At the start of this NBA season, many New York fans (including myself) thought that the Knicks were a good enough team to get the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference by April. Seemed reasonable. Melo is a star, Calderon is decent, Tyson Chandler is still a great defender, J.R. Smith and Shumpert are still pretty darn good players. Then they beat the Cavaliers on the road in their second game of the season as the expectations heightened. Eight seed? Knicks fans asked. We just beat freaking LeBron! How about a 5-seed? Four? Three? Phil Jackson might as well start his new book, 12 Rings. The Knicks then proceeded to crank out the worst record in the conference (new logic for Knicks fans: 15-seed! Karl-Anthony Towns will surely lead us to that 3-seed next year! Not to mention Marc Gasol, a quiet, reserved player, will surely leave the best possible situation for himself to come to a team in rebuilding mode where the media will constantly hound him! He’ll bring Aldridge too! Don’t forget Rondo! Wait, what salary cap? We never learn, I tell you). Now Tyson Chandler is gone, J.R. and Shump are loving life on a contender in Cleve, and the Knicks are starting three undrafted free agents some nights. This teaches us yet again just how impossible it is to predict every potential caveat to a seemingly simple game. Or how irrationally overconfident Knicks fans are. Okay, this season evidently taught us both of these things equally.
Remember mid-season, when the Hawks were considered a legitimate threat to win the NBA title? Next thing you know, they start slumping, Thabo Sefolosha suffers a season-ending tibia fracture at a bar to go along with his shiny new legal troubles, and the once-elite Hawks are looking more and more like the 2014 Pacers (earned the Eastern conference’s top seed over a far superior LeBron-led team, fizzled out horrifically at the end of the regular season, and were taken to seven games in the first round by the 8-seeded… Atlanta Hawks!). The Hawks certainly look vulnerable right now, although losing the series to Brooklyn is not going to happen.
How about four games after the All-Star break when some of us were actually concerned about the Spurs because they didn’t have the necessary motivation to win back to back titles/Tim Duncan was too old/Tony Parker was too old/Manu Ginobli was too old/Boris Diaw was too old and unathletic (okay, the last one is probably true). Then Kawhi Leonard got healthy, the Spurs won 22 out of their last 25 games and Gregg Popovich is currently snickering sardonically to himself in his giant Spur-shaped mansion, drinking black coffee while Patty Mills sits in the corner polishing off Pop’s five championship rings for a contractual bonus.
The point is, the season is never predictable, regardless of how far into it you are. Even though I am conveniently choosing to ignore the Hawks doubters/Spurs believers that were relatively easy to find mid-season, you still never really know what the hell is going to happen. With that being said, I will disregard the past three (now four) paragraphs about how unpredictable this all is and pretend that I have all the answers. Trust the guy who thought the Knicks would make the playoffs on this one.
FIRST ROUND (aka “The Western Conference Slugfest” Round)
Note: This could also be called “The Eastern Conference Chalk” Round.
1. Golden State Warriors vs. 8. New Orleans Pelicans
Warriors W 4-1
The Pelicans are a better team than Oklahoma City, so they’ll be a tougher challenge for G-State than it may originally look. Golden State lacks big men behind Andrew Bogut, and Anthony Davis is the Pelicans’ only star. Davis will win a title one day, but not with a cast of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, and Omer Asik. For now they’ll have to settle for trying to steal a game away from the Warriors at home.
4. Portland Trail Blazers vs. 5. Memphis Grizzlies
Grizzlies W 4-2
Thanks to the NBA’s odd play-off seeding, the Trail Blazers have been guaranteed that 4-seed for a while, while the Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers fought between 2, 3, 5, and 6, because Portland won the division and is therefore guaranteed a top-4 seed. However, since the Grizzlies have a better record, they still receive home court advantage.
With that being said, the Grizzlies have been quietly the second-best team in the NBA for most of the season, slipping down in the rankings late. Marc Gasol is most likely going to be first-team All-NBA and for good reason. He’s averaging 17 PPG and 8 RPG. He’s also the leader of the team, along with the most underrated guard in the league, Mike Conley, a top-3 point guard (My top 5: Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Conley, John Wall, and Damian Lillard. If you cared. No? Oh. Then, please, proceed). The Trail Blazers just haven’t looked like anything special since Wesley Matthews suffered a season-ending injury near the midway point. If he were healthy, I think they win. Instead, Lillard and Aldridge will be overwhelmed by a much deeper Memphis team
3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6. San Antonio Spurs
Spurs W 4-3
The Spurs were eligible to land the 2-seed, 3-seed, 5-seed, or 6-seed going into their final game. They lost, making them the 6. The loss also placed them in the worst possible scenario, facing a Clippers team with home court advantage. The Clips have quietly had their best team since acquiring Chris Paul, and have won 14 out of their last 15 regular season games, earning the home-court advantage against their worst-nightmare match-up. It shouldn’t matter. The Spurs are going the same way as LA, winning 14 of their last 16 games and 22 of 25. I mentioned in one of my NCAA Tournament articles that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is part wizard. If Izzo is a wizard, then Gregg Popovich is a sorcerer, which means the same thing as wizard but sounds more impressive. The difference in seeds between the teams (3) is three times larger than the lead the Clippers have on the Spurs in the season’s final standings (1 game ahead). Both teams are scorching hot, but I like the Spurs better here. Barely. Don’t trust me on this one.
