NBA Playoff Preview 2011: Predicting 1st-Round Matchups as They Are Right Now
Every player's goal is the same to start the season. No matter where a NBA athlete starts the season, his main focus is ending the season with the Larry O'Brien trophy in hand.
Of the 30 teams that start the season with title hopes, 16 qualify for postseason play. When the playoffs begin, more than half of the league still has a chance to win the NBA Championship. The NBA, unlike NCAA basketball, starts off with the Sweet 16.
When the playoffs begin, records are thrown to the wayside. It doesn't matter how many wins a team amassed during the regular season. Sixteen teams all start anew with a common goal and equal chances.
Once again, teams in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff teams have losing records. There are teams in the West that have been mathematically eliminated with better records than the current No. 8 seed in the East.
On April 16, teams will begin matching up in best-of-seven series' to decide which squad is the best of 2010-11.
Here's my thoughts on which teams will escape the first round if the seeds were locked in as of 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 2.
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs Vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
San Antonio Spurs in last 10 games: 3-7
Memphis Grizzlies in last 10 games: 7-3
Season series: Tied 2-2
The Spurs escaped with slim victories in the first two meeting of the season—one of which was in overtime. The Grizzlies won both matchups in March, beating the injury-depleted Spurs by 16 in one of the two games.
The key for this series is the guard play of the Spurs. In three of the four games, a Spurs guard scored over 30 points. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill all posted big games against the Grizzlies.
Zach Randolph has been the measuring stick of the Grizzlies success in games against San Antonio. When he took more than 20 shots, the Grizzlies were 0-2. If Randolph didn't force the issue, the Grizzlies came out on top.
The key player in the series will be Tony Parker. If he can step up to the challenge and put up big numbers in this series, the Spurs will run over the Grizzlies.
Spurs rout Grizzlies 4-1, losing one of the first two games
No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers Vs. No. 7 New Orleans Hornets
Los Angeles Lakers in last 10 games: 9-1
New Orleans Hornets in last 10 games: 6-4
Season series: Lakers won 4-0
The Lakers swept the Hornets during the regular season and could definitely do it again in the playoffs.
The Hornets lost David West to injury for the rest of the year, opening up the paint even more for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The pair of seven-footers only truly have Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry to worry about.
If Kobe Bryant can swallow his ego and send the ball inside time after time, the Lakers big men will wear on the Hornets. The only chance the Hornets have is if Chris Paul takes over a game.
It's not really in Paul's comfort zone to try to force the issue and hoist a ton of shots. Paul will have to do just that if the Hornets want to have a fighting chance in this series.
Lakers win 4-0, sweeping the Hornets yet again
No. 3 Dallas Mavericks Vs. No. 6 Portland Trailblazers
Dallas Mavericks in last 10 games: 6-4
Portland Trailblazers in last 10 games: 7-3
Season series: Mavericks lead 2-1
The three games played between these teams have been decided by a combined 11 points.
In the first game, Caron Butler was the difference maker. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, he's out for the season. In the second matchup, the Mavericks were without Dirk Nowitzki. A balanced scoring effort helped them to a three-point win.
The last meeting was the one that means the most. Gerald Wallace was on the Trailblazers and the only major player not in the game was Dallas' Peja Stojakovic. Brandon Roy chipped in 21 points in just 28 minutes to earn the Blazers their first win over the Mavericks.
LaMarcus Aldridge owned the Mavericks this season. He scored 93 points in the three contests, shooting 51 percent on 74 shot attempts. He also grabbed 28 boards.
The deciding factor in this series will be the play of Wallace and Roy. Shawn Marion will have to be at his absolute best defensively to guard either of these players, who I believe will be too much for the Mavericks.
The two teams play again on April 3 in a potential preview of the series.
Trailblazers jump out to an early 3-1 lead, but have to wait until Game 7 to win the series
No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder Vs. No. 5 Denver Nuggets
Oklahoma City Thunder in last 10 games: 8-2
Denver Nuggets in last 10 games: 8-2
Season series: Tied 1-1
This is the hardest series to predict because the Nuggets are such a drastically different team since the last time these two teams played.
Both of these units have been peaking at the right time, and playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Nuggets have shown surprising chemistry early and are scoring at will. The Thunder have been showing off an improving defense, but are still scoring points.
The main question in this series is who can stop Kevin Durant. Durant torched the Nuggets for 44 points on Christmas Day. He may have had a far worse performance in a Nuggets win less than a month later, but he's still the matchup problem for the Nuggets.
Wilson Chandler seems to be the most likely candidate to try and stop Durant. Chris Andersen may also be willing to take on the challenge. Even if the Nuggets are able to slow the NBA scoring leader, Russell Westbrook will be there to run the show.
The Nuggets are better than people thought they'd be after the blockbuster trade. However, they won't be able to stop the Thunder in what should be the most exciting series in the Western Conference's first round.
