1.Chicago Versus 8.IndianaThe Pacers have been brilliant at times this season, as evident by their 144 point annihilation of the Nuggets' defense early in the season.
They have all the pieces of what should be a great offense for years. Danny Granger would probably have been a perennial All Star if he was not playing in the second most (to the late 80s and early 90s) stacked time in league history talent-wise. Roy Hibbert is the perfect person to pair with the rebound-challenged Granger. Darren Collison is having another solid year and looks poised to make some strides forward as his game develops. And Tyler Hansbrough has become more comfortable and has had some wonderful performances since seeing an increase in minutes.
Even for the future, these players look at best like a strong 2 through 5 and the Pacers will need a big-time player and a couple pieces for their bench before they are ready to compete.
Chicago has got it done the Coach Thibodeau way in his first season, with a monstrous defense effort (only comparable to Thibodeau's old team the Boston Celtics) and a middling offense that relies pretty exclusively on Derrick Rose, Luol Deng when he plays stretches when Rose is on the bench and Carlos Boozer.
Instead, Thibodeau has gone with Keith Bogans and Kurt Thomas (when Boozer and/or Noah was injured) as starters, irking the Bulls' fans in the beginning of the season. The emphasis of the defensive contributions these players have made cannot be lost and Chicago's winning ways have given Thibodeau some leeway when it comes to the fans.
The playoffs is a different animal, and Chicago will find itself missing the contributions Dwayne Wade or Lebron James (or even Chris Bosh) could have made to their playoff run as their bench shortens up.
In the first round, however, it should only cost them a game.
Prediction: Bulls in 5
2.Miami versus 7. Philadelphia
The 76ers' are a team full of semi-disappointments: players who put in the work to improve their game, but cannot, through no fault of their own, get over the stygma of being drafter too early.
Evan Turner, last year's 2nd overall pick, joins Elton Brand (1st), Andre Iguodala (9th), Thaddeus Young (12th) and Spencer Hawes (10th) in this group.
The 76ers have surprisingly re-branded themselves as a defensive team and have scored on the fast break, but are horrendous in halfcourt ball and rely far too much on either Brand or Iguodala to come up with something.
Iguodala was on the trading block for much of the season, which would make sense if Turner was becoming the player the 76ers had hoped (and everyone else knew he wouldn't) become. He is not, and trading Iguodala, unless they were getting something of unfair value in return, would not have made sense since the 76ers are finally doing some things right since A.I's initial departure more than 4 years ago.
The Heat have cooled down considerably since a 22 and 1 run after they started the season 9 and 8.
Bosh, Wade and James are all under career averages in turns of minutes and should benefit in that they are no longer completely carrying their teams alone come playoff time.
Despite the addition of Mike Bibby (which I thought made no sense, since Chalmers is a B level defender who could at least slow down Rondo and Rose, and now Bibby has stepped in with his Jason Kidd-like slow lateral movement and taken what could have been quality meshing time away from Chalmers and Miami's Big Three) this should be a cake-walk for the Heat.
Prediction: Heat in 4
3.Boston versus 6. New York
The Knicks and the Celtics are two teams stumbling into the playoffs.
Adjusting after major trades is difficult: the Knicks have gone 14 and 15 since the trade that brought in Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups (despite a recent 7 game win streak in which they played mostly non-playoff teams) and the Celtics started out the Jeff Green and Nenad Kristic era on a 5 game win streak but have gone 10 and 11 since.
For both teams, defense has been the problem.
How well the Nuggets have played defense (they are holding opponents to almost 10 points less a game since Melo left) has exposed how poor a defensive player Melo (and possibly even Chauncy Billups) is.
Meanwhile, after a honeymoon period that saw Nenad Kristic play some inspired offense, teams have found that they can destroy the Celtics in the paint. With Garnett's tendency to overplay the man he is guarding, and without Perkins there to back him up, plan on seeing Amar'e Stoudemire getting dunk after dunk.
The Celtics are also notorious for drawn-out series and not putting opponents away.
All this spells out a first round series that is going to wear out the old team enough to make the second round difficult at best, impossible at worst.
Prediction: Celtics in 6
4. Orlando versus 5. Atlanta
The Magic did the right thing in terms of timing with their trades. If you are going for a championship this season, pulling the trigger earlier than the trade deadline helps a lot.
Unfortunately, the trades they made hurt them instead of helped them.
Gilbert Arenas is not the player who once was and the Magic would have been better off letting Rashad Lewis play through his slump instead of trading him. He was the perfect combo to Dwight Howard in stretching the floor on the offensive end and helping somewhat on the defensive end.
When they signed Vince Carter a couple years ago, they hoped they had someone who could take on the crunch-time scoring role. What they got was a player who fell into too many jump shots and shied away from contact.
VC for Jason Richardson was the main part of the first trade they made, and essentially they got the same bombs-away from outside player they had in VC.
Still, the first trade made sense if they thought Richardson had some physical and mental toughness VC did not (and he does), but the second trade probably cost them a serious run in the playoffs.
