Here they are folks, our predictions for round one of the 2013 post season. We’re joined by two special guests – James Grayson (@jsgrayson), writer for ESPN TrueHoop Network’s Hornets247, and DJ Leon Smith (@djleonsmith), long-time friend of the site and first Aussie to write for SLAM. Let’s go.
1-Miami Heat vs 8-Milwaukee Bucks
Robd: It’s such a shame the East is so weak, because we get robbed of watching one of the greatest teams ever actually compete in a playoff series. Yeah there’s the “Brandon or Monte might get hot in one game” theory, but I’m not buying it, not when this Heat team defend the perimeter so well. This will get ugly. Heat in 4.
Leon: Are the Milwaukee Bucks the worst run team in the NBA? No, it’s the Raptors – but damn the Bucks are close. For an older team in “win now” mode (trading Tobias Harris for a J.J. Redick rental was one of the most short-sighted trades of all-time) finishing eighth in the injury-depleted East is a failure. Milwaukee limps into the playoffs with a less than .500 record, and even though they beat Miami earlier in the season, they will be annihilated in this series. Heat in 4.
JT: Take LeBron out of this series and I still think Miami win, and comfortably. Miami in 4.
James: As the true powerhouse of the Eastern Conference, it will be extremely difficult for any team to compete with the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. Lebron James is playing the best basketball of his career, something eerily similar to the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan. The Bucks have talented guards in Jennings, Ellis and Reddick as well as the block machine, Larry Sanders. The Bucks will provide the warm up that Miami will need heading into the second round. They have talent, but not on the same level as the Heat. Miami in 4.
2-New York Knicks vs 7-Boston Celtics
Robd: Such a dangerous series for New York, because the Celtics never die easy in the playoffs, and they’re always better as the underdogs. Add to that the fact that Paul Pierce always delivers against the Knicks and you have a legit upset chance here. There’s some assumptions you need for that theory, like KG being healthy, and Chandler/K-Mart maybe not being 100% healthy. But I really think this series goes to 7. One other thing. There’s a huge amount at stake here for Melo. After the way he dominated the end of the season, if this series doesn’t end with the Knicks advancing and Melo asserting himself as the best player on the floor, he might never live this down. That would be 9 first-round playoff exits out of 10, right? Melo cannot let that happen, which is the single reason I’m edging towards NY. Knicks in 7.
Leon: This has to be it for the Celtics, right? For the last couple of years they’ve been somewhat written off going into the postseason, but the fact that their team is loaded with tough, savvy vets helped them sneak past younger squads and give more talented teams fits. Can’t see it happening against the en fuego Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks though. Expect at least one game where Carmelo and Paul Pierce combine for 80, three games where Coach Woodson stares down J.R. Smith and seven games where Kevin Garnett tries to fight everyone wearing orange and blue. Knicks in 7.
JT: I expect the games to be close and hotly contested but this is where it ends for the Boston Celtics, and maybe for good (you’d think a first round exit will prompt a rebuild in Beantown). If they play to their strengths – Melo at the 4 surrounded by shooters, good passers and an ace defensive big – this Knicks team is good, damn good. The Celtics? Well, they’ll go down swinging as they usually do but there’s just not enough talent there, and their key guys (Pierce/Garnett) are running on fumes. I think this will be the last go round for Pierce and Garnett in the Celtic green, so enjoy it while it lasts. New York in 5.
James: There has been ample talk of Carmelo Anthony as an MVP candidate. That talk is laughable. While C-Lo has played well of late it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the gargantuan tank of a seasons for Lebron James and Kevin Durant. Boston meanwhile have suffered through injuries, yet again, and are struggling with form towards the playoffs. This matchup will be a lot closer than some think. The talent levels are virtually the same across the board but Carmelo Anthony will be the deciding factor. If he plays well, Knicks win. If he doesn’t I think New York could pack their bags early. Knicks in 6.
3-Indiana Pacers vs 6-Atlanta Hawks
Robd: A yawn-fest on paper, but this series is quietly fascinating to me for one reason: Indiana, as you may have forgotten, was supposed to be the second best team in the East this year (up until about a month ago). Did they actually get worse or was it a going-through-the-motions phase while gearing up for the playoffs? I want to find out, because an in-form Indiana team has the pieces to make things interesting against the Heat. An in-form Indiana team could make for an old-school classic second round dog fight against New York or Boston. An in-form Indiana team is important for these East playoffs, and I really really hope we see it. Pacers in 5.
