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.
Prediction: Knicks in 7.
3. Indiana Pacers (49-32) vs. 6. Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
This may be the ugliest first-round series because the Pacers deliberately play an ugly style that relies on a stingy defense that was second in the league in points allowed. The Pacers ended the season losing five of their final six games but are still the favorites against a wildly inconsistent Hawks team. The key matchup is Indiana’s rugged David West against Atlanta’s versatile Josh Smith, two power forwards who are vastly different but equally effective. The Hawks were one of the league’s most surprising teams, reaching the playoffs despite trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in the offseason. But they lack that volume scorer who can make big buckets in the playoffs. The Pacers should win in a grinding series, but the Hawks could surprise if Jeff Teague or Al Horford breaks out and helps out Smith offensively. Smith has intimated all season that he is a maximum-contract player, and this is the free agent-to-be’s chance to prove it.
Prediction: Pacers in 6.
4. Brooklyn Nets (49-33) vs. 5. Chicago Bulls (45-37)
Season series: Bulls, 2-1
This could be the most interesting Eastern Conference series because the teams are virtually even and both win with physicality. The Nets improved over the second half of the season because of the resurgence of Deron Williams, who struggled before the All-Star break. If Williams and Joe Johnson can score against Chicago’s unspectacular backcourt, then Brooklyn can take control of the series. The Nets have enough physical bigs to compete with the Bulls on the boards, especially with rebounding machine Reggie Evans. The Bulls are offensively challenged and haven’t been healthy, with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson dealing with injuries. But if they can defend the Nets backcourt and get enough scoring from Carlos Boozer and Noah, this series could go the distance. At the very least, the winner will be crawling into the second round against Miami.
Prediction: Nets in 7.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (60-22) vs. 8. Houston Rockets (45-37)
Season series: Oklahoma City, 2-1
The obvious story line here is James Harden facing his old team, but other than that, this isn’t all that compelling. The Rockets love to shoot and push the pace, but they don’t match up well with the Thunder. Russell Westbrook is faster and more productive than Jeremy Lin, and the Rockets don’t have anyone to guard Kevin Durant. Without question, the Rockets will have moments in this series, but the Thunder are on a mission and there is no way they will be tripped up in the first round. Harden’s replacement in Oklahoma City, Kevin Martin, could have a major impact. While the Rockets are entertaining to watch, they rely too heavily on Harden and they are too inconsistent with their defense to push the Thunder. Oklahoma City will coast to the second round.
Prediction: Thunder in 5.
2. San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. 7. Los Angeles Lakers (45-37)
Season series: San Antonio, 2-1
This matchup was the Lakers’ best chance to advance to the second round without Kobe Bryant, as the Spurs are capable of playing poorly on the road. But San Antonio is much too talented to lose to a Los Angeles team depending on Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. This is where the Lakers’ lack of depth comes back to haunt them. After Gasol and Howard, who else can hurt you? Steve Blake can’t be depended on to put up 20-point games; Antawn Jamison is too inconsistent and Jodie Meeks too erratic. The Spurs will gather themselves, use Tim Duncan in the paint and Tony Parker on the perimeter, and win this series on talent. But it won’t be easy. Despite a gaudy regular-season record, the Spurs need all of their parts healthy in order to make a long playoff run. Whether Manu Ginobili can play effectively after a hamstring injury could be the key to this series. With the Spurs having home-court advantage, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers winning four times.
Prediction: Spurs in 6.
3. Denver Nuggets (57-25) vs. 6. Golden State Warriors (47-35)
Season series: Denver, 3-1
This series could be reminiscent of the 1980s, because both teams would much rather score than stop anybody. Both allow more than 100 points per game, so the pace will be fast and the winner will be the one that can actually get defensive stops in the fourth quarter. When Stephen Curry gets going, he can be unstoppable, but the Warriors also have to get contributions from David Lee and Klay Thompson. Andrew Bogut has been banged up most of the year but is back. Are the Warriors better without him? Not if he can play a semblance of interior defense. The Nuggets are a team without a star, but point guard Ty Lawson can take over a game, while Kenneth Faried will give the Nuggets plenty of second-chance opportunities with his rebounding. The lone reason Denver wins this series is home-court advantage. It will go the distance.
Prediction: Nuggets in 7.
4. Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs. 5. Memphis Grizzlies (56-26)
Season series: Los Angeles, 3-1
Well, these rivals meet again in what could be an epic series between teams competing to replace the Spurs and Lakers among the Western Conference elite. The key here is whether Blake Griffin can have a standout series against Memphis’s big men. Griffin has shown he can dunk and run the floor, but the Clippers are going to need double-doubles and volume rebounding from him and DeAndre Jordan. The Grizzlies have settled back into normalcy after trading Rudy Gay, and with Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol, they have the pieces to make a run. The question is whether coach Lionel Hollins can get his team to be more aggressive and consistent, especially in a tight playoff series. The Clippers have more to lose, because coach Vinny Del Negro’s job could be on the line. The Grizzlies will feel much better about the Gay trade if they win, and they have enough — barely — to edge the Clippers.
Prediction: Grizzlies in 7.