By James Blackburn
The NBA playoffs are finally here. The college basketball season has come and gone, and now basketball fans have one choice to get their basketball fix, the NBA playoffs. There are so many stories and the matchups are intriguing.
Here I am going to preview each playoff matchup; share my thoughts on who I believe will advance to the second round, and break down each team.
(1) Chicago vs. (8) Indiana
The Bulls enter the postseason as the overall number one seed with an NBA best 62-20 record. I saw the Bulls play a lot this season, and there is a reason they have the best record in the league. The Bulls have everything you want in a potential championship team. Mr. Do It Everything MVP candidate Derrick Rose leads the charge, and they have shooters in Korver and Bogans, a good rebounder in Noah, veteran leadership in Thomas, and post scoring in Boozer; they also have energy coming off their bench with Taj Gibson and a defensive minded coach who has been deep in the playoffs as a Boston Celtics assistant in Tom Thibodeau. This team is dangerous and they are hungry.
X Factor: Kyle Korver. The Pacers are going to pack their defense in to keep Rose out of the middle and also to stop Boozer from getting easy buckets. This is going to open up shooters like Korver. If Korver can consistently knock down open shots, this will make it a lot easier for Rose and Boozer to get easy shots.
The Pacers get another shot in the playoffs after missing the postseason entirely last year. The team made some smart trades and some beneficial decisions in the draft this past summer and these good moves are paying off with a playoff birth. The Pacers have a solid frontcourt whose goal will be to neutralize Chicago’s post players. Roy Hibbert is an excellent defender and rebounder and second year player Tyler Hansbrough has played well as of late. Danny Granger will have to carry the scoring load for this young team. TJ Ford and Collison will do what they can to try to keep Rose out of the middle.
X Factor: Mike Dunleavy. When and if Dunleavy plays well and scores, it will give the Pacers a much better chance to compete and possibly win a couple of games.
In the end, I believe Chicago will prove too much to handle for the Pacers. The Bulls will want to end the series quickly to get rest. The Pacers will be able to squeeze out one win at home, but this series won’t be too difficult for the Bulls.
Chicago wins series 4-1
(2) Miami vs. (7) Philadelphia
Miami enters the postseason riding the coattails of its 3 headed monster in Wade, James, and Bosh, trying to deliver on the first of many promised championships for the Heat. Miami has 2 of the best 5 players that are still playing in James and Wade. In order for the Heat to go deep this season, there role players much play well. The Heat are not very deep, but their starting 5 might be the best in basketball. If the Heat can play hard the entire game and not have any letdowns they should have an easy time of disposing the much less talented 76ers.
X Factor: Mario Chalmers. The PG out of Kansas has proved this season that he can be clutch and knock down shots. Chalmers saved the Heat several times this year, when the big 3 were not playing well.
No one expected the 76ers to be here before the season started. Doug Collins should be in the Coach of the Year discussions for what he has been able to get out of this team. Do not be surprised if the 76ers push the Heat and challenge them in a few games this series. The team is very athletic and has a lot of scoring options in Holiday, Iguodola, and a finally healthy Elton Brand. The Louis Williams injury will be the key, to see how he bounces back, but rookie Evan Turner is ready to make a big step in my opinion and Spencer Hawes has made some good contributions this season as well.
X Factor: Jrue Holiday. Very explosive guard who I fell in love with this summer watching him in Orlando during the NBA summer league games. Has the ability to put up over 20 points a game. Should be able to get what he wants against Miami, with no shot blocking down low.
The Heat are just too talented to lose in the first round. Philadelphia will be overmatched at every position on the floor (except for may be Elton Brand), and will have a hard time winning more than 1 game.
Heat advance winning the series 4-1
(3) Boston vs. (6) New York
This is a very intriguing matchup between two very talented teams. The Celtics will be relying on their experience and the Knicks will look to newly acquired Carmelo Anthony to hit big shots.
Shaq’s health will be the key factor in Boston’s chances to move on in the playoffs. Paul Pierce will be clutch, Ray Allen is one of the games most feared shooters, and Kevin Garnett is healthy and ready to go. Rajon Rondo on his good nights looks like the best PG in the NBA. Avery Bradley and Delonte West should be able to give adequate minutes to allow Rondo to get some rest. If Jeff Green can return to playing the kind of basketball he was when he was in OKC, the Celtics have a good chance to win this series.
X Factor: Jeff Green. Green was the number 2 option behind Durant last year in OKC. Green has proven he can be a consistent scoring threat with a versatile offensive game.
New York has the pieces in place to make a deep postseason run. It’s all going to come down to their defense and their depth. The Carmelo trade brought in Carmelo and Billups, but New York traded away several key pieces and depth. Stoudemire has been one of the best players in the league all season. Anthony brings offensive fire power and Billups brings playoff experience and ability to knock down clutch shots. But after their first 7 players, the talent really drops off.
X Factor: Toney Douglas. The guard from Florida State will be asked to carry the scoring load for the second unit.
Both teams are talented, but the Knicks are not deep enough and are defensively vulnerable. This series ultimately comes down to home court advantage. Boston wins a very hard fought and close series at home in game 7.
(4) Orlando vs. (5) Atlanta
Orlando is back in familiar territory in the playoffs but slipped to the 4 seed. They will have their hands full with a hungry Hawks team that is tired of losing early in the post season.
The Magic have a revamped squad from last year’s team. They acquired Q. Richardson, Gilbert Arenas, and reacquired Hedo Turkoglu. The team has shooters and scorers. Dwight Howard has had a monster year and would like to go back to the Eastern Conference Finals. Ryan Anderson has done a good job of backing up Howard. Nelson and Jason Richardson will be heavily counted on this series.
X Factor: Jameer Nelson. The Magic really miss Nelson when he is injured. Lucky for Orlando he is healthy. Nelson has good chemistry with Howard and is a good set shooter as well.
Atlanta is a team that has the potential to beat Orlando in as little as 5 games. Joe Johnson is one of the best perimeter players in the league, Josh Smith is a defensive force and can finish on the break, Al Horford gets better every game and solid guard play from Hinrich, Teague, and Crawford has given the Hawks hope to advance. Consistency will be the issue. Will Johnson fall in love with the deep ball and not attack? Will Crawford force shots and turn the ball over? Will Josh Smith settle for jumpers and let his emotions get the best of him?
X-Factor: Al Horford. He will have his hands full against Howard. If Horford can keep Howard off the glass and play him with single coverage, this could change the entire outcome of the series.
The Hawks are tempting, but I still do not think they have the right mindset to advance. The Magic know how to win this time of the year and will get the job done.
Magic win the series 4-2.
(1) San Antonio vs. (8) Memphis
San Antonio has once again proven all the haters wrong and is back as the number 1 seed with the best record in the West, despite the fact that they are “old” and “boring”.
The Spurs were fortunate this year not to lose any main guys any significant time to injury. Tim Duncan has taken a step backwards statistically but is still the engine that makes this team go. Tony Parker is the best PG in the league that everyone forgets about. He runs the Pick and Roll with Duncan to perfection and can hit the midrange jump shot as good as anyone. Manu Ginobili will miss the opening game because of a late season injury and his ability to bounce back strong is vital if the Spurs hope to win their 5th championship in the Duncan era. The Spurs know their key guys are getting older, but have done a nice job of adding younger, more athletic players, who have helped mightily this season. Richard Jefferson has become the player the Spurs envisioned when they singed him last year. George Hill is a good enough PG to start on some other NBA ball clubs. DeJuan Blair is making everyone look stupid for not picking him up earlier in the draft. Rookies James Anderson, Gary Neal, and Splitter have made solid contributions. This team is deeper than people think who have not seen them play much this year. This team has played together too long and is too experienced to lose in the first round.
X Factor: Richard Jefferson. When he is running the floor, attacking the rim, and hitting open 3’s, it really helps the Spurs. Simply put, when Jefferson plays well, the Spurs win.
