Usually it takes 82 games for the NBA playoffs to begin. This year it’s a little different. But the format is the same and the teams are ready. And the Five Cents is ready to predict an NBA champion. Here’s the playoff preview.
Eastern Conference 1st round
1. Bulls over (8) 76ers in 5
Although Evan Turner believes his team matches up better with the Bulls than the Miami Heat, I’m sure he doesn’t realize that the Bulls won a lot of games without Derrick Rose, last year’s MVP, and has clearly been the best team in the East. It’s foolish for a second-year, non-all-star caliber play like Turner to say that, and it’d be even more foolish of me if I thought Philly could win more than one game against the Bulls, who clearly have a team, a bench and a defense to win the Finals.
2. Heat over (7) Knicks in 6
Whether or not Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are more in sync this year doesn’t supplant them with an easy win in this series. Since New York fired Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks are playing better defense and Carmelo Anthony seems to have found his groove in the Knick offense. If the Knicks can vitalize their size with Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Melo down low, the Knicks have a shot to upset James and company, who are thin past Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem on the bench. That lineup of Stoudemire/Anthony/Chandler is a unit however that’s not working — which is the unit they planned on having at the start of the season. I always think it’s ridiculous teams think they can flip the switch and go from stagnant to contender, but if the Heat play defense and get out on the fast break, it might be a sweep at Da Garden. It’s much easier for the Heat to transform against the Knicks than the Knicks can against the Heat.
3. Pacers over (6) Magic in 5
No Dwight Howard? No problem for Indiana and its young group of talent, which really made strides this season posting the third-best record in the East and are supremely balanced across the board with their uptempo style. They’ll kill Orlando down low without Howard, and use their grit to just overwhelm the Magic offensively and defensively. George Hill moving to the point made Indiana that much better.
4. Celtics over (5) Hawks in 7
The last run in Boston will at least continue onto the second round, but it won’t be without a fight. Atlanta always plays the Celtics hard, and with home court going to the Hawks, Boston’s savvy must be a factor since they were just 15-18 on the road this season. If Al Horford was healthy, it’d be a no-brainer to pick the Hawks. The Kevin Garnett move to the center position has opened things up for Boston. And Atlanta won’t have enough in the arsenal to stop them. Boston’s defense should hold and the Celtics have too many playmakers.
Western Conference 1st round
1. Spurs over (8) Jazz in 6
The Jazz are nowhere close to being last year’s Grizzlies, so the Spurs can breath a little easier. Utah doesn’t play the greatest defense, but they’ll find a way to win a game or two against the Spurs, who must have developed some age-defining cream or medical procedures to be this good, this old. What beat the Spurs last year was youth and bigs. Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair weren’t dominant and Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap and Derrick Favors could use that same blueprint Memphis did. But my guess is that Utah won’t be able to stop a healthy Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker on the perimeter to win more than two games.
2. Thunder over (7) Mavs in 5
Oklahoma City can’t be considered young anymore, although their age will tell you otherwise. But that age and their progression will become a huge factor against the defending champs in Dallas, who need a perfect series to stop Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Dallas might be too old for this one, and the way their team is constructed this time around, Oklahoma City has the upper hand in just about every category. If the Mavs had J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Tyson Chandler like last year’s squad did, the Thunder would find the same fate as last year’s conference finals. But that’s not the team in Dallas anymore, and dropping 10 of their last 19 going into a series where the youth will use a fast-pace to win, the Mavs will go down to a new giant in the West. And they’ll go down with a whippin’.
3. Lakers over (6) Nuggets in 6
Kobe’s quest for ring No. 6 begins without World Peace, as Metta will serve the rest of the his suspension in this series. It shouldn’t stop L.A. from advancing to play Oklahoma City. There’s nothing Denver can do to stop Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol down low. Denver will try to play uptempo (and if they can move the ball well and hit open shots, this could go seven), but when the Lakers slow it down and let Gasol, Bynum and Bryant take over, the Nuggets are going to need to hit every three-ball imaginable to give themselves a chance.
4. Grizzlies over (5) Clippers in 7
Chris Paul’s groin injury is something to monitor as the Clippers will try to win its first playoff series since 2006. On the other hand, since Zach Randolph returned from a knee injury, Memphis has more looked like the team we thought they would coming into the season. Randolph and Marc Gasol will give the Clippers major problems around the hoop and that’s a big area to exploit if you’re Memphis. The flip side is that the Clippers do have the edge on the perimeter so let’s have a seventh game to decide this one.
