NBA Playoffs 2012 Preview: Predicting Matchups for Every NBA Contender
We are now just two weeks away from the beginning of the postseason, and teams are gearing up and jockeying for the playoffs or playoff positioning. Some teams are making late-season runs; some are mired in late-season swoons.
So where will each team end up in the postseason? Here are my predictions for what the final seeds will be in both conferences.
Milwaukee Bucks (8) vs. Chicago Bulls (1)
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The Chicago Bulls should win the Eastern Conference's top seed. They are still one game up on the Miami Heat in the loss column, and they are four games up in the win column.
There's a reason that the loss column matters more: You can't "unlose" a game. However, the win column can't be too easily dismissed. You can't assume four wins from a team that's winning 75 percent of its games. It's probable, but not a guarantee by any stretch that the Heat lose one of those four games.
The Bulls and Heat have two other matchups, and the Heat could seize control with both wins, but with one in each city, it's likely both teams take their home games. If that happens, the Heat's chances to land the top seed are greatly diminished.
Look for the Bulls to hang onto the spot, but that might be a bad thing.
The Milwaukee Bucks are playing well since they acquired Monta Ellis and are closing in on the eighth spot. They have the NBA's sixth-best record since the All-Star break.
Additionally, Ellis, when on the Golden State Warriors with Stephen Curry, presented problems for the Bulls the last two times they met. He and Brandon Jennings could employ a similar trapping strategy to fluster the Bulls' offensive attack.
If the Bucks and Bulls clash, look for a surprisingly competitive series.
New York Knicks (7) vs. Miami Heat (2)
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For those saying, "What about Philadelphia?" I'm projecting them to be the odd team out when all is said and done. The fact is, they've been struggling of late, while Milwaukee and New York have been heating up. They are only 9-12 since the break. I don't see them suddenly turning things around.
The Miami Heat are locked into at least the second seed. Mathematically, it's possible for them to drop down, but it's so unlikely that it's not really worth discussing. Additionally, since they are only 12-8 since the break, I don't see them suddenly getting hot and winning out, which is almost what they have to do take over the top spot from the Bulls.
The Knicks are playing extremely well right now, going 8-3 in the Mike Woodson era, and their defense is greatly improved. Even without Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, they keep on winning. When they get Stoudemire back, look for them to solidify.
This could definitely be an intriguing series with all the stars on both teams, but I would expect the Heat to dispatch the Knicks more easily than you would expect. The one difference maker for the Knicks, though, could be Tyson Chandler, as the Heat have struggled with teams that have strong inside presence.
Incidentally, Chandler should be considered for Defensive Player of the Year. He has been sensational for New York this year.
Orlando Magic (6) vs. Atlanta Hawks (3)
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Orlando, Indiana and Atlanta are separated by one game, and that's the difference between the third and the sixth seeds. I'm predicting these four seeds as such because I'm projecting the Boston Celtics to win the Atlantic Division and, by virtue of that, the fourth seed.
Of the three remaining teams, right now, the Hawks are playing the best ball, as they are 14-9 since the break compared to Orlando (11-10) and Indiana (13-10).
For that reason, I'm projecting them to hang onto the third spot, but there's no airtight confidence in that pick. The Pacers could just as easily hang on here, but I'm giving the edge to Atlanta because they've been there and done that.
The Magic have the easiest remaining schedule of the teams in question, but they are at a disadvantage because of the way the team is imploding right now. The whole Stan Van Gundy vs. Dwight Howard mess is going to prevent them from finishing higher than sixth.
The Hawks presently own a 2-0 edge over the Magic in the regular-season series, as well as having beaten Orlando in the postseason last year. In all likelihood, they will win again, but if Orlando pulls this one off, they would present an interesting matchup with the Heat in the second round.
Boston Celtics (4) vs. Indiana Pacers (5)
The Boston Celtics have been peaking at just the right time, owning the second-best record in the Eastern Conference since the break. With Kevin Garnett playing the center position, they have done exceedingly well playing "small ball."
Indiana is one of the most improved teams in the league this year, if not the most improved. Perhaps one of the more under-the-radar stories going into the postseason is the improvement in the offense since the Leandro Barbosa trade.
Barbosa is their second-leading scorer per minute, and his arrival has helped the Pacers become a better scoring team. The Pacers have scored 98.1 points since the break, whereas they were only scoring 95.5 prior to it.
On the other side of things, the Celtics have been the league's best defense since the All-Star break and have the second-best defensive rating in the Association for the season.