Leon: Almost forgot this series existed. The Hawks have been the most consistently mediocre team for what seems like forever, and the Pacers are one of those star-free squads (Paul George might take that next step in 2014 though) that never get a game broadcast on ESPN Australia. The bottom line though is the Pacers are simply a better team, and there’s no one on Atlanta’s roster who can step up and be a difference-maker – you know what you’re getting with a team built around Josh Smith and Al Horford, and it’s a first-round exit. Pacers in 5.
JT: Can’t say I’ll be watching
any much of this series. The Pacers have struggled lately but they shouldn’t have a problem here. Even without Granger they’re a quality team – they have reasonable depth, a varied attack and an elite level defense. The Hawks on the other hand are flaky – as you would expect with any Josh Smith led team – and besides Horford and Smith there are holes all over this roster. They’ll eventually crumble under the Pacers’ staunch defense. Indiana in 6.
James: This is going to be the most underrated first-round series in the NBA this year. The Pacers have repeated their success from last season and David West is finally playing better than last year. For Atlanta it will be interesting to see how Josh Smith performs after reports of his desire to leave regardless of playoff performance. This is the first time Paul George can really make a name for himself before he has to take on Miami. He’s had his best season as a pro and will be looking to continue that in the playoffs. Pacers in 6.
4-Brooklyn Nets vs 5-Chicago Bulls
Robd: Thankfully the Nets have shown life over the last couple of months, and Deron Williams seems to have awoken from that awful coma he was in early in the season. If they’re clicking, they have enough options on offense to keep this Bulls defense very busy, which is a must if you’re playing Chicago. I love this Bulls team. I wish they were my team. They will win 2 or 3 games in this series because they’re built for playoff-style basketball. But I don’t think hard-nosed defense is enough to win in the playoffs. You need some class and the Nets have more of it. Nets in 6.
Oh and while I’m shaking my head thinking about Derrick Rose, can I float this out there — is this the weakest playoffs in NBA history? Rose injured, Rondo injured, Kobe/Nash injured — that’s three elite contenders gone. Gallinari injured, Granger injured, Ginobili not healthy — that’s three more contenders impacted. I just wonder whether if Heat/Thunder are extremely lucky this season, because so many teams are decimated, and we’re talking some really elite players. How will history look back on this? Is this a thing?
Leon: Where’s Derrick Rose at? The jokes have already started that Kobe could come back before D.Rose does. A healthy Rose against an in-form Deron Williams would have made this series so much more intriguing. Watching Nate Robinson do Nate Robinson things will be fun, but I think the Nets will take this. Yes he’s obscenely overpaid, but if the game is close Joe Johnson will hit that clutch shot. Nets in 6.
JT: Talent wise it’s no contest – Brooklyn has the two, and possibly even three best players in the series – but I can see this going to 6 or 7 games. The Nets are suspect – they’re top heavy and that top is flawed, and their bench is wafer thin. The Bulls are a gritty team that excels on D, but without D-Rose and a fully fit Joakim Noah they’re not beating anyone of note in a 7-game series (remember, they lost to the Sixers in the first round last year with a similar predicament, but a better bench). And having to rely so heavily on Nate Robinson at this late stage of the game will surely come home to roost. Brooklyn in 6.
James: Derrick Rose’s long-term health has been debate of fans, analysts and executives around the league. Whether he returns remains heavy subject of debate but there is a feeling that he will only return on his terms. However, the Bulls seem to a be a team bigger than a superstar, a highly ironic notion, as Tom Thibodeau stresses teamwork defensively as the identity of their roster. As for Brooklyn they are a perceived powerhouse with little roster versatility and talent depth. Deron Williams finally gets his wish to play in a big market in the playoffs. Chicago in 7.
1-Oklahoma City Thunder vs 8-Houston Rockets
Robd: I was rooting hard for the Lakers on the last day of the season because I desperately wanted to see this matchup. How motivated is Harden to prove his old team wrong? How motivated are the Thunder to prove they don’t need him? Will it be a respectful “friends off the court but compete hard on the court” battle? Or does it get nasty? I’m kinda hoping it does. I’m kinda hoping Harden comes down the lane and Ibaka smacks him, cuts his lip, small brawl breaks out, Harden drops 45, Durant tries to answer back, Westbrook tries to dunk on everything, add 25 three pointers and repeat and stir for six games. Please. Thunder in 6.
