(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks
When predicting a series, the best bet is five games if you think the outcome is pretty obvious. Four games are only more likely when the series is lopsided, like when a sub-0.500 team meets a defending champion running on all cylinders. Really not much to say here.
What to watch for:
-Larry Sanders' defense. The most unstoppable player once he gets to the rim (LeBron, not Battier, I know you're all thinking) meets one of the best interior defenders.
-What happens with the big man rotation? How much time will Haslem get? How long will they play with a traditional power forward?
-The most interesting part of the series is seeing if the Heat are going for the undefeated playoff run.
Prediction: Miami in four.
(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics
Although historically it seems more impressive because of the names involved, it's a 3.7 SRS (point differential adjusted for strength of schedule) team versus one that's -0.6. Yes, losing Rondo and gaining Bradley has led to some good defense, but over the last 25 games the Celitcs still don't have a positive point differential. Also, if you haven't heard yet, the Knicks were just on a torrid stretch (but no, you likely dissenting MVP voter who will destroy LeBron's chance at a unanimous award, he can't be the MVP.) Injures could make this series interesting, but the injuries appear to be on both sides.
What to watch for:
-If he stays healthy, Avery Bradley has a chance to be one of the greatest perimeter defenders ever. Normally, it's a bad idea to full-court press a team unless you're in dire straights at the end of a game. Sometimes people ask, after watching college basketball, why NBA teams don't employ it more often, and the answer is that NBA players are way too skilled to be trapped and pressured that easily. Avery Bradley is so great at this he's the exception.
-Every year we wonder if this is it for the Garnett-Pierce Celtics, and last year Ray Allen actually did leave. It's been a dominating run for the old guys, but perhaps this is farewell (again.)
-With the barrage of three-pointers and Carmelo at the 4, the offense clearly works well, but they need to reshape their defense into what it was last year to have any shot at making at dent in Miami's armor. How defenders like Tyson and Shumpert look here will be important later.
Prediction: Knicks in five.
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks
This match-up is similar to Knicks-Celtics. Once you adjust for strength of schedule, the Hawks are almost perfectly average. Pacers, along with the Grizzlies, have the best defense in the NBA. Horford is an undersized center and will be hard-pressed to score inside against the giant Hibbert, although the jump-shooting could bring him out from the paint. But the Hawks already have some problems scoring, and the Pacers' best lineups destroyed the league. There are virtually no factors that bode well for the Hawks; they lost Zaza Pachulia, a center known for his tough (and) annoying play. Recent play? Hawks have been, again, average in the past 25 games, while the Pacers have had a better offense. This series shouldn't take long.
What to watch for:
-Hibbert's defense is DPOTY-worthy, and his offensive slump ended months ago, which some people forgot. So this is a guy who was named an all-star, kept up his box score production after the contract once you ignore his wrist-injury plagued games, and improved defensively more than anyone not named Larry Sanders.
-The over/under of games on NBATV is the same as the over/under of games played in the series.
-The Pacers' defense is worth the price of admission, if you're an NBA die-hard.
Prediction: Pacers in five.
(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls
The series rests on Noah's foot. His plantar fasciitis will make him unlikely for at least the first game. Given the lack of depth at center, no homecourt advantage, and the location of Rose unknown -- will he make some improbable comeback when we least expect it, with a cape and a mask? -- it's an uphill battle for the Bulls. The safe bet is to take the Nets -- they played better, won more games, have homecourt, less injury concerns, and they've played better in the second half. Deron Williams, in particular, has regained his form as an all-star point guard, and alongside the gawky Lopez who's defending decently and scoring well, Evans rebounding like Rodman, and Joe Johnson ... existing, the Nets shouldn't have any problems as long as nothing weird happens. The season numbers for the Nets aren't great, but over the last 25 games they've been a strong team. I'm going to predict another boring five game series, but in the first round that's the safest bet, especially when all the planets are in alignment for one team.
What to watch for:
-Seriously, Reggie Evans rebounded like Dennis Rodman. What's fascinating is that Rodman wasn't like this when he was younger and only transformed into an insane rebounding magnet in his 30's, just like Evans.
-Lopez has worked hard on improving his defense. With his size and length he should always have an advantage inside, but his mobility and effort have never been consistent. Hibbert isn't the fast man in the world, but if he can contend for DPOTY then Lopez can be above average.
-Jimmy Butler has just joined the cast of excellent perimeter role players every contender wants: his defense is outstanding and he can hit a three. I think this group is led by Bruce Bowen with Batter as the accountant.
-You'd have a hard time convincing me Gerald Wallace actually played in the '13 season.
Prediction: Nets in five.
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder versus (8) Houston Rockets
The Thunder completed a season with an adjusted point differential that's 9th all-time where all eight teams above them won a title except for the '72 Bucks, who were behind the Lakers in point differential the same year. People think of their offense, but OKC somehow has the fourth best defense in the league. When your offense relies on Durant's incredible scoring, Westbrook's drives, and some efficient third options (Martin/Ibaka/Collison), and you can append elite defense, the road to the finals is already paved for you. I guess this is a way of saying the Rockets stand no chance. I think the most likely outcome is one game lost, but I think it's nearly a toss-up between that and a sweep. The Rockets, however, have an adjusted point differential much stronger than a typical 8-seed, and it's actually just behind the 2nd-seed Knicks. But the gap is too large between Houston and Oklahoma City. Maybe one game they'll rain down three's like it's all-star Saturday night, but this series is only watching for the Harden reunion/humiliation.
