NBA Playoff Preview: The Year of the THUNDER?

by Troy Fite

I can’t remember the last time I was so excited about a sports team that I actually had high hopes about going into a postseason.  There have been plenty of expectations that I’ve had before on my sports teams (like all of those national title game losses with my OU football teams), but my emotional ties to the Thunder are almost palpable.  I would love to pick them to win it all, but my head just won’t let me.  It’s a little too soon to say that they will win it all this year.  Don’t get me wrong, they could.  They have the championship makeup of a winning team in the NBA, but I still think that it’s too soon to say that would happen. So instead I will be giving you who I think will win and why.

Let’s start in the not-too-difficult-to-predict Eastern Conference.  If there’s a person who thinks that the Indiana Pacers, the 8 seed, will make it a competitive series against the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, that individual should never watch sports again.  This was the easiest pick in the entire playoff bracket for me.  The Bulls defense is simply too good for the Pacers.

The next matchup is the Heat vs 76ers.  The Heat seem to have gelled toward the end of the year but to me, Miami is still the biggest wild card in the entire field.  The Heat really didn’t play as a team all year because it was pretty much D-Wade and Lebron carrying them the entire season.  Chris Bosh is a joke to me.  He’s the guy who puts up 25 points and 12 rebounds against teams like the Timberwolves but when he plays a team like the Celtics, he folds like a Bob Stoops National title contender (still bitter over all of those losses).  But now they have seemingly found a way to play together and that could mean gloom and doom for the rest of the teams in the playoffs.  What Doug Collins has done with this 76ers team is great but there just isn’t enough firepower on that team to take the Heat past 5 games.

This takes us to the most intriguing matchup in the first round in the East of Celtics vs Knicks.  Let’s get one thing out of the way.  The Celtics have been worse than an average ball club since the All-Star break.  In their last 21 games of the regular season they had a 10-11 record.  The infamous Kendrick Perkins trade that Danny Ainge coordinated has not only made them worse defensively, but also cohesively. The most important part of that trade wasn’t losing size and defense, to me it was the fact that Perk was a piece of a whole and now they aren’t complete anymore.  Chemistry is what the Celtics had before the trade.  You might say, “they were winning before Perk came back from injury.”  That’s true but they still had the chemistry in the locker room.  Now they don’t.  Now that great locker room guy is in a new city and is paying dividends for them.   That being said, I’m still going to pick them in a seven game series against the worst defensive team in the playoffs.  The Knicks are pathetic.  I’ve played basketball all my life and all it means to be bad at defense is to not hustle and not give your all during the game.  The whole team isn’t like that.  The two biggest names on that team are Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.  Those two should be setting the example of playing defense, but sadly for Knicks fans, it’s just the opposite.

The last first round series is the usually pretty even 4 vs 5 matchup.  The Orlando Magic vs the Atlanta Hawks…(yawn). Oh, I’m sorry, I was falling asleep from thinking about how boring this series will be.  Both of these teams underachieved all year.  Both teams even made big trades in the middle of the year to help jumpstart their lineups.  But nothing came from either one of those deals.  I’ll take the team that in my opinion had the MVP of the regular season in Dwight Howard.  His presence alone will be what takes the Magic into the second round.

So for the Eastern Conference semi-finals I’ve picked no upsets.  We have Bulls vs Magic and Heat vs Celtics.  The Bulls and Heat are the two best teams in the East at the end of the year and that’s who I’m taking here as well.  The Bulls have enough big bodies to throw at Dwight Howard to keep him uncomfortable.  This will be a lower scoring series because the Bulls will want to slow it down and let Derrick Rose dominate the ball.  It will be enough for them to take the series in 6 games, maybe 7.  During the course of the year, I thought that the Celtics were the best team in basketball but that has been proven untrue in the last few weeks.  This might be an even lower scoring series than the one mentioned previously.  When the Heat wants to defend, they are the best defensive team in the league.  The problem is they didn’t always want to during the year.  That will change come playoff time.  For some reason with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, the Celtics just aren’t very good on the bench right now.  Both of these guys look lost during the course of the game.  I’ll take the Heat in 7 games.

For the Eastern Conference finals I have the top two seeds in the Bulls vs Heat.  The Bulls swept Miami during the regular season but that certainly won’t happen during the playoffs.  The Big Three will carry them defensively against the consensus MVP of Rose.  It will be a knock-down-drag-out series where the Heat will have just too much star power to not get to the NBA Finals.

So we have one side set with the Miami Heat in the final series.  The Western Conference finals will be much harder to predict.  There is really only one team that really doesn’t have a shot to get to out of the West (the New Orleans Hornets).  The West is chocked full of really solid teams.  The first match up is the Spurs vs Grizzlies.  A 1 vs 8 matchup shouldn’t be close but this one will be.  The Grizz have played great down the stretch and are only going to get better next year because, like the Thunder, they are so young.  Memphis matches up better than expected against the ageless wonders of San Antonio.  How the Spurs attained the top seed this year is beyond me.  The Grizzlies have the athleticism and size to really give Duncan and Co. some problems.  In the end though the team that has played together longer than anyone else will prevail and come out on top in 6 games.

