Cavaliers-Bulls: A mere 20 games separate these two teams in the standings. However, the matchup might be even closer than that, considering the season series was tied at 2-2. And although the Bulls are probably the underdogs in this series, they have a one-game winning streak against the Crabs.
Oh, who am I kidding?
If my years of watching way too many NBA games has taught me anything other than the fact that short-shorts are nightmare fuel, it's that when the best team in the league faces the worst team to sneak into the postseason, the result is usually a four-game sweep. My guess is that the Crabs pull of two blowout wins at home and at least one double-digit win in Chicago. The Bulls are feeling pretty scrappy lately, so I'll give them one close loss at the United Center.
In other words, don't expect a repeat of last year's Celtics-Bulls series.
Key players: Anderson Varejao and Joakim Noah. This is the hair battle everyone never wanted to see. My guess is that this will be when we all finally find out that their hair is sentient and bent on conquering our planet. The only thing more chilling would be going home and being greeted with pizza and a beer by your wife/girlfriend/whatever and then finding an empty body snatcher pod in the bedroom.
Magic-Bobcats: Okay, so sure, the Magic are coming into this series with a lot of momentum and a 3-1 lead in the season series, but the Bobcats have former Sixer/Warrior/Wizard/Cavalier/Bull/Knick Larry Hughes. What more do they need?
Actually, according to Basketball-Reference, the 'Cats lead the league in Opponents Points Per Game (93.8) and Defensive Rating (102.8), which means their defense could help make this series semi-interesting. But assuming the Vag Carter factor is offset by the Captain Jack factor, I still give the Magic a major edge in most categories I won't bother naming because I haven't looked them up. But I'm pretty sure they're their, kind of like how you just sort of know the pepperonis are there in a Chicago-style stuffed pizza.
Key players: "Big Shot" Larry Hughes. I can't wait to see what he does in his return to the playoffs. This is exciting.
Hawks-Bucks: The Bucks became everybody's favorite playoff dark horse after John "The Second Half of the Season Superman" Salmons was gift-wrapped and given to them by the cap-conscious Bulls. Milwaukee caught fire, winning a lot out of however many games they were playing. (For more information, see wherever they track that stuff.) Then Amar''''''e Stoudemire swept the leg against Andrew Bogut and suddenly Milwaukee was a first round hors d'oeuvres. This actually works out really well for Basketbawful, because next season's unrealistic expectations for the Bucks will now include "And when Bogut gets back, they'll be really good." Then reality will set in...and we'll be there. Oh yes. We will be there.
Key players: Andrew Bogut. Oh, wait, whoops. He won't be playing, although that's actually pretty key for the Hawks. Anyway, did I mention that this is a contract year for Joe Johnson? And since it's unlikely that the Hawks will move past round two, this will need to be Joe Cool's breakout series.
Celtics-Heat: Boston swept the season series against Miami, but the three games were decided by 7, 6 and 5 points. It's been a while since I had a math class, but those margins seem reasonably small. Plus, the teams haven't played since February 3, and the Celtics have gotten noticeably worse.
Key players: A underrated part of Boston's disappointing season has been the disappearance of Ray Allen's defense. Early on, all anybody could talk about was his shooting slump, and then all they could talk about was him coming out of that slump. This managed to disguise the fact that he couldn't stay in front of his man even if he was standing with his back against the Great Wall of China. What I'm trying to say is: Dwyane Wade has to be licking his chops right now.
Beyond that, I read in a few places that the playoffs will provide Rasheed Wallace with a chance at redemption. I hope the authors of those articles were writing from the safety of their government-funded assisted living community, and that they were wearing crash helmets, and diapers, and bibs to wipe up all that messy drool.
For the record, 'Sheed predicted the Celtics could win 70+ games this season. They won 50. Barely. This could be a first-round upset in the making folks. Wait a sec...
[checks Miami's roster]
...nope, never mind.
Lakers-Thunder: What a season for the Thunder. One year after being one of the worst teams in the league, they won 50 games and qualified for the playoffs in a strong conference. Plus, Kevin Durant blossomed into a true superstar and led the league in scoring. It's a very happy story that is doomed to end in the next five to six games.
Sure, the Lakers haven't given a shit since...you know, I'm not even sure when the last time they actually gave a shit was. But it has been nothing but shit-less constipation in L.A. lately. Anyway, the unfortunate side-effect of their near-to-complete apathy has been the whirlwind of stories along the lines of "The Lakers are vulnerable!" and "With the Lakers struggling, anything could happen, especially in the first round!"
To which I say:
Then again, L.A. finished the season by losing seven of their last 11 games, which included a season-ending 107-91 bitch-slapping by the Clippers that led Phil Jackson to say: "From the end of the second quarter on, I thought we pooped our pants and it looked it out there."
Who knows. Maybe the Lakers are vulnerable.
Key players: Jackson recently drew up a game-winning three-point shot for Pau Gasol, and if you know anything about this "earth sport basketball," you can probably figure out how that turned out. Kobe Bryant -- who was the league leader in "big balls" shots this season -- told the press Jackson's play calling in that situation cracked him up. This of course led to a series of "Why would Phil do that?" stories, which then led to a bunch of "Because Gasol has been the Lakers' best player lately" stories.
