Power Ranking the 1st Round

by Justin Cherot

It’s April, which means it must be time for the Dallas Mavericks to begin their quest for a championship…

…just kidding.

Rather than opine about how the Mavs would have made the playoffs had Dirk Nowitzki not missed 27 games, or how playing Brandan Wright more might have swung four or five more games, or how Rick Carlisle–as brilliant as he has been for Dallas over the years–may have damaged O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison beyond repair, I’m going to shut up and try to enjoy the playoffs. 

As much as I love basketball, I have discriminating taste, and thus have created a hierarchy of interest.  I’ll be less douchy and call it “Power Ranking the 1st Round.”

Wake Me When It’s Over

8. (3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks

Season series: 2-2

Props to the Hawks for overachieving this year, and props to the Pacers for continuing on the momentum they built last year when they gave the Miami Heat everything they could handle, but…sorry, had to pause for a yawn.  The Pacers are down for a half-court affair, and the Hawks aren’t dynamic enough to score in the half-court or force tempo. 

Even if the Hawks’ front line matches up well with the Pacers’ front line, they have no answer for Paul George, who has been very good but not quite as ridiculous as people are giving him credit for.  And even though in a vacuum George Hill and Jeff Teague are in the same talent tier as point guards, Hill is much steadier.

Quick Tangent: Why did the Hawks hold on to Josh Smith?  Are they really planning on re-signing him, or are they content to walk away with nothing in return?  Haven’t teams learned ANYTHING from “The Decision“,  or even the “‘Melo Drama“?  Hell, even the Orlando Magic got a bit lucky with the “DwightMare” (Nikola Vucevic looks like a steal).  Even if you get fifty cents of the dollar, get SOMETHING!  This goes double for the Utah Jazz, who botched the trade deadline so badly that not only are they not even in the playoffs, they’re almost guaranteed to see Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson walk.  Why am I not a GM again? 

Prediction: Pacers in five.

Interesting, Even If We Know How It Ends

7. (1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks

Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are redundant.  They’re smallish, inefficient guards who definitely have the highest confidence-to-talent ratio in the NBA amongst back-courts.  That last part, however, might (I stress “might” in the way that I MIGHT go back to school and re-invent myself as a lawyer) make this series interesting.  I can see one of them going off for a serial 40-point game to keep things close in a game, maybe two.

But, let’s be real.  The Heat are not going to lose this series.  LeBron James has gotten to that level where I’d be shocked if he let his team lose a single game in this series.  Let’s move on.

Quick Tangent: “If James announced his retirement today, where he would rank all-time?”

The answer?  Well, he’s not better than Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kobe Bryant, or Tim Duncan.  Beyond that, I’d be willing to debate about anybody else in the top 10.  More titles than Elgin Baylor and just as many as Jerry West; more physical tools than Larry Bird; and better all-around than Magic Johnson.  By the way, he’s only 28.  Get used to this level of dominance.     

Prediction: Heat in four.

Competitive, But I’d Rather Watch Something On Netflix and Tune in During Crunchtime

6. (4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls*

Truth be told, this will probably be a competitive series.  That doesn’t mean it’s super-watchable, though.  The Nets should technically have more fire-power, but they only average a pedestrian 96 points per game.  If you think that’s boring, the Bulls average a shade over 93 points per game and have relied on their stingy defense all year long.  If you’re a basketball purist who likes grind-it-out possessions and coaches dictating the outcome of the game (AKA college basketball), then this series is for you.  But frankly, it’s not my cup of tea.

Quick Tangent: Okay, so I put an asterisk next to this series in the hopes that Derrick Rose will get his healthy-enough-to-play ass on the court.  If that happens, this series becomes watchable for the sheer fact that Rose and Williams are two of the top five point guards in the league when healthy or not overweight respectively.

If you can’t tell, I’m definitely in the camp of Rose should be playing for two reasons: 1) He’s been the Bulls’ best player in practice for a solid two months, and 2) 85-90% of Rose is far superior than Kirk Hinrich.  I fully understand that it’s up to the athlete to decide whether or not he’s ready, but let’s stop kidding ourselves: he’s ready.  His dynamic scoring and playmaking ability, even if he’s not 100%, would be enough to push Miami in my opinion.  They still probably wouldn’t beat them, but Miami struggles against teams that can beat them up and break them down.  As currently constructed, the Bulls can only beat them up (note: I wrote this before Joakim Noah‘s reported “setback.”

Prediction: Nets in seven

Entertaining, But It’s More About the Story Than the Series

5. (1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets

We get it: James Harden, who was the best third banana in basketball last season, was unshackled and shipped to Houston before the start of the season and has blossomed into a bonafide superstar.  Now he gets to go against his best buddies, recently dethroned scoring champ Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  From a basketball standpoint, at the very least the pace should be entertaining as both teams thrive in the open court.

But, there’s no way Harden can beat OKC by himself.  Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons would have to be on fire every game, and even that might not be enough, especially when the Rockets have no answer for Durant, Westbrook, or Serge Ibaka.

Quick Tangent: Moment of silence for Durant’s scoring title streak.  Had Carmelo Anthony not decided to put his head down and score at will over the course of the last month, Durant would have been the first 50-40-90 (50% from the field, 40% from three, 90% from the stripe) champ in league history.  You know what’s even more impressive?  He would have done it despite the fact that Westbrook takes more shots!  Could you imagine if the Thunder traded Westbrook straight-up for a guy like Rajon Rondo, who is so obsessed with dropping dimes to the point where it impeded the flow of Boston’s offense?

