With the NBA playoffs upon us after the first full regular season in two years, don't look here for predictions of some mystical, NCAA tournament-like upsets. This isn't college; this isn't the thrill of the one-and-done dance.
The playoffs in the professional game are a slow dance, and only the strongest survive. Cinderellas need not apply.
It would be magical, to be sure, for an upstart to emerge and shake up the tournament bracket with an unexpected run to the NBA Finals in June. But the NBA playoffs aren't about magic; they're a cruel, unforgiving test that bring out the best. And so there's nothing fancy or bold about my prediction for our Finals matchup. The best team in the East vs. the best team in the West. Pretty simple, and boring perhaps -- but inevitable.
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Once again, it'll be Miamiand Oklahoma City vying for the NBA title, and once again, it says here, it'll be the Heat coming out on top for their second straight championship. A further coronation for LeBron James, who by then will have collected his fourth MVP trophy; a thorough validation of Pat Riley's master plan.
(Though not necessarily a validation of my prediction skills, since loyal readers will recall my ill-fated Bulls-Lakers Finals prediction from a year ago.)
The road to the Finals has been paved as favorably as could be expected for the Heat's biggest challenger in the East, the Knicks. By going on a late-season tear fueled by Carmelo Anthony's ruthless scoring, New York saw the playoff bracket play out in a way that gives them a realistic shot at the Heat. In locking up the No. 2 seed, the Knicks know they won't have to see Miami until the conference finals. It'll be a successful season for the Knicks, validation for the massive rebuilding effort that former team president Donnie Walsh began in 2008 -- a job that his successor, Glen Grunwald, has capably continued.
If the Knicks can get through what is always a tough series against the Celtics, and then likely the Pacers in a recreation of their infamous "Hicks vs. Knicks" playoff showdowns of the '90s, they'll realize they've perhaps caught another break in not having to contend with the Bulls or Nets -- the winner of which will be victimized by Miami. Though by then they'll likely have regained the services of Amar'e Stoudemire, whose 2011-12 season ended in disgrace with first-round elimination in Miami and an unfortunate encounter with a fire extinguisher, they still don't have enough to derail the Heat.
In all likelihood, nobody does.
Out West, we know the first-round rematch between the Clippers and Grizzlies will be epic again. Home-court advantage, again residing with the first-time division champion Clips, once again will be the determining factor. How compelling the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers can make their first-round series with the Spurs presents the most drama the West has to offer -- unless and until San Antonio wakes up and plays like the team that looked so dominant until it suspiciously dropped seven of its last 10 games.
The only upset I'm picking in the first round is Golden State over Denver, a prognostication I may come to regret; the series will be that close. It's a classic collision of competing factors that reliably lead to winning or losing in the playoffs. The Warriors are fifth in the league in 3-point shooting (.341); the Nuggets are 22nd in 3-point defense (.367). Denver is second in offensive-rebounding rate, gathering 31.4 percent of all available offensive boards; Golden State is second in defensive-rebounding rate (74.9). The Nuggets were a league-best 38-3 at home this season and have home-court advantage.
Whichever team emerges will face the unenviable task of running into the Spurs, who presumably, after dispatching with the Lakers, will have awakened its inner champion-level execution and utter disdain for the uninitiated. The Spurs, when they're right, are the most technically sound and strategically formidable challenger to the Thunder in the West. The team with the puncher's chance is the Clippers, fueled by the indomitable competitive spirit and greatness of Chris Paul.
Unfortunately for Staples Center's "other" team, landing in the 4-5 matchup with Memphis means they'll have to contend with the Thunder in the second round. Which Clippers team will show up? The one that closed the regular season on a seven-game losing streak, or the one that dropped four out of five -– three on the road -– before that?
The Clippers were 2-2 against San Antonio this season and 0-3 against the Thunder. They're the Knicks of the West -– a formidable adversary that could get hot and be swept up in the greatness of its MVP candidate, though with a much more difficult path to the conference finals.
The Heat? As predicted, they're better than they were a year ago. Better, as in 37-2 since Feb. 2, including 18-1 on the road. Their only flaw is rebounding, and you remember the old Riley saying: "No rebounds, no rings." Miami is 24th in the NBA in defensive-rebounding rate (72.8), ranking among the Clevelands and Detroits and Phoenixes of the world. But the Heat make up for it in so many ways -– forcing turnovers, getting to the foul line, keeping the opponent off the foul line, and posting the second-largest differential between offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency (second to Oklahoma City, by the way).
It's Miami's tournament to lose, and losing is something the Heat haven't been inclined to do for months. Just two more months of dominance, and Miami's Big Three approach will be validated with another trophy.
Boring, I know, but inevitable.