The lEastern Conference
1) Atlanta vs. 8) Brooklyn
Honestly, we don't get to see four to seven games of Russell Westbrook trying to will the Thunder with their all-in fans, but we do get four games of the Nets before they shuffle off to wherever dreadful basketball players go? That fact alone should absolutely make the NBA blow up the conferences and divisions in the off-season, just to make sure this can never happen again.
Oh, right, I guess I have to actually talk about what will happen on the court. Atlanta is well-coached, deep, athletic, smart and efficient. They are having one of the best seasons in franchise history, and should make it to the conference finals before running into serious opposition, when their No Stars approach could be fatal. Not having G Thabo Sefalosha due to the insane efforts of the NYPD is also going to do them no favors. But Brooklyn might be one of the worst playoff teams in recent memory, and when you can discourage C Brook Lopez and PG Deron Williams, they are an absolute wasteland, especially on the bench. Atlanta sweeps, maybe never trails in any game, and manage their minutes in ways that you just shouldn't be able to do in any playoff.
Atlanta in four.
2) Cleveland vs 7) Boston
It's just like old times -- Boston Fan getting as ugly as his team as James leads Cleveland above, around and through the ghosts of NBA Past. This Celtic team is gritty, very good defensively in the back court when Evan Turner is able to hide, and can go deep into the bench for useful minutes. Coach Brad Stevens has gotten full buy-in from his men, has gotten borderline Coach of the Year honors for getting these results out of these guys, and PG Isaiah Thomas has been money.
This Cavs team was vulnerable, but hasn't been for many months now, as C Timofey Mozgov has turned them around defensively, and helped a great deal to hide the deficiencies of PF Kevin Love. (To be fair, Love's been a lot better with rest and might be having back issues, which is one more brick in the wall for the Cavs to be better in the post-season.)
I think the Celtics get one game, and then get rolled, because, um, LeBron James is on this team, and he's not losing to an 8 seed that's just happy to be here. It's winning time for the eternal MVP, and a nice little story ends when that happens.
Cleveland in five.
3) Chicago vs. 6) Milwaukee
Potentially an intriguing series. The Bulls are capable of clanking out bad games at any time, and do not have the continuity they should, due to the constant injury woes of PG Derrick Rose and C Joakim Noah. PF Taj Gibson getting hurt the other day is also a big damned deal. Chicago might be better with PG Aaron Brooks on the floor, and Brooks can't guard anybody, which means they could be vulnerable in ways that will sap their bigs.
Milwaukee HC Jason Kidd has done yeoman work with a cast of vagabonds and athletes, and the Bucks can be downright frisky for long stretches of time, especially if they can get out and run. They are also downright tough on defense with their athleticism. But playoff hoop. especially in the sluggish East and against the tempo-controlling Chicago bigs, isn't about just being good on one side of the ball... and these Bucks aren't going to get, or make, a lot of clean looks.
Instead, it's going to be a lot of long clocks and PG Michael Carter-Williams forcing things, while the Bulls win with vastly superior bigs. In other words, it's going to get ugly, and sad, and won't make you want to watch. Oh, and the Bulls will have home-court advantage in all games, due to the proximity of the fan bases, and the vastly bigger Bull market.
Chicago in five.
4) Toronto vs. 5) Washington
The only lEastern first round series to go long, this will be a tidy little war among teams that saved their best ball for fall. Toronto PG Kyle Lowery hasn't been right or healthy since his Wow, Really, The East Is That Bad All-Star game start, and the bigs tend to be injury and foul prone. Great home-court advantage, though, and the bench is a real edge over DC.
The Wiz should walk on this one in terms of on the court talent, seeing how they have the best C, PG and PF, with John Wall and Nene doing damage. But they've also been zombies for the second half of the year, and the bench has been horrid. They are the better team on talent, but they just haven't gotten it done for months now. (And if you are looking ahead, this is just giving the Hawks the best possible path to the Conference Finals.) Give me...
Toronto in seven.
And now, the Only Conference That Matters.
