About midway through the season, I knew this postseason was going to be special. The Eastern Conference was finally becoming as strong as the West, while San Antonio was reemerging and the Thunder were becoming a top team.
What I didn’t know was how intriguing the season would be post-trade deadline and how many intriguing first round matchups there would be. I honestly feel like six or seven teams have a legit chance to win the whole thing and some lower seeds (Blazers, Thunder, Magic) could do some serious damage. Houston may be out, but I’m as giddy about this postseason as a preteen at a Justin Beeber concert…
EAST: #1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Indiana Pacers
I like this Pacers team. They’re young, they have options all over the floor, and Hibbert and Hansborough have miraculously turned into a pretty competent front court combination. But let’s be honest, there isn’t an easier series to call. If the Pacers win one, consider it a moral victory.
Bulls in four
#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 Philadelphia 76ers
Another young team with a bright future Philly could have been a dangerous 5 or 6 seed. Their versatility and bench depth gave a lot of teams (Houston included) a lot of trouble during the regular season. On paper, you might even argue that Philly’s depth, perimeter D (Iggy) and interior scoring matches up well with Miami. But then you would be ignoring that the Heat are 3-0 against the 76ers this season and won by at least nine in each contest. I’ll be generous and give them one game.
Heat in five
#3 Boston Celtics vs. #6 New York Knicks
The Knicks have been hot as of late, while Boston has been reeling without their precious Perkins, so of course this is the trendy pick for a lot of analysts. However, I’m not quite ready to give up on the Celtics. Also, the Celtics swept the Knicks 4-0 the season and it’s not as if New York has a ton of size in size to bother the miniature version of last year’s runner ups. Even if you look at this, position for position, the Celtics have very good defenders (Rondo, Pierce, Garnett) to match up against the Knicks’ big three (Billups, Melo, Amare). And all of this is before you consider the “never count out a veteran contender because they limped into the postseason” and “never count on Melo to win a playoff series” arguments.
Celtics in six
#4 Orlando Magic vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks
Does anyone else feel like Dwight Howard should be playing with a giant chip on his shoulder right now? The guy improves his offensive game and constantly has to remind teammates in the middle of games that they get paid millions of dollars to play basketball for a living, dragging their corpses to a No. 4 seed and 52 wins, yet STILL doesn’t win the MVP. The Hawks actually match up well with Orlando, but I think Dwight beats them solely on willpower. Be afraid of Superman.
Magic in five
WEST: #1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies
Easily the trendiest top seed upset pick in recent memory, everyone sees this series and thinks of the Mavs and Warriors circa 2007, but there are differences. First, the Mavericks choke more often than the Astros bullpen (yeah, its only 13 games in and I’m already bitter), while the Spurs consistently overachieve despite aging. The Spurs have struggled a bit against Memphis this season, but their interior D can matchup against Randolph and Gasol. And I’m not as worried about Ginobili’s injury as everyone else, as Hill is one of the best sixth men in the league.
Spurs in six
#2 LA Lakers vs. #7 New Orleans Hornets
Probably the second easiest series to pick, I don’t care if Bynum doesn’t play a game in this one, the Hornets still won’t win one. Chris Paul will abuse the Lakers’ point guards, but it won’t matter. If Paul wasn’t already dreaming of the Knicks, this will push him over the edge.
Lakers in four
#3 Dallas Mavericks vs. #6 Portland Trailblazers
Perhaps this pick is too obvious, but I made the same mistake in my NCAA tournament bracket (which I won at the office despite getting only UConn right) by going against my “never expect Pitt to reach their potential or defeat a halfway decent opponent” rule. The same rule applies to the Mavericks. Portland is younger, longer and better defensively. They also have more scoring options, while Dallas is far too reliant on Dirk and a streaky Jason Terry. I’d actually be surprised if Dallas won this one.
Blazers in six
#4 OKC Thunder vs. #5 Denver Nuggets
This might be the most difficult first round series to call, but I don’t think it’s as close as have said. Everyone talks about Denver’s surge since the Melo trade, but has anyone mentioned that the Thunder are 3-1 against Denver this season, including 2-0 since the trade? The Thunder have a better interior defense, more reliable crunch time scorers and just slightly more experience in the postseason. I would love to see Denver prove the “you have to have a superstar to contend” argument completely wrong, but they can’t do it against the Thunder, who are just better.
Thunder in six
EAST: #1 Chicago Bulls vs. #4 Orlando Magic
All four second round matchups are epic, but this one might actually be the best. The top two MVP candidates face off in a series to prove that one guy has truly arrived (Rose) and one guy can carry a team in the postseason (Dwight). The Bulls have the series at 3-1, but that loss was a complete blowout and the last matchup (sans Howard) was insanely close. Howard has the chops to carry a team, and I certainly don’t think he’s given enough credit considering they went to the Finals two years ago, but I question that they have enough scoring options and defense around him to beat the Bulls. This one goes at least six one way or the other.
