Jim Brighters - NBA Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Full disclosure - as my fingers strike the keyboard for this sentence, I still haven't decided on who will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
I just did. Stay tuned.
This season's playoffs, as always, offer plenty of intrigue.
There's the contrasting styles of the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers.
We have maybe the best first-round coaching matchup in recent memory when Gregg Popovich leads the San Antonio Spurs versus Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers.
LeBron James guides Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson into the playoffs for the first time.
Does anyone truly believe in the Atlanta Hawks?
Will anyone notice the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards have a first- round series?
This should be fun, but prognosticating is dirty business. There are far too many variables in play to make informed opinions. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Arron Afflalo and Paul Millsap head into the postseason with injuries. That alone makes one series almost impossible to predict.
Let's begin with some broad strokes.
Firmly in the minority, I'm not as big on the San Antonio Spurs as others. My 3-year-old knows the Spurs are terrifying come playoff time and the 11-game winning streak before the season finale shows they are peaking at the right time.
At what price?
Popovich could teach a graduate class in how to rest his players, but the fact they were battling for the Southwest Division title and the No. 2 seed meant the key pieces logged real minutes late in the season.
Tim Duncan will be 39 a week from Saturday. He has played every game since Dec. 20. There have been 17-minute nights, but there have been 40-plus minute nights as well. Tony Parker will be 33 in a month and hasn't had a night off since Jan. 6. At least Manu Ginobili should be well-rested. He's only played 13 in a row.
After several deep playoff runs over time, coupled with the Spurs' average age rivaling that of the front room of a Denny's at 4 p.m., this recent stretch of success comes with a price. Will those old legs that have never let Popovich down before be able to withstand another 25 games?
The Spurs also have to do it almost all on the road. They open against the Los Angeles Clippers, and, unless the Dallas Mavericks beat the Houston Rockets, which is very possible, the Spurs head to Houston. If they survive that, it's the Golden State Warriors, who lost two games at home all season, assuming the Warriors get to the Western Conference Finals, which I do assume. Granted, one of those two losses at Oracle Arena was to the Spurs, but that'll be three consecutive series on the road, with those aching legs.
The Spurs would have home-court advantage in the Finals against everyone but the Hawks. That's something.
The Spurs have never successfully defended a title. There's a reason. It's hard. It's hard to endure everyone's best punch night in and night out and have enough in the tank to play deep into June.
I just don't think San Antonio will have enough firepower to don another ring.
Picking a winner in the East is extremely difficult.
Preseason, I selected the Cavs. James is the best player, only a handful of active players have more playoff experience than him and he knows how to carry a team to a title.
They did nothing to dissuade me, but I'm not going with them. The reason I'm not choosing them is because of the second round. They're going to play the Chicago Bulls in the second round and that series will be a bloodbath.
The Bulls were honestly my pick prior to Thursday night. I did a lot of soul- searching catching up on my DVR. Chicago is reasonably healthy at a great time. Jimmy Butler can match up with James as best as anyone can. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah will both lose their minutes restrictions.
When healthy, this Bulls team was always a title contender. There are All- Stars littering the roster, there is great depth, great experience. The defense is a bit concerning. The Bulls dipped from their usual perch, but that can come back in the postseason.
How could I like the Bulls and not the Cavs? I don't. Again, that second-round matchup is going to take a lot out of both teams and will leave the survivor in a precarious position when they meet ...
The Eastern Conference champion, Atlanta Hawks.
I've been sold on the Hawks for a while. There are concerns like Millsap's health, their relative lack of deep playoff experience, and some depth issues.
But, Atlanta will have the benefit of missing either the Bulls or Cavaliers until the conference finals. At that point, the Hawks will have gone through Brooklyn and either Washington or Toronto, but neither should scare the Hawks too terribly.
The winner of the Cleveland-Chicago war should scare Atlanta, but we know what makes the Hawks great by now. Their success is based on movement, unselfishness and team play. It's the exact formula San Antonio used to crush the Miami Heat last June. The Hawks don't have the talent the Spurs have. Atlanta didn't have a single player score 30 points in a game this season, which is a shocking endorsement of team basketball.
By not being threatened in the first two rounds, and with the Cavs and Bulls killing each other for seven games, Atlanta advances. Physically and mentally, they will be in better shape in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now seems like a good time to share more of my predictions.
In the first round, I like the Hawks in five, the Cavs and Bulls in four, and the Wizards in six. Atlanta over Washington in five, then Chicago in seven, with the Hawks advancing thanks to a 4-2 win over the Bulls.
Out West, I'll take the Warriors in four, the Rockets in seven, the Spurs in six and the Grizzlies in six. Golden State over Memphis in five, San Antonio over Houston in six, then the Warriors beat the Spurs, 4-1.
The NBA champions will be the Golden State Warriors. There's too much depth, talent, defense, flexibility and statistical data to support Golden State as champs.
- Firing Scott Brooks after nearly making the playoffs without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, coupled with missed time from Russell Westbrook and two major in-season trades, would be disgraceful. Brooks always seems under fire this time of year, but Durant and Westbrook love him and check out their contractual status for reasons why Brooks will stay.
- I've said all along, I don't think there will be many openings this offseason. Orlando and Denver are two, but after that, there may not be any.
- You have to chuckle now that it looks like the Philadelphia 76ers will only have their own pick in the first round of the draft.
- Good for the NBA and the NBA Players Association for agreeing to HGH testing. I don't believe performance enhancing drugs are a problem for the league, but the perceived integrity of sports is damaged by these drugs and doing everything possible to test for them is wise. Both sides can, in concert, boast that they test for everything imaginable and can declare their sport clean.
- Larry Bird and Frank Vogel both said at their season-ending press conference the Indiana Pacers will play smaller and faster next season. As for Roy Hibbert, a walking monument in sneakers, Vogel said: "There's a possibility Roy's role will be diminished if we're trying to play faster and trying to play smaller." Ouch. Hibbert has a player option for next season for over $15 million, so it's unthinkable to believe he'd opt out.
- Movie moment - In honor of my 1,000th viewing of "Toy Story 3," I wonder why, in a day care with a sophisticated surveillance system, no one noticed toys coming to life at night. The answer is because who would look out for that, but there wasn't a single instance that footage from a night needed to be looked at? I love this movie with all of my heart, but I'm questioning the adults that run Sunnyside.
- TV moment - Yeah, I semi-binged-watched "Lip Sync Battle" as I was nodding off Thursday night. I like it. I hate myself, but I kind of like it.