Despite a late start and a compressed schedule, 2011-12 was pretty much everything a basketball fan could have wanted. There were surprise successes like the Atlanta Hawks running among the Eastern Conference’s elite teams for a spell, or Jeremy Lin exploding out of nowhere. There were also surprise disappointments like Dwight Howard somehow making the Miami Heat’s collective ego look egg-sized.
And now comes the best part of the season: the playoffs. Since making picks is no fun if you do it alone, I’m joined by Dwayne Wynter, Editor-in-Chief of TDotlive.com and broadcaster for the Oshawa Thunder, and Travis Nicholson, basketball contributor at The Good Point. We’ll be here all through the postseason, weighing in on each series, right up until the Finals. And without further ado, here’s The Good Point’s roundtable NBA playoff preview!
(1) Chicago Bulls v. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
Mark: For me, one of the more interesting stories this year is how well the Bulls have played in Derrick Rose’s absence: after all, he’s the reigning MVP, right? But Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have played great, keeping the Bulls at the top of the East. Not quite as interesting is the Sixers second half: they started off great, with a 20-9 record, but fell pretty hard back to Earth after the All-Star break and struggled to finish .500. It’s shame they’re in the playoffs and teams like Phoenix or Houston aren’t. Bulls in five.
Dwayne: Two very well coached teams however the compliments stop there regarding the 76ers and their chances in this series. Reality is they don’t match up well with the Bulls and even though I’m not sold at how effective the Bulls will be from the jump with Rose still struggling since returning from injury, the 76ers don’t have the talent or the experience to truthfully compete here. Chicago wins in four.
Travis: The Bulls allowed the fewest points in the NBA and were second in the NBA in opponent’s field goal percentage, so I don’t expect the young and erratic 76ers to be able to solve this Chicago defense enough to squeak out four wins. Yet even though the Bulls are the NBA’s only 50-win season in 2012, injuries have diminished their chemistry and they are middle-of-the-road offensively. Without Derrick Rose doing Derrick Rose things, the Bulls could hit a rough patch, but ultimately should go on. Bulls in six.
(2) Miami Heat v. (7) New York Knicks
Mark: Remember when this was a cool rivalry? Just thinking about this series makes me want to listen to Harvey Danger like it’s 1998 again. This year it might not be as fun, though. Miami dominated the Knicks, a team that’s been a mess all year, between Linsanity and Carmadness. I think the Knicks could keep the games competitive, but I expect Miami to breeze through. Heat in five.
Dwayne: Miami did sweep the season series, but Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Knicks have been playing very well as of late, (won last three and seven of their last 10). Will Amar’e dominate his matchup with Bosh, will the Knicks be able to defend outside of Chandler, can J.R. Smith provide a consistent spark on both ends and their three-point shot consistently fall? If all those things happen, big if, they could shock the world. Miami in six.
Travis: Clearing everything away – the hype of how the Heat were constructed, the year-long drama of the Knicks – this series will be like a prize fight. Tyson Chandler, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire and Chris Bosh will matter some – but not a lot. Carmelo Anthony is the NBA’s best pure scorer, and although LeBron is the single best candidate to shut him down, if the Heat are relying on him at both ends they are in trouble. If Carmelo outplays LeBron the Knicks win, if LeBron can do it all defensively and help offensively, the Heat win. As long as they take two of the first four games, and realize they have the chance to dethrone The King at MSG, LeBron will melt and the Knicks will prevail. Knicks in six.
(3) Indiana Pacers v. (6) Orlando Magic
Mark: There’s potential here for people to parrot Grantland’s Bill Simmons and scream Ewing Theory into the wind, but I’m not seeing it. Indiana is a good, young team and Orlando’s missing their key component in Dwight Howard. I guess the Magic could shoot threes all day and hope they drop, but if they miss, Roy Hibbert will be there to dominate the boards. I wouldn’t rule out at least one monster game from the one-time Raptors pick. Indiana in five.
