The grueling, taxing, utterly bizarre NBA regular season finally comes to an end. Despite an intensely demanding schedule, the exact same eight Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs last season did so again with only the slightest rearrangements this season.
The Western Conference enjoyed a bit of change, with the Blake Griffin-led Clippers finally maturing into the playoff-caliber team we all knew they’d eventually become, and the Jazz making the playoffs as well. The Trail Blazers and Hornets missed the playoffs, having long since faded into mediocrity.
So who wins it all? Here’s my first-round preview.
Celtics vs. Hawks
What’s the purpose of a seeding system that doesn’t award home-court to the higher seed? Celtics fans will ask that throughout the series, as the fourth-seed Celtics will start their playoffs on the road against the fifth-seed Hawks. Shouldn’t matter, however, as the Celtics’ league-leading defense should carry them past a depleted Hawks team.
Atlanta will likely be without both Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia, their top two centers. That should take some pressure of Kevin Garnett and Boston’s anemic rebounding game. The Celtics may not get Ray Allen back from injury, but that should just pave the way for Avery Bradley to do what he does on defense, as the offense attacks the Hawks inside. Pick: Celtics in 6.
Pacers vs. Magic
Don’t expect a lot of scoring in this series – both teams rank in the bottom ten in field goal percentage, and neither team overcomes it with abundant shooting. Indiana in general rebounds better than Orlando, and Dwight Howard won’t be able to do too much against Danny Granger.
The Pacers have the slightly younger team, so expect them to push the tempo with fast-breaks and steals. Pick: Pacers in 7.
Heat vs. Knicks
Both Miami and New York force turnovers with relative ease, but New York seems far more susceptible to defensive pressure, ranking last in the Eastern Conference in turnovers per game. That’s bad news when playing the Heat, because LeBron James can outrun and out-muscle anyone on fast-breaks, including Amare Stoudemire.
Expect the Heat to get to the foul line quite a bit. If Dwyane Wade recovers from his finger injury, he and James by themselves could out-score most of the Knicks’ roster combined. Pick: Heat in 5.
Bulls vs. 76ers
Chicago’s terrific defense should carry them past Philadelphia, a team that’s played sub-.500 basketball ever since the All-Star Break. Even without Derrick Rose, Chicago still plays at an incredibly high level, and they’ve done so all season long.
The lockout-shorted schedule gave younger teams an advantage because it removed nearly twice as many rest days (30) as it did games (16). The Bulls took advantage of that against a weak Eastern Conference, earning the top seed and an easy first-round opponent. Pick: Bulls in 5.
Grizzlies vs. Clippers
Memphis’ Rudy Gay can counter Griffin or Chris Paul, but he can’t counter both. Memphis plays pretty solid defense overall, but they allow opponents a decent shooting percentage (.444, 12th in the NBA) and stink from beyond three-point range (.326, 25th).
To win, the Grizzlies will have to force turnovers – they lead the league in steals per game and opponent turnovers. But the Clippers turn the ball over less than any team in the NBA, diminishing the likelihood of a lot of fast-break opportunities for the Grizzlies. Pick: Clippers in 6.
Lakers vs. Nuggets
Denver leads the NBA with 104.1 points per game. They also pass better than anyone in the league, which could mean trouble for the L.A.’s older, creakier defenders. L.A. plays middle-of-the-road defense and doesn’t shoot as well.
The Nuggets may turn the ball over a lot, but that shouldn’t matter as much against the Lakers, who rank dead last in opponent turnovers even with defensive specialist Metta World Peace. And with World Peace suspended for most of the series, the Lakers’ defense just got even worse. I’m predicting upset. Pick: Nuggets in 7.
Thunder vs. Mavericks
I’m picking Oklahoma City to win it all this year. Kevin Durant won the scoring title this year, and point guard Russell Westbrook came in fifth. That’s the best 1-2 shooting combo in the NBA right now, and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki can’t beat both of them without help.
The Thunder may give up almost 97 points per game, but they hold opponents to a very low field goal percentage, lead the league in blocks and handle their business on the boards. The Mavericks may be the defending champs, but their defense scares no one, and they can’t hang with the Thunder at a fast pace. Pick: Thunder in 6.
Spurs vs. Jazz
The senior citizen Spurs should’ve been crippled by the 2011-12 schedule, but they overcame it with incredibly efficient offense. Scoring 103.7 points per game, the Spurs trail the Nuggets by just 0.4 points atop the NBA. Their .478 accuracy, meanwhile, leads the league.
Utah scores a lot of points, but they allow nearly as many. Their +0.7 scoring differential ranks last among playoff-qualifying teams, and against an offense as synchronized as San Antonio’s, they might struggle to keep up.
The Spurs have played with essentially the same roster for over a decade. No team in the NBA knows itself as well as the Spurs do, and that gives them a huge advantage over Utah, a team that lacks a player transcendentally good enough to carry everyone by himself. Pick: Spurs in 5.