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NBA Playoff Forecast

Tomorrow the greatest 40 day stretch of the entire year begins. That’s right, the NBA Playoffs are here. With an abundance of stars, title contenders, and storylines, the 2011 postseason is poised to be legendary. Who’s moving on to round two?

Eastern Conference

(1) Bulls vs (8) Pacers
If I’m the Chicago Bulls I’m terrified of playing a division opponent in the opening round of the playoffs, especially a team as talented as the Pacers. Indiana is poised to make a deep run… ok, I can’t even pretend. The Pacers will be lucky to have a lead in the 4th quarter, let alone win a game.

Although the Pacers’ playoff run will be short-lived, I’m excited to watch Tyler Hansbrough battle Joakim Noah.  There just aren’t enough players that try as hard as these two. Neither is overly talented nor possesses amazing athleticism or size, but individually, they have more heart than most college teams combined. I appreciate players that attain success because they try so hard. It’s also not a coincidence that Noah and Hansbrough would be my first choice for “NBA players you’d most want to see go head-to-head in an MMA event.” I’m confident the match would last at least five hours.

(2) Heat vs (7) 76ers
I love the 76ers and loathe the Heat. I expect both feelings to grow exponentially throughout the series. Despite my allegiance, I give the 76ers a 0.0094% chance of beating Miami. However, I expect Doug Collins and Co. to push the series to six games. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out.

First, Chris Bosh runs from big moments like I run from snakes, crocodiles, and people at Wal-Mart between 1 and 7 AM. Second, despite having the entire NBA gunning for them throughout the regular season, the intensity of a playoff game is still at a different level. The Heat haven’t played together long enough to make that transition smoothly (or so I’m telling myself). Third, it’s not like the 76ers haven’t been here before. Remember, Philadelphia gave Orlando all it could handle two years ago and was oh-so-close to going up 3-1 in the series. Different coach, but the core is still there. Four, Andre Iquodala is as good an option to defend LeBron James as there is in the NBA. LeBron will get his numbers, but at what cost to the Heat’s offensive flow? Fifth, Elton Brand is the best player in the series…  Sorry, just making sure you’re not sleeping. Sixth, I have nothing else. We’re doomed. Hopefully, Doug Collins will join TNT as a special guest after round one.

(3) Celtics vs (6) Knicks
I refuse to write off the Celtics yet. I will not accept they’re too old and too injured. If Boston doesn’t rally, then Miami will be in the NBA Finals. I can’t have that. (No, I don’t think Chicago can handle the Heatles in a series.) I’m a 76ers fan, but because they’ve essentially taken the decade off, I’ve always supported at least one team with a title shot. Lately, it’s been the Celtics (and Spurs, too). I love good basketball teams. “Team” being the operative word.

Lately, the Celtics have been sinking faster than Kobe’s popularity in the gay community. Blame the trade, blame injuries, blame whomever or whatever you want. I really don’t care. I’m blaming Rajon Rondo.

I’m mean seriously. How can a point guard have unlimited looks from 15 feet and still not figure out a jump shot? It’s not like this information is brand new. We knew he couldn’t shoot three years ago. What’s this guy being doing in the offseason?

Remember Tony Parker back in the day? Dude couldn’t score from outside three feet unless it was with a supermodel. Know what he did? He got a coach, shot a bazillion balls in the offseason, before, during and after practice, and made himself a threat to burry open jumpers. Rondo couldn’t hit an open shot if he were throwing the ball at a soccer goal. It’s embarrassing. My son has a better shooting percentage and he hasn’t figured out if he’s right or left handed yet.

Despite all that, I want the Celtics to man up and find their swagger. Sure, they need a healthy Shaq to really have a chance, but they also need Ray Allen and Paul Peirce to find their offensive touch and for Rondo to get his head out of the sand. This is Doc Rivers’ final run. It’s also more than likely the Celtics’ last run. Don’t go out against the Heat. Just please don’t.

Did I just write off Carmelo, Amare and the Knicks? You betcha. Sorry. Neither will win a title, at least not as his team’s best player. Mark it down, lock it away, and send me hate mail if I turn out to be wrong.

