NBA Playoffs: Round 1 Matchup Predictions
Miami Heat vs. Milwaukee Bucks: Everyone knows who I'm picking here, right? No offense to the Bucks - they've had a nice season and have some quality players - but it's hard to make this seem like I'm on the fence in any way. LeBron James has played extraordinary basketball all season. On top of the experienced veterans (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, etc.), the big three (James/Wade/Bosh) have now won a championship together.
The Bucks do have an explosive backcourt in Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings with sharpshooter JJ Redick coming off the bench. Larry Sanders can be a game-changing presence in the paint. Ersan Ilyasova has gone through stretches of sheer dominance (averaged 22.1 points and 11.8 rebounds during a nine game stretch in March/April). For those reasons, I'll give the Bucks one game.
Heat in 5.
New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics: If scoring champion Carmelo Anthony keeps up what he's been doing so far this month (36.9 points per game), it's going to be tough for the Celtics to counter his scoring. Melo is also averaging 9.9 rebounds per game in April. In addition, the Knicks gave their bigs a lot of rest down the stretch of the regular season, which means Tyson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and Marcus Camby will be healthy and ready for Game 1.
The Celtics have gotten some great scoring performances out of Jeff Green late in the season, but they haven't quite contributed to wins. The Celtics are 7-13 over their last 20 games. Regardless, this team has strong-willed veterans who have hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy, and they won't go down without a fight.
However, the lack of a true point guard is going to hurt the Celtics a lot against a Knicks defense that can stifle opponents when they put their minds to it. The Celtics lost to the Knicks by three with Rondo on the court, then lost the next two games against New York by 15 and 19 points without Rondo. The Celtics did beat the Knicks without Rondo once, in the infamous "Honey Nut Cheerios" game, but I don't see that happening four out of seven times.
Knicks in 6.
Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks: Offensively, the Pacers don't rely on one single player to get the job done. They have a few guys who can score the ball, and a few guys to distribute it. Therefore, you can't lock down one Pacer with a defender (such as Josh Smith) and expect the entire offense to struggle. Defensively, the Pacers are tenacious. They rank first in opponent field goal percentage and second in opponent points per game. They have strong individual defenders and a mentality that defense can and will win them the game.
Offensively, the Hawks are similar to the Pacers in that they have a number of players who contribute. However, they are different in that they have much higher percentage shooters, led by Al Horford at 54.3%. Of course, Horford will be dealing with 7'2'' monster Roy Hibbert (2.6 blocks per game) down low. Leading scorer Josh Smith has a tendency to become a bit of a black hole when the going gets tough, and the Pacers are a good bet to give Smith some major frustration.
I think the Pacers will slow down these games to the tempo they like and, for the most part, be the more efficient team.
Pacers in 6.
Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls: It only took one year in Brooklyn (plus a couple of roster moves) for the Nets to make their way to the playoffs, and they now find themselves with home court advantage in the first round. They play a nice breed of basketball, running the offense through Deron Williams who sets up scorers Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson for good looks at the basket. Williams doesn't shy away from his shot either, averaging 18.9 points per game (second on the team). He's also averaging 25.4 points on 50.7% shooting in his past nine games (excluding the season finale, in which he only played 21 minutes).
No Derrick Rose, no problem for the Bulls (to a certain extent). Chicago's ability to win despite injuries is one of the main reasons Tom Thibodeau is considered one of the top coaches in the game. They managed the 5th seed in the east without their MVP point guard, and went 7-5 down the stretch without Joakim Noah to avoid having to face the Pacers. This is one of the more hard nosed, blue collar teams in the NBA, and they have the ability to dominate down low with Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson.
Brook Lopez, while he is a good scorer, is a mess on the boards, averaging 6.9 rebounds despite his height of 7'0'' (Eddy Curry-esque). The Nets' Reggie Evans feasts on teams that fail to box him out, but the Bulls aren't the type of team to let a rebounder run free. However, Noah (foot) is not expected to play significant minutes at all in the first round, which hurts any advantage the Bulls may have had down low. With Williams and Johnson, the Nets boast a better backcourt, and that will be the difference. If Noah were healthy I'd probably lean the other way.
Nets in 7.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets: It's championship-or-bust for OKC this season, and they want to prove that they didn't make a mistake by trading James Harden to the Rockets. On the other hand, Harden wants to show the world that the Thunder did make a mistake, and knock his former team out of the playoffs.
