The 2011 NBA Playoffs officially started on Saturday, April 16, but I was in the final moments of my vacation (aka a delayed flight to Dallas, missing a connection in Dallas to LaGuardia, re-routing to Newark, having the flight delayed because of torrential weather in New York, having take-off delayed because of a sick passenger, sitting while a passenger had a heart attack or some other issue on the plane and an oxygen tank was wheeled out and then having a delayed exit due to having to wait for paramedics to arrive to take care of the fallen passenger). And since I was on vacation for the entire week I couldn’t properly prepare an NBA Playoffs Preview before the Playoffs got under way. So, now that all the series have one game in the books (*as of the writing of this post) it seems like a much better time to actually gauge what to look for and expect out of these series. Does that make any sense? Maybe not, but we are going to roll with it because the Playoffs are going to be great, I need to put my two-cents in about all the teams and after today you’ll get plenty of music and other rambling, existential posts to feast on.
Let’s dive right in shall we?
1. Chicago Bulls vs. 8. Indiana Pacers
The Bulls have in many ways overachieved this season due to the fantastic play of Derrick Rose. A lot of people expected them to be good, but no one expected them to be the number one seed in the East and also the favorite to represent the East in the Finals heading into the Playoffs. All of this has occurred while the team has not truly been healthy with all their parts until the last two months, when they have really picked up steam. Rose is playing out of his mind this year and is clearly the MVP as his clutch performance in Game 1 to steal the upset from the Pacers perfectly exhibited. The Pacers are a very likeable team with some good pieces. Tyler Hansbrough is a great effort guy who has improved his shot; Daren Collison is a quick and improving point guard; Roy Hibbert is a mediocre to above average center who can give you solid numbers and a big game from here to there; Danny Granger is a solid player; Jeff Foster is tough; Brandon Rush can give you minutes and points; Posey has championship experience; Josh McRoberts can also give some minutes off the bench and play a few positions; Paul George is a young, raw talent that has upside and this playoff run can only help him learn. All that is nice and makes for a compelling watch, but they don’t have a truly go-to player (Granger is certainly not that piece). They still lack a cohesion that a dominant presence would help provide. Because of that, they can’t match Rose and the way pieces like Deng, Boozer, Noah, Gibson and Korver fit nicely into place on the Bulls.
Prediction: Bulls in 5.
2. Miami Heat vs. 7. Philadelphia 76ers
For me this is tough because I have a natural allegiance with the Sixers, but out of all the Philadelphia teams, I have the least connection with them. I’ve always been a Wade fan and I tend to appreciate the bad guy, so I route for the Heat. The Heat have been playing well over the past month and are starting to utilize more diverse and solid portions of their offense like the varied potentials off the Wade and LeBron pick n’ roll, which has opened things up for them. The 76ers are a young team with a lot of talent. As Bill Simmons pointed out, their best player Andre Iguodala realized that he wasn’t their best player and has settled into a Scottie Pippen-esque roll of playing great perimeter defense. The only problem is, he can’t shoot like Scottie and there is no dominant player to compliment. They have nice pieces like Jrue Holliday, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner, as well as good role players like Lou Williams and the glorified Elton Brand. That will certainly not hold up against the Heat.
Prediction: Heat in 4
3. Boston Celtics vs. 6. New York Knicks
You can’t argue with this series. Two classic franchises and two “Garden” arenas. Its great to add an historical element to the Playoffs as well as two of the best home crowds in not only the NBA, but all of sports (that Boston explosion when Ray Allen hits a three—like he did in Game 1—is maybe the best current crowd reaction in sports). The atmosphere of each of these games alone will make it worth watching even if there’s a sweep. But there won’t be a sweep because the Celtics are struggling into the postseason like they did last year. However, whereas last year’s team was a run down car that could still run perfectly if the owner would let the right person drive it (i.e. the Big Three realizing that Rondo was the key to the offense) this year’s team has new features and gears and that right driver (Rondo) is experiencing a loss in confidence. Meanwhile, the Knicks have plenty of offensive firepower but are lacking in size and defense, though the defense has been improving as Game 1 showed. The Knicks fans are excited about the team being in the Playoffs and expect a lot, but I think this hard fought series is going to bring out the competitive fire in the Celtics and key them to a cohesion they’ve been lacking.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
4. Magic vs. 5. Hawks
The Hawks are one of the more boring teams in the NBA. Each year they entice you with a good collection of talent who just never seem to care how to learn how to actually play well or with heart. Yet, they get to the 5 seed each year because of the talent they have. They are still boring this year, but they have a certain toughness that they lacked last year, even if they still don’t have great effort. They are also matching up against a Magic team that has not been able to develop chemistry all year and as also taken a step back defensively. For example, in Game 1, Dwight Howard dropped 46 points and grabbed 19 rebounds and the Magic lost. He was dominant and the Magic still lost. However, despite their struggles, I still think they will win the series, even though it will be the worst series out of the entire Playoffs.
