NBA Playoffs: Complete First Round Preview

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIApril 28, 2012

NBA Playoffs: Complete First Round Preview

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    The 2012 NBA playoffs kicked off today signaling the official start of the chase for the Larry O’Brien trophy. This year’s tournament is as wide open as any in recent memory. Because every journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, let’s focus on the first round match-ups.

Eastern Conference Preview

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    Entering the season, most experts and fans presumed the East would be a two-team race between the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat. They did finish with the two best records in the conference­­—Chicago with the best in the NBA.  Several key injuries and the second half resurgence of the Boston Celtics, however, have cast some doubt over the playoff picture.

    All three teams have tough first-round match-ups so let’s start by looking at their chances of advancing to the second round.

No. 1 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers (Regular Season Series 2-1 Chicago)

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    After completing the first half of the NBA season as one of the best three teams in the Eastern Conference, the 76ers endured a late season collapse that almost cost them a playoff spot. They won four of their final five games—all on the road—to hold off the Milwaukee Bucks to win the eight seed.

    Philadelphia is a deep team led by first-time All-Star Andre Iguodala.  They have no true star, however, to take over late in games. They'll need all cylinders to click in order to be successful.

    The Bulls also have a team-oriented approach to winning highlighted by the suffocating defensive schemes of head coach Tom Thibodeau. They'll need to lean on that philosophy more than ever after defending league MVP Derrick Rose suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the closing minutes of yesterday's game 1 victory.

    Rose missed 27 games during the regular season with an assortment of injuries and the Bulls acquitted themselves very well in his absence. Winning in the postseason is a different beast. Now the Bulls will be forced to fight on without the services of their dynamic point guard the eight seed 76ers.

    The extra regular season minutes for backups C.J. Watson and John Lucas III did wonders for their confidence. Chicago should still be able to dispatch Philadelphia in five or six games.

No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 New York Knicks (Regular Season Series: 3-0 Heat)

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    This could be the most intriguing first round match-up of the 2012 NBA playoffs.

    The Miami Heat are again looking to represent the Eastern conference in the NBA Finals after losing to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011,

    The New York Knicks, led by Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, have looked like a completely different team since defensive-minded head coach Mike Woodson took over for Mike D’Antoni, whom resigned shortly after the midway point of the season.

    While the Heat swept the season series—no game was closer than eight points—they never faced the Knicks at full strength. Both Anthony and Stoudemire missed significant time this season due to injuries. Stoudemire is just working himself back into game shape. Meanwhile, the Knicks are still without the player who originally revived their season, Jeremy Lin.

    The Heat’s problems have mostly been about consistent focus, especially when facing playoff caliber foes on the road. Just as alarming as their lack of focus, however, has to be recent injuries to Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Both will be ready for the start of the playoffs, but the Heat have no idea how effective either star will be.

    This match-up seems very sexy on paper, but both teams’ defensive DNAs may make this more of a grind-it-out affair than many anticipate (though the Knicks’ perimeter defense was hurt by the ACL injury suffered of guard Iman Shumpert, one that will cost him the rest of the season). At the end of the day, LeBron James, playing perhaps the best basketball of his career this season, will be the difference in allowing the Heat to prevail in six games.

No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 6 Orlando Magic (Regular Season Series: 3-1 Orlando)

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    The Indiana Pacers shocked everyone when they finished the regular season with the third best record in the Eastern Conference. They also got perhaps the luckiest draw in the entire playoffs, hosting the Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic in the first round.

    Following a tumultuous season, highlighted by the will-he-stay-or-will-he-go Dwight Howard trade rumors and the public acrimony between him and coach Stan Van Gundy, the All-Star center underwent season ending back surgery. Despite opting to stay with Orlando this summer, Howard’s future with the franchise is still in question. The Magic will have to decide between him and Van Gundy, or possibly neither, heading into next season.

    The Pacers, on the other hand, have brought excitement back to a basketball-mad state. After losing to the Bulls in the first round of last year’s playoffs, Indiana seems almost certain to have more success this postseason. They have home court advantage and a young core of players that have some postseason experience on their resumes.

    Van Gundy is still one of the games best coaches and he will certainly squeeze every ounce of effort out of this Magic squad even if his fate in Orlando is already sealed. That still may not be enough to win more than a game or two against the Pacers.

No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks (Regular Season Series: 2-1 Boston)

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    The Boston Celtics were not expected to be legitimate title contenders when the 2011-2012 season began. Thanks to some impressive play after the All-Star break, led by production from an unexpected source, they enter these NBA playoffs as exactly that.

    Second-year guard Avery Bradley, filling in for the injured Ray Allen, emerged as a God-send for Doc Rivers’ bunch. He has provided elite perimeter defense and a surprising offensive spark. Bradley’s growth has allowed the Celtics to take their time bringing Allen back into the rotation and added some much needed depth to the lineup.

    That, along with the rejuvenated play of veterans Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, has the Celtics thinking about one last title run before breaking up the band.

    The Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, are still a young team looking to break through to the next level following back-to-back losses in the second round of last year's playoffs.  They’ll have a slight advantage in this match-up with home court advantage, despite being the fifth seed. An April 20th home victory over Boston proved to be the one game difference in their final records, a game in which Boston chose to rest the Big Three and point guard Rajon Rondo.

