Apparently the Basketball Gods don't appreciate being mocked. After a month or so where it's looked like nearly everything in the NBA Playoffs was almost settled, it took until the last game of the last night of the regular season before the NBA postseason picture came into final focus. This feels like karmic punishment for this writer's decision to belabor the point that not much was left to determine these last few weeks. This was mainly true, as 15 of the 16 postseason participants had already basically been settled for something close to a month now, with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz fighting over the last spot. Until Wednesday night, however, only four of those teams (Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Boston) knew for certain who and where they would be playing when the playoffs begun.
The funniest consequence of this quirk in the schedule, was that the games that determined the final playoff seedings were not exactly All-Star affairs. Those teams with nothing left to play for didn't give heavy minutes to their most important players. At roughly 10pm EST, blogger Evan Dunlap tweeted that the leading scorers in the NBA were "Chris Copeland, Gerald Green, and John Henson". You could be forgiven, looking at some of these lineups, in not realizing that the entire NBA playoff seedings were still at stake as the season came to an end.
Miami Heat (1) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (8)
One of the few matchups set before Wednesday night's games was that the Miami Heat were going to face the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. This, honestly, will be the easiest series to predict this entire postseason. LeBron James is coming off the greatest season a player has had since Michael Jordan, and the Miami Heat uncorked a 27 game winning streak. The Milwaukee Bucks are only in the playoffs because there had to be eight teams to come out of the Eastern Conference and the team in ninth place traded their best player for a crazy haired guy that missed the entire season with injuries.
The Bucks don't exactly have no shot in this series. Monta Ellis could have the series of his life and establish a new playoff scoring record and Larry Sanders could block every single LeBron James layup. If those two things happen, maybe the Bucks could push this to six games. Maybe. The Miami Heat aren't going to look past the Bucks, but there's a part of head coach Erik Spoelstra that has to be itching to have interviews like this:
Erik Spoelstra: I really think that this series gives me a good chance to make sure LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are fully healthy before the playoffs begin.
Reporter: Um, it kinda is the playoffs.
Erik Spoelstra: Okay, yeah, maybe technically. Well, it still gives us a good chance to see what we have in our bench guys. I'm thinking Chris Andersen at point for the entire series...
Reporter: What about some of your veteran role players like Ray Allen?
Erik Spoelstra: Keep this between you and me, but just to avoid him playing all out and getting injured, I told him that David Stern has decided that the Eastern Conference playoffs are just a series of exhibition games until we reach the NBA Finals. I mean, it's like what George Costanza said, it's not a lie if you believe it, right?
Prediction: Miami in 4, and only because they can't sweep in 3.
New York Knicks (2) vs. Boston Celtics (7)
My original prediction had newly crowned scoring title champion Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks beating their Rajon Rondo-less Boston Celtics in six games. Despite serious injury concerns - they will face Boston without Amar'e Stoudemire and the re-retired Rasheed Wallace - the Knicks have come together under Anthony's leadership. It's been such a good year for New York that J.R. Smith is probably going to win Sixth Man of the Year and Mike Woodson will be considered a serious candidate for Coach of the Year. Since these two facts would have been punchlines at the start of the season, it's almost stunning how the Knicks have turned themselves into a serious threat in the East, they even survived this season's inevitable injury explosion.
So I had the Knicks dispatching an aging Boston Celtics team missing their star point guard, advancing to the second round and moving past jokes involving fire extinguishers or cereal brands. My brain still says this is probably what will happen.
Here's the thing, after the tragic events that occurred in Boston on Marathon Monday, it's difficult to see the Celtics going out like that. My heart believes that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Avery "My Guy" Bradley and company will refuse to be eliminated in the first round and find some way to beat this Knicks team even though Carmelo Anthony is looking like the second best player in the East. Don't be surprised if the Celtics leave absolutely everything they have on the floor in their upcoming series and pull off the upset. The exhausted Celtics will then be swept by whoever they face in the next round, but it would still be more than a Pyrrhic victory for Boston.
Prediction: Boston in 7. Believe.
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Atlanta Hawks (6)
Once it became obvious that the Miami Heat had wrapped up first place, so, roughly early December, the battle in the Eastern Conference became a fight for second place. After the All-Star break it looked like the Indiana Pacers were the best bet at winning the second seed and the right to avoid the Heat for as long as possible. Instead, the Pacers lost Danny Granger, right around the same time that the New York Knicks got healthy, and fell into the third seed. Oddly enough, the Pacers might have fallen into a matchup which works out better for them, as the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks don't seem to be as dangerous as the Boston Celtics.
The Hawks might be glad not to have to face Boston either. Their last two first-round meetings with Boston resulted in hard-fought series, with Atlanta being on the losing end both times. Granted the second time around, their loss may be because they had Tracy McGrady, the Human First Round Elimination Jinx, on the roster (more about him later). The Hawks will have no such excuse this time around.