What to watch for:
-Harden should get an award is he has a good series here. The Rockets don't really have another good offensive option, and the Thunder know him well. He's going to be attacked.
-Asik's defense should get DPOTY-consideration because when he's on the court the team is somehow above average and would be ranked somewhere in between the Heat and Hawks for 10th, while on the bench the Rockets plummet to 27th, barely ahead of the lowly Hornets.
-Thabo has quietly become a great perimeter defender.
-The Lin/Parsons romance, which should be spun into a great novel someday.
Prediction: Thunder in five.
(2) San Antonio Spurs versus (7) Los Angeles Lakers
Predictions are difficult when you have little relevant information. Nash/Gasol/Howard without Kobe has been the lineup for five more minutes than Jordan/Wilt/Nixon was in 2013. It's really hard to ascertain Nash's contribution at this point, especially with all the rust he's collected; but a conservative estimate has him likely better than the horrible point guards LA has had all year. The series is down to Pau/Howard trying to destroy the Spurs' frontline; unfortunately, the Spurs have gone with Splitter/Duncan lineups for a long time, negating any size advantages. The Spurs are also one of the best ball movement and three-point shooting teams in the league -- just what the Lakers can't defend. Tony Parker's injury concerns could make this interesting, but the Lakers, obviously, have more problems and unlike San Antonio no depth to replace the talent. With a crazy series of uncertainty, it's best to think simple and go with a conservative estimate. A 2-seed versus a 7-seed? Duncan is healthy and playing well? Kobe's out? Yeah, the truth has to be stretched for the Lakers here.
What to watch for:
-Howard versus Duncan could be one for the ages. Howard has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove, finally healthy; Duncan is having one of the best old man seasons in NBA history and likely wants to destroy the Lakers.
-The Lakers' perimeter defense and defensive rotation are vital if they want a chance, which is far-fetched anyhow.
-The high/low game between Pau and Howard is fun to watch for anyone who loves NBA centers.
-Manu, we all miss you.
-T-Mac, is that really you?
Prediction: Spurs in five.
(3) Denver Nuggets versus (6) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are marginally an above average team, while Denver has played like a dark horse contender lately. That's the series in a nutshell. I think Gallinari's injury is more of a concern than most people because they'll miss his defense and outside shooting, but that's only a problem when they face real competition. Lawson has a nagging heel injury, complicating matters further, but it appears it may not be an issue. The Warriors' defense is not disciplined enough to exploit Denver's offensive weaknesses, and while they've played well in the last 25 games Denver has been even better. Unless Lawson is hampered by injury, this series will be short.
What to watch for:
-Curry's three-point shooting was otherworldly. No one has ever combined his accuracy, volume, and difficulty as he's often shooting off the dribble and contested.
-JaVale McGee. I don't need to add to that.
-The Nuggets in transition.
-Andre Miller's famed old man game: his hesitation, his footwork, his deceptiveness, his clever moves, his alley-oops ... it's all basketball skill, not brawn.
Prediction: Nuggets in five.
(4) Los Angeles Clippers versus (5) Memphis Grizzlies
This is the highest quality series of the first round and one of the toughest to predict. Both are strong teams and better than anyone except Miami in the east. The Clippers have fallen off defensively and can't contend with the Grizzlies' strength inside. Tony Allen and Conley will harass Paul to no end. The Grizzlies have the best defense in the west (though they're still not west of the Mississippi.) However, LA has homecourt advantage, a larger point differential, and have played better since the all-star break; they even won the season series with a recent win that almost single-handedly decided their seeding.
I see the Clippers winning in most instances, but the Grizzlies can still make it a tough fight. Memphis' defense falls off a cliff when Marc Gasol sits since they have no good defensive big men on the bench; consequently, he'll see little rest. The Clippers also have no idea what to do at center at the end of games where Jordan's free-throw shooting is problematic. Odom at center is fine for Don Nelson, not a finals contender. I'd be more convinced of a five game series if LA knew what to do with its rotation -- Bledsoe is fun but when he plays with Paul it's easier for Allen to guard Paul, Billups should be in retirement, Willie Green shouldn't be in a playoff rotation, Caron Butler at his best is a wash, Crawford has a claim for worst defender (with big minutes) in the league, Grant Hill remembers Betamax, and Barnes has been so surprisingly effective that I'm afraid Del Negro will limit his minutes somehow. (Lakers let Barnes go sign a minimum contract and desperately could use him right now.) But they have homecourt advantage. The safest play here is for the Clippers.
What to watch for:
-With the high value of defensive big men, it's difficult for Tony Allen to ever win a DPOTY trophy, but he deserves some sort of plaque for his perimeter defense.
-Speaking of defense, Griffin is somehow underrated and is slowly starting to realize his athleticism can be used for blocking shots.
-Marc Gasol's intelligent defense.
-Above the rim : below the rim :: Blake Griffin : Zach Randolph. Somehow, Griffin doesn't take advantage of this.
Prediction: Clippers in seven.
For fun, here's an early prediction of the rest of the playoffs:
-Thunder over the Clippers in five games.
-Spurs over the Nuggets in seven games.
-Heat over the Nets in five games.
-Knicks over the Pacers in seven games.
-Thunder over the Spurs in five games.
(Depends on Parker's health and if the ghosts of T-Mac and McGrady show up.)
-Heat over the Knicks in five games.
-Heat over the Thunder in seven games.