Predicting Every First-Round NBA Playoff Matchup
There's an old proverb that states that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat completed that journey back in June, when James was named the Finals MVP and his team hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy.
While the proverb is technically true, the journey to an NBA championship begins not with the first step but with the first round of the playoffs.
Sixteen of the 30 NBA teams will make the playoffs, and sometimes the regular season can feel like a 10,000-meter race. The first 9,000 meters are just jockeying for position and saving energy for the stretch run, while the final 1,000 meters constitute the real race.
The great thing about the playoffs is that anything can happen in a seven-game series. With over one-third of the season in the books, it's time to predict every matchup in the first round of the playoffs.
Like the intrepid settlers before us, we'll begin in the East and then head out West.
No. 1 Miami Heat vs. No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks
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The Miami Heat are the class of the East. There's really no argument about it. They're head and shoulders above the rest of a relatively mediocre conference.
And you may have heard about a player called LeBron James.
Even if the Heat coast through the season and rest their starters late, it would be hard for any team to surpass them in the regular season.
With "El Heat" locking down the No. 1 seed, they will face the No. 8 seed. To give you an idea of how watered down the East is, the teams tied for 10th place—the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic—each have a 12-20 record.
The Milwaukee Bucks should squeeze into the playoffs as the eighth seed. They can score points in a hurry with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, but can they outscore their opponent?
They are not dominant at home but also not awful on the road. They score just about as many points as they give up, and they have ".500 team" written all over them. The challenge in the playoffs will be not getting swept by Miami.
Heat in 4
No. 2 New York Knicks vs. No. 7 Brooklyn Nets
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This certainly would be a sexy matchup, but I don't seek to sensationalize it. This is likely how the East will shake out.
The New York Knicks are currently in second place, and in a weakened East it will be tough for anyone else to snag the No. 2 seed. For evidence of their prowess, refer to the Knicks' 100-83 win over the Spurs on January 3.
The key for the Knicks will be staying healthy. Carmelo Anthony has missed some time, and Raymond Felton will be out another month with a broken finger. They also currently miss Rasheed Wallace.
But Amar'e Stoudemire has returned and will continue to get his legs back under him. Once Iman Shumpert returns, the rotation will be better than ever.
As for the Brooklyn Nets, they are the quintessential Jekyll-and-Hyde team.
After a cover-your-eyes-awful performance against the San Antonio Spurs on December 31—when they managed a franchise-low five points in the third quarter—the Nets blew the Oklahoma Thunder off their own court just two days later, beating the NBA's best team by 17 points.
The Nets are like the New York Giants of the NBA. You're just never sure which team will show up from game to game. With the uncertainty surrounding their interim coach, P.J. Carlesimo, it's hard to put much faith in them yet.
This playoff showdown would be a coronation of the new interborough rivalry between the Knicks and Nets.
Knicks in 6
No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 6 Chicago Bulls
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Last year, the Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose in the first round of the playoffs and were ousted by the Philadelphia 76ers.
But this season, it doesn't seem that the Sixers have what it takes to make the playoffs. Andrew Bynum may not even play this season, and Philly is getting outscored by 2.5 points per game and has a 6-11 record on the road.
The Bulls, meanwhile, are just hanging around and waiting for Rose to return. According to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Rose is back to traveling with the team and is expected to hit the court around the All-Star break in mid-February (via Twitter).
The Indiana Pacers face a similar dilemma. Their leading scorer for the past five seasons, Danny Granger, was lost to a knee injury in the preseason. He is expected to return around early February, according to Mike Wells of the Indianapolis Star.
The Bulls and Pacers are currently separated by just one game, and both play similar styles with a slow tempo and an emphasis on defense. But the Pacers have slightly more offense with David West and Paul George than the Bulls, and they play exceedingly well at home (11-3).
With Granger expected to return a couple of weeks earlier than Rose, I see the Pacers having home-court advantage for this series.
Pacers in 6
No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics
Last season, the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks squared off in a rousing first-round matchup. Boston took the series in six games, but each one (except Game 4) was closely contested.
This season, the Hawks have been the early surprise in the East, surging into third place in the conference through 30 games. They jettisoned Joe Johnson but have gained a healthy Al Horford, who played only 11 games last year.
Josh Smith and Horford are each averaging close to a double-double, while Lou Williams and Jeff Teague form a very underrated backcourt.
Oh, and don't leave Kyle Korver open. He's shooting 44.2 percent from behind the arc.
While the Hawks can't seem to solve Miami, they play in a weak division with Orlando, Charlotte and Washington, which will help them stack up wins.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have been puzzlingly bad. I learned long ago never to count out Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce, and no matter how intensely he is disliked, Rajon Rondo is one of the best point guards in the game.
But the Celtics have struggled on defense and haven't played well away from home, compiling a 5-11 road record. They've also lost eight of their last 10 games.
Still, I refuse to believe what I see. Everything I know about the tenacity of this Celtics team and the skill of coach Doc Rivers tells me that they will turn it around. They're too good not to.
And the resulting first-round rematch with Atlanta will be a thriller.
Hawks in 7
No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 Minnesota Timberwolves
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The Oklahoma City Thunder are the best and most well-rounded team in the NBA. Even without James Harden, they still have the elite scoring of Kevin Durant and brilliant playmaking of Russell Westbrook.