    Boston made it a top priority to have its top players healthy for an extended playoff run. Despite having to start that run on the road, the Celtics, led by the NBA’s best defense and a playoff tested veteran core, should be able to dispatch the Hawks in six games.

Western Conference Preview

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    Unlike in the Eastern Conference, there were no clear-cut favorites to win the West entering the 2011-2012 season. That said, few expected the San Antonio Spurs to repeat as the conference’s best regular season team.

    The Dallas Mavericks struggled to regain their championship form while the Oklahoma City Thunder showed signs of being ready to take the next step in their evolution as a team.

    The Los Angeles Clippers are back in the postseason for the first time since 2002, reaping the benefits of their preseason trade for Chris Paul. Even that wasn’t enough to unseat the in-town rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers as Pacific Division champs though.

    As the playoffs begin, the Western Conference picture is no clearer than it was when the season began.

No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Utah Jazz (Regular Season Series: 3-1 Spurs)

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    While the Spurs may have championship aspirations, their immediate focus will be on avoiding a repeat of last season’s first round exit. After finishing the 2010-2011 season with the West’s best record, the Spurs were stunned by the upstart Memphis Grizzlies in six games.

    While they are unlikely to suffer a similar fate this year, the Jazz do pose similar match-up problems for San Antonio as Memphis did last year: a talented front court.

    Utah's success was a big surprise this year, as they beat out the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Rockets,among others, to claim the eight seed in the West. This young group is led by power forward Al Jefferson, underrated front court stud Paul Millsap, and second year forward Derrick Favors, acquired from the Nets in last season’s Deron Williams trade.

    Early season injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili helped a lot of the Spurs’ younger players gain some valuable experience. The late season additions of Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson should prove to be a key in the playoffs.

    The Jazz are playing with house money so expect them to play the Spurs tough. Unfortunately for them, it probably will not allow them to avoid a five game exit, especially considering their road struggles throughout the year.

No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks (Regular Season Series: 3-1 Thunder)

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    The rematch of last season’s Western Conference Championship will be played in a first round tilt, which tells you everything you need to know about the direction of the two teams.

    Oklahoma City spent most of the season perched atop the Western standings, but some lackluster play down the stretch coupled by the Spurs playing the NBA’s best basketball after the All-Star break, left Oklahoma City with the No. 2 seed. That might be a blessing in disguise, serving as a wake-up call and reminding the Thunder that they'll need to be focused at all times in order to turn their enormous potential into playoff wins.

    The Mavericks haven’t been right all season, looking nothing like the team that swept the Lakers and upset the Heat en route to their first NBA title in franchise history. The failed trade for Lamar Odom, which seemed to come with no risk because it only cost them a trade exception, did nothing to improve this team. The loss of center Tyson Chandler to the Knicks via free agency didn't help either. After 66 games, I’m not certain that Rick Carlisle even knows what he has with this bunch.

    The Thunder will be locked in, looking to avenge last season’s playoff defeat. That hunger, combined with Dallas’ vulnerability, should result in a five game exit for the defending champs.

No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 6 Denver Nuggets (Regular Season Series: 3-1 Lakers)

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    Kobe Bryant chose to sit the season finale out, forgoing a chance to become the oldest scoring champion in league history. That speaks volumes about the Black Mamba’s focus at this point in his career. The ring’s the only thing.

    There may not be a bigger contrast in styles in the first round than the Lakers and the Denver Nuggets.

    Los Angeles is built around the defense-first philosophy of first year head coach Mike Brown. The offense starts with Kobe Bryant but it also features the dominant post presence of Pau Gasol and center Andrew Bynum, who’s grown into the league’s second best center.

    Meanwhile, Denver runs the NBA’s fastest offense, and, unlike the Lakers, they have plenty of depth, but no real star. The team’s fortunes seem to hinge on the health of small forward Danilo Gallinari, as they have struggled this year when he’s been out of the lineup.

    The individual match-ups seem to strongly favor the Lakers. It must be noted, however, that none of L.A.’s three regular season victories in the series came by more than six points. We also don’t know how the loss of Metta World Peace, suspended for the first six games of the playoffs, will affect the Lakers. But expect a rested Bryant and a motivated Bynum to dominate their match-ups and lead Los Angeles to a five-game series win. 

No. 4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Clippers (Regular Season Series: 2-1 Clippers)

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    The Memphis Grizzlies enter this postseason as the team that nobody wants to face. After shocking the world last year by upsetting the top seeded Spurs, Memphis will be looking to build on that success and earn another trip to the Western Conference finals. Unlike 2011, they’ll have a healthy Rudy Gay along for the postseason ride.

    The Clippers took the necessary first step to making the playoffs this offseason when they traded for Chris Paul (credit David Stern with the assist). Making their first postseason appearance since 2002, Los Angeles will look to take another step towards making "Lob City" the main attraction in the Staples Center for years to come.

    The Clippers turnaround has been admirable, but their overall lack of playoff experience and poor outside and free throw shooting will doom them against an equally young, but considerably more experienced, Grizzlies crew. Look for Memphis to emerge victorious in six, resulting in a postseason rematch with the Spurs.