Conference Finals? We aren’t even done with the first round yet! Are you serious?
Well, if sports writers everywhere can predict finalists and champions from the beginning of the season to the end, why can’t I skip the second round and look at who will be fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals?
As everyone knows, the playoffs are a much different scene than the regular season. Now that we’ve seen a few games from each team this postseason, it’s time to evaluate who has the potential to be conference champions.
Let’s look at the possible second-round match-ups and determine who will come out on top:
Atlanta vs. Chicago
Although the Magic could still come back and take the series, I don’t think it will matter much in the long run. Neither team has much of a shot at taking out the Bulls. Indiana has played pretty impressively in their series so far, but the Bulls have managed to only drop one game. Derrick Rose is doing his best to prove his all-but-announced MVP award, and as long as he attacks the basket, the Bulls will win - in Chicago’s three wins against the Pacers, Rose averaged 16 free throw attempts a game, but in the one loss he only got to the line 4 times. The Hawks (and Magic) will have front row seats at home for the conference finals.
Boston vs. Miami
I almost feel sorry for the Heat. Well, at least for players numbers 4 through 15, who thought that, by giving up a bigger paycheck, they would get an easy ring. Instead, they had targets on their backs the entire season, went through ups and downs constantly, and now will be making an early exit in the second round of the playoffs. The Celtics will be the team moving on to face the Bulls. Why? Here’s three reasons (and none of them are that the Celtics won the season series 3-1):
- Boston needed crunch-time plays in each of the first two games against the Knicks. Both times, they came through and pulled out the win. Miami, however, had a very similar situation in the game against the 76ers on Sunday. Needless to say, they didn’t execute nearly as effectively. Won’t there be at least one or two games like that in this series? The Celtics will be able to finish those games, and that will make all the difference in a competitive match-up like this one.
- Doc Rivers has maneuvered his team to two finals in the last three years. In the Knicks series, he made the correct calls every game, leading to the first sweep by the Celtics since 1986. Eric Spoelstra? His playoff record before this season was 4-8. Although he has a much better roster this year, and he is not a bad coach, he just does not have the experience to outwit Doc and the veteran Celtics. The two teams may have comparable talent, but the coaching is enough to sway things Boston’s way.
- The key to winning in the playoffs is consistency. The Heat are a little streaky – they roll off a few great wins, then drop a couple embarrassing games in a row. The Celtics, on the other hand, have proven that they can win consistently, especially when it matters. From the beginning of this season until the Kendrick Perkins trade, they played well as a team and were nearly unstoppable. Though they lost some focus down the stretch, they have regrouped during the first round and taken care of a talented Knicks team with relative ease. Watch for their veteran and steady squad to continue their winning ways.
Memphis?! vs. OKC
Okay, so I think San Antonio will come back and win the series, but I’ll be rooting for Memphis all the way. Oklahoma City is the only team remaining with a chance to sweep their first round series, but even if they lose on Monday night they should easily advance. In fact, it could be argued that the Thunder have been the most impressive team in the playoffs to this point. They have thoroughly demoralized the Nuggets, who were widely accepted by the media as an obvious upset before the series started. OKC has been great on both ends, though – they have held the NBA’s top offensive team (107.5 ppg in the regular season) to only 95 points a game, while practically matching their own offensive output (104.8 ppg during the regular season) by scoring 103.3 points per contest. Could the Spurs or Grizzlies match OKC’s proficiency in the second round? I don’t think so. Look for the Thunder to head to the conference finals.
Dallas/Portland vs. Los Angeles/New Orleans
Nothing is more up in the air than who will come out of the bottom half of the Western bracket. The Blazers and Mavericks both have taken care of business at home, so Portland needs to steal one in Dallas or their season will be over. The Lakers are obviously the better team, but Chris Paul has been ridiculous, devouring the Lakers defense and willing his team to victory. I’m sure every other team in the playoffs is rooting for the Hornets to take out the two-time defending champs, but I’m not so sure they’ll be able to. I think the Lakers will pull it together and win this series and the next; however, if the Hornets pull out the upset, they will ride that success into the conference finals. Interesting stat: in the last three years, the last unbeaten team in the regular season has made it to the NBA Finals. This year’s last unbeaten? The New Orleans Hornets.