NBA: Let the playoffs begin
During the regular NBA season, the league split itself decidedly between the haves and have-nots.
There is the Western Conference, where seven of the eight playoff participants won 50 games, and things weren't settled until the very last day of the regular season. Then there's the woeful East, where the Phoenix Suns would be tied for the third seed.
In the west, the Suns didn't make the playoffs.
That's how lopsided the NBA's two halves were this season. Will that spill into the postseason? Is every west playoff series intriguing? Is each series in the east going to be a bore?
That probably won't be the case. Simply, there's notthing like the NBA playoffs, when the best basketball players on the planet compete for a championship. Our first-round analysis and picks:
No. 1 Indiana (56-26) vs. No. 8 Atlanta (38-44)
Opener: Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPN
Breakdown: On paper, this seems like a mismatch, but the Hawks actually play the Pacers well. Jeff Teague is a headache to play against and former Jazz Paul Millsap has had a career year for Atlanta. But Indiana is too big, too physical and too powerful in the paint for the Hawks to deal with. Eventually, the Pacers will wear Atlanta down inside and advance to the second round.
Prediction: Pacers in 6
No. 4 Chicago (48-34) vs. No. 5 Washington (44-38)
Opener: Sunday, 5 p.m., TNT
Breakdown: Don't get too giddy Bulls fans. John Wall and Brad Beal are one of the most dynamic young backcourts in the league, and they could make this very interesting. One problem, though: The Bulls may be the best defensive team in the league, and the all-around skills of center Joakim Noah will make life difficult on Washington. With homecourt advantage look for Chicago to make it out.
Prediction: Bulls in 6
No. 3 Toronto (48-34) vs. No. 6 Brooklyn (44-38)
Opener: Saturday, 10:30 a.m., ESPN
Breakdown: You have to love pre-series trash talk, and this matchup has had it in spades already. The Nets have been one of the best teams in the league since January 1st, and they look like one of the teams that could possibly beat the Miami Heat. But the Raptors are so athletic. Demar Derozen has emerged as a star, and Kyle Lowry has had a great season at the point. This should be fun.
Prediction: Nets in 7
No. 2 Miami (54-28) vs. No. 7 Charlotte (43-39)
Opener: Sunday, 1:30 p.m., Ch. 4
Breakdown: This is by far the most vulnerable Heat team since the creation of the Big 3. Still, LeBron James and company shouldn't have much trouble with the Bobcats. They are 4-0 against Charlotte this season, and while ex-Jazzman Al Jefferson poses issues in the post, he isn't something the Heat can't overcome. Remember. James is still the best player in the world, and is gunning for a third straight title.
Prediction: Heat in 5
No. 1 San Antonio (62-20) vs. No. 8 Dallas (49-33)
Opener: Sunday, 11 a.m., TNT
Breakdown: The Spurs have been the best team in the league this season, and it's borderline unimaginable that the Mavs can win this series. Maybe if Dirk Nowitzki plays out of his mind, and Monta Ellis gets hot. Short of that, look for San Antonio to roll with its stingy defense, efficient offense and the ability to shoot 3-pointers. If Dallas isn't careful, this could be a short series.
Prediction: Spurs in 4
No. 2 Oklahoma City (59-23) vs. No. 7 Memphis (50-32)
Opener: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Breakdown: The Grizzlies are much better than a No. 7 seed. A lengthy injury to Marc Gasol earlier in the season caused a slow start. But this team is rough, big, physical and playing much better now. It still doesn't mean they will beat OKC, but it does mean this series could get interesting. Ultimately, Kevin Durant is just too good.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
No. 3 L.A. Clippers (57-25) vs. No. 6 Golden State (51-31)
Opener: Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Ch. 4
Breakdown: This could be the most fun, most explosive series of the first round. Expect a ton of points, and expect Stephen Curry and Chris Paul to have an epic battle. But the expected lack of Andrew Bogut for GS makes this series extremely difficult to win for Mark Jackson and his troops. Without that inside presence, Blake Griffin will run wild against the Golden State frontcourt.
Prediction: Clippers in 6
No. 4 Houston (54-28) vs. No. 5 Portland (54-28)
Opener: Sunday, 7:30 p.m., TNT
Breakdown: This is the most evenly matched series in the first round. Both teams have dynamic guards and great big men. The difference will be James Harden and Houston's home floor advantage in a probable seventh game. But don't be surprised if the Blazers find a way.
Prediction: Rockets in 7
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