Having wrapped up its “sprint to the finish” regular season, the Association now turns its eyes towards what promises to be an extremely entertaining playoffs. There are a multitude of teams who could come away with the crown this year, and I think I speak for most fans when I say that this could be the most unpredictable playoffs in recent memory. I certainly can’t remember a playoffs with this many first round series that could go either way, and it would not surprise me to see a lot of upsets here, particularly because some of the much-hyped teams (i.e. Thunder,
Heat, Bulls) have struggled down the stretch (the Thunder with general team cohesiveness, the Heat with injuries, and the Bulls with the re-introduction of Derrick Rose). All that being said, here are my thoughts on the first round playoff matchups, along with predicted winners for each series (*gulp*).
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
Could the Spurs possibly go out as the number 1 seed two years in a row? I’m inclined to say no. Although the Jazz possess a loaded frontcourt (Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and the “Underkanter”), something which gave the Spurs fits last year against Memphis, I believe the experience and depth of the Spurs can overcome the Jazz. Captain Hardass (Gregg Popovich) has somehow turned Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard into serviceable starters; and Stephen Jackson and the “Round Mound of Crème Brûlée” (Boris Diaw) – both great pickups – provide the Spurs with firepower off the bench.
These guys, along with the still-going-strong Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have allowed the Spurs to function as the most efficient offense in the league this season (something which hasn’t previously been their M.O.).
The Jazz are a young team, and they seem to have a bright future, but I think that Popovich might literally kill his entire roster if they get embarrassed again; for this reason, I’m going with San Antonio in 5 games.
(Look on the bright side Jazz, you did hose Jersey in that Deron Williams trade last year…and they might (read: probably will) lose him in free agency this year!)
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
I’m really looking forward to this one. To be honest, I don’t really enjoy watching OKC: sure they have Westbrook and Durant, but too often their games devolve into free-throw competitions (we call it “Miami Heat 2006 Finals Syndrome”). On the other hand, I love watching the way Dallas plays (Rick Carlisle is a criminally underrated coach, even after winning a title). Keep in mind, last year Dallas knocked out the Thunder in 5 (I can hear the protests now: “but Matt, the Thunder are a year older and ayear better!”), and Dirk Nowitzki basically dropped a deuce all over Serge Ibaka (this boxscore is ridiculous!).
Dallas lost some key pieces from last year’s title run, but I feel that their falling to 7th place has more to do with a lack of fitness and some internal pressures (see: Kardashian, Lamar) than any deterioration or lack of talent. On the OKC side, whether or not they win depends on two things: 1) Can they pop the dent out of James Harden’s head? and 2) Can Russell Westbrook manage the team? With the constant scrutiny surrounding Westbrook’s liberal shot selection (to put it mildly), I could see OKC imploding if they lose 2 of the first 3 games, which is a distinct possibility. A lot of fanboys are going to hate on me for this one, but I just have a huge suspicion that Dallas is going to come ready to play: Mavs in 6.
(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
I don’t see any way the Lakers lose this series, even without Metta “the People’s Elbow” World Peace (who, to be honest, isn’t really that important of a cog in the Laker machine anyway). Denver’s a nice story, and they have an interesting assortment of players – Kenneth Faried’s tenacity and Arron Afflalo’s defensive ability have particularly impressed me – but the Lakers are BIG and Denver has nobody who can guard Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum in the post. The Lakers should be able to steamroll their way into the second round, and given that I don’t think he’ll have to do much, this should be the perfect opportunity for Kobe to work his way back into game shape. Lala-land in 5 games.
Note: this is Javale McGee’s first playoff action, so it should be exciting to see what tomfoolery he manages to get up to
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
Full disclosure: I don’t like the Clippers. I started out on the Lob City bandwagon, but as the season drew on I became more and more tired of the constant flopping and whining of Chris Paul and the “Golden Boy” Blake Griffin. The way Griffin flops – throwing his head back and contorting his body at the slightest contact – you would think he had been hit by one of those shitty Kia Optimas he endorses, and the only thing that’s flopped harder than Chris Paul this year is John Carter (for God’s sake, Reggie Evans had the worst flop of all-time just last week: apparently this stuff is contagious). While Paul is a great player (I don’t think I’ve ever seen him miss a midrange jumper late in the game) and controls the tempo of a game like no other, the other members of the Clippers are just too limited at this point (not to mention horrendous free throw shooters) for me to predict a deep run in these playoffs. On the other hand, the Grizz are my darkhorse pick to make the finals. Marc Gasol has really come into his own the past couple years, and along with Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph forms a formidable frontcourt. Tony Allen might be the best perimeter defender in the league (he completely shut down LeBron James while playing for the Celtics in 2010); between Allen and Mike Conley, Paul will have a great defender guarding him at all times, which should slow him down. The Grizz have all the pieces to take down the Clips; in the battle between style and substance, I’m going with substance. Grizz in 6.
