We made it! Through all of the injuries, tanking and highlights, we made it to the 2014 NBA playoffs. I think the best time of year begins in March and ends in late June, especially in the Northeast. March Madness, Spring time, NHL playoffs, NBA playoffs, MLB begins play, NFL draft, The Masters, etc. There’s a number of highly watched events during this time period, and the NBA playoffs top my list as most enjoyable. I’ll rank my title favorites and then predict the playoffs. First, I’ll rank my title favorites.
1. Miami Heat
I think it’s safe to say the Heat have the easiest road to the Finals simply because they play in the Eastern Conference. I know the Nets swept them in the regular season, but the Nets have to beat Toronto for a Miami/Brooklyn series to take place, even if the Nets play the Heat in the second round, my money’s on Miami. Miami’s the champion until they lose.
2. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs had trouble against the Rockets and Thunder in the regular season, but that largely had to do with injuries the Spurs had. San Antonio’s healthy, and have a favorable first round match up against Dallas. The reason why the Thunder are not ahead of the Spurs is because they play a team that beat them last season (Memphis) in the first round, and then a tougher potential second round opponent in Los Angeles.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
I’m anxious to see how OKC plays against Memphis with Russell Westbrook. Memphis has one of the best defenses in the league, and Mike Conley could cause trouble for Westbrook. Tony Allen will also defend Westbrook throughout the series. Serge Ibaka was exposed last May during that series. Zach Randolph had a great series, and he should be able to bully the Thunder bigs, but if OKC gets past Memphis, they should make it to the Western Conference Finals.
4. Houston Rockets
The Rockets swept the Spurs in the regular season. They have the best player in the series if the Rockets were to beat Portland in James Harden. I don’t know if I’m ready to say the Rockets would beat the Spurs in the second round, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I picked the Rockets to win the West prior to the season, only because I fully believed James Harden would become a top-5 player. He had such a strong second-half of the season, that you could argue he’s one of the five best players in the world. Harden studies opponents defensive tendencies, and he does a great job of drawing foul calls. Omer Asik is an X-Factor, along with Patrick Beverley.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have to face a tough Golden State Warriors team in the first round, and that’s a big reason why I have them as the fifth title contender. Even if the Clippers beat the Warriors, they have to face the best player in the West in the second round. This playoffs will be brutal in the West, and again I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a number of upsets in the West even though I’m deeply afraid to pick any of them.
6. Indiana Pacers
A team in the East has to challenge Miami, and that team will most likely be the Pacers. Indiana has taken steps backward towards the end of the season, but that might not change their approach to this playoffs. I think they’ll be confident, play solid defense and try to utilize Roy Hibbert. The Pacers should beat Atlanta easily, but then the looming Washington/Chicago winner awaits. Paul George has to step up his game for the Pacers to be real title contenders.
7. Brooklyn Nets
I don’t think Brooklyn beats Toronto, but if they do, well, they have the third best chance in the East to win it all. Toronto presents different problems for Brooklyn because of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry’s a combo guard who can shoot and pass well. DeRozan’s a great slasher and a difficult match up. But if Brooklyn beats Toronto, then they fair well against Miami. The Nets swept Miami in the regular season, the Nets have the size on the wing to switch screens on LeBron James and the Nets have proven playoff winners in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
8. Chicago Bulls
If they beat Washington round one, they could very well beat the Pacers. Taj Gibson’s offensive role could increase this postseason. With Joakim Noah as the point center, Gibson benefits from the attention Noah draws. Jimmy Butler has an opportunity to showcase his defensive abilities. Butler will garner all-defensive team votes, but his offense has been limited since he’s such a below average shooter, maybe this postseason could be his coming out offensively party.
9. Golden State Warriors
This is only if Andrew Bogut’s healthy. The Warriors did very well last playoffs using small-ball line ups featuring Harrison Barnes at the 4. Andre Iguodala’s one of the more underrated players this year. He does the little things, and should garner votes for first team All-Defensive. Stephen Curry can win games by himself. The Warriors are a dangerous team because of their great shooting. Mark Jackson can use plenty of different looks on defense with Draymond Green, Barnes, Klay Thompson, Speights, Bogut, O’Neal, Iguodala.
10. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers could have the best starting five in basketball, but for how great their starters are, the shortcomings on their bench really hurt their overall chances at making a run. Lots of people, myself included, have written off Portland. The Blazers have a top-5 offense with two extremely talented scorers in Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Problems arise on defense for this team though. Robin Lopez and Nic Batum are their two best defenders. Lillard provides little to zero defense. It’s his biggest problem, and a main reason why he won’t be on any All-NBA teams. The Blazers will need a big series from Aldridge if they are to beat Houston.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
I really like the Grizzlies match up against Oklahoma City. Mike Miller hurt the Thunder two seasons ago in the Finals, and he has a chance to do it again this season. Grizzlies actually have solid shooters this year in Courtney Lee and Miller. Z-Bo has been terrific down the stretch. With a healthy Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have a top-5 defense. I’m not saying the Thunder will lose, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
12. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors enjoy playing basketball together. Good chemistry usually benefits teams during the rough postseason. They’ve won one playoff series in franchise history, so this fan base will really be into their first round series against Brooklyn. The Raptors play just as well on the road as they do at home. Lowry has the team’s highest PER. He should have an easy time on offense against Brooklyn’s Deron Williams. Shaun Livingston presents a problem, but he’ll be covering DeRozan at times. Jonas Valanciunas has played extremely well down the stretch, and although the Raptors don’t call plays for JV, he can impact the offensive end on the glass. JV averages nearly 3 offensive boards a game, good for 11th in the NBA even though JV played 28 minutes a night.
13. Dallas Mavericks
If they were facing any other team in the first round, the Mavericks title chances would be higher, but the Spurs will beat Dallas. The Mavericks have such a great offense, and they should win a game or two, but San Antonio is simply too good.
14. Washington Wizards
The core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene and Marcin Gortat is fantastic. The Wizards have an average offense in terms of efficiency, and a top-10 defense in terms of efficiency. But Chicago’s defense should be the dominant unit in the first round. As much as I’d like to see John Wall advance, I don’t think the Wizards will.
15. Atlanta Hawks
The Bobcats are better than the Hawks. This is only because of who Atlanta plays in the first round. I’d be absolutely shocked if the Heat lost to Charlotte. But let’s be real, would anybody be shocked if the offensively challenged Pacers couldn’t score enough points against Atlanta? For the sake of the NBA, the Pacers need to beat Atlanta. Atlanta has great shooters that will make things interesting. Paul Millsap’s their best player, and he’ll have a tough time against Indiana’s big guys. Atlanta has about a 0.13 % chance of winning it all, which is a little higher than Charlotte.
16. Charlotte Bobcats
I like Kemba Walker. I like Al Jefferson. I think this team has a bright future, especially considering how great their defense was this season. But they drew a terrible first round matchup in the Miami Heat.
Eastern Conference First Round
(1) Indiana Pacers v. (8) Atlanta Hawks
Hard to believe a 34-win team could beat a 56-win one even if the Pacers have stumbled down the stretch. This would be a different series if Al Horford could play, but unfortunately he cannot. Indiana wins in five.
(4) Chicago Bulls v. (5) Washington Wizards
This probably should be a Chicago/Brooklyn series but the Nets decided to take the last couple games off. This series still has plenty of intrigue, beginning with John Wall. Wall averaged 19, four and eight in the regular season. Wall’s also one of the better point guard defenders in the NBA. Chicago’s point guard, DJ Augustin, is not a traditional point guard. He doesn’t have high assist numbers. The Bulls offense runs through Joakim Noah. Noah finds cutters, sets screens, acts as a decoy. His ability to hit that 16-foot left side jumper has been crucial to Chicago’s success. Augustin scores 14.9 a game, but he’s averaging 19 in April, including a 25-point performance against the Wizards. Augustin’s a good three-point shooter, and since Augustin does not always have the ball he can be a difficult cover. The Wizards have Nene back, which obviously increases their chances of winning. His size could present problems for Gibson and Carlos Boozer. This is going to be a great series. A series you want from a 4-5 matchup, but in the end, I think Chicago’s defense will pull off the win. Chicago wins in six.
(2) Miami Heat v. (7) Charlotte Bobcats
The Bobcats have a big guy who averages 21 and 10. The Miami Heat struggle inside. They are dead last in the NBA in rebounding (partly due to their efficient offense, but also due to their lack of interior guys). Jefferson will get his buckets if the Heat use single coverage on him, and if they decide to double or triple team him, the Bobcats will ask guys like Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Josh McRoberts to step up. Kemba Walker is a great point guard who has shown the ability to make big time plays in big time games. This is his first taste of the playoffs, and I’m anxious to see how he handles half-court defenses in April. The Heat swept the Bobcats, although two of those games were very close. LeBron James scored 61 the last time these two played. James will dominate this series. Heat win in four.
