The NBA Playoffs start Saturday and Sunday with the first round. I’ll be handling the Western Conference and I’ll include my picks for the East down below. The presumptive favorites for the NBA Finals to start the year were the OKC Thunder and Miami Heat, who both claimed the 2 seed in their respective conferences. In the West, I’ll start with the matchup that most interests fans of this blog, and I’ll devote most of the analysis to it as well.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs (8) Utah Jazz
The Spurs won the season series 3-1 and the Jazz’s lone victory came in Utah and did not include Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobli. The Spurs’ big 3 will be well rested coming into the playoffs, having taken the last two games of the regular season off. Despite missing their stars, San Antonio still finished on a 10-game winning streak to wrap up a 50-win season with a record of 50-16. The Jazz also finished the season with some momentum, riding a 5-game win streak to clinch a playoff berth.
Putting my personal bias aside, I do think it’s a mistake to write off the Jazz in this series. Even though their only victory over the Spurs this year requires an asterisk, they played San Antonio tough. While Tim Duncan still plays at a highly efficient level, I think the size of the Jazz will give the Spurs problems. Remember that last year as the #1 seed, the Spurs were upset by the Grizzlies, largely due to the size advantage of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Jazz have been using a big lineup rather effectively, featuring Paul Millsap at the 3, Derrick Favors at the 4, and Al Jefferson at the 5. All 3 will need to be at their best for the Jazz to have a chance. Additionally, Utah will need to rely on their depth to match up with the Spurs’ 2nd unit. San Antonio runs like a well-oiled machine and the Jazz will need big performances from the bench to keep pace. Devin Harris and Gordon Hayward were both spectacular in April, that will have to continue.
I really, really want to go bold and predict the Jazz to upset the Spurs in 6 games. I fervently believe that this series will go 6 or 7 games. The Spurs have flown under the radar a bit this year, with most of the hype focusing on the Thunder, Clippers, and Lakers. I really want to be proven wrong on this prediction with the Jazz scoring the upset. However, I have to go with my head over my heart.
Prediction: Spurs in 7.
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs (7) Dallas Mavericks
The defending champion Dallas Mavericks made no secret about their plans to sacrifice this year for the sake of building for next year, with Deron Williams likely to be their primary focus of free agency. With that, it’s impressive the Mavs were still able to make the playoffs in the talented West. The Thunder took the next step this season that everybody was expecting, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing at an elite level. The health of probable 6th Man of the Year James Harden will be key for OKC in this postseason after he suffered a concussion from the elbow of Metta World Peace. The Thunder are far too talented, even if Harden misses a couple of games, to be slowed down by the Mavs in this rematch of the 2011 Western Conference Finals. OKC will get their revenge.
Prediction: Thunder in 5.
(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs (6) Denver Nuggets
Who do you root for in this series as a Jazz fan? It goes against everything we believe in to ever root for the Lakers (that Karl Malone year never happened. It NEVER HAPPENED.) but we have no love for the longtime division rival Nuggets either. Personally, I give the slight edge to the Nuggets as far as rooting goes although from a talent perspective, the edge goes to L.A. Andrew Bynum took his game to a level that many have been waiting for, challenging Dwight Howard for the claim of “best center in the NBA.” Kobe Bryant is still an elite player despite the stage he’s at in his career. He narrowly missed the scoring title, sitting out the final game of the regular season to hand the title to Durant. The Nuggets had an up and down year, fighting through injuries to get back into the playoffs. I would be delighted to see the Lakers make a first round exit but I begrudgingly admit that it’s unlikely Kobe Bryant will allow that to happen.
Prediction: Lakers in 6.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs (5) Memphis Grizzlies
The Clippers are back in the playoffs because of Chris Paul, period. Yes, having Blake Griffin doesn’t hurt but CP3 elevated that team to another level and you can make a compelling case that he should be the league MVP over even LeBron James or Kevin Durant. He is a tremendous talent and spectacular floor leader. With that said, him and Griffin are essentially all they have. It’s the two of them with a cast of role players. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, are a dangerous team that is being overlooked. After their playoff run last year, they seem to have been written off by the media after Zach Randolph got hurt. But Z-Bo is back and this time the Grizzlies have a healthy Rudy Gay to go with the big man combo of Randolph and Marc Gasol. Memphis knocked off the Spurs last year and gave the Thunder a close series. It’s not much of an upset when it’s 4 vs 5 but this prediction feels oddly easy.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 5.
I’ll go ahead and project my winners for the other rounds as well as the Eastern Conference while I’m at it.
Western Conference 2nd Round: (1) Spurs vs (5) Grizzlies, (2) Thunder vs (3) Lakers.
Prediction: Spurs in 6, Thunder in 5.
Western Conference Finals: (1) Spurs vs (2) Thunder.
Prediction: Spurs in 7.
Eastern Conference First Round: (1) Bulls vs (8) Sixers, (2) Heat vs (7) Knicks, (3) Pacers vs (6) Magic, (4) Celtics vs (5) Hawks.
Prediction: Bulls in 4, Heat in 5, Pacers in 5, Celtics in 7.
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: (1) Bulls vs (3) Pacers, (2) Heat vs (4) Celtics
Prediction: Pacers in 7, Heat in 6
Eastern Conference Finals: (2) Heat vs (3) Pacers
Prediction: Heat in 5
NBA Finals: (1) Spurs vs (2) Heat
Prediction: Heat in 7.
It might look like I’m being cute with the Pacers upsetting the Bulls and maybe I am. I certainly won’t be surprised to see the Bulls and Heat in the Conference Finals. I was tempted to pick the Spurs to win it all but I think this is the year the Heat pull it off. Of course, it’s really just guesswork and I won’t be surprised to see the Heat, Bulls, or Celtics represent the East. In the West, I think it’s the Spurs, Thunder, and Grizzlies. Those 6 feel like the most likely to make the Finals.
Naturally, what I’m rooting for is the Jazz to shock everybody and storm to the title, taking down the Bulls in the NBA Finals for some sweet poetic justice.