It has been one of the more fun regular seasons in a long time but it’s safe to say that we are all ready for the playoffs. This year’s playoffs look particularly interesting because there is no prohibitive favorite. Sure, the Bulls are the best team on paper but even numbers crunchers are given some pause about the fact that the team is relatively green playoff-wise. The Heat are obviously good but they haven’t looked like the super dominant force some expected. It’s also tough to figure out what exactly the Lakers or Celtics will bring. Can older teams really turn it off and then on again for the playoffs again? Basically, legitimate holes can be poked on any of their runs for the playoffs. But that only makes things more fun. With all those facts in mind, here’s our playoff preview:
1. Bulls v. Pacers: Really not a ton to say here. The Bulls should have little to no trouble with the Pacers, who are the worst team in the playoffs by far. At 37-45, the Pacers really don’t belong in the playoffs but someone had to make it in the East. In fact, the last team to make the playoffs with 37 wins was the 2007-08 Hawks and the last time a team made the playoffs with a worse record was Boston back in 2003-04 when they went 36-46. Expect Derrick Rose to run amok on Darren Collison and for the relentless front court to clamp down on Danny Granger. At least Indiana has ended its four-year playoff drought. Prediction: Bulls in 5.
When They Last Met: The last time the Bulls played the Pacers in the playoffs, they put together a classic battle in the 1997-98 Eastern Conference Finals, which included Reggie Miller hitting a game winner over (actually pushing off) Michael Jordan and the Bulls persevering in a Game 7 in Chicago where they couldn’t shoot (29-76 from the field) but won the game on the boards (outrebounding the Pacers 50-34 overall and 22-4 on the offensive glass). I don’t expect the current series to match this kind of excitement.
2. Heat v. Sixers: The Heat probably wouldn’t have had much problems with the Knicks either but Miami did particularly well with Philly in the regular season. The Sixers have a respectable enough team, though their regular season success is a bit overblown. This is basically the same decent team they’ve had for a few years. The only reason they look better is because Philly foolishly tried to turn the squad into a no-defense run-and-gun squad last year, which worked about as well as it should’ve. In any event, Philly’s goal will be to win a game or two, hoping that Andre Iguodala can semi neutralize LeBron James, they have no answers for Dwyane Wade. If it is any consolation, Philly has won two games their last two playoff series, which were against similarly high seeded teams. Prediction: Heat wins 4-0.
When They Last Met: Miami and Philly have never met in the playoffs.
3. Boston v. New York: What to make of Boston? It’s amazing that they start off hot, taper off near the end of the season and then turn it on for this playoffs. This year is no exception, where they started out 46-15, only to go 10-11 and squander the top seed and the two seed. While you would expect that this weak finish was because of the older guys wearing the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, were up in minutes played and production this year. Boston’s problem has been offense, where they fell all the way to 18th this year. While some have blamed this on the trade of Kendrick Perkins, this seems unlikely. Perkins barely played this year and was not an offensive asset when he did play. The clearer answer seems to be Rajon Rondo, who tapered off after the All-Star break:
-Pre All-Star: 10.9 ppg, .502 FG%, .300 3FG%, 12.2 APG
-Post All-Star: 10.2 ppg, .431 FG%, .077 3FG%, 9.4 APG
Allen also fell off after the break (though KG and Pierce were actually better). This all means that we might expect the Celts to continue to struggle scoring unless Rondo and/or Allen wake up. Fortunately for the Celts, they’ve drawn the Knicks a team that can be scored upon pretty easily. New York is 22nd in defensive efficiency and will try lots of isolations for Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire when they aren’t running and shooting threes. The series is sure to be entertaining because of all the big names and the likelihood of tons of smack talk (Melo v. Pierce, KG v. Amare) but this match up is in Boston’s wheelhouse. Prediction: Celtics wins 4-1.
When They Last Met: This is a storied rivalry in the distant past but the franchises have had problems being good at the same time recently. The Knicks did well in the 1990s while Boston decayed and the converse was true in the 2000s. As such, we have to go back 21 years to their last match in 1989-90 first round. It was the 4-5 series and Boston still had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish but weren’t quite as good as they were before. The Knicks had Patrick Ewing at his peak but were otherwise pretty mediocre (they had an old Maurice Cheeks, Gerald Wilkins, and Johnny Newman). Boston won the first two games at home (116-105 and then 157-128(!)). Down 0-2, the Knicks won two at home and then somehow won the deciding Game 5 in Boston 121-114, featuring Ewing hitting a fall away three from the corner that marked the official end of Boston’s 1980s dynasty.
4. Magic v. Hawks: Orlando has had a very strange season. They’ve downgraded from title contender to merely good playoff team. The main difference between this team and past Magic teams is on offense, where they’ve dropped off to about league average. While popular wisdom said dumping Vince Carter was good for the team, Jason Richardson has actually been less productive than VC was. In addition, Hedo Turkoglu has been pretty mediocre at best too. The Magic absolutely drubbed the Hawks last year in the playoffs but Atlanta bounced backed to win the season series 3-1 this year and have tons of big bodies to throw at Howard. Even so, I still can’t ultimately believe that Orlando will lose to the Hawks. I expect a dominant series from Howard and an Orlando win. Prediction: Magic wins 4-3.