(4) Magic vs (5) Hawks
While the East doesn’t boast the firepower of the West, there are still three legitimate title contenders (four, depending on how much you believe in Dwight Howard). Without question, Howard has the size and ability to win any series almost by himself. His supporting cast is the worst of any of the East’s contenders, though, so even reaching the conference finals would be a surprise. Still, I think Orlando can topple Rose’s Bulls in round two, but we’ll get into that at another time.

For now, the Magic must topple the Hawks to get out of round one. Before pointing to the thrashing Orlando handed the Hawks in the 2010 playoffs, remember Orlando went 1-3 against Atlanta this season. Can we expect more of the same in the playoffs? I’m not holding my breath. The Hawks have a number of fantastic basketball players. But as a team, they’re only slightly above average. Only Al Horford has the pedigree to one day be a leader on a championship team. Joe Johnson is vastly, tremendously, unspeakably overpaid, Josh Smith is a human highlight reel but not much else, and Jamal Crawford is the east coast version of J.R. Smith – a great scorer, and that’s about it. In other words, Atlanta doesn’t have the stones to succeed in the postseason. I know the Magic bench is as imposing as Joe Blanton, but Dwight Howard is still Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson has been here before.

Western Conference

(1) Spurs vs (8) Grizzlies
Lionel Hollins had a fantastic season. He’s a legitimate candidate for NBA Coach of the Year. Hollins made the Grizzlies respectable again. He led Memphis to the playoffs despite injuries and a cast of players most had written off. Hollins certainly has Memphis headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, though, Hollins’ greatest coaching blunder occurred at the most inopportune time of the season; the playoffs.

You see, Hollins decided he’d rather play the San Antonio Spurs than the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. What’s wrong with that? Nothing. It even makes sense. The Grizzlies played the Spurs tough all season, even splitting the season series 2-2. Memphis’ frontcourt of Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol pose matchup problems for the undersized Spurs. It’s true; Memphis matches up better against San Antonio than they do Los Angeles.

Still, the Spurs are the top seed in the West for a reason. Hollins’ big blunder was making it clear Memphis wanted the Spurs by purposely tanking the final two games of the regular season. Guess who was watching? The Spurs. Most notably, Tim Duncan: “They sat their guys for the last three or four games. They’re trying to stay where they’re at. Obviously, they’ve chosen their matchup and want to stick with it.” In other words: We know they think they can beat us. We’ll see. We’ll see.

From the, “It sounds obvious but apparently you forgot,” department; publicly declaring you like your chances against a four-time champion is never a good idea. There’s usually a reason that team has won four titles. There’s definitely a reason that team won 61 games and you only won 46. For the life of me, I cannot remember a single time, in any sport, a team rolled the “manipulate the playoff matchup” dice and had it work in their favor. I’ve seen plenty of teams play the team they wanted only to go home disappointed and more importantly, humiliated. Lionel Hollins and the Memphis Grizzlies will soon know that feeling.

(2) Lakers vs (7) Hornets
Chris Paul, when healthy, is one of the most enjoyable players to watch. Unfortunately, that’s about the only nice thing there is to say about the Hornets’ chances in this series. Once David West went down with a torn ACL, New Orleans’ postseason aspirations went down too. What’s worse, Willie Green plays for the Hornets. I’ve never seen Willie Green contribute to a successful basketball team.

Yes, the Lakers are dinged up and playing lousy, but c’mon. This is the playoffs. Los Angeles will find that second gear. Even Pau Gasol’s flops and ghastly “you have the audacity to call a foul on me?” face ratchet up come playoff time. Congrats to Monty Williams, though. No one expected a postseason berth from the Hornets this year.

(By the way, if the Lakers were to totally collapse and fall to New Orleans, I would be tickled pink. Los Angeles has been so bad that, had they faced a tougher opponent in round one, they could have been pushed to the brink or even knocked out completely. Unfortunately, New Orleans doesn’t have the necessary ammunition to do either. What’s worse, the Lakers will gain momentum from toppling the Hornets and eventually get back to where they were a few weeks ago. Crap.)

