We made it to the playoffs, at last.
Hey, I love the regular season and all that, by everyone knows that whatever has happened thus far is merely prelude, nothing more. That’s how we do it in American sports, for better or worse. If you want to be champion, you’ve got to do it in the postseason, when everyone is watching.
So now, it’s time to preview the upcoming first-round of the NBA Playoffs. A no-nonsense, no BS, ANYTHING GOES guide to how we think things will play out. Let’s tip it off with…
THE WESTERN CONFERENCE
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
Wes: I didn’t exactly get my wish when Utah beat Phoenix to eliminate the from playoff contention. That said, if I can look past my eternal Utah-hatred, then I can easily admit that the Jazz are building something nice for the future. Provided they can keep it together, then we might be talking a little more seriously about them in a few years. However, for now, they’re too young and too inconsistent for me to even consider the chance of another Spurs, first-round collapse. I’ll give Utah two games because San Antonio is bound to get a little tired, and because some freaky mojo shit can happen at the Delta Center. Spurs in 6.
Hath: All the love for San Antonio confuses me. Yeah, they’ll win this series and yeah, they’ve had a helluva regular season. Thing is, they were the #1 seed in the West last year too, and we all know how that turned out for them. This team wins because they play the right way and they are built to. Truth is, they feast on most weak teams because they are just plain smarter, and coached better. When they bump against the elite teams it’ll be a different story, especially in a seven game series.
For now though, they should make easy work of Utah. The Jazz have recovered nicely from last years’ Deron Williams debacle, and they have room to grow. This year though, they’ll be cannon fodder for the big boys. Still, the future looks good.
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Wes: It’s always interesting to see what the defending champs do in their first true title defense. Unfortunately, for Mavericks supporters, I see little reason to believe that it will all magically come together like it did last year. Dirk and co. can’t possibly be as hungry as they once were (other than VC, of course), and their season was riddled with injuries and distractions. Conversely, the Thunder are a better version of the team that wasn’t that far away from downing the Mavs in last year’s Western Conference Finals. It’s a matter of “rise and fall,” at that more than makes the difference here. Thunder in 5.
Hath: Hey look, it’s a rematch of last year’s Western Finals. Well, not really. After winning their first NBA title last year, Mark Cuban decided to let some of the key pieces of that them go elsewhere for big contracts while saving money for the massive free-agent class of 2012, in essence treating this season as a year of transition. Oh, so did his players, most of whom showed up to camp out of shape, injured or just plain not psyched about their jobs.
On the other side of the ball, OKC seems primed to take another step forward, provided they learned anything from the spanking Dallas gave them last year. This is the team I picked to go all the way this season and while I still like their chances, I’m as nervous about Russell Westbrook’s ability to play within himself as anyone. That said, anyone who really thinks their starting lineup can’t score enough down the stretch is probably not actually watching their games. Scoring is not anywhere near the top of the their list of problems. Decision making is, though. If Westbrook has learned his lesson, these dudes are gonna be tough to beat.
Anyway, this series should be over rather quickly. Oklahoma simply has too much athleticism and hunger for the satisfied Mavs.
(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
Wes: Early in the year, these teams played a back-to-back that was really competitive and fun to watch. I declared that I wouldn’t mind seeing a playoff series between the two… and here we are. Of course, a lot has changed since that time. To me, the Lakers are unquestionably better than they were, simply based on the addition of Ramon Sessions alone. Denver, on the other hand, has dealt with their share of banged up players, and they traded away Nene, who I thought gave L.A. all they could handle every time they played. Yes, the Lakers have a myriad of issues to deal with, and the Nuggets can still run and gun furiously. However, the Lakers are too good to lose this one. If they’re smart, they might consider dragging it out a little, just so they can get Metta back in a series where he might be needed more. Lakers in 6.
Hath: Post-season Javale!!!
I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Javale McGee just yet. Now, we get at least four games of everyone’s favorite trainwreck, only this time it’s under the bright lights and all that. Man, I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it.
As for the actual series, I expect Denver to give the Lakers a fit or two, but it should definitely be a “Lakers in 6” scenario. In a season that has seen absolutely mountainous ups and downs for LA, this is a team that is considered dangerous enough to go all the way or lose in the first round. Handling the Nuggets should be easy enough. The water will get a whole lot deeper after that.
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
Wes: Flip a coin.
I’m serious. This is the toughest for me to pick. The Grizz is the group that nobody wants to face. Everyone saw what they did last year, and there’s reason to believe they could do it again. The Clippers are one the league’s top attractions, poised to be a threat for years to come. Do they, however, have what it takes to take their game to that playoff level and knock out Memphis?
I’m putting this all on Chris Paul. A bonafide assassin. The guy took a gruesome New Orleans group and made it interesting against the Lakers last year. He has a much better supporting cast this year, but they face a team that knows how to win and certainly aren’t intimidated by anything.
This will be physical. I expect Blake Griffin to get hit from all angles. He’s shown a remarkable ability to keep his cool, but Memphis is going to come test that. If I look at it, I should side with experience and recent success…
… but I trust in CP3. I think he eats Memphis alive and gives us his most impressive performance to date. He’s been waiting for a stage like this one. Clippers in 7.
Hath: I am a long-suffering Clipper fan, so I will be crossing my fingers for them here. The cole, hard truth here is that at this point, the Clips will only go as far as Chris Paul is capable of carrying them. At this point, Blake Griffin is far from a finished product, and that fact will never be more evident than it will in this series, when the game will slow down and get physical. Let’s face facts here, Blake’s go-to move is catching lobs, and that shit ain’t gonna play in the post-season.
