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2014 NBA PLAYOFFS – Scholar’s Round 1 Predictions

With the NBA Playoffs underway and each team having played their first game this weekend, here’s one Scholar’s predictions on how the first round will play out.

Eastern Conference

1) Indiana Pacers over 8) Atlanta Hawks

Despite the Pacers closing out the regular season with a paltry 12-13 record and then dropping Game 1 of their first round match-up against the Hawks, I expect Indiana to get it together and take this series in 6. A balanced offense led by Paul George and great front-court depth with Hibbert, West, and Bynum should be enough for the Pacers to withstand Atlanta’s Game 1 momentum. With Al Horford (who averaged 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds this season) out for the series, the Pacers talent will win out over the long haul. That said, if the Pacers win the series on talent alone but continue their late-season chemistry and execution woes, they’re going to have a tough time getting out of the second round against either Chicago or Washington.

2) Miami Heat over 7) Charlotte Bobcats

Already up 1-0 after pulling away in the 2nd half of Game 1 for an 99-88 victory, Miami will have no problem advancing against the 7th seeded Charlotte Bobcats. I’ve always been a big Al Jefferson fan and he’s morphed into as good an offensive center as there is in the league today. Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson provide added scoring depth behind Big Al, but while they man the paint well, averaging an 8th best 5.1 blocks per game, their perimeter defense is suspect, ranking next to last in the league in steals per game at 6.1. Miami’s strength is their perimeter game, with Lebron, D. Wade, and Ray Allen presenting match-up issues outside the paint. Even Chris Bosh is more dangerous with his jump shot offensively than his post-play. The Heat’s back-to-back championship core is hungry for a three-peat and though I think the aggregate effect of 3 straight Finals appearances and another deep run this year will ultimately prove to be their undoing, they’ll win this series 4.

3) Toronto Raptors over 6) Brooklyn Nets

Toronto is my sleeper pick out of the Eastern Conference. Even though they dropped Game 1 at home to the Nets, I anticipate their youthful core of DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Kyle Lowry will be too much over the course of the series for the veteran Pierce and Garnett to withstand. And whereas in theory Joe Johnson and Deron Williams should lead the charge for the Nets, these two guys have never had any sustained playoff success and they’re up and down play this year suggests these playoffs won’t be the exception. Toronto had a very good season, clinching the Atlantic Division for only the 2nd time in franchise history and earned the 3 seed in the East. They’re young, hungry, and ready to make an impact on these playoffs. Look for Toronto to rebound in Game 2 and gain a hard-fought series victory in 7 over the aging Nets.

Side-note: Toronto’s media trolling of the Nets is fantastic in my opinion. Here’s the clip of Raptor’s General Manager Masai Ujiri yelling ‘F*ck Brooklyn!’ at a pre-playoff rally:

And here’s Toronto Raptor’s ambassador Drake being interviewed while attending Game 1 taking shots at Jay-Z for not being at the game:

This kind of showmanship is great. I’m sure the league will address Ujiri and Jay-Z will eventually eviscerate Drake in an upcoming track, but I love Toronto’s enthusiasm across the board and really hope they pull this series out, despite my Celtics-for-Life love of Pierce and Garnett.

4) Chicago Bulls over 5) Washington Wizards

The 4 vs. 5 first round match-up is often the toughest to call, and this series proves no different. Chicago is battle-tested, having just withstood the bulk of a 2nd straight season without the services of oft-injured former MVP Derek Rose to land the 4 seed this year (after landing the 5 seed last year). The Bulls are led by Joakim Noah’s strong defensive presence and tenacity on both ends of the court.  Boozer may be over-paid, but with averages of 13.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game he’s no slouch, and D.J. Augustin has proven himself to be a formidable scoring threat off the bench. All that said, Washington employed a 4th quarter charge to come away with a Game 1 victory behind 24 from Nene Hilario and 18 from Trevor Ariza.  I like Washington’s exciting, high scoring back-court of John Wall and Bradley Beal and with Martin Gortat and Nene they have some front-court depth t0 challenge the Bulls’ big men.  But I believe Chicago will right the ship as this group is battle-tested and well coached.  Washington hasn’t been there before and their lack of playoff experience will ultimately be their downfall.  The veteran Bulls take the series in 7 .

