After 82 hard fought games it is time for the NBA’s ”second season.” This is what fans have been waiting for ever since LeBron James stunned the basketball world by announcing he would be taking his talents to South Beach. While the team he left behind (Cleveland Cavaliers) went on to win 42 fewer games without him (19-63 down from 61-21 with James a year ago), James only went on to finish second in the league in scoring and led the Heat to 58 wins, putting him in the discussion for his third straight MVP award. Ask James and he’ll tell you that means nothing. After being accused of quitting on the Cavs last season against Boston and going out in unsportsmanlike fashion to Orlando in 2009, King James wants everyone to witness him carry the Heat to the promised land and put all the doubters to rest. To do that he will have to do what he couldn’t do at the end of last season and 3 out of 4 times this season with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in tow: beat the Boston Celtics. Will he succeed? Check out my predictions on this and the rest of what promises to be one of the best NBA Playoffs ever.
1 Chicago Bulls vs 8 Indiana Pacers
When the Indiana Pacers fought to make the playoffs they were probably expecting to face the Miami Heat, who they beat earlier in the year. Instead they got a Bulls team clicking on all cylinders led by MVP front runner Derrick Rose. The Bulls won 62 games this season and locked up home court advantage throughout the entire playoffs. The Bulls only won 60 games five other times in franchise history (hint: all in the 1990′s) and each time they went on to win the NBA title. Read on to see if I think they will make it six, but they will get off to a good start.
Prediction: The Bulls finally get out of the first round (not being a #8 seed helps that way) in a sweep 4-0.
4 Orlando Magic vs 5 Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks won the season series 3 games to 1, however I am not sold on an Atlanta team that lost by more than 30 points on their home floor three different times. Al Horford has made strides this ear but he is not a true center and will be overmatched by Orlando center Dwight Howard. Atlanta is a mystery to me. They play well enough to be a mid-level playoff team (more a testament to the weak Eastern Conference) but you never expect them to progress to title contender. They are getting no respect and it feels like they don’t really care. I can’t take a team seriously if the road team’s fans are louder than the home fans in your own gym. Joe Johnson is a quiet superstar and may need to change that perception (especially since he signed a huge contract to stay for five years when he could have went elsewhere) if the Hawks are going to go anywhere in the future. I just want to see him get mad and carry the Hawks for once. It won’t happen this year, however. Not even this round.
Prediction: Orlando shows regular season matchup is a fluke taking out the Hawks 4-2.
3 Boston Celtics vs 6 New York Knicks
This will be the most interesting series in the first round of the East playoffs. These two teams haven’t met in the playoffs since 1990 where the Knicks upset the favored Celtics in a best of 5 series by winning the final three games. This current crop of Knickerbockers have the tools to repeat history. The loss of Kendrick Perkins will be glaring for Boston if Shaquille O’Neal is not productive coming off a calf injury. The Knicks have the best closer in the game in Carmelo Anthony and a confident Amare Stoudamire. Chauncey Billups’ championship experience will help the Knicks, but will they play any semblance of consistent defense? Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have been down this road before but never without Perkins. Rajon Rondo the best player on the team a year ago is reportedly playing hurt and is still sulking over Perkins’ departure. This will be the longest series of the first round only because the Knicks potent offense will win a few games by default, especially over a Celtics team that has the lowest scoring average in the entire league (90.2 ppg) since early March. Boston has been doubted before and they took all that talk of their demise all the way to the NBA Finals last year. They still play something called good defense and will win the series in seven only if Shaq is a factor and Rondo returns to form, otherwise the Knicks pull the upset.
Prediction: Boston has yet to lose to the Knicks this season and have come too far to go home early. They will move on 4 games to 3.
2 Miami Heat vs 7 Philadelphia 76ers
With all the hype, drama and media coverage that bordered on overkill (there are at least two national media outlets that have season-long sections dedicated to the daily exploits of The Miami Heat — ESPN’s “Heat Index” and USA Today’s “Heat Check”) The Maimi Heat’s season starts now. All eyes will be on the new Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to see if LeBron can back up the tough talk from the narcissistic pre-season coronation/pep rally in July that introduced the trio to the Miami faithful. They get off to a great start against Philly who are a nice story, but will not be able to match up to the firepower of the Heat.
Prediction: Heat burn the Sixers 4 to 1.
