If this were any other season in recent memory, I'd be opening an NBA playoffs preview with a line that read something like this: "Now that the interminable slog through the regular season is over, we can watch some relevant, exciting basketball for once." Not this year. The 2010-2011 NBA has been so entertaining, so galvanizing, that the season has been a delight to imbibe. We've born witness to the ascension of Derrick Rose, Coach Thibs, and the Bulls. We've had the most significant/insane trade deadline ever, which made Knicks basketball relevant again, imbued the Nets with a solid core (provided D-Will stays), and altered much of what we thought we knew about the Western Conference beforehand. It's been a year's worth of highlight-packaged rim destruction from Blake Griffin, and an insane double-double streak from Kevin Love. Oh yeah, and we all got to change our minds 43,268 times on how good the Heat actually are. It's been the best appetizer in years, and the main course is going to be electric, unpredictable, and delicious. Hold on folks, freight train a'comin'...
Round One: East
Bulls/Pacers. I'm glad Indiana finally got back to the playoffs, but let's be realistic here; they're going to get crushed. D-Rose, Boozer, and Noah are going to rip through this series with nary a hiccup. In fact, the Bulls can rest pretty much anyone with even a slight injury and ensure a fully healthy squad for round 2, and still steamroll Indy. Sorry, Pacers fans. Bulls in 4.
Heat/Sixers. We need a new award just so we can give one to Doug Collins for this season. He didn't quite deserve COY honors with Thibs, Pop, George Karl, Nate McMillan, et al. in the mix, but driving a mediocre, disjointed Philly squad to a .500 season and a 7th seed needs to be lauded somehow. The Shaka Smart "How The Hell Did You Do That?" Memorial Trophy, maybe? I actually think the Sixers match up pretty well with the Heat. Iggy will put up some gritty resistance on the perimeter, and Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand are going to hang against a weak Heat interior, with Thaddeus Young providing heart. However, LBJ and D-Wade are just too much firepower to cope with, especially if Bosh is operating at a high level and giving them a third option. The Heat will shorten their weak rotation and simply overwhelm Philly. Miami in 5.
Celtics/Knicks. This won't be the most fun match up to watch, but it might be the most intriguing. Melo and Amare are capable of unleashing havoc at any time, and Chauncey Billups has playoff cred dripping from his pores. Unfortunately for NYC, I think the Celtics are going to shake off their post-Perkins lethargy and dial in for the postseason. Rondo, Ray Allen, and The Truth have been through this before, and they'll be ready to roll now that the stakes are real. And don't think for a second that KG won't be in "destroyer" mode. It's going to be a dirty, up-and-down series, but Boston's demonstrable superiority on the defensive end will be the difference. C's in 6.
Magic/Hawks. In the tradition of analysts everywhere, it's trendy to pick one monumental first-round upset. Sadly, my beloved Hawks are not that team. Sure, they were 3-1 against Orlando this year, and Jason Collins is one of the few players in the league capable of legitimately disrupting Dwight Howard's game. Ideally, this should be a vengeance rematch to erase the cumulative 100-point humiliation of last year, but the Hawks ... they're listless, despondent, and utterly devoid of any spark whatsoever. If Orlando's perimeter shooting is even semi-functional, this is going to be short and ugly. Magic in 5.
Round One: West.
Spurs/Grizzlies. Memphis inexplicably tanked the end of the season to avoid the Lakers under the mistaken belief that they could beat San Antonio. A veteran team like the Spurs doesn't really need bulletin-board material to motivate them, but you can bet they're filing this away nonetheless. Pop is far to savvy a postseason coach, and even if Manu is hurt and Duncan isn't what he once was, I don't think the 0-for-playoff-lifetime Griz stand a chance, despite a decently challenging roster. Spurs in 5.
Lakers/Hornets. I really do feel bad for Chris Paul. If New Orleans had a healthy David West, they might make a good case for an upset here, but they don't. Regardless of Andrew Bynum's knees, Kobe, Pau, and co. have more than enough game to trounce an undermanned Hornets team. Lakers in 4.
Mavericks/Blazers. Everyone keeps picking this as a first round "upset." Question: at what point does universal opinion remove that tag from a deeper, better Blazers team. Brandon Roy is still capable of putting 20-ish good minutes on the floor every night, and LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, Marcus Camby, Wes Matthews, Andre Miller, Rudy Ferna ... well, that was going to be a proper sentence with a verb and everything, but look at that list of Portland players capable of contributing in big ways in crunch time. Who is Dallas throwing up against these guys? Jason Kidd? Jason Terry? Tyson Chandler? Yes, Dirk is still an incredible force, but he's got to be tired of carrying this team to 50-win seasons and getting bounced in round 1 every year. And he's going to be watching that movie again this year, poor guy. Blazers in 6.
Thunder/Nuggets. If you're not irrationally excited for this, you don't care about hoops. Hypothetical missives sent out after the trade deadline:
"Dear Mr. Ainge, thanks so much for gift wrapping a fortified interior and freeing up Serge Ibaka to play the 4. Perk is working out very nicely here. How are you doing with Jeff Green? Sincerely, Sam Presti."
"Dear Carmelo, thank you for being a waffling, NYC-or-nothing diva for most of the season. You drove up your asking price and got me a whole bunch of effort-giving, team-first, non-ball-stopping kids who play their hearts out every night and have been thrashing everybody since the All Star break. It's the team I always wanted. Hope you're enjoying New York. Sincerely, George Karl."
Even with the last two regular-season meetings pointing heavily towards OKC, this Denver team has come together in a remarkable way, and I don't think they're going down easy. This will be run-and-gun, high intensity basketball every single game. The difference here is that in the playoffs, you really do need "the guy" in crunch time, and Denver's by-committee approach to last-shot situations is simply not going to cut it against Durant and Westbrook. Thunder in 7.