The most anticipated NBA Playoff season in recent memory begins today and there are more than enough storylines to keep one busy. Most importantly, however, is what happens on the court. Here now are my predictions, March Madness style, of how the Playoffs will unfold:
Eastern Conference Round 1
Indiana Pacers (8) vs. Chicago Bulls (1):
The Bulls have ended the season red-hot and should have no trouble dismantling the Indiana Pacers in the first round.
Derrick Rose is clearly the league MVP, and first-year Coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing some of the league’s toughest defense.
The Pacers, to their credit, have a decent team with some familiar names on it. Players like Darren Collison, Mike Dunleavy, Tyler Hansbrough, Josh McRoberts and Roy Hibbert are no stranger to tournament play, as each had great success at the collegiate level. Unfortunately for them, school is over and their 2011 season will be soon to follow.
Pick: Bulls in four games
Atlanta Hawks (5) vs. Orlando Magic (4):
The Hawks have their work cut out for them as they try to erase the embarrassing performance they showed in last year’s playoff series against the Magic.
This year’s team looks to be a slight upgrade over the 2010 version, as Kirk Hinrich has proved to be a much better player than Mike Bibby.
Orlando should be close to full strength, however, and Dwight Howard is coming off his best season as a pro. Combine that with the Hawks dismal post All-Star break play and Orlando should cruise back into Round 2.
Pick: Magic in five games
New York Knicks (6) vs. Boston Celtics (3):
This should be one of the more interesting first-round matchups, as the Celtics are reaching their twilight with their current nucleus, while New York is just getting used to theirs.
After months of trade rumors and seemingly endless speculation, Carmelo Anthony wound up in a Knicks jersey alongside Amare Stoudamire who has had one of his better seasons this year.
There is no question the Knicks have the star power to compete with the Celtics, the question is do they have the depth and the chemistry?
Depth and chemistry are two things the Celtics are also struggling to figure out at the moment. Normally areas of strength for Boston, the deadline swap of center Kendrick Perkins for forward Jeff Green seems to have altered the mentality of the C’s.
Much has been made about the negative impact the trade has had on the reigning Eastern Conference champs but at the end of the day I think the Big Four of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo will be more than enough to get by the Knicks.
Pick: Celtics in five games
Philadelphia 76ers (7) vs. Miami Heat (2):
All eyes will surely be on the Miami Heat this post-season as it has officially become time for LeBron, Wade and Bosh to back-up their pre-season strutting.
Quietly, however, the 76ers have built themselves a nice little team. Elton Brand has had a bounce back season, Andre Iguodala is one of the league’s most underrated swingmen, a supporting cast of role players and scorers make Philly a team you can’t look past.
That being said, I fully expect the Heat to steamroll the 76ers in the first round. LeBron will be in “kill” mode as he looks to erase the passive way he ended his post-season last year in Cleveland.
Pick: Heat in four games
Western Conference Round 1
Memphis Grizzlies (8) vs. San Antonio Spurs (1):
Without question, the Spurs injury to Manu Ginobili will hurt them in this series against the scrappy Grizzlies. Luckily for San Antonio, the Grizzlies are also without their best swingman, as forward Rudy Gay is out for the season with a shoulder injury.
That said, the Grizzlies are not without firepower as power forward Zach Randolph has had a terrific season and guards Mike Conley, Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo will give the Spurs all they can handle defensively.
In the end, experience and coaching will prevail, and the Spurs will move on to Round 2.
Pick: Spurs in six games
Denver Nuggets (5) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (4):
This series should be the most exciting of any first-round matchup. Both teams know how to score in bunches and play an up-tempo style of basketball.
The Nuggets have been terrific since trading Carmelo Anthony, relying on depth to post gaudy offensive numbers.
The Thunder have also blossomed into a complete team due to a mid-season trade. Since adding Kendrick Perkins from the Celtics, the Thunder have filled the one major gap they were missing in a tough interior defender.
Point guard Russell Westbrook has been dazzling this season, and forward Kevin Durant continues to amaze as he led the league in scoring for the second straight season.
I see this series going down to the wire as both teams have players who can get hot at any given time. In the end, I think OKC pulls this one out at home in Game 7.
