The Dallas Mavericks, the defending champions, might not even make it out of the first round. The Mavericks have to get past Oklahoma City, predicted by many (including me) to win the NBA championship.
As the Thunder found out in last year’s Western Conference finals, getting past the Mavericks isn’t an easy task, either, so this isn’t exactly an easy Thunder road. (My apologies for gratuitous Bruce Springsteen reference.)
On the other hand, the first round should be smooth sailing for the Heat, Pacers, Spurs and, yes, Bulls. In fact, the Thunder might not have too difficult a time with the Mavericks, either.
This could be the final shot at a championship for the Celtics’ and Spurs’ veteran trios. If it doesn’t end in a championship, could this be the end for the Heat’s celebrated trio as well?
I won’t guarantee my playoff predictions, but I will point out that in this supposedly unpredictable season, with its condensed schedule, I correctly predicted 15 of the 16 playoff teams (the Blazers instead of the Jazz was my only mistake).
The following is a preview of the first round of the NBA playoffs:
(seeding in parentheses)
SIXERS (8) vs. BULLS (1)
Sixers: The Sixers have a balanced attack. Lou Williams (14.9 points) could lead them in scoring one night; Jrue Holiday (13.5) could lead them in scoring the next night. Or it could be Thaddeus Young (12.8) or Andre Iguodala (12.4) or Elton Brand (11.0) or Evan Turner (9.4) or … well, you get the idea. Turner, facing his hometown team and former high school rival Derrick Rose, could be a key for the Sixers. Another key will be how well the Sixers’ forwards keep the aggressive Bulls from dominating the backboards. On the downside, the Sixers are just 4-17 this season in games decided by seven or fewer points.
Bulls: Rose (21.8 points, 7.9 assists) is the Bulls’ best player, but this isn’t a one-man team. Forwards Luol Deng (15.3 points) and Carlos Boozer (15.0) both average more points than any Sixer. Boozer (8.5 rebounds) and center Joakim Noah (10.2 points, 9.8 rebounds) average more rebounds than any Sixer. Veteran Richard Hamilton (11.6) fills out the starting lineup, but C.J. Watson (9.7), former Sixer Kyle Korver (8.1) and excellent defender Taj Gibson (7.7) also can contribute on offense.
Prediction: As I wrote in our expanded Sixers-Bulls preview, the Sixers’ chances hinge on Rose’s health. Even if he’s in the lineup, there are questions whether a player who only appeared in five of the Bulls’ final 26 games can be in top form. But the Bulls don’t necessarily need Rose in top form against the Sixers. In fact, they beat the Sixers on March 17 without Rose and Richard Hamilton in the lineup. That loss took place in the midst of the Sixers’ second-half slump. Head coach Doug Collins says the Sixers are better now than when they opened the season 20-9. Maybe he’s hoping his players believe that. I do not. BULLS in 5
HEAT (2) vs. KNICKS (7)
Heat: The big three must produce. LeBron James (27.1 points), Dwyane Wade (22.1) and Chris Bosh (18.0) are responsible for more than two-thirds of the Heat’s offense. James and Bosh are also the Heat’s top rebounds (7.9 per game), and James (6.2 assists) (left), and Wade (4.6) are the team’s best distributors. Point guards Mario Chalmers (9.8 points, 3.5 assists) and Norris Cole (6.8 points) contribute offensively, but the Heat need more offense from Mike Miller (6.1 points), Udonis Haslem (7.3 rebounds, 6.0 points) and defensive-minded Shane Battier (4.8 points). Center Joel Anthony can help on defense, but he’s a non-factor (3.4 points) at the offensive end.
Knicks: Carmelo Anthony (22.6 points) has picked up his game since interim head coach Mike Woodson has allowed him to run more isolation plays. Anthony’s 1-on-1 ability may be enough against lesser teams, but the Heat have the talent to answer Anthony. Center Tyson Chandler (11.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.44 blocked shots) makes the Knicks a better defensive team. But that’s not the same thing as saying they’re a good defensive team. The effectiveness of Amare Stoudemire (17.5 points) is a concern after his late-season injuries. Midseason sensation Jeremy Lin (14.6 points, 6.2 assists) will not be ready for the start of the series following knee surgery.
Prediction: The Heat struggled down the stretch. The Knicks caught fire under Woodson, finishing the season on an 18-6 tear. Were the turnarounds the product of the Knicks’ desperation and the Heat’s boredom with a season that will be defined by how they do in the playoffs, not the regular season? Or is this a much more even series than it appears? Chandler can contain Bosh, but the Knicks don’t have many candidates to control James and Wade. The Heat’s supporting cast hasn’t been very good, but this may be one of the few series where they have an advantage at point guard, with Chalmers matching up with the Knicks’ Baron Davis and former Heat point guard Mike Bibby. The Knicks might pick up their first playoff game victory in 11 years, but they won’t win the series. Heat in 5
PACERS (3) vs. MAGIC (6)
Pacers: The Pacers are a balanced team, yet devoid of any real stars. Their top scorer is Danny Granger (18.7 points per game), a player many fans couldn’t pick out in a police lineup. The Pacers have five other players who average in double figures: forward David West (12.8); center Roy Hibbert (12.8); guard Paul George (12.1); guard Leandro Barbosa (11.1); and guard Darren Collison (10.4). Guard George Hill (9.6) and forward Tyler Hansbrough (9.3) aren’t far behind. One of the keys for the unselfish Pacers is that opponents never know which players are going to do the damage on a given night.
Magic: The double-double average of center Dwight Howard (20.6 points, 14.5 rebounds) is out of the lineup due to a back injury. Ryan Anderson (16.1 points, 7.7 rebounds) has picked up the slack, but there is no way to replace Howard’s production. Guards Jameer Nelson (11.9 points), Jason Richardson (11.6) and J.J. Redick (11.6) make the Magic a dangerous shooting team from 3-point range, but they don’t have the inside threat necessary to win a playoff series.
Prediction: The Pacers are optimistically looking forward to a long postseason run. The Magic, having endured a season of turmoil centered around Howard and, more recently, head coach Stan Van Gundy, look like a team waiting for their nightmare season to end. PACERS in 4
CELTICS (4) vs. HAWKS (5)
Celtics: The Celtics got their act together during the second half of the season. The spark was point guard Rajon Rondo (11.9 points, 11.7 assists). Veteran Ray Allen (14.2 points) also helped out by accepting coming off the bench, showing that the team comes before the individual, but he missed the final nine game of the regular season with bone spurs. Paul Pierce (19.4) can still close out games, and center Kevin Garnett (15.8) can still close down opponents. Power forward Brandon Bass (12.5) has been a nice complementary player.
Hawks: The Hawks are led by Joe Johnson and Josh Smith (18.8 points apiece). Other scorers in double figures include guard Jeff Teague (12.4), center Al Horford (12.4) and forward Marvin Williams (10.2); however, Horford is not ready to return from a torn pectoral muscle. But the parts never seem to add up to a greater whole for the Hawks.
Prediction: The Celtics may have one more deep playoff run in them before the veteran core of this team has to be broken up. That is what head coach Doc Rivers was hoping when he rested his key players during the final week.The Hawks, who have homecourt advantage in this series despite being the fifth seed, finally won a playoff series last season. I don’t see that happening two years in a row. CELTICS in 6.
SPURS (1) vs. (8) JAZZ
Spurs: The Spurs, who overtook the Thunder down the stretch to earn the top seed in the Western Conference, have been building for the playoffs all season. Head coach Gregg Popovich has been judicious with Tim Duncan’s time, playing him just 28.2 minutes per game. Manu Ginobili plays just 23.3 minutes per game and was limited to 34 games by injury. With Duncan (15.4 points) and Ginobili (12.9) spending more time on the bench, point guard Tony Parker (18.3) has been the face of the Spurs this season. Guards Patrick Mills (10.3) and Gary Neal (9.9), a former La Salle player, provide scoring balance. In fact, the Spurs have a remarkable six players averaging between 9 and 10 points. They are also the best 3 point shooting team in the NBA.
Jazz: Utah earned the final playoff berth in the Western Conference. Center Al Jefferson (19.2 points) leads the Jazz in scoring. Paul Millsap, who has all except diehard NBA fans saying “Who?”, averages 16.6 points. The Jazz have solid guards in point guard Devin Harris (11.3) and shooting guard Gordon Hayward (11.8). They also have a talented young player in Derrick Favors (8.8).
Prediction: The Jazz may be more physical and athletic up front than the Spurs, but the Spurs have the experience. The key may be whether Harris can neutralize Parker. Unlike the Heat, the Spurs get plenty of contributions from their lesser-known players. It’s not just the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili show. SPURS in 5.