When They Last Met: Go all the way back to 2010. Orlando won each game bay at least 14 and won the four games by a total of 101 points.
1. Spurs v. Grizzlies: This is not your usual Spurs team. Sure, this is the first time since 2005-06 that the Spurs broke the 60-win plateau. What smells different is Tim Duncan. His numbers were way down. At 34, TD is obviously not the player he was but the numbers were artificially reduced for a few reasons. Greg Popovich kept Duncan to a surprisingly low 28 mpg. I’m not sure if the Spurs are worried about his knees or are just being careful in preserving an older player. In either case, he had a career low 13.4 ppg, which was also his lowest scoring numbers on a per minute basis for his career. TD also had in career lows in shots attempts per minute, and, more troublingly, free throws attempted per minute (4.3 free throws per 36 minutes, when his previous low was 5.4). Duncan is still rebounding and blocking as well as ever but he’s not the same player overall. In fact, the Spurs’ identity has totally flopped. They were second in the NBA in offense this year and only 11th in defense.
The Grizz have also flipped identities. They were all scoring and no defense last year and now they are pretty good defensive unit (9th) and mediocre offensively (16th). Much has been made of how Tony Allen changed the team’s defensive culture but he’s actually been really effective offensively (18.3 PER). Throw in Marc Gasol, a good center, and Zach Randolph, who has continued to play ridiculously well, and you have a nearly 50-win team. In short, the Grizz have a surprisingly good shot at winning this series. Still, it seems unlikely that this will actually happen. The Grizz have little answer for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, if they are healthy, and if TD turns it on the Spurs are the better team, though not by as much as you’d expect. Prediction: Spurs win 4-2.
When They Last Met: The Spurs and Grizz met once previously in the playoffs. In 2003-04, the Grizz won 50 games but were only a six seed in the deep Western Conference. The Grizz were deep with Pau Gasol, James Posey (who had a very similar season to the one Tony Allen had this year), Stromile Swift, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells, Mike Miller, and Bo Outlaw. But the Spurs had Duncan at his absolute peak (27.1 PER) and they were defensive beasts and ended up sweeping a very good Memphis team.
2. Lakers v. Hornets: The Hornets have the perfect starting ingredient to frustrating the Lakers in Chris Paul. The problem is there ain’t much left after that. Marco Belinelli vs. Kobe Bryant? Carl Landry vs. Pau Gasol? Yikes on both accounts. The Hornets have been under .500 team since their good start (they started 11-1 and finished the rest of the year 30-35) and are missing their second best player in David West. Yes, the Lakers have struggled the last few weeks but this is a veteran team and, as long as they are healthy, they will be ready for the playoffs. The Lakers, probably the best team in the West, are a really tough match up and should dispatch the hobbled Hornets easily. Prediction: Lakers win 4-0.
When They Last Met: They have never met in the playoffs before.
3. Mavericks v. Trailblazers: Despite all the predictions that the Mavs are vulnerable to being knocked off, it bears reminding that this team won 57 games and still have some very good players, including Dirk Nowitzki. I do agree that Dallas does not look likely to make the Conference Finals, let alone the NBA Finals. Still, we are talking about beating Portland, not L.A. or Chicago for the moment. Portland is a good team and the Gerald Wallace acquisition has made them better. Portland’s slow pace, however, probably works into the Mavs hands. Dallas doesn’t want to run either and the Mavs match up very well at the key positions. LaMarcus Aldridge must beat Dirk at the power forward, which is a tall order. Nor can Portland make Dallas pay at the two guard since Brandon Roy is no longer Brandon Roy. Portland will certainly make Dallas work this series but I don’t think they have the horses to actually win. Prediction: Mavericks wins 4-3.
When They Last Met: Dallas and Portland last met in the first round of the 2002-03 playoffs. This was the last gasp of the Rasheed Wallace/Scottie Pippen team playing the Mavs are they were just emerging as an offense only title contender. A couple of fun memories of this series: (1) Dallas went up 3-0 before Portland won three straight to force a Game 7, which Dallas hang on to win and (2) before Game 3, a local Portland girl sang the national anthem and somehow forgot the words and was saved by Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks, who sang it with her. By the way, the Blazers have still not won a playoff series since 1999-00, when they blew that 18-point lead against the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
4. Thunder v. Nuggets: As great a story as Denver has been this year, I believe the story will end pretty soon. Denver might’ve been able to give problems to the Mavs but OKC is a different story. Now a plausible case could be made for Denver. They have a higher SRS rating than OKC (4.80 to 3.81) and the Thunder were surprisingly weak on defense this year (15th). Indeed, OKC morphed into a scoring team (5th in offensive efficiency) . Denver could possibly outrun OKC, as they are 1st in offensive efficiency and 2nd in pace (16th in defense). I just can’t help but think that the Thunder are the more talented team and that the defense is better than it looked most of the season (OKC was 9th last year). Combine that with the fact that Denver tends to flame out in the playoffs and I think OKC prevails in a fast-paced series. Prediction: Thunder wins 4-3.
Bulls over Magic, 4-3
Heat over Celtics, 4-1
Thunder over Spurs, 4-2
Lakers over Mavericks, 4-1
Heat over Bulls, 4-2
Lakers over Thunder, 4-2
Heat over Lakers, 4-2