This first-round matchup is one between two well-rounded rosters that lack big name players, in other words this could be an enjoyable well-played series that only basketball geeks end up watching. The Atlanta Hawks traded away the closest thing they had to a superstar player, Joe Johnson, to the Brooklyn Nets over the offseason, while the Indiana Pacers never really had a name that was even on the "Joe Johnson" scale. Granger's absence aside, the Pacers will bring out a similar lineup (featuring Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert) as the one that managed to get a brief series lead against the Miami Heat last postseason. Ultimately, barring any more injuries, the Pacers core group of players is just flat out better than the Hawks' (Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague). It should be a close series, but the Pacers are the higher seeded team here for a reason.
Prediction: Indiana in seven. In a pinch, pick against the Atlanta-based pro team come playoff time.
Brooklyn Nets (4) vs. Chicago Bulls (5)
The key question in this matchup is: Will Derrick Rose return at some point? The answer, obviously, is "no, not at all", but apparently all sides have agreed to continue with this charade that an effective Rose could magically return from his torn ACL surgery at some point. It would be a great drama for a healthy Derrick Rose to appear to potentially face off against LeBron James, but it's clearly not happening. If it were worthwhile for Rose to be completely honest, he would have made an announcement saying something like "I'm focusing on being 100% healthy and ready to compete at the start of next season" sometime around early March.
But of course it doesn't help the Chicago Bulls, or the NBA in general, for Rose to actually be honest about his physical and mental recovery, because without that Rose-related subplot this is kind of a middling series. The most exciting thing about Nets/Bulls will be that it's the first playoff series in Brooklyn, which certainly sounds a bit more colorful than one taking place in New Jersey even if Jay-Z might not be on hand. Plus, Deron Williams seems back on track right before the playoffs, which means the Nets have a good chance at beating Chicago barring a Derrick Rose comeback which, again, is not happening.
As good of a first year as they have had, it still feels like the Brooklyn Nets aren't this good. The fact that the Nets ended up being the fourth seed really just speaks to how weak the the Eastern Conference really was in 2012-13. Does Deron Williams/Joe Johnson really strike fear into anyone? Assuming that Joakim Noah is actually healthy and Luol Deng doesn't explode after the sheer number of minutes that head coach Tom Thibodeau played him this year, look for the Bulls have to an edge here even without home court advantage.
Prediction: Chicago in six. Unless my Brooklyn-based editor makes an executive decision to overrule this, in which case, Brooklyn in four! Go Nets!
Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Houston Rockets (8)
The Western Conference was wide open this season when compared to the Eastern Conference, which is mostly just a nice way of saying that the conference didn't have LeBron James but did have more teams that weren't completely terrible. Still, it definitely felt wilder on Wednesday night, as the Oklahoma City Thunder's first round opponent wasn't settled until the very last game of the 2012-13 NBA regular season. The Los Angeles Lakers who had clinched a playoff birth earlier in the evening when the Utah Jazz lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, took on the Houston Rockets with the winner getting the seventh seed and the chance to skip a first-round matchup with Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Somewhere around 1:20am on the East coast, because of course the final game of the season went into overtime, the Lakers defeated the Rockets 99-95 to secure the seventh seed. Houston's loss means that James Harden will be making a return trip to Oklahoma City after the trade transformed the Thunder's sixth man into the Rockets' franchise player. Atlhough the Harden trade changed the Houston Rockets from a lottery-bound franchise built around an overpaid Jeremy Lin into an unlikely playoff team, it's difficult to believe Harden will be enough of a difference-maker to push the Rockets past his former teammates.
Of course, the one key slight against Oklahoma City has been that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will miss the Bearded One come playoff time, but that likely won't be an issue in these early rounds. While the Thunder could end up missing Harden if they make a return visit to the NBA Finals, not that Harden contributed very much last go around, it likely won't haunt them in this first round matchup. Harden won't have enough help from his teammates to make Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti regret keeping Serge Ibaka over him.
Prediction: Thunder in four. Always trust the team in the postseason that has a guy named Reggie Jackson.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (7)
This San Antonio Spurs team have one of the best players of all time in Tim Duncan and one of the best coaches of all time in Gregg Popovich. Had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili missed less time with injuries, the Spurs most likely would have clinched the top seed in the Western Conference. There is really no reason why the Spurs couldn't make it to the Western Conference Finals once again and no reason to think that any team, even the Los Angeles Lakers, would have a shot of upsetting them in the first round of the playoffs.
At least there was no reason until the Spurs signed Tracy McGrady right before the start of the playoffs. Despite a borderline Hall of Fame career that began in 1997, no team featuring Tracy McGrady has ever made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs. Although McGrady, who was most recently playing for a league in China, is not expected to be anything more than a spare part during the Spurs playoff run, don't expect that to negate the very real effects of the McGrady First Round Curse.
