Will Any NBA 1st-Round Playoff Series Be Close This Year?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2013

The NBA playoffs are a time for intense competition, tightly contested battles, unlikely heroes, potential upsets and, apparently, an inundation of blowouts.

Following Game 1 of every first-round series, the home teams were 8-0. There were no upsets. Not only that, but the average margin of victory for these undefeated favorites was 16 points per game. Just two of the eight Game 1 performances were decided by single digits.

As a fan of an individual team, it's easy to become entranced by a blowout if your team dealt it out. But if you're watching another series between two teams you just enjoy watching, you want to see contests to come down to the final buzzer.

You don't want to see outcomes that were decided early in the fourth quarter, third quarter, or worse yet, the first half. You want to see authentic playoff basketball in all of its blood-tingling glory.

Blowouts don't do that. They don't instill that same feeling of anxiety synonymous with playoff basketball—the one you claim you hate, but not-so-secretly love as well. 

There will always be blowouts, but there are also supposed to be nail-biters. Not what we saw between the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies or the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.

Those Game 1's, among others, weren't indicative of postseason play. They were exhibitions.

Will they remain that way for the rest of the first round? Will there be no Game 7 or evenly matched wars through the opening series? Or will there be a matchup that saves us, that preserves the essence of postseason basketball as we have come to know it?

(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets

Series: 1-0 Thunder

Oklahoma City pummeled Houston in Game 1, 120-91. And you know what? We can accept it.

When top seeds face bottom seeds, sweeps are acceptable. It's the best team in the conference going against a fringe-playoff faction for crying out loud. They're not always going to be close.

Seeing James Harden wage war against former teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would have made some of us believe this first-round matchup would be a sit-on-the-edge-of-our-seats type of series. In reality, the stage was never set for that type of crusade.

The Rockets score as much as any other team in the league—the Thunder included—but they can't defend and lack playoff experience as the youngest team in the NBA.

What are we to expect? Exactly what we got in Game 1.

Well, maybe not 29-point thrashings, but dominance from the reigning Western Conference champs. 

Series Prediction: Thunder in five

(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks

Series: 1-0 Heat

I don't care what Brandon Jennings says, this was never supposed to be a close series.

Although Jennings believes that the Bucks match up well against the Heat, no team in the entire league can really make that claim. And of the few that might be able to, Milwaukee isn't one of them.

The Bucks remained within striking distance for the first half, but you never got the sense the Heat were about to let Game 1 slip away.

LeBron James was otherworldly efficient, or rather, LeBron James efficient. The Bucks went long stretches without scoring, and when the buzzer sounded, Miami had its reserves in, putting the finishing touches on a 110-87 victory.

It was a 23-point flogging that was likely the first of four straight victories.

Series Prediction: Heat in four

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

Series: 1-0 Spurs

If there was a Game 1 in the Western Conference that was much closer than it appeared, it was this one.

The Lakers didn't fall out of victory's reach until the latter half of the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant even considered it a contest that his team was capable of stealing.

But, much like good teams do when they have deep benches with an array of shooters who can knock down three-pointers, the Spurs pulled away in convincing fashion.

San Antonio did a nice job forcing Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to kick out to the perimeter, where the Lakers shot just 3-of-15 from beyond the arc.

Now, while I don't foresee the Lakers pulling off an upset sans Bryant and with a battered Steve Nash, I still firmly believe this series will be much closer than the 91-79 Game 1 score suggests.

Save for a few crippling stretches, Los Angeles' energy on defense fared well against one of the best offensive teams in the league. Had the Lakers actually hit the battery of open jumpers they received, the outcome may not have changed, but the Spurs' margin of victory sure would have.

Series Prediction: Spurs in six

(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics

Series: 1-0 Knicks

Say what you will about the Celtics' offensive struggles in Game 1, but Paul Pierce and company are nothing if not resilient.

I didn't have a stopwatch handy, but Boston probably led for most of the game, and it wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Knicks started playing like the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, winning 85-78.

As someone who has watched both teams extensively, I know we're in for a stretch of tightly contested games. I'm also well aware that Kevin Garnett and Pierce will score more and Carmelo Anthony will have a few efficient nights of his own.

Still, I can't shake this feeling that the Knicks can beat the Celtics in five. Pierce is one of the best closers in basketball, but Boston lacks the necessary depth to close out games. I still don't trust Jeff Green to perform the way he did in Game 1 throughout the series.

Yet, I also can't evade the obvious: Any matchup between the Knicks and Celtics borders on unpredictable.

This is one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, New York has an innate tendency to struggle against strong defensive teams and Boston is among the most gritty squads in the NBA.

For that, I'll wager this series has the potential to last six games.

Series Prediction: Knicks in six

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

Series: 1-0 Nuggets

Now this is more like it. Or rather, it should have been.

Andre Miller won Game 1 for the Nuggets by hitting a layup with just 1.2 seconds remaining, ensuring that Denver escaped with a 97-95 victory.

What he couldn't do is convince us that the Nuggets had a firm hold on the series.

Golden State can shoot threes. More specifically, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson can hit threes. The Warriors' ability to balloon their point totals by knocking down a parade of treys allows them to remain within striking distance of any opponent, the Nuggets included.

