NBA playoff preview

No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies

The San Antonio Spurs have quietly been dominant from the very start of the season onward, transforming their once defensive-minded team into the second most efficient offense in the league.

But they ended the season 4-6 and star SG Manu Ginobili hurt his elbow the last game of the season; MRI results will be released later this week. Losing Ginobili will certainly hurt, but backups George Hill and Gary Neal should be able to pick up the slack, at least through the first round. The Spurs are 36-5 at home and it would be surprising for that loss column to increase by more than one.

The Memphis Grizzlies lost all-star small forward Rudy Gay to injury for the end of the season and the playoffs, but Tony Allen has looked very solid since his introduction into the starting lineup. The Grizzlies can count on PF Zach Randolph to step up both offensively and defensively on Tim Duncan, but Allen and defensive stopped Shane Battier will need to show up and consistently bring their playoff experience and high energy defense every night for this one to be close.

And if Mike Conley can shut down Tony Parker like he did Chris Paul when the Hornets and Grizzlies met earlier this year, anything could be possible.

This could be a surprisingly interesting series, especially if Ginobili cannot contribute. The Southwest is a tough division, and Memphis is certainly better than their record suggests, but San Antonio’s sharp shooting, and stacked frontcourt with Duncan, DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess and Matt Bonner should be too much for Memphis to handle. Spurs in 5.

No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 7 New Orleans Hornets

The Lakers have won the last two NBA championships and been to the Western Conference finals the last three years. They are the same team from last year with the added talent of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes joining Kobe, Gasol and company. It would be a shock to see the Lakers let this one slip. They are 4-0 versus the Hornets and 30-11 at home this season. Center Andrew Bynum’s ongoing health issues could be a problem in later rounds, but Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom should be able to keep the Hornet’s depleted frontcourt in check.

New Orleans is struggling. They lost all-star power forward David West to knee surgery for the playoffs and I simply don’t see how they will compensate for the loss. Undersized PF Carl Landry has looked strong since taking over for West in the starting lineup, averaging 20 ppg and 6 rbg in March, but he will almost certainly be outmatched by the Lakers’ dominant frontcourt. Ex-Laker Trevor Ariza has drastically underperformed since leaving the Lakers to fill starting SF roles in Houston and New Orleans, but his tenacious defense and experience of playing with Kobe could cause some problems for the Lakers.

In a league of seven-game series, huge upsets are highly improbable, and this would be a big one. The Lakers have far more talent than the Hornets on both ends, as well as a stacked bench full of proven and experienced players. Expect to see a one-man offensive effort from Chris Paul, as the Hornets fall to the Lakers in 4.

No. 3 Dallas Mavericks vs. No. 6 Portland Trailblazers

Both these teams could convince themselves they look better on paper than their opponent, however, I give a slight edge to the Mavs in this series for a few different reasons. First, Jason Kidd is a veteran, playoff-savvy point guard who understands how to distribute the ball to the right people, at the right times in high pressure playoff games. Secondly, when the game is on the line I believe Dallas has more scoring options if their go to guy, in this case Dirk Nowitzki, is struggling or just can’t get the ball. Finally, despite being a perennial 50-win team the Mavs have only reached the NBA finals once in 2006. Dirk, Kidd Marion, and passionate owner

The key matchup in this series won’t be at any position but rather between Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Roy. Who is more capable of taking over in the fourth quarter?

As is the case in many playoff games, teams need a player to step up and not only take but make clutch shots. A player can be dormant for the first few quarters, but if they drain clutch shots in the end it will lift their team to victory.

All this praise towards the Mavs does not mean Portland is a mightily inferior team. They have a lineup filled with all-stars and players who know how to win in the playoffs. That being said, Dallas will advance out of the first round, beating the Trailblazers in six games.

No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 5 Denver Nuggets

This matchup is certainly the series you want to watch if you like up-tempo and high-scoring basketball games. Denver has established themselves as a force in the Western Conference ever since they dealt Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks. Opposing them are the Kevin Durant led Thunder who last year nearly knocked off the defending champion Lakers in the first round as an eight seed. With that valuable playoff experience, the Thunder enter the first-round ready to make a deep run this year.

