Playoff preview: Ranking a first round full of intrigue
Eighteen games decided by two points or less to tie the record. Ten games that went to overtime to set the record. Four separate Game 7s to fall one short of the record.
You had Phoenix in the first round coming back from a 3-1 deficit. You had Miami in the NBA Finals climbing out of 0-2 hole.
You had a postseason in 2006 that, frankly, won't be very easy to follow in 2007. Best postseason of my adult life.
So I've naturally been fretting about this since last July, as a chronic worrier, trying to project what kind of follow-up we're going to see. I'd probably settle for an '07 playoffs that turns out half as good, except that we really deserve something closer to the '06 stratosphere after all the injuries foisted upon the NBA public this season.
One parallel I'm sure we'll see is a Dallas-Miami reunion in June. I've just had a feeling since the fall that the Mavericks and Heat will both overcome all of their considerable obstacles -- Phoenix and San Antonio in the West, Miami's own fragile health and old age in the East -- to make it back to the Finals and resume the league's most contentious rivalry ... with MVP-to-be Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs winning the rings this time.
But that part's still some six weeks away.
Let's start with a first look at the NBA's first-round pairings, ranked in order from most to least intriguing/wild/watchable and with series predictions included:
1. MIAMI (4) vs. CHICAGO (5)
• Series page: Heat vs. Bulls
If I listen to the scouts who know the game better than I do -- as well as the common-sense part of my brain -- I shouldn't even be picking Miami to get out of this series. Because no team in the East is better equipped to send repeated waves of pain into Dwyane Wade's bum left shoulder than the Bulls.
Oh, yeah: One theory in circulation suggests that no defender gets into Wade's head better the Bulls' Kirk Hinrich.
It's probably also worth mentioning that the Bulls played Miami as well as any team did in the 2006 playoffs, without home-court advantage in that series or Ben Wallace to bang on Shaq.
So, uh, why am I picking the Heat?
Perhaps I'm putting too much faith in Miami's switch-flipping abilities after doubting them so staunchly before their championship run, but champions deserve that sort of respect ... even if those champs are seriously banged up (Udonis Haslem, James Posey, Gary Payton) and don't always respect the regular season. I also can't totally discount the Letdown Theory; Chicago is especially ripe to lose one of the first two games at home after the disappointment of falling one win short of a Pistons- and Heat-free path to the conference finals.
Miami will have to find a way to keep Shaq out of foul trouble, keep Shaq moving so Wallace can't just attach himself and shoot the 3-ball well while Wade continues to rebuild confidence in his body. Yet I'm strangely (foolishly?) expecting all that and more from the Heaters.
Prediction: Heat in six.
2. SAN ANTONIO (3) vs. DENVER (6)
• Series page: Spurs vs. Nuggets
Maybe it's because they're far away from the East Coast. Or maybe it's because the trade was in December and they really didn't start winning until April.
Upsetting San Antonio would change that quickly, of course, but they're up against a veteran squad that (A) every lower seed in the West desperately wanted to avoid and (B) is accustomed to dealing with first-round foes that surge into the playoffs.
"We've done that a lot," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said with a knowing smile, well aware that San Antonio was forced to face and then disposed of the similarly hot Nuggets and Kings in 2005 and 2006.
Pop also knows that Denver needs a lot of things to go right to win its first series since the famed No. 8-over-No. 1 toppling of George Karl's Seattle SuperSonics in 1994.
The Nuggets need Marcus Camby and especially Nene to avoid foul trouble ... and Melo to play through the inevitable attempts by Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili to get under his skin ... and a big fourth quarters from Melo and Iverson.
If that seems like a long list, that's because it is.
Prediction: Spurs in six.
3. PHOENIX (2) vs. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (7)
• Series page: Suns vs. Lakers
It's a rematch, yes, but not quite the rematch everyone was hoping for.
The Suns, in spite of some late-season chemistry concerns raised by Steve Nash, are simply not as vulnerable as they were in the first round last April. The Lakers, meanwhile, aren't nearly as ready to put them in a 3-1 hole, judging by all the 50-point games they needed from Kobe Bryant just to make the playoffs.
Put another way by a Western Conference scout: "Phoenix is a lot better inside than it was last year and the Lakers are much worse inside."
The difference? Phoenix, for starters, has Amare Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas this time. Thomas is the accomplished post defense Phoenix lacked in the teams' seven-game epic and Stoudemire's mere (destructive) presence means that the Lakers' big men will have to work a lot harder defensively.
The other difference? The Lakers have regressed big-time defensively and role players like Smush Parker and Kwame Brown aren't rolling anywhere close to how they were then, so it'll take a serious sell job by Phil Jackson to transmit the confidence Jackson has always had in L.A.'s ability to keep taking the ball to the rim to wear/slow Phoenix down. These players, Kobe aside, aren't exactly brimming with self-confidence after going 12-16 since the All-Star break, no matter how beatable Phoenix is in the Zenmeister's view.
And don't be surprised if the Suns show up with more collective focus no matter what Jackson says or does. Phoenix knows that it must -- must -- get through the first round in faster fashion than it did in '06. Suns coach Mike D'Antoni has been stressing to his guys for a while that going seven games each with the Lakers and Clippers, in retrospect, hurt them in the conference finals as much as anything Dallas did.
Yet in spite of all of the above, just knowing Kobe will be lining up against Raja Bell makes this a must-see series for as long as it lasts. The personalities involved, as with the next series we'll cover, are going to keep us hooked even if the Suns and Lakers aren't going seven again.
