This time last year, the NBA playoffs were thrust upon us after a rigorous 66-game schedule that was squeezed into four months because of the lockout. Exhausted from the schedule, players were then asked to elevate their games for the postseason, and the result was that the most energetic and talented team — the Miami Heat — walked off with the championship.
The Heat are back for seconds with essentially the same team, plus Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. They dominated the Eastern Conference this season, even making a run at the 1971-72 Lakers’ 33-game winning streak with 27 straight of their own.
After LeBron James won his first championship, as part of Miami’s Big Three, there was speculation that the Heat would be sunburned from basking in the glow of their accomplishment and slip. That didn’t happen.
The Heat are the prohibitive favorites to return to the Finals. The question is whether the New York Knicks, fueled by a career season from Carmelo Anthony, can challenge Miami — or even get past the Celtics in the first round.
The Eastern Conference is banged up, with the Indiana Pacers missing Danny Granger, the Chicago Bulls missing Derrick Rose, the Celtics without Rajon Rondo, and the Knicks moving on without Amar’e Stoudemire.
So the road for Miami may be smooth. The potential potholes are a clash with Brooklyn in the second round and a meeting with Indiana, New York, or Boston in the conference finals.
In the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder look primed for a rematch with the Heat in the Finals, but a second-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies may be the best series of the playoffs. The Thunder changed dramatically when they traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets for Kevin Martin last October, and they still managed to win 60 games in the treacherous West.
The San Antonio Spurs are back for another playoff run with a reenergized Tim Duncan, but as usual, health is an issue. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are coming off injuries, so a matchup with the Kobe-less Lakers may be tougher than expected. And if they do win, the Denver Nuggets likely await.
For entertainment value, the Nuggets-Warriors series is a must-watch because of the high scoring and disregard for defense. The winner will be a difficult opponent in the second round.
And what would the playoffs be without the Clippers facing the Grizzlies in a battle of upstarts? These two teams can’t seem to avoid each other, and this time, all the pressure is on the Clippers to make a splash, or it could mean coach Vinny Del Negro’s job.
This will be the first postseason in eight years without Kobe Bryant, who had surgery for a torn Achilles’ tendon. The Lakers — and the NBA faithful — will miss his star power, but this is a grand opportunity for Dwight Howard to prove himself as a franchise center. His matchup against Duncan should be intriguing.
But don’t expect the Lakers to be around long, as general manager Mitch Kupchak needed everything to work perfectly for a championship. Obviously, it didn’t.
1. Miami Heat (66-16) vs. 8. Milwaukee Bucks (38-44)
Season series: Miami, 3-1
This should be nothing more than a warm-up for the Heat, who will face the Chicago-Brooklyn winner in the second round in what should be a brutal series. The Bucks can score when Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are on, but against the Heat’s defense and athleticism, they don’t have much chance to win more than one game. The Heat are well-rested after coach Erik Spoelstra gave LeBron James and Dwyane Wade plenty of breaks down the stretch. The Miami Big Three, along with the perimeter shooting of Shane Battier and Ray Allen, should be more than enough to end this series quickly. The Bucks may have a shot to win one of the games in Milwaukee but nothing more. Ellis, likely a free agent this summer, could use this series to show his capabilities. He has said he is as good as Wade without the two rings; let’s see if he can prove that.
Prediction: Heat in 4.
2. New York Knicks (54-28) vs. 7. Boston Celtics (41-40)
Season series: New York, 3-1
The biggest question is, which Celtics team will show up? While Doc Rivers sounds confident about his chances, the Celtics were hardly formidable down the stretch, losing at home to Cleveland, barely beating Detroit, and then losing to Brooklyn and Miami. The Celtics have to defend the 3-point line in this series. New York hit 18 threes in the most recent victory, and when Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith get going and then get their teammates involved, the Knicks are nearly unbeatable. The Celtics, following the lead of Kevin Garnett, have to set the defensive tone, forcing the interior-challenged Knicks to score 2-pointers. A key will be Jeff Green and whether he can become that third scoring threat along with Paul Pierce and Garnett. The Celtics definitely know how to beat the Knicks, but can this patchwork group carry out the game plan four times and withstand massive scoring nights from Anthony and Smith? The answer is probably no. Continued...