By Matt Straub
The NBA is the quintessential sport in the 21st century. The regular season is way too long, leaving us just hoping the second season, the two-month playoff run, would arrive already. While the number of exciting regular season matchups is higher in the NBA than it seems to be in some other sports, they often don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. With this year’s bunched up standings, those matchups meant more than normal, especially late in the year, but the NBA is still all about the playoffs.
And, finally, the playoffs are upon us. And they have a chance to be epic this year with so many good teams so close together in the standings. The west has any number of teams who could run the gauntlet that is that side of the bracket, while the East is stronger than people think, as those who hate on the conference tend only to look at the bottom of the standings, where the teams are admittedly weaker than the they are in the West. The East may be top heavy, but it isn’t bad by any means.
With one of my favorite sporting events of the year upon us, let’s look at how the next two months might play out. Our Western Conference playoff predictions are here.
No. 1 Atlanta vs. No. 8 Brooklyn
We’ll start with New York’s lone representative in the postseason, the Nets, facing off against the best team no one ever talks about. The Nets are playing by far their best basketball of the year, finishing on a 13-5 clip to (with help from Indiana) sneak into the playoffs. The team’s overall record is putrid, but the Nets of right now aren’t the Nets of most of the year. Brook Lopez, perhaps motivated by his near trade at the deadline, is on fire, giving the Nets a presence inside few teams have anymore. The Nets have more big names than the Hawks, any of whom could get hot at any time. Deron Williams has another chance to be a leader and Joe Johnson is capable of going off for 40 in any game. Throw in the motivation of Paul Pierce’s recent interview in which he ripped his old teammates, saying they don’t care enough to be champions, and the Nets are as good right now as they’re ever going to be.
The interesting thing about this series is the contract in construction of the teams. The Nets are full of big names best served playing by themselves in an offense. The Hawks, meanwhile, have former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer at the helm, and he has installed the kind of ball-movement based offense which is beautiful to watch and carried the Spurs past more talented teams. This is Spurs-Heat on a much smaller level. The Hawks have come back to Earth lately, but still won 60 games playing the game the right way. The Nets aren’t nearly as good as those Heat teams were, but could make this interesting if they play well in the first two games. The Hawks don’t have much playoff experience, and the Nets will gain extra confidence if they steal a game in Atlanta. The Hawks will get this done, but it won’t be easy.
HAWKS IN 6
No. 4 Toronto vs. No. 5 Washington
This is the team with one of the best home court advantages in the league against a team that can’t win on the road. Both of these teams were playing much better earlier in the year, but this one still brings about some interesting contrasts. Not only are the home and road splits pronounced, but each team has the opposite weakness than the other. The Wizards can play defense but can’t score, while Toronto can’t stop a nosebleed.
Again, Pierce’s wide-ranging interview comes into play for this series. He said the Raptors don’t have the “it” factor which makes them intimidating, which will only have Toronto more fired up to play this series. Pierce, for all his faults, is crucial to the Wizards’ success, as he had guided the young players on that team to this point, giving them a leader they haven’t had in the past and don’t have in the form of a coach.
This series is perfectly placed in the bracket, as these are two middle-of-the-pack teams who could win a series, but not much more. The Wizards are the more talented team with an exceptional young backcourt, Pierce’s leadership, and Martin Gortat up front. The Raptors have some pieces, though I believe a lot of them are overrated. Still, they play a more together style of ball, and home court advantage will carry them through.
RAPTORS IN 5
No. 3 Chicago vs. No. 6 Milwaukee
The Bucks are a sad case, having lost Jabari Parker early in the year to a knee injury. Still, they’ve overhauled the team and, while I dislike him immensely, Jason Kidd has done a good job with the group. The Bulls are a mess, held prisoner by wondering if Derrick Rose can play and the need to try and work him in when he’s moderately healthy like he is now.
Still, the coaching and talent level difference between the two teams is so great not much needs to be said about this series. The Bulls are loaded and will roll with or without Rose, though I still say they’d be better served just cutting Rose loose and building without him but with much more certainty. As usual the questions will hurt them and Rose might shoot them out of a big game, but it won’t be in this series.
BULLS IN 5
No. 2 Cleveland vs. No. 7 Boston
Since Super Bowl Sunday, these are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. It’s easy to believe the Cavs are on that list, but people still seem to believe the Celtics are a doormat when they’re actually on a 23-12 surge over a stretch which covers nearly the entire second half of the season. Over the last 40 games, which is half a season and not a small sample, the Celtics are in the top 10 in the NBA in defense and offense. Isaiah Thomas has completely transformed the Celtics into an exciting team which can run, spread the floor and have a dynamic, versatile attack. The Celtics team which struggled out of the gate was two rosters ago now, and this current Celtics team is one of the two or three best in the conference. With a bunch of similarly-sized players, the Celtics have the ability to take away the biggest thing LeBron James brings to the Cavs, which is versatility. You can use him as a power forward, a point guard, or anything in between, but the Celtics have people to match any style or size the Cavs want to play. I’m not saying the Celtics have the same quality of individual players, but they can at least avoid being caught in mismatches when the Cavs go small. The teams are fairly similar, but Boston has a big edge in coaching.
There’s one problem, however, and one reason I can’t pick an upset. I’ve seen LeBron James come to Boston and play the game of his life when he had to, and now he has help in the form of Kyrie Irving, a young, talented guard. James doesn’t have to carry Dwyane Wade’s broken down body around anymore. Kevin Love has been reduced to a spot shooter who grabs some boards on the defensive end, but the Celtics have some of those. Still, James and Irving are more than the Celtics will be able to handle. Even if they stop those two, the defensive resources which will be required to stop those two will free up Cleveland’s wealth of role players to do damage. The Celtics will show everyone how far they’ve come, but they’re still a year away at least.
CAVS IN 6