Friday, April 16, 2010

NBA First Round Playoff Predictions

Well folks, it's time for the very best time in the NBA season -- the first round of the playoffs. We won't get into the ugliness of how the second, third and fourth round are just less fun, at least not now, when the entire Western Conference has can't miss matchups and I spend the next six weeks not getting enough East Coast sleep. I miss living out West, kids. So, um, anyway... on to the picks!

Eastern Conference

Cleveland (1, 61-21) vs. Chicago (8, 41-41)

The best team in the league, with the best player, against a Chicago club that needed to win seven of its last ten games to finish at .500 and squeak in over a Toronto team that lost its best player (power forward Chris Bosh) with a week to go. The Bulls are also in some turmoil, with club operations chief John Paxson taking a swing at the coach last week (that can't be good, though honestly, who hasn't wanted to take a swing at Vinny del Negro?), but none of that really matters now.

This would be an easy pick for the top seed, if it weren't for the fact that the Bulls are playing their best ball of the year and scared the blue hell out of the similarly fat and happy Celtics last year in this round. Guard Derrick Rose is a prime time player, center Yannick Noah can match Anderson Vareajo flop for flop, and if Kirk Heinrich is hitting his threes, the Bulls are going to... win a game. But not more than that. Cavs Fan is about to lose those painful memories of Jordan over Ehlo.

Cavs in five.

Orlando (2, 59-23) vs. Charlotte (7, 44-38)

Larry Brown in a playoff round, with a junkyard tough defensive team of players that can defend on the perimeter (especially Gerald Wallace and Action Captain Stephen Jackson), and an actual home court? The Bugs were, lest we forget, 31-10 at home. Sign me up for a series that goes a wee bit longer than expected, especially since the Magic will get sabotaged by Vince Carter in crunch time, and Charlotte will sic Jackson on him all over the floor. Brown's also on one of his annual steal a playoff game or two salary drive to impress his new owners. You have to admire Larry's commitment to chase jobs until he dies.

Unfortunately, Dwight Howard exists, and Charlotte's only counter is 18 to 24 fouls of Theo Ratliff, Nazr Mohammed, Tyson Chandler and Boris Diaw. If you need 44 wins out of a relentlessly limited lineup, Brown is so your man.

Magic in six.

Atlanta (3, 53-29) vs. Milwaukee (6, 46-36)

Fear The Deer had much more impact a couple of week ago, when Andrew Bogut was playing and John Salmons was putting up multi-category numbers under the radar. (A brief note on Salmons: What the hell? You were utterly terrible in Philly, tolerable in Sactown, oddly awesome for Chicago, then so terrible that they moved you in division... only to become oddly awesome ago. If there's a more erratic guy in the modern era, I haven't seen him.)

Salmons will still get his numbers, but the best player on the floor will be Hawk guard Joe Johnson, who the underdogs just have no answer for. I'm also of the opinion that rookie guard Brandon Jennings will be long past his expiration date for the year, and that any team that gives run in 2010 to Kurt Thomas and Jerry Stackhouse can't possibly make it to Round Two. Or past the 4pm buffet dinner.

Hawks in five.

Boston (4, 50-32) vs. Miami (5, 47-35)

In the last ten games of the year, the Heat won nine out of ten to secure this prime "upset" position, while the Celtics stumbled to a 3-7 close and won 50 games in an Atlantic division where the majority of teams played with toe tags, and was 112 games below .500. (The Raps were 40-42, and the combined record for the Knicks, Sixers and Nets: 68-178. Tasty!)

Everyone in Boston is convinced that this aging and gutless Celtics team can't possibly flip the switch and go on a deep run. Coach Doc Rivers is out the door, bigs Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett don't get to much, guard Ray Allen is streaky...

and yet, Paul Pierce is capable of shutting down Dwayne Wade in four out of seven games, the home crowd can make them care for brief periods of time, and the Heat can fall apart with the best of them. The Celts are also a very odd bunch, in that they spent much of the year running up big leads, then blowing them. They can still play defense when the mind suits them, particularly at center and point guard, and the bench has scoring options. And if Wallace actually breaks a sweat, his teammates will probably react like he just rose from the dead.

But picking them to win is still kind of nauseating, and the Heat have Wade. Also Michael Beasley, who just might have a 20-10 game or three to throw at these old and slow men.

Heat in six.

Western Conference

Los Angeles (1, 57-25) vs. Oklahoma City (8, 50-32)

Note how the eight seed here is just seven wins worse in the win column than the one, which might be some kind of record. While the Lakers enjoyed dining on the bottom feeders of the West in the Pacific Division (just like the Celtics, really -- the Clips, Warriors and Kings combined to go 80-166), the Thunder were knocking heads in the Northwest, where everyone but the DOA Wolves won 50 games. Swap their divisions, and maybe it's OK City with the home court.

