Damn you Grizzlies for ruining my perfect second round. In fact, it was the Grizz who ruined an otherwise spotless first round as well, so now that they're gone you can expect nothing short of perfection. Still, we're sporting a 10 out of 12 record, and yes, that includes correctly predicting the Mavs taking out the defending champs (the sweep we did not see coming however). Now we enter the Conference Finals, where it's starting to feel like a race to see which team from the West will inevitably lose in the finals (oh how the tides have turned). But before that happens, we have to figure out which two teams will make it.
No. 1 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 2 Miami Heat
Yeah, I know everyone was sort of excited about the Celtics, Heat matchup, but anyone who watched the C's down the stretch knew it wouldn't be much of a series. Now this is a series. The two best teams in the East—hell, the entire NBA—meet up in the Conference Finals. It's exactly what the off season dictated, and proof yet again that the NBA free agency system is flawed (or at least severely tilted towards the big market teams). We're not saying the Bulls and Heat don't deserve to be here, we're just saying if you're going to bitch about the Yankees buying championships, you should take a hard look at the two teams representing the cream of the NBA crop as well. That political rant aside, the Heat come in playing their best basketball of the entire season, which is a scary thought considering the names they possess. Yet despite all of those names, it's the Bulls who have been great all season and possess the league's MVP. And through it all, Chicago remains the only team the Heat have not been able to figure out. We all know the names and the enormity of what's on the line, so who are you going to take? The guy who's led his team like a champion all season, or the guys who felt like they weren't good enough unless they teamed up together?
Prediction: Bulls in 6
No. 3 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder
Raise your hand if you saw this one coming? Now take your hand and repeatedly slap yourself for lying. Even if you're one of the 13 people not from Dallas who foresaw the Mavs taking out the Lakers, only four of those people predicted the Thunder to make it this far as well. The irony of course, is both teams are centered around dominant shooting, skinny 7-footers who most consider too soft to lead their respective teams to a championship. Yet, here they both are, having just dispatched of teams with bigger, more physical big men. So what will be the defining factor of this series besides Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki? Experience would suggest the Mavs, but as the Capitals in the NHL have proven this year (and the Braves of many years in baseball, and the Bills in the NFL), nothing is more difficult to overcome than playoff pressure for a team who is supposed to win yet can't seem to on a consistent basis. I'm thinking this matchup lies in the hands of Russell Westbrook, and if the combo of Jason Kidd and J.J. Barrea can stop him. Westbrook has a penchant for shooting too much while Barrea is coming off a series where he destroyed the Lakers back court, so it's anyone's guess. Just like this series. Does Kevin Durant start his era of greatness in 2011, or does Dirk finally get to the promised land?
Prediction: Thunder in 7
We enter the second round with a seven out of eight, and considering the only series we predicted wrong was the eighth-seed Grizzlies taking out the top seed Spurs, we're feeling pretty good about ourselves. But now it gets interesting. The Eastern Conference is shaping up exactly how Mr. Stern dreamt, while the Western Conference pits the youth movement in one game, and the senior circiut in the other. So who will get the chance to play for the right to head to the finals? Just remember, 83.3 percent of the time we're right 100 percent of the time.
No. 1 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
MVP Derrick Rose gets the luck of the Eastern Conference draw, playing the fifth seed Hawks, right? I call shenanigans. The Hawks sport one of the best starting five in the playoffs including a backcourt that can at least keep up the scoring pace with Rose. And for all of those waiting for Carlos Boozer to have his breakout in this series, consider Jason Collins just held Dwight Howard in check; I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for any Utah resurrection in round two. I literally just told Blake my gut is telling me the Hawks will make it all the way to the finals, but my wallet keeps slapping me every time I move to make the bet. The only thing holding me back from taking the Hawks is their often-porous defense, which, with the Knicks gone, is now the worst left in the east (incidentally, they would be the second-best in the west). I think Rose will inevitably pull the Bulls through, but not without a fight.
Prediction: Bulls in 7
No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 3 Boston Celtics
Everyone knows the Celtics stocked up with big men to combat the Lakers, but it simultaneously looked like a preemptive move to create a mismatch against the Heat. And if you asked me back in November who would win this matchup, I would've confidently told you Boston. But as the Celtics continue to age right in front of our eyes, Miami is playing their best basketball, gaining confidence and cohesion with each game. Sure, the Celtics swept the Knicks, but a closer look at the numbers will show they're struggling. They only managed 96 points per game against a team who gave up 106 per in the regular season, and despite New York's lack of a true center, all those big men couldn't pull 40 team rebounds a game. The veteran C's always play sound defense, but all of that means nothing if you can't score or rebound consistently, and with Rondo all of a sudden a question mark, the matchup is decidedly in the Heat's favor. And that my friends is how you explain why Miami will dominate their second-round series without a single mention of those three dudes.
Prediction: Heat in 5
No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 3 Dallas Mavericks
Every way you look at this matchup the Lakers win. Even with the Dirk factor in effect, you have to take the team of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and who on the Mavs can keep up with Kobe? No one, that's who. In fact, as he proved yet again in the series with the Hornets, when he turns it on, there is no one in the NBA who can defend him. And the best sixth-man, Lamar Odom, would be starting on any other team. Long story short, the Lakers are just too deep and stout to fall to the Mavericks. Which is why I can't give you any explanation why I am predicting they will. Maybe it's because I'm Maverick. Oh, and remember those comments Mark Cuban made about Phil Jackson being a boy-toy? This should be a fun one.
Prediction: Mavericks in 7
No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
By virtue of winning their division, the Thunder get the luxury of playing the eighth seed Grizzlies while the two and three seeds battle it out. I don't understand it either. But what seemed like a completely lopsided matchup on paper all of a sudden is showcasing the leagues two most exciting big men. Zach Randolph is making this year's playoffs his personal coming out party, and he's posting Durant-like numbers. Of course, Durant will continue to post Durant-like numbers, but he doesn't have Marc Gasol to help him dominate the paint so thoroughly. And in a season where every team has tried to go big, all of a sudden the Grizzlies might be the biggest, strongest team standing. The eighth-seed has a lot of people fooled, but no one in the league wants to face Memphis right now—not as they're riding a second half of the season and playoffs where they currently stand at 32-13 since the break. And that includes the two games at the end of the season some say they blew on purpose to take a San Antonio/Oklahoma City route in the playoffs. I know, Kendrick Perkins is back, but it won't matter. Just imagine how good the Grizzlies would be if they had Rudy Gay.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 6
Isn't this the best time of the year? Baseball season is in full bloom, the NHL playoffs just started, and now comes the excitement of playoff basketball to top it all off. We could throw NFL hot-stove, draft discussions into the mix, but they've been watered down by labor negotiations and the lockout, which is a perfect way to segue to the NBA playoffs. Heading into a potential lockout of their own, and considering commissioner David Stern's ability to put everything and everyone second to the almighty dollar, this is probably the last professional basketball we'll see for at least a year. And if the world ends in 2012, forever. Think about that folks. These are the last NBA games to ever be played.
No. 1 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 8 Indiana Pacers
The Bulls rose to the top of the league in 2011, and after a couple years of “almost,” they now look to be on the verge of being a championship caliber team. The Pacers, meanwhile, happen to be the only team in the playoffs with a losing record. Everyone knows defense wins championships, and stopping Derrick Rose will be priority No. 1 for Indiana. Too bad for the Pacers they're also only one of two teams (the other being the Hawks) to give up more points than they've scored, and they sport the fourth worst defense in the playoffs overall. About the only thing the Pacers can do is haul up 3-pointers—they did shoot 56% from beyond the arc in the first game… and still lost. Time to start chucking. Where's Reggie Miller when you need him?
Prediction: Bulls in 4
No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers
Let's just save the Heat bashing for round two, because this seems like a good opportunity to talk about the NBA's money-me-first complex that has driven it to the brink of a lockout. Let me remind you this is a league that let a team walk away from the biggest market in the North West (Seattle). This is a league that is considering moving a third team to Los Angeles. This is a league who allows a Russian mobster to be an owner. And this is a league who perennially has teams with losing records in the playoffs. What do they all have in common? They're all money-driven decisions, no matter the moral or quality of play implications, and they've proven to be detrimental to the league (Mikhail Prokhorov aside thus far). And it's these types of decisions that makes the best player in the NBA a villain, the league go into a lockout, and forces us, the fans, to sit through this ridiculous series. I'll give the Sixers a game because the Heat will inevitably get lazy one night.