Because of Popovich's foolish tempting of the Basketball Gods, the Los Angeles Lakers now have a great shot at advancing to the next round. If you told Lakers fans that the seventh seed would be this best case scenario at the start of the season, after they had just traded for two Hall of Famers in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, they would have laughed. If you went on to tell them the rest of the story: that Mike Brown would be fired within five games, Phil Jackson would be skipped over in favor of Mike D'Antoni, Dwight Howard wouldn't fit in with the lineup, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol would be out for significant time with injuries and then the team would lose Kobe Bryant to an Achilles injury a week before the end of the regular season. Well, if you told them all this they would probably think you were just being mean to them because they were Lakers fans, but if they thought you were telling the truth they would understand why the Lakers are fortunate to have made the postseason.
Honestly, it's a good thing to have the Lakers in the postseason, especially considering the fact that nobody, maybe not even Utah Jazz fans, really wanted to see the Jazz team that stumbled during this last month of the season in the playoffs. With Kobe Bryant unavailable, this series will be a chance to see what Dwight Howard can do as the unquestioned leader of the franchise. This may not be an experiment that ends up resulting in good basketball, but it definitely will result in fun-to-talk-about basketball. Pretty much just like this entire Lakers regular season, come to think about it.
Without Kobe, it would look like the Spurs would be able to handle the Lakers, especially since it seems Manu Ginobili will be available. It's just that in this increasingly unpredictable world we all have to cling to those beliefs that hold up the strongest in these uncertain times. Some believe in divine providence, others believe in the promises of science and rationality. I believe, believe with all of me, that a team with Tracy McGrady on the roster will never get past the first round of the NBA Playoffs. So I'm sorry San Antonio fans, but I just don't even know if I could fathom a world where that wasn't true without going stark raving mad like a Lovecraft protagonist.
Prediction: Lakers in seven. Unless Popovich and the Spurs are aware of some sort of reverse jinx spell, but that would just be ridiculous superstition.
Denver Nuggets (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)
Here's the funny thing about seeding, it sometimes tells you more about a team's past than its present. The Denver Nuggets clinched the third seed on Wednesday night, which is right about where they were expected to be in the standings for the entire year. The problem is that the Nuggets are coming into the playoffs in about the weakest position they have been for a while. If the playoffs had started a month earlier, a fully healthy Nuggets team would have been coming off a 15-game winning streak playing the best basketball of the season. Then, two weeks ago they lost Danilo Gallinari for the season to an ACL injury. On Sunday, forward Kenneth Faried, one of their most dangerous offensive threats, suffered an ankle injury that has left him to day-to-day. Before these injuries, the Denver Nuggets were a potential dark horse threat to make the NBA Finals, now they could be looking at a potential first-round upset.
Meanwhile in the Golden State Warriors' regular season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers, Steph Curry set the all-time NBA record for three-pointers in a season at 270. If there's any truth to regular season momentum carrying over the playoffs, it would be hard to imagine anyone feeling more comfortable about their shooting than Curry. Curry might be the biggest x-factor in the Western Conference, a dangerous outside shooter who could single-handedly win the Warriors a game anywhere, even at Pepsi Center where the Denver Nuggets have a ridiculous 38-3 record.
While this won't be one of the highest profile matches, this could be one of the more intriguing ones just from a basketball geek standpoint. The Denver Nuggets, under head coach George Karl, play really smart, effective basketball while the Golden State Warriors remain, despite last year's trade for the mostly injured and unavailable Andrew Bogut, an unpredictable offense-first squad. It feels like less of a battle between two teams and more like one between two opposing styles of play, a battle between order and chaos. If the Nuggets were at full strength, they would have a clear advantage, but right now the Warriors could definitely come in and steal a series victory away from them if Curry (or Klay Thompson or David Lee) gets on a hot shooting streak.
Prediction: Golden State in seven. Siding with chaos here.
Los Angeles Clippers (4) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)
To some it looked like Memphis were packing it in after having a remarkably hot start. The Grizzlies traded away their best scorer, Rudy Gay, to the Toronto Raptors for an odd assortment of players in the middle of a season that began with them going 12-2. What many in the media interpreted as a salary dump may have actually ended up making the team better. (Rudy Gay clearly hasn't made the Toronto Raptors much better, at the very least.) Maybe the decision to hire statistician John Hollinger away from "a cable sports company" hasn't been entirely unsuccessful.
Meanwhile the Clippers, wrapping up their first season in franchise history where they were inarguably the best team in Los Angeles, have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. This means that the playoffs will be a lot more fun if the Clippers put an end to the Grizzlies and advance to the next the round. Not that the Clippers are merely Lob City anymore. With an extra year with the franchise, Paul has transformed himself into the best point guard in the league who is carrying an offense that's a lot more than just him dishing lobs to Griffin and others (although there have been plenty of those as well).
What may be the best case scenario entertainment-wise might not be what actually happens, of course, especially since this looks like the most even matchup in the NBA Playoffs (which I suppose is what's supposed to happen when fourth-seeded teams face fifth-seeded teams). This should be a fun close series, hopefully seven games. It might all come down to which team provides the best off-the-court comedic hijinx, and if so these clips of Memphis defensive genius Tony Allen mangling Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" gives the Grizzlies a slight edge over Blake Griffin and hs KIA commercials.
Prediction: Memphis in 7. That is how they will do it.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk