2014 NBA playoffs predictions

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The NBA regular season is over, and now the real excitement begins.

The 2014 NBA playoffs arrive on Saturday, and the quest for NBA players and teams to put themselves in the annals of history begins again. Each team starts over, as winning or losing streaks mean nothing. Everyone starts out 0–0, and the championship trophy is closer than ever for all 16 teams competing.

This year proved to be lopsided in terms of conference play. The Toronto Raptors, who are the third seed in the Eastern Conference, would not even make the playoffs if they were in the Western Conference. The Phoenix Suns, who finished in ninth place in the West, would easily make it in if the 16 teams with the best record all made the playoffs.

But the format is set, and the playoffs will begin, lopsided or not. Here are the predictions from The Universe sports desk.

First Round:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 Atlanta Hawks

Regular season series: Tied 2–2

Paul George leads the top seeded Pacers into the playoffs. Photo courtesy AP Photo/AJ Mast.
Paul George leads the top seeded Pacers into the playoffs. (Photo courtesy AP Photo/AJ Mast)

The Pacers finally secured the coveted top seed in the east and subsequent home court advantage throughout the playoffs, which could prove crucial if (and let’s be honest — when) they meet up with the Heat in the conference championship. Indiana has a defense-first mentality, and whatever your feeling is toward the Pacers, you have to admit, they play hard every minute of every game. Paul George might be the best two-way player not named LeBron in the league. His defensive tenacity and length (he’s 6–9 at the 3-spot) make it extremely tough to score on him. And then he can drive to the hoop or knock down the 3-ball.

The rest of the team is equally tough (and equally long) defensively. Roy Hibbert — all 7 feet, 2 inches of him — anchors the inside, while David West, the energizer bunny Lance Stephenson and George Hill round out the starting lineup.

The Hawks did take two games from the Pacers this year and made the playoffs despite finishing a whole six games under .500 for the year. But they have a revamped team, with Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll joining the lineup to bolster defense. But there’s no doubt Al Horford is the star of the team and that Kyle Korver is lethal from beyond the arc.

But the simple fact is this — the Pacers are a better team.

Prediction: Pacers win 4–1

 

No. 2 Miami Heat vs. No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats

Regular season series: Heat won 4–0

The Heat are attempting to make an astonishing fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals, something Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty of the ’90s can’t even claim. And when it comes to the playoffs, you can expect LeBron, D-Wade and the Heat to come to play. LeBron James, who will not win another MVP this year, might be motivated to prove he’s still the best in the game, while Dwyane Wade is out to prove he’s not the crippled, injury-prone player he has been all year.

The Heat also bring an impressive supporting cast, with veterans Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Chris “Birdman” Andersen all coming off the bench. If they get hot (no pun intended), the Heat are tough to beat.

The Bobcats are making their first playoff appearance since 2009–2010 and won 15 more games this season than they did all of the last two seasons combined. However, Charlotte is an extremely young team, with little to no playoff experience. Big Al Jefferson is the only player who brings real playoff experience to the team — and that’s just a first-round sweep by the Spurs when he was with the Jazz. Third-year point guard Kemba Walker is good. Really good. But this is an overmatched team.

Prediction: Heat win 4–0

 

No. 3 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets

Regular season series: Tied 2–2

If you never saw the Raptors play all year, please raise your hand. Ok, all of you can put your hands down. The Raptors are likely the quietest team to ever get into the playoffs. And you should do yourself a favor and watch some highlights. These guys are a lot of fun to watch. They score a lot of points, get up and down the court and excite the fans with dunks and big-time athletic plays. DeMar DeRozan is the heart and soul of the team, and he is better than people give him credit for. They are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007–2008, and they believe they can make some noise in the playoffs.

They also bring some other playmakers besides DeRozan to the court. Kyle Lowry is an underrated point guard, and the team has a Jurassic Park full of Raptors who can make plays. Landry Fields, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes and Steve Novak, among others, are players who came from other teams and found a home in Toronto.

The Nets are one of the oldest teams in the league. But they have a lot of championship experience among them. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams headline the starting lineup, and each has proved they can carry a team by themselves, but here they are working together. If they didn’t lose Brook Lopez at the beginning of the season to injury, they would be a lot better than a sixth seed. But don’t sleep on the old guys. These players know the playoffs from many years of experience, and they will make it really tough on a good, but inexperienced, Raptors team.

