St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom Jones gives his Two Cents preview of the NBA playoffs, which begin Saturday.
TEAM TO BEAT: Coming into the season, many were ready to hand the NBA title to the Heat and its collection of superstars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Some thought the aging Celtics had one more run left in them. A few others liked the Magic's chances because of Dwight Howard. But how many thought the Bulls, who lost out on the LeBron sweepstakes, would be the clear-cut Eastern favorite heading into the postseason? They might play the most ferocious, in-your-face, deny-every-pass, contest-every-shot defense in the NBA. Their 91.2 points allowed were second-best in the NBA, a mere two-tenths of a point behind the Celtics. On offense, the Bulls have point guard Derrick Rose, left, who averaged 25 points per game and is the favorite for league MVP. The Bulls have won nine in a row, 13 of their past 14 and 21 of their past 23. That stretch includes two victories against the Magic and one each against the Celtics, Knicks and Heat. Interestingly, however, one of the two losses came against the Pacers — the Bulls' first-round opponent.
Team you should root for: If you're an NBA fan, you should root for the Knicks. Why? Because when the Knicks are good, the league is more interesting. And there's nothing quite like the buzz of postseason basketball at Madison Square Garden. Plus, the Knicks are due. They haven't won a title since 1973. Unfortunately, the Knicks have kinks to work out. They were the surprise of the NBA for the first half of the season, then pulled off the blockbuster trade to pick up Carmelo Anthony (7, right) and Chauncey Billups (4). But the trade did not turn the Knicks into contenders just yet. New York was only 14-14 after the trade and enters the playoffs with two bad losses to the Bulls and Celtics — its first-round opponent. The big issue is defense. The Knicks were 28th in the league in points allowed (105.7) and allowed less than 100 points only twice in the final 12 games.
Team that could surprise: Everyone seems to be counting out the Celtics, and it's true they don't seem to be the same team since they traded Kendrick Perkins in February. Not only did the team's inside presence at both ends of the floor take a hit, but the players seemed mentally shaken by the trade of the popular Perkins. The Celtics went 15-12 after the trade, partly because Shaquille O'Neal, left, who was supposed to take up many of Perkins' minutes, played only six minutes of the final 34 games. It's probably not wise to count on the 39-year-old Shaq returning to decent form (if at all) for the postseason, but a veteran team is a dangerous team. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rando still know how to win big games, and this team still plays excellent defense. And if Shaq is even a little bit effective, he can create matchup problems inside for the Heat and Bulls.
Best first-round matchup: Celtics vs. Knicks: Two legendary teams from two cities with knowledgeable basketball fans. Plus, it's Boston vs. New York. That's good stuff no matter what the sport. But keep an eye on the Magic-Hawks series. Doesn't it seem as if there is something missing from the Magic? Maybe it's that Gilbert Arenas has provided very little since coming over in a trade from the Wizards. The first-round showdown with the Hawks will be much tougher than when the teams met last postseason. The Magic swept the Hawks last spring, winning by an average of 25.3 points per game. But the Hawks won three of the four meetings during the 2010-11 regular season and did a solid job against center Dwight Howard. While Howard remains the toughest matchup for any team in the East, the Hawks held him to just more than 19 points per game and 43.1 percent from the field in the season series.
Series everyone wants to see: Celtics vs. Heat: These two teams built a nasty little rivalry during the regular season and this would figure to be a black-and-blue, seven-game slugfest.
First-round predictions: Bulls over Pacers in five, Heat over 76ers in four, Celtics over Knicks in six, Magic over Hawks in seven.
Team to beat: Talk all you want about the Spurs' 61-win season and how they are the top seed in the West. Until someone beats the champs, the champs are the team to beat. That would be the Lakers. The Lakers can look ragged at times. Even star Kobe Bryant knocked his team for its inconsistency. They won their final two games but lost five in a row before that. Still, maybe the Lakers simply lost interest down the stretch and were only waiting for the postseason to begin. You know when the postseason gets going that Bryant and his band of veteran teammates will take their game to another level. Big man Andrew Bynum's bruised knee is a bit of a concern and, once again, you have to wonder how much point guard Derek Fisher, right, has left in the tank at 36. But don't we say that every year?
TEAM YOU SHOULD ROOT FOR: You have to love the Nuggets. Star Carmelo Anthony essentially backed the Nuggets into a corner, and they had no choice but to trade him. Not only that, they had to also deal point guard Chauncey Billups. You had to figure the team was going to fall apart and become the Western version of the Cavaliers. Instead, the Nuggets went 18-7 after the trade and finished the season with 50 victories. They averaged 107.5 points per game, which was tops in the league. In the past three weeks, the Nuggets beat the Spurs at home and the Lakers and Mavs on the road. Are they going to win the NBA title? No. But they've already accomplished more without Carmelo than they did with him.
TEAM THAT COULD SURPRISE: Oklahoma City doesn't show up on most people's list to reach the NBA Finals, but it's a team that no one wants to play. For starters, the Thunder has the league's top scorer in Kevin Durant, who averaged 27.7 points per game. Russell Westbrook, below is one of the game's top and most-underrated point guards, averaging 8.2 assists against 3.9 turnovers. He also averages just under two steals a game. Everything that Kendrick Perkins gave the Celtics (good inside defense, rebounds) he is now giving to the Thunder. The other thing to like about the Thunder is it has just enough playoff experience not to get rattled, yet it is the league's third-youngest team, meaning its legs should be plenty fresh for a postseason run. This is a scary team.
Best First-Round Matchup: Mavs vs. Blazers: For the past couple of years, Dallas and Portland were chic picks out West, teams that had a chance of knocking off a heavyweight and, if a couple of things broke just right, getting a shot in the conference final. But the Trail Blazers were bounced in the first round each of the past two seasons. The Mavs have won at least 50 games in 11 straight seasons but have reached the NBA Finals only once, where they lost to the Heat in 2006. They have been knocked out in the first round in three of the past four seasons. Well, at least one of them has to move on this season. Portland won the past two times these teams met. The Blazers are bigger and faster at guard and have the defense to slow Dirk Nowitzki.
Series everyone wants to see: Lakers vs. Spurs: Not only are these the two best teams in the West but probably the two best teams in the league. Kobe Bryant and his five NBA rings against Tim Duncan and his four NBA rings. This would be the best series of the postseason.
First-round predictions: Spurs over Grizzlies in five, Lakers over Hornets in five, Thunder over Nuggets in seven, Blazers over Mavs in six.