First in the West, here are the playoff matchups (season series breakdown in parenthesis):
1 San Antonio Spurs (SAS won 3-1)
8 Utah Jazz
4 Memphis Grizzlies (LAC won 2-1)
5 Los Angeles Clippers
3 Los Angeles Lakers (LAL won 3-1)
6 Denver Nuggets
2 Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC won 3-1)
7 Dallas Mavericks
In the West, the toughest first round series will be between the Grizzlies and the Clippers. Chris Paul will definitely step up his game play in the post season with the stakes raised. He has to continue to be an MVP candidate for an inexperienced team that will be under the bright lights of the playoffs. The Grizzlies are battle tested and I believe they’ll advance past the Clippers to face San Antonio in the second round in a rematch of last year’s first round upset.
San Antonio should have no trouble with Utah. The one win the Jazz got on the Spurs in the regular season was one of those games that Popavich “forfeited” by sitting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Lakers will have their hands full with the Nuggets. Denver led the NBA in points per game at 104.1. Of course, playoff basketball tends to slow down, but they have shown that they have explosive capabilities. The difficulty of this series is ratcheted up due to the suspension of Metta Ron World Artest Peace. Kobe got a little bit of rest and he’s going to need it to dispatch a tough Denver team. Look for the Lakers’ big men to be too much for the Nuggets to handle as the Lakers move on to the next round.
In a rematch of the 2011 Western Conference Finals, look for Kevin Durant and the Thunder to exact revenge on Dirk and the Mavericks. The young legs of the OKC Thunder shouldn’t have too much trouble running the Mavericks off the court and onto their pier to start #fishing season. Of course, things could go awry if James Harden isn’t himself, but I don’t anticipate a less than 100% James Harden being too much of a worry for the Thunder to defeat the Mavericks to advance to the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
Look for the Spurs and Grizzlies to square off and the Thunder and Lakers in the second round out West.
And in the East, here are the matchups:
1 Chicago Bulls (CHI won 2-1)
8 Philadelphia 76ers
4 Boston Celtics (BOS won 2-1)
5 Atlanta Hawks
3 Indiana Pacers (ORL won 3-1)
6 Orlando Magic
2 Miami Heat (MIA won 3-0)
7 New York Knicks
In contrast to the 4/5 matchup in the West, the 3/6 matchup in the East should be the easiest pairing in the entire field of 16. Of course regular season meetings don’t carry over to the playoffs all that often but you can definitely throw the records out of the window in this instance. Orlando is missing their force in the middle, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. His absence completely changes this series. Orlando has the ability to inundate teams with their 3 point shooting, but I think the Pacers should have the ability to rough up the Magic and make their postseason appearance a fleeting one. Indiana should move on to the second round with ease.
Philadelphia’s players have practically been begging to face the Bulls rather than the Heat in the first round and they got their request. They do matchup well with Chicago, but I believe they will soon find that the end result of being either suffocated or blown up is the same. The Bulls will face a tough team, but will move on to the next round.
Boston and Atlanta should be a good series. These teams don’t like each other and the bad blood goes back as recently as their 7 game first round series in 2008, on the way to Boston’s championship that season. Both teams are dealing with aches and pains going into this matchup; Boston will be managing hurting players such as Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Mikael Pietrus, and Paul Pierce who sprained his toe in the last game of the regular season. Atlanta will be without the services of Al Horford who is still on the mend from pectoral surgery and Zaza Pachulia has an injured foot. The two teams battled to a virtual draw, points-wise in their season series at 259-259 but the Celtics won the series 2-1. The Celtics had the best record in the NBA after the All Star break and I believe their improved play will power them to a hard fought victory over the Hawks to advance to the round 2.
The historic rivalry between the Knicks and the Heat flares up once again. Miami easily dispatched the Knicks three games to none in the regular season but I think they’ll have a tough time running their win streak up to seven against the Knicks this year. The last time LeBron and Carmelo faced off, Melo was giving LBJ buckets to the tune of 42 points. J.R. Smith had a dunk in the fourth quarter of their last regular season matchup that he capped off with preening to the adoring Madison Square Garden crowd and riled up the Heat. The Knicks have proven they can compete for about three quarters with Miami until Wade and James turn on the afterburners and leave them in the dust. New York has to take good shots, play tough defense, and limit Miami’s transition opportunities if they hope to have a shot at winning this series. All that said, look for Miami to win this series in five games.
That leaves us with the Bulls and Celtics facing each other on one side and the Heat and Pacers on the other side of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
Round 1 of the 2012 NBA Playoffs starts tomorrow at 12:00 PM CST when the Philadelphia 76ers face the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago.