How the West (and East) was Won: A Look at the NBA Playoff Picture
BY MATTHEW VINSKO AND BRETT MURDOCK, Couchsideshow.com writers
If you would have asked us this past summer who we thought would win the NBA Championship, I’m sure we would have had three answers for you: the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder, or the most likely scenario, no champion at all.
With the lockout breathing down the NBA’s neck, it was hard to have realistic expectations for a 2011-12 NBA season. Though the shortened schedule has led to its share of surprises (I’m looking at you, Utah Jazz), the older mainstays have managed to stay true to form and the young, upcoming teams have seemingly dominated a shorter, more physically daunting schedule (with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs; how does Popovich do it?).
Now that the regular season is over and the match-ups are set, it’s prediction time, and who better to run down the NBA playoffs than two diehard fans? We will admit our last article was a WWE-themed article, so it’s time to pop our cherry once and for all and tackle a real sport.
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
Matt: I was a little disheartened to see the Jazz easily dismantle the Phoenix Suns this past Tuesday, breaking the hearts of Phoenix fans while ensuring Utah’s trip to the postseason. Now that it’s all said and done though, I have a hard time picking either of the two against the Spurs. Though San Antonio showed last year that one-seeds aren’t unbeatable, I don’t see them losing two years in a row in first-round upsets. Plus, Utah’s front court players (Derrick Favors, Al Jefferson, and Paul Millsap) aren’t nearly as intimidating as Memphis’ combination of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol a year ago. Expect a pretty lopsided series in my eyes where the veterans show the young studs a thing or two about postseason basketball.
Winner: San Antonio Spurs in 5
Brett: I spent last Tuesday night at Matt’s house, watching the Suns/Jazz battle it out for a playoff spot while simultaneously writing our Extreme Rules predictions. When the triple zeroes hit and the Suns had lost and missed out on a chance for the final berth, I was left not heartbroken nor happy, but relieved. Because I knew that I would not have to watch the Suns endure a humiliating first round exit to the Spurs, which is what the Jazz will encounter. San Antonio is a deep team, starting with their Big 3 of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili (bleh) and Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward ever. Their bench is young and talented and the late-season acquisitions of Stephen Jackson, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw were solid. The Jazz are young but inexperienced in the playoffs and will have trouble containing the Spurs on both ends of the floor. This one should be a cakewalk for San Antonio.
Winner: Spurs in 5
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Matt: A rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals that went the way of the Mavericks, this series should be much closer than the seeding would indicate. Though Dallas’ regular season was less than impressive for a defending champion, I expect them to make a strong bounce back come playoffs. You can’t count out Dirk Nowitzki no matter the situation, and the rest of the ragtag group of savvy veterans know how play when it matters. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has strived during this shortened season thanks in part to younger legs and the emergence of Kevin Durant as a legitimate MVP candidate. I see the Thunder getting a measure of revenge following last year’s heartbreaking loss to the Mavericks, but in another grueling series that could propel the Thunder to championship status. After all, what better way to get going than to knock off the defending champs themselves?
Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder in 6
Brett: If you knew me as a sports fan, you would know that my favorite NBA player of all-time is not Steve Nash, despite my Phoenix fandom, but Dirk Nowitzki, last year’s Finals MVP and all-around awesome German guy. Seeing him lift that trophy after beating the Heat in Game Six last year brought me great joy and finally proved that Dirk can come through in the clutch. On the way there, the Mavericks had to go through the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s West Finals, and the two squads now meet again, this time in the first round. The Thunder are young and hungry, led by MVP candidate and 2011-12 scoring champion Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, to go along with the (most likely) Sixth Man of the Year James Harden. Dallas saw a dropoff this year after losing a bevy of players from last year’s title team including JJ Barea, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson. You can never dismiss Dirk and his clutchness while Jason Terry and Jason Kidd can still get it done. But, it is the Thunder’s time and their youthfulness will reign supreme in this round. Dirk got his last year, now it is Durant’s time to fully establish himself.
Winner: Thunder in 5
(3) L.A. Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
Matt: I’m going to get this out of the way right now: I’m a Lakers fan for life. That being said, after their offseason debacles (hiring Mike Brown; trading Lamar Odom for a pick; missing out in the Chris Paul sweepstakes), I half expected this team to fall to the bottom four of the Western Conference’s playoff picture. But time and again, Kobe Bryant and co. have defied expectations and won the Pacific Division, ensuring home court for the first round of the playoffs. This is going to be crucial for a team that was at times sporadic on the road. The Nuggets, on the other hand, have succeeded, and I’d argue exceeded, critics’ perceptions. Ty Lawson has emerged as one of the best point guards in the league, and Kenneth Faried adds depth in the front court. Unfortunately, losing Nene in a trade for Wilson Chandler (who is out indefinitely) hurts big time, and while JaVale McGee is an athletic specimen at center, I don’t see Denver’s bigs slowing down Andrew Bynum or a well-rested Kobe.
