#1 Bulls vs. #8 Pacers
No tanking was necessary to settle the Eastern Conference playoff picture, though I doubt anyone would willfully put themselves in position to face the Bulls. Chicago’s rise to prominence and the reasons for their play this year are well-established – unlike these young Indiana Pacers. Good on you for getting to the playoffs, Indiana, but your stay will be short-lived. Bulls win, 4-0.
#2 Heat vs. #7 Sixers
The regular season was more or less irrelevant in Miami; all of the judgments passed on this team up to this point can’t touch the levels of alarm and disdain the Heat will face if they go home early. Andre Igoudala’s play on the year didn’t receive the attention that it should have, and Doug Collins deserves Coach of the Year consideration.
That being said, Philadelphia can’t match the talent of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. I expect Bosh to light Brand up at least twice in this series, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the marquee players in Miami struggle once or twice and drop a game to Philadelphia. Heat win, 4-1.
#3 Celtics vs. #6 Knicks
This series would be infinitely more intriguing if the Knicks employed a legitimate center, calling into question Boston’s dependence on Shaquille O’Neal. Unfortunately for New York, Ronny Turiaf isn’t that guy, and the Celtics have the defense to contain Carmelo, especially when he regresses to his ball-stopping ways. Rajon Rondo – barring complications from the plantar fasciitis he is reportedly battling – is leagues better than the remains of Chauncey Billups. Given a point guard who doesn’t shoot often versus one who jacks up ill-advised threes early in the shot clock, I’ll take the former. Celtics win, 4-1.
#4 Magic vs. #5 Hawks
All the chatter about Jason Collins and his ability to defend Dwight Howard is cute. Will Atlanta be able to stay at home on defense at the perimeter if Collins can handle Dwight one-on-one? Of course. But how many minutes per game can the foul-prone Collins really be trusted to play against Howard’s improved offensive arsenal? I’d be surprised if Mr. Maximum, Joe Johnson, didn’t shoot the Hawks out of a game or two as well. Atlanta is better equipped to face Orlando this season than last, as evidenced by the season series. That’ll amount to a 6-game series instead of 4. Magic win, 4-2.
#1 Spurs vs. #8 Grizzlies
If I were a stronger man, I’d pick Memphis to win this series, particularly if Manu misses significant time with his elbow injury or is unable to play at 100%. By the end of the series, San Antonio’s wings are going to be absolutely sick of Tony Allen being inside of their jerseys, and the Grizzlies’ interior presence should give the Spurs fits. After all, I’m not sure DeJuan Blair can jump over Marc Gasol’s facial hair, let alone help contain he and Zach Randolph. In the end, I think the Spurs’ combination of experience, home court, and talent will take them on to the next round, but a Grizzlies “shocker” wouldn’t surprise me at all. Spurs win, 4-2.
#2 Lakers vs. #7 Hornets
Andrew Bynum’s health is a relative unknown. David West’s is not. Without their former All-Star, the Hornets stand no chance at winning this series, but don’t tell Chris Paul – he’ll do his best to make Marco Belinelli into a modern day Steve Kerr. Unfortunately for New Orleans, the Lakers are far too skilled across the board, even with Bynum’s health in question. Lakers win, 4-0.
#3 Mavericks vs. #6 Blazers
I think Portland wins this series and does so convincingly. Being able to throw LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Gerald Wallace at Dirk Nowitzki is a sizable advantage, and Andre Miller versus Jason Kidd should be one of the most intriguing positional match-ups of the first round. If Brandon Roy can give the Blazers anything, they’ll secure their first-round victory at the Rose Garden. Blazers win, 4-2.
#4 Thunder vs. #5 Nuggets
The series I’m least confident about; I have no idea which team is going to win this series. Various analyses show that in the modern NBA, what matters most in the playoffs is your top 6 players, but both of these teams are deep and bring quality players off of the bench – Denver takes this to extremes with their 10-deep rotation since the Carmelo trade. I think the Thunder starting five, plus James Harden, will be too much for the Nuggets to handle, but this one should go the distance and be one hell of a basketball series. Thunder win, 4-3.