Besides, the Lakers have real flaws. Kobe Bryant hasn't shot over 30% in a game in April, and hasn't gone for 30 points in forever. Point guard Derek Fisher dreams of the days when he was washed up, rather than whatever he is now. Coach Phil Jackson might be out the door, and center Andrew Bynum is doing his usual injury disappearing act. They are also facing the youngest scoring champion in NBA history in Kevin Durant, an extremely tight young defensive team that plays with real fire, a club with a real college crowd style home court advantage... and the karmic edge of having absolutely nothing to lose. It's not like anyone think the Durantula is ready to take out the Mamba.

How threatening is the Thunder? Enough so that Coach Philip was fined for $35K for gaming the refs on Durant getting to the line, probably as his Stage 1 mission to keep Ron Artest from being completely overrun. Lots of luck with that one, Coach. When Durant is on his game, he might be (shh!) the best player in the game, and certainly the most watchable. It's no wonder the refs give him calls; they want to see him play as much as the rest of us. The Lake Show has a similar mismatch problem at the point, where Russell Westbrook might deserve the Most Improved Player Award. He will, of course, eat Fisher, not that Laker Fan hasn't gotten used to seeing the opposing team's point guard do that by now.

It's just about the perfect scenario for an 8 seed to win, really; it's certainly the outcome I'll be rooting for. And yet, I just can't pull the trigger, because the Thunder are in the eight spot precisely because they didn't win enough games against cagey older opponents, and you don't get cagier than the defending NBA champions. The Lake Show is also just devastating inside when Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are dealing, which is the Thunder's biggest problem, and they'll do that enough in this series to win. But it'll be one hell of a ride, and might even go seven.

Lakers in six.

Dallas (2, 55-27) vs. San Antonio (7, 50-32)

What a terrible prize for a second seed. Dallas had a huge year with perhaps the last great performance of Jason Kidd's life, a monstrous year from Dirk Nowitzki, a solid deal for Caron Butler and more, more, more. And for that, they get a seven seed matchup against the relentlessly dangerous Spurs, who turned their year around late with a star turn from Manu Ginobili and just welcomed back point guard Tony Parker, who could absolutely torture Kidd in this series if he's right. It's the basketball equivalent of playing solid and tight in a poker tournament all night, then going all-in with a high pair on the bubble and having the bigger stacks call you. You might like your chances, but the Spurs have live cards and draws and the smile on their faces that might be pointing you to the parking lot.

For the Mavs are to hold on and win, it will be from Nowitzki destroying Tim Duncan... and there's a very real chance that this could happen. Duncan gets by on guile and fundamentals now, but there will come a playoff where he just gets crushed, and I think it's this one. The Spurs are extremely dangerous, but they are also rely on Richard Jefferson, who really isn't what they need him to be. Especially in a seven game series.

Mavs in seven.

Phoenix (3, 54-28) vs. Portland (6, 50-32)

Possibly the most visually satisfying of the first round series, with the up-tempo Suns battling the resilient Blazers. Portland survived a hopeless run of injuries, especially to their bigs, and a potential train wreck at point guard, where veteran Andre Miller was brought in with an odd free agent signing, then fought with coach Nate McMillan. Kudos to Coach Nate for keeping his team after that, but just to add injury to injury, they just lost star guard and secret killer closer Brandon Roy to knee surgery for the first round. Just unfair, on some level.

Unfortunately for Portland, they can't be expected to overcome the loss of Roy, and the Suns are just too good in the open court to be denied. Besides, this Steve Nash fellow? He's really good. And Miller isn't going to be able to defend him, or do enough to punish Phoenix on the other end, because the up tempo will take away what Miller does best, which is torture opposing point guards in the post. Phoenix is going to hit enough threes to get leads, and once it starts, it won't stop. This isn't going to be as close as people imagine.

Phoenix in five.

Denver (4, 53-29) vs. Utah (5, 53-29)

Alas, poor Utah. Every year in the playoffs, the Jazz run against a team that takes them to task athletically, and just wears them down in a long series. Utah is so well-coached that it's actually a detriment when it comes to the second season, in that they are like a horse in the home stretch that's been getting the whip for the whole track, against fresh thoroughbreds. The perils of being Jerry Sloan.

On the other side of the ball is Denver, bereft of cancer-recovering coach George Karl, and curiously unwilling to get the ball to Carmelo Anthony in crunch time. One suspects that they'll stop making that mistake in this series, if only because Melo will demand it... and if last year's playoff run is any indication, he'll come through for them on both ends of the court. Melo is 25 now, a sneaky MVP pick with his 28.2 / 6.6 / 3.2 year, and a plus defensive player when he's motivated, which is what happens in the playoffs.

He's also got to think that this season is the time, seeing how the Lakers look vulnerable, the Mavs could be out in the first round, and he has to measure himself against LeBron James... who I think he's going to meet in the finals. Especially since (shh!) Karl's not on the sideline right now. (Not to speak ill of the ill, but Furious George's track record in playoffs isn't exactly life affirming. Win one for and without the monkey, Nuggets!)

Nuggets in six.

1 comment:

The Truth said...

Lakers in 6
Dallas in 6
Suns in 5
Utah in 6
Cavs in 4 (they might win in 3 the Bulls suck so bad)
Magic in 5
ATL in 5
Miami in 7

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