Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks
It’s no secret that Indiana hasn’t quite been the same team in the second half of the season, and Atlanta has had a very strong April, including wins against the Heat and Pacers. For these reasons I can’t see Indiana completing a sweep, but I still think they’ll win the series fairly easily. Atlanta just doesn’t have the same talent as they’ve had in past years, and as much as I love Paul Millsap I just don’t think he can singlehandedly carry his team past the Pacers in a seven game series. Maybe if Al Horford still had two intact pectoral muscles they’d stand a chance.
Prediction: Pacers 4, Hawks 1
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Bobcats
Al Jefferson has never managed to get the respect that I think he deserves. This is probably because his personality isn’t that of the prototypical star athlete – he’s quiet and humble. But nonetheless, he manages to get the job done. I think the same can be said of the Bobcats as a team this year – they’ve managed to put together a fairly solid season, especially compared to most past Bobcats teams, but they still haven’t gotten much attention. I think now that they finally have a national stage they may surprise some people by giving the Heat a run for their money in a few games, and maybe even winning a couple, but in the end I think it’ll just be too much LeBron.
Prediction: Heat 4, Bobcats 2
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
As a Knicks fan, I know firsthand what a good GM Masai Ujiri is. Even this June, after Ujiri has left Denver to head north of the border, after last year’s 57-win Nuggets which he crafted have imploded following his departure, and after the Melo in New York experiment which everyone but Ujiri seemed to think was the best thing to ever happen to the Knicks has already blown up in all of our faces, the Nuggets are still reaping the benefits of Ujiri’s tenure in the Mile High City – the Nuggets will receive the struggling Knicks’ first round draft pick this year. And Ujiri has once again used his Midas touch, this time on the Raptors, who have gone from dead last in the Atlantic Division to a top-3 seed, and are 41-22 since trading Rudy Gay, the best record in the East since then. The Nets may be more experienced, but ultimately I don’t think that’ll be enough to overcome their age, injury issues, and lack of frontcourt depth against a very strong Toronto team.
Prediction: Raptors 4, Nets 2
Chicago Bulls vs. Washington Wizards
We’ve all heard the saying a thousand times: “Offense wins games, defense wins championships.” Certainly there is some truth to this adage – defensive-minded teams like this year’s Bulls tend to have greater success in the postseason than one might expect given their regular season record. But surely there must be a limit to this, right? Simply put, you can’t win if you just can’t score. And Chicago just can’t score. They ranked dead last in the NBA in points per game this season, and ahead of only Orlando and Philly in points per 100 possessions. I think the Bulls will definitely be able to grind out a few close ones in this series, but ultimately Washington’s lethal backcourt tandem of John Wall and Bradley Beal will be able to put up enough points to outdo the Bulls’ struggling offense. I know it’s rarely wise in the playoffs to predict that offense trumps defense and youth trumps experience, but I think this case is an exception.
Prediction: Wizards 4, Bulls 3
San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks
There weren’t tons of people predicting the Mavs to make the playoffs before the season started, but I’m proud to say I was one of them. I figured if you took last year’s 41-41 team and added to that a much healthier Dirk, a true distributor at the point in José Calderón, and another excellent pure scorer Monta Ellis, you’d wind up with a team that could at least manage to scrounge up a seven or eight spot. Nonetheless, I don’t think they have the strengths to be a successful playoff team. Their game with Memphis for the seventh seed, which had a very playoff-like atmosphere, ended with Ellis hoisting up several ill-advised shots in close-game situations down the stretch. If they can’t manage to get the ball into Dirk’s hands and not Monta’s down the stretch, I think they’ll be in a lot of trouble against the perennially good Spurs. Ultimately, I think San Antonio will repeat the four game sweep of Dallas that they managed during the regular season.
Prediction: Spurs 4, Mavericks 0
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies
I was incredibly tempted to pick the upset in this series, and here’s why: neither roster has changed drastically since the Grizzlies defeated OKC in the second round of last year’s playoffs. Obviously some changes have happened, including a change in coach for Memphis, but the core of each team has remained essentially unchanged. Memphis was substantially worse in the regular season this year than last year, but this is due largely to the amount of time Marc Gasol missed due to injury. The 7’1” Spaniard has been back for some time now and the Grizzlies have been fantastic with him. For this reason, I think Memphis can certainly give the Thunder a run for their money. But I don’t think the series will wind up exactly as it did last year, and that is because Kevin Durant has taken his game to a whole new level this year. I think the likely MVP-to-be will guide his team through a tough series with the Grizzlies and ultimately come away victorious.
Prediction: Thunder 4, Grizzlies 3
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Golden State WarriorsSpeaking of guys taking their games to a whole new level: Blake Griffin. Griffin improved his points per game average by 6.1 points from last year to this year, while getting his free throw percentage up above 70% for the first time in his career. Griffin’s improvements have been a big reason why the Clippers have had so much success this year, and why I think they’ll continue that success in the playoffs. This is especially true against a Warriors team that just lost Andrew Bogut to a fractured rib, and will likely be forced to small-ball lineups at times that include 6’7” Draymond Green or 6’8” Harrison Barnes at power forward, neither of whom creates a favorable matchup against 6’10” Griffin. I think the Clippers will win the series without much of a scare, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Golden State steals a couple behind strong shooting performances from Stephen Curry.
Prediction: Clippers 4, Warriors 2
Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers
This has the potential to be the most entertaining first round series. The two teams are relatively evenly matched, and both play pretty fast-paced, offensive-minded styles of basketball (both rank in the NBA’s top ten in possessions per game, and both rank in the top five in points per possession). I think that ultimately what this series will come down to is bench production. Portland’s bench was its Achilles’ heel last year, and it hasn’t improved all that much this year, although they did bring in Mo Williams, who has provided some much-needed second-unit scoring. However, even with Williams, the Blazers’ bench still doesn’t stack up to Houston’s, which includes a potentially explosive offensive threat in Jeremy Lin, an excellent defensive center in Ömer Aşık, and solid three-point shooting in Omri Casspi, Francisco García, and Donatas Motiejūnas. I think it’ll be a hard-fought series, but ultimately Houston’s superior bench will make the difference and they’ll squeak by in seven.
Prediction: Rockets 4, Trail Blazers 3