A Race to the Finals: Couch Side’s NBA second round playoff predictions

BY MATTHEW VINSKO, Couchsideshow.com writer

Despite being a few upsets in the first round, it’s hard to call my first round predictions a failure. Who saw Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah getting injured in similarly gruesome fashions? Who knew a Memphis Grizzlies squad that impressed everyone last year would get upended by the up and coming “Lob City”? Not this guy.

Still, now that we’re onto the second round, we’re starting to see some contenders truly hit their stride, and some others happy to be here. Without further ado, here are some picks for the second round of the NBA Playoffs.

• Writers Note: I understand two games have already been played in the second round, but in my defense, I wished to wait until the first round wrapped up before writing up this article. After all, it was pretty easy to miss out on the openers when there were two Game 7s to be had.

Eastern Conference

(4) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers

Honestly, this is not the matchup anyone expected coming out of the first round. First of all, everyone thought Rose’s injury-prone season would be refreshed in the playoffs against a very sloppy 76ers team that was lucky to make the playoffs. Secondly, even without Rose, the Bulls managed to ride a wave of success during the season, earning the best record in the conference over much healthier squads. People forget Richard Hamilton was hurt a lot too, which forced Luol Deng and the Bulls’ front court to respond accordingly, and time and again, they did.

Does Kevin Garnett and the “old man” Celtics have what it takes to reach the Eastern Conference semi-finals again? Photo by: Michael E. Lee / Flickr

Just not in the first round against a 76ers squad that seemed to finally get back on track. Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand were beastly down low without Noah there, and Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, and Andre Iguodala all proved to be too much for a severely limited Bulls backcourt. The Celtics, on the other hand, struggled more than I thought they would in the first round, but still came out triumphant despite a brief Rajon Rondo suspension and an injury to Ray Allen. Kevin Garnett is playing like “The Big Ticket” of old, and it’s hard to see anyone stop this squad, especially after a comeback performance in Game 1 this past Saturday.

The 76ers have showed glimpses this postseason of what they were earlier in the season, but against a veteran team that finally seems to be hitting their stride, it’s hard to see them winning the series. I expect a close series just because the Celtics’ legs will have to get tired at some point, but in the end, the Celtics are just too much for a team who have no place being in the second round.

Winner: Boston Celtics in 6

(2) Miami Heat vs. (3) Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are a feel-good team. A good mix of savvy veterans such as David West and Danny Granger infused with the younger legs of Roy Hibbert and Paul George make it easy to root for a team that finished with 42 wins after a subpar season one year ago.

The Heat, on the other hand, aren’t quite the villains they were last year, but still demand attention with recently-awarded MVP LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. If you happened to miss Game 1 in this series, let me spell it out for you. The Pacers were leading at half after the injury to Chris Bosh, so how do James and Wade respond? At one point, they outscore the entire Pacers’ squad themselves, and hold on to dominate a 95-86 win in Miami.

Miami Heat forward LeBron James won his third MVP award, but can he get the Miami Heat back to the promised land? Photo by: Martin Fahsel / Flickr

Despite their appeal, talent, and depth, the Pacers just don’t have the firepower to outscore, or hope to stop Wade and LeBron. Granger and George made two field goals between the two, and Hibbert came close to fouling out trying to stop the Heat wing players from reaching the basket.

The only way for the Pacers to have a chance in this series is for George, Granger, West, and Hibbert to all step up and play to their full potentials. Granger and George aren’t going to shoot this terribly all series, but it’s hard to see James or Wade slowing down, especially with so much to prove. If the Heat fail to win a championship this season, it’s that much more pressure on a team that promised titles for years to come.

While I’d like to see the Pacers upset here, with LeBron riding the hot hand and a better supporting cast than they did last year (including the additions of Ronny Turiaf and Shane Battier), I can’t see the Heat losing, at least not at this point. Expect the Pacers to cement themselves as a team to be messed with for years to come, just not right now.

Winner: Miami Heat in 7

Western Conference

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) LA Clippers

How the Clippers snuck their way to the second round still amazes me. The Grizzlies showed their dominance in Game 1 of their first round series with LA, but their monumental 27-point collapse set the tone for the rest of the series, and Michael Conley, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol just couldn’t find their groove despite Tony Allen doing everything in his power to slow down Chris Paul.

San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker is familiar to the NBA playoffs. Photo by: Willy Gilboire / Flickr

Now, “Lob City” faces their biggest task of the year facing a veteran Spurs squad that not only beat the Utah Jazz in the first round, but utterly dominated them, ensuring a lengthy rest between opponents. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and recent MVP-candidate Tony Parker are looking solid, and with Kawhi Leonard, the return of Stephen Jackson, and even the red-hot Patrick Mills, the Spurs are looking tougher, and deeper, than they have in recent memory.

Don’t shortchange the Clippers, however. Blake Griffin is a young, active body on the front court, and CP3, Mo Williams, Nick Young, and even Eric Bledsoe have all contributed in the backcourt. Out of nowhere, Reggie Evans has cemented himself in this rotation as a glue guy who can rebound and play defense, and you can’t count out DeAndre Jordan in the low post as a guy who can swat his own share of shots.

In the end, this proves to be probably the most difficult pick of the second round for me just because you have to believe, like the Celtics, the Spurs are going to slow down at some point, and who better to take advantage of a young, run-and-gun team whose championship aspirations at the start of the season may be truer than many initially thought. Still, the Spurs have proven time and again that they flourish when they’re expected to flounder, and the Clippers/Grizzlies series seemed more like a Memphis collapse than a LA triumph in my book. The Clippers just don’t have the consistency, and depth, to compete with a team that might be looking at its last chance to reach the Finals.

Winner: San Antonio Spurs in 6

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (3) LA Lakers

Everyone that knows me knows I bleed purple and gold, which made the Lakers dramatic Game 7 win over the Denver Nuggets the closest thing to a heart attack I’ve ever had in my 22-year existence. The return of Metta World Peace combined with the reemergence of Pau Gasol proved just too much for a Nuggets squad that is a year or two out from competing at a championship level with Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee, and even Aaron Afflalo.

Oklahoma City Thunder forward James Harden won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award and could be his team’s x-factor against the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo by: MeiGuoGuan / Flickr

The Thunder, on the other hand, swept the defending champs, dominating the front and back courts with the sheer force of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. While it may not be as impressive as it might have been in years past, sweeping a team with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd is impressive considering their resumes and past success.

This is probably the most interesting series of the second round just because of the bad blood between these two following Peace’s elbow to the head and Harden’s concussion.

On paper, I feel like this series might be closer than many would argue. You can never count out a team with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, especially with Andrew Bynum’s emergence as one of the league’s top centers. On the other hand, the Thunder are young, hungry, and rested after their own first-round sweep.

The Lakers proved last year they’re susceptible to mentally zoning out in the second round, and while I don’t expect them to make the same mistake this year, I just don’t see them seriously competing against the Thunder. Peace and Ramon Sessions can’t guard Westbrook and Durant, so it’ll up to a combination of Kobe, Matt Barnes, and Steve Blake to slow down the Thunder superstars, which I don’t them succeeding at. While the Thunder do have very weak offensive big guys, who I expect Gasol and Bynum to exploit, much like the Heat, the Thunder have two superstars who can carry even the most subpar teammates to the promised land. Unfortunately for the Lakers, however, the Thunder’s bench is anything but subpar, with Sixth Man of the Year Harden leading the way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a sweep, or even went to five games, but as a fan of the Lakers, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope they’ll play a tougher series than many give them credit for. They’ll still probably lose, but it’s better to go down with a fight.

Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder in 6

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