The two teams play one another twice more in the regular season—serving as a preview of the matchup.
The Nuggets surprise the Thunder in Game 1, but Oklahoma City prevails in six games
No. 1 Chicago Bulls Vs. No. 8 Indiana Pacers
Chicago Bulls in last 10 games: 8-2
Indiana Pacers in last 10 games: 6-4
Season series: Bulls won 3-1
The Bulls won their first three meetings with the Pacers, before Indiana pulled out a seven-point overtime victory two weeks ago at home.
The Bulls were without Boozer in the most recent matchup, and Tyler Hansbrough exploited the weakness by scoring 29 points and grabbing 12 boards before fouling out. However, the Bulls came back from a 16-point deficit entering the fourth quarter behind 42 points from Derrick Rose.
A healthy Bulls team looks to be too much for the Pacers, who lost the other three games by a combined 53 points. The Pacers shot below 41 percent in the first three meetings, never really challenging the East's leading squad.
A strong frontcourt for the Bulls counters the Pacers strength inside. The Bulls also have the edge around the perimeter because of Derrick Rose. More than just one or two players from the Pacers have to play great to push the Bulls past five games in this series.
Bulls drop a close overtime game, but win the series 4-1
No. 2 Miami Heat Vs. No. 7 New York Knicks
Miami Heat in last 10 games: 8-2
New York Knicks in last 10 games: 3-7
Season series: Tied 2-2
This will be the most anticipated first round series in the NBA. If this holds true, Knicks fans will have drew the team they think they can oust from the playoffs.
The Heat took the first two games of the season against the Knicks, but the Knicks stepped up their defense in the last two matchups. They held the Heat to under 90 points to win the final two meetings.
Right now, however, the two teams are headed in opposite directions. The Big Three for the Heat are playing their best collective basketball of the season. The Knicks combination of Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups have been struggling.
Watching LeBron James and Carmelo go toe-to-toe will draw great crowds, but LeBron can really take it to Anthony in this pivotal matchup. Wade has scored 34 and 40 points in two of the games against the Knicks. Billups will likely try to slow him down, but it's hard to believe he'll be able to.
For the Knicks to have a chance at the upset, Amar'e has to take it to Bosh on both ends of the floor. He needs to keep Bosh away from the basket while also showing he has the strength advantage on offense.
Amar'e can slow the Heat, but won't be enough to stop Miami from advancing.
The Heat drop two tough games in New York, but win 4-2
No. 3 Boston Celtics Vs. No. 6 Philadelphia 76ers
Boston Celtics in last 10 games: 5-5
Philadelphia 76ers in last 10 games: 6-4
Season series: Celtics lead 3-2
The Celtics can't look past the 76ers if they want to advance to the second round. If the Celtics look forward to a potential meeting with the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they'll never make it to Miami.
The Celtics held the Sixers to 65 points in a 28-point blowout win to open their 2010-11 season. Six days later, they lost to the Sixers by 11, while allowing 103 points. However, in the second game, none of the Celtics stars played.The Celtics won the next two games before the Sixers pulled off the upset in the fifth meeting.
Both squads stress balance on offense, as at least four players from each team have scored double-digit points in all five games. The highest scorer in any of the games was former Celtic Nate Robinson with 26 points.
When Shaquille O'Neal returns to action, the Celtics will have the edge inside. The 76ers have more depth at the guard position, which they'll have to exploit to pull the upset. The 76ers need to stop Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, forcing Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo to beat them.
Elton Brand will be pitted against Garnett, and this matchup will be the most important for the 76ers. Garnett's desire to win will prove to be too much for the 76ers in the closest series in the East.
Celtics have to return to Boston to finish off the Sixers in seven games
No. 4 Orlando Magic Vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
Orlando Magic in last 10 games: 7-3
Atlanta Hawks in last 10 games: 6-4
Season series: Hawks won 3-1
Dwight Howard's performance will determine who wins this series.
Howard scored 27 points to lead his Magic over the Hawks in the first meeting of the two this season. He was held below 20 in the three matchups that ensued, as the Magic only averaged 79 points in three losses.
Howard is defended by either Jason Collins or Al Horford when the two teams are on the floor, but he needs to step us his game in the playoffs. The two squads are pretty even around the perimeter with a plethora of well-known names.
Jason Richardson versus Joe Johnson will be a huge matchup in each contest. Johnson handles the ball a lot for the Hawks, while Richardson will look to get hot from the perimeter in each game for the Magic. The player that comes up bigger could make a two-game swing in the series.
Also, Kirk Hinrich will have a pivotal defensive matchup when he guards Jameer Nelson. Nelson is the better athlete, and can beat Hinrich on the dribble most of the time. Hinrich has to make sure Nelson doesn't see many open shots because if he shoots well, the Magic are near impossible to beat.
Howard will average over 30 points a night to help the Magic win in five games