2011 NBA Playoffs: Predicting Every Round of the Postseason
Ah, Magic and a giant inflatable Larry O'Brien Trophy. We must be nearing playoff time in the NBA.
Though the standings are far from set with about 18 games left for each team, it is reasonable to start extrapolating who will advance and who they'll match up with.
In the East, there is a one game difference between eighth place Indiana and ninth place Charlotte, but the Top Seven are a certainty.
The West is a different story.
Teams five through 11 are separated by a total of five games. Denver, Portland, New Orleans and Memphis are currently in with Phoenix, Utah and Houston all chasing one game behind each other.
It's obviously impossible to figure out exactly where each team will end up, but it is reasonable to conclude that, at the three-quarter pole of the season, teams are who they are. This is to say that the teams that are currently in the playoff bracket are probably more likely to end up there than a team who hasn't earned it thus far.
Here's a breakdown of each playoff round with teams placed as they would be if the season ended today.
East: First Round
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Best matchup: Miami Heat vs. New York Knicks in the three-six matchup. With all the star power in this series—especially among players that would guard each other—this is far and away the best matchup of any first round series.
Possible upset: No. 5 Atlanta over No. 4 Orlando. The Hawks have taken two of three against Orlando this season and guarding Dwight Howard isn't as big a problem for Atlanta as for some other teams.
Series predictions: Boston over Indiana in four games; Chicago over Philadelphia in five games; Miami over New York in five games; Atlanta over Orlando in seven games.
West: First Round
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Best matchup: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Denver Nuggets in the four-five pairing. This series would be a track meet featuring two of the top four scoring teams in the West. Denver's new blood will be in for a rude awakening when they realize they have to deal with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant for seven games. The Nuggets seem to be playing well since trading their two best players, so this might be more of a fight than it is at first glance.
Possible upset: New Orleans as the No. 7 seed over the second-seeded Mavericks. The Mavs have a top record in the NBA this year, but don't they always? There's just something about them that seems phony. Do they have the toughness to endure one rugged series after another? If they can't find a way to contain Chris Paul (no—Jason Kidd will not suffice), the series could be over as fast as it starts.
Series predictions: Spurs over Grizzlies in five games; Mavericks over Hornets in six games; Lakers over Blazers in six games; Thunder over Nuggets in five.
East: Second Round
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This is where things get really interesting in the East with four legitimate title contenders grappling with each other in pairs. This is the playoff round that experts and fans have circled on their calendars since free agency settled in the summer.
Best matchup: The Bulls and Heat. The individual matchups here are superb: Dwyane Wade facing off against Derrick Rose for seven games? Yes please. Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer trading elbows with Chris Bosh? I'll take that. LeBron James doesn't have a perfect Bulls counterpart, but Chicago will throw everything they can at him to make the other guys beat them.
Everyone in the media is lauding the Bulls as a serious threat to topple the East's powers and Derrick Rose as the MVP. This will be their first chance to back up the talk.
Possible upset: This one again. The question is, who would be upsetting who? Which of these teams is better? The fact that this question even warrants asking is a compliment to the Bulls. To me, the Bulls are the better team, especially with Rose elevating the rest of his team and in light of Chicago's recent win over Miami.
All that said, I would put Miami as an underdog—and when a team with Wade, Bosh and James is considered an underdog, the upset is always in play. Either way, I cannot wait for this series to form; it could be one of the most memorable ever.
Series predictions: Celtics over Hawks in five games; Heat over Bulls in seven games.
After all the love I just gave the Bulls, I don't think they are quite ready to take the leap into the NBA's elite. When young upstarts like the 2011 Bulls and 2010 Thunder hit the scene, they rarely measure up to the hype. Experience usually triumphs in a long, hard playoff series.
West: Second Round
A couple dynamite matchups await in the West's second round as well. The Spurs and Thunder's increasingly similar uptempo styles meet, while the Lakers and Mavs take the "Most Boring Series" award for the round.
Best matchup: Top-seeded Spurs against No. 4 Thunder. Greg Popovich's sudden philosophical change is perplexing; fortunately, the Spurs couldn't have been more boring before, and are wildly entertaining to watch now that they score.
The Thunder are even more exciting and the Durant-Westbrook combo will pose a huge problem for the Spurs. Can Tony Parker handle Westbrook, or will Manu Ginobili have to guard him? Who checks Durant? The addition of Kendrick Perkins to lock down the paint against Duncan means that the Spurs don't have a marked advantage down low anymore.
In fact, I'm not sure where the Spurs have a noticeable advantage. Where do you see one?
Possible upset: The Spurs have been dominant this season; there's no denying it. However, there's not a team in the league that doesn't fear Oklahoma City in a playoff series. The Champion Lakers struggled mightily against them last year, and OKC wasn't nearly ready to compete with the elite. This year? Westbrook has made his personal leap in maturity after playing on Team USA last summer. I see OKC's development and maturity grow in strides in this series. If they don't beat the Spurs, they will push them to the edge.