Prediction: Nets win 4–3

 

No. 4 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 5 Washington Wizards

Regular season series: Tied 2–2

Once again, the Bulls have to navigate the playoffs without their star point guard Derrick Rose. But after almost two full seasons of doing so, you’d think Chicago knows how to win without him. Kirk Hinrich has been a fantastic replacement point guard, but this team belongs to Joakim Noah, the Bulls’ emotional and scary center. He dominates the inside, blocking shots, and might be the best passing big man in the game. He gets a lot of help on both sides of the ball from Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler and guys off the bench like Taj Gibson and D.J. Augustin. They can beat you on both sides of the court when they’re locked in.

And don’t forget about how Jimmermania came to Chicago during the midseason trade. This is BYU’s The Universe, after all. Jimmer can score, putting up 17 points in the regular season finale against Charlotte. Don’t be surprised if he plays some significant minutes off the bench.

The Wizards have been another enigma in the East. They definitely have some superstar players with the likes of John Wall, the second-year pro Bradley Beal and veterans Trevor Ariza, Andre Miller and Nene. They bring playoff experience with the veteran players, but Wall and Beal are the best players on this team. They are going to make it a dogfight for the Bulls. The only bad part for the Wizards is that  the Bulls like it.

Prediction: Bulls win 4-2

 

Western Conference

No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks

Regular season series: Spurs won 4–0

The Mavericks haven’t beaten the Spurs in their last nine games, and it’s going to be really hard to do in the next four. The Spurs continue to prove that age has little or nothing to do with productivity and talent. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still some of the best players in the game and have led the Spurs to their 15th straight 50-win season and fourth 60-win season since joining as teammates. How many teams can say that?

Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA. No contest. He is the best coach, in either college or professional arenas, at taking a player from either the draft or free agency and molding him to be the perfect player for what the Spurs need. Kawhi Leonard is slowly taking over the team and infusing the youth and athleticism the team has needed. Danny Green, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw have all revived their careers in central Texas and are important keys to the Spurs’ success. But as in every year, the wins will begin and end at the trio of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili.

The Mavericks are a dangerous team, however, especially when they have the group of hungry, proven players who can all get hot at the same time. Dirk Nowitzki is a proven winner. He won the NBA Title in 2011 by himself. But now he has key players all around him in Jose Calderon, Vince Carter, Monta Ellis and Devin Harris. If the Mavericks find their stride in this series, they can pull off a huge upset. But realistically, winning four games against the Spurs? Not likely.

Prediction: Spurs win 4–2

 

No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies

Regular season series: Thunder won 3–1

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook headline the Oklahoma City Thunder's dreams of an NBA Title. Photo courtesy AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook headline the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dreams of an NBA Title. (Photo courtesy AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

The Grizzlies knocked the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder out of the playoffs in five games last season. And they are determined to do so again, even though Westbrook is back and healthy, and Kevin Durant is playing out of his and everyone else’s mind right now. He has had a phenomenal season. His numbers (32.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 5.5 apg, .503 FG%) are video game numbers. The last time anyone put up those type of numbers, he was wearing No. 23 in Chicago. If you think there’s an MVP race in the NBA, you are deluding yourself. Durant is in first and second place right now.

And he has undergone an attitude adjustment this season. He is still his humble, quiet self, always giving thanks to God and his teammates, but he is out to win an NBA Title, and nothing will stand in his way. Westbrook has improved his decision-making; Serge Ibaka is a much better player than he was even a year ago; and key players like Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones, Caron Butler and rookie Steven Adams off the bench can catapult this team to the Finals.

The Grizzlies are led by reigning defensive player of the year Marc Gasol and the talents of Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, along with the addition of sharpshooter Mike Miller. But the Grizzlies have to come up with a way to slow down Durant to win this series. And no one has all year. It’s not going to start now.

Prediction: Thunder win 4–1

 

No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors

Regular season series: Tied 2–2

Talk about a fun matchup. With the possible exception of the Pacers/Heat, this is the best rivalry in the NBA. Two proud franchises that have cowered in the cellar of the Western Conference for many years can now say they are playing for the best team in California.

Both teams like to get up and down the court, and both have some sharpshooters who can turn it on at any time. The Warriors have the combination of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, whom coach Mark Jackson called the best shooting backcourt in the history of the league. When they’re both in their groove, it’s tough to argue. The addition of Andre Iguodala was one of the best offseason moves in the league, and the frontcourt can be dominant with Andrew Bogut and David Lee.

The Clippers might be the better team, however. They’ve been knocked out of the playoffs in each of the last two years in heartbreaking fashion and are now ready to take that next step. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league, and that should not come as a surprise to anyone. But Blake Griffin could be the most improved player in the league. And he was a superstar last season, so that should scare everyone. He has improved his free throw shooting from downright dismal to respectable and has improved his play on both sides of the ball.

