I love the NBA Playoff Tournament. In my opinion, it’s the best post-season of any of the major professional sports. The NFL playoffs are great, don’t get me wrong, but there, the games are one-and-done. In the NBA, playoff matchups last up to two weeks, and are frequently roller coasters of momentum. It’s much more interesting. Anyway, here’s how I see the first round going. I also included where I picked the teams to finish before the season started, where I did passably well, getting 13 of the 16 eventual playoff teams right while making my fair share of completely off-base predictions. Yes, I actually said the Wizards would make the playoffs. At least it wasn’t the Nets.
4. Boston Celtics vs 5. Miami Heat
Before the season, I picked Boston to be the top seed in the East. Well, age, injury and performance issues made that call just a bit wrong. And why is Ray Allen still here? He didn’t exactly fit when they were true contenders. Miami, on the other hand, I had pegged for a mid-40s win season (they had 47). Without a 12-1 stretch to end the regular season, Miami likely doesn’t end up this high in the standings. Dwayne Wade is great, but this team simply isn’t deep or talented enough to get very far. Can they beat Boston? Yes, if age and injury keep wearing the Celtics down as it did during the regular season. Will they? I also said Miami would lose in the first round, and Boston can still play lockdown defense in the slower, more deliberate post season. I see no reason to break from that prediction. Boston in 6.
3. Atlanta Hawks vs 6. Milwaukee Bucks
I picked the Hawks to Finish third in the conference, win 50+ games (They won 53), and said that if Jamal Crawford fits in, they’ll be explosive offensively. Check, check, check. Milwaukee, on the other hand, I said would be absolutely lousy and be nowhere near the playoffs. Well, who knew Andrew Bogut would start looking like a good player? Who knew Brandon Jennings would emerge from Europe as one of the best young guards in the league? Who knew John Salmons would once again get traded and carry a mediocre team on a big late-season push? I sure didn’t. Still without Bogut, these guys have no shot. Atlanta in 5.
2. Orlando Magic vs 7. Charlotte Bobcats
Before the year, I said Charlotte didn’t have enough to make the playoffs and would need a big trade to get there. Hello, Stephen Jackson, Tyrus Thomas and Tyson Chandler. If they would have had this roster before the season started, I never would have picked Washington to make the playoffs. They also play great defense. Orlando I picked to slip a bit from last year, saying that Vince Carter was a bad choice (still remains to be seen, in my opinion) and that they wouldn’t approach 60 wins. Well, they won 59, and a much deeper and more talented team than I had given them credit for. Still, if VC doesn’t improve on his previous playoff disappearing acts, The Magic won’t be getting back to the finals. To me, this is best chance for a major first-round upset. Sure, the Spurs could beat the Mavs, but does anyone really consider that an upset? No one, and I mean no one thinks Charlotte can win this series. But they can beat on Dwight Howard, close out on their shooters, and force VC into a jump shooter. Given a break or three, and this could happen. Tougher than most expect. Orlando in 7.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers vs 8. Chicago Bulls
I picked Cleveland number two in the East, primarily concerned by whether Shaq’s impact would be good or bad. Turned out OK, I suppose, as they finished with the best record in the regular season for the second year in a row. But this team is much deeper and more talented than last year’s version. I thought the Bulls would be better than this, and after trading away Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for basically nothing, I’m as surprised an anyone that they’re even still playing. Of course, if not for the end-of-season injury to Toronto’s Chris Bosh (the other team I picked to make the playoffs in the East that didn’t) they might not be. Still, here they are, about to be stomped by the far, far superior Cavs. No repeat of last season’s battle with Boston. Cleveland in 4.
4. Denver Nuggets vs 5. Utah Jazz
Is there any more over-performing team in the league than Utah? They have some talent, to be sure, but there is just no way they belong among the league’s elite teams. I picked them to finish 6th out West, and to have traded Carlos Boozer by now. Boozer seems to have been granted new life by the Jazz fans, and there’s actually serious talk about re-signing him in the off-season. I sincerely hope they don’t make that mistake. They may yet regret not finding a taker for him and getting something in return. Denver, on the other hand, is exactly who I’d thought they’d be, good, sometimes great, sometimes frustrating. Still, it’s going to take a better team than Utah to knock them out, even if the Jazz were 100% healthy. They’re not. Denver in 5.
3. Phoenix Suns vs 6. Portland Trailblazers
Phoenix has been much better than I’d thought possible, especially defensively. And don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that Amare Stoudemire has been playing like the best power forward in the league since the All-Star break, after it was clear he wasn’t going to be traded and would be testing the free agent waters. The second half was a resume builder of sorts for Stoudemire and he’s going to be well motivated to continue that through the playoffs before a big payday in Miami, New York, Chicago or wherever. Even healthy, I didn’t think Portland would be among the conference’s elite teams. They were far from healthy. Now, they are seriously undermanned playing a hot and explosive Suns team. They’ll be lucky to win one game. And how many Portland fans will watch the Lakers-Thunder series with a bad taste in their mouths every time Kevin Durant makes a shot thinking of what might have been? Is it really too early to start equating the Oden-Durant decision to the Bowie-Jordan one? I don’t think so. Phoenix in 5.
2. Dallas Mavericks vs 7. San Antonio Spurs
I picked these two teams to finish second and third in the West behind the Lakers. In fact, San Antonio was my preseason pick to win the title. Despite all the injuries and age, and despite Richard Jefferson apparently falling off a cliff, the Spurs won 50 games, and Manu Ginobli looks ready to go. As any San Antonio fan will tell you, if Ginobli isn’t 100%, the Spurs aren’t going to win. Dallas was a good team before they traded knucklehead Josh Howard for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. Now, they are one of the deepest and most talented teams in the league, one that I believe has a very real shot of winning it all. San Antonio is going to be a tough test, however. Can the Spurs three big guns stay healthy in what could be a long, physical, grinding series? I don’t think so. If Manu, Tim and Tony do, they can win this series in 7. You have to feel for Dallas. Second best record in the conference and by far the most difficult first round matchup (sorry, Utah fans). Dallas in 6.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City has come together much faster than anyone anticipated, and they’ve done it with defense as much as with Kevin Durant’s emergence as a genuine superstar (you don’t win a scoring title without being a superstar in this day and age). Still, while they may be game in this series, they’re playing the Lakers. If the tiebreaker had worked out differently, and they were playing someone like Phoenix, I might give them a better shot, but that didn’t happen. Still, 50 wins for this franchise is nothing to sneeze at. The Lakers, obviously, I picked to be the best team in the West (I also said they’d lose in Conference Finals). Injuries have hit them hard of late, especially Kobe and Bynum. But what concerns me more is the inconsistency. If they aren’t completely healthy, I don’t think they make it out of the West. But this is just the first round. Los Angeles in 6.