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Sam Smith's first round Playoffs predictions
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By Sam Smith | 4.17.2015 | 3:20 p.m. CT
So the Golden State Warriors with one of the best records in NBA history and the Atlanta Hawks the runaway Eastern Conference regular season winner with little serious competition. Who had that? Raise your hands.
Yes, the NBA season rarely goes like it is supposed to. So we’ll see if it does in the playoffs. The favorites are supposed to be, like the last few years, the Spurs and LeBron, whereever he may be. Though the Spurs would have to do so coming out of sixth place in the Western Conference, which only was done in 1995 by the Houston Rockets in a non-star year with Michael Jordan just returning from baseball. LeBron has to do so with two of his Big Three accustomed to the golf course and beach this time of year.
So it becomes two months of questions:
Can LeBron complete the return to Cleveland?
Can the Warriors do it wire to wire?
Can James Harden get out of the first round?
Can Chris Paul get out of the second?
Can Derrick Rose stay healthy?
Is it finally Memphis’ time?
Are the Hawks for real?
Can the Spurs win six and tie the Bulls?
Will it be a coming out party for Anthony Davis?
Is Toronto in Washington an invasion?
Jason, are you kidding?
Atlanta Hawks (60-22) vs Brooklyn Nets (38-44)
Season series: 4-0 Hawks
You know the Nets players are saying, “Who us? We’re in the playoffs? Who’s idea was that?” They’ve looked alternately like a team that’s had enough for the season and one with enough talent to stumble into wins as they did close 13-6, though blown out at home by the Bulls when it seemed the game mattered. Brook Lopez had a strong finish to the season, though is slow and will be no match for the Hawks spacing and movement. Similarly with the Nets’ preponderance of isolation play. Of course, after all they were six games below .500 and got in on a tiebreaker. The Hawks have not been taken seriously all season because no one saw it coming and no one can still find an All-Star. But they run a beautiful game with movement, passing and seeking out lethal shooting Kyle Korver. Plus, they run you off the three-point line with committed defense. I’m sort of convinced.
Pick: Hawks in 4
Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs Boston Celtics (40-42)
Season series: 2-2
The surprise here was the Celtics, who like to advertise now having one the league’s best records since Groundhog Day. Took a while for them to peek. And peak. They have become the latest greater than the sum of their parts team, though more because it’s mostly a roster of role players. But Dallas and the Suns miss the role players they gave them because they play hard, compete and care. The obvious Boston story was trading Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, their two “best” players, though both had become internal problems, unhappy and difficult to coach. It’s freed Brad Stevens to make them ask Red Who? Might want to hold off a bit. The series is 2-2 as the Cavs sat most of their players in two late losses to Boston. The Cavs are really good and basically have been the East’s best since their midseason trades that reshaped their roster around LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Cavs do a bit much of their my turn, your turn game and tend to forget Love plays for them. But they have too much and they have LeBron.
Pick: Cavs in 5
Chicago Bulls (50-32) vs Milwaukee Bucks (41-41)
Season series: 3-1 Bulls.
The Bucks have been, in a better way than Boston which surged late, perhaps the league’s biggest surprise going from 15 wins with essentially the same roster and losing their lottery pick, Jabari Parker, for the season. They’ve done it with an active, defensive, switching defense that scores on your mistakes. The Bulls in theory have all the pieces with the return of Derrick Rose, the resurgence of Pau Gasol and the discovery of Jimmy Butler. They’ve stumbled through injuries and changing lineups and rotations. But they’re a veteran group and though in low scoring games against the low scoring Bucks generally have too much offense.
Pick: Bulls in 5
Toronto Raptors (49-33) vs Washington Wizards (46-36)
Season series: 3-0 Toronto.
