Ahh, the NBA playoffs are upon us. Or, as I like to call them, the best five months of the year.
Sure, the 16-team tournament that decides who gets to walk away with a trophy named after a man who used to be the Postmaster General of the United States SEEMS like it takes forever. It seems like it’s full of mismatches, series that are too often decided by home-court advantage and games that run nearly as long as an average NFL contest.
And all of those things are true. But that still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paying attention.
You know how people like to sit down and make a list of pros and cons when faced with a major life decision? I’m only talking about the really significant choices – where to go to college, whether to take a new job offer, whether to get two 6-piece or three 4-piece chicken nuggets at Wendy’s or whether to stay in a promising but flawed relationship.
Promising but flawed also happens to be a great way to describe this NBA season. There were a lot of pluses. LeBron James had one of the greatest seasons the league has ever seen. Kevin Durant continued to grow into a transcendent offensive superstar without even attempting the most shots on his own team. The Rockets and Knicks proved that teams that rely largely on 3-pointers can be dangerous postseason opponents. (Full disclosure: I wrote the previously linked-to article.) David Stern announced his retirement.
Not everything was a rosy as the outgoing commissioner would have liked, though. The Eastern Conference was as competitive as sending a mid-1980s Whitney Houston into modern day American Idol would be. A team that went 6-15 over its final 21 games made the playoffs and never even had to sweat. Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum never played in 2012-13 due to injuries, Kevin Love missed three-quarters of the season, Rajon Rondo missed more than half and Kobe Bryant may never play again. And for the second time in three years, the fate of the Sacramento Kings is up in the air, meaning either a city that’s had a team for 28 years is about to lose it or a city that unjustly had its team taken away five years ago is being set up for disappointment.
With all that news ranging from highly depressing to extremely exciting, it’s time to take a look at the first-round matchups in similar fashion. We’ll start with a series that should require parental approval and work our way up to the ones Kim Jong-Un won’t want to miss a minute of.
8.) No. 6 Atlanta vs. No. 3 Indiana
The good: No one will watch this, so that will spawn fewer copycats.
The bad: The Hawks of the past six years are a fascinating study of how not to run an NBA franchise. They’ve never been higher than 18th in attendance in that stretch despite playing in the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. They’ve continually had a roster of similar underachievers until finally letting Joe Johnson walk last summer, though he gracefully passed the baton of being a statistically solid black hole to Josh Smith. They’ve still not been bad enough to be a lottery team in that half-decade, and three times have made it to the second round of the playoffs – where they’ve won a total of two games. They’re also boring to watch, not ranking in the top 12 in terms of points per game offensively or defensively. And finally, they often just don’t show up. Thirteen of their 19 losses since February have come by double digits. The Pacers, meanwhile, hit a late rut, dropping five of their final six games. All-Star Paul George’s drought has lasted even longer, as he’s shot under 40 percent since the beginning of March. NBA TV may pass on this series, but late word has Nat Geo Wild being very interested.
The X-Factor: Roy Hibbert. Roy is quite a force when he’s dialed in, but when he’s not he’s of little use offensively, spends too much time on the Pacers’ bench in foul trouble and seems better off holding out for a role as Jerry’s replacement on Parks and Rec. Hibbert’s totals in two losses to Atlanta this season: 9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks. In two wins: 29 points, 21 rebounds, 6 blocks.
The pick: Indiana in 6
7.) No. 4 Brooklyn vs. No. 5 Chicago
The good: This should be a tight series. The Bulls and Nets played four times and three of those meeting were decided by six points or fewer. Chicago is among the league’s top five teams in defensive efficiency and the Nets have looked like a far better offense over the past month, averaging nearly 104 points in their last 18 games. Deron Williams has again been playing like a franchise point guard after a disastrous, injury-plagued first half. Another link, another shameless plug.
The bad: The Bulls beat the Nets three times, but they’ve been a mediocre team over the past two-and-a-half months while Tom Thibodeau has dealt with a roster full of injuries. They’re 17-20 since the beginning of February, and it’s been tough to know what they’re going to get each night from a cast of role players designed specifically to fit in around Derrick Rose. Carlos Boozer has been fairly consistent, but he’s largely a face-the-basket jump shooter. They have little inside game without …
The X-Factor: Joakim Noah has missed 12 of the Bulls’ last 15 games with plantar fasciitis, an injury that apparently isn’t getting better and could limit him or even keep him out of the series. Noah isn’t a major offensive threat inside by any stretch, but he gets his share of points on second-chance buckets. He can also help control the glass against Reggie Evans and the largely rebound-allergic Brook Lopez, but without Noah the Bulls will be starting Nazr Muhammad and hoping Taj Gibson can rescue them. Unless Rose and Noah miraculously recover, Chicago is going to have big problems in crunch time.
The pick: Brooklyn in 7
“I’m real confident. I’m sure everybody is writing us off but but I see us winning the series in six.” – Jennings
6.) No. 1 Miami vs. No. 8 Milwaukee
The good: The last eight games between the Heat and Bucks, you ask? They actually won four apiece, providing the NBA with a mystery greater than ABC’s decision to conceive of and air “Splash.” Brandon Jennings can get hot, as he’s averaged nearly 24 points against Miami this season. So can Monta Ellis, who’s scored at least 30 points nine times. Problem is, he’s also been held to single digits eight times – and, wouldn’t you know it, three of those were against the Heat. Ellis totaled 38 points in four meetings, shooting 30.2 percent. He can’t do much worse in this series, and the numbers will be easy to compare side-by-side since he’ll be playing exactly four games before entering unrestricted free agency and meeting no shot he doesn’t like elsewhere.
The bad: Brandon, Brandon, Brandon. Jennings, who’s also a free agent heading toward an egregiously ridiculous contract, just had to do it. On Thursday he predicted the Bucks would win the series in six games, which probably prompted Erik Spoelstra to put down his Sudoku book for 30 seconds and jot down that little quote on Miami’s white board. Look, no comment from an opposing player is going to make the difference between winning and losing a seven-game series. But the chance to catch Miami sleeping in one of those first two games probably just went out the window.
The X-Factor: The Heat’s team bus. If it shows up prior to tip-off each game, Miami wins.
The pick: Heat in 4
5.) No. 2 San Antonio vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers
The good: Spurs? Lakers? Oh, they’ve only won nine of the last 14 NBA championships and are meeting in the first round. LA won its last five games to not only make the playoffs but avoid opening with Oklahoma City, which might have been so ugly the NBA would have called it in three games. The Lakers are 20-8 since the All-Star break and Dwight Howard has looked more like Dwight Howard, averaging 18.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and occasionally proving that he can still, in fact, jump.
The bad: Where to begin? A certain Mr. Kobe Bryant won’t be playing until next winter – hopefully – due to a torn Achilles, turning this series from as compelling as it gets to one that’s really in the middle of the pack in terms of first-round intrigue. The Lakers are relying heavily on Steve Blake as a source of offense, they’re giving Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison major minutes and even with Kobe were an atrocious defensive team despite Howard’s presence in the paint. But that’s OK – a hobbled Steve Nash is back! The Lakers aren’t the only ones dealing with injuries. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker might not be 100 percent, and San Antonio looked like the NBA’s oldest team down the stretch, dropping seven of 10. Gregg Popovich has been known to tank a game or two along the way to get his team some rest, but six of those stretch-run losses were to Miami, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Denver, the Lakers and Golden State – the same teams the Spurs will have to go through to sniff a title. Maybe Ginobili and Parker will be just fine, but even if they are, is San Antonio capable of flipping a switch suddenly?
The X-Factor: Parker. If he’s anywhere near 100 percent, he’ll carve up Nash and Blake or whomever else Mike D’Antoni throws at him. If he’s not, this could go seven games.
The pick: Spurs in 5
We’ll be back later with previews of the four most entertaining playoff series, three of which start today. Due to some Chicago-area flooding adding to this week’s already lofty status as the worst week ever, Checking the Score’s postseason preview got pushed back a bit. But fear not! Predictions for the remainder of Round 1 follow so I can still look like an idiot when I’m wrong!
Boston-New York: Knicks in 6
Houston-Oklahoma City: Thunder in 5
Memphis-Los Angeles Clippers: Grizzlies in 7
Golden State-Denver: Nuggets in 6