Alright, that was shoddy. Even though I wish the NBA -- and the NHL and maybe even Major League Baseball -- would play only 66 regular-season games every year, it's clear now that it shouldn't be done in 124 days with no training camp.
The casualties from this truncated season are best sampled statistically (shooting percentages way down; last season, 11 teams averaged 100-plus points per game; this season, three) and medically (Al Horford, Ray Allen, Andrea Bargnani to name a few). But the survivors remain and the best basketball is yet to be played.
They don't call it the second season for nothing.
Chicago (1) vs Philadelphia (8)
The Sixers looked like a great story early in the season and, for the first time ever, it appeared Doug Collins could coach. Then came a 10-14 finish and the squandering of the Atlantic division lead (although they did put together a nice stretch last week with three non-playoff teams). Philly defends well, but so does Chicago -- in fact, the teams were 1-2 in points allowed this season. It'll be a defensive, grind-it-out series, but with Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson rotating, Philly is overmatched up front. The Sixers lack a go-to scorer and Derrick Rose is back for the Bulls -- bad news for Philly, even if he's only at 75 per cent. Evan Turner of the Sixers may have said he liked this matchup, but he'll feel differently next week.
Pick: Bulls in 4.
Miami (2) vs New York (7)
New York in spring is a special place with the Knicks and the Rangers in the playoffs -- although the excitement is mostly for the Knicks. The last time the Knicks won a post-season game was April 29, 2001, in Toronto. So with New York back and having more depth, the hyperbole piping out of Gotham for this matchup with their hated '90s rivals is enough to make any fast-talking kid on the 7-train convince you the Knicks will win. It will make for some fantastic TV, but I don't believe they will win. In another lockout season (1999) the Knicks beat the Heat in an upset because Jeff Van Gundy ran perpetual isolation plays for Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston. They beat a team anchored in the middle by Alonzo Mourning. Today, while Carmelo Anthony is the best pure scorer in basketball, Miami SHOULD be on a mission and SHOULD simply be too good to lose this. Since Mike D'Antoni's departure and Jeremy Lin's injury, Mike Woodson has rightly thrown the team on Melo's back and let him carry them offensively. That will continue, but even with Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler likely getting the better of the matchups down low, the Heat's better team defence and the mere presence of both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James SHOULD give Miami the edge. There are X-factors on the Knicks side, like Iman Shumpert, but as much as I'd love to see it, I can't call it. Beyond the ego and the other crap, this is at its essence why the Miami super team was assembled: To win a big-time playoff series like this. Last year's NBA Finals was excusable, after the fact. Don't do it now in the first round against New York and the Heat fail epically on a grander stage.
Pick: Heat in 7.
Indiana (3) vs Orlando (6)
The Pacers are the feel-good story of the year. And with Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts in rebuild mode, the timing couldn't have been better for the re-emergence of a team that has some of the best fans in the NBA. Opposing them is a team held hostage all season and now left high and dry by what many fans hate about the NBA. To be fair, Dwight Howard's absence from the Magic makes it easier to call this series. As Charles Barkley said Thursday, the Pacers should put Orlando out of its misery very quickly. Without Howard, Roy Hibbert, the most current, painful evidence from Bryan Colangelo's disastrous Jermaine O'Neal-Shawn Marion-Hedo Turkoglu sequence, will have no difficulty whatsoever inside. The Magic have little choice now but to bomb away threes and hope for the best.
Pick: Pacers in 4.
Boston (4) vs Atlanta (5)
The Celtics won their division and get the higher seed, but it means nothing because Atlanta has home court by virtue of a better record as the runner-up to Miami in the Southeast. Last year I could see coming down Broadway that the Hawks would knock off Orlando in the first round because of better matchups. It's not the same story now. While the Horford-less Hawks play a similar game to Boston, they are not as good as Boston. With Rajon Rondo threading dimes and Avery Bradley filling in admirably for Allen, this post-season is very likely also the last hurrah for the old guys like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Pick: Celtics in 6.
San Antonio (1) vs Utah (8)
There's a belief among some that the Jazz could play spoiler to San Antonio the way the Grizzlies beat the Spurs in an 8-1 last year -- putting Al Jefferson in the role of Zach Randolph. That's intriguing for about four seconds. A gigantic mismatch comes in favour of San Antonio in terms of backcourt and experience. The Spurs will also be rightly pissed about what happened to them last year. If Jazz players could only tape an interview with Jim Nantz in a Texas hot tub during this series, they will at least lay claim to a moral victory, but odds are long on that too.
Pick: Spurs in 4.
Oklahoma City (2) vs Dallas (7)
The Thunder has wanted a playoff rematch with the Mavericks since losing last year's conference final. James Harden's condition after his Metta World concussion puts him into a possible Sidney Crosby status zone now, but despite that and some matchup issues, this is still the Thunder's series to lose. If you ever wanted to see the ever-so subtle advances of age on an NBA team, Dallas was a case study this year. Chandler was a big loss for them, but it's clear they are half a step slower than they were when they won it all last season. The Thunder are young and hungry and have some anger to back it up now.
Pick: Thunder in 6.
L.A. Lakers (3) vs Denver (6)
It's been flogged ad nauseam, but Kobe Bryant's decision to sit out the regular-season finale and concede the scoring title to Kevin Durant tells you how Kobe thinks. I would have suspected his killer instinct would have wanted that accolade too, but it's clear he's solely focused on the playoffs. And the reason the Lakers won't lose this series, despite alarm bells both legitimate and imagined, is Bryant. Denver is the highest scoring team in the NBA and spreads the ball around better than anyone in recent memory. JaVale McGee goes from a comic footnote in Washington to shooting close to 61 per cent for the Nuggets in April. George Karl is a good coach and a good man who has fought tougher battles than in basketball. But who stops Kobe? Arron Afflalo and Danilo Galinari? Denver, for what it's worth, also surrendered the second-most points in the league. Being without Metta for up to six and wondering which Andrew Bynum shows up are question marks, but it's still an L.A. win.
Pick: Lakers in 5.
Memphis (4) vs L.A. Clippers vs. (5)
With all due respect to the Knicks and Heat, this is the best first-round series. It just doesn't have the sexiness of New York-Miami. All season long, Western teams feared drawing Memphis in Round 1 and now the up-and-coming Clippers get them. While Z-Bo (that's Zach Randolph for the uninitiated) isn't the same player he was last year, Marc Gasol is better than last year and their backcourt rotation of shutdown specialists with Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen should adequately harass Chris Paul. The Grizz also have Rudy Gay for the playoffs this time around and that's a difference maker. Blake Griffin will find ways to get to the basket, but keep in mind that karma may also punish Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Pick: Grizzlies in 7.
I'm not as married to it as I was on Christmas Day, but I'm holding to a Heat-Thunder finals.
To be resolved starting Saturday.
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