“Defense wins championships” and defense is something neither of these teams excel at. Fortunately for the Thunder, the Nuggets are even worse than them at it. I can’t foresee anyway the Nuggets are able to contain Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If the Thunder can hold Denver under 110 each game they should be able to win, believe or not. Oklahoma City wins in five games.

No. 1 Chicago Bulls vs.No. 8 Indiana Pacers

Led by Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls are the most complete team in the NBA. They have the MVP shoe-in, a stellar frontcourt consisting of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, a quality bench and an airtight defense that allows the second fewest points per game. They are also one of the hottest teams going into the postseason, posting a 24-4 record since the All-Star break and closing out the regular season with a nine-game win streak.

At 37-44, the eight-seeded Indiana Pacers do not have the capacity to stop the Bulls. Indiana has a talented, young core in forward Danny Granger, guard Darren Collison and emerging big men Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough. The future holds promise in Indiana, but the current sub-.500 team will not break though the Chicago defense, much less end their championship hopes.

At this stage in their development, the Pacers should aim to secure a playoff win or two for some confidence going forward. Unfortunately, this series is looking like a sweep. But this could be avoided if Rose has an off night. Or, more likely, if Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah sits out a game with a nagging injury.

In that case, Bulls win in 5.

No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers quietly produced a very respectable season. Thanks to head coach Doug Collins, the Sixers look revitalized, adding 14 wins to last year’s total to finish at an even .500. Clearly overmatched against the Heat, Collins is stressing all the things typical of an underdog: defense, hustle plays and rebounding.

The 76ers lack a true star to match Miami’s “Big Three.” However, they do have six players averaging 10+ points per game and solid bench that could hurt a shallow Miami team. Also, swingman Andre Iguodala is a freakish athlete and underrated defender who could disrupt Lebron James and the rest of the Heat offense.

Still, the Heat feast on teams at or below .500, and will swiftly level the 76ers. Philly could steal a win from many teams in the playoffs, but not Miami. The media scrutinized the every misstep made by the Heat, and they will be motivated to prove themselves in the postseason from day one. They will blanket the court defensively, pour on the points in transition, and force the 76ers to play their style of basketball.

Heat in 4.

No. 3 Boston Celtics vs. No. 6 New York Knicks

At the beginning of the year, Amare Stoudemire and the Knicks intended to establish rivalry with the Celtics. A hard-fought series in the playoffs could ignite one. If the Celtics’ struggles follow them into the postseason, the Knicks could win this series, or at least stretch it to seven games.

Outside of injuries, Boston’s second half slump traces back to Rondo. Rondo’s numbers are down, he is not attacking and he looks much less confident. He could slice the lackluster New York defense in this one, and get himself back on track for this series, but more importantly, the later rounds. He will be the catalyst for any championship run made by the aging Celtics.

The Knicks are undoubtedly the most threatening low seed in the Eastern Conference. Thanks to the one-two punch of Stoudemire and midseason acquisition Carmelo Anthony, they will take two games, both in Madison Square Garden. Look for the Celtics to exploit these two defensively though, with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. In the previous three matchups against the Knicks, Pierce and KG averaged 26 and 22 points, respectively.

This will be the best first-round matchup if Chauncey Billups, Landry Fields and New York’s other secondary players show up. However, a deeper Boston team still comes out on top.

Boston in 6.

No. 4 Orlando Magic vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks

Recall last year’s second round bout between these two teams: The Magic swept the Hawks by a staggering margin of 25 points per game. This was the second year in a row that the Hawks were throttled in the second round. Assuredly, they want to avoid another sweep at all costs.

Atlanta won three of four regular season games against Orlando, but they will need to find their identity to avoid an early exit. Joe Johnson should embrace his teammates, and Josh Smith needs to forget about shooting three-pointers and abuse his undersized matchup — likely Turkoglu — down low. Kirk Hinrich might not still fit in offensively, but he can help slow down Jameer Nelson, which would indirectly limit Dwight Howard.

Although Orlando is the better team here, they are not perfect. Their performance will come down to their perimeter shooting. Atlanta’s number one focus will be to slow Dwight Howard with seven-footer Jason Collins and a myriad of hard-fouling bench players. This will give Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu opportunities to blow up the scoreboard from beyond the arc. If they shoot respectable percentages, they will close the series. It will not, however, be another sweep.

Magic in 7.