After years of barely missing the opportunity to play past the middle of April, the Grizzlies did enough this year to make the playoffs. This team is not experienced but they boast a talented front court and good guard play. Zach Randolph is a double-double machine, the ‘other’ Gasol, Marc Gasol, is underated, and the acquisition of Leon Powe has made this group of post players one of the best in the NBA. OJ Mayo and Mike Conley make up a young and exciting backcourt that is full of energy and athleticism. Injuries to Rudy Gay and Jason Williams hurt this team’s chance of being able to really compete with the Spurs. Besides Randolph, the Grizzlies are going to have a tough time manufacturing points.
X Factor: Shane Battier. Good under the radar mid-season pick up. He is one of the best defenders in the NBA and his versatility and shot making ability will be badly needed this series.
Although some think that Memphis will pose a threat to San Antonio, I’m not one of them. I think San Antonio will tire after 3 games and Memphis will be able to get a win with Randolph having a career night, but other than that the Spurs win the other games handily and win the series in 5 games.
(2) Los Angeles vs. (7) New Orleans
With Coach Phil Jackson reportedly coaching his last year, the Lakers hope to send the coach out with his 4th 3-peat. Kobe Bryant is focused on winning his sixth title, the one that would put him in the same conversation with the G.O.A.T. himself, Michael Jordan.
Despite the fact the Lakers enter the postseason with a losing streak, the team is as dangerous as ever. The have the biggest and best frontcourt in the league with Paul Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom. The team received good news when the x-rays on Bynum’s leg came back negative. Kobe Bryant enters Black Mamba mode this time of year and reminds everyone that he is still the best player in the world and Derek Fisher is back to hit those big shots and provide veteran leadership. Off season acquisition Matt Barnes will provide toughness and scoring along with Ron Artest who has played much better as of late. Shannon Brown and Steve Blake look to provide a spark with the second unit, which boast several players who could be starters with other teams. This team is good and is focused in on another title.
X Factor: Ron Artest. I could have also picked Odom, but I believe Artest is the one that is the key. If Artest can bite down and lock up the opposing teams best player, this will free up Bryant to focus his energy on offense and not tire him out. Artest does not have to score a lot of points and can’t get shot happy at the wrong times of big games.
The Hornets hope they can at least compete this series just so they can give their franchise player, Chris Paul reason to come back to the team, instead of going elsewhere. The have a difficult task, especially with their number two guy, David West, out with a torn ACL. The Hornets still have talent though. Chris Paul should be able to get into the lane at will against the slower Fisher guarding him. Emeka Okafor is good for 10 and 10 a night, but has always struggled with longer, taller players, like the Lakers have, ever since his days in Charlotte. Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack, and Carl Landry are good role players, and rookie Quincy Poindexter has been solid on occasion.
X Factor:Trevor Ariza. The Hornets will need Ariza to increase his scoring from just 11ppg from the regular season to replace David West out put if the Hornets have any hope to advance.
This series is one sided, especially with out a healthy David West able to suit up for the Hornets. The Lakers will sweep the Hornets in 4 games and will give Bynum plenty of time to rest before round 2.
(3)Dallas vs. (6) Portland
This is a very intriguing matchup as well. The Mavericks have been known to lose in the first round when they are the higher seed in the past few seasons, and the Blazers have been playing some good basketball ever since the trade to acquire Gerald Wallace.
The Mavericks have the pieces in place to make a final run to win a title, before Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd’s playing days are over. Dirk is one of the league’s hardest covers, Jason Kidd is still a triple-double threat and gets the ball to the open man as good as anyone, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion can score the ball, Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler bring toughness and shot blocking inside, Stevenson and Stojakovic can shoot the 3, and Jose Barea is a good playmaker to back up Kidd.
X Factor: DeShawn Stevenson. Coach Carlisle has talked about starting Stevenson this series against Portland. With the injury to Butler, Dallas will need Stevenson to not only score, but to guard Portland’s best player, Brandon Roy.
Portland has a chance to send the Mavs home in the first round again. The Blazers are led by LeMarcus Aldridge, who has one of the best low post games in the League. Brandon Roy is back from injury, and will undoubtedly step up his game now that the playoffs are here. Gerald Wallace has fit in nicely and is causing havoc on the defensive end and continues to attack the basket and draw fouls. Andre Miller has been consistent this season at PG, and Marcus Camby continues to do the little things and protect the paint with his shot blocking. Batum, Fernandez, and Matthews fill in the top 8.
X Factor: Brandon Roy. It was not that long ago that Roy was considered a top 10 talent, but injuries have hampered the guard out of Washington. If Roy can bounce back and return to the way he knows he can play, this could win them the series. He is clutch and his scoring is needed to take the burden off of Aldridge.
This is a tough series to pick, but I have to go with the Blazers. The Blazer have the momentum and the Mavericks are known to choke this time of the year. As Roy continues to get healthy the Blazers get more dangerous. So in my only upset of the first round, I have the Blazers winning 4 games to 3.
(4)Oklahoma City vs. (5) Denver
This is the series that I am looking forward to the most. These two teams are almost equal in all categories. Denver is number 1 in scoring in the NBA and the Thunder are number 5; the Nuggets give up 102.7 ppg and the Thunder give up 101.4 ppg. Both teams are young and might be the two deepest teams in the NBA, going at least 10 deep on both sides. In the end this series is going to be decided by the little things, free throws, coaching decisions, and loose balls.
The Thunder are back in the playoffs again after pushing the Lakers last season, but losing in the end. Kevin Durant is one of the smoothest scores in the league. Russell Westbrook has emerged as the Durant’s sidekick. He is the most explosive guard in the Western Conference and has the ability to take a game over. Mid-season pickups Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed were brought in to bring toughness, size, and experience to be able to better compete with the Lakers. Cook and Sefolosha bring shooting and defense, and the bench is deep and skilled with James Harden, Nate Robinson, Eric Maynor, and Serge Ibaka. Players like Cole Aldrich and Byron Mullens also play a role.
X Factor: James Harden. He seems to get better every time he plays. In order for the Thunder to beat the Nuggets, he is going to have to have some big games.
The Nuggets were written off by everyone after trading away their star player Carmelo Anthony. The trade has made them deeper and better defensively. The Nuggets now go 11 deep, and there is no drop off skill wise from the first unit to the second unit. The Nuggets have a ton of scoring options and they could have a different leading scorer potentially every game this series. 8 players average double digits a game, and Kenyon Martin chips in 8.6 ppg, with the ability to score 20 when neeed. We will start with the guards. Raymond Felton is an All-Star caliber PG, who has led a team to the playoffs before. He can hit clutch shots and is a solid playmaker. Ty Lawson is one of the quickest players in the NBA with the ball in his hands. The Nuggets can play both guards together or bring one off the bench. JR Smith is the super athletic shooting guard who can light it up from deep. Aaron Afflalo rounds out the guard group. He is great defensively and also brings double digit scoring. The forward crop is extremely deep. Wilson Chandler and Gallinari, both brought in from the Knicks, are fitting in nicely and contributing. Al Harrington and Kenyon Martin, the veterans of the group, both bring size, solid scoring and rebounding. Gary Forbes, the rookie out of Massachusetts has been a pleasant surprise. This team is big as well, may be the biggest in the NBA. Nene has been healthy all season and is having a career year. Chris Anderson brings shot blocking and energy to the team, and rookie Mozgov from Russia and Kosta Koufos, both 7 footers bring size and defense.
X Factor: JR Smith. Smith has emerged as the go-to player since the departure of Anthony. If Smith can hit his 3’s and take good shots instead of forcing the issue, the Thunder will have no answer for him.
Every matchup is almost even. As much as I want to pick the Nuggets, I have to go with the team with the best player, and that is the Thunder with Durant. The Nuggets are deep, but so are the Thunder, and OKC has more experience with them playing LA last season. The Thunder advance in 7 hard fought games.
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