It's a tough call, but I foresee at least one and perhaps as many as two lower seeded Western Conference teams advancing beyond the first round. The Leastern Conference will be more predictable...
It's tempting to pick upsets when forecasting the NBA Playoffs. I mean, it's fun right? The problem is that history isn't on the side of the underdogs. Sure, the Nuggets stunned the Sonics in 1994, the Warriors shocked the Mavericks in 2007 and the four-seeded Celtics marched to the NBA Finals last June. But with hundreds of possessions per game, seven games to figure things out and ample rest between games, the cream almost always rises to the top in NBA Playoff series. With a little less separation talent-wise between the have's and have-not's of the Western Conference, some upsets could be had this year. But the Leastern Conference's top-four teams should have no trouble advancing past the first round.
Let's start with the easy part, the Leastern Conference...
LEASTERN CONFERENCE - ROUND 1
1. CHICAGO BULLS VS. 8. INDIANA PACERS
When the eighth-seeded Nuggets defeated the one-seeded Supersonics in 1994, the Sonics were 21 games better than the Nuggets in the regular season standings. When the eighth-seeded Knicks defeated the one-seeded Heat in 1999, the Heat had just a six-game edge over New York (to be fair, it was a lockout-shortened season). And when the eighth-seeded Warriors took out the one-seeded Mavericks in 2007, the Warriors were unbelievably 25 games worse than Dallas. With the eight-games-under-.500 Pacers taking on the 25-games-better Bulls this weekend, some may be thinking of an epic upset. But I saw those Nuggets, Knicks and Warriors up close and let me tell you, these Pacers couldn't hold a candle to any of those teams.
PICK: BULLS IN FOUR
2. MIAMI HEAT VS. 7. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
It's too bad Miami secured the two-seed and Philadelphia dropped behind New York for the seventh spot, because a New York versus Miami series would have been epic. Not only would it have been a great matchup between two colluding organizations and players, but it would have revived the once-nasty Knicks/Heat rivalry from the late 1990s. And while the Knicks wouldn't have won, they'd have at least put up a fight. We can't the same for the 76ers. While we're all impressed with the 76ers 14-win swing over last season, their magical run will be over by the end of next week.
PICK: HEAT IN FIVE
3. BOSTON CELTICS VS. 6. NEW YORK KNICKS
Trading Kendrick Perkins took away much of the Celtics grit and toughness that they will need to march through the 2011 playoffs. But beating the offense-only Knicks doesn't require much of either. I have no doubt that Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire will attempt to get up for these games, but if Melo's playoff record in Denver is any indication, the Knicks will be bounced early. Besides, the Knicks are playing for next year. Right, Melo?
PICK: CELTICS IN FIVE
4. ORLANDO MAGIC VS. 5. ATLANTA HAWKS
PICK: MAGIC IN FIVE
LEASTERN CONFERENCE - ROUND 2
1. CHICAGO BULLS VS. 4. ORLANDO MAGIC
Defense wins championships. Chucking three-pointers does not. Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes for the Celtics almost took down the Magic in the 2009 playoffs even though Boston didn't have Kevin Garnett at their disposal. With a healthy Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah at Coach Thibs' disposal now, I don't like Orlando's chances.
PICK: BULLS IN SIX
2. MIAMI HEAT VS. 3. BOSTON CELTICS
At the season's beginning through about two months ago, I had Boston penciled in not just to get to the NBA Finals but to win it all. And then GM Danny Ainge traded Perkins to Oklahoma City in exchange for Jeff Green and Nenad "The Chair Thrower" Krstic, figuring his two O'Neals - Shaquille and Jermaine - would give the Celtics enough inside muscle to get Boston back to the Finals sans Perkins. But if Miami's recent 100-77 drubbing over Boston was any indication, the Celtics are in trouble. No Thibodeau and no Perk means Boston is going home earlier than expected. Which is a shame, because I still hate Miami.
PICK: HEAT IN SEVEN
LEASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
1. CHICAGO BULLS VS. 2. MIAMI HEAT
I hate to repeat myself, but again Thibodeau comes into play here when the Bulls face the Heat in the conference finals. Thibodeau was able to frustrate LeBron James twice in the last three years in the post-season and I suspect he'll do the same this year. Moreover, the Bulls have three things the Heat don't have: size, depth and outside shooting. This will be a great series and it will end with Chicago returning to the NBA Finals for the first time in the post-MJ era.
PICK: BULLS IN SEVEN
WESTERN CONFERENCE - ROUND 1
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. 8. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
It was comical watching the Grizzlies purposely tank Wednesday night's game against the Clippers in order to draw the Spurs in the first round instead of the Lakers (which should tell you and thing or two about how NBA teams feel regarding the Spurs versus the Lakers). Against the Spurs, the Grizzlies will finally win a playoff game for the first time in franchise history. But it will be just one game.
PICK: SPURS IN FIVE
2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS VS. 7. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
The Hornets impressively got to 46 wins despite overcoming many injuries and instability on the ownership level. Their reward? The two-time defending champions who may have limped into the postseason but got themselves a very favorable draw.
PICK: LAKERS IN FOUR
3. DALLAS MAVERICKS VS. 6. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
It's really a shame that our Nuggets didn't draw Dallas in the first round because the Mavericks have great difficulty against deep, young, versatile teams...like the Trail Blazers. I hate to break it to you Mavericks fans, but your aging squad will lose in the first round for the fourth time in five years, a sad way to wrap up the last few years of Dirk Nowitzki's amazing NBA career.