(3) Mavericks vs (6) Trailblazers
The Trailblazers are the trendy pick to advance. Dallas has struggled down the stretch and outside of Dirk Nowitzki, they don’t have the marquee talent that San Antonio, Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Portland have. Jason Terry was on that level, but he’s on the downward slope of his career as evidenced by his disappearance against the Spurs in the 2010 playoffs. Also, only he and LeBron James think it’s still cool to wear a headband. On the other hand, Dallas is deep and has improved defensively with the addition of Tyson Chandler.

I really, really like Portland, but they’re snake bit. Without Brandon Roy at full strength, I’m not sure they have a go-to player late in the 4th quarter of a close game. LaMarcus Aldridge took huge strides this year, so maybe he can deliver in those moments. We’ll see. What we do know is Andre Miller has never advanced past the first round, and Portland fans will start jumping off bridges after another first round exit.

I don’t trust Dallas in the postseason, especially with Jason Kidd as the AARP’s playoff representative. With all the size and athleticism Portland can throw at Dirk, someone else on the Mavericks will need to step up. With Caron Butler out, I don’t think that person exists. My gut says Dallas will rally and pull it out, but I can’t get my brain on board. Besides, Portland vs. Los Angeles in round two would make for a better series.

(4) Thunder vs (5) Nuggets
I’m not sure which series I more excited about, this one or Mavs/Blazers. Probably Mavs/Blazers because Portland’s “RIP City” jerseys are the best in the league and Portland’s fans are fantastic. Oklahoma City fans are every bit as awesome, too.

Moving on. I dreaded watching Denver during the Carmelo Anthony era. I like ‘Melo, but never have been interested in his career or teams. Following ‘Melo’s trade to New York, I reluctantly gave the Nuggets another chance. I’m glad I did. The new Denver Nuggets are essentially a college team, but with actual talent. They play hard, they care, stats don’t matter, the coach loves his team, and they hustle, hustle, hustle. They’re also like 12 players deep at every position, or so it seems.

Amazingly, George Karl somehow managed to incorporate four new players into his system without missing a beat. In fact, the team even got better. Without Carmelo, Denver gets out and runs. ‘Melo always needed the ball. He slowed the pace and ultimately eliminated Denver’s greatest advantage over the rest of the NBA; altitude. Now, Denver has the players, the depth, and the freedom to push the ball. They’ve also gotten more aggressive defensively. The departure of Chauncey Billups has also allowed Ty Lawson to move into the starting point guard role where he’s thrived. Unfortunately for Denver, Oklahoma City is just as athletic and almost as deep. Even worse, they have the two best players in the series in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

I’m not as high on the Thunder as everyone else, at least not this year. After all, this is a team that hasn’t won a playoff series. A young, up-and-coming team ALWAYS experiences a devastating, “that was unexpected” playoff defeat before it realizes its potential and wins a title. It’s a rite of passage. Furthermore, the trade to get Kendrick Perkins was a great trade for Oklahoma City, but it does raise questions. For example, let’s say the Thunder face the Spurs in a round two. In a close game, does Scotty Brooks keep Perkins in the game knowing Gregg Popovich will intentionally put Perk on the free throw line as he did Shaquille O’Neal three years ago? Late in close games, Perkins is a great asset defensively, but he’s an offensive liability. It’s not a secret that Boston often had Glen “Big Baby” Davis on the floor in similar situations so the Celtics weren’t going 4 on 5 offensively.

Regardless, I don’t expect the Thunder to fall against Denver, mainly for one reason. Against the Lakers two weeks ago, the Denver Nuggets held a small lead late in the 4th quarter. On each offensive possession, the Nuggets looked lost, panicked, and uncertain. Denver may be better without Anthony and Billups, but they gave Denver an identity, a comfort zone down the stretch in tight games. Everyone knew either ‘Melo or Billups would get the rock. They knew either one would step up and take the crucial shot. Now, Denver doesn’t have that player. Against the Lakers, they frantically passed the ball, begging each other to take the shot while each refused the opportunity until they were left hoisting awful shots as the shot clock expired. Luckily, the Lakers couldn’t score either, so Denver held on, but the point remains; who will take control in those final moments for the Nuggets? Who’s going to tell Denver, “Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch?” Truth is, they don’t have that player, and Oklahoma City has two.

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