- #1 Chicago vs. #8 Philadelphia - This series is pretty open-and-shut for me. Philly has been scuffling for a long, long time now having lost 21 of their last 36 since their 20-10 start, and Chicago is now at full-strength with Rose healthy. Philly will absolutely have trouble scoring in this series because a) they always do, and b) as the game slows down, Chicago's defense will ratchet up the intensity and clamp down on an offensively-challenged team. I'm not sure I see a single advantage for Philly in the series, as Chicago is deeper, has the best player by far, and better, deeper size up front. Bulls in 5
- #2 Miami vs. #7 New York - Lots and lots of hype and star power here. There is no statistical measure that would suggest that New York has a legitimate chance to win this series. Their level of play has certainly risen since they fired D'Antoni, but if you look at the roster (really, the point guard position and lack of depth), it's tough to see. Baron Davis and Mike Bibby are going to play a prominent role here (lol), and their front-court depth leaves a lot to be desired. I can see Carmelo going nuts once or twice here, putting up 40 in MSG, and getting a win, but with Lebron at full-bore, Wade ready to go, and Mike Woodson on the opposing bench, I think Miami cruises. Heat in 5
- #3 Indiana vs. #6 Orlando - Biggest no-brainer of the entire playoffs. Dwight Howard is out for the year, and Orlando isn't a playoff-caliber team without him, much less a threat to win this series. Maybe they could steal one if every three goes in for 48 minutes, but with no one to protect the rim, and sporadic guard play (at best), Indiana is in great shape here. Going forward? Their lack of a go-to-guy may come back and hurt them, but they are head and shoulders better than Dwight-less Orlando. Pacers in 4
- #4 Atlanta vs. #5 Boston - First of all, I'll be a company shill and tell you to check out everything over at Soaring Down South throughout the series. Secondly, I hate this matchup for the Hawks. With Zaza questionable, and Al Horford definitively out for the series, the Hawks will likely be unable to take advantage of the Celtics biggest weakness, which is on the glass. Because Boston is playing KG at center and going smaller than they have in the past, their rebounding has been pretty miserable, but when the Hawks are trotting out Ivan Johnson and Josh Smith at the 4 and 5, that's not a recipe for making it up. Let's go matchup by matchup here. Kevin Garnett vs. Ivan/Zaza? Big advantage KG. Brandon Bass vs. Josh Smith? Big advantage Smiff. Paul Pierce vs. Marvin Williams? Advantage Pierce. Ray Allen (maybe) vs. Joe Johnson? Advantage Johnson, but only slightly, as long as Allen is semi-healthy. Rajon Rondo vs. Jeff Teague? Advantage Rondo. And finally, Avery Bradley vs. Kirk Hinrich? I think the advantage is certainly Bradley at this point in the season. 4 to 2 advantages for the Celtics, who also happen to have the much, much better coach, and a competitive maniac in KG who won't likely let them lose. Forgive me if you've heard this before, but Joe Johnson is the key to this series for me. If he's 25-a-game Joe, the Hawks certainly have a chance to win this series, but if he's 17-a-game passive Joe, it's lights-out. Celtics in 6
- #1 San Antonio vs. #8 Utah - The west matchups are much, much more intriguing on the whole, and this is no exception. Because the Spurs were unceremoniously ousted by the Grizzlies last year in round one, there is some angst about them this year, but i'm here to put that to bed. First of all, the Grizzlies weren't exactly your typical one seed last year, as they took OKC to the brink in Round 2 and had that devastating front-court combo with Z-Bo playing at his all-time high. Secondly, San Antonio wasn't coming in full strength with Manu being completely banged up, and thirdly, the Spurs had one less big last year (Splitter was buried), and didn't have the Kawhi Leonard chip to play. Utah isn't nearly the team that Memphis was last year, and while they do present some issues (front-court depth again with Jefferson, Millsap, and Favors, who is playing his best basketball of his career), the Spurs are a well-oiled machine. I could see Utah stealing a game or two here if Al Jefferson decides to dominate or the Spurs aren't making jumpers, but with Parker playing how he is, Duncan with an increased workload, and a healthy Manu, I'd be flat-out shocked if the Spurs lost this series. Spurs in 5
- #2 Oklahoma City vs. #7 Dallas - Such an intriguing matchup. Dallas blitzed the Zombies in 5 games in the Western Conf. Finals last year, and OKC gets a shot at a rematch. In fairness to Dallas, this is not the same unit as last year as they've missed Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea throughout the year, and Dirk hasn't played at quite the same level, but I don't think they have much of a chance here. OKC has become a well-oiled machine with their version of the "big 3" being sort of a terrible matchup for Dallas. Delonte West will likely get the task of matching up with Russ Westbrook (good luck with that), and when he's off the court, I have no idea who guards him. Harden gets the pleasure of being guarded by either Kidd or Terry in crunch time (lol), and Dallas doesn't have the same array of guys to throw at Durant when Marion is off the court either. I'm very interested to see what kind of lineup OKC goes with in crunch time, because I think their best unit is with Ibaka at the 5 and Durant at the four, especially against Dallas, who can't punish them with scoring in the front-court other than jump-shooting Dirk. If Dallas is to have a chance in the series, they need bad jump-shooting from Durant and Westbrook coupled with the 2011 Dirk, and an unconscious Jason Terry. Likely? No. Plausible? I guess. Zombies in 6
