Conference Semifinals Predictions

The Conference semifinals begin Sunday, and after several close
finishes in the first round, the second round should be much more fun
for NBA fans.

Let's take a look at what transpired in the first round.

Western Conference: (8) Memphis Grizzlies over the (1) San Antonio
Spurs in six games. (4) Oklahoma City Thunder over the (5) Denver
Nuggets in five. (2) L.A. Lakers over the (7) New Orleans Hornets in
six. (3) Dallas Mavericks over the (6) Portland Trail Blazers in six.

Eastern Conference: (1) Chicago Bulls over the (8) Indiana Pacers in
five games. (5) Atlanta Hawks over the (4) Orlando Magic in six. (2)
Miami Heat over the (7) Philadelphia 76ers in five. (3) Boston Celtics
over the (6) New York Knicks in four.

Although neither series went seven games, 18 games were decided by
five points or less, which is an NBA record in round one. There should
much of the same, with the exception of a series, or two, in the
semifinals.

Here's a quick preview of the Conference semifinals, as well as my predictions:

Eastern Conference:

(1)Bulls versus (5)Hawks: With Kirk Hinrich
doubtful, the Hawks don't have much of a chance of upsetting the
top-seeded Bulls, who beat the Hawks two out of three times during the
regular season. Despite defeating the Magic in the first round, several
of Atlanta's flaws were noticable -- they still have a tendancy of
jacking up shots early in the shot clock and don't get much scoring in
the paint, which makes them a jump-shooting team. If the Bulls come out
focused, they should be able to sweep the Hawks. Pick: Bulls in four. Check out the full preview here.

(2)Heat versus (3)Celtics: Miami. Boston. It will be the most hyped series in the second round; maybe even the entire playoffs.The Heat have everything
going for them -- star power in Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris
Bosh, momentum, and home-court advantage. It took the Heat five games to
take care of the 76ers; while the Celtics swept the Knicks. Even though
the Heat defeated the Celtics 100-77 late in the regular season, the
Celtics won three of four against Miami and still have all the
experience, as the 'Big Four' of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen
and Rajon Rondo won a championship together in 2008. Boston's
championship caliber defense was also evident in round one, holding the
Knicks eight points below their season average. Although the Heat have
begun to accept Wade as their closer, they're still very shaky late in
games; against the veteran-laiden Celtics, it could come back to bite
them. The Heat will be in the Eastern Conference Finals in the upcoming
years, but the Celtics have the size, experience, defense and clutch play to
end Miami's 2011 run. The Celtics could get more size with five-time NBA champion Shaquille O'Neal making his Celtics playoff debut against the Heat. Pick: Celtics in six.

Western Conference:

(2)Lakers versus (3)Mavericks: After
a 57-victory season, the Mavericks still had plenty of naysayers
heading into their first round matchup against the Portland Trail
Blazers, including myself.
It certainly looked that way during the series: After taking a 2-0
series lead on Portland, they lost Game 3 and 4 in Portland despite
leading by 18 points after three quarters in Game 4. They showed
resilience after choking in Game 4 by winning Game 5 and 6. The Lakers
are the defending NBA champions -- and should go back to the Finals
again this year. No team in the West can defeat the two-time defending
champion Lakers in a best-of-seven if they're focused. Kobe Bryant knows
he's getting closer and closer to his eighth Finals appearance; the
Mavericks will see a very focused Kobe during this series. The Kobe-Dirk
Nowitzki matchup should be an entertaining one -- despite both teams'
success the past decade, Kobe and Nowitzki have never met in a playoff
series until this season. Kobe's team, however, has the size and
experience to defeat the Mavericks fairly easily. If the Mavericks had a
healthy Caron Butler, things might be different, but there's "zero"
chance he plays in the series, according to coach Rick Carlisle. Pick: Lakers in six.

(4)Thunder versus (8)Grizzlies: The
Heat-Celtics matchup has plenty of hype, but the Thunder-Grizzlies
could prove to be the most fascinating. The Grizzlies are coming off a
historic upset of the Spurs, who owned the best record in the West
during the regular seaon at 61-22. It was an upset, but the way the
Grizzlies and Spurs finished the season, it's easy to see how the
Grizzlies were able to topple the Spurs. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol
had their way with the Spurs inside, but should meet their match, to a
degree, in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka of the Thunder. Kevin Durant
and Russell Westbrook could prove to be too much for the Grizzlies --
both are explosive, athletic and can put up points at great clips. The
Spurs didn't have players like that. The Thunder should be able to get
past the Grizzlies, but it shouldn't come as a major surprise if the
Grizzlies defeat the Thunder. It should be a close series -- the first
one to go seven games? Pick: Thunder in seven.

Those
are my picks for the second round of the playoffs. It's been very
exciting time and should be much of the same in the semifinals.

Looking
at it from the Bulls perspective, the series to watch, obviously, is
the Heat-Celtics. The Bulls face the winner. During the regular season,
the Bulls fared well against both teams, sweeping the Heat (3-0) and
winning their last two games against the Celtics (2-2). Which team would
the Bulls rather play? It's very unclear right now -- it all depends on
which team plays better in this series.

The Celtics have the championship pedigree, the experience. The Bulls know that. But the Heat could very well dismantle Boston.

That's
why these playoffs have been so good. There's plenty of parity and the
second round should be just as competitive, if not more, as the first
round.

Maybe not for the Bulls, though.

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