After an exciting 66-game season that almost never came to be, the NBA Playoffs are set to begin.
16 teams will partake in a quest to win 16 games for the right to claim the Larry O’Brien Trophy as their own. Realistically, only a few have the talent to accomplish something that millions of people dream about, but it’s a guarantee that every team will give it all they’ve got (and them some).
Similar to the regular season, the playoffs are littered with a bevy of major storylines.
Can LeBron James finally remove his distinction as one of the best players of all time to never win a championship?
Will the San Antonio Spurs impressive play that earned them the NBA’s top overall playoff seed carry over into the postseason?
Are the Oklahoma City Thunder ready to reach the league’s pinnacle and begin creating a dynasty?
Is Derrick Rose going to be healthy enough to lead the Chicago Bulls back into the NBA Finals for the first time since the Michael Jordan Era?
Does Kobe Bryant have enough left in him to get a sixth championship ring?
There are numerous questions that can only be answered as the playoffs progress. But since we live in a speculative society, why not make some predictions about how things will shape out?
Without further ado, let’s get into the matchups and predictions for the 2012 NBA Playoffs.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Spurs over Jazz (4-1)
The Spurs enter the series rested and healthy, meaning the Jazz will be fighting for their lives just to avoid getting swept.
Utah arguably has the worst defense of any team in the playoffs, and that liability will be exposed by San Antonio’s superb passing and slashing.
Thunder over Mavericks (4-1)
The Mavericks will give the Thunder a couple decent games in the series, but not much beyond that.
Unless Dirk Nowitzki averages 45 points a game, the Thunder are just too explosive and talented to be beaten in a playoff series by the aging, Tyson Chandler-less Mavericks.
Lakers over Nuggets (4-3)
The Nuggets lead the NBA in points (104.1) and assists (19.3) per game, and they’re a deep team that can cause a lot of problems for the Lakers second unit.
Los Angeles will have their hands full but, ultimately, will prevail over Denver because the three best players in the series wear purple and gold jerseys (besides on Sundays).
Grizzlies over Clippers (4-2)
The series between the Clippers and the Grizzlies will end up being the most physical out of any first-round contest in the West. The slowed down tempo that’s a common trait of playoff basketball will reduce the Clippers fast break and transition opportunities, forcing them to play more half-court offense.
Look out for O.J. Mayo to have a huge series, as the Clippers' shooting guards—Randy Foye, Mo Williams and Nick Young—are too small to guard him. Zach Randolph will work his way into the starting lineup by the end of the series, which will play huge for the Grizzlies in their second-round matchup with Spurs.
Bulls over 76ers (4-1)
The Bulls shouldn’t have much trouble with the 76ers, even if Derrick Rose’s health is an issue. Chicago’s defense is just too stifling for Philadelphia to overcome in a seven-game series.
Heat over Knicks (4-1)
Heat-Knicks should be an incredibly fun and entertaining series to watch. New York is confident that it can beat Miami, but it’s laughable to think LeBron James will allow his redemption tour to end in the first round.
The silver lining here for the Knicks is that they’ll at least get their first playoff win since 2001.
Pacers over Magic (4-1)
The Magic could definitely beat the Pacers in a playoff series with a healthy Dwight Howard.
Without their superstar center, however, the Magic’s best probable outcome is winning a game, maybe two. Unless they shoot over 45 percent from three throughout the series, the likelihood of advancement for Orlando is very low.
Celtics over Hawks (4-2)
Even though they won’t have home-court advantage, due to the Hawks having a better record, the Celtics' experience will prove to be more valuable than an extra home game.
Atlanta needed Al Horford to return at full health to beat a rested Boston squad, but he’s still out indefinitely recovering from pectoral surgery. Rajon Rondo will do his best Freddy Krueger impersonation by providing plenty of nightmares for Jeff Teague and Larry Drew.
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (4) Boston Celtics
(2) Miami Heat vs. (3) Indiana Pacers
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (4) Memphis Grizzlies
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (3) Los Angeles Lakers
Celtics over Bulls (4-2)
While the Bulls may not have needed Derrick Rose at full-strength to eliminate the 76ers in Round 1, the same won’t hold true against the Celtics in Round 2.
