There was an unusual day off in the playoffs yesterday (Thursday, May 9), and it was at an interesting point: all four conference semifinal series were tied at 1-1. This means that the higher-seeded teams had all lost one of the first two games at home, essentially giving up the home-court advantage their better records provided. Thus, the status of each series allows for a definite possibility of an upset, and upsets--particularly of something more than adjacent seeds--don't happen that often in the NBA playoffs. In order to be in a position to win the series, though, the underdog must now win both games at home; to contest it properly they must win one of the two, so in a sense the pressure is now on the lower-seeded teams. We will take a brief look at each series, then guess current odds and step out boldly and make some predictions.
Chicago (#5) vs. Miami (#1) - The Bulls have overachieved, no matter what happens from here forward. As I write, they are tied after three quarters in Game 3, playing at home, and they are still playing without three key players: Derrick Rose, his replacement Kirk Hinrich, and key wingman Luol Deng; however, the bench has stepped up, and Joachim Noah has played like an All-Star. That being said, though, it seems impossible for the Bulls to win three more games to take the series, and getting two more wins would be a stretch.
Indiana (#3) vs. New York (#2) - As they are adjacent seeds, this is the closest matchup and Indiana's winning would not really qualify as an upset. Still, New York played very well at the end of the season and the Pacers did not, and the Knicks do not have any particular excuse not to play their best. I don't give either team much of a chance against the Heat in the Eastern finals; Indiana maybe would have a slight edge as a better defensive team and rougher style, probably the best way to play Miami.
Golden State (#6) vs. San Antonio (#2) - The Spurs should be solid favorites, as they are healthy, and they are the Spurs, which means a serious playoff team. The fact is, though, the Warriors have outplayed the Spurs by a fair margin in the two games in San Antonio, showing the same dynamic attack and tough defense which allowed them to defeat third-seeded Denver in the first round. The loss in Game 1, in which they blew a 16-point lead in the final minutes, then lost in double overtime, should have devastated Golden State. Instead, they came back strongly and still came away from San Antonio with a win. Now, they have two games at home: I would expect them to win at least one of them. This series looks to be going to seven games.
Memphis (#5) vs. Oklahoma City (#1) - The Grizzlies have shown in the past that they are unafraid of Oklahoma City, and now the Thunder will be playing without their high-scoring point guard, Russell Westbrook. Memphis is dangerous against any team, having the best center/power forward combination in the league in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (the Lakers' Dwight Howard/Pau Gasol combo never proved itself, and now may never do so). The key for them is the play of their point guard, Mike Conley, who matched, or even outplayed, the Clippers' Chris Paul in the first round. He's a solid playmaker and defender but his shot selection sometimes is unsound. He's in a position to dominate the Thunder's reserve point guard, Reggie Jackson; if he can do so, the Grizzlies might justly be expected to win the series. In the Conference Finals, Memphis might be the team best suited to slow down the Warriors' Stephen Curry, who has been sensational, and they can match up well against San Antonio, as well.
Chances to Reach the Championship Series:
Miami 75%; Indiana 12%; New York 8%; Chicago 5%.
San Antonio 30%; Memphis 30%; Golden State 22%; Oklahoma City 18%.
Thus, by my reckoning, there is a little better than 50% chance for a #5 or #6 seed to make the Finals (not even counting the Bulls' slight chance). I'm thinking the last time a seed lower than #4 made the Finals was the #8-seeded Knicks, with Latrell Sprewell, in 1999. (?)
My pick: Miami to defeat Memphis in the Finals, 4-2.