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How will the first round go around the NBA?
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 27
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The Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers open the NBA playoffs Saturday at noon Central time in the United Center. And if the first round doesn’t hold all that potential suspense—though there is some with Miami and the Knicks—then the answer to the ultimate question certainly does.
Because the identity of a potential champion is as uncertain this season as it’s ever been.
Yes, the San Antonio Spurs are the veteran team that has been the hottest, coming into the playoffs with their third double digit winning streak of the season. But they’re also mostly the same team that was eliminated in the opening round last season. A show of hands: Who believes they are the league’s dominant team?
Sure, some do. But you’ll get a lot of different answers. This isn’t the kind of season where the great Lakers or Celtics or Bulls or old Spurs (actually former instead of currently aged) or Pistons or 76ers came in as the team to beat. There is no such team with the defending champion Mavs missing perhaps half their team from last season and their defensive anchor, Tyson Chandler.
The Mavs finished seventh in the West, just barely better than the Bulls dismantling after the 1998 title. That was leading into the previous lockout season, and the 1998-99 Bulls were not yet as horrible as they would become.
To those seeking out historic precedents, it was the Spurs who won that last so called asterisk season, that one with 50 games. But that was with a young Tim Duncan and a mature David Robinson. The Spurs defeated the Knicks, who were the East’s No. 8 seed and defeated the No. 1 seeded Miami Heat on Allan Houston’s famous last second shot in the deciding then Game 5. So it’s heavily favored Miami and the Knicks again in round one. Hmmmmmmmm.
That series is the highlight of round 1, and if you have watched the playoff preview TV shows the last few days you’d think there are no other games. But there are expected to be a few, though it’s uncertain if you can find a major upset. Of course, that’s what upsets also are, when you least expect them.
Still, it’s most difficult to find a true favorite. The statistical and betting guys come first and I received an email Friday from a website called PredictionMachine.com that says it uses advanced statistical models thousands of times over and over against one another and came up with the most likely Finals being Bulls against Thunder with Bulls winning. I’m told the Bulls, nevertheless, have not ordered the rings yet.
The Bulls, Thunder, Heat and Spurs are considered the most likely to get to the Finals. Though it’s not inconceivable, especially in this shortened season with injuries popping up everywhere, that the Celtics, Grizzlies, Knicks, Clippers and Pacers also could have a case made for them to get there.
I’ve heard plenty of predictions, but no one all that certain. So let’s get started with a look at their first round. I’ll break down the Bulls and 76ers in more detail in a separate story:
No. 2 Miami Heat (46-20) vs No. 7 New York Knickerbockers (36-30)
Series: 3-0 Miami
This is the one upset I can see in the first round. I’ve been tempted to pick it, less for personal bias as I’d rather go to Miami than New York in the conference finals if the Bulls get that far, than I do think the Knicks have a shot. It doesn’t help that Tyson Chandler has the flu and could miss Game 1. What’s with these guys always getting the flu? Here are the richest athletes in the world and no one gives them flu shots? How do you miss a playoff game with the flu? Anyway, it’s not huge as the Knicks don’t have to win the first game. Also, I think they should bring Amar’e Stoudemire off the bench to balance their units as the Knicks have more depth than the Heat. I think the winner’s road is easier to the conference finals as I don’t believe the Pacers are quite as physical this season, if more talented. As it is, Stoudemire starts and will have to counter Chris Bosh, who averaged about 18 and 10 against the Knicks this season. It’s been several different Knicks teams with former coach Mike D’Antoni, the Jeremy Lin bubble and now the Anthony close. The Knicks’ front line with Chandler is the key as Miami is awful in the middle and likely will come down to playing Bosh and Udonis Haslem. The interesting part will be when the Knicks go with Anthony at power forward, which has worked for them, thus likely bringing LeBron James to four and Bosh to center. But Miami likes that lineup as it negates coach Erik Spoelstra’s questionable philosophy of power basketball for speed, which is when the Heat is best. The big Miami question throughout the playoffs really will be Dwyane Wade’s health and ability and whether he is that former Wade. The Knicks’ weakness remain at point guard, which helps Miami as they are weak as well at that position. James eventually takes over there with a shooter like Mike Miller going to the wing. So the matchups change and the Knicks’ edge, like the Bulls against Miami, is if they can dominate with size and thus keep Miami out of transition. Can they do it for two weeks? Without Carmelo and J.R. Smith getting hot and stealing a game to make the difference? The Knicks have a realistic shot, I believe.
Pick: Heat in 7
No. 3 Indiana Pacers (46-24) vs No. 6 Orlando Magic (37-29)
Series: 3-1 Orlando
Thinking of this series reminds me of the great Doug Moe, who on the eve of the 1987 playoffs with his opening round series against the Lakers told reporters, “We got no shot to beat the Lakers.” They were swept. This series has that feel with Dwight Howard out for a team built around one player more than any in the NBA. Hedo Turkoglu is due back after an injury, though I’m not sure that helps Orlando. And Glen Davis sprained his ankle the last week of the regular season. Though Magic players should be motivated to show up Howard a bit given the way he spent all season selling them out for other teams and players. And though the Pacers are regarded as one of the lying in the weeds teams to watch out for, I don’t see them as physical as they were without Jeff Foster and Josh McRoberts. But they are a fairly complete team with size and depth and Danny Granger playing some of the best, more controlled ball of his career. This could invoke the slaughter rule after three games if things don’t go well for the Magic.
