It’s here! It’s here! Shout till your throat gets sore! Wear your favourite team’s jersey day and night for the next two months! Grow a playoff beard! Because the time is finally here. In less than a few hours from the time you probably read this, the 2012 NBA Playoffs will begin.
It was a whirlwind 66-games-in-only-4-months season where things happened way too quickly for us to keep a grasp on. LeBron vs. Durant! Kobe still scoring 40 all the time! Chris Paul in LA! The Spurs are still great! LINSANITY! Kevin Love! Bulls! Celtics! Grizzlies! More exclamation points!!! And finally, that whirlwind has passed by just as quickly as it had begun. And now, we are settling into the real business matter of the things. Sorry if I can’t contain my excitement any longer as I type the next one-word paragraph:
Ok. Now that’s out of my system, let’s move on to my first annual first-round-of-the-playoffs column, which I’m going to call ‘Upset Watch’. I have already written my formal feature previewing the first round in the East for NBA.com/India, and you can find a preview of the first round in the West by Akshay Manwani on the same site.
But here, hours before the playoffs officially begin, we’re going to shift our focus slightly. In ‘Upset Watch’, I’m going to take a look at which lower-seeded squads* are most likely to cause a first-round upset. A year ago, two upsets took place in the first round: the Hawks over the Magic in the East, and the truly unpredictable eighth-place Grizzlies over the first-place Spurs in the West.
*(There is one technicality: the Hawks (5) have a better record than the Celtics (4), but because Boston won their division, they’re technically a higher seed. But Atlanta still has home-court advantage, and because of that, I’m going to consider them a lower-seed. Cool?)
What’s going to happen this time around? Do the Knicks have a chance over the Heat? Can Jazz upset the Spurs? What about the Dwight-less Magic versus the Pacers? Here is my wholly unscientific breakdown, in ascending order, from the team least likely to cause an upset to the one most likely.
East: Bulls (1) vs. 76ers (8) I respect the hell out of Philadelphia’s loyal fans and their spirit, but sorry, no chance of this happening this year. Yes, I know Chicago has some problems hovering over them, with the health of Derrick Rose being of course the major concern. But here’s the thing: without Rose, the Bulls do the same things 76ers do well (hard-nosed defense, team-oriented basketball, depth), except that the Bulls do them all much better. And then, when the games do get close, the answer will come down to who has a finisher (Bulls with Rose) and who doesn’t (76ers with who? Lou Williams? Jrue Holiday? Andre Iguodala? Nah).
Upset Probability: 11%
My Prediction: Bulls in 4.
West: Spurs (1) vs. Jazz (8) The Jazz have one major, tantalising advantage: their size. Between the excellent Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, and Enes Kanter, they are sure to give the aging Tim Duncan and the other Spurs bigs some troubles. Not enough, though. The Spurs are way to efficient offensively, way too experienced, and are far better coached. I think the Jazz will win one game in Utah on pure energy, but this is San Antonio’s series.
Upset Probability: 16%
My Prediction: Spurs in 5.
East: Pacers (3) vs. Magic (6) Without Dwight Howard, the Magic would be around the ninth or tenth spot in the East (I’m being kind). Yet, they find themselves at 6 in the playoffs, and guess what, they’re without Howard. That means the Pacers should dominate this series, although since both teams are relatively without star-power, I’m expecting Orlando to have some belief in their three-point proficiency and be confident enough to at least win one game.
Upset Probability: 19%
My Prediction: Pacers in 5.
West: Lakers (3) vs. Nuggets (6) I know Denver has Ty Lawson, the type of quick point guard that usually give LA troubles. But this year, it’s going to be Ramon Sessions guarding those quick point guards and not old Derek Fisher. On the other hand, who in Denver is going to stop Bynum and Gasol. There will be no World Peace in this series, but the Lakers won’t need it. And oh ya, I’ve gone through an entire Laker-related paragraph without mentioning HIS name. That’s how comfortable I feel the Lakers will be.
Upset Probability: 24%
My Prediction: Lakers in 5.
East: Heat (2) vs. Knicks (7) No, I’m not ranking this as the ‘most-likely-to-be-an-upset-series’, but I’m ranking this as definitely the most exciting series. The Knicks have a lot of good momentum going in their favour. They are 18-6 under the new coach to finish the season, Carmelo Anthony was the best basketball player in the NBA over the last month (and hence April’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month Award), and the Knicks’ home crowd can cause a ruckus in the Madison Square Garden. All that may be good enough for New York to steal a couple of games, but Miami should still survive this series. A lot of things have to go right for New York to upset the Heat, whereas a lot of things have to go wrong for the Heat to lose. I don’t think that is happening. In the end, after a tough and entertaining series, LeBron and Wade and Bosh and the rest will move on.
Upset Probability: 32%
My Prediction: Heat in 6.
West: Thunder (2) vs. Mavericks (7) If you look at it rationally, this shouldn’t be a tough series at all for OKC. They are younger, deeper, more athletic, and hungrier. But it would be wrong to be too rational here when the lower-seed are the defending champions featuring the forgotten Finals MVP. Yes, the Mavericks haven’t had a great season, but they have enough juice and enough experience in them to trouble the Thunder, who by the way, had quite a shaky and worrisome last month. Still, the Thunder should get their revenge for last year’s Western Conference Finals and send out the reigning champs out fishing.
Upset Probability: 40%
My Prediction: Thunder in 6.
West: Grizzlies (4) vs. Clippers (5) 4 vs. 5 is supposed to be close, and yes, this I believe will be the closest series of the first round. Both teams play exciting basketball. Both teams are athletic. On one hand, you have the red hot Grizzlies, who have stolen home court advantage in the last few games of the season and it will definitely help them in this matchup. They have all the pieces clicking and contributing, and will be ready to strike on the iffy Clippers. But the Clippers have Chris Paul, who is a top four MVP candidate and the best players in either team, by far. Yes, this will be epic, it will go all the way, but in the end, the home team will move on.
Upset Probability: 46%
My Prediction: Grizzlies in 7.
East: Celtics (4) vs. Hawks (5) Yes, yes, I know it’s confusing. If Celtics are ranked higher, why are they the underdogs? Well, that’s because the Hawks won more games and have home-court advantage – simple, so I will consider a Celtics win an ‘upset’ in this series. Al Horford will be out for Atlanta, and Garnett will eat up whoever else they throw at him (including the awesome Ivan Johnson). Josh Smith and Joe Johnson are probably not enough to counter Rondo, Pierce, and the rest of the rejuvenated Celtics. And Tracy McGrady will continue to be that guy who never leads his team past the first round of the playoffs (the only time it happened was with the Rockets a few years ago, and that was because McGrady was injured in the first round).
Upset Probability: 69%
My Prediction: Celtics in 6.
So there you have it folks – I’m calling only one official upset, that of the Celtics over the Hawks. If my predictions are correct, our second round match-ups will be Bulls vs. Celtics, Heat vs. Pacers, Spurs vs. Grizzlies, and Thunder vs. Lakers.
Share your thoughts… and now, it’s time to welcome the playoffs!