The NBA regular season showed greater parity than usual. There were about 6 teams that were just plain bad, about six more that really weren't in playoff contention, and the rest were very similar in their full-season performances (the West being a couple of notches better than the lower-rated Eastern teams in contention).
We're still basically looking at the same two questions I asked at the season preview: 1) Can anyone stop the Lakers in the West? and 2) Will the revamped Cleveland Cavaliers give LeBron James enough reason in this year's playoffs to stay around after this year? My guesses would be 1) no; and 2) no, unless getting to the Finals is enough, but I'm hoping I'm wrong.
The West was so close among all the teams 2) through 8) that there's no reason based on seeding or regular-season performance to call any team (except #8 Oklahoma City vs. #1 LA) a serious underdog. Here are my one-sentence first-round previews:
Mismatches: #1 Cleveland vs. #8 Chicago--the Bulls were, by several games, the weakest team in the playoffs, and the Cavs had the best record by a similar margin.
#3 Atlanta vs. #6 Milwaukee--This one would've had Milwaukee (first time in the playoffs in a decade or more) as just a serious underdog (see below) except for center Andrew Bogut's serious injury in the last week.
#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Portland--Ditto this one for Portland in this matchup of overachievers; it would be a reasonable matchup except for the late injury to Brandon Roy.
Serious Underdogs:#7 Charlotte vs. #2 Orlando
The Bobcats (playoff first-timers) have shown some signs of coming together recently, which makes me think they may come up with a couple wins.
#8 Oklahoma City vs. #1 Los Angeles--Phil Jackson's playing mind games with Kevin Durant, which tells me he takes their challenge seriously, but I think LA is just too big for the up-and-coming Thunder.
#5 Utah vs. #4 Denver--Kirilenko went down in practice this week for Utah, which makes the Jazz serious underdogs; I'm looking for the Nuggets--who now have key forward Kenyon Martin back--to make a serious run at the Lakers in the second round, as they did (in the Western Conference finals) last year.
Essentially Even: #7 San Antonio and #2 Dallas--Partly because they are the Spurs and the Mavs, and partly because their records are not all that different despite the difference in the seedings. Dallas overachieved a little in the regular season, San Antonio underachieved (until Manu Ginobili got hot late in the season), but we can expect the Spurs to be a tough out in the playoffs, as always.
#4 Boston and #5 Miami--Boston should be a lot better than the Dewayne's, but the Celtics have been less-than-convincing. This series could even be the last roundup for the aging Celtics' core which won the title two years ago.