2. Houston Rockets vs. 7. Dallas Mavericks
Rockets W 4-2
Only in the 2015 Western Conference could a team get 50 wins and be a 7-seed. If the Mavs were in the East, they’d be a 3-seed, facing the 41-41 Milwaukee Bucks. Poor Dallas. Instead they catch a Houston team with a healthy Dwight Howard and a beastly James Harden in full swing. Houston isn’t quite has hot as LA or San Antonio, but they’re still 10-3 in their past 13 games (Two of their three losses are to the Spurs. Intriguing, no?).Meanwhile, the Mavericks seem to be wearing down somewhat, only winning 6 of their last 13. Monta Ellis and James Harden’s combined defensive abilities should result in a handful of 25-point games for each of them. When Dallas acquired Rondo, I thought they were legitimate title contenders. Instead, the Mavs were forced to settle for a 7-seed while the Celtics went on a crazy second half run to grab the same seed in the East. It seems fair to say Rondo’s free agent value was not helped by this move.
1. Atlanta Hawks vs. 8. Brooklyn Nets
Hawks W 4-1
I think the Hawks defeat the Nets easily, and I don’t even think the Hawks are that good anymore. Luckily for Atlanta, the Nets suck. Brooklyn fans shouldn’t even be offended by that. They have the worst record of any playoff team and wouldn’t have made the play-offs at all if Paul George had been healthy for about five more games this season. I think the Pacers would have taken the Hawks to a 7-game series and even potentially win, but Brooklyn is not Indiana. Instead of Paul George, they have Deron Williams. On a related note, the Nets’ future as a franchise looks about as bleak as any team in the league, although that won’t matter for this series. Just thought you should know.
4. Toronto Raptors vs. 5. Washington Wizards
Raptors W 4-2
Here we see two prime cases of “Eastern Conference Teams That Struggled Down the Stretch and Would have Barely Made the Playoffs if They Played in the West.” Both teams have good starting lineups with two very good players, John Wall and Bradley Beal for Washington, and Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry for Toronto. Toronto won all three regular season meetings between the teams, although two of them were very close contests, which is why I expect the Wizards to win a couple games in this series. Toronto takes the home court and advances, however.
3. Chicago Bulls vs. 6. Milwaukee Bucks
Bulls W 4-3
When people say they love watching the Bucks play, they really mean they love watching Giannis Antetokounmpo play. Man, I love watching the Bucks play.
This kid is crazy. His wingspan is 88 inches. There’s a reason he’s called the Greek Freak.
He’ll be a star one day and is a vital reason the Bucks have the 6-seed at all (along with the Nets pissing off Jason Kidd and trading him. Now that he’s not in Brooklyn, he looks like a good coach. Go figure). They aren’t going to beat Chicago when the Bulls have home court advantage though. They’re too good and experienced to go down to a young upstart Milwaukee team. No one is really sure what to expect from Chicago yet, but they should get past the first round.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers and 7. Boston Celtics
Cavaliers W 4-2
Ah, if the Celtics had just been a little bit worse after they got rid of Rondo, they would have a favorable match-up against top-seeded Atlanta while Brooklyn got pounded by Cleveland. Instead, Boston has to match up Jae Crowder/Jared Sullenger/Evan Turner with LeBron James and Brandon Bass/Kelly Olynyk with Kevin Love while playing four games on the road and hoping for victory. I don’t see Boston winning this series under any circumstances, barring an injury to James. Boston did beat Cleveland back-to-back times this month, but one of those games – a 117-78 rout – is meaningless since James, Love, Kyrie Irving, and J.R. Smith weren’t playing at all. If you take that game away, Boston is only 1-2 versus the Cavaliers, although one of the losses was by only a point. Cleveland will win, but Boston has the ability to take a couple games from them.
So, that’s the first round. I’m calling no sweeps, but Golden State-New Orleans, Atlanta-Brooklyn, Houston-Dallas, Toronto-Washington, and Cleveland-Boston all have the potential. I will be posting previews for the conference semifinals, finals, and NBA Finals, as well as some NBA draft preview following the lottery in May. Stay tuned and enjoy the play-offs!
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Sean Gallipo