As during the first round, there are some clear favorites in the conference semifinals. The only heavy favorite that didn’t make it out of the first round was Chicago, which lost two key players, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, in their series with the 76ers.
The clear favorites this round are the Heat, Thunder and Spurs. A Sixers upset of the Celtics in their Atlantic Division showdown would be less surprising. If the Sixers-Celtics series is short, that should favor the Celtics. A long, hard-fought series should favor the younger Sixers. For a comprehensive review of the Sixers-Celtics series, click here.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the Heat, Thunder and Spurs have clear sailing ahead. I suspect the heavily favored Heat might have more trouble with the Pacers than many expect. The Pacers should certainly provide a greater challenge for the Heat, who cruised past the overrated Knicks in five games in the first round. The Pacers also advanced in five games, dispatching a Magic team that showed a lot more spunk than the Knicks in fighting back from huge deficits to win Game 1 and force overtime in Game 4.
The Lakers could give the Thunder some trouble. You can never count out a team with Kobe Bryant. The Clippers’ best chance is if Chris Paul can neutralize Tony Parker in a battle of terrific point guards.
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). In the first round, I correctly predicted six of eight series, with the Sixers-Bulls and Grizzlies-Clippers series, which I described as the toughest series to predict, being my only mistakes. I got the Celtics-Hawks, Heat-Knicks and Lakers-Nuggets series right on the money, accurately predicting the number of games it would take to win. I was one game off in my other three correct picks.
The following is a preview of the conference semifinals:
(seeding in parentheses)
SIXERS (8) vs. CELTICS (4)
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, as happened during Games 4 and 5 against the Bulls, Spencer Hawes. After the Sixers went just 4-17 this season in games decided by seven or fewer points, they won two close games against the Bulls, including their series-clinching 79-78 victory in Game 6.
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 and missed two more during the first round. 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.
How they got here: The Sixers defeated the top-seeded Bulls, 4-2; the Celtics defeated the Hawks, 4-2.
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 Celtics may need every minute of that rest against the Sixers, who will try to wear the Celtics down with an up-tempo transition game. The Celtics would prefer a halfcourt battle, where their defense is far superior to the Sixers’ offense. CELTICS in 6.
HEAT (2) vs. PACERS (3)
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.
Pacers: The Pacers are the polar opposite of the Heat. They 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.
How they got here: The Heat beat the Knicks, 4-1; the Pacers defeated the Magic, 4-1.
Prediction: I don’t think this will be the cakewalk many seem to expect. The Pacers’ balance and quality depth could hurt the Heat. The one element missing for the Pacers is a go-to guy to close out games. The Heat, of course, have Wade and James, although James’ late-game effectiveness in clutch situations certainly can be questioned. In the end, I think the Heat prevail, but I’d be surprised if the Pacers go down without a fight. Heat in 7
SPURS (1) vs. (5) CLIPPERS
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. The long rest after sweeping the Jazz also should help the Spurs veterans stay fresh.
Clippers: The Clippers, a trendy pick earlier this season, validated people’s faith by beating the Grizzlies in seven games. Blake Griffin (20.7 points) continues to attract a ton of attention, but point guard Chris Paul (19.8 points, 9.1 assists) is the key to the Clippers’ fortunes, particularly against Spurs point guard Tony Parker. Mo Williams (13.2), Caron Butler (12.0) and former Villanova standout Randy Foye (11.0) provide balance.
How they got here: The Spurs swept the Jazz, 4-0; the Clippers survived against the Grizzlies, 4-3.
Prediction: The Clippers may be more athletic than the Spurs, but the Spurs have the experience — and experience counts a lot during the postseason. The key may be whether Paul can outplay Parker. The key for the Spurs is to continue to get contributions from their lesser-known players. It’s not just the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili show. The Clippers reached the second round for just the second time since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. I don’t think they’ll get any further. SPURS in 5
THUNDER (2) vs. LAKERS (3)
Thunder: The Thunder swept the defending-champion Mavericks in the first round, although three of the four games were close. The Thunder 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, who was an overwhelming choice as the NBA’s sixth man of the year. 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. Former Laker Derek Fisher (5.6 points) provides a veteran and championship presence, but nobody outside the big four averages more than Fisher.
Lakers: The Lakers were pushed to the limit by the Nuggets, as I thought they would be, but emerged victorious in seven games. Despite all the turmoil the Lakers have gone through this season, they’re still a pretty good team. Kobe Bryant (27.9 points) is still Kobe Bryant. 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. Metta World Peace is a terrific defender, but he’s also a danger to lose his composure, especially with the Oklahoma City crowd enraged by his elbow to the head of Harden, which earned him a 7-game suspension. Point guard Ramon Sessions has the weight of replacing Derek Fisher at point guard.
Prediction: The Lakers will certainly get the Thunder’s attention. Metta World Peace’s elbow to Harden’s head hasn’t been forgotten. The Thunder have Durant; the Lakers have Bryant. The inside matchup between Bynum and Ibaka is also intriguing. But the Thunder’s biggest advantage is at point guard, where Westbrook and Fisher trump the Lakers’ Sessions. Thunder in 6