- #3 LA Lakers vs. #6 Denver - The ultimate Jekyll vs. Hyde series for the opening round. The Lakers are huge up front, and play a plodding system as a result, while Denver is small and will run you out of the gym thanks to the "system" of George Karl. There's no doubt in my mind that the Lakers will absolutely maul Denver up front simply because they can. I love Kenneth Faried, but when your other front-court guys are the Jevale McGee disaster, Mozgov, and Birdman, good luck to you against that front-line. One negative for LA is that the loss of Metta aka Ron could prove to be a big one if Gallinari has it going at any point, with Matt Barnes banged up and Devin Ebanks being Devin Ebanks, there isn't a whole lot they can do short of going to Kobe. I think the key to the series for Denver is Ty Lawson. It would've been free reign for him before the acquisition of Sessions, but let's not forget that Sessions is still a below-average defender, and Lawson makes that engine go big-time. Kobe is Kobe, and while he's a lot more limited than he used to be athletically, he can't be ignored. On the plus-side for Denver, however, Arron Affalo is an elite defender who will be inside Kobe's shirt for the duration of the series. I can only hope that we encounter a full-scale Andrew Bynum meltdown here, but I'm still taking LA. Lakers in 7
- #4 Memphis vs. #5 LA Clippers - What a weird/awesome series. My infatuation with Chris Paul is well-documented, and I firmly believe that he'll elevate his play in the playoffs, just as he did in his two (yes, two Ryan) trips to the playoffs with the Hornets. That said, I pretty much hate every other aspect of the Clippers roster for play-off basketball. Is Paul enough to carry the day? Let's talk about Memphis. Memories of last year's run are in place, and I believe that gear does exist for this team, but we have to remember that Zach Randolph was playing at an all-NBA level in the playoffs last year, and he simply hasn't been that guy this year thanks to injury concerns. Marc Gasol and Randolph should still wreak havoc on the Clipper front-court with power, and because Griffin can't guard anyone and Martin is undersized, that's an advantage. I think the Rudy Gay/Caron Butler matchup is a huge one. You'll remember that Gay missed the playoff run last year with injury, but he's come back strong in 2012 averaging 19 a game and posting solid across-the-board numbers. I've never been a fan of Gay, but there's no denying his talent. Opposing him is Caron Butler, who the Clippers signed (read: overpaid) in the off-season for moments such as this. He didn't have a great year (41% shooting, 12 ppg), but he's the #1 wing option (somehow) for the Clips, and they'll need him to have a big series. The x-factor for Memphis? Perimeter defense. Tony Allen, OJ Mayo, and Mike Conley are all above-average defenders (with Allen being elite), and with that many bodies to throw at Paul, they can wear him down a bit, and that'll be enough. Grizz in 7
Where do we go from here? Well, I'll come back with series-by-series previews (going further in-depth as there are less series to cover), but for now, I'll throw something against the wall for the rest of the playoffs.
- Chicago over Boston in 6 - Too much rebounding. As covered above, Boston is susceptible to being dominated on the glass, and Chicago is a bad, bad matchup for that. Also, Rose can neutralize (at worst) Rondo, and allow for the team depth to kick in for Chicago to outlast undermanned Boston.
- Miami over Indiana in 5 - We will remember quickly that Danny Granger isn't as good as Lebron James. One thing to watch here would Roy Hibbert. He should have his way with Joel Anthony, et al, and that could keep Indy in the series.
- San Antonio over Memphis in 7 - Horrible matchup for the Spurs. Everyone will pick Memphis based on last year, but this is a different, deeper Spurs team, and with a healthy Manu added to a bolstered front-court with Splitter, and some young wing help from Green and Leonard. I'd like San Antonio.
- Oklahoma City over LA Lakers in 5 - Ibaka and Perkins matchup pretty well with the Laker front-court. OKC has Harden and Thabo to throw at Kobe. LA has no answer for Westbrook, and you'll be getting a highly motivated/pissed-off Zombies team in the aftermath of the Metta/Harden elbow. Oh, and Mike Brown is involved.
- Miami over Chicago in 7 - Lebron takes Rose out of the series defensively (to a point) while "struggling" to 21 points, 10 boards, 8 assists per game, and the whispers start about his un-clutch play while he's the best player in the series (and the world). Can you see that scenario?
- San Antonio over Oklahoma City in 6 - The old guard sends the new guard packing one last time. Popovich dominates Scott Brooks tactically, throwing multiple looks at Durant, and letting Westbrook hang himself out to dry, while Manu and Parker attack, attack, attack. What a series this would be.
- Miami over San Antonio in 6 - I can't believe I'm doing this. I can't believe I'm picking Lebron James to step it up. I can't believe I'm picking against Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich in the NBA Finals against a team led by the guy that no one thinks is clutch. Here's looking at you, Lebron.
And as always... the NBA is FANNNNN-TASTIC! I LOVE THIS GAME! (copyright: NBA and/or Bill Simmons)