Dwayne: If anyone wondered if size kills in the NBA, just watch this series.
With Howard out the season, the Pacers will have a field day as no Magic can defend Indiana’s big men (Hibbert especially) and bench. They’re fifth in the league in rebounding, Pacers will own the glass and with no Howard or Turkolu, look for players accustomed to feeding off of Howard double teams to struggle against a squad ranked ninth in points allowed per game. Indiana wins in four.
Travis: No Dwight Howard for the Magic means no playoff run for the Magic. I want to believe that the Magic can shoot 60 percent from the field and squeak out a win in a tight seven game series, but this is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime narrative that should only happen to a team from Indiana, not against a team from Indiana. Somewhere, right now, Roy Hibbert is excited and Glen ‘Big Baby’ Davis might need you to change his diaper. Pacers in five.
(4) Boston Celtics v. (5) Atlanta Hawks
Mark: This is an interesting one to think about. Boston came on strong to finish the season, with win streaks of four and five wins in the past month. And Kevin Garnett, as old a 35-year old player as there’s ever been, finished strong too: not to long ago he had 22 and 12 against the Hawks. Still, I like the Hawks. They can score in bunches (although Boston’s no slouch in defense), had a higher SRS than Boston and Josh Smith’s had an overlooked good year, averaging career highs in scoring and rebounding. This should be the best series in the East, even if it’s going to be low scoring. Hawks in seven.
Dwayne: Traditional the 4/5 series should be the most evenly matched, however the fourth seed Celtics aren’t your typical four seed. Experience veterans (this is their last championship run), a defense that allows less than 90 points per games (third-overall) and days rest in between games, makes this Boston team very dangerous. Paul Pierce did suffer an injury (sprained big toe) and that could cause some concern but unless both Joe Johnson and Josh Smith have career games it will be tough to get past Boston’s, especially with the first two on the road. Boston wins in six.
Travis: I like the Celtics’ chances against any team in the East… except the Hawks. Because it’s 2012, huge names like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Josh Smith, Tracy McGrady, Joe Johnson and (even) Jerry Stackhouse filling the rosters of these teams don’t matter as much as it would have years ago. This year, it will be the play of young guards such as Avery Bradley for the Celtics and Jeff Teague of the Hawks that will swing the tide of the series. Luckily for Boston, the Celts have Rajon Rondo and the Hawks do not. Celtics in six.
(1) San Antonio Spurs v. (8) Utah Jazz
Mark: It’s pretty cool that Utah won their way into the playoffs by beating Phoenix the other night and there’s some fun talent on there, too (Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson). But luck didn’t break for them here. San Antonio not only looks like the best team in the west, but probably the NBA’s best. The way Gregg Popovich has handled his aging, yet really damn talented, roster has been nothing short of stunning (he’s my pick for coach of the year). I can see this one ending in a hurry. Spurs in four.
Dwayne: Though both teams will start the playoffs red hot and based on the great season the Spurs had, on the outside looking in it should be smooth sailing for them but I don’t see it that way if the Jazz big men (Gasol, Jefferson and Milsap) use that size to their advantage. Utah is fourth in the league in scoring and third in rebounding the big question is can they defend well enough to stop the penetration of Tony Parker and Mau Ginobli? San Antonio in five.
Travis: Faster and younger by design, the 2012 Spurs have better young players, better veterans, a better coach and more games at home than the Jazz. Tony Parker is having an All NBA season because Gregg Popovich put the team in his hands, and although Devin Harris is proving himself as a quality point guard I expect Parker to do what he wants. Last year’s Spurs first round exit was to a more talented Grizzlies team that created match up problems and out ran an old team, but the Jazz won’t be a problem this year. Spurs in four.