Memphis appears to be peaking right now, having found their ideal rotation at the right time. With Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol carrying the scoring load for the starters and Zach Randolph and OJ Mayo bringing instant offense off the bench, the Grizzlies are going to be a matchup nightmare for almost anyone.
So I’ll be rooting for the Clippers, but it’s going to take light’s out shooting from the Clipper perimeter guys (Mo Williams, Nick Young, Randy Foye, Caron Butler) for them to knock off Memphis, and I just don’t see it. I’ll take Memphis in 6, and hope I end up being wrong about it.
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
Wes: Evan Turner recently said that he’d prefer to draw the Bulls over the Heat in the first round because the matchup was more favorable. I actually agree with him, only because Philly can’t ever do anything with Miami at all. The problem is that they really can’t do anything with Chicago, either. Realistically, the 76ers have an intriguing mix of young talent going forward, but they need more refinement and an alpha-type scorer… and they still wouldn’t beat the Bulls if they had both of those things. I’m glad they got in because the additional experience will help down the road.
It will be interesting to see how Chicago plays this, in terms of limiting guys for what will no doubt be physical affairs with the likes of the Pacers and the Heat. My guess is that they go for the early kill and hope to get some rest while the Boston/Atlanta series goes deep. Bulls in 5.
Hath: I don’t really think I have much to add to that. Philly has no shot here, and I don’t think we’ll learn anything by the way the Bulls play in this series. The sooner this series is over, the better.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
Wes: Ah yes… it’s going to happen. This one has the potential to be something really fun. The storylines are all there. Lebron. Melo. MSG. And, finally, the fact that the Knicks might be able to make something out of this.
I’m not going to predict an upset or anything, but Miami has looked a little disjointed and New York comes into this with the hottest player in the league and a chance to start justifying all of their oft-critcized personnel decisions. The Knicks play the Heat tough every time. The edge will be there.
Some have speculated that Miami basically coasted through parts of the regular season, waiting to really turn it up come playoff time. I’m calling their bluff on that. I just don’t think all of the pieces fit ideally, from best friends playing together to a coach who is utterly obsessive about details having to manage a team that is basically best suited when it runs and guns in devastatingly chaotic fashion. Don’t get me wrong – their talent overrides the less than perfect chemistry – but I can’t buy that they’re just waiting to unleash perfect execution.
I’ll give New York at least two games, and maybe a third. Not enough to take the series, but enough to make it damn good. Heat in 6.
Hath: Man, the first round of the East is hot garbage, matchup-wise. I mean, this is the only series that does anything at all for me.
It’s easy to talk myself into thinking the Knicks have a chance here, but it’s more a hope than any kind of strong feeling. If jeremy Lin were still there, maybe the Heat would be sweating, but can anyone really fathom the Heat losing to a team featuring Baron Davis and Mike Bibby at point guard? in 2012?
So maybe the Knicks get a game in the Garden, and I’m sure we’ll get a game where LeBron and Carmelo get loose for 40 apiece, but otherwise I expect this to be fun, but not exactly suspenseful or anything.
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
Wes: Due to the fact that the saga in Orlando essentially spiraled out of control and resulted in a shelved Dwight Howard and a team with little focus and/or identity, this series is probably the most unattractive of them all. Maybe that’s just a by-product of my amplified bias against the Magic, or maybe it’s because I like the Pacers more when they play against an opponent worth a damn. Indiana is young, well-coached, and full of talent, and virtually everyone is interested in seeing them hook up with Chicago (or Miami, to a lesser extent) at some point. Forgive me, however, if I’m not exactly thrilled to watch them take it to Orlando for a series of games. Sure, we’ll get the game where Ryan Anderson or JJ Redick gets hot and goes for 30, but the chances of a competitive back-and-forth are slim. Indiana in 5.
Hath: If the NBA had an NIT tournament, this would be the Finals of it. No matter who wins this series, I can guarantee you they won’t be beating the Heat. Yeah, I expect the Pacers to go down kicking and screaming, but lose they will.
Don’t get me wrong, I love where the Pacers are heading. They’ve got a roster that goes 10 deep and a coach that has them playing hard every night in a league where that is a rarity. Still, they’ll be thrown in the deep end after they tap dance on the heads of the Magic, or what’s left of them.
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Wes: I rarely pick Atlanta to win a playoff series. I actually liked them more this year, but no Al Horford and a meeting with a Boston team that looks like they’re ready to give it one last solid shot means a loss, I believe. Keep in mind, Atlanta has the home-court advantage by virtue of their better overall record, and I expect it to be pretty competitive. I can’t pick against Boston, though – not yet. Celtics in 7.
Hath: Sure, the Hawks have earned their reputation as playoff dogs, but I will say they deserve a nod for surviving the early-season loss of Al Horford. They put together a 33-22 record without him, and Josh Smith had a star-making season.
That’s all good and well, but their dog meat here. Boston is my super sleeper in this years’ playoffs, and I’m sure I ain’t the only one. The Celtic hit their stride when they went to a smaller, shooter-heavy unit that features Kevin Garnett at center. With this squad, they are quicker on defense and tough to stop with the ball in their hands. Surrounding Rajon Rondo with guys who can knock down shots is a good idea, and who would want to count out a team with Boston’s experience?
Whether or not the C’s can slay the giants of the east is another story, but they’ll cruise here.
~Wes Lilliman and John Hathwell