11) & (Mem winning 4-1 in ’13). This series in particular serves as the Thunder’s first true series with Westbrook and Durant at the helm without Harden; Westbrook was hurt last year against Houston. It will be interesting to see that dynamic display itself as the playoffs usually leads to tight situations. Will Durant and Westbrook be able to trust and play through each other to lead the Thunder back to prominence? Anything short of an NBA Finals appearance would be a wasted season in Thunder-land especially with the MVP award expected to be heading to Durant this year. Memphis poses an imminent threat with Zach Randolph. The Thunder seemingly don’t have an answer for him in the low post so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Boyer: The Clippers. A teach hoping to elevate themselves to championship contender status has to contend with the Splash Brothers and the faithful fans that rock the house at Oracle Arena. LAC is deep, somewhat experienced and masterfully coached, but with the insane shooting GSW is the beneficiary of, the tide can change very quickly. Golden State is incredibly dangerous, and this series will be one for the ages.
Fischbein: The Rockets definitely earned the toughest match up for the first round. Harden and Howard are great players and the supporting cast is decent, but you still have to account for some great players in Portland. They don't have a point guard to match up with Lillard and Aldridge is going to be hard to contain as well. Harden has been a liability on defense this year, so Portland could put up a lot of points on this Houston team. They're going to have to dig deep to win this series, because it definitely won't come easy.
Soaries: Clippers. Partially because this has become a rivalry between the Clippers and the Warriors and partially because of Stephen Curry. He is the wildest individual playoff card of all, and facing him while he’s fresh in the first round should be frightening for Clippers fans.
5. Which first round matchup can be labeled as "much watch?"Lava: Clippers-Warriors, for all the reasons I listed in the last question.
Armel: Must watch series of the first round will have to be the Memphis Grizzlies-Oklahoma City Thunder series. Both teams have a history with one another in the post season. Thunder fans will be hard pressed to say that had it not been for Westbrook’s injury last post season, they would’ve made a return trip to the Finals. The Grizzlies would like to have us think otherwise and further prove that their series win against OKC last year was no fluke.
Boyer: Must watch is definitely Clippers-Warriors. Two teams that spew venom when the thought of each other presents itself, and two of the league's best point guards dueling for 48 minutes. I am getting giddy thinking about the fantastic finishes that these games are primed to have.
Fischbein: My "must-watch" series of the first round is the match up between the Warriors and the Clippers. These teams are quite similar in their uptempo style of play. The Clippers will bring the big dunks and alley oops while the Warriors will bring the big shots. There's nothing like a Splash Brothers match up against CP3 and Blake Griffin. The one thing that might sink the Dubs is the injury to Bogut, but that just means their defensive scheme may be changed and make things even more interesting.
Soaries: Clippers/Warriors. Again, this is a rivalry, but it’s also going to be one of the most fun series to watch, maybe of the entire playoffs, because of the high-octane offense of both teams. This is Lob City vs. Splash Bros. This is run and gun versus run and gun. Lots of points, lots of threes, and every game will be a must watch.
6. Who will be the breakout team of the 2014 NBA Playoffs?
Lava: I honestly don't think there will be one. I'm expecting the first round to go mostly as planned and the interesting matchups to come later on when the NBA's heavyweights match up against each other.
Hampton: The breakout team of the 2014 NBA Playoffs will be the Los Angeles Clippers. They have the breakout player of the season in Blake Griffin, a championship coach as well as the best pg in the game poised to make a deep playoff run. The stars have seemingly aligned in their favor and I see the Clippers riding this momentum all the way to an NBA Finals appearance.
Boyer: Due to the weakness of the eastern conference, and the brute strength of the west, I don't think we will be able to label a team as "breakout" during these playoffs. Since the beginning of this years regular season campaign, most fans have come to expect an Indiana/Miami Eastern Conference Finals in the East, and the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder to emerge out the west. Any other team dethroning the aforementioned ball clubs seems unreasonable. We may see a team show promise, but the possibility of an underdog team causing monumental ruckus in the playoffs is unlikely this year.
Fischbein: The breakout team of the postseason will be the Trail Blazers. They have a lot of young talent with a good mix of experience. This team played great in the beginning of the season and will follow that up with a great postseason. The former Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard, has his eyes set on big things and he's going to take out all the guards in his way.
Soaries: Los Angeles Clippers. Now this pick will only be legitimate, to me, if the Clippers at least make it to the Conference Finals, but realistically if any team besides San Antonio or Oklahoma City comes out of the Western Conference they’ll be a break out team.
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