It would be nice to say the best 16 teams are now locked in for the first round of the NBA playoffs, preparing for the first of what each team hopes to be four seven-game contests that lead to the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
Alas, the NBA still employs the anachronistic conference system so the Phoenix Suns (48-34) are watching the Western Conference playoffs green with envy while the Atlanta Hawks (38-44), the poster child for Eastern Conference mediocrity, undeservedly prepare for a likely first-round annihilation at the hands of the Indiana Pacers.
The final standings are not as bad for the NBA as it looked a couple of months ago when the likes of Brooklyn, Washington and Charlotte appeared set to get playoff berths despite sub-500 records.
But did their late-season improvements owe more to better performances or was it an inevitable result of playing in the East where teams like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee plummeted to Development League standards? And that’s possibly being rough on the D-League.
Anyway, the eight first-round match-ups are sorted: In the West, there’s a chance, some teams more so than others, for all four underdogs to cause an upset whereas in the East, Indiana and Miami will stroll through to the second round while the main interest focuses on which two teams from the sides ranked 3-6 will advance to face the Pacers and Heat.
1. Indiana Pacers (56-26) v 8. Atlanta Hawks (38-44): The Pacers have been terrible, then good, then horrible, then credible over the past couple of months. They won enough of the key matches, particularly against Miami and the Thunder, to limp into the top seed in the east. They’ve made no secret of the fact all season they’ve been gunning for top spot so they would have home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat (the Pacers lost game 7 in Miami last year) but the added benefit of the No.1 seed is they can afford to experiment in the first round against a Hawks team which appeared to not particularly want to make the playoffs because it hurts their chances on draft day.
Prediction: Pacers in 5
2. Miami Heat (54-28) v 7. Charlotte Bobcats (43-39): The important thing for Miami is Dwyane Wade is back on the court after a hamstring injury broke up his run of knee-related absences. Wade eased his way down the comeback trail with 16 points in 23 minutes against Philadelphia in the last regular-season match. Like the Pacers, he can use the first round to get back into top shape because the Heat won’t be three-peating with a Big Three of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers. The Bobcats, in what is likely to be their last venture before the Hornets name returns to Charlotte, at least get to finish this chapter in franchise history with a respectable effort to make the playoffs after being the NBA’s worst team just two seasons ago.
Prediction: Heat in 5
3. Toronto Raptors (48-34) v 6. Brooklyn Nets (44-38): After dragging themselves up the standings after a Knicks-like woeful start to the season, the Nets looked set to finish fifth and continue their growing rivalry with Chicago but they dropped their last two matches to New York and Cleveland while giving Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston a rest. This is the series that a lot of pundits will predict the lower-ranked team will prevail but this is a new breed of Raptors team. Kyle Lowry provides the passion, DeMar DeRozan brings the finesse and Jonas Valanciunas is a monster in the paint.
Prediction: Raptors in 7
4. Chicago Bulls (48-34) v 5. Washington Wizards (44-38): Although they are known for being a fairly straight up and down team, Chicago have been almost impossible to figure out this season. When Derrick Rose went down with another season-ending knee injury and forward Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland for nothing, it appeared the Bulls were resigned to missing the playoffs and possibly deliberately heading towards the draft lottery. But nobody told coach Tom Thibodeau and centre Joakim Noah, who have carried this team well beyond expectations. The Wizards have been hot and cold all season but it’s hard to see their erratic style holding sway over Chicago’s hard-nosed play in a seven-game series.
Prediction: Bulls in 6
1. San Antonio Spurs (62-20) v 8. Dallas Mavericks (49-33): The Mavericks really blew it in their last regular season game on Wednesday night, losing by a point in overtime to Memphis when Monta Ellis missed a wide open shot at the buzzer. The price they’ve paid is a first-round match-up with San Antonio, who are not only the team with the best record in the NBA this year but an opponent which swept the Mavs 4-0 in 2013-14. Mark Cuban needs to revamp this roster – Shawn Marion and Vince Carter are on their last legs and Ellis is a decent second option behind the rejuvenated Dirk Nowitzki but there’s not much else in this squad which points to a bright future.
Prediction: Spurs in 4
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (59-23) v 7. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32): The Grizzlies have momentum on their side – they looked set to miss the playoffs altogether but surged to seventh after besting the Suns and Mavericks down the stretch. They have a fit and firing squad. They have Marc Gasol affecting shots at the rim, Zach Randolph gritting and grinding down low on offence and Tony Allen and Mike Conley complementing each other nicely in the back court. But they don’t have anything close to Kevin Durant. Or Russell Westbrook. And then there’s Serge Ibaka, the improving Reggie Jackson and grizzled veteran Kendrick Perkins, who matches up well with Memphis’ half-court style.
Prediction: Thunder in 5
3. LA Clippers (57-25) v 6. Golden State Warriors (51-31): This match-up had the potential to be the pick of the bunch. These teams simply do not like each other. There have been plenty of incidents in their four clashes this season, which have been split 2-2. Clippers star forward Blake Griffin was ejected after a tangle with Warriors centre Andrew Bogut. Last season over-achieved by finishing sixth and downing Denver in the first round. But they have under-achieved this time around, especially considering they acquired Andre Iguoudala in the off-season. Also, coach Mark Jackson’s future is clouded and Bogut is out indefinitely with a rib injury so unless Steph Curry catches fire four times, it all adds up to the Clippers progressing, in six games or perhaps even less.
Prediction: Clippers in 6
4. Houston Rockets (54-28) v Portland Trail Blazers (54-28): It’s put up or shut up time for James Harden and Dwight Howard. They both didn’t want to be second banana to other star players at the Thunder and Lakers respectively and have forged their identity with the Rockets but Portland won’t be an easy match-up. LaMarcus Aldridge’s mid-range jump shots will draw Howard away from the rim while Blazers guard Damian Lillard’s speed will test Harden’s rarely seen defensive skills. Houston’s defensive specialist, Patrick Beverley made an early return from what was thought to be a season-ending knee injury last weekend. He needs to smother Lillard for the Rockets to advance.
Prediction: Blazers in 7