PLAYOFF SERIES MOST LIKELY TO GO 7 GAMES
Time to see if the league’s second-best defense in terms of defensive efficiency (Chicago) can corral the East’s top young backcourt (Washington). How well John Wall and Brad Beal – ages 23 and 20, respectively – handle the task of not only cracking the Joakim Noah-anchored Bulls’ defensive fortress is one thing, but what about the burden of playing in the franchise’s first playoff series 2008? That spring, the ill-fated trio of Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas was bounced in the first round by the Cleveland LeBrons. Quite sneakily, Washington boasted the NBA’s ninth-best defensive team this year, which means buckets for the Derrick Rose and Luol Deng-less Bulls will be hard to come by.
Points, points, points. Houston and Portland were No. 4 and No. 5 in offensive efficiency. The teams played four games in the regular season – with the Rockets winning three – and the victor scored 116, 111, 126 and 118 points. This series is about Houston’s James Harden and Portland’s Damian Lillard, two young guards with dynamic offensive games but who also are serious defensive lames. It’s about posts Robin Lopez and Dwight Howard, two superb offensive rebounders, trying to keep each other off the glass as their 3-happy teammates – the Blazers and Rockets were No. 1 and No. 3 in attempted 3-pointers – fire away from deep. And it’s about expectations, as hopes were raised in Rip City after the Blazers’ 22-4 start in the same way optimism soared in H-Town the second Howard signed on over the summer.
SERIES MOST LIKELY TO BE A SWEEP
East: Heat over Bobcats
Miami was 4-0 against Charlotte this season and is 15-0 against the Michael Jordan-run franchise since the inception of the Big 3 era in 2010. The last time the two teams played on March 3, LeBron James scored a career-best 61 points. Dwyane Wade and Greg Oden played in the Heat’s season-finale Wednesday, indicating that Miami should be at full strength for Sunday’s Game 1. Even if Al Jefferson averages 30 points and 15 rebounds, the Bobcats stand zero chance. I expect Charlotte to steal Game 3 or 4 at home – remember, this is a ‘most likely’ category – but otherwise the Heat should cruise.
West: Spurs over Mavericks
I desperately wanted to pick Thunder over Grizzlies here, but Oklahoma City’s quizzical late-game, late-shot clock offense of running around for 20 seconds before Kevin Durant chucks up a long jumper is bound to cost them at least one game. Fun fact: the last time the Spurs’ first-round pick was earlier than 20th – before any trade – was 1997 when they selected Tim Duncan No. 1 overall. Another fun fact: the Spurs were a league-best 62-20 without a single player averaging 30 minutes per game. That’s the definition of team-oriented, sustained success.
BEST PLAYER YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
East: Kyle Lowry
Having watched an absurd amount of college basketball in my life, I can take myself back to the 2005-06 season and clearly remember Lowry thriving in Villanova’s four-guard lineup alongside Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Mike Nardi. The Wildcats went 14-2 in the always-tough Big East and lost in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Florida. In his eight-year NBA career, Lowry has always put up decent numbers, but gained the reputation as being a pain in the rear. Whatever the 6-0 Toronto point guard changed this season, it worked, as he put up career highs in points, assists and free-throw attempts while ranking eighth in the league in offensive win shares.
West: LaMarcus Aldridge
It feels strange to stick a three-time All-Star in this spot, but I guarantee you when casual observers tune in to the Blazers-Rockets series, they’re going to ask for the name of the 6-11 guy nailing fadeaway after fadeaway from the left block. Aldridge has always been overshadowed in Portland – first by Greg Oden, then by Brandon Roy and now by Lillard. The former Texas Longhorn has been a very good NBA player in his eight seasons, averaging 18.9 points and 8.2 rebounds for his career. But, it’s doubtful he cares about the attention, not with the Blazers back in the playoffs after a two-season absence.
1ST ROUND PREDICTIONS
Pacers in 5. Heat over Bobcats in 5; Nets over Raptors in 6; Bulls over Wizards in 7.
Spurs over Mavericks in 4; Thunder over Grizzlies in 5; Clippers over Warriors in 5; Rockets over Blazers in 7.
Note: Heat-Warriors was my preseason Finals pick…and, well, that’s just not going to happen. Especially not with Warriors’ center/defensive anchor Andrew Bogut out indefinitely.
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for The Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.