Pick: Thunder in seven games
Portland Trail Blazers (6) vs. Dallas Mavericks (3):
Everyone seems to be buzzing about the Blazers' upset potential in this series. I’m going to join them. After robbing the Bobcats at the trade deadline and adding Gerald Wallace to a team that was already long and athletic, the Blazers became a very dangerous playoff team.
Their length and athleticism allows them to play some of the league’s toughest defense and their talent in the front court (LaMarcus Aldridge, Marcus Camby, Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum) and backcourt (Andre Miller, Wes Mathews, Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez) makes them a nightmare for any team trying to match up against them.
The Dallas Mavericks certainly bring experience and talent to the table as Dirk and Co. will try to avenge recent first-round playoff exits. Dirk had another “Dirk” season, and Jason Kidd and Jason Terry show no signs of slowing down.
Over the course of a series, I like the Blazers chances, however. I think they match-up very well at every position and the acquisition of Wallace allows the Blazers to use their former best player, Brandon Roy, in certain spots off the bench.
I liken Roy to a former starting pitcher in baseball whose arm just isn’t the same. However, once he’s turned into a closer, he becomes dangerously effective again.
This series should be wildly entertaining and could honestly go either way.
Pick: Blazers in six games
New Orleans Hornets (7) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (2):
Nobody is happier about their playoff seeding than the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead of potentially playing a scrappy Memphis team or an incredibly deep and athletic Blazers team in Round 1, Kobe shot the Lakers into the two-seed and a matchup with the listless Hornets.
Chris Paul is still a top-five point guard but his supporting cast, sans David West, leaves way too much to be desired. Former Laker Trevor Ariza is a nice, young athlete; however, he should be easily bottled up by Ron Artest and Lamar Odom.
Luckily for the Lakers, Andrew Bynum’s injury doesn’t appear to be serious, and a series against the small Hornets will be just what the doctor ordered. In a sense, the Lakers can afford to rest Bynum more and go with Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol more in this series while Bynum continues to heal.
Kobe Bryant should come out of the gates swinging as recent events seem to have added more fuel to his already white-hot competitive fire. It’s too bad for the Hornets that they have to get in the way.
Pick: Lakers in four games
Eastern Conference Round 2
Orlando Magic (4) vs. Chicago Bulls (1):
This should be a great series for those that love defense as one of the league’s best defensive teams (Bulls) will square off against the league’s best defensive player (Dwight Howard).
The catalyst in all this, I believe, will continue to be Derrick Rose. In their matchup a week ago, the Magic had no answer for Rose and he was able to do whatever he wanted offensively. I don’t see that changing in the playoffs and I see the Bulls cruising again.
Pick: Bulls in 5 games
Boston Celtics (3) vs. Miami Heat (2):
Wow. Now we’re talking. The old Big-Three vs. the new Big-Three. This series should be fascinating to watch as time will tell whether the Celtics have enough left in the tank to fight off the young and hungry Heat.
When it comes to discipline, defense and team play, the Celtics clearly have the edge. They also have several players who can take and make huge shots in crunch time.
The Heat have two of the five best players in the world but have yet to totally figure out whose team it is in crunch time. On top of that, neither player is a great jump shooter and we all know how many big shots occur in the playoffs.
In spite of this knowledge, I think the Heat will be too athletic over the length of a series for the Celtics to handle. The C’s will put up a valiant fight but, at least in this series, youth and talent will defeat age and experience.
Pick: Heat in 7 games
Western Conference Round 2
Oklahoma City Thunder (4) vs. San Antonio Spurs (1):
I’d like to say that a lot of this comes down to the health of Manu Ginobili but, honestly, I think my mind is made up.
The Thunder are built for the playoffs. They’re young, they have scorers, rebounders and are totally healthy.
The Spurs, despite sporting the conference’s best record, are limping towards the finish line. Tim Duncan clearly is not the same player he’s been in years past and Tony Parker will not be able to dominate Russell Westbrook like he does other point guards.
The only chance the Spurs have in this series is if they can hit their outside shots consistently. While having the ability to hit open jumpers is crucial to playoff success, having a team that relies on jump shooting is usually risky business.
I may wind up regretting this but I’m going with the Thunder to unseat the Spurs and effectively end the Duncan-era in San Antonio.