Prediction: Magic in 7
1. Chicago Bulls vs. 4. Orlando Magic
This matchup actually favors the Magic because they don’t have anyone that can truly stop Dwight. Boozer can’t match his strength, quickness or length. Noah can bother his shot but not his size. Asik has the size and good defense but is too inexperienced. However, the Magic have no one to really match Rose and their team defense has slipped so they will have trouble slowing him down when he decides to take over a game like he just did in Game 1 against the Pacers. They have no one who can really make him a jump shooter for even short stretches. Dwight can alter his shot, but that won’t be enough to help them win the series.
Prediction: Chicago in 6
2. Miami Heat vs. 3. Boston Celtics
The Heat lost the season series to the Celtics, but each game was close. The Heat managed to win the last matchup of the season against a Celtics team that was (and still is) struggling with their chemistry. By this round I expect the Celtics to have their chemistry back after having to strong-arm the Knicks out of the Playoffs. So, what will make this series different from the regular season? The first thing is that the Heat have been playing better over the past month. The second is that because it’s the Playoffs, Spolestra can play LeBron, Wade and Bosh more minutes than he would have been inclined to during the regular season. You tie that into the fact that you give great players like LeBron and Wade that small taste of beating the Celtics at the end of the season, of knowing that they can, and that changes things. Doc Rivers will have his own wrinkles and plays to draw up, but it still feels like the Heat are holding back some of their Wade/LeBron offense and I think they unveil a lot of the tricks here.
Prediction: Tough, classic series. Heat in 7
Eastern Conference Finals:
1. Chicago Bulls vs. 2. Miami Heat
The key to this series is the fact that the Heat can and will stick both LeBron and Wade on Derrick Rose. Rose will certainly make his crazy floaters and layups as well as take a game or two by himself, but having that luxury of switching the bigger and just as fast Lebron or the craftier, better defensively, Wade on Rose is something that most teams don’t have. They can also buy minutes by sticking Chalmers on Rose, who should be able to at least rough him up. Bibby becomes a key to this series because if he can make threes like he has been, then the Heat can stretch the tight Chicago defense and open up the lanes for LeBron and Wade. If those two can also work their two man game into the flow of the offense then that leaves room for the Heat to work the ball down to Bosh as the series goes on because the Bulls will have to decide which aspect of the offense to focus on. Bosh needs to be aggressive against Boozer and the Heat need Anthony to match Noah’s energy. The key is that if the Bulls get cold and can’t generate offense, how much will they be able to lean on Rose this far into the playoffs, especially if he is getting hounded by LeBron and Wade for the entire series. I think that catches up to the Bulls and the experience and overall greatness of Wade and LeBron win out.
Prediction: Heat in 7
1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 8. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies have a tough team as Game 1 exhibited. The Spurs went on one of their spine-crushing runs at the end of the game when Bonner hit two clutch three-pointers, but the Grizzlies were able to bounce back and win thanks to Shane Battier’s three-pointer. The Spurs of old would have won that game and crushed the morale of this young Memphis team, but Memphis has a lot of really good pieces like Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, O.J. Mayo, Sam Young, Dorrell Arthur and Battier. They have size and experience to bother the Spurs who are very young besides Duncan, Parker, Ginobli and McDyess. I think Ginobli will come back and the Spurs will pull out one of their moral crushing wins along the way. It will not be easy, but the Spurs will win.
Prediction: Spurs in 7
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Hornets
Chris Paul has been nursing his recovering knee all season. He has shown flashes of his old speed and brilliance but has also looked slow and washed up. In Game 1, he looked like his old self and even better. He turned in what is already being considered a masterful point guard performance—I watched it, it was. Paul’s greatness alone (even though his role players, like Carl Landry are tough competitors) can’t carry this team. This is the kind of series that the Lakers use to wake themselves up and get rid of their overconfidence. The Hornets will make some of these games close, but I see the Lakers pulling away in the end.
Prediction: Lakers in 5
3. Dallas Mavericks vs. 6. Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers have a very long, versatile team. They can trot out a frontcourt of Nic Batum, Lamarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace or they can mix it up and insert Camby with Lamarcus Aldridge and Wallace or put Batum in with Wallace and Camby for a shut down defensive unit. They also have Andre Miller to guide the offense and Brandon Roy coming off the bench for control and whatever intangibles he can still add with his terrible knees. The Mavericks basically have Dirk. Kidd is just a three-point shooter, Terry is streaky, Marion is over the hill and Chandler will be neutralized by the Blazers’ frontcourt. I just don’t know who the Mavericks go to besides Dirk. It’s going to be a tough and very close series, but I see the Blazers pulling it out in the end.
