We're done with the "first season" and 14 teams clear their lockers out today and hit the golf course with eight more to follow in the next two weeks after the first round of the playoffs.
I'm very excited about the playoffs, particularly in the Western Conference with amazing match-ups, as well as the wonderful local story in the Toronto Raptors. It should be a blast.
Here are my predictions, but based upon my lousy prognostications during the NCAA Tournament, you might be better off going the other way on some of mine - particularly with the Raptors, who I hope and pray are able to win an incredibly difficult match-up.
1. Indiana Pacers vs. 8. Atlanta Hawks: Though they're struggling, their superior size and consistent defensive effort, as well as experience, will carry the Pacers through in an ugly series. Pacers in five.
2. Miami Heat vs. 7. Charlotte Bobcats: Al Jefferson will be an absolute load for the weak Heat interior defense and the Bobcats are playing with great confidence and togetherness. At the end of the day, though, if the Heat Big Three are healthy and right, they'll find a way as they go along to get into the next playoff gear and slowly, yet effectively, wear down the younger Bobcats. Heat in six.
3. Toronto Raptors vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets: I want to be SO wrong on this Pick. I have confidence that the Raptors can not only compete with the Nets in each and every game of this series. but beat them four times, yet my belief without any sort of emotion is that the Nets' superior depth, experience and ability to get this done in the playoff-style five-on-five game will be a significant challenge for the Raps. The Raptors will have to earn every whistle against a team filled with personalities like KG, Paul Pierce, coach Jason Kidd, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson who can be squeaky wheels demanding the grease and get their way often to get over the hump. The Raptors have to outplay, outwork, out hustle, out execute, out defend, out rebound and outcoach them to win this series. Can it be done? Sure, absolutely, but that has to be the mindset. Be sharper, be better, be hungrier. The Nets wanted this matchup because they respect the Raps a whole lot less than they do the Bulls. Why is that? The Bulls compete like crazy on each and every possession and there is no backing down. The Raptors must have the same level of effort and passion throughout that the team the Nets didn't want to face brings and that has to be habit. I've seen the Raptors do this enough times to know that they're more than capable of doing it and now it's time to make that commitment and ultimate sacrifice that it takes to beat a very deep, talented and experienced opponent. Can they sustain the level of effort it's going to take to win it, as well as keep their heads and play that much harder and better when calls don't work out in their favor? That's a major challenge and I'm excited to see them face these obstacles and perform on the bigger stage to succeed. Nets in seven.
4. Chicago Bulls vs. 5. Washington Wizards: Bulls in 7. The grind-it-out Bulls versus the up-and-down, shoot-the-three Wizards. The Wizards' bigs in Marcin Gortat and a healthy Nene are playing well, which is huge. John Wall is a load to deal with and they can light it up on the perimeter and veteran depth has been improved with Drew Gooden, Al Harrington and Andre Miller. They can take this series if they dig in and play with increased toughness. I still like the Bulls, they set the tone and make you play their style and slow the pace. The level of physical play and the type of whistle could well determine the winner here. The slow and ugly Bulls and the quick and offensive Wizards. The Bulls by a nose in what should be a fun series. Bulls in seven.
1. San Antonio Spurs vs. 8. Dallas Mavericks: There's just too much depth and outstanding offensive ball movement. in what should be a fast paced and entertaining series. I like the Spurs' depth here. Monta Ellis will be a tough cover for the Spurs, but their team approach will help. They'll keep fresh defenders on Dirk and defend the pick-and-pop game well enough to survive. Spurs in six.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 7. Memphis Grizzlies: This will be a great, physical series. Z-Bo and Gasol will be a load to deal with for the Thunder. The Grizzlies have a knack for playing on a high level in these type of games. Tony Allen and Tyshaun Prince are good perimeter defenders and will be tested here. Kevin Durant has had an MVP-calibre season and I love his big shot-making ability. The Thunder are getting healthier and the brilliant home fans in OKC will make a huge difference. The Pace of play will be a factor and I like the Thunder's flexibility to play and win multiple ways. Thunder in seven.
3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6. Golden State Warriors: Andrew Bogut's condition is a concern for the Warriors, yet the fact that they can play a quicker and smaller pace can be a challenge for the bigger Clippers. The Splash Brothers (Curry and Thompson) are a dynamic backcourt and can win a few games on their own and might have to. The concerns with the late game reliability of DeAndre Jordan's free throw shooting will be a neat story to watch and see how Doc Rivers handles this. I look at Jamal Crawford as the X-Factor for the Clips - he's the top-notch offensive answer to the high octane Warrior attack. I just find the Clippers more consistent and better in many respects with their approach so I'll go with them here. Clippers in six.
4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Portland Trail Blazers: My head tells me the Rockets and yet I want to give my heart a legit say here, as well. I just like the Blazers and the energy they play with. I admire their resiliency and they share the ball exceptionally well. LaMarcus Aldridge is a gifted post player who attracts the double team and the Blazers' three-point shooting is so reliant on playing in/out of the post. James Harden is the guy in the series who is the toughest to stop and Chandler Parsons is a major improving talent and they play beautifully off of Dwight Howard. I'm curious to see how young point guard Damian Lillard handles himself under the pressure of the playoffs, as well as if Patrick Beverly is ready to go for the Rockets. I look at momentum and emotion being huge factors, as well as streaky play and if the Blazers get hot from three-ball land, they can pull the upset. Portland is one of my favorite basketball towns so what the heck? Blazers. Blazers in seven.