Leon: It’s not quite Miami-Milwaukee, but the Rockets don’t stand a chance against the Thunder. The Rockets go into “stand around and watch James Harden” mode way too often, which generally results in three minutes of contested jumpers and shot clock violations. The Thunder fall into this trap sometimes as well with Russell “man I really love dribbling!” Westbrook, but it’s a little different having Kevin Durant bailing you out with two seconds on the shot-clock instead of Jeremy Lin. Thunder in 4.
JT: The Harden-OKC connection will be fascinating to watch and he’ll probably have one or two monster games, but this should be a quick series. The Thunder have too much talent, depth and big game experience over the Rockets. The Thunder in 5.
James: Jeff Van Gundy pronounced that the Rockets are the favorites to beat the Spurs if they were to play. Unfortunately for Jeff that matchup wasn’t to be as Houston will face OKC. Offensively the Rockets are quite stout, they’re 2nd in 3-Pointers made, 5th in FG% and 6th in ORtg. Their one drawback is that they turn the ball over more than any other team in the league (due to a league leading pace). For OKC this is exactly the kind of matchup they like. An inferior defensive team that is offensively talented is the perfect platform to get in a flow for the rest of the playoffs. OKC in 5.
2-San Antonio Spurs vs 7-Los Angeles Lakers
Robd: Just know that if Kobe was playing, I would be tipping the Lakers. From about four weeks back I’ve been thinking the same thing, because I don’t think San Antonio matches up very well against the Lakers, and a hobbling Ginobili is a horrible matchup for Kobe. Luckily for them, the Mamba is out, and while they will have to deal with the surging Twin Towers and Gasol’s reinvented point-center thing, I just can’t see the Spurs losing this. This is coming from a long-time Spurs skeptic – I don’t give them any chance of winning the title this year and haven’t for about six years. They are a supremely well-drilled, well-coached regular season team, but they’ve never been a real title threat since they beat the Cavs in ’07. This year is no different, but they’ll survive one round at least. Spurs in 5.
Leon: #countonmamba – Kobe’s twitter game was one of the highlights of the Lakers’ season (which says just as much about the Lakers’ problems as it does about Kobe’s prolific 140-character game). Will the Lakers #makehistory and upset the Spurs? Nope, but after their late run to grab the seventh seed their chances against San Antonio have increased from “impossible” to “beyond highly unlikely”. Yeah, Tony Parker and Manu are banged up, but still… Popovich vs D’Antoni. Come on, that’s like the Heat vs Bucks of coaching matchups (probably closer to Heat vs Bobcats actually). Spurs in 5.
JT: Even without Kobe Bryant, this will be interesting. I am not sure why people aren’t discussing the Spurs’ injury situation, because for me it’s the elephant in the room. Tony and Manu are banged up and Boris Diaw is out. That’s a big problem, and history shows that if the Spurs are not at full strength in the postseason they’re pretty much cooked, in terms of a real title threat.
If Kobe was playing I would pick the Lakers to pull off a big upset, but the reality is apart from Dwight and Pau they have little to work with in terms of good NBA players. If properly used together Dwight and Pau are a force, but overcoming the precise San Antonio system, even with some important cogs missing/hobbled, will probably be too much to ask. Especially for a team that is so inconsistent and susceptible on the defensive end. Spurs in 6.
James: The Spurs recently signed Tracy McGrady and while many think this spells doom for a first round exit (as McGrady has yet to win a playoff series in his career) San Antonio luckily draws the Lakers. Down one Kobe “Bean, Black Mamba, [Insert ridiculously egotistical nickname]” Bryant the Lakers are hoping that Dwight Howard rallies to show that this is his team. Despite this enormous pressure for the historic franchise to perform I don’t see how it’s reasonable to expect an upset. The Spurs are arguably the best organisation in professional basketball over the past decade and a half and they performed like they usually do in the regular season. Expect San Antonio to mop the floor. Spurs in 4.
