Best part of the journey begins now
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And the winner is…
Not so fast. Lakers fans—and now, interestingly, enough, Bulls fans—seem the most anxious to be rid of the next six weeks of games to be in the NBA Finals. It doesn’t work that way, and, fortunately, the players and coaches understand. As Phil Jackson liked to say, the joy was in the journey. And the best part of the journey begins Saturday when the NBA playoffs begin with the Bulls hosting the Indiana Pacers.
I actually love the regular season, but that is just something of a long warm up. The trip really begins now as there is no better time in sport than the NBA Playoffs. It’s a living highlight package and a true measure of a team. No one gets all the way through on a lucky shot or a good day. It’s an ordeal in some respects, but it is mostly exhilarating. This is the first part, so let’s take a look at how the first round might go:
No. 7 Philadelphia (41-41) vs. No. 2 Miami (58-24). Season series: 3-0 Miami.
All that rooting against them didn’t work out all that well as the Heat did make the playoffs. The 70 wins stuff was more for the un-informed and ill-informed of South Florida, who never knew sports could be played indoors. And aren’t thrilled about that, anyway. In the end, the Heat had a pretty good season, ranking among the leaders in both shooting and defense and top 10 in virtually every defensive category. They remain a flawed team given their rotating center position, the miserable season for Mike Miller and Chris Bosh being the guy who you can understand now why he couldn’t raise his team. But no one has a wing duo to match or deal with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Like them or not, they are a matchup problem for anyone. Who’s guarding LeBron? They do have Iguodala, and he’s not bad. The 76ers had a wonderful recovery season as Doug Collins dragged them out of their languor. But they come in with Lou Williams not completely healthy and with a bad matchup. Elton Brand will make a mess of Chris Bosh, who doesn’t like to guard anyone. Can the 76ers get on the boards? It was their issue all season. I’d have given them a shot against Boston with their speed, but Miami can deal with that.
Pick: Heat in five.
No. 6 New York (42-40) vs. No. 3 Boston (56-26). Season series: 4-0 Boston.
Basketball is back in New York? Well, let’s see. The Knicks have been one of the big stories of the season with their pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, eventually surrendering a package that has never made a franchise happier to be rid of its best player. Anthony with Amar’e Stoudemire is a compelling pair for this highlight era of sports, though it doesn’t appear to match up well, especially with Anthony’s isolation n coach Mike D’Antoni’s (formerly) active offense. The Celtics have been beaten up and over analyzed since their trade of Kendrick Perkins with an under .500 finish the last 20 games, though it feels much different than last season’s halting close. Boston is smaller, but it doesn’t hurt them against the Knicks, and let us know when Chauncey Billups figures out where Rajon Rondo is. So they’ll have to help and Carmelo doesn’t help anyone. I’d go right at Anthony and make him guard—yeah, right—or foul. Boston’s bench wins the series.
Pick: Boston in five
No. 5 Atlanta (44-38) vs. No. 4 Orlando (52-30). Season series: 3-1 Hawks.
The surprise is the season series after the Magic dominated the Hawks in the playoffs last season like no team ever has been beaten. The Hawks used an actual center, well, sort of, in Jason Collins on Dwight Howard with the theory you stay at home on the shooters against the Magic and you win. There is something to that, but you usually need more than Collins. The Hawks have been a wreck closing the season and seem ready to implode amidst ennui and lassitude. They’ve pretty much reverted to their isolation game with Josh Smith also more erratic than usual. Well, at least Kirk got out of Washington. The Magic has its own issues as its big early season blockbuster deal has been a flop. Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu have been awful, though, I know, I’m being kind. Ryan Anderson has come on and could be a playoff bonus on the offensive boards, where he killed the Bulls. Their defense still can be good, and Howard can be dominant. Poor Horford.
Pick: Magic in six.
No. 8 Memphis (46-36) vs. No. 1 San Antonio (61-21). Season series: 2-2.