Series predictions: Thunder over Spurs in seven games; Lakers over Mavs in six.
Despite the strength of the Spurs at home, I think the Thunder will be able to take the next step in their maturation by eliminating San Antonio.
Does anyone honestly think that the Mavs can beat the Lakers? Bring your best argument, Mavs fans.
East: Conference Championship
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Here's the series that everyone wants to see.
The incumbent reign of the aging Celtics against the challenging collection of young superstars. This represents the age-old teamwork vs. superstar tension in the NBA.
The Celtics flourish because they don't elevate themselves. The Heat are the antithesis of the Celtic way: three individuals trying to co-exist just long enough to win a championship. Their early-season struggles and current five-game skid are indicators that they still haven't figured out how to do that effectively.
Boston will have home-court advantage in this series, which will be huge, given their 27-5 record in the new Garden. Furthermore, they've beaten Miami all three times this season, with one more matchup in Miami remaining.
These teams haven't faced off since making some roster moves around the deadline. The Celtics' trade of Kendrick Perkins doesn't hurt them at all against a perimeter-oriented team like the Heat. With no scoring threat down low, Kevin Garnett (and a healthy Shaq and Glen Davis) are more than capable of controlling the paint.
The addition of Jeff Green will play well against Miami's thin bench. If the Heat are stretched thin trying to defend Rondo, Allen, Pierce and Garnett, then Green should thrive from the three-point line and on the glass.
Series prediction: Celtics over Heat in six games to advance to the NBA Finals
There is nothing in the body of evidence suggesting that Miami can hang with Boston right now. They're not mentally tough enough to compete with the Celtics. Crying in the locker room after a regular season loss? That doesn't sound like the way a championship contender carries itself.
West: Conference Championship
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The Lakers would find pros and cons with this matchup.
A pro: unexpected home-court advantage from the three (or two) seed.
A con: home court against the Thunder is a scary proposition. Any court against the Thunder is a scary proposition, actually.
The Lakers put on a good face after escaping the Thunder in last year's six-game first round. Don't be fooled: That series scared the daylights out of them. It was the hardest series they played before getting to Boston in the Finals.
This year, the Lakers are a year older and creakier, though currently rounding into form. This would be a third-round series following two five or six-game series'. The Lakers would presumably be at the top of their game at this point, but they'd be tired nonetheless.
The Thunder would be too, especially after an emotional upset of the Spurs. However, the effects of fatigue would have much less of an impact on the young, spry Thunder than on the Lakers and Kobe Bryant.
Another problem the Lakers have is guarding Russell Westbrook. He erupted for 20.5 points, six assists, six rebounds, 1.7 steals and 47 percent shooting in the six game series. Phil Jackson didn't have an answer and luckily, the Thunder just ran out of games before they figured out how to beat the Lakers consistently.
Well, Phil—I have your answer to the Problem of Westbrook: Quit the charade, bench Derek Fisher, start Lamar Odom and stick Kobe on Russ.
Fisher and backup Shannon Brown are not equipped to deal with Westbrook's size and quickness, but Bryant is. At 6'5", Kobe matches up much better with Westbrook's length, and is able to keep him out of the lane and force him into his somewhat-improved jumpshot.
Odom's presence in the lineup creates a counter problem for OKC without Jeff Green. Can Serge Ibaka—Green's replacement in the starting lineup—guard Odom? Odom won't have to worry too much about defending Ibaka's limited offensive role, so he can help Ron Artest and Matt Barnes with Durant.
There's so much more to say about this potential series, so I don't want to run it all out there right now. This rematch would be the most fun series to watch after the Chicago-Miami second-round tilt, and I hope that it comes to fruition so I can talk about it more as a reality, not a wish.
Series prediction: Lakers win in six games to advance to the NBA Finals
NBA Finals: Celtics and Lakers
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With so many legit contenders in the running this year, no one is taking this matchup for granted—but everyone is still hoping for it.
We could talk circles and get into the minutiae of the matchups here, but one recent decision swings this series noticeably in one direction: the curious trade of Kendrick Perkins for Jeff Green.
The Celtics lost a potential 2011 Finals against the Lakers by giving Perkins away. Simply put, the Lakers come at you too strong down low with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum to fend off with only Kevin Garnett, Nenad Krstic, Glen Davis and Shaq. The paint is where the Celtics narrowly lost Game 7 last year, and they're considerably weaker there without Perkins.
The Lakers didn't have an answer for Paul Pierce in 2008, but they did in 2010. Now with Matt Barnes to stick on Pierce when Artest is out, the Lakers have remedied that problem further, as well as defending Rajon Rondo six-feet off with Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers answer a lot more of the Celtic problems than vice versa. This is what it comes down to for me: The Lakers won last year and have gotten better, while the Celtics lost and are not better than they were last June.
Again, there's a lot more to say about the greatest rivalry in professional sports history. Logically, the Lakers would win this series.
Series prediction: Lakers over Celtics in six games.