THUNDER (2) vs. MAVERICKS (7)
Thunder: The Thunder lost the top seed to the Spurs during the final stretch of the season. But that might serve as a wakeup call for the Thunder. They have plenty of talent, but talent alone won’t win them the NBA title. The talent begins with Kevin Durant (28.0 points), the NBA’s leading scorer. Point guard Russell Westbrook (23.6) is a force to be reckoned with, as is James Harden, assuming he’s fully recovered from the vicious elbow by Metta World Peace (and isn’t that a weird sentence to read). Some of the intagibles are supplied by forward Serge Ibaka, who averages 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and an eye-popping 3.65 blocked shots. The Thunder rely heavily on these four players. Derek Fisher (5.6 points) provides a veteran and championship presence, but nobody outside the big four averages more than Fisher.
Mavericks: These aren’t the Mavericks you remember from last year. Center Tyson Chandler is gone, and the Mavericks never replaced his inside presence. The energetic J.J. Barea also is gone, and the Mavericks never fully replaced his spark. Dirk Nowitzki (21.6 points), left, is still a Maverick, as is Jason Terry (15.1). Shawn Marion (10.6) and Vince Carter (10.1) can still contribute offensively, as does former Saint Joseph’s star Delonte West (9.6). Jason Kidd continues to defy Father Time, but not as successfully as he did last season.
Prediction: The Thunder’s quest for an NBA championship begins with an opponent who will get their attention. The Mavericks beat the Thunder in five games in last year’s Western Conference finals en route to winning the NBA title, but they aren’t the same team as last season. The Thunder are too strong inside, and it’s unclear who is going to guard Westbrook, let alone Durant. Thunder in 5
LAKERS (3) vs. NUGGETS (6)
Lakers: Despite all the turmoil the Lakers have gone through this season, they’re still a pretty good team. Kobe Bryant (27.9 points) has rested at times during the second half of the season. Center Andrew Bynum (18.7, 8.6 rebounds) and power forward Pau Gasol (17.4, 7.6 rebounds) have been unhappy at times, but it’s difficult to find a better frontcourt tandem. Point guard Ramon Sessions has the weight of replacing Derek Fisher at point guard.
Nuggets: Denver can’t match star power with the Lakers, but the Nuggets have far more balance. Guards Ty Lawson (16.4 points) and Arron Afflalo (15.2) lead the balanced attack in scoring. Forwards Danilo Gallinari (14.6) and Al Harrington (14.2) are next. The Nuggets also feature veteran point guard Andre Miller (9.7 points), whose presence and poise should help the Nuggets in the postseason.
Prediction: The Nuggets could be this year’s first-round surprise. The Lakers are a disgruntled group, including Metta World Peace (Ron Artest), whose 7-game suspension will not allow him to play in this series unless it goes seven games. Unless Bynum and Gasol suffer sub-par series, the Lakers have too much up front for the Nuggets. And Bryant won’t let them lose – at least not this early. LAKERS in 7
GRIZZLIES (4) vs. CLIPPERS (5)
Grizzlies: The Grizzlies powered their way past teams last season. With Rudy Gay (19.0 points)) back in the lineup, the Grizzlies have an added dimension to go with center Marc Gasol (14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds) and Zach Randolph (11.6 points, 8.0 rebounds). Randolph was limited to 28 games by injuries. In the end, that may have made the Grizzlies a better team. Point guard Mike Conley (12.7) continues to impress, O.J. Mayo (12.6) has developed into a solid pro, and Tony Allen (9.8) continues his overall solid play. Even ex-Sixer Marreese Speights (8.8) has picked up his game and gotten into the act.
Clippers: The Clippers were a trendy pick earlier this season. Blake Griffin (20.7 points) continues to attract a ton of attention, and point guard Chris Paul (19.8 points, 9.1 assists) continues to be all that the Clippers expected. Mo Williams (13.2), Caron Butler (12.0) and former Villanova standout Randy Foye (11.0) provide balance, but this might be the time of year when the Clippers miss the veteran presence of the injured Chauncey Billups.
Prediction: This might be the toughest first-round series to predict. The Grizzlies won’t surprise anyone this season, but they don’t look like a one-year wonder. Their inside game will prove to be too much for the Clippers. GRIZZLIES in 6