And new coach Doc Rivers has assembled a team of contributors to help out that exciting duo. Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan have all upped their games to help the team compete for a championship. This is a fun series — and no one will be sad if we get to see it go seven games.

Prediction: Clippers win 4–3

 

No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers

Regular season series: Rockets won 3–1

Early in the season, the Trail Blazers seemed like the team to beat in the Western Conference. But they leveled out and even fell off the wagon a little bit down the stretch and now have lost home court advantage in the first round. But they are still a force that can get hot and win a few games. I challenge you to show me a better first or second year player in the NBA than Damian Lillard. He is scary good. And LaMarcus Aldridge has revived his career after a few clunkers and is now one of the toughest matchups in the league. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum can knock down big shots.

The Rockets are on the verge of creating a perennial championship contender. If they can keep all the players there (that means keeping Dwight Howard happy), they can challenge every year. No matter what you think of Howard personally, he is quite possibly the best center in the NBA on both sides of the ball. James Harden is better than ever, and they have a slew of playmakers everywhere on the floor, including Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverly and Francisco Garcia, among others. Don’t sleep on the Rockets. This is another fun series.

Prediction: Rockets win 4–2

 

2nd Round:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Pacers vs. No. 4 Bulls

Regular season series: Tied 2–2

The absence of Derrick Rose hurts the Bulls more than ever in this one, as both teams have defensive mindsets. Paul George takes over this series on both sides of the ball.

Prediction: Pacers win 4–1

 

No. 2 Heat vs. No. 6 Nets

Regular season series: Nets won 4–0

This is an interesting matchup, because the Nets won all four games this year against Miami. They can create some trouble for the Heat, especially if they hobble into the series. But this is the playoffs, where LeBron and company will step up their game more than during the regular season.

Prediction: Heat win 4–2

 

Western Conference

No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 4 Rockets

Regular season series: Rockets won 4–0

Again, this is an interesting series where Houston took all four games from the Spurs in the regular season. Can the youth and relative inexperience of the Rockets take down the ultra experienced Spurs in the playoffs? It’s a tough thing to do, especially with home court advantage in San Antonio. But I said before, and I’ll say again: Don’t sleep on the Rockets.

Prediction: Rockets win 4–2

 

No. 2 Thunder vs. No. 3 Clippers

Regular season series: Tied 2–2

With every passing series, they get more and more interesting. How good are the Clippers with the new and improved Blake Griffin and the coaching from Doc Rivers? Rivers himself recently came out and said Durant “is the single most difficult player to defend in the NBA.” And if you’re the Clippers, you don’t really have someone who can lock down Durant. Griffin is too slow, and Jared Dudley is too small. The Clippers are a little too overmatched in this one.

Prediction: Thunder win 4–2

 

Conference Championships:

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Pacers vs. No. 2 Heat

Regular season series: Tied 2–2

Everyone knew it would come down to this. We could really just play this series three times while the Western Conference dukes out who gets to the Finals. This matchup is really this clear cut. These are the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, with lots of space beneath them. This will be a rivalry equaling the Pistons/Bulls of the ’90s. Technical and flagrant fouls will abound, and blood will quite literally be spilt. It needs to go seven games to really be worth it. And it will. That is why the home court advantage for the Pacers was just as crucial as everyone but the Heat thought it was.

Prediction: Pacers win 4–3

 

Western Conference

No. 2 Thunder vs. No. 4 Rockets

Regular season series: Thunder won 3–1

Some people may not agree with me that the Rockets will be here, believing the Spurs are more deserving. But I quote Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry: “Deserving’s got nothin’ to do with it.” To go to the NBA Finals, the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook must contend with their dearly departed third musketeer in James Harden, who lost to his former team in last season’s first round. Does Houston have someone who can guard Durant? Francisco Garcia did a nice job in last year’s playoffs, and Terrence Jones has the length to cause some damage. But OKC is a team of destiny.

Prediction: Thunder win 4–2

 

NBA Finals:

Indiana Pacers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Regular season series: Tied 1–1

Unlike just about any other team in the league, the Pacers have the length and the defensive tenacity to slow down Kevin Durant. Paul George, David West and even Lance Stephenson can switch on him and slow him down. But one thing I have failed to mention is the Thunder’s defense. They’re no pushovers either with Serge “I-block-a” and Kendrick Perkins closing down the inside and Russell Westbrook and the ever reliable Thabo Sefolosha closing off the perimeter. It will most likely be a series scored in the 90s and will come down to which offense can adjust better to the opposing defense.

And I think the demanding nature of the Eastern Conference Championship will take its toll on the Pacers by this point.

Prediction: Thunder win 4–2

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