San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Utah Jazz (8)
The Spurs once again, for the second year in a row, are tops in the Western Conference. This time they chased down the Oklahoma City Thunder, while resting key players throughout the season. Coach Popovich, has a deep and talented squad that boasts an MVP candidate in Tony Parker. While the Spurs were upset last season in the first round as a #1 seed, Manu Ginobli was injured and his injury was pivotal in handing the Memphis Grizzlies a first round victory. The Utah Jazz was the last team to qualify, but they are not your average #8 seed. The Jazz will need to push their advantage on the boards and in the paint as Utah is the NBA’s premier Points in the Paint team. It won’t be enough to take two from San Antonio. Spurs in 5.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
The defending Champions draw the trendy pick to come out of the west this year, but the Champs are not whole, and miss Tyson Chandler greatly. This time, OKC will hold home court, and are heavy favorites to advance in short order. What a difference a year makes. While OKC does not have an answer for Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas will have issues matching up with the speed of OKC. Although the Mavs’ defensive numbers are looking very much like last year’s, their offensive efficiency has been putrid and they rely more than ever on the mid range game, which will be murder in this series. Experience and home court wins two games for the Mavericks in what could be an entertaining series. Thunder in 6.
Los Angeles Lakers (3) vs. Denver Nuggets (6)
At first glance, this series looks like a Laker romp, but upon further inspection, you see where the Nuggets can exploit a slow footed Laker perimeter Defense. The Nuggets can score and play at a high pace, both of which are essential to beat the Lakers. I expect Ty Lawson to have his way with the Lakers back court and that will be enough to keep them in every game, as he sets up his shooters. The loss of Metta World Peace for this series, is important with how well World Peace had played coming down the stretch. The health of Kobe Bryant is also a concern, but the size advantage the Lakers boast and Mike Brown’s defensive philosophy of extending his defense on the perimeter to take away three point shooting, will pay dividends in what will be a short series. The games will play out much like they did in the regular season. Lakers in 5.
Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5)
The Grizzlies had an improbable run last season knocking off the #1 Spurs and stretching OKC to 7 games. This time, they are not sneaking up on anybody. The Clippers make their first playoff appearance since 2006, and they have what should have been a much more serious MVP Candidate Chris Paul to thank for it. Paul has made all the difference, and Paul alone makes this team a difficult out for anybody. The matchup down low of Randolph/Gasol and Griffin/Jordan will be fun to watch. The un-polished nature of Blake Griffin’s game, will decide this series in my opinion. The Clippers don’t have an option for efficient scoring down the stretch in games, and the Grizzlies are built on precisely that. Chris Paul will extend this series the full 7, but being the Clips only real advantage does not bode well for a series win. Grizzlies in 7.
Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8)
Chicago has had trouble in the past with the Sixers, and Doug Collins deserves credit for being the first to recognize the success that “going small” can have against the Bulls. The Health of Derrick Rose is an issue, but not one that is fatal in the first round. The Bulls will receive a scare in this series as the Sixers just matchup well, and seem to play with much more confidence when facing Chicago. This series will have drama, and will make for good TV till the Bulls out class the Sixers as the series goes longer. More importantly for Chicago, will be how Derrick Rose integrates into the starting lineup and whether Coach Tom Thibodeau adjusts his rotation to accommodate him. Bulls in 6.
Miami Heat (2) vs. New York Knicks (7)
This will be the most talked about series of the first round, and a real ratings grabber. Too bad that it will be short lived. This is one team that the Heat enjoy a sound rebounding advantage against, and the Knicks’ best lineups put them at a disadvantage due to matchups. The Knicks propensity to run isolation offense will play right into the hands of the NBA’s #1 Iso Defense, and they have not built much chemistry to do much else. The Knicks play best when pushing a fast pace and going small, both of which are terrible ideas when playing the Miami Heat. This is a matchup nightmare for New York, but the hype and aesthetics of a Knicks / Heat matchup will carry this series in the hype department for the first 3 games. Reality will set in during game 3 at MSG when the Knicks realize they just can’t win. On paper, this is the most lopsided series of the first round based on team rankings, and stats. Only the Knicks star power and an extraordinary performance can force a 6th game. I say they get 1 to break a playoff game winless streak that stretches past 10 years. Heat in 5.
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Orlando Magic (6)
While the Heat/Knicks matchup is the most lopsided on paper, this one is the most lopsided in reality. The Magic as presently constituted do not belong in the playoffs. This team minus Dwight Howard is no better than a .500 lottery team that would struggle for a run at a #8 seed. They are built around Howard and without him, they have a aimless look to them. The Pacers catch a smooth, stress free matchup here, and should take care of Orlando in not much more than 5 games. Orlando still has the ability to get hot from beyond the arc, and that might be enough to steal one game. I will be generous and give them one win at home. Pacers in 5.
Atlanta Hawks (4) vs. Boston Celtics (5)
With Al Horford in, I think the Hawks would be clear cut favorites in this series. The media at large still has this romantic notion that the Celtics are the same Celtics that reigned atop the Eastern Conference. They are not. They have however improved in the youth and athleticism department, but playoff success will only come from what Rondo, Pierce and Garnett give them. Ray Allen’s injury and up in the air status at this late date, makes him likely to not have any impact on this series. Ray Allen was 4-6 from three and scored 19 points in his one meeting with the Hawks this year. The Celtics need that game from him every once and a while for real playoff success. The Hawks had success keeping Rajon Rondo out of the paint, as Rondo shot a terrible 7-30 from the field in two meetings with Atlanta. The problem with picking Atlanta in this series is the status of Al Horford keeps what could be a pretty big advantage at bay, and allows the Celtics to play Garnett at center without much concern for foul trouble. However, I still see an upset in this one. Hawks in 7.