Thursday, April 18, 2013

NBA Playoffs: Round One…The Second Season Begins

The NBA Playoffs first round match ups are finally set after a spectacular regular season.  Now that we know the brackets, let’s dive into round one and examine the likely winners of each series.

Western Conference

#1 Oklahoma City Thunder vs # 8 Houston Rockets
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder in 5 games

Be prepared to hear a week’s worth of “James Harden returns to show the Thunder what they are missing” stories.  In truth, this series is not likely to be close.  While Houston has improved offensively, this team is legitimately bad on the defensive end.  In the 3 regular season games against each other, the Thunder averaged a whopping 121 points per game.  You simply can’t be that bad on the defensive end of the court and win a series against the Thunder.  Westbrook will have no issue with Jeremy Lin and Kevin Durant will, well, he’ll be Kevin Durant.  Houston is bound to steal one on their home court but don’t look for this series to go too long.

#2 San Antonio Spurs vs # 7 Los Angeles Lakers
Prediction: San Antonio Spurs in 6 games

There’s a lot to be concerned about if you are a Spurs fan.  They are stumbling into the playoffs, coming off of a 3-6 month of April.  The injury bug has not been kind to them, with it biting Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, at the worst time.  They are both expected to play but their effectiveness is yet to be seen.  Don’t forget, they also just signed an “insurance policy” named Tracy McGrady.  Does he insure them in case Ginobili goes down or does he insure them a first round exit?

The Lakers are also playing better since the injury to Kobe Bryant.  This isn’t to say they are better without him but let’s not pretend this team isn’t loaded with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers.  The loss of Bryant allows the other players to play more their style, which has paid off so far.  The problem is they’ve only played at home since the injury.  Once they hit the road, bench players seemingly don’t play as well and this is what will be the Lakers’ downfall.  The games will be close, but San Antonio is a machine that seemingly steps up whenever you need them to.

#3 Denver Nuggets vs #6 Golden State Warriors
Prediction: Denver Nuggets in 5 games

Of all the first round match-ups, this is the one that can be looked at as a possible upset.  Golden State has been playing well the last month of the season and, with sharpshooter Stephen Curry playing well, the Warriors could pose problems in the first round.  The only problem is they are matching up against a Nuggets team that is arguably one of the hottest teams coming into the playoffs.  Over their last 26 games, the Nuggets are 23-3.  That is an absolutely insane run.  Add in that they have not lost in Pepsi Center since January 18th, and you have a team poised to make a run.

The question with the Nuggets is health.  Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari is out due to a torn ACL.  Leading rebounder Kenneth Faried is coming off of a sprained ankle that could hinder his energy and effectiveness.  Ty Lawson is working through a torn plantar fascia, but has looked excellent since returning for the final three games.  Despite these woes, the Nuggets have received boosts from the deepest bench in the league by getting extended minutes for Wilson Chandler and rookie Evan Fournier.

The keys to this series will be the pace and points in the paint.  While both play at a high pace, Denver averaged 20.3 fast break points and 56.5 points in the paint against Golden State this season.  If the Warriors can’t slow down Denver, this one could get out of hand fast.  If the Warriors get the 3 ball dropping; we’ll have ourselves a series.

#4 Los Angeles Clippers vs #5 Memphis Grizzlies
Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games

In a rematch of last season’s classic, this one is destined for another seven game series.  There haven’t been many notable changes in personnel, minus the scoring of Rudy Gay for Memphis.  There are role players gone for both teams, but the absence of Gay is likely to loom large at some point during the series.

The Grizzlies are going to make this ugly and a grind.  It’s what they do best.  The pressure defense they play and slow down offense will take the Clippers out of their comfort zone.  However, the veteran presence of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups will come into play at some point.  The front courts of both teams are so close that I think the difference will be in the back court.  While Conley Jr has been playing at a high level, he just isn’t ready to take Memphis to the next level.  The bench of LA is also deeper, which will likely get them a game or two in LA.