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
1 Chicago Bulls vs 4 Orlando Magic
This series is a tough one to call. The Magic are playoff tested. The return of Hedo Turkoglu along with the experience of Jason Richardson (a Western Conference finalist last season in Phoenix), Gilbert Arenas, and Jameer Nelson will be a factor in this series. Chicago may be the #1 seed, but losing to Orlando would not be considered an upset in my opinion. Orlando will win this series, however I give Chicago an outside chance only if Derrick Rose gets Dwight Howard in foul trouble with his signature acrobatic drives to the cup thus leaving the middle open for Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer to go to work. Orlando has their own point to prove with Miami getting all the press and prestige in the “sunshine state” and their veteran leadership will trump youth this year, not for lack of effort from Mr. Rose.
Prediction: Orlando stops the Bulls 4-2
2 Miami Heat vs 3 Boston Celtics
When the NBA season tipped off in October with the first installment of Heat-Celtics everyone watching figured this would be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals. Unfortunately the Chicago Bulls had something to say about where these two teams would end up so the showdown comes one round early. I hate to beat a dead horse, but the absence of Kendrick Perkins effectively brought Boston back to the pack in the East. Miami reportedly loved the deal as shown in the last regular season meeting where Miami did as they pleased in the paint en route to a 100-77 win. The series won’t be as lopsided as the depth of the Celtics bench will keep the games competitive. Again, the effectiveness of Shaq (or any big other than Kevin Garnett) will swing the series. Former Heat Jermaine O’Neal will have something to prove in this series against the team that let him walk and will have a decent series.
Prediction: In another seven game marathon, the Miami Heat will upset the Celtics 4-3 and send Doc Rivers into retirement. Let the finger pointing (and rebuilding) begin in Beantown.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
2 Miami Heat vs 4 Orlando Magic
Ironically this will the toughest test for the Heat. Dwight Howard will be the only thing standing in the way of a trip to the NBA Finals for LeBron James and the Heat. For the Heat to win this series they have to get contributions from a bench that has been invisible all season. The Heat should have Udonis Haslem back by this point giving them a much needed body to bang with Howard, but the three-headed monster of Erick Dampier, Joel Anthony, and Zydrunis Ilgauskas have to use their fouls to frustrate Howard. Technical fouls accumulated in the regular season are wiped clean in the post season so unless Howard has a major meltdown that gives him 7 techs, he isn’t missing any time.
Unlike the Bulls series, getting Howard in foul trouble will not matter as the Magic have proven they can beat the Heat without Howard touching the ball on offense (as witnessed in the classic comeback from a 24-point deficit back in March). LeBron may have flashbacks to the 2009 Conference Finals with Turkoglu alongside Richardson, Arenas, and (wait for it) Ryan Anderson taking the place of Rashard Lewis behind the 3-point arc. The Magic live and die by the 3 pointer and if they are on it could extinguish the Heat. LeBron has personal incentive (proving Orlando general manager Otis Smith wrong) to make the Magic disappear, but his exploits along with Wade and Bosh may not be enough without consistent play from the Ringo Starr’s on the bench.
Prediction: Orlando upsets ”The Heatles” denying LeBron a trip to the NBA Finals 4-2 in year one of “The Process”.
1 San Antonio Spurs vs 8 Memphis Grizzlies
This is the matchup the Grizzlies wanted for reasons only known by the team itself. It has been reported that Memphis tanked the last few games to assure themselves of the 8th seed and avoid facing the Lakers. Spurs forward Tim Duncan responded simply ”we see what’s happening”. Uh oh, bulletin board material. This series won’t go more than five. The Grizz are still without their star Rudy Gay, lost for the year with a shoulder injury, and while super sub Tony Allen has been playing out of his mind the last few weeks and Memphis boasts the fourth best record in the Western Conference since the All-Star break, the Spurs have their own Big 3 in the aforementioned Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobli. Even though Ginobli hyperextended his elbow in the regular season finale, they won’t need him in this round.
Prediction: Spurs move on 4-1
4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs 5 Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets traded away the face of their franchise and didn’t miss a beat en route to a 50-win season. If that doesn’t put coach George Karl in the discussion for Coach of the Year I don’t know what does. The Nuggets have no standout superstar yet share the ball effectively in a way not seen since the Detroit Pistons of the 2000′s. The Thunder have two superstars in the NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. OKC also has Kendrick Perkins. It is hard to believe one man can swing the balance of power from one conference to the next, but it goes to show how important a serviceable big man is to a championship contender. Perkins brings the toughness that can offset Nene and any antics by Kenyon Martin. The players that came over in the trade from the Knicks will be fun to watch, but the Thunder’s defense will prove to be too daunting.
