I think the key word for the NBA’s Eastern Conference Playoffs is consistency. Three of the four matchups really come down to consistent execution of their game plan. Philidelphia, Indiana and Atlanta are all teams who, though talented, will suffer from lack of consistency throughout their series against their opponents. For Philly and Atlanta this will mean first round exits against highly disciplined foes. Indiana is the exception in this bunch. In Orlando Indiana faces a depleted team that lost its star just before playoffs and has no real answer. Orlando is in the playoffs based almost solely on the play of Dwight Howard. Without him, even the Pacers who rely more on enthusiasm than experience, will be able to take care of them in 7 game series.
The last matchup, NY and Miami, is really a David and Goliath series. With all due respect to Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Landry Fields, this series is going to be defined by NY’s Carmelo Anthony’s scoring against the the defense and production of the Heat.
1. Chicago v. 8. Philadelphia
This series is certainly youth versus experience. Although Chicago doesn’t have an incredibly old squad, they’re battled hardened (though not embittered) from last year’d playoffs. They’re led by a brilliant general in Tom Thibideau and their troops execute his plan with toughness and, not to be redundant, consistency. There’s just no way that Philly can keep up with Chicago’s toughness and discipline. I do think that Philly can steal a couple games at home. Their ability to rack up points in bunches will overwhelm Chicago a couple of times, who have a propensity to go stretches without being able to find a way to score, especially when Rip and Boozer cool off, as they so often did this year.
2. Miami v. 7. New York
This could have been a marquee matchup if Jeremey Lin had stayed healthy, but with Lin’s injury and coach Mike Woodson’s lack of imaginative offense, the Knicks have collapsed like a dying star into Carmelo’s point production machine. This has certainly simplified things for the Knicks, since there’s no question who’s in charge or where the points are going to come from, but ultimately that makes them an easy opponent. Like monoculture in food this drastically increases production, but exacerbates vulnerability to disease. In this case the disease is the defense of the Miami Heat. When LeBron James locks down Carmelo in the fourth quarter, where is the Knicks’ offense going to come from? It’s a question that STAT, Chandler and Fields are going to have to find an answer for.
3. Indiana v. 6. Orlando
This will probably be the most exciting, least enjoyable matchup in the series. How is that possible you ask? The teams are very closely matched in skill, but neither of them is very good yet. The Pacer’s are an incredibly underrated team, coming in third in the East it’s hard to believe the story didn’t get more attention, but then…it’s the Eastern Conference, which still doesn’t draw much respect. They’re an energetic squad with a lot of feel good potential who have trouble scoring consistently, without a go to scorer to carry them down the stretch. Orlando is almost an identical situation. The surgence (not a word, but it should be) of Nick Anderson as an inside/outside threat this year has certainly been a valuable asset for the Magic, but with Dwight Howard lost to herniated disk in his back, Orlando has no inside threat to draw defenders to paint and leave their three point assassins wide open, neutralizing their staple offense. Losing Howard so late in the year has made it difficult for them to restructure their offense, even for the ever-creative Stan Van Gundy. It makes me wonder if Otis Smith regrets turning Marcin Gortat into Richardson, Turkgolu and Clark?
4. Boston v. 5. Atlanta
Watching the Atlanta Hawks is always the most demoralizing part of the playoffs for me. Thankfully, they rarely make it out of the first round, so I only have to suffer for the first two weeks. Atlanta is possibly the most underachieving team in the NBA. They seem to have oodles of talent that they just can’t do anything with. At the heart of their disappointment is Josh Smith. I honestly believe that Smith has all the tools that LeBron has…but none of the desire. If LeBron has a problem showing up in the fourth quarter of the playoffs (which is like .01 percent of the season, albeit the most important part .01% of the season) Smith has problems showing up at all. He’s an incredibly talented player with all the tools necessary to take over a game, but he just doesn’t seem interested. Instead, he takes ill-advised 17-footers (the least valuable shot in professional basketball, for those who might not know) and looks resentful when the crowd boos him because they don’t appreciate his talent. You know want to know why, Josh? BECAUSE YOU NEVER USE IT! There, that’s out of the way, we can move on.