Prediction: Thunder in five

4. (2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics

 What’s the over-under on the first Honeynut Cheerio to hit Anthony in the back of the head during the Celtics’ first road game of the series?  Two minutes?  Five minutes?  For serious, these teams don’t really like each other, and there’s been some question about whether or not the Knicks can sustain this level of offensive efficiency that they’ve seemed to re-capture from their first month and a half of the season, especially since they were so mediocre in the middle of the year.  And you can never count out those caaaaaagey veterans (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) in Boston. 

But the Knicks are clearly, CLEARLY, the better team.  There’s some truth to what I said about Rondo above, but the Celtics are far better with him than without him, damn what the record says.  It won’t be easy for the Knicks, but they should win.

Quick Tangent: For everybody yelling at the Mavericks to get rid of Jason Kidd, I’m convinced they would have made the playoffs with him.  Convinced.  True, he’s super slow, and true, I think he would struggle to guard me one-on-one (too quick), but his mere presence during crunch-time swings no less than five wins.  His presence on the Knicks probably swung about five wins!  The Mavs lost just about every close game they played this year.  I know, I watched just about every game on League Pass this season.  Collison would have gotten the chance to learn from one of the best and come off the bench as a high-quality change of pace guard instead of a run-of-the-mill starter.  I openly opined about the Mavs getting rid of him on many an occasion, but I admit I took him for granted.  I miss you, Jason.

Jason Terry?  Eh, not as much.  He’s struggled a bit this season, and to my surprise Vince Carter  was every bit as good.  Hopefully he can get on track during the playoffs, because if he doesn’t the Celtics will be in trouble.

Prediction: Knicks in six

3. (2) San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers

Don’t buy into the hype: the Spurs will pull it together… at least in this round.  Will it be tough?  Sure: Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol have finally learned how to play together.  At the same time.  Amazing.  But Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the business.  His ability to adjust on the fly and learn from his team’s late regular season loss to the new-look Lakers will help his team get over the hump… at least in this round.  Tony Parker isn’t 100% healthy, but he won’t need to be to dominate against a less than 50% Steve Nash and Steve Blake.  Unless the Lakers get HUGE series’ from Metta World Peace and Earl Clark, I can’t see the Lakers winning this series.    

Quick Tangent: The basketball gods have been unusually cruel this calendar year, starting with Rose last April and (hopefully) concluding with Kobe Bryant.  But somebody somewhere needs to do a study correlating mid to low-cut basketball shoes and Achilles injuries.  Anytime I see a gruesome injury occur, I immediately look down at the kicks.  Almost everyone has mid’s or low’s.  Sure, they make you lighter or more fleet of foot… but with less weight comes less support and… yeah…

Prediction: Spurs in six

The Bestest

2. (4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Basing it solely off of last year’s series, fans of roundball will be in for a treat.  This series features two teams with contrasting styles: the Clippers like to get up and down as Chris Paul conducts the offense, while the Grizzlies beat you up from all five positions.  I truly believe the outcome of this series depends on how the games are officiated.  “Let them play” favors the Grizz; “Blow the whistle” favors the Clippers.  These two teams play so ridiculously different from one another that it’s hard to really call a winner.  When in doubt, take the team at home.

Quick Tangent: Is it my imagination, or has Blake Griffin regressed each year statistically and NOBODY talks about it?  Last year, I gave him a pass, mainly because during his rookie year the Clips were awful and playing for a better team sometimes means a slight dip in production.  Well now, he’s gone from 23 a game to barely 18.  And he’s not even a double-double guy anymore.  If DeMarcus Cousins had the same kind of drop from Year 1 to Year 3, we’d be all over him.  The problem is we like Griffin.  We like his dunks.  We like his commercials.  We like his sense of humor (remember, he interned with Funny or Die during the lockout).

Hell, even like Griffin.  I want to see him develop into more than just a one-trick pony (two, I guess, if you count the flopping).  He’s going to be a vital part of this series.

Prediction: Clippers in seven

1.  (3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

If God created a non-Dallas Maverick playoff series intended for me to watch, it would be this one.  I will be highly disappointed if we don’t get at least three games with both teams in the 120’s.  Both teams score differently: the Warriors bury teams with their bevy of three-pointers; the Nuggets get up and down in transition quicker than any team in the NBA.  Regardless, we’re not going to see much defense.  I love it!

Even though I’m officially adopting Golden State as my team since my Mavericks will be on the golf course for the first time in forever, I can’t pick the Warriors with a straight face, not when the Nuggets are virtually unbeatable at home.  Having said that, I’ll be glued to my couch whenever these games come on.

Quick Tangent: In a perfect world, the Warriors would have opted not to extend Stephen Curry, and at the time it would have been somewhat of a savvy move to allow the Mavericks to swoop him up (last time I mention them, I swear).  It wasn’t a knock against his ability, just a knock about his inability to play a full game without turning his ankle.  Well, now that his ankle (knocking on every single piece of wood around me) seems fixed, he’s been absolutely amazing this year.  Since the all-star break, my favorite player in the league has arguably been the best point guard in the league.  Now, he gets the chance to play on the biggest of stages in these playoffs.  Not bad for a guy I once called a cross between Steve Kerr and Juan Dixon.  I doubt either one of them could have done this to Gary Neal.

Prediction: Nuggets in seven

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