#1 Indiana Pacers vs #8 Atlanta Hawks
Key to the Series: Defense/Hustle
The Hawks are the worst team in the playoffs this year. That doesn't mean that we will walk over them. They handed us our most embarrassing loss of the season just a couple short (or maybe very long) weeks ago. That will be fresh in both teams' minds. Still, the Pacers are a talented team and own the one seed. All-time there have been five upsets in the 1-8 match-up. I sincerely hope we will not be the sixth. This will be all about defense, rebounding, and getting out in transition. Hopefully we can use this series to get our Mojo back and play Indiana (read “team”) basketball.
Key Player: PG
It's the playoffs and the team with the best player tends to win. That's especially true with Hibbert playing as poorly as he has since his rookie year and Bynum already a scratch. We need PG to be that player on both ends of the floor; and shoot better than 40 per cent. That being said, we'll need real production from Scola, West, and even Mahinmi to take advantage of an undersized team to close.
Prediction: Pacers in 6
#2 Miami Heat vs #7 Charlotte Boob-cats
Charlotte is a decent team, but this is the last time I get to use that dig before the name change!
Key to the Series: Pace
The Heat are the clearly superior team here, even with their late-year struggles. They seemed apathetic about the one seed but I expect that they will be very interested very quickly once the ball is in the air. They have the experience, the coaching, and you know they have the players. What can Charlotte do? They will have to slow this series down to crawl and make it impossible to watch. Keeping Miami out of transition is easier said than done, though, and eventually they will speed the game up enough to create the space their mini-HOF needs to dominate.
Key Player: Al Jefferson
You pretty well know what you get from the Heat. If Charlotte is to have any chance, Al Jefferson is going to have to be outstanding. Unfortunately, Miami knows that and will assuredly bring tons of pressure. Can anyone else knock down a few shots?
Prediction: Miami in 4
#3 Toronto Raptors vs #6 Brooklyn Nets
Key to the Series: Playoff Experience
This the Nets have in spades. Toronto is a young and talented team and may be able to give the Nets a run for their money. In the end, I think that having so many players that have been there will be too much to overcome. Next year, Toronto.
Key Player: Joe Johnson?
I think this will be a close series and Joe Johnson is one of the best clutch players in the league. Deron Williams and Pierce will have to do their part as well, but this series may come down to a big shot. Even Jason Kidd doesn't know yet who will take it.
Prediction: Nets in 6
#4 Chicago Bulls vs #5 Washington Wizards
Key to the Series: Physicality
The Bulls are a hard-nosed team that can take it to opponents in a playoff-style game where anything goes. But they also never seem to do anything the easy way. The Wizards are an exciting team and have every chance of winning but will need to match the intensity of the Bulls to pull it off. Few teams can sustain that over a long series.
Key Player: John Wall
Joaquim Noah is going to play fantastic and do all the things he has done all year. The question mark here is John Wall. Young, electric, and playoff-inexperienced, he will need a monster series and to control his turnovers to give his team a chance.
Prediction: Bulls in 7
#1 San Antonio Spurs vs #8 Dallas Mavericks
Key to Series: Depth
The Spurs know how to get it done a million different ways. They are playing the best basketball in the league right now. They have the best coach. The Spurs will find ways to get it done. It may end up seeming closer than the final series score even if they sweep but in a close game their combination of defense, depth, and experience should win the push almost every time. The Mavs are a good team. The Spurs are a truly great one.
Key Player: Dirk
Time is getting short for Dirk to get back to the dance. As good as Monta Ellis has been all year (and that has been very good), Dirk still needs to be the best player on the floor for the Mavs to have any hope of an upset. I'm pulling for Carlisle, but this is a very tough assignment.
Prediction: Spurs in 4*
#2 OKC Thunder vs #7 Memphis Grizzlies
Key to Series: Pace
Last year the Memphis Grizzlies took advantage of the injury to Westbrook to launch OKC from the playoffs. I'm pretty sure that Durant has not forgotten that. A healthy team, OKC has all the pieces and plenty of motivation. Can the Grizz keep the pace where they need it to be with Westbrook on the floor? Spoiler alert: the answer is no. The Grizz want a grind-it-out series with scores in the 80's. The Thunder are not going to oblige.
Key Player: Durant
As important as Westbrook is to keeping the pace up, spreading the floor, and making this team unstoppable, this is Durant's year. The presumptive MVP has been playing out of his gourd all year. Does he need to have a perfect series? Absolutely not. He'll just be the most fun to watch.
Prediction: Thunder in 4*
*Yes, I realize I just called two sweeps in an ultra-competitive conference. As good as the bottom part of this bracket is, the teams at the top are on another level. These two series won't be close. But, as consolation, look to the other match-ups in this conference to be great basketball to watch and potentially go the distance.
#3 LA Clippers vs # 6 Golden State Warriors
Key to the Series: Endurance
This is the most exciting coaching match-up of the early second season. While I think Doc has the edge, Mark Jackson has an unbelievable ability to get his guys up for big games (see the 2013 playoffs). Both teams play an exciting brand of basketball and will get up and down. Someone will get tired eventually as this series will go deep.
Key Player: Stephen Curry
I hate to have to pick a player here because there are so many to choose from. Redick got the trash-talk going early (of all people), calling out Klay Thompson. Both are potential X-factors. But with stars like CP3, Blake Griffin, and Curry running around the big names will leave the biggest mark on this series. Losing Bogut is a major blow to the Warriors but with other players stretching the floor and Curry able to shoot from 40 feet, they are still very much alive. They will, however, need big contributions from Speights and Pacers-fan favorite Jermaine O'Neal to pull this all together. This match-up was going to be decided by the small-ball line-ups anyway.
Prediction: Warriors in 7 (Go Mark!) These guys love being the underdog.
#4 Houston Rockets vs #5 Portland Trailblazers
Key to the Series: Defense
Ha! Just kidding. If I don't get two games in the 120's I'll be shocked. In seriousness, someone will need a stop at some point. Can either of these teams produce one? With so many jumpers, defense may just come down to fatigue. The Trailblazers are not tested, but have talent from one to five. The Rockets' talent is concentrated in Howard and the bearded wonder. They will need Parsons to be big for them to close. Not to mention big defensive efforts from their fours against LA. That means potentially Casspi, Montejunas, Jones. Good luck. Maybe they will try to slow him down with Robert Covington. Yes, that dude is actually on their roster.
Key Player: Damien Lillard
Time for a coming out party! This kid is crazy good and can take over this series. He will need plenty of help from Aldridge to close the deal, but this should be a fun series to watch. I like the upset. Rip City, son!
Prediction: Blazers in 5
Okay, maybe six....