Winner: Los Angeles Lakers in 6
Brett: Contrary to my writing partner in crime, I despise the Lakers. I respect them, sure. But whenever they are playing, I whole heartedly root for the other team. With that being said, they do have Kobe Bryant and still have Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the blocks. Their bench has improved but is still questionable and Metta World Peace’s suspension could cause problems defensively. Meanwhile, the Nuggets have been playing well recently and enter the post-season on a nice little roll. They are a high-flying, younger team that excites and works hard. Ty Lawson is as quick as they come in the point guard position while wingers Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo can fill it up. The one question they have is their post play, with Kosta Koufos inexperienced and JaVale McGee a nutcase. Kenneth Faried has been a solid draft pick while Corey Brewer has been impressing as of late. I feel like taking the road less traveled here because while I respect the Lakers pedigree, I still don’t like them.
Winner: Nuggets in 7
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) L.A. Clippers
Matt: A year ago, the Memphis Grizzlies were a Cinderella story. Who thought a team without its best player could compete in the playoffs, let alone against the top-seeded Spurs? Then again, the emergence of Randolph and Gasol in the front court combined with the guard play of O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley were just too much to handle. This experience will definitely prove valuable against a team who has seen limited success in the playoffs in the L.A. Clippers. While Chris Paul may be the best pure point guard in the league, he can only do so much. Blake Griffin has proven last season wasn’t a fluke, but with a limited game around the basket, it’s hard to see him competing against the likes of Randolph and Gasol. Oh, and Memphis has a certifiable superstar in Rudy Gay and a deeper team all-around, whereas the Clippers need to rely on Paul and Griffin to carry the load. I expect a very entertaining series that could go seven, but I don’t see Memphis losing again in the first round as I did last year.
Memphis Grizzlies in 6
Brett: When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul, they immediately became a sexy pick to make the NBA Finals. “Lob City” as they came to be known was a highlight reel’s and YouTube’s dream. But, it still didn’t make up for the fact that Blake Griffin, though athletic as all hell, still needs a lot of work to refine his overall game. DeAndre Jordan can play defense and dunk…and that’s it. Caron Butler can score, but only when he feels like it. And Chris Paul can not carry this team by himself, especially with Chauncey Billups out. The Grizzlies on the other hand are a very complete team and are my sleeper team to reach the Finals out of the West. Rudy Gay can score with the best of them while the post is dominated by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Guard Michael Conley and O.J. Mayo provided a nice punch in the backcourt as well. Don’t forget, this is the same team that eliminated the Spurs in five games last year and gave the Thunder all they could handle. Memphis has home court in this series and will use that well.
Winner: Grizzlies in 5
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
Matt: If you would have asked me a couple months into the season about this matchup, I might have gone a different way. At one point, Philly was arguably the best team not only in the Atlantic Division, but in the Eastern Conference. Lou Williams was playing like a beast off the bench, and their depth with Andre Iguodala, Spencer Hawes (who has since cooled down considerably), and Jrue Holiday made the Sixers one of the most formidable, young teams in the league. A couple months later, and it’s a surprise the team has even made the playoffs, what the reemergence of the Milwaukee Bucks after the Monta Ellis trade. The Bulls, on the other hand, have dealt with injuries, most notably to Derrick Rose and Richard Hamilton, yet still remained one of the most dominating teams in the league, which was enough to ensure the number one seed throughout the playoffs. I don’t expect this series to even be close, to be honest with you. Derrick Rose is going to be playing with a chip on his shoulder after last season’s playoff loss to the Heat and this season’s critics calling him soft and injury-prone.
Winner: Chicago Bulls in 4
Brett: At one point during the shortened season, fellow CouchSide blogger Chuck Constantino openly declared on his Twitter page that the 76ers would be in the Finals. Pretty sure he’d love to take that back. Philly, after starting the year red-hot, has cooled down tremendously. In fact, they were in danger of falling out of the playoff picture completely until a late season charge. They have talent with Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Spencer Hawes but they don’t have the mindset to go very far right now. Chicago on the other hand is ready to roll. Despite being without Derrick Rose for long stretches, the Bulls want to exact some revenge after last year’s flameout to the Heat in the East Finals and prove they are the team to beat in the East. Carlos Boozer will need to show up this post-season for that to happen but considering the early round and the 76ers psyche, this should be no problem for Chi-town. They are too deep and talented to let Philly get any thoughts into their heads about an upset.
Winner: Bulls in 4
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
Matt: The Knicks have rebounded following the loss of Mike D’Antoni quite nicely, wouldn’t you say? Since that time, Carmelo Anthony has been averaging nearly 30 points a game, and the Knicks are showing the talent and skill many pegged them display earlier in the season. Miami, on the other hand, has a plethora of issues ranging from injuries to Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. LeBron James will need to step up big time if he wants to beat a Knicks team that is firing on all-cylinders, but I think he can hold the fort until his teammates return to 100 percent health. That, and after how close the Heat came last year, it’s hard to see them losing in the first round. Carmelo will have to do his best LeBron impression, and Amare Stoudemire is going to need to be the Amare of old if the Knicks want a legitimate shot at beating the Heat. In the end, while this will definitely be the most entertaining series of the first round, expect the higher seed to pull it out and LeBron to go beast mode in an attempt to silence his critics.