1) Golden State vs. 8) New Orleans
The Dubs' magical season continues, as they avoid the grenade that would have been the Thunder, who I was kind of convinced were just going to be magically healthy for Game One of a playoff run. Instead, the best long-range back court in NBA history will work the Pels' like a speed bag, while the underrated Dub bigs will limit the damage that PF Antonio Davis can do.
Oh, and just on the off chance that the Pels think they can steal a game early and make things go long... well, Golden State was 39-2, with an average margin of over 16 points a game (!), at home. This used to be the biggest home court advantage in the league, and now that's matched to the league's best team. I know it doesn't make for nifty prognostication to like the team that won the most game sin the regular season, but honestly, the Dubs are amazing. The Pels? Not so much.
Warriors in four.
2) Houston vs. 7) Dallas
Maybe the most visually appealing first round series, even though I suspect it's not going to go on for that long. Houston has had an amazing year despite injuries, due to the heroics of would have been an MVP in any normal year James Harden, and they can take you out of the building with three point shooting. Theoretically, C Dwight Howard can do big things, and while they seem like they should be vulnerable at PG due to the injury suffered by Patrick Beverly, it hasn't shown up on the court. I still don't love this team, because it's hard to accept the idea that Harden is now good on defense, but you can't argue with the won-loss record.
Dallas should profile as a very dangerous team. They were the only team to threaten the Spurs last year, they have proven playoff hammers in G Monta Ellis and PF Dirk Nowitzki, they've played the Rockets tough before, and the travel isn't going to have any kind of impact. When things are clicking, this is one of the best offenses in the league, and C Tyson Chandler gives them relatively effective defensive beef. But PG Rajon Rondo is just an absolute mess, the bench PGs are no better, Nowitzki is a terrible rebounder for a 7-footer now, and there's been nothing to like about this club for months now. I think they've got a win or two in them, but are one of the easier outs in the West.
Rockets in six.
3) LA Clippers vs. 6) San Antonio
Wow, this is just too good of a series for the first round, especially given how injuries have trimmed the potential of many of the other teams in the West; if I were to seed teams just on how good that I think they are right now, you are looking at the second and third best teams in the NBA. The Spurs have been great for months now, have a great bench, the best coach in recent NBA history, and the best wing defender (Kawhi Leonard) in hoop. They also have 1 on 1 issues with athletic bigs, the usual hangover issues with clubs that have trouble getting full buy-in from defending champions, and will need to overcome a lack of home court.
The Clips have been dominant for much of the second half, with C DeAndre Jordan playing out of his mind when PF Blake Griffin was down. They hit their threes, PG Chris Paul is fully healthy for once, HC Doc Rivers has had success in big games, and they have lots of guys who can hit free throws in close and late situations... but Jordan really isn't one of them, and the Spurs aren't afraid to toss the game aesthetics in the dumpster and put him on the line 40 times. The Clipper bench is also more than a little troubling, because Spencer Hawes is involved, and Spencer Hawes is completely incompatible with winning. It's a real problem... but I just can't shake the notion that maybe its finally time to turn the page on the Spur starters, and that you shouldn't win a series with the worse starters and no home court. There's also the idea that, as per last year, the best round to take on the Spurs is the first.
Clippers in six.
4) Portland vs. 5) Memphis
Due to the Grizz owning the tie-breakers, Memphis has home court. They also benefit immensely from facing a Portland club that's down multiple wing starters due to injury, and just haven't looked like themselves for months now; they have also had some injury issues. The poor Blazers don't have a reasonable 2-guard on the roster, despite having two pretty good ones just a couple of months ago. And while their home court is good, it's almost as if people in Portland are just too happy to bring real fire to the gym with them. (Not an issue for the Grizz.)
It's just wrong that one of these teams will move on while the loser of Spurs-Clips is done, because both of these clubs are going home in the next round... but give me the Grizz due to the home court, and I'm just so sad that the Spurs and Clips couldn't have taken out both of these teams and set up a better second round.
Grizzlies in seven.
Enjoy the games, everybody. And for once, the second round will be even better than the first...