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Sam Smith's Conference Semifinals playoff predictions

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By Sam Smith | 5.3.2015 | 9:20 a.m.

Now it really becomes fun.

Maybe not more fun than the Spurs/Clippers series, which was an all-timer and perhaps the best series in these playoffs.

Who says the first round isn’t worth watching?

But the fun really begins in the second round because the first round is mostly predictable.

Yes, the Milwaukee Bucks were a bit of a surprise with six games against the Bulls, though the Bulls were one possession from a sweep. Then they had enough and won by the greatest margin in playoff history. That’s generally the fate of marginal or less teams in the NBA playoffs, and especially in the Eastern Conference this season with two sub.-500 teams, Boston and Brooklyn, in the playoffs.

The Nets pushed the Hawks to six, but there was the same sense of inevitability as in Bulls/Bucks. The Hawks straightened out and blew out the Nets before they had a chance to be really threatening. The Celtics were swept, though it turned out perhaps the most significant moment in the first round when Kevin Love was injured. Love is out for the playoffs, seriously damaging the Cavaliers’ chances of winning a title.

The Raptors series with the Wizards was somewhat surprising, though when it’s four vs five it’s really never an upset. The unexpected was the Raptors barely competing as Washington changed up with small lineups and Toronto never adjusted or reacted other than complaining to the officials. It was one of the poorest performances for a division champion in years, though it was one of the poorest divisions in years and a Raptors franchise that is yet to have a 50-win season since coming into the NBA in 1995.

The Spurs and Clippers were no surprise, either, because most said the loser could have gone to the Finals if they had won in the first round. The seven-game series demonstrated that. You wonder how much it took out of the winner, especially with Chris Paul’s hamstring injury. As many expected, there’ll be a new champion this season. It probably was the best series of the playoffs, also as many expected.

The view this season was all eight teams in the Western Conference were potential title contenders, though it was clear that was more optimism than reality by the end of the season. The Pelicans earned their way in the last few days thanks to the Thunder declining and it eventually resulting in a coaching change. The Thunder was little serious threat to the top rated Warriors. And the Mavericks after basically releasing Rajon Rondo were not a contender to win much more than a game.

The Grizzlies were expected to handle the sliding and injury riddled Trailblazers, and even with Mike Conley getting hurt the Grizzlies were too much.

So now begins the real playoffs since every team is a series winner. There no longer are significant underdogs. It’s about trying to take out a winner. Which is never easy. Here’s a look at the semifinals:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs Chicago Bulls (3)

Regular season: Cavaliers 3-1

It’s the premier series of the second round, especially now that the defending champion Spurs are out. Now it’s LeBron James trying to get to an almost unprecedented fifth consecutive NBA Finals. It’s a tougher road for the Cavaliers now with Kevin Love out injured for the playoffs. J.R. Smith doesn’t play until Game 3 after a suspension from the opening round. The Bulls come in as healthy as they’ve been all season, thus leveling the playing field.

It could be the most unconventional series with the matchups given the injury and suspension for the Cavs, who relied all season on their starters. The Cavaliers, though, come in with the two highest scorers in the series with James and Kyrie Irving, both in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring. The Bulls are deeper, though have not been the defensive juggernaut of previous seasons. But they’ve got more big time scoring options with Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol to join Derrick Rose. Plus Joakim Noah vs Cleveland and James always has been spectator sport. It could be the version of the Spurs/Clippers for this round.

Pick: Monday in Bulls.com team matchups

Atlanta Hawks (1) vs Washington Wizards (5)

Regular season: Hawks 3-1

The Hawks were the surprise of the East with 60 wins, now regarded as the most unlikely 60-game winner ever with their small front court and basically no one famous. Style doesn’t win, but they do have players who practice a relentless and unselfish way. It does matter.

The Wizards pulled the only first round upset by basically remaking their team by going small, playing Paul Pierce at power forward and trading for Otto Porter and Drew Gooden. Or so it seemed. Still, they are going to have the same matchup problems with the Hawks that the Nets did. Al Horford and Paul Millsap will step out and shoot, rendering Marcin Gortat and Nene problematic. If the Wizards go small to combat that it’s one thing against a disorganized Raptors team that plays little but isolation. You really have to defend against the Hawks. Jeff Teague and John Wall will be intriguing for their speed, though neither is truly a big scorer. Lots of chess match in this one as well.

Pick: Hawks in 6

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Golden State Warriors (1) vs Memphis Grizzlies (5)

Regular Season: 2-1 Warriors

This is probably the most potentially lopsided series of this round with the Warriors rolling and healthy and the Grizzlies likely missing, at least to start the series, their most important player, Mike Conley. It’s too bad as this looked like the best clash of styles with the fast paced Warriors and the physical, half court Grizzlies. But Conley is master of their pick and roll and their clutch shot maker. Even if he returns after that serious facial injury, would he even risk another hit on a screen running that pick and roll? It’s too bad after a terrific season for the Grizzlies.

The Warriors are 41-2 at home into the playoffs with a high octane offensive game no one has stopped, supreme confidence and even better defense than the Grizzlies. And Andrew Bogut is a big man to get over at the rim.

Pick: Warriors in 5

Houston Rockets (2) vs Los Angeles Clippers (3)

Regular season: 2-2

You know the Rockets didn’t want to see the Spurs, not that anyone does. Houston had lost three straight to the Spurs in the regular season as the Spurs cerebral game often seemed too much for some of the wild card Rockets players. The Clippers’ first round series win over the Spurs was a thrilling emotional masterpiece, though there’ll be a hangover from that. And Chris Paul comes in slowed with an apparent hamstring injury.

The Rockets haven’t been full strength for awhile with Donatas Montiejunas and Patrick Beverley out, leaving Jason Terry to start with basically no starting point guard. James Harden does that from the shooting guard spot like LeBron does from his forward spot. Kevin McHale probably won’t foul DeAndre Jordan as much since he’s probably afraid they’ll foul Dwight Howard. The league might have to change the rule mid series if both coaches start fouling the others’ bad free throw shooter all game.

Howard has been the strong defensive player without worrying too much about offense on his return, though their wildcard is whether Josh Smith plays a she did in the first round, defensively, sharing the ball and remembering he can’t shoot. Who knows who much the Clippers will have left after that amazing first round series, and Paul as well. Doc Rivers stayed with his regulars for big minutes, so will have to use more bench. Though the Rockets’ isn’t strong, either. It’s tough to see who the Clippers will have to defend Harden, which should be the difference.

Pick: Rockets in 6