Prediction: Heat in 5
No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 New York Knickerbockers
The Celtics squeaked by the Knicks with a Ray Allen buzzer beater in game one to take the opener 87-85. This was a good effort by the Knicks, and probably pretty indicative of how the series will be played. Close, hard fought games that will see the Celtics win games based solely on playoff experience and clutch performances. But C's fans shouldn't get too excited about a deep playoff run. With Rondo sputtering and the big three roughly a 2.5 at this point in their career, I don't see them being able to keep teams like Miami and Chicago to such low point totals. And if they can't score 90 points against the worst defense in the playoffs (one who allowed over 105 points per game in the regular season), they are in for some trouble. Still, the Knicks are a year or two away from being legitimate contenders.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
No. 4 Orlando Magic vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
Now we're talking a series. Atlanta is a sleeper pick who could easily go deep into the playoffs. In fact, the only team I see giving them a hard time are the Bulls (who will give everyone a hard time). The Hawks don't have a long bench, but their starting five of Jason Collins, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Kirk Heinrich matches up well with just about anyone in the playoffs. Conversely, Orlando is a deep team with no real threat(s) beyond Dwight Howard. The proof was in game one, where Howard scored 46 points and the Magic still lost. Even more scary for the Magic; when Atlanta's center Collins was on the court, the Hawks had a plus-14 scoring differential. That means he's incredibly effective at slowing down Dwight Howard, even if he might not be able to stay out of foul trouble. I'd love to see them play the Heat or Celtics in the next round just so they can get some mainstream TV time, because this is a fun team to watch.
Prediction: Hawks in 6
No.1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
While a few game ones in the West resulted in a few puzzling home court upsets, it is hardly cause to catch playoff fever and make rash proclamations that an eighth seed upset is indeed possible. Zach Randolph's proficient beasting will not be enough for a reenactment of the Mutombo tears of joy moment. Both teams have significant injuries. Unfortunately for the Grizz, the absence of Rudy Gay is far more detrimental than the Spurs missing Manu “The Bat Slapper” Ginobili. Cheers to the Grizz for making the playoffs, but they will not see Richard Jefferson taking any more game-tying shots in the series.
Prediction: Spurs in 5
No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 7 New Orleans Hornets
The Lakers are in shambles, utter fuggin' shambles. The Lake Show lost five straight in April to finish the season with a 3-7 record. It's enough to take Kobe's greater-than-thou smirk down a few pegs to a flat-lined stone face. Chris Paul was phenomenal in game 1, but my guess is Derek Fisher takes it upon himself to be a nuisance the remainder to the series, considering that's his only worth to the team. Expect shoving matches and head games from the Lakers. Once again, let's save our Cinderella-story words for March Madness and never forget the NBA is a business. Even though David Stern technically owns the Hornets, he's not ready to lose his most coveted market in the first round—but think of all the skrilla should this series go to 7 games. Hmmm.
Prediction: Lakers in 7
No. 3 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 6 Portland Trailblazers
Will the Dallas Fighting Mark Cubans ever win a championship, delivering the Lone Star city from its curse of big promises to even bigger let downs? The Portland Trailblazers are the Mavericks worst nightmare. The Mavs would have been better served to drop a few games and let OKC deal with the Blazers. Dirk's 12-straight in the fourth weathered a shit storm from the Blazers and it will take a series-worth of MVP-worthy performances from the Dirkster for the Mavs to advance, depleting the fuel tanks for a run at the Western Conference Finals. The Mavs saving grace won't be their veteran-savvy, but a relief that Brandon Roy doesn't have a good foot to hop on and do bad things in the clutch.
Prediction: Mavericks in 6
No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Denver Nuggets
This series will be a shootout featuring rag-tag play that leads to jaw-dropping dunks and buzzer beaters. Neither team plays smart veteran ball, but elects to push their raw skills to the limit and dazzle you to defeat. The upside to the Thunder getting the Nuggets in the first round is the Nuggets' roster was butchered by the Carmelo trade. The Nuggets might have only lost by 4 points, but allowing Durant and Westbrook to combine for 72 points foreshadows an early exit. The downside to the Thunder playing the Nuggets is the potential detriments that come with sloppy first round play that won't cut it in the later rounds and too much rest. The Thunder would be better suited in the Hornets position of toppling a Goliath, than entering the second round with big-heads like the commercials.
Prediction: Thunder in 4