The NBA Playoffs are probably the best that we have in any sport as far as determining the best team goes. College football has no playoffs (hopefully not for too much longer), and baseball and college basketball often crown the HOTTEST team at the end of the year (although this doesn’t always happen, but you can’t tell me that Butler was that close to being the best college basketball team in the world for two straight years). The NFL often determines the best team as well. But over a series of seven games, we almost always have a very good idea of which is the better team. It takes into account games where the underdog is on fire for forty eight minutes, games where the favorite is completely off for forty eight minutes and everything in between. The best team should win out in the end. And that is something I appreciate about the NBA and their playoffs.
And as we head into this year’s edition, we see the top four seeds in each conference, excluding Indiana, are threats to win the title; and while some are more serious threats than others, it should provide for an interesting set of playoffs. Today, we will go series by series and take a look at who should be crowned the better team after seven games (and in most cases, it will take fewer games to decide the victor).
(1) Chicago Bulls vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
Season Series: Bulls 2-1 Point Differential: 76ers +.66/game
The Bulls have one of the top defenses in the league and against most teams have a significant advantage coming off the bench. The 76ers however, without a superstar, have a balanced team and an equally strong bench led by Lou Williams, their leading scorer, and Thaddeus Young. The Sixers struggle to score points and it will be even harder against the top flight defense of the Bulls. Derrick Rose’s health should not make much of a difference in this series, but if the Bulls want to make a series run at a title, they will need their reigning MVP. Whether or not he is at top form for this series will not matter, Chicago’s D will be too much as Philadelphia struggles to score. I would not be surprised if the Sixers manage to win a game, but much more than that is asking too much.
BETTER TEAM: BULLS in FOUR
(2) Miami Heat vs. (7) New York Knicks
Season Series: Heat 3-0 Point Differential: Heat +10.66/game
Each time the Heat faced the Knicks this year, the Knicks suited up much different squads. The first time, they met a team led by Amar’e Stoudemire, the second game they faced a team fired up by Linsanity and their regular season finale squared them against a streaking Carmelo Anthony. No matter the different casts, the result was the same. The Knicks are no more cohesive now than they were at the beginning of the year; the one thing they have going for them now is a superstar who has been on fire recently in Carmelo. LeBron James has deemed this a no- nonsense season and seems to realize the importance of these playoffs. Miami’s Big Three will be too much for Carmelo. The Knicks will win a game before a crazed Madison Square Garden but not much more.
BETTER TEAM: HEAT in FIVE
(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Orlando Magic
Season Series: Magic 3-1 Point Differential: Magic +3.75/game
The Magic had the Pacers number this year in the regular season, but the playoffs will be a much different story without their superstar and MVP Dwight Howard. With Howard sidelined due to an injury, the Pacers should roll in this series. The Magic are nothing special on defense without their big man protecting the rim; Indiana will have their way on offense. And without Howard on offense, the Magic are left with many one dimensional players who will struggle without Howard drawing double teams. The Pacers on the other hand are one of the most improved and well rounded teams in the league. Led by Danny Granger and David West, the Pacers will win this series easily.
BETTER TEAM: PACERS in FIVE
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Season Series: Celtics 2-1 Point Differential: TIED
This is the most evenly matched opening round series in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics and their Big Four’s window is closing. As recently as the All-Star break, the Celtics were counted out and too old for a run in the playoffs. But inspired by a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett and point guard Rajon Rondo, the Celtics are back in the hunt. The Hawks, led by Joe Johnson and Josh Smith have always been able to give Boston trouble dating back to the Big Three’s first year together when they took them to seven games as an eight seed in their first round match up. This time around we will see if the Hawks have improved enough or if the Celtics have aged enough to turn the tables. But with Rondo, Garnett, Pierce, Allen and company playing their best ball of the season, Boston should be heading on to round two after a tough series.
BETTER TEAM: CELTICS in SIX
(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Utah Jazz
Season Series: Spurs 3-1 Point Differential: Spurs +5.5
The Spurs have dominated the Jazz for years and this year it wasn’t even as close as the numbers say. The lone game that the Jazz won was against a Spurs team without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginoboli. The Spurs are looking to bounce back after a disappointing exit in last year’s first round as the number one seed. The Jazz are mostly excited just to be here and get playoff experience for the number of players they have that have none. The Jazz should be able to win one game in Salt Lake City, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they can’t win any. Duncan, Parker and Ginoboli are too experienced and should be well rested to make a deeper run than last year.
BETTER TEAM: SPURS in FIVE
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Season Series: Thunder 3-1 Point Differential: Thunder +0.5
The Thunder may be the favorites to come out of the West, but their path will not be easy as they face the defending champions and then have potential dates with the Lakers and Spurs before the finals. The Mavericks are not where they were last year according to the public’s eye, but that may be right where they want to be. Dallas is still led by one of the most dangerous crunch time scorers there is in Dirk Nowitzki. But is his supporting cast experienced, or just too old? They are walking a fine line. The Thunder’s three time defending scoring champ, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are looking to defend last year’s playoff loss at the hand of the Mavericks. As long as James Harden is able to lead OKC’s deep bench, the Thunder should prevail this time.
BETTER TEAM: THUNDER in SIX
(3) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
Season Series: Lakers 3-1 Point Differential: Lakers +1
The Lakers and Nuggets played four very close games this year. This should be an exciting series as the Lakers’ star studded experience faces off versus the young and deep Nuggets. If the Lakers go inside to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol like they should I am not sure if anyone in the NBA could beat them four times out of seven. But we all know Bynum’s and Gasol’s touches depend on Kobe Bryant and who knows what will happen there. The Nuggets depth could give the Lakers problems as they can go eight or nine deep. If the Lakers were to jump out to a 3-0 lead in the series, would they consider slowing down a bit to allow Metta World Peace’s suspension to run out before running into Kevin Durant and the Thunder? Despite Denver’s depth, the Lakers should win a long series.
BETTER TEAM: LAKERS in SIX
(4) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (5) Los Angeles Clippers
Season Series: Clippers 2-1 Point Differential: Clippers +3
Despite missing most of the season, Zach Randolph played in two of the three regular season match ups that were split between these two teams. The Grizzlies are the team that every one is scared to play, but the Clippers will be inspired by a long history of losing and no real playoff success. Everyone knows what Chris Paul can do as he won two games against the Lakers by himself in last year’s playoffs with much less help. Both team’s frontcourts are loaded with star power, but the Grizzlies squad runs much deeper. This will no doubt be the first round’s most exciting series as both teams are capable of making serious playoff runs. CP3 is as clutch as they come, but can he do it by himself? Blake Griffin’s free throw woes could prove costly for the Clippers down the stretch.
BETTER TEAM: GRIZZLIES in SEVEN
The first round of series promises excitement and some great games. The league’s stars have to become better at this time of year as Dirk did last year. And the stars’ chance to shine against one another is another reason that the NBA’s playoffs are better than any other. Will LeBron best Carmelo? Can Durant overcome Dirk and the Mavs? These are the questions I cannot wait to see answered. Often times, a team’s greatness will come down to one man. This year, who will it be?