Harden and Kevin Durant (5th and 2nd in points per game this season, respectively) are two of the more gifted scorers in the league, but here lies the problem - Harden is going to be locked down by the man who started over him in OKC, Thabo Sefolosha. As for who could guard Durant successfully - I'm not sure anyone on the Rockets has a shot. Jeremy Lin tends to struggle with more athletic point guards (i.e. Russell Westbrook). Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka can handle Omer Asik down low.
I like the Rockets, but this just doesn't seem like a good matchup for them. Of course, who does match up well against the Thunder?
Thunder in 5.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Why does Gregg Popovich rest his star players in the middle of the season, seemingly at random? Because he wants to avoid the type of situation he is in right now. The Spurs are a mess as far as injuries at the moment. Manu Ginobili is nursing a hamstring injury, while Tony Parker may or may not be fully recovered from a neck injury. Surprisingly, soon-to-be 37-year-old Tim Duncan is healthy and is the best bet to carry this team in the playoffs at the moment.
The Lakers have been on a roll, winning eight of their last nine games to earn the 7th seed. Dwight Howard has been playing the way we've been accustomed to seeing him play thus far in his career, and Pau Gasol has looked much more comfortable on the offensive end as of late. Of course, the main concern with the Lakers is that they will not have Kobe Bryant - their leading scorer and most consistent facilitator (considering Steve Nash's injuries). Nash is being called doubtful for Game 1, though he is optimistic he'll play. If he does play, there's no telling how effective he'll be. We could see the Lakers start Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks in the backcourt, with the weight of the world falling on Howard's shoulders (one of which contains a torn labrum) - I'm not sure Laker fans want that.
Somehow, someway, Popovich's Spurs often manage to pull out wins. All of the Spurs' key pieces have plenty of playoff experience, and I'm expecting some of the role players (Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter) to step up and make good things happen. If Kobe and Nash were healthy, however, I'd have the Lakers in this one.
Spurs in 7.
Denver Nuggets vs. Golden State Warriors: Gaining home court advantage was huge for the Nuggets, who were an NBA-best 38-3 at home this season. They employ a balanced attack that features nine players averaging 8+ points per game. However, one of those players (Danilo Gallinari, 16.2 points per game) is out for the season with a torn ACL. It's hard to say how the Nuggets will function in a playoff game without their second leading scorer. The good news is that they have gone 5-1 (only loss was in overtime) since Gallinari's injury.
The Warriors are loaded with firepower, but a lot of it has never seen a playoff game. Stephen Curry has turned into one of the most entertaining players in the game, while All-Star power forward David Lee is one of the most efficient big men around. Klay Thompson has really come into his own this season, while Jarrett Jack has been one of the best sixth men in the NBA.
I really like the Warriors. I've been a huge fan of both Stephen Curry and David Lee for a long time, but the lack of playoff experience on this roster - compared to the Nuggets, who lost in seven games to the Lakers last year - is a concern for me. In addition, I think it will be very difficult for the Warriors to steal a game in Denver. The Nuggets are 38-3 at home, and the Warriors are 19-22 on the road. I think this series has a solid chance of going seven games, but...
Nuggets in 6.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Memphis Grizzlies: The Clippers are easily one of the flashiest, most entertaining teams in the NBA, but are they a championship contender? That remains to be seen. On paper, they look like they have every shot of making the Finals. They have an elite point guard in Chris Paul, a shooter who can bail you out of tough situations in Jamal Crawford, a dangerous scoring big man in Blake Griffin, and a dominant paint presence in DeAndre Jordan. They score the 9th most points per game while giving up the 4th least.
The best scoring defense in the league belongs to the Grizzlies, who give up only 89.3 points per game. They have a couple of premier perimeter defenders in Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, as well as one of my favorite big men in the NBA, Zach Randolph. This team went down in seven games to the Clippers last season.
One difference between this Grizzlies team and last year's team concerns me, and it's probably pretty obvious - Rudy Gay is no longer on the squad. The Grizzlies no longer have a player who can bail you out of a late shot clock situation or go iso when the team is in a rut (such as a Jamal Crawford). The Clippers beat the Grizzlies in the playoffs last season, and I think the Clippers have improved while the Grizzlies have gotten a little bit worse.
Grizzlies in 6.
I apologize that I do not have one single underdog winning. I'm pretty upset about it myself. On a series-by-series basis, I just don't see it happening.