Western Conference

1) San Antonio Spurs over 8) Dallas Mavericks

For Dallas, though Dirk is older he’s still very good having led the Mavericks with regular season averages of 21.7 points per game while securing 6.2 rebounds per contest. Monta Ellis is a solid scorer, netting 19 per game in the regular season, while veteran wing players Vince Carter and Shawn Marion combine for 22.3 points off the bench. But the Mavs don’t rebound the ball very well (with Samuel Dalembert leading the team with 6.8 per game) and won’t have enough on defense to contend with the championship and battle-tested core of the Spurs Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. Leading in the 4th quarter of Game 1, the Mavericks were outscored 19-4 the rest of the way. Duncan overcame what looked to be a hard bump to the knee area while setting a high post screen on Monta Ellis to lead the Spurs with 27 points and Tony Parker got hot late to close out the charge. Dirk has another legendary playoff moment left in him, and that will propel Dallas to steal one from San Antonio late in one of these games, but the Spurs are on a mission to make right on last year’s title slipping through their fingertips and as such will advance to round 2 in 5.

2) Oklahoma City Thunder over 7) Memphis Grizzlies

Kevin Durant will very likely land his first MVP award in the coming weeks, and with a healthy Russell Westbrook I look for the Thunder to not just dispose of Memphis in the first round, but ultimately bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to Oklahoma City for its first NBA championship. Memphis is a tough team both mentally and physically, winning 50 games this year and ending up with the 7th seed in a loaded Western Conference. With formidable bigs Zack Randolph and Marc Gasol manning the paint effectively on both ends of the floor and point guard Mike Conley balancing out their offense with averages of 17.2 points and 6 assists per game, Memphis won’t be a pushover in this series. But they don’t have enough to match OKC’s fire-power. Durant and Westbrook combined for 53.8 combined points per game during the regular season and powered OKC’s high-octane offense to a Game 1 victory to set the tone for the series. Memphis’ heart and physical play will garner them a home victory, but OKC holds firm and moves on to round 2 in 5.

3) Los Angeles Clippers over 6) Golden State Warriors

Golden State took Game 1, but nearly gave it away in the final minutes. Blake only played 19 minutes due to foul trouble and there were some questionable calls that shifted momentum Golden State’s way once the Clippers had cut into a double digit lead late in the final frame. I’m a big fan of Stephen Curry – the guy is an unbelievably gifted shooter, and along with Klay Thompson and Andre Igoudala he gives the Warriors a formidable trio with which to contend. But the Clippers are hungry, more talented, and to take nothing away from Mark Jackson, better coached. Doc Rivers is a championship coach and has taken several teams deep into the playoffs.  Although this is a new bunch for him, the MVP caliber play of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul’s mastery of the point on both ends of the floor will ultimately prevail in this series. Clippers in 6.

4) Houston Rockets over 5) Portland Trailblazers

Another tough 4 vs. 5 match-up to call, perhaps more so even than its Easter Conference counterpart. The Blazers started off hot this year and leveled off mid-season, finishing with 54 wins and the 5 seed. Houston was steady all year en route to 54 wins as well. Thanks to owning the tie-breaker over Portland by virtue of a 3-1 regular season series victory, Portland will start the playoffs at home for the first time in 17 years. Point guard Damian Lilliard and center Lamarcus Aldridge will lead a strong Portland attack, while Houston will combat with Dwight Howard’s low post defensive presence and James Harden’s high scoring output. Two solid teams with good bigs, good wing players, and identical regular season records will likely result in one of the more entertaining first round series to follow.  Despite 27 apiece from Harden and Howard (with Dwight tacking on 15 rebounds and 4 blocks), Portland stole the home court advantage in Game 1 with a 122-120 overtime victory behind fantastic scoring outputs by Aldridge (46) and Lilliard (31).  At day’s end however, over the long-haul of the series I like the duo of Harden and Howard a bit more than Aldridge and Lilliard and expect the Rockets to pull out a road victory en-route to a hard-fought, tightly contested series win in 7 games.

That wraps up our round 1 predictions. We’ll be back with more NBA Playoffs analysis as the series unfold. Until then, enjoy the games.

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