So you’ve been chugging Cheez Doodles and Mountain Dew Code Red for a week and a half since the Rockets’ freefall from playoff contention changed from a reason to avoid Sportscenter for the night to a reason to avoid anyone who knows that you follow the Rockets closely so as not to endure the barrage of “How bout them Rockets?” comments. It’s OK; we understand and promise not to totally freak out because of the weird cheese dust encrusted on your hands. All is well because the NBA Playoffs have finally come to save us all from the doom of watching the Charlotte Bobcats lose anymore, and this tournament’s first round can be cleanly dissected into three groups:
SERIES ABOUT WHICH PEOPLE ACTUALLY CARE
- Los Angeles Clippers versus Memphis Grizzlies: The only series in which I genuinely feel silly picking either team and acting as if I can support such a claim with certainty, this one might collapse into itself as the nexis of all NBA diehard viewership in the first round. Blake Griffin has recently shown himself to not only be the Boy Prince of Dunkitude, posting a couple of high-efficiency scoring outbursts in a pair of losses to the Hawks and Clippers; while a 36 or a 29-point-night might not seem like much, the variety of ways (face-up jumpers, step-throughs in the post) in which he scored the points finally made him appear to be a worthy second option to the wizardry Chris Paul’s largely left in his pocket until fourth quarters this year. But I’m pretty sure the rest of the world will quickly forget about the Clippers’ highly efficient, if sometimes unwatchable, offense (ranked fourth leaguewide) once it’s vaulted into the rusted, gaping maw of the Grizzlies’ D, one that seems almost naturally made for the rigors (read: laxer rule enforcement by officials) of the postseason. Just a year ago, this same Grizzlies team sans its best perimeter threat in Rudy Gay took it to another high-powered offense without a lot of muscle in the middle, but that Spurs squad didn’t have one of the league’s best players or a couple of benchwarmers in Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans who would love to get equally as violent as the Grizzlies’ boys. I like both of these two teams too much to want to see this one in the first round, but someone must win, and despite home court advantage, I’m inclined to give this one to the Clippers in six games.
- Boston Celtics versus Atlanta Hawks: Another playoff season, another terrible series made hard to watch by a Hawks team around which a layer of visual muck seems to orbit. No matter who is in a series with them, be it Derrick Rose or Dwyane Wade or LeBron James, the Hawks make things visually unappealing. But this could legitimately be classified as these Celtics’ last stand, their defense of the castle, and defining legacies can generally be something to behold, even when playing the Hawks. Josh Smith and the Hawks’ topsy turvy offense (where their oversized 2, Joe Johnson, operates from the post and Smith, the 4, works as an almost Princeton-offense-like high-post distributor) can be ruthless in its working toward open threes and free throws, but an inspired Celtics defense can rip apart any machine, no matter how intricately crafted. In another series in which I am almost certainly being dumb about ignoring the home court, I see the Celtics winning in six games.
- Dallas Mavericks versus Oklahoma City Thunder: Winning an NBA championship is like having easily visible Russian prison tattoos; no matter how harmless one is toiling away as an insurance adjustor, one must always be respected, no matter how ridiculous, because of the legendary past. Yeah, the Dallas Mavericks team showing up to these playoffs looks very little like the one that did so a year ago, this time finding confusion in its depth rather than solutions, finding atrophy where veteran experience was once the term used. This isn’t a team on its last hurrah, trying to prove something; whether they’re trying isn’t even clear. And what they’re running into, this offensive wrecking ball of a team, one that sports a couple of this league’s highest volume scorers and one of its most efficient, all of whom inhabit wholly separate parts of the offense? Pundits will give respect where respect is due because, “Hey, they’re the champs.” Well, the champs lost every matchup with this Thunder team during the year, a couple convincingly so, making last year’s penultimate round feel further and further away; while I don’t see the season series repeating itself with a sweep, I do still see the Thunder taking this in five games.
SERIES THAT MIGHT BE FUN… BUT WE KNOW WHO’S GOT THIS
- Denver Nuggets versus Los Angeles Lakers: Kenneth Faried will make all of us bow at the majesty of both his hair and dunks, and for that, we should all be eternally grateful; in fact, this entire Nuggets squad will do what it did last year all over again: blitzkrieg the unsuspecting viewers with a lot of insanely fast play punctuated by a flurry of threes and dunks, all before bowing out to a team that simply poses unfriendly matchups with them. Last year, that was OKC in an epic battle of THUNDERNUGGETS!!@@@#!!, but this time around, it’ll just be the bigs in LA taking this one in a very competitive six games.
- New York Knicks versus Miami Heat: Wow. This series has everything: the names, the cities, the epic venue, the narrative, the come back story. Too bad these guys have to actually play basketball because that will likely go a lot worse for the Knickerbockers, for which everything has been sort of falling into place over the last month. And then A’mare came back. And we start all over. Again. Whichever iteration of the Knicks shows up in Miami Saturday afternoon likely doesn’t have the chemistry or fortitude that another Tyson-Chandler-led team did last summer, and if NY’s offense operates anything like it has at all other points at which Melo and Stoudemire have shared the floor, this will be a short one, with the Heat taking this series in five games.
- Utah Jazz versus San Antonio Spurs: You remember this time last year, this situation. The Spurs had the top seed and a pass-heavy offense that took the pressure off of its older main cogs, and San Antonio ran into an imposing road block in a surging eight seed that found most of its strength inside and stole another postseason from the former dynastic crew. But this Jazz team doesn’t play defense like that Grizzlies team; in fact, it doesn’t play D like anyone in the playoffs, posting the lowest defensive efficiency of any of the 16 qualifying teams. And this Spurs team? They’re ready. Ready for a Finals run, ready to pull off a shocker, and damn sure ready to win this series in five games.
SERIES THAT WILL MOSTLY BE PLAYED ON NBA TV
- Philadelphia 76ers versus Chicago Bulls: This Bulls team, even without its dynamic scoring creator in Derrick Rose, can stop essentially any offense that can’t overpower it with raw offensive talent. The 76ers’ leading scorer comes off of the bench, and he posts less than 15 points per game. I know we’re in an age of advanced statistics, but those numbers don’t look promising. Bulls in four games, getting those broken wing players some needed rest.
- Orlando Magic versus Indiana Pacers: The Pacers really, really got shivved by a Heat team that didn’t care as much about a top seed as it did rest for its Big Three, as even after these four walkthroughs, Indiana’s still walking into a second-round bloodbath at the hands of a Heat team that toyed with them all season. A Bulls/Pacers second-round matchup would have provided some much-needed sparks for semis that can sometimes feel like prolonged coronation processes, but now we can only wait for the Heat to take off some heads in the next round. Ughh. Oh yeah, Pacers in four games.
Make your bets accordingly, and by that, I mean in no way take any of my advice (especially on the Code Red. That stuff is disgusting). You can read this column every Friday, and I can be followed on the regular on Twitter here. Thanks for the read.