Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks(8)
Goodness, what the heck happened to them in the second half of the season. The Pacers have struggled mightly headed into the playoffs and split the season series 2-2 with the Hawks. The Hawks actually finished with a positive net rating after they routed the Pacers in Indiana a couple of weeks ago, so they won’t be intimidated by the East’s top seed.
But the matchups still favor the Pacers. If Al Horford was playing it would be a whole different series, and I’ll give them a shot to pull the upset. One thing to keep an eye on? Small ball lineups featuring rookie Pero Antic at center, stretching the floor and forcing Roy Hibbert out of his comfort zone, Hibbert has looked like crap these last couple of weeks and must play better if they want to have any aspirations to win a world championship.
PREDICTION: Pacers in 6.
Miami Heat (2) vs. Charlotte Bobcats (7)
The Heat won the season series 4-0, and won all the games by double figures. We all remember, LeBron James dropped 62 on the Bobcats’ defense. Don’t think the Bobcats are a pushover, though. They play great defense, grind, and have a top-level interior player in Al Jefferson. Going from 7 wins last season to the playoffs this season, what a remarkable turnaround and they should be commended for that.
They’ll struggle to score, though, and the Heat’s trap on Kemba Walker should give the Heat guard problems. Guarding Chris Bosh from range will likely prove problematic, and the Bobcats’ younger players may have issues with nerves against the champs. Best case for Charlotte, a tough, hard-nosed six-game series that gives them something to build on. Worst-case: Miami hits the jets and leaves them in a dust to be swept away.
PREDICTION: Heat in 5.
Toronto Raptors (3) vs. Brooklyn Nets (6)
The Nets tanked down to grab this matchup, so they got what they wanted. The Nets and Raptors split the season series 2-2.
It’s an intriguing matchup of youth vs. experience. The Nets can grind it out and have veteran players with playoff experience. The Raptors have been the better team and have youth and a deeper talent pool. It should be a fascinating first round matchup.
PREDICTION: Nets in 7.
Chicago Bulls (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
The Wizards were caught between the Bulls and the Heat. They chose wisely. There are some interesting matchups going on here. Chicago wins on their tarnation and scruffy defense and Washington is a fast and high actaned offense led by John Wall and Bradley Beal.
The Bulls should win this series with execution and savvy, but don’t be surprised if the Wizards make some noise.
PREDICTION: Bulls in 7.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)
Just for old time’s sake, we’re getting a good old-fashioned Tim Duncan-Dirk Nowitzki duel in the playoffs. The Spurs are 4-2 in playoff series against the Mavericks in the Dirk-Duncan era with the Spurs winning the most recent series in 2010. We’re getting two of the best perimeter attack teams in the NBA.
The biggest key to this series will end up being how the Mavericks’ big men play. Dallas has trouble on the boards and they’re a pretty bad defensive unit. Can anybody step up to right the interior ship for Dallas or will Duncan and Tiago Splitter have their way inside and in the series?
If Dallas wants to win this series, they must shoot lights from the three-point arc. This will be an entertaining series.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 6.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)
These teams are always matching up in the playoffs every other year, the Grizzlies were outlasted by the Thunder in the second round of the playoffs back in 2011 in a pretty epic series. Last season, we got a rematch but this one was without Russell Westbrook, which allowed the Grizzlies to take advantage of focusing on Kevin Durant defensively and making the rest of the team beat them.
This time, the Thunder are healthy and this is a different Durant than we’ve seen in the past. Who on the Grizzlies is capable of keeping him in check? Who will be able to score at a relatively similar clip to keep pace with this Thunder team? Which role players will step up and provide some outside shooting? Grizzlies need to answer these questions to advance past OKC again.
PREDICTION: Thunder in 6.
Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
My favorite matchup of the first round in the playoffs. The Warriors will not have big man Andrew Bogut because of a rib injury. This Warriors team is going to rely heavily on veteran Jermaine O’Neal and probably David Lee. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson must shoot lights off in this series, which they are both capable of doing it.
If the Warriors go small, we’ll get a similar attack to what they showed against the Denver Nuggets last season. However, this Clippers team has a lot more firepower than what the Nuggets could provide. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are enough to handle with Bogut protecting your back on defense. Without him, can they stop enough penetration on the perimeter to neutralize the paint advantage for the Clippers?
PREDICTION: Clippers in 6.
Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazes (5)
If you like 3-point shooting, this is the series for you. The Rockets and Blazers are one and three, respectively, in 3-point attempts per game. The Rockets shooting the most threes in the NBA but they make 35.6 percent of them, which is good for 17th in the NBA. The Blazers’ attempts are much more efficient, making the league’s ninth best percentage at 37.2 percent.
The key for both teams will be who can get the stops when they’re needed the most. The Rockets have the fourth best defense in clutch situations, but they’ll probably need a healthy Patrick Beverley to keep that going while bothering Damian Lillard and his incredible clutch scoring. The Blazers are 19th in clutch defense and will need to find a way to get big stops.
PREDICTION: Rockets in 7.