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76er’s
Philadelphia really fell off for the middle portion of the season, and I can’t help but feel that Doug Collins (also a hardass) has at least somewhat lost the room. The 76er’s suffer the same malady as the Denver Nuggets out west: they have a lot of interesting complimentary pieces, but no true star (Andre Iguodala should not be your star player). The Bulls haven’t looked great coming into the postseason either, and Derrick Rose has looked particularly bad coming back from his numerous injuries. That being said, the Bulls are just too good to lose to Philly, and if the games are close at the end I trust Derrick Rose a hell of a lot more than anyone on the Sixers to make a big play. Bulls in 5.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
Oh Baby: the star power in this series has Super Mario shitting his pants. The Knicks have been a rollercoaster all season: the uninspired play to start the season, followed by Linsanity, followed by the post-Linsanity “Carmelo ruins the chemistry” saga, followed by the “Carmelo takes over“ period, and finally the “Can Amare and Carmelo co-exist?” drama; what a ride! The Heat’s season has been tame in comparison, particularly when juxtaposed with the excitement which was last season. The Knicks are the deeper team (JR Smith, Baron Davis, and Steve Novak are all solid contributors) but LeBron, Wade and Bosh (who I tend to favour over Stoudemire at this point) will be very difficult to overcome. A lot will hinge on whether Amare and Carmelo can co-exist (they’re too similar on the offensive end). If both of them can get going simultaneously – which hasn’t really happened since they teamed up – it could cause headaches for the Heat. Tyson Chandler (who has quietly been brilliant for the Knickerbockers) could also have a huge impact if he can deter Wade and James from taking the ball inside; tactically, it would not surprise me in the least if the Knicks threw in some zone defense to dare the Heat to take jumpers. While LeBron has been his typical MVP self all season (he will win that award, by the way), Wade and Bosh have recently been hampered by injuries. The Heat could lose this series if either of those guys misses games (more so Bosh since the Heat has nobody else inside). I think this one will be close, and I fully expect the Knicks to get a huge boost from their home town crowd, but ultimately I think the Heat can pull this one out. Heat in 6 (Spike Lee loses his mind as Wade eliminates the Knicks at MSG).
(As an aside, how awesome is it going to be watching LeBron and Carmelo guard each other for an entire series?!)
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
My personal feelings toward Dwight Howard aside, he is a fantastic player and a huge difference maker. Without him the Magic have no chance in this series, particularly against a sneaky good Indiana Pacers squad (who is flying really far under the radar, just the way they want it I’m sure). Free agent signing David West has been rounding into form for the Pacers, so I will be extremely interested to see if he can maintain his level of play heading into a likely second round matchup with Miami. The Pacers are definitely better than the Magic sans Howard; this series will not be close. Pacers in 5.
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Due to a better record, the Hawks will actually have home court in this matchup of perennial playoff teams. The Hawks always give me the vibe that they don’t really enjoy basketball, or give a crap in general (see their home blowout loss to the Raptors). And to be honest, home court advantage means nothing to the Hawks since their crowd seems to give less of a crap than the Hawks themselves. The Celtics on the other hand are always motivated: Kevin Garnett will surely be beating his chest and hitting his head against shit prior to game one (“He’s so intense!”). The Celtics have received surprise contributions from rookie Greg Stiemsma and second year guard Avery Bradley (let me say, you have to watch this guy play defense at the point guard position, it’s something else). Bradley’s surprise play has even led to the relegation of Ray Allen to the bench, adding to the Celtics depth. Josh Smith has had a fantastic season for the Hawks and Joe Johnson has been Joe Johnson (which is to say that he has been the most boring repeat all-star ever), but for the Hawks to win it is going to take a Herculean effort by these two. Frankly I don’t think they have it in them: the Celtics are built for the playoffs, and their depth and experience hold them in good stead. Celtics in 6.
So there you have it: my take on the first round of the NBA playoffs. Be sure to come back in two weeks and make fun of my incorrect picks! Until then, enjoy what promises to be a thoroughly entertaining first act.