And this season, Serge Ibaka has started to knock down the mid-range jumper in addition to blocking shots. That's a huge reason for the jump in Ibaka's scoring average from last season (9.1 PPG) to this season (14.3 PPG).
OKC will have stiff competition from the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, but they'll secure the top seed in the competitive West.
The Minnesota Timberwolves played admirably while Kevin Love was out injured. They got strong play from Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic. Alexey Shved and J.J. Barea are proving to be great spark plugs off the bench. And now Ricky Rubio is also working his way back.
But the T'Wolves won't have a really dynamic guard until Rubio returns to full health. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that Rubio is suffering from back spasms, and he missed the last two games against the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.
Minnesota also struggles on the road, posting a 5-10 record away from the Target Center.
The West has a lot of talent, and the defensively challenged Utah Jazz will give Minnesota a run for the eighth spot.
But the emergence of Kirilenko (13.3 PPG) and Pekovic (15.9 PPG), along with the return of Love (18.7 PPG), gives Minnesota an even better frontcourt than Utah's Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Utah might trade one of them anyway.
OKC in 5
No. 2 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 7 Denver Nuggets
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The San Antonio Spurs just keep on winning.
They have one of the best head coaches in the game. They have their own Big Three who are just as effective as Miami's. And they always get the most out of the role players on the bench.
The Spurs play well at home, and they play well on the road. They can rack up points and play good defense. In short, they're really, really good.
The Denver Nuggets took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
They're a fun and talented team, but they're still the same old Nuggets. They dominate in the thin air at home and struggle on the road. They score a lot of points but also give up a lot of points.
Andre Iguodala has played well in his first season in Denver, but Danilo Gallinari has posted similar numbers to the gold medalist. And the "Manimal," Kenneth Faried, is averaging a double-double.
The only puzzling part of their depth chart is that Kosta Koufos has been starting at center, while JaVale McGee—with a $44 million contract—has been coming off the bench.
Denver is dangerous in a seven-game series, but they need to outrun their opponent. Gregg Popovich is unlikely to let that happen to his Spurs.
Spurs in 5
No. 3 LA Clippers vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors
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The LA Clippers are more than just Lob City this season. Sure, they have the high-flying displays from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but they also boast tremendous roster depth.
Jamal Crawford has been sensational off the bench, and Eric Bledsoe has excelled in limited minutes behind CP3. They would be starters on almost any other team, but they still contribute to the Clips' success nightly as reserves.
Matt Barnes has also been invaluable, filling up the stat sheet and somehow shooting 50.4 percent off the bench.
The Clippers have seized control of Los Angeles and are the talk of the league. But even their 17-game winning streak couldn't propel them past the Thunder.
The Golden State Warriors have been the surprise of the West so far. They've stormed to a 22-10 record, even with Andrew Bogut barely playing this year.
But the headline story has been the emergence of Stephen Curry, who's averaging 20.4 points per game and 6.5 assists so far, both of which are career highs.
David Lee has been almost equally beastly, posting 20.2 points and 11.1 rebounds a night. And Klay Thompson has been knocking down almost as many three-pointers as Curry. Not to mention the double-digit scoring off the bench from Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry.
They're a run-and-gun team that will score slightly more points than they give up. They're exciting to watch, and significant talent has emerged on their roster. They shouldn't slide too far from their fast start, but the West is stacked with talent yet again, so a sixth seed seems likely.
Clippers in 5
No. 4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. No. 5 LA Lakers
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The Memphis Grizzlies will be jockeying for position all year, but they certainly have the potential to represent the West in the NBA Finals.
Zach Randolph has been incredible this year, averaging 16.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.
Rudy Gay has been pouring in the points, and Marc Gasol is finally looking like the superior brother to Pau. They also have Mike Conley, who can score, distribute and play solid defense to the tune of 2.4 steals a night.
The Grizzlies can punish teams on the defensive end and on the glass. But they only average 94.6 points per game, which is the worst in the West except for the 7-25 New Orleans Hornets.
That scoring may not be enough to soar over the rest of the West.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been the leading soap opera in the NBA this season. They stumbled out of the blocks and then promptly fired head coach Mike Brown five games into the season.
Then they flirted with re-hiring Phil Jackson for about a day but instead selected Mike D'Antoni to lead Steve Nash and their new-look squad to a title. They called the Zen Master in the middle of the night to break the news to him.
Through all the turmoil, they really just needed Nash and Pau Gasol to get to full health. All the while, Kobe Bryant has been averaging more than 30 points a night for the first time since 2006-07, and he's shooting the best percentage from the floor in his career (47.9 percent).
Dwight Howard has been averaging 17.3 points and 11.9 boards, but that's just what is expected of him. And Metta World Peace has been contributing in all facets of the game.
With some continuity under D'Antoni and a healthy Nash on the court, the Lakers will bounce back and rise through the standings in the West, but they're unlikely to play stout defense in their current system, despite the numerous skilled defenders on the roster.
Ultimately, their age and lack of depth will doom their chances of advancing very far in the playoffs, but I still envision them rising to the fifth seed.
Grizz in 6
Note: all stats accurate as of January 4, 2013.