Eastern Conference semifinals
1. Bulls over Celtics in 6
The Celtics aren’t the Celtics anymore, no matter how hot they got at the end of the year with Kevin Garnett at center. The Bulls will wear them out defensively, on the boards and with their depth. The Bulls know how to beat the Celtics and Boston’s legs come Game 3 and 4 might be all rubber after a long series with Atlanta. Boston will make it competitive, they’ll show signs of their youth and what won them the title in 2008, but Rose, Deng, Noah Taj Gibson and the supporting cast are too good for the old Celtics to drop. Simply, the Celtics won’t beat the Bulls four times.
2. Heat over Pacers in 6
Miami will tip its cap to Indiana after this series, after sweating for four wins. Indiana won’t have anybody to stop LeBron or Wade, but a dose of George Hill, Paul George, David West and Danny Granger will give Miami’s starting five a good run for its money. The Heat will squeeze out victories late, but an aggressive series it will be. Miami might not win the rebounding edge, but if defense holds true and Indiana will lack the scoring to keep up. Pacers will need to really play team ball and not get into a habit of turnovers.
Western Conference semifinals
4. Grizzlies over Spurs in 6
The Spurs may want revenge, but they’re not going to like to play Memphis, the team that knocked ’em out of the first round with the youth and bigs to do so. When the Spurs come up against athletic, youthful squads, boy do they suffer. Memphis has the defense and perimeter play to keep up, but they’ll relentlessly pound San Antonio with Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol. And that’s enough to eliminate Duncan and the Spurs. Ginobili will be the x-factor, but something tells me with last year’s series win and confidence beating the Clippers in the first round, a Memphis team that’s been hot might see light at the end of the tunnel.
2. Thunder over Lakers in 7
You know me: I love the Lakers. Not as much as my Bulls, but if Kobe Bryant has a legit shot at the Finals, I’m all for it. It’s just too bad they’ll have to go through the Thunder without home court. The Lakers aren’t the best road team this season (15-18), so they’ll have to steal a game in OKC and then win at Staples. They’ve also got to stop Kevin Durant. The Metta World Peace/James Harden storyline will surface, but OKC will just want to win for their justice. If the Lakers can find a way stop the Westbrook’s penetration and pound them in the paint, this one can go either way. But the Thunder’s athleticism could run the Lakers out of the series if the Lakers don’t get into an early groove and into the Thunder’s heads.
Eastern Conference Finals
1. Bulls over Heat in 6
We know the Heat lost all three of their regular season games last season to the Bulls, so Chicago’s success this season may look passe again coming into this series. But this year’s Bulls looked more determined and better suited to drop Miami this time. Everybody forgets how close last year’s series was and with the way the Bulls have seemingly been flawless without Derrick Rose against Miami, something has to be said about that. Will the Heat be worn out by Indiana and New York? Will the Bulls be able to learn from critical late-game errors that avoided them from winning the series? With home court again and a true team-aspect, I’ll give the Bulls the edge because they can beat the Heat with any lineup on the floor. James is having his best season. But besides him and Dwyane Wade, there isn’t much to brag about. Games may be decided in the last 5 minutes and that’s where LeBron comes into question. Defense and getting the Bulls to shoot a bad field percentage for the series is a major key for the Heat. They’ll also have to get aggressive. Heat play tough defense and stop Derrick Rose, it’s the Heat’s series. But if the Bulls can slow down Wade, play good defense, keep Miami off the boards and throw the whole team at Miami, the Bulls defense should make up for a lack of scoring they might have.
Western Conference Finals
3. Thunder over Grizzlies in 7
Last year’s second round series, if not for Dallas’ win over Miami, was the playoffs’ best. It featured a triple overtime game won by Oklahoma City that tied the series at two. The series went seven in a highly-competitive, futuristic look at the Western Conference. Memphis has the size inside, Oklahoma City has the edge on the perimeter. What Memphis doesn’t have is a Kevin Durant, and somebody to stop him. And OKC has Westbrook as well and it’s hard to see a team with a collective amount of talent beat another team that has the same… and Durant and Westbrook.
1. Bulls over Thunder in 6