Prediction: Suns in five.
4. DALLAS (1) vs. GOLDEN STATE (8)
• Series page: Mavs vs. Warriors
Yes: Don Nelson knows Dirk Nowitzki's tendencies better than any coach in the world and twice proved during the regular season that keeping a defender on each of Dirk's hips or trying to force him to go right by running long-limbed pests at him can work if the other Mavs on the floor don't take advantage.
Yes: Nellie's small-ball lineups, especially his latest incarnation with the 6-foot-8 Al Harrington masquerading as a center, get Dallas' big men off the floor ... and it does tend to weaken the Mavs' defense if Erick Dampier or DeSagana Diop aren't protecting the rim.
In other words, there is some substance to the notion that the Warriors, after winning five straight regular-season meetings, present real problems for the Mavs.
But if you believe that there's a big difference between playoff basketball and the regular season, or if you believe that Josh Howard, Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse are too good not to start punishing Golden State for its Dirk obsession -- and I do on both counts -- you'll share my fear that Mavs-Warriors won't be nearly as even on the floor as it figures to be on the quote board with Nelson and Mark Cuban around.
Prediction: Mavs in five.
5. TORONTO (3) vs. NEW JERSEY (6)
• Series page: Raptors vs. Nets
As an unabashed Canada-lover, it pains me to report that the Raps are the only team that can challenge the Bulls for the most lost on the final day of the regular season.
If the Bulls had beaten the Nets in New Jersey, Toronto would get Washington in the first round. The Raps will instead get Vince Carter's Nets, except that Vince is the least of Toronto's problems.
The Raps, as one veteran scout described them to me, are "the closest thing we've got to a Phoenix of the East."
But Toronto wins by forcing teams to play at its pace and the Nets have been functioning at the same speed lately; long outlet passes and speeding up the tempo are among the factors that sparked the 7-2 finishing kick in April that enabled Jersey to finish at 41-41 after its season of many surgeries.
Given the Nets' considerable edge in playoff experience, proven ability to play Toronto's game and the unavailability of Raps rookie glue guy Jorge Garbajosa, I can't pick the Canadians to extend their return to the postseason to Round 2 no matter how much I want to.
As for Carter's return to hostile territory, let's hope that lives up to billing and delivers an international incident or two. Don't forget that this season was supposed to be Vince's greatest because he was in a contract year. We didn't see the Vinsanity we were promised until the season's final month.
Then again, maybe the Raps should be worried about Carter, since there's still time for a contract drive.
Prediction: Nets in six.
6. HOUSTON (5) vs. UTAH (4)
• Series page: Rockets vs. Jazz
This one was made for the East, really, because it's going to be the most physical, half-court-based series of the eight first-rounders.
The pick here would have been Houston even if the Rockets didn't have home-court advantage, because this is a better team than the one that extended Dallas to seven games in the first round of the '05 playoffs. Yet once they snatched home court from the Jazz -- and once Utah lost any semblance of rim protection without the ailing Andrei Kirilenko and started sliding at the finish -- Houston's status as the favorite was cemented.
It's true that Tracy McGrady is 0-for-5 lifetime in the first round and that Kirilenko is back in Utah's lineup now to harass him, but it's also true that none of T-Mac's previous teams has ever been as deep or feared as this one.
Prediction: Rockets in six.
7. CLEVELAND (2) vs. WASHINGTON (7)
• Series page: Cavs vs. Wizards
It's good to be King James.
On Wednesday morning, Cleveland was looking at a No. 5 seed and a nightmarish first-round meeting with Miami just for the right to advance to a Round 2 rematch with Detroit.
The LeBrons, thanks to Chicago's inability to win its season finale at New Jersey, suddenly have the biggest first-round cruise available with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler unavailable to the Wiz ... as well as the knowledge that they don't have to see Miami or Detroit before the conference finals.
In its banged-up state, Washington is that rare Team Everyone Wants To Play in Round 1. The only way to liven this one up, then, is to put a mike on the injured Arenas and either let him call the games from the Wizards' bench or hope he can trash talk his way into LeBron's head as retribution for LeBron doing it to Gil a year ago.
In short: Don't expect three one-point games like these teams served up last time. Don't expect even one.
Cavs-Wiz avoided our cellar only on the assumption that LeBron's presence alone guarantees at least some highlight material.
Prediction: Cavaliers in four.
8. DETROIT (1) vs. ORLANDO (8)
• Series page: Magic vs. Pistons
Problem is, this matchup is such a mismatch that I'm struggling to muster even faux enthusiasm for it, with the teams not dissimilar in style but miles apart in quality.
Bank on Chauncey Billups having a huge series, since he'll be pitched against smaller guards who've had trouble defending point guards all season ... point guards not necessarily in Chauncey's class.
Milicic's foot injury, furthermore, is a killer, given that the one thing Orlando has (had?) to throw at the Pistons is the combined size of Darko and Dwight Howard. If Milicic misses significant time, Hedo Turkoglu and Trevor Ariza will have to play bigger than they are. Not a welcome assignment against of a frontcourt rotation like Detroit's.
I suppose that the Magic can steal a game if the Pistons lose interest, like Milwaukee did in the '06 first round, but as one scout reminded me Wednesday night: "That Milwaukee team was better than this Orlando team."
Prediction: Pistons in four.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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