(3) Toronto Raptors v. (6) Brooklyn Nets
The Raptors have a top-10 offense and defense in terms of efficiency. I like Toronto’s role players in Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross and Greivis Vasquez. Vasquez is an underrated back-up point guard who can be a real difference in this series. He plays 21 minutes a game, and his size could be needed against Brooklyn’s bigger guards. Brooklyn has changed their entire team since Jan. 1. I mean their most important players, their “glue-guys”, are Mason Plumlee, Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce at the four. Joe Johnson remains their best offensive option, as he averages nearly 16 points a game. It’s well-documented how clutch Johnson has been the last several seasons. He’s hit buzzer-beaters this season to give Brooklyn wins. Brooklyn struggles to rebound, but that’s because Pierce plays the 4 and Garnett has been in-and-out of the line up. Kirilenko off the bench is huge. He and Marcus Thornton could be X-factors. Thornton is known for having big games scoring the ball, and the Nets definitely need his offense to make a run in the East. Lowry’s the best player on either team. Toronto’s backcourt definitely has the advantage over Brooklyn. You’d be crazy to say that a couple years back, right? Deron Williams/Shaun Livingston/Joe Johnson v. Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan, but it’s true, Toronto has a great back court. Lowry, Ross, Vasquez and Patrick Patterson are good 3-point shooters. Brooklyn is not a good road team. Toronto is a good road team. Toronto’s fans will be fierce for sure as, and I’ll quote the homie Drake on this, they have a “college-like” atmosphere. Toronto’s hungry for playoff basketball, and I think they get it done, although it will be a dog fight. Raptors win in seven.
Eastern Conference Second Round
(1) Indiana Pacers v. (4) Chicago Bulls
The Eastern Conference Central Showdown. Two teams that really don’t like each other. Reminds me of the mid-2000s Pistons/Pacers. Neither team has an exciting offense, although Paul George is the best offensive weapon either team has. But is their a clear-cut best player? If you asked that question in January or December, Paul George would be the answer. Things have drastically changed since then, mainly Joakim Noah’s rise to the NBA’s best center. The Bulls and Pacers split their regular season series. Taj Gibson scored 23 the last time they played. He becomes ultra important against Indiana’s big front. Chicago, as mentioned before, runs their offense through Noah, who receives entry passes at the top of the key, the elbow or the foul line. Chicago wants Roy Hibbert to stay away from the basket since he’s the best rim protector in the NBA. If Chicago can utilize Gibson and Carlos Boozer on the block and prevent Hibbert from stalking the basket, they’ll have a great shot at winning. Each team knows each other very well. Chicago definitely has the coaching advantage. Each team is pretty even in defense. Indiana has slightly better numbers, but you can’t go wrong with either defense. I don’t care how cliche this sounds, but it’s going to be whoever generates more offense that will win this series. I’m going with Chicago. Bulls win in six.
(2) Miami Heat v. (3) Toronto Raptors
Miami swept Toronto in the regular season, and I don’t see the postseason being any different. Miami’s too talented on the wing for Toronto. LeBron James will continue his playoff dominance against Toronto. Heat win in five.
Eastern Conference Finals
(2) Miami Heat v. (4) Chicago Bulls
Miami meets a team that will be extra physical and aggressive, but their first two series took little out of them. Similar to last season, Chicago will give Miami plenty of bumps and bruises, but in the end the Heat will win. Heat win in five.
Western Conference First Round
(1) San Antonio Spurs v. (8) Dallas Mavericks
Dallas may have an efficient offense, but Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis struggle mightily on defense against the Spurs. San Antonio swept Dallas this season. The Spurs have too good of an offense to lose to such an inferior defensive opponent. I love Dirk Nowitzki. I want him to do well individually, but as a team I don’t give the Mavericks much a chance. Spurs win in five.
(4) Houston Rockets v. (5) Portland Trail Blazers
Two high power offenses and little defense! This should either be the best or second best series (depending on how the Clippers/Warriors plays out). Four all stars (James Harden, Dwight Howard, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge) should make for great entertainment. I wrote a lot about these teams above, so I’ll try to keep this brief. If I had to rank those four players I’d go 1.) Harden 2.) Howard 3.) Aldridge 4.) Lillard. Rockets win in six.
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder v. (7) Memphis Grizzlies
A rematch of last season’s Western Conference semis, but Westbrook’s playing! Mike Conley is one of select few who can contain Westbrook. Conley had a very underrated season. He wasn’t going to get much All-Star consideration because the Grizzlies were an average team without Marc Gasol, but he kept them in the right direction so they could make a playoff push once Gasol returned. Now, they are in the playoffs and are poised to play spoiler. The Grizzlies are fully capable of winning this series. I mentioned that before and I’ll probably mention it again. I just think Kevin Durant’s too good of a player, and he had too good of a season to lose in the first round. Thunder win in five.