Then you have the two time defending champions in the L.A. Lakers going up against the New Orleans Hornets.  I said earlier that the Hornets had no chance and it’s mainly because they play L.A.  The other reason that Hornets won’t even give the Lakers a run is because their second best player in David West is injured and that spells defeat for Chris Paul.  Lakers in a sweep.

The 3 vs 6 matchup is pure gold this year.  This is my upset special in the first round.  The Dallas Mavericks vs the Portland Trailblazers is going to be an exciting series.  One team is playing great and the other is just kind of getting by on their superior talent.  The Blazers made a great move at the trade deadline in acquiring Gerald Wallace.  What that does now is give them size and length everywhere on the floor.  Honestly it’s scary.  Portland has really become one of the more complete teams since the break.  Dirk Nowitzki was great for most of the year and the Mavs do what they have done for what seems like decades and that’s just win.  Lately, though, they haven’t really felt like getting out of the first round of the playoffs and this year won’t be any different.  Blazers in 6 games.  You heard it here first.

The last Western Conference first round matchup is our beloved Thunder vs the punkish Nuggets.  I’m going to try to take my bias out of it but the Thunder is just a better team than the Nuggets.  Since Kendrick Perkins has been in the starting lineup, OKC has been flat out good.  You name it and they have gotten better at it.  One of the most underrated aspects of the trade was that it allowed Serge Ibaka to step out from beneath the shadows to really blossom in the starting lineup.  Also, James Harden has really stepped up his game to another level.  He has gone from 10 points a game to nearly 17 since Jeff Green left town.  If this team wants to make a real splash in this tournament then the key is for Ibaka and Harden to maintain their high level of play.  On the other side of the coin, what George Karl has done with a bunch of “B” players is really something admirable.  Karl is my coach of the year but that won’t be enough to stop the wrecking ball of awesomeness which is the OKC Thunder.  Thunder wins in 6 games.

That brings us to the second round where any one of these four teams could get hot and make it out of this portion of the bracket to face the Heatles in the Finals.  Let’s start with the Lakers-Blazers matchup.  Portland for some unknown reason is one of those places the Lakers just can’t win.  Now the Blazers are better and playing with a chip on their shoulders.  It will be a hard fought series but the ability of Kobe and Pau Gasol to perform in the clutch will allow them to move forward.  It really wouldn’t surprise me to see the Blazers win.  Under the radar is an understatement to how much no one is talking about them winning a series or two.  Trust me, they are that good.  Nobody wants to see them in the playoffs.   Too much Lakeshow in the end.  Lakers in 7 games.

San Antonio vs OKC.  My two teams in basketball that I love.  This is going to be a hard series for me to watch.  The Spurs have been my favorite sports team since I was a child when I found out that David Robinson became a born again believer on my birthday back in 1992.  They have done me proud for the last 19 years but now my hometown has a team.  A good team.  A team that we can all truly be proud of regardless of outcome and that is a truly rare thing in professional sports these days.  I have switched allegiances since last year’s game 6 loss to the Lakers in the playoffs.  I’m now a Loud City resident where I proudly display my pride for blue and orange.  All that being said, this series is difficult to predict.  The Thunder is truly a more complete team but will that be enough against the battle tested veterans of the Spurs?  Yes, Yes it is.  They win in 6 games and take out the 1 seed.  It will be a changing of the guard type of series.  This will be the last run that Tim Duncan has in him.

In the Western Conference Finals it’s a rematch of that exciting first round series of last year between L.A. and OKC.  The Lakers know exactly what awaits them and they now know that there is no stopping the heavyweight train of KD and Westbrook.  Just to have some fun, I’ll say that theThunder beat the Lakers in 7 games (I really think the Lakers win the whole thing but what the heck).  The one thing that the Lakers have absolutely no answer for is the great point guard.  This year Russell Westbrook has been one of the best.  He is even better than he was a year ago when they played and Russ is ready.  He is licking his chops for another go at it.  So is KD, who has seemingly figured out how to play Ron Artest’s suffocating defense as evident from the last time they played n the regular season.  Therefore the Thunder wins the series.

The Finals of Heat-Thunder will be a really good series but the Heat will have too much and will beat the Thunder in 6 games.  It’s all about baby steps in the NBA and this is the last one until the Thunder wins it all next year.  Probably none of what I’ve predicted comes to fruition but it was really fun to speculate.

Note:  Troy Fite records “THE SPORTS VOID” every Monday night with our regular sports blogger, Rob Loeber.  Thanks, Troy, for filling in for Rob and offering your energetic take on the NBA Playoff prospects!