Prediction: Blazers in 7
4. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5. Denver Nuggets
This was perhaps the most intriguing series of the entire Playoffs on paper and after watching Game 1 last night, I still feel that way. The Nuggets are so deep and have so many good, likeable and hard working players like Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Aaron Afflalo, Nene, Danilo Galinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, Chris Anderson. They are a tough team but they have no true go-to player. Lawson and Felton can give Westbrook, Harden and Maynor problems in the backcourt with their speed, especially when they play together. The only issue is that they have no one player who can go basket for basket with either Durant or Westbrook. The Thunder have greater size, but the Nuggets can send tough defensive players at Perkins and Ibaka. The post-Carmelo Nuggets like each other and are playing much more freely now that they have the weight of Carmelo off their back, but the Thunder are the true team of the future and I can’t help but see them make progress off of last year.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
1. San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
This is a “changing of the guard series.” The GM of the Thunder is Sam Presti who has ties to the San Antonio Spurs organization and the sound way they built their franchise around a low-key, super competitive and smart super-star. The Spurs are on their way out as a truly dominant franchise, despite their great record this season. The Thunder are on the rise with stars like Durant and Westbrook and now Ibaka and Perkins down low as their anchors. With Perkins being a tough defensive presence down low, Ibaka is now able to roam and make more athletic plays at his natural position of power forward rather than playing center. Parker and Ginobli don’t have a true advantage over Westbrook and Durant and I think the Thunder take this series from the Spurs.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 6. Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers’ depth and their length can definitely bother the Lakers. You can go to war against Odom, Bynum, Gasol and Artest with Batum, Aldridge, Wallace and Camby, hell the Blazers frontline this year may even be better than that Lakers frontline now that I look at the names. Miller and Fischer are both crafty veterans at the point guard and they play to a draw with their clutch ability and playmaking. Batum is certainly capable of slowing down Kobe, but can he stop him? I’m not sure. This year he may have a chance, but with Kobe there are always those intangibles. Even when the Lakers lost to the Hornets on Sunday, Kobe just started having that look, that M.J. look where you just feel like all the tough shots are going to go in. That is something you earn over time and I don’t know where that strange, spiritual element of the game appears on the Blazers. It will be a good series and the Blazers should be in almost every game, but this just seems like the Lakers will prevail.
Prediction: Lakers in 6
Western Conference Finals:
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 4. Oklahoma City Thunder
This is Durant and company’s chance to get revenge on last year; however, this still seems like one year too early. Perkins will definitely help them against Gasol, Bynum and Odom as will the newly freed and improved Ibaka. However, I still believe the Lakers are bigger and more experienced. Artest can play Durant tough and the Lakers can use Kobe at key spots to slow down Durant. The Lakers may just make Westbrook and Durant beat them, which will make the series close but won’t make them lose it. I think the Thunder come to the brink, but the Lakers prevail in one those crazy endings like they did against the Suns last year.
Prediction: Lakers in 7
2011 NBA Finals
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. 2. Miami Heat
This is not an original prediction but it is the NBA Finals that I believe that most people want to see and it may be the NBA Finals that saves the league from a momentum-killing lockout. The NBA is riding such a high right now and will be throughout these playoffs that I have to hope that this series happens. The amount of stars will be legendary and nearly unparalleled. The Heat will need Dampier and his size to come up big and for some reason I feel like if the Heat make it this far, Haslem will come back from his injury and contribute one great, gritty intangible moment that shifts the series. In the end I believe that the Lakers will be too tired and that LeBron and Wade will carry the Heat to the title. The other key factor will be the fact that Bosh and Gasol sort of mirror each other and it seems like Bosh actually feels like he’s tougher than Gasol, which helps his mentality throughout the series. The Heat can wear down and annoy Bynum with Dampier’s size and Anthony’s energy and they can throw Ilgauskus in there for spots to pull Bynum away. The Heat match up with the Lakers better than any team in the East and if they get to the Finals, they will prevail even though we will see some great heroics from Kobe and Odom and a few shots of LeBron and Artest going face to face and Kobe and Wade trading steals and dives along the court. Just those images are giving me goose bumps and making me feel slightly better at not picking the Celtics and Lakers rubber match as great as that would be—and it is just some level of Celtics confidence and swagger away from happening. It’s all up for grabs, but this is what I’m predicting.
Prediction: Heat in 7