(1) Cavs – (8) Bulls
Kudos to Chicago for getting here. Sure, the Raptors pretty much rolled over and died, but these Bulls were going nowhere. Taking a lost season and somehow salvaging both revenue for their owner’s pockets and playoff experience for their young guns is nothing to scoff at.
Sadly, that experience will need to come from 240 minutes, tops.
Because as fun as it would be to see these Bulls try and unleash some more of that first round magic, this is a bad basketball team playing against a good basketball team, and that tends to create lopsided results.
Derrick Rose will probably torch Mo Williams as much as he pleases, and being a jump-shooting team, the Bulls could get randomly hot one night and steal a game, but ultimately this series is about Cleveland making sure that their pieces can play together before getting on to the actual thing.
Cavs in 5.
(4) Celtics – (5) Heat
Jumping off the Celtics’ bandwagon has become somewhat of a trend lately, which makes sense if you watch them play. And while they should be better than the Heat, one can’t shake the feeling that this will be extremely close.
Of course, this will be the ugly kind of close. Miami is 4thin the league in defensive efficiency, Boston is 5th. Miami is 19th offensively, Boston is 13th. Miami plays at the league’s 3rd slowest pace. Boston is 8thslowest. So this should be a series full of close, ugly, 88-82 slugfests. Games that might not feature 3-point barrages and alley-oops, but will definitely feature sound defensive rotations. Which are immensely fun. No, I’m serious.
Of course, the games will also be close because the Celtics have shown a knack for blowing big leads and because the Heat know that all they need is to keep things close and hope Dwyane Wade takes over.
And he can. Clear as it may be that Boston is the better team, but having the best player in the series is a huge advantage, and it’s one the Heat have. Will it win them 4 games out of 7? I doubt it. But it’s should be acknowledged that it could, and at the end of the day, it’ll be very close to happening.
Celtics in 7.
(3) Hawks – (6) Bucks
One can’t help but feel robbed with this series. Atlanta and Milwaukee have combined to give us two phenomenal games this season before Andrew Bogut went down, and though their 3rd, Bogutless meeting was close as well, this isn’t nearly the same match-up.
You know you can count on the Bucks to try their best defensively, even without their cornerstone. When you’re a Scott Skiles team, you either defend like mad, or tune out your coach. The Bucks aren’t tuning out Skiles quite yet. But while great defense is very much a product of effort and teamwork over personal contributions, you can’t lose a guy like Bogut without defensive regressions. Against the league’s 3rd ranked offense, those regressions should be enough to do one in.
Don’t get me wrong, the Bucks should keep this close. Brandon Jennings might suddenly find his stroke. Delfino and Ilyasova might go unconscious from outside. And John Salmons, knowing that a strong performance here can give him a paycheck boost of Jerome Jamesian proportion, and going against an All-Star in Joe Johnson (for some reason, both players play each other very, very well), could be in for the series of a lifetime. But for all the defensive prowess, even without Bogut, I just don’t see the Bucks getting enough offense. Not when the Hawks can exploit Kurt Thomas with Al Horford (assuming they decide to pass him the ball).
It will be a great series, a great watch, and a Hawks victory.
Hawks in 6.
(2) Orlando – (7) Charlotte
It’s hard to say anything about this series without disrespecting someone.
If I say that this will be a close series, people might take it as a shot at Orlando. This despite the fact that Orlando has clearly been either the best or the second best team in the league this season, and the insistence of certain outlets that they are headed for a spanking from Cleveland never ceases to baffle me. This is an elite squad, a championship caliber squad, and they should be treated as such. Alas, Hedo Turkoglu was on TV much more last playoffs than the entire Magic were on this year.
On the other hand, I can’t say that I see Orlando dominating these Bobcats. Charlotte has played Orlando well this year (losing 3 of 4, and yet always within striking distance. One overtime loss, one 6 point loss, and one second half rally that came short), and play the sort of defense that can keep them in a game on any given night (one should point out, that this is quite similar to Miami and Milwaukee. Seems like an interesting theme – in the East, elite defense and bad offense translates to a lower playoff spot). The question is, can they score enough against a defense that is tied with them for the league lead?
The answer is probably no. This is a team that struggles to put points on the board against much weaker defenses than Orlando. You know Stephen Jackson is going to try like mad, and you know that Orlando will struggle to contain both him and Gerald Wallace, but with Dwight Howard going against Tyson Chandler and Nazr Mohammed, that’s just too big a burden for the two swingmen. Of course, if Tyson were to play like the Tyson of old … nah.
Magic in 5. (But the games will be close.)
(1) Lakers – (8) Thunder
They will flip the switch. They can’t flip the switch. They have proven in the past that they can flip the switch. When they flipped the switch in the past, they flipped it in February, not in April. They’re still the favorites. Cleveland and Orlando have been better.
All of those sentences have been muttered numerous times throughout the past few weeks. Now it’s time to put them to the test.
