The First Round Rundown
After a bizarre, lockout-shortened regular season that crammed 66 games into four months, the NBA Playoffs are finally here. The first round begins this weekend, when eight best-of-seven series featuring sixteen teams commence. There’s no way to watch all of the games, so here’s a viewer’s guide for the ones to watch and the ones to skip:
1.) Memphis vs. LA Clippers
The most intriguing first round series features a Memphis team with the talent to knock off anyone in the West and the first playoff appearance of “Lob City”. The Grizzlies will try to pound the ball inside to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, while the Clippers will try to attack them on pick-and-rolls. Blake Griffin, meanwhile, is almost guaranteed to take someone’s dignity at the front of the rim.
The key match-up: Los Angeles will run its offense through Chris Paul in the fourth quarter, while Memphis will counter with Tony Allen, one of the NBA’s premier perimeter defenders. The undersized Paul scores most of his points through guile and skill; he’ll need every bit to score over the top of Allen’s 6’9 wingspan.
The prediction: Memphis in 6
2) Miami vs. New York Knicks
It’s the series the NBA has been waiting for since LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony first came into the league in 2003. The Heat have tailed off since their dominating start, but their swarming, aggressive team defense could be deadly against a New York team with shaky point guard play. Tyson Chandler will try to reprise his role as a Miami killer against their undersized centers.
The key match-up: The Knicks offense has thrived with Carmelo at power forward, where he’s been too quick, too skilled and too athletic for his defender. LeBron’s individual defense on Derrick Rose helped turn the tide in the 2011 ECF; now he’ll be tested by a player who can match his size and quickness.
The prediction: Miami in 5
3) Oklahoma City vs. Dallas
The torch could be passed out West, as the defending champions face a Oklahoma City team trying to take the next step in a rematch of the 2011 WCF. Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant are two of the most indefensible players in the NBA, and they could put on a shoot-out for the ages this year. Neither Brendan Haywood or Kendrick Perkins bring much to the table offensively, so expect both teams to go small in the fourth quarter.
The key match-up: Both teams are used to having an edge in the second unit; the Thunder bring their best distributor (James Harden) off the bench, while the Mavericks counter with their most consistent scorer (Jason Terry) behind Nowitzki. It’s 2009’s Sixth Man of the Year against 2012’s.
The prediction: Oklahoma City in 7
4) LA Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets
Contrasting styles face off as an older Los Angeles team that wants to slow the game down and ride their top three players for 40+ minutes plays a deep young Denver squad that wants to zip the ball up and down the court. The Lakers have traditionally struggled against penetrating point guards like Ty Lawson, while the Nuggets undersized frontline will have their hands full against the double-headed seven-foot tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
The match-up: With the size advantage of the Lakers up front, they can’t afford to take quick shots or turn the ball over, which would play right into the Nuggets hands. Denver can put Arron Afflalo, an athletic defensively-minded shooting guard, on Kobe Bryant, and Kobe can’t allow them to bait him into playing a 1-on-1 game. His big men need the ball and he has to give it to them.
The prediction: Los Angeles in 7
5) Boston vs. Atlanta
It’s a rematch of the famously testy first-round series between Boston and Atlanta in 2008. While a lot has changed since, the Hawks' size and athleticism should still present the Celtics with some match-up problems. Boston has been revitalized by starting Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo in the backcourt; neither player has the size to defend the 6’7 240 Joe Johnson.
The match-up: With Al Horford ruled out for the series, Kevin Garnett and Josh Smith is the key frontcourt matchup, as Smith, the best player never to make an All-Star Game, will try to make his name against the 35-year-old Garnett.
The prediction: Atlanta in 7
6) San Antonio vs. Utah
The Spurs will get an early test of their biggest hole: the lack of interior defense which cost them so dearly against Memphis last year. Al Jefferson, a 20/10 force making his first playoff appearance since his rookie year, and Derrick Favors, quietly coming into his own in his second NBA season, could both have big series.
The match-up: A lifetime ago in his time as a Dallas Maverick, Devin Harris was a huge thorn in the side of Tony Parker. The 29-year-old point guard has never quite put it all together, and Utah will need him to run their offense, consistently knock down perimeter shots and play excellent defense on Parker to have a chance.
The prediction: San Antonio in 6
7) Chicago vs. Philadelphia
After a strong start to the year, the 76ers have come back to earth in the last two months, and were even in danger of missing the playoffs entirely for awhile. They have a core of quality perimeter players, but their undersized frontline will have their hands full against Chicago’s deep group of athletic big men, especially on the glass.
The match-up: Remember when Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer were worth $80 million contracts? Me neither, but their teams need the two 6’9 Duke power forwards to start earning their paychecks. There’s a fairly good chance neither sees the floor in crunch time, which could mean an amnesty for both down the road.
Prediction: Chicago in 5
8) Indiana vs. Orlando
The Pacers have quietly put together an impressive season this year, and they’re likely to stay under the radar in a series destined for NBATV. The Magic just aren’t a very good team without Dwight Howard; they don’t have anyone on their roster who plays much individual defense or even merits a double team.
The match-up: We already know what the rest of Orlando’s veterans are about and the answer is “not much”. Maybe Daniel Orton and Earl Clark have something, maybe they don’t; that’s more interesting than any of the Pacers innumerable matchup advantages in this series.
Prediction: Indiana in 4