Boston, on the other hand, has a stable full of tested, committed stars who know what their roles are and function incredibly well together. They also happen to be fulfilling that basketball cliché of ‘peaking at the right time’. They’ve been playing great basketball, and will prove to be an unruly and exhausting opponent for Chicago in the second round. But Boston is so NOT worried about Atlanta that they conceded home court to them at the end of the season because they thought it was more important to rest their starters. That’s how intimidating Atlanta is.
For me the narrative out of the NBA’s Western conference this year is the unexpected. From the 11th hour cancellation of the first Chris Paul trade by David Stern (right after the lockout that was supposed stop stars from leaving small markets), to the give away of Lamar Odom and his unprecedented disappearance in Dallas to the invigorating rise of Jeremy Lin the season was full of surprises. But most unexpectedly of all, was the dominating performance of San Antonio Spurs who put together two 11 games win streaks in a season where no other team had more than 9 in a row. The unexpected rise of the Spurs completely threw off the media’s pre-ordained narrative of the changing of the guard in the West. The rise of the Thunder and the newly fleshed out Clippers shuffling off the Lakers and the Spurs. But the eternally crafty, uber-resilient Spur’s Coach Greg Popovich has again kept the aging Spurs not only in the thick of things, but at the top.
Expecting the unexpected should continue to be the motto of the Western Conference playoffs as the potential for upsets is rife. With Memphis and Dallas playing as low seeds, they both have the potential for upsetting their higher seeded opponents. And expect some exciting series from talented upstarts Utah and Denver.
1. San Antonio v. 8. Utah Jazz
It’s hard to imagine how Utah is going to find a way to win against this incredibly complete Spurs team. Ignored by the media once again (in part through the crafty management of his team by Pop) San Antonio put together an incredibly versatile team with an array of long ranger shooters, including Kawhi Leonard who’s looking like the steal of the draft. Though the Jazz are a tough, talented team, they certainly don’t have the pieces to successfully challenge the well-rounded Spurs. While the Jazz’ Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap cause some minor matchup problems for San Antonio, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli create *major* matchup problems for the Jazz, problems they won’t be able to overcome.
San Antonio 4-1
2. Oklahoma City v. 7. Dallas
This Southwest grudge match will be the premiere matchup of the first round. Defending champion Dallas matching up against the aspirant for the crown Oklahoma City. Oklahoma is certainly the more talented and deeper team, but ruling out the creaky champs is something you don’t want to do as Dallas showed us so clearly last year. Dirk Nowitzki is still the best at what he does, even if that’s difficult to impossible describe beyond clutch buckets when you need them. Jason Kidd makes up for age in craftiness and Shawn Marion’s defense has gotten him noticed throughout the league this year. OKC is brimming with talent and confidence, though the impact of Metta World Peace’s elbow to James Harden’s head remains to be seen. Still, with scoring champ Kevin Durant, the tempestuous prince of darkness that is Russel Westbrook and the nouveau bruise brothers Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins they certainly won’t go down without a fight.
3. Los Angeles Lakers v. 6. Denver
Like the San Antonio Spurs the LA Lakers were supposed to be on their way out. Given their hard chase for Chris Paul, the lack of engagement from Pau Gasol and the loss of MVP (Most Valuable Pouter) Lamar Odom, the Lakers looked like a team heading for the lottery. But the resurgence of Andrew Bynum, the acquisition of a quick point guard in Ramon Sessions and the iron man performance of Kobe Bryant maintained the Lakers sterling status in the Western Conference. Denver doesn’t have enough to beat the Lakers, but it does have enough to make the series fun with the most exciting players you’ve never heard of in Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee. Expect Denver to steal a couple of games in the rarified air of Denver’s mile high stadium, but not much more than that.
LA Lakers 4-2
4. Memphis v. 5. Los Angeles Clippers
This is easily the matchup with the most questions. The Memphis Grizzlies come into the playoffs as a nicked up four seed, and the Clippers have been up and down all season. Can Zach Randolph come in and play at a high level despite missing so many games due to injury this season? Can Marc Gasol overcome the bone bruise he suffered at the end of the regular season? Can Blake Griffin go more than one game without being hit like an oversized pinata? The answers to those questions will go a long way to determining the winner of this series.