The NBA Playoffs begin this weekend, and the first round matchups have plenty of intrigue. The Knicks-Celtics series is the one with the most attention on it, given the new-look Knicks and the Celtics late-season struggles. Here are my breakdowns and predictions for each first round series.
Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Indiana Pacers (8) – The Pacers, with their 37-45 record only made the playoffs because of the mediocrity of the Eastern Conference. The Bulls, on the other hand, finished the season with the NBA’s best record. With likely MVP Derrick Rose and the suffocating defense Chicago plays under Tom Thibodeau, this will be a warm-up for the Bulls.
The Pick – Chicago in 4
Miami Heat (2) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (7) – So now the real test begins for the Big 2 ½ . As much as we all want to remember the Heat for crying in the locker room, if they win an NBA title, we’ll remember that, even if we won’t like it very much. The Heat can rewrite their up and down season (nice to be “up and down” and finish 58-24, right?) with a championship. It may not be as easy for the Heat in this series as some think, as the Sixers are very athletic and do defend well. Elton Brand could have a field day against Miami’s paltry front court. But LeBron, Wade and company are too talented in the end.
The Pick – Miami in 6
Boston Celtics (3) vs. New York Knicks (6) – The most intriguing first round series of the NBA Playoffs. Since trading Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics haven’t been the same team. They limped through the end of the regular season. Can their stars rise, as they have so often, and flip the switch? The Knicks, while not against great competition, played well down the stretch, winning seven of their last nine while shooting the ball efficiently and putting up gaudy numbers. Can Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups find the chemistry that’s been lacking when all three are on the court together? If they do, it can be a long series. The Knicks will try to make the game as fast as possible, the Celtics as slow as possible. Stealing a game in Boston would be huge for New York, but eventually, the Celtics fourth quarter defense and veteran savvu will take them through.
The Pick – Boston in 7
Orlando Magic (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5) – Atlanta is 8-14 since March, including coming into the series on a six game losing streak. They’re going to have fits trying to stop Dwight Howard, who will be able to do whatever he wants in this series, as he has in the past against the Hawks in the playoffs. The Hawks aren’t any better than the Knicks or 76ers at this point, not very deserving of a 5 seed, and they’ll show why in a quick first round exit to the far superior Magic.
The Pick – Orlando in 5
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (8) –The Spurs were penned as a playoff team before the season, but many had thought their age had caught up with them. And although they finished with the West’s best record, their play as of late is indeed a bit alarming. They went 3-8 down the stretch and coughed up the league’s best record to the Bulls. Their first round may help them get on track, though. They draw the Memphis Grizzlies, who don’t match up too well with San Antonio. Zach Randolph had a big year for the Memphis, but the Spurs should be able to neutralize him with their front court depth. Manu Ginobili is questionable for the start of the series with a hyperextended elbow, but even if he sat the whole series, the Spurs should advance.
The Pick – San Antonio in 5
Los Angeles Lakers (2) vs. New Orleans Hornets (7) – Lakers fans held their breath when Andre Bynum went down on April 12 against the Spurs, and he’s listed as questionable for the opener of their series with New Orleans. The Lakers should be able to skate by without him in the first round, but not having him throughout the later rounds will seriously hinder their three-peat hopes. Still, this Lakers team is many people’s favorite to come out of the West, and for good reason. The Hornets were a surprise under first-year Head Coach Monty Williams, who did a very nice job with this bunch. Outside of Chris Paul and David West, they’re not very talented, and that gap between them and the Lakers will be too much to overcome.
The Pick – Los Angeles in 5
Dallas Mavericks (3) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (6) – The Mavericks nearly finished second in the West, equaling the Lakers with 57 wins. The clock is ticking on these Dirk Nowitzki-led Mavericks, as the German star isn’t getting any younger, while Jason Kidd and Jason Terry and getting to be on their last legs. Unfortunately for them, I realized that I haven’t picked one seeded upset yet, so I’m going to do that now. The Blazers are a good defensive team that doesn’t turn the ball over. They have some impressive wins down the stretch, including one over the Mavs. LaMarcus Aldridge had a true breakout season, and Gerald Wallace was a shrewd midseason pickup, as he does a little bit of everything. Portland is also a dominant home team that shoots well (80%) from the stripe.
The Pick – Portland in 7
Oklahoma City Thunder (4) vs. Denver Nuggets (5) – I want to root for my former Knicks here, but I think their season comes to an end in a tough series. The addition of Kendrick Perkins for the Thunder will pay off in the postseason. Between him and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder have a great defensive front court. Offensively, they’re nearly unstoppable with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Nuggets are the top scoring team in the league, but their defense won’t be good enough in this series. Like the Knicks against the Celtics, they’ll try to outscore their opposition. Unfortunately, the Thunder have the best offensive weapon in the league on their side, so outscoring Oklahoma City won’t be a given
The Pick – Oklahoma City in 7