The NBA playoff matchups are set, and I don't see any of the lower-seeded teams escaping the first round this year.
There usually seems to be that one surprise winner in the first round every year, but when looking at the matchups of this year's first round, it's really hard to see any of the top teams losing. Some of the series will be more competitive than others, but competitive won't be good enough.
Each higher-seeded team seems to have one characteristic or component that will allow them to advance to the conference semifinals.
The four-five matchup in the first round in the East will be between the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks. These two teams met up in the conference semifinals last season and it resulted in a Magic sweep. I don't expect a sweep this season, but the Magic's defense and rebounding should be enough to get them through.
The Magic are ranked fifth in the NBA in both opponent's PPG and opponent's FG percentage. The Hawks are 26th in the league in scoring. The trade halfway through the season for the Magic has had its ups and downs, but come playoff time this team usually plays well behind the presence of Dwight Howard.
The Hawks are again in the playoffs, and again more of a pretender than a contender. The Mike Bibby trade to Washington for Kirk Hinrich has been okay at times, but it won't help enough in this series. The offense doesn't possess any real threat besides Joe Johnson as everyone else can be very inconsistent.
Prediction: Magic in six
The East third-seeded Boston Celtics take on the sixth-seeded New York Knicks in the most compelling first round matchup of the playoffs. I know the Celtics were reeling late in the season, so how can they beat Knicks? It's going to come down to team chemistry.
The Celtics have been together for four years now, and there may not be another team in the league with better team chemistry. They're struggling, yes, but they have been here so many times and know each other so well. I have a feeling Rondo knows where Allen is going to spot up or how KG is going to roll off the pick.
The Knicks have talent in Anthony and Stoudemire, and plenty of experience with Chauncey Billups. The problem is they haven't been together for half a season yet. The chemistry has lacked at times since the trade, and that is to be expected. They also don't have the role players to get it done. This however, will be an extremely competitive series and very compelling to watch.
Prediction: Celtics in seven
The second-seeded Miami Heat in the East take on the seventh-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. I think the advantage in this series is Miami's personnel versus Philly's. Clear edge to Miami, right?
The Heat have more talent than anyone they play, but it will show in this series. We all know about Wade, James, and Bosh—they're good. Role players have been playing better as of late in Mike Bibby, Mario Chalmers, and the best shooter on the team, James Jones. Even Big Z has been getting better as of late.
The Sixers have talented players in Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, and Thaddeus Young, and a veteran presence with Elton Brand. However, they have no way of containing all big three on Miami, which should lead to problems. I do believe this team is improving, but they're not ready yet.
Prediction: Heat in five
The Chicago Bulls will meet up with the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference first round. The Bulls have the clear edge in this series on many different levels. The biggest however will be Derrick Rose.
The Bulls just need to do what they have this entire season, which is ride Derrick Rose and play solid defense. They have made the playoffs the last three seasons and have the edge in talent and experience. Tom Thibodeau was an assistant for the Celtics the past few seasons and understands playoff pressure. Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and even Kyle Korver have been around the block as well. Rose, in his third season and third playoff experience, should thrive in this series.
The Pacers should just be happy to be in the playoffs, and just keep the rebuilding project going. They have a first year coach in Frank Vogel, who has been an assistant in the league since 2001. He took over for Jim O'Brien halfway through the season and has done a fair job, but does not have the same experience as Thibodeau. Their most veteran player is James Posey, who has been around the block, but there isn't much more playoff experience there.
Prediction: Bulls in five
The Thunder are a hot pick to make some noise in the playoffs, but they have their hands full in the Western Conference first round against the Denver Nuggets. This should be the best series out West as both teams are playing well, but the difference in this series will be the man above Russell Westbrook and his partner, Kevin Durant.
The Thunder are still a young team, but after playing the Lakers tough in the first round last year, this team understands playoff pressure. They have played well since trading for Kendrick Perkins (including a win in L.A. over the Lakers). The key to me will be Durant and Westbrook who can both take over the game with their skill sets.
The Nuggets have been great since trading Carmelo Anthony to N.Y. Their defense has been much better, and they are playing more like a team. The problem I see them having is they don't have a go-to player who can take over a game like Durant or Westbrook. I expect them to be very competitive, but just not having enough.
Prediction: Thunder in six
The Dallas Mavericks will be the three-seed out West, and play the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. This should be another hard contested series in the West, but look for the Dallas defense to be better than Portland's offense.
The Mavericks are top 10 in the league in both opponent's PPG and FG percentage. Portland, on the other hand, ranks 20th or worse in both those categories on the offensive end. It's been an emphasis of team defense since Rick Carlisle took over, and it has been working well. Anytime you have Dirk Nowitzki on the offense, it helps as well.
With Greg Oden being injured for the season early (again) and Brandon Roy missing an extended amount of time due to knee problems, Portland has played great to be where they are. Andre Miller has been steady at the point, and Lamarcus Aldridge has had his best year by far. The addition of Gerald Wallace has also been good on both ends of the floor, but when the game is on the line I'll take Dirk over anyone on Portland. A good season for Portland will end, but they'll go down fighting.
Prediction: Mavericks in seven
The Lakers are somewhat limping (literally, thanks to Andrew Bynum) into the playoffs. They will be the two-seed, and take on the seventh-seeded New Orleans Hornets in the first round out west. The Lakers should win this series due to their front line.
Bynum's MRI only revealed a bone bruise on the right knee he injured Tuesday night against the Spurs. He should be ready to go this weekend for the start of the playoffs, and that's good news for the Lakers. Bynum gives the Lakers an anchor inside, as he complements Pau Gasol very well. Those two, plus Lamar Odom off the bench, should have a good series inside.
The Hornets have had a nice season, but their luck will run out here. David West tore an ACL last month, and the Hornets aren't the same team without him. Chris Paul won't be able to carry the team out of the first round, as without West, the duo of Emeka Okafor and Carl Landry will struggle inside. I do see them winning one more game than they should due to some poor play by the Lakers.
Prediction: Lakers in six
The first-seeded San Antonio Spurs out west will play the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. This series comes down to the veteran-laden Spurs against the athletic, youthful Grizzlies. I believe the Spurs can use their experience to their advantage to win this series.
The Spurs (somewhat) rested down the stretch of the regular season, but Manu Ginobili sprained his elbow Wednesday night against the Suns and is doubtful for game one in this series. If Ginobili is not fully healthy it will hurt them. However, the Spurs can still rely on Parker, Duncan, and Jefferson to step up. Pop knows what he is doing too, I think.
The Grizzlies are an up and coming team who could be really good in a few years. They have youthful players in Rudy Gay (who unfortunately is hurt and will miss the playoffs), Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Sam Young. There is veteran presence in Zach Randolph, Shane Battier, and Tony Allen which will help. However, there is no team that can match the experience of the Spurs, and the young players on Memphis may struggle more than they usually would.
Prediction: Spurs in six