Jumping into the ongoing playoffs with NBA predictions
The regular season has officially ended and the playoff seedings have been decided. This year’s playoffs have thrown some interesting matchups and are bound to ignite some long standing rivalries. So what do each team’s playoff hopes look like?
We start at the very top of the East with the stumbling Pacers. One of the best teams before the All-Star break, Indiana has tailed off miserably since they traded forward Danny Granger for guard Evan Turner and forward Lavoy Allen. They lost a veteran and a defensively-sound player for an erratic sieve coming from the pathetic Philadelphia 76ers. They nearly lost the first-round seed to the Miami Heat, but gained it back through the Heat’s own struggles. Their offense, long their weakest point, has been second worst only after the 76ers. Their much vaunted defense has served some cracks. The conference finals seemed a lock at a time, but the Chicago Bulls seem capable of taking that away from them. Players like All-Stars small forward and shooting guard Paul George and center Roy Hibbert need to step up, else they face a failed season overall.
No one should be too worried about the Heat at this point. Their objective from the regular season was not the No. 1 seed, but more importantly, the health of all their veterans, especially superstar guard Dwyane Wade. They are well-rested and have Wade clicking into gear again for the playoffs, something that is very important for this team. They also happen to be two-time defending champions, and have an easy first round match against the Charlotte Bobcats. However, the Brooklyn Nets might pose a serious challenge in the second round. Anything but a championship will be a failure for them, but it’s hard to bet against a team with the best player in the world, four-time MVP forward LeBron James.
The surprise package from the East and the third-seeded Atlantic Division champions, the Raptors, are looking to make a name for themselves in the playoffs. They have their stars in guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but it’s unlikely they will be able to cross the Brooklyn Nets in the first round. The Raptors have been nothing short of sensational since the trade of forward Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, but one wonders if that will be enough against a team full of playoff veterans. Their next matchup is also against the Miami Heat, so the conference semifinals are definitely the ceiling for them.
The injury to star guard Derrick Rose and the trade of key forward Luol Deng meant the Bulls were supposed to tank for a high lottery pick this season. All-Star center Joakim Noah and coach Tom Thibodeau apparently didn’t get the message. The Bulls were threatening for the third seed after the All-Star break, and Noah is likely coming in third in the MVP ballots after having a career year. Much rests on the shoulders of their point center for their hopes in the playoffs, and he needs to be ably flanked by sixth man of the year favorite forward Taj Gibson and defensive wing Jimmy Butler. The conference finals seem like a real possibility.
This team is good, but almost certainly not good enough to progress even in the East. They got an unfavorable matchup against the Bulls, where All-Star point guard John Wall is likely to be hounded by several defensive stalwarts. It would be a surprise to see them make it any further, but congratulations must go out to the Wizards for ending with a higher than 0.500 record for the first time in five years.
The team with the highest payroll in the league is the team no one wants to play in the playoffs. Miami tried dodging them by avoiding the first seed, but got them anyway. The Nets discovered their identity under rookie coach Jason Kidd, following a disastrous 10–21 start, and currently possess matchup nightmares for any team. They are full of playoff veterans like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko. If the team stays healthy, watch out for them as dark horses to make the conference finals.
The Bobcats are another surprise story, as coach Steve Clifford instilled a defensive resilience in the team and elevated center Al Jefferson’s game to make a playoff team. The Bobcats are not a great team, but, in the future years, we see them here more often than not. They will lose to Miami in the first round, but could have reached the second had they got the sixth seed against the Raptors, who they beat three times in the regular season.
They have made the playoffs for seven straight seasons now and, this year, they made the playoffs without star center Al Horford too. They beat the New York Knicks to the eighth seed and hardly present a dead rubber matchup for Indiana. In All-Star forward Paul Millsap, they have one of the most underrated forwards in the league, a deadly sharpshooter in Kyle Korver and a blossoming rookie center in Pero Antic. Their series against Indiana should be an exciting one, as it ended 2–2 in the regular season.
We move to the West, which had one of the deepest fields seen in years and presents some of the most exciting playoff matchups in recent history.
San Antonio Spurs
As All-Star guard Tony Parker recently said, anything but a championship will be a failure for them. Legendary coach and coach-of-the-year favorite Gregg Popovich has led this team to the best record in the league again, and this time without any player playing even 30 MPG. The first round against Dallas should be easy, but after that no one knows what’s going to happen in this conference. Will forward Tim Duncan get his much-coveted fifth ring to put an icing on one of the greatest careers in basketball?
Oklahoma City Thunder
A healthy Russell Westbrook going into the playoffs means the Thunder have a great shot at making the conference finals again. This team is defensively sound and offensively explosive. Forward Kevin Durant is having a career year (again) and this time seems a lock to win the MVP over LeBron James. If they can overcome their reliance on Durant for their scoring, they could be dark horses to become the champions. But first a grueling first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies looms, who beat them in the second round last year.
Los Angeles Clippers
Gone are those days when the Lakers would be in this spot. Enter the other team from LA, currently sporting two of the top 10 players in the NBA and a top five coach in Doc Rivers. All-stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will carry this team on their back and with Doc’s coaching it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them reaching the very top. But important role players such as sixth man of the year contender Jamal Crawford and sharpshooter JJ Reddick must step up to the cause and help out the stars, else the first round matchup against Golden State Warriors itself may not be overcome.
The addition of All-Star center Dwight Howard has propelled this team into the NBA elite, and it’s no surprise. With superstar guard James Harden leading the way, this team has played some of the most exciting basketball this season and have greatly improved their defense thanks to Howard. However, the Rockets remain an excessively turnover-prone team, and in the playoffs, that can really doom you. Players like forwards Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones and backup guard Jeremy Lin need to have a substantial impact, and they need point guard and defensive stalwart Patrick Beverly to be healthy to make progress.
One of the most surprising teams this season, the Trailblazers have certainly cooled off after the blistering 24–5 start. But in All-Stars Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldrige, they have two offensive weapons that can give any team nightmares. It’s hard to see where this team will go though, as their defense remains very susceptible and its hard to imagine them overcoming Harden and the Rockets to make it any further. Let’s hope their Cinderella story continues.
Golden State Warriors
It’s a testament to the Western Conference that even the sixth seed is being labeled as a potential dark horse contender. The Warriors at their best have been sensational. All-Star Stephen Curry has established himself as probably the best point guard after Chris Paul, center Andrew Bogut and wing Andre Iguodala have made this team one of the most defensively sound in the NBA, and sharpshooter Klay Thompson has made huge strides from last season. It remains to be seen whether they can find their consistency though and rediscover their home form. Will the splash brothers create a huge wave in the west?
They were fighting for their playoff lives until the penultimate game of the season and now they are the seventh seed, avoiding San Antonio in the first round. The Grizzlies are one of the best defensive teams in the league and have several underrated players in center Marc Gasol, point guard Mike Conley, and forward Zach Randolph. Their unity drives them forward and one should watch out for them to make some noise in the playoffs. They are the team no one wants to face and could be the ones making sure that Durant cannot add a ring to his probable MVP anytime soon.
All-star forward Dirk Nowitzki is back where he belongs — in the West elite. After a horrible year where Dallas struggled to even get to 0.500, they have made it back with an explosive offense carried by Dirk and star guard Monta Ellis. They have been consistent but are unfortunate to face the Spurs in the first round, as they lost the season series 4–0 to them. But no one really counted them in the race during the 2011 title run either. It’ll be hard, and head coach Rick Carlisle will have to pull a rabbit out of the hat again, but let’s hope the Mavericks put up a fight and show everyone why they belong.