Prediction: Thunder bury the Nuggets 4-2
3 Dallas Mavericks vs 6 Portland Trailblazers
This will be as exciting as the Knicks-Celtics series. The Dallas Mavericks have been a Jekyll and Hyde team known to excel in the regular season only to flame out in the playoffs. Their inability to get out of the first round the last few years is the reason why former Mavs coach Avery Johnson is currently wasting away in New Jersey. Since blowing a chance to go up 3-0 on the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, the Mavericks have not gotten past the second round, losing in the first round twice. Not having Caron Butler hurts but Shawn Marion and Jason Terry lead a formidable bench which will be needed to help Dirk Nowitzki. Portland has a snubbed all-star in LaMarcus Aldridge an emerging star in Wesley Matthews, the high energy of Gerald Wallace, and their star player Brandon Roy currently coming off the bench (?!). They have not moved past the first round since 2000, but they will give Dallas all they can handle.
Prediction: Dallas hears the whispers of another collapse and because of it they will respond to the perceived disrespect by advancing in a tough series 4-3.
2 Los Angeles Lakers vs 7 New Orleans Hornets
Andrew Bynum only has a bone bruise in his hyperextended right knee. That means he will not miss significant time, if any at all in the playoffs. That is bad news for the rest of the Western Conference. The Lakers may not even need Bynum in this series as the Hornets will be without star forward David West. That leaves Emeka Okafor on an island against the size of the Lakers. Chris Paul will do his best but the Hornets are undersized and overmatched against the two-time defending champs.
Prediction: Lakers win 4-1.
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
1 San Antonio Spurs vs 4 Oklahoma City Thunder
The experience of the Spurs and the multiple big men (Antonio McDyess, Dejuan Blair, Duncan) they can throw at Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka combined with the neutrilization of Kevin Durant’s offense by Manu Ginobli will make the difference here. This series may go the distance as Durant and Westbrook try to set up a rematch with the Lakers in the Conference Finals, but the Spurs will prevail.
Prediction: Spurs win 4-3
2 Los Angeles Lakers vs 3 Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks got the first round monkey off their back, but reality will set in. The Mavericks will not have an answer for Pau Gasol, LaMar Odom and Bynum and there is a guy by the name of Kobe Bryant who will command a double team at some point. While Dallas has come a long way defensively they rely on their offense to dictate the pace of the game.
Prediction: Lakers advance 4-2
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
1 San Antonio Spurs vs 2 Los Angeles Lakers
Unlike the Eastern Conference, the West holds to form with the two best teams meeting for the chance to play in the Finals. San Antonio, like Boston, defied age and logic during the regular season being the last team to lose 10 games in a year where they were supposed to be in the middle of the pack. These teams are evenly matched, their regular season was a wash. Both teams have game changing superstars and a deep bench. It comes down to Kobe and Phil. Kobe has the nastiest killer instinct since Jordan and I can’t see him losing this series. Losing the #1 seed to the Spurs is just another challenge for the Black Mamba which is a bad omen for San Antonio.
Prediction: Lakers go back to the NBA Finals after a hard fought 7 game slug fest 4-3.
Orlando Magic vs Los Angeles Lakers
Probably not the team from Florida Commissioner David Stern had in mind to face the Lakers in the NBA Finals, but in a rematch of the 2009 Finals the experience of the Lakers produces the same result. It was Kobe Bryant’s mission statement to send coach Phil Jackson off with his fourth three-peat while simultaneously earning his sixth ring tying him with Michael Jordan. Again, the challenge is what drives Bryant and his will to win elevates the rest of the team to victory.
Prediction: Lakers complete the three-peat 4-2, possibly pushing Dwight Howard closer to Tinseltown after next season.
MVP: Derrick Rose (Runner-up: LeBron James)
Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago (Runner-up: Gregg Poppovich, Spurs)
Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin (Runner-up: John Wall)
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard (Runner-up: no one worth mentioning)
Sixth Man of the Year: LaMar Odom (Runner-up: Jamal Crawford)