Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions

Alec Nathan@@AlecBNathanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2013

Round-by-Round NBA Playoff Predictions

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    With the NBA playoffs quickly approaching, it's time to forecast whether LeBron James and the Miami Heat can repeat as league champions.

    While the Heat continue to look like the undisputed kings of the East, teams like the Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks may have something to say about any supposed dynasty in the making.

    Out West, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be looking to dash the title hopes of eager contenders such as the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.

    Although we're just under two months away from the start of postseason action, it's never too early to ponder some outcomes.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: 1. Miami Heat vs. 8. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Prediction: Miami wins series 4-0

    If the season were to end today, we would be treated to a first-round series between the Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks.

    While the Bucks may make a run up the standings and pass the Boston Celtics for the seventh seed in the coming weeks, we're going to give Doc Rivers' crew the benefit of the doubt.

    The addition of J.J. Redick has provided the Bucks with a compelling mix of guards in a backcourt that includes Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, but that trio simply isn't going to cut it going up against the Heat's big three.

    Unfortunately for Milwaukee, there's no sneaking past the Heat in the first round, as the seasoned trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will simply overwhelm an inexperienced and inferior Milwaukee opponent in the first round of the playoffs.

    Milwaukee provides a nice tune-up for the Heat as they prepare for yet another deep run into the postseason.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: 2. Indiana Pacers vs. 7. Boston Celtics

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    Prediction: Indiana wins series 4-3

    If you love offense, then perhaps you should absent yourself from the experience of viewing a potential first-round matchup between the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics.

    Frank Vogel's Pacers possess the league's stingiest defense, as they rank first in defensive rating (98.6 points allowed per 100 possessions) and first in opponent's points per game (89.6), per Basketball-Reference.

    On the other side of this compelling matchup we have the Celtics, whose defense is among the league's best, allowing just 96.1 points per game while boasting a defensive rating of 102.6, according to Basketball-Reference.

    While the Celtics have been known for saving their best for the postseason in recent years, a matchup with a stout defensive team such as the Pacers isn't ideal for a team that already has trouble creating offense (offensive rating of 102.6, 25th in the NBA per Basketball-Reference).

    In the end, the diverse grouping of Paul George, Danny Granger and David West will piece together enough offense to slip by the Celtics in seven games.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: 3. New York Knicks vs. 6. Chicago Bulls

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    Prediction: Chicago wins series 4-3

    How great would it be to see the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks square off in the playoffs? The two teams have provided some unforgettable moments in the past, whether it be John Starks' high-flying dunk over Horace Grant or the Bulls denying Charles Smith repeatedly with a ferocious defensive display.

    The Knicks and Bulls squaring off would provide for some interesting storylines, as the Knicks are a team that's struggled to find a defensive identity of late while the Bulls have made a living playing lockdown defense this season with Derrick Rose sidelined.

    While Rose's status for the postseason remains uncertain, it's hard not to like the Bulls in this series.

    Although they lack offensive firepower to a great extent, there's perhaps no better inside-outside defensive combination in the league than Luol Deng and Joakim Noah.

    With Deng fully capable of frustrating Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah creating matchup problems for Tyson Chandler, the Bulls would appear to have a legitimate shot at pulling an upset in the first round.

    After all, aren't the Bulls due for an upset after being bounced from the 2012 postseason by the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers due to crippling injuries to Noah and Rose?

    The Knicks showed enormous potential throughout the season's first half, but their lack of an edge and capable perimeter defenders will ultimately hinder the team's championship aspirations.

    Another year, and another possible first-round playoff exit for Carmelo Anthony.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: 4. Brooklyn Nets vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks

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    Prediction: Atlanta wins series 4-2

    The Atlanta Hawks and the Brooklyn Nets may flip-flop positions in the Eastern Conference standings several times before the regular season comes to a close, but for the sake of this argument let's say that the Nets emerge as the fourth seed and the Hawks the fifth seed.

    Now call me crazy, but I see the Hawks as a superior team to the Nets in several ways. For one, the Nets have been totally uninspiring on the offensive end, as Deron Williams has hardly looked like a point guard capable of leading a playoff-bound team.

    With Williams at the helm the Nets have played at the league's slowest pace (88.1), per Basketball-Reference.

    Due to Williams' uninspiring play on offense the Nets have had to lean heavily on Joe Johnson, who, despite hitting several game-winning shots this season, has been largely disappointing (17 points per game on 42.3 percent shooting from the field).

    Instead of a taking sluggish Brooklyn team, give me the Hawks in a first-round "upset." Atlanta possesses dynamic scorers in the form of Jeff Teague and Josh Smith, while Al Horford should be able to diminish Brook Lopez's impact to some degree.