Pick: Pacers in 4
No. 4 Boston Celtics (39-27) vs No. 5 Atlanta Hawks (40-26)
Series: 2-1 Boston
This would be a rivalry if the Hawks ever had any chance of going anywhere. They don’t, especially with Al Horford out. They’ll make shot and plays, but just won’t be tough enough without Horford. It’s likely why Boston didn’t worry that much about home court advantage. The Celtics, who got the fourth seed thanks to winning the Atlantic Division, could have finished with a better record than the Hawks, but chose to rest players down the stretch even in a game against the Hawks. It was sort of a statement in a way that, “We’re not worried.” Even if it wasn’t, it sounds like it. Plus, Zaza Pachulia has been out with a foot injury. So this could be a really small series with Kevin Garnett now a center for the Celtics and perhaps even Josh Smith at center for the Hawks. The Celtics, meanwhile, could be without Ray Allen, who’s had ankle problems. The Hawks and Celtics had a classic first round series when Boston was on the way to that 2008 title, but that was also when the Hawks were supposed to be the next team to take off. They haven’t, and now Smith talks about wanting to be traded, Joe Johnson has to regret not taking that Bulls free agency offer and no one has quite the retired players division with Tracy McGrady and Jerry Stackhouse. The Hawks will steal a game of two with their shooting, but Avery Bradley has been a good defensive addition and as long as Paul Pierce’s sprained toe from the last game isn’t a problem, Boston should be fine. Though this playoffs is probably the last time we see that group together.
Pick: Celtics in 6
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (50-16) vs No. 8 Utah Jazz (36-30)
Series: 3-1 Spurs
These, really, were two surprise teams with few expecting the Spurs, even leading the West last season, to do so again. And for the Jazz after the loss of Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan to make the playoffs. But the Jazz came on strong down the stretch to pass Houston and Phoenix with a big lineup that often had Paul Millsap at small forward with Al Jefferson and improving Derrick Favors. But the Spurs were much too tough for them with the only loss when the Spurs rested their three main players. Tony Parker was big with Devin Harris unable to deal with him and the Spurs reserves were superior. Plus, the Spurs made some nice late additions in Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson and Patty Mills, who averaged 30 subbing in the Spurs last two games. The big matchup is with Manu Ginobili, who was out of last year’s playoffs and seems healthy. The combination of the veteran coach who’ll find the right matchups and the veteran players will be too much for a young Jazz team.
Pick: Spurs in 5
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19) vs No. 7 Dallas Mavericks (36-30)
Series: 3-1 Oklahoma City
Technically, it’s a rematch of last year’s conference finals teams. But it was like calling the 1998-99 Bulls the defending champions. The loss of Tyson Chandler and J.J. Berea is significant for the Mavericks, who seemed inn danger at times of missing the playoffs. Veterans like Jason Terry already seem distracted by free agency as everyone knows an overhaul is coming. It was a magical run for the Mavs last season, but it’s difficult to see the oldest perimeter defense in the league do much to stop the Thunder’s youth and athletic ability. Few teams go to the rim better than the Thunder, and there’s no Chandler this time. Brendan Haywood? C’mon. The Mavs’ only chance is to rebound and slow the game down, walk it up and let Dirk pump fake someone 15 times. Can the Mavs get Russell Westbrook mad and into making wild decisions? That’s the Thunder’s issue for the playoffs. Jason Kidd is clever, but will have trouble keeping up. Assuming James Harden is OK after Ron Artest’s assault, the Mavs have little chance.
Thunder in 5
No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers (41-25) vs No. 6 Denver Nuggets (38-28)
Series: Lakers 3-1
This is a classic clash of styles with the Lakers having the size and the half court game to utilize Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol while the Nuggets want to open up the game and run with their backcourt edge in quickness and shooting. It’s tough for the Nuggets to lose Wilson Chandler to that hip injury and Danilo Gallinari has been in and out with various injury problems, the last a thumb injury that cost him 10 games into mid-April. They moved Nene for JaVale McGee and have maybe the best backcourt no one knows with Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson and Andre Miller off the bench. Can they rebound enough to run the Lakers? Is Kobe’s shin really OK? When will Bynum blow again? Though being without Artest could help with his 29 percent three point shooting.
Pick: Lakers in 7
No. 4 Memphis Grizzlies (41-25) vs No. 5 Los Angeles Clippers (40-26)
Series: Clippers 2-1
Like the Heat and Knicks in the East, this is the series to watch in the West. It should be tough and physical with Memphis trying to batter you inside with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Plus, they have Rudy Gay this season after he missed last season’s playoffs. They seem like a complete team this time with a good bench with O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley now a reliable point guard. I’m not sure about moving Zach back to the starting lineup, as coach Lionel Hollins said he would do. I thought it worked well with Randolph off the bench as he and Gay tend to clash on shot issues. This may be a do-or-die for Vinny Del Negro’s coaching future even with the strong finish and terrific overall season. The Clippers must resign Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, and winning the first round and the coach may be crucial to that. The team is done unless both return. It’s going to be entertaining to see if Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, two of the biggest jumpers, can stay down on all those Randolph and Gasol head fakes. The Grizzlies might start fouling in the first quarter the way the Clippers’ bigs shoot free throws. The Clippers otherwise aren’t athletic don’t have many answers to slow down Gay. His play could be the difference. The Clippers will need Williams, Foye and Caron Butler to make those spot up threes when the defense sinks with Chris Paul’s penetration.
Pick: Grizzlies in 6