After both teams split the first four contests, Boston will close out the series with two straight wins in Games 5 and 6. Rondo will have another excellent playoff series against Chicago, highlighted by three triple-doubles.
Heat over Pacers (4-1)
If it were single-elimination, the Pacers might have a chance against the Heat. In a series, though, the Heat’s superior talent and higher ceiling will prove to be too much.
Danny Granger is a very good defender, but LeBron James will still dominate the series. Shane Battier and Mike Miller, who each ended the regular season in a shooting slump, will start re-gaining their confidence and spreading the floor—making the Pacers task of trying to keep LeBron and Dwyane Wade out of the paint that much harder.
Spurs over Grizzlies (4-3)
The best series of the Conference Semifinals will be a rematch of last year’s 1-8 matchup in the West.
The biggest difference between last year and this year is that Manu Ginobili will be at full strength, while Zach Randolph will not. Randolph, though, will push himself to help Memphis stave off elimination after San Antonio jumps out to a 3-1 series lead.
In Game 7, the Spurs will get their revenge for last season. Tony Parker will lead the way, further cementing his rightful place among this season’s MVP candidates.
Thunder over Lakers (4-1)
The second-round matchup between the Thunder and Lakers will feature five tightly contested games, with Oklahoma City prevailing on their home floor.
The Lakers will put up a good fight, but the Thunder will ultimately prove to be too explosive and deep to be contained by the former Kings of the West.
The chances Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have any performances similar to their double-overtime loss in LA on April 22nd, when they shot an abysmal 14-56 from the field, are lower than the Bobcats winning next season’s title.
(Okay, well maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration)
(2) Miami Heat vs. (4) Boston Celtics
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder
The NBA’s final four will feature two matchups between teams that know each other very well and have something to prove to the world.
Miami wants to show that the circus created by the Big Three’s formation will be worth dealing with.
Boston wants to make anyone and everyone who had written them off as too old, which probably includes GM Danny Ainge, look foolish.
San Antonio also wants to dispel their “old-team” label, and remind people that they’ve been a perennial championship contender for over a decade and aren’t done competing.
And the Thunder want to show that they’re ready to become the top dogs of the league.
Each team has proven they are elite, but only two can make it to the ultimate stage.
Heat over Celtics (4-2)
In a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, Miami is again the terminators of the Celtics' season.
LeBron James continues his playoff mastery, putting up near triple-double numbers in each game. The star of the series, though, ends up being Dwyane Wade, who takes his game to another level after two sub-par (by his standards) performances in Rounds 1 and 2.
The Celtics put up a great fight in the pursuit of reaching their third NBA Finals in five seasons, but the Big Three Era will culminate in a losing effort.
Spurs over Thunder (4-3)
In a series that will go down in the history books, the Spurs take advantage of the home court advantage they earned by winning 25 of their final 29 regular season games and punch their ticket to the NBA Finals.
For the second season in a row, Oklahoma City’s sometimes questionable decision making costs them a Finals appearance as they miss crucial opportunities to put the Spurs away.
For most of 2011-12, the Thunder were the favorites to win the West, but they’ll have to wait one more year.
(50-16) San Antonio Spurs vs. (46-20) Miami Heat
The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat may not have an extensive rivalry, but the 2012 NBA Finals will have a surrounding aura that represents a clash of titans.
LeBron James will set out to exact revenge for the thrashing his Cavaliers were subjected to in the 2007 NBA Finals when they were swept by the Spurs. LeBron shot just 35.6 percent from the floor, while the Spurs' Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Finals MVP Tony Parker were too much for Cleveland to handle.
It was a bitter defeat for LeBron, especially after his legendary performance in the Eastern Conference Finals. With a much more talented roster, highlighted by 2006 Finals MVP Dwyane Wade, by his side, he hopes to finally breakthrough and win his first championship.
Standing in Miami’s way is a Spurs roster with a combined 12 championships—Duncan (4), Ginobili (3), Parker (3), Matt Bonner (1) and Stephen Jackson (1)—that will be eager to silence all the so-called experts that said their championship window was shut.