With the news that David Lee is done for the year, though, the Warriors appear destined for heartbreak.

What few understand, however, is that Golden State spent a majority of the season playing just Lee and not Andrew Bogut. The roles have simply reversed.

Will Bogut be able to provide the necessary minutes to keep this series close? I'm not sure.

I am, however, certain that Curry and friends won't go down without a fight. I'm also certain that we'll see some games where these teams actually eclipse 100 points.

Series Prediction: Nuggets in six

(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks

Series: 1-0 Pacers

Led by Paul George's triple-double and David West's fancy offensive footwork, the Pacers jump-started their postseason with a 107-90 victory over Atlanta. 

Josh Smith and Al Horford didn't have bad games, but they both disappeared for long stretches of the game, often together. The Hawks can't have that.

They also can't have Kyle Korver shooting 25 percent from beyond the arc. He's there to knock down threes and make the NBA world believe that Atlanta isn't fated for a first-round beatdown.

Well, I'm not convinced. With George playing like the superstar he is (even if he shot 3-of-13 from the field) and the Pacers putting points on the board—often a foreign concept in Indiana—I wouldn't be surprised to see the Hawks sent home in four.

I'm a charitable guy, though, and I don't think the Pacers will continue to drop 100-plus points a game. I'm also inclined to believe that Smith and/or Horford puts forth at least one dominant performance that propels their team to victory.

Series Prediction: Pacers in five

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Series: 1-0 Clippers

Raise your hand if you thought this series was almost guaranteed to go to seven games.

Even after Los Angeles' 112-91 victory over Memphis, it still might.

Game 1 of this series was one of those contests where the score didn't do the entire game justice. The Grizzlies didn't implode until the fourth quarter.

It is concerning, though, that Memphis allowed 112 points when it relinquished just 110 or more once during the regular season. Unlike last year, the Clippers can both score and defend, and when they're doing both, they're borderline unbeatable—even if they're not dunking.

The Grizzlies should be able to make some defensive adjustments that limit the amount of damage Chris Paul's dribble-drives do in the paint, and Los Angeles' turbulent three-point shooting should help Memphis at some point.

Seven games, though?

I no longer think so, not with the Grizzlies offense as anemic as it is. Keep in mind that those 91 points they scored were nearly two points below their season average.


Prediction: Clippers in six

(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls

Series: 1-0

If you didn't realize how much the Bulls need a healthy Joakim Noah, you do now.

All season, the Nets offense bordered on stagnant. They were a middling offensive team who relied on stingy defensive sets to rake in victories. But even their defense lapsed for games at a time, leading many to believe that they could wind up being first-round fodder for the most stringent of defensive aggregates in the Bulls.

Then, Game 1 happened. Noah played sparingly, and he was somewhat effective during the 13-plus minutes he was on the floor. Chicago's team defense, however, was not. 

Brooklyn upended the Bulls, 106-89. And this loss wasn't reminiscent of the Lakers or Grizzlies loss, two teams who were in the game for a majority of it. It was a complete drubbing from start to finish.

Should Deron Williams and Brook Lopez continue to have their way in the paint like they did, the Bulls are in deep trouble.

Noah plans to play, but whether or not his foot will allow him to log 30-plus minutes remains to be seen.

Chicago needs to get back to its stingy defensive ways and find Luol Deng shots. That's the Bulls' only hope against a Nets team that is now riding serious momentum.

Series Prediction: Nets in six

Seven-Game/Upset Alerts

The troll in all of you (and even myself) wants to deride me for picking the higher seeds in every first-round matchup. And I get it. I didn't pick any series to go to seven games, and as fans, we live for those games, those upsets.

I stand by my predictions, and if anything, after the array of shellackings we initially witnessed, those few series I pushed to six games are gifts.

I will admit, however, some of these head-to-heads do have the potential to be pushed to seven games, or even have the lower seed surprise all of us.

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers

This series could wind up being much closer than most realize. If the Lakers continue to play solid defense and find a way to knock down their deep balls (looking at you, Nash), seven games, or even an upset, is not completely out of the question.

(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics

I still believe the Knicks have this one in five or six, but the Celtics are playing for the family that is the city of Boston. With both Garnett and Pierce riding what is one of their last (or very last) playoff waves together, the Celtics are always one victory away from going on a demonstrative run.

(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

David Lee is gone, I get it. But Mark Jackson can get the Warriors to do whatever he wants on any given night. They have multiple identities, while the Nuggets tend to run and attack the rim like it's going out of style, and that's it.

Should Kenneth Faried be his usual "Manimal" self upon return, this series also has the potential to get out of hand. If the Dubs can play mediocre defense and knock down threes, though, this is one to keep your eye on.

(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls

This isn't just about Noah getting healthy (though much of it is). Brooklyn has a tendency to go cold. I also don't consider the Nets the most resilient of franchises. The longer this series lasts, the more I see it favoring the Bulls.

(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

What it comes down to for the Grizzlies is making each game a grind-it-out battle. The Clippers are an explosive two-way team, but they're not very physical and play much better defense when they're scoring. If the Grizzlies can mitigate their offensive accolades, Game 1 will hardly be indicative of what's to come.


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