This series might have been No. 1 against No. 2 back in December when both were rolling. But the Raptors sank when Kyle Lowry went out while the Wizards have been disorganized with seeming internal discord. They miss Trevor Ariza as Paul Pierce’s play has receded. The Wizards are the rare NBA team these days that mostly eschews the three pointer with their two interior big men. It’s a contrast of styles against the high scoring Raptors who spread the court and shoot threes with a lot of individual perimeter play. Though the Raptors swept, the last two games were last possession, a match of contrasts with the defensive minded Wizards against the offensive Raptors.
Pick: Toronto in 7
Golden State Warriors (67-15) vs New Orleans Pelicans (45-37)
Season series: 3-1 Golden State.
There’s a bit of stuff going on with the Pelicans saying they heard the Warriors calling a game with them this month a scrimmage and beating them. Can you ride that to an upset? Seems unlikely. The Pelicans seemed almost shocked themselves to make the playoffs looking up basically all season, but earning their way in on the last day by beating the Spurs. They’ve pointed to injuries, but should have done more with Anthony Davis. The Warriors have dominated the league from opening day, firing to the best record all season and historic numbers with the likely MVP and the high scoring backcourt. They’ll be questioned as to whether a jump shooting team can go all the way, though they defend well, have size and depth and only issues with the doubters thus far.
Pick: Warriors in 5
Houston Rockets (56-36) vs Dallas Mavericks (50-32)
Season series: 3-1 Houston.
These home state things can get testy and you know Mark Cuban will go at it with Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Not that Cuban isn’t going at it with someone. This is the test for James Harden, who hasn’t had a playoff career to match his regular season brilliance with an MVP-esque season this year. He carried a Rockets team that has lately gotten guys back with Dwight Howard playing and a more responsible season from Josh Smith. Get ready for hack Josh, which the Mavs did. The Mavs are a curiosity with moves that were generally regarded as positive, like for Tyson Chandler, Rajon Rondo and Chandler Parsons, all of which had basically little effect. Rondo’s presence seems to have altered their chemistry, if not their spacing with Rondo shooting poorly. His promised defense has been good, though not great. And then the Rockets lost their best perimeter defender in Patrick Beverly, which should free Monta Ellis. The Mavs probably gave the Spurs their toughest series last season as these interstate matches enhance the emotions. It’s a much bigger series for the Rockets, who took second despite a rash of significant injuries, a very impressive accomplishment.
Pick: Rockets in 7
Los Angeles Clippers (56-26) vs San Antonio Spurs (55-27)
Season series: 2-2.
This is the one everyone is waiting for and wants to see and probably is unfair. One team will be able to rightfully say afterward we would have won the title if we didn’t lose in the first round. Either team can and they are the two hottest teams in the league the last two months of the season. The Spurs are defending champions with a recent 11-game winning streak while the Clippers have a Big Three in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Defensive Player of the Year candidate DeAndre Jordan. Though Spurs coach Gregg Popovich could send the league to a rules change once he starts fouling Jordan three minutes into the game. The Clippers’ bench is suspect, which is an issue and could be fatal. This again is a huge series for Chris Paul, who despite being an MVP top five just about every season has never been to a conference finals. Even Deron Williams has. The Spurs after sputtering for months and basically falling from second to sixth by a game on the last day in the amazing Western Conference got healthy with Kawhi Leonard playing like the best two-way swing man not named LeBron. And Tim Duncan still takes your breath away with admiration. You might want this to be best of 13.
Pick: Spurs in 7
Portland Trail Blazers (51-31) vs Memphis Grizzlies (55-27)
Season Series: 4-0 Memphis
This one could be a survival of the healthiest with Portland taking a big blow losing Wesley Matthews and then his replacement Arron Afflalo. The Grizzlies come in with questions on the health of Mike Conley, who makes their game go, and defensive ace Tony Allen. But Marc Gasol came up big in the late season to get this matchup, which seems ideal for them with their power and size, which seems too much for Portland. And even though Portland gets the No. 4 seed with their division win, they don’t get home court advantage and they aren’t the same team they were a few months back. Damian Lillard saved them last season with the shot of the playoffs. They’ll need a lot more.
Pick: Grizzlies in 5