The Chicago Bulls kick things off with a dreaded day game. The Bulls have performed poorly thus far in these types of games, though it's worth noting the competition is always top notch during these games.
According to Brian Windhurst ESPN, the first round of the playoffs will not be compressed, but the second round will feature back to backs which seems like an odd choice as the first round typically sucks, and the second round is where things get good. Poor choice for the NBA IMO.
Bulls vs 76ers
The 76ers wanted the Bulls, and the 76ers got the Bulls. I can't blame Evan Turner for saying he wanted to draw Chicago rather than Miami. Despite Chicago's record they haven't played at full strength in a long time, and we have seen Derrick Rose play anywhere near his MVP caliber level since the groin injury.
In the past two seasons, the 76ers are just 2-4 against the Bulls which seems to be in stark contrast to the thought that the 76ers have had the Bulls number which I've seen written in several places. While Philly wanted Chicago, Chicago also likely wanted Philly. The 76ers aren't likely to turn these games into scoring fests which should allow Chicago to lean on their defense and interior play if Rose still needs to work out the kinks of his game and isn't at his full level of explosiveness.
The Bulls biggest advantage will be on the interior where the 76ers have lack size. They'll play a lot of small ball, but Chicago's athletic bigs should have little trouble matching up against those small by lineups defensively while putting the 76ers in peril in the post and on the offensive glass on the other end.
The key for the 76ers will be Thaddeus Young. He'll play plenty of PF and whether or not he can force the Bulls to rotate in small and match up to the 76ers or whether the Bulls can take advantage of him with their interior size will be a big momentum swing in terms of how the game is played. The Bulls should win regardless, but if Philly has to adjust to Chicago rather than the other way around they're doubly screwed.
Prediction: Bulls in five
Heat vs Knicks
The Heat get the disadvantage of playing the one team in 6-8 range that has a chance to make a little noise. Carmelo Anthony finished the season on a tear, Tyson Chandler should win the DPOY award, and Amare looks good returning from injury. The Knicks will look to turn this into an offensive shoot out, but Miami will have the advantage either way.
The one downside for the Knicks is they can't really attack the Heat at either of their biggest weaknesses, C and PG. The Knicks offense will largely run through the Heat's defensive strengths. The Heat will also have little trouble scoring on the Knicks and won't ultimately struggle against them.
The X-Factor for the Knicks is J.R. Smith. He's an incredible chucker at the worst of times, but when he catches fire he's one of those guys that can become a dominant force on offense. The Knicks need J.R. Smith at his best this series to unload on the Heat from the second unit and add tons of pressure.
Of course, once a team relies on J.R. Smith, you know it's probably over. The Knicks will hope for some superior play out of their stars, but ultimately, the Heat stars are just much better.
Prediction: Heat in five
Indiana vs Orlando
The Howardless Magic are going to get annihilated by the Pacers. They're by far the worst team in the playoffs and don't have anyone to match up with Roy Hibbert, David West, and Tyler Hansbrough. Indiana's going to plow through this series, and there's little else to break down.
Prediction: Pacers in four
Atlanta vs Boston
The Hawks are the fifth seed, but they'll get home court due to a better record. This is probably the most compelling first round series in the Eastern Conference, particularly since the two teams went seven games against each other in the first round a couple of years ago.
With Al Horford, the Hawks would be my pick to win, but they won't have Horford. As such, Atlanta will have a hard time capitalizing on the Celtics lack of size and rebounding which is their biggest flaw. Since the Hawks can't capitalize there, the game becomes a matter of shot making and defense, and the Celtics are more consistent with both in the half court.
In general, Atlanta strikes me as a group of bum slayers. They've got a nice record built largely against lousy teams and struggle to earn big wins. They've had a nice season given they've had to do it without Horford, and I commend them for it, but I don't see them beating Boston in the first round.
Prediction: Boston in six
Chicago vs Boston (probable second round)
The Bulls beat the Celtics twice without Derrick Rose, and I don't think they'll struggle much with him there. Chicago matches up very well against Boston because they have too much rebounding for the Celtics to deal with. The Bulls will get 10-15 extra possessions per game off the offensive glass countering whatever shotmaking the Celtics have.
The Bulls also matchup well defensively against the Celtics who don't have a really big physical guy to take the Bulls in the paint. I'd much rather face Boston than Indiana as a Bulls fan.
Prediction: Bulls in five
Miami vs Indiana (probable second round)
If the Pacers could get great PG play, they'd have a chance to win this series. They've got an incredible athletic, strong, lanky perimeter defender in Paul George to help cover up on LeBron, the interior size to do damage in the paint, and enough offensive firepower on the perimeter to stop the Heat from double teaming much.
The Heat are clearly the favorites, and Miami clearly struggles with the Celtics, but they'd better not sleep on Indiana, or this has the potential to be an upset.
All that said, the Heat are more consistent on both ends of the court and have the star players they can rely on to score in the series. Indiana will make it tough and physical, but the Heat will win.
