It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Hellz yeah, kids – it’s April 27, the weather (at least in southern Utah) is awesome, summer vacation plans are in motion, school only has about three weeks left … that must mean one thing: THE NBA PLAYOFFS, BABY!
I enjoy the NCAA Tourney and the NFL as much as anyone, but for my money nothing beats the NBA Playoffs. What’s better than Kevin Harlan proclaiming “Right between the eyes!” after Jason Terry nails a clutch jumper right over LeBron (aka, the self-proclaimed “Chosen One”) James? Or watching Chris Paul dismantle a Lakers defense with his patented cross-over? Or watching an eighth-seeded team take on and annihilate the number one-seeded San Antonio Spurs … Yeah, I’d really like it if that last scenario happened again this season.
In any event, now is the time we’ve all been waiting for: when teams collide, clutch prevails and champions emerge. It’s also time for my Eastern Conference predictions – Matt already handled the Western Conference earlier this afternoon, which you can find here.
The Eastern Conference emerged as a legitimate threat the moment LBJ ran his butt on over to Miami to cheat his way to a championship. Problem is, nearly everyone in the league followed suite. Since the much maligned “The Decision”, superstar players have been leaping about like friggin grasshoppers attempting to mimic the Heat with their own unstoppable powerhouses as a means of taking on LeBron and crew. While only a few teams succeeded in rivaling Miami’s star power (see the Knicks and Clippers), others fell by the wayside, outdone by hype, star-ego or just plain selfishness (why did the camera suddenly cut to D-Will and Dwight Howard?).
As such, Miami emerges amongst the favorites to take the Eastern Conference, but faces stiff competition in the form of Chicago, Indiana and the always reliable Boston Celtics. Even New York (Miami’s first round opponent) presents a challenge, if only because Melo typically rises up for games against his 2003 co-draftie. That alone makes watching their first round match-up slightly intriguing (as opposed to, say, a first round Miami-76ers sweep), if not problematic (I hate Melo just as much as I hate LeBron).
Still, this post-season promises to be one of the best yet. Heck, if these playoffs contain even .25-percent of the entertainment value we saw last year NBA fans are in for a great ride!
Chicago Bulls vs. Philadelphia 76ers
This series carries an emotional heft for most Jazzfans, or at least it does for me. Case in point: Kyle Korver, the devout, kick-arse outside shooter who more or less gave everything he had to Sloan’s empire and subsequently (and unfairly) found himself without a job at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, now dons a red and black jersey on a nightly basis; and throws down his long distance hate mail from the Chicago rafters. Same with Ronnie Brewer, a versatile guard/forward that we traded away to Memphis for a protected 2010 first-round pick (which the Jazz used as an asset to acquire Big Al, so alls well) – Brewer then fled to Chicago, where he now serves as a prominent defender coming off the bench (even starting at times). Not too shabby.
Despite the whole Chicago/MJ thing, the Bulls really are a fun team to watch and root for. I love Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Loul Deng – a potent trio if there ever was one – and even admire the way Carlos Boozer succumbed to Coach Tom Thibodeau’s mantra, IE not serving as the go-to offensive player (as opposed to his time in Utah where the Jazz brass insisted he be the go-to player even if he never fully embraced the idea). As of now, Chicago remains my pick to win it all this year. Their defense is astonishing, able to win games against good clubs sans Rose, while their offense can (at times) crackle with all the ferocity the basketball gods can muster.
The Bulls’ one weakness, however, lies in their inability to stay healthy. Rose, in particular, missed an astonishing 26-games (not including the final season chillaxing he enjoyed against the Cavs yesterday) – and yet, Chicago stands atop the NBA entire with the best record in the league (winning the tie against San Antonio).
I don’t have much to say about the 76ers. They’re kind of like the Utah Jazz in that they performed admirably enough down the stretch to secure a playoff bout, but have no chance of making it through the first round.
Philly’s roster consists of guys like Andre Iguodala, Lou Williams, Elton Brand, and Thaddeus Young, a potent offense to be sure. But enough to get through Chicago’s elite defense? Probably not.
Still, throughout the season Philly gave Chicago a run for their money and even walked away with a 98-82 win back in February. Expect close games, but games that Chicago will ultimately win.
Miami Heat vs. New York Knicks
Miami doesn’t carry the same evil-as-dirt stigma they indignantly harbored last season. Nobody wanted them to win last year – after all, winning a championship can’t be THAT easy – but society seems to have embraced the inevitable: the Heat are an exciting, if not mind numbing team to watch. LBJ and co. still do their much maligned celebrations at the end of every play (mostly because said plays are spectacular), but all involved (including D-Wade and Bosh) have done a better job at allowing the limelight to find them rather than leaping into it with all the muster of a horny bull seeking its mate. (Or maybe I’m just watching less ESPN these days.)
The first round match-up between James, D-Wade and The Other Guys (can’t you just picture those two superstars giving a Samuel L. Jackson-inspired speech to the likes of Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers?) features Carmelo Anthony and his rags-to-riches-to-rags Knicks. I pretty much expect this series to go the way it has all season: New York puts up a good fight for three quarters, but reveals its lack of offensive spunk come crunch time, thus resulting in disheartening losses for all involved (everybody goes home sad except Melo, who has no heart).
Then again, since Coach Mike D’Antoni *ahem* left his post a few months ago, interim coach Mike Woodson has done a fairly decent job keeping his boys at bay, going 18-6 while squeezing some truly inspiring defense out of an underachieving squad. (Plus there’s always Jeremy Lin … you know, that guy who was the talk of the town a mere month ago?)
I think the Knicks have it in them to win at least two home games, but I wouldn’t put it past Melo and co. to hang their heads after Miami demolishes them in the first two games … thus resulting in a horrific sweep.
Indiana Pacers vs. Orlando Magic
I kind of fell in love with Indiana this season. Not just because they managed to throw together one of the best records in all of basketball as quietly as a friggin mouse wearing stealth enhanced shoes, but mainly because, well, they’re the team that drafted MyPlayer in 2K12. And so, I’ve taken a liking to Granger, Collison, Hibbert, and the boys … though they won’t get far without me …
Indiana landed a jackpot in their first round. While everyone else plays against teams that could potentially test them in every way possible, the Pacers get to play against the injury-ridden, Dwight Howard-less Magic. Oh sure, Orlando’s still a good team (thanks to their outside shooting), but with just a handful of capable players and no legitimate inside threat I really don’t see them putting up much of a fight.
The good news for Orlando is the welcome return of Hedo Turkoglu who posted a healthy 18 points against the Grizzlies in his first game back after suffering a facial fracture at the beginning of April. Turkoglu allows Orlando’s offense to run more efficiently, even taking pressure off Jameer Nelson during portions of the game.
The key for Orlando to sneak by with a win or two lies in how well they handle themselves in the fourth quarter. With a depleted lineup, Coach Stan Van Gundy cannot afford to take any of his big boys off the court. So expect plenty of minutes for Hedo, Nelson, Redick, and Anderson – something Indiana will eat up in the fourth quarter with their much deeper bench.
This series looks like it could be a sweep, but I’ll give Orlando some credibility: they carry enough veteran leadership to outlast Indiana’s young, up-and-coming squad for at least a game or two.
Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics
I haven’t watched either of these teams that often this season, save for when Utah met up with them a month ago (during a brutal stretch for our boys). What I do know is this: Boston struggled early in the season, but quickly found their mojo through stellar defense and veteran clutch (they beat the Heat twice this season, though one of those games came mere nights ago when wannabe-Coach Spoelstra sat all of his guys). I don’t see them as legitimate championship contenders, but I think they offer plenty of nightmarish match-ups for any team (provided Rondo doesn’t have to play with one arm hanging lifelessly next to his body).
Atlanta does what Atlanta always do: they win enough to sit in the middle of the Eastern Conference – not quite bad enough to sit out, but not quite good enough to participate either. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are two solid players, as is Kirk Heinrich; but without Al Horford, who missed 95-percent of the season, Atlanta remains strikingly one dimensional.