Don’t kid yourselves, the Lakers can lose this series. Kevin Durant can start making his case as an all-time great right away, Russell Westbrook can make Derek Fisher look like a fool, and Thabo Sefolosha can frustrate Kobe like very few others. It’s very real.
Then again, the Lakers could sweep this series together with the rest of the playoffs. For all their problems, this team is still as talented as ever. Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and the returning Andrew Bynum can and should make Nenad Krstic look like a schoolboy with a bald spot. They just have to get the ball.
And that’s on Kobe Bryant. For all of his strengths, for all of his gifts, he can’t do it alone. It’s been proven many, many times. Last season, he played within the team, and won the title. This year, in the regular season – not so much. In the playoffs? Who knows? He can still win a series, or two, or even three by gunning away with his 9 fingers on his bad knees. But not 4. Not alone.
The Lakers will probably play better than in the regular season. With that collection of talent, and an actual sense of urgency, it would be hard not to. Combine that with OKC’s defensive struggles in the last few weeks, and it should do the trick. But it’s not about this series – it’s about getting back to the type of basketball that can win the next ones.
Lakers in 6.
(4) Nuggets – (5) Jazz
This just goes to show you how ridiculously deep the West is this season. Two teams who were fighting for a 2 seed until the bitter end wind up meeting in the first round. Absurd.
Then again, the teams that will butt heads in the playoffs are hardly the teams who fought for positioning. Kenyon Martin’s health is uncertain, Andrei Kirilenko is out, Carlos Boozer is day to day, Memo Okur isn’t one hundred percent. Not to mention Denver coach George Karl. We have no idea what teams we’ll see.
Kirilenko’s absence hurts the most. Martin might be the Nuggets’ best answer to Boozer, but Nene can do a pretty good job on him himself, until Martin is truly needed against L.A. Kirilenko being out leaves the Jazz with nobody to cover Carmelo Anthony. Ideally, you’d like to have somebody capable of covering Carmelo Anthony, seeing how he’s one of the best scorers in the game and all that.
And yet, I can’t bring myself to pick against the Jazz. I know this is dumb. I know the Nuggets are healthier. But the Jazz played so, so well this season, with so many injuries along the way. They just feel different. I was very skeptical of their play at first – after all, we’ve seen the Jazz play out of their minds before. Until February 21. The Jazz came back from a 25-point deficit, in Portland, without Okur and Kirilenko, and won in overtime. As much as I hate putting weight on regular season games, that showed so much heart. That game was over. The Jazz had no reason to try and come back. It was much easier to just lay over and wait for next game, and yet they came back.
As bad as their health is right now, Deron Williams (#5 on my hypothetical MVP ballot, for those who wonder) is too good this year to let the Jazz lose in the first round.
Utah in 7.
(3) Suns – (6) Blazers
Yet another great series ruined by injuries.
Both squads are pretty bad defensively (though Phoenix is worse) and pretty awesome offensively (though Phoenix is much better), which should make for some fun games anyway, but the Blazers can’t beat the Suns without Brandon Roy.
Nothing against the Blazers. They will fight to the end, and they will make the Suns work for their wins. Aldridge can step up, Camby will rebound like a man possessed, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster will do well with the extra shots. The Blazers are still a great team. They’re still a bad match-up for the Suns. They have the athleticism to run back on defense, and the length to pound it in on offense. This could still go 7.
Just not in the Blazers’ favor.
The Suns are too good.
Their play has been a joy to watch. Nash is Nashier than ever, Amar’e is a monster, and they finally have the depth that Mike D’Antoni never had/wanted to have. And the chemistry and the shooting and the offense and the karma (seriously, if Nash and Grant Hill don’t win a title, the universe is messed up). The Suns could go all the way.
If Roy were healthy, this would be an epic series. Sigh.
Suns in 5.
(2) Mavs – (7) Spurs
The same old faces. We’ve seen them already. We’re tired of this match-up.
These two teams combined for one of the greatest series ever in 2006, and although much of the supporting crew has changed, when you have Dirk going against Timmy for 7 games, you shut up like a good boy and you watch.
Both teams are somewhat enigmatic this season, seemingly overachieving and underachieving at once. The Mavericks are loaded with talent … and yet seem to play worse then they should … and yet have a record that is much better than their play. The Spurs seemed old and finished, staying alive only due to Tim Duncan’s dominance … only for him to tire out … only for Manu to explode … only for every point guard on the roster to get injured.
Literally anything can happen for with these teams. The Mavs look much more talented on paper – they have multiple scorers, they have a (still) elite floor general, they have the size to guard Duncan and they have two of the best closers in the league – and yet the Spurs have regained that Spurs aura in the past two months. Sure, Parker’s health is a concern, but when Manu is this good, the only way the Spurs lose is if they don’t get their production from Duncan. And if the difference between winning or losing is Tim Duncan, my bet is that you’re going to win.
Spurs in 7.