The Magic are essentially the same take 3 point shots and let Howard get all the rebounds and put-backs they were before the trade, yet now they are down Rashard Lewis and a future first round draft pick.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks, the team the Magic swept out of the playoffs a year ago, added Kirk Hinrich this season yet have not made any major roster overhaul nor strategic change in the last 4 years.
With Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Al Horford, the Hawks do not have enough forward fire power to take advantage of the hole left defensively by Lewis leaving with Howard on the bench.
They are, however, a very good fast break team with penetrating guards like Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague and Joe Johnson, with both Johnson and Hinrich able to hit the outside shots. Plan to see more of Jeff Teague in this series as the Hawks look to take advantage of the age and lack of lateral quickness at the Magic's guard positions.
The Magic entered the playoffs hot last year and benefited in the first rouund against an unprepared Hawks' team. That is not going to happen again.
Prediction: Hawks in 6
1. San Antonio versus Memphis
Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay have really come along this season, and both seemed poised to make the jump to franchise players the next couple years.
The Grizzlies also have a good, young point guard in Mike Conley (even if they overpaid him to extend his contract.)
The Grizzlies put an emphasis on defense in playing new pick-up Tony Allen and Sean Young over O.J. Mayo, but Mayo still gives the Grizzlies a lot of flexibility if Zach Randolph or Rudy Gay do not have it going offensively.
And they have Shane Battier to bring in for defense.
This is not a team with one killer offensive player, but they are strong 1 to 8 like no other team in the NBA, which should benefit them hugely as playoff rotations are cut down to 8 or 9 people.
They should also benefit in playing a San Antonio team that has a few key players (Ginobili, Jefferson and Duncan) over 30.
The Spurs still have a couple good young pieces in George Hill and Matt Bonner, and Tony Parker has not reached the wrong side of 30 yet.
The Spurs were very fortunate in terms of injuries during the season and keeping up their health is unlikely because of the law of averages, the long season and the age of their key players.
The Spurs are unfortunate that they drew such an athletic and young team that has given them fits during the regular season.
Still, their 3 point shooting will be the difference in this series.
Prediction: Spurs in 7
2. L.A. versus 7. New Orleans
Chris Paul has played out of his mind this season despite injuries keeping him from using his athleticism. He has quietly become more efficient while keeping up his steal and assist numbers. He does not deserve to be the MVP, but does deserve to be in the conversation (which he is not because New Orleans is a small market team.)
The Hornets are missing their other key player in David West, which will hurt them a ton.
They also have Emeka Okafor for some much-needed rebounding and defense.
And Carl Landry is a solid player.
Other than that, the Hornets have nothing.
The Lakers, despite their recent troubles, are the cream of the crop in the NBA, and are the two-time defending champs for a reason.
With Bynum healthy and Odom coming off the bench, this team is near unstoppable.
And believe Kobe wants to prove he can 3-peat without Shaq.
Do not take the Lakers' recent struggles as evidence for how this team is going to play during the playoffs.
Prediction: Lakers in 4.
3. Dallas versus 6. Portland
Portland again manages to make something out of nothing, having another run in the playoffs despite tons of injuries.
Andre Miller may be the most underrated in a league suddenly dominated by point guards. He has been getting it done for over a decade with little fanfare.
Brandon Roy is still working back from injury and probably will not add much to the Trail Blazers' playoff run.
LaMarcus Aldridge is the key here, and with a match-up against Dirk Nowitzki he should be able to push the big German around.
The Mavericks are the only team comparable to the Celtics in being on their last legs.
They failed to make a deadline deal that could of yielded a key piece or built them for the future, instead going with the horses they have.
In a league full of great point guards, Jason Kidd is not going to get it done defensively. Miller may not be the best point in the league and may not have the speed to make things hard like other point guards might, but this is not going to be a match-up that favors the Mavs.
Jason Terry and Shawn Marion are not the players they used to be.
The Mavericks are going to rely on Tyson Chandler to be the difference in stopping Aldridge at the rim when he beats Dirk, and that is not something that is going to go the Mavs' way.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in 7
4. Oklahoma City versus Denver
Denver has made great strides defensively since their trade deadline deal, and they have been the only team to make a major deal and click right away.
Arron Afflalo has been missing in the action a lot recently, and getting him back into the lineup and adjusted playing with his new teammates may be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
With the trade, this team is full of players without playoff experience, and they do not have a go-to player nor even a legitimate number 2 option.
The Nuggets did the best they could giving Carmelo's imminent departure, but they are still two players away from being anything more than a whisper during the playoffs, their success since the trade deadline notwithstanding.
The Thunder, meanwhile, have some playoff experience under their belts and even more importantly Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook saw some real pressure to perform with the whole world watching during their time playing for team USA.
Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are a lethal tandem defending around the rim and should only get better as the years go by.
Despite this being a number 4 seed against a number 5, it is more like a number 2 seed going against a number 7.
Prediction: Thunder in 5