The Celtics and Pacers split the regular-season contests two games apiece, but the Celtics won the most recent contest on Saturday night. On the other hand, the Pacers were coming off a back-to-back in which they had beaten the Thunder the night before and were on a four-game winning streak.
This could easily present one of the most entertaining and hardest-fought, first-round battles of the postseason.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Denver Nuggets (8)
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The Western Conference is fascinating both at the top and the bottom. Like the East, there are really only two teams that have a realistic chance at the top spot. San Antonio is playing better right now and is also one ahead in the loss column, so why do I have the Thunder getting the first seed?
It's because the Spurs' opponents have an average-winning percentage of 51 percent against the Thunder's opponents, who own a winning percentage of 48 percent. While San Antonio, at 25-10, does have the best record in the NBA against winning teams, it's just easier for them to stumble down the stretch.
With the Nuggets, I expect they'll hang onto that final playoff spot for the same reason. Of the three teams who would be vying for the final spot, the easiest remaining schedule belongs to Denver.
Not that this matters a great deal, though. Whoever gets into the postseason is simply going to be "out-talented" by the Oklahoma City Thunder and will have little chance in the first round.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
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The San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks could match up for one of the most intriguing first-round battles in recent history, as arguably the two greatest power forwards of their era go at it. Five times previously, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have squared off in the postseason.
That matchup has spanned 26 games, with Tim Duncan holding the series edge, 3-2, the game edge, 14-12 and the scoring edge, 26.0 to 24.5. Duncan has also out-rebounded Nowitzki, 12.3 to 10.1.
The Spurs and Mavericks have faced off 77 times, regular or postseason, since the two future Hall of Famers have been playing. During that span, the Spurs own the series edge, 42-35. What's amazing, though, is the average margin of victory is less than half a point.
The Spurs are all but locked into the second seed if they don't win the first, and the Mavericks are going to have a tough time passing up Memphis, who is playing extremely well and has the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, or Houston, who has the sixth-easiest.
Is anyone really disappointed if this is the series, though? This is "where amazing happens," and I'm sure this series would not disappoint.
Los Angeles Lakers (3) vs. Houston Rockets (6)
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The Los Angeles Lakers should win the division over the Los Angeles Clippers. They are playing better down the stretch and have a 15-8 record since the break, which is better than the Clippers' 14-11 record. The Lakers hold a 2-1 series edge, which gives them the tiebreaker. The Los Angeleses don't meet again in the regular season. I'm giving the Lakers the nod based on the tiebreaker edge.
The Houston Rockets just find a way to win. Injuries happen, and they just keep winning. Who needs a starting backcourt, right? The Rockets have the sixth-easiest schedule in the NBA over the remainder of the season and should be able to keep eking out wins.
The Rockets are a team that just fights and emerges victorious. It is really remarkable what they've done without Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry.
The thing is, the Rockets are actually about as average as a team can get. They are 13th in offensive rating, 14th in defensive rating and 16th in SRS (Basketball-Reference.com's schedule-adjusted rating system). Yet here they are at 30-25, holding onto the sixth seed and looking to take that into the playoffs.
So it's easy to call this one a no-brainer and give the series outright to the Lakers, who have a lot more playoff experience, right? Maybe, but maybe not. I would pick the Lakers to win, but the Rockets have a tremendous ability to keep plodding along, ugly things up and win.
Don't be surprised it they push the Lakers to the limit.
Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5)
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The team that is peaking coming down the stretch is the Memphis Grizzlies, who are playing excellent, have the easiest remaining schedule and just got Zach Randolph back. They have won seven of their last nine, and four of those wins have come against the Lakers, Mavericks, Thunder and Heat. None too shabby, huh?
If there is a dark horse to come out of the Western Conference, it could very well be the Grizzlies.
Then again, they are also a team, at times, that can struggle scoring the ball, as they have just the 22nd-ranked offensive rating in the NBA. Randolph's return will help counter that, but he is not one of the great scorers in the game, so it's not a huge difference—just a difference.
The Clippers have beaten the Grizzlies twice this year by a total point differential of 23. The two teams square off again on Monday night.
L.A. has a point guard whom many believe is the best in the NBA. They have a pair of bigs who match up well with the Grizzlies' bigs. They also have a head coach whose IQ is probably lower than the Clippers score on most nights. Watching Vinny Del Negro try to coach his way through a playoff series is a painful experience.
This would be a fascinating series. It may be as simple as whether Chris Paul's brilliance can overcome Del Negro's incompetence.