Thursday, April 18, 2013

NBA First Round Playoff Predictions: Sleep Late, Stay Up Later

A Nugget In His Only Habitat
It's time, once again, to think about just how badly the NBA has made life for people in the Eastern time zone. Here, we're going to slog our way through slowdown and weak sauce thuggery, isolation and hero ball, coach worship and scores in the 80s, if we're lucky. Out West, they'll get ball movement, the best players in the world, ludicrously joyous and young home court crowds, threes and dunks and runs and guys jumping out of the gym. It's barely the same game, really, and if we could just trade a team or two (Memphis for Miami, maybe?) we could make one bracket entirely entertaining and a pleasure to the eyes.

But, alas, this is Sport More Than Art, so the fact that a bunch of teams who make me not like basketball will advance... well, them's the breaks, and it's just a sad truth that the first round of the NBA playoffs is the best round to watch. Let's get into it!

Boston at NEW YORK

This is, without question, the matchup that New York wanted. Boston has done its usual lie in the weeds routine in the second half, unfurling good games against better competition while surrendering weak games more or less randomly. They'll attempt to win a playoff series without a point guard, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett using every sneaky old man trick and uncalled elbow imaginable, and with Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee putting paint to the idea that Rayon Rondo isn't all that important. And if they get support from emerging stat monger Jeff Green and underrated mid-range jump shot artist Brandon Bass, along with the usual Highly Suspect NBA Officiating, they'll put a scare or six into the favorites and their easily rattled fan base. But New York has shot blockers, a bench, veterans that haven't always known failure at this level, and the best player in Carmelo Anthony, assuming he moves the ball. So long as don't get caught up in Garnett's head games and hit open threes, they will win. It's later in the playoffs that they will all stand around, watch Carmelo, and lose.

Knicks in six.

GOLDEN STATE at Denver


The most entertaining, and eventually the least meaningful, series of the first round. These teams are going to combine for 220+ points a game, have wild runs and amazing crowds, endure head-smashing stupidities and more, more, more. DVR all of these games; they will get you through any number of weak nights in your future. In the end, I like the Warriors to pull off the upset, because Denver is hurt, George Karl stinks in the playo, and JaVale McGee is going to do something amazing. But in the end, I don't think the Nugs have a second move to make after Run And Penetrate, and the Warrior home crowd is nearly as good as the Nuggets. The Ty Lawson / Stephen Curry matchup should be epic.

Warriors in six.

CHICAGO at Brooklyn


This is where Derrick Rose is supposed to come out of the locker room as if nothing happened a year ago, rip off a 25/5/12 line, and make everyone think that the Bulls can still give the Heat a credible series before the Finals. Instead, Chicago will thug and scheme and harass their way to the next round, with Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson giving and taking away all the while, and Brooklyn Fan will wonder if this is all there is. Especially with the Knicks moving on across town, and the Nets blowing the final game at home, when Joe Johnson comes up very, very small indeed. Tom Thibodeau's season of smoke and mirrors continues.

Bulls in seven.

Memphis at LA CLIPPERS


A rematch of last year's epic slobberknocker, but while the Clips have gotten better, especially on the bench and with Chris Paul's health, the Grizz are diminished from the Rudy Gay deal, and can only win by playing volleyball with their bigs. That will work for a couple of games, especially at home, but not for all. The Clips move on, but not without some pushing and shoving, and if you like thugball with dunks, this is so your series.

Clippers in seven.

Atlanta at INDIANAPOLIS


The Hawks make their annual visit to Unwatched First Round Series Land, where the cable networks are second tier and everyone involved knows this is more of a contractual obligation than a real playoff series. This year, they'll lose to the surprising Pacers, who bring the heat defensively and won't get caught up in the occasional Hawk highlight. Atlanta shows that you can make the playoffs every year and still not be very happy.

Pacers in five.

LA Lakers at SAN ANTONIO


Oh, the poor Spurs! They aren't healthy, aren't playing their best basketball, catch the Lakers now that all of the pressure is off... and if Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were healthy, no one in their right mind would be taking them. Except, well, me. San Antonio has the best coach in the playoffs; the Lakers may have the worst. San Antonio has a bench of guys that compete and win; the Lakers have a bench of guys who should not be in the NBA, let alone in a playoff series. The Spurs have been resting their aging stars; the Lakers have been whipping theirs like they were at a dog track betting the rent. And the Spurs are excellent defensively, while the Lakers give up layups after made baskets more than any team that I've ever seen.

Will it be easy? No. Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have finally started playing like themselves, and the Lakers get more calls from the ref than any team that isn't Boston. They've also won a lot of games to get out of the huge hole they put themselves in at the start of the season. But they are still terrible defensively unless they put a FT missing machine on the floor, which means that they really can't go on runs. Count on Gregg Popovich to put Howard on the line 30 times a game if he has to. (He won't, unless Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks play the series of their lives. And no, they won't either.) The people who like the Lakers to win this series haven't watched the 2012-13 regular season. Sometimes, that works out; see the recent Boston runs. Most of the time, it doesn't.

(Oh, and if the Spurs lose, it's the biggest proof ever that Tracy McGrady is the kiss of death to playoff hopes.)

Spurs in five.

Milwaukee at MIAMI


Do I really need to write very many words at all about a series where a team with 38 wins is playing one with 66? And the 66-win team is the defending champions, who rested guys down the stretch, with home court and the best player ever playing his best ball ever?

No. No, I don't.

The most the Bucks can hope for in this series is for the games to be close in the second half, and a pity win where the Heat aren't interested in the road Game 4 sweep. They won't get either.

Heat in four. (And if you count actually contested amount of play, two. Maybe one and a half.)

Houston at OKLAHOMA CITY

The second-most watchable series, but one that's not going to go deep, because OKC has three of the four best players on the floor in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Houston is going to have some good moments in this one, but James Harden can't carry them against the defensive pressure that's going to come at him in waves, and what Westbrook is going to do to Jeremy Lin shouldn't be legal. There will be a bunch of close games in this series, but the series? Not so much.

Thunder in five.

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