If The NBA Playoffs Started Today…
The NBA season is starting to wind down and with only two weeks left in the regular season, the playoff picture is starting to take shape in both conferences. While some spots have yet to be decided, now is a good time to break down the potential first round match-ups.
#1-Chicago Bulls vs. #8-New York Knicks
There has been a lot of excitement over the new look Knicks since Mike Woodson took over as head coach a few weeks ago. They have been playing better defense, Carmelo Anthony looks to have regained his shooting touch and Madison Square Garden has been rocking. However, the Bulls still have the best record in the league, allow the second-fewest points in the NBA and have the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player and Coach of the Year.
This won’t be a pushover for the Bulls, but if they’ve proven one thing this season, it’s that they’re resilient. When Derrick Rose has been injured, they still find a way to win. When newly acquired Richard Hamilton was sidelined, the Bulls still managed to win. This is a team that can adapt to anything that’s thrown at them and that should benefit them come playoff time.
The last time there was a lockout-shortened season, the Knicks finished the regular season as the eighth seed, but then got hot in the playoffs and made it to the Finals. While that is a possibility again this season, it seems unlikely. For the Knicks to have any chance against the Bulls, Anthony needs to continue to play at an MVP level and the team needs to continue to step up on the defensive side of the ball.
There is potential here for a six or seven-game series, but a healthy Bulls team could also send the Knicks home quickly.
#2-Miami HEAT vs. #7-Philadelphia 76ers
This is a worst-case scenario for the 76ers and really a best case-scenario for the HEAT. This season, Miami has dominated Philadelphia. In four meetings, the HEAT are 4-0 with an average margin of victory of over 13 points. The 76ers and HEAT both try to play lockdown defense and then push the tempo, but Miami is much better at it.
Also, the individual match-ups favor the HEAT almost across the board. Andre Iguodala is no match for LeBron James, but in all fairness few players can match-up with James. Evan Turner and Jodie Meeks are not on the same level as Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh has outplayed Elton Brand all season.
This is likely to be a short series, much like when the two teams met in the playoffs last year. Anything less than a 4-1 victory for the HEAT would be a surprise.
#3-Indiana Pacers vs. #6-Orlando Magic
Which Orlando Magic team is going to show up? That will be the main question for this series. When the Magic are focused and in the right state of mind, they have proven they can beat any team in the league. They have impressive wins over both the HEAT and Bulls this season, but when the Magic lose focus and the off-court issues become a distraction, things can go south very quickly.
Magic general manager Otis Smith has come out and said that Stan Van Gundy will be the Magic’s head coach the rest of the season, so that shouldn’t be an issue. However, superstar center Dwight Howard has appeared to drift in and out of games this season and whether he will be healthy and in the right state of mind come playoff time is anyone’s guess.
It seems unlikely the Magic will be able to pull it together in time for the playoffs, especially against a tough-minded defensive team like the Pacers. This match-up could go either way, but right now the Pacers have to be the favorite and a short series isn’t out of the question. However, if the Magic come into the playoffs focused, this could be one of several series that end up going seven games.
#4-Boston Celtics vs. #5-Atlanta Hawks
The Celtics have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA since the All-Star break. They started the season 15-17 and there was talk that President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge may trade away the Celtics’ core that included Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Instead, the Celtics were quiet at the trade deadline and have gone on a 19-7 run, moving into first place in the Atlantic Division.
The Hawks meanwhile, despite losing All-Star Al Horford for most of the season, have been consistent since day one. They have been one of the top five teams in the East all year long and currently own the same record as the Celtics. If these two teams do meet in the first round, whichever team has the better record will have home court, regardless if the Celtics win their division. This is significant for the Hawks, because they haven’t won in Boston since the 2009-10 season.
If Horford is unable to return before the playoffs start, it’s unlikely the Hawks will be able to match the interior presence of the Celtics, which will likely result in a first-round loss. Coincidentally, the last time the Hawks lost in the first round was to the Celtics during the 2007-08 season.
#1-Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #8-Denver Nuggets
We’ve seen this match-up before. The Thunder and Nuggets faced off in the first round of last year’s playoffs with the Thunder winning in five games. There is little reason to think this season won’t end the exact same way. The Nuggets lead the NBA in scoring, but the Thunder are second.
The big difference between the two teams is that the Thunder are only allowing 96 points per game, while the Nuggets are allowing almost 102. The Thunder have been the team to beat all year in the Western Conference and have beaten the Nuggets twice this season.
The individual match-ups also favor the Thunder. The big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are going to be too much for the Nuggets to overcome. Expect this series, much like last year, to be a short one ending in either four or five games in favor of the Thunder.
#2-San Antonio Spurs vs. #7-Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets have been a great story this season. They were involved in the preseason controversy that saw Commissioner David Stern ‘veto’ a trade that would have overhauled the Rockets’ roster. Instead of hanging their heads and giving up, the Rockets have fought all year long and now find themselves in the playoff picture. They currently sit tied with the Denver Nuggets in the hunt for the seventh seed.
The Spurs, on the other hand, have been the model of consistency. They once again find themselves near the top of the Western Conference standings and appear primed to make a deep playoff run. Look for the Spurs to be focused and ready to prove that last year’s first round loss to the Grizzlies was a fluke and not a sign that this team is nearing the end of its championship run.
The Rockets have had success against the Spurs this season, splitting the season series with the Spurs 2-2, with the home team winning all four games. Since the Spurs will have home court advantage, expect this to be a long series with the Spurs eventually using their home court advantage to pull out a six or seven-game series win.
#3-Los Angeles Lakers vs. #6-Dallas Mavericks
The Lakers and Mavericks both look different from last year, when Dallas shocked Los Angeles by sweeping them in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Dallas no longer has the defensive presence of Tyson Chandler or their ‘Kobe Stopper’ in DeShawn Stevenson.
The Lakers look different as well. Former Laker and Sixth Man of the Year Lamar Odom, who was traded to the Mavericks, is now at home and listed as inactive. The Lakers upgraded their point guard position by acquiring Ramon Sessions at the trade deadline. This season, Andrew Bynum has elevated his game and turned into an All-Star starter.
The key to this series is likely to be Bynum. He is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and minutes and at 7’0’’ and 285 pounds, the Mavs don’t really have anyone who can match up with his size. Dallas will need to push the ball in order to limit the Lakers’ size advantage, but this Mavs team has taken a step back this season, while the Lakers may have actually improved from last year.
This is another series that could go to seven games, but it would be another shock if the Mavericks were able to beat the Lakers after losing two of their top defensive players this past offseason.
#4-Los Angeles Clippers vs. #5-Memphis Grizzlies
The Clippers and Grizzlies, if they match-up in the first round, will be arguably the most evenly matched series in the playoffs. Their records are virtually the same and while the Clippers won the season series 2-1, Memphis won the most recent match-up. Even the individual match-ups are virtually a draw.
The Clippers have Chris Paul, but Mike Conley is no slouch. Tony Allen is a better defensive player than Randy Foye, but Foye is capable of filling it up from the outside. Rudy Gay and Caron Butler both missed last year’s playoffs and are having solid bounce back seasons after injuries cost them most of last year. Blake Griffin is a superstar, but Zach Randolph was the Grizzlies’ crunch time scorer in last season’s surprising upset over top seeded San Antonio. Even their centers are evenly matched. DeAndre Jordan may be more athletic than Marc Gasol, but Gasol is clearly the more polished offensive player.
Of the potential first round match-ups, the Clippers and Grizzlies seem like the obvious choice to go seven games. There is so little that separates these teams that the series winner will likely be determined by who is hitting more crunch-time shots, Paul or Randolph.