Before I get started with my playoff picks, a couple of disclaimers. First, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Most writers don’t, but I feel weird pretending to be some sort of expert. I do watch a troubling number of meaningless regular season games, but as I find out when I pick my NCAA Tournament Bracket every year, I’d probably have just as much success picking based on which mascot would win in a fight. Anyway, if you’d like informed analysis, you should look elsewhere.
Second, I’m very biased. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be a fan. I tried to keep that bias out of my picks and be at least a little rational, but that’s hard to do. One pick is notably questionable. I think you’ll be able to figure out which one. OK, you’ve been warned.
Finally, before we move onto the playoff matchups, pour some out for the Suns. Vegas had their over/under at 19.5 wins for the season, racing the 76ers for the best odds in the lottery. Instead, they crashed headlong into 48 wins, as many as the No. 3 seed in the East. But they’re not in the East, and in the absurdly competitive West 48 wins wasn’t quite good enough. It was an amazing ride, and it’s too bad we won’t get to watch them anymore. All right, let’s do this.
We begin with by far the least interesting series in the playoffs. This has to be the worst series since, well, Pacers-Hawks in 2013. Actually, version 2.0 is worse. The 2013 teams weren’t all that exciting, but it wasn’t their fault. They suffered from being in smaller markets. Still, they were solid teams playing good basketball.
This year… Jesus. The Hawks have no interest in being here — Danny Ferry admitted as much. They are six games below .500. I hate to keep harping on this (I actually really enjoy harping on this), but the fact that the Hawks are in the playoffs with 36 wins and the Suns are out with 48 wins is incredible and sad.
The Pacers, on the other hand, might be playing the worst basketball of any team left standing. That is not an exaggeration. They’ve somehow morphed from a team that looked like it was ready to topple the Heat into a mix of the 76ers’ offense and the Knicks’ off the court drama. That’s a rough combination.
Someone has to win though. I’ll take the team that at least at one point looked like it might be the best in the NBA over the team that would prefer to be in the lottery.
Pacers in six
Let’s just get this out of the way. I’m a Lebron James fan. Love him. I know; I’m the worst. Look, The Decision was four years ago. It’s time to get over it.
Over the last month of the season, the Pacers seemed determined to hand over the No. 1 seed to the Heat and the coveted first round bye against the Hawks that comes with it. Somehow, the Heat let that opportunity slip away. Now they have to face the Bobcats, and that isn’t going to be easy.
The Heat are going to win this series. They’re too good to lose in the first round. The question is how much the Bobcats will take out of them on the way. The Bobcats make me nervous. The Heat don’t exactly make a living off their interior defense, and Al Jefferson is big enough and dominant enough to take over a couple of games in this series.
Best-case scenario for the Heat: they play crisply from the start, their threes fall, and they wrap the series up in four or five. Worst-case scenario: they fail to knock the Bobcats out early, the series goes to seven games, and Lebron is forced to tack on even more minutes to the already substantial sum he’s logged this season.
The Heat have been here before. The Bobcats have not. If I had to take a guess, I’d say the Heat finish the Bobcats off relatively quickly.
Heat in five
Congratulations, Brooklyn. You successfully tanked out of a matchup against the Bulls. Well done.
Guess what, I’m still not picking you.
I’m not buying the Brooklyn hype. I know they have a good record since the All-Star Break, but I saw this roster play the Knicks last year in the first round. They weren’t good. Now they have Deron Williams instead of Rondo, and Joe Johnson instead of Jeff Green. Great. Props to Paul Pierce for still managing to get threes off without his feet leaving the ground, but I’m taking the team with Kyle Lowry* and Demar Derozan.
*Anybody else come to the strange realization that Kyle Lowry might be the best point guard in the East this year? How crazy is that? With Rose and Rondo out, and Deron Williams officially average, Lowry’s only competition is John Wall. (Yeah, I managed to praise Wall in the Raptors-Nets section. I told you I was biased.)
I think the Raptors are being slept on for being the Raptors. Put Knicks jerseys on them at the beginning of the season, and the media spends all year arguing about whether or not they can upset the Heat. That’s not happening, but they can take the Nets.
Drake over Jay-Z in seven
It’s been a while since the Wizards’ last playoff appearance in ’08. The rebuilding process wasn’t fun. Ernie didn’t exactly speed things along by spending first round draft picks on JaVale McGee, Lazar Hayward, Jan Vesley, and Chris Singleton. But throw enough darts blindly at a wall, and eventually you’re bound to hit a bull’s-eye. First we landed John Wall. Then Bradley Beal. And now, finally, we’ve arrived. The playoffs are coming to DC.
So here we are, facing a Bulls team that refuses to die. I know you’re sick of hearing it at this point, but how on earth are the Bulls still this good?! They lost Derrick Rose, their star player and former MVP, and traded Luol Deng, their leading scorer, and somehow remain the favorite for “Best Non-Heat/Pacers Team In The East.”
As long as Thibs has Noah to anchor his game plan around, the Bulls’ defense will be good enough to win games on its own. Just plug in spare parts, and the machine keeps humming. There’s no better example of this than DJ Augustin. Augustin spent last season struggling to keep it together on the court when he came off the Pacers’ bench.** The Bulls took him in this year, and he instantly became a reliable starting point guard.