Both teams conquered the challenges thrown at them by their respective conferences, but only one will get to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Miami over San Antonio (4-1)
Game 1: Heat 93, Spurs 88
Miami’s Big Three combines for 88 points, scoring all but five of the team’s points in a tight win at the AT&T Center. The game is back and forth throughout, with San Antonio’s role players greatly outperforming Miami’s.
With 14 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Spurs are down by three (88-91) and have possession. During their final allotted timeout, Gregg Popovich draws up an out-of-bounds play that uses Ginobili as a decoy in order to create a great look for Matt Bonner, who enters the game during the timeout.
The play is run to perfection, as Miami’s defense overcommits on Ginobili and loses Bonner, but the Red Rocket’s corner three-pointer doesn’t connect. Dwyane Wade grabs the rebound and gets fouled immediately.
Wade gets a favorable roll from the rim and converts the first free throw, zapping almost all of the energy out of the arena. As he steps up to the line for his second attempt, color commentator Jeff Van Gundy notes that Wade has missed big-moment free throws before.
This would not be one of those times, as the second free throw effectively ends Game 1.
Game 2: Spurs 94, Heat 81
This time, it’s the Spurs’ Big Three that takes over. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili combine for 64 points, as Parker leads the way with 27. In the third quarter, the trio help the team break out to a double-digit lead and never look back.
Miami struggles in Game 2, with every player except for Dwyane Wade having a bad shooting night.
LeBron amasses 11 assists and 10 rebounds to go along with 13 points, but his triple-double is about as impressive a feat as seeing snow in Alaska during the winter because he shoots 3-13 from the field in a loss. Bosh also struggles, going 4-12 from the field to total 11 points.
Similar to Game 1, Miami’s role players struggle and are greatly outperformed by their San Antonio counterparts.
From Game 2’s culmination up until Game 3’s commencement, a familiar media narrative arises. LeBron’s lackluster game is heavily scrutinized, and many sports fans wonder if history will soon repeat itself.
Game 3: Heat 97, Spurs 88
In nearly every contentious playoff series, there is a certain game or moment that shapes how the remaining contests play out.
Enter Game 3.
In their first home game of the series, the Heat’s role players start performing at the same level they were at during the early part of the regular season. Mario Chalmers and James Jones—who gets his first dose of meaningful playing time in the Finals—combine to go 8-10 from three-point range in the first half, helping Miami go into halftime with a 10-point lead. Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem also provide solid first half contributions, with each scoring six points off the bench.
In the third quarter, James and Wade start playing aggressively and are looking to score. Because of the three-point threat, San Antonio’s defense provides Miami’s two superstars with the best driving lanes they’ve seen all series. Miami explodes out to a 22-point lead (85-63) to close out the third quarter, even with Chris Bosh totaling just three points on 1-8 shooting from the field.
Through the first three quarters, the Spurs had gotten decent contributions from Parker and Duncan, but Ginobili and the role players were struggling. Ginobili was just 2-11 from the field, with seven points and four turnovers, and couldn’t seem to string together any consistent offense.
That would change in the fourth quarter.
With LeBron and D-Wade on the bench to start the fourth, the Spurs go on a 10-2 run—with Ginobili scoring eight of those points—cutting the Heat’s lead to 14 (87-73) with about eight minutes left. Following an Erik Spoelstra timeout, both James and Wade re-enter the game to try and prevent any further reduction of their advantage.
They didn’t have much luck.
Over roughly the next four minutes, the Spurs continue slashing the lead with another 10-2 run as Ginobili remains hot—hitting two three-pointers in the span—and the Heat’s offense is stagnant. With just under four minutes left, and the score now 89-83, the collective vibe inside American Airlines Arena has shifted from celebratory to nervous.
Over the next two minutes, Miami’s offense continues to be stuck in a deep rut. Neither James or Wade can hit any shots, even though they’re getting decent looks.
Ginobili continues to put the Spurs on his back, scoring five more points to bring the deficit to one (89-88) with just over one and a half minutes left. Dwyane Wade brings the ball across half-court, and Erik Spoelstra calls a timeout as the game starts to bear a striking resemblance with Game 2 of last year’s Finals.
Out of the timeout, Miami runs an out-of-bounds play nearly identical to what the Spurs ran near the end of Game 1 that resulted in a missed three-pointer by Matt Bonner.
But this time, there’s a different result.