Bulls in seven
#2 Miami Heat vs. #3 Boston Celtics
On paper, Boston matches up well against Miami because they have the defenders to give Miami’s big three problems. Unfortunately, they no longer have the edge inside that they once had with Perkins. Could Shaq or Jermaine O’Neal step up? Possibly, but I wouldn’t expect either of them to run and keep up with the Lebron-Wade show in transition. Lebron has had trouble beating the Celtics in the past because of his inability to hit clutch shots, but with Wade to do that for him, he can focus on dominating the other 47 minutes of play. If Boston wakes up this could be close, but if they play like they did in that 23-point blowout then it’s going to be ugly. I hope for the former.
Heat in six
WEST: #1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #4 OKC Thunder
I might get ripped a little for this pick and I’m going slightly against my “take the experienced team if it’s freakishly close” rule, but I think the Thunder are the Spurs’ kryptonite. Sure, the Spurs are 3-0 in the season series, but none of those games are with Perkins in the lineup. I love Westbrook matching up against Parker in this one and San Antonio will have to use Hill a lot to counter him. The defensive versatility of the Thunder inside should make things difficult for Duncan and for San Antonio’s drivers, Parker and Ginobili. It will be a fantastic series and I expect at least one epic Manu v. Durant fourth quarter showdown, but I’ll take the Thunder.
Thunder in seven
#2 Lakers vs. #6 Blazers
Before I inevitably pick the Lakers, let me just say that this Blazers team is one of the toughest No. 6 seeds I’ve seen in years. Preseason, they were my No. 2 team in the West, and while that was before Roy’s knees and Oden’s career crumbled, that was also before Aldridge elevated his game and the Blazers added Gerald Wallace. Their length and athleticism will make this one difficult, and Andre Miller could be a huge wild card. That being said…
Lakers in five
EAST: #1 Chicago Bulls vs. #2 Miami Heat
I know the Bulls are the better team on paper and have proven it in the regular season, both in record and in playing Miami (3-0). They are more balanced offensively and defensively, and they have the kind of bigs Miami has struggled against. I still like Miami. Maybe it’s because Rose hasn’t won a single playoff series before this season and I can’t imagine him all of a sudden carrying a team to the NBA Finals or maybe it’s because Lebron has come so close in the past and he finally has the cast to get there, or maybe it’s both. Thibodeau is a phenomenal coach and if anyone can slow down that trio, it’s him, but I think that’s easier said than done. There are certain things in sports that matchups, statistics and history can’t explain and this is one of them…
Heat in six
WEST: #2 LA Lakers vs. #4 OKC Thunder
The Lakers/Thunder series last season was one of my favorite playoff series in years. It went to six, and that was a less talented Thunder team that had no answer for the Lakers’ bigs. If you add Perkins and a more experience Ibaka to that team last year, don’t they win that series? We may even look back on the Perkins trade and resigning as the moment which saw the dominance shift in the West. HOWEVER, I can’t underestimate Kobe Bryant’s will to win and the Lakers’ ability to adapt and play unselfish postseason basketball. Westbrook will wreak havoc on Fisher, but other than that, the Lakers matchup pretty well with the Thunder. OKC may have beaten them by 14 a week ago, but the Lakers are the sleeping giant. (If Bynum can’t play in this one, I honestly take the Thunder in six, but I’m going on the assumption that he’ll be healthy enough to give them 20-25 minutes a game)
Lakers in seven
NBA FINALS: #2 Miami Heat vs. #2 LA Lakers
FINALLY, we get to see what the league has been begging for, a Lebron-Kobe Finals. In fact, it’s quite possible that I subconsciously made these picks because I absolutely HAD to see a Kobe-Lebron NBA Finals before the Lakers’ dynasty ended. But, screw it, don’t we all want this? Wade v Kobe. Lebron v Artest. Bosh v Gasol. The two wild cards in this one are both injury related: Bynum and Haslem. I think Bynum will likely sit through most of the first round and play a lessened role in the second, but to truly maximize that advantage inside, they’ll need him. Haslem, on the other hand, hasn’t played in a while, but he’s been a missing link for this team all season long, a rugged interior defender and rebounder that Miami has craved. And while I think Miami can certainly rely on Lebron and Wade, I’m more curious to see how Bosh responds to the Lakers’ bigs and help defense. The Heat won both regular season matchups, so I definitely think they can win, but I’m not sure they have the will or the want to keep Kobe and Phil from their historic marks. Lakers threepeat…
Lakers in seven