Western Conference Quarterfinals: 1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 8. Houston Rockets

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    Prediction: San Antonio wins series 4-1

    Despite overtures from five-time defending NBA Kobe Bryant regarding a playoff appearance for his hapless Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets will hold on to the eighth seed out West and face the San Antonio Spurs in round one.

    The Rockets are an interesting club to examine, most notably due to their explosive offense. According to Basketball-Reference, the Rockets are the league's best team at maximizing possessions, ranking first in the NBA in pace at 96.2. In addition, the Rockets rank second in the NBA in points per game, scoring a hefty 106.3 per game.

    Those offensive numbers have helped the Rockets acquire a 98.2 percent probability of making the NBA playoffs, per John Hollinger's playoff odds, but the team's defense is simply too large a concern for Kevin McHale's bunch to make a dent in the Spurs' championship chase.

    The Rockets may steal a game or two, but the Spurs' well-rounded attack will find ways to slow down an up-tempo Houston offense.

Western Conference Quarterfinals: 2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 7. Utah Jazz

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    Prediction: Oklahoma City wins series 4-1

    Just like the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder should encounter very few speed bumps en route to an easy first-round series victory over the Utah Jazz.

    Despite possessing a dynamic frontcourt that could give the Thunder fits, the Jazz simply don't possess the athleticism or the perimeter talent necessary to contain the likes of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin.

    Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors will undoubtedly be a tall order for an Oklahoma City team that has struggled to defend the interior at times, but there's no doubting the overall talent disparity here.

    Currently playing at the league's eighth fastest pace (according to Basketball-Reference), the Thunder will simply overwhelm the Jazz with their elite speed and quick-strike ability.

Western Conference Quarterfinals: 3. L.A. Clippers vs. 6. Golden State Warriors

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    Prediction: L.A. wins series 4-2

    It appears as though we could be headed for an all-California affair in the first round of the NBA playoffs, with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors in prime position to square off.

    Despite being everyone's trendy sleeper pick earlier this season, the Warriors have cooled down a bit, particularly with center Andrew Bogut fading in and out the lineup due to injury.

    Mark Jackson's group has the offensive firepower (Stephen Curry, David Lee and Klay Thompson) to compete with the Clippers, but the state of the team's defense is worrisome.

    David Lee is one of the league's worst low-post defenders, and Blake Griffin's improved, diverse range of moves down on the blocks will likely be a matchup nightmare for the Warriors forward.

Western Conference Quarterfinals: 4. Memphis Grizzles vs. 5. Denver Nuggets

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    Prediction: Denver wins series 4-3

    Should we see no major shakeup in the middle of the Western Conference standings, we'll have the pleasure of watching a fascinating first-round series between the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies.

    Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, this could be the second consecutive year that they enter the postseason as the fourth seed and are subsequently bounced in seven games.

    While the Grizzlies have posted an impressive 8-2 record over their last 10 games, the Nuggets present a mismatch for Lionel Hollins' bunch, as they like to force the issue, pushing the pace to their liking.

    While the Grizzlies would appear to be ready for that sort of defensive challenge (second in the NBA in opponent's points per game, per Basketball-Reference), it's hard to see the Nuggets losing on their home floor.

    The Nuggets rarely lose at home (24-3 on the season), so if they can steal just one game in Memphis this series could be theirs.

Eastern Conference Semifinals: 1. Miami Heat vs. 5. Atlanta Hawks

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    Prediction: Miami wins series 4-1

    Although it would provide for dramatic theater, there's simply no viable scenario in which the Miami Heat will be challenged in the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs.

    Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith possesses the raw athletic ability to give LeBron James fits, but James' ability to open up the floor for his teammates and pass out of double-teams will ultimately doom a Hawks squad that's lacking the firepower to race past the Heat.

    Another problem for the Hawks is that they don't possess an athletic wing defender capable of locking up Dwyane Wade. Hawks guard DeShawn Stevenson likes to think of himself as the superstar stopper, but his mouth attracts more attention than his defense does.

    Look for the Heat to waltz into the Eastern Conference Finals after two fairly easy series to open up the postseason.

Eastern Conference Semifinals: 2. Indiana Pacers vs. 6. Chicago Bulls

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    Prediction: Indiana wins series 4-2

    If you think a series between the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers will be ugly, get ready for the Chicago Bulls to enter the equation.

    The Bulls and Pacers each rank in the bottom five in the NBA in points per game, per Basketball-Reference, while both squads boast top-five defenses.

    Assuming Danny Granger can regain some of his pre-injury form, the Pacers would appear to have an edge in the offensive department, possessing a dynamic duo of talented wing scorers in Granger and Paul George.