Prediction: Heat in six
Chicago vs Miami (probable ECF)
We've talked about this matchup all year. My head says that if Derrick Rose has regained his explosiveness by the time this series plays out [which isn't unreasonable as it's a month away], then the Bulls win. There's this theory out there that the Heat aren't trying hard in the regular season, but the big three seemed to be trying pretty hard while their bench let them down.
Do you think the bench steps it up in the playoffs if they couldn't do it in the regular season? It could happen. The Heat could steamroll through Chicago again like last year, and health will play a significant factor in the outcome. However, I just don't see that this time around.
The Bulls may play hard all year, but they played hard without their cornerstone for around 45% of the games and still had a better record than Miami. They beat the Heat without Rose once and effectively without him a second time, lost only due to Rose choking on free throws a third time, and lost the final game where Rose sat out. Miami discussed how they viewed these games as playoff games but couldn't get up for them.
While they'll scare me until they win, if the Bulls are really healthy [big if I know] then I'm taking Chicago. I think the Bulls will be healthy.
Prediction: Bulls in 7
San Antonio vs Utah
I think the Spurs are the paper tigers of the West which is exactly what I said last year prior to them getting bounced in the first round. They won't get bounced this time. Unlike Memphis, Utah isn't a team with all the pieces it needs to put together an upset special.
Overall, the Spurs did a nice job earning the #1 seed and will have as easy a path as you can hope for to the WCF.
Prediction: Spurs in four
OKC vs Dallas
The Thunder draw a tough route to the NBA finals and have to face the defending champion Mavericks in round one. I like Dallas's ability to match up on the Thunder and think it will become a tough fight for them to get past the Mavs. I wonder if the Mavs would have had a chance to repeat this year had they kept Tyson Chandler to shore up their interior defense, but alas, we'll never know.
All that said, the Thunder are too athletic and have too many options. They simply need to turn the game into a track meet and the Mavericks are unlikely to keep up. I think it's a much tougher series than they'd have earned if they had to go up against the Jazz or Nuggets, but not one that OKC struggles with.
Prediction: Thunder in six
L.A. Lakers vs Denver
The Nuggets are a scrappy team filled with a bunch of role players whom George Karl gets to play at a high level. They don't have the star power, offense, or defense to get past L.A.
The only thing that makes this a series is the Lakers imploding. While I doubt any team would risk throwing playoff games, L.A. is probably best off if this series lasts six games just to get Ron Artest's suspension over with so that he's ready to play against OKC in the second round.
Prediction: Lakers in five
Memphis vs L.A. Clippers
My prediction for the best first round series overall in the playoffs, lob city vs the grinders. The Grizzlies are a great five man unit with plenty of balance on both ends of the court. The Clippers are incredibly explosive and have the best star player available.
In an oddity, the Clippers failed to secure home court by losing to a Knicks team that was attempting to tank. Chris Paul sat out the game, but that tells you something about what this team can do without Paul.
The two biggest differences in this series is that Memphis has some real playoff experience as a team from last season, and the Clippers have one of the worst coaches in the NBA.
Prediction: Memphis in six
San Antonio vs Memphis (probable)
The Grizzlies knocked off the Spurs last season in only the third 1/8 upset in NBA history [I think, don't quote me on that]. I'm sure the Spurs will be looking for revenge this year, but they'll struggle with much of what they did last year. Memphis a deep team and has even more talent stacked upon last years squad with Rudy Gay healthy. On the other hand, the Grizzlies haven't been getting world beater performances from Zach Randolph who's missed more than half the season.
In the west, I can see either second round series going either way, but I'll pick the Grizzlies in six.
OKC vs L.A. Lakers (probable)
This will be the most exciting series in the second round to watch, star talent all over the place and two fun teams that can score. If The Lakers knock off the Nuggets too fast and World Peace is suspended for the first two games of this series it will help the Thunder tremendously. Otherwise, I like the way the Lakers match up against the Thunder, because throwing a physical, athletic, and psychotic defender on Durant seems like a good way to slow him down.
Unfortunately for L.A., they have absolutely no answer for Russell Westbrook. The Lakers can't defend the PG position, and so if Westbrook has a solid series, then the Thunder should role. The Thunder match up fairly well with the Lakers size having Perkins and Ibaka as two solid interior defenders, so L.A. won't be able to beast the Thunder like they might other teams.
While a Laker upset wouldn't shock me, I'll take the Thunder in six.
WCF is too iffy to predict a matchup
I have Thunder vs Memphis, but I could see this going in any number of directions, so I'm not going to spend time breaking down a matchup which probably won't happen. As it stands, I predict the Thunder to be the team coming out of the West be it against San Antonio, Memphis, or the Clippers.
I'm taking whomever comes out of the East over whomever comes out of the West, but I think this will be the best finals matchup on paper (regardless of teams) that we've seen in a long time.
It's great to have a real horse in the race, and while I think the odds are the season ends in disappointment for Chicago, the same is true for everyone else as well. There's no team I'd take over the field, and the Bulls are one of the teams with the best chance to win.