3-Denver Nuggets vs 6-Golden State Warriors
Robd: Both teams are hampered by injuries that limit their potential — Nuggets with Gallinari and Faried, Warriors with Bogut. But damn, it is going to be fun to watch. This is also a huge test for the old “team with the best player wins the series” theory. I don’t always subscribe to that theory, but generally when it doesn’t work, it’s because you can point to one of the opposition’s players and say “well, he out-played the guy whom we thought was the best”. It happened with Pierce in the 2008 Finals and Dirk in the 2011 Finals, when the best guy was supposed to be Kobe / LeBron. For this Nuggets v Warriors series, the best player has to be Steph Curry right? And who from Denver can you really see out-playing him? Ty Lawson is the only guy that comes to mind. And if you’re relying on Ty Lawson being the best player in the series, how confident are you? This will be closer than people think, and I’m only picking Denver because you can’t beat them there. Nuggets in 7.
Leon: On a pure entertainment level, this is my favourite first-round series. Golden State should win a game or two purely on the back of Steph Curry turning on the NBA 2K13 cheat codes from downtown, and Andrew Bogut’s interior defence against the team that leads the league in points in the paint will be a great battle, but Denver’s ridiculous homecourt advantage (fifth-best home record in NBA history), balanced scoring and swarming D should ensure their second-round passport getting stamped. Having said that, if Golden State can steal one of the first two games in Denver, all bets are off. Nuggets in 6.
JT: If I knew Bogut would be present and reasonably healthy for the entire series then I’d pick the Warriors, because with all their injuries the Nuggets are vulnerable. But recent history suggests that that probably won’t happen, and without the big man patrolling the paint at full strength the Warriors defense is a killer – in a bad way. As we all know, defense matters in the postseason and so too does experience, and the Warriors are lacking in both. But either way, I can’t wait for the Steph Curry show. Denver in 6.
James: Another series going overlooked, this could be one of the best to watch from a casual fan perspective. Lots of points, lots of 3-pointers and an occasional JaVale McGee goaltending. This has it all. Aussie fans will be anticipating the return of Bogut and should he feel up to par, will play. Stephen Curry will undoubtedly be the player to watch this series as the Warriors perceived “depth” will be tested for its relevance to playoff success. Denver in 6.
4-Los Angeles Clippers vs 5-Memphis Grizzlies
Robd: I think this will be the hardest-fought series, because this is essentially the 3rd and 4th best teams in the West facing off in the first round. And it’s a shame. Both of these teams in my opinion would be worthy WCF teams, but instead one of them will go home in the first round, and the other probably in the second. Goes to show how strong the West has been. It’s a hard one to tip. My gut says Memphis because of their defense and because I don’t see them letting the Clippers turn this into a dunk-fest. I await the first time Griffin or Jordan try to catch a lob from CP3 only to have Marc Gasol choke-slam them into the paint. It’s the ultimate contrast of styles, and while the NBA fan in me wants to see the Clippers advance, I think they happened to draw the worst possible opponent for them in round one. Memphis in 7.
Leon: I love watching Zach Randolph going up against Blake Griffin. One of the most athletic players in the world versus the man with quite possibly the lowest vertical in NBA history. Chris Paul will be the difference in this series though, as usual. There’s nothing quite like watching the last five minutes of a close Clipper game to see CP3 go into “I got this” mode and suffocate the shot clock until the last few ticks, then end up creating a wide open look for himself or a teammate. Clippers in 7.
JT: The Grizz will turn this into a slugfest and I think that gives them the edge. I keep bangin’ on about this but I believe the Clippers have some fatal flaws – coaching, dodgy frontcourt depth, suspect defense, poor free throw shooting out of their starting bigs in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and the lack of reliable half court scoring options besides Chris Paul. But they do have homecourt and the best player on the floor and that counts for a lot, so we’re in for a series.
If Blake Griffin can dominate the not quite right Z-Bo, which is possible, I’d give the edge to the Clippers, but honestly I think Griffin is still a year or two away from being able to have that kind of impact in a tough playoff series. So for me, it’s the Memphis defense, consistency and overall basketball IQ that will get them over the line. Memphis in 7.
James: A team that has surrounded Chris Paul with overpaid veterans with a couple of decent players is looking to get to the NBA Finals. No, I’m not talking about the New Orleans Hornets from 2009, I am talking about the 2013 LA Clippers. This rematch between the Clippers and Grizzlies is sure to be filled with dunks and defense. The Grizzlies look to play the proverbial underdog and once again are significantly underrated after trading away Rudy Gay (a brilliant trade which they won by the way). Expect Memphis to display what basketball really is all about – teamwork and defense. Memphis in 6.