Posted by Matt Moore
If you're in love with Cinderella, this isn't the league for you. The NBA is not a fantasy landscape where the ugly duckling becomes a prince. It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland where only the strong, and well-armed (or well-financed) survive. Sure, there are first-round upsets. Denver knocking off Seattle, with Mutumbo laying on the floor clutching the ball in a paroxysm of joy. The "We Believe" Warriors of 2007 forcing the Maverick hordes back into the sea. But most often, if you're not elite, you're trampled underfoot in the first round and if you do manage to escape in a glorious moment of surprise, the curtain quickly slams shut, throwing you back into the cellar with nothing but the "we had a season to build on" mantra to keep you through the offseason.
And so we bring you the Road to the Finals for the pretenders. Here is the last, longing hope for those who are about to be swept from the playoff board.
Eastern Conference Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are the lowest form of life in the NBA at the moment: The 8th seed in the East. Lottery teams are at least hidden from view once the playoff start. But being matched up in a seven game series against the team many feel is the best in the league leads to you becoming a joke. That's what the Pacers face. The Pacers have been one of the most up and down teams in the league this season. But there is something that should be noted here. They have strong point guard play from Darren Collison. They have a well-sized center with actual offense in Roy Hibbert. They have a combo-forward capable of stretching the defense. There are some things to like about the Pacers versus the Bulls. But then, you factor in the Bulls' defense and things don't feel so good. Indiana has the worst offense in the playoffs , going up against the best defense. Even if they were to end Derrick Rode's Magical Mystery Tour, they'd then face the Magic in the second round, who boast a superior center, and more size and versatility at every position. Get past that, and yeah, you know the rest. It's been a good season for the Pacers. A win against the Bulls would be great. Two is gravy. Pushing them to seven games would create some real excitement for the team. But a sweep is what you should count on.
|Road To The Finals|
New York Knicks: Knicks fans are going to talk themselves into a playoff run. You can already hear it. Once they lose, they'll revert back to how the Melo trade was about the future and it wasn't about this year (which is true). But of all the teams on this list, the Knicks are the ones that probably have the most optimistic fanbase. After all, they just beat the Heat a few weeks ago after the Melo trade. And they came "this" close to beating the Celtics on that Stoudemire buzzer-beater early in the season. The first round matchup will undeniably be exciting. The issue for their opponents will be that they do have two of those players you want in the playoffs. Elite-level guys. Unfortunately, they're going to be playing either the Celtics who have four of those guys, or the Heat who have 2.5 of those guys. Knicks fans shouldn't get their hopes up too much. But they're also more than capable of pushing a team to seven games, setting themselves up with momentum for next season. This is a no-lose playoffs for the Knicks. They're going places. Just probably not very far in the next month.
Atlanta Hawks: Oh, how the... well, not mighty, but moderately adequate have fallen. The Hawks are a playoff afterthought in the afterthought first-round matchup. People want to see how the Heat perform in their first playoff series together, to see the Bulls react as favorites, to see if the Celtics can put the pieces back together. But the Magic-Hawks series is the "lost potential" series. The Hawks were putting themselves on the map with a gutsy first-round performance against Boston three years ago. Then they probably "peaked" by making the second-round by winning an unwatchable series against the Heat in 2009. Last year, they limped in, and were nearly knocked off by a Bucks team without Andrew Bogut. Now they've lost homecourt advantage and are pretty much just going through the motions. They can't blow it up, they have too much money invested. Their matchup with the Magic is actually really interesting. Horford is an elite center, and actually plays Howard marginally well. Smith has all sorts of advantages against Bass or Anderson. But the Magic as a whole have too much strength. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Hawks topple the Magic, it just wouldn't change anyone's opinion of them. The Bulls have too many advantages and while the Hawks always have that promise of being able to hit another level, it's impossible for anyone to think they have a chance of taking more than six games in the playoffs.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies are a scary team. Versatile, talented defensively, tough, with shooters, a great low-post player, and youth. The Spurs are not an ideal matchup for them, but if the Grizzlies are ever going to win a playoff game in Memphis, this is a pretty good year for it. They can challenge any of the top three teams they might face. But they're still an incomplete team, an inconsistent team. And those are teams that can get overrun when things don't go their way against contenders. Tony Parker can attack Mike Conley, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom can overwhelm the Grizzlies inside, and the Grizzlies would have trouble matching the Dallas offensive sets. If the Grizzlies were to pull off one of the more unlikely playoff wins in history, they would likely face the 4-5 winner, who would not be a bad matchup. It sounds bizarre to say, but the Grizzlies may have the easiest track to the Western Conference of any upset-minded lower seed. But experience matters, and Memphis simply doesn't have it. The goal needs to be to win a game. Just one. You've got to start somewhere if you're Memphis.
New Orleans Hornets: This team is sunk. They've been sunk since David West went down. Carl Landry is a good player. But he doesn't have the range West does, nor the rebounding prowess. The Hornets are poorly matched for the playoffs, even with Chris Paul at the helm. Their shooters haven't been in the playoffs before, they're undersized and inconsistent. Winning a game to avoid a sweep would be solid. New Orleans has had a surprising, rollercoaster year. Making any run at all would be a fitting end. It would also make me fearful that the end was near.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers won't die. They just simply refuse to. And if they can hold on to the third seed and face Dallas, they feel like they have a shot at taking the series. To say Portland shouldn't expect to get out of the first round is to try and put rational expectations on them. If they're supposed to contend, things fall apart due to injury. If they're supposed to be also-rans, they go on rampages through opponents. The truth is, we dont' know what to expect from Portland, outside of this. Andre Miller is a good player, but not the answer. Same with Wesley Matthews. This team has a collective ceiling. But the best way to find them break it is to say it out loud. And just when you think they're down, they come roaring back. Zombies.
Denver Nuggets: Want to know how weird the Western Conference is? The Thunder have a great shot at challenging the Lakers, but don't want to run into Denver in the first round. Oklahoma City will probably win, they're a great team. But the Nuggets just play like they don't care right now. They have no expectations, and nothing to lose. That creates an environment of reckless bravery, which is how the Nuggets play. The Nuggets are the team everyone will be roooting for, to overcome the lack of a superstar. The problems are the same they've been for years. Defense, consistency, and now a new element of relative inexperience. Neither Ty Lawson or Raymond Felton know how to play well in the playoffs. Galinari has never seen the postseason. But there are enough veterans to keep the road. It'll be interesting to see who steps up for the Nuggets as a leader. A first-round surprise wouldn't shock anyone, but the thought is that they only have so many bullets in the gun, and in the second round they'll wear down. But they remain the team you don't want to run into in a dark first-round alley.