Winner: Miami Heat in 6
Brett: I wouldn’t call myself a Knicks fan, but I do enjoy watching them play. Its just too bad Jeremy Lin won’t be able to show what he can do on the grand stage, because that would’ve been special. However, they still have Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and J.R. Smith to lead the way offensively. Throw in the Knicks surprisingly better attention to defense ever since Mike Woodson took over coaching duties, and you have the recipe for an upset. Turning attention to the Heat, they are of course the ever-scrutinized bunch of these playoffs, especially after last year’s loss to Dallas. The Big 3 of Wade, LeBron and Bosh, that once declared “not five, not six, not seven…” and so on is still searching for one, even though they have only spent two seasons together. They have tried to improve their depth and have succeeded somewhat but everything still goes through the Big 3 offensively. I want to call the upset but I don’t see it happening. But the Knicks will give it their all and can hopefully at least inflict enough damage on the Heat to give their next opponents an easier time.
Winner: Heat in 6
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
Matt: The Indiana Pacers are one of the feel good stories of the year. With the emergence of Danny Granger, Darren Collison, and Paul George on the wing, and first-time All-Star selection Roy Hibbert in the paint, it’s nice to see what a young group of guys can do given the time to mesh. On the other hand, the Orlando Magic have looked next to awful at points this year, with the Dwight Howard saga hitting a new low. Even with Howard’s off-count antics, however, the Magic need him to win, and his season-ending back surgery aren’t helping matters. While I don’t expect this to be a lopsided sweep by the Pacers, the Magic just have nothing going for them, especially without an All-Star in Howard. Jason Richardson, Jameer Nelson, and even Ryan Anderson are going to need to step up in a big way, and I don’t see it happening. Indiana played Chicago well a year ago, and now that the team has solidified itself as a dominant force, expect big things from this Paces squad for things to come, starting now.
Winner: Indiana Pacers in 5
Brett: Like the Grizzlies in the West, the Indiana Pacers are my sleeper team to make the Finals out of the East. They have a solid starting five with Darren Collsion, Paul George, Danny Granger, David West and Roy Hibbert and can bring in George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough, Leandro Barbosa and Lou Amundson off the bench to keep up the intensity. I’ve been following this team a lot more the past few years and am impressed with what the front office has done as well as the coaching job of Frank Vogel. Meanwhile, in Orlando, things are falling apart faster than Kim Kardashian’s marriage. The ever on-going Dwight Howard saga is terrible for mojo and now with him out due to back surgery, the Magic lost their key cog. Jameer Nelson is adequate for the regular season, but not the playoffs while expecting Jason Richardson, Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick to step up is a pipe dream. My colleague may not call the sweep, but I will.
Winner: Pacers in 4
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Matt: The savvy veterans pulled through, and Rajon Rondo showed why the Celtics shouldn’t have traded him in nabbing the fourth seed. Kevin Garnett reemerged as the “Big Ticket” of old, and Avery Bradley has taken over at shooting guard, which provides a much needed spark off the bench in sharpshooter Ray Allen. Things look to be clicking for the Hawks also, which despite losing Al Horford, have quietly developed into one of the best all-around teams in the league. When you have Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and even Jeff Teague, it’s easy to play both sides of the ball. Like the Celtics, who now start Garnett at center, the Hawks will be playing small in the hopes of running the daylights out of their older opponents, but like the first every playoff series Boston played with the Big Three, I expect the Celtics to oust the Hawks in the first round due to veteran knowhow and guts alone. Although they’re definitely not a serious title threat right now, a first round upset (the Hawks have home court) of Atlanta could propel the Celtics into championship contender status. Hell, the Spurs have proven age ain’t nothing but a thing, so why can’t Bean Town take a page from their playbook?
Winner: Boston Celtics in 6
Brett: In an odd turn of events, the five seed will have home court advantage in this series because the Hawks have the better record and the NBA will not let a division winner fall lower than fourth in the seeding. But, that won’t mean anything come tip time. The Celtics continue to chug along even though Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are always the target of being too old. Rajon Rando continues to provide the steadiness at the point and they are still the Celtics. The Hawks, despite losing Al Horford to a torn pectoral early in the year, have also defied expectations with the likes of Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague leading the way. However, they still have to shake off the stigma that they are not built for the playoffs and are mostly flash and don’t have the mental toughness and swagger to advance very far. I think that will remain the same going forward, but that ATL will put up a solid fight, pushing the series the length.
Winner: Celtics in 7