**Remember last year when it was fashionable to say the Pacers’ bench was their Achilles’ heel? That bench had Tyler Hansborough, Ian Mahminmi, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, and DJ Augustin. Remind me what the problem was again?
I’m aware the smart money is on the Bulls to win this series. And I couldn’t care less.
Last year, the Warriors were just happy to be in the playoffs. Stephen Curry was a good offensive player, but he wasn’t part of the league’s elite. Until, all of a sudden, the Warriors decided to change the storyline. They punished the Nuggets in the first round, and then threatened to knock out the Spurs before succumbing in six games. Curry emerged as a superstar on the back of one jaw-dropping performance after another.
See where I’m going with this? Sure, the Wizards are happy to be here. But they’re not just happy to be here. Wall’s a competitor, and he’s ready to break out on the national stage. If the rest of the squad gets on board, this team’s about to cause some wreckage.
Wizards in seven
The Western Conference can’t be that much better than the East, right? Consider this: in the No. 1-No. 8 seed matchup, the 62 win Spurs are taking on the 49 win Mavs. That’s a combined 111 wins, or an average of 55.5 wins per team. If the Pacers and Heat meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, the average wins per team will be 55.
You read that correctly. The team with the worst record in the Western Conference Playoffs is in in a series with more total wins than the Pacers-Heat matchup we’ve been dreaming about since week one. So don’t let the little numbers next to these teams’ names fool you into thinking this is a throwaway series.
Oh, and Duncan is 37 and leading a Spurs team that has the best record in the NBA, and Dirk Nowitski is 35 and an MVP candidate, which is kind of impressive as well. That puts both of them in the dwindling group of athletes that were stars when I first started watching sports and are still, somehow, stars.
All that said, I don’t think this is going to be a competitive series. Dirk is Dirk, and Monta has completely reinvented himself, but they have to share a court with the Spurs.
The Spurs might be the most efficient instrument ever assembled on a basketball court. Unless you have the brute athleticism and talent to disrupt it, it’s going to pick you apart. I’m not counting Dirk out, but unless he does something truly special, this is going to be a mismatch.
Spurs in five
Another rematch. This one is a repeat of last year’s conference semifinals, when the Grizzlies took down the Thunder in just five short games.
But it’s not really a rematch. For it to be a rematch, the teams would have to be mostly the same. That Thunder team was without Russell Westbrook, one of the ten best players in the NBA. Westbrook’s back, and with him the Thunder are a different story.
Add in that Durant has somehow kicked his game into an even higher gear, and the Thunder are starting to look like they’re holding the giant sledgehammer in Super Smash Bros., with the other teams desperately attempting to scurry out of reach. The Grizzlies will need to be perfect if they want to avoid getting smashed.
I don’t mean to be dismissive of the Grizzlies. Since getting Marc Gasol back from injury, they’ve been scary. Gasol and Randolph will beat the Thunder up down low, and that kind of physicality could take a toll on the Thunder as the series goes on.
At the end of the day though, I’m not picking against a fully loaded Thunder team that looks poised to make a run to the Finals.
Thunder in six
Chris Paul. Blake Griffin. Stephen Curry.
Perhaps more than any other matchup, this series exemplifies the whole “Watching Players Vs. Watching Teams” thing. What I mean is, the majority of people who tune into this series will be more interested in watching Paul, Griffin, and Curry do cool things than they will be in the result of the game. Myself included.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll probably talk myself into rooting for one of these teams. Maybe the Warriors, because I love Curry. Actually, definitely the Warriors. OK, I’m all in on the Warriors. But when Paul makes a crafty pass to DeAndre Jordan for a spectacular dunk, I’m going to enjoy it anyway.
All that star power is going to make this a fun series to watch. The Clippers might have two of the top five players in the NBA. No other team can say that. And the Warriors have Curry, who is without a doubt the most exciting player in the league. Of course, there’s his shooting, but it’s more than that. Every move he makes looks like its part of some dance only he’s privy to. In an age when it often feels like every player is doing the same thing, it’s exhilarating to watch.
Hopefully Curry steals a couple of games, and this series comes down to the wire.
But it would be foolish not to bet on the team with two top five players. Add in the news of Bogut’s broken rib, and it’s not looking good for the Warriors.
Clippers in six
Both teams finished with 54 wins. In the end, wins are how we judge teams, and these teams are a great example of how little of the story that captures.
The Blazers came out of pretty much nowhere in the first half of the season and for a couple of months held the best record in the Western Conference. They then cooled off noticeably, as many expected, before finishing the season on a high note, winning 9 out of 10 games.
Their success was baffling. The best explanation seems to be growth from their young stars and the chemistry that only comes from playing with the same guys for multiple years.
The Rockets, on the other hand, built a contender with two blockbuster moves. Last season, they dipped into their vault of assets to trade for James Harden. He turned out to be the best shooting guard in the league. They followed that up by signing Dwight Howard this offseason. Now, they’re riding two of the most recognizable players in the NBA into the postseason.
So which is better?
As much as I love what the Blazers have done, I think they’re still a year away. The Rockets are all in on this season, which gives them the slight edge.
Rockets in seven
There you go. Previews and picks for all eight series. Let the games begin.
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