Pick: Thunder in 6 games
Portland Trail Blazers (6) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (2):
This is the match-up that LA didn’t want in round one; however, it becomes far more favorable in round two. Not only will Andrew Bynum have had another two weeks to get healthy, but Phil Jackson will have more time to study Portland and figure out ways to beat them.
The Blazers are going to have to rely on depth and essential out-run a relatively thin Laker roster. They certainly have the length in players like Wes Mathews, Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum to rotate on Kobe while LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby will have to battle Pau, Odom and Bynum down low.
If the Lakers are going to win this series it’s going to be in the paint where they have the advantage. Plus, if the bigs are being effective it will open up Kobe to do what Kobe does. And unlike Boston over in the East, I think Kobe and the Lakers have a little more gas left in their tank.
Pick: Lakers in 6 games
Eastern Conference Finals
Miami Heat (2) vs. Chicago Bulls (1):
This series would be absolutely incredible. Two teams that are young, hungry and feature some of the league’s best talent will collide in a media dream.
Many have commented on how LeBron and Wade spurning Chicago as free agents this past off season partially fueled the fire in Derrick Rose. Although the soft-spoken Rose would never admit it, his play on the court will no doubt reflect his feelings.
They key match-up here will be Dwayne Wade and LeBron James versus Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. LeBron and Wade live by penetrating and getting to the foul line. Chicago’s best chance of stopping them is by filtering them towards their stellar interior defenders, especially Noah, and hoping they can alter their shots and control the boards.
The more I think about it, the more I want to pick the Heat however, I have a few problems with that.
1) They don’t have enough team chemistry to fall back on in tight games.
2) They don’t have a player they can free up for a game winning/tying three pointer with any confidence.
3) Chris Bosh is soft and every other Miami big man will get manhandled by Chicago down low.
So to recap, the Bulls play defense better, rebound better, have better chemistry and have a player who can create and make his own shot in crunch time. Yeah, I’m going with Chicago.
Pick: Bulls in 7 games
Western Conference Finals
Oklahoma City Thunder (4) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (2)
This series will be the true test for the Lakers. Derek Fisher’s lack of quickness will force Kobe to chase around Russell Westbrook for the whole series making him about 15% less effective offensively. That said, Ron Artest has traditionally given Kevin Durant trouble and Lamar Odom will be able to stick with him as well.
The addition of Kendrick Perkins and increased playing time for Serge Ibaka has made OKC tougher in the paint than previous years; however, as long as Bynum can stay healthy I believe he will be the X-Factor.
If the Lakers can get Steve Blake back by this series and get some clutch performances from Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes (who should also be healthy by then) they should have enough to stave off the young Thunder for one more season.
In the end, I just can’t see the Thunder taking a series from the Lakers in which they don’t have home court. I see this series coming back to the Staples Center in game 7 and Kobe willing the Lakers back to the Finals for a fourth straight season.
Pick: Lakers in 7 games
Los Angeles Lakers (2) vs. Chicago Bulls (1)
This series has shades of 1991 all over again. An aging Lakers team will try and fend off a young and hungry Chicago team with superstar who is ready to take the torch as the league’s best player.
Interestingly, I think this is a really bad matchup for Chicago. The Lakers size will negate the Bulls main advantage over teams (their toughness inside).
Derrick Rose will destroy anyone on the Lakers besides Kobe who guards him but I’m not sure the 22 year-old Rose is ready to carry the entire offensive load for an entire series against a team like the Lakers.
It just seems like even the Bulls are missing that one extra piece that makes champions, despite how impressive they’ve been this season. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah will have their hands full with Pau, Odom and Bynum, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver will be harassed by Ron Artest and Kobe should be able to at least hang with Derrick Rose in every crucial situation.
On the other side, the Lakers have Kobe. One of the 10 greatest players to ever play the game. In this series I think it will come down to his incredible skill set and big shot acumen that will crush the Bulls. This series will be amazing, but I see the Lakers getting more of the loose balls and big shots late in games due to their experience and chemistry. Chicago will be back, but it’s tough to stop a Phil Jackson 3-peat.
Pick: Lakers in 6 games
Finals MVP: Kobe Bryant
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