Eastern Conference

#1 Miami Heat vs #8 Milwaukee Bucks
Prediction: Miami Heat in 4

While Ellis and Jennings can get hot for a game, they just don’t have the firepower to challenge the defending champions.  We all “witnessed” the elite level LeBron James stepped up in the playoffs last year and it is hard to imagine the Heat stumbling out of the gate.  The only thing that can beat Miami in this series is if they start to believe that this will be easy and look to the second round before finishing business.  I simply don’t see that happening, though.  This one will get ugly…and be done fast.

#2 New York Knicks vs #7 Boston Celtics
Prediction: New York Knicks in 7 games

This is the hardest pick to make in round one.  I said it a few weeks ago that I believed the Celtics were “resting” players in an attempt to get to the seventh seed to face New York.  I think they know how well they match up with the Knicks.  Additionally, the Celtics know how to rattle the Knicks mentally.  This should be an absolute battle.

For the Knicks, the health of Tyson Chandler is imperative to their defense.  If he’s not at least eighty percent, they could be in trouble.  They also need to rely on JR Smith, who has shown immense improvement this season, but is always on the verge of shooting a team out of a game.

For the Celtics, this series is huge for Jeff Green.  If he can continue to step up and play well, as he has over the last couple of months, the Celtics become very dangerous.  Avery Bradley is one of the top on ball defenders in the league and could seriously disrupt the Knicks’ offense.  Paul Pierce is a big game player and, even at his age, can step up and put up massive numbers on any given night.

The home court advantage is non-existent in this series.  Both teams can go on the road and win.  This series is going to come down to who executes in crunch time.  There is not a player in the league that I want taking more fourth quarter shots than Carmelo Anthony.  He is a pure scorer that, no matter how he has shot all game, can get buckets when needed most.  He’s going to be the difference and the reason the Knicks advance.

#3 Indiana Pacers vs #6 Atlanta Hawks
Prediction: Indiana Pacers in 6 games

The Pacers have looked inconsistent and bad the last couple of weeks.  If anything will cure that, it’s a series against the Atlanta Hawks.  Atlanta has established themselves as the ultimate fringe team over the past few seasons.  They are good enough to be a mid-seed in the playoffs and not do much once they are there.  They stay just good enough to avoid the lottery.  Unfortunately that puts a ton of pressure on their management to scout properly and bring in the right talent.  Given their lack of progress over the past few seasons, they haven’t done enough.

This series is Indiana’s to lose.  It’s that simple.  They are flat out better at every aspect of the game, with personnel that fits what they want to do.  Frank Vogel has a young and talented team, with the emerging Paul George leading the way.  This series will be heavy on home court advantage, but the Pacers will find a way to put the Hawks away in Atlanta in game six.  Then we’ll watch as Josh Smith leaves Atlanta and they may just finally take a step…backwards.

#4 Brooklyn Nets vs #5 Chicago Bulls
Prediction: Chicago Bulls in 6 games

If your playoff hopes hinge on Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, I’m betting on the other team.  Johnson, in his first season with Brooklyn, was part of the mediocrity that is the Atlanta Hawks.  While he can occasionally shine, consistency is not his strength.  I’ve seen too many games this year that he is just not present, and that does not bode well for the Nets.  Williams has playoff experience, and is seemingly stepping his game up lately, could help push the Nets in the right direction.  However, Chicago’s defense is spectacular and should be able to contain him.

Chicago, despite Derrick Rose’s absence, should be able to squeak some wins out behind the erratic Nate Robinson and underappreciated Luol Deng.  The “X” factor in the series could come in the paint.  On paper, the match-up of Joakim Noah/Carlos Boozer should beat Brook Lopez/Reggie Evans.  The problem facing Chicago is the health of Noah.  If he is not able to bring his usual energy and hustle, they could be in trouble as Reggie Evans is a nuisance.  Evans could be the key to Brooklyn’s chances, much the way he was against Memphis last season when he was a Clipper.  This series will not be pretty, and that’s exactly what Chicago thrives in.

There you have it.  The NBA playoffs will feature the best of the best and storylines to captivate us all.  Is it time to tip off yet?



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