Against Boston, Atlanta will find it difficult to score as they have all season. The Hawks lost the first two match-ups and only won the third because Doc Rivers sat his Big Old Three.
What the Hawks do possess is speed – the ability to make plays in transition. They also shoot the 3-ball well, and have the league’s fifth best defense.
All told, I think Boston steals this one based on veteran leadership alone. Plus Doc Rivers remains one of the smartest coaches in the league. But that doesn’t mean a sweep. Indeed Atlanta holds the edge because I think this might be a home game series – except Boston will win the finale in Atlanta.
As for the Western Conference, my feeling is thus: no team emerged this season as a dominating threat. Sure the Spurs carry the number one record, but they did the same last year and look how far that got them. The Lakers are still the Lakers, sans Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. Bynum’s play has really helped keep LA in the hunt; and there’s always Kobe, but I don’t think they have enough fire power to overcome a very hungry Oklahoma City team.
Speaking of the Thunder, they’re probably the best in the west, but not in the league if only because Westbrook occasionally makes stupid, selfish plays – against LA (in the game where Harden got smacked by World Peace), the man continually turned the ball over, forced shots and tried to be the hero. That team still hasn’t figured out that Kevin Durant is the go-to guy. Always.
Memphis looks fairly solid – and I see them upsetting the Clips, because Paul and co. don’t have anything to offer other than dunking ability – but lacks that final piece (another center, a better power forward … I dunno) to make them elite. (They’re kinda like the Pacers of the west in that regard – young, strong, but ultimately lacking.)
Dallas traded away most of its championship squad and, no matter what Nowitzki and Terry do, have neither the fire power or defensive gusto to stop anyone.
A month ago Denver looked scary good, but injuries to Wilson Chandler (plus Coach George Karl remains about as inept in the playoffs as Sloan) keep them from breaking the barrier.
And then there’s Utah – a team I’d love to see do something, but will probably have to make due with a quick one and done. No, they won’t get swept. I foresee a solid series with San Antonio, but remember: this is still the same Jazz squad that nearly threw away their playoff chances against teams like Boston, Sac-Town and Atlanta. I like everyone from Sap to Evans, and think they did a bang up job on the Suns – but I also have to be realistic.
And so that leaves us with a powerful Eastern Conference that, in all truthfulness, stands head and shoulders above our Pacific crowd. Chicago and Miami take the top spots, obviously; and I even think Boston and Indiana offer more pizazz than either San Antonio or Oklahoma City (ok, that might be pushing it – OKC is good …). Luckily, the west only has to play one of those guys – and I think it’ll be Chicago.
Why? One equation: Defense + Offense = Awesomeness.
Miami clobbered Chicago last year defensively, and so Coach Thibbs went out and threw together and even more potent lineup, adding versatile guard Rip Hamilton to take some slack off Rose. Recently, against the Heat, Chicago held their own even without Rose in the lineup. They couldn’t score, but neither could Miami. Put Rose into that situation and you have an extra 20-25 points to rely on. Chicago played a lot of games without their star and so everyone, especially back-up PG John Lucas, became that much better.
The Heat still look like the same ole Heat from last year, albeit quieter. Adding Battier was a terrific move, but I still think Miami consists of LBJ, Wade and a bunch of has-beens, or never-was-es. They still show complete ineptitude against the zone, and in close games James just doesn’t have his MJ mojo working. They might be the best regular season team in the playoffs, but until they address their main issues and stop expecting star power alone to grant them a title, I see them falling into the same trap year after year: where a good TEAM completely dismantles them. (Plus Spoelstra is an idiot who probably draws stick figures of his team playing duck duck goose during timeouts, while the real plays come from Pat Riley.)
That TEAM will be either Boston (if healthy), or Chicago.
I have no idea who will win the west, and fully expect an upset (Memphis?) – either way, Chicago won’t lose to the Spurs, the Thunder, or the Lakers. I just don’t see that happening. Do you?