(3) Los Angeles Clippers v. (6) Golden State Warriors
These two split their regular season series. They have bad blood. Klay Thompson called Blake Griffin a “flopper” the other day. It’s definitely going to be a great series no matter what the outcome is. Just so many talented players in this game. The Warriors will play small ball. Golden State needs a healthy Andrew Bogut for them to have a chance, but even if he is healthy it is still a reach to say the Warriors will win. The fact is, Los Angeles has two players (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) who are arguably better than anyone on Golden State’s roster. Clippers win in six.
Western Conference Second Round
(1) San Antonio Spurs v. (4) Houston Rockets
Another Texas team for San Antonio to play. The Rockets swept the Spurs in the regular season, and although the regular season shows no indication of what will happen in the postseason it is an interesting thing to look at. In the Rockets/Spurs first match up, James Harden did work. Harden finished with 31, seven and six. The Rockets once held a 23-point lead, which shows you how dominant this Houston offense can be. The Spurs used the hack-a-howard strategy during that game, and I’m sure Gregg Popovich will use a similar tactic if these two meet in the second round. With a fully healthy team on Christmas night, the Spurs dropped their second game to the Rockets. Tony Parker struggled from the field that day, shooting 3 for 11. Once again, Harden proved to be a Spur killer as he finished with 28, six and six. Kawhi Leonard missed the third and fourth meeting, and Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills sat the last one. The Spurs shot 27.9 percent from three in the four games against Houston. That’s staggering considering the Spurs shot nearly 40 percent from deep in the regular season. The Rockets don’t have any lockdown wing defenders. Patrick Beverley is a pest, and he’ll have to handle Tony Parker. I think, for one reason or another, the Spurs just had bad shooting days. It definitely wasn’t something Houston was doing differently. They’re an average defensive team, and obviously every team has a bad day shooting the ball. It just so happened the Spurs had four bad shooting games against Houston. As much as I want to pick Houston to win, I think Houston’s still a player away, probably a power forward, from being a title contender. Spurs win in seven.
(2) Oklahoma City Thunder v. (3) Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are very much equal. Blake Griffin is better than Serge Ibaka, but it’s close. The Clippers, however, have no player who even comes remotely close to Kevin Durant. I think that’s the major difference. Durant needs a strong postseason, and although the Clippers can throw Danny Granger, Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley at Durant, neither of them are capable of slowing down the four-time scoring champion. Thunder win in six.
Western Conference Finals
(1) San Antonio Spurs v. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder
A rematch of two conference finals ago. This time, the Spurs have a deeper bench, along with a more experience Kawhi Leonard. Marco Belinelli, who I have only briefly mentioned so far, should play a vital role in this series. The biggest problem with the Thunder is their bench. It’s awful at times. Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones are inconsistent. The Spurs have the best bench in the NBA. So many crafty offensive players that create mismatches for nearly every team. Manu Ginobili makes every one better, especially Belinelli. The Spurs will be able to take care over the Thunder’s disadvantages when Durant’s on the bench. When Durant’s on the floor, however, he’ll meet Kawhi Leonard. Leonard should be on an All-NBA defensive team this season. He has incredible skill, timing and length. Leonard is an X-Factor. The Spurs are 55-11 when Leonard plays. He’s the difference. Spurs win in seven.
(1) San Antonio Spurs v. (2) Miami Heat
I want this rematch badly. I need it, actually. I had so much fun watching last season’s Finals. Both teams are pretty much the same. The Heat lost Mike Miller, but gained Michael Beasley, Greg Oden and Toney Douglas. The Spurs lost Gary Neal and TRACY MCGRADY, but gained Marco Belinelli and will have a more polished Patty Mills. I haven’t written much about the Heat since they have had an easy path to the Finals. Dwyane Wade’s healthy will be crucial. The Heat defended the Spurs perfectly the last two games, although the Spurs should have won game 6. Kawhi Leonard might not have put up numbers that people expected to him this season, but he’s a much better player, averaging nearly two steals a game. Leonard and Boris Diaw will take turns covering LeBron. Gregg Popovich had an excellent defensive plan for the Heat, forcing James to settle for jumpers. The Heat don’t have that 3-point presence from Mike Miller this year. He really, really helped them last June. Tony Parker’s injury in game 1 last year really hurt the Spurs. Parker was clearly limited, and a healthy, well-rested Parker will get the Spurs over the hump. Spurs win in seven.