Philadelphia, PA – Last summer it seemed more than conceivable that we wouldn't even have a 2011-12 NBA season, but a lockout- fueled late start turned into an interesting, albeit condensed 66-game schedule over just four months.
Call it a basketball season on steroids, one in which the conferences morphed into if not identical, certainly fraternal twins. Both the East and West possess two heavyweight contenders, an old warhorse ready to make one final run and an up-and-coming young bunch that could break through.
The bullies on the block in the East are Chicago and Miami with the "Boston Three Party" ready for its last stand, and Frank Vogel's Indiana Pacers trying to crash the party without a reservation.
Out West, San Antonio and Oklahoma City carry the prohibitive favorites tag with the 33-year-old Kobe Bryant hoping to carry a paper-thin Los Angeles Lakers team which will have to navigate the first round minus Metta World Peace.
The Lakers' co-tenants at Staples Center, the Clippers, are the new kids on the block with a chance to turn some heads if they can find a way to get a win or two on Beale Street.
With that in mind, let's take a closer look at this year's opening-round matchups with the help of TNT's Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal, along with current NBA TV analyst Steve Smith ...
(1) CHICAGO vs. (8) PHILADELPHIA
The Sixers struggle to score against pedestrian defensive teams, especially in half-court sets and their leading scorer (Lou Williams) averaged just 14.9 ppg. It's hard to imagine the light going off for players like Jrue Holiday or Evan Turner this late in the season, so you can expect Philadelphia to struggle to score 80 or so on any given night against a Tom Thibodeau-led bunch with or without Derrick Rose.
"The Bulls are the only team, with the exception of the San Antonio Spurs at times, (whose defense) makes you change your offensive sets," Kenny Smith said. "You come in with your offensive sets and as the series goes on, you have to make up new sets for their defense."
"If the Chicago Bulls are healthy, they are going to beat the 76ers," Barkley added. "They just have a better team. Even if they don't have Derrick Rose (in the lineup), they'll still beat the Sixers."
BULLS in 5
(2) MIAMI vs. (7) NEW YORK
It's all about slowing the Heat, particularly LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, in transition. Miami's half-court offense boils down to LeBron or D-Wade breaking you down off the dribble and Tyson Chandler's help defense will be big there. That said, the Heat generally only lose when they beat themselves and that's not likely to happen more than once or twice in this series.
"The Knicks can't beat the Heat," Barkley said. "Carmelo Anthony is the best scorer in the NBA, but LeBron James is arguably the best defender in the NBA. (James) can shut (Anthony) down to where he won't be getting 30 or 40 a game against LeBron."
HEAT in 5
(3) INDIANA vs. (6) ORLANDO
Conventional wisdom says you have to go through the rigors of a deep playoff run before you're a true championship contender. Indiana probably isn't ready for the Larry O'Brien trophy just yet, but the Pacers sure look primed for that first step, especially against a Magic team minus Dwight Howard.
"The team that everyone is overlooking is the Indiana Pacers," Steve Smith said. "Frank Vogel and the entire staff is doing an excellent job the way he managed minutes and incorporated Leandro Barbosa and George Hill. That team, because of their depth and size up front, could be the sleeper team that has a chance to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals."
PACERS in 5
(4) BOSTON vs. (5) ATLANTA
The Hawks are certainly the deeper and more athletic bunch here. Meanwhile, having the extra game in the Peach State helps, but Boston has really amped up the defense of late and is getting solid contributions from Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass around its four stars. Since benches tend to get shortened anyway in the postseason, it's hard to imagine Atlanta advancing without a player like Al Horford.
"Whether they play in Boston, Atlanta or Tokyo, the Celtics are going to beat the Hawks," Barkley said.
CELTICS in 6
(1) SAN ANTONI0 vs. (8) UTAH
Smarting from last season's first-round implosion against Memphis, expect San Antonio to come out on fire. Tim Duncan and his long-time supporting cast of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were supplemented this time around by new blood like Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal and rookie Kawhi Leonard. The Jazz, while a nice story, will be playing the role of speed bump here.
"Every time the Spurs get embarrassed in the playoffs the year before, they come back on a mission," O'Neal said. "They are playing great and I think they are going to sweep Utah."
SPURS in 4
(2) OKLAHOMA CITY vs. (7) DALLAS
The Mavericks will have to start defense of their NBA championship with a rematch from 2011 against the second-seeded Thunder. Oklahoma City, a winner of the Northwest Division and perhaps the most talented team in the NBA, lost to Dallas in five games last year in the Western Conference finals, but this is a far different Mavs team without defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler and glue guys J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson. Look for the Thunder to exorcise the demons but not without a few scary moments courtesy of Dirk Nowitzki.
"The Mavs had a great run, but (the Thunder) are too young, too good and too big," Barkley said. "They are going to beat (the Mavs) pretty quickly."
THUNDER in 6
(3) L.A. LAKERS vs. (6) DENVER
Bryant, who was sidelined for several games earlier this month with a bruised left shin, is trying to lead the Lakers to a third championship in four years. They were swept in the conference semifinals in 2011 by Dallas and probably giddy that the Nuggets gained the sixth seed on the final night of the regular season. Denver has never won a playoff series against the Lakers in five tries and you can make that six after the next couple of weeks.
"The Lakers are too big and too strong and they are going to win this series," O'Neal said.
LAKERS in 6
(4) MEMPHIS vs. (5) LA CLIPPERS
The Clippers did themselves no favors by faltering down the stretch and handing the home-court advantage here to the Grizz, who were a dominant 26-7 at FedEx Forum this season. The Clips have the best player in this series, Chris Paul, but Memphis has the best team.
"I think O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay can have big series because the Clippers are lacking size at their positions," Kenny Smith said. "That will probably push them over the top."
GRIZZLIES in 7