The West is going to be the fun first round with Memphis an eighth seed and good enough for fifth in the East. Reseed! Nah, isn’t happening. They won the last two games of the series against the Spurs, though one without Tony Parker. And the Spurs apparently are without Manu Ginobili with an elbow injury in the final game. This one screams upset. The Grizzlies were in the playoffs three times in franchise history and swept every time. They are without Rudy Gay, but have played well and together since he went out. They’ll pound you inside with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and it’s not clear how the Spurs match that, especially without Ginobili. Although the Spurs led the league virtually all season until overtaken by the Bulls on the last day, they have been questioned and doubted given the declining production from Tim Duncan. And I recall it was Spurs coach Gregg Popovich really blasting the Grizzlies for that Pau Gasol trade to the Lakers. Can you have a rivalry with a team that never has won a playoff game when you have four titles since 1999? The Grizzlies seem to have clearly dumped the last few games to get to the Spurs and avoid the Lakers. Better watch out what you wish for? The key for the Grizzlies is to be less dumb than normal. Tony Allen runs all over the place and they rely on atheticism over intelligence. If the Spurs can’t out maneuver them, they’re in trouble. It’s a tough call, but without Ginobili, it’s the Grizzlies.
Pick: Grizzlies in six. (Can I change if Manu plays?)
No. 7 New Orleans (46-36) vs. No. 2 Lakers (57-25). Season series: 4-0 Lakers.
This one is hard to figure, though only in how the Hornets can get a game. I had Monty Williams as one of my best coaches after Tom Thibodeau and Doug Collins for getting 46 wins out of this team with Chris Paul pretty much dragging his leg (or maybe interest) this season, Trevor Ariza, one of the league’s worst shooters, and relying lately on Aaron Gray early off the bench. The Lakers stumbled some after that great post playoff run, and Andrew Bynum is hurt again—big surprise—but they should wrap this one up quickly.
Pick: Lakers 4-0.
No. 6 Portland (48-34) vs. No. 3 Dallas (57-25). Season series: 2-2.
The Trail Blazers won the last two games, and if you didn’t know the records and matched the personnel you’d assume the Trail Blazers were the better team. It’s a testament to the MVP candidacy of Dirk Nowitzki holding this splintering Mavs team together. Jason Terry began to crack late in the season and they really can’t get over losing Caron Butler. They waited most of the season for Roddy Beaubois and you get the feeling they’re saying, “For this?” Shawn Marion seems lost and you can only see this team headed down. And out. Aging and seeing the end. Dirk’s going to see a lot of jerseys in his face with that poor backcourt shooting. Gerald Wallace was a huge pickup for the Blazers, enabling them to strengthen the bench with Nicholas Batum. I’d say they had injuries, but who ever expects Greg Odom to play? Brandon Roy has quietly become a limited backup, and they seem better as he monopolized the ball late in games. They hung onto Marcus Camby and Andre Miller, and they could be scary if Rudy Fernandez makes shots. Even if he doesn’t. Who’s guarding Aldridge?
Pick: Portland in five.
No. 5 Denver (50-32) vs. No. 4 Oklahoma City (55-27). Season series: 3-1 Thunder.
Too bad they play one another as you’d like to see these teams for a few rounds. The Nuggets have been a great story in withstanding the Anthony madness and putting together an appealing, athletic group. Ty Lawson hurt an ankle late, so we’ll see, but with Ray Felton it’s been an intriguing backcourt and probably better to deal with Westbrook. The Thunder made the big move for Kendrick Perkins, which seems to have solidified their chance to make a serious run as they now have a real power forward in Serga Ibaka and as good a two man attack as anyone may have with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They will need someone else to score, though, without Jeff Green and James Harden will have to make shots. Somewhat like the Bulls, you can make the case for them in the Finals, though no one wants to because they haven’t won a playoff series. Though they should within a week or so. But it should be a lot closer and a lot tougher than most believe.
Pick: Thunder in seven.