PICK: BLAZERS IN SIX
4. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER VS. 5. DENVER NUGGETS
As most NBA pundits will predict, I believe that if the Nuggets can somehow, some way steal Game 1 or 2, they will win this series in six games. But if this series goes the distance, the Thunder will be insanely difficult to beat at Oklahoma City in a Game 7 and will move on to play San Antonio. Sadly, I'm more confident that the Nuggets can beat San Antonio than I am that they can beat Oklahoma City.
It's tough picking the Nuggets to win this series for a few reasons. First, I just didn't like what I saw in those last two games the Nuggets played against the Thunder. Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison had no trouble contending with the Nuggets bigs of Nene and Kenyon Martin. BUT, the Nuggets didn't have Chris Andersen in either game and the Birdman has suddenly found his once-lost leaping ability again. Second, George Karl hasn't won a playoff series as an underdog since 1992 (when his 47-win Supersonics defeated the 55-win Warriors in a five-game series) and had only done so on one other previous occasion in 1987 (when his 42-win Warriors impressively beat the Jazz in Salt Lake City in Game 5). Since then, Karl has not only lost every series in which his team didn't have home court advantage but the Nuggets on his watch are only 8-9 at home in the postseason (1-7 prior to their magical 2009 playoff run). Third, even though the Nuggets are trying to re-write the way playoff series are won, historically the team with the best two players - in this case Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook - typically win playoff series. Fourth, the Nuggets' free throw shooting sucks and I've seen too many underdog could've, would've, should've won teams lose big playoff games because of shoddy free throw shooting. And finally, the Thunder have the best home court advantage in the NBA. Everyone associated with the NBA whom I speak with says it's absolutely deafening in that college atmosphere-esque barn known as the Oklahoma City Arena.
That said, I can't help but be reminded of the 1997 Denver Broncos who headed into a postseason against teams that had just beaten them previously. Before claiming their first-ever Super Bowl trophy, those Broncos had to beat the Jaguars (who embarrassed in Denver a year before) at home, and both the Chiefs (who eeked out a victory over Denver in Week 12) and the Steelers (who embarrassed the Broncos in Week 15) on the road. In sports, it can sometimes be easier to make adjustments after a recent loss than mirror what worked in a previous victory. Unless the talent-factor is overwhelming, which in the case of Oklahoma City it isn't. Moreover, watching the Nuggets lose at Oklahoma City last Friday, I never got the sense that Karl was deploying his full arsenal of tactics plus we were missing Arron Afflalo and the Birdman.
And so, in theory, if Karl and his staff can watch the tape of went wrong in those games and reverse it with some creativity, lineup alterations and the like, the Nuggets have a damn good shot at winning this series. But if it ends up in a Game 7 at OKC, you can start your vacation plans in early May instead of early June.
PICK: NUGGETS IN SIX
WESTERN CONFERENCE - ROUND 2
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. 5. DENVER NUGGETS
Seeing Manu Ginobili hurt his elbow in the Spurs' season-ender combined with Tim Duncan's shaky ankle and Antonio McDyess's continued aging has me thinking that the Nuggets could upset the Spurs in Round 2 of the playoffs. But I remember thinking the same thing a few years ago when the upstart Hornets had the Spurs on the ropes in the Second Round, only to lose to San Antonio in Game 7...at home!
You can't help but love everything that is happening with the Nuggets right now, but the Spurs won 61 games for a reason. And had Duncan not sprained his ankle, the Spurs were heading for 67-68ish wins. The Spurs' experience combined with what will be an easy first-round victory over the Grizzlies, and I'm most begrudgingly picking San Antonio to return to the conference finals. But talk to me again after the Nuggets wax the Thunder and the Spurs struggle to beat the Grizz.
PICK: SPURS IN SEVEN
2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS VS. 6. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
As we've gotten all too accustomed, the Lakers will have a very favorable path to their fourth consecutive conference finals appearance. The Blazers beat the Lakers when they last played in Portland, but a re-energized, re-focused and playoff-savvy Lakers team (plus very favorable officiating, lest we forget) will win this series in five games.
PICK: LAKERS IN FIVE
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS VS. 2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
These two franchises have combined to win nine of the last 12 NBA championships and have met in the playoffs six times in that span, with the Lakers winning two of those series. As much as I hate to predict this, the Lakers will make it five out of seven series after this conference finals is over. Akin to what we witnessed in 2008, the Spurs will be badgered and worn out by the Grizzlies and Nuggets for two rounds while the Lakers will coast to the conference finals. A healthy, rested Lakers team will be able to take out the mighty Spurs.
PICK: LAKERS IN SIX
1. CHICAGO BULLS VS. 2. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
It almost seems too good to be true. It's (supposedly) Phil Jackson's final coaching stint after a remarkable career that began in Chicago. Kobe Bryant is gunning for his sixth NBA Championship ring to match the great Michael Jordan's win total. And when the Bulls won their first NBA title in 1991, it was against the Lakers.
Throw in two of the NBA's biggest media markets and largest fan bases, and you have the makings for an epic NBA Finals. A Finals so epic, in fact, that the NBA (read: David Stern and his army of referees) will do whatever it takes to make this happen. Although maybe, just maybe, with the refs at war with the league over alleged unfair labor practices, they'll call the play instead of the player throughout the playoffs. You know, the way games are supposed to be officiated.
Oh, who am I kidding?
Lakers versus Bulls. Kobe and Phil versus the legacy of MJ and Phil. You just know it's going to happen.
PICK: LAKERS IN SIX