You think Kobe is aware of that? Or of the fact that Oklahoma City is known as one of the better defensive teams in the league? Or that Durant has bypassed him as the NBA's most exciting scoring machine? If you've followed Kobe's career, you know this can go only one of two ways. Either a) he will ignore all the bullshit and play his best ball in a series the Lakers should win with relative ease, or b) he will go apeshit and start jacking up 25-30 shots a game in order to remind everybody that he's still the league's Alpha Dog...even if he isn't (LeBron is).
For my part, I'm hoping for the latter. Kobe gunning is about the only chance the Thunder have to extend this series.
Mavericks-Spurs: You know all the earthquakes that have been going on lately? Science will tell you they were the result of shaking or trembling of the crust of the earth, caused by underground volcanic forces or by breaking and shifting of rock beneath the surface. But science is lying. These tectonic upheavals were actually caused by Mark Cuban's giant, ongoing orgasm at how his Mavericks have rocketed up the standings to earn the second seed in the Western Conference. Can't you just imagine Cuban furiously dry-humping every time the Nyets lose another game, thus justifying what at the time seemed like an insane Jason Kidd-for-Devin Harris trade? Can't you see him hip-thrusting when the Mavs finished only two games behind the Lakers for the West's best record?
I'm telling you, Mother Nature may not be able to withstand much more of Cuban's reality-altering happiness. Fortunately, these are the Mavericks, so she probably won't have to. Although I have a funny feeling they'll get past the Spurs.
Key players: Manu Ginobili already got his contract extension, so don't expect any superheroics from him. Tony Parker's inner Frenchman has become his outer Frenchman, so don't worry about him. The Spurs will only go as far as Tim Duncan can carry them on his wobbly knees. Of course, there's also an excellent chance some key games could be decided by Dirk Nowitzki's toughness, or even his clutchness. So, yeah, I guess anything could happen.
Suns-Trail Blazers: Okay, I have to sum this up: The Suns -- who didn't even make the playoffs last season -- dumped Shaq for Ben Wallace The Mummy and Sasha Pavlovic human excrement, both of whom were immediately tossed on the scrap heap. They then replaced Shaq, who was an All-Star in 2008-09, with a combination of Channing Frye and Robin Lopez and finished this season as the third seed in the West.
When the book is written about Shaq's career, I want this chapter included please.
Of course, there was more at work than that. Alvin Gentry re-unleashed Steve Nash, who played like his old MVP self one season after Terry Porter's "San Antonio-lite" game plan made everybody start popping off about how Nash was "washed up" and that Mike D'Antoni had "made him." To those people, I offer all or most of my ass for their tasting pleasure. And of course, Amar''''''e Stoudemire rediscovered his "love of the game" after he realized that a) he wasn't getting traded at the deadline and b) he could cash in big time during this summer's free agent bonanza.
Think about it. There will be 29 teams that don't end up with LeBron James. Have you ever been out with a friend who is desperate to hook up? You know how he'll spend most of the night chasing girls who are increasingly less hot until, finally, he starts hitting on any skank who looks like she's drunk, stupid and/or fat enough to sleep with anybody capable of not spontaneously combusting? Well, that's going to be the 29 teams that don't get LeBron this summer. Amar''''''e is going to be some team's desperate hookup.
Anyway, this could be a pretty entertaining series. The Frail Blazers may or may not have Brandon Roy, who tore important parts of his knee but wants to play anyway. I can only hope that a sane person -- preferably someone with proven knowledge of both medicine and the human body -- sits him down and explains how knees work, not to mention how important knees are to the future of young basketball players. Anyway, Roy or no Roy, Portland has come back to life so many times this season, I'm ready to rename them the "Portland Jason Voorheeses." I mean, seriously. As well as the Suns have been playing lately, I've stopped betting against the Blazers.
Key players: Any member of the Blazers who manages not to get hurt. Also, I'm guessing Marcus "Hey, I'm playing for a new contract too!" Camby will submit some dominating performances on the defensive end. And of course, STAT hasn't signed a new contract yet...know what I'm sayin'?
Nuggets-Jazz: The Nuggets were supposed to be where the Mavericks are: The second seed. But their season record was marred by a series of bizarre losses to teams like the Clippers, Timberpoops, Pistons, Kings (twice), Sixers, Wizards, and Knicks. They also suffered their own bout of Lakers-like late-season apathy, despite having, you know, never won anything. Hence the critical "statement game" losses to the Magic, Mavericks, Spurs and Suns...and the subsequent fall to fourth place.
The Jazz haven't exactly been the model of stability either. They've lost games to the Kings (twice), Timberpoops (twice), Clippers and Pacers...although the rest of their losses have come to other playoff teams. But Carlos Boozer is hurting due to a strained left rib cage, and without him Utah got overwhelmed at home by the Suns on the final day of the season. That was one day after Ronnie Price said: "We're going to see who's the tougher team tomorrow. The good thing is it's in our building. We'll see who's tougher. It would be a good momentum swing for us going into the playoffs. This is going to be a big test for us."
So the Jazz aren't tougher than the Suns. I'll go ahead and let you draw your own conclusions about that little factoid.
Key players: Boozer has promised to play in Game 1 "no matter what." That's a pretty bold statement. What if he got caught in a surprise elephant stampede? What if somebody ran over his foot with a lawn mower? What if he gets hit by a meteor? (Don't laugh!)
Anyway, the "key player" in this series isn't really a player at all: George Karl. His battle with cancer could give Denver a "win one for the Gipper" factor that Utah can't possibly match. Like, ever. Nobody on the Jazz would ever worry about Jerry Sloan dying. Sloan's enemies have long hoped he would burn in hell, but they know in their hearts that hell will not have him.