With the defense making Wade priority number one, James slips out uncovered and hits a wide open jumper to bring the score to 91-88. The Spurs, electing not to use a timeout, bring the ball down and run a quick isolation for Ginobili, but he doesn’t convert—thanks, in part, to tight defense by James.
Miami comes back down and runs down the shot clock with the ball in Wade’s hands. With just over 50 seconds left, Wade pulls up for an elbow jumper over Ginobili and nails it, making it a five point game (93-88) with 49 seconds left.
This time, Gregg Popovich uses a timeout.
On the Spurs next possession, Ginobili drives past James early in the shot clock and dishes the ball to a wide open Stephen Jackson. As the shot begins its flight, the whole arena gasps as the ball makes its way towards the rim.
A split-second later, a loud collective exhale rolls through as the ball bounces off the rim into the outstretched arms of Wade.
Down by five with 40 seconds left and one remaining timeout, the Spurs elect not to foul. Wade brings the ball up and again dribbles down the shot clock.
With just a couple ticks left, Wade forces an impossible-looking fadeaway over the outstretched arm of Ginobili.
The high-arcing jumper that would be impossible to make even in a video game drops straight through the cylinder for a perfect swish.
Down by seven, with 15 seconds left, the Spurs use their last timeout.
Ginobili misses a three-pointer out of an out-of-bounds play. Bosh, who had just three points, rebounds the ball and hits two free throws after Duncan fouls him.
As the buzzer sounds and the clock reads zero, Wade grabs the ball and launches it straight up in the sky (side note: the Dolphins could use a quarterback). Miami’s fans, players and coaches are in a state of jubilation, knowing they very nearly blew a 22-point lead and home court advantage.
The Spurs faces are marred with defeated looks that could be mistaken as a signal that they just lost the series.
Game 4: Heat 102, Spurs 77
From beginning to end, Miami is in complete control over a Spurs team that resembles the criticisms of those who wrote them off as too old to win another title.
The Spurs are completely flat, unable to create any offense whatsoever, while the Heat are rolling. Behind Chris Bosh’s 22 first-half points, Miami takes a 66-42 lead into halftime.
Unlike Game 3, San Antonio can’t seem to make any substantial cuts into the lead that will build some momentum. Coming off of two consecutive seven-game series that were preceded by a compressed 66-game schedule, it looks like fatigue has caught up with the Spurs.
Game 5: Heat 90, Spurs 79
In the decisive game, the Spurs performance is much better than in Game 4 but doesn’t give them the opportunity to take the series back to San Antonio.
Understanding that this might be his last chance at an NBA title, Tim Duncan scores 23 in the first half to keep the Spurs in the game at 48-42. Miami’s first half scoring is balanced, with Chalmers’ nine points leading the way. The Spurs scoring, however, comes majorly from Duncan, with Parker’s seven points—on 2-9 shooting—in second. Ginobili has just five points—on 1-6 shooting.
In the second half, Miami turns to their two superstars.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade each play the whole third quarter, leading Miami to a 17-point advantage to close out a quarter in which they outscored San Antonio 27-15.
As the fourth quarter commences, Miami is up 75-57. Erik Spoelstra takes no chances, leaving Bosh, James and Wade on the floor with Chalmers and Haslem. Miami doesn’t let up one bit on defense, continuing to stifle the Spurs penetration and pick and roll game that had helped them get this far.
A little over halfway through the fourth quarter, Miami leads 83-64. Both teams continue to play their starters until about three minutes left.
With 2:24 left on the game clock, his team completely out of gas, and an 86-67 game score, Gregg Popovich puts in his reserves and Erik Spoelstra does the same. Miami’s Big Three each comes out of the game at the same time to a raucous applause. They are about to accomplish the goal that brought them together two summers ago, making all the scrutiny they have endured more than worth it.
For LeBron James, it has finally happened: no longer can he be included among the greatest players of all-time to never win a championship. No longer will his impressive career achievements—three Most Valuable Player awards, eight all-star selections, six all-NBA selections, three all-NBA defensive team selections, a scoring title and now a Finals MVP—be quickly written off by so many because he doesn’t have a ring.
His championship will solidify the fact that he made the correct decision in taking his talents to South Beach.