    However, the Bulls' perimeter duo of Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng should not be overlooked. Butler has established himself as a reliable wing defender in just his second season and will be an invaluable piece of the Chicago effort that will aim to neutralize both George and Granger.

    What this series may ultimately come down to is the frontcourt, and I see the Pacers' front line as a more consistent unit on both ends of the floor. David West and Roy Hibbert are a more offensively and defensively diverse pairing than Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer and will lead the Pacers to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 2003-04.

Western Conference Semifinals: 1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 5. Denver Nuggets

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    Prediction: San Antonio wins series 4-2

    Just like their matchup with the Houston Rockets in round one, the San Antonio Spurs will face a team that loves to get out and run in round two.

    The Denver Nuggets are the league's best team at turning defense into offense, as they excel at running on the fast break with a stable of athletes that includes Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee.

    Fortunately for the Spurs, Gregg Popovich is adept at drawing up schemes to take opponents out of their groove, and that's exactly what San Antonio figures to do here.

    While the Spurs are fully capable of keeping pace in an up-tempo game, they'd prefer to turn a series with the Nuggets into a half-court affair.

    With Tony Parker an extremely tall order for the diminutive Ty Lawson and Tim Duncan's experience too overwhelming for Faried, the Spurs coast into the Western Conference Finals for the second consecutive season.

Western Conference Semifinals: 2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 3. L.A. Clippers

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    Prediction: Oklahoma City wins series 4-3

    It's a series worthy of the Western Conference Finals. Lucky for us, the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder are primed to square off in the Western Conference semis, with easy first-round matchups on the horizon for both clubs.

    In what may become the gold standard for entertainment in a second-round playoff series, the Clippers and Thunder will likely trade heavyweight punches, with Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul dueling for backcourt supremacy while Kevin Durant looks to outshine Blake Griffin in crunch time.

    The Clippers will be looking to validate their designation as one of the West's best young teams with a series victory over the Thunder, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Durant and Co. bow out this early.

    The Thunder are chomping at the bit to do battle with the Miami Heat in an NBA Finals rematch, and although the Clippers will pose a significant threat to those aspirations, they'll fall just short of pulling off the upset.

Eastern Conference Finals: 1. Miami Heat vs. 2. Indiana Pacers

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    Prediction: Miami wins series 4-2

    While teams like the Indiana Pacers may just be content with a spot in the conference finals, the Miami Heat will refuse to settle for anything less than an NBA title in 2012-13.

    With the Pacers sneaking by two tough, defensive-minded teams in Boston and Chicago in the first and second rounds, Indiana simply won't have enough gas left in the tank to pull off a shocker and eliminate the Heat from the postseason party.

    Although they've enjoyed great success against the Heat so far this season (2-0), Miami's ability to flip the switch on at any given moment is a terrifying prospect for an Indiana team devoid of significant playoff experience.

    LeBron James has been at his best when the lights have shined brightest, so we should expect more of the same from the league's reigning MVP when the Eastern Conference Finals roll around.

Western Conference Finals: 1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Prediction: Oklahoma City wins series 4-3

    Ready for a rematch? The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder clashed in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, with the Thunder emerging victorious after erasing an 0-2 series deficit by winning four straight en route to a Western Conference title.

    This time around, the Spurs will be looking to exact their revenge on Scott Brooks' squad. But as previously mentioned, Kevin Durant's burning desire to exact some revenge of his own on the Miami Heat may be too much for the Spurs to overcome.

    Although both teams possess shooters in droves, the Thunder's trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin will simply be too motivated and too locked in to be denied a second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.

NBA Finals: Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Prediction: Miami wins series 4-3

    And here we have it. The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off in the NBA Finals as another chapter is written in the league's most compelling rivalry.

    Once again, all eyes will be on the matchup between the league's primary MVP contenders, Kevin Durant and LeBron James.

    It feels like it's nearly impossible for Durant to outdo last year's Finals performance, as he averaged 30.6 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting (39.4 percent from beyond the arc) over five games.

    However, Durant's partner in crime, Russell Westbrook, will need to elevate his game should the Thunder want to have a legitimate shot at capturing the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

    Westbrook's scoring numbers in last year's Finals (27 points per game) look nice standing alone, but when you consider that the dynamic point guard took 16 more shots than Durant and shot just 43.3 percent from the field (13.6 percent from three), his performance comes off as average.

    Looking to squash the Thunder's title hopes will be the Heat, who, believe it or not, have improved personnel-wise from a year ago.

    Boasting Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis as complementary shooters alongside Shane Battier, the Heat now have more ways to stretch the floor than ever—which is good news for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but terrible news for Thunder defenders.

    The series will last seven games this time around, but the end result will be the same as last year.