(2) Oklahoma City v. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Mark: On paper, this seems like a fun series. The Thunder are a team of scorers and fun as hell to watch, while Dallas seems best when overlooked and allows the second-fewest points of any playoff team in the west (a shade under 95 per game). And not to mention the question marks for game one: will Harden or Westbrook play? Still, in a short series I think one great player can make a huge difference and for my money, there’s no one player in this conference better than Kevin Durant. Could be a tough series, but I don’t see the defending champs getting out. Thunder in six.
Dwayne: Seems unusual to have the defending champions (Mavericks) seeded so low just a year later, but here we are. Though Dallas has the experience, the Thunder are more than ready to move to the Finals. Jason Kidd will struggle against Westbrook; OKC is deeper on the bench and have an MVP type player in Durant. Dallas cannot run with them, they will miss Chandler tremendously, have only played well in spurts and unless the force OKC into a half court game, where they tend to struggle, it will be hard for them to win a seven game series against them. OKC wins in six.
Travis: The defending champions against the youngest, fastest, most talented and irrationally dominant team in a rematch of last year’s Western conference finals should be a great series, but without Tyson Chandler, Dallas is a shadow of the team they were defensively. Instead, the defending champions are a year older and far less motivated. Serge Ibaka will be a nightmare for Dirk Nowitzki in the way he was supposed to last year. Durant and Westbrook won’t even need to go off and score a combined 70 each night, but once or twice they will. Thunder in four.
(3) LA Lakers v. (6) Denver Nuggets
Mark: The Lakers finished another season as one of the NBA’s best, but I’m starting to wonder if their window is closing. Between on-court issues like the Metta World Peace elbow to journeymen like Matt Barnes taking big roles to Mike Brown’s coaching (not a fan). Add to that a talented and young Nuggets team that can blow your doors off with scoring (a NBA-best 104 points per game) while chasing the Lakers up and down the court, I think this could be a perfect storm for an upset. Nuggets in six.
Dwayne: The Nuggets score the most points per game in the NBA (103.7) and give up the most on defense (101.2). Reality is the Lakers cannot run with the Nuggets and should they try, especially with no strong bench this could be an upset in the making. However even without Metta World Peace, should the Lakers use that size in Gasol and Bynum L.A. should move on. Lakers win in five.
Travis: Between Rookie of the Year candidate Kenneth Faried, Javale McGee and Danillo Gallinari, the Nuggets have some real size and rebounding prowess at the rim – but not enough for Gasol and Bynum. With no one to shut down Kobe – absolutely no one at all – the Lakers will probably drop a game when Kobe inevitably hits a cool streak, allowing George Karl to slide and out-coach Mike Brown for a night. Lakers in five.
(4) Memphis Grizzlies v. (5) LA Clippers
Mark: Again, another closely matched four versus five series. The Clippers have a great backcourt, mostly because of Chris Paul, but I’m not sure who’s going to defend Memphis’ Marc Gasol. Things seem to be tilted in the Grizzlies’ favor, between their defense (best among the conference’s playoff teams), how slow the Clippers like to play (27th slowest in the NBA), and questions about how healthy Paul actually is. It could go the distance, but I like the Grizzlies here. Grizzlies in seven.
Dwayne: Chris Paul does have a slight groin pull and we do know the size of the Grizzlies should cause fits for the Clippers. The Grizzlies have a strong bench and if Zach Randolph can handle Blake Griffin I don’t see why Memphis can’t get by the Clippers. Memphis wins in six.
Travis: The Clippers look desperately out of sorts without Chris Paul, but when he is on autopilot dribbling circles around defenders (sometimes literally) to find baskets in transition and open looks, then the Clips are a contending team in the West. Defensively the Grizzlies are the best in the NBA in steals and allowed the fifth fewest points this season, with the combination of Tony Allen and Mike Conley around to limit Paul’s offensive threat. If Blake Griffin can be the dynamic offensive scorer he has been, and if DeAndre Jordan can play tough enough in the lane to compete